Saturday, April 03, 2010

Saturday Rock Show

Here's something to wake you up. "Universal Mind" by Liquid Tension Experiment.

Falsified Images And The Abuse Of Narrative

A truly fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine about photographer Roman Vishniac and the way photographs he took of pre-WWII Jewish communities in eastern Europe were manipulated by the photographer to present a picture that the originals did not, in fact, capture.
If you were to pick up a copy of “A Vanished World” in a contemporary American Jewish home and turn to the final spread, you would see two photographs. On the left, a man peers anxiously from a window in a metal door; on the right, a boy of no more than 3 or 4 points a small finger across his eyeline. The caption reads: “The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938.” An index at the front of the book, which features additional commentary on the photographs, fills out the frightening tale: “The pogromshchiki” — a lynch mob — “are coming. But the iron door was no protection.”

It is a poignant scene — haunting and full of narrative pathos. But it almost certainly did not happen. The pictures in that spread, it turns out, came from different rolls of film, probably shot in different towns — which means, of course, that its characters were presumably not only unrelated but also most likely did not even know each other.

The article relates the revelation to Maya Benton, who has detailed the discovery of the falsification, that her own family also participated in a kind of familial myth-making.
Sometime in 1989, Maya Benton, then a 14-year-old living in Los Angeles, had an epiphany. The daughter of a single mother, a psychoanalyst who as a child lived for years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Benton grew up in a household that was a relative rarity in American Jewish life: Yiddish speaking but cosmopolitan, well off and not Orthodox. As she lolled on the couch of her grandparents’ home, Benton started sneaking chocolate rum balls from a sterling silver box — one of two family heirlooms from, she had assumed, Novogrudek, the historic Jewish town in what is now Belarus from which her grandparents hailed before the Holocaust. As Benton stared at the weighty birthright from the alte heym, or Old World, bafflement struck: she knew, from an interview she conducted with her family members for a history class, that they fled the German invasion, hid in nearby forests, were interned at multiple labor camps and trekked through miles of often snow-covered forest in the east. How on earth, Benton thought as she considered the ornate container, did they manage to schlep this through Siberia? The confusion grew when she considered the second heirloom: a full set of Rosenthal china.

As it turned out, the box and the china had not been in the family for generations, nor were they from Novogrudek. As Maya’s grandmother, Tonia Benton, explained that afternoon, they were among the things that she and her husband bought from impoverished Germans after the war; bartering the chocolate and cigarettes they received in the displaced-persons camp, they were able to buy valuable items that could be used as currency to get the family to America. That day, Maya Benton says, she learned a lesson about people’s need for, and uses of, mythical narratives.

One thing jumps out - that old bugaboo, authenticity.
The concentration of poverty and piety in Vishniac’s pictures in “Polish Jews” created a distinct impression of timelessness, an unchanging, “authentic society” captured in amber.

Benton found a treasure trove in Vishniac's archive - negatives and notes that presented a far more accurate detail of the rich diversity of the life of European Jews before the Nazi horrors. Yet, it was precisely these horrors which made Vishniac's work that much more powerful.
According to the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, about 30 to 40 percent of the three million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust lived in shtetls. Many other Jews lived in large, cosmopolitan cities like Warsaw and Vilna and Krakow. And yet in the popular imagination, the word shtetl has become nearly synonymous with pre-Holocaust life — a romantic image characterized by homogeneity and quaintness. This sentimentalization — driven in part by secularized, often prosperous Jews troubled by the sense that their hard-earned modernity may have come at the price of tradition and authenticity — began as far back as the 19th century and traveled with Jews from the Pale of Settlement to the shores of America. At the start of the last century, Yiddish newspapers and plays in America treated the shtetl with both love and condescension — too close a memory not to feel homesick for, yet too obviously backward to reclaim.

But this delicate balance was upset by the Holocaust, which twisted ambivalent affection into paralytic grief. After the war, it became difficult to view prewar images as anything but a prelude to destruction — a backshadowing that distilled the complicated, multifaceted reality of prewar Jewish life into a two-dimensional shrine, one that deserved all the mournful appreciation that could be mustered. In January 1945, the rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a seminal speech at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York about prewar Eastern European Jewish life. It was not a factual exploration of this historical subject but rather a lyrical interpretation of what Heschel claimed was the essence of Eastern European Jewish life: its soul. “Heschel argued that though the Eastern European Jews were destroyed, their spiritual legacy lives on,” explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of performance studies at New York University who has done scholarship on Eastern European Jewish culture. “It is indestructible, unassailable — something the Germans could never get their hands on.” In fact, she added, the physical destruction was barely mentioned. At the end of Heschel’s speech, the audience broke into a spontaneous recitation of the Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer.

The question arises, inexorably, almost necessarily: what possible purpose is served by elevating a false myth in the midst of grief? These are questions we face as individuals, to be sure. Yet, this was not the death of one person, but the decimation of an entire population (Poland's Jewish community, the particular focus of Vishniac's most celebrated work, was utterly destroyed by the Nazi machinery of death). With them went their collective memory, their history, both colloquial and collective including all its complications, diversity, and complexity.

Yesterday, I wrote about the rise and fall of the use of spectacle and image in American politics in the age of television's dominance. A particular point, not stressed enough (I fear) was the way so many images used by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush in particular, presented false impressions. When Reagan spoke at Normandy, in 1984, for example, he managed to convey a sense of his own participation in the great historical event he was commemorating. Certainly he was of the proper age. Yet, Reagan (like another Hollywood conservative, John Wayne), desperately sough to avoid combat during the Second World War. A commissioned officer in the Army Special Services, Reagan performed in Army training films, never leaving Hollywood. Yet, he was able to present to the world the idea that he, too, was a part of what Gen. Eisenhower had called the Crusade in Europe.

Bush's falsification of his own participation in military events was even greater. Photographed striding across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, Bush not only recalled his own days as a pilot in the Air National Guard (protecting the skies of Alabama from the North Vietnamese Air Force), but by extension his own military record and that camaraderie that all military personnel feel toward their fellows. He did all this as a prelude to a victory speech at the end of the first phase of the war in Iraq, providing images that, at first, provided images of triumph easily bought. History has a way of turning the tables on people, however, and those same images were used against Bush later.

All of this returns us to that question - Why do we feel the need to create in our memory a sense of the past that, given even a little bit of thought, is false? Why did Vishniac not only present his images as typical, but even go so far as to falsify a pair of images in order to create an impression of menace and danger? Does a reliance on "narrative" as a way of constructing, and reconstructing, our lives, sometimes lead to falsification?

(h/t Talking Points Memo)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday

The Demise Of The Politics Of Spectacle

In 1960, Richard Nixon was on the losing end of a new phenomenon. In a Presidential candidates debate with Sen. John Kennedy, Nixon managed to hold his own; listeners on radio called the debate a draw. Those who watched television, however, had a different opinion. Because of a combination of bad lighting, Nixon's nervous demeanor, too much makeup, and other factors, those who watched the debate found Kennedy's cool and smooth delivery, free from sweating and appearing either nervous, evasive, or uninformed much more appealing. While perhaps not the single reason Kennedy won that election, the debate made a far larger cultural impact, one not lost on the loser.

In both 1968 and 1972, Pres. Nixon hired public relations firms to run his campaigns. His chief of staff and chief domestic adviser were also from the world of advertising and public relations. Along with breaking in to the National Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate complex to bug their phones, Nixon understood heading in to the '72 campaign that he he might face Sen. Edmund Muskie, who consistently out-polled the President. Besides planting a letter that made Muskie self-destruct (he was reported to have cried, even though he actually didn't; he became the object of snide Washington ridicule and slipped away to nothing in the polls), Nixon also very carefully managed events from the fall of 1971 through the election to ensure he appeared as Presidential as possible. He forced an end to the Vietnam War; he signed a nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union. His biggest coup was a trip to China, including a meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-dung. Nixon won in a landslide, winning 49 states.

Ronald Reagan surrounded himself with people of a similar bent to Nixon. A close family friend and intimate adviser, Michael Deaver became infamous around Washington for constructing images and messages. His biggest failure was 1985's European trip commemorating the end of World War II. Included in the itinerary was a trip to Bitburg cemetery in Germany that had, among other graves, those of Waffen SS soldiers who had guarded the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Precisely because, by this time in his Presidency, Reagan was well-known for being very much about flash and appearance while short on substantive understanding of policy, this misstep showed the limits of the politics of spectacle.

The George W. Bush Administration was staffed by people who had either served in lower level positions in previous Administrations, or learned from them. More than the Democrats, who have spent the decades since the 1968 lost election in pretty much constant turmoil, the Republican Party learned a valuable lesson from Nixon's disastrous television debate performance - appearance, show, and most of all spectacle, define political impressions far more than words. This reality was the guiding ethos of "Bush's Brain", Karl Rove. More than any other individual, Rove was the master architect not only of Bush's rise to the Presidency, but managed the President's schedule and appearances.

His high point was to be the President, who had trained as a fighter pilot in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, landing on the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, followed by a speech. The speech included a shot of the President in front of a banner that read "Mission Accomplished". Pundits and commentators all agreed - it was Bush's finest hour, a significant, Presidential moment.

Except, it occurred at the beginning of another medium, one that would strip the facade from the politics of spectacle given birth in a Presidential debate 43 years before. With the rise of the internet, in particular citizen commentary on political and social events, images that would have arrived filtered through the lenses and words of those taken in by spectacles no longer existed in some pristine world, free of deconstruction. On the contrary, our public discourse, once again turning back to words and ideas and away from images void of substance, stripped this and countless other images of any meaning whatsoever. Indeed, for most liberals on the internet, "Mission Accomplished" became not only a symbol of Bush Administration hubris and folly; it also was a cruel joke, mocking the deaths of thousands of Americans in Iraq after that event.

Part of the reason Barack Obama has been, and most likely will continue to be, successful getting his agenda in place has been his grasp of this fundamental change. As television declines in importance; as the images conveyed by cameras to the American people are now filtered through the words of thousands of ordinary citizens; as these voices clamor not just for more better images, but images that are more reflective of their vision of America; these changes all make the old political habits - reading the national newspapers; watching the network news broadcasts; ensuring a "victory" on the daily news cycle - no longer applicable. Obama not only understands this changed reality; he knows that we are returning to a time when words, not images, dominate our politics, that ideas and substance trump a photo-op and sound bites.

Obama's victory, not just for the Presidency, but his ongoing string of policy victories signal the end of the politics of the imaged spectacle even more than George W. Bush in front of the a banner that lied when it read "Mission Accomplished".

Thursday, April 01, 2010

An Example

Yesterday, I wrote that I am weary of the really stupid stuff at Crooks and Liars. Well, today, they managed to provide a marvelous example of said stupid stuff.
As part of this weekend's Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, Tengrain at Mock Paper Scissors is holding a "Pin the Tail on the Theocrat" contest.

Because, as we all know, with the most liberal President since Richard Nixon, and the most liberal Congress since the late 1970's, having just passed the most significant expansion of the welfare state since the mid-1960's, it is obvious we are on the verge of a theocratic dictatorship.

I guess liberals really can be as stupid as conservatives sometimes.

Boo! God's gonna get ya!


Unconstitutional Constitutional Powers (UPDATE) (UPDATE II)

I had not heard about this particular bit of crazy. Let's face it; calling the Census "unconstitutional" is a bit like calling the sun dark, OK?

Is it any wonder we don't take these people seriously whenever they cry about the way the Obama Administration is destroying the Constitution? I mean, come on, people. At least pretend you've read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The comments on this article are a welter of crazy and stupid in about equal amounts.

UPDATE II:( For the record, I just completed our household Census form, and it was such an unconstitutional overreach of executive authority because it asked how many people are living here, their names, their ages, and their ethnicity. For the record, it didn't ask about the animals that live here, how much money we make, or whether or not I think Barack Obama is the new savior of the galaxy or the anti-Christ.

It asked how many people lived here, and all the rest. The commenter at the linked newspaper article who says that he will only answer certain questions apparently hasn't actually looked at the freaking form.

Stupid abounds . . .

Moral Monster

Quite simply put, the only thing worse than the apparent flowering of anointed pederasts in the Roman Catholic Church under the protection of then-Josef Cardinal Ratzinger is the continued defense of the current Pope's protection of these criminals by the Catholic League's Bill Donohue. I'm not even sure how it is possible for this man to appear on television and say the things he does without realizing that all the so-called moral education the Roman Church offers its adherents isn't a bunch of bunk. At the very least, this is a case of having someone defend the institution, and by doing so make it look far worse.

If it were the case, for example, that a Bishop of the United Methodist Church not only knew a particular pastor were a pedophile, but did not remove this person from appointment, but rather moved this person to a different appointment and covered up this person's crimes, you can bet your bottom dollar I would be (a) hanging my head in shame; and (b) be among the many thousands denouncing the denomination for its actions that threatened the safety and security of children this way. Donohue, on the other hand, seems to think that it is a problem with gay priests, rather than pedophiles, and anyway, since it's the Roman Catholic Church, it's OK.

What a horrible, horrible man.

Princpled Bigotry

Back in 1964, Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on the principled notion that much of the bill's intent overreached the bounds of constitutional impropriety. His principled stand - and I, for one, believe it was such - was exploited by bigots and hard-core racists as cover. Here was a position that could hide the fact that they hated black people and did not want equal protection and access for all Americans.

The petty and nonsensical notion that one is, of course, personally opposed to a but believes that the federal government has neither the constitutional warrant nor the resources to address a has, like most right-wing ideas, outlived its usefulness. Yet, here it is again.
The Department’s civil-rights division announced yesterday the terms of its settlement with a New York school district that, in the division’s opinion, was insufficiently aggressive in protecting a young man from “harassment based on sex” by other students. The harassment stemmed from the student’s “fail[ure] to conform to gender stereotypes” — that is, he “exhibited feminine mannerisms, dyed his hair, wore makeup and nail polish, and maintained predominantly female friendships.” The settlement will require the school district to, among other things, “retain an expert consultant in the area of harassment and discrimination based on sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation” and for the consultant “to conduct annual training for faculty and staff, and students as deemed appropriate by the expert” on the same topics. Oh, and the aggrieved student — who now attends school elsewhere — will get $50,000 and the New York Civil Liberties Union will get $25,000 in attorney fees.

Got that? The federal government was addressing the violation of the Civil Rights of a student who experienced harassment because he was effeminate. Here's where the author of this piece goes off the rails.
Now, let me first say that schools should not allow students to bully and beat up other students for any reason, including being gay or perceived as being gay. But it is quite a leap from that to saying that the federal government should police local school districts in this regard, with further leaps out of the real world if illegal harassment is defined to include name-calling in a high school when a male student dyes his hair and wears makeup and nail polish . . .

Whenever a sentence begins, "Now, let me first say . . ." you just know the author is going to qualify his moral disapprobation by insisting there is a greater, principled notion at stake. In this case, the failure of the local school, the greater New York schools, and the State of New York to defend this young man is as nothing compared to the "jihad" the United States Justice Department and the Obama Administration are leading (according to the title of this article).

Sorry, Mr. Clegg, but your article is nothing more or less than the defense of violence against a young man disguised as some kind of defense of constitutional propriety. For this writer, this young man's safety is far more important than any alleged violation of federalism. Indeed, it seems to me, as the court in the article is a federal court, it was the perfect place to rule on the legitimacy of the Justice Department's standing and seemed quite content to consider it as perfectly legal. I will take a court's decision over your opinion any day. Especially since you seem to think there is something far worse about the federal government protecting a young man from physical and emotional abuse by his peers than that harassment itself.

(h/t, Sadly,No!)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'll Take A Pass On This Kool-Aid, Thanks

Today's Daily Howler does both the unthinkable and provides a marvelous service (for this reader, at any rate) all at the same time. In writing about the error- and hyperventilation-prone way some liberals are writing and talking about the tea-baggers and, specifically, recent incidents on Capitol Hill, Somerby actually dredges up the horrid way Newt Gingrich attempted to exploit the horrific murders committed by Susan Smith in 1994 (she drowned her two children, first insisting they had been kidnapped by "blacks", then confessing she had done it herself so her boyfriend would like her more) for partisan purposes. This is the unthinkable; the service for this reader is just this: he clarified for me the ways in which some liberals and some liberal and left-wing sites get a little out of control - and expose their own ignorance - when talking about some issues, including race and religion.

Crooks & Liars is one site that, for the most part, practices almost daily shark-jumping when it comes to right-wing nuttiness. It is one thing to point out something silly or ridiculous said by someone on the right. It is quite another to make out of these, even accumulated, bits of nonsense a dangerous trend that threatens the general leftward drift of the vast majority of the American people. I tire of it, to be honest, because even as they keep talking about all these nonexistent threats to our ways of life, they also bemoan the lack of substantive discourse on the internet.

Duh, anybody?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Love

It's like those French have a different word for everything!
Steve Martin

Everyone whose Christian education goes beyond fourth-grade Sunday School classes understands that the word "love" in English translations of the New Testament is the translation of three different words in Greek - eros, philia, and agape. For years we have been subject to ruminations on the distinctions among these three words, usually ending with the insistence that agape, a selfless concern for others, is the true understanding of "love" when used in a Christian context.

I am going to go out on a limb today and offer a different take. Before getting to that conclusion, however, I want to take a couple steps backwards and talk about language. The starting point here, in case you're interested, is Richard Rorty's essay, "Texts and Lumps", which is included in his Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Collected Papers, Vol. 1 published by Cambridge University Press in 1991. In that essay, Rorty compares the way critics view a text and scientists view a lump of material they are analyzing. Rather than consider their methods as being wholly distinct and incompatible, Rorty notes that, in reality, scientists and textual critics go about their tasks in remarkably similar ways. They have something in front of them they are attempting to understand. They have tools they use for the job; for critics they are rhetoric and grammar, deconstruction and historical criticism. For the scientists they are the spectrometer and SEM, litmus paper and dissection, what have you depending upon what type of lump might sit in front of them. For Rorty, the issue is not that the humanities and the sciences have different methods, or that their subject matter is so distinct as to make their methods incompatible. Rather, we have been led to believe that science deals in something called reality which is objectively verifiable (or falsifiable, depending upon which philosophy of science to which one adheres) while the humanities deal with matters that are purely subjective, interpretation being at the service of whatever whim the critic happens to have. These distinctions, once one considers how these very different tasks are actually done, disappear like summer fog once one considers that most basic tool - language.

For Rorty, language is nothing more than the sounds we make or the marks we make on paper (and, of course, a computer screen). After Darwin, to consider language as anything more than a purely contingent tool humans use to help them survive their environment is to get all airy, "theo-ontological" to use a favorite term of derision of his. I am going to depart from Rorty at this juncture; unlike Rorty, I would like to emphasize that languages are not only tools of individuals and groups. Precisely because they are such, they have histories; the meanings of words exist within complex histories of communication, each new use adding an incremental bit of meaning and understanding (as well as obfuscation and lack of clarity). For that reason, it is important, if we are going to consider "love" from a Christian perspective, that we are clear that it is not some thing that exists, but is, rather a way some human beings insist we are to live once we are grasped by that reality we call God.

Those folks who lived in the eastern Mediterranean in the first century CE would not have understood us should we suddenly find ourselves there and insisted that the words eros, agape, and philia were actually referring to an emotive and existential state we English-speakers call "love". Precisely because koine Greek - a kind of pidgin-Greek that was the lingua franca after Alexander's conquests of most of the Mediterranean basin three centuries before - has these three different words means nothing more or less than they served the useful purpose of describing three very different human phenomena. "Eros" referred not just to sexual love, but to that complex relating that human beings feel and act out toward one another; "intimacy" might be a far better way of understanding it than reducing it to its sexual component. "Philia", very often considered similar to "friendship", runs far deeper than our rather shallow understanding that word. Those who were joined in bonds of "philia" were very often just as close as those for whom the term "eros" might apply. "Agape", an altruistic, self-abnegating posture toward the world, in which one considers those around oneself of greater worth than oneself, worthy of sacrifice appears more often in the New Testament than any other term translated as love. Yet, it is the most difficult with which to come to terms.

Having made the distinctions among these three words a little more clear, we need to ask the following question: Are we best served, either out of a sense of tradition or common usage, by continuing to translate these very different words in to the English word "love"? Would it not, perhaps, be better to find different English cognates and set aside "love" altogether?

Part of the problem here is that the word "love" is one of the most equivocal words in the English language. I can say that I love my dog, my daughters, my wife, my parents and siblings, my job, and my favorite music and there would be no loss of understanding when others heard me so use that one word in this way. Yet, how strange is it that this one word serves such a multiplicity of purposes? It seems to me that, rather than the specificity of the ancient Greek differences expressed by the use of different words, English-users actually have a grasp of the range and depth of human emotion and the subtleties of the ways human beings relate to their environment that is represented by using the single word "love".

That being said, as we move from the koine-Greek of the New Testament with its different words to the lively world of English, I believe that rather than stop our considerations of "love" as a Christian virtue with the understanding of the distinctions among the various Greek words in question, we should take the next, quite clear, choice and insist that the equivocal nature of the English word "love" is a far better word to capture the fullness of love as the Bible intended. That is to say, when we consider, for example, that most famous passage on Christian love, the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, rather than insist that St. Paul is speaking here of only one way Christians should relate to one another (as evidenced by a close textual reading of the chapter in question), we should take the next step and talk about how love, in all its varieties and permutations, its differences and similarities in the objects toward which we use the word "love" are encompassed by Christian love as expressed by St. Paul.

Rather than denigrate the erotic - not so much the sexual per se but that intimacy between human beings that might best be expressed by the phrase "romantic love" - we should celebrate it as a necessary part of Christian love precisely because it captures part of that reality we celebrate, for example, in marriage: that two human beings may form bonds of intimacy that are stronger than the mere whims of emotion. Rather than insist that Christian love, in its most pure form, sets aside considerations of oneself as understood by the use of the term "agape", we should insist that the fullness of Christian love includes not only self-sacrifice, but that consideration of others expressed by "romantic love", the deep bonds of mutuality expressed in the deepest of friendships, and even that intimacy that finds expression in private between those for whom love is expressed physically.

We human beings were created as beings who love. When the first epistle of St. John says that "God is love", we should understand that predicate in its fullness. Medieval interpreters of the Song of Songs grasped then when they understood it as an allegory for the love God has for the Church. In its earthiness and celebration of human sensuality, we have the definitive statement of the power of human intimacy and its holiness in the eyes of God.

Rather than settle for a truncated, attenuated understanding of "love", we should take it in all its fullness as the English language permits and shout a very loud "Amen!" when we speak of Christian love. We are created to love in all its varieties by a good God and should not settle for anything less.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Critical Adherence

Scott McLemee's column defending the NBCC's choice of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History as one of the non-fiction finalists elicited some interesting discussion in the comments. I am unable to judge the merits of the decision, not having read the book. Scott's discussion of the way the controversy unfolded, however, sounds familiar enough to anyone paying attention to issues of religion, and criticism of religion, especially in the internet age. Especially interesting is his highlighting a discussion in the Indian paper The Hindustan Times on "The Internet Hindu", which is a specific example of that generic phenomenon, the religious fanatic on the internet.

I am no stranger to this particular beast of prey; the subtitle of this site comes directly from a comment at a right-wing Christian website referencing me. For the most part, I have to agree with the commenter who said the issue is fanaticism, although I would disagree with the use of "political correctness" or that such a thing as fanaticism is more prevalent in religion than other aspects of human life. With a segment of fanatical Islam hell-bent on killing themselves and others as a form of politico-religious protest; with right-wing Christians killing abortion providers in the United States; with right-wing Jewish groups armed to the teeth in settlements in Palestinian lands; and, of course, with that most infamous of all fatwas, the death sentence pronounced against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses (as beautiful, funny, tragic, and glorious a novel as I have ever read) - I think the kinds of protests Dr. Doniger has experienced can be called "mild".

In the comments, Michael Kruse from the Department of Languages and Culture of Asia, just up the road in Madison at UW, writes the following:
The basic issue is who gets to speak for a religious tradition. It seems to me that at the root of this and similar controversies, it is always an issue of "outsider" scholars vs. "insider" adherents. That is to say, the Hindus who are calling for the book to be banned are basing their expertise on the fact that they are Hindus, and that they therefore know the tradition better than someone who is not a Hindu, i.e. Doniger.

I think this is right. Those voices that are loudest in complaint whenever there is criticism of any religious point-of-view usually base their apologia upon their own expertise as believers. Some of the criticism of fellow-believers whose views differ, criticism that usually ends up in statements such as "blasphemy" or calling that person a "false teacher" (another epithet applied to me once upon a time), stems from the same phenomenon, viz., as believers in some sense more "authentic" than others, the views of those who do not adhere to the same principles are as illegitimate as those of an outsider who makes critical comments.

My own position, which should be pretty obvious, is that one can be an adherent to a particular set of religious beliefs and still be critical both of those beliefs and of the practices of fellow-believers. Once upon a time, I did think it OK to write out of Christian fellowship those whose beliefs differ from mine; no more. In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of my own faith is how to reconcile the reality of my own, continued, belief when all around us are examples of Christians who not only do not agree with my beliefs, but practice a kind of Christianity that is directly antithetical to those beliefs (spout hatred of minority groups; espouse and practice violence; apologize for those who kill and maim in the name of the one we call the Prince of Peace). All I can do is repent for my own continued belief, yet lamentably agree that these others are, indeed, Christian. The history of our faith is far too bloody to deny it.

I think, then, the dichotomy between critical outsiders and faithful insiders is misleading. There are those who fully live within a religious tradition and are yet critical both of much of its stated beliefs and many of its practices. As Scott makes clear about Doniger's book, she shows that Hinduism - like the Abrahamic faiths, and perhaps most religious traditions that are long enough in duration - can be used to support contradictory practices. This should be enough to persuade even one as ignorant as myself that the rich tradition of Hinduism is a marvelous treasure to be explored more fully.* Those who protest Doniger's book, like those Muslims who protested a scandalous cartoon in Europe a few years back, or right-wing Christians who got upset at Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, or what have you, are to be expected. For many people, one's religious beliefs are so deeply intertwined in one's sense of who one is that a general discussion of a set of religious dogma and practices that might draw attention to the less-than-perfectly-virtuous aspects of them seems like a personal attack. I do not think we owe them an apology; just an explanation that being critical is not the same thing as attacking that set of beliefs.

After all, I am pretty critical of much of what passes for Christian thought and practice, yet I, too, am a Christian. It is possible to be a critical adherent to a set of religious beliefs.

*I like Scott's use of The Song of Songs in his discussion. My wife and I used a selection from Chapter 8 as the Scripture text for our wedding.

Music For Your Monday

The late Dusty Springfield was that rare gem. A truly great singer, like many British performers, she was attracted to American R&B because it spoke to something of her own experience in life (which shows the power of class in Britain). Unlike some who tried to imitate the sound - Pete Townsend's "maximum R&B" period - Springfield had the opportunity to apply her gifts to the real thing, inspiring future British blue-eyed soul singers from Alison Moyet right up to those who continue the tradition today. My oldest sisters had a copy of "Son of a Preacher Man" and I played it a lot as a kid on my little box record player . . .

And here it is.

This next song was, I think, a bigger hit for her. "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me"

She also did a whole lot of straight-up pop tunes, yet one can hear that Motown/Muscle Shoals/Stax-Volt lilt in her voice. "All I See Is You".

"Son of the god of Enoch"

Apparently, Eric Cantor was threatened after all. Not by the fall of a random bullet through a window in the building that housed his Richmond, VA, office. Rather, a seriously disturbed young man posted a video on YouTube that directly threatened Cantor and his family.

According to one report, this young man - Norman Leboon - said the following:
When he was visited by federal agents on Saturday, he "stated that he is the 'son of the god of Enoch' and that his father speaks through him. Leboon stated that Eric Cantor is 'pure evil'; will be dead; and that Cantor's family is suffering because of his father's wrath."

I am quite glad the this young man was dim enough to post his threat and Federal authorities were able to pick him up before he could do anything to Rep. Cantor or any member of his family. Yet, one has to wonder, how many Leboons are out there, slipping in and out of reality, hearing the voice of whomever insist they kill this member of Congress, that mayor, that Senator. This is clearly unrelated to any political agenda - Leboon strikes even the casual reader as a textbook schizophrenic, in need not just of removal from society but also some serious medical intervention - which is precisely why it is so disturbing. The political whackos tend to be all talk (or, rather, shouting); the nutjobs, however, usually are far better at keeping a low profile than Mr. Leboon.

Rep. Cantor was extremely fortunate to have attracted the attention of a less-than-stellar-bright crazy person. One wonders, however, how many smarter-than-Lebroons there are out there, with Rep. Boehner, or Speaker Pelosi, or Sen. Lieberman on a list, waiting silently for their chance to strike . . .

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Christian Social Justice Glenn Beck Might Support

At least seven people, including some from Michigan, have been arrested in raids by a FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana as part of an investigation into an Adrian-based Christian militia group, a person familiar with the matter said.

The suspects are expected to make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Monday.

On Sunday, a source close to the investigation in Washington, D.C. confirmed that FBI agents were conducting activities in Washtenaw and Lenawee counties over the weekend in connection to Hutaree, a Christian militia group.

And who, pray tell, is Hutaree? Like any contemporary movement, group, sect, organization, they have a website. The site includes a statement of their doctrine.

In truth, untangling the mess on that page is quite beyond my capacity, to quote C3PO. They also have videos, handy-dandy updates on upcoming training dates, no doubt postponed for now. There is a link to something called "Beast Watch" that, under other circumstances, I would laugh at. Unfortunately, it seems these folks were planning on moving beyond making a lot of noise and scaring wildlife in southeastern Michigan. I swear if it weren't for the depth of my faith, I'd renounce the whole thing because of lunatics like these.

Where Credit Is Due

I hate to admit it, but Jim Wallis is right.
Jesus said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. So whatever Beck does, Christians who want to follow Jesus should not personally attack Beck but, rather, should pray for him, for the poor and for our country, which is being harmed by an increasingly poisonous public discourse.

Yet, the old Jim Wallis, who is now and always has been about Jim Wallis being the Leader of a New Movement crops up at the end.
This is the right way to stand up to Glenn Beck. Who knows; it may be the moment to launch a new movement of Christians for Social Justice.

This is why I dislike Wallis. Rather than uphold and strengthen the structures that already exist in various denominations for the promotion of Christian social justice, he has always wanted to lead a movement a la Martin Luther King. This is why he will never do so; King was thrust in to leadership through the contingency of circumstance; he was the right person in the the right place at the right time. Wallis is one of those people who keeps shouting "Follow me!" while he looks back over his shoulder to check and make sure they are. When they aren't, he starts all over again.

All the same, his initial response is correct. Rather than denounce Beck, or call him names, offering prayer is, indeed, the proper response.

Virtual Tin Cup

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