on living in a COVID age

Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 8.04.22 AMIf C.S. Lewis were alive today, I think he’d write an essay something like this:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in a COVID age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus appeared: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a virus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about infection. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

—  based on the essay “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Dr. Robert Epstein’s 2019 testimony about Facebook

Almost exactly a year ago (July 16, 2019), Dr. Robert Epstein testified before Judiciary Subcommittee SD 226 about Facebook’s undue influence in US elections.

Unfortunately, I have not seen evidence that any of the concerns raised by Dr. Epstein have been addressed as we speed toward the November 2020 presidential elections.

I didn’t post this on my blog last year — I think I only shared it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn — but since its relevance remains, I’m posting it here today.

SPEAKERS:
STC – Senator Ted Cruz
DRE – Dr Robert Epstein

FULL TRANSCRIPT (with timecode)

STC: As I understand your background: you’re not a Republican and nor are you a conservative. Is that accurate?

DRE: That would be an understatement.

STC: And indeed you’re the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

DRE: Correct.

STC: So you’re a respected academic. You testified before this committee that Google’s manipulation of votes gave at least 2.6 million additional votes to Hillary Clinton in the year 2016. Is that correct?

DRE: That’s correct.

STC: And I want to make sure I understand: you personally supported and voted for Hillary Clinton.

DRE: I was a very strong public supporter of Hillary Clinton. Yes.

STC: So you’re not dismayed that people voted for her, but your testimony is that Google is — through bias in search results — manipulating voters in a way they’re not aware of?

DRE: On a massive scale. And what I’m saying is that I believe in democracy. I believe in the free and fair election more than I have any kind of allegiance to a candidate or a party.

STC: And looking forward — if I understood your testimony correctly — you said in subsequent elections, Google and Facebook and Twitter and big text manipulation could manipulate as many as 15 million votes in a subsequent election?

DRE: In 2020, if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.

STC: Now you described the “Go Vote” reminder and you said it wasn’t a public service announcement but rather manipulation. Can you explain how? I’m not sure everyone followed the details of that.

DRE: Well, sure. If, on Election Day in 2016… if Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had chosen to send out a “Go Vote” reminder, say just to Democrats — and no one would have known if he had done this — that would have given that day an additional at least 450,000 votes to Democrats. And we know this without doubt because of Facebook’s own published data… because they did an experiment (that they didn’t tell anyone about) during the 2010 election. They published it in 2012. It had 60 million Facebook users involved. They sent out a “Go Vote” reminder and they got something like 360,000 more people to get off their sofas and go vote who otherwise would have stayed home. The point is I don’t think that Mr. Zuckerberg sent out that reminder in 2016. I think he was overconfident. I think Google was overconfident (and) that all these companies were. I don’t think he sent that out. Without monitoring systems in place, we’ll never know what these companies are doing.

DRE: But the point is: In 2018, I’m sure they were more aggressive. We have lots of data to support that. And in 2020? You can bet that all of these companies are going to go all out and the methods that they’re using are invisible. They are subliminal. They’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve ever seen in the Behavioral Sciences, and I’ve been in the Behavioral Sciences for almost 40 years.

STC: You know our Democratic colleagues on this committee often talk about what they view as the pernicious effect of big money and big corporate dollars. What you are testifying to is that a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires and giant corporations are able to spend millions of dollars — if not billions of dollars — collectively, massively influencing the results of elections, and there’s no accountability.

STC: You said we don’t know… We have no way of knowing if Google or Facebook or Twitter sends it sends its Democrats or Republicans or how they bias it, because it’s a black box with no transparency or accountability whatsoever. Am I understanding you correctly?

DRE: Senator, with respect, I must correct you.

STC: Please.

DRE: If Mark Zuckerberg chooses to send out a “Go Vote” reminder just to Democrats on Election Day, that doesn’t cost him a dime.

STC: Fair enough. Do you happen to know who the Hillary Clinton campaign’s number one financial supporter was in the year 2016?

DRE: I think I do. But please remind me.

STC: The number one financial supporter of the Hillary Clinton campaign in the 2016 election was the parent company of Google — Alphabet — who was our first witness. They were her number one financial donor. And your testimony is: through their deceptive search methods, they moved 2.6 million votes in her direction. I would think anybody — whether or not you favor one camp or another — should be deeply dismayed about a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires having that much power over our elections to silently and deceptively shift vote outcomes.

DRE: Again, with respect, I must correct you. The 2.6 million is a rock-bottom minimum. The range is between 2.6 and 10.4 million, depending on how aggressively they used the techniques that I’ve been studying now for six-and-a-half years.

STC: Wow. Could you just say that again, please?

DRE: The 2.6 million is a rock bottom minimum: The range is between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes, depending on how aggressive they were in using the techniques that I’ve been studying, such as the search engine manipulation effect, the search suggestion effect, the answer bot effect, and a number of others. They control these and no one can counteract them. These are not competitive. These are tools that they have at their disposal exclusively.

STC: If any headline comes out of this hearing, that should be it.

Pentecost

Jesus said: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

The truth which makes us free is Christ, because only he can respond fully to the thirst for life and love that is present in the human heart.

Those who have encountered him and have enthusiastically welcomed his message experience the irrepressible desire to share and communicate this truth.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to raise up courageous communicators and authentic witnesses to the truth, faithful to Christ’s mandate and enthusiastic for the message of the faith, communicators who will “interpret modern cultural needs, committing themselves to approaching the communications age not as a time of alienation and confusion, but as a valuable time for the quest for the truth and for developing communion between persons and peoples” (John Paul II, Address to the Conference for those working in Communications and Culture, 9 November 2002).

Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 42nd World Communications Day (Sunday, May 4, 2008)

celebrating Mom

mom_letter_400wMy mom passed from this life to the next on Holy Thursday of 2013 (March 28).

Several years beforehand, one of my sisters initiated a Christmas letter from my siblings to my mom, and it turned out to be a great way of honoring her. I think, with our Dad’s loss fresh in our minds, we realized that we didn’t want to wait until she was gone to send up some words of appreciation.

Here’s the idea as my sister presented it. She collected our letters, which were based on the following format:

  • Identify the top 2 things you like most about mom and why they’re meaningful to you. Add up to 3 more areas that you admire or like about her, (optional)
  • When you think of mom, you think of __________(from 2 words to 2 sentences)
  • Two important things that mom has taught you. (Can be more) This can be by her example as well, etc.
  • Most important gift mom has given you.
  • Favorite day, moment or memories with her (this is not limited but can expand as far as you’d like- beyond just one moment, day, experience too)
  • Funniest or silliest memory of her (laughable moment/s).
  • Your hopes, prayers or dreams for her now-what you would hope she will have/experience, related to her fulfillment.
  • (Optional) One thing she doesn’t know about you that you’d like to her to know (it can be anything, silly or serious-the point is sharing something here with her that she doesn’t know yet know about you or your life, that you’d like her to know).
  • Thanking her for … (Personal thanks for whatever comes to mind) (Some of these things may overlap but that’s fine).

A sampling of the responses from my nine brothers and sisters is posted here.

My own contribution:

The two things I most appreciate about Mom: her generosity and her receptivity. She defines what it means to be recklessly large-hearted, and fearless of the pain that might come from making herself so vulnerable. And by receptive I mean welcoming, not in any formal, dutiful way… but genuinely ready to open herself to whoever would present themselves to her. And then there’s her sense of humor, generally self-deprecating but always alive to the incongruities of life and all that is inherently silly… without caving in to the temptation of being ironic or sarcastic in any form.

Like last Christmas Eve, when she and I spent a good hour traversing back and forth across Clark Fork looking for the Holy Grail of plumbing: a toilet plunger for the overflowing facility at Sacred Heart.

lily of the valleyWhen I think of Mom, I think of lilies of the valley and sailboats, two things she’s fond of. Mom is like those delicate, fragrant flowers that change the whole aroma of the place without drawing attention to themselves, and like a sail open to wherever the Spirit might blow, and constantly tacking to see where the Wind might want to lead next. I think that’s how she taught me the value of discernment: testing everything, and keeping what is good.

Favorite memories include the lunches we shared together at the Burger King at Vine Hill and Highway 7, when I was in junior high school. I was just attending the junior high on a part-time basis, spending the rest of my time homeschooling. Generally, a bus would pick me up midday to take me to East Junior High. But from time to time, Mom would offer to drive me, so that we could have lunch together. It was just as the era of Home Covenant School ended, and during these undivided times shared with Mom, I felt I was getting to know her all over again.

My hope and prayer is that in this particular chapter in her life, she can look back with satisfaction on all of the artistry she has co-created — not the least the family she raised and nurtured with Dad — and look forward to all the new expressions of creative love that she has within her, waiting to be revealed in the days to come. She’s an artist of the human heart, with a canvas that has stretched as far as the eye can see… and a lot farther, I’m sure. There are realms of that canvas for her to revisit, and others to explore for the first time.

So I hope she’ll hop on her pontoon sailboat, so to speak, find the Wind like the expert sailor that she is, and set the course anew each day… touring that entire canvas, that whole work of art that is her life. It’s going to be a joy to watch.

Judas and Holy Week

betrayalCertain elements of the Passion narrative push forward in relief for me as I mull over a story I’m writing (Saint Judas).

In listening to the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Palm Sunday, my ears tripped over the strangeness of the way Jesus addresses Judas at the time of the arrest in the garden:

Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” (Matthew 26:50)

I wondered why Jesus chose, at this moment, to address Judas as friend.

So I looked a bit deeper. In Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, the Latin word is indeed amice:

Jesus said to him, “Friend, why are you here?”

Iesus autem dixit illi: “Amice, ad quod venisti!”

The footnotes in the Navarre Bible Commentary on this passage gave me ample material for meditation:

Jesus again demonstrates that he is giving himself up of his own free will. He could have asked his Father to send angels to defend him, but he does not do so. He knows why this is all happening and he wants to make it quite clear that in the last analysis it is not force which puts him to death but his own love and his desire to fulfil his Father’s will.

His opponents fail to grasp Jesus’ supernatural way of doing things; he had done his best to teach them but their hardness of heart came in the way and prevented them from accepting his teaching.

To effect his betrayal Judas uses a sign of friendship and trust. Although he knows what Judas is about, Jesus treats him with great gentleness: he gives him a chance to open his heart and repent. This is a lesson to show us that we should respect even people who harm us and should treat them with a refined charity.

I might have expected Jesus to be turned over to the authorities by one of the Pharisees or Saducees, rather than one of the Twelve. But from another point of view, it is fitting that one of the Twelve would be involved. The behavior of Judas brings into sharpest relief the drama taking place: not simply an arrest, but a betrayal. This is the pattern of all sin: The stubborn and cruel rejection of a Heart opened to us in trust and love. In Judas, we can discern our own refusals to accept God as He is and our own hypocrisies writ large: a cautionary tale, an anti-Annunciation.

Bishop Robert Barron put it well in one of his Holy Week meditations:

Those of us who regularly gather around the table of intimacy with Christ and yet engage consistently in the works of darkness are meant to see ourselves in the betrayer.

What sets us apart from Judas is not our worthiness but our capacity to hope.

May the meditation on the character of Judas this week lead us to emulate Peter, who, when confronted with his own weakness and betrayal, does not spiral into a paralyzing despair. When brought to the end of his own devices, Peter holds fast to hope and finds the grace to receive what is on offer.

Related posts:

https://doxaweb.blog/2005/08/02/for-everything-there-is-a-season/

https://doxaweb.blog/2019/04/23/requesting-prayers-for-writing-project/

https://doxaweb.blog/2019/04/30/saint-judas/