Monday, March 30, 2009

The Daily Me

This morning on the way to school CBC’s “Q” Guest host Jonathan Torrens had a fabulous interview with Nicholas Kristof about his Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Kristof is working off several M.I.T. studies that point to the connection between the self selection of news and information to a hyper polarization of common discourse. Here are some quotes.

We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

…Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.

The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

What does this all mean?

Kristof argued in the radio interview that not only would this lead to further polarization in the general population but that information itself would change. We can note with alarm that newspapers are dying but it is not the forest decimating feel of paper in our hands that we will lose – it is the ability to have an open dialogue in the public sphere. When we can reinforce our own ideological point of view with the type of news we read or by selecting the source of our information we need not confront our own errors.

Kristof’s solution is to actively read a wide range of ideological material. Of course the classic excuse is that we have too little time to spread our attention across the veritable filth that occupies all other perspective but our own. So are we doomed to this narcissistic polarization?

Op-Ed Columnist - The Daily Me -

Monday, March 23, 2009

Enter the Sloganeering

Here you go! Fed up with the God taunting ads - make up your own!

Calgary: Aryan Hotbed?

No doubt many of you readers will be aware of this story. Anti-racist and a neo-Nazi, Aryan groups clashed on the streets of Calgary. The wild west, frontier cowboy town image is certainly not lost in Calgary. Perhaps it is muted by the fact that the combatants used cans of vegetables and placards in what one police officer labelled an obviously premeditated attack.

A survey of the news reports from different corners is very telling in terms of how they have constructed the issue with reference to race. The Calgary Herald seems particularly concerned with Calgary's reputation. Interestingly they seem to lay blame at the feet of the Aryan group for starting the violence citing one observer who suggests, "That's precisely why these groups are so prone to resort to violence, because they are frustrated their message has no popular resonance." In this piece one MP is quoted as saying he would rather have these racist groups out in the open than have their operations turn to more clandestine methods.

The Globe and Mail seems to lay the blame for the violence on the anti-racist group. ""We can be thankful; we did well," said Insp. Williams, who chiefly blamed members of the anti-racism group, comprising in total around 450 people, for the trouble."

The CBC News story reveals claims by the anti-racist group that police officers were protecting the Aryan group.

The Toronto Star tries to give a balanced approach? First it quotes an anti-racist who suggests that the demonstration and clash was a blow to the racists and then it quote two teenage girls in the racist group who don't see themselves as racist at all – just misunderstood.

Media representations are critical in the development of public rhetoric on race. The source of your news obviously affects the perspective you will get. Does anyone else find the above photo interesting and ironic?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Guillermo Stars in Burromance

this guy is my new fav - i just can't stop laughing!

Jes We Can

Constructing Jesus

Most Christians have been taught that Jesus lived a sinless life. Hebrews 4:15 categorically claims Christ's sinlessness in the face of the very sort of temptation that we all face. This claim of sinlessness is, in large part, the basis for soteriology (theology of salvation): Jesus was the sinless sacrifice upon whom God could rest the sin of the whole world. Jesus' crucifixion seems to loose its meaning if his sinlessness cannot be established.

From whose perspective was Jesus sinless? Certainly not from the perspective of the ruling religious elite. They were constantly pointing out the various sins that Jesus was committing: working on the Sabbath, cheating on taxes, defaulting on tithing, associating with prostitutes and tax collectors. These were not just minor grievances that the Pharisees had against Jesus – there were definite laws pertaining to these things and restrictions on association held significant consequences (think cleanliness laws pertaining to Samaritans, menstruating women, and diseased individuals). Nothing to get too bent out of shape with this, in fact sticking to the nasty Pharisees is something revered in Jesus ministry. The religious leaders of the time have been constructed as these nasty self-righteous control freaks. It is convenient to forget that they were charged with preserving what was considered to be the most authentic religious expression of faith in YHWH in the face of the oppressive rule of Rome.

It is also convenient to forget the hegemony that these leaders accrued from the Jewish people of the day. Certainly as within every religious expression 100% compliance was far from normative but other historical documents reveal just how closely most of the population was able to follow the Pharisaic prescriptions. In other words, people generally considered the regulations imposed by the religious leaders of the day to be an adequate standard by which to model their lives. All this was in the face of a fairly democratic approach to religious orthodoxy. It was common to have contentious issues debated openly in the synagogues. Although, it was obviously a restrictive society it is difficult to claim that the people lived in religious oppression. Religious apathy perhaps?

Then this

According to whose standards would someone need to live today in order to be considered sinless? Which church conference guide would be accepted as accurate enough? My suspicion is that Jesus would have very much the same evaluation today as he did from the religious leaders of his day. He would break many of the conventions around which we have built our set of morals. And we would denounce him for that – not just our religious leaders but we ourselves.

So does Jesus just get to rewrite the moral standards arbitrarily and 'get away' with being known as sinless? Yes in some ways he does. Jesus understands morality differently than most people do. In Jesus' teaching it is clear that he constructs morality according to principles not according to specific regulations. Unfortunately most of our rhetoric about Jesus does not reflect this – in fact most often we use specific instances and teachings to uphold our particular moral regulation rather than discover the nuances of how a Godly principle should be applied.

As a result it is not very helpful for us to talk about Jesus as being sinless. He clearly broke the moral norms of his day. To say that Jesus never contradicted any Godly principles might be more accurate but it isn't very useful for us since it does not allow us to defend some of the hard fought moral codes we have adopted. So Jesus remains this sinful sinless man.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


…a pastor, some folks in Alabama and some junior high school students in Germany all lost their lives this week. All died in very public bloodbaths at the hands of some clearly disturbed individuals. These tragedies have obviously struck fear into the hearts of many. A quick scan of the media reports and we can see some common threads. Anger, pain, indescribable grief and questions – the leading one of these being -- -- WHY?

The answer to that question is perhaps the most difficult to answer with any degree of specificity. But that has not stopped new agencies and officials from speculating about the possible reasons for these rampages. It seems to me that the answers that have been arrived at are hollow and completely unsatisfying. Attempts have been made to construct typologies of the killers to see if there were markers that might explain their behaviour. Targets have been analyzed for potential motive. Style of shooting and the type of weaponry used has come under intense scrutiny. While these pictures might give some partial indications to the causes of this violence it seems clear that the answers these investigations produce leave us still lacking effective reasons to explain the actions of these people. (One BBC report highlighted the fact that the boy wore glasses among other features)

An equally dissatisfying answer is the one that suggests in broad spiritualizing tones that these actions were the result of the 'sinful' condition of humanity. Chalking this up to the products of sin significantly cheapens the spiritual perspective. And I suspect it only serves to highlight two damning perspectives that many Christians take:

The evacuation mentality: See, look how terrible this world is. Christ must be coming soon. We just have to hang on till the end and make sure we are ready to meet him.

The superiority complex: See, look how horrid life without Christ is. It's a good thing that we know Jesus and are not tempted to live like that. Make sure you are careful not to get yourself mixed up in those crazy chatrooms or whatever…

Let us admit something if we can. The problems that these violent acts reveal are large and complex. They are not however so large that we must throw up our hand in defeat or so trivial that we should succumb to the mindless triviality of public discourse. If the principles of Christ are valid, is it not true that applying them practically in these situations will garner actual results?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pastor Shot

Many of you who read my blog will no doubt be aware of this incident which occurred today. ABC News has some interesting coverage if you have not heard about it. I am interested in the story for more than the obvious reason: my former employment as a pastor. The story dovetails with my research into public acts of violence (more specifically) school shootings and other killings. Because the venue for the murder is a public space as opposed to the more private space that most homicides are committed in, these acts of violence carry a peculiar social reaction. The response to these events often instigates radical precautionary policies and systems of vigilance and prevention. What is altogether unclear is how effective these measures are in being able to actually prevent violence. Even though many of the systems that are developed can report significant engagement with potentially violent individuals, most programs have a very difficult time claiming actual prevention. This is largely due to the fact that these public acts of violence are some of the most randomly occurring acts both in their actual rate and in the perceived reasons that trigger these types of actions. The scope of my research is evaluating how policies might actually contribute to the occurrence of these types of public acts. And more importantly, my research is investigating how these systems affect the fabric of social order in various community contexts. I have been trained in the formal threat assessment program available to the regions schools. The correlating strategies see schools transforming their facilities into fortresses of high surveillance. This strategy is intended to allow the school to become more quickly aware of dangerous elements who might enter into the facility. It is also intended to provide parents and the general public with a sense of safety in response to the moral panic which these incidents engender.

But my interest goes farther than that:

It is interesting to me to see how followers of Christ respond when the worst of situations occur. How to they express their faith in meaningful terms?

Along with a call to prayer the statement reads:

In this day, where uncertainty seems to abound creating an environment in which people are vulnerable in doing things they might not do otherwise, one thing is certain, we, as human beings need a foundation upon which we can live our lives. We at First Baptist Maryville, along with other Christian believers, share this conviction: that foundation is God's Word. In the pages of the Book we call the Bible, we find the pathway for peace, hope, and a quality of living life despite what circumstances we find ourselves in.

What do you say at a time like this? For me this statement really emphasizes grace founded on several important convictions. I would say on the whole this statement seems to intentionally avoid the natural disposition that an event like this could have toward fear and despair. What remains to be seen is what pathway this church seeks to take in the next months and years as it comes to terms with this tragic loss. This church, and I would suggest, churches in general have an opportunity to address the roots of fear based social constructions and provide a meaningful counterpoint. We should not forget to pray for this aspect of the tragedy.

Till then…


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


For some of you, regular readers, this artist will be hard to stomach because he uses foul language in his material. Or you may not really dig hip hop music. And there may be a number of other visceral reactions that produce disdain for this artist. However, K'naan (for some background on his life check this out) receives a high endorsement from me. And his music and career trigger some nagging questions regarding racism and resistance.

You should listen to his music even though you will struggle to get past his use of the f-word. His music has an authentic quality that is rare these days. His popular acclaim is a compelling testament that people can resonate and engage with thoughtful and provocative music (even if it does carry a parental advisory). In the lyrics of his latest work Troubadour K'naan takes on his own genre with a blazing furry (some might even say it is overkill). Essentially he says, "Hey you rappers think that you have street cred but you don't know the hard core life until you have grown up with an automatic riffle in your hands!" K'naan should know a little about conflict. His lyrics are sharp and they describe the reality of living in a third world country riddled with war and poverty. He infuses hope into the darkness of these situations. He also sees his own success in a significantly divergent light than most in the music business. He repeatedly acknowledges the extreme privilege of his position and his address the disparity between the pleasure of his success and the harsh reality of countrymates in Somalia. This is where the real honest seems most evident. Not only that – it is impossible to listen to his music and feel the indictment (even condemnation) that rests on the shoulders of western culture and political ventures.

On a larger scale his music provokes the question that has been haunting me lately. How is meaningful resistance to racial oppression enacted? More specifically, is it necessary to engage with the dominant systems (in this case the western music industry) that reproduce privilege in order to affect a meaningful counterpoint or resistance? In K'naan case, it seems clear that his success as a musical artist means that he has successfully negotiated the disadvantages of his national (and perhaps even racial) background. This in itself might signal some form of resistance. On top of that, through his music he is able to highlight the plight of his fellow Somalis. This is resistance as well since this type of discourse lies well beyond the scope of most hip hop music (sex, guns, and the 'hood). But does the fact that he has engaged with the system mean complicity with a western system of domination that keeps on subjugating people and leaving certain groups privileged and more importantly underprivileged? There is no doubt a homogenizing effect that the 'music industry' has on artists that sanitizes and sterilizes the music itself. This is as I have mentioned earlier a product of the fact that in order to be a recording artist one must sell records to people. So the whim of the people rules the day. What must haunt K'naan and does me is that his music, as honest and provocative as it is, could be seen as a prostitution of a people and situation at the expense of record sales. What I mean is that there is a danger that the horrible plight of the Somali people could become merely a tool to advance what is essentially a tool of western hegemony. I think this is what produces the ultimate conundrum of effective resistance. ::Participation in the system in order to enable a resistance or avoidance of the system to produce a different sort of resistance:: Hmmm…

Until then check out this guys music. I am going to recommend "Wavin' Flag" as a starter for those of you queasy with the lyric stuff. But here is another song that captures the tone of his message and I think for the most part it is clean (clean hmmm it strikes me that even that term is a highly racialized term…more on that later perhaps).