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Unfinished Business: 2015 in Preview

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Near the end of 2014 we asked some friends of Fare Forward what they thought the bigger trends would be in the coming year in light of what did, and did not, happen in 2014. Here’s some of their answers:

Paranoia, Inc.

Somebody’s out to get us. They intend to do us specific and immediate harm. They’re reading our emails and dismantling everything we hold dear. While we’ve suspected this for a long time, 2014 made it clear: the world as we know it is collapsing before us.

The culprits’ identity, of course, depends on the observer, but the notion is ubiquitous. This year, it was the NSA and North Korea and the Islamic State. Or sometimes, the harbinger of doom was disembodied: Ebola, racism. In any case, the end is nigh in a way it wasn’t a year ago.

Either that, or we’ve gotten less comfortable with the idea of danger, with the time-honored knowledge that risk abides, despite our precautions. Fear is no lens through which to see the world — it’s the smudge that gets in the way. Wariness and skepticism are, of course, helpful, but they shouldn’t obscure our trust that the future will resemble the present more than it will differ from it. Apocalyptic fear is too often a symptom of overestimating the significance of our own times. In 2015, let it pass.

-Ivan Plis writes about the Middle East and related subjects for the Daily Caller News Foundation. 

 

A Year of Heresy

It’s become commonplace to note that the secularization thesis that sees religion as dead or dying is not in fact correct, but 2014 never seemed to weary of refuting it. 2014 saw a Pope whose papacy is one of the most talked about subjects in the West, an Islamic regime (ISIS) that is one of the most talked about foreign policy problems in the West, and cultural products like Exodus: Gods and Kings. One of the most compelling readings of the New Atheism is that it was in fact a reaction to the “surprising” persistence of religion, and that persistence has outlasted even the New Atheism itself, which no longer enjoys the cultural prestige it once did (2014 also saw the continued slow-motion implosion of Richard Dawkins).

Sociologists sometimes see this as a story of triumph for religion, but it remains unclear what this all means for American Christians going into 2015—or if it means anything at all. Pope Francis may be a center of media attention, but Catholic parish life is as in disarray as ever. New Atheism as such may be dead, but its tropes live on in many places, even if in exhausted and degraded fashion. Hollywood may be making money off the Bible, but the culture war is only getting more intense, many believe to Christianity’s detriment. 2014 may have gleefully jumped up and down on the secularization thesis, but Christianization or Christian re-assertion isn’t exactly on the horizon either.

In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat conceptualizes some of this confused in-between space in terms of Christian heresy: America is not full not of secularists, but of heretics. French novelist Michel Houellebecq became a bit of an internet sensation after he gave an interview to The Paris Review suggesting that the Enlightenment is dead and Christianity seems to belong to the past and perhaps the future belongs to Islam. Much of Christian discourse is an attempt to grapple with these realities, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. In that process, these words of St. Augustine are particularly important: “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”

 -Peter Blair is the Editor-in-Chief of Fare Forward

 

Back to History 

Since 1991, the benchmark for the end of Great Power War, wonks in DC and Brussels pointed to the unthinkability of a territorial land-war in Europe as evidence for a new way of doing things. While the birth of the new world order might have led to civil wars and genocides across the world, it was really just temporary turmoil surrounding the advent of the End of History. Modern natural science and democratic values would lead to liberal capitalism everywhere, world without end.

And then Russia invaded Crimea.

The event sent the literati into a trans-Atlantic tizzy, but (almost) everyone agreed it was a ‘backwards’ move, based on antiquated thinking. Russia was ‘stuck in the 19th’ century. Putin’s decision to invade Crimea and involve Russia in Eastern Ukraine seemed alike to the geopolitical gamesmanship of 19th century Great Power rivalry (or, to the more alarmist voices, the revanchism of the 1930s). The ideas behind the invasion—that geography, reputation, or cultural memory are important parts of international politics, or that international relations can be a zero-sum game— seemed to place Putin and Lavrov in the company of Metternich or Bismark, making them an absurd juxtaposition to John Kerry or David Cameron.

What Russia’s actions really point to are the new realities of dispersed power in the 21st century. An increasing number of non-Western countries (and dubiously Western ones like Japan or Hungary) are more interested in pursuing national strength than in building independent, transparent, pluralistic institutions at home or internationally. Moreover, they hold that the world America built is neither as free nor as fair as it is made out to be; if the game is rigged, why play by ‘the rules’? Where 20th century institutions or values bolster their interests, these countries are happy to claim them and work within them– when they don’t, dissenting states demur.

Surprisingly, it is the End of History mindset— which holds that the advance of democracy and human rights, backed up by innovation and technology, is essentially unstoppable—that may pose the most danger to the West. This hubris dulls the senses of Westerners to freedom’s increasing peril. When the Samantha Powers of the world tell Putin (and his ilk) that his time has past and that he needs to exit the stage, those dissenting from the new world order will reply: “I would prefer not to.” And then what will we do?

-Jonathon Askonas studies International Relations at the University of Oxford 

 

Facing Inequality 

2014 may not have pioneered the problem of widespread social inequality, but it certainly saw momentum building behind the idea. Beginning in July of 2014, The New York Times posted a story roughly every two days dealing with the subject, and The Atlantic capped their year with 17 revelations in the topic made during the last twelve months. On the multivalent topic of inequality, everyone seemed to have something to say: and perhaps no voice resonated louder than that of French economist Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century hit US shores in April of 2014. Piketty’s book soared to number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and earned critical commentary from everyone with a word to spare in the worlds of economics and politics.

But the real grim news is that nothing much is being done about this problem that everyone is talking about. The middle class is failing, and wealth is becoming concentrated among a very few at the very top. It’s a tense, tenuous situation, and the evidence bears it out. A study released at the end of 2014 found that middle class wages have remained stagnant in the doldrums of a 25 year low. Further, the share of families earning a middle class income has fallen steadily, from 56.6% in 1979, to 45.1% in 2012. If the trend holds, the middle class will continue to shrink, further widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. While Wal-Mart workers went on strike this Black Friday for a $15 per hour wage, Wal-Mart has responded only by promising some mysterious boost above the $7.25 federal minimum. Meanwhile, a number of politicians hawking the 2016 Presidential election – like Rick Perry and Rand Paul – don’t seem to view reducing inequality as a sensible political aim.

Yet while action on inequality seems stagnant and stunted among our politicians, Pope Francis has been consistently vocal about the evils of economies of exclusion, and has championed worker’s rights and just distributions of wealth. With the two-party system deadlocked and disinterested ultimately in the problem of inequality, faith-based worker’s movements like the one Francis seems fit to inspire are perhaps one beacon of light shining into 2015.

-Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a doctoral student in religion, philosophy, and politics at Brown University

 

Media Matters 

In 2014, the American media moved into a new frontier. But that frontier was more like the messy and perilious Oregon trail than a heroic, Apollo 11, one-small-step-for-man frontier. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes tried to turn century-old progressive periodical The New Republic into an online infographic-filled, explanatory-journalism outlet like Ezra Klein’s Vox Media and lost nearly his entire staff in the process. Journalistic standards came under closer scrutiny as agendas-in-search-of-gripping-narratives took the form of faux-investigative journalism with stories like the UVA rape scandal in Rolling Stone doing more harm than good in solving social problems.

But while 2014 provided many warnings for the American media, there were glimmers of hope that some of the oldest methods of journalism and storytelling could merge with our newer forms of media to captivate the minds and hearts of Americans across numerous generations. When Sarah Koenig of This American Life launched her weekly investigative journalist endeavor Serial, she never dreamed millions would listen to it and become the most downloaded podcast in history in the U.S., Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Building off of television’s decades-long work in shaping our minds to crave long-form storytelling with The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and others, Serial reminded us why binge-watching has its downsides and anticipating installments from week-to-week can heighten our collective joy.

-Joseph Williams is Associate Council at the American Center for Law and Justice

 

A New Racial Awareness

Like most political entities, American culture and society is practiced at creating delusions to protect itself from reckoning seriously with its own sins. We praise and glorify our wisdom in the pursuit of a more perfect Union, and conveniently forget that the same document provides explicitly for the dehumanization of slave peoples. We see in ourselves the courage of Martin Luther King Jr. and fail to find in our weaknesses a Nathan Bedford Forrest or David Duke.  Since we find ourselves to be fundamentally heroic and virtuous, our moral faculties atrophy and decay.

In 2008, a new facade papering over the cracks in the American self-conception was created. Maybe, we thought, the election of a black president could somehow satisfy the prick of the cotton thorn, the sting of the lash, the indignity of segregation, the ghettoization of redlining. Just maybe, we could celebrate our present enlightenment in the face of a barbarous past.

Six years on, that idea is laughable. In 2014, Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. In 2014, a child with a toy was gunned down at a park. There were and are countless other examples. In 2014, black Americans are incarcerated at a rate four times that found in supposedly autocratic Russia and Cuba. In 2014, over a quarter of black Americans are in poverty.

The fact of the matter is that systematic dehumanization has always thrived alongside our country’s lofty ideals. Slavery, the trail of tears, and the modern abortion regime are all monuments to the American capacity for self-deception. Even so, 2014 may be seen as the year that the slumbering American conscience began to awaken to its own evils. In 2015, it’s past time to reckon with our sins, and satisfy the demands of justice.

-Jose Mena works at the National Center for Biotechnology Information

 

The Fare Forward editorial team consists in Peter Blair, Andrew Schuman, Charlie Clark, Sarah Clark, Jake Meador, and Emily DeBaun, whose bios can be found under their own names.