This weekend, by a rather strange coincidence, I heard two sermons that related to baptism. The first was on Saturday night at Julie’s church, where a series on Romans paused to consider baptism in chap. 6. Really, St. Paul’s reference to baptism was little more than a jumping-off point, and calling it a sermon is even a bit generous. “Policy statement” would be more accurate.
Looking back, I don’t know that this is particularly unusual. I seem to recall several such expositions in Baptist churches of various stripes—which is a bit ironic, when you think about it. They seem to feel a compelling need to explain what “baptism” doesn’t mean, even at the expense of saying anything useful for most of the audience. In this case, the life applications were predictable—if you’re not a Christian already, you need to believe; if you believe but haven’t been baptized, you can talk to us about fixing that; if you’ve been baptized (as a believer), good for you! Now go forth and do likewise, or something like that.
The other sermon was on Sunday morning at my (Orthodox) church. The Gospel reading, on the healing of the blind man, never used the word “baptism,” but from a sacramental perspective the connection was unmistakable. And once you realize that the blind man’s healing was a prototype of baptism, you also see that his blindness is our blindness, and the rest pretty much preaches itself.
As I say, I was struck by the irony that the church that calls itself “Baptist” (or would, if it weren’t trying to market itself a certain way) goes out of its way to explain what baptism is not, to the point of forgetting to preach on whatever St. Paul was trying to say, while it is the Orthodox church that finds baptism under every rock, or at least in every puddle. But I was also struck by something else—how anti-miraculous the Baptist understanding of baptism can be. In fact, if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine the most modernist of liberal preachers making the same arguments—it’s just a symbol, just a visible way of affirming our faith, which could have been anything else except for the cultural precedent of ritual washings to identify with a movement.
And that thought led me to the Five Fundamentals. As I was taught—probably in both Bible college and seminary—the Fundamentals were articulated in the 19th century to combat the infiltration of modernist views within Protestant churches. Underlying all five was an affirmation of the miraculous character of the Christian faith. While liberals might try to make Christianity respectable in a scientific world by gutting it of its core principles, fundamentalists took a stand on such concepts as the divine inspiration of Scripture and the bodily resurrection of Christ.
Quite some time ago, in my own personal dialogue with postmodern critique, I concluded that Christian fundamentalism was a wholly modernist movement. Although it fought directly with modernist trends in Protestantism, it did so by accepting the modernist questions but providing different answers. It sought to answer modernism with the modernist tools of objective proof. But looking back at the Fundamentals now, I have to go a step further. Even the answers are solidly modernist, in that they relegate the miraculous character of Christianity to past events. The anti-sacramental stance of conservative Evangelicals reinforces this tendency. On one hand, they argue for the historical reality of biblical miracles; on the other hand, they repudiate any miraculous or mysterious character to the core functions of the Church today.
The work of the Evangelical church is primarily to preach the Gospel—to propagate a message about biblical truth. The core miracle that happens in this process is the internal transformation of spiritually dead sinners into believing saints. The role of the Holy Spirit is acknowledged in this process, but from an outsider’s perspective, it would be difficult to distinguish from any other form of human persuasion. They affirm two ordinances (not sacraments)—baptism and the Lord’s supper—both of which are typically reduced to a symbolic statement of the participant’s internal faith. Of course, Evangelicals believe that miracles are possible and pray for divine intervention, but because this conviction is generally tempered by a competing belief that in any case God may choose not to intervene, its role seems incidental.
The whole system really boils down to belief. Faith is the entire human response in salvation, and the Fundamentals have to do with the intellectual basis of that faith. Faith is meant to be grounded in reason, so it’s really about acting on what you know—what you’ve been convinced of. The only thing that sets this system apart from anything that a reasonable modernist might follow is the set of historical propositions embodied in the Fundamentals themselves. For most Evangelicals, I think these propositions are unproven assumptions that they believe because of personal authority or cultural conditioning. For those few who learn how to defend their faith substantively, their assurance rests on very human forms of reasoning. There is no mystery—no conviction beyond assent to facts.
The other irony is that Baptists will typically argue at length against other views of baptism by defending the claim that salvation is by “faith alone.” They argue as if their opponents are trying to add a necessary work to salvation by suggesting that baptism actually has some mystical effect on the catechumen. But far from adding works of obedience, the sacramental view of baptism actually takes a stronger stance on salvation by “grace alone”—not that it magically saves a person without corresponding faith, but that it really imparts divine grace in the process, even if the person being baptized is incapable of propositional faith. Salvation is that much more a work of God in the heart, which resists turning even faith into a human work by means of which we earn God’s gift.
How I Know I’m Not Meant to be a Monk.
I sometimes speculate that if I weren’t married, I’d be a monk. This is a delusion. The reality is that my pride is too great to allow anything of the sort. I have no idea where my own will would have taken me if things had been otherwise, but I do know that every inch of meaningful spiritual growth—including my encounter with Orthodoxy, my conversion, and anything I’ve learned about or by means of Orthodox asceticism—has happened in the context of 17 years of marriage. The most significant changes have coincided with the strongest resolution to be a better husband—to restrain my own obsessions for the sake of this person who somehow is stuck with me for all eternity.
In Orthodox terminology, we say it something like this: I cannot be saved without my wife. This sounds strange, even blasphemous, to Protestant ears. At first glance, it sounds like an articulation of every priest’s reluctance to convert me without my family. What it really means is that we’re stuck with each other. God has put her in my life, and I can’t progress on the path of salvation without her. More to the point—I need her. I need something that comes from these 17 years and more of walking with another person who is not me. We complete each other, sometimes in the most painful, unpredictable ways.
I love you, Julie. I can’t imagine the last 17 years (21, really) without you. I can’t imagine the next 17 (or 21, or 40) years either—not really. Because when I try to imagine life in that alternate reality, it falls so far short of the one I’m really living.
OK, it’s official—I’m not doing a Pascha basket this year. My first time observing Orthodox Easter I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I thought it was just a regular potluck. I think the year after that I decided I could hit all the highlights by bringing meat-lover’s pizza. Ever since, I’ve made some attempt at a traditional Pascha basket.
This year, Lent has been a bit crazy. Holy Week has been better, but I still haven’t felt like disrupting it with a shopping trip. Both kids are going, which is a first. (One side-effect of having a non-Orthodox spouse—I don’t actually have to bring sleepy toddlers to a midnight service.) Ian’s serving in the altar, and Jenna’s looking forward to bringing her sleeping bag. Having a basket in the mix is just one thing too many. Besides, I never really feel like pigging out in the middle of the night. They provide quiche, ham, and sausage, and most people share whatever they bring—it ends up seeming almost like a chore to think about eating my own stuff. And then there’s leftovers, to make sure I undo any good habits I established throughout Lent—just seems like something I can do without.
Maybe next year …
Today I registered as a Democrat. I never really know which way to go on this. I haven’t found a third party that I support enough to call myself a member. At the same time, I despise the two-party system and couldn’t care less about either one. But registering unaffiliated really only gets me two things—a label, and the freedom not to vote in the primaries.
So why this? Well, I live in Maryland, which is about as blue as they come. In most cases, the race is already decided long before the general election. Sure, it might be nice to have a say in the Republican primary, but if I can only pick one, I have to be realistic. There’s probably only one Republican candidate who can win any given race in this state, and for the same reason that they’ll get the nomination, they’re probably the last one I’d pick if I had a choice. Having a say in the Democratic primary gives me a more meaningful vote.
It might all sound overly pragmatic, but a two-party system doesn’t really allow for ideological affiliations. I could make some kind of statement by joining a third party, but I could make a more honest statement by not voting at all. If I’m going to entertain some hope for our democratic process, pragmatism is about all I have.
My earliest specific recollection of Columbia involves driving in circles for what seemed like several days, trying to figure out how to reach a store that we saw from a highway but could not access by any reasonable means. Over the succeeding years, fed by legends told over the campfires of Beltsville and other Prince George’s County haunts, this first impression grew into a mythology of the Other—from pretentious three-word street names, to the shadowy Columbia Association, to the chip they planted in every arrogant brain that enabled residents to find their way around. We never planned to live in Rouse’s Twilight Zone.
But renting kept us transient, and in our steady progression from DC to Baltimore we finally ended up in a surprisingly affordable two-bedroom condo, with the best landlords God ever gave to mankind. We reassured ourselves that we were only renting, so we weren’t true Columbianites. Meanwhile, we learned to find our way around, learned to love the network of pathways, the convenience of walkable stores, the community pools and playgrounds, and the greenspace. Five years later, the only thing that could pry us out was a second child, a search for a dwelling with three bedrooms, and a fortuitous County program that allowed us to buy our first house in Elkridge.
Perfect, blue-collar Elkridge. As someone whose ideology revolves largely around geography and modes of transportation, how could I not fall in love? Elkridge was born out of happenstance—back when you could sail a ship up the mighty Patapsco, Elkridge was as far as you could go before hitting rapids. Rolling Road is still named for the route by which tobacco casks made their way to water, and Elkridge Landing was where they embarked. Later, Elkridge’s most famous landmark, the Thomas Viaduct, enabled the B&O Railroad to serve Washington, DC. Union soldiers guarded it from their outpost on Lawyer’s Hill, to prevent Confederate sympathizers from cutting off the Capital.
Elkridge’s Main Street became Rt. 1, which was then fatefully diverted under a new bridge to avoid the railroad crossing. Today Main Street is just a name for one more residential enclave. What most people see of Elkridge is industrial wasteland, viewed at high speeds. It’s not much to look at, and not much of a community. Its name is flung too far south into Waterloo (though in the days of privateer Joshua Barney, even Savage was called Elkridge). It’s a nightmare to travel on foot or bike. But for the next five years, it was home—for me, more so than any other place we’ve lived in Maryland.
We did everything we could to stay. Our first attempt—Julie’s dream house—dragged out longer than any deal should have, and then fell through at what seemed like the last minute. By that point, we’d already sold our house, so we were in a time crunch to find something else. Even so, it seems like we looked at every viable option on the market, and some not-so-viable. Nothing worked out.
So here we are, moving back to Columbia. It’s hard for me even to type the name without conjuring words like “contrived,” “artificial,” and “manufactured.” Columbia feels to me like the suburbs on steroids, and I can’t help but hate it.
I can’t help but like it either. It’s not really the fact that it’s planned that bothers me—not entirely anyway. I think a lot of commendable ideas are coming out of community planning these days. Most of Elkridge’s shortcomings could arguably have been avoided with the right kind of planning. I think my main problem with Columbia is when it was planned. The models were different when Rouse brought his vision to life. “Suburbs” had not yet become a dirty word. Columbia (it seems to me) was designed to be the ideal suburb by hiding away its businesses. Despite its relative walkability, you don’t really get around by walking. To meet the full range of commercial “needs,” you drive between neighborhoods and villages and the enclaves outside of Columbia proper where businesses have found the rules less restrictive. Its wonderful allocation of greenspace comes at the price of insufficient density—things are still just too far apart. And the dismal performance of local transit reveals its reliance on the personal vehicle.
Still, Rouse had a lot of good ideas about how to design community, and if viewed in context, I think they hold up pretty well over time. I’m not happy with moving further away from church. I’m not happy with moving the kids to new schools. I’m not happy with changing council districts or living in the part of Howard County that seems to dominate the others. But I appreciate that I should be able to commute by bike more safely. I appreciate that my kids will have a neighborhood pool within easy walking distance. I appreciate that we’ll have some green in our lives.
I hope to make the best of it, but I’m still going to resist saying that I live in Columbia. Unless they get me with that chip in the brain.
Yesterday I read the obituary for Washington Bible College. (More precisely, the cover story in Lancaster Bible College’s Spring 2013 issue of Echo, which highlights the acquisition of WBC and Capital Bible Seminary.) The campus where we lived for the first three years of our marriage, and where I continued to work and study for another year after that, is gone. So is the college where I fell in love with teaching.
I won’t say I left WBC with the warmest of feelings. It would still be several years before I’d move decidedly away from my Evangelical roots, but I was already feeling stifled, and I had pretty firmly decided that I would not return there or anywhere like it to teach full-time. And honestly, it was there that I formed my conviction that Bible colleges in general have lost their original purpose. But for all that, it is no less a part of my past experience. I remember fondly the people and the work, and I feel some loss at its passing.
As for Capital, it appears that the outcome will be somewhat better. The name and the programs will continue in a new location. There won’t be resident students (not in Maryland, anyway), but the population was more heavily commuter anyway. I’m speaking generally, of course. For my experience, it was significant that we did live on campus. Not that I would wish Collamore on anyone, but seminary without it just would not have been the same. And honestly, I probably wouldn’t have moved to Maryland if it had been a commuter-only school. Maybe I would have ended up in Lancaster and converted to Amish.
Anyway, it’s apropos that I’ve recently been converting some old papers and presentations from those heady days (and some more recent) and posting them online. It’s a fair bit of work—they were pre-Unicode, so the ancient language portions have to be re-done—but it’s been fun to wade through them again. If you care to have a look, you can visit my page on Scribd.
Lord have mercy (3x) O Lord, bless
A while back I decided to get the kids more involved in our mealtime prayers by directing them to do the responses. Tonight, we were in a hurry to get through supper before Jenna’s swim lesson, but she was unusually hungry and kept going back for more pizza after the rest of us were done. When she finally finished eating, and we were ready to pray, she had to go to the bathroom “really bad,” so we let her go, and Julie told her we would pray while she went.
We could hear her join Ian on the responses through the closed door. It reminded me of praying in a Russian church, when they have the the doors closed and the curtain drawn, and you hear the priest’s muffled blessings from the altar.
of operating systems and churches
You may have seen them before: comparisons between operating systems and churches. The obvious is the Roman Catholic Church, with its top-down control and pressure to preserve uniformity, as Apple. For those who see only two types of operating systems and only two types of churches, it is then natural to compare PCs and their relative variety with Protestantism. There are several problems here: of course, there’s the way it boils both worlds down to two options. But there’s also the superficiality of how the different systems are understood.
For starters, I would suggest that Linux is a better reflex comparison with Protestantism. Open-source allows more freedom of choice and eschews authority in a more meaningful way. PCs may seem like the Wild West in comparison with Macs, but when they’re all running Windows, how much difference is there really?
But I think we have to look a little closer to see the real problems with the analogy. Protestantism, as it has come to function these days, allows for almost any position imaginable. But the community interaction of open-source operating systems naturally produces norms and limits that shape where things go. I suppose one could say that the same is actually true of Protestantism, whether its practitioners will admit it or not, but this really is how tradition works. What’s more, Protestant churches tend to trace their beginnings back to key leaders. In this sense, they are more top-down than they might appear. On the other hand, a verytraditionalbody like the Orthodox Church has remained traditional largely because the convictions of the community are not easily swayed from the top.
But I think the most important point to keep in mind is that, when we talk about churches, we’re not (or we should not be) talking about people who embrace a given model because it suits their style. There’s nothing particularly beneficial or desirable about having a more or less top-down structure, if that structure supports something that is wrong. Which means, to put it simply, a committed Catholic believer (one would hope) believes not because there is a pope, but because he thinks the pope is right. That doesn’t mean that he needs to like a Mac computer just because of some superficial similarities—if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Having a monolithic structure in that case only makes it worse.
The Cheap-Ass Smartphone Guide
OK, this is over-stated. It’s more anecdote than guide. But it’s how we “stuck it to the man” on our transition to the world of smartphones. Maybe it was a fluke, but maybe you can do it too.
1) Two Words: Straight Talk. Or I guess it’s really just one word: StraightTalk. However it’s spelled, it’s the best deal out there. We started out looking at contract plans. We wanted AT&T or Verizon so we’d get adequate coverage on visits back home. It was going to cost about $90/mo plus taxes, which was a major jump from the $25/mo we’d been paying. We checked their prepaid options, but the price didn’t improve much. And since you can’t get the discounts on hardware with a prepaid plan, you really have to save big to make it worthwhile. We looked at getting a small tablet to carry with the existing phone, but if you don’t buy the tablet from the mobile carrier, you need a hotspot, which costs more per month, and now you’re carrying three devices.
Somewhere in the course of researching options, I came across a reference to StraightTalk’s SIM plan. You provide your own phone, they send you a SIM card for about $15. Their flat-rate prepaid plan (billed as unlimited everything, but I guess they do warn you if the data usage gets too extravagant) is $45/mo. Since that’s taxed less than a contract plan, you’re saving about $50/mo. You can use pretty much any phone that uses a SIM card—the international standard, but in the U.S. it’s mostly phones made for AT&T and T-Mobile, or produced specifically to be unlocked.
Now, what does “unlocked” mean? In the U.S., cell phones are typically produced to work with specific networks. To prevent you from taking their phones to another carrier, they come locked. An unlocked phone means either that it was made to work with any SIM card, or that it’s been unlocked from the original carrier. StraightTalk uses AT&T and T-Mobile networks, so your SIM card will be set up to work with one or the other. If you bring a phone that’s already locked, you can stick with the same network through StraightTalk; if you bring an unlocked phone, you get your choice. Of course, once we settled on StraightTalk, we had to buy a phone. We needed an AT&T or unlocked phone to get the network we wanted.
2) Unlocked Phone. You’re not going to get a free phone without a contract, but you can shop around for a better deal that the list price. We found the phone Julie wanted in an unlocked version for $200. It said “unlocked (AT&T),” which sounded fine. We knew we wanted to use the AT&T network, so even if it was still somehow linked to AT&T, it should work anyway.
Well, when the phone arrived, it soon became apparent that it was made for a foreign market. It had slightly different branding from what we expected, and it came with an unfamiliar plug on the charger, with an adapter included. We soon found out that it was actually made for Rogers Wireless in Canada. This was something of a concern, because now if the phone re-locked it wouldn’t work with the AT&T network. Several customers had commented online that they bought this phone and it re-locked after a few weeks. Once again, I was researching to figure out what we could do to prevent or remedy a re-lock scenario.
I found several online sources for unlock codes at varying prices. Since I could get one as cheap as $5-10, I figured I’d have a back-up option if the phone did re-lock. In the meantime, I was following up on one suggestion that “rooting” the phone might prevent it from re-locking. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was interested to find out.
3) Android Love. I’ve long despised Apple (more on that in another post). At whatever point I heard about Android and found out it was based on Linux, it became a no-brainer to pick a smartphone operating system. Linux is one of those things that I wish I knew better. Philosophically, I’m completely on board with the open-source model. The main reason I’ve never done more with it is that we’ve usually had only one computer in the home (other than my work laptop), and I know Julie doesn’t share my love for tinkering. She’s comfortable with Windows, so that’s what we use. At one point I did partition a hard drive with a dual installation of Windows and Linux, but it really wasn’t big enough for the job and I gave up after a while.
But this was my first foray into the world of smartphones, and it wasn’t even my phone, so I really wasn’t planning to do any tinkering. The mention of “rooting” got my attention, though. It means to give yourself admin rights to the operating system. Linux is well-known for its carefully managed permissions, and when they build these phones they don’t want the typical end-user gaining access that might lead to irreparable damage. Root access used indiscriminately can also open the device to more serious virus attacks. But root access is a popular adjustment to Android phones, precisely because it opens up the possibility of more creative modifications.
One thing you can do with root access that you typically can’t do without it is remove “bloatware”—the apps that come pre-installed, that aren’t really necessary, but that are locked onto the device. In newer versions of the operating system, you can disable these apps, but they still take up space in the flash memory. So I thought the most plausible connection between rooting the phone and preventing it from re-locking would have something to do with removing bloatware that still wanted to communicate with the original wireless carrier. On the other hand, if I could disable the bloatware, I might achieve the same thing without rooting.
But this raised another issue. The phone came with an older version of the Android operating system. The versions are known both by number and nickname. A lot of phones out there right now still come with Gingerbread (ver 2.3); newer phones have moved on to Ice Cream Sandwich (ver 4.0) or even Jelly Bean (ver 4.1+). (Silly, I know, but I suppose even geeks need some comic relief.) I’d need it running ICS to disable the bloatware, but ICS was not yet available for this phone. Google releases a new version, but it has to be tailored for each device in cooperation with the manufacturer and the wireless carrier. Samsung is now pushing out ICS to this phone on AT&T, but not on Rogers, and there’s no projected date for it to happen.
But this is open-source, so you actually don’t have to wait for the official release to get an upgrade. Not only have there been “custom ROMs” (alternative operating system packages) available on the latest and greatest operating system versions, but as soon as the stock update rolled out for AT&T, it became unofficially available to install on the Rogers phone yourself. So considering that I really don’t want the phone interacting with Rogers at all, and there’s no projected release date for ICS from Rogers anyway, it really makes quite a bit of sense for me to run my own updates. And if I was going to update the operating system, there really wasn’t much reason not to go ahead and root the phone while I was at it.
Everything went fine, and it ended up being easier than I expected. The only negative side-effect (which I knew was a good possibility, even without the specific issues we’d seen with our phone) was that it re-locked after I updated the operating system. No biggie: I paid the $8, and the code worked fine. I feel better now, knowing that I have a working unlock code if I ever need to use it again in the future. With ICS, I was able to disable the AT&T bloatware, and with the phone rooted I was able to delete it altogether. I can also run power-saving and ad-blocking utilities that I couldn’t use without root access, and now I feel comfortable enough to make any other tweaks that might be necessary.
So in the end, we’ve got one of the cheapest plans available, and a good deal on an up-to-date, unlocked phone by risking a few simple hacks and spending a few extra dollars.
You don’t have to go that far. If an iPhone is your thing, there’s no reason you can’t run one on StraightTalk or a similar prepaid plan for a fraction of the contract cost. When you think about saving $50/mo, even spending a few hundred dollars on a phone doesn’t take long to pay for itself. And if you want to put the work into cheaper options, you can pick up that inexpensive, “unlocked” phone online and cobble things together yourself. It’s worth the effort, and you’ll have nothing to lose but your chains.
One word of advice, though. If you want to go this route, you might want to act soon. From what I’ve read, the law governing unlocking of phones has been kind of hard to pin down. At this point, locked phones made in 2013 or later are illegal to unlock. The good news is that you have more options. Google Nexus, for instance, comes unlocked by design. Who knows what will happen further down the line, but right now there are still plenty of phones out there that you can unlock and update for some time to come.
from the midst of unbearable flames
This year for Advent, I’ve been hitting some of the Christological highlights of the Old Testament with Ian before bed each night. Most of the time he seems a million miles away, but tonight it somehow all came together. I wanted to zero in on the story of the Three Holy Youths in the fiery furnace (which I still can’t quite figure out if it goes more with this Sunday or next). It helped that I knew the story well enough to tell it in detail off the top of my head, which seemed to hold his attention a little better than usual. But in trying to explain its unique significance for Christmas, we somehow ran through the death of poor Uzzah, who tried to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled; Solomon’s dedication of the Temple and the glory of God that the universe cannot contain; Isaiah’s woe in the presence of the thrice-holy God; and the fire of divinity that did not burn the Virgin’s womb when it entered in.
And somehow, he got the connections. He remembered covering those passages on the way to this one. I almost think he really understood how it all fit together, even down to the wonder that the Fire, consuming the unworthy, does not burn us when we take communion. I think at this point I can almost take or leave Christmas—Advent has already done it for me.
Of course, two seconds after we finished he was laughing at the memory of this exchange that we’d watched earlier in the Simpsons:
Ned: No, son, we’ve got to let Bart and Lisa get one. Come on, this one’s easy.
Lisa: [pause] We give up.
Ned: Well, guess! Book of Revelations, fire-breathing lion’s head, tail made out of snakes … who else is it going to be?
Bart: [unsure] Jesus?
At least he knew enough to think it was funny that they couldn’t figure that one out.
The Peace Process
According to Israeli and American representatives, the U.N. decision to accept Palestine as a non-member state was a bad move, because it will hamper the peace process. My first reaction to the sound bites was confusion—how could it possibly hurt the peace process to recognize both parties as states?
Then I realized, it hurts the peace process because they’re looking for peace to come through maximal advantage. They expect the sort of peace that comes when one opponent stands on the neck of the other opponent and forces him to surrender. If this is the goal, they’re right—Palestinian statehood acknowledged by the international community is an obstacle. It complicates Israel’s actions, because it increases the likelihood of other nations interfering. It gives Palestinians hope that they might come to the negotiations as equal partners.
Then I realized that from a cynically realist perspective, it’s probably true. It’s true that this move by the U.N. hinders the peace process, because with or without it, Israel and America have no intention of treating Palestine as an equal partner in any negotiations. Because Israel will only approach the peace process as if its goal is the defeat of Palestine, and that will be harder and longer to achieve with the new U.N. recognition. So the war probably will last longer as a result.
Then I realized why I still can’t support a two-state solution. Yes, I still hold the dream of a free, democratic Palestine, where Jewish and Arab citizens work together on equal footing. But perhaps even more, that same cynical realist says, any two-state solution will be so lopsided as to be untenable for Palestinians, and the war will continue anyway. So, however appallingly, I find myself in agreement—U.N. recognition probably isn’t going to help achieve peace. Nonetheless, if the Palestinians want statehood, I don’t see how any sane person can deny it to them.
What is indisputably new, if we insist on novelty, is the human ability to destroy life on Earth. As a result of that fact, nearly every political, economic, and technological issue we face is of necessity an environmental issue as well. That is certainly true of privacy.Many of the ways in which we maintain our privacy are simply not sustainable. Palatial houses that permit their members solitary occupancy of multiple rooms (the size of a typical American home doubled between 1950 and 2000, from 983 to over 2,200 square feet), second and third homes that allow for greater public invisibility, arable land wastefully used as a buffer between neighbors, private automobiles as the norm for commuting to work, periodic escape to remote locales via carbon-based transportation, to say nothing of the coal-and-nuclear-enabled wiring with which we spin our digital cocoons of virtual community—none of these indulgences are compatible with the objective of achieving a just and sustainable world. That granted, it might seem as though privacy will ultimately have to be sacrificed for the environment, and perhaps to some degree it will. But it might also be that people committed to preserving the environment will need to pay more attention to issues of privacy if ever they hope to gain popular support.
A focus on the protection of privacy as an environmental imperative would include the recognition that subsistence cultures have a great deal to teach us about how to maintain privacy through nonmaterial means, about how individuals can live close to one another without living on one another’s backs. Add to this the recognition that enabling people to cultivate rich private lives may have as much environmental efficacy as developing a better solar storage cell. I have written elsewhere that our environment is threatened less by people who say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) to alternative energy projects than by people who are never in their backyards. Movement tends to generate carbon. But staying put can be an attractive proposition only for those who feel let alone in a chosen, cherished place.
Not least of all, an environmentalist agenda that took account of privacy would include the recognition that environmentalists and privacy rights advocates might sometimes be united in their renunciations. Many of those who have set up green households, for example, or attempted to form environmentally sustainable communities are also seeking to limit their engagement with the peekaboo economy and the surveillance state. “Those who choose to live off the grid,” writes Nick Rosen in his recent study of that subculture, “tend to be private.” And even those who tend otherwise might eventually come to appreciate the virtues of privacy, as witnessed by the history of countercultural communes in the United States and successive generations of kibbutzim in Israel-Palestine. Suspect and even discouraged at first, privacy usually made a comeback.
… Much has been made of the use of digital communication in coordinating resistance to oppressive governments in Egypt and Libya. I wonder how effectively digital communication might be used against itself—by which I mean against those who trample privacy rights for profit. Saturating social media with misinformation (sifted and decoded for one’s real friends by low-tech means), matching every pertinent web search with at least three bogus searches, and blog-posting these intentions along with petitions to boycott all products pitched through data mining might show the windows of the digital Panopticon to be as vulnerable as the bricks in the Berlin Wall. Corporate sponsors would remain largely untouched, of course, but stronger acts of resistance might follow the edifying sight of their scurrying out of the cybersphere like rats from a sinking ship.
To those who would judge such forms of resistance unlikely, I can say only that prior to their appearance, I’d have said the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement were unlikely too. And we should remember that at least some of the resistance undertaken in defense of privacy is also private and therefore unknown to most of us. We do at least know the common denominator in all acts of resistance. All of them are marked by a willingness to bear some inconvenience. All of them involve a conscious choice to do without.Not surprisingly, this also turns out to be the common denominator in what we might call a sense of the sacred. Think of anything to which the word sacredness might apply, and immediately you conjure up instances of freely chosen inconvenience. Pilgrimages, moments of silence, courtships, wedding ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, graduations, hunger strikes, car pools, recycling stations, twenty-one-gun salutes, cemeteries (ever watch somebody mow around those stones?)—all are bothersome, highly impractical, extremely unbusinesslike acts of inconvenience that people nevertheless undertake in order to express their conviction that certain values take precedence over their immediate needs and desires.When people complain that nothing is sacred anymore, they are essentially saying that we are at the point where nothing trumps convenience. They are lamenting that what has come to matter most is getting what we want in the best, cheapest, and quickest manner possible. In a roundabout way they are also talking about technology, consumer capitalism, the fate of the earth, and the will to resist. Almost always they are talking about privacy, about the explicit exposure of matters they feel out to be kept private.In essence they are raising what may be the central question about the right of privacy, which is not about how best to encrypt our e-mail messages or how best to legislate against online identity theft. The central question is whether we hold our privacy sacred enough to endure the inconveniences necessary to preserve it. Or perhaps the central question is whether such a thing as sacredness even exists in what Americans, with characteristic solipsism, refer to as “our post-9/11 world.”
a U. S. customs official and a Palestinian woman (from the film Amreeka)
- C: Citizenship?
- P: We don't have.
- C: You don't have citizenship? As in, you don't have a country?
- P: That's right.
- C: Where are you from--Israel?
- P: No, no. It's the Palestinian territories.
- C: Your occupation?
- P: Yes, it is occupied for 40 years.
Google transcript of half a conversation
So, when I tried calling my parents to see how their trip was going, my first attempt went to voicemail on my dad’s phone. I called my mom, apparently when he was trying to call back. His phone ended up recording her half of the conversation and leaving it as a voicemail on my phone. Here, then, is Google’s helpful transcript of that three-minute voicemail:
It is not birds and not bracing, or without pulling out of it. Yes, I have a all all warfare quality all well, anyway. Yeah, when you have a number bye right wacked hi dad. So if that’s the best. Hello, okay bye call back. Okay, bye bye bye, so. In any case, and a little difficult. Sounds like that. But, no big deal but but. But anyway, the system Well, when I would be rain for a while, the money. Yes, and and. Aunt Polly all. Paul bye. Hello. And hello everybody. We’ll be able to get there, alright. The Picture, you can. It’s the right, but I picked her the and. Something. Please. We have bookworm, billboards, Doug Phillips, was, Okay bye. Hope all. But I will talk to. So, bye.