Beauty in Sodom: In Defense of Secular Culture

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The greatest [secular] band of our time.
I am currently listening to [the secular band] Radiohead’s magisterial 2006 album In Rainbows, specifically the [secular] song “Bodysnatchers.” I have just read Joshua Gibbs’ post on the Circe Institute blog, in which he reveals that he is selling his popular music collection and that, for Lent anyway, will only be listening to music over 100 years old. But he goes further than that, attacking the Christian project of “cultural engagement” in its various confused forms:

For some, engaging the culture means inviting neighbors for dinner. For some, making subtly Christian films which will soften the hearts of unsuspecting secularists. For some, public debates with local scientists. And for some, “engaging the culture” means writing think pieces about how the latest Kanye West record reveals his latent desire for a Savior.

Leaving aside the idea that maybe some or all of these things could be considered rightly within the “big tent” of Christian cultural engagement, Gibbs has a point. And he doesn’t stop there. One by one, he takes apart his own reasons for listening to Kanye, Drake–even Radiohead, or watching popular secular film. His ultimate defense, he says, was St. Paul’s Mars Hill sermon, in which Paul clearly displays a knowledge of secular idol worship and secular poets — enough to engage with his Athenian audience.

But as Gibbs points out, Paul’s example isn’t quite how he had portrayed it in his mind. For example, the pagan poet Paul quoted to his audience had written hundreds of years before. It would be more like quoting Shakespeare in our time than Rihanna. As Gibbs approaches his conclusion, he gets more stark:

Popular music glorifies a bad situation but offers no direction. A spirit of searching and longing attends the best pop music, though the search is aimless and the longing arbitrary, unformed. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (Op. 37) is also about longing, though it lacks the craft cool of Modern Vampires of the City or the high vaulted passion of The Joshua Tree. Rachmaninoff cannot offer any Christ-haunted cosmopolitan thrills, for he is not haunted by Christ, but inhabited by Him.

Finally, Gibbs is convinced that his previous deep indulgence in secular music and film may be a cause for judgment. “Repent,” he concludes. “The judgment of your motives is at hand. The judgment of your tastes is at hand.”

To be sure, our motives and our tastes will come under the judgment of the Son of God, when all of us will stand before his throne and give account. But I think Gibbs is too hasty in his rejection of popular music and culture. In fact, I think he is committing a grave error.

It is our Christian duty to seek after righteousness (which is beautiful), and to nurture it where we find it. How can we do this if we shut off for ourselves the glorious stream of humanity, which some may call secular culture but which we could, if we take the long view, call “culture, soon to be redeemed?”

I’m not sure that listening to secular music, even a record as important and near-perfect as Radiohead’s In Rainbows, has contributed to my growth in wisdom. But it certainly has helped me perceive and identify beauty, wherever it may be found. And it may be found everywhere. And it is our duty to seek it out.

Where is beauty? It may not be where we expect it, or where we want to find it. Dostoevsky says, “Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

The victory of God in this battlefield does not entail the Christian leaving beauty behind, but it will mean leaving Sodom behind. God will use the Christian to take the beauty that is in Sodom, and bring it in His train to Jerusalem. So it is our Christian duty to divest Sodom of its beauty, appreciating all the while that whatever is beautiful is good, and whatever is good is of God.

If Gibbs throws out “new” music because of its newness, and devote himself to music that is more than a century old instead, he will commit chronological snobbery, and furthermore all men through all times are under judgment as sinners. The musicians of the past were, taking everything together, not better people than those of today. Rachmaninov was a great composer, perhaps even “Christ-inhabited” as Gibbs asserts. But his near contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, was not (at the time) so blessed. He wrote The Rite of Spring, a celebration of paganism that no modern artist has yet to match. [It is important to note that Stravinsky later became a devout believer in the Russian Orthodox Church.] If Gibbs avoids the last century of music, he will miss the great wealth of Christian music to come out of Africa and Asia, with their burgeoning and joyful populations of Christians.

It might be easier to give up on popular culture than to redeem it, to consign it to the godless who always seem to have the upper hand. “Redeeming culture” is the tiredest of tired phrases, but it is not a tired concept. It is where the great Christians of the last centuries, for the most part, have heard Christ’s call. Many of them have believed, as I do, that cultural engagement (perhaps a redefined and discerning version thereof) is one of the avenues by which Christ will save the world. Here is G.K. Chesterton:

Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true…All things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He lives and reigns.

What are we leaving behind, if under the guise of faithfulness we leave behind popular culture and any prospect of redeeming it, and head for the hinterland of culture? Let’s think long and hard before we start on our journey. As part of our research, I would assign the Radiohead album In Rainbows.

Common Good, Common Ground, Common Sense: Welcome to the American Solidarity Party

12718126_616210021881478_34948“When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

-Alisdair McIntyre

The two major-party candidates in this election are not just liars and panderers in the way politicians are. Many Americans, an unprecedented number, believe that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton belong in a criminal trial rather than on a presidential ballot. This man and this woman represent the nadir of American politics; they are manipulated by the New York moneymen and the demagogues of both parties, and they represent the very worst of the American elite.

Most people know this or suspect it, but they are willing to hold their noses and pick one of them anyway. I think that’s exactly the wrong solution.

Why should we only have two choices, especially when the choices are this bad? Other democracies don’t create a false dichotomy for themselves in the way we do. As much as anything else, my third-party vote is a protest against the injustices of the two-party system. But it’s also more than that.

I chose the American Solidarity Party simply because the party complements my political and religious beliefs far better than the Republican Party or the Democratic Party ever have. So, what does the American Solidarity Party believe? Why should you vote for them on Tuesday?

Basically, to understand the ASP, you need to have a handle on these three terms: Catholic Social Teaching, Distributism, and Subsidiarity. Nota bene: ASP is not a Catholic party per se, but it’s founded on largely Catholic ideas and 80% of the membership is Catholic or Orthodox. I, for one, would like to recruit more Protestants.

What is Catholic Social Teaching (CST?) A framework of political and social thought steeped in the doctrine of historical Christianity and brought into concrete form by a series of popes in a series of encyclicals (letters sent by the pope to bishops in the church). The Conference of Catholic Bishops lists seven tenets of CST, all of which form a part of the American Solidarity Party Platform. CST is distinctive in that it cannot be categorized as left-wing or right-wing. It has been carefully shaped into something that is a genuine Third Way, with meaty critiques of the ideologies of the Left and the Right. Although I am a Reformed Protestant, I find Catholic Social Teaching to be incredibly valuable. For more information, here’s the Wikipedia page on CST, which is accurate and helpful.

What is Distributism? Distributism is a political and economic philosophy first dreamed up by the Catholic thinkers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributists believe that ownership of property and tools is part of political power, and so ownership should be as widely distributed as possible. Workers should own all or a portion of the means of their own production. Distributism can be simple and uncoerced (credit unions, co-ops, employee-owned corporations), or it can be more complex and coercive, as in Taiwan’s postwar Land-to-the-Tiller program, which distributed ownership of thousands of acres of land to the tenant farmers who tilled it. I think there are some important lessons in Distributist thought for our capitalist society–it’s important to stress that most modern Distributists would say that Distributism can come about through a grassroots, compassionate Capitalist movement rather than by government edict.

What is Subsidiarity? The idea that power and decision-making abilities should reside at the lowest practicable level. I like to think of this in financial terms: why does the federal government collect my income tax, and disburse money to the states and eventually to the municipalities for schools, Medicare, etc.? Why don’t municipalities and states collect the bulk of taxes, and remit to the federal government only what is necessary? This is a political principle that, although radical, is widely agreed to be wise policy. Of all the things the ASP advocates, this is probably the most revolutionary and, paradoxically, the least controversial. Having important policies determined in your area, instead of in Washington D.C., has its own pitfalls, but the very idea of it excites people.

Out of these three ideas spring the whole of the ASP platform. Here are a few policies the ASP advocates, chosen nearly at random:

  • All military activities must adhere to Just War principles (this goes back to Augustine)
  • “[S]trict accountability in the use of lethal force by officers of the peace.”
  • “We oppose the privatization of Social Security and other public pension systems.”
  • “We oppose the sudden elimination or reduction of income supports such as welfare, food stamps, and unemployment insurance, when no other safety net is in place.”

  • “We support constitutional and legal measures that establish the Right to Life from conception until natural death.”

  • “We call for an end to capital punishment.”

You may not agree with all of these policies–in fact, it would be surprising if you did. But go read the Republican or Democratic platforms and you will see what a breath of fresh air this is. Yes, I get it, it will be a Republican or a Democrat in the White House next January, just as it has been since any of us can remember. But the huge dissatisfaction with both candidates is also an opportunity: if the system is failing spectacularly, change the system. Vote third party. Vote American Solidarity Party.

But the huge dissatisfaction with both candidates is also an opportunity: if the system is failing spectacularly, change the system. Vote third party. Vote American Solidarity Party.

Is it crazy? Well, Father Zosima was asked a similar question in The Brothers Karamazov (quoted in this great piece on the ASP in First Things).

[W]e must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love even if he seems crazy, so that the great idea may not die.

I don’t think it’s crazy, but so what if it is? It’s a great idea–let’s keep it alive.

Stepping off a Sinking Ship: Leaving the Republican Party for Something Better

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In the official platform of the Republican Party, curtailing abortion is mentioned 35 times. It is obviously important to Republicans that abortion be severely limited, and eventually banned. So why has the party nominated someone for president who was, for most of his life, “strongly” pro-choice? Earlier this year, Donald Trump, our “pro-life” candidate, held five different positions on abortion in three days. Trump’s nomination has weakened, and will perhaps sink, the Republican party.

The party that nominated Trump is pro-life and pro-trade, and certainly pro-national defense. Trump is, arguably, none of these things. Either there were no better options, or the Republican party has given up attempting to be a truly conservative party, or the Republican party is slowly collapsing. Unfortunately there’s a strong case to be made for the latter.

In our lifetimes, the GOP has aways been divided four ways: between the wealthy, socially liberal defenders of the status quo, like George H.W. Bush, the “movement conservatives” like Newt Gingrich, the “Tea Partiers” like Sarah Palin, and the devout religious conservatives like George W. Bush or Mike Huckabee.

The GOP has only ever been a marriage of convenience between these warring factions. In other countries, they might have formed four different parties. But for decades the Republican Party has played the role of a “big tent,” a partnership of cobelligerents against cultural leftism, high taxes, etc. Now it seems that the big tent is coming apart.

Donald Trump’s nomination reveals a desperate party bereft of ideas, leadership, or passion.

Trump’s main asset to the GOP is that he is newsworthy in both traditional and new media. He is a Kardashian to them, creating instant clickbait in a country at once attracted and repelled by his antics. What is he going to say next? Who is he going to slur now? These are the questions you ask about a shock jock radio personality, not a president. But the 24/7 Trump media circus keeps him at the front of people’s minds, and the old adage that there’s no bad publicity except your obituary rings true: he is trailing Clinton, to be sure–but not nearly as much as he would be if his support were based on his policies instead of his entertainment value.

The smart money predicts the election won’t be close. Republican leaders have been wringing their hands for months about the effect of Trump’s loss “down-ballot,” that is, in state and local elections where thousands of more palatable Republicans will appear on the same ballot as Trump and may suffer the effects of Trump’s likely defeat.

Here’s the problem. I say “more palatable,” but many of these Republicans have cravenly endorsed Trump, against their convictions, for fear of backlash from the Trump-loving base. In fact, only a few prominent Republicans have come out against Trump, although they include big names like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, House Majority Leader Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Bush family, and six–six–former chairmen of the Republican National Committee.

And this leads to an unpleasant question: did Republican voters settle on Trump because there were no other good options? Or do they genuinely share his views and believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is qualified to be president?

Unfortunately, all evidence points to the latter. Donald Trump elicits deep and abiding enthusiasm among a large part of the Republican base: older white men without a college degree, and in almost no other demographic group.

  • The Republican party gets its smallest vote share among Millennials and its highest vote share among voters aged 69-86 (the oldest measured group).
  • The Pew Research Center reports that “…Democrats hold an 80%-11% advantage among blacks, lead by close to three-to-one among Asian Americans (65%-23%) and by more than two-to-one among Hispanics (56%-26%),” while Republicans “hold a 49%-40% lead over the Democrats in leaned party identification among whites.
  • The GOP’s advantage widens to 21 points among white men who have not completed college (54%-33%).”

All of these trends portend bad things for the Republican party: its voters are uneducated, getting older, and they will be demographically outnumbered by growing Hispanic and Asian populations. Unless something changes, the party is headed for a long spell in the wilderness, unable to gain meaningful majorities at the polls or enact its policies at the national level.

But more than demographics, it is those policies themselves that are the problem.

The Republican party has been conservative, championing traditional values and policies, ever since anyone can remember. This has been a great strength, and a weakness. The same party that fights tooth and nail for upholding the Constitution as the framers intended it, and for the rights of the unborn, was slow to embrace civil rights, and as always harbored a disinclination to help the poor and downtrodden. The party stands for a strong national defense, but concomitant with that it advocates dangerous and expensive intervention in foreign conflicts. I could go on — there’s a whole laundry list of Republican policies that aren’t really conservative at all.

Of all the groups within the Republican Party, the “religious right” has to bend over backwards the most to fit in. A party that disdains the poor and advocates for unjust wars shares little in common with the Church of Jesus Christ. And yet if the American Church continues to be joined at the hip to a party that uses it cynically for votes, it will lose its way.

There’s a saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The Republican party has fooled religious conservatives time and time again. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist luminary, thinks it’s time for the “religious right,” the once-powerful political arm of faithful right-wing Christians, to fade away. Other respected Christians aren’t so sure. Both Moore and Susannah Black, whose posts are linked above, would agree that there is a third way. They would disagree about the specifics, but I’ve come to my own conclusion.

I’m done with the unceasing cries to “reform the GOP from the inside.” I’m done with the forced dichotomy of the two-party system. I’m done with craven politicians pandering to the religious vote. It’s time for Christians to start thinking for themselves, to stop holding their noses and pulling the lever for the guy with the (R) after his name. It’s time for us to prayerfully consider each candidate and each policy, not according to any worldly standard, but according to Biblical principles and the doctrine of the Church. I’m not the first to say it, and if faithful Christians had been more consistent in our political witness I wouldn’t need to say it now. But here we are.

So I’m pleased to announce that I’ve found something better. In my next post (which is up HERE), I will introduce you to the American Solidarity Party, and perhaps convince you to join me in voting for them. It’s something bigger and better than a protest vote for me–I’ve found a political home. Maybe the ASP can be a home for you, too, in this political wasteland.

Review: “The English and their History” by Robert Tombs

englishThe English and their History by Robert Tombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Over the course of 900 pages, Cambridge historian Robert Tombs lays out the stunning history of a people, the English, who have had an outsize effect on the world. From pre-history to 2014 A.D., Tombs tells a succession of gripping stories that will entrap experts and amateurs alike.

If Tombs’ sprawling book has a theme, it is the upending of revisionist theories of English history. Neo-revisionism, I suppose you could call it. A typical passage might state that, on the whole, England bore no more responsibility than other nations (particularly Spain, Portugal, and later the United States) for the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and did more than any of those nations to end it — contra the revisionist narrative proffered by historians of the left.

Tombs holds up various previous historical ideas up to the light, and in his modest, incredibly well-researched way, finds them wanting. The “Whig version of history” fares particularly poorly. In this enduringly popular genre of historiography, as popular among American progressives today as it was for 18th-century English whigs, history is a story of rampant progress from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from ludditism to technological nirvana. This paradigm necessarily makes the past look pretty black, to make the gray present look good by comparison–and Tombs methodically dismantles this by showing how the past and present (or the past and the more recent past) were not as different as the Whig narrative maintains, and that it is damaging to believe otherwise.

The opposite of Whig historiography, at least in Britain, is “declinism,” the largely post-1945 phenomenon of British journalists and historians writing off Britain as a world power, or even as a major force in Europe, due to much-publicized failures like the Suez crisis, deindustrialization, and (more recently) the fairly disastrous British contribution to the Iraq war. Tombs dismantles this narrative with equal quiet fervor, pointing out pesky facts that industrial decline (which no one can deny), happened just as quickly under the woman who is supposed to have doomed British industry (Margaret Thatcher, 1.9% yearly) as it later did under a man who by party affiliation at least was diametrically opposed to her policies (Tony Blair, 1.8% yearly).

The British Empire, subject at various times to both Whig and declinist narratives, gets a fairer, middle-ground treatment here. In fact, that is the enduring value of Tombs’ book. Unlike most academic historians (notably, in my limited reading, Piers Brendon), it is impossible to pigeonhole him as a man of the Left or the Right — he skewers them both with quiet gusto when they need it, and praises them in turn. He does this without suspending moral judgment — some things are certainly right, and others are certainly wrong, and some people belong in one camp or another for advocating such and such.

Tombs covers the English wars of religion evenhandedly and even gives Cromwell a fair hearing. However, at one point, he says something to the effect that the motivations of some English politicians of the early 19th century were difficult for us to understand because they harbored a fervent evangelical faith “nowhere in the modern world, except perhaps in the deepest reaches of the American Bible belt.” Tombs’ own book, much later, gives the lie to this statement by briefly mentioning the vibrant revival of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in London itself due to (largely black) devout Christian immigrants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

If you would learn about English history, I can’t think of a better place to start. Tombs’ book is more than the sum of its parts. It is the history of a people that is written with such evenhanded clarity that even its method, to say nothing of its well-researched conclusions, has implications for the study of history.

When We Make Abortion Illegal

The Pro-Life movement always wins when people pay attention to abortion. Only a few radicals really

"I survived Roe v. Wade. Roe. v. Wade will not survive me." Photo credit: Elizabeth Alison Photograph
“I survived Roe v. Wade. Roe. v. Wade will not survive me.” Photo credit: Elizabeth Alison Photograph

support abortion if they know–really know–what they’re supporting. So the last-ditch tactic of the pro-abortion movement is to convince people to turn their eyes away. It’s not that difficult, normally–we’d all much rather accept that Planned Parenthood provides just vague “care,” rather than tearing apart human fetuses, their real raison d’être.

But when America sees abortion for what it really is, they will no longer support it. It’s as simple as that. I believe it will happen, and it might be sooner than we think.

But if Planned Parenthood is really losing the battle, if abortion really becomes illegal, we in the Church will need to be ready. We need to know what the consequences of this will be, both bad and good. We need to be prepared to help women who are pregnant, scared, poor, alone.

So let’s make some plans. I’ve done a little research. Let’s talk about what will happen and what won’t happen when abortion becomes illegal, and what practical things we need to do to bring that day closer.

What Won’t Happen

First, let’s talk about what won’t happen. If you google “making abortion illegal,” you’ll see a lot of sketchy data and scare tactics from pro-abortion researchers. For example, you might read that it’s actually useless to make abortion illegal, because abortion rates are higher in countries where abortion is illegal than they are here.

That is true in some relatively poor countries (e.g. Brazil) where women have limited access to contraception. That means a pregnancy in those countries is both more likely and more perilous, and women are more easily led to seek abortions. That won’t happen here. A more apt comparison would be to the Republic of Ireland, a rich Western democracy like the United States, with the difference that abortion is illegal. Sadly, Irish women can still access abortion in neighboring countries like the UK and the Netherlands. In 2010, the abortion rate in those countries for women who gave an Irish address was 4.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. That’s a full 2/3 lower than the abortion rate in the United States, which in 2011 was 13.9 per 1,000 women aged 15-44.

When abortion becomes illegal in the US, a cottage industry of traveling to Canada, Mexico, or Cuba to obtain abortions will develop. Drug cartels in Mexico could use existing clandestine channels to smuggle abortifacients into the country and sell them on the black market. It’s important to realize that the abortion rate would decrease dramatically if it were made illegal, but it would not hit zero. Abortion has been a shameful part of human civilization since the beginning, and it will not go away entirely.

Another common threat is that if abortion is made illegal, women will die from so-called “back-alley abortions.” It’s true that in 1957, before legalization, 257 American women died from botched abortions, while only 10 women died in 2010. The threat is that maternal deaths will spike due to women seeking unsafe abortions, but the simple (if grotesque) fact is that in the last 50 years abortion methods and abortifacients have become so safe (for women) and effective, that maternal death is not significantly higher due to illegal abortions in 1st world countries. When Chile made abortion illegal, for example, a variety of factors actually caused a decrease in maternal mortality. Making abortion illegal is not a threat to women’s health.

So, to summarize, this is what won’t happen if abortion is made illegal:

1. Abortion rates won’t rise.
2. Abortion will not become nonexistent.
3. Maternal deaths will not spike.

What Must Happen

The wave of public revulsion against Planned Parenthood will not last forever, as we humans naturally turn away from things we don’t like to see. I thank God that these videos are being released, but watching them is painful and unpleasant–I’m honestly surprised so many people have. Soon, barring a miracle, the national conversation will turn away from abortion until the next time we’re able to again expose what goes on behind closed doors in a way that people can’t ignore.

In the absence of public attention, we need to fight hard to decrease the abortion rate and stigmatize untrustworthy abortion providers as we fight to make abortion illegal. In fact, we will never make abortion illegal until we lower the abortion rate. 3 in 10 American women will have had abortions by age 45. A sizable number of those women will regret their decision, but the ones who don’t form the core of the abortion caucus. Any justification for abortion is acceptable, no Pro-Life argument can have any validity–any possibility can be considered except that a woman was wrong to get an abortion and that her abortion took a human life.

Our goal must be to lower that 3 in 10 number. Not only will we save children, but we will decrease the amount of women (and men) whose self-assessment of themselves as good persons depends on justifiable abortion.

To lower the abortion rate, the Pro-Life movement must have these two goals (among others):

1. Lower the rate of unintended pregnancies.
2. Present viable options to women who have become pregnant unintentionally (e.g., Adoption).

This will directly benefit the Pro-Life project of lowering the abortion rate and convincing people that abortion is an unnecessary and radical choice.

So, how do we do this?

In Colorado, the pregnancy rate among teenagers fell by 40% between 2009 and 2013, and the teen abortion rate fell by 42% in the same period. The decline was most pronounced in the state’s poorest areas. How did this happen? Colorado provided free long-lasting and ultra-effective birth control to anyone who wanted it.

This is a practical solution that won’t sit too well with some Pro-Lifers. Whether Christians should use implanted birth control is a valid and necessary discussion, but I think the salient fact here is the hundreds of lives saved. There are a lot of things that I wouldn’t advocate normally, but I would if it were a question of preventing a murder. In this case, it is a question of preventing hundreds of thousands of murders.

The result of this and similar measures is fewer babies killed. Fewer women traumatized by abortion. Fewer people who think their sexual freedom depends on the availability of abortion (and thus fewer willing to fight hard for the pro-abortion cause). Pro-Lifers should work for this.

For women who are pregnant and don’t want to be, Pro-Lifers have an ace up our sleeves: crisis pregnancy centers. In 2013, there were 2,500 of these centers across the country, numbering some 700 more than abortion clinics. One of the largest networks, Care Net, reports that it has saved almost 390,000 lives in the past six years alone.

By targeting women at risk for abortion, crisis pregnancy centers like this one give the lie to the pro-abortion mantra that pro-lifers don’t care about women or children, just unborn fetuses. These centers help young women understand how they can handle motherhood, or if they can’t, they refer them to adoption and foster care agencies. These simple tactics have proven to be jaw-droppingly effective: 8 out of 10 women who consider an abortion choose life after visiting a crisis pregnancy center.

When abortion is illegal, crisis pregnancy centers will entirely replace abortion clinics as the places where women go when they need help due to an unplanned pregnancy. Thus, working to strengthen these institutions is one of the most important things we can do to bring about a future in which no children have to die for their parents’ sexual freedom.

It’s important to remember that women who get abortions are not, for the most part, destitute teenagers pressured by their boyfriends or scared of what their parents will think. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, they’re college students and young members of the workforce. They can afford to raise a child, but they will have to sacrifice to do so. The abortion rate is high because women are not ready to do this, but crisis pregnancy centers help them. The work doesn’t stop when the baby is born–churches have a long way to go in our outreach and care for unwed mothers and their children–but let’s start with the fact that by investing in and volunteering for crisis pregnancy centers, Pro-Lifers can literally save lives.

So, to meet our two goals, here are two practical solutions:

1. Advocate for cheap, effective birth control methods to lower the rate of unintended pregnancy.
2. Fund and advocate for crisis pregnancy centers to provide women practicable alternatives to abortion.

Pro-Lifers don’t often think about what would happen if we actually succeed. It’s time to start, because we’re going to succeed. We need to start working, right now, for the post-abortion future.

How to Ace/Flub a Product Launch : Volvo’s XC90 and Its 240 in the Automotive Press

The new XC90 in a fetching white.
The new XC90 in a fetching white.

Volvo’s new XC90 has been receiving rave reviews in the press. I use the word “press” loosely, because the plush life of a top-notch automotive journalist often involves being ferried all over the world to test new models in great style; this type of event usually features a generous free bar, and is known in the biz as a “press junket.” The idea is to not-so-subtly influence the deliberations of the automotive writer.

I’ve been paying attention to reviews of the new XC90 because it is an incredibly important car for Volvo, as their first new model since the obscure but deep-pocketed Chinese conglomerate Geely purchased the company from Ford for $1.8b in 2010 and proceeded to invest $11B in product development.

Looking at the reviews, I’ve noticed similarities that make it clear that some of these journos are paraphrasing right from the press release. This is a case of journalists telling the story their subjects want them to. Granted, Volvo paid for it: one blog candidly stuck this disclaimer in at the end of their review: “Volvo provided Design Milk airfare, lodging, and meals for attendance of this press event” which other reviewers notably omitted even though they attended the same press event. As Design Milk averred, “Volvo flew out groups of automotive, design, and lifestyle journalists to an empty seaside town off the coast of Tarragona, Spain, turning a whole resort into one giant Volvo showroom.”

The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk
The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk

It would be nice if the other blogs and magazines were more transparent about the swag they get from car companies. This is not just important to car nuts like me. If it is possible to get honest, objective reportage about something, then let’s do that: the truth is good, where’er it be found. When, ten years down the road, people like me can afford a car like the XC90, it would be great to look back at an honest review or two before making the decision to buy. As it is, you often don’t hear about a car’s worst traits until it’s being compared negatively with the model that replaces it several years later. You can’t blame the auto journalists for this, really: they need to stay on the good side of the auto companies so they don’t get scooped by other journalists on press events like this. Here’s an extreme example of this, where an auto journalist was bold enough to reveal the dishonest side of Ferrari’s marketing machine–and got himself banned from all future Ferrari tests as a result.

It hasn’t always been like this. Or at least, it wasn’t always this difficult for journalists to speak truth to power. Last week a friend passed along a review of Volvo’s 240 when it debuted in 1974. As this is the model of Volvo I own, I was particularly interested. Volvo’s XC90 can be read as another attempt (likely successful) to distance itself from this very car–not because the 240 was bad, but because it was so good. Volvo’s reputation for producing cars that are safe, square, and more than a little boring is built to a great extent on the 240. It wasn’t cheap, fast, or sexy, but Volvo managed to sell 3.2 million of them over a 19-year production run.

Volvo's 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn't a big fan.
Volvo’s 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn’t a big fan.

So, the 240 is legendary. But in this review, Archie Vicar (writing for the defunct Automotorist) doesn’t find anything special. Archie Vicar is a stodgy type, as you’ll see. From the review, it sounds like Volvo has come a long way when it comes to press junkets. Today it’s less stinking fish in the Swedish backcountry and more cava on the Spanish coast. Here’s an example in Vicar’s review (he’s writing in the defunct Autmotorist):

We travelled with SAS to Stockholm one sunny morning in June only to arrive in the midst of typical Swedish summer weather: rain and fog obscuring the retreating snows of May. Volvo’s press wallah, Gunner Jenssen, greeted us at the airport and took us in a taxi to our hotel where a long presentation took place over breakfast of herring, herring and sild with some schnapps to warm us up. The main points to interest motorists will be that the Swedes are pursuing their obsession with safety even further. I’d say the best way to ensure one’s safety in a car is to avoid getting in one in the first place. The Swedes’ view is to accept that if one must be in a car then make sure the car as is as joyless as possible.

They’re on a hiding to nothing with this safety lark, in my view. It’s one thing to improve such things as brakes but these safety-belts are a nuisance. I can’t imagine ladies wanting to crease their blouses by using such contraptions. And they are fiddly to deploy, especially if one has been raising one´s elbow. The other worry is that once these things are fitted it’s only a matter of time before some fussy politician-type insists we all wear them. I digress. You won’t catch me wearing them.

Vicar’s somewhat idiotic dismissal of the three-point safety belt (which Volvo invented and which has reportedly saved more than a million lives) brings us to the common theme between Volvo’s 240 and its XC90, the commitment that sets Volvo apart from any other car company: safety. Volvo’s Vision 2020 plan is an attempt to end all deaths in Volvo cars by 2020. Their ridiculously ambitious goal is for no deaths or critical injuries in Volvo cars by 2020. And the amazing this, they might make it. They have a plan.

This has been a meandering post: I started by talking about Volvo’s new XC90 and press junkets, then I talked about the beloved 240, and finally Volvo’s commitment to safety. But watch me, I can still bring this in for a landing. Volvo’s press strategy (much-improved from forty years ago) is genius, and I wish them the best as they try to attract customers in a crowded market. If they buy automotive journalists a few cocktails along the way, more power to them.

Before I bought my 240, I wanted it for its looks. I just think it looks gorgeous (I realize this is a matter of opinion). However, now that I own it I appreciate the vault-like, straightforward, and trustworthy way in which it’s built. Volvo has been thinking about safety longer than than anyone, and it shows. There’s something incredibly comforting about driving a car that was built by a company that often prioritized the safety of its customers over everything else–including profit margins.

It’s nice to see that Volvo hasn’t lost what has historically set it apart from the pack, and if the reviews are any judge, the XC90 will be a resounding success.

 

Is Minneapolis an Economic Success, or Is It too White to Qualify?

Two recent articles In The Atlantic concern themselves with Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is rare in itself. Minneapolis is a large, cultured city, but it doesn’t feature often in the national news media.minneapple
In “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” Derek Thompson asserts that “No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well. What’s its secret?” One important factor is that it has more corporate headquarters per capita than any other city in America.

Minneapolis–St. Paul is the headquarters for 19 Fortune 500 companies—more than any other metro its size—spanning retail (Target), health care (UnitedHealth), and food (General Mills). In the past 60 years, 40 Minneapolis-based businesses have made it onto Fortune’s list. “We’re not like Atlanta, where half of its Fortune 500s moved there,” Myles Shaver, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, told me. “There is something about Minneapolis that makes us unusually good at building and keeping large companies.”

Shaver’s theory, which he’s developing into a book, is that Minneapolis is so successful at turning medium-size companies into giants because its most important resource never leaves the city: educated managers of every level, who can work at just about any company. Shaver looked at the outward migration of employed, college-educated people who earn at least twice the national average income—his proxy for the manager demographic—and found that of the 25 largest American cities, only one had a lower rate of outflow than Minneapolis (although he couldn’t compute data for three others). Among all college-educated workers, Minneapolis also had the second-lowest outflow. “It bears out the old adage: ‘It’s really hard to get people to move to Minneapolis, and it’s impossible to get them to leave.’ ”

Also, importantly, Minneapolis uses a system of redistributive taxation to transfer wealth from its richest citizens and biggest companies to poor neighborhoods.

In the 1960s, local districts and towns in the Twin Cities region offered competing tax breaks to lure in new businesses, diminishing their revenues and depleting their social services in an effort to steal jobs from elsewhere within the area. In 1971, the region came up with an ingenious plan that would help halt this race to the bottom, and also address widening inequality. The Minnesota state legislature passed a law requiring all of the region’s local governments—in Minneapolis and St. Paul and throughout their ring of suburbs—to contribute almost half of the growth in their commercial tax revenues to a regional pool, from which the money would be distributed to tax-poor areas. Today, business taxes are used to enrich some of the region’s poorest communities.

The upshot is that Minneapolis is a great place to live. College graduates have relatively little trouble finding jobs at successful local companies, and the poor have a relatively high chance of moving into the Middle Class. But according to another author at The Atlantic, that’s not enough.

In “Minneapolis’s White Lie,” Jessica Nickrand takes Thompson to task for ignoring the fact that Minneapolis is majority-white. It may be a successful economy, but as other cities have more poor minority residents, what works in Minneapolis won’t work in other cities.

Applying policies that work in a relatively white-heavy city, like Minneapolis, to a more diverse municipality without consideration for racial inequality will make the region vulnerable to economic disaster; poor and working-class residents will be relegated to areas of concentrated poverty, which would contribute to a city’s overall loss of wealth, a diminishing tax base, and a larger number of people dependent on city services.

I think most research now agrees that segregation is bad for white people and minorities alike. But this is the first time I’ve heard that segregation leads to economic disaster. Nickrand compares Minneapolis to Detroit to make her case: “Detroit’s economic problems are directly related to policies and actions that deliberately excluded black residents from the city’s progress. This exclusion occurred while the city was championed as a welcoming middle-class haven that was ideal for people to start their adult lives—much like is Minneapolis today.”

Nickrand assumes that anti-minority policies in Detroit are “directly related” to its economic problems. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t present an argument that this was the case. Detroit’s economic collapse is usually attributed to economic factors, like the fact that its economy was built upon the American automotive industry, which contracted massively, disproportionately hurting working class workers of all races. White workers in Detroit had a higher net worth and were more able to leave the city for the suburbs or for other metro areas where jobs were more plentiful, leaving Detroit a city which is today no more than 11% white.

Here’s the problem: the people who create jobs are usually not poor. The (relatively) well-off employ the poor, which enables them to reach out of poverty toward economic stability. In the United States, because of a sad and bloody history of racial discrimination, it is often well-off white people creating jobs for poor minorities. That doesn’t make it a bad thing.

Nickrand relates troubling statistics about racial inequality–although it seems likely to me that comparing Minneapolis’s minority population (which is disproportionately made up of recent immigrants) to its stable and multi-generational indigenous white population is not a good metric.

Ultimately, Nickrand believes that Minneapolis must reenact “the progressive policies of the 1960s and 1970s” to ensure racial economic equality. She doesn’t go into more detail, but I imagine that involves more wealth redistribution than is already occurring. If you don’t think Minneapolis is a progressive city, do you even know what “progressive” means? For Nickrand, economic success for most people is actually a “lie” unless everybody is doing just as well as everybody else–including immigrants just off the plane who have few marketable skills and are happy to have the low-wage jobs that they do qualify for.

The key to Minneapolis’s economic success is economic: it’s the home to large, smart, diversified corporations like 3M. And if Minneapolis’s economy fails on the scale that Detroit’s has, it will also be because of economic factors–not racial ones.

The question, “is Minneapolis economically successful, or is it too white?” is nonsense. Why do attempts to create a “race-blind” society show us to be as obsessed with race as we ever have been?