Archive for January 2nd, 2008


I was never much one for parties, neither the cocktail variety, with its polite and awkward small talk, nor the wilder sort, with loud music and shouted "conversations". I generally end up in the kitchen at parties, where it is quieter and real conversation is possible. My idea of a good time, socially, is a meal with friends who share an interest in the things we were taught not to discuss in polite company: religion and politiics, Dylan’s "God and man and law".

So I took well to the constraints of family life, when it finally arrived, and our New Year’s Eve celebration has become a tradition: after family prayer before the icons we watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and stay up to see the new year arrive. Survivors get a sip of the inexpensive champagne we uncork at midnight. 

This year we are spending the first week of January at my mother’s house, near Flint, Michigan. Mom, who is a youthful 81, retired around 10pm, but we all stayed up for the movie and the new year.

Only I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to play the DVD. 

Mom used to have a pretty simple setup, even for a technological dunce like me: you could skip through the channels and stop when you saw something interesting, or you could look at a menu and see what was playing and make your selection. Or not: even with hundreds of channels there often is "nothing on". And there was a button to push if you wanted to watch a movie instead.

Of course, the children are always up for cartoons, a rare treat, as we do not have television at home. Modern cartoons are pretty creepy, though, so I keep them tuned to channels that play the relatively innocent older cartoons. An exception is Sponge Bob Square Pants, which if you don’t know, manages to be at once winsome and wacky. 

But tonight it was going to be the traditional Wonderful Life, a film that strikes me every time I see it with its profoundly Catholic outlook. It was made in the days before Catholic social teaching was hijacked by economic liberals (ie, neoconservatives) and the ruthless capitalist is the bad guy. Solidarity and community are more to be valued than profit, in Capra’s Bedford Falls.

A few years back, though, my mom switched her service to some sort of satelite system, the ironically named "Direct TV". 

It is anyting but.

The remote has 48 buttons, most of them mysterious. There are 8 arrow buttons, one of them at the end of a half-circle, which I would suppose to mean "head ’em off at the pass". Another arrow appears to head directly into a vertical line ("Dead end"? "Up against the wall?") There are four unmarked plain buttons in the primary colors, plus green. There is a button marked "info", another misnomer, which proved to be no help whatsoever. 

I’ve had bad experiences with this gizmo before, and have been known to shut the whole system down just trying to turn the damn thing on. This necessitated a call to "DIrect" TV’s central control center, which I suppose is somewhere deep in space, from whence they beamed down a cosmic ray, which rebooted my mom’s TV.

It didn’t go that far on New Year’s Eve, but neither Michelle, nor I, nor Patric, our usually techno-savvy 10 year old, could figure it out. 

So we saw the new year in watching Sponge Bob. I don’t know what that portends. We could do worse than winsome and wacky, I suppose.

The whole episode sparked a renewed frustration with modern technology. While I am hardly the Luddite I once was – I do have a DVD player, after all, and I probably owe my life to modern medicine- it does seem obvious that when a technological innovation complicates rather than simplifies a task it ought to be rethought.   

And I would suggest that mom’s anything-but-direct TV is not an isolated incident. How many times do we have to wait while making a purchase while the retail clerk pecks away endlessly at a keyboard? I always think how much quicker the transaction would be if the clerk were using a simple calculator, or even writing out the arithmetic. Or how many times have we heard the dread words "our computer is down", rendering the simplest tasks- research at the library, ordering a meal- impossible?

More broadly, this is a symptom of the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is a law, often thought of as modern, but actually human, which manifests itself in countless ways, every time some good intention backfires. It is a grand theme in world literature, including sacred scripture. 

I thought of it the other morning, when I attended the 7:30am Mass at the Roman church around the corner. The early crowd was small and mostly older. Nevertheless, there was a gaggle of lay eucharistic ministers, who gathered around the altar after the Agnus Dei. One by one they received the Body of Christ, then the chalice. Next they received their individual ciboriums and marched off to distribute communion. I didn’t time it, but I doubt very much it would have taken any longer if the priest had simply done it himself.

Not a big thing, but symptomatic of the Law of Unintended Consequences. 

Or take the "simplification" of school consolidation, one of the little-remarked upon but major factors in the social decline of the last half century. Indeed, I can think of no better single step to rightly ordering society than returning schooling to the townships, for those unable to return it to the home. Which grand idea may or may not bring unintended consequences. It’s hard to see how school culture could be worse than it is, though.

Then there is the Christian Right, which started out with the promise of a broadly based coalition, a bulwark against the decadence and excess of modern society, and has ended up revealed as a hyper-Zionist, nationalistic enterprise, unraveling even as its leaders endorse Giuliani or sink under the weight of personal and financial scandal. That the "prolife" Right has not rushed to the standard of Dr Paul’s candidacy – he of the perfect and principled prolife record- shows their true colors. Like the Catholic neocons, they are Americanists first, enthralled by empire, and Christians second or third. 

Another instance, one with deadly consequences, is found in the book I am currently reading, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, subtitled "The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001". It is quite a tome, around 700 pages, and it is one long exercise in unintended consequences. Time and again in history we see this sort of thing, shaky alliances against a common enemy that end up creating another enemy, at least as threatening as the original one.

It really brings out the latent Augustinian in me. In general, Eastern Christian theology is more hopeful than Western when it comes to Man’s state and his promise. But that human wiles reap human woes? That Man’s fallen state often seems one long episode of "blowback"? 

The evidence is all around us, in geopolitics, in American cultural history, in the Church. And if we look within, we see evidence in our own lives, in our souls.

But that is a longer, more introspective essay.

Daniel Nichols

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