The cost of liberty and the price of oil


Those were the days: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, now under siege, (left) and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in happier times.

What’s the price of liberty?


It spiked to about $100 per barrel on Wednesday. (The cost of crude oil in the U.S. settled down by the end of the day, closing at $98.) The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. has climbed to $3.19 in the last few weeks, and it’s likely to go still higher.

The revolutions in the Middle East make oil production and delivery uncertain, which makes commodity markets nervous. Libya, the most recent and so far most dangerous scene of popular uprising, produces only about 2 percent of the world’s oil supply, but its high quality makes it particularly valuable, according to analysts quoted in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Several large oil companies, such as France’s Total, have already started reducing their output from Libya.

Some analysts predict the price of oil could climb to $150 per barrel if Libyan production is entirely shut down, and maybe $220 if another major oil-producing nation in the region shuts down too.

Developed nations and particularly democracies like the U.S. may soon face a crisis — or actually two crises. There’s the potential economic crisis as the price of oil pushes up the cost of virtually everything: manufacturing, agriculture (compounding a growing food-cost problem that already haunts most of the world), distribution and so on. Virtually every segment of the economy may be touched. A more expensive tank of gas for the car is only the beginning and might be the least of our worries in the U.S. All of this, of course, would be just piling on, severely slowing down if not stalling the world’s recovery from the so-called Great Recession that’s dogged us since 2008.

But there’s another kind of crisis — more philosophical or ideological — if we take the word literally, back to its Greek root of krinein: “to separate, decide, judge.” We face some serious decisions, we who (a) live in democracies and think other people should live in democracies too, and (b) depend on oil for our way of life. We could start by asking this question: How much are we willing to alter our “way of life” and even sacrifice for the sake of others’ political freedom?

Or to put it roughly: When will the drive for liberty and justice for all in oil-producing nations get too rich for our blood? Is there a point — a price point, that is — when we might decide that we can live with repressive regimes like Qaddafi’s in Libya after all, and choose to not support democratic movements? We haven’t reached that point this time around — and I hope we don’t — but the temptation certainly exists and is no doubt being argued in offices around Washington, Geneva and New York.

American foreign policy is built first and foremost on keeping the U.S. “secure” economically, politically and militarily. The Middle East regimes teetering and falling like dominoes almost weekly are creating complicated and unpredictable scenarios. None of this is easy or simple.

But taking the long view, the U.S. may gain greater security if we help people in other nations gain the liberty we say we value so much, and choose to not literally sell them out over the cost of oil. (It wouldn’t hurt our national security to push harder to develop alternative forms of energy either, but that’s another post.)

Resisting the temptation to sell out will be hard to resist, even at the most basic level. So far most Americans haven’t felt the impact of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, but who knows? Some people on Main Street, not to mention Wall Street, are already getting nervous and maybe even a little impatient.

I was chatting on Tuesday with a self-employed guy whose job puts him on the road literally hundreds of miles each week. We talked a little while about the day’s headlines, including the news coming out of Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s amazing what’s happening over there,” he said. Then he shook his head and added, “But, man, these gas prices are starting to kill me. I hope we can do something about that pretty soon.”

The future is now – really, really now

By strange conjunction of media, the future came knocking rapping banging pounding on the door of my consciousness on Wednesday:

1. Borders, the nation’s second-largest bookstore chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. The company will close about 200 of its 674 Borders and Waldenbooks stores in the U.S. The reasons for the failure aren’t mysterious: Buyers have migrated to and to Barnes and Noble, which dived into new media more aggressively than Borders, which apparently wasn’t hard to do. Borders may survive, thanks to an injection of almost $500 million from investors, but it won’t be the same. Think digital. Think new media. Think the end of bookstores as we’ve known them, although I could imagine the survival of the very small, very local boutique-like stores.

Time, Feb. 21, 2011

2. My Feb. 21 issue of Time magazine arrived in the mail today. (Two old-media words in that sentence alone: magazine, mail.) The cover was a stark image of a bald human head with a wire coming out the back of the neck, a la Matrix. Cover line: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.*” The asterisk directs us to the small type at the bottom of the cover: “*If you believe humans and machines will become one. Welcome to the Singularity movement.”

“Singularity,” the cover story explains, is “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” I haven’t read the entire story yet, but this “movement” promises — or threatens, depending on your point of view — to change us to the core, right down to what it means to be human. It even raises the prospect of what might be called eternal life, but not the way we find it described in the Bible or Koran.

3. Today’s “Fresh Air” program (NPR) featured Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter. (I love the name. Well, both of them: the network and the guy.) Stone joined host Terry Gross for “a wide-ranging discussion about the service, including how it was used recently in Egypt to help organize the revolution and how it has been used to spread democracy movements in other countries,” as the “Fresh Air” website says. It was a terrific, informative and, at some moments, inspiring interview.

My estimation of Twitter’s value as a social medium pretty much quadrupled,, especially listening to Stone talk about how the network has dealt with playing a major role in several major events in its five-year existence. (Five years!) But at some point during the interview, I realized in a deeply profound way that what Twitter and other social networks is doing is — pardon the cliché — the new normal.

It hit me at a gut level as never before: This is it. Unless we somehow throw ourselves back into a tech-less dark age (cf. Canticle for Leibowitz), we’re living in a new world and we’re not going back to the old one. It hasn’t been too long — less than six months — that I’ve said something like this: “Twitter is cool, and I see some good uses for it. But what’s the big deal?” I’ll never say that again.

4. Two words: Jeopardy. Watson. (In case you’re wondering: Watson, the IBM computer, easily outscored two human champions in a three-day match on the 25,000-year-old game show.)

5. And finally, in local news, WETS-FM, the public radio station for northeast Tennessee, where I live, announced it’s launching digital broadcasts in the autumn. It is probably the first radio station in this area to go digital, adding three HD channels to its existing analog broadcast. The station radically changed its format last year. It used to air a widely varied mix of NPR news and weekend programming, classical music and local “Americana” programming. Then last February it switched to all-news-and-talk during the week, with some NPR programming and Americana music on the weekends. Classical was gone. Were many listeners ticked off? You could say that. But going digital will let WETS-FM add a station just for Americana and another for jazz and classical.

Good timing for the announcement, by the way: East Tennessee State University, the station’s owner, received a $70,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to install the equipment. The CPB is in Congress’ budget-cutting line of fire this year. Maybe this served as a not-so-subtle message from the station that federal funding for NPR and PBS can actually add value to the community.

In Egypt: So many questions, so few answers — and so little time

I was working on a post that would ask a couple of questions that I haven’t seen addressed much, if at all, about the likely outcome of the drive for democracy in Egypt. Several commentators fear that Egypt 2011 will become another Iran 1979, which started out as a democratic movement but then metastasized into a hard-line theocracy.

I was wondering if (a) will it make a difference that Iran is mostly Shi’ite while Egypt, by far, is predominantly Sunni, and (b) will it make a difference that, compared to Iran, Egypt has been much more cosmopolitan, with closer ties to other nations (including the West), more tourism and more accessibility to international travel. Some friends who lived in Egypt for five years in the late 1990s think those cultural (and economic) differences are deeply rooted enough to keep a  post-Mubarak Egypt from becoming another Iran, even with Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in the mix.

I had some ideas about this, but today’s (Thursday’s) remarkable and disturbing events shelved them for now. I don’t have a clue where to begin. Today has raised other, more immediate questions, including urgent ones about the military: what will the army do?  Answers may start emerging tomorrow — or even by the time I publish this. Despite Mubarak’s best efforts to slow down the train, it’s still moving fast.

Even so, if you have ideas or good answers for either of those questions above, please share them in the comments section.

Postscript, Friday, Feb. 11: President Mubarak has stepped down and the Egyptian military council is reportedly taking over.

Coincidentally, on this date in 1979, the Iranian revolution won control of that country when prime minister went into hiding, effectively ceding power to Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned to Iran from exile 10 days earlier.

Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”