Rod Dreher

OK, I’m going to confess to you now that Santa Claus brought the Dreher chirren a Wii for Christmas — and it was a fantastic purchase, for the most part. The kids are getting actual exercise (both boys came out of their rooms on Dec. 26 complaining that they were “sick” — their shoulders hurt from all the virtual swordfighting and boxing they’d been doing), and we’re doing something as a family that we haven’t been able to do yet: play games together that all of us, even the littlest one, can participate in. I’d say it’s a win. I’m amazed that we have a video game that actually makes the kids move, not just sit there. I am also surprised that it’s become something that brings our family closer together, and not in a passive, let’s-watch-this-movie-together way.

It’s going to be even more of a win when we get to Philly, where it’s too dang cold to play outside for long, and our apartment doesn’t have a backyard. I was thinking last night about the technology we’ll want to have in our new apartment. We only use cable for PBS Kids, and the occasional news, Food Network, or History Channel broadcast. We only have it in Dallas because that’s where our Internet service comes from. We’d love to be rid of it, because we simply don’t use it enough to justify the cost … but we also want to get reliable high speed Internet. On the movie side, we’d like to get Netflix on demand on our television, not our computer screens. A friend suggests buying a Blu-ray player — the cheapest one — so we can easily stream the good movies we want to watch into our house.

Is it possible to cherry-pick the media and electronics configuration we want in our place, especially inasmuch as we’re not big users of entertainment media? This Wired magazine story about the most important gadgets and consumer electronics to watch in 2010 makes me hopeful re: the video box.

As ever, the important thing is to maintain <i>control</i> over one’s use of entertainment media. I see these new devices and technologies as offering that. Of course, if all you use it for is to have greater choice over which TV shows you use to fill up every spare moment of your life, it’s not much of an improvement. Five hours of “Masterpiece Theater” a night is maybe marginally better than five hours of “Ugly Betty,” but it’s still too much. Balance!

Poking around the Templeton Report archives this afternoon, I found this news of a Templeton-funded research project that examined life among a geographic segment of economically disadvantage British teenagers. Here’s one of the things researchers found:

Hodge Hill is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the UK, and three-quarters of its population is Muslim, mostly of Pakistani origin. The survey found significant differences between the Muslim and the white populations there. As James Arthur told the Templeton Report, “the Muslim population was much more stable than the white population.” Families in the former group “often had six or seven children, knew all of their neighbors,” and their children “got more involved in volunteer work.” At a time when many in the UK are concerned about how well Muslim immigrants are integrating into society, Arthur and his colleagues also were pleased to find that the Muslim students “took their duties as citizens seriously” and wanted to learn more about their public responsibilities.

By contrast, Arthur said, the white population of Hodge Hill “is more socially fragmented.” There are more divorces and more single-parent families. Though the white children often identified themselves as Christian, there was little evidence of regular religious activity, nor did they have many community associations, with traditional groups like the Boys Club and the Girls Guides having apparently, in Arthur’s words, “died a quiet death.”


Why do you suppose that is? Is there a connection between religious engagement, or at least a meaningful religious sensibility among the poor, and social responsibility — both in terms of self-discipline, and an impetus to serve others? Regarding what enables them to thrive socially, what do the Muslim urban poor in the UK have that the Anglo urban poor do not? We hear a lot about disaffected and radicalized British Muslim youth, but could it be that there’s a more important story to be told about the Muslim youth who are doing pretty well , certainly compared to their British peers?

Evgeny Morozov says that Western geeks who think that Twitter and related information technologies are going to topple authoritarian governments are naive. Excerpt:

But this is an anachronistic view of the world. Modern authoritarian states have eagerly (but selectively) embraced globalisation to provide their citizens with at least a modicum of self-actualisation without ever abandoning their authoritarianism. Their young people travel the world, learn English, use Skype and poke each other on Facebook – all while competing for comfortable jobs with state-owned companies. We are entering the age of “accommodating authoritarianism” – and the internet has played a crucial (though hardly the only) role in providing many of the accommodations. 

The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web. It’s because watching Weeds and Mad Men is what young people living under contemporary authoritarians are supposed to do. These societies no longer operate in the world of cultural scarcity; it’s hard to nudge them towards dissent with the promise of blue jeans or prohibited vinyl records. For every Chinese blogger that the techno-utopians expect to fight their government via Twitter, there are a hundred others who feel content with the status quo.

In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.

Isn’t this the techie libertarian version of the neocon idea that all people around the world are liberal democrats at heart, just waiting to be liberated from authoritarianism by force? Both are predicated on a view of human nature that is rather romantic. Huxley had it right, alas. I’m not making a pitch for or against any particular political system, understand (I am quite fond of liberal democracy myself, but agree with John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”), but only arguing for skepticism of the Western view that everyone wants to be like us. In the end, I’m not even sure that <i>we</i> want to be like us anymore — a point Patrick Deneen limns here. 

In Philadelphia, several historic Orthodox Christian parishes are on their last legs, because times have changed and so have the demographics of the areas they serve. From a long, interesting report in the Philadelphia Inquirer;

Therein lies the challenge for the five historic Eastern Orthodox churches in Northern Liberties, some hanging on for dear life on this one-third-square-mile patch north of Old City. Their very reason for existence – the Eastern European immigrant wave of the early 20th century – has come and gone from a neighborhood transformed into Philadelphia’s trendiest avant-garde niche, population about 5,000 and climbing.

“I don’t see much interest in religion in these people,” said the Rev. Vincent Saverino of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, which marked its 100th anniversary last month.

Attendance may swell to nearly 300 on holy days – including the Orthodox Christmas on Thursday – but on routine Sundays it is about 60. As in the other Orthodox churches, not one member is from the neighborhood.

“They come from all over, just not here,” Saverino said, twirling a finger to indicate Northern Liberties.

A sad story. While it’s true that younger people today aren’t as religiously inclined as folks were 50 years ago, why would someone go to liturgy in a language he or she doesn’t understand? How many of these hipsters are going to be inclined to worship in Old Church Slavonic? As one neighborhood resident tells the reporter, he would “love to have a conversation with the Orthodox, but I’m not sure how to start it.” To paraphrase Burke’s ironic observation, a religion without the ability to change is one that is without the means of its own conservation.

Interestingly, St. Nicholas’s, an OCA parish in this group, does worship in English, but there are other barriers to outreach, it appears:

The two other Russian Orthodox churches, St. Nicholas and St. Michael, tried to widen their appeal decades ago by switching to English liturgies. “We wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” said the latter’s pastor, Saverino.

Both also dropped Russian from their names.

But an infusion of young ecospiritual neighbors is not necessarily what they want.

At St. Nicholas, membership was 1,000 when Bohush arrived 33 years ago. Now it is 100, and the nearest congregant lives in King of Prussia. They are generous enough to keep the church alive, he said, and he would not want high-powered newcomers threatening “their authority, their prestige.”