Wednesday, September 28, 2016

how to think, discuss and legislate-- when rights collide

Interesting that FB did not put up a preview of the article I cited in the post-- by Walter Williams. It ain't censorship since it's not the govt, but still interesting that they seem to be discriminating in this way!

Aside from the debate on what to do with this issue and how to help the people in this position...

When you're in a setting where "rights" *necessarily* conflict, pushing really hard on one side will inevitably lead to conflict and usually leads to incoherence.

Entering such a realm, here are some good ideas:
-think through the practical costs and benefits;
-aim for humility, empathy and (true) tolerance;
-avoid dogmatism;
-embrace freedom and choice-- for all-- as much as possible.

on the Great Recession and the tepid recovery caused by govt (vs. the late-1970s economy and Great Depression)

Two things to know, if you're into science and economics:

The Great Recession was about as bad as the late-1970s economy (developing from LBJ through Carter) and nowhere near the Great Depression. Of course, it is politically helpful to describe the GR as the worst since the GD (and implying that they were close to each other in severity)-- to ignore the big-govt late-1960s and 1970s; to make tons of govt action seem necessary; and to mitigate political blame for a tepid economy.

The recovery from the GR was poor, even in commonly-understood terms and relying on commonly-used statistics. One big, additional problem: the govt's most popular measure of "unemployment" gas made things look better than they are-- by ignoring declining labor force participation and increased part-time work and "underemployment". (Did you know that "employment" starts at ONE hour of work per week?) As Barro notes, we got a slow recovery that did get going eventually (see: stock market) without the usual labor market effects.

All of the "stimulus" efforts-- and the (dis)incentives and uncertainty created by the ACA get the lion's share of the blame.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses was Brennan's summer AP World History reading assignment two summers ago. The book looked interesting, so I put it on my shelf and got around to it when we were traveling to Ghana

Tom Standage's thesis: "The availability of water constrained and guided humankind's progress. Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since." (1) The six drinks? Chronologically, three alcoholic (beer, wine, spirits) and then three caffeine-based (coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola). "Each was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period." (2)

Another thing they all had in common: all of them were safer than water: beer (21); wine (59); spirits (including citric additives in "grog" as a way to fight scurvy [110]); coffee and tea (which required boiled water [135] and tea contains tannic acid [179]); and of course, Coca-Cola is bottled and modern. 

Miscellaneous observations on each of the six: 

-Beer was originally drunk through straws (10,18)-- to avoid the chaff in the early versions of production. Standage argues that this led to shared drinks and beer as a standard form of hospitality. (And in low-information / high-stakes environments, drinking together was a way to ensure that one would not be poisoned!) 
-Beer and bread are siblings: "bread and beer were [probably] derived from gruel...Bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread." (17) Standage also notes that "bread and beer" (37) was a metaphor for prosperity. In this, it's similar to the OT's use of "olive and fig". (I thought I had a blog post on this topic-- from a talk I heard and a book I read, but I can't find it. Let me know if you're interested and I'll look around some more.)  
-Standage also makes the provocative claim that beer (and its trade) were responsible for the creation of accountancy, writing and bureaucracy to keep track of beer and taxing it (23, 30). Beer also shaped early America: it determined the Puritan's landing spot, cutting short their trip-- and otherwise being a key part of what they brought on their trips to the New World (114). 

-Beer was the drink of the common man; wine became the drink of the elites in Greek and then Roman times. Standage makes two references to Jesus here-- the type of wine at the crucifixion (80) and His first miracle in John 2-- turning water into wine (85), interestingly, as in Genesis 1 and John 1, creating something with "apparent age".

-Spirits were a compact form of alcohol, reducing transaction costs and allowing for easier tax avoidance and tax evasion. 
-Spirits were able to transcend the limitations of yeast through the process of "distillation" (99). 
-Determining the strength of spirits was a common problem-- a low-information environment. But grog drinkers were able to develop an ingenious test of its strength, using gunpowder and sunlight (109). 
-Rum (and related tax policy) played a key role in the American Revolution (117-121), through laws that were not enforced and then laws they tried to enforce. Standage quotes John Adams-- that "molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence." (121) 
-And tax policy led to early antics and a strong government response with the Whiskey Rebellion (121-127). Whiskey did not rely on imported products; it could not be blockaded or easily taxed. After the War, Hamilton was looking for revenue sources and imposed a tax on distilled drinks. Far more onerous, the tax was imposed at the point of production rather than at consumption or sale, so that even private use was being taxed. It was a key moment in early battles over the extent of federalism-- the federal govt's authority over the states.
-In all of this, I'm reminded of a provocative OT verse on spirits-- Deuteronomy 14:26, which says "Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice."

From there, Standage turns to three drinks based on caffeine. 

-Coffee promoted sharp/clear thought-- important in an "Age of Reason" and with the increasing emergence of "information workers" (vs. manufacturing; 135).  
-Coffee was put on trial by Muslim imams-- and found innocent, at least in the court of public opinion. (Standage does not make mention of the LDS/Mormon prohibition.) 
-Standage links the earliest coffeehouses to information, politics, and networking-- including the formation of Lloyd's of London (163) and the first Stock Exchange (165).

-Standage details the emergence of tea in Britain-- and the political clout of the British East India Company with tea (190, 203-206) and then opium (206-212). He also details the 1839-1842 Opium War, which devastated the Chinese.  
-He also notes that coffee's popularity over tea only began in the 19th century-- rather than the common idea that the Tea Party was cause/effect with coffee's dominance over the English beverage (219-220)

-"The rise of America, and the globalization of war, politics, trade, and communications during the 20th C., are mirrored by the rise of Coca-Cola, the world's most valuable and widely recognized brand." (225) Coca-Cola has been linked to patriotism, including an exemption from sugar rations since it was seen as essential for the war effort-- and bottling facilities were set up as possible at military bases (252). 
-Standage also details the irony of Asa Candler's shenanigans causing Coca-Cola to thrive and thus, preserving creator John Pemberton's name/fame (240).  
-He also notes that Coca-Cola grew quickly by reducing transaction costs in deciding not to bottle the syrup and the soda water (241).

Standage wraps up by closing the loop and arguing that water is (or will be) drink #7-- for both the developed world (as a lifestyle choice that seems luxurious and banal) and the less-developed world (as life or death).

how to read the Bible....

A good article on avoiding spiritual/biblical McNuggets...Will you eat nuggets; some don't eat at all. Salmon and steamed veggies; steak and potatoes; pizza; or potato chips?
Pastors, don't tell us to read the Bible. Set up low-cost ways to show us how to read well; to help hold us accountable to read; and to do so on our own and in community. Don't just preach at a passive audience; preaching is important but inherently (quite) limited); get your folks to do something other than be a spectator to your preaching.

That said, reading the Bible is not that difficult to do-- once you get into it. It starts with a desire to want to know our Good and Great God better; to see what is revealed about theology and life/wisdom from the Scriptures; to want to be increasingly comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom.

What to do?
-Pray for guidance.
-Make a plan: If you read one chapter per day, you can read Matthew or Luke in four weeks; you can read the Gospels in three months; and so on.
-You'll probably want to do this with a friend or a group, directly-- or at least, with some form of accountabilty.
-Read regularly-- ideally, daily.
-Underline key words and keep a journal.
-Discuss what is revealed to you in community for deeper understanding and to avoid squirrelly inferences.
-Ask yourself why a word, a phrase, a verse, a section is in there. How would it be different if those things were omitted.
-Ask yourself what you would do-- and what you hope you would do-- as you read Biblical narrative.
-Look for life applications.
-Commit to obedience; reading for its own sake is a waste of time-- and may make you crazier than you are now.
-As you can, avoid the mistakes of secular and "religious" fundamentalists: watch scriptural context, literary genre, cultural context, compare passages to other similar passages, etc.

Monday, September 26, 2016

reflections on the 1st Trump/Clinton debate

-Both met expectations. Trump did well for his first one-on-one debate, but left ops on the table; Clinton was solid and measured. Clinton was on the offensive much of the night, offering little of what she would do. When she did, it sounded like a laundry list of policies/spending, platitudes (ok if you're into that sort of thing), and a broad discussion of the broad shoulders required (hers) to run the country well. If you're picking a debate winner based on debate style, Clinton wins by a head. If you're picking a winner based on the politics of the moment (as David Weigel does here)-- do we want more of the status quo vs. it's time for something different-- then it's a draw or Trump by a head. 

-Lester Holt opened by saying this was sponsored by the "non-partisan" commission. It's run by the GOP and the Dems, so what he meant was the highly-partisan "bi-partisan" commission. Holt came across as partisan-- asking Trump about his taxes and the birther controversy, while asking her about no controversies or brutal policy problems. (Trump brought up the emails, not Holt, right?) Presumably, the moderators will ask Hillary some tough questions in the next two debates.

-They were both garbage on basic economics. Trump exhibited his usual ignorance on international trade, trade deficits, conflating budget deficits and trade deficits, etc. Clinton said some crazy stuff about the Great Recession (blaming it on 1980s tax policy); called for businesses to "share their profits" (uhh, what do you think they do now?!); and was just making up numbers on job creation from her vs. his fiscal policy. (UPDATE: Apparently, she was referring to some of the Bush tax cuts-- which is more ridiculous, since they were quite modest compared to the 1980s and were extended by Obama.)

-Ironically, Trump's "stop-and-frisk" is more gun controllish than not. So, he notes his endorsement from the police and the NRA-- and then grabs more of the field with this policy. (It's a local policy, so it doesn't even play much into the federal government!) The policy stance plays to 1.) "law and order" types (many of them will make the trade-off in this context); 2.) gun control types; and 3.) inner city residents. And it made her look bad in terms of him as a reformer vs. her as a status quo, talk-talk-talker. He really pounded that-- to great effect, I think. 

-Now, back to the politics and what Trump emphasized: Think where the trade rhetoric works-- the industrial Midwest. And think about his urban strategy last night on crime, "inner city" woes, etc. Remember the cities he mentioned-- in particular, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and a few others. I would guess that he was really effective in PA, OH, MI, IN, IL, and WI last night.

-The emphasis on "words" was interesting. Trump scored big points on her lovely words vs. limited actions, lack of accomplishments vs. ample experience. Clinton fought that off, but at the end, on NATO, she emphasized that "our word is good". 

-I'm curious how Ttump's rhetoric is heard by non-yellow-dog African-Americans-- and whether the reality of those comments (e.g., inner-city violence vs. stop/frisk and economic problems) and his repeated claims about her rhetoric and record would score (a ton of) points. Related: will they hear her 40-year-old lawsuit example as something significant or slanderous. (Or for those interested in jobs and his point about regulations, another example of regulation gone awry.)

-On appearances, it's interesting that he chose a blue tie and she chose a red pantsuit. When she looked at him, it looked like she was going to pass out-- with her eyes heavy and blinking a lot. I wonder if there was a fan blowing down on them (or bright lights as she tried to look toward/at him) that made it difficult for her to open her eyes. 

-UPDATE: A fun op-ed by Stossel on what's wrong with both of them, as per the debate.

an overview of Buechner

I've been a fan of Frederick Buechner and his work for a long time. (His name is pronounced "Beek-ner". It's important to him-- and to us-- but he explains that elsewhere.) I don't remember who introduced me to his writing-- and I can't say that I'm a follower or a devotee, because I've only read a fraction of what he's written. But I've read, I've always enjoyed, often been provoked, and sometimes, profoundly moved. 

In particular, I've enjoyed his books of definitions and brief character sketches. Along those lines, I have posted on Buechner previously-- here, with his memorable picture of anger; his closing comments on Moses' life; and his observation that Jesus saves is more difficult for us to hear than "Christ saves".

I recently picked up and read an overview of Buechner's work, assembled by Anne Lamott, called Buechner 101. I can recommend the book as a helpful overview, particularly if you enjoy fiction. If you're more interested in non-fiction, I'd start with my favorite book of definitions, Wishful Thinking. As with any writing, it's wheat and chaff. (In all of this, it's worth a compare and contrast with Eugene Peterson who is more pastoral and less into fiction. But their style and outlook are similar and similarly refreshing.)

Buechner shades liberal on some matters of theology and application, so from my perspective, there is some chaff to dispel. But as best as I can tell, the chaff is easy to discern-- and even there, the disagreements are always thoughtful, provocative, and helpful for promoting empathy. In any case, the wheat is too good to pass up.

Lamott opens the volume by noting that Buechner and C.S. Lewis are the authors she revisits frequently. (Lamott says that John Irving was a student of Buechner's. I didn't know that, but it figures, given the similarities. Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany was an enjoyable and important piece of fiction in my life.) Buechner and Lewis "have been, like all mentors, marbled into me." (3) And I concur with that. Both write well; both use vivid examples and draw out lively metaphors; both offer new insights or useful reminders every time I pick them up. Lamott says that Buechner is "plain and majestic at the same time" (2). In this, Buechner is a cousin of Annie Dillard more than C.S. Lewis. 

A recurring theme for Buechner is the intersection and combination of doubt and faith. Lamott quotes him twice on this topic: "Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me." (3) And "If you tell me Christian commitment is...once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery", then you're fooling yourself or trying to fool me. Instead, you should ask yourself each day: "Can I believe it all again today?...If your answer's always Yes, then you probably don't know what believing means." (4)

Brian Mclaren and Barbara Brown Taylor also contribute introductory remarks. (I've blogged on BBT two other times: here on her excellent book about Christianity and darkness; and here, with a provocative excerpt on Judas with application to us.) BBT describes how a Buechner talk changed her entire life: "Dear Mr. Buechner, you rearranged the air...From you, I have learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look...From you, I have learned that the good news is not the cheerful news but the dismantling news." (19) (The last line reminds me of N.T. Wright's book on The Good News-- as both good and news.) 

Enough on the intro; how about some Buechner? Lamott opens her selections with one of his commencement addresses. Here's an excerpt (21-22): 

" can we be other than strangers when at those rare moments of our lives when we stop hiding from each other and try instead passionately and profoundly to make ourselves known to each other, we find this is precisely what we cannot do?...And yet in another sense we are none of us can we be strangers when, for all these years, we have ridden on the back of this same rogue planet, when we have awakened to the same sun and dreamed the same dreams under the same moon? How can we be strangers when we are all of us in the same interior war and do battle with the same interior enemy, which is most of the time ourselves? How can we be strangers when we laugh and cry at the same things and have the same bad habits and occasionally astonish ourselves and everybody else by performing the same uncharacteristic deeds of disinterested kindness and love?...The question is: Can God in his grace and power speak anything that matters ultimately through the likes of me to the likes of you?"

And then, from the same address, on the small, strange things that often change us and the world (32): 

"Again and again Christ is present not where, as priests, you would be apt to look for him but precisely where you wouldn’t have thought to look for him in a thousand years. The great preacher, the sunset, the Mozart Requiem can leave you cold, but the child in the doorway, the rain on the roof, the half-remembered dream, can speak of him and for him with an eloquence that turns your knees to water. The decisions you think are most important turn out not to matter so much after all, but whether or not you mail the letter, the way you say goodbye or decide not to say it, the afternoon you cancel everything and drive out to the beach to watch the tide come in -- these are apt to be the moments when souls are won or lost, including quite possibly your own."

An excerpt from his memoir on the life-changing moment in a George Buttrick sermon that also led to his fascination with Isaac's name and life as "laughter" (44-45). Buechner notes that Buttrick scripted his sermons, but years later, Buechner read the transcript and realized that Buttrick had providentially ad-libbed the strange phrase that changed his life. The idea? That the inward coronation of Jesus in our souls came "among confession, and ears, and great laughter". Buechner says: "It was the phrase great laughter that did it...not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon."

Another quote from that essay: "Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders." (48) Here, we see one of the downsides of reductionism, scientism, and various forms of fundamentalism. The blinkered view of the world is sad because it misses so much; scary when combined with self-righteousness; and especially troubling when it's combined with faux intellectualism.  

As I blogged about earlier today, music helps to avoid such reductionism and fundamentalism. As such, "the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot." (61)

Another book definition-- for "evil" (64)-- concludes with this on the "problem of evil": Christianity "ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good." 

See also: his definition of "forgiveness" (67) or these thoughts on The Lord's Prayer (73-74)...

Lamott also shares a Buechner essay on "Faith and Fiction", connecting/comparing the idea with the medium by drawing parallels in their exercise. (I also like his comment that he can only write about saints anymore, since they're much more interesting than other people [96-97]. Billy Joel sang that "only the good die young" but he and the young ladies in the song apparently conflate a narrow morality with Christianity and Spirit-filled living.) Buechner opens with three providential stories (83-84) and notes that all of them could be coincidence. But "if you had to bet your life, which would you bet...?" Providence or coincidence? 

"...we can bet yes this evening and no tomorrow morning. We may know we're betting. We may not know. We may bet one way with our lips...and another way with our feet. But we, all of us, bet...we can never be sure we bet right because the evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous...Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith."

People are often unaware of their faith in various aspects of life-- from history to religion, from whether a bridge will not collapse to what my money is worth. Or they're allergic to faith or worried about having to rely on it and its cousin, doubt. But it's part and parcel for the world in which we inhabit. Relax; enjoy the ride; and do your best to put your faith and trust in things and people who are worthy.

Sherry Hofmeister and reflections on love, music, legacy, faith, etc.

Sherry Hofmeister, my first violin teacher, died about a month ago in Florida. I was able to attend Sherry's memorial service in Louisville on Friday. I don't remember her at all, but I wanted to honor whatever impact she has had on my life. (A small world story: Martha was one of the adult violin students in my music studio from my grad school days in Texas. She retired and moved to Florida, joining the community orchestra there. Her first stand partner? Sherry!)

I really enjoyed the service-- a celebration of a life well-lived; a reminder of our hope in the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead; a beautiful setting with beautiful music. (The setting was also historic: Middletown Christian began in 1836 and we ended the service by ringing the old bell which they have in front of the new building-- in a small structure comprised of brick from the old building.) A bunch of her students played three pieces, including Humoresque (with the harmony part)-- a beloved piece in the Suzuki music repertoire. She had her three boys read a poem each. Two of her granddaughters sang all four verses of Jesus Loves Me. The pastor read Ps 150 and Jn 14. And so on.

I learned that she was born exactly one week after my dad. I learned that her family lived in Elizabeth, IN for four years in the 1970s (a tiny town where Bob/Bonnie Parker have lived for years and where our friends, the Shaughnessys, live now.). She started or at least greatly empowered a string program at a charter school in Florida, after she retired. I found out that she played in our church orchestra for years. If I had ever joined (and I couldn't given their strenuous schedule and my PM teaching), I would have met her again. 

I'm confident that music and all of its trappings have made a big difference in my life-- although it's difficult to discern cause/effect clearly. Music makes us more human and puts us more closely in touch with the divine. It helps with forming an aesthetic-- an appreciation and healthy respect for beauty. The teamwork of making music together is an inspiration for compassion and empathy. The practice of music promotes humility and discipline-- what a combo! And in all of this (and more), it's interesting to imagine the impact Sherry had on me as my first teacher-- even though I don't remember it at all. 

Such things always/hopefully get us to think about our legacy, faith, life, etc. Everyone described Sherry in ways that were beautiful and seemed credible. (Sure: People usually sound awesome at funerals, but this sounded legit.) From the numbers and influence they cited, she made a profound difference in this world. She was remembered for her accomplishments-- in particular, what she empowered others to do. But more than that, she was remembered for loving really well. It was an inspiration to strive for greater impact, but more important, to be reminded of the over-arching importance of love. How will people remember me? How will people remember you?

Friday, September 23, 2016

review of "How to Survive the Apocalypse" (on faith, politics, and dystopian lit)

This is my review of a fun, fascinating, and provocative book-- that marries pop culture, religion (in a broad sense), and political economy: Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson's How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics... Joustra and Wilkinson (JW) combine current events, culture, psychology and religion to draw some striking inferences about politics and society.

Back when I thought it'd be easy to publish books, I wanted to do a book on Christianity and culture, especially through movies. I've always enjoyed movies quite a bit-- although with kids, we don't watch nearly as many films (and provocative films) as we used to! I've always been interested in Joseph and Daniel's biblical careers. (Thus, our choice of names for boys 3 and 4.) And Paul's preaching has always struck me in this regard-- I Cor 9:22's all things to all people so that by all possible means, we might save some. 

JW start by noting the popularity of apocalyptic in current pop culture. "Today, apocalypse sells like mad. Not just the threat of it, but its reality. And especially, its aftermath." (1) At one level, its popularity seems akin to #FWP-- First World Problems. But apocalyptic is as old as mankind: "As long as we humans have been telling the story of our beginning, we've also been telling the story of our end." (2) (FWIW, this is a theme I hope to explore with my research in the future, based on excellent books by Landes and others.)

What's up? Their thesis in a nutshell: Apocalyptic "is not really just about the end of the world", but "the dismantling of perceived renews as it brings an epiphany..." As such, "apocalyptic literature has always said a great deal more about who we are now...It reveals more than predicts." (2) It's not so much about the future and "the end of the world" as the present and the potential "end of our world" and where we think the future might go (60). This can't last; we're near the end of something; what's next?

One key difference in modern apocalyptic: we clearly are more capable of explicitly bringing about our own destruction (3). Along the same lines, we realize that progress and technological advance have proven to be mythic in their impact (35). Sure, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic-- prominent purveyors of the genre-- have connected sinfulness to destruction of various sorts. But modern potential for destruction is both more direct and more obvious. 

JW describe this as a particularly modern problem: "Most people in the West can easily choose to live primarily for their own flourishing, rather than something beyond it." (12) Moreover, we are among the first who can choose what to believe; even if we believe, we see ourselves as having a choice whether to believe or not. "This is quite a change...putting the human person at the center of the universe as the creator of meaning." (5) For the pre-modern, "disbelief was remarkably act of radical, terrifying, defiant autonomy in the face of powerful, invisible, and penetrating forces...And it one brave individual did break rank...the response was often violent and decisive" since they saw it as blasphemy, but worse, dangerous.

All of this sounds deeply troubling-- and potentially could be-- but JW are careful to caution that "every age has its own peculiar pathologies" (5) and that all of this can be for good for for ill. JW connect this theme and draw inferences about their applications through their reading of Charles Taylor's book, The Malaise of Modernity

JW lay out their understanding of what's changed a la Taylor in chapter 2. Taylor refers to various (potential) "pathologies": fragmented individualism that can lead to narcissism; efficiency-- narrowly conceived and weighted too highly; "freedom" misdefined and misunderstood (a la Galatians 5:1,13). To JW (more than to Taylor), all of these are steeped in pros and cons. Combined, they present big opportunities for trouble, but not necessarily. 

In any case, all of it points to a penchant for unrooted dystopia. As they quote William Adama in Battlestar Galactica (the subject of chapter 4), "We did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question [of] why? Why are we as a people worth saving?" (31) Generally, JW are (far) more optimistic than Taylor. In any case, I appreciate the careful cost-benefit reading and analysis of the contemporary tea leaves. 

JW work to define eschatology, millennialism, and apocalyptic (36-38a). They provide a history of apocalyptic (40ff) and argue that the classical version reached its historical apex from 1000-1515 AD-- from the turn of the millennium until the debut of "modern eschatology" in 1516. (I'm a little surprised that they don't give more weight to Jewish and Christian versions in the centuries around the time of Christ. But I suppose the argument would be that J and C carried relatively little influence in those early days.) 

The modern age was ushered in by Thomas More's book, Utopia (49). In this section, JW also reference Norman Cohn and Richard Landes' excellent book (41). (They cite Landes' theory about Amenhotep III and call it "an interesting and controversial case"!) JW describe the famous Revolutions in this context (51) and note the birth of "dystopia" with John Stuart Mill (54).

From Chapter 4 onward, JW turn to particular examples and applications/analysis. Once JW get to these examples, I'm at least a bit hamstrung in that I'm not familiar with most of their examples. I have passing knowledge of most of their examples, but only a thorough knowledge of the Hunger Games trilogy. Still, even within my ignorance, I found their discussion fascinating. If you have thorough or working knowledge of more shows/movies, you should find it that even more interesting and valuable. 

Ch. 4 covers Battlestar Galactica in light of individualism. It explores the series' connection to Mormonism, including debates between characters about monotheism vs. polytheism. 

Ch. 5 discusses the "anti-heroes" in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards. JW argue that the anti-hero is apocalyptic or even dystopian (78-83). And they connect these three shows to Machiavelli's The Prince and T.S. Eliot's Hollow Man (opening and closing the chapter with the latter).

In Ch. 6, JW analyze the movie "Her" and the idea of "being alone together" (98). I just talked about this at length in a forthcoming publication in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. We are all the same and yet, different-- and related to that: there is inherent value in the human person, both separately and in community (99-103). Despite many valid concerns about reduced capacity and desire for community (see: Putnam's Bowling Alone)-- and contrary to the pessimism of many contemporary social observers-- JW embrace the counter-claim that intimate relationships are still quite possible and likely these days (116-117).

In this chapter, JW also discuss the "politics of recognition" at length (108-114)-- and the implications for perceived value, the practice of "tolerance" (in its various contemporary forms), and the difficulty of unity (when this is not done well). Back in the day, when you were born into a particular context, there was little need to defend/justify "who you were". But today, we must prove ourselves to each other-- precisely because we and our roles are seen as unique. Or more precisely, "whatever was unique about you...didn't supersede or override your socially acknowledged role" (108). 

This also explains the passionate political desire (need?)-- in discourse and law--  to be explicitly legitimized by other individuals and by institutions. "I need the law and my government to recognize me not just as a citizen but also as a unique citizen with a particular, valid way of being-- my gender identity, my ethnic identity, my religion, my political beliefs, my sexual orientation, my profession-- that is on par with everyone else's way of being. The stakes are high. The politics of equal recognition are central and stressful." (111)

Defense of this new approach to value and dignity is correct at some level, but ultimately, too simplistic: "On what basis does that equal value exist?" Neither choices nor unchosen context can, in themselves, determine that value. Neither can "mere difference". Instead, "we are all equal not because we are different, but because there are valuable things that we all have as humans" (113). 

Ch. 7 features "Game of Thrones" and wrestles with the contemporary popularity of subjectivism and moral relativity. These lead to certain tendencies-- but they are not deterministic (121-122). JW describe Game of Thrones as apocalyptic (123-125, 130a)-- and see contemporary mores as an extension of Marx to Neitzsche (126-127). It's not merely religion that is an opiate, but all social and political conventions.  

JW express concerns, but argue that these tendencies are not necessarily bad (129-135), drawing a line between "more subjective" and "subjectivism". And there are benefits: "We are not more attentive to these background images-- these "worldviews"-- and their plurality, their strengths and weaknesses, as a result of subjectivity than we have ever been...Subjective does not mean the same thing as arbitrary or whimsical." (134-135)

In Ch. 8, JW argue that our popular zombie stories are both personal and political (138)-- but ultimately, more about what happens to society than to individuals. (For a terrific movie about personal, Christ-like sacrifice in the context of a zombie apocalypse, see I Am Legend-- what has been called the coolest Christian movie ever.)

JW review and applaud Max Brooks' novel (and the subsequent film), World War Z (140, 141). Where "Walking Dead" is about personal and group politics at a local level, World War Z deals with the world. "Brooks' novel is a study in social systems: their elasticity, their survivability, and how their logic can push toward both greater promise-- and peril." (141) For both stories, JW observe that one would think it'd be about personal survival, what seems to be the ultimate goal. Instead, for many, they sacrifice "not only security and power but their very lives for something they deem greater." (142) Along the way, Walking Dead illustrates that "all groups are not created equal, and all groups are not judged merely on the merits of delivering the goods of common security." (146) 

In this chapter, JW also wrestle with the problem of "groupthink" (148): when there is more "likability" (of whatever sort), "decision-making will follow a pattern of reinforcing those relationships rather than challenging faulty premises or logic". One sees this in all sorts of things, from the perennial temptations of science vs. the ideals of Science; these days, the popularity of the "wasted vote" myth; and various social norms that come to dominate and then fade. In all of this, Thomas Kuhn's classic book reminds us of the difficulty of evaluating the dominant paradigm from within that paradigm-- and thus, the rigidity of systems and "truths" in response to evidence.

Ch. 9's discussion of Scandal largely sets the table for a protracted discussion in Ch. 10 on The Hunger Games (HG). JW use HG to illustrate "why it is so important for distrustful, disconnected Millennials to dig in and do the hard work of institution-building". (165) The world of Panem represents a sobering threat to authenticity-- outside forces use surveillance and force to prevent the pursuit of one's true self. Citizens are tools-- instrumentalism and tyranny. And then there's the insidious tyranny of the hedonistic circus in the capital city: "distracted by the entertainment...numbed to the true injustices...a biting critique of entertainment culture." (168) They invoke Weber's "iron cage" and note it's only a cage "when people are truly, radically individualistic and atomized...why part of the Capitol's strategy is to pit districts against one another...also why it is such a threat...when citizens unite around a common idea." (169)

JW warn Millennials to be careful of fearing institutions or merely responding to them with cynicism. They also ask what all of us should do in such circumstances-- and how this points us toward a greater society, even when things are not nearly so rough: in a word, institutions are limited and often corrupt, and so we need to invest in our own institutions and exercise influence in our spheres: "to not blindly trust institutions again, but to be willing to invest in them." (177). HG "is quietly aware of this when it places all hope for any goodness in committed, loving, sacrificial relationships between people." (175) 

In Ch. 11, JW conclude by taking Daniel as the apocalyptic hero/archetype/model/example for ideal engagement with the culture. (My forthcoming JIS article relates here again-- in particular, my discussion of Richard John Neuhaus' American Babylon.) They cite Peter Leithart's excellent book, Between Babel and Beast, summing it up as don't abandon the city, but don't expect it to be the New Jerusalem.

If you're into contemporary culture-- and particularly into these shows and this genre-- JW is a must-read. Check it out!