Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Intellectual Integrity Of Theology

In a comment on a post at Crooked Timber concerning an obscure British theologian who is influential in Tory Party circles, one commenter writes the following:
Is there any reason to take theology seriously?

Sad to say, on the merits of most "serious" theology, I'd have to say without reservation, "No."

Like all intellectual disciplines, theology far too often is concerned with itself. Philosophers tend to read academic journals in philosophy. Chemists tend to read chemistry monographs. Psychology grad students pay attention to the latest buzz in psychology.

Yet, theology, at least, gives lip service to being more than just an intellectual pursuit. It is, in the words of a professor of mine at seminary, "the science of the church." As many a theologian has put it, theology is critical reflection on the Christian proclamation. As such, it has to account for more than just the theological content it offers. Theology certainly has to pay respect to philosophy. Contemporary theologians should be conversant, to say the least, in social theory and criticism, as well as cultural theory. At their best, theologians should also be able to converse on a relatively equal playing field with many other disciplines. Far too often, however, this is honored more in the breach than in actual fact.

One of the worst offenders in this regard is Jurgen Moltmann. While seeming to attempt to unite contemporary left-wing European and American political and social thought with a radical theology based on the eschatological promise of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, for the most part, he seems poorly informed about any serious developments past, oh, the mid-1960's or so. He name drops, for example, Christopher Lasch, without showing any sign that he has read, let alone, grappled with Lasch's cultural critique. While based, loosely, in a neo-Marxist framework rooted in the utopian thought of Ernst Bloch, Moltmann seems not to have read much beyond Chapter 59 of that book, the specific area where Bloch offers a Marxist reinterpretation of the prophetic challenge to established orthodoxy, even as he, Bloch, sees Jesus as transforming the dead god of Judaism in to the also quite dead god of Christianity, made only somewhat more palatable by the prophetic and utopian possibilities offered in Jesus' preaching of the Coming Kingdom.

There are theologians who seem to wrestle quite well with contemporary thought. In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf draws upon two very different thinkers - Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor - in his discussion of contemporary society. Yet, Volf's work, as important as it is, also has its drawbacks, not the least of them being a preference for methodological dialecticism at the expense of a far more cogent argument.

David Tracy, the late Langdon Gilkey, the cultural work of James Cone (The Spirituals and the Blues; Dream or a Nightmare? Malcolm, Martin, and America), and an earlier generation including Henry Nelson Weiman and Paul Tillich all have grappled with extra-theological content in a serious fashion. Yet, again, for the most part, these examples prove the rule that theologians, for the most part, don't honor the pledge to do theology that uses all the tools available to do it well. While it would be nice to be able to defend the intellectual integrity of theology as a practice (not necessarily a discipline in the academy, but that is not its sole, or even most important, function), one cannot read contemporary theology and do so with a straight face.

Cornel West & His Discontents

Scott McLemee has a pretty brutal, but honest, review of Cornel West's Brother West. When I say "brutal", I mean McLemee takes West as he once was, West as he now is, and asks the most difficult question of all: Is the child (or earlier up-and-coming academic) the father of the man (the celebrity who seems to have the ear of the President)? A couple paragraphs from West's memoir do seem to support the charge that West's concern is almost always with . . . West. One of the more troubling passages, on West's approach to relationships with women, should indeed inspire, as it did in McLemee's wife, the insistence to run as far as possible from anyone who expresses the following:
The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

On a less personal, more public note, McLemee notes West's stated plans, a decade ago:
Ten years ago, in the final pages of a collection of his selected writings, Cornel West gave readers a look at the work he had in progress, or at least in mind, for the years ahead. One would be “a major treatment of African-American literature and modern Greek literature.” Another was “a meditation on Chekhov and Coltrane that delves into the distinctive conceptions of the tragic in American civilization and of the comic in Russian civilization.” He would be writing an intellectual autobiography “modeled on black musical forms.” Nor had he given up on plans to complete a study of David Hume. There would also be a book on Josiah Royce.

McLemee notes that not a single one of these has seen the light of day.

Yet, a comment points out a different, and meritorious, view of West's unfolding career.
cornel west learned long ago that no matter how many academic books that he published he would never be properly respected and embraced by white academics (a philosopy ph.d. this brilliant who has never been shown any interest to teach in a philosophy department?!?!?). the racism in the academy is so deeply entrenched that (how many total black people are in ivy league religious studies departments? philosophy departments?) if he were to keep doing "serious" academic work his contributions would never be taken as seriously as say, scott mclemee's; and, it would make him less accessible to his own community. so, knowing that the "emperor has no clothes" he gave the white academy the middle finger and is doing work to inspire black people. white folks should just leave him alone. the academy is an unfair and culturally biased place. it shows black people less respect even when they do work that is head and shoulders above the navel-gazing, non-creative work of white scholars. c'mon white academics! admit that your standards are so deeply biased and tainted that you would never accept cornel west if he out published harold bloom, marjorie garber and stanley fish. take stock of the true bone-heads in your department. then ask yourself why west does work that speaks to the black masses and not to white scholars. keep doin' your thing cornel!! your memoir is inspiring a lot of people and your speeches are saving lives! none of your white colleagues can speak to the issues you can. we need you. shake off these criticisms like teflon and do you!

I'm not sure if the first sentence is correct, however. As it seems to be the major premise of the argument, falsifying it might make the rest untenable. Yet, I don't believe it does. It may or may not be true that West understood that he would never receive the respect and intellectual accolades he deserves for his quite obvious brilliance. Yet, in order to prove one's brilliance, it might be thought necessary to do something brilliant! While the work on hip-hop culture is important, it seems to me that so is a work on African-American literature; while appearing in Matrix movies as a signal that the film's philosophical underpinnings are in accord with one's own might be a kind of intellectual noblesse oblige, but so would a monograph of Josiah Royce.

This past spring, I heard an interview with NPR host and author Tavis Smiley who is a mutual friend of West and Pres. Obama. Smiley said that Obama understood he must not just be a good President, but as the first African-American President, he had to outstrip most other Presidents. The author of the above comment may be correct that opting for a different route in the face of racial animus is the reason for the decisions West has made in regards his intellectual output. Yet, Smiley is doing nothing more than reiterating a long-standing notion that Americans of African descent have known for generations. The standards to which an African-American are held are indeed higher than those of non-blacks. Yet, meeting and even exceeding those standards has always been thought necessary as part of the burden. It is not fair, to be sure. That doesn't make it any less necessary.

Among the great African-American thinkers and writers, mentioning West in the same breath as Ralph Ellison is, I believe, interesting. Ellison published just one novel during his life - Invisible Man. Yet, he also wrote many incomparable essays, a collection of which adorns my library. His writings on writing and writers, on Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, on his early life and later accolades, are brilliant, insightful, witty, and lacking in one quality that West wears on his sleeve - his own perception of himself as a national treasure. There is enough truth in McLemee's portrait of West as one enamored of his own brilliance and insight to make any reader steer clear of an entire book dedicated to West on West.

Saturday Rock Show

Blame Scott McLemee. I was going to do Gentle Giant when I stumbled across a piece McLemee wrote for Crooked Timber a few years back, and, well . . . This is "Natural Is Not In It", and set aside whether it's Althusserian Marxism or Debordian Situationism (my vote is for the latter, by the way, if only because Situationism was in the air at the time, thanks in no small part to the Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren) and just groove.

Public Discourse Versus The Pundit Class

With the announcement this week that the US will send an additional 30,000 combat troops to Afghanistan, and the ensuing discussion and criticisms of this move by may, both left and right, it would be nice if our elite commentariat could discuss the issue in an intelligent, thoughtful manner. They could discuss whether the troop increase is warranted; whether it is large enough to be effective; whether the underlying strategic plan - increase troop strength in order to provide time for Afghanistan to improve its military and police forces to take up the slack once we leave - has any merit given the realities on the ground. Why, there could even be discussions over the cost, given that most pundits seem to think that reforming health care is too expensive.

These are the kinds of discussions we could be having. Instead, what Dana Milbank offers us is the following:
Some parishioners in the Church of Obama discovered last week that their spiritual leader is a false prophet.


Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy -- and still be home for dinner.

This kind of piffle is one reason our politics is so broken; mindless jibber-jabber such as this, offered in one of the most important newspapers in the country, sucks far too much intelligence and thought from any discussion. Rather than discuss the issue of our policy in Afghanistan, we have to spend time pointing out that the entire premise of this column is flawed; that Milbank offers nothing in the way of actual evidence that there ever was a "Church of Obama", that his "followers" thought he could save the earth before sundown. This is typical, mindless, small-town gossip offered as serious political commentary.

This isn't public discourse so much as it is a church-lady wagging her finger (I know Milbank is a man, but just run with the pronoun, OK?) at someone who got too puffed up, too big for his britches, and is now being brought down a peg or two. Milbank is quite happy that Obama is facing opposition not because of any of the merits or demerits of his decision on Afghanistan - you never get the sense, reading this column, that Milbank has an opinion, or even any understanding of the issue - but because Milbank is a self-appointed guardian of our political class. Obama, young, brash, and black, has managed to remain popular during the first year of his Presidency even as the pundits fretted about all the things they have always fretted about. Even as Obama seemed to spurn their advice, and ignore their columns, and did all the things they said couldn't and shouldn't be done, he has remained popular.

These pundits are far less serious, thoughtful people with one eye on the national interest and the other on the costs and benefits of any policy. They are that gaggle of old men and women who sit around the local diner, drinking cup after cup of coffee, ordering pie while they wink at the waitress, and believe, without any evidence whatsoever, that their views are important, their voices ought to be heeded, and that their inclusion of personal gossip is a necessary adjunct to discussing questions of real merit.

From this moment on, I rescind my own self-imposed decision not to resort to the short-hand used by some of referring to Washington insider journalism as "the Village". Milbank's column today is a wonderful distillation of the kind of small-town nonsense that is making it almost impossible to talk about questions of import with anything resembling intelligence. If Washington is, indeed, a Village, today, Milbank showed us who the village idiot is.

Friday, December 04, 2009

God Talk Over A Round

When I was in seminary, then-academic Dean M. Douglas Meeks described a discussion he had as a Ph.D. candidate in Germany as taking place in the best theological tradition, in a bar with a lot of beer. One of the great theological books, far too often talked about and far too little read, is Martin Luther's Table Talk. It is this that is, I think, Meeks' reference point. Luther was a great lover of brewed malt and hops. Drink would loosen his tongue a great deal. Like all great and powerful men and women throughout history, he had his sycophants and hangers-on, and they would jot down this or that quip or epigram on beer napkins, table cloths, whatever was handy; the results, published as Table Talk, is occasionally hilarious, always insightful, and gives a rare glimpse of an early-16th century, pre-modern man of letters.

One thing my wife and I have mused about, on and off over the years of her ministry, is the reaction of a local congregation to actually putting Jesus' ministry in to practice. Not the whole "preaching to the masses" stuff; more like "Jesus was accused of hanging out with drunkards and prostitutes" stuff. Well, it seems there are some Christians, in Chicago at any rate, who are at least willing to risk the first part.

I have no opinion on the journalistic merits of the story as presented in the piece. I do find it interesting, though, to consider the surprise reporters voice on the thought of ministry taking place in such a setting. Imagine! Taking the Good News to a bar! We Americans, for far too long, have associated liquor with vice (and there are good reasons for this, to be sure), rather than as a social lubricant, a way to open people up. Jesus was certainly not afraid to imbibe, or to ensure that others did, as well. He also was not concerned with the moral approbation of the self-appointed moral scolds of his place and time; he took his message of Divine love to those who needed to hear it. That's also why the kind of small-mindedness that reacts with a knee-jerk "tut-tutting" at bad language makes me smile; imagine, if you will, the kind of talk Jesus most likely encountered as he sat around talking with caravan drivers, prostitutes (both the legal and less-than-legal variety), and social outcasts of his time. Do you think Jesus got upset over the occasional first-century equivalent of the "f-bomb"?

Even as various denominations and church agencies struggle with ways of being relevant, of taking ministry in new directions and to underserved populations, the notion of sitting around a bar, with a pitcher of beer to loosen tongues and open minds, seems quite far-fetched. So does the idea of sitting and talking with working girls. Yet, in a very real and literal way, to do so would be to imitate Christ far more radically than sitting around and talking about how bad some people are, and how good other people are. Jesus wasn't concerned about whether people were good or not; he was far more concerned with the fact that far too may people were abandoned by society because they were deemed "bad". This is an example we need to follow.

The Left And The American Military

This piece by Dana Milbank - which I discovered thanks to Crooks and Liars - follows hot on the heels of Chris Matthews calling Barack Obama's speech at the United States Military Academy an appearance in "the enemy's camp" (to give Matthews credit, he apologized for this comment). Why is it there are still those who believe - despite so much evidence to the contrary - that Democratic politicians are hostile to the military? For those old enough to remember, Jesse Helms once claimed that should then-Pres. Clinton visit any military bases in North Carolina, it might prove dangerous for the Commander-in-Chief. Rather than treat this outrageous comment with the contempt it deserved, and relegate the person who spoke it to the non-entity file, there was actually discussion in elite Washington circles over whether or not the President of the US would need a protective escort on military bases!

There is military bashing on the Left in the United States. Yet, in the first instance, with the possible exception of Russ Feingold - from just up the road in Janesville, WI - there aren't too many left-wing Democrats left. Second, Pres. Clinton managed, somehow, to use military action effectively, even though he faced opposition from the Left (wow, what a shock!), particularly in the Balkans. Pres. Obama has showed a willingness to use the military as well; consider the way the Nave SEALS managed to deal with the pirates off the Horn of Africa.

For some reason, though, there are still those who think that Democrats don't like the military, and that, politically speaking, the military mind-set and Democratic politics don't mix. This is, perhaps, the stupidest legacy of the Vietnam War. The irony, of course, is this war was waged largely by Democratic Administrations (although the heaviest casualties came with the Nixon Administration) and had some of its biggest supporters in the Democratic Party. When the country, and the Democratic Party, turned against the war, many on the right turned this rather sound and sober judgment - that the Vietnam War was quite the foreign policy blunder and we needed to get out as soon as possible - in to the slander that "liberals hate the military". This was made worse by the creation of the urban legend of returning Vietnam Vets getting spat upon by hippies. Even though there isn't a single documented case of this happening, it is far too often trotted out as evidence that yesterday's hippies, and today's Democrats, are just a bunch of unpatriotic nancy boys who hate the military.

This situation is not made easier by what Michael Berube calls "the Manichean left" - Chomskyite knee-jerk critics of any American foreign policy that includes the use of the American military. There are, in fact, left-wingers who do not reflexively consider any use of force by the United States as suspect. I count myself among them. The problem, far too often, is that in theory, at any rate, there are good cases to be made for a particular, limited use of the military (in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11, for example) that, when put in practice, end up far worse than they might have been otherwise. This does not make me, or anyone else, who believes there are cases where the judicious use of military force is both prudent and acceptable, "liberal hawks". At least in my own case, I think it makes me someone who sees the threat and use of force in international affairs - done within the limits of the UN Charter, and in concert with our allies in an agreed-upon framework - as a live possibility. That far too often the US has used the military poorly, as it continues to do in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and, no, I do not support Pres. Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan), does not mean that, at some point, we will have wiser and more capable hands at the wheel of our military machine; it just means we need to look at each instance on the merits.

In the meantime, what do we do about this ridiculous nonsense that there is some kind of innate hostility between American liberalism and left-wing politics and the United States military? Beyond calling it out for the stupid that it is, I'm not sure.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


With a h/t to RM, it seems the Conservative Bible Project has decided to take a stand on liberal perfidy.
The Gospel of Luke records that, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus showed his boundless mercy by praying for his killers this way: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Not so fast, say contributors to the Conservative Bible Project.

The project, an online effort to create a Bible suitable for contemporary conservative sensibilities, claims Jesus' quote is a disputed addition abetted by liberal biblical scholars, even if it appears in some form in almost every translation of the Bible.

Oh, those whacky liberals! Imagine, the Son of God forgiving those who were putting him to death!

Wait a minute . . . What was that last sentence again? Oh, yeah: "even if it appears in some form in almost every translation of the Bible".

The passage in dispute, as the "scholars" note, doesn't appear in every manuscript. Of course, there are hundreds of such passages that vary, or disappear or reappear, in various manuscripts. Most serious Biblical translations note this, should the reader note carefully the notes; there will be something like, as in my Revised English Bible, "some witnesses omit". The Hebrew Scriptures very often point out variations between the original Hebrew manuscripts and the Septuagint (the Greek translation done by Jewish scholars in the second century CE). It might also point out that other translations differ, particularly St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate.

What does omitting this particular sentence mean? Can it be proven that, in fact, this was an emendation done by liberals hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago to portray a Jesus far different from the one who actually lived? To the second question, I can only say, "No". To the first, it means that conservatives just don't want their Jesus being all loving and forgiving. These words of grace from the cross have spoken to millions of believers over the centuries about the depths of God's love, the freedom offered by Jesus on the cross, and the mystery of grace that envelopes us.

Which is why, obviously, Jesus never uttered these words and the conservatives want it expunged from their Bible.

My guess is, should they pretend to a certain consistency, their Bible will be thicker with footnotes than most, even as the Biblical books themselves are actually smaller. There are so many disputed passages, should these folks decide to omit all but those that all can agree are authentic, we might end up with whole books removed from the canon.

I just can't wait to see the finished project. What are they gonna do with all those passages in the Hebrew prophets about how the rich grind down the poor, and for that reason God is going to punish Israel? Or one of the last verses of The Revelation of God, which warns against changing or removing one word from that particular book of the Bible?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Rick Warren Needs To Read His Bible

In what has been a pretty typical right-wing whine, Wonkette reports on a Twitter by Rick Warren.

In St. Matthews Gospel, Jesus is reported to have said that those who suffer and are reviled for their faith are blessed. 1 Peter 4:14-16 reads, in the Revised English Bible, "If you are reviled for being Christians, count yourselves happy, because the Spirit of God in all his glory rests upon you. If you do suffer, it must not be for murder, theft, or any other crime, nor should it be for meddling in other people's business. But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he should feel it no disgrace, but confess that name to the honour of God." Romans 8:17b reads, "[B]ut we must share [Christ's] sufferings if we are also to share his glory." This is but a small sample of verses in the New Testament that describe how we Christians are to react to persecution for the faith. Rather than whine about how no one notices, we are to rejoice for the example so set, pray both for those who suffer and for those who inflict it, and remember that such suffering for the Gospel (Paul repeatedly invokes his own imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel as an example to follow) is our lot in life, a mark of true faith.

This is not to say that we should not protest these deaths, nor let them go unnoticed, nor point out how, in some countries, the mere claim of faith is enough for official approbation and unofficial harassment. Yet, if we are to be consistent and constant in our faith, we should also celebrate the witness of those who refuse to yield to threats and force, even to the point of death. Nor should we forget that this is our reality as Christians; two thousand years as both official and unofficial religion of Empire has rendered us forgetful that our existence as Christians qua Christians should antagonize, rather than ameliorate, the powers that be, wherever we live.

If Rick Warren were more concerned with faith and less concerned with keeping name in the papers, he might understand that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thomas Friedman - Useful Idiot

Matt Yglesias highlights something extremely stupid in Thomas Friedman (a task made infintely more difficult by settling on just one such item):
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny— in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

Hard on the heels of my own confessions concerning Noam Chomsky, it is interesting to read, thanks again to Yglesias, a non-American comment on this bit of fatuousness:
In one sense it is charming that the Cousins retain such a faith in their own idealism; in another it’s infuriating that they so often fail – Friedman being a regular exemplar of this – to appreciate that their idealism is a pretty cloak for America’s self-interest. There would be less wrong with this if America’s great idealism were applied more consistently. But since it isn’t it’s unwise to boast too much about it or to pretend that it’s the only motivation for US foreign policy and that if only this were more perfectly understood all would be well.

Matt then writes that this is "dangerous. It’s one thing to make up fairy tales to amuse the children, but the danger the United States keeps stumbling into is a tendency among our elite to start believing the fairy tales." While it is probably true that Friedman believes quite sincerely every word he has uttered, my guess is those who formulate our foreign policy view such statements with wry amusement, at best. While it need hardly be repeated, any country determines its foreign relations on a careful, but usually quite narrow, understanding of what is in the interest of the United States (as usually defined by corporate elites). The notion that our foreign policy is ever driven by any ideological sense of our own beneficence (the Republican myth of Reagan-era anticommunism) or other motives is belied by our history. That Friedman can write, with anything approaching a straight face, the words above, proves nothing more than he might be a stooge for the powers that be, but little else.

Music For Your Monday

World War II, among its many odd effects, produced some memorable songs.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree", here done to perfection by the Andrews Sisters.

"I'll Be Seeing You" here done by Billie Holiday

One for the season, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" performed by Johnny Mathis.

"Ever the most precious in the common"

In George Scialabba's review of Allan Bllom's The Closing of the American Mind, I have found that missing nugget, that treasured last piece of the puzzle, in my ongoing feud with Feodor. Quite apart from whatever intellectual merit Bloom's work may or may not have, it took aim squarely at a host of issues that were only peripherally addressed in the arguments over the literature canon. Bloom was quite explicit in his contempt for the radicalism of the 1960's, and its occasional forays in to irrationalism and anti-intellectualism. Yet, for all that, Bloom seems to me to be just another self-appointed guardian of western culture, thinking that to teach Plato and Thomas and Hegel and Heidegger to undergraduates is to bring out the best wine early at the wedding as it were. Seeing the choice - if such it be - as one between allowing a uniquely American voice to sound out clearly and treasuring the wisdom of the ages in and for itself, Bloom sides unequivocally with the latter.

This is not to say, like George, that there are not merits to the critics of culture studies. It is to say that Bloom's response, like his response to pretty much everything in academia, is the response of a college sophomore.

Far too often, the self-appointed guardians of our inherited western cultural tradition act as if the Greeks, the Catholic philosophers and theologians, the philosophes, the German idealists and Romantics, the novels and poems and drama of Britain and France and Germany, spoke a single voice, in a single language. For far too long we have been hectored that any appeal to democratizing culture is a decision against the inherited wisdom of the ages in favor of mediocrity. From Tocqueville through Bloom and former Education Secretary William Bennett, cultural commentators have thought the dangers of our peculiarly American preference for workable solutions would sideline what has always been thought to be the essence of our heritage - genius. Borrowing from Nietzsche, it would seem we are the epitome of the last men, who favor comfort over wisdom.

Yet, the choice, it seems to me, is false. While it may be so that the vast bulk of Americans will never "get" the subtlety of Hegel, or appreciate the vigor of Voltaire's novels poking holes in the bloated egos of the powerful, this has always been the case and is hardly an argument against a peculiarly American approach to the life of the mind. George quotes, at length, from that most American of voices, Walt Whitman:
America . . . must, for her purposes, cease to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or form'd by merely literary standards, or from any ultramarine, full-dress formulas of culture, polish, case, &c., and must sternly promulgate her own new standard, yet old enough, and accepting the old, the perennial elements, and combining them into groups, unities, appropriate to the modern, the democratic, the west, and to the practical occasions and needs of our own cities and agricultural regions. Ever the most precious in the common.

George follows this directly:
The genius or splendor of the few may afford the rest of their society a sense of participation in infinity and immortality. But if the maturation of a people requires the exchange of this vicarious experience for the direct experience by the many of their own, more limited individuality, then such an exchange should — with a proper sense of the genuine loss that maturation always involves — be accepted. Growing up (remember Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: “humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority”) has its compensations.

Yet, this is not the end of the argument against the kind of intellectual hauteur Bloom advocates. As George points out, while Bloom certainly seems to prefer Nietzsche's, and Plato's, preference for a rule by the wisest, Nietzsche's framing of this decision is, unlike Plato's, ironic precisely because Nietzsche could not accept any metaphysics. The decision, for Nietzsche, was based solely on a preference against those he deemed "culture-philistines", the last men and their advancement of mediocrity. He recognized this argument as one of preference, without any philosophical underpinnings at all; Bloom insists there must be. Yet, the best American thinkers have always scoffed that democracy, either in politics or culture, is in need of any justification outside its own existence. Thus, George quote Richard Rorty:
From Plato through Kant down to [Habermas and Derrida], most philosophers have tried to fuse sublimity and decency, to fuse social hope with knowledge of something big…My own hunch is that we have to separate individual and social reassurance, and make both sublimity and agape (though not tolerance) a private, optional matter. That means conceding to Nietzsche that democratic societies have no higher aim than what he called “the last men” — the people who have “their little pleasures for the day and their little pleasures for the night.” But maybe we should just make that concession, and also concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by “rationality”). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it in their own time, and within the limits set by “On Liberty”. But such opportunities might be quite enough.

As, indeed, they seem to be. American culture is not a singular thing, even as an appeal to a pragmatist argument in favor of the hodge-podge may seem to make it so. America has produced some quite fine art and literature and music and even thought. That we would also celebrate what has been deemed "folk" - in art, in music, in wisdom - is not to be derided, but celebrated as a uniquely American contribution to our store of cultural inheritance. It is more than possible to celebrate the beauty of both our more popular cultural artifacts as well as those less well-known but by that token even more profoundly beautiful. At its heart, this is what America bequeaths to the world: a celebration of the precious in the common, as Whitman insisted.

And should it be that such inclusiveness is impossible, in the end, to sustain, it is a noble project, an experiment worthy of the attempt. Nothing is lost in the process and much can be gained. As Lincoln pointed out, America is still an experiment in liberty, as true 140 years ago as it is today. Our self-appointed guardians of high culture would do well to remember that we are America, and our voice does not speak in Greek or Latin or strident, convoluted Teutonic sentences.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Memories - 1976

Advent is here, and I got to thinking I would do something different. To get ready for Christmas this year, I would do posts each Advent Sunday on my favorite Christmases past. These are deeply personal stories, and some of the things I will write here are things that, like Mary, I have kept and pondered in my heart. Yet, they are also things I open up each year, on my own, to get ready for Christmas. This year, I am going to share some of them.

I remember the exact moment that I realized this would be the last Christmas like all the previous ones I remembered. On Christmas Eve, it was tradition in our house to gather, my father would read the birth narrative from Luke out of the Bible his grandmother gave him, we'd sing a carol, and then head off to bed. We did all but the heading off, and my mother asked my oldest sister to come to the kitchen and help her with some pies she was baking. As my sister walked off through the dining room, I remember very distinctly thinking to myself, "She's not gonna be here any more." She was getting married just a few short weeks later, in mid-January, 1977. It hit me, at that moment, that Christmas was not going to be the same ever again.

That whole Christmas season is vivid in my memories: the way we had snow all through December, with snowball fights on the way home from school with my friend Mike Hakes; the day I came home from school and my mother told me it was the day to set up the nativity (the special thing set aside for me to do) in the front living room; the morning of December 24th going to the bowling alley with my friend Ken Sindoni; being trapped in the TV room that afternoon and watching old Our Gang shorts and Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland on Channel 11. All these memories became even more important for me to lock in precisely because I knew, at that moment late in the evening, as we three youngest children got our stockings and headed up to bed (and I don't think my brother, then a senior in high school, was pleased to be so treated), that no Christmas would be like this one.

Being the youngest of five children, the feeling of being surrounded by people on holidays was so normal that, when I listened to other people talk about sparse tables and only a few people, I really couldn't imagine what it might be like. Ours was a large, talkative, boisterous family. We laughed a lot, we yelled a lot, we took turns being the center of attention - and giving it as well. Most of all, though, was this sense of permanence, especially on holidays like Thanksgiving, and Easter. Christmas, though, had that extra special ingredient - it was a day just for us, for family. Attempting to recapture the emotional sea in which we lived as children is almost impossible, yet I do know that there was a great deal of comfort, for me as the youngest, being surrounded by this horde of loud, garrulous people, all of whom were my family, and all of whom were particularly amazing each in his or her own way. Since I had only turned 11 a month before, I had no sense of there being anything particularly special about me - except, of course, that I was expected to do well in school and play a musical instrument of one sort or another - so knowing, or at least feeling, that these people, with their abilities in music and school, in the swimming pool and track field, at home to make us all laugh - it was really quite amazing.

My oldest sister, in particular, was one to whom I always looked up. At the end of her first semester of college, my father allowed me to go with him when he picked her up (I was in 3rd grade, and staying out so late on a school night was quite a privilege). When we arrived at SUNY Brockport, and went up the elevator in her dorm - this was the early '70's, and college dorms were all those soulless tower blocks - she wasn't in her room. When we found her, down the hall in a friend's room, her friends all cooed and ahhed over her baby brother. She did something then I have never forgotten; she picked me up and she hugged me and she kissed me on the cheek. It may have been the last time she ever did that. All I know for certain is I have never forgotten it, and I have loved her for it ever since.

On that Christmas Eve, three years later, as she walked to the kitchen to help our mother with some pies, and the rest of us went to bed (well, except for my older sister, also in college, who stayed downstairs), I knew that I had to hold all the things from that particular Christmas season as close as possible. No Christmas would ever be like this one again. The tree was enormous, sticking way out from the bay window in our living room; the lights and tinsel and ornaments were so bright, you didn't need to turn on any other lights to sit and read a book in that room. I remember sitting in what has always been my Dad's chair while my brother visited with his friend Barry Green, a few days before Christmas, looking at the tree and thinking about how beautiful, and bright, and special it was.

I've had other memorable Christmases since then, of course, as you will learn. In many ways, though, this was the last Christmas of my childhood, and the memories, as wonderful as they are, carry a tinge of bittersweet for me. No Christmas has been the same since.

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