Mediocre TV

Just over two thirds of the way through season 5, slogging through to the end of Breaking Bad is turning into a chore, like finishing a novel on principle after losing interest. Which is an odd sort of principle, I suppose, but it accounts for being able to honestly claim to have read several of the books on my shelf.

Breaking Bad has all along seem too contrived to really click. At times it almost feels as if the writers are elbowing you in the ribs: “Did you notice the symbolism there? See how this lecture on chemistry is really foreshadowing key plot events?” Others have noticed it too.

Oh well. Four more episodes to go. The third-to-last one is supposed to be amazing. I’m not holding my breath.

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Two cultures

Rather, the sciences and the humanities share a common enemy: an educational system that, despite its ceaseless rote invocations of the value of “critical thinking”—overwhelmingly evades the “severities” that might equip people to deal seriously with the world and its manifold challenges. A rigorous education in any field challenges its students: it doesn’t let them get away with easy answers; it doesn’t reward “glib examinees”; it forces second and third thoughts; it demands revision and correction, and presses people even to start over from scratch when that’s necessary. People trained in this fashion will be ready for surprises, will expect the unexpected, will adapt to circumstances.

Protestant degeneracy

Two (relatively) recent essays describe the current American political landscape as a degenerate successor to Protestantism.

The first, written by James Kurth in the middle of the Bush (43) presidency, argues that a belief in promoting “universal human rights” is the final phase of a centuries-long degeneration of Protestantism, by way of Unitarianism and Americanism. Delineating the development of ideas over long periods of time sometimes has the effect of making them seem more inevitable than in fact they are, but even so, the essay does give some hint as to why Americans are often surprised to discover that other nations aren’t “yearning for liberty” in quite the way they ought to be, or, at the very least, that other people don’t define or think about freedom in the same way as enlightened liberal westerners.

The predictions at the end of the piece hold up less well. Kurth writes:

[Republicans and conservatives], in turn, will have a strong incentive to distance themselves from the Bush presidency and from the Evangelical Protestants, “the religious Right” who so strongly and so carelessly supported Bush when he led America into a reckless adventure in the Middle East. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and secular conservatives will agree that the Evangelicals are to blame. The real architects of the Bush foreign policy will go on to other things and will be forgotten, if not forgiven, because they do not threaten Democrats and liberals on the cultural and social issues that mean so much to them. The Evangelicals do threaten the liberals on domestic issues, however, and the opportunity to marginalize them by blaming them for a foreign policy debacle will be irresistible.

This hasn’t happened, at least not to any appreciable degree. In 2005, it wasn’t obvious that the secular left would simply win (as far as public policy and opinion is concerned) on the social issues and seek to marginalize the Evangelicals on those grounds, without having to blame them for any misbegotten foreign adventures.

The second, more recent essay, by Joseph Bottum, follows a similar line, but looks at how politics itself has replaced religion in the lives of those who’ve abandoned mainline Protestantism (even if a few of them still attend or even lead mainline Protestant churches). At least in part, it explains why coverage of religion in the mainstream press is often so bizarre. To journalists, the overwhelming majority of whom think of politics in almost soteriological terms, that a church might consider it’s doctrines about God to be far more important than questions of public policy is beyond comprehension.