Successful–or Merely Popular?

The new season of “Black Mirror,” a “Twilight Zone” TV program now produced by Netflix, opens with an episode nicely terrifying for our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram times.

Starring the adorable Bryce Dallas Howard, the show depicts a near-future dystopia in which everyone and everything is evaluated all the time. People rate on their phones every encounter of their day—from picking up coffee to going on a date—and one’s status rises or falls like a stock price. Indeed, one’s actual worth rises and falls affecting everything one does, from what level of car one is allowed to rent to what privileges one has at the airport: You are your popularity.

This is the world trying to keep up with the Kardashians. This is the world in which a 26-year-old mother of two makes upwards of a million dollars a year merely arranging her life to be photographed, and then puts it up, hour by hour, online.

This is the world in which the most remarked-upon feature of our prime minister’s first post-inauguration encounter with the American president was the optics of the arm-wrestling of the first handshake.

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Milo, Maher, and Muck

I have never watched Bill Maher’s show in my life. I’ve seen clips of it, and of him guesting on other people’s shows, and there’s been little there to attract my interest. He seems a clever man—clever enough to make a living in a difficult way—but every single thing I’ve ever heard from him, or attributed to him, about things I know about (namely, religion and philosophy) have struck me as no better than I’d expect from a smart-aleck college sophomore (let the reader understand), rather than an adult who purports to be a serious contributor to public conversation.

David Frum, on the other hand, is indeed a serious contributor to public conversation. So when David (we’ve met a couple of times and corresponded over the years) tweeted the clip below as a sort of guilty pleasure, I was intrigued. Why in the world would David Frum take time to watch Bill Maher interviewing, of all people, Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right journalist? Perhaps just a guilty pleasure…

Still, what happened, surprisingly, is that Mr Yiannopoulos, also a clever man with some repellent ideas and a preposterous persona, somehow manages to look like the voice of calm reason. How? By asserting ideas and data and expecting his fellow panelists to respond with their own ideas and data. Yet what transpired to make him look relatively sane?

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Wisdom from Bonhoeffer…for Everyone, Not Just Someone Else

I am conducting a seminar this semester on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, Ethics. In preparing for a class next week, I came across a passage that so arrested me I thought I would set it out here. It’s long, even in the slightly truncated form I’m presenting it here, but I think you’ll find it electric as well.

I do not mean by setting out the following to imply any simple and absolute parallels between Bonhoeffer’s time and ours. But I do mean to listen to the wisdom he offered in his day in order to help me navigate the challenges of my own.

(I will add paragraphing here to make it easier to read in weblog form.)


The message of God’s becoming human attacks the heart of an era when contempt for humanity or idolization of humanity is the height of all wisdom, among bad people as well as good. The weaknesses of human nature appear more clearly in a storm than in the quiet flow of calmer times.

Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.

By this integration and treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant.

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