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Culture Q&A

D.J. Waldie

Weight of the ordinary

Crosses and stucco in the ‘holy land’ of suburbia

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Prickly social critic James Howard Kunstler once said “suburbs are the embodiment of existential evil.” Critics regularly condemn them as wastelands of cookie-cutter construction, social conformity, anomie, and racial segregation—and yet that’s where 55 percent of Americans live.

Author and historian D.J. Waldie’s home of Lakewood, Calif., a 1950s-built suburb of Los Angeles, became an early target of urbanist critique. Laid out on a grid imposed over plowed-under bean fields between Los Angeles and Long Beach, Lakewood’s modest single-family homes sprang up quickly. When the sales office opened on Palm Sunday in 1950, 30,000 people were waiting to view the seven model homes: Carpenters built 26,000 houses between 1950 and 1953.

Waldie was born into one of those stucco-over-chicken-wire houses, and he’s still there 70 years later. His 1996 book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is both the story of his life in Lakewood and a disarming, poetic argument for the possibilities of suburban living. He remains a soft-spoken if ardent advocate for these ordinary places. Edited excerpts of our recent conversation follow.

You don’t strike one as argumentative, yet in its own way Holy Land was a rejoinder to critics of suburbia. There’s a long tradition of regarding suburbs as lesser, diminished places. Between the 1950s and 1970s a body of screeds against suburban places damned them as soulless, dehumanizing, inhuman, and hellish. I knew the place where I lived was none of those things. So not very deeply into the process of writing Holy Land, it became an argument that these flattening and diminishing criticisms of suburban places needed to be enriched and made more nuanced for them to have any validity.

‘Not having a sense of place is a handicap. If you aren’t smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing the stuff of the place where you are … you are hurting yourself.’

You’ve described suburbs as the “paradise of the ordinary.” That phrase contains two words that don’t seem to belong together. I’ve tried to understand how paying attention to ordinariness—ordinary things, ordinary places, everydayness—is an enriching encounter. So in other work since Holy Land I’ve emphasized the value of paying attention to wherever you are, not making distinctions between this place of privilege and that place lacking in value, but trying to make the argument that everywhere you are, if properly engaged and understood, might contain something enriching to one’s inner life.

The world has been flattened by our connectedness, both economically and digitally. Are the places where we live still important? The world is much more distracting and distracted, and being a connoisseur of a particular place seems strangely narrow or old-fashioned. People often live in a variety of places, some virtual and some real, but not all of it coheres into a sense of place. Yet the sense of place is part of the equipment of a whole person as much as a sense of self. Not having a sense of place is a handicap. If you aren’t smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing the stuff of the place where you are, but you’re seeing something else—maybe through a screen—you are hurting yourself.

Just driving through suburb upon suburb of Southern California, it’s apparent that some places are better-tended than others. If the residents of a community don’t have a place-bound loyalty, then they are quite willing to permit all sorts of evils to rise up around them. We’ve seen it here in Southern California over the last 20 years where communities have driven themselves into the ditch because no one’s paying attention.

So what can be done to nurture a place-bound loyalty? Get outside and walk across your place. You only become fully oriented to your place, only begin to acquire a sense of where you are in your place, by literally crossing the miles of it at the human pace of a walker. When every aspect of the place you are passing through impinges upon your senses—you hear it, you smell it, you see it, you feel it—and it touches you in some way, physically touches you, then you truly know it. One should learn how to fall in love with the place where one is.

Why “holy land?” My then-cranky, slightly bitter self was saying, It’s no junkyard, it’s a holy land. After all these years, I’m less cranky. But I’m saying that every place where people have invested so much feeling, so much longing, so much life, particularly any place where one’s parents are buried, automatically becomes a sacred place. It becomes a holy place, a holy land.

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George Friedman

A fragile stability

Geopolitical update: Sifting through the headlines to analyze international developments

Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Image

WORLD periodically interviews George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures and a leading forecaster of international developments based on demography, geography, military capabilities, and ideologies. We have run previous magazine articles featuring Friedman in issues dated Jan. 30, 2009; Jan. 15, 2011; March 21, 2015; Nov. 12, 2016; and March 31 and April 28, 2018.

We’re sitting down on March 2, 2019, and hearing about India and Pakistan fighting. It seems serious: Two nuclear-armed countries shooting down each other’s planes? They do this regularly. Islamic groups occasionally carry out attacks on the Indians. India responds by blowing something up. In the end India feels better, the Pakistanis feel better, and life goes on.

The headlines are dire. Yes, something more for CNN to get hysterical about. This happens all the time. It was a slow news day.

OK: Let’s take a tour of Asia, starting with North Korea. Kim is not going to give up his regional nuclear weapons. He has no reason to. We’re not going to go to war because it’s very difficult to invade North Korea. It’s very difficult to know where his nuclear missiles are. So we have a standoff. The United States cannot eliminate the nuclear threat, and we’re pleased so long as Kim doesn’t build an ICBM that could reach the United States, which he has not done.

Is Japan pleased? Japan is a historic enemy of Korea going way back. Japan is moving more and more aggressively toward being armed.

Why would North Korea fire nuclear missiles at Japan? I don’t believe it will, but the Japanese after Pearl Harbor want to be prepared for the worst. Japan could rapidly have nuclear weapons. It’s the most advanced nuclear power country in the world, it’s very good at technology, and this technology is 70 years old.

Five years from now you expect Japan to have nuclear weapons? It’s one turn of the screw away from having them. President Trump has said the Japanese should develop their own weapons because we don’t want to take responsibility for their national security. Japan also faces two other major nuclear powers, Russia and China, and it has a very serious dispute with China over the status of the East China Sea.

Was it odd that Trump and Kim met in Hanoi? The United States and Vietnam have been building a friendship. U.S. naval vessels are based in Cam Ranh Bay once again. Germany and Japan, once our enemies, became allies: We specialize in this kind of alliance switching. The Vietnamese are not hostile to the United States: They are hostile to China. The U.S. and the Vietnamese are cooperating in many different ways because both have a common interest in blocking the Chinese. And the closer we get to Vietnam, the more we can irritate the Chinese, which is our foreign policy.

Our war effort in Afghanistan has now gone on longer than our Vietnam War. The invasion of Afghanistan made sense. The original intention was to disrupt the Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda. We achieved that in the first six months. We then set as the goal creating a free and democratic Afghanistan. This was demented: Afghanistan is many things, but it is not democratic. It doesn’t want to be democratic. It has its own, very ancient method of governing itself.

And Afghans know that the Taliban is not going away, but we are. So we talk to the Taliban and arrange a graceful exit. I have to say that this could have been arranged 10 years ago or longer, and the tragedy is that it was not. We did not understand the limits of power. We could disrupt the Taliban and al-Qaeda. You can blow something up and leave, without the pretext of rebuilding, but you always have the idea to stay a little more, put in a little more power. This happened in Vietnam and in Iraq, and it happened in Afghanistan. Afghanistan broke British hearts.

It broke Russian hearts. It just about broke Alexander the Great’s heart. Afghanistan has withstood invasion for millennia. If there’s one thing that history tells us, it’s don’t mess with Afghanistan. If you need to do something, go there, do it, and get out.

Does that apply to Iraq? We disrupted Iraq. We took out Saddam Hussein, who certainly deserved to be taken out, but we also took out the plug. Iraq was blocking the Iranians from the Mediterranean. The Iranians have now expanded to occupy part of Syria, most of Lebanon and Iraq, part of Yemen. Still, their economy is in shambles, partly because of our sanctions.

Was going into Iraq a mistake? Iraq was a critical country for projecting force in the Middle East. The Iranians had a serious problem with the Iraqis, against whom they fought a war, and they were delighted to see Saddam Hussein, their mortal enemy, go. We assumed we would be welcomed because Iranian intelligence told us we would be welcomed. Iranian intelligence manipulated us and persuaded us that the Shiites would support the Americans. Then the Sunnis attacked us, and for various reasons the Shiites also decided to attack us. We got caught in the civil war, and now the Iranians dominate the country.

And Russia is allied with Iran? Russia was happy to use the Iranians in Syria, but Russia is worried about Iran becoming very powerful and using its substantial influence in Azerbaijan to put Iranian forces in the Caucasus, which the Russians could not tolerate. The Caucasus is the second area, after the West, from which invasions come.

Here’s one of the confusing things: When Syrian government land-to-air missiles mistakenly shot down a Russian plane last fall, Russia blamed Israel. What was going on? The Russian response gave away the game: Russia told Israel, You didn’t give us enough warning. That means Israel is notifying the Russians about upcoming airstrikes and the Russians are not telling the Iranians, their supposed allies, that Israeli planes are coming. This is the Middle East and it’s complicated.

Fear of Iran has given Israel some Muslim allies. The Israelis and the Saudis have worked together for years, covertly. They have common interests and common enemies. The Trump administration has chosen a prudent approach. We’re going to pull back a bit in the Middle East. It was a good thing to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Is the Trump administration doing better in the Middle East than its predecessors did? It’s not as bad as people say, but nothing could be as bad as people say. It’s not as good as Trump supporters say, but nothing could be that good. Trump’s instincts are not bad. His execution is bizarre. His decision to withdraw from Syria was not a bad one, but saying 2,000 troops would move out of a combat zone in a week?

That was a dangerous situation with Russia and the United States potentially coming to blows in Syria. Russia is in deep trouble. It needs $70- to $80-a-barrel oil to stabilize. When a country has deep economic problems, it tries to solve them by creating national security issues, so Putin threatened another Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s trying to convince the Russian people that even though he hasn’t given them a prosperous life, he’s made Russia great again. Russia does have 3,000 nuclear missiles, but Putin’s not a fool. He’s trying to point out that he’s a player, but since he’s extremely weak it’s a pretty weak move.

How’s Xi Jinping doing? China’s elite was afraid China was fragmenting. Xi became the dictator. Countries don’t get dictators when everything is fine and they say, Hey, why don’t we have a dictator? He became dictator trying to hold together a country in the midst of a terrific economic crisis quite independent of American sanctions. China has an economy too large for domestic consumption.

It needs exports? It’s entirely dependent on exports to stabilize its economy, and since 2008 the appetite of the world for Chinese exports has declined—first the recession, and then China no longer has the cheapest exports.

But it’s getting into high tech. In technology it’s up against the United States, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Germany … that’s tough competition. You can’t just decide you’re going to become a technological power. So China is caught between its past and its future.

They’re worried about regional warlords? The Chinese are afraid they’ll go back to the condition they were in prior to 1948: They had a century of regional conflict as each region tried to secure its own interests. Xi’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. He periodically arrests corrupt people.

Isn’t “corrupt person” another way of saying “government official”? They’re almost all guilty of it. He’s getting rid of his enemies. Xi wants to make certain that no force arises within the Communist Party to challenge him. The question is how loyal the People’s Liberation Army is. It appears that the PLA is united and faithful to the government, but Xi is nervous. 

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Nathaniel Jeanson

The pursuit of discovery

Harvard Ph.D. pushes back against evolution

Courtesy of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Since many leading universities are steeped in scientism and evolutionary theory, some Christian students shy away from pursuing a science degree at a secular school. Nathaniel Jeanson was not one of those students.

Jeanson, homeschooled through the eighth grade, gained a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology at Harvard in 2009. A husband and father of four, he now serves as a research biologist with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis and has authored Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.

Jeanson entered Harvard with a burning desire to find a cure for cancer. He emerged with a determination to push back against evolution and help people struggling with science-religion tension find their way back to Biblical truth. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.

You majored in science at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside. Was that hard to do as a Christian? It really wasn’t. Nerd that I was, I took my chemistry book home in high school to read over the summer, but I also read Christian science and intelligent design materials. By the time I entered college I had heard the evolutionary arguments before and nothing took me by surprise or caused me to doubt. Also, I had a strong support base praying for me, and a strong local church.

The cell and developmental biology Ph.D. program at Harvard accepted you. What was that like for you as a Christian? The biggest issue, because I went into medical research, was that one of the main tools in human disease research is a cell line taken from an aborted fetus roughly 50 years ago. It is a useful tool that produces viruses very well, but I didn’t feel like I could use it in good conscience. So the hurdle I faced was to design an experiment without having to engage those cells.

‘As we learn more about genetics, we are finding that many of the predictions based on evolution don’t work.’

What did you do? For the experiment I was working on I needed to genetically alter mouse cells, and that would typically be done with viruses produced in those fetal cells. I found a different way to alter the mouse cells.

Was there ever a time, with so much saturation in secular science, that you started to question your faith? No, it was more the opposite. Growing up in a Christian home, I took the gospel for granted. I had heard it my whole life, so for me it became the old news rather than the good news. But the process of reading and investigating these questions during my years at Harvard sent me diving into Scripture. Suddenly the gospel became good news for me for the first time.

You worked hard at Harvard to achieve a Ph.D. so you could pursue a career in medical research. But you ultimately chose a different path. Why? During my time of spiritual searching at Harvard I began to rethink my career. I realized that what I really wanted was to discover the cure for cancer and win the Nobel Prize. In theory that’s a noble goal, but it can easily be contaminated by selfish ambition. That was true in my case, so I started asking myself what I could do differently. After I graduated, I accepted a position with the Institute for Creation Research because it allowed me to use my education but to use it for Bible-based research.

You have said evolution is a cultural Goliath that keeps the people of God cowering in fear—how so? Many secular professors try to convince students that faith is for the ignorant. I remember sitting in a calculus class and the professor drew a graph on the wall with a curve going up. He was trying to demonstrate how our knowledge has increased over time. And then he turned and smiled at the class and said, “See, we don’t need God!” I thought, How does that follow from discussing calculus? But if this is what professors are doing in math classes, how much more so in fields of science that directly relate to the Bible? 

But scientists overwhelmingly accept evolution. Interviewers often say, “Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community disagrees with you. Do you think there is a scientific conspiracy or do we just need to throw out science altogether?” They are insinuating that no reasonable person would disagree with 97 percent of scientists. That can be intimidating.

Do the 97 percent want to discuss this? Many evolutionists now refuse to engage in serious discussions with creationists. I just did a debate with an evolutionary biology professor who was extremely condescending and didn’t even try to engage in the actual arguments. I discovered, after the fact, that he had written a blog post called, “In Praise of Ridicule.” The point of the post was that to debate with creationists makes creationism look like a legitimate idea, so it’s better to just ridicule than to debate. Who wants to face that? This isn’t just a dry scientific issue: This is a spiritual battle, and there is great pressure to conform.

What is the biggest challenge to evolutionary theory? Darwin took a massive risk 160 years ago when he wrote On the Origin of Species. The question of origins is fundamentally a genetic one, and we didn’t have the tools to investigate genetics back then. But, now that we do: The genetic information we are gathering actually gives more scientific strength to the Biblical account of creation than to evolution.

For example, because we understand gravity, we can accurately predict that if we pick up a heavy textbook and let go, it will drop. And when we actually try it with a book, that is exactly what happens. It’s the same thing with creation science. We can make predictions based on what the Bible says and, when we check it out scientifically, it holds true. At the same time, as we learn more about genetics, we are finding that many of the predictions based on evolution don’t work.

Which ones don’t work? Predictions based on genetic mutations are the driving force of evolution. But time and again, when we measure the rates at which various mutations take place, it contradicts evolutionary expectations.

What is the focus of your current research? The major focus these days is not so much on undermining evolution, but on exploring the scientific strength of the creation model. We ask questions like: What allows new species to form and what also limits that? What stops a dog from becoming a cat? And, opposite of the origins question, what causes species to go extinct? 

So you would encourage young people who are interested in science not to be afraid to pursue a career in the field? Oh, absolutely. There is still so much we don’t know about the world. Scripture is the absolute truth. It provides very explicit statements about the natural world. There are things in which Scripture is very clear. It is clear that the origin of the universe and the first creatures were by divine creation, not natural selection. But there are also all sorts of open questions. And what’s exciting is you discover new answers along the way that you never anticipated.

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