Saturday, February 11, 2012

Blogging Is Easy When You Cut And Paste!

One of my favorite places to go is Ben Myers' Faith & Theology. Not only does he offer witty, insightful, provocative, challenging posts. He has a marvelous side bar filled with the best of the best from theology blogging. I've added from that list to my own roll, and will probably add more over time.

Rather than comment on what some other folks are saying, I thought I'd offer folks what people far more intelligent, insightful, learned, and literate are saying. While certainly a way to exploit my own basic laziness, I'm doing this to guide anyone interested to some really good reads.

Resident Theology is the blog of a Yale Divinity School doctoral candidate. His latest post is a quote from Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Vol. 2: The Works of God. The paragraph in question can be found on p. 311:
"It is the fact of God's Trinity which requires that his concluding gift to us, should he make one, must be inclusion in his own life, the gift not of something other than God but of 'all he is' [Luther]. The triune God does not and indeed cannot beneficently affect us causally; for him, causal action, with its intrinsic distancing, would mean exclusion from himself and so cursing rather than blessing. The goal of all the biblical God's ways is the glory of God. Were an otherwise biblical God -- contrary of course to possibility -- monadic, his intention of his own glory would be a sort of omnipotent egocentricity, and the reality of God would be a universal moral disaster. But God's glorification of himself is instead supreme blessing because the triune God can and does include creatures in that glory."

The Blogging Parson is from an Australian professor of theology, Michael Jensen. Today we are offered the third in a series on Martin Luther and the Devil. While certainly a topic examined in depth by Heiko Oberman (and an insightful book at that; opens up sorts of things about Luther's thought that are otherwise muddled and confused), the clarity of exposition Jensen brings to this topic, as well as the links between Luther's theology and the underlying psychological dynamics played out is really worth taking the time to read carefully, bearing much fruit in the process:
This is Martin Luther’s great difficulty, then: where can I find a gracious God? It seemed to him that the Devil and God were in cahoots. They were allies against him in his destruction. The Devil took the holiness and righteousness of God and used it to prove to Luther his due to his woeful performance as a human being, he had no hope of right-standing with God. Even as a monk, Luther could not but perennially doubt how it could be that the face of God was set firmly against him. The way he had been taught about the Christian life was that if human beings were to do whatever it was in them to do, then God would supply the remainder necessary to ensure salvation. And yet it was precisely the precondition of ‘doing what was in him’ that the meticulous Luther did not think he could meet.

What then?

Luther had impossible difficulties with the concept of iustitia Dei, the ‘righteousness of God’. As he understood it initially, it was a divine attribute – God’s impartial judgement of individuals on the basis of their merit. This was very much the Roman lawyer Cicero’s definition of righteousness as ‘rendering to each person his due’. God in his righteousness gives each individual exactly what they deserve….

…which is fine if you think human beings are capable of meriting justification. But Luther thought this was simply na├»ve. He understood human beings as incapable of meeting the preconditions of salvation. They are shot through with sin, bound only for death. They couldn’t even get to the start line. And so – how could ‘the righteousness of God’ be anything but bad news for the sinner? God stood frowning and tut-tutting at the end of every corridor.

Was this then the Devil’s victory? Was there no other side to the God that Luther pleaded with in the darkness and loneliness of his room?

We can chart Luther’s transformation through the written evidence of his meditations on the Bible. His lecture notes from the period stretching from 1513-1519 are available for our perusal. Whether this happened at one sudden, dramatic moment – on the toilet perhaps, who cares? – or over period of some years is debated by scholars, but it scarcely matters. What Luther came to understand was that the ‘righteousness of God’ included the mercy of God that he shows to sinners despite their sin. And where can this mercy be found? It had been under Luther’s nose all along. It in the cross of Jesus Christ. And that is the heart of the concept of ‘justification’. The individual finds himself under the judgement of God, with nowhere to turn, exposed terribly to his wrath. The only place to flee for safety from God’s wrath – is to God! And there he finds the great mercy that lies hidden under the terrible wrath. Christ the crucified one, who suffered on our behalf, became sin for us in order that his righteousness might become our righteousness. The cross symbolises (though it is also in actuality) God’s vehement hostility towards sin. If the death of the Son of God shows the extent of the wrath of God against sin, then it comes as a great surprise to realise that it also shows the extent of God’s mercy – since it is the Son of God himself who is crucified in such a way.

This insight takes faith to see it for what it is. Or, rather, to hear it for what it is. Luther wrote once, ‘the ears are the organ of the Christian’. What he meant was this: faith is simply hearing and believing the message that not only that God is good, but that God is good to me. God is good, yes; but that goodness does not spell my destruction but rather my preservation. The Devil’s testimony against us is true at a surface level, as the Devil’s words often are; but it turns out to have the reality of a lie, since it tempts us to doubt the goodness of God for us, and so despair.

The whispered lies of the Devil do not cease once one has begun to have faith. As Luther sees it, the Christian life is lived in the middle of a tension between faith and experience. Our experience very often serves to contradict our faith. Feelings of guilt, for example, do not leave us automatically, however much we might believe in our own forgiveness. This tension between faith and experience was something Luther expounded somewhat later in his career when he thought that he might be martyred by the authorities who were chasing him down. Where was God in this? Has God abandoned me? Luther used the word Anfechtung – ‘temptation’, or ‘assault’ – to describe this experience. The Devil, the world and death are allied in a war against human beings. But surprisingly, this agonising assault is a work of God too, to reduce the individual to utter reliance on him and him alone. The Devil it turns out, does God’s work without meaning to, because he increases the utter dependence and humility of the believer in the work of God. The absurd, even blasphemous idea, that human beings might help God along a bit is completely thwarted.

Connexions is, as it says right up top, the blog of Richard Hall, a Methodist minister in Wales. On Thursday, he offered a small bit from a book by Peter Ochs, entitled Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews. Found on pages 254 through 255, Ochs says so beautifully and clearly what I have, on far too many occasions, said far too clumsily and with little clarity: The Authority of the Biblical Word on our lives in no way privileges that Authority precisely because it is an authority that reaches us in our creaturliness, our temporality. It is, for this very reason, a contingent authority even though it finds its roots in the transcendence of the Triune God. Ochs pulls no punches. He calls this tendency to make the mistake of imposing our temporal, finite, limited hearing and understanding of the Divine command upon all others a "sinful urge."
… I understand sacred Scripture as God’s speech to us. I understand the plain sense of Scripture to be inalterable but without clear meaning or force by itself. I understand such clarity to come to us only within our various communities of belief and practice and specific to the questions we ask of God in the context and space-time of our asking. This is the relativity of our knowledge of God’s word and will: he offers these to us with respect to his relation to us in our space-time. What we hear in response has binding authority for us, then and there: even in its own temporality, what we hear belongs to the Absolute, not merely to us. But we are not instruments for transporting what belongs to the Absolute beyond the contexts of our hearing. We may declare: We have heard directly from the One whose Word is true universally. Yes indeed. But we are not the ones to articulate the universality of this Word. Our responsibility is only to act then and there as prompted. But the next moment we turn to ask again — to ask what we have just done, or what we should do next, or what we shall say to others in other contexts — in that moment we can only ask again. Can we therefore not speak? Of course we can speak, but as human creatures, with experiences and histories and theories, even wonderful and profound and wise theories, but all of them creaturely. The urge to speak as if we spoke God’s Word — and thus spoke universally — is a sinful urge.
Obviously, I invite you to read more on these sites.

Friday, February 10, 2012

God In Third Person

So last night's lesson for Christian Believer concerned the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Along with readings from Basil the Great, Calvin, Wesley, Walter Kasper and some others, the Bible passages chosen, in particular the Old Testament passages, were interesting. First up was Numbers 11:16-30:
So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” ’ But Moses said, ‘The people I am with number six hundred thousand on foot; and you say, “I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month”! Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.’

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Then there was Judges 14:
Once Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw a Philistine woman. Then he came up, and told his father and mother, ‘I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.’ But his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there not a woman among your kin, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, because she pleases me.’ His father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah. When he came to the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion roared at him. The spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as one might tear apart a kid. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, and she pleased Samson. After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass of the lion.

His father went down to the woman, and Samson made a feast there as the young men were accustomed to do. When the people saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him. Samson said to them, ‘Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments. But if you cannot explain it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.’ So they said to him, ‘Ask your riddle; let us hear it.’ He said to them,
‘Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.’
But for three days they could not explain the riddle.

On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife, ‘Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?’ So Samson’s wife wept before him, saying, ‘You hate me; you do not really love me. You have asked a riddle of my people, but you have not explained it to me.’ He said to her, ‘Look, I have not told my father or my mother. Why should I tell you?’ She wept before him for the seven days that their feast lasted; and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her. Then she explained the riddle to her people. The men of the town said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down,
‘What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?’
And he said to them,
‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer,
you would not have found out my riddle.’
Then the spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house. And Samson’s wife was given to his companion, who had been his best man.
And one more. 1 Samuel 10:1-13:
Samuel took a phial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, ‘The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, “The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?” Then you shall go on from there further and come to the oak of Tabor; three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. They will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from them. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt-offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. For seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.’
Saul Prophesies

As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy along with them. When all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, ‘What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?’ A man of the place answered, ‘And who is their father?’ Therefore it became a proverb, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ When his prophetic frenzy had ended, he went home.
What's most interesting about these particular passages is the effect upon the individual when the Spirit comes upon them. To say the people in question acted out of character would be an understatement. When the Spirit enters the elders, they prophecy with such power, it makes Joshua all nervous. Samson ends up, first, killing a lion. Then, he kills thirty people. Saul is described as being in a frenzy.

Kind of like Acts 2.

We mainline Christians are uncomfortable with these portrayals of the way the Spirit works in the lives of individuals. We prefer to think of the Spirit as a calming influence, a peaceful presence, and Divine Comforter, a word we associate with those big, heavy blankets in which we wrap ourselves to get all warm and comfy.

Tearing a lion limb from limb? Not so much. Frenzies are for Pentecostals, right?

While I admit discomfort with an over-zealous pursuit of the Spirit entering our lives, it is precisely because of the hazards involved, as testified in these (and many other possible) stories, that I am. Consider, as another example, Ezekiel, who was brought to eat a scroll and do any number of other odd things at the prodding of the Spirit in his life.

All this is to say that, in many ways, the Holy Spirit, is the Person who exemplifies the danger and terror of too close a relationship with God. We can chuckle over Samson killing thirty men, or Saul frothing at the mouth, or Ezekiel lying on his side for six months, then rolling over and lying on his other side for six months, but the truth is these stories should serve as a warning. God's presence in our lives doesn't always bring all those gooey feelings of marshmallowy goodness.

Sometimes, God in the Person of the Holy Spirit can bring a kind of Blessed Madness, make of us a Holy Terror. I will admit up front there are many things for which I pray. Being overcome by the Holy Spirit, the fullness of God present in such an intimate way as this, is not one of them.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Are Right-Wingers Really As Dumb As We Think They Are?

The link between intelligence and prejudice has been little researched and scarcely features in theoretical or empirical accounts of intergroup evaluations. Our synthesis demonstrates that cognitive ability plays a substantial role not only in predicting prejudice, but also in predicting its potential precursors: right-wing ideologies and authoritarian value systems, which can perpetuate social inequality by emphasizing the maintenance of the status quo, and a lack of contact and experience with out-groups. Our analysis of two large-scale U.K. data sets established a predictive relation between childhood g (a latent factor of generalized intelligence) and adult prejudice, as well as an indirect effect of g on prejudice via conservative ideology; this indirect effect explained more than 90% of the relation between g and racism in three of the four analyses (see Table 2). Thus, conservative ideology represents a critical pathway through which childhood intelligence predicts racism in adulthood. In psychological terms, the relation between g and prejudice may stem from the propensity of individuals with lower cognitive ability to endorse more right-wing conservative ideologies because such ideologies offer a psychological sense of stability and order. By emphasizing resistance to change and inequality among groups, these ideologies legitimize and promote negative evaluations of out-groups.
"Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact"
Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri, Psychological Science, No. 23, February 2012
I read a piece in the British newspaper The Guardian yesterday, a column by George Monbiot, that linked to the study quoted above. Rather than discuss the study outright, Monbiot's point was, rather, to chastise what he called "too-polite liberals" for allowing a situation such as we have now, where conservatives can spew all sorts of nonsense and not be challenged for its verisimilitude by people of a different political ideology.
On both sides of the Atlantic, conservative strategists have discovered that there is no pool so shallow that several million people won't drown in it. Whether they are promoting the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the US, that man-made climate change is an eco-fascist-communist-anarchist conspiracy, or that the deficit results from the greed of the poor, they now appeal to the basest, stupidest impulses, and find that it does them no harm in the polls.
--snip--
These are the perfect conditions for a billionaires' feeding frenzy. Any party elected by misinformed, suggestible voters becomes a vehicle for undisclosed interests. A tax break for the 1% is dressed up as freedom for the 99%. The regulation that prevents big banks and corporations exploiting us becomes an assault on the working man and woman. Those of us who discuss man-made climate change are cast as elitists by people who happily embrace the claims of Lord Monckton, Lord Lawson or thinktanks funded by ExxonMobil or the Koch brothers: now the authentic voices of the working class.
This description of our current state of affairs is, I think, spot on. Going all the way back to Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas?, the enigma for so many on the Left has been the willingness of voters to support a party and and set of policy preferences that run directly counter to their actual interests. The point, which is rarely discussed, seems clear enough to many: conservative politicians very often campaign using upon a set of policy priorities - whether cultural preferences on the one hand, or vague pledges of fealty to particular general social beliefs in economic freedom and socioeconomic mobility - that are abandoned once they are actually elected to office. The running sore in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is now facing a recall election for gutting the formerly progressive state's labor protections, despite winning on a ticket where this, his first and most important piece of legislation, was never even mentioned.

The mechanisms studied by the Canadian researchers were the complex of relationships among conservative ideology, prejudice, and intelligence, g, as determined in childhood through the use of standardized tests. Setting to one side my own personal questions regarding either the efficacy of such tests or the underlying idea that "intelligence" or "cognitive ability" is a thing that can be measured with any accuracy or that is a stable entity, using the standards outlined in the study (which, surprisingly, is available in its entirety online at the link above; there are internal links to the many studies the authors cite within the text as well, a rarity in my experience), it seems that the well-known high correlation between lower values for g and a greater tendency toward prejudice is often mediated by right-wing ideologies (defined for the sake of the study as "which are socially conservative and authoritarian", which beg as many questions as they answer; further down they do note that such ideologies tend toward the maintenance of the status quo and offer relief for certain levels of status anxiety). Political ideology, thus, is not so much a function of intelligence, but rather the way people with lower cognitive ability as represented by g take inchoate feelings and give them the shape of prejudice toward out-groups.

The authors note a correlation of almost 90% for the relationship among prejudice, the mediating function of political ideology and lower values for g.

Monbiot's column takes this information and wonders why we liberals are so polite. I, for one, long ago decided politeness served no function. Attempting to have a discussion, for instance, on global warming with someone who either denies it entirely or denies any role for human activity isn't possible. On this matter there is no room for "opinions". Just as people cannot have an "opinion" on the reality of gravity, even though the theoretical understanding of what gravity is hasn't been settled for over a century, global warming due to human industrial and related activities is not something a person can "believe" or "not believe". Or, to put it slightly differently, a person may indeed say he or she "does not believe" in global warming. My only response to such a person is global warming isn't a function of her, or anyone else's, beliefs. Such a person should be devoutly ignored.

The list of such things about which more people should simply cease discussing as if differences of opinion were relevant grows each and every day. The biological status of a fetus or embryo and therefore its demands upon our moral and legal consciences. The political ideology of the President of the United States (to say nothing of the place of his birth, his religious beliefs, and other sundry matters that have caused so much huffing and puffing on the right). Just yesterday, I read someone who wrote: "Though you may doubt the existence of a literal Adam, it seems far fetch, biblically, that he didn’t exist. It is actually easier to argue that he did then he didn”t. It is true that many people try to interpret ancient history as if they were written by 20th century scholars. However, to say that there is doubt in a literal Adam is far-fetched." My well-considered response? "HAHAHAHAHA!!!!
Pure gold."

There is just no other way to deal with such things. Discussion, argument, the pretense of thoughtful consideration only creates the illusion that the people who write and say and, by extension believe, such things are worthy of anything other than derisive laughter.

None of this, however, validates the proposition that conservatives, as a group, tend to have weaker cognitive skills than liberals. Because I do not believe that "intelligence" as determined by standardized tests is anything of substantive value, the study in question as well as others like it, I have serious questions about the underlying assumptions. When the very-racist Charles Murray published a book in the 1990's that used "IQ" as measured by standardized tests to make the claim that African-Americans as a group were both less intelligent than whites, and that this lower intelligence determined any number of tendencies toward social pathologies and dysfunctions, most good liberals howled. Not least because "IQ" has long been thought, at best, a dubious term and its determinants such as the Stanford-Binet test seriously flawed on any number of levels.

It is true, I think, that there is a whole lot of hokum on the right. I also think the only real way we eliminate such hokum is to make fun of it, laugh at it, make it clear that as it is hokum we are under no obligation to "discuss" it as if it were anything other than hokum.

That doesn't mean the people who hold such views - sometimes in the face of massive amounts of evidence - are less intelligent. There may well be many reasons why individuals and groups continue to hold beliefs that are proved to be in error. Acting on such beliefs has its own costs, to be sure. I think rewarding ourselves for being smart is not the best way to promote serious public discourse.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Transfixed between rapture and anguish."

As I wrote the other day, I'm writing the story of a band. From their very first rehearsal right through their last show. I've done a lot of research. The role of management. The difference between a band's manager and their road manager. What record contracts look like, and how they have, traditionally, screwed artists. What promoters do, and their role in the game of arranging concerts. What roadies really do. Stage and lighting techs, instrument techs, the live sound mixers. This is all important stuff that helps tell the story, because it is a part of the world of contemporary music. You can't write about music with intelligence and verisimilitude if you don't get that the world of management and promotion are vital.

The trick, however, is not to lose focus. These are elements of contemporary music that need to be understood in order to make the whole story sound real. I'm not writing a story about managers and record company executives and promoters, though. In fact, I go to great pains to portray all these support systems - as necessary as they are for the whole clunky machinery of pop culture to function - as making the great mistake of believing they are the true key and heart of the success of the band about which I'm writing. Each step along the way I try to make these folks real enough, and have them do what real people in these roles do. I also try to make sure the focus is on the only story I really want to tell.

The other part of doing research is reading about music. Reading the critics. Reading the stories about bands and musicians. My small, and now growing, library of books about music, has been a huge help in this regard. My life-time love affair with music has been, by and large, an unreflective one. Rather than sit around and think about what it is that makes me prefer, say, Jeff Beck as a guitarist to Jimmy Page, I've just let it be what it is.

When I first tried to summarize my feelings about the writings of Lester Bangs, I was struggling with what I called my love-hate relationship with what he had to say. As I've been moving forward with the story - I'm on the downhill side now, over half-way done; I've got at least one eye focused on the rewrite stage now - I've returned to the thin collection of Bangs' writing his friend Greil Marcus published, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. There's another volume of Bangs' collected writings out now, and I look forward, in the near future, to adding that to my library as well. In the meanwhile, returning to Bangs after a long hiatus, I discovered how wrong I was, as the Emperor is Star Wars tells Luke Skywalker, about a great many things.

The first two essays, the one that give the volume its title, and a ten-year retrospective essay on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, were placed up front for a simple reason. While it is easy enough for the uninitiated to come to Bangs looking for the little gems, either of appreciation or derision, in the hundreds of album reviews he published in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, or his long home in Creem Magazine, no one can understand what lay deep within Lester's heart unless that reader has read those two essays. Not just read, but chewed, swallowed, digested, made a part of one's mental architecture. What these two essays reveal is that behind all the bluster and scatology, the pomp and self-righteousness, the occasional bouts of good humor that interspersed a general indignation at the music of the 1970's, Lester was a person whose whole life revolved around the music he loved.

Anyone who could write the marvelous, drug-addled praise of The Count Five that he produced could only do so if he meant every single word. While he became famous, or perhaps infamous, for praising The Guess Who's Live at the Paramount, you cannot understand how he came to that position without first reading his deep love for The Count Five.

His essay on Astral Weeks, however, is another thing all together. Reading it through last night, I wanted to cry. We writers are a funny lot. Doing it well, a thing with which I still struggle, means having the courage to let the whole world in to the most deep, most secret parts of one's life. If you aren't willing to jump off the bridge over that chasm, go back to knitting, or welding, or making airline reservations, because the only way really to write well is to be willing to stand naked and let people either laugh or cry or come up and congratulate you.

When he writes about Morrison's masterpiece, Bangs rips away all the masks - the clown, the provocateur, the drug-addled ironist - and lets you see that Lester Bangs loves music, and this album in particular, because not to do so might well kill him. Maybe loving music that much, loving anything as much as Bangs' does music, is also a death wish. You don't write what follows unless you really mean it From pp. 25-26:
"Madame George" is the album's whirlpool. Possibly one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made, it asks us, no arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too. . . .

What might seem strangest of all but really isn't is that it's exactly those characteristics which supposedly should make George most pathetic - age, drunkenness, the way the boys take his money and trash his love - that awakens something for George in the heart of the kid whose song this is. Obviously the kid hasn't simply "fallen in love with love," or something like that, but rather - what? Why, just exactly that only sunk in the foulest perversions could one human being love another for anything other than their humanness: love him for his weakness, his flaws, finally perhaps his decay. Decay is human - that's one of the ultimate messages here, and I don't by any stretch of the lexicon mean decadence. I mean that in this song or whatever inspired it Van Morrison saw the absolute possibility of loving human beings at the farthest extreme of wretchedness, and that the implications of that are terrible indeed, far more terrible than the mere sight of bodies made ugly by age or the seeming absurdity of a man devoting his life to the wobbly artifice of trying to look like a woman.

You can say to love the questions you have to love the answers which quicken the end of love that's loved to love the awful inequality of human experience that love to say we tower over these: the lost that love to love the love that freedom could have been, the train to freedom, but we never get on, we'd rather wave generously walking away from those who are victims of themselves. But who is to say that someone who victimizes him- or herself is not as worthy of total compassion as the most down and out Third World orphan in a New Yorker magazine ad? Nah, better to step over the bodies, at least that gives them the respect they might have once deserved. Where I live, in New York (not to make it more than it is, which is hard), everyone I know often steps over bodies which might well be dead or dying as a matter of course, without pain. And I wonder in what scheme it was originally conceived that such action is showing human refuse the ultimate respect it deserves.
While I typed the above, I had "Madame George" playing in the background. It was easy enough to do; the song is almost ten minutes long, an insistent, nagging song that demands we hear what Morrison is saying about love, about humanity. It is everything Bangs says it is. The album itself is one of those rare artifacts - Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Ray LaMontagne's Trouble - that are so beautiful it is difficult to listen to them. "Madame George" challenges the listener precisely because Morrison demands we consider the ugliness and violence that is a part of human life to be beautiful, too. Because it is human, because it is real.

I should be clear. I'm not writing about Lester Bangs. I'm not writing the book Lester might have written. I am, rather, reading Bangs to find a way to say what I want to say without fear. I want to be able to tear away away the trappings that make up the armor we all use to protect ourselves, and say, as simply and directly as I am able, what it is about this thing called "music" that I love so much.

America Hating

This isn't a new point. I've been making it for quite a while.

At heart, the right in the United States - which is indistinguishable, for any practical purpose, from the beating heart of the Republican Party (the problems with the Democratic Party are a topic for another day) - is anti-American. Not in the old-fashioned way some on the right claim liberals hate this country because we criticize this or that policy or action. No, the right hates America because they detest the Constitution. They invoke it all the time. When they do, they show a remarkable lack of understanding of the text of the document, its provenance in the brain of James Madison and the arguments for and against it (they're available in paperback; I have two different print editions; one contains the Federalist Papers, the other the anti-Federalist papers), and how it's been interpreted over the centuries by the courts.

The first time I really noticed this, was nearly five years ago. Thomas Sowell, of the Hoover Institute, a favorite among the right because he has a Ph. D. and no other academics pay attention to him. That he's African-American is like a trifecta, heaping the cries of victimhood and liberal racism upon the naked bones of his empty scholarship. Sowell is also a part-time pundit (he may have stopped; I certainly never paid enough attention to notice whether he still writes political commentary), and back in the dim days of 2007, in the midst of a piece, he mused on the potential benefits of a military coup.

That same day, according to the Wayback Machine, Glenn Greenwald wrote an article in Salon taking on Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield and a piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal (the article sits behind WSJ's paywall now, sad to say) entitled, "The Case for the Strong Executive". From Greenwald:
Unlike dishonest Bush followers who ludicrously claimed that Bush’s eavesdropping was not illegal, Mansfield embraced reality and candidly argued that President Bush possesses the power to break the law in order to fight The Terrorists. The headline of that article presented the same mutually exclusive choice as the WSJ article today: The Law and the President — in a national emergency, who you gonna call?

In that article, Mansfied claimed, among other things, that our “enemies, being extra-legal, need to be faced with extra-legal force“; that the “Office of President” is “larger than the law”; that “the rule of law is not enough to run a government”; that “ordinary power needs to be supplemented or corrected by the extraordinary power of a prince, using wise discretion”; that “with one person in charge we can have both secrecy and responsibility”
Around this same time - 2007 was the dawning realization among many on the right that most Americans wanted the Bush Presidency over, his pack of goons and flunkies gone to the Elysian Fields of corporate lobbyhood, and someone - anyone - in the White House - there was yet another explicit call for an American dictatorship.
Yet in 2007 he is generally despised, with many citizens of Western civilization expressing contempt for his person and his policies, sentiments which now abound on the Internet. This rage at President Bush is an inevitable result of the system of government demanded by the people, which is Democracy.

The inadequacy of Democracy, rule by the majority, is undeniable -- for it demands adopting ideas because they are popular, rather than because they are wise. This means that any man chosen to act as an agent of the people is placed in an invidious position: if he commits folly because it is popular, then he will be held responsible for the inevitable result. If he refuses to commit folly, then he will be detested by most citizens because he is frustrating their demands.

When faced with the possible threat that the Iraqis might be amassing terrible weapons that could be used to slay millions of citizens of Western Civilization, President Bush took the only action prudence demanded and the electorate allowed: he conquered Iraq with an army.

This dangerous and expensive act did destroy the Iraqi regime, but left an American army without any clear purpose in a hostile country and subject to attack. If the Army merely returns to its home, then the threat it ended would simply return.

The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office, if not his freedom or his life.

The simple truth that modern weapons now mean a nation must practice genocide or commit suicide. Israel provides the perfect example. If the Israelis do not raze Iran, the Iranians will fulfill their boast and wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Yet Israel is not popular, and so is denied permission to defend itself. In the same vein, President Bush cannot do what is necessary for the survival of Americans. He cannot use the nation's powerful weapons. All he can do is try and discover a result that will be popular with Americans.

As there appears to be no sensible result of the invasion of Iraq that will be popular with his countrymen other than retreat, President Bush is reviled; he has become another victim of Democracy.

By elevating popular fancy over truth, Democracy is clearly an enemy of not just truth, but duty and justice, which makes it the worst form of government. President Bush must overcome not just the situation in Iraq, but democratic government.
I realize that five years is forever to most people; internet time is like dog years times infinity. Last week becomes ancient history, despite the marvelous way the internet archives everything. In his indefatigable quest to expose the stone heart and lumpy brain stem of American conservatism, Charlie Pierce calls attention to the NRO's gang of attack squirrels taking on the big, bad New York Times.

When folks on the right insist that our Republican institutions and the rule of law hinder a Republican President, they should be cast aside. When a journalist writes an article about a study on the declining influence of the Constitution of the United States among countries struggling to create stable civil institutions, this is yet more evidence of the perfidy of the American left.

Americans of all stripes tend to voice frustration with various parts of the document that shape our institutions. At other times, folks across the political spectrum voice support for this or that Constitutional provision, and in the process demonstrate a marvelous lack of any understanding. The whining and complaining and occasional out-right paranoid fantasizing about our current President - always couched in terms of concern for the Constitution - belie an underlying disgust most on the right hold for it. Like conservative Christians who know little to nothing about the faith, yet feel free to determine, on their own, who is and is not a Christian, these folks demonstrate contempt for our institutions, our civic life, our national rituals and culture, all the while reserving for themselves the privilege of determining who is and is not a proper American.

Its astounding, really.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Nothing Is As Crazy As Reality

Some of the longest-running political blogs - Eschaton, Fire Dog Lake, Pandagon - began in Philadelphia, so there are sometimes discussions of local and regional issues. Yesterday on Twitter, Amanda Marcotte linked to a story about someone leaving their job in the Department of Social Services. Apparently, the person in question, while pulling down over $100,000 from the state, continued to publish a right-wing Christian newsletter. Nothing wrong with that.

The Philly City Paper made clear it wasn't that he was publishing. It was what.
Among the more interesting theories he's printed:

— that "condom use robs a woman of 'remarkable' chemicals found in semen
— that "birth-control pills weakened a woman's 'natural sense' of attraction to men who would be a good biological match
— that "semen-exposed women" perform better on concentration and cognitive tasks
— that women in the workplace may be causing childhood obesity.
As someone wrote on Facebook yesterday, she tried really hard to increase her concentration during college, and it didn't do much for her GPA.

While the jokes do write themselves, there is something sinister about all this. Advocating thoughtful commentary from a conservative Christian point-of-view on matters of human sexuality is one thing; turning seminal fluid in to a magic potion takes male dominance out of the suburbs and in to the beating heart of Crazytown. As for the other noted statements, it is clear that women are not viewed as free agents, capable of control over their own lives. Any attempt by women to have a say in how they run their lives, whether it be in matters of conception control or working outside the home is described as harmful. This is misogyny dressed up as "concern" for women.

With occasionally tacky, creepy frills added in.

There are moments it is important to stand in awe at how clinically insane some elements of the far right are.

Monday, February 06, 2012

You Have The Right To Sound Stupid: Two Cases

An amazing amount of stupidity would be removed from so much of our world if people took the time to consider something really, really simple. This consideration is overlooked, I believe, precisely because it is so simple.

Most people, most of the time, look really stupid picking arguments with other people. Much of the time, these same people think they're being really smart and clever when, in fact, they're doing little more than displaying their monumental ignorance. Cringe-inducing, like watching a drunk uncle at a family get-together sing "Light My Fire".

One of the problems with the internet - and there are many - is that it gives everyone the opportunity to say whatever they want. Marvelous tool! Except, if you're pig-ignorant, yet haven't had the opportunity to interact with people who aren't pig-ignorant, you tend to get indignant when these people come along and remind you, "Wow, I've dissected frogs that knew more than you."

When the subject turns to "religion" (one of those words I would discard from the Oxford English Dictionary with a smile on my face and a song in my heart), there is no shortage of ignorance. This ignorance is aided and abetted by people who are educated in other areas; have demonstrated a depth of understanding in these areas, and therefore given a certain benefit of the doubt when they speak on matters outside their areas of expertise. Thus, a few years back, the rise of the New Atheists, who showed all the world they, and those who sang their praises to earth and sea and sky could join hands in a battle against a figment of their imagination. The "religion" they talked about, the "God" they hated, was a marvelous invention of their own febrile imaginations.

The only thing that was worse was all the other allegedly intelligent people who, to this day, express "support" or "agreement" with things written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the rest of them, demonstrating an appalling lack of understanding of . . . well, anything.

This post from a British theology tutor makes a point that I have been driving home in my Christian Believer class. Christian talk about God is not just anything we decide it can be. It is, and has always been, only this one thing, considered in this way. In all its variety and plurality, all the different ways and languages and times and places Christians have sought to understand who this God is with which we have dealings, we have to make clear we are only talking about the God of the Christian faith when we understand the specificity of the Subject. A Subject who reveals who that Subject is in this way and not that; in this person's life and not just any; in this particular history and not another. Anything else, no matter how marvelous and subtle it might sound, no matter how beautiful and moving it might be to our hearts and minds, isn't talk about the Christian God.

Those who wish to argue with the faithful might take just a little time to understand that before they start sounding really silly.

Over here, I'm actually sorta-kinda engaged in a discussion on matters of how the US should relate to other nation-states. In the course of the discussion, I gave a definition of how to understand the way nation-states interact that comes from International Relations 101, the whole real politique business of countries acting out of their self-interest. I was immediately accused of being "relativist" because I made no moral judgments of the intentions or actions, of the expression of the self-interest of certain countries.

We Americans are Wilsonian in our view of the world. Like Hegel in the 19th century, there are Right Wilsonians like the neo-conservatives who seek to use American power to impose a second American imperium, in particular in the Middle East. We also have Left Wilsonians who desire to use American power to assist nations struggling in any number of ways, from internal strife and even civil war (consider American intervention in the Libyan Civil War, and the clamor to intervene in Syria) and to depose dictators (all those little Hitlers all over the world . . .) right up to the mundane uses such as development and crisis management. Wildly different in so many ways, to the point of mutual contempt, the single trait they share is their dedication to Woodrow Wilson's belief that our national exceptionalism, the purity of our motives and history, and the grand moral vision of a world managed according to the principles that have made the United States a world power compel us to act, even when there is no possible national interest served by acting, and when acting often creates situations that create more problems than they relieve.

My interlocutor is, I think, a Right Wilsonian. Imbued with the missionary zeal of American Exceptionalism, as well as a terror that someone, somewhere might wish the United States, its government and people, and/or its interests harm, little recourse other than belligerence seems clear. One bit of evidence offered is a recent article in the on-line edition of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, that claims operational links between the very Sunni al Qaeda and the very Shi'a Islamic Republic of Iran. While the headline certainly seems scary, the evidence the article provides, as well as the recommendations of official caution, hardly justify much worry. Furthermore, they demonstrate the reality that otherwise antagonistic groups can continue to be antagonistic, yet work together toward common ends. A wonderful demonstration of real politique if ever there was one!

Finally, I have no idea whether or not the folks who run Iran are good people or not. I certainly wouldn't choose to live there; I know my wife and daughters wouldn't enjoy it very much. While I know the Iranians, under their current form of government, aren't going to join hands with America to make the world safe for democracy, that isn't a reason we shouldn't be talking about any number of things. The United States maintained the fundamental illegitimacy of the Soviet Union for half a century, yet we traded with them, negotiated treaties with them, competed with them in international sporting events, hosted cultural exchanges with them; shoot, Richard Nixon shipped them grain! All the while we were nipping at one another's heels in each other's home countries, and sniping at the peripheries of one another's spheres of influence.

That's what countries do. No big deal.

If we can do that with the Soviet Union, I'm straining to understand how Iran is qualitatively different.

It isn't "relativist" to refuse to say, "The Iranians are bad." The Iranians are going to do what they do, and whether or not I believe they are bad or not, or agree with either the ends they seek, or the means by which they seek it, it seems to me sitting around and claiming a moral high ground that doesn't exist doesn't make anyone feel more safe. On the other hand, saying, "Well, the US has its interests, the Iranians have theirs. Let's see what we might have in common, and chat about those things, agreeing to disagree - and even snipe at one another in all sorts of ways - in others."

There is a way to think about how the US relates to other countries that is correct. I know it's difficult to understand, with the explosion of the internet, that there are such things as being wrong about any number of issues. It's tough to hear that you're wrong. Trust me, I know.

That doesn't make it any less the case that, if we're going to dig ourselves out of the very deep hole in which we find ourselves, the least we can do is start to accept the notion that many things are not a matter of opinion.

Virtual Tin Cup

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