Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Reviewing As High Comedy

Lee Siegel's review of Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals is a marvelously funny piece of criticism (and thank you, Scott, for the link). While I can appreciate Scott's comment on the review (which is also quite funny), the end of Siegel's review captures an attitude I have found far too frequently, and not just on the internet:
When I read Mr. Berman, I don't think romantically of those dreadful old Partisan Review "smackdowns." Instead, I recall this line spoken by Dostoevsky's Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov: "Suffering is the inability to love." The problem with that kind of suffering is that it blinds you to everyone else's. You become a hero in your own mind, the rest of the world be damned.

That brave soul, standing athwart the tide - whether it be left or right, intellectual elitism or anti-intellectual buffoonery, the theocratic threat or the secular humanist threat - is the creation of those individuals' own grand sense of their own place in history.

Me, I'm happy with a small blog that about three people read with any regularity.

Of course, this doesn't detract from the fact that a bit of score-settling may be taking place here. Moral rectitude is a pose I dislike in any case; vengeance disguised as moral rectitude is particularly nasty.

But, it can also be funny.

Good For The Soul

I mention no names or places here, to protect myself from any chance legal liability. On the other hand, I hope the point is clear that the only person who comes out of this looking bad is me.

The best supervisors at a place of business are those who not only support those under them positively, but those who are quite willing to hand them their ass when necessary. The other night, I had my ass handed to me, on a silver platter. I want to take a moment to thank my supervisor for doing this. It is significant that this was the last chance this person had to do this for me, and it was done clearly, professionally, and even thoughtfully. My only regret is I won't have the opportunity to prove that I can, indeed, change for the better.

I've worked at the same place for about three and a half years. While hardly a world-changing, life-changing job, it is a job. The past two years, however, the job has become progressively more physically demanding. Always physically stressful, the changes I have gone through moving from just-turn-41 to 44 are taking their toll. Because of that, I have, over time, cut little corners here, there, and elsewhere in the performance of my duties, always with one eye on some parts of my job, but another eye - far more jaundiced - turned askance at it.

Suffice it to say I was called out on my performance the other night. The accumulation of grievances became the subject of a heated exchange between me and my supervisor. While not granting every single accusation made as accurate, suffice it to say that, in sum, the diagnosis of the issue was spot on. Significantly, it was toward the end of a dressing down both long-needed and much deserved, in what seemed like a throw-away line at the time, that I realized where my error lay. I was told, "Sure, you aren't a surgeon or a lawyer, but you should still do your job as best you can," or words to that effect.

In other words, I was getting a lecture in work-place ethics in which it was being made clear that mine were found wanting. And for precisely the reasons set out, too. Because the work isn't "significant", or "important", or some other socially-acceptable bit of employment, I consoled my own decreasing lack of performance over time in the understanding that it didn't really matter all that much.

Except, of course, it does. It's a matter of character. A matter of ensuring that, no matter the job or task, is done with dedication and thoroughness. What I feel most ashamed of is not the details of my failure which are, in fact, relatively easily remediable. A bit of a slower pace, a bit more attention to detail, a bit of thought and concentration on the task at hand - that's all that is required. It is the ethical failure, the realization that on an issue as important as how one views and conducts oneself as a worker - regardless of the work in question - I had been found wanting, that troubles me. For this, I am heartily sorry; I hope that I can show others, in the near future, that this is a situation I understand, and will change.

I have been fortunate in my time at this particular place because I have been surrounded by people who, working under all kinds of stresses and limitations, manage to do incredible amounts of work - physically taxing if not precisely intellectually stimulating - not only with dedication, but with a sense of fun. All of that flowed down from a one particular person who will no longer have the position of supervisor come our next work week, through no fault of this person's own. I guess I want to take a moment to say, "Thank you," because I really have learned so much from this person. I'm just sorry it took so long, that I was too thick to allow the lesson to penetrate until the last possible moment.

A little confession is good for the soul, so they say (hence the title). A little penitence, at least in this case in the form of a conscious effort to make some ever-so-slight adjustments in my own work habits, will also do me good. I hope, for my own sake, that the words have not come too late. I also hope this person understands how grateful I am and have been to be able to work with someone who understands far better than I do what it means to work ethically.

Ignorance & American Representative Democracy

N.B.: This is just one of what will be at least two posts on this paper (.pdf) linked via a comment at Crooked Timber.
The citizens of a modern democracy are trying to be well informed about social-science questions that confound even social-science professionals - because of the difficulty of using controlled experimentation to answer them. . . . When public-opinion researchers enumerate the shocking levels of factual ignorance displayed by members of the public, they are really catalouging the haphazard and often incoherent theorizing in which we, the people engage in our capacity as amateur social scientists.
Jeffrey Bernstein

Taking one's cue on social theory from Karl Popper might seem to be the height of intellectual honesty. Featuring most prominently an admission of the limits of human understanding and knowledge, and the fallibility of even the most cherished ideas about the way the world works, Popper's theory of science and theory change, as well as his more directly relevant writings on politics and social thought (The Open Society and Its Enemies (2 vol.) and The Poverty of Historicism in particular) certainly offer to a budding social theorist the opportunity to make the case for the limits of any social theory, let alone the potential success or failure of the intellectual project of the social sciences.

While it is certainly true, as Jeffrey Bernstein makes explicit, that the salient feature of our social life is the complexity of contemporary social and political phenomena and the impossibility of grasping it in toto, he misconstrues Popper's (and natural scientist's generally) understanding of the structure and role of theory. Furthermore, and more explicitly in reference to the question of ignorance and self-governance, he ignores certain salient features of social and political life that even a non-professional recognizes. Most important, his insistence on his own understanding of what he calls "rational-choice theory" as operative in political decision-making is hardly very rigorous. It seems to me that these two points invalidate any idea that operational ignorance of what even Bernstein calls "trivia" (although ignorance of some more significant facets of our social life certainly give one pause) bears any relationship to questions of the success or failure of governance.

First, as to the question of Popper's fallibilism and the role of theory formation, it is important to remember that Popper was swimming against the rushing current of logical positivism when he offered the notion that scientific theories are not and can never be verified, but rather are only significant and operationally important to the extent that they have, as yet, to be falsified. In the limited case of the natural sciences, this theory offers a view of the openness of the scientific enterprise to the reality that even the best theories are no more than organizational structures for what we know so far.

It is important to remember a significant feature of Popper's approach to scientific theories that goes unmentioned by Bernstein (and, for that matter, by Popper in his writing on social and political philosophy). Theories, for Popper, are nothing more than a series of what he calls "basic statements", which are themselves nothing more than singular instances of facts. Again, we have to understand what Popper was doing here. In the first place, he was contrasting "basic statements" with the "protocol sentences" of the logical positivists. These latter were intended to be a logically coherent structure by which theories were operationally affective. Basic statements, on the other hand, were simply reports of experimental results; "facts" in this case were nothing more or less than points plotted on a graph. A series of basic statements related to one another operationally, i.e., because they consisted of reports from experiments on particular related phenomena, are what make up a theory. Precisely for this reason, then, one can understand how fallibilism worked for Popper; there would always be another experiment, another report, another basic statement to be added to a theory. The accumulation of factual data, over time, refined and more than occasionally falsified not just particular theories, but whole research programs (to borrow a phrase from Popper's colleague, Imre Lakatos).

On an epistemological level, theories, for Popper, were an attempt to end-run modernist objections to philosophical realism. In a collection of essays entitled Objective Knowledge, Popper pronounced himself a "realist", insofar as scientific theories were actual descriptions of the way the world really is constructed without reference to human agency. He went on, at one point, to posit the possibility of the accumulation, at some point, of enough basic statement to have the least chance of falsifying our understanding of the world. Be that as it may, this dedication to a certain kind of what can be called, for the moment, naive realism, raises as many questions as it solves (which is the way any important philosophical notion operates, I suppose).

His objection to much of social science, at least as was practiced at the time he was criticizing it, was the presence of explicit theories, announced by researchers beforehand, that governed the way data was not only interpreted, but gathered, delimited, organized, and thus organized as social theories. Yet he never understood that his own naive realism operated in much the same way in the natural sciences. Operating from either an explicit or implicit philosophical predisposition is not, by itself, the mark of a lack of intellectual integrity, nor should be thought to render irrelevant or incomprehensible or incoherent what results. Even the most naive positivist in the social sciences would hardly disagree that gathering and interpreting data, governed by the limits and rules of any social theory, hardly qualifies as either surprising or even a significant observation. Whether one is a dedicated Marxist, or Friedmanite, while this may determine which data may be considered important or unimportant for reasons of statistical comparison, it is the results of the statistical analysis that are important for understanding whether the issue at hand has in any way been clarified.

In other words, theories are no more than collections of data that are, themselves, governed by principles as to significance and importance.

Now, this relates to the question of ignorance and social and political life precisely because Bernstein ignores the structure of "theory" as put forth by Popper, as well as his own philosophical commitment to a kind of realism that dictated his own approach to how theories are to be understood. Fallibilism, while certainly clarifying the way the scientific enterprise operates in a way the positivism and its dedication to verification did not, is only part of a far larger whole, which includes a principled understanding of theories as really representing, in a philosophical sense, the way the world can be understood without any reference to human agency. Yet, on this very point there is a certain philosophical incoherence precisely because, as "statements", Popper admits that a "statement" can only be falsified by another statement. No experiment or observation can make false the statement, "All swans are white" (to use the example used by Lakatos in a long paper defending and clarifying Popper's fallibilism). In other words, Popper's claim of realism cannot be made coherent precisely because he understands a disjunction to exist between "the world" and our theorizing about the world.

Whether it is the phenomena of the physical sciences (Popper is relatively silent on biology, except to say that Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection isn't science, a point creationists have latched on to far too often), or social life, then, our understanding is always limited by our commitments to certain principles that dictate how we understand such things as "data", "significance", and how scientists go about their business of interpreting this stuff. Without a full report of Popper's fallibilism, Bernstein presents a truncated view of Popper's fallibilism that seems to indicate that Popper's objection to the social sciences is rooted in a principled grasp of the limit of human understanding. In fact, Popper's objection is that the social sciences are not philosophically and theoretically coherent; there are abundant approaches and definitions of what the social sciences are and how they should operate that are mutually exclusive. This meta-theoretical muddle creates the situation where there is no way, a priori, to judge whether or not this or that social researcher grasps the way his or her work is theory- and mistake-laden.

Now, as far as I know, there aren't too many practicing social and political scientists who would argue the contrary opinion, viz., that their findings approach the level of explanatory power of the physical sciences. Indeed, statistical significance in the social sciences is far lower than the physical sciences precisely because even the most broad theoretical understanding and statement about social behavior is understood to grasp and explain such a small part of our social life. To put this in far simpler terms, most practicing social scientists understand the complexity of our social and political life; even the most dedicated ideologue of one sort or another would insist on the explanatory limits of his or her pet theories (if he or she were intellectually honest).

All of this - the miscontrual of Popper's understanding of theory and the limiting case of the social sciences - is important to grasp precisely because Bernstein wants to argue, pace Popper, that the level of basic factual ignorance on matters of social and political significance preclude any kind of successful government action in a representative republic. Our institutions are laden with far too much information for any individual to grasp in any kind of totality; our mediating institutions are not up to the challenge of providing any kind of framework for understanding. Levels of either trivial or significant ignorance are too often apparent to be ignored by researchers. This should lead even the most dedicated proponent of the positive possibilities of state action to pause before insisting that our institutions can operate at even some minimal level of success, let alone efficiency, precisely because it is impossible to have all the information available to make these kinds of judgments with anything like scientific rigor.

This is wrong, pure and simple, because whatever a particular social scientist's theoretical predilections, he or she would certainly admit that we always operate from a limited, whether practical or theoretical, knowledge base. For me, the two national elections in 2006 and 2008, and the social change represented by public opinion surveys, are good test cases for an understanding of social phenomena that takes both trivial and significant ignorance in to account, while still showing that the public does, indeed, act in what it considers its own best interest.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001, the public rallied around Pres. Bush and continued to support his Administration, even as questions arose as to the factual basis, for instance, of his accusations of the collusion of the Iraqi government and those who planned and carried out the attacks on New York and Washington. In the face of those events, Bush's decision to act against those who had attacked the US, regardless at the time of their truth or falsity, gave the public the confidence that he was, in fact, acting to protect our most basic national interest.

He won re-election in 2004 precisely because he reminded the public over and over again that, in the face of a concerted effort to attack and kill Americans on their own soil, he had moved to retaliate in order to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. Then, in the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed much of the City of New Orleans as well as the marshy coasts of southern Louisiana and the tourist spots on the coast of the state of Mississippi. The Bush Administration's failure to act with both the resources and a sense of the significance of the devastation in this case caused his support among the American people to plummet precipitously, from which they never recovered. That members of his party in Congress supported this lack of action in the face of a natural disaster as destructive in its own way as the terror attacks four years previously caused support for them to crash as well.

In the wake of this, the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006. While particular races in particular states were driven as much by local and state-wide concerns as anything, the general sense - without reference to particular points of fact or other issues that supporters of either party could point to - that the Republican Party had failed to act adequately to help the American people who faced destruction from natural forces indicated they were not the party to lead. This simple equation - failure to act means failure of leadership means the withdrawal of electoral support - is enough to account, for me, for the results of the 2006 mid-term elections. The on-going disfavor of the Bush Administration led to Pres. Obama's election in much the same way.

While close watchers of political events can certainly point to counter-factuals to this particular view of events, my own sense is that this explanation is at least as theoretically powerful as any other. More important, it does not rest on a prior commitment to a moral or intellectual dedication to issues of general social knowledge or ignorance. The folks who made this simple equation in their heads may or may not have been able to name the nine Supreme Court Justices, or the Secretary of Labor or Interior or the head of FEMA under President Bush. What they did grasp, however, was that, unlike after an attack by a terrorist group, a similarly destructive event was not met with the same kind of resolve, let alone commitment to resources. This failure is enough to account for the ill fortunes of the Republican Party the past four years.

Now, does this test case account in a more generalizable way, making the case that the amount of trivial or significant ignorance on the part of the American people is less relevant to the success or failure of representative democracy? I think it does precisely if one considers how the public view the role of certain actions of the state, as opposed to the details of public policy reviewed by analysts. Whether or not voters in Bend, OR or Pawtucket, RI know whether the fourth or fifth amendment to the US Constitution protects them from self-incrimination is less important than whether or not those voters understand that their elected officials have succeeded or not in the most basic function of any government - the protection from harm, and assistance when those protections break down (as they are wont to do).

Our representative institutions operate as they always have, with limited resources, including information. Insisting that this lack of information indicates some kind of practical limit to state action precisely because of the theoretical and practical ignorance is based on a faulty grasp of Popper's thought, as well as a reliance on a view of rational-choice theory that ignores other ways this may operate in regard to social and political action.

. . . and this is far longer than I intended. My apologies to your attention span.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Oh Those Pesky People Who Just Can't Be Governed

Synchronicity? Or perhaps a careful watch placed on the walls at any given moment? For whatever reason, there is a more-than-curious appearance of this seemingly off-the-cuff comment by Henry at Crooked Timber:
First: ungovernability. Or, rather, “ungovernability.” Chris got a lot of flak in comments for suggesting that centrists and center-right people in the media were going to come out with suggestions that a bit of dictatorship might not be a bad idea.

He goes on to give his opinion that, in fact, such talk really isn't going to rear its ugly head. Never mind that, just a few short years ago, Thomas Sowell, apropos of nothing in particular offered the opinion that a military dictatorship would be good for America. In any event, the question of "governability" or its lack is one that addresses itself from China and India to Africa to our own country. In the 1970's, one heard it about the city of New York as it faced fiscal collapse; one sees it in criticisms of the United States Senate and its odd tradition of necessary super-majorities to act on some pieces of legislation.

Lo and behold, the New York Review of Books features an article my Mark Lilla, entitled "The Tea Party Jacobins", which has this as a closing note:
Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

Are technologies that eclipse previous institutions that governed civic life rendering large democratic practices impossible? Are nations as large and diverse as China, India, the United States, Nigeria, and others unable to manage their public affairs via emerging institutions? Is the insistence that the emergence of hostility to state action a sign of ungovernability correct? Or is it, perhaps, that our state actors, both personal and institutional, have not grasped the variety of changes through which we all have lived over the past two decades?

I lean toward the latter general explanation, but otherwise am more curious about responses to these questions from others than setting out my own views (for the moment).

The Satan

The above image, a still from The Exorcist, has become iconic. It is this view of "evil" that, much more for worse rather than better, seems to pop in to people's brains when talk turns to the Prince of Darkness (whose angelic name, "Lucifer", means "Light Bearer"; no irony there . . .). For reasons that should be obvious, this kind of Classic-Comics nonsense doesn't impress me much; even the make-up, and the voice-over by an aged British character actress, is kind of campy.

Dealing with questions of evil are serious, life-and-death questions. Simply demanding a Biblical verse to support this or that position means nothing to me. As I have said on many occasions, one can use all sorts of verses, whole books even, from the Bible to support pretty much any theological position one wants. I would be far more impressed if my interlocutor - quite apart from calling me a moron - had expanded a bit more than citing the number of time the English word "Satan" had appeared in the Bible.

"The Satan" is actually a title (I do hope I'm not boring anyone with this business) and appears in the earliest-written bit of Biblical literature, the long poem Job as an advocate in the Divine Court. By the time of the Gospel's - as much as 1500 years later! - this title has morphed in to an interchangeable proper name, along with "the devil" and "Lucifer" to refer to the leader of a band of spiritual beings who sole purpose seems to be keeping people from living their lives according to God's will.

This, of course, explains nothing more than the literary function of a character in a story. Examining what this means for we who believe is certainly important; for one thing, it doesn't mean little girls puking split-pea soup on priests or masturbating with crucifixes. "Evil" is hardly captured by these images; even the most dedicated traditional Christian, shivering in his theater seat during the first run of The Exorcist would have to admit that, as an examination of the question of evil, both the book and film fall short in any number of ways.

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has done a four-part study of "diabology". Titled, in order, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer, and Mephistopheles, the study considers the emergence, growth, and development of the western understanding of evil, personified in the character of a supernatural being variously given these titles and names (I read the second for an undergraduate history seminar; I own the fourth, but look forward to getting all four, plus some other of his books). At the heart of these books, as Burton Russell makes clear in the preface of each, is his understanding of the reality of radical human evil, usually presented by a newspaper clipping of some horrendous event.

To me, addressing the question of evil by restating a two-thousand-year-old persona of ambiguous origin and traceable intellectual development across time, space, language, culture, even religion doesn't really mean all that much. Burton Russell's work shows that, even those in the West who take the Bible seriously and addressed the question of evil via an examination of the Devil and his minions changed radically over time. One can address the fact of evil without recourse to a supernatural being. Indeed, repeating "Satan" only restates the problem.

So, I guess I'm a moron because I find the problem of evil to be something to take seriously. While considering scriptural understanding of a particular supernatural entity is a good place to start, one needs to do so within the context of the larger theological structure one uses to interpret not just the Bible as a whole, but particular passages. Far too often, giving the name (or title; whichever . . .) "Satan" as an answer seems to preclude any thought or notion of the efficacy of Divine grace, the power of the death and resurrection in the life of the Church, and reduce human agency to not quite nothing.

This is why, for the most part, I just can't get behind the whole idea that Satan, or the Devil, or Lucifer, or whomever, rules legions of similarly fallen angels as the source of human misery. Sin? Salvation? Grace? Divine power? Once one falls back on some anti-God as the source of human misery, these notions become irrelevant.

Adult Conversation

Here's my question:
"Is Mark suggesting that it is actually impossible to form a deep emotional bond with another person of the same gender in the same way, say, I have with my wife?"

Here's the reply:
I have a hard time imagining any woman could have a sexual desire for you, Geoffrey, but it's a strange world we live in. I suppose anything is possible.

I'm so humiliated . . .

OK, not really.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Concern-Trolling For The Sake Of Atheists

Kevin Drum's reply in an exchange on the social costs and benefits of atheism versus religion offers an interesting point-of-view, one encountered far too often on the Internet. While I have issues with the so-called "New Atheists", they are, for the most part, intellectual rather than "spiritual" or "religious". That is to say, I have no worries one way or another that they pose a danger to my own or any one else's faith (precisely because the big three - Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens - are all recycling the same arguments that atheists have been touting for centuries, adding in a kind of nonsensical, barely-veiled hostility that is kind of frightening).

When "defenders of the faith" read Drum, say, or some other person who offers the personal view that, not only does religion not play any part in his or her life, but this individual really feels nothing lacking because of it, for some reason they take to their keyboards to point out that there is, indeed, an ache, a hollow place in their lives they aren't even aware of. I might take issue with this or that point in a discussion with Drum on the net social benefits of Christianity in the west; I would never insist, however, that his life is hollow and meaningless without him even understanding it to be so.

Part of this stems from my own sense of the give-and-take on the Internet, and my own sense of my beliefs. As I have said on numerous occasions, I am not interested in arguing with people. I explain, to be sure, why I believe or live the way I do; I cannot for the life of me imagine anything I have to say is so convincing to others that they would immediately change their whole lives, shouting, "Yes! Yes!". If someone out there reads my words and thinks, "Hmmm . . .", that's enough for me. On the other hand, I'm not interested in apologetics or proselytizing. I figure if someone has no personal, psychological yearning for specific religious beliefs, that's their business, and it certainly isn't mine to show them how empty their lives are.

Which does not mean that my own participation in the larger life of faith is meaningless for me. On the contrary. I just take it for granted that, like everything from liking wax beans to modern art, religious belief is for some and not for others.

At the heart of so much Christian-concern-trolling when atheists explain themselves stems, I am convinced, from what theologian Jurgen Moltmann calls "a pusillanimous faith". Too cowardly to admit its own weaknesses, it compensates by being belligerent and triumphal. Me, I figure even if no one on planet earth or the rest of the Universe believed in God has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not God exists. Or has anything to do with salvation, or Divine Providence, or anything else. The human race will go the way of the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and about 100 species a day at some point, either through our own stupidity or the ravages of time and biology; that does not mean that God will cease to exist, that the death and resurrection of Jesus has no efficacy for the eternal Divine plan.

So, if Drum is living a happy, fulfilled life, who am I to insist there is a hollow place in his life where God should sit? As far as I'm concerned, God really isn't hurt by Drum's lack of belief, and Drum might just be living the life set out for him by God precisely as someone insouciant about religious belief in general, and for himself in particular. There are far more things to worry about than whether or not someone believes in God.

"I'm Not Gay, But The Prostitute I Hired For My Vacation Is"

Even as the closet door has swung open, Rekers' crawls to a back corner and cowers.
"With the assistance of a defamation attorney, I will fight these false reports because I have not engaged in any homosexual behavior whatsoever. I am not gay and never have been."

That guy who went to Europe with him? Held his bag. The whole trip. I swear.

Come on, Rekers, come for me with a defamation suit.

Darwin's Law Passes In Virginia

So, McDonnell signed a bill in to law in the Commonwealth of Virginia allowing people to take loaded, concealed guns in bard. Back in the 90's, right after George Allen was elected governor, the legislature tried this and failed (it was part of an omnibus "gun rights" bill that would have also permitted loaded concealed weapons in Commonwealth courtrooms; the State Police opposed this provision and so the bill died). Tennessee, it seems, is about to traverse the same dark and bloody road.

Apparently, neither supporters nor opponents of this bill understand what is really behind all this. The Republicans and the NRA actually want to thin out their numbers, and this seems an expedient way to do it. After all, what better way to see Darwin's Theory in action than a bar full of drunk guys packing?

I have no beef, really, with an individual's right to carry a weapon. But specifically permitting individuals to carry a concealed weapon in to a bar - and, of course, these folks won't be drinking because they're law-abiding gun owners! - is a recipe for keeping coroners, the police, and funeral directors busy at the beginning of every week. My brother, who fancies himself a libertarian, tried to argue with me on this one back in the day, and I told him, knowing some of the folks who frequent various watering holes, nothing more deadly than plastic sporks should be allowed in their hands at any given time; in bars, even straws should be considered lethal weapons, and kept away from them after the third or fourth round.

In all seriousness for a moment, I have to wonder what these people are thinking. Were I a resident of the Commonwealth who worked in a bar, I would have already quit my job unless I was given a raise so I could buy body armor.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stupid Democrats, Yet Again

I have no opinion on the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be on the Supreme Court. She is the President's choice, and I'm guessing this was done with more thought than, say, John McCain putting Joe the Plumber in to our national consciousness. Tbogg kind of has the same vibe I do.
Obama came into office promising change and people clutched that to their breasts and ran off in every direction thinking that their pet liberal/progressive cause finally had a champion who would make everything all better overnight. But sometimes change is gradual and, now sixteen months later, he is unacceptable. Quite frankly the country Obama inherited is a fucking mess and, while I’m not entirely thrilled with everything that has gone down under him, I’m willing to cut him some slack.

So, have a little faith. This is not the end of the world. Pick your battles wisely and, seriously: chill the fuck out.

The idea that Barack Obama would (a) nominate Robert Bork in drag; (b) is no better, indeed worse, than George W. Bush; (c) our entire country is going down the toilet not because of the may years of "creative destruction" we suffered under Republican Congresses and George W. Bush but because Pres. Obama didn't wave his magic wand and make it all better immediately, related as they are in the inevitable disappointments that come when our "heroes" are revealed to be less than Divinely gifted, has led many on the left to as complete a break with reality as those on the right.

Now, this is not to say there are not good arguments against Solicitor General Kagan sitting on the Supreme Court. It is only to insist that far too much anti-Obama nuttiness on the left is as agnotological as that on the right. While I am sympathetic with atrios' view of the matter generally, in this case the rhetoric is, quite simply, quite outside the bounds of reason and evidence.

I should add that, since I have no view at present, should serious evidence arise that she is unfit to sit on the Court, I will accept that. I guess all I'm suggesting is that people need to breathe a bit.

It's Not Me, But Christ In Me

This phrase of St. Paul's, by which he made his readers understand that any success he had as a missionary was due not to any alleged gifts, talents, or good deeds of his but rather to the presence of the Spirit of Christ alive in him has become a kind of template for understanding how we as Christians are to perceive ourselves and be perceived by others. In that Spirit, then, with a generous h/t to The Church of Jesus Christ, let us, first, visit a site called Tea Party Jesus.

Surprise, surprise, the words of Christians in the mouth of Jesus aren't safe for work!

And what would our contemporary American Jesus be if he wasn't hating on fags?

Get the flavor? For what it's worth, I like the site. It's a nice little judgment upon all of us, I guess.

Now, can we do this with some folks a little closer to home? I think so . . .

Gotta Be A Teen To Read This Blog

OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

Created by OnePlusYou - Free Dating Sites

Here I thought the occasional f-bomb would nab me an "R" at the very least. Oh well.

The whole "Free Dating Sites" thing is just an ad. Can skip right through it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Love, Romance, And Other Disputed Territory

This is an attempt to respond to criticisms of my initial response here.

I guess I should begin by saying that love is, at its root, the most powerful most dangerous, most constructive, most destructive force in human life. It is also the most mysterious. Who among us can really understand it, define it, even delimit it?

I would add that I believe love is not a thing in and of and for itself. It is, rather, a process. One can fall in love - the hormones and pheromones and even sun and moon and sun can line up just so between two people - and out of love - God, does she have to do that again? I hate it when she does that - quite easily. Really loving another human being, letting that other person in to one's life, making room for the possibility of personal transcendence, is something that takes time, involves huge risks, and offers the possibility of learning how to be more than what one could ever be on one's own.

In that regard, I believe love to be, at its heart, not an emotion, but the mutually active give and take between two persons wholly surrendering their individuality toward the final goal of becoming something more. As the quote from McCullers seems to indicate, love is not something between an active lover and a passive beloved. That process I tend to think of more as infatuation; one makes of another human subject an object of one's private feeling and emotive actions. That this object may not have any of the qualities assigned to it by the subject is beside the point. We imbue objects with whatever wish-fulfillment we have at any given time. Over time, however, we may discover how short the object falls from our ideal; no individual can possibly carry the weight of another's desire to be something he or she is not. Disappointment leads to rejection.

Allow me an example from my own life. In the fall of 1991, I met and started dating a lovely woman, funny, smart, talented, gifted, gentle, passionate. I found myself, quite beyond any power I possessed, falling in love with her. I opened myself to her completely, utterly. When we broke up just a few months later, I was devastated. In discussing the issue with some mutual friends, one made the observation that this woman was, as the phrase has it "in love with love". I thought about that and realized that, while she may indeed have felt deeply for me, she was even more interested in that state of sublime, intense passion, that connection between two people. She could break off our relationship when she determined that I had failed to live up to her understanding of what was involved. Had I failed her as a lover, or as a beloved? As a lover, no more so than most human beings fail others in relationships. As a beloved, however, that passive recipient of another's subjective desires, I had failed so deeply that there could be no repairing the damage.

After seventeen years of marriage, I have learned that one doesn't really understand what love is. I can say with some confidence what is not. It isn't sex - a person can do that with anyone. It isn't the yearning after another in the quiet of one's heart and mind. It isn't even, in the end, about happiness. It is, when all is said and done, something one learns to do, always imperfectly, but always with an eye on the goal of mutuality in surrender. One takes the other's surrender with the understanding that, in so doing, one is also trusting that other to accept one's own.

I might also add that, disdaining love as an emotion, preferring it to refer to something lived between two people, the issue of "unrequited love" seems to me to denote something akin to Wittgenstein's "private language". I may hold an infatuation in my heart for another individual. I may express that infatuation, only to have it rejected. This isn't "love", any more than me attempting to communicate to another individual in a language that exists solely in my head is actually communication.

I am not disparaging love, I think. I am only saying that it is a real, existing, living thing between two people. Other kinds of romantic attachments, feelings, even acts - even marriage - are not love. I also don't think I am describing some unattainable goal. Perhaps I was a bit too curt in using the phrase "romantic claptrap", but I hope I have at least made my position a little less unclear.

Music For Your Monday

My father says he saw her in Manhattan in the early 1940's. Maybe. She was around, to be sure. Whether true or not, there is no doubt that Lena Horne, who passed away at 92, had a long, varied career. While not a pure jazz performer like Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald, she could sing jazz. What she did best, though, was add some soul to the lifeless, white pop music Tin Pan Alley poured out its windows and doors. Her signature song, "Stormy Weather", was performed by many, done best by Lady Day (of course), but is certainly memorable.

Here she is doing a Rogers & Hart standard, "Where or When".

Finally, Ms. Horne refused to be limited to music from the 1940's. Here she is doing the late Jim Croce's "I Got A Name", making the song her own.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


This interview with James Baldwin (.pdf), originally in The Paris Review of 1984, is a marvelous discussion. As with everything Baldwin writes or says, this reader is left in awe. At the same time, is it false humility, real humility, or ignorance when Baldwin says the following in answer to a question about his status as a "prophetic writer"?
I don't try to be prophetic, as I don't try to sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality.

Seems to me this is a marvelous distillation of what it means to be prophetic.

Anyway, I highly recommend the whole interview.

Religious Freedom

Created during the heady years of Republican control of Congress the US Commission for International Freedom issued a report his week critical of what it called the Obama Administration's failure to aggressively pursue religious freedom. Citing everything from Chinese violence against any expression of religious belief to the hyper-Islamism of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the report said that, in regards to religious freedom, the Obama Administration's foreign policy "misses the mark".

One wonders what, exactly, any American administration can to do to effect change in another nation's domestic policy. Considering the heinous regimes the US has supported in the past, and continues to support in the present, whether it is Banana Republics in Central America who killed nuns, South American fascists in the Condor countries the regularly killed and disappeared politically active religious folks, or our current refusal to engage the Saudis, Iraqis, Israelis, or others on religion-based discrimination and violence it seems to me that religious freedom is now, as it has always been, a very low priority for American diplomacy.

It was used, albeit not very effectively, during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Whether it was the Soviet imposition of "leaders" or monitoring of dissident, unregistered congregations, or the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel (dealt with by the still-in-place Jackson/Vannick Amendment), conservatives consider "religious freedom" without reference to anything other than itself, and its existence as a "right" in western political thought. Since (most) systems and hierarchies of religious belief, once regularized and bureaucratized, become exclusivist in practice - I say "most" because, for example, if Friends, say, or Baha'i (mentioned in the report because of their repression in Iran) ever controlled government I doubt we would see Quaker thugs roaming the streets beating people who wanted to do violence - it seems to me that promoting "religious freedom" without regard to secularization of the state, legal tolerance of religious minorities, and other civil and human rights, from freedom of speech and assembly, to freedom from state police power such as those in the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the US Constitution are really quite meaningless.

Furthermore, as a Christian, it seems to me that we are forgetting something central to our own identity. The first three centuries of the Church's existence, forgotten in the past 1700 years of de jure or de facto Constantinianism (in its Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox varieties), was one of existence as an outlaw faith. The earliest recorded persecution of Christians, while noted as a necessary action against certain groups of Jews in Rome, occurred within a generation of the death of Jesus, in Rome, under the Emperor Nero. By the time St. Augustine was on the scene as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, the last extended persecution of Christians occurred - and it was, to borrow the language of biology, nearly an extinction event. Christians were tortured, bribed, informants planted, whole congregations were slaughtered or used for sport in the arena.

And Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, this would happen. And we are to rejoice in it. These now-silent witnesses to the reality of faith in human life, individual and communal, should be demanding an answer to an important question: Are our lives, and our deaths, in vain, if now Christians impose their will by force, either legal or military?

While it certainly seems in keeping with our most cherished social and civic traditions to promote religious freedom, in practice, one has to wonder why this is a priority and how it can possibly be accomplished. For example, in reference to China, the overwhelming basis for our relations, strained as they are, is commercial. What possible leverage is there for the US to push for reforms of the Chinese authoritarians when we buy billions of dollars of goods they produce? How can we effect change in Saudi Arabia when they have in abundance the single most important commodity we need to continue to operate? With the exception of Iraq, which the US has effectively ruled since the collapse of Sadaam Hussein's government in 2003, and its deChristianization, the US has little to no power to change the internal policies of any country. The incentive to do so, apart from the legal mandate in the Congressional Act that created the Commission on International Religious Freedom, is almost nonexistent.

I have to wonder what the Obama Administration could do, with any amount of seriousness or vigor, to change the verdict of the panel. I have to wonder, also, why Christians here aren't rejoicing more in the sufferings of our fellows in the faith as a witness to the power of the Gospel.

Virtual Tin Cup

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