Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday Rock Show

Another find on iTunes - Riverside, "Beyond The Eyelids".

Words Seeking Understanding

While it might be going out of fashion, there still exists a theory of Constitutional interpretation that insists we should only concern ourselves with a plain, dictionary-definition of words in order to understand what a particular clause or section means. This seems like common sense. Words mean what they mean. Yet, the text of the Constitution, at least in its preliminary construction, was written in the late-18th century and the words, while seeming familiar, might have meant something quite different to those who put them on paper than they do now. Time has a way of altering the meaning of even the most basic verbal construction.

Any attempt at understanding verbal communication runs up against the reality that language is not some thing. It does not exist apart from the people who speak or write it. The notion that there is, or can be, clarity in communication as long as we just consult Webster's or the OED is not just philosophically untenable; it is a violation of our everyday grasp that even at the best of times, and with those with whom we are most intimate, communication has a measure of opacity that cannot be escaped by running to a reference shelf.

If this is true in our everyday life, or in coming to some kind of legal consensus on a text or clause in a law or the Constitution, how much more can it be said of communication between people who do not speak the same language? Larry McMurtry offers up a speech given by the Cherokee Onitositah in 1777:
Let us examine the facts of your present irruption into our country. . . . What did you do? You marched into our territories with a superior force . . . your numbers far exceeded us, and we fled to the stronghold of our extensive woods. . . . Your laws extend not into our country, nor ever did. . . .

Indeed, much has been advanced on the want of what you term civilization among the Indians; and many proposals have been made to us to adopt your laws, your religion, your manners, and your customs. But, we confess that we do not yet see the propriety, or practicability, of such a reformation, and should be better pleased with beholding the good effect of these doctrines in your own practices than with hearing you talk about them. . . .

McMurtry follows directly:
That sounds pretty Augustan to me; Dr. Johnson - who wouldn't have been on Corn Tassel's side - couldn't have put it better; the question it raises is why all Native American orators, whatever their language group, are translated to sound either like Dr. Johnson, the prophet Isaiah, or, at a stretch, the Sioux wise man Black Elk, himself rather fulsomely translated by the poet John G. Neihardt and hid daughters.

As a source of the constant - and ongoing - friction between the European who arrived in the Americas desiring to own the land and the native populations who sought to hold on to what was their land (and, of course, later their stories and customs and religion and languages and even their lives), this kind of problem might be solved by the recognition at the outset that even with the best intentions and attempts, people too often talk past one another in an effort to communicate.

As an object lesson in the difficulties inherent in communication, our national lack-of-clear discourse with Indian people should be a lesson to anyone intent on making an argument on the clarity of any communicative act. Whether it's reading the Constitution, debating a fine point of law, or reading the Bible, we should always remember that words only have meaning insofar as they exist as all too human tools. While they are suited well for the task of having one person, or several people, make sense of the world in a kind of general way, closer attention reveals there is, and always will be, a gap between those who are attempting to communicate. That gap can never be closed completely; when we factor in differences of the very real historical and social situation of any language (whether it is an Indian language like Cherokee, or a dead language like koine Greek), we have the added task of "doing the best we can" while always recognizing that best will be, despite our best efforts, incomplete.

We should remember, then, that when we are communicating, the challenge of misunderstanding also offers the opportunity for greater understanding as long as we acknowledge, beforehand, the limitation of any communicative act. Words have meaning, to be sure; having a meaning, however, is far different from understanding how those meanings fit together. That is the danger, and the possibility, that lies at the heart of much of the human predicament.

Z Team

Pointing and laughing is usually enough. Especially when right-wingers start reviving bad ideas that failed miserably in the past.
The Team B assessment . . . was simply a work of science fiction. Or, to be more specific, a work of political advocacy, with the authors deriving conclusions of Soviet capabilities from their own apocalyptic beliefs about the Soviet ideology, and then using those deeply flawed conclusions to justify more defense spending and more foreign policy adventurism. Which is precisely what they would like to do again in regard to the threat of Islamic extremism.

For those who may not understand the reference, when Gerald Ford became President, he ordered the CIA to make a kind of systematic survey of the Soviet's military and economic capabilities and how the United States stood in comparison. The report, while certainly flawed (as the linked post notes, the CIA did get quite a bit wrong), was essentially correct about the inherent limitations the Soviet political and economic structure placed on their ability to compete internationally with the United States. As discontent among the citizenry even then became an increasing concern for Soviet policy makers, the simple fact was their national economy, while dedicating a larger percentage toward military research, development, and operations, was so much smaller than the United States that even with this larger portion of national wealth dedicated to the military still kept them at a disadvantage.

For the emerging neo-conservatives, this seemed outlandish. George H. W. Bush created "Team B", which surveyed the same data as those who released the original report. The problem was they began with a set of assumptions based on the planet Neptune. Among these assumption were the Soviet economic model was working, while the American one was not; that the United States, just then emerging from Vietnam, was militarily weaker than the Soviet Union, and our national morale was sapped to the point where our leaders might just surrender to Soviet adventurism; finally, Team B assumed from the get-go that the Soviets did not approach international relations with some inherent rationality, but were so bent, not just on self-preservation and the extension of their national interest but world domination and conquest that there existed no rational restraint on their behavior, and there was no way to trust any negotiations with them.

It seems that, with the Soviet Union gone, this entire set of fantastic, America-hating craptastic nonsense is being transferred to Islamic militants. At the time the Team B report was released, it was pointed out that (a) the assumptions around its conclusions were "flawed" (politesse for the wet-dreams of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz); and, (b) the resulting conclusions were "off-base" (again, circling the eighth planet). This didn't stop the report from informing not just the Ford Administration, but the Reagan-Bush years as well. Since it's important to consider that - we had a foreign policy approach toward our major international rival based almost entirely on falsehoods and ideologically-based hokum - the revival of this idea should be a source of worry. Yet, it should also be a source of humor. Since the neo-cons clearly hate America - they always have, really - and live in a fantasy world, rather than attempt to refute them, we should just point out those particular set of facts, and then laugh.


Thursday, January 14, 2010


Back in the late-1990's, through the end of 2004, I subscribed to The New York Review Of Books. I loved it, and I miss it. I dropped my subscription because our move to Poplar Grove put us in an area where the cost of living was substantially higher than any previous place we had lived; even having two incomes (for a time, though, I was a stay-at-home Dad, so we had only one) meant dropping all sorts of luxuries. So, I stopped getting The Nation, The New Yorker (which published a whole series of short stories by Stephen King, Feodor), and NYRB. I miss The New Yorker and NYRB for different reasons, but the latter because it served as a catalog of books I just had to have (which is why my wife encouraged me to drop it, I think).

During the course of my subscription-time, there was a series of review essays on books on the American West by author and critic Larry McMurtry. In those essays, collected in a slim volume, Sacagawea's Nickname, I discovered something I had only dimly glimpsed in all my previous reading. Reading McMurtry was a joy because it was obvious that he loves words; more than ideas, more than their collection in sentences and paragraphs and multiple volumes, McMurtry had the unique (to my experience) virtue of loving words. He loves them so much that his review essays are among the most pleasurable, joy-filled reading experiences of my life. They were object-lessons in that classic understanding of beauty as something that is more than the sum of its parts.

I picked up that volume this morning to read myself to sleep after work, and found myself, once again, happily ensconced in some of the most masterful prose I have ever encountered. In an introduction he wrote to the volume, he recalls his failure to be what all Texas-ranch-children wanted to be, a cowboy, and his sad realization that his life would be spent among words. Yet, he then points out that being such is a bit like herding cattle. His deep love for words makes his writing something sublime because, loving them, he takes care to arrange them as sentences, paragraphs, and essays as carefully as possible. Yet, doing so with a seeming ease that belies what must be an agonizing process of writing, rewriting, editing, then rewriting again. Loving words, compared to loving the English sentence, which was the preference of another great prose stylist, Winston Churhcill, makes of the larger building blocks of writing something magical.

I offer this little report on my reading as a way, in part, of talking about how I am continuing to learn about the art and craft of writing. Even as I spend a good chunk of my waking hours (when not at the work that pays the bills) trying to figure out how to put stuff down in writing, I am also always wanting to learn how to do that better. There might be something discouraging about reading someone as wonderful at the task as McMurtry, but I am actually encouraged by reading him. Because I read McMurtry as sharing my own sense that it is at the level of words - not sentences, not paragraphs - that begins the task or building something that is a pleasure to read, I am now quite happily reading, and learning again, how that might be possible.

Word-herding is as apt, and workable, a description of writing as I can imagine. Not ideas, certainly. Just words. Getting them to go where we want them in such a way that it seems to be their own plan. How wonderful.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

I was going to write something, and discovered, to my surprise, I had already written it. So, click the link, and have at it.

I hate repeating myself, so there you go.

Sad News

Teddy Pendergrass, part of that wonderful Philadelphia Sound of the early-70's, has passed away. Confined to a wheelchair for the past two decades after a car accident, his music has not had the cachet it once did - musical tastes have moved on, as they always will - he still has a place in music history for his deeply emotional performances. Rest in peace, Teddy, and prayers and thoughts go out to your family.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Aborted Hope

As I'm getting to know First of the Month, I am reading articles at random - based on the title of all things - and I came across this piece from the October, 2009 issue.
Art said that he had often sought to understand the persistent presence and power of the number 40 in the Hebrew texts. What had begun to be evident to him, he reported, was the fact that while we usually speak in our culture of nine months as the normal time of a woman’s pregnancy before giving birth, the more precise and traditional period is actually given as 40 weeks. As soon as I heard Art’s words it became clearer to me what I had been feeling, sensing so deeply. And I began to try to articulate it for myself and others: Something is trying to be born in America. Again, I’m not quite certain what it is, but the new emerging reality seems firmly related to the visionary calls of King and the earlier urgent hope of Langston Hughes (”O, let America be America again/The land that never has been yet/and yet must be /The land where every [one] is free.”) Suffusing all of it I hear as well the beautiful wisdom and strong challenge of June Jordan: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

So as this year went on, as I sat one August night in Denver among the tens of thousands of on-site witnesses to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, it seemed obvious to me that my young brother was related to all of this, but more as an opening, an opportunity, a new space. He seems to offer the place where all the “we” people can stop our waiting and carry on our work to create the pathway, the birthing channel toward “The land that never has been yet, and yet must be.” Indeed, as I wrestled with Biblical symbols, the birthing imagery and the calls of Langston, Martin and June (herself the marvelous offspring of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ann Braden, and Amzie Moore), I could not escape another revelatory metaphor. Not only is something trying to be born in America, but some of us are called to be the midwives in this magnificent, desperately needed and so painfully creative process.

The author, Vincent Harding, then goes on a long rumination on midwifery, and the way he sees the analogy working as a possibility for a confluence of democratic activism and the Presidency of Barack Obama. While the election of our first African-American President is certainly a moment of national celebration, and there were many people who believed that Obama would usher in something new, something promising, a la the Langston Hughes quote, I must confess that I was never one of those who believed that lurking beneath the carefully cultivated public image and record as a relatively moderate state and United States Senator lurked the heart of a real liberal. My own hope lay in a consideration more of the confluence of events at the time of his election - the near-collapse not just of our national economy, but the world economy - and those who would make up his cabinet. That and the appearance of a number of far more liberal Democrats in both houses of Congress might just push his Administration to adopt a far more liberal agenda than he might otherwise be inclined to support. Like FDR, Obama seems always to have accepted all sorts of conventional, received wisdom; unlike FDR, Obama never saw the looming economic crisis as an opportunity to be seized. He did not move with either speed or ruthlessness as Roosevelt did, the latter calling Congress in to special session to deal with the collapse of the banking industry. Instead, he dealt with the "stimulus" legislation much as he has dealt with much else - with a coolness, and even detachment, that has led many to become disenchanted with him before his first year in office is up.

More to the point of the piece in question, I have to say that if the analogy of midwifery is correct, then the hope that many invested in the election of Obama, and many others, in 2008 has really come to very little. While I have defended him, his Administration, and the approach to the Presidency, in the past, I have become frustrated with his apparent belief that time will be on his side. Perhaps; as events continue to unfold, as Congressional Democrats continue to be led by holdovers from the era of Republican domination, as more and more liberals become disenchanted with both the style and substance of his Administration, I can easily foresee a breakdown in what could have been a realignment toward Democratic governance for, perhaps, as long as a generation.

While part of me wants Obama to be right, another part of me is frustrated at his seeming dismissal of a huge group of dedicated volunteers willing to work to further a progressive agenda even as he surrounded himself with men and women far too willing to toe the line on all sorts of issues. His tag line from his campaign - "Yes, we can," - seems to have morphed into, "Yes we can, but we won't". Too sad.

Intellectual BS

Dissent has an interesting, if somewhat odd , array of participants in a special issue "Intellectuals and Their America". E. J. Dionne is not the first name to fall from my lips when asked, "Who is an engaged public intellectual today?" Nor is Katha Pollitt, a poet and columnist for The Nation, and author of an embarrassing, confessional/memoir on her anti-feminist approach to the end of relationship with a man. Katrina VandenHeuvel is the editor of The Nation, and, again, not someone who leaps out at me and screams, "I'm an intellectual!"

So, I have a problem with the choices the periodical made in respondents. The questions asked also seem, to me, to be - how can I put this? - not exactly timely and even a bit tiresome because, for the life of me, I can't imagine caring what any other respondents think about American popular culture, the internet and its role in public discourse, or the other questions to which they are asked to respond. Yet, I would recommend a reading for no other reason than to offer a good example of the irrelevance (sad to say) of intellectuals in American public life. There are good, thoughtful, even funny intellectuals deeply engaged in both education and larger public concerns. That none of these, nor many others I could consider, were consulted is a display not only of myopia (or perhaps ignorance), but of the marginal place the life of the mind plays in our society.

Having said that, among the more annoying things intellectuals tend to do is to dismiss with a hauteur worthy of ancien regime aristocrats our mass, popular culture. They are either diversions from the pursuit of the revolutionary goal, or (worse) the bread and circuses concocted by a conspiracy of elites to keep the public disengaged, entertained by a nearly-pornographic desire to vicariously experience all sorts of titillation. The public becomes a mass of drooling zombies, perched at the edge of their seats waiting for the next "reality program" or what-have-you. While I will admit that I am disgusted that my brain actually contains the names "Jon and Kate Gosselin" and understands the referents, that hardly means that my IQ has shrunk.

This kind of snobbish bullshit is on display in the response of Leon Wieseltier, even as he claims to defend intellectual interest in mass culture as a form of noblesse oblige:
The championship of mass culture by intellectuals must be vigorously challenged when it is done as an attack upon the legitimacy of the categories and the distinctions—for a leveling end, as yet another gospel of relaxation; or to establish irony as the highest value of culture; or as the cultural program of a political ideology. I must confess that I regard intellectuals who are immune to the power of Winterreise or The Flaying of Marsyas or Modern Love or The Four Temperaments as incomplete intellectuals, insofar as they cannot grasp such refinements of structure and meaning and make of them refinements of their own souls. I think that the life of the mind should be soulful; but that is my own inclination. Otherwise, as I say, protect the differences, find truth and beauty where you can, and slum on.(italics added)

In the course of his response above the quoted section, he considers the following question as a serious one, to which my only response is, "You need to pay attention a bit more, I think."
Whether or not Monk is like Debussy, he sure as hell is not like Kanye West.

Such paucity of understanding, by someone who considers himself an intellectual (or, serving as he does as the literary editor of The New Republic, is considered one whether he is or not) is reason enough to consider these all-too-brief takes on intellectuals and American culture more as object-lessons in all sorts of stupid than anything else.

Prayers And More

Poor Haiti. According to TPM, the State Department "has also set up links on its Web site to facilitate donations to disaster relief agencies." Give, please, for Haiti is so desperate. The United Methodist Church, through the United Methodist Commission on Relief (UMCOR), also has a site dedicated to giving. UMCOR is already there, and their relief efforts will remain long after the headlines and stories have passed down the too-short memory hole of our news media.

A Mess Of Pottage

In the Biblical account of the patriarchs, Esau trades his birthright to his (younger) twin, Jacob because he, Esau, feels he is quite literally starving. Thus, the phrase, "trading your birthright for a mass of pottage." In this remarkable profile of intellectual historian Tony Judt, one nugget that jumped out was Judt's position (with which I agree whole-heartedly) that it isn't even a mass, but a mess, of pottage that is on offer.
Judt called attention to America's and Europe's worship of efficiency, wealth, free markets, and privatization. We live, he said, in a world shaped by a generation of Austrian thinkers—the business theorist Peter Drucker, the economists Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Joseph Schumpeter, and the philosopher Karl Popper—who witnessed liberalism's collapse in the face of fascism and concluded that the best way to defend liberalism was to keep government out of economic life. "If the state was held at a safe distance," Judt said, "then extremists of right and left alike would be kept at bay." Public responsibilities have been drastically shifted to the private sector. Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans have forgotten how to think politically and morally about economic choices, Judt warned, his fragile, British-accented voice growing louder. To abandon the gains made by social democrats—the New Deal, the Great Society, the European welfare state—"is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come."(italics added)

Even as the results of deliberately following the lead of some of the men mentioned by Judt (and other, lesser, lights, such as Milton Friedman) lay around us - the physical, political, and socio-economic ruins of western society demolished in a perverse insistence that public good can only come from the accumulated "wisdom" of private vice - we should heed the emphasis on legacy to which Judt refers.

There is irony in this. Judt's masterwork - at least from his own perspective - is a 900 page recounting of modern European history entitled Postwar: A History Of Europe Since 1945. In his own words, Europe has become the exemplar of many social and civic virtues "by forgetting its past. 'The first postwar Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life.'" The irony here is that Judt sees our own social and political predicament as resulting from forgetfulness. Yet, it is a kind of manipulative forgetfulness, as he points out.
"Communism was a very defective answer to some very good questions. In throwing out the bad answer, we have forgotten the good questions. I want to put the good questions back on the table."

We need to be attentive to those questions as we stand and stare at the social wreckage around us. Our best friend, at the moment, is a much longer memory. I do hope that Judt, despite his desperate physical condition, continues to serve as a mnemonic for us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Apropos Of Nothing More Than A General Statement

I have to admit that my admiration for essayist and CD-purger Scott McLemee only grows with each day. His newest column in Inside Higher Ed has led me to a marvelous, eclectic, unnerving on-line journal called First Of The Month which is actually an annual. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in issues cultural and political, with an editorial policy that seems to me to encourage no ideological stringency.

In his column, Scott quotes a passage from a letter from the father of the editor of First of the Month, which sums up, in a wonderful shorthand, my own approach to pretty much everything intellectual, theological, philosophical, interpersonal, and every other "-al" you could name.
The younger DeMott quotes a letter written in his father’s final years -- a piece of advice given to a friend. It offers a challenge to what we might call "the will to sophistication," and its hard clarity is bracing:

"Study humiliation. You have nothing ahead of you but that. You survive not by trusting old friends. Or by hoping for love from a child. You survive by realizing you have nothing whatever the world wants, and that therefore the one course open to you is to start over. Recognize your knowledge and experience are valueless. Realize the only possible role for you on earth is that of a student and a learner. Never think that your opinions – unless founded on hard work in a field that is totally new to you – are of interest to anyone. Treat nobody, friend, co-worker, child, whomever, as someone who knows less than you about any subject whatever. You are an Inferior for life. Whatever is left of it....This is the best that life can offer. And it’s better than it sounds.”

Scott adds by way of commentary:
This amounts, finally, to a formulation of a democratic ethos for intellectual life. It bends the stick, hard, against the familiar warp. So, in its own way, does First, and I hope the website and the series of anthologies will continue and prosper as new readers and writers join its public.

One member has been added to its public.

Dump Reid (UPDATE)

I had heard something about Harry Reid over the weekend. Now, having read what, exactly, all the hubbub is about, I can only say - at the very least get this guy out of leadership. While the right-wing scree, "He's worse than Trent Lott!" is bogus, having someone in a position of senior leadership who has racial views that echo Talmadge and Russell of a generation ago is simply unconscionable. Whether or not he leaves the Senate is up to the voters of Nevada; he needs no longer to hold any position of authority in the United States Senate.

UPDATE: In all honesty, I couldn't care less what Eleanor Holmes Norton says. There are differences between both the rhetoric and record of Trent Lott and Harry Reid, but that is beside the point. This is more the case of a straw breaking a camel's back. We need better leadership in the Senate, and Reid's troglogytic comments push me far past the point where I can believe he will be or can be useful.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Book To Find

Once again, many thanks to Scott McLemee for directing me to a book review in the Guardian newspaper. From Theo Hobson's review:
The book is largely concerned to rebut Dawkins and Hitchens; there are many polemical thrusts against a narrow bourgeois version of rationality, and a faith in Progress that thinks it is just enlightened neutrality. This is all good stuff, but what I find really interesting is Eagleton's thoughts on revolution and Christianity.

He is of course sympathetic to Jesus's message of the kingdom of God, in which the poor will finally have justice. But he resists the normal Marxist response: that instead of fetishising the dead Jesus, we must do what Jesus failed to do. Instead he argues that the myth of Christ's death and resurrection is no escapist illusion: Jesus's "death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition." This is the sort of revolution that a normal Marxist would angrily dismiss as illusory, for "our dismal condition" can be politically mended. For Eagleton, the idea of the Fall cannot be brushed aside. This is confirmed later on, when he notes that Dawkins and Hitchens "have no use for such embarrassingly old-fashioned ideas as depravity and redemption. Even after Auschwitz there is nothing in their view to be redeemed from."

Typical doctrinaire Marxism, however, usually doesn't have Marx's respect for bourgeois culture, and Marx's understanding of Christianity as an ideological framework. Later Marxists, most especially Ernst Bloch, shared Marx's respect for the accomplishments of bourgeois society even as they understood capitalism's devastating impact on the working class. Bloch set aside early 20th century Marxism's dismissal of "religion", and expanded a Marxist appreciation for the potential revolutionary power of Christianity.

An attack on Dawkins and Hitchens, whether from a Christian or Marxist perspective (or some combination thereof), is all to the good, especially as Eagleton cuts through much of the typical apologetic frew-frew and gets to one of the hearts of their very limited vision (at least, Hobson makes it sound that way). In any event, an expanded appreciation for the deepest content of the Christian faith, whether or not Eagleton himself "comes out" (as Hobson ironically put it) as a Christian, would be a nice read, indeed.

Virtual Tin Cup

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