Saturday, November 21, 2009


Saturday Rock Show

Without a doubt, one of the most exciting bands out there is the wonderfully unclassifiable The Mars Volta. Here they are performing their song "Goliath".

A New Literary Culture

N.B.: This is a far more thoughtful response to Feodor's complaint about my remarks concerning Marcel Proust. If this doesn't satisfy him, well, I'll buy him a subscription to Dissent.

One point George Scialabba made last evening with which I profoundly disagree (for obvious reasons) is the effect of the internet on literacy. I find this odd, in particular, since so much of what happens on the internet has to be read. Perhaps a better way of putting it, or perhaps this is what he meant, is the decline of a particular type of literate culture that, indeed, has been in decline for a few decades, and lamented by conservative intellectuals for quite some time.

Much of the ballyhoo in higher ed over curriculum reform, emerging canons versus older canons, and what not seem to me to be, at least in part, a contest over what constitutes a literate person. For decades, there was an agreed-upon understanding, if not definition, that a literate person was one who could converse knowledgeably about particular pieces of fiction - Proust, Faulkner, Joyce - that constituted a particular modernist narrative about western society and its discontents. As time went on, and more and more literature from around the world became available, it was obvious that this particular set of writings was inadequate to describe an understanding of the world that purported to be cosmopolitan and open. Whether it was emerging writers such as John Barth, Philip Roth, or even Norman Mailer (late editions to that original canon in most places); to African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neil Hurston, the poet Countee Cullen, and Toni Morrison; to non-western authors including Chinua Achebe, Vikram Seth, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the pressure to include voices that were strange, occasionally non-English-speaking, and offered a perspective that was both different and illuminating increased.

With the advent of the internet, the opportunity for exposure to voices and sources outside what is considered acceptable increased exponentially. While it is always necessary to have cultural gate-keepers whose task is to sift through the mass of writings, both popular and literary, to find those nuggets that are truly worth keeping, the possibilities of exposure to all sorts of ways of looking at the world has democratized in a way that makes it much more difficult for those who see their task as holding the gates against the culture-Philistines.

All the same, I believe that the whole idea, what it means to be a literate individual, has been and continues to undergo a change. I believe that relieving ourselves of an ossified, strictly enforced canon of works defined as "literate" is a good thing. I do not for one moment believe this means we as a culture are, somehow, becoming more stupid. On the contrary, all it means is that we are constantly re-evaluating what it means to be literate and, therefore, the sources for understanding what that means, who we are, how we understand ourselves, is evolving. The change isn't a vertical one, from more to less intelligent and thoughtful. The change is horizontal, or perhaps a change of set. We are merely moving from this set of understandings to that set, without, in the process, losing any intellectual heft.

Part of the problem with the old canon, as I see it, is its narrow focus. While modernism was in full swing, these works were not just important; they were necessary for any understanding of the world beyond one's own very limited vision. As the ability to reach beyond the boundaries of the west opened our collective ears to voices as yet unheard, many of the ideas that shaped our sense of ourselves as a unified, even unitary culture, began to break down.

This is not to say that more contemporary, or non-Western, writers are better or worse. The only way to evaluate that is on the merits. This is not to denigrate any particular author, or set of authors. It is, rather, to ask the vitally important question - Who are we? How do we see ourselves? What is important to us? As the answers to these questions change, so, too, the sources that give us clues to those answers. This process is one that is necessarily in flux.

I was far too flip, and insulting, in a recent comment on the novelist Marcel Proust. In the process, I violated one of my own rules - I made a particularly personal point-of-view something far more than just a personal observation. I, therefore, apologize for that particular bit of childishness. While I cannot, for the life of me, crack the nut of Proust's narrative style, I would never deny his importance as a figure in western literary culture.

It is, however, necessary to ask the question, without making it facile, of the relevance of this particular, almost quintessentially modernist author. If the answer is that reading Proust is still necessary to get a grip on who we are (it is without a doubt necessary for an understanding of who we were at one time), then I would insist that he be read. Along with Anthills of the Savannah.

Making Connections

Last evening, I attended a lecture given by George Scialabba. One of the great highlights for me was meeting, in person, a thoughtful historian and dedicated progressive, Rick Perlstein. The most amazing part of the evening, however, was the invitation to join Rick, George, and a few others for a late dinner at Mazza's, a Lebanese restaurant on Lincoln Ave. Besides the excellent food - the best baklava I have ever had, a lentil soup and stuffed zucchini that were to die for - I also had the pleasure of sitting and chatting not only with Rick, but with Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and his lovely, charming wife.

The night was amazing for any number of reasons, not the least of them being the more than occasional glance down the table when I realized I was sitting and chatting and having dinner with Rick Perlstein. Easy-going, not at all affected by his position as an emerging, important figure in left-wing intellectual circles, it was a thrill and honor not only to have met him, but to be accepted by him and a small group of folks whose lives revolve around two things that matter most to me - ideas, and liberal politics.

It was this human connection, far beyond any topic we discussed - which ranged mostly across issues of who we were, what our lives were like, very much "getting to know you" kinds of things - it was this human connection that was most important. I feel very privileged to have been with that small group in that very dark restaurant last evening. Especially since the early-evening Chicago traffic made me extremely late for the lecture itself.

Oh, yeah, there is that $50 parking ticket, too. . .

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reconcilable Differences

Tomorrow evening, I am going to Chicago to hear George Scialabba talk about his new book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, where I hope to meet in person Rick Perlstein (I hope I don't stutter or go on and on . . .) and the author/speaker, get an autograph and a photo or two, and generally have a nice evening away. In a symposium at the website CrookedTimber on the book (a collection of review essays), one respondent notes that Scialabba dedicates the book to Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, and Christopher Lasch. To anyone even remotely familiar with the work of these three, this might seem an odd combination. Funny enough, when I read that the author had dedicated his work to these three I thought, "Wow, someone like me!" I cannot imagine three more disparate American thinkers; I cannot imagine three more important late-20th century American critics who are in need of more, rather than less, public acclaim and discussion.

As Henry notes in his response:
[W]hat philosophy on earth might possibly unite these three? The careful reader will at least be able to discern the outlines of an answer to this question when she finishes reading this book. While this answer is not as much an abstract philosophy, as a carefully elaborated set of political and critical judgments, which are both attractive and useful.

It is right here - this very usefulness that is important (how pragmatic of him to use such a turn of phrase . . .)

I think it important, if for no other reason than clarity, to point out that these three, along with Isaiah Berlin, have been formative for my own thinking as well. Adding Berlin should probably only confuse those who might try to understand, so I am going to try and, briefly, explain what I take from these four men, and what I leave behind, as a way of reconciling what seems irreconcilable.

I'll start with Berlin, my addition to the Trinity named by Scialabba. First and foremost, from Berlin I gained an appreciation for lost narratives, specifically those of the early Romanticist thinker Johann Herder and the Italian historian Giambattista Vico. There are many points with which I disagree with Berlin, not the least of them being his reading of Edmund Burke (and I find it ironic that I find Herder, especially, far more "mystical" in his thinking than Burke; here, I believe, Berlin has it exactly backwards). More importantly, I discovered a way of talking about liberalism and pluralism that is honest, vigorous, and above all, modest in its insistence on refusing to surrender to the complaints of those who denounce such thinking as "relativism". One can appreciate the magnificent variety of choices available to human beings for living a fully human life without losing the capacity for critical judgment about the differences among these various ways of living. Precisely in recognizing the historically conditioned nature of human existence, that it might be otherwise than it is, we are free to be critical without dehumanizing those whose lives are utterly different from our own. The freedom from the burden of the high moral ground offered here is immense.

From Lasch, I came to appreciate the power of cultural criticism from the left that, in many ways, is even more fiercely moral and vigorous than anything on the right. While in many ways Lasch became far more reactionary as he got older (Revolt of the Elites, his last, unfinished work, is far less a book "of the left" than, say, The Culture of Narcissism or even The True and Only Heaven), his point of departure was always an attempt to clarify a vision of American society as not so much decadent as it is spent of those values that, at one time, made it not just vigorous and prosperous, but far less hubristic and unsure of itself. While the criticisms of Lasch offered by Rich Yeselson are spot on, they do not rob Lasch of his importance as a social critic. While Lasch's became less afraid to voice a more retrograde point-of-view, at all times his criticism was based in a fierce moral vision of late capitalism robbing American society of values that made it a good place to live; the values it set forth for alternatives, rather than granting opportunities for an even more thoroughly moral life, eviscerate any possibility for a common, and communal, moral life. Indeed, any moral vocabulary becomes impossible with the increasingly totalitarian insistence of capitalism.

I read somewhere once (I wish I could remember all the references in my head) that most leftists go through a "Chomsky" phase; most are fortunate enough to pass through it and leave it behind. I, therefore, feel myself pretty fortunate. From his earliest political writing - American Power and the New Mandarins - through his many and oddly similar works on American foreign policy under the Bush's and Clinton, Chomsky single point of departure is the difference between the publicly stated goals of American foreign policy and the actual content, not to mention results, of those policies. Like many on the left, what I found initially satisfying about Chomsky was finding someone who could write intelligently about American imperial ambitions without apologizing for them. What I found increasingly frustrating about Chomsky in his later work was the obvious frustration and crankiness of his voice. It seems that nearly forty years shouting in the wilderness has rendered him not only less effective as an American Jeremiah, but bitter that he is far too often dismissed as a crank and even (on occasion by mainstream critics who haven't read his work) a conspiracy monger. My own point of departure for both appreciating Chomsky, and limiting that appreciation, is the inaugural essay in a late-70's collection of his entitled Towards A New Cold War. In introductory remarks, and by way of background, Chomsky discusses a policy white paper issued toward the end of WWII that set forth, in some general terms, how American foreign policy should develop over the ensuing decades that would be, for all intents and purposes, dominated by an America unrestrained by foreign powers of near-equal status. What I found in reading Chomsky's precis of this document, and his explication of the ways it determined American policy was how unremarkable it was. Of course a country emerging not only victorious but comparatively unscathed from a major war is going to move forward to exert all sorts of new power to its advantage. Of course the multiple confluences of interest between the ruling class and the monied class in America, at a time of unrivaled American hegemony, is going to produce not only staggering examples of hubris, but all sorts of clear cases of our policy being determined by the interests of that class with the most invested in the on-going success of our hegemonic policies. This fact, filled in with all sorts of historical detail, isn't about conspiracy, but rather, as I say, shared interest, based on an understanding of foreign policy as forwarding American interests abroad, however these are defined.

Finally we come to Richard Rorty. The most important perspective I gained from reading Rorty is humility. By removing philosophy from its throne as judge and jury over such matters as truth, goodness, and beauty, Rorty frees philosophy from the self-imposed burden of being the final voice on matters for which it is ill-equipped. What I get from his is an almost anti-philosophical humility, a sense of the embededdness of philosophy in history, as thought that is historically conditioned, rooted in specific individuals writing in specific times and circumstances, addressing specific issues, rather than - as one of my professors at the Catholic University of America said of Aristotle - someone writing for the ages. While Rorty disdains any kind of moral judgment; while he dismisses religion despite its refusal to disappear as an agent of historical activity; while he is far less hopeful for the prospects of the American project (despite the title of his last collection of essays being Philosophy and Social Hope); despite these misgivings, I was and am quite pleased to have read Rorty because, by dethroning philosophy as the ultimate determinate of human activity, we are freed from the seeming necessity of giving some kind of trans-historical, and largely fictive, explanation as to why, for example, science works so well, or human communities act the way they do. Rather, we can accept that science works so well because it works, for the most part, the way it is supposed to work. Nothing remarkable about that. As a tool, language is imperfect not because there is something we don't understand about language, but because it is nothing more than sounds we make or marks we make, and those sounds and marks mean different things to different people. Nothing unremarkable about that.

In many ways, what unites these four men for me is a sense that the world they are describing is far less occluded than we would otherwise think it is, or perhaps believe it should be. While there is, certainly, an insistence that their perspective allows an entry to understanding that is superior to others, the end result is one that demystifies the world, renders it intelligible on its own terms without recourse to any kind of a priori metanarrative. It also removes human thought and agency from any kind of central role in the universe, as final arbiter of defining, for all time, what it means to be human, to be American, to be a moral agent or community. One need not insist on the singularity of one's vision, or its groundedness in some occult thing called human nature, in order to give voice to one's passionate belief that ours is a world that could be better than it is. We need not dehumanize those whose vision and beliefs are different from ours precisely because their vision, their belief, is no less human than our own. It is just different. We can reject it, even call it out as a source of misery, without losing a sense of the limit of any moral judgment precisely because our perspective is rooted not in timeless values or eternal truths, but our own perspective, our own sense of shared interest and shared values.

Nothing remarkable about any of this.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Same As The Old Boss

I've been attempting, without much success, to avoid anything having to do with the roll-out of Sarah Palin 2.0. Like the New Nixon, the New Palin is the same as the old Palin, sans official title or base of public support apart from some on the right.

Last year during the Presidential election, I made it a point not to discuss the various tawdry and tabloid exploits of her family; to avoid nicknames such as Caribou Barbie; to steer clear, in essence, from anything other than her public positions on issues of national import.

This made for short posts.

Like Sam "Joe the Plumber" Wurzlbacher, Palin is another mindless doofus foisted on America by the McCain campaign in its futile effort to connect with the American people. That the Republican Party might just tear itself to shreds over the former governor of Alaska and her aspirations for what would likely be a temporary stint in higher office is actually quite funny. She is revealing herself as a shallow, largely ignorant pageant contestant bewildered by the fact that all her alleged charm and obvious good looks haven't wowed her critics. She seems even more befuddled that some of the judges turn thumbs down precisely on those characteristics that, in all likelihood, helped her out in the past.

The nice thing that all this media attention is doing is reminding us that, like the New Nixon, there really isn't a New Palin. There's just Sarah, with her bundle of catch phrases and prejudices, her refusal to admit that her entrance in to our national life is a stain that needs to be cleansed, rather than a moment to be celebrated. All that she represents, all she embodies, are the end result of all the contradictions within the conservative movement, visible at its dawning, pointed out at its zenith in the early 1980's, that have now rent it limb from limb.

While I understand why David Brooks and other thoughtful conservatives might be horrified at the thought that she might well be the Republican candidate in 2012, the sad truth is she is really all they have. That there is no "there" there is plain for all to see. Her rejection by the vast majority of the American people will only be a badge of honor for her supporters, who revel in their marginalization as a sign they are the tattered remnants of the faithful, the last vestiges of "real America" overwhelmed by a tsunami of political liberalism and cultural laxity.

She is, in many ways, the William Jennings Bryan of the Republicans in decline, without Bryan's many meritorious qualities. She even has this in common with Bryan - she left office before her term was up. As Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, Bryan quit because he detected, correctly, that Wilson was moving toward a more confrontational stance with Germany that could only lead to war. Palin left office in Juneau because . . . well, to my mind, because having someone ghost-write a book about her, making a lot of money, and getting her face on TV probably seemed more attractive than all that governing stuff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Reasons To Despise Jim Wallis

I have to agree with Duncan. Wallis' framing at the beginning of his HuffPo piece doesn't just miss the point; it elides over the simple reality - Stupak and the rest of the alleged pro-lifers in Congress don't care about the fetus. They only care about derailing health care reform. If, in the process, they can be seen as screwing over poor women, so much the better.

My Congressman

Rep. Don Manzullo (R-IL) called the Gitmo detainees who may be moved to a prison in his district "really, really mean people" who are "driven by a savage religion" in an interview with a local NBC affiliate that aired yesterday.

As opposed to all those nice, sweet folk who would normally be imprisoned there.

Memo to Democrats in IL-16 - can we please please please get rid of this guy?!?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Give 'Em Liberty, And Give 'Em Death

Out of deference to length and relevance, I am responding to the following with a post all its own:
Bush was a vernacular President. Obama is not.

This gets it backwards. Bush was a hegemonic President; Obama far less so. Bush entered office neither knowing nor caring all that much about the world outside. Entering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in earnest, he managed to rid the military and intelligence services of their language and culture experts pretty thoroughly. The Iraq war, done on a shoestring despite repeated insistence that the Iraqi army was not only formidable, but likely to use chemical and biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons, had no plan for the aftermath, precisely because the war planners believed that an invading, occupying force would be greeted as liberators.

Obama enters office with an appreciation of difference, of the reality that not everyone in other countries secretly desire to be an American, or even understands English. Obama understands that our relationships with other countries is not based on personal relationships (Bush's quip about seeing in to Vladamir Putin's likely non-existent soul is a great example) but on the reality of finding common interest and purpose.

Obama appreciates the vernacular. Bush disdains it for American as the lingua franca.

Music For Your Monday

I've never been a huge fan of most singer-songwriters. There are, obviously, exceptions, as with every rule. Joni Mitchell is one. Ray LaMontayne is another. Most, however, I just kind of pass over in silence.

When I was in high school, the AOR station to which I listened, for some reason I still cannot fathom, had Dan Fogelberg on its rotation. One fine summer afternoon, the DJ came on and announced an upcoming song by "Dan Fogelboring", a moment I have never forgotten (obviously), and the nickname has stuck in my mind ever since.

Yet, like all musicians of something beyond modest talent, Fogelberg has had moments that are, if not excellent, are at least interesting. Like most s/s's, his tend to be lyrical rather than melodic or harmonic. I have always thought the song "Heart Hotels" was kind of an interesting, odd, take on the human tendency, first, to have more than one room in one's heart, and to find solace at times in this or that old, dusty room, rather than throw it open for a new visitor, or even long-term resident. It is hardly a great song, but it is, as I say, interesting. It is made less serious, thankfully, by this video.

Now, "The Phoenix" is a song I like just because it captures a moment in a person's life. In the wake of heartbreak - whether from a lost love, or in grief over a death - there can come that wonderful morning when we wake up and realize we are still alive, and have so much for which to live. We will no longer be defined by loss, but by the possibility of what is to come. I also think the little instrumental intro, "Tullamore Dew", is pretty. For all those who remember those points when they have said, with Fogelberg, "I have cried too long", here's a grainy, poorly recorded live video.

Finally, while I know it gets too much airplay, especially at this time of year, there is something about "Same Auld Lang Syne" that I like. For no other reason, I would enjoy an encounter like this, I think, without the overtones of emotional yearning, and the bathos of the ending. I also discovered this Peoria Journal Star column that tells the true story behind the song. There's something even more beautiful about the reality, not least the honor and class of Jill Anderson Greulich for remaining silent out of respect for Dan Fogelberg. I wonder, though, if nearly thirty years after the song's original release if she is as tired of it as many of the rest of us. . .

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Read The Constitution

Jonathan Turley is an attorney, so it would be nice if he understood the response to his concern is already out there.
Denying children critical care may be divinely ordained for some parents, but it should not be countenanced by the legal system. Until courts refuse to accept religion as a mitigating factor in sentencing in such cases, children will continue to die, neglected as an article of their parents' faith.

My first, knee-jerk, thought upon reading Turley's piece is that it reminds me of that Simpsons episode, where at one point all the characters run around saying, in tones of earnest pleading, "But, what about the children?!?" Far too many state-sanctioned crimes are committed in the name of "doing good" rather than considering the implications of acting out of compassion without thought.

It is certainly something to mourn, the deaths of these children. It would be nice if they had a different view of the role of medicine as something God-given, a palliative we can make use of precisely because God has given us the intellectual and physical capacity to heal, artificially, deep wounds and illnesses. Yet, they do not so believe. Moreover, to force them through state-action to violate the tenets of their belief is far more horrible, even for them, then losing a child; it imperils their place before God. When the state insists that it has not only a right but a duty to place itself before anyone's relationship with his or her God, we are edging in to dangerous waters.

Virtual Tin Cup

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