September 15, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, September 15, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We will see Harvard University grapple with admissions questions the secular worldview can’t handle, we’ll watch the worldview implications of the healthcare debate taking shape, and we’ll hear a warning that the biggest fans of the smartphone may be dictators.
Harvard University grapples with admission questions the secular world can’t handle
A story at the intersection of human sinfulness, the prison system, justice, questions about human redemption, all of that comes together in a story that ran on the front page of yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. The headline,
“The Redemption and Rejection From Prison to Ph.D.”Show Full Transcript
The story arty sounds interesting, I assure you it’s a good deal more interesting than the headline indicates. The story’s by Eli Hager of The Marshall Project. He writes,
“Michelle Jones was released last month after serving more than two decades in an Indiana prison for the murder of her 4-year-old son. The very next day, she arrived at New York University, a promising Ph.D. [candidate] in American studies.”
Now just at the human level, if you didn’t know anything else, that’s quite a lede to a story like this. You have a woman who spent the last two decades in prison for murdering her 4-year-old son, who just a day later in roles as a Ph.D. candidate at a leading American university. Hager’s story goes on to tell us in a breathtaking feat of rehabilitation, Ms. Jones, now 45, became a published scholar of American history while behind bars and presented her work by videoconference to historians conclaves and the Indiana general assembly. We are told that she has now become a Ph.D. student in American History at New York University. It says something that the story made the front page of the New York Times yesterday. It also tells us something that the New York Times, as it turns out, didn’t write the story.
Embedded in the continuation of the story are these words,
“a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice and produced this article for The New York Times, obtained internal emails and memos,”
it goes on related to this case.
The big point here, the New York Times did not produce this article but it ran on the paper’s front page, nonetheless. That tells us something about how some stories find their way into the national discourse even in mainstream media, and yet they’re actually coming from organizations that are not on the masthead.
So the lede to the story is already interesting, telling us about a woman who spent two decades in prison for murdering her 4-year-old son, who is now — just one day after her release on parole — a student in a Ph.D. program at an elite university. But the story goes on, and as we come to find out, she was turned down by Harvard University, also by Yale, for reasons that Harvard was at least clear about, and that has to do with the fact that there were accusations that she was unclear about admitting her own guilt in the case in the midst of her doctoral application. The story tells us that she was admitted by the department but Harvard’s
“top brass overturned [the] admission after some professors raised concerns that she played down her crime in the application process.”
Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history at Harvard, identified as one of the Harvard historians who backed the candidate’s admission to their Ph.D. program,
“called her ‘one of the strongest candidates in the country last year, period.’”
She went on to accuse the university of wrongful action, saying that,
“The case ‘throws into relief … how much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?’”
Now there’s a bombshell, because even in this secular age that’s not secular language, but it is attempted here for employment in a very secular context. Here you have no redemption when it comes to a Christian understanding of redemption on the horizon whatsoever, but you do have a secular reasoning trying to apply itself to what exactly you do with a woman who has served 20 years in prison for murdering her 4-year-old son who now claims to be and gives evidence at least academically of being rehabilitated and wants to be admitted to one of the most elite Ph.D. programs in the entire nation. Harvard’s faculty said yes but Harvard’s Administration said no.
That Harvard historian disappointed in the administration’s decision raises the issue of redemption, but in that purely secular context,
“How much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?”
That’s one of the questions that has continually vexed troubled human beings. How, in the words of the opera “The Mikado” do we make a punishment fit a crime? We have to admit that that’s not easy, even in the most formulaic of crimes and the resulting punishment. But when you look at something like the murder of a child, what exactly could be an appropriate punishment? It points to the limitations of human justice, but it also raises the very question that is at the very center of this article: To what extent do we believe in the possibility of the rehabilitation of someone in order to shift from being a convicted murderer in prison to them being a Ph.D. student at an elite university? That taxes the moral imagination of just about everyone, but it also seems to run right up against the limits of the moral imagination of a secular society.
But the story unfolds as the report in the New York Times tells us,
“But after the history department accepted her and the American studies program listed her as a top alternate, two American studies professors flagged Ms. Jones’s file for the admissions dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In a memo to university administrators, these professors said the admissions dean had told them Ms. Jones’s selection would be reviewed by the president and provost, and questioned whether she had minimized her crime “to the point of misrepresentation.”
So now the story moves to the point where we find out that at least some at Harvard, not just administrators, but some faculty actually believed that in this case the convicted convict now out on parole had minimized her crime. The words are important here,
“to the point of misrepresentation.”
Remember, we’re talking about the murder of a 4-year-old boy. The arguments and counter arguments in this article point to the very limits that is the boundary limits of the secular moral imagination. These are questions that the secular worldview really can’t answer. For instance, at what point is one able to detect moral rehabilitation in a person’s life? To what extent can someone read another individual’s mind or conscience or heart? Is it fair to say that this is a woman who, having spent two decades in prison, has now been rehabilitated, that she has paid her debt to society ,and now should be applauded for actually moving forward in terms of that rehabilitation; moving into a Ph.D. program in order to continue her life and education? Is this an outrage? Did Harvard’s administrators do exactly the right thing in saying there are limits to our own affirmation of even the debt someone has paid to society? Are there crimes, we have to ask, that are so far outside the norm, so abhorrent in terms of the very nature, that a person who commits such a crime really isn’t going to be allowed to enter into normal, human academic or otherwise societal pursuits? Those are questions secular worldview has to confront, but as this article makes clear, they are issues and questions beyond the ability of a merely secular worldview to answer.
Surely one of us interesting statements in the article came from an administrator at Harvard disappointed with the decision. Alison Frank Johnson is Harvard’s director of graduate studies for the history department. She said this,
“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X [number of] years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X [number of] years plus no Harvard.”
She then asked this question,
“Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?”
Now, let’s just pause to notice what is revealed in that question and what is concealed. What is revealed is the presumption that somehow one should not be held accountable to show an appropriate degree of horror in oneself, and, in terms of one’s crimes in this case, in applying for a Ph.D. program, an application that requires a rather in-depth autobiographical assessment in revelation. What is concealed in that statement is an acknowledgment of the fact that even several Harvard faculty members had reservations about this particular applicant, believing that the application didn’t reveal taking moral responsibility for the crime. But by the time you get to the end of the article, there is the startling realization that several of America’s most elite universities actually courted this candidate precisely because of her autobiography, including the crime and her prison time.
I sought to point out how this story and all of its urgent questions point to the limitations of the secular worldview, that secular moral imagination. The secular worldview simply can’t answer these questions, and that’s made clear even in the controversy revealed in the article. But that’s not to say that it would be easy, therefore, for Christians operating out of the Christian worldview to know how to answer these rather real-time, earthly questions and quandaries with much more ease. But it is to say most emphatically, that for Christians the great distinction is the frame of reference, which isn’t merely the secular, temporal frame of reference found here with redemption redefined in purely secular terms, but it is precisely the fact the redemption is not understood primarily in secular terms at all, but rather, God’s gracious act for sinners — in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — a redemption that is first and foremost not about temporal consequences but about eternal consequences.
Due to this story, the word redemption ended up in the conversation at Harvard University and in the headline of yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, it’s not every day that redemption shows up in terms of the secular vocabulary. But the bottom line is that the use of the word redemption in a purely secular context turns out not to take you very far, not nearly far enough.
Worldview implications of the health care debate takes shape
In terms of American politics, some of the most contentious issues are related to healthcare and health insurance. The last 48 hours have been particularly active and interesting; two different sets of legislation initiated in the United States Senate. On the Republican side, two senators initiated legislation that would devolve the issue to the states. Given the disarray on the Republican Party side, the party isn’t sure what it wants to do in healthcare; it’s unlikely that that proposal’s going to move forward very quickly. But the really interesting, the far more interesting development, is on the Democratic Party side where — acting as a Democrat but actually an Independent — United States Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont initiated legislation he said was supported by no less than 16 Democratic members of the Senate to shift America’s health care and health insurance to a so-called single-payer plan. That amounts to what’s called nationalized health insurance, it actually ends up with the government in control of the entire healthcare system, and that’s going to come as something of a shock to the 168 million Americans who are currently involved in health coverage by means of health insurance and that by private insurers.
And it’s really interesting to watch the tipping point of this story beginning to appear on the issue because just a matter of weeks or months ago the issue of a single-payer plan and government controlled health care was something of a fringe idea recognized as radical and owned by very few in terms of leadership of the Democratic Party. But that party since 2016 has been shifting ideologically, economically, and politically to the left, and that becomes very clear. In the fact that when you look at the 2020 anticipated presidential election and the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, well as the New York Times noted, several of the big names on that list are the very names listed as cosponsors of this legislation, even as previously they have either kept their distance of a single-payer plan or had actually opposed it. Those names include Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California.
But what’s also really interesting is that the tipping point in the American people is coming perhaps into view. The New York Times article by Robert Pear tells us that a significant percentage of Americans, a growing percentage, for the first time indicate that they support the idea of single-payer plan. But at the very same time, the same polling of the very same Americans, tells us that when they understand that that means a government supervision of and control of the healthcare system, they, having been previously for it then become against it. But we are watching a shift in terms of the American conversation, a conversation that isn’t much clarified by the national media, especially when the issues of health insurance and health care are simply conflated, and we’re not getting much assistance in terms of the national conversation in understanding what’s at stake.
There are several important worldview issues in consideration here. One is the process of political and moral change, watching how that takes place in a society because when you’re talking about something like healthcare it’s never merely about healthcare, it has to do with other related issues. And the fact that there are other important related issues, including moral issues, as made clear in the New York Times article when it tells us right out loud that Senator Sanders’
“bill would also cover ‘comprehensive reproductive, maternity and newborn care, including abortion.’”
And that comes from an official statement from Senator Bernie Sanders’ office itself. That New York Times front-page article tells us that there isn’t much likelihood, politically speaking, that this legislation will be passed anytime soon. But the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal rightly warns us that far more radical ideas have found their way into public policy in a remarkably short amount of time.
The Wall Street Journal editorial warns us that Senator Bernie Sanders’ socialism is
But in the final paragraph after the editorial they write,
“But in an era of political tumult, anything can happen, all the more so when millennials can’t remember the 1990s, much less the Cold War.”
The final words,
“All the old battles are new again.”
There’s nothing really surprising in that. That’s always the case. Recurringly.
“All the old battles are new again.”
It’s good that we be reminded of it.
Are dictators the biggest fans of the smartphone?
Finally, in terms of technology and morality at the intersection of so many worldview issues, this week was also newsworthy because of the announcement, once again by Apple that it was releasing not just one but two new iPhones. The iPhone 8, and as it will be known the iPhone 10. The iPhone 10 is going to include, we are told, facial recognition software. Now just remember some of the articles and stories we’ve already talked about this week on The Briefing, including the fact that there is now the claim that artificial intelligence, using facial recognition, can actually predict sexual orientation.
But all that aside, the really interesting thing in this light this week is the fact that from Japan the newspaper, The Diplomat, there’s an interesting editorial with the headline,
“The iPhone is a Gift to Autocrats.”
Eugene Chow writing for The Diplomat tells us that the technologies that are now taken for granted in so much of life, particularly the smartphone and especially once facial recognition technology become standard, they actually can become the instruments of enslavement. They are tailor-made for dictators and autocratic governments to trace and track people and also to collect endless amounts of information about their own citizens.
Eugene Chow reminds us of the panopticon, it was invented by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, suggested as a prison whereby a warden can sit in the middle and circular cells all around allow the wardens to keep a constant view on every activity of the prisoners. Chow concludes his article by writing,
“the ‘technologies that once promised freedom and openness’ are actually helping China’s authoritarian rulers [to] build a ‘digital panopticon.’”
The dangers here are evident enough, but the really informative part of that final sentence has to do with the fact that Chow was concerned that the technologies that once promised freedom and openness will actually deliver exactly the opposite. From a Christian worldview, that’s the big problem isn’t it; no technology can deliver on the promise of freedom and openness. When it comes to technology, very quickly, the technologies we believe we control can then threaten to control us.