Why Political Correctness is back

feminist-tweetsI don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.

I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.

Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.

deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)

While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.

We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”

I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.

Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.

So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.

Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.

As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)

Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.

As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.

Matthew Paul Turner’s 38 Theses

matthew-paul-turner1Matthew Paul Turner recently posted a nice list of 38 inspirational suggestions for the Church. It’s a nice list of values and actions he would like to see it embrace. While I agree with most of them, there are some suggestions that I see as problematic.

Let me state up front that I get that these are supposed to be inspirational ideas, not specific agenda items. Most of my qualms are in regards to their application rather than the idea itself. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip over those that I’m on board with:

2) The Church needs to sober of its addiction to cool and/or its addiction of trying to be cool. We weren’t called to be cool or to pursue cool. Our addiction to that end is sucking us dry of meaning, depth, and future relevance. Besides, the Church isn’t cool, especially when its trying to be.

There are few things more cringe-worthy than seeing a Christian try to be cool. We’ve all endured pastors who try to use a pop culture reference in a sermon that reveals just how out of touch they are. But every element of our worship tradition was new at one time. What has deep meaning now was once a head-scratching change that lots of people probably didn’t get or feel comfortable with. The church constantly fumbles in its attempts to be relevant, but sometimes these attempts stick. Contemporary worship was a deliberate attempt to appeal to people who found liturgical services stuffy and dull. It’s been so successful that many Christians have never experienced any other kind of service.

8) The Church should be known more for celebrating and experiencing the mysteries of God as opposed to learning and reciting humanity’s definitions of God.

I’m not sure what Matthew’s getting at here. It sounds like he’s critiquing the Catholic Catechism, but I need to hear more.

11) The Church should stop fighting a war against religion and embrace the fact that we are a part of religion, that not all religion is bad, and that sometimes religion (in its myriad of forms) can actually be spiritually helpful for some believers.

I assume that he’s referring to evangelical rhetoric that Christianity isn’t really a religion, but a life-changing commitment. To me that line was always nothing more than a marketing strategy. I agree that it’s nonsensical, but I don’t think it amounts to a war against religion.

12) The Church should stop creating enemies out of people with whom it disagrees.

I agree completely, with one minor quibble. There’s a tendency for liberal Christians to criticize evangelicals for their adversarial mentality and miss the fact that they’re doing the same thing. I’m guilty of this, too.

13) The Church should be known for creating/engaging space, time, and practice for helping people connect to the God of the Universe.

As I see it, this idea conflicts with #2. If the church isn’t helping people connect to God, then it needs to try out new approaches, and this will inevitably lead to attempts at coolness.

15) The Church should be defined by the teachings of Christ more so than the theologies of Paul, the Apostle.

This is one of those tricky ideas that sounds good in spirit but becomes difficult to apply. No matter what denomination one subscribes to, most of our theology comes from Paul. Without him Jesus remains a great prophet whose teachings only apply to Jewish people.

22) The Church should evaluate and/or rethink its role among its community, seeking to serve the greater good of all people regardless of their creed, origins, or orientation.

 

27) The Church should seek to bring glory to God through worship, confession, prayer, and pursuit of the common good.

While I find postmodernism problematic, I do believe that there’s some merit to the deconstructionist approach to language. The premise that individuals apply their own meaning to language makes sense to me. (The Wikipedia article gives a good example: “Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. ‘Red’ means what it does only by contrast with ‘blue’, ‘green’, etc“). If I state that I bought a red car, you might envision a slick sporty red corvette, while your husband might envision a beat up old Volkswagen.  

The problem with the idea of a “greater good” or the “common good” is that everyone interprets the concept differently. Few people attend a church that they believe isn’t already serving the greater good. One church might define the community’s greater good as trying to convert as many people as possible, while other churches may interpret it as respecting all religious beliefs.

29) The Church should seek out ways to engage God’s resurrection story here on Earth.

This is another idea that I think needs further explanation.

Overall, I commend Matthew for coming up with a good list. But it’s deceptively easy to read some of these suggestions and come away with the belief that the church is already doing these things, or that a more conservative theology would accomplish these goals better than a liberal theology. Obviously this isn’t his intention, but that’s why we need to take the next step and work out how these goals would be carried out in real life.

Millennials Need Honesty

willow_performance2Why are Millennials fleeing the church?

For a lot of people that’s a worn out topic, but it’s crucial one that gets haggled over precisely because no one has come up with a satisfying answer.

Drew Dykes (managing editor of the Christian publication Leadership Journal) has a few thoughts on the issue that warrant some reflection. His main thesis is that churches need to foster intergenerational relationships and stop chasing after the latest fads. But it’s within his secondary points that I find more to chew on.

To begin with, I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Dykes’ books, so my response may cover concerns he’s addressed elsewhere. But if we’re going to examine the problem seriously, then we need to make a distinction between people who’ve left the faith and those who’ve simply left the church.

Consciously or not, most of the prescriptions offered by pastors and columnists are concerned with ex-christians. This explains why the majority of analysts from the pastoral persective emphasize suggest a strategy that emphasizes the Gospel and doubling down on traditional theology. The unspoken assumption is the people leaving these churches are leaving congregations that have failed on these fronts.

But for Millennials who’ve left the church but remain faithful, their concerns are explicitly political. The problem isn’t whether the Gospel is preached, it’s the political conclusions the church has derived from it.

Let’s take a person who’s left the church because of its views on homosexuality as an example. Now discussion and listening are fine, but ultimately one side had to budge. To get that person to return, the church needs to either change its views on homosexuality or persuade her to change her beliefs.

Let me emphasize that this isn’t just a theological question. People aren’t just rejecting the church’s Biblical view of homosexuality, they’re also rejecting the political noise that surrounds it, like conversion therapy, negative propaganda about gays (gays make bad parents or are inclined to pedophilia), and campaigns against gays (see Arizona’s recent right to discriminate bill.) They’re rejecting Christians who cheer on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and favor candidates who promise to fight against gay marriage.

I know plenty of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but they still won’t darken a church doorway because they think Christians are obsessed with the issue. You can win the theological argument and still fail to bring people back to church. .

And let’s face it: a big part of the problem is that churches equate loss of political leverage with loss of their rights. It’s fair to ask whether they want Millennials back for their value in the church body, or whether it’s just to have fresh blood to fight the culture wars.

The perception outside of the Evangelical bubble is that Christians have more influence now than they did eight years ago: womens’ health clinics are being shuttered, the Tea Party (which, like it or not, is equated with evangelical Christianity) has shut down the government and exercises greater control over the Republican party than ever, and instead of reaching out to minorities, evangelicals have broadcast loud and clear that they resent them.

Now I’m sure many are saying that I’m conflating Republican politics with the church. That’s because people outside the Christian bubble view them as one and the same. Aside from a few voices in the wilderness like Jim Wallis, it is safe to say that the political positions the Republican party stands for are the political goals the church advocates. A Republican political victory is viewed as an evangelical victory, so no one outside of Christians themselves believes that they’ve lost power. What they do believe is that down the road Christians will lose power by virtue of demographic trends. But not yet

While Dykes deserves kudos for recognizing that Millennials are waiting to get married and hold off having kids, the question then becomes whether the church wants those Millennials as is, or whether they intend to get them married and pregnant asap. Can the twenty-something woman who has no intention of having kids feel comfortable in a women’s Bible study, or will the women try to get them to conform to the nuclear family model? If the latter is true, then the church needs to be up front about it, and realize that most Millennials will recognize the insincerity involved (i.e. “I like you who you will become if you listen to me, not who you are now.)

I’m not going to go the usual route and suggest that churches change their theology in order to bring people back into the fold. That’s not going to happen. What I would suggest is that they be more honest with themselves and concede what everyone else sees: they are fixated on homosexuality, and they do consider it a bigger deal than other sins. If they want to make a theological case to justifying it, then do so. But don’t deny the fixation.

And finally, admit that a major reason why they want to bring Millenials back to the church is the desire to undo the social values and family trends Millennials reflect. It’s a strategic goal to change marital patterns, pregnancy rates, and reverse multicultural acceptance. Again, make a theological case if you like, but don’t pretend that you’re interested in Millennials as they are now. Admit that the fear of being a cultural minority is directly tied to the desire to reacquire the social leverage you used to have, and saving Millennial souls holds more value to you in the present than they will in the afterlife.

What Does Suey Park Want?

stephen-colbert-cancelcolbertBy now, anyone who cares to know about Suey Park‘s twitter crusade to cancel The Colbert Report has probably formed an opinion on it. I’m not that interested in taking a side on the issue, since other people have stated their case more eloquently than I can. Instead, I’d like to take a step back and offer my thoughts on the bigger picture.

1. If you’re not using twitter as your last, desperate means of communication to help overthrow an oppressive regime, then you’re not a Twitter activist.

Aside from its value in organizing high stakes protests in Iran and the Middle East, Twitter functions as a means for corporate promotions, social networking, and Mean Girls-style backbiting. It’s also a pretty good way to acquire 15 minutes of fame.

But activism? If someone pulls off a successful political campaign using Twitter exclusively,(meaning they get the results they want, not just drawing attention to their cause), then I’ll concede that there is such a thing as a Twitter activist.

2. Let’s be honest: the reason people aren’t taking her seriously isn’t her gender, ethnicity, or intellect. It’s her age. And like it or not, age matters.

I’m not saying that young adults don’t have anything of value to say or that they can’t offer important insights and ideas, but there’s a reason why people tend to be dismissive of them.

While I’m not a fan of his politics, columnist Jonah Goldberg summarized this phenomenon perfectly when he stated that:

Alas, the thrill that comes with the novelty of youth tends to delude a lot of young people. Often, they convince themselves that just because they’ve thought of something for their first time they believe they’ve thought of it for the first time, period. This translates into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really understand something as well as they can.

Young people have a hard time believing that their parents and grandparents looked at the world with the same outrage and passion when they were 23. And no matter how stridently Suey believes in her cause, odds are she’ll follow their same pattern. The real world has a way of resetting priorities by making things like raising a family and getting a job one’s priority. And once that happens, it’s very difficult to rekindle the passions of one’s activist days – if they even feel the same way.

I’ve lived in a college town for 30 years, and I’ve witnessed an endless cycle of young adults like her who think they’ve latched onto a revolutionary movement that will change the world. I was one of them. But while I admire their enthusiasm and even share some of their political aims, most of them are too immature or insecure to use their energy effectively. Suey is a great example of this: she’s managed to draw attention to her cause by piggybacking on another cause, and when given the chance to articulate her concerns, she’s all sound and fury without much to say except complain about the status quo.

3. If you’re going to be an activist, then act like one. Don’t make your cause about yourself. That’s narcissism.

On a strategic level, Suey has erred by using her forum as a confessional as much as a political soap box. And because people are cataloguing her personal struggles, she’s giving them fodder to detract from her message and question her motivations. If she wants to be an actjvist, then she should get out of the proverbial basement and and make things happen. Hashtags have the shelf life of a polonium halo.

4. There’s been some debate whether she should have expected the backlash she’s received. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Colbert putting her photo on TV was a horrible thing to do. That’s a bizarre argument given that the image Colbert used was the profile photo from her twitter feed, and it was the photo used for the dozens of articles written about her. What’s more, Park has done a number of podcast interviews that reach millions more people than Colbert does. If Suey wanted privacy along with her activism, then she would have declined podcast interviews or requested that her image be pixelated. Claiming that she hasn’t explicitly strived to get her name and image into mainstream currency is patently absurd.

That said, it does suck that women are so often subjected to misogynisitic insults and threats when they speak out about causes they care about. But I don’t think the repulsive behavior of anonymous trolls nullifies counterpoints to her arguments.

5. Suey should be able to answer the same question all activists should ask themselves: what do they ultimately want? What is her long term goal? Is it to end discrimination against Asians? Is it to end white privilege forever? Is it simply to get satirists to be more considerate of their targets? This was her answer when Salon asked for her goals:

I wanted to hit the irony and inability of the left to deal with their own racism. I think as a result of the white ally industrial complex, for too long people of color have been asked to censor whiteness, they have been asked to educate their oppressor, they have been asked to use the right tone, and appease their politics in order to be heard. And in an effort to just contribute to the self-improvement of white allies that are often times just racist. So I think it’s kind of like pulling a blanket off the façade of progressivism. It forces people to deal with those conversations about race that go beyond micro-aggression and that go beyond being politically correct, to what it means to uproot racism in its entirety.

To me, this is where a lot of liberal causes fail. Their goal is too vague or too utopian. A pro-lifer has a simple, tangible goal: end abortion. They have definable steps they can take to end it. Same with people protesting the Keystone XL. The success or failure of their goal hinges in whether the XL gets built.

I’m not sure how Sue’s vision would play out in reality, and the more she explained it, the more absurd it became:

The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are … that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure. But any example like that.

So in Suey’s view, what does it success look like? Is it an end to racial humor? An end to white privilege? An end to white people weighing in on racial topics in any manner? What does it mean to uproot racism in its entirety? How does she plan to go about that?

I’m curious as to how she would answer these questions. At this stage though I figure she’s 23 and she still hasn’t formed plausible goals to match her visceral distaste for the status quo.

20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

Hobby Lobby’s Slippery Slope

Hobby-LobbyI scoffed at the Hobby Lobby case when I first about it. I figured the company’s position on birth control coverage would be easily dismissed on the grounds that Hobby Lobby  is a nonreligious, for-profit entity, and therefore its complaints regarding birth control coverage were as irrelevant as a complementation business owner’s views on women working outside the home.Since complementarians must hire women no matter how zealously they dislike women with careers, I incorrectly assumed the Hobby Lobby case would be dismissed.

But now that there’s a good possibility that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, I think we’re faced with the possibility (and maybe even the probability) that Obamacare may ultimately become a trojan horse for the Right. Rather than usher in a new, more liberalized society, Obamacare may help reverse reproductive rights in this country.

I know that sounds alarmist, but it seems as though every concession Obama makes for conservatives, and every ruling the courts make, has undermined health coverage for women. Keep in mind that the very same companies who are complaining about Obamacare’s contraceptive policy had outsourced their insurance coverage to companies who did offer contraceptive coverage. Forcing women to pay out of pocket for contraceptives will mean fewer women have access to them. Combined with the war on women and the mass closing of women’s health clinics, I believe that we’re facing a return to the institutional misogyny of the 50’s.

Annual costs for contraceptives range between $131-$172 a year per person. That may not sound like much, but for many women that’s a financial hit they won’t be able to afford, and that in turn will result in more unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

And more than any principled stance against contraceptives, more unwanted pregnancies are social conservatives’ primary goal. Liberated women who are able to live the life they choose and marry whom they want to, when they want to, and have children when they want to (if they want any children at all) are viewed as The Enemy. In the view of social conservatives, modern society exists because patriarchy has lost its grip, and the best way for patriarchy to regain its hold over society would be to subjugate women, leaving them at the mercy of their reproductive system.

This also explains why evangelicals have so eagerly embraced their inner Catholic. What’s fascinating is how rapidly they’ve shifted from a long history of dismissing (and even mocking) the Catholic Church’s stance against contraceptives, to recasting their reading of scripture so it falls in line with an anti-contraceptive stance. Once again evangelicalism has shown itself to be extremely malleable when their societal ambitions conflict with their traditional theology, and society as a whole is being forced to submit to their views.

Yes, Journalism Has Consequences. Get Over it.

Illustration By John Tomac

Illustration By John Tomac

For 45 years, Penn State never endured the offseason drama of losing a head football coach. Until this year, the rumor mill and the subsequent hiring free-for-all that occupies the sports pages of most major universities during the winter months never pierced the State College bubble.

So it was odd to see the contorted reactions locals had when Bill O’Brien left town for a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. The backlash was predictable; fans who praised O’Brien’s loyalty and winning record turned around and painted him as a traitor with a mediocre record. Soon the gossip bubbling under the surface came to light.

Then the secondary consequences filtered in. Stores found themselves with unsellable O’Brien-related merchandise. Recruits second-guessed their decisions to commitment to Penn State, The families of assistant coaches were forced to leave town for new jobs.

All of this is mind-numbingly obvious, of course. Sure it stinks for the people who find themselves leaving friends or taking a financial hit. These are real people with real friendships and budgets. But it’s part of the business.

I see a lot of similarities between Penn State’s jarring realization that college sports involves broken promises and uprooted families and the web’s histrionic reaction to Grantland’s investigation into Dr V’s Magical Putter.

Caleb Hannan investigative profile of Dr V is a compelling story that starts with a late night encounter with a Youtube video and ends with the death of the con woman behind the video. As you can imagine, it’s that last part that has people upset.

Most of the outrage has revolved around the fact that Dr V turned out to be transgender, and whether it was ethical to “out” her against her will. But the people who are fixated on that aspect are ignoring Hannan’s primary discovery: Dr V ( who chose the name Essay Anne Vanderbilt after her gender reassignment surgery)  was a con woman who lied about her credentials and connections in order to get wealthy investors to fund the golf putter she had invented.

Among the tall tales she told, Vanderbilt claimed to be: an aeronautical physicist from MIT; her clearance level within the government equaled those given to federal judges; a member of the exalted Vanderbilt family; a private contractor for the Department of Defense; a key researcher on the stealth bomber; and a clearance level is so high that her names cannot be found on government record; and someone who knew former Vice president Dan Quayle.

I want to point out two critical elements of Vanderbilt’s story that keep getting lost in the shuffle. The first is that her name change was explicitly made to deceive people and raise funds for her putter. If she had chosen to rename herself Essay Anne Smith, then that’s no biggie. But she chose Vanderbilt, and she used her new name to mislead investors.

The second point is that her initial condition for agreeing to talk to Hannan wasn’t simply because she wanted his report to focus on “the science and not the scientist.”  She wanted to protect her “association with classified documents” and her fictional government clearance level. In other words, she was most interested in preventing an investigation into her phony scientific credentials.

Back in the 80’s I wrote for Penn State’s college newspaper, the Daily Collegian.  While we weren’t exactly breaking major scandals, but we did learn a lot about Journalism 101. And one the key lessons drilled into us was to be tenacious. Never settle for anything less than the whole truth, and go where your investigation takes you no matter how unexpected the twists and turns are. To be honest,  being a good reporter means being a jerk: break promises; lie if you have to get to the bottom of a story; and if someone tells you not to look into their background and gives you wild, melodramatic warnings if you do so, then by all means dig into their background.

By and large, good journalists are rude, aggressive, selfish, and restless. If you want people to like you, then don’t become a reporter. If you ‘re more concerned about the potential consequences of your investigation than the investigation itself, then don’t become a reporter.

One of the reasons I quit was because the environment even at the college level was so ruthless. I don’t know if Caleb Hannan is a nice guy – he strikes me as affable enough and I commend him for being willing to pursue his story to its end, even if his phrasing in a few parts is poorly chosen. But everyone is assuming that Vanderbilt killed herself for fear of being outed. They’re ignoring the fact that she has a long history of mental illness and at least one previous suicide attempt. It’s also possible that Vanderbilt feared being outed as a Sunoco mechanic and bartender more than any public disclosure of being transgender.

I imagine many people already assumed that a 6 foot 3 woman with an unusually deep voice would be transgender. And we should never forget that no one would have probed into Vanderbilt’s past if she hadn’t spun such tall tales about her credentials and deceived so many people.  She’s the one who chose to con wealthy people and adopt a name after her surgery that would aid her scheme. Being transgender should not let her off the hook for her dishonesty in every other facet of her life.

I think it’s a good that reporters err on the side of being insensitive. Investigative journalism on all levels is suffering because journalists care too much about getting chummy with the people they’re supposed to be watching. As result of the Dr V story, people are coming to grips with the mind-numbingly obvious revelation that investigative journalism impacts real lives, and it often does so negatively.

But it’s always been that way: thanks to the media, a company that dumped toxic waste into a river has filed for bankruptcy. We should (and do) focus on the lives harmed by the chemicals and the hazardous drinking water. But breaking open the story of the corrupt chemical plant also causes lost jobs for the people who worked there, uprooted families, and down the road it could mean divorces and even suicides.

The reporter who scored the revelation that a New Jersey governor may have used his power to punish mayors who wouldn’t endorse him should be commended. But people were fired, reputations ruined, friendships were likely broken and down the road there might be divorces and broken homes. There’s a lot of misery to go around when reporters get big scoops.

So get over it. Journalism is cold-blooded, even if some reporters aren’t. Broken lives are an inherent byproduct of big stories, Given that Hannan’s investigation involved a wild attempt to profile a self-claimed physicist who conned people to create a revolutionary golf club, there would be no way to expose Vanderbilt’s fraud without mentioning who Dr V was before she was Dr V.  And lets not forget that lots of people have lost thousands of dollars in this mess. Who knows how many savings and retirement nest eggs were lost?