28 May 2008
But by almost any measure, gasoline is still cheap. In fact, it has probably been far too cheap for far too long. The recent price increases are only beginning to reflect its real value.
When measured on an inflation-adjusted basis, the current price of gasoline is only slightly higher than it was in 1922. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 1922, gasoline cost the current-day equivalent of $3.11. Today, according to the EIA, gasoline is selling for about $3.77 per gallon, only about 20 percent more than 86 years ago.
There are more charts available at the EIA website. Even though gas prices are at an all-time high, it looks as if we're not much worse off than we were in 1982.
The bad side of all this is that we've spent the last twenty years building our cities and suburbs on the assumption that gas would stay cheap. I expect that politicians will flail about trying to get the prices down for a year or so before they start beefing up public transit in earnest.
22 May 2008
Now does any one, if he simply and naturally reads his consciousness, discover that he has any rights at all? For my part, the deeper I go in my own consciousness, and the more simply I abandon myself to it, the more it seems to tell me that I have no rights at all, only duties; and that men get this notion of rights from a process of abstract reasoning, inferring that the obligations they are conscious of towards others, others must be conscious of towards them, and not from any direct witness of consciousness at all. But it is obvious that the notion of a right, arrived at in this way, is likely to stand as a formal and petrified thing, deceiving and misleading us; and that the notions got directly from our consciousness ought to be brought to bear upon it, and to control it. So it is unsafe and misleading to say that our children have rights against us; what is true and safe to say is, that we have duties towards our children.
-Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy
Wow. I've been looking for a source for this idea for years now, and now I have it. We don't possess on the most fundamental level; we derive them from duties. In the cases of the clearest and most permanent obligations (i.e. never kill an innocent person, double effect aside) it is simple and useful to construct a general claim: because everyone is obliged not to kill me without reason, I have a right to life. And Matthew Arnold agrees with me.
(At some point, I'm going to get around to reading Mary Ann Glendon's Rights Talk; I hope she gets into this idea is well.)
17 May 2008
—the essays in question, which I have not read and cannot say much about.
—Yuval Levin's response to Pinker. He believes that Pinker misrepresents Leon Kass and the makeup of the Bioethics Council in general.
—Ross Douthat doesn't like Pinker's tone of voice, but doesn't say much about dignity vs. autonomy.
—Pinker doesn't understand what the Council means by “dignity,” nor does he understand the nature of fiction in general, according to Alan Jacobs.
—Someone has to sort the wheat from the chaff in Pinker's article, and it looks like Noah Millman is the man for the job.
—Helen from the Cigarette Smoking Blog makes an important but cryptic point about trans-humanism. Dignity seems to be something like an essence of humanity: improve humanity, sure, but don't try to make it something else.
—I really don't understand what James Poulos is talking about.
—But at least somebody out there is enthusiastic about the article.
When your ancestors came into this country, immigration was a good thing. Now that you're here, however, immigration is a bad thing, because you are no longer an immigrant. This principle is obvious to every thinking American. It is, however, equally obvious that recent immigrants bring with them delicious cuisines from many different parts of the world. The Harding Plan for immigration reform, therefore, is straightforward and fair. Anyone from any country will be allowed to take up residence in the United States, as long as the new arrival agrees to open, within three years, a restaurant serving his or her native cuisine. (This plan will not apply to the English, who will be expressly forbidden from opening restaurants.) Only the Harding Plan creates a realistic framework for real immigration reform that benefits the whole country immediately. Vote Fringe! Vote Harding!
Visit Dr. Boli's site every day. That's an order.
16 May 2008
Too many conservatives, however, have quickly moved from a judgment against the excesses (often silly, sometimes repugnant) of much modern art to what seems to be a condemnation of all twentieth-century art and its apparent rejection of transcendence. Let me turn to Robertson Davies for a more sympathetic account of the Sisyphean task of the modern artist. The speaker is Saraceni, the talented expert in art restoration from “What's Bred in the Bone”; the interjection comes from Francis, the protagonist:
“[Modern art] is the logical outcome of the art of the Renaissance. During those three centuries, to measure roughly, that we call the Renaissance, the mind of civilized man underwent a radical change. A psychologist would say that it changed from extraversion to introversion. The exploration of the outer world was partnered by a new exploration of the inner world, the subjective world. And it was an exploration that could not depend on the old map of religion. It was the exploration that brought forth Hamlet instead of Gorboduc. Man began to look inside himself for all that was great and also—if he was honest, which most people aren't—for all that was ignoble, base, evil. If the artist was a man of scope and genius, he found God and all his works within himself, and painted them for the world to recognize and admire.”
“But the moderns don't paint God and all his works. Sometimes I can't make out what they are painting.”
“They are painting the inner vision, and working very hard at it when they are honest, which by no means all of them are. But they depend only on themselves, unaided by religion or myth, and of course what most of them find within themselves is revelation only to themselves. And these lonely searches can quickly slide into fakery. Nothing is so easy to fake as the inner vision, Mr. Cornish. Look at those ruined frescoes we were examining this morning; all the people who painted those—Rossetti, Morris, Burne-Jones—all had the inner vision linked with legend, and they chose to wrap it up in Grail pictures and sloe-eyed, sexy beauties who were half the Mother of God and half Rossetti's overblown mistresses. But the moderns, having been hit on the head by a horrible world war, and having understood whatever they can of Sigmund Freud, are hell-bent for honesty. They are sick of what they suppose to be God, and they find something in the inner vision that is so personal that to most people it looks like chaos. But it isn't simply chaos. It's raw gobbets of the psyche displayed on canvas. Not very pretty and not very communicative, but they have to find their way through that to something that is communicative—though I wonder if it will be pretty.”
-from What's Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies (1985)
Yes, there are charlatans, ideologues, and confused undergraduates who win great acclaim though they deserve nothing but scorn. Yes, one may suspect that the unaided inner journey will terminate in something like hell. But these are two different things, and we should not confuse them. A true artist, working in the modern idiom, can still reveal to us aspects of the human condition, even though he may not be able to point beyond it.
15 May 2008
In the novel, the competing claims of religion and art are laid out, and in chapters 3 and 4, especially, we see them at war: One thing not often remarked upon in the criticism of Portrait, however, is that within the novel's pages, it is far from clear that art comes out on top. In the sermons of chapter 3, a poetic and rhetorical inventiveness is brought to bear that dwarfs anything our young artist himself musters; the mystic, scholar, and writer Thomas Merton, for instance, converted to Catholicism as a result of reading them. By comparison, the writing that Stephen himself produces during the course of the novel is pale and bloodless…
-Kevan J. H. Dettmar, introduction to Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Portrait and Dubliners, 2004
It's true: despite his artistic potential, Stephen never makes a true artist of himself, even by the time we see him in Ulysses. Joyce seems to have hidden remarkable secrets in the gap between the life of his fictional protagonist and his own.
14 May 2008
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the Lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Suprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandring Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Almost every essayist concedes that the concept [of human dignity] remains slippery and ambiguous. In fact, it spawns outright contradictions at every turn. We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone's dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away.
Perhaps the essayists do contradict themselves; I haven't read the specific book he's reviewing. But I've read enough of Neuhaus and George to know that Pinker is conflating the violation of someone's dignity with the removal of it. The analogy with human rights should be perfectly clear; somehow, Pinker doesn't see it.
At one point, Pinker even goes so far as to argue that human dignity can be harmful:
Every sashed and bemedaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed… Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader's conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.
I don't even know what to make of this passage. Conservative bioethicists aren't talking about the fundamental “dignity of a state, leader, or creed”; they are talking about the equal inherent dignity of all human beings. I know that dignity and self-esteem are used similarly in common parlance, but the conservatives are trying to get at something fundamental, not dress codes.
The basic idea of human dignity is that the principle of reciprocity (which Pinker has elsewhere acknowledged as a major and valid element of human moral reasoning, from the Golden Rule to the categorical imperative to the social contract) cannot be built on any particular accidental quality, such as rationality or capacity to make decisions, but must come from the essential feature of being human. Pinker seems to think that it consists in the ability not to be embarrassed or ashamed (“…every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified…”). It may be that he can show how the concept of autonomy is broad enough to make the concept of dignity superfluous, but it would be best if he first worked a little bit harder to understand what sort of dignity he is discussing.
A curious question for anyone who reads this blog: what was your “teenage book,” your coming-of-age novel? What sort of literature stirred your exuberantly foolish adolescent heart to yearn for freedom? Tolkein? Salinger? Dostoevsky? Nietzsche?
“Ten great Christian rock songs. Really.”
1. Larry Norman - Why Don't You Look into Jesus?
2. Sixpence None the Richer - Kiss Me
3. Over the Rhine - Born
4. Bob Dylan - Every Grain of Sand
5. The 77s - The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes and the Pride of Life
6. Pedro the Lion - Rapture
7. mewithoutYou - Nice and Blue (part 2)
8. Jonathan Rundman - My Apology
9. Vigilantes of Love - You Know That
10. Andy Hunter - Come On
Listen here. Read his explanations here. (I mean, “Kiss Me”? That's the Sixpence song you had to use?)
13 May 2008
It's always interesting to me to hear people talking about the weirdness of the little kitschy Christian things that I grew up with, especially Testamints. What's nice is that Radosh seems to go beyond the weirdness to really try to understand what's going on in the cultural basement where American Evangelicals seem to live. Jeff Sharlet interviewed him on the Bloggerheads website, and they cover a lot in thirty minutes. He likes Pedro the Lion, mewithoutYou, and Over the Rhine; he doesn't like Bibleman, golf ball outreach, abstinence thongs, or Christian raves (“DJ-led worship sessions”). It's even more interesting that he sees quality Christian pop culture is the biggest (and best) threat to fundamentalism, since fundamentalism sees attacks from secular liberals as a badge of honor. As he puts it in an interview with, um, Playboy (follow link at your own risk):
I’m cautiously optimistic about Christian pop culture bridging some gaps. The creative Christians tend to venture outside the bubble of the church. The teenagers who grow up exposed to these more broad-minded artists recognize the world is not as black-and-white as their youth pastor might have told them. Evangelicals tend to be very respectful of their leaders, and the leaders tend to be extremely conservative and judgmental and intolerant. They drive the culture from the top down. Pop culture, however, drives the culture from the bottom up. If people like a Christian rock band’s music, it is placed in a position of grassroots authority. Good Christian rock musicians may play churches but they also play secular clubs, so they have exposure to the outside world. They know gay people, atheists and Muslims, and while they may disagree with these “lifestyles” they also know these people aren’t so bad and that they don’t all hate Christians. There is a persecution complex in evangelical culture that is extremely destructive.
Hanna Rosin reviewed the book over at Slate. She's not a Christian, but she did her time by hanging out at Patrick Henry College gathering material for her book God's Harvard. She asks the question:
What does commercializing do to the substance of belief, and what does an infusion of belief do to the product? When you make loving Christ sound just like loving your boyfriend, you can do damage to both your faith and your ballad. That's true when you create a sanitized version of bands like Nirvana or artists like Jay-Z, too: You shoehorn a message that's essentially about obeying authority into a genre that's rebellious and nihilistic, and the result can be ugly, fake, or just limp.
This is, of course, what so often happens in practice, although my friends at Mockingbird strongly disagree with Rosin's characterization of the Christian message as “essentially about obeying authority.” I'm not sure that Rosin means that the real message of Jesus is about authority, but rather that a number of Christian bands are trying to express it that way.
At any rate, what is more interesting is Radosh's hope that Christian pop culture will make Christianity safe for the liberal order. Ben Myers of Faith and Theology writes:
Radosh’s hopeful outlook arises from his confidence in consumerism itself. Concluding the book, he suggests that the problems in evangelical pop culture – its tendency towards intolerance, for example – will be resolved as Christian pop culture is more fully assimilated into the mainstream market. The weirdness and bigotry that characterises some aspects of evangelical culture will thus eventually be smoothed out – not so much through dialogue, discussion and reflection, but merely through the levelling operation of market forces. The result will be a more liberal and more tolerant Christian culture – in short, a more precise mirror of the values of mainstream culture.
By and large, this analysis is probably correct: in the setting of late capitalism, the creation of a vibrant and distinctive niche market goes hand in hand with the emergence of mass homogeneity. But I’m not so sure this is a comforting prospect. Instead, it ought to raise some disturbing questions about the nature of evangelical culture. It seems to me that the basic flaw underlying Radosh’s analysis is his assumption that evangelical consumerism can be neatly distinguished from evangelical identity – as though the modification of evangelicalism’s consumer culture would not also be a modification of its religious identity.
I, for one, would be happy to lose the bigotry and keep the weirdness, and to begin the long journey from Christian pop culture (back? forward?) to Christian art.
11 May 2008
10 May 2008
09 May 2008
08 May 2008
“I suspect there are some deep spiritual truths that inform Dionne's having made this album, and I yearn to hear what they are, but I can't find them in many of the songs. But then there's ‘I'm Going Up,’ which is a duet with BeBe Winans. Suddenly - from the song's second bar, when Dionne makes her entrance - the physical nature of faith is audible: how, if you ever get even a taste of it, you feel it in your bones. And in your extremities, and in your senses, and in your reflexes. Religious music that doesn't convey this aspect of faith isn't necessarily a failure; I'm not about to condemn Gregorian chant for not being ecstatic enough. But when religious expression meets the three-minute pop song, I want it to tell me how what it has brought to the pop table is not only higher than the usual fare, but better.
“Which is exactly what ‘I'm Going Up’ is - a gorgeously syncopated bounce with a mixed-back horn section, a restrained slightly fuzzy electric guitar dipping in and ducking out, and a letter-perfect Warwick vocal that simply must be heard by people who love her style. Second run through the chorus, the way she pulls away from the tail-end of the phrase ‘in this world I've found’? That's classic Dionne. Her joining BeBe in harmony at the end of his verse? Best duet work I think I've ever heard her do; I have one whole hell of a lot of Dionne Warwick albums, but I've never thought of duet harmony as a particular strength, and I think the corpus generally supports that opinion. Even her ad-libs - another not-the-strong-suit area - are fantastic here. What happened in the the studio on this track? Was anybody filming it? And can we have, please, lots more?”
Based on my own experience, religion and the three-minute pop song should generally be kept apart. Only a few people in CCM could ever get close to doing it right—Rich Mullins comes to mind—and even then there's some baggage. Maybe it's not so bad when professionals do it, although John's take on the rest of the Warwick album indicates that even the best can easily flub the religious pop song.
07 May 2008
It is not the poet's job to speak merely of what he sees, but rather of that through which he sees and most realizes his consciousness as a man. . . . With nothing more or less than himself at stake, the poet is intricately engaged to the society of his time, which he serves as the voice that transcends impersonal authority—the self-possessed voice of one man speaking for every man. No larger voice can break the spell of the abstract, televised, antihuman, institutionalized, big-brother, mass-man voice that is built into us all, inhibiting the grave, silent, multifarious birth of the individual self. One may assume that this has always been the poet's role, at least among the greatest poets, where it is most consciously and consistently adhered to. . . . If the tragic meaning of this event [WWII and the Nazi movement] were fully understood, it would become clear that the poet's voice is needed now more than ever before—that voice which celebrates the difficult, joyous, imaginative process by which the individual man discovers and enacts his selfhood.
-Edwin Honig, introduction to The Mentor Book of Major American Poets
First of all, the unapologetic use of the inclusive he in the service of liberated selfhood strikes one as, well, retrograde. Second, I think it's safe to say that very few people care deeply about poetry anymore. I hate to say it, but “the self-possessed voice of one man speaking for every man” describes the role of Bob Dylan in the 60s, Bruce Springsteen in the 80s, or even Garth Brooks in the 90s much better than it does Billy Collins. Of course, pop and rock are so stratified that to call any one artist universal would be a big stretch.
(Wednesday poem returns next week.)
The Notes of Japanese soldier in USSR is a series of cartoons depicting the experiences of Kiuchi Nobuo, a Japanese prisoner of war in Stalinist Russia, complete with charming English captions awkwardly translated from the Japanese. Most of this happened after the official end of World War II: evidently, Stalin just kept the captured Japanese soldiers for labor camps. Work to be done, you know.
The drawings are an interesting bunch. Some of them depict sad or even horrific experiences, but they've got the classic expressions and postures of the funny pages. The captions usually come off as either innocent or deadpan, but I have to wonder whether this is just due to translation. The ink and watercolor illustrations are beautiful. Although the story is bleak at the beginning—full of danger, death, frostbite, and hunger—the artist soon begins to draw the little things that make it worth surviving in hard times. He gets to play with Russian children, become friends with many Europeans, beat the Germans at ping-pong, and admire the strong Russian women, revealing his continual bemusement at Soviet policies of equality between the sexes. Despite all the hardship, which never disappears, he can say: “All this time in russian prison camp was well-spent... I think.”
05 May 2008
Although I’ve come to think capital punishment wrongheaded, I welcomed the decision to uphold lethal injection. The death penalty is not a simple matter of justice or injustice. As Avery Cardinal Dulles argued in First Things a few years ago, the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church has affirmed capital punishment. In his considered judgment (and when is his judgment not considered), “to vindicate the order of justice and to sustain the moral health of society and the security of innocent people against potential criminals it may be appropriate to punish certain crimes by death.” Clearly, from a Catholic perspective, capital punishment is not like abortion or racism. It’s not intrinsically evil, and its use is not, on its face, a sign of a deeply unjust society.
Acknowledging the moral legitimacy of the death penalty is important, because the rhetoric of a “consistent ethic of life” tends toward a simplistic view that makes our bishops, priests, and leaders seem morally untrustworthy. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that condemning the death penalty as a “violation of human dignity” involves making no distinction between guilt and innocence, a failure of moral reasoning that is rightly repugnant to any well-formed conscience. The same line of reasoning will cause us to reject any and all uses of lethal forces for the protection of the common good from assault. It’s a conclusion that troubles anyone who has a sense of civic responsibility.Yet recognizing that capital punishment is morally permitted does not rule out a practical judgment that it ought to be set aside.
I recommend the entire article. Go read it.
But so much has happened! So much to talk about! I've got a whole list of articles marked for reading and reflecting.
First up: British literary critic Terry Eagleton explains a little bit about what's behind this name “Žižek” that's been popping up on all the theology blogs. (It reminds me of 2004, when everyone was talking about the Arcade Fire, but it took me about a year to get around to listening to them, so I just had no idea what was going on.) What's the big deal? Eagleton probes beneath the funny stories:
“There are two jokes in particular that are, so to speak, on the Žižekian reader. The first I have just touched on: Žižek looks like a fun read, and in many respects is so; but he is also an exceptionally strenuous thinker reared in the high traditions of European philosophy. The second is that Žižek is not a postmodernist at all. In fact, he is virulently hostile to that whole current of thought, as this latest book illustrates. If he steals some of the postmodernists’ clothes, he has little but contempt for their multiculturalism, anti-universalism, theoretical dandyism and modish obsession with culture. In Defense of Lost Causes is out to challenge the conventional wisdom that ideologies are at an end; that grand narratives have slithered to a halt; that the era of big explanations is over, and that the idea of global emancipation is as dead in the water as the former proprietor of the Daily Mirror.”
Sounds like the sort of thing I'll have to get to in five or ten years. Maybe these guys will have finally killed post-modernism by then.