Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not Ours

I found this post from TPM's David Kurtz to be disturbing, in particular the last bit, highlighted:
The President's brief comments from the State Dining Room of the White House suggest that he doesn't necessarily see the imminent end to Mubarak's reign -- or consider it anything close to a slam dunk that whatever might emerge post-Mubarak will be more democratic. If this were a clear choice between an authoritarian regime and a western-style democracy, it'd be a no-brainer. But it's not. It's a problem to be managed, with the sober understanding that the real world offers potential outcomes that are worse than Mubarak
The history of American "management" in crises like this is . . . well . . . it sucks, really. Furthermore, any public perception that the US is "managing" this can only hurt in the long run. After all, we have enough troubles in the Middle East; interfering in what is, quite clearly, an uprising fed by exhaustion among the Egyptian people with the lack of leadership and the success of the Tunisian revolt.

I have been following events via a live video feed from Al Jazeera's English-language broadcast online. While a mixture, as all such events tend to be, of the episodic burst of excitement and terror followed by hours-long lulls of not much at all, it is evident this is an outburst of popular resentment, and the express desire of tens of thousands of Egyptians to rid themselves not only of Hosni Mubarak, but a dictatorship in its dotage, no longer even pretending to help out the mass of the Egyptian people, 50% of whom barely exist on $2 a day, and whose social infrastructure has crumbled. While the system provides near universal education through University level, there are no jobs of any kind for those who emerge, degree in hand.

The problems Egypt faces are multiple, but it seems pretty clear there is a desire for some sort of democratic reforms to get the ball rolling for larger social and economic reforms. Any volatile situation presents dangers, to be sure. There is zero, zilch, nada indication of any kind that there is any participation by Islamic extremists, as claimed by idiotic former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. Indeed, the leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood were carted off to prison early-on in the protests; the allegations that the country has been infiltrated by any extremists, religious or otherwise, is just not borne out by the facts on the ground. Indeed, the one person many of those in the streets seem to be turning to is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed Elbaradei, former chief UN Weapons Inspector for Iraq, who has voiced his enthusiastic support for "the youth" of Egypt, and made repeated calls for Mubarak to step down.

I do not know what the future holds in and for Egypt. Right now, there seems to be a shift from large-scale, peaceful protest to an increase in looting, at least in Cairo. This is due, in part, to the disappearance of any police presence in the capital. Yesterday, when the military was called out, they interposed themselves between the police and protesters, protecting the latter from an increase in violent force from the former. While protecting key areas of the city - from the foreign embassies and various government buildings to the Museum of Antiquities which was - briefly - entered, with some displays smashed but nothing appearing to have been stolen - much of the city is experiencing an absence of any presence of law enforcement, which can only lead to trouble.

There are also reports that water has been shut off to one of Alexandria's eleven districts.

So, the situation is still fluid - despite a lack of water in part of one city - and it is anybody's guess whether Mubarak stays or goes, the military continues to protect the people or turns on them, or perhaps the police return to their duty stations and protect the people and shops of Cairo from the depredations of looters. My most fervent wish is for the situation to resolve itself for the benefit of the great mass of the Egyptian people, desperate for a change. My next most fervent wish is that Americans, official and otherwise, allow this to evolve - or, perhaps, sadly, devolve - as a wholly Egyptian affair. This is not a "crisis" to be "managed", but a possible revolution to observe and, if successful, support as much as we can.

Friday, January 28, 2011


The fall of the Tunisian dictatorship, covered thoroughly by Al Jazeera, has fueled the current anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt. Even as I type this, I am following Reuter's live-blogging of events, as well as Twitter.

My hope is that the United States government will step back, allow events to unfold, while perhaps quietly suggesting to Hosni Mubarak that a safe retirement in, say, New Mexico, might be in his best interest.

As I wrote on Twitter, were I the President of Syria, the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the Sultan of Oman, I might be getting just a tad nervous. Apparently there have already been street protests in Amman against King Abdullah. While I realize his mother is American, our support should always be to the people who yearn for a more vital, active role in their own governance. Even if we don't always like the results, it seems our interests lie in greater democratic freedoms.

I just pulled up a live blog from Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Their Egyptian offices have been shut down by police.

God's blessings to the people of Egypt, yearning to breathe free.

"They have crucified the sun!" - The Paganism Of Henri Lefebvre

After the liberation of France, Henri Lefebvre returned to his little village, Navareenx, in the Pyrenees. He strolled up to, then entered, the village church. After returning to Paris, he narrated his impressions which became the essay, "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside", which was included in a 1947 volume, Critique of Everyday Life. This short piece receives a close reading by Boer, and in it Boer claims that using Lefebvre's own interpretations, particularly of the dialectics of space, both as a representation and as represented, he can see hints even in Lefebvre's otherwise vitriolic, barely-concealed disgust with the Roman Catholicism of his youth, small hints of an alternative reading of the local parish as a place not just of the reification of the repression of the (rural) proletariat through the rituals and practices of the Church, but also a place full of potential protest, a "cave" he says, an underground where possible subversion can be planned.

For all this may be a possible reading, I think Boer works too hard for this conclusion. After wending one's way through Lefebvre's essay, with small excursions looking at Maurice Blondel and Joachim of Fiore, this conclusion seems to ignore some important aspects of Lefebvre's thought and life. Boer notes that Lefebvre was the founder or rural sociology in France; he further notes that, like Bloch, Lefebvre was a kind of utopian-Marxist, although of a different cast of mind. While Bloch's utopia was always not-yet, for Lefebvre (as, indeed, I think one can say of some of the writings of Marx himself) the consummation of the communist revolution, as the state withers and life and human beings are no longer alienated one from another, the result is akin more to the agrarian communism of ancient Greece, a pastoral effervescence, rather than some not-yet existent future.

The title of this post comes from a passage in the essay where Lefebvre reacts to a Celtic cross, with its circle superimposed upon the otherwise bland cruciform wall-hanging. In that instant of - what? not revelation, certainly, but perhaps anger-filled insight - clarity, we have the key to Lefebvre's protest against the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in the life of rural France. He juxtaposes the virile, sensual, life-affirming rituals of pagan religious rituals - those moments after harvest and before planting when communities would toss caution to the wind, celebrate a massive communal feast, and end in an (imagined, I think, in Lefebvre's preference for sensuality) orgy of Epicurean gluttony and Dionysian sexuality. The Church, by which he means the Roman Catholic Church, has baptized these and other rituals, robbed them of their sensuality and life-affirming celebratory core, and rendered them not just placid, but even negative. What was once a huge communal feast has become the Eucharist with its bland little wafer and barest hint of a taste of (consecrated) wine. Sexuality? The Church gives us a neutered, even emasculated Christ and the Virgin Mother. Rather than affirming life, even as these celebrations created conditions that kept rural populations perpetually on the edge of near-catastrophe, the Church has simultaneously offered a certain amount of safety to rural communities even as it strips life of those rituals and signs that would give meaning and joy to it.

With the sun crucified by the Church, we have the negation of all that Lefebvre wishes to see returned to a rural life robbed of any joy by a set of doctrines and practices that repress, even destroy, what little of real life might remain.

While it might be possible to see, buried in his description of his local church there in he Pyreneean foothills hints of possible subversion, of space reserved for clandestine gatherings in the heart of a space consecrated to the on-going repression of the rural proletariat, I believe this over-reading misses a key component of Lefebvre's approach to Marxism. It is not just liberation; it is a reconstitution, the possibility for life, particularly rural life, to be in greater accord with the rhythms and tempo of the seasons. Part of the practice of such communities is the ritualized acknowledgment of these rhythms, important touchstones for communal life. It is this ritualized harmony, this celebration of life, that Lefebvre wants to see restored. It is a deep streak of paganism that runs through at least Boer's presentation of his musings not just on the Roman Catholic Church, but his far larger project of understanding rural life.

There is little room, it seems, even for a subversive Catholicism, to take root in the heart of a community that, once it has tossed off the shackles of capitalist exploitation, would return in some manner to a more natural - and more ritualized practice - way of living.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Gap Filler

I'm between thoughts at the moment. Reading Boer on Henri Lefebvre has left me in a bit of quandary. I really want to say . . . something . . . but there are a whole host of reasons why I keep hesitating.

The State of the Union gave me very little new to think about. Forced to sit in my car on the way to work and listen to a bunch of stupid people talk about the speech made me wonder if NPR could be prosecuted for mass murder; all that stupid, reaching out through the radio, sucking the life out of thousands of listeners, left gasping out their final breaths wishing the last thing they heard had not been Mara Liasson droning on about how much "people" care about the deficit. Had NPR decided to put Cokie Roberts in the same studio with Liasson, we might well have had the first intellectual black hole form, a stupid singularity drawing in even more American listeners, trapped and never allowed to exit.

John Boehner, pressed to say something contrary, claimed the President said nothing about "American exceptionalism". The entire speech was a paean to American exceptionalism, which means either Boehner wasn't listening or decided to say something meaningless to make conservative Republicans happy. Forced to choose, I think it is probably the latter.

Sarah Palin says the USSR won the space race. Because Democrats were in control of the country at the time, and wanted us to lose, just like they wanted us to lose in Vietnam. I made that last part up, but it makes a kind of insane sense.

Rather than winning the future, I'd much rather win the past. The future will take care of itself.

On a more serious note, I think it would be nice if discussions of the Tucson shootings would name those killed, rather than refer to them in passing. Since we still have little to no idea what prompted Jared Loughner to do what he did, for all we know the dead federal judge, or 9-year-old girl, or some other of the dead may have been his intended target. Their lives are in need of more than just a passing mention as we follow the recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

I will admit that I doubt it will happen, but a Tunisian-style uprising in Saudi Arabia would be more earth-shaking, and more welcome by many (including me) than anything since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in that region of the world. Why the US would prop up a dictatorial hereditary monarchy in the face of a popular uprising may force the US to stand aside. If it should happen. The ripples from the Tunisian revolution have yet to settle.

I have great friends and family, and without a doubt the most beautiful wife and most marvelous children. I am truly a blessed man.

On that rather smarmy personal note, I think I'll sign off for now.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Putting The Hump In Hump Day - Mid-Week Music Randomness

First, a great thanks to Frank Gondo and his band, as well as Headspins, for a great Friday night treat of live music in an actual Chicago bar. Gondo's blues-rock, Headspins' pop-punk were a nice break in the humdrum of life; I particularly liked Headspins first and last numbers, "New Safe Vampires" and "Sex Camel", respectively. Many thanks to Frank, an unmet FB friend, for the good talk over a Newcastle Ale (me) and some kind of mixed drink (him) before the fun started. I must admit, though, almost getting nailed by a piece of his drummer's broken stick meant the bar was too small.

That little bit of formality out of the way, rev up those iPod/laptop/Mac gerbil-wheels, ladies and gents, and put your first ten random songs in comments, because it is through randomness that truth emerges. Seriously.



Dark Origins - Porcupine Tree
Afraid of Sunlight - Marillion
Wind at My Back - Spock's Beard
Duke's Travels - Genesis
Second Life Syndrome - Riverside
It's For You - Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays
Cheyenne Anthem(Live) - Kansas
Space Boogie - Jeff Beck
No Stranger - Saga
Blue Light - David Gilmour

What's something about music without, you know, music?

Steve Rothery is more than just one of the great, underrated guitarists in the world. His solos almost always have an emotional impact, which proves he's not just technically awesome, but musical. Were I to die on my way home from a Marillion show, I am quite sure it would be a happy death.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Vicarious Victimization

Kevin Drum has a nice rundown of tweets concerning a small drama yesterday at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, VA.

The only thing worse than this kind of narcissistic grandstanding is the ongoing self-righteousness of Glenn Greenwald. It isn't bad enough that he acts as if we were already a bureaucratic police state; his persistent view that his interpretation of the Constitution is the only legitimate one, while certainly an effective courtroom tactic, has turned off this former daily reader (parenthetically, were I ever in need of a Constitutional specialist in a court case, Greenwald would be the first person I would choose as an attorney; someone as big an asshole as he is would be a plus for any legal team). Specifically, it isn't so much his pose as the sole True Defender of the Constitution that bothers me as much as his nearly daily harrumph at some "outrage" that is perfectly intelligible, although perhaps not always forgivable, as part of the normal behavior of states. Whether it's the allure of power of the inertia of bureaucracies, all the things he huffs and puffs about make sense as long as one understands that no Administration has ever followed the Constitution perfectly, nor will they. Further, since there are neither penalties nor even serious political repercussions for officials violating either the law of Constitutional mandates, there is no incentive other than virtue - always in short supply among bureaucrats and officials - to do so. One would think that, as an attorney, he might just understand that.

Hamsher, on the other hand, is a different case altogether. The level of invective and sheer nastiness she used increasingly during both the 2008 Democratic primary, as well as the health care reform debate became too much for me. Further, her penchant for sheer fantasizing about the nature of the political opposition - only those who agreed with her were true Reformers; those who disagreed or took a different position were all corrupt, evil human beings - reached a level of self-parody that would have been humorous were it not for the fact that it revealed a streak of narcissism that, with events yesterday, proved that even left-wingers aren't immune from being fantasy-prone.

Pvt. Manning is being held in solitary, 23-hour lockdown. One can set aside questions regarding his hus guilt or innocence and still understand why the military might be wary of allowing him too much contact. He has admitted, publicly, that he has passed classified information to an individual, Julian Assange, who also has been quite public that his intended use of that information has not been in the best interests of the US. Whether or not Pvt. Manning is guilty of a crime, his public statements confirming his actions are to enough to make intelligible the military's decision to limit, as strictly as possible, his contacts outside detention. Furthermore, the complaint that certain visitation privileges have been revoked, well, Pvt. Manning is being held in prison. They can decide who can visit and not visit, and change their minds, for all sorts of reasons.

Some could argue that the MPs should have acted in a different manner; perhaps their superiors should have been less ham-fisted in their approach. Certainly, it has given Ms. Hamsher the opportunity to claim that she, too, like Pvt. Manning, is a victim of police-state tactics. Having one's car impounded is, obviously, right up there with being disappeared by authorities, being tortured, having one's interactions monitored and restricted by official decree. I can see why she is in such an uproar.

On the other hand, it seems to me this is a pretty clear signal to those who have lost any perspective out of sympathy for Pvt. Manning's actions that the military justice system will conduct its business in the manner it deems fit. Jane Hamsher is not a victim of a corrupt, repressive system. She was inconvenienced by parts of a system whose internal workings she has impugned, insulted, declared outside American legal and constitutional bounds. It seems to me they were sending her a bit of a message, one she might well be too dim to understand. When you bait the bear, sometimes, the bear wins.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seek The Welfare Of The City - Stanley Haeurwas And The Problem Of Exile

After all, I have playfully used postmodern playfulness to try to remind Christians that we are in a life-and-death struggle with the world. - Stanley Hauerwas, "The Christian Difference, or Surviving Postmodernism", A Better Hope, p.36.
Jeremiah is a gloomy Gus. Reading through this prophetic book, one gets the sense that he rather enjoyed pronouncing judgment upon the evils of a people poised on the precipice of destruction, their kingdom small and weak about to face the onslaught of the Empire of Babylon. Once the catastrophe occurs, Jeremiah spends quite a bit of time comforting the people with, "I told you so".

He also offers a bit of advice to those in exile that was probably as difficult to hear as the dire warnings of imminent doom he spoke. He has a vision of two baskets of figs, and wonders what they mean. The LORD complies, starting in verse 5:
These are the words of the LORD the God of Israel: I count the exiles of Judah whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldaeans as good as these good figs. I shall look to their welfare, and restore them to this land; I shall build them up and not pull them down, plant them and not uproot them. I shall give them the wit to know me, for I am the LORD; they will be my people and I shall be their God, for they will come back to me wholeheartefly.

But King Zedekiah of Judah, his officers, and the survivors of Jerusalem, both those who remain in this land and those who have settled in Egypt - all these I shall treat as bad figs, says the LORD, so bad that they are not fit to eat. I shall make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reporach, a bysword, an object of taunting and cursing wherever I banish them. I shall send sword, war, famine, and pestilence against them until they have vanished from the land which I gave to them and to their forefathers.
Setting aside a whole host of questions that should properly be asked about such a text before doing the proper task of exegesis, I would, rather, prefer to offer this as a reply to Stanley Haeurwas' oft-stated desire for Christians to see themselves as those living in exile. In particular, as a reply to the all-too-often accommodated, mainline Protestant churches, their doctrinal differences getting ever fuzzier as they strive to become American Christian churches.

For Hauerwas, this has been unequivocally bad for the churches. They have lost, according to his reading of the history of Christian churches in the United States, the ability to worship, with any real meaning, any authentic prophetic or pastoral content, the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen. In the essays that open A Better Hope, he goes so far as to insist that the mere possibility of being a church that does so - i.e., authentic worship of the living God - would be an ever-living thorn in the side both of secular America and the all-too-willing accommodations of a neutered Protestant bourgeoisie.

Yet, "exile", at least for Jeremiah, is hardly a state of separation. Indeed, those who are in exile, as opposed to those who have been allowed to remain behind (or who have fled to Egypt) are "the good figs", those who still find favor with God. For a people whose identity has been shaped by an attachment to The Land rooted in Divine Grace and favor, this idea that there is blessing in exile from this land must have sounded not just odd, but may even have bordered on unintelligible. All the same, Jeremiah's famous declaration, the title of this post, is of a piece with this parable of the figs. The exiles are to pray and work and live as the people of God, including praying and working for the welfare of the city in which they are held as exiles.

For Jeremiah, then, exile is not a place of struggle against. Nor is it, I should add, a place of accommodation. Rather, the people are to maintain their identity; part of that identity includes being a living community, working and praying and worshiping together, who also seek the welfare of the larger community of which they are a part. Rather than a life-and-death struggle with the world, exile is part of the people's ongoing struggle for the world.

Hauerwas has maintained, for the better part of two decades, that the Christian churches in America, in order to be Christian, need to set to one side any effort at mutual accommodation. We are not to seek the Americanization of Christianity. We are not to seek the Christianization of America. For Hauerwas, only when the churches can worship the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen - and there are abundant references across many writings where Hauerwas is clear this has yet to take place, at least in mainline Protestant Christianity - without reference to America, are the churches not only authentically Christian, but also authentically working for America. For Hauerwas, in other word - to use his rather odd notions of narrative - the story of exile, as the Christian's story in America, is one of a dialectic of separation and prophetic transcendence on the one hand; and immersion and pastoral care leading to transformation on the other. This rather complicated way of envisioning Christian "exile", however, ignores the prophetic insistence, recorded in Jeremiah, that, as exiles, we are those favored by God. Furthermore, as exiles, we are to live our lives as part of the larger community, seeking its welfare in the ordinary, mundane run of life.

Not only is Hauerwas' insistence that real worship of God not yet happening in the Protestant churches, far too comfortable with American life; his understanding of exile is truncated, ignoring the Divine imperative to be - borrowing the imagery from Jeremiah - good figs. This is not treason to the God of Israel, apostasy to the God of Jesus Christ. Rather, in living as both Christians and Americans, including praying and working for the welfare of America qua America, we are living out the lives of exiles. Not in struggle with, even against it. In struggle for it.

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