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Friday, February 15, 2019

The Global Identity Crisis

I’ve been intrigued by Francis Fukuyama for some time. He made a big splash back in the day with his The End of History, which most misunderstood. He’s a “big idea” thinker, the type I’m a sucker for—attempting to understand all the strands of our times in terms of one, coherent, controlling theme. I recognize from the beginning that this really isn’t possible, but big ideas do have a way of helping us understand a great deal. The intro to a review of his latest book, which is already on my Kindle, does as good a job as any in summarizing his views and teasing one to read not only the review (a long read well worth it) but also his book:
Dignity, recognition, esteem, respect, and the resentment that arises when they are not accorded—these are the themes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book. Like many political commentators, he was surprised by the results of two elections in 2016: the victories for Brexit and Donald Trump. To understand them, he sought a “master concept,” something that would explain not only these results, but also the many other political movements of this decade, from the rise of populism around the globe to #MeToo and campus protests in America. In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, he proposes “identity,” a concept that grows “out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.”
… His framing of our present crisis as one of identity politics—which he understands broadly enough to encompass right-wing as well as left-wing versions, the international scene as well as domestic conflicts—is lucid and insightful.
What We Think We Know
As I have discovered especially in editorial writing, one has to not only take into account the facts but what readers imagine the facts are—which are often massively wrong. That’s why I warmed to this review of a book that makes that point in spades. As the reviewer noted:
Producing reactions of chuckles, indignation, anger, and unseeming self-indulgent pride, Duffy takes me on a journey of the sometimes unbelievably large divergence between the state of the world and our polled beliefs about the world. And … we’re almost always talking about objective, uncontroversial measures of things we keep pretty good track of: wealth inequality, share of immigrants in society, medically defined obesity, number of Facebook accounts, murder and unemployment rates. On subject after subject, people guess the most outlandish things: almost 80% of Britons believed that the number of deaths from terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2016 were more or about the same as 1985–2000, when the actual number was a reduction of 81% (p. 131)….
More examples abound. An enjoyable if somewhat troubling read!
Understanding Lines
Speaking of misperceptions—here’s an everyday one. Take this example from John Cook of tellers serving customers at a bank:
“Suppose a small bank has only one teller. Customers take an average of 10 minutes to serve and they arrive at the rate of 5.8 per hour. What will the expected waiting time be? What happens if you add another teller?
“We assume customer arrivals and customer service times are random (details later). With only one teller, customers will have to wait nearly five hours on average before they are served.”
Five hours?! I would not have guessed anywhere close to that, would you? Now, add a second teller into the mix. How long is the average wait now? 2.5 hours? 1 hour? According to Cook, much lower than that:
“But if you add a second teller, the average waiting time is not just cut in half; it goes down to about 3 minutes. The waiting time is reduced by a factor of 93x.”
I don’t claim to understand what’s going on but, like the author of this article on queuing theory, I was amazed.
Cheap Grace Today
Nadia Bolz-Weber has made a big splash as a “foul-mouthed, tattoo-festooned recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who founded Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive Lutheran congregation that has become known as a haven for ex-evangelicals and other religious or not-so-religious misfits.” Like most extremists, she has had bursts of insights about the gospel, but in the end she’s peddling a gospel without contrition and genuine absolution. Wesley Hill of Trinity School of Ministry does a marvelous job of reviewing the strengths and weakness of her latest book, as well as prompting us traditionalists to a little self-examination regarding our own sins.
Grace and peace,

Mark GalliMark Galli
Mark Galli
Editor-in-Chief, Christianity Today

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