Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sobering Reality, Uncertain Future

The frustrating thing about our current historical moment is the mixture of fantasy and magical thinking too often accompanying discussions of fiscal policy and the economy. One bit of unreality is the whole idea we are in a recovery. While perhaps technically true, the persistence of high unemployment on the one hand, and the obstinate refusal of incoming Republican Congress members to even consider fiscal stimulus to make up for the lack of private investment capital in the economy means we are stuck in a stagnant high unemployment cycle with little prospect for relief even in the near term. I read somewhere recently - I wish I remembered where - someone musing about the Tea Party. With the deficit expected to remain high, the Republicans see the only answer to fiscal responsibility as tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy. The obvious contradiction here is not even discussed, let alone mocked. The absence of Tea Party outrage - all of whom seemed to insist that fiscal restraint and deficit reduction are the order of the day - shouldn't be surprising.

A review of three books on the economic doldrums and what to do about them in the latest NYRB offers a rundown of the reality we are in that is too often missing from any discussion of the obstacles to real recovery. Among the many nuggets of platinum in this article is the following history lesson:
What is rarely recognized is that even if the US can emerge from a weak economy within a few years, the economic foundation that existed before the cataclysm of 2007 and 2008 may not be adequate to restore the widely shared prosperity the US needs. For more than three decades, economic growth had been largely dependent on rapidly rising levels of debt and on two major speculative bubbles, first in high technology and dot-com stocks in the late 1990s, then in housing in the 2000s. What will now replace them?

Income inequality widened sharply in these years and average wages stagnated for the many while record high fortunes were made by the few. The financial security and access to adequate health care and education for children that had defined the middle class since World War II have eroded rapidly. Meanwhile, investments in infrastructure such as transportation, as well as clean energy and education, have been badly neglected. All this raises doubts about America’s future economic vitality whether or not it balances its budget, and it does so at a time when international competition from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere will pose serious challenges during this century. How will Americans live a decade from now?
With banks much more reticent to extend credit of any kind, consumer or business, with wages falling relative to the needs for consumer activity to help produce economic activity sufficient to grow the economy; with outstanding private debt in the billions, much of which can never be recovered; with all this and so much more, we face far more intractable problems than just "jobs". We face far more bleak prospects than high deficits. The reality is that even should the economy of 2011 begin to chug along at a rate sufficient to begin bringing down the unemployment rate (not counting the millions who have simply stopped looking for work), it will be years before the economy reaches the peaks of the late 1990's, and the bubble years of 2005-2006.

As long as these facts are off the radar, there is no way to have a serious discussion of policy choices. As long as our politicians continue to pretend that the markets work magic, there is little hope of real investment in the public sector to help get people back to work and stimulate consumer demand. As long as tax cuts are the only answer to our largely imaginary fiscal woes, there is little prospect of serious discussion of what would constitute our economic future.

As long as people are not given the facts of our situation, there will be on-going magical thinking and fantastic images of some glorious future awaiting us. The reality, and the prospects for the future, are far different.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What Is And Isn't Rock And Roll

Apparently, the fact that I do not believe Neil Diamond belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in fact, I don't believe such an institution should exist, but that's another matter) means I do not like Neil Diamond. I thought it was clear that I think he is what he is - a song-writer who sings those songs.

So, here goes, music lesson number one. Neil Diamond, a nice pop song writer, performing his own song, "Forever In Blue Jeans"

Here's my favorite Bruce Springsteen song, which he wrote and recorded for Born to Run. While it seems complex because of the arrangement, it is a simple rock and roll song, with that "shave and a haircut" rhythm, makes you want to get up and dance, it's about a girl, it's about sex, it's a song to be played loud while you drive down a highway with the top down.

I also said that Tom Waits, a performer I dearly love, doesn't belong in the HoF, either. There must be more Neil Diamond fans out there than Tom Waits fans . . .

Is Happiness A Social Good?

The most recent New York Review of Books carries a review of two titles on happiness (subscription required). The authors, Sissela Bok and Derek Bok, are husband and wife. Sissela is a moral philosopher; Derek is the former President of Harvard University. Sissela's book is a non-intrusive survey of philosophical ruminations on happiness as a moral good, an end toward which human beings might or should or do work. Derek's book is on happiness as a goal and measure of political acts. Reviewer Thomas Nagel makes clear throughout his essay that "happiness" as a statistically measurable fact is almost impossible to understand. While there is some correlation between happiness and income level, most people most of the time report that they are "happy" with their lives. There is little difference, across national boundaries, in these self-reports. More socio-economically egalitarian countries are about as happy as those with greater inequality, such as the United States.

So, I have to wonder. Is happiness a social good toward which our politics should strive? Is it, as Nagel makes clear, a good among others, to be weighted with them in the balance of goods sought? The questionable nature of self-reported happiness leaves me scratching my head. For example, my wife and I are, to continue the self-reporting trend, quite happy with our life. One of the reasons we are happy is that our lives are incredibly easier than the lives our parents led, economically and financially speaking. We take a look around at all the gadgets and gizmos in our house, our planned trip to Disney World in the spring, our two well-maintained and serviceable automobiles, our his-and-hers laptop computers, the multiple television sets and DVD/Blu-Ray players, the 600-watt home theater that rattles the windows when the family is away - we'd be crazy not to be happy.

Yet, this doesn't define our happiness, at least when we talk to one another about it. Our happiness is in our shared life together, the sacrifices we make, the time and energy and effort we spend raising our children to be good, hard-working, intelligent, creative members of society. We think of our friends and families, near and far, and the joy others have added to our lives.

All the same, I will admit that while this immediately preceding paragraph is true, it also makes it easier to be happy because of the various physical and material comforts we enjoy. Which means . . . exactly nothing. Happiness, as a definable ethical norm, a moral good toward which we should strive, does not exist. People can be filthy rich and miserable; people can be desperately poor and happy. Folks who live in far more egalitarian societies are not self-reportedly more happy than those in far more stratified societies. Derek Bok makes the odd observation that even though it is a fact that Americans are underpaid, overworked, and that social mobility is far less likely than in other societies, we should not gear social policy toward these ends because there is no correlation between social egalitarianism and self-reported happiness.

I can think of no reason greater than this to ignore the whole concept of happiness as a social good. We don't design policies based upon whether or not folks will tell a researcher they are happy. We design policies because they will make our society a better, more free, more open society where access to goods opportunities are more equitably distributed.

Civil Rights did not make a whole lot of people happy, either. It was necessary to make our country a better place to live.

Designing social and economic policies need to follow the same general principles.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Serious Thoughts, Guilty Pleasures, Moments Of Grace, Raising Hell - Changing Thoughts On Music

Since I commented on the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, as well as having a link provided to a 1997 interview with Greil Marcus, I've been thinking a lot about how my musical tastes have changed, expanded, and what-not over the past few years. About ten or so years ago, I returned to listening to music in a big way, aided by starting a part-time job as a disc jockey. Along with more exposure to music, the extra cash gave me a chance to indulge as I hadn't in quite a while. Along with listening more and buying more, I was thinking more about what I was listening to, and had listened to. Over the past decade, it has become something of an obsession for me, one my wife indulges because I suppose it's better than a drug addiction or a passion for foreign cars.

It really started with Dream Theater, a band that I told my wife, back in 2002, I would be a part of had I been a musician. I know longer think that. They reached a peak of sorts with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought, but by the time Systematic Chaos was released, then last year's Black Clouds and Silver Linings, I realized they had been making the same record again and again for the past seven years.

Musical virtuosity is a trait I admire. Whether it's guitarists like Joe Satriani or keyboardists like Jordan Rudess or bass players like Geddy Lee, I appreciate the skill, honed by hours of practice and years of playing to get to the point where a musician can make the most difficult passage seem effortless. All the same, if that ability is pursued for its own sake, rather than subsumed toward the end of creating something that hangs together - a melody, a harmony, a rhythm - then it is little more than musical masturbation. I can listen to Scale the Summit for a little while, but I would prefer to be awakened when they can actually record a song.

That moment in musical history that so many found life-changing - punk - I really did not connect with, either at the time (I was only 12), or later. I think because it was far more a British phenomenon, overloaded with ideology and, in particular, that Situationist ethic inherited from Malcolm MacLaren (one of the biggest frauds since Col. Tom Parker), to make it palatable to a young kid from small town USA. Oh, I thought "Anarchy in the UK" was a fun song, but it really wasn't much different, to my young ears, from "Johnny B. Goode", which was the point.

In my middle age, I have come to a new appreciation for all sorts of music from my childhood and youth. Soul and funk, that I drank in on Saturday airings of Soul Train, with that Philly sound always present. Groups like P-Funk, The Ohio Players, Curtis Mayfield, Levert - some truly amazing music was happening, and a little white kid like me drank it in. Along with that, some of the better music from the mid-1970's still works for me - the Allman Brothers Band, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Peter Frampton, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, the Pretenders, Jeff Beck's solo work are all really quite good, even timely, a reminder that one can be a good, even great musician yet submit that to the greater good of creating good songs.

British progressive rock will always be something I listen to, although I find ELP far too overbearing. It was really King Crimson's Robert Fripp who provided a key for me. His endless pursuit of a new sound, a new collection of songs, in a group format is really part of my own understanding of what drives me to keep listening. It is also why such non-prog bands like Husker Du, Faith No More, Bad Brains, the Sugarcubes, and even Metallica in their prog-phase are among my favorite 80's bands. These were bands who were doing really interesting stuff, new stuff mixing and matching styles and providing listeners with something exciting.

I heard NWA's Straight Outta Compton and realized I was hearing the future. Relegated to the status of a novelty, despite its obvious appeal to the urban African-American youth, and the record industry's insistence that the great hip-hop artists were white, that rage-filled protest against racism and poverty, police abuse and being forgotten by society was a wake-up call for me. While I ignored the whole east coast-west coast contretemps, it was the deaths of Tupak Shakur, and later Biggie Smalls that made me realize some people took this stuff seriously, indeed. All the same, when hip-hop came of age, when Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Ice T and Snoop Dog landed with both feet, it was all to the good.

Along with taking a renewed appreciation for quite a bit of the music from my dimly remembered childhood, there are moments from other, shall we say less than superb musical moments that I feel it necessary to defend. As I was getting ready to write this post, I was going through YouTube and discovered two things. One, which made me happy, was that I had very little good to say about Journey, other than I am not surprised at their popular or monetary success. The other, which was a pleasant surprise in the midst of much schlock, was that the late hair band Steelheart had in their lead singer an individual with a set of pipes, similar in many ways to Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Their song, "Angel Eyes", while chock full of cliches both musical and lyrical, nevertheless still works for me for one reason alone, lead singer Michael Matijevic manages a stunning range with ease. It is easy enough to make fun of the song - I did for the longest time as the epitome of everything that was wrong with that kind of music - but if you just sit and listen to the voice, I guarantee you will be floored by it.

All the same, I find my tastes running back and forth. The Cure, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne, Bob Dylan, a new single by singer-songwriter Amos Lee, CSNY - these are staples of my current "repeat" button hits. And two prog bands. Porcupine Tree just constructs awesome songs. It's as simple as that. The Polish band Riverside (and a side project of theirs, called Lunatic Soul), which perhaps began as a PT clone, has developed its own sound, a mix that includes some hard core, as well as that most important factor, strong song-writing.

I realize this is as self-indulgent as a twenty-minute piano solo by Keith Emerson, but it has been a marvelous mind-clearing exercise for me. It also allows me to post this song, without fear or guilt, because I know you're too chicken to check it out for yourself.

A New Class In Cleveland

Next spring will see some new faces inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Leon Russell, Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack), and Darlene Love, record execs Jac Holzman and Art Rupe. I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of the HoF (which doesn't mean that I wouldn't spend my hard-earned money on a visit). The whole idea strikes me as, well, un-rock-and-roll. I know I'm not the first or only person to feel that way. All the same I just find the whole concept of a Hall of Fame, and all the hoopla around it, counter to the whole reason for rock. Powered by a weird social and cultural alchemy, as well as several historical contingencies converging, when the earliest rock and roll records started emerging in the mid-1950's, it was both more and less than it seemed. More because there was hope and promise in that music, a hope and promise one just could not find in the stultifying America of the Eisenhower decade. There was less there because, in the end, despite a breach in the color line that was irreparable, the music was about teenage kids wanting to dance with their girlfriend/boyfriend, maybe do it in the back of the family DeSoto, and go back and dance some more. That in and of itself was both freedom and a sign of immense wealth on the part of large numbers of young people.

The rebelliousness of rock was, it seems to me, the rebelliousness of people struggling to find their identity and voice. It was the rebelliousness of people who want to be left alone to have a little fun amidst the gloom of the suburbs and the soul-stealing consumerism of American post-war life. It wasn't so much a rejection of it - how could that be, when it was a product of it? - as it was a plea for some space and time in the midst of too much affluence and too little significance.

Fast forward to the latest batch and I have to wonder about the whole "rock" aspect. I'll grant Alice Cooper, and it has been a long time coming. Leon Russell and Dr. John, too. But, for God's sake, Neil Diamond? Seriously? He no more belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than I do getting a National Book Award. The only thing he has in common with those so inducted is that he is involved in music, just as, like NBA winners, I write. Beyond that . . . good Lord, no.

Now, I'm a HUGE Tom Waits fan. I love him, his music, his voice. I think he is one of the most creative artists around, and his work is of consistently high quality. All the same, he isn't a rock and roller. He's a throwback. He's a crooner, really, Dean Martin needing a shave, Frank Sinatra without the overt mob connections, Tony Bennett only less suave. No disrespect intended, but he really has no place in the HoF either.

Then, of course, there are the gripers. Those folks who bitch and moan because their favorite artist wasn't inducted. Among the complaints this year, the big two, nominated this year for the first time, are The Beastie Boys and Bon Jovi, as well as Chic and Donna Summer. I would think that Chic belongs in the HoF before either Neil Diamond or Tom Waits; their slick, band-oriented take on disco was superb, and gave to bassist Nile Rodgers a whole career as a producer. Donna Summer taught a generation of young women how to fake orgasms, as well as a generation of young men how to have them, as they sat and listened to her candle-lit session on the long remix of "Love to Love You, Baby".

Having said that, I still just don't get it. I don't get excited about it too much. Whenever a new class comes along, I think of Jeff Beck's speech when The Yardbirds were inducted. He said that he wanted to be thankful, but noted that he was kicked out of the band. "Fuck them," he said and walked away from the microphone. The other members of the band laughed, but I think he was serious. It would be marvelous if as honest a statement would emerge during this year's ceremony.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Pfc. Bradley Manning

It seems that one must either be whole-hog behind the entire Wikileaks project in all its guises or one is a craven lick-spittle to power. Because, as Digby writes, what else are we hearing?

There are alternative explanations, however. There are even all sorts of positions, all over the map. I, for one, believe that Julian Assange is a dangerous character. All the profiles I have read seem to paint a driven, charismatic figure who sees himself pitted against all the powers of the world - state, industrial, corporate, military, what-have-you - engaged in a struggle to bring them down. Such monomaniacal, delusional behavior will usually land one in hot water. Furthermore, the release of unedited, low-level field-reports from Afghanistan, as well as the edited ones from the Iraq battlefields was truly dangerous on any number of levels. The fact that in several interviews Assange has made it clear that his goal is undercutting American foreign policy with his latest document dump seems to make the Obama Administration's reaction perfectly understandable; you screw with us, prepare to pay the consequences.

There is little enough debate about our foreign policy in the United States. When it does happen, it tends to deal in unrealities; when reality smacks us all in the face, we ignore it. Assange's cache of State Department communiques are, by and large, unsurprising; all the same, they have done damage, particularly in far more closed societies with which we are forced to deal (Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are a good example).

Pfc. Bradley Manning is the accused conduit for much of the recent American documents. While I have my doubts that a private would have access to such a huge cache of highly classified material, including non-military emails, we are confronted with conflicting information in regards to Private Manning. On the one hand, there is the legal matter of his guilt or innocence related to specific charges leveled against him. That is up to a military court martial. On the other hand, in the public record, he has indeed made clear that he made this classified information available to the public, to an individual who is not an American citizen, whom he knew would make this information public. Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald notes, Manning has admitted leaking certain documents under the guise of being a whistle-blower. Except, there is no such protected legal provision for military personnel. There are all sorts of legal protections for using the chain of command to address questions of illegal acts within the military, which Pvt. Manning chose not to use.

In sum, I do not believe Assange is a hero in any way, shape, or form. Whether or not he is being set up by a US government intent on harassing him, it should hardly be surprising if that is the case. I am not particularly thrilled with Wikileaks, considering its refusal to use common sense when releasing classified information. Finally, Pvt. Manning, regardless of the final legal conclusions regarding his guilt or innocence on specific charges, has clearly revealed himself as willing to violate his oath to the US military.

In short, I'm no fan of the US government going after Assange. All the same I'm no fan of Assange, or Pvt. Manning, either.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Write Email (Error Correction; UPDATE)

After reading on a website that monitors human trafficking that a US company under contract in Afghanistan held a party that included young "dancing boys" - boys used for sexual pleasure - I fumed and fretted, and then decided to attempt to do something. At this point, it was about all I felt I could do. I emailed Sen. Richard Durbin the following:
It was brought to my attention today that DynCorp, a security firm operating under a US-funded contract in Afghanistan, hosted a party that included so-called Afghan "dancing boys", who are no more than child prostitutes. I am writing this evening to urge you and your colleagues to convene hearings on this matter at the earliest time available. I would also urge you to write Attorney General Eric Holder to begin an investigation in to these allegations.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this matter.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford
Tomorrow afternoon, I am going to place a follow-up call to his Washington office on this matter. I have no idea if it will make any difference. All I know is that if I do not do something, nothing will happen. Sitting around and bitching in my beer saves no children from this horrific fate. At least if I try, who knows what can happen.

UPDATE: I spoke to a very patient young woman named Erin, who works in Sen. Durbin's Washington office. I gave her the information, as well as let her know this was a follow-up call to an email I had sent the previous evening. I stumbled over my words a bit, but gave her the URL of the wesbite where I saw the allegation, as well as the name of the contractor involved. I thanked her for her time, understanding that with a very busy calendar at the end of this legislative session, there was a whole lot on their plates.

I just hope they understand this isn't going away.

*I misremembered the name of the company involved. It is DynCorp, not DynaCorp. I have corrected this error. Oops.

The Death Penalty As Religious Sacrifice

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has a magnificent review of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition by David Garland in the latest NYRB. Among its many virtues is an idea that author Garland offers in evidence for the US on-going practice of capital punishment, viz., that ours is a culture fascinated with death.
[A]n important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims’ deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive.
Stevens doesn't explore this facet of Garland's work too much, focusing far more on the nuances of Supreme Court jurisprudence (which makes sense). All the same, considering that Garland is an emigre from Scotland, this particular observation seems to be at odds with the usual, radical, critique of much of American culture, that it is rooted in a denial of the reality of death.

Yet, in some ways, perhaps the phenomenon Garland writes about, and the focus of radical critique are two sides of the same coin. We fetishize death, obsess about it, in a vicarious way through fiction and through the detailed dissection of murder and the consequences to the perpetrator as a way of making clear and public our fear of death. We are fascinated with it because we fear it. We fear its finality. We fear the violence it does to our bodies, the lives of those left behind. Most of all we fear the meaninglessness that death brings to all our valiant efforts at living. We spend decades to make something of ourselves, to bring to the passage of time something substantive, and the reality of death, of our individual deaths, robs it all of purpose.

So, perhaps this cultural fascination is really a kind of expiation. The murderer, who brings the reality of death crashing home in a violent, intrusive way, becomes the sacrifice, his (or her) death nullifying the death he (or she) brought about. In a sense, capital punishment serves a quasi-religious function in our civil religion, where the perpetrator's death becomes necessary to stave off the community-wide fear of death the murder has dredged to the surface.

Understood in this way, its on-going practice makes sense. As a society, we are loathe to consider any limits to our actions, and there is nothing more limiting than death. A murderer violates all our social and cultural taboos; the death of such a one becomes almost necessary to set the cultural karmic scales back in balance.

Blessings And Oceans Of Hope

I heard the story from NPR's Julie McCarthy about a Pakistani Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy, and some things occurred to me. First, there is irony here. The law under which she was prosecuted was implemented by military dictator Gen. Zia in 1980 as a cynical ploy to cement his rule. Isn't it wonderful that it is taken seriously by so many now?

Second, I wondered how I, as a First World Christian, should react, and my initial thoughts took me to the Sermon on the Mount. I understand her family is terrified, the Pakistani mobs seem intent on killing not just her, but the whole family. Yet, there is something for which I am thankful here. A small group of Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim country are surely a witness to the tenacity of faith, particularly when charges of blasphemy become easy to level in even the most casual interchanges. I have no desire to see this woman die, or her family to have their lives disrupted. All the same, she is being reviled to the point of death for nothing more than her faith, and Jesus called such persons blessed, so I can do no less, even as I hope against hope that her life is spared.

Finally, I considered her "crime", offering water and food to other workers, who cursed her because she was Christian, claiming it made her offer "unclean" (I had no idea Islam had such strictures), and remembered a passage from Chris Hedges' War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. From pp. 51-52, this story concerns the Sorak family, a Bosnian Serb family, during the 1992 war in their city of Gorazde. Their two sons were killed, and the wife of one of their sons, Zoran, gave birth to a child in the midst of the fighting between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims.
The mother was unable to nurse the child. The city was being shelled continuously. There were severe food shortages. Infants, like thi inggirm and elderly, were dying in droves. The family gave the baby tea for five days, but she began to fade. . . .

Fejzic, meanwhile, was keeping his cow in a field on the eastsern edge of Gorazde, milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers.

"On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door," said Rosa Sorak. "It was Fadil Fedjzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a litre of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia."
Hedges concludes this story writing: "Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In this act lay an ocean of hope."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some Thoughts On Universalism

It is not that the Lord is slow in keeping his promise, as some suppose, but that he is patient with you. It is not his will that any should be lost, but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 (REB)
It seems to be in the air. It started at John Meunier's blog (which I now link to). It was picked up by Joel Watts. Whenever these subjects are raised, I think of Augustine's bon mot (something for which he was not well known) concerning God's activity before creation, viz., that God was preparing a place in hell for people who asked such questions.

As a United Methodist, I value my Arminian/Wesleyan heritage a great deal. With the exception of predestination, Wesley always saw himself, as he said, as a hair's breadth from the Geneva Reformer. Yet, this is no small issue, but in many ways lies close to the heart of the Christian faith. While I sympathize with Wesley's view of predestination as robbing human beings of any final responsibility for the working out of their salvation in fear and trembling (St. Paul), I believe there is nothing scriptural about the notion that salvation is reduced to the pursuit of "heaven" or avoidance of "hell" in "the afterlife". While there is certainly Scriptural support for a view of salvation/damnation as eschatological categories, it seems pretty clear, at least in my own reading, that if this is, indeed, the case, then the worry relative to human responsibility is misplaced.

As Wesley himself, fully in line with the best of the Christian tradition, pointed out again and again, salvation and our individual awareness of it are the free, gratuitous gifts of God. Wesley himself recognized this in his reflections on his experience at the Aldersgate Street small group. Yet, Wesley was smart enough, and humble enough, and self-aware enough, to understand that this moment was only the beginning of God's work with and in him. His working out of his understanding of Christian perfection in love, sanctification, was always God's work done in and for and also with us.

In other words, I do not know, within Wesley's thought, that there is anything definitive to draw upon to attack a doctrine of universal salvation. Indeed, there is much evidence in Scripture, I think, that support both predestination as well as universalism. There is evidence to support all sorts of contradictory notions that have floated, more or less freely, throughout the history of Christian doctrine. No definitive answer lies this side of the end of all things, so I am not disputing with those who hold different views than I do. I am only offering up my own view, and it should be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Salvation is, for me, an eschatological category. It has nothing at all to do with our disposition in this dispensation. I believe this because I believe that the central confession of the Christian faith - the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ - is God's work. If it is, indeed, a once-for-all Divine Act, an Event that stands at the heart of human history, defining and changing it, then whether or not we accept it as defining for our lives, or if we even hear of it has nothing at all to do with its efficacy. If either were the case, it wouldn't be God's work, and it wouldn't be salvation worth having, as far as I'm concerned.

The Christian faith, at the end of the day, is not about you, me, John Meunier, Joel Watts, or John Wesley ending up in hell or heaven. The Christian faith is about continuing the work of Jesus Christ on earth, bringing that Good News that God loves this broken creation in its brokenness, but also wants it to be no longer broken. Healing the wounds of time and history, bringing all sorts of people together not in intellectual agreement on certain words and phrases, but in lives of service to others and all creation - that is what we are called to do. It is called working to bring the Kingdom of God. This is our job. This is that to which we are called.

Does this make me a Universalist? I have no idea because, as a way of understanding what being a Christian is, that word quite literally has no meaning for me. After all, in the letter of St. Peter quoted above, and in the first such letter, there are discussions of Christ in hell during the period of his death preaching to those lost souls trapped there. This has long been a part, albeit mostly on the fringes and lost in the various Protestant controversies, of the Christian tradition. This vision, that Christ would give witness even to the dead and damned, it seems to me, puts all the controversies over predestination and universalism to one side precisely because it forces us to ask a whole different set of questions.

Genius & Madness

"There are no wrong notes." - Thelonius Monk

[T]he same utopia of "equanimity", which as such gave the estate society its cultural surplus, will allow or have to allow the formation of an unreactinonary anticipatory illumination that is not self=evident and is unsettling. It is here that excitement finds peace, time becomes space and looks upon this as if everything has found its place - I am talking about an anticipatory illumination that could never be realized in an ideology of the status quo, but, rather, has been connected to it like an explosive, as though it could always engender the most stimulating surplus beyond the ideology. By not receding to a metaphysical plus, the elimination of a class ideology enables the entire novum of surplus to become one that no longer needs to be one beyond ideology or one above false consciousness, which only protrays objective falsehood, even in its best form. Instead of this, a surplus is needed beyond the elimination of social contradictions that has really begun. . . . [This] is a surplus of the utopian conscience and concern in a world, which itslef has not arisen with the classless society, free from antagonisms and antagonistic contradictions. Nor is the surplus finished with the contradiction of the subject and its own objectifications to which it is still tied as to a stranger. Nor is the surplus finished with the contradiction in which the totality of the actual exists as one that has not yet become and stands in relation to everything that has become inadequate.
"Ideas as Transformed Material in Human Minds, or Problems of an Ideological Superstructure (Cultural Heritage), in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Ernst Bloch, p. 41
How we come to understand what constitutes "genius" when it comes to art depends on how one sees culture. Is it the spontaneous creation of gifted individuals who have some inborn lifeline to truths too powerful for expression in any other form (this would be Blake, say, or Nietzsche's hyper-romanticized view of the aesthetic life)? Or is it the working out, the cutting through, our illusions and the lies we are force-fed, placing before us the frightening reality we all face, forcing us to make choices we have no desire to make? Is it even, perhaps, that individuals who produce such works are so in tune with the contradictions, subtle and overt, of our society that what they produce is understood in bourgeois terms as "genius", yet is nothing more or less than the bald-face expression of the real? Again, Nietzsche (hardly a revolutionary soul) once claimed that few people could gaze upon the world as it really is and stay sane; he applauded such madness, however, as a sign of gifted individual superiority.

Seeing artistic creation as a singular event, the result of some peculiar alchemy of talent, hard work, and the presentation of individual achievement is part and parcel of the jazz aesthetic. From the start, jazz - even more than the compositional achievements of European art musics - was understood to be a musician's music, rather than a collective music. Oh, there were great bands and orchestras, from James Reese Europe right up to today's various jazz conglomerations. Yet, far more important has been the role of the individual. Buddy Bolden and Freddy Keppard. Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. When one thinks of jazz, one thinks of great individuals.

No one, I believe, exemplified this individualism more than Thelonius Monk. The usual picture one has of Monk, the quiet man, his fingers not curved as they are supposed to be, but splayed and forked, creating dissonances and melodic phrases that are so intricate they seem simplistic. One sees him, an odd hat upon his head, getting up off his piano bench, eyes closed, turning in tight circles, his hands gesturing with the soloist's chorus, only to find his seat again and come in exactly on cue. There is an individual. There is genius at work.

This review of a new biography of Monk raises some interesting questions regarding the relationship, now a cliche, between genius and madness. I believe, however, these questions to be unintelligible if one asks a whole different series of questions, ones it seems neither the reviewer nor the biographer, considered asking. To what extent was Monk's approach to music rooted in his twin status as an African-American in a racist society, and one who lived most of his life in poverty in a rigidly stratified society? To what extent was the joy one finds in listening to Monk's musical craftsmanship, to the creation of melody in dissonance, an overcoming not only the musical straightjackets he inherited from all his teachers and mentors, but the surrounding society that determined him and his music to be of less worth because of its roots and practitioners? To what extent was this same joy an expression of real human possibility?

Finally, to what extent was Monk mad? Oh, I understand that there are such things as mental illness, and that bipolar disorder, from which Monk apparently suffered, can be debilitating. All the same, is confronting this illness important for understanding him as an artist? Or, perhaps, was the diagnosis of mental illness part of the structure within which we come to understand those rare individuals who place upon our eyes and ears the tools with which to see and hear more clearly the contradictions and dissonances that surround us? Mental illness is one thing, no different in type than diabetes or some other chronic ailment. Madness, however, and the usual aesthete's insistence there is some link between it and the usual understanding of genius, have no role to play in grasping who Monk was, what he did, or how he lived his life or created the music that he did. We can hear what Bloch calls the "anticipatory illumination" as we listen to the joyful melodies, the intricate, sometimes odd-sounding harmonies that Monk labored over for so long precisely because, rather than being mad, or some genius isolated from the rest of humanity, Monk was - as is clearly revealed by the reviewers comments on the biography - immersed in the realities of the many contradictions that trapped him. He presented, in his music, a way to overcome those contradictions, and people called him mad, called him a genius, and confounded his medical condition with his social and aesthetic position. They could thus dismiss as "peculiar" his dervish-like dancing as a sign of mental illness, rather than a lesson we who are still trapped within the web of contradictions still have to learn.

(h/t TNI)

Managing Hard Truths

E. J. Dionne declares, according to the title of his column, that Obama has to help America find its morning in order to keep his job in two years.

Not only are we reliving the 80's in bad fashion and the worst of the music of that decade. Now, we have bad pseudo-liberal pundits insisting that "American decline is the specter haunting our politics." Unlike Marx's specter haunting Europe - the threat of a people's revolution - this specter is more in way of the collapse of the elite's control over the veil that hides the decline that's been happening for decades.

There is much at which we can make fun in Dionne's column. Giving credit to H. W. Bush for "handling" the first Persian Gulf War? Um, it was a war he created! As for how he "handled" the collapse of Central European communism and, later, the Soviet Union, he handled it the only way a sane individual could - he stood back and made sure none of the dust got on his clothes. That's not exactly bold leadership.

All the same, the idea that Pres. Obama needs to convince the American people that the reality around them isn't real, that the statistics of decline, not just here at home but relative to the rest of the world, are all lies in order to remain President means that he, like his predecessor Bush I, needs to show no courage, deal in no hard truths with compassion and firmness. Rather, he has to continue to pretend that it's 1946, 1953, 1964, that we are still astride the globe with no peer, that our economy, our health care system, our education systems are the envy of the world, and that we will be the world's only superpower for as long as the sun shines and little birds sing.

Or, he could make them aware that, even as we claw our way out of the economic doldrums, we shall emerge smaller, and one hopes wiser and more chastened. Of course, he and his economic team isn't chastened a bit. They, and the Wall Street firms from whence they arrived, continue to act as if they ruled the (financial) world, that reinflating any bubble - any one will do at this point - is the key to economic prosperity, and that the success of the bank bailouts proves they can violate the law and destroy the economy in the name of their private gain without impunity.

So, I doubt he will be able to do the difficult job of getting the American people to understand the reality that we just aren't the country we were before the disaster. Replacing him with a President who deals in the lies Dionne insists are necessary to keep the American people happy would be a real disaster.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Not-Yet-In-Place: Adorno & Bloch On Utopia And Hope

Fewer words - with the possible exception of "martyr" with its connotations of a long-suffering victimization, rather than its origin as the Greek word meaning "witness" - have suffered more moral degradation than "utopia". Meaning, quite literally, "no place", it was originally conceived, in late-Renaissance works by such authors as Thomas More and the Italian Campanella (whose views, in many ways, are diametrically opposed) as a way of describing a society that could be a foil for the then-current ones. A form of political and social satire, or perhaps a critique of the then-regnant social upheavals of the religious and political wars that spawned both monarchical absolutism and a nascent republicanism, utopian fiction shifted, after a fashion, to a form of political theorizing, and even practice, particularly in small communities. The first constitutional Republic, on the island of Corsica (finally crushed by its native son, Napoleon Bonaparte), was viewed by many in the heady days of the late-18th century, as an experiment in utopian social and political engineering.

Since the collapse, first, of the Warsaw Pact nations in 1989, then the Soviet Union in 1991, with the declaration that history is at an end, and with it ideology as the putatively non-ideological position of capitalism and representative republican government modeled roughly on the United States' example was declared the winner in the global political sweepstakes, communism as its emerged then morphed through the 20th century was offered up as the final attempt to construct a utopian society, failing miserably, the mass graves of Stalinism its only real final legacy.

Even former appartchiks of this same system came to the same conclusion. Dmitri Yakovlev, consigned to semi-exile in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa after attempting to gain support for moderate reforms early in the Breshnev era, he was rescued and rehabilitated by Gorbachev, becoming a close advisor. After it all came apart, he published a book entitled The Fate of Marxism in Russia, in which he agrees whole-heartedly with the trumphalist anti-ideologues of the post-history crowd, claiming that the brutality of Stalinism, and the continuation of that brutality in decadent forms under later Soviet premieres (despite the supposed "denunciation" of Stalin by one of his butchers, Kruschev) was not a repudiation of Marxist doctrine, but rather the epitome of it. His attempt at "reform" was rightly understood by Breshnev as an only slightly veiled attempt to point out that, as a way of governing a modern state and society, Marxism only brought terror, deprivation, and misery.

At the beginning of a single-volume, edited translation of what was, in the original German, two volumes of collected essays on aesthetics, entitled The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, there is a transcript of an interview with Ernst Bloch (whose collection this is), and his friend and Frankfurt School neo-Marxist Theodor Adorno. The subject of the interview is utopia as an idea. Both Adorno and Bloch very quickly assert that, in fact, utopia is not an "idea", but rather a term that describes a cluster of somewhat related concepts in a variety of fields - medicine and architecture, politics and music - that can be summarized by considering each of these under a condition where the deepest hopes and desires of each reached some kind of perfection (at one point, Adorno points out that Bloch is edging close to the ontological proof for God's existence, and Bloch agrees).

Bloch makes an important point early on. Since the 19th century, "utopia" has not functioned in a physical way. Rather, it has functioned in a temporal way. Various utopias - medical and technological, for example - are very often envisioned in some new discovery (some major breakthrough in surgical technique, say, or, as Adorno mentions, our robotic voyages to other planets). In like fashion, Bloch asserts that social and political utopias also are now understood temporally, rather than physically or geographically. They are no longer Campanella's "Sun Land", but instead will result from the correct socio-economic structure, providing true human freedom to the greatest number.

It is here that hope rears its battered head. A central theme of Bloch's The Principle of Hope is the reciprocal relationship between hope and utopia. In that work, Bloch introduced the "not-yet", extending that even to the "not-yet-conscious". In this interview, this is summarized with a reference to a line in a play by Brecht: "Something's missing". It is that unnamed that is missing that sought after in hope, and filled with what Bloch calls utopian content by our desire to find that most essential missing piece.

While putatively at the beginning of a work on aesthetics, this interview grounds the discussion in an understanding of "utopia" as Bloch understood it, of "hope" as Bloch saw it, as categories that embrace human longing at their deepest and most profound. Changing our understanding of "utopia" from "a dangerous dream" to "that for which we will most ardently strive and strain our last effort of work" is at the heart of Bloch's understanding not just of Bloch's aesthetics, but his entire philosophical project.

Insightful? Nah, It's Just BS

(h/t TNI)

Over-determining anything is a favorite hobby of the intelligent and learned. Where would academia be without people who offer whole courses on horror comics, the social and political implications of dystopian science fiction, or other such mind-numbingly stupid things? Social networking sites are fast becoming the new Weird Tales (a Depression-era pulp magazine the study of which was faddish through much of the 1970's and 1980's), an endless source of comically serious reflections on how we are all doomed, selling our selves and our souls to Mark Zuckerberg's demon device, created solely to find out which good looking women at Harvard were available.

The latest entrant in the literature of "The Internet Is Stealing Our Souls!!!" is entitled "Ludic Despair: Uma Googled". Using the arrest of a stalker after Ms. Thurman as a springboard, the author considers the possibility that the distance between this psychotic individual (and to the author's credit, that the man in question is really quite mentally ill is repeated) and the rest of us is not quite as great as we might think.
Jordan's "relationship" with Thurman is wholly psychotic, of course, and the news is playing the "he was on the verge of googling her name!" angle as if this whole affair was a techno-thriller. Perhaps that layer of suspense--the "last-second" apprehension of Jordan just before he hit the return key--is necessary if only to distract us from the entirely banal and relatively sad implications of our own unnervingly similar use of the search engine--alone and with plenty of time to kill, the tiny stalker in all of us staring dully into the computer to see if anyone out there actually still shares even the most vestigial memories of our formerly meaningful personal/emotional connections--you know, those that existed before both the Internet and the fame economy reminded us (once again...but anew!) that our "identity" is always incomplete, elsewhere, and very much "stolen."
I cannot for the life of me understand how this leap is made. Because there are sickos out there who use the internet as a tool to pursue their mad fantasies concerning celebrities, or even people who are not known for being well-known, we all share in this concoted delusion even a bit by wishing to get back in touch with people on Facebook, or using Google to search them out.

Just . . . wow. Sad to say, I foresee a MacArthur Genius Grant in this author's future.

A Word I'd Never Think To Use About Christopher Hitchens

When two passenger jets were hijacked and flown in to the World Trade Center, a third hijacked and crashed in to the Pentagon, and a fourth brought down over central Pennsylvania in circumstances we will never understand or learn about completely, Christopher Hitchens, already having gone off the left-wing reservation over advocacy for a more forceful approach to Iraq (he was a long-time advocate for the rights of the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north), as well as a visceral distaste for President Bill Clinton (his book on the former President was entitled No One Left to Lie To, and Hitch came close to using the same kind of language George Will used in describing the President's history of peccadilloes with women - scumbag and rapist). He still had a column in The Nation, that aged and dogged flagship of respectable leftyism.

After a couple weeks going back and forth with the editors due to their advocacy for a more nuanced approach to those who had attacked the United States so brutally, he quit. This was not the time to go all wimpy, trying to understand an enemy who would commit murder on such a vast scale. The enemy was not just some terrorist organization who was enraged by US policies in the Middle East and Central Asia. No, this enemy was the enemy of western civilization. It was not just about the psychosis that could envision and plan and then carry out such a horrific act. It was an attempt to tear out, root and branch, all the values that make the West the West - tolerance and the rule of law; secular legal culture of sectarian tribalsim; an open, socialized political economy versus the strangelhold of any bureaucratic dictatorship, public or private.

It was at this point that Hitchens went whole hog. He threw in his lot with the Bush Administration, hook, line and sinker. He repudiated any attempt to address and redress what occurred on September 11, 2001 through a more nuanced approach, and set his sights on killing them all, and, since he doesn't believe in God, letting them rot.

Fast forward nine years, and he is writing this piece in Vanity Fair.
A large, volatile constituency has been created that believes darkly in betrayal and conspiracy. A mass “literature” has been disseminated, to push the mad ideas of exploded crackpots and bigots. It would be no surprise if those who now adore Beck and his acolytes were to call them sellouts and traitors a few years from now. But, alas, they would not be the only victims of the poisonous propaganda that’s been uncorked. Some of the gun brandishing next time might be for real. There was no need for this offense to come, but woe all the same to those by whom it came, and woe above all to those who whitewashed and rationalized it.
In a remarkable, short piece, Hitchens evinces not a shred of self-awareness in his pronouncement of "woe" upon those who brought us to this historical moment when Tea Party candidates can question the nationality of the President, the reality of global warming, and insist on the Sacredness of the Constitution. For the past decade, Hitch has palled around with some of these very same people. People who, as he points out early in the article, really believed the Clinton's had murdered Vince Foster. People who saw in the our military response to the terrorist attacks the main chance to push through economically destabilizing tax cuts (during a "time of war" no less!!), as well as an opportunity to enforce American military hegemony once and for all. Hitchens spent years defending pretty much anything the Bush Administration did, even coming out and endorsing Bush over John Kerry in 2004, in the wake of the revelations regarding torture, Abu Graib, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which should have been our focus all along.

Full confession. I have exactly one book by Hitch. It is entitled The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It is a slim volume, yet spells out in vivid detail, the may ways the former Secretary of State has violated both domestic American and international law, and is complicit in or directly responsible for, many crimes against humanity, stretching from Southeast Asia and Chile and the Condor nations to Greece and Cyprus.

The same man who wrote this persuasive book, however, allowed his rage and fear to overwhelm what one thought was his good sense, and threw his entire considerable rhetorical skills behind a project whose revealed crimes make Kissinger look like an amateur. These same folks who Hitchens defended as the real defenders of western values of tolerance and secular openness were nothing of the kind; theocrats, small-minded thugs and anti-Muslim bigots, their spawn is the Tea Party Hitchens now sees as a very real threat to our Republic. That he cannot see his own complicity in this historical turn of events is surprising.

I never would have thought Hitch was immune to self-awareness.

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