Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Praise Of The Vernacular

I was recently "friended" on Facebook by a gentleman named Scott McLemee. I visited his website, and the first thing I read was a review essay of Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals. One part of the piece that leaped off the screen at me follows:
“‘Publicist,’” wrote Jacoby, “if it once connotated an engagement with the state and law, is almost obsolete, victimized by Hollywood and ‘public relations’: it now signifies someone who handles and manipulates the media, an advance or front man (or woman). A public intellectual or old-style publicist is something else, perhaps the opposite, an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one.” But it had to have another overtone as well: “The definition must include a commitment not simply to a professional or private domain but to a public world—and a public language, the vernacular.”

At this point, one can almost hear a chorus of ten thousand graduate students reciting, “But difficult ideas require complex language! Anything else is mere journalism!” Be that as it may, Jacoby insisted on the vernacular as a necessary corrective to the tendency of intellectual discourse to ossify, thereby excluding readers. The example of scholastic Latin came to mind. The turn to common language “characterizes modern culture since the Renaissance,” wrote Jacoby. “The adoption of the vernacular was not always simple or peaceful, for it meant that groups excluded from religious and scientific controversy could now enter the fray.”

Beneath this historical analogy, another set of references may have been active in shaping this call for a new public-intellectual vernacular. Jacoby’s earlier writing included studies of the Frankfurt School, and there were obvious echoes of J├╝rgen Habermas’s work on the public sphere—the space of free and open debate emerging in the eighteenth century, in which arguments must be made (and unmade) without respect to rank or privilege. But that may not have been the only Frankfurt School overtone. Jacoby complained about the tics and routines of academic prose—not just the jargon and the tone deafness, but the acknowledgments section, with its compulsive recitation of every colleague ever met (no back left unscratched). Any critical intent toward the larger culture was expressed in a form that served constantly to signal its participation in a subsystem of what Herbert Marcuse had called one-dimensional society.

As a student of both theology and philosophy, I have often marveled at the differences between the prose styles of various thinkers. Reading St. Thomas, for example, either in the original Latin or in translation, the first thing I discovered was the clarity of his writing style. This is not to say that the ideas he offered were either clear or easy to understand. His presentation, however, offered an opportunity for easier understanding precisely because it is a medieval example of Strunk & White in action.

Contrasted with, say, Immanuel Kant or G. W. F. Hegel, Aquinas appears almost simplistic. Kant and Hegel's ideas are no more complex or labyrinthine than the great Doctor from Paris; their nearly impenetrable prose, however, has too often leaving me wishing that "editor" had been an invention of the 18th century.

This is one reason I like Richard Rorty. He is not only a subtle thinker, provocative and subtle; he is an excellent prose stylist. Cornel West is another whose commitment to making his deep understanding of western cultural traditions, and the traditions that arose in protest to them as accessible as possible to as large an audience as possible is palpable.

One need not hide behind the jargon of the discipline to be thought "deep". Too often, opacity of style is a clue that, in fact, not much is really going on. I would much rather spend an evening reading an essay by Rorty, West, or Karl Popper (another philosopher committed to presentation as part of a means to a larger end) than wrestle through a chapter of Kant or Heidegger (perhaps the greatest style criminal in philosophy). The argument from necessity as McLemee presents it is unpersuasive precisely because, if the ideas intellectuals are pursuing are not done with at least a glance from one eye at the larger public and its benefit, it is nothing more than intellectual masturbation, which may relieve tension in the author, but does nothing to propagate public discourse.

Saturday Rock Show

After leaving the Sex Pistols, John Lydon spent some time trying to figure out what to do next. While the bundle of contradictions that continues to be his approach to music (including getting the original Pistols back together for a tour twelve years ago, with one minor exception; "Sorry we couldn't dig up our bass player," he quipped at one show) make any attempt to figure out what, if anything, he really means, there can be no doubt that his next project, Public Image Limited, pointed in a direction beyond the Pistols insistence on "no future", as they sang in "God Save the Queen". Their first release, an eponymously titled song, was a direct swipe at the British public who were to some degree confused as to who, exactly, John Lydon was. It may not always be good form to attack your audience, but after the verbal and occasionally physical beatings Lydon took, it is understandable.

Sex And The Church

Lisa told me that she is planning a class on human sexuality for youth and their parents to be held in the spring. I think this is an awesome idea. Among the many reasons for my sense of relief - I have long said the church needs to do more rather than less of this - is that I know it will not be anything like an experience I had as a too-young, too-inexperienced youth leader 20 years ago.

I took a youth group I was failing to lead to a concert by the Christian rock band Petra (they sound like Journey for Jesus, so it was a pretty agonizing musical experience for me), and in between sets, a man came out and talked to the mostly high-school-age audience. It was horrifying. Had I been fifteen or sixteen, it would have made sex the most frightening, dangerous experience, to be avoided at all costs.

The man's name was Josh McDowell.

One thing Lisa said that made me smile, and think of my experience hearing McDowell speak, is that we need to teach kids that abstinence should be about understanding sex is something, not dangerous or horrible, but beautiful and wonderful, to be cherished and protected until being with someone that way has some meaning. McDowell's entire spiel was a simple equation of sex and disease/death.

My question is a simple one - does anyone have experience of a positive approach to discussing human sexuality in a church setting?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Shaking In Their Boots

In re my previous post, it is more than a little serendipitous to have rediscovered this old gem from over two years ago.

Our conservative "leaders" are cowards, and want us all to be as cowardly as they are. Even more than their mindless naysaying to the President's agenda, this is what drives them. They are frightened of just about everything. I don't believe they want us to be frightened so they can do whatever they want. I think the lot of them - Boehner, Cornyn, Lieberman, most of the former Bushies - are nothing more than a bunch of terrified children.

Failing The Constitution Test

I wrote the other day that both elites and conservatives share a lack of faith in our judicial system. With the announcement that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks will be transferred from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to New York City to receive an actual trial, we have yet more evidence that conservatives just don't get it.

Don't Let The Door Hit Your Cassock On The Way Out

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is threatening to end all charity work in the city should the City Council permit same-sex marriages.

There's a nasty part of me that wants to write something about their reaction should the city consider lowering the age of consent for boys. . .

This is a tremendous opportunity for other denominations to ramp up their efforts. As far as I'm concerned, the city should say, "Thank you for your input," and go about their business as usual.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Constitution Shouldn't Apply To The Guilty

Wolf Blitzer does, indeed, hate America. Hating on the justice system began in earnest with the O. J. Simpson trial. When he was found not guilty, you heard it everywhere; the jury system was irreparably broken. Except, of course, it wasn't. It actually worked quite well in that case.

The problem, then and now, is media exposure not just creates the illusion of understanding, but a sense of participation in the legal process. The addition of Bush-era notions that certain individuals just don't deserve a trial, or any constitutional protections whatsoever. One can even sense a grating tone because they are forced to add "alleged" when talking about those accused of crimes. In the case of the Ft. Hood shooter, there is the additional weight that this was a mass killing of our soldiers, by a soldier.

Too bad for Blitzer that we live in a society in which even the Hasan Nidals of the world are entitled to constitutional protections. That's why they are called "rights". Indeed, Blitzer's point that Hasan will get better treatment than those who receive summary execution and all sorts of other treatment is what makes the United States a far better and humane place to live.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Veteran

When the Second World War ended, one difficulty that seemed impossible to set right was China. There were three Theaters of Operation in the war, Europe, the Pacific, and the China/Burma/India theater. The last was the least remembered as a separate theater, yet here the war had been going on far longer. Japan first invaded Manchuria in the early 1930's. They had sunk an American gunboat - and the Republicans had demanded Pres. Roosevelt do nothing in response - two years before Hitler invaded Poland. The Allied commander in China, Gen. Stilwell, had to beg borrow and plead to get supplies, and then they had to come in "over the hump" - be flown in from India over the Himalayas, a daunting challenge.

Matters in China were even more complicated because of the communist revolt going on. While Mao and Chinese Republican leader Chiang Kai-shek had reached a temporary accord, the nationalists had been breaking the pledge from the beginning, jailing thousands of known communists and their supporters and sympathizers, and even those suspected by them of being so. Some were summarily executed. The matter was made worse by the double-dealing of some of the American advisers of the nationalist leaders. Joseph Alsop's biographer details how he, as an intelligence adviser to the Chiang's, actively sought to undermine Stilwell in part because Stilwell reported accurately on the corruption and criminality of the Nationalist leaders. While Alsop won in the short term - Stilwell was eventually sacked - the Chinese would pay dearly in the end.

When the war was over, there were thousands of Japanese troops still in China; the communists, having decided that the cease-fire was now officially over, restarted their insurgency against the Nationalists. Outside a few cities, the civil and social and physical infrastructure was in such tatters that many thought China might never fully recover. The US decided to help out by, among other things, sending the First Marine Division to China. Among those who would spend nearly a year in China was a young 18-year-old Marine intelligence operative named David Johnston. His older sister, Virginia, would, over the course of time, become my mother.

David was going to be mustered out. He and his group had been training all summer for the invasion of Japan. After the surrender, everything was on hold. Then, the orders came down; he and his group wouldn't be needed, and he and many others would be discharged from the Marine Corps. Then, within a few days, those orders changed, and David, assigned to the 1st Div. even though he actually operated outside the usual lines of command, would sail from the east coast, through the Panama Canal, and eventually wind up in the city then known as Tientsin, on the Pacific coast across the Yellow Sea from Korea.

His adventures - and they were adventures - were numerous. Some were dangerous. Some were exciting. Some of his time was very peaceful; David has fond memories of sitting on the wall around the old city of what was then known as Peiping (Beijing), eating local melons and watching the sun set through the dust storms from the Mongolian Desert. Yet, his trip was tinged with a bitter sadness.

While onboard the transport, he received a communique that his young wife of just six months, Marine Sgt. Janice Charteris, had been killed in an automobile accident in Camp Lejeune, NC. Sgt. Charteris had been pregnant at the time. David had yet to tell his family he had married Janice in a whirlwind courtship just after boot camp; with the sole exception of his oldest brother, no one in the family would learn of this first marriage or its tragic ending, for decades.

My family has served in a variety of ways over the years in the armed forces, from my great-grandfather lying about his age and serving in the GAR at the end of the Civil War to my mother's younger brother Ivan, who was a Navy pilot, flying planes off boats (among other things). David's experiences in China, like his older brother Eugene's time in the Navy during WWII, were long held secret for a simple reason - they, like all intelligence operatives before and since, were ordered to forget all that happened, once they wrote their reports to their superiors. Except, of course, being told to forget, and actually forgetting, are two different things.

If there's someone you know, or someone to whom you are related, who has served in the military, in whatever capacity, thank them today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why I Like The Black Panthers

In the mid-1970's, radical black theologian William R. Jones (author of Is God a White Racist?) gave a speech at my alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary. In that speech, he made the suggestion that the near-canonization of Martin Luther King, Jr. was symptomatic of the history of white America finding an acceptable black man as "leader", whereas the African-American community was not compelled to follow suit; if it had multiple sources of community strength, adhering to a wide range of views (Jones cited Malcolm X in particular), so much the better. Considering the academic Dean at the time, J. Philip Wogaman, had marched in Selma and suffered with the folks there with King, this was, quite literally, a fart in church.

Yet, Jones' point needs to be heard as a legitimate criticism of the near-universal acclaim King was already receiving at that time.

This is not to suggest that, in the period when King and the SCLC was most active, it was not perceived as dangerously radical. Indeed it was; J. Edgar Hoover did everything he could to undermine King. King's message, especially after 1965, when he pointed out the continuity between the struggle for Civil Rights and the struggle against the war in Vietnam, was far more radical than the kind of "Kum Bah Ya" message we too often get today.

During a seminar on Liberation Theology, I pointed out that, for all that King is so beloved for his "I Have A Dream" speech, the reaction of the southern power structure showed that, despite the best efforts of King and others, "non-violence" was not possible as a tactic for social change, precisely because the power structure would use violence to suppress any attempt at social change. I still believe that, despite the earnest quest for social justice through non-violence, this is true.

Other responses at the time, including black separatism given voice (for a time) by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, criticized not only King's nonviolence, but his goal of social and political integration. They also were far more militant in their approach to the white power structure, and there is more than enough reason to grant their position a fair hearing than to react to it because it refuses to denounce violence as a tactic for social confrontation (not necessarily change). The Panthers, in particular, were a very visual threat precisely because they were armed, wore fatigues, and used a violent rhetoric of opposition that guaranteed them not only press coverage, but official hostility as well.

Except, for the most part, the Panthers violence was rhetorical. Dedicated to creating community support networks, feeding the hungry, education support, and other local concerns, the Panthers were merely exercising their quite legal right to bear arms in their own defense and the defense of their community. Far more than right-wing militia types who believe that the ZOG is preparing to have UN troopse swoop in and steal our guns and make us all swear fealty to Allah and the mullahs in Iran (as opposed to the former belief it was all about the communists), the African-American community's position on the threat of force to meet official terrorism has more than a little moral legitimacy.

While the history of the Panthers is ambiguous at best, I believe their original program, violent rhetoric included, has more than enough claim to being a morally and even politically legitimate position. While I understand why many are turned off at any call to violence under any circumstances, I am not, and while I would not necessarily accept an unprovoked violent attack by any individual or group, the Panthers' position, one of defense against a racist power structure, is one I find, at the very least, a nice "up yours" to the establishment.

Populism Doesn't Mean Stupid

This Weekly Standard piece is s wrong, nothing can make it right.
If Sarah Palin visits Nashville on her book tour, she really ought to stop by the Hermitage. Andrew Jackson's plantation is a lot more than a beautifully restored example of Greek Revival architecture and design. It's also a monument to the seventh president's democratic legacy--of rule by the people, of competitive commercial markets, of entrepreneurial individuals lighting out to the territories. It's a legacy to which Palin is heiress. And one she ought to embrace.

"Entrepreneurial individuals"? What kind of crap is that?

Even worse than the comparison to Jackson - a tough, weather-beaten soldier who actually had military victories under his belt, unlike any of the current crop of GOP war-mongers - is invoking the name of William Jennings Bryan. Making his mark at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan was the prototypical prairie populist. He was, however, no dummy. While he also ended his life in the 1920's defending Biblical literalism in an overheated Tennessee courtroom, the years in between were hardly arid. Three times Democratic nominee for President, he was Woodrow Wilson's first Secretary of State. He left office because he opposed Wilson's movements toward war with Germany and Austria; in other words, he had principles for which he was willing to take a stand.

More broadly, however, Palin is less a "populist" than she is a figurehead for the right-wing. She seems to have little regard for any individual other than herself, any group other than her family, and any desire for public service rather than self-aggrandizement while in office. Also, "populism" has been far too long equated with a kind of anti-intellectual, almost mob-like mystique that we should be reminded that this is precisely part of the problem populism existed to counter. Unlike its fraternal twin progressivism, populism developed as a rural reform movement against various vested interests. The Grange, Prohibition, women's suffrage, anti-trust - these were all populist issues and program before they were adopted by Progressives. Furthermore, much of the stereotyping of populists as ignorant yahoos was done by urban progressives who had an almost visceral assumption that anyone not from a city was, by definition ignorant.

Michael Moore is a populist. Paul Wellstone was a populist. For all his megalomaniacal tendencies, Huey Long of Louisiana had a pretty progressive program, and frightened Franklin Roosevelt to death.

I consider myself a populist (small "d") democrat.

Sarah Palin is no more a populist than I am a Maoist.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Music For Your Monday

The first industrial band was England's Throbbing Gristle - and isn't that an awesome name? The description was related to the industrial sounds from which they derived their rhythms, if one can call them that. Not yet related to heavy metal in any way, Throbbing Gristle used tape loops, analog synthesizers, and various "found sounds" to create a nasty soundscape to their lyrical explorations of death, dismemberment, and almost total alienation.

As industrial developed, one band that took it to a logical extreme, adding heavily distorted guitars and turning them up past the point of clarity was Ministry. Combining punk, metal, and synth-pop danceability, in much the same way as Nine Inch Nails would later, Ministry changed and grew over time, with the one constant being founder/leader Al Jourgensen's uncompromising vision. By turns near-blasphemous, politically radical, and socially offensive, Ministry did have one constant - they were always extremely LOUD.

"Psalm 69" - do I need to explain this one?

This isn't very nice . . . not even the t-shirt. . . "No W"

Ministry did an entire release of covers. Trying to find my favorite is difficult, but this little take on "Wonderful World" makes the point well.

Hole In The Wall

Twenty years ago today the people of an unofficially united Berlin began the process of tearing down the wall that had divided them since 1961. The first holes were punched through a day or two after the East German government stopped shooting people who approached the wall without authorization.

One way not to celebrate this event comes today in the form of this Cal Thomas' column.
When the wall fell, leftists could not bring themselves to admit they had been wrong, much less apologize for their misplaced faith. So they did what they do best: they made excuses.

Thomas quotes the Media Research Center, a right-wing nonsense group, and quotes that infamous socialist Strobe Talbott of the Daily Worker . . . no, sorry, that would be Time. He also quotes anti-capitalist Ted Turner, who wants everyone to not make money, just like he didn't.

If anyone is stupider, and meaner, and more ridiculous, on the occasion of celebrating this monumentally wonderful event - an event like the French Revolution in many ways insofar as we have yet to absorb all it has to teach us - I haven't seen it. Thomas is too stupid and lazy to quote actual socialists, communists, and western Stalinists (yes, there are a few), and calls Ted Turner an apologist for Leninism. Furthermore, as a self-professed leftist, I for one remember getting quite emotional when I saw what was happening in Berlin. I had been following the disintegration of communism across Central Europe (not "the Eastern Bloc" as Thomas calls it; and it wasn't "liberated"; these were individual revolutions brought by the people) since the spring, when Poland held multi-party elections and Hungary opened its border with Austria. When the first news reports that there were people dancing on the Berlin Wall, I was stunned, but the feeling I remember most was joy.

Thomas' mean, small-minded, and stupid column, in which he can't even bring himself to cite actual leftists, and finds quotes most likely ripped out of all context to support his claim that our horrible Stalinists at CNN and Time gnashed their teeth at the collapse of communism is part of a right-wing mindset that continues to believe this is all the work of one man, US Pres. Ronald Reagan. Except, it's not. While Mikhail Gorbachev certainly deserves more credit than Reagan, especially for signaling to the East Germans that the Soviets would no longer support their decision to kill their own citizens if they wished to travel to West Berlin, it is the people of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria that deserve the credit. They did it. Not Reagan, not Gorbachev - it was the people who did it.

This left-winger celebrates today with them. I know of no one, not even die-hard western communists, who continue to support the terror regimes in the Soviet bloc, although there have been some who used to do so. It would have been nice if Thomas had the decency to admit that even we leftists are happy that the wall got some holes in it.

God Is Your Enemy

The folks from Westboro Baptist Church have sunk to a new low. I honestly didn't think it was possible; reveling in American dead as Divine punishment for the "sin" of homosexuality, standing around military funerals with the message that God killed our young service personnel because the United States isn't terrorizing the gay folk is bad enough. Now, they are protesting outside Sascha and Mahlia Obama's school in Washington, DC.

The Obama girls, like Chelsea Clinton, attend Sidwell Friends School, run by Quakers, who are, obviously, notoriously anti-Christian, wanting to destroy America as violently as possible.
Ellis Turner, the associate head of Sidwell, told ThinkProgress that students and faculty members wearing rainbow colors staged a counter-protest. They held a banner with the Quaker phrase, "There is that of God in everyone" . . .

These are horrible people whom God loves. We are asked to pray for them, because they are God's children, too. I guess I, for one, would like some assistance on this front, because hate-filled bigots who celebrate death in the name of the God of Christianity makes me angry.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

One Down, One To Go

So the House passed health care reform, with the egregious Stupak Amendment. The buzz seems to be that it will be removed in conference between the House and Senate.

There are some who think that, should the Stupak anti-abortion amendment still be in the conference bill, progressives should vote against it. I say, nonsense. Let it pass, then let a challenge to the amendment play out in the courts.

The Perils Of Musical Ideology

As I was finishing up Barker and Taylor's Faking It last night, and started Simon Reynolds Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, I got to thinking more and more about the whole issue of authenticity. One of Reynolds major theses is that postpunk, unlike punk, sought to undermine ideas about authenticity as it consciously merged a variety of musical styles, believing that the destructive aspects of punk had opened up all sorts of possibilities. Thus the deliberate adoption of early dub and reggae by bands like the Clash and Madness (and later No Doubt) are examples of mixing and matching musical styles that move beyond sterile, facile notions of authenticity.

Yet, I have to wonder. Part of the problem with the whole notion of authenticity is a kind of cultural monism; one is only truly authentic if one is playing a music rooted in one's own cultural experience. An African-American playing European art music is deemed less authentic than a southern white man playing the blues; West African musicians using traditional instrumentation and chord structures is more authentic than if those same artists use blues progressions and augment the rhythms with hip-hop beats. The biggest swipe at prog rock is its inauthenticity precisely because it sought to take rock beyond the three-minute pop song, based in the blues, and seemed to highlight musical virtuosity over and above the spontaneity of music rooted in the moment.

Except this latter description is utterly false. King Crimson, for example - at least in the eighteen-month long period from early 1973 through mid 1974 - set aside time during their concerts for group improvisations, or "blows" as the band called them. If one listens carefully enough to live recordings from Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Genesis, one hears intimations of the various group members pushing the boundaries of even the most rigidly structured songs. The live version of "Perpetual Change" on Yessongs is a thirteen-minute example of Steve Howe stretching out during a long breakdown offered in the midst of the song.

More to the point, however, as Robert Fripp suggests in liner notes to several of the KC box sets, the criticism that the music of his band, and other related bands, is inauthentic and self-indulgent misses the mark precisely because - at least in the case of King Crimson - it was rooted not so much in any cultural dynamic from which the members emerged (the English working class striving to move upward). Rather, the music was "authentic" precisely because it was the music they enjoyed playing. As Chris Squire from Yes said once in an interview about the early years of the band, "Everyone had ideas and the songs tended to grow." The whole point was to include as much of everyone's input as possible, as long as it made some kind of musical sense in context. Whether it's "Firth of Fifth" by Genesis, "Yours Is No Disgrace" by Yes, "Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part I" by King Crimson, or "Lemmings" by Vandergraf Generator, the songs hold together pretty well.

Fripp's further point that much of the criticism of self-indulgence and "faking it", at least in the case of the British music press, was rooted as much in typical British class bias; these bands, made up for the most part of young men from the working class, were not supposed to do anything above their station, to achieve more, to attempt something new and different. Like the scene in the film of Pink Floyd's The Wall where the public school teacher humiliates young Pink by reading his poetry out loud, children of a certain "station" were not to have pretensions to anything artistic. The success of the British blues revival in the 1960's was acceptable because, while inauthentic from one perspective, it was rooted in a common sense of experience. Keith Emerson, Robert Fripp, and Rick Wakeman borrowing from classical and modernist orchestral pieces was inauthentic precisely because, as children of the working class, this was not something people such as they should be doing.

This is not to say that there were not self-indulgent moments in prog. Emerson Lake & Palmer were particularly guilty of showing off a bit too much, concert solos becoming exercises in self-aggrandizement long past the point of boredom. Yet, there is really little to distinguish Peter Gabriel's theatricality as lead singer of Genesis and David Bowie's theatricality as Ziggy Stardust, or to separate Rick Wakeman's cape from Freddie Mercury's mime get-up.

In the end, even at their worst moments, the progressive bands still maligned by so much of the music press were no less authentic than any other band precisely because they were playing what they wanted to play the way they wanted to play it. The issue was less with any inauthenticity on the part of the musicians, and more with rock critics straitjacketed by a combination of British class prejudice and a simplistic, and quite racist, view of what rock should and should not be. If one listens without the burden of ideology, the music has some great moments, and stands up on its own merits in the same way as the music of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Bruce Springsteen.

Virtual Tin Cup

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