Monday, May 9, 2016

The Ministry of Truth, 2016 Style

In George Orwell's chilling novel, 1984, Winston Smith (the novel's tragic main
character) works for the "Ministry of Truth." His job is to make sure that reality conforms to the wishes of "Big Brother." In part he does this by editing the news so that all of Big Brother's predictions are accurate. This task might require altering what Big Brother actually predicted, or it may mean twisting the facts so that the news is filtered through a prism that always makes Big Brother look good. In short, the Ministry of Truth controls all information - the news media, the arts community, the schools - in order to serve the interests of Big Brother. 

I thought about the Ministry of Truth in connection with three recent articles. The first was this op-ed in the New York Times, written by a self-described liberal, about the bias against conservatives in academia. Among the statics the author includes in his column is the summary of four studies that "found that the proportion of professors in the humanities who are Republicans ranges between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between 7 and 9 percent." As he later comments, "In contrast, some 18 percent of social scientists say they are Marxist. So it’s easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican." This bias is even more acute when the conservative is an evangelical Christian. One survey revealed that  "59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical." 

The studies reported on in this op-ed reinforce the anecdotal evidence I have gathered from many friends in academia. There is open hostility against conservative-minded Christians in public universities and in many private universities. It is difficult for students with such convictions to gain admission, and extremely difficult for scholars with such beliefs to find employment.

A second story alleges that the "trending news" sidebar on Facebook is screened for content and that conservative-oriented news story are (in the language of 1984), thrown down the "memory hole." The article quotes several anonymous sources who claim that the trending news is not selected by a simple algorithm, but is in fact filtered by "news curators" (an Orwellian term if I've ever heard one) whose bias is to include stories of a liberal bent even though they aren't trending while excluding conservative-oritented stories that are trending. This is just one article, and it is not supported by the same level of evidence in the previous story. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see the fallout from it (unless you rely on Facebook for trending news - its Ministry of Truth may not permit you to read about it).

A third story comes from the blog of a liberal legal theorist, Jack Balkin. In his piece, Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism, he declares, "For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line... is better than trying to accommodate the losers." He is especially committed to taking a "hard line" against religious liberty protections ("You've lost - live with it"). Sounds like the "Ministry of Love" in 1984 would be more Mr. Balkin's department.

To summarize, there is decided bias against conservative Christians in academia, the primary social media engine is driven by a left-leaning agenda, and some on the left are now wanting to drive home the advantages gained by this  institutional weaponry and assail religious liberty.  

This helps to explain the growing hostility toward religious liberty in our country. And it also partially explains the erosion of beliefs in basic societal norms like marriage that had held sway for millennia, norms deeply rooted in the heritage of classical culture and the teaching of the three great monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When we've reached the point that college students can't explain why a short white guy is not a seven-foot Chinese woman, it's a sure sign that the Ministry of Truth ("WAR IS PEACE," "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY," "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH") has done its job quite well.

So what does this mean for conservative-minded Christians?

First, it means that if you intend to pursue higher education (or careers in higher education), you must strive for a level of excellence in your work much higher than your neo-pagan counterparts in order to get a shot at admission,  scholarships, fellowships, and jobs. This is not fair, but it is not bad. In an age where evangelicalism in particular is heavily driven by emotion and has grown very flabby intellectually, a stimulus to greater excellence in scholarship is a positive thing. Daniel and his friends in exile served God by excelling the magicians and enchanters of the pagans in Babylon in "every matter of wisdom and understanding," and we modern day exiles can do the same (Daniel 1:20).

Second, it means that we need to engage the generation that is the product of this institutional bias (but does not recognize this is the case). And this engagement must be "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15) in an era when kindness and consideration are not going to be reciprocated. This is not fair, either, but since when has following Jesus been about fairness? "Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking" (1 Peter 4:1).

And third, it means that we need to use our rights as citizens to defend our freedom as long as we can. I'm thinking specifically of the example of the apostle Paul in Philippi. Paul exercised his prerogatives as a Roman citizen to defend himself and to protect the fledgling church there (Acts 16:37-39). Throughout the Book of Acts, Paul used the mechanisms of the legal system to defend himself (ultimately the gospel) from persecution. We should do the same as we stand up for the rights of religious liberty. Could there come a day when the government will no longer do its duty under our Constitution to protect the  free exercise of religion? In some circumstances it has already forfeited that duty. And there may come a day when the hostility is even more pervasive and direct (as it became for early Christianity). But until then, let us fight cheerfully for our rights.

1984 doesn't have a happy ending (understatement of the century). And I am not very optimistic about the way our society's story will end, either. But this just means that it is time for compassionate conviction, for clean consciences, and for cheerful courage.

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