Saturday, November 28, 2009

Saturday Rock Show UPDATE

Of all the songs on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, "She's the One" is far and away my favorite. For one thing, I love those piano arpeggios at the beginning; I would love to hear a hard rock band cover this song using guitars rather than piano. I also love the confession of surrender in the midst of the song; love renders us stupid, really, yet where would we be without a little stupid in life, right?

UPDATE: Oh, God. Doesn't it figure the day I point out one of my favorite Springsteen songs, David Brooks writes a fatuous piece on the same artist. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to not like Springsteen any more.

Beauty And The Beast

Not that long ago, it seemed the Roman Catholic Church was bent on renouncing pretty much anything smacking of artistic integrity that might be thought even a wee bit insulting, let alone (as the title of a book featuring this infamous photograph by Andres Serrano said) Blasphemy). Following hard on the heels, here in the US, of official complaints concerning government support for exhibits by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, there seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of conservative elites to suppress any artistic expression that they might deem "offensive".

A recent meeting at the Vatican between Pope Benedict XVI and various artists from a variety of fields (Ennio Morricone?!?), as reported in The New York Times, might be a first tentative step toward reestablishing a relationship between religious bodies and the artistic community. Historically, it was the Roman Church, and in the east the Orthodox Churches, that supported, even encouraged, artistic endeavors (despite occasional lapses in to iconoclasm) as an expression of human devotion.

While I say this may be a first step, there are many, many more to take. I would add that some of those steps need to be taken by artists who, it seems to me, revel far too much in late-Romantic ideas of suffering, marginalization, and protest as marks of integrity. Some of the greatest masterworks in music, architecture, sculpture, and painting (not the least of them being the Sistine Chapel itself) were done through support by powers-that-be, and yet included sly digs at those same powers even as the artists rested relatively comfortably with the income they were receiving (although, one should add, some still managed to die impoverished; Mozart managed to piss his talent, his life, and his money away on extreme dissipation, hardly an example to follow). Furthermore, the kind of in-your-face pieces like Serrano's "Piss Christ", for all they are honest portrayals of the artist's feelings, need to be an opening not to the victimization of the artist ("Oh, woe is me, no one understands my art and now they're calling me bad names!"), but an opening for discussion of larger questions: Why does this piece say about the contemporary Catholic Church? What is the relationship between a theological understanding of beauty and its seeming opposite, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine?

While it is a good thing that the Pope is encouraging dialogue with the artistic community, and many artists are responding positively to this opening, particularly in light of the person behind the office - Joseph Ratzinger - questions and caution are always necessary. The Roman Catholic Church has been a source of much of the beauty in the west; this history should be the basis for renewing a relationship. Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, has long been a reactionary force, discouraging change, innovation (at least in doctrine and practice), and not necessarily being a prime mover in making the Roman Church part of the 21st century. Moving beyond the days of complaint, mutual misunderstanding and even occasional hostility, the next step might just be a survey of all sorts of current artistic endeavors - architecture and sculpture, music and photography, painting and drama - and delving in to the religious dimension, those one or two nuggets that may just speak of God's love for humanity, of the way the beauty, or even its lack, is an expression of faith (or the rage at God's silence as well). Whether it's Serrano's evocative photo, the plays of David Mamet, or contemporary sculpture - whatever it may be - working together to open dialogue may well clear the air of hostility and suspicion as a way to keep the lines of communication open.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

September 11 Doesn't Count

Oh. My. Lord.
PERINO: And we had a terrorist attack on our country. And we should call it what it is. Because we need to face up to it so that we can prevent it from happening again.

HANNITY: I agree with you. And why won’t they say what you just so simply said?

PERINO: They want to do all of their investigations. I don’t know. All of the thinking that goes into it. But we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term. I hope they’re not looking at this politically. I do think we ought it to the American people to call it what it is.

I didn't realize the memory hole was that deep. These are truly horrible people.


Tintin at Sadly, No! takes Charles Lane to the woodshed for a really horrid piece on a survey on domestic food security in these perilous economic times. Of all the awful things in this piece, the relationship between poverty and obesity is misrepresented, again. As we are only a day away from an entire holiday dedicated to food it might be a good idea to clarify some things on this point.

While the survey in question makes it clear that many homes are currently experiencing anxiety related to how much food they have in the house, the effects of economic insecurity on diet can be limned pretty easily. Obesity as a clinical condition is related less to overeating than it is to a combination of poor diet and lack of exercise (there also might be individual variations in metabolism that effect weight). The effects of stress - and economic hardship certainly produces more than its fair share - on metabolism also play a role. Combining a life defined by stress, eating poorly, and insufficient exercise is a recipe for poor health, including obesity. this dynamic, well known among public health officials and researchers for quite some time, has yet to penetrate among some people who see "obesity" as equaling "fat" as equaling, "man, that guy/gal is eating a whole lot." Ironically, as we come upon Thanksgiving, many of us who are in relatively good shape and who eat well are far more likely to be guilty of the traditional sin of gluttony than those we far too often think of when we consider that particular classical "cardinal sin".

Gluttony is a kind of selfishness, a hoarding to oneself of the epicurean delights of life at the expense of those who do not or cannot do so. A glutton may be in wonderful health, eat a balanced diet, and be the picture of well-being; our society is one built upon not only greed - what else lies at the heart of late consumer-based capitalism? - but greed's close kind, gluttony. Lane's column presents an apologia for gluttony as a moral deprecation of those who, through a combination of circumstance and deliberate social policy, face fewer opportunities and are presented with fewer choices in life. The results, far too often, are poor health, including obesity. Rather than see it as a moral failing (much as many still see alcoholism and other addictions), we need to focus on obesity as a health problem, and a health problem directly related to socio-economic conditions.

This is not to make anyone feel guilty for an enjoyable Thanksgiving spread tomorrow. It is only to point out that, among the elite, there are still those who are no better than third-graders, sitting and pointing at the fat kid in the corner. A better society would cultivate public voices that had compassion for those for whom life has left fewer choices; it would also offer solutions deeper than "America is great and people only go hungry because they want to; look at all the poor fat people out there!"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Troubles With Chomsky

I suppose I should confess that, while I admire Noam Chomsky's devotion to honesty and truth, his commitment to justice and passion for those whose voices are far too often stilled in our high-minded debates over how America conducts its relations with other states, I have come to several realizations about him and his enormous, and important, body of work.

First and foremost, his developing voice of one put upon, ignored, even silenced through a conspiracy of those who hold the reins of power would be more creditable if not for the consistency of his output (if the powerful were trying to silence him, they might be more successful). Furthermore, while it is true he is, for the most part, sidelined in elite debates on foreign policy, I believe it has less to do with any bold truth-telling on his part; rather, I believe that most folks in the foreign service, and political scientists who study foreign relations and diplomatic history, find much of the framework of his criticisms of American foreign policy not only banal, but beside the point.

A good summary of Chomsky would be, "America professes to act in the world according to the principles of international law and toward the end of advancing the political, social, and economic welfare of all nation-states; in fact, the United States acts as an imperial power, with the greatest military machine in world history, grinding the aspirations and dreams of foreign peoples under the heels of its 'national interest'."

To which I can only ask, "Has there ever been an imperial power that didn't act this way?"

Much of the chiding Chomsky does, for all it sets an understanding of various foreign policy problems on a far more realistic understanding of the issues involved (case in point - the Israeli/Palestinian issue, as it developed through the 1970's and 1980's, had little to do with security, and almost nothing to do with ethnicity or religion, but was about access to resources, specifically water and arable land in the West Bank Territories), ends up sounding like whining, particularly as he complains, again and again, that his critique is unheard, his voice silenced, his point-of-view mocked. While he has served an important, even prophetic role in calling to account both the intellectual and policy elite for their many and varied crimes, both of omission and commission, the pose of the put-upon victim wearies even the most dedicated reader.

Finally, in a not-unimportant point, he has yet, to my knowledge, apologized for the historically ridiculous last chapter of his two-volume The Washington Connection in which, by refusing to give any benefit of the doubt not only to American, but the few foreign sources then available, he called the accusations against the, then, newly successful Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, in essence, lies. While it is possible to understand a certain hesitance in passing an final judgment, at the time, given that the Khmer Rouge denied any access to foreigners during the period immediately following the revolution, even then, as the cities were cleared, the roads to the jungle strewn with the bodies of those whose lives were deemed expendable, a certain credence, at the very least, to the possibility that something dreadful was happening could at least be considered.

Yet, three decades later, with the millions of bodies a mute testimony to the horrors human beings can inflict in the name of the pursuit of an ideal, Chomsky has yet to publish anything that might even come close to saying, "I was wrong about Cambodia." This is even more troubling because it certainly gives a certain amount of ammunition to critics who insist he is far more quick to place blame on the United States for its role in various local horrors than to contemplate that other nations have people equally ready and able to commit mass murder.

Chomsky has done more than any other commentator to point out not only the distance between our rhetoric and our actions, but to point in the direction for the sources of our actions. For that he is to be thanked. His myopia, however, placing all blame and responsibility for the tragedies of the past half-century at the feet of the United States is not only wrong, being quick to judge ourselves too harshly has led, in his case, to a blindness to one of the greatest crimes against humanity.

Music For Your Monday

It's Thanksgiving on Thursday, with the beginning of the Christmas Holiday Shopping Season following on its heels. So, in honor, here's Arlo Guthrie with "Alice's Restaurant" followed by "Black Friday" by Steely Dan.

What Other Communists Are There?

From Glenn Greenwald back in 2006:
Conservatism is a set of principles about how government ought to function and the policies which political leaders should implement. And those principles can be known not by how they exist in some Platonic form, abstractly enshrined by think tank groups or in textbooks. One knows it by how its proponents -- "conservatives" -- actually govern and by who and what they support.

And what "conservatives" have supported for the past six years -- vigorously, loyally, unambiguously -- is George W. Bush and the Republicans who have controlled the Congress. "Conservatism," in its only meaningful sense, is that which they have done.

Greenwald was protesting the idea that emerged after the Republican electoral defeat of 2006 that Republicans had lost because they had betrayed true conservatism in some way. He made the not unimportant point that, rather than some hoary set of theoretical notions, conservativism was whatever conservatives actually did in power. Since what conservatives did in power was trash the constitution, wage illegal wars, and refuse to have any coherent response to a natural disaster that nearly destroyed a great American city (not to mention attempt to involve Congress in a personal tragedy in Florida), one has to wonder what, exactly, conservative boosters were claiming might be real conservatism.

In George Scialabba's essay on Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Scialabba takes issue with Berlin placing responsibility for the crimes of the communist regimes partly on the head of Karl Marx. In the wake of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact 20 years ago, and the end of communist rule in Russia two years later, many leftists and Marxists attempted to make the point that now the time was ripe for real Marxism to be employed as a governing tool.


Whether or not it is true that the Soviet Union, or China, or Albania, or wherever, truly embodied Marxist principles in action, it need hardly be said that there has not been a regime that claimed the name of communist that did not descend, rapidly and almost inevitably, to despotism and, usually, terror against its own people. Scialabba's attempt to rescue Marx from what can only be called the fair judgment of history is half-hearted at best.

I can certainly endorse, as the title of Cornel West's monograph puts it, The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought. I have always said that Marx was an excellent diagnostician of the malaise of capitalism. I have also always argued that, as a political clinician, he was horrible, promoting a cure that, in the end, was far worse than the disease.

The left, particularly in America, has yet to come to terms with the reality that, as a political program, Marxism is not just a dismal failure (as is conservatism), but a recipe for authoritarianism and the destruction of liberty. While there are many things in Marx, and his theoretical interpreters (Lenin, Bloch), I find not just insightful but important, I could no more endorse a program of Marxist political change than I could a return to the conservative rule of the Republicans of most of the first decade just past. While conservative principles, even in shorthand, sound great - as do Marxist principles - the actual results are far too awful to even contemplate.

While there are many things wrong with the United States, one need not take solace in the thought that there exists a program that, once enacted, would rid us of our many political and social ailments. Sad to say, what little hope we have lies in the kind of piecemeal economic and social regulation that has largely been dismantled by a generation of conservative governance. Indeed, even returning the tax code to the structure that existed from the end of WWII through the mid-1970's seems an almost impossible task; doing so, however, might just be a way to restart the economic engine without relying either on pumping cash in to the investment bloodstream, bloating it yet again, or attempting to reduce the American people to simple consumers of other producer's wares.

While there is much in Scialabba's review essays I find myself nodding in agreement with, on this point he, like much of the older (and some of the newer) Left is, quite simply, wrong.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Refusing The Bait

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final feast of the Church calendar; it is interesting that one of the texts Lisa used was the trial scene in the Fourth Gospel, precisely because here we have the clearest definition of what Jesus' Kingdom is and what it is not.

It is also interesting because Karl Barth based his political theology, as set forth in his long essay "Church and State", on a reading of this passage, with an eye always on the question of power and authority, and the irony embedded within the appearance before the ultimate worldly power in the person of the Roman governor, Pilate, and Jesus, the incarnate Son of God.

Yet, these are not the issues with which I want to deal. I was struck, once again, by the power of Jesus' refusal to deal with Pilate's questions in any direct way. Indeed, when Pilate asks Jesus if he, Jesus, is indeed the king of the Jews, Jesus replies, "You have said it." In other words, Jesus refuses to answer the question, but forces Pilate to confront his complicity in not understanding just what is transpiring in this little meeting.

What I have always found even more fascinating is the way Jesus anticipates Pilate's final question, answering it before it is given breath, talking about those who live in the Truth - and in John's Gospel Jesus has already indicated that he, not some abstract definition or disembodied set of principles, or timeless metaphysical substance is what constitute "Truth" - are those who hear his words and live by them. Yet, even after Jesus has given Pilate more than enough information, he still asks, "What is Truth?"

There is a part of me that wishes Jesus had at least smiled, if not laughed out loud, showing contempt not only for the question, but for the obvious living out of the point he, Jesus, was trying to make. The Truth, not some abstract set of words or vague, metaphysical thing, but the living, breathing human being standing in front of Pilate had already quite explicitly told Pilate what Truth is, and how it has the power to change whole Empires; death cannot overcome it, raw political force collapses in the face of its never ending grace. Yet, precisely because Pilate is wedded to these things, these transitory phenomena that seduce yet betray, he would rather pose a question in a way that makes sense to him, even though, had he been paying attention, has already been shown to be meaningless.

Would that more of us could emulate Jesus at this moment. Would that more of us could confront the stupidity, blindness, and hubris of naked force with the understanding that it is a hollow shell, wedded to ways of thinking and living that ignore the reality that stands right here, asking nothing but offering everything. Pilate reached his decision based on the careful, but ultimately wrong, calculation that this one man's death would make little difference. To Pilate, Jesus' words made no sense because he spoke of unworldly kingdoms, of people living out the Truth because they had heard it, and met it.

We all need, again and again, to remember that the forces of this world - power, ruthless ambition, the desire to dominate - stand exposed for all their emptiness and fruitlessness in this confrontation between the Roman governor and the provincial prophet. Even before his death and resurrection, Jesus had already stripped the Roman Empire of its clothes, revealing the ridiculous pretense hiding underneath the white robes of power. We Christians need, always, to remember that the threats posed by this world have already been shown to be almost comically weak when faced with the reality of God made flesh. It should embolden us to refuse to take the bait, to refuse to answer questions for which we have already given an answer, and to go about doing what needs to be done, knowing that whatever victory the world may claim over our lives is always hollow.

Answering A Really Good Question

As I continue to enjoy the fruits of Fridays' foray in to Chicago (accidentally alliterative, but I'll leave it), I came across a kind of index blog for the gentleman who organized the event, author and critic Danny Postel. As I scrolled through, I came across this piece he wrote for the UK journal New Humanist.
"Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?"

I just about hit the panic button when my six-year-old son Theo put this question to me not long ago. His mother, who is a Christian, had taught him that Jesus was God. When Jesus's visage appears in a painting or on television, Theo sometimes exclaims, "That's God!" In his butterfly question he seemed to reason, syllogistically, that if Jesus was God, and God created the world and its life forms (butterflies being one of them), Jesus "invented" the winged creatures. Either that or God and Jesus are simply interchangeable in his mind.

Less as a Christian and more as a parent and spouse, I'm uncomfortable with his response, which follows immediately.
"First, Theo, your question presumes that Jesus was God," I responded. "Many people, like mommy, believe he was, but many others don't. It also presumes that there is a God - we don't know for sure that there is." "I think there is," he retorted. "There may very well be a God, Theo. But not everyone agrees on that - there are many people who doubt there is a God. We might never know for sure if there is or not," I told him. "When we die we'll know," he came back. "Maybe," I said. "But maybe not."

As a parent, I wonder about attempting to change the subject with a six-year-old (and, yes, I'm well aware that there is a wide range of cognitive ability among six year old children; in general, though, most will see this as a dodge to a very serious question). As a spouse, I'm wary of attempting a new framing which pits one parents' set of beliefs against another's. Down that way lies nothing but trouble.

Since we live in a household rooted in faith, but without any fear of questions, this kind of thing is not exactly unknown. While I respect Postel's wishes, in respect to his own suspicions concerning religious belief, to inculcate in his children a certain - how can I put this - critical perspective, the question Theo asked already contains that perspective. It seems to me, implicit in such a question is the thought, "Hey, wait a cotton-picking-minute here! These butterflies are beautiful, and useful, and they only live two freakin' weeks? How is that any way to run a railroad, let alone an entire universe?"

Here's a thought. Rather than attempt a theological disputation on the question of God's existence, I might have asked Theo why this question. What is it, specifically, about the life-span of butterflies that made him wonder about the role of Divine Providence and Creation (OK, so I wouldn't have used those words, but I hope you understand where I'm going with this). If Theo was asking the question on a functional level - did God maybe figure that butterflies lived out their lives in such a short time span in order to fill a role, becoming superfluous once that was accomplished - then it is an opportunity to advance an understanding of the mystery of life, with or without regard to a religious frame of reference. If Theo was asking a question regarding theodicy - the justice and fairness of creating something so aesthetically pleasing as well as practically useful that was so limited in its life span - it would be a good way to open up a conversation on what he, Theo, thinks "fair" would be in this instance.

Both cases - functional and juridical - seem to me to float around an understanding of things such as butterflies as having a value beyond the bare natural value of pollinator and food source. If, as seems to me, implicit in Theo's question is the idea that things like flowers and butterflies and other parts of the natural world exist for us, this also would be an opportunity to begin talking about the ways butterflies, in this instance, are their own creature, existing for themselves, without reference to any extrinsic meaning added to them by human beings. Respect for the natural world begins when we cease to see it as a source of human fulfillment; opening up this avenue, whether in a religious or non-religious framework, is an important part of educating a child.

Finally, the idea that it is necessary to counter religious "indoctrination" is absurd on its face. Most young people raised in a church drop out at some point as they get older, many for reasons having to do with the perceived hypocrisy of self-professed Christians, or the seeming absurdity of many of the claims made in the Christian faith. Should Postel worry that his children might reject some kind of robust humanism due to religious instruction, he should remember, first, there is a long tradition of humanism with religious roots, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church (think Erasmus and even, despite his zealotry, Ignatius Loyola). There are also many people of deep and abiding faith who nevertheless refuse to subsume their own penchant for asking pointed questions due to the dogmatic insistence of authority. Whether the examples are Roman Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, there are many people who refuse to rest easy either in the serene comforts of religious dogmatism or the self-imposed, Dionysian heroism of skeptical humanism.

Give your children some credit, and provide them with a space to ask questions, and the opportunity to find their own answers. Be content that the answers they find are probably always provisional. More important, remember the answers are theirs and no one else's.

Virtual Tin Cup

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