31 October 2008
I grew up in Christian churches and schools that were always careful to avoid the secular aspects of holidays. Do you remember that graffiti on the bathroom stall in the movie Saved? “SANTA = SATAN”? It wasn't quite that bad, but that's the idea.
Usually, churches had “Fall Festivals” rather than Halloween parties. There were more cowboys and crosses than skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, but they weren't anything special. One year, however, sticks out in my mind as a favorite: the year my school had a big Reformation Day party. (On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses, his first public challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church.) I must have been in first or second grade, and I recall the event only as a memory of a memory.
My favorite detail is one that may or may not be a collaboration of time and an active imagination. I hope that it happened, but I can't be sure.
I seem to remember that, instead of trying to pin a paper tail on a donkey poster while blindfolded, we played “pin-the-95-Theses-to-the-Wittenberg-door.”
If I ever have young children, they will get to play this game.
(To think that people say Christians don't know how to have fun…)
EDIT: One year, I dressed up as Moses for a church event, and just added a little fake blood and talcum powder to the same outfit to be an old man zombie (?) for trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.
30 October 2008
“Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational.”
This means that we're only partly rational, not just intellectually, but practically, meaning that we often make the wrong inferences from our moral premises and the situations in which we find ourselves. Simply put, we make bad choices.
Hitchens's statement here actually puts him very, very close to the Reformed conception of sin, theologically speaking. In my tradition, at least, “sin” isn't the mere breaking of rules, but rather the systematic condition of insufficient (fallen) rationality.
I've many more thoughts, but they'll have to wait.
EDIT: Minor grammar fix.
29 October 2008
Fortunately, Richard Dawkins has helped me out by picking this week to announce that he will be devoting his attention henceforth to warning children “against believing in ‘anti-scientific’ fairytales.” Yes, he's going to investigate Harry Potter.
(See Alan Jacobs on the American Scene for fuller reflections.)
(EDIT: Read the American Scene comment by Christopher M. for the best possible interpretation of Dawkins's new project. If Dawkins himself can make his case in those terms, he'll have a book on religion worth reading.)
I hereby recommend Dara's piece for inclusion in the yet-to-be-created anthology that tells the story of how American politics became a team sporting event.
Now I'm waiting for the essay on how Monday Night Football and Sportscenter provided the template for election coverage. (Please! I really want someone to write it! Or, if it's been written, just tell me where I can find it.)
28 October 2008
I just read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. The phrase that kept popping into my mind was this:
Sam Harris, you stupid idiot.
I'm not particularly proud of this reaction, and I know he's not a stupid idiot, but that's the how it was.
I had to keep reminding myself of some other essay Harris wrote, the name of which escapes me, where he displayed a capacity for nuance and reflection. He's a smart man. But there is no nuance in Letter to a Christian Nation. It's as bluntly reductive as any fundamentalist tract. It seemed like I could hardly turn a page without finding a gross oversimplification. This isn't by itself a problem. What else can you expect from an eighty-page polemic? Of course it would take a longer book to present these arguments more seriously.
What was really disappointing is that it's not even a good polemic, by the standards of the genre. Where are the devastating aphorisms? The sharply calibrated witticisms? The splendidly grotesque literary caricatures? I only smiled when he quoted abler stylists. All we get here is earnest moralizing.
Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens; at least he knows how to deploy properly an anecdote.
27 October 2008
"Just genres?" you ask. "What does that even mean?"
Well, a genre is a more or less complete set of signals to guide interpretation. If we know the genre, we know how to interpret the story. To be sure, philosophers and critics have spent entire centuries trying to locate and enforce essential aspects of genres, with their famous attempts to lay down the rules for the best kind of tragedy. But the greatest authors were always playing with the codes they inherited, and genres always escaped their quarantines.
If biological evolution is an intricate branching tree, generic evolution is a tree that branches and rejoins itself. So too with political philosophies. There are no rules against any syntheses, though many crossings will have little to no survival value. The narrower the genre--reformist conservative, New Deal Democrat, anarcho-syndicalist, Objectivist--the greater its explanatory power. The word "conservative," free of any modifiers, is as broad a label as "tragic," and is helpful in the same degree.
Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say "I am a conservative" or "I am a liberal" is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.
So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don't stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again*.
You reclaim the word** by reclaiming the genre.
Is there a breaking point? After some thought, I'm not sure how much it matters. At some point, you just have to tell your better story, and let other people worry about the name.
(Caveat: Genre certainly isn't everything. The Republican Party is a definite human institution, with membership and hierarchy and order and power. You reclaim a political party, or an institution of government, through the old messy work of politics, which involves both persuasion and compromise. And policies are policies; we can try to agree on some common empirical ground when we argue about them. With this weird crisis behind me, let's get back to it.)
(Question: Does this turn Scott Payne's "very complicated and intricate coin" into the two masks of drama?)
*Like Die Hard did for action movies after the ultra-muscular '80s. See also: Christopher Nolan's reclamation of the Batman series after the Schumacher debacles.
**Yes. That's my paragraph on the Daily Dish. Surreal.
"Such a definition of normalcy cries out for a close and critical reexamination. Surely, the surprises, disappointments, painful losses, and woeful, even shameful failures of the Iraq War make clear the need to rethink the fundamentals of U.S. military policy. Yet a meaningful reexamination will require first a change of consciousness, seeing war and America's relationship to war in a fundamentally different way."
-Andrew Bacevich. The New American Militarism. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.
I've tried to convince several of my friends that neither presidential candidate is offering such a reexamination, though we need it more than ever. The obnoxious hatchet/scalpel trope from the debates transfers directly from spending cuts to "global power projection": McCain wants to chop away at global problems with shows of strength, Obama wants to cut them up with more diplomacy (albeit quite aggressively in Afghanistan). But nobody is questioning the need for the operation.
Obama has praised Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell. It's a good book, and it makes a strong case that genocide is often horrific enough to justify military interventions (to speak plainly: invasions). I would emphasize only that the United States should err on the side of the most cautious assessment of its capacity for positive action, while making the most of its ability to bring global attention to atrocities through diplomatic condemnations, &c.
But if this interventionist inclination is coupled with an aggressive stance on Pakistan and Afghanistan, we'll just be back in Bill Clinton territory (although I sincerely hope Obama as President would not fling bombs and missiles about the globe with such reckless abandon). Which is to say: this is technically change, insofar as it is different from the Bush administration, but it's not really new.
As I continue to think through the Price-Lawson race, it seems more and more important to me that Congress-persons question not only a now-unpopular war, but the whole direction of U.S. foreign policy.
How do other voters feel about militarism? Check out this back-and-forth between John Schwenkler and James Poulos on Culture11.
26 October 2008
25 October 2008
I do appreciate the advice.
First remark: I think every blogger knows that it feels good to cut loose every once in a while.
Second remark: Yeah, you guys are basically right, insofar as there's not really anyplace to go, although I would love to find a centrism I can be proud of. And I think the list of new labels I made up indicated that I'm not really going anywhere. It's just another way of distancing myself from the Republican party (of which I have never been a member) and the mainstream of conservatism as it exists right now.
Some diagrams, for fun:
Yes, the labels are bad. And I obviously know very little about the left-of-center landscape. I've probably gotten the right wrong too. But the idea here is that the smaller the distance between your point on the line and another person's point on the line, the easier it is to have a conversation with her. It's possible to speak productively from opposite ends of the spectrum, but it takes a great deal of intellectual honesty and generosity. Basic stuff, I know. Here's an attempt at a two-axis diagram:
Here, we can use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the ease with which people are able to talk to each other.
If conservative means, in this scheme, that y < -x, then, okay, sure, I'm still conservative, but I'll still be calling myself a centrist at cocktail parties (in the unlikely event that someone actually invites me to a cocktail party).
EDIT: I'm feeling like this is not coherent. I'll try to do better some other time.
22 October 2008
When I read something like this, it makes me realize: there are only so many times I can tell people that I'm a conservative, but not that kind of conservative before it becomes clear that I'm using the wrong word. Like all words, the meaning of “conservative” emerges from a complex communal process. It's not mine to control. So do I spend the next few years putting the word in dissociative quotation marks? Or do I just let it go free, knowing that if the word does not come back, then we were never meant to be together in the first place?
It might be fun to try to keep the word for contrarian purposes, or just out of sheer stubbornness, but: what's the point?
From here on out, if you have to reduce me with your political labels, man, use a phrase like “centrist, with some conservative sympathies.” Or maybe “small-government liberal.” Or “traditionally-inclined pluralist.” Even “center-right” seems like a decent enough label, as it makes intuitive sense to people further left than me, politically, and signals people to the right of me that I am secretly liberal.
Goodbye, conservatism. I'll keep reading your brightest, but I'm getting sick of your movement.
(Thanks to Freddie for putting the question.)
21 October 2008
If you see the book in the store, and you are not sure if you want to buy it, take off the dustjacket and read the little box on geekism and jockism printed in the bottom right corner of the reverse side of the author bio flap. If that doesn't convince you, nothing will.
(Part of me really hopes that Hodgman will publish some non-humor writing sometime, as the unexpected poignance of certain sections of his work—the Loch Ness Monster passage in Areas, the passages on the price of fame and on alien abduction in More—make me wish I could read some of his non-humor writing. I know, I know, comparative advantage in humor and all that, but…)
EDIT: Apparently, I just wasn't looking hard enough. At any rate: more, please.
20 October 2008
“So who’s a socialist? Nobody, really — but almost, a little bit, kind of, sort of, maybe, depending on how you look at it… everyone. Up to and including John McCain.”
19 October 2008
17 October 2008
The conversation that started with Nicola's essay and Freddie's astute response has wandered off in some fascinating directions. Now, in his post, Freddie drew on Rod Dreher's review of Mad Men, and now Mr. Dreher has posted his own contribution: “Does conservatism require God?” Dreher does a great job of summing up the parts of Freddie's essay that he needs in order to move the conversation forward, so I won't try to do it myself. Dreher eventually gets here:
“Anyway, the political problem for conservatives like me is that we live in a pluralist democracy where there is and cannot be more than superficial agreement on moral values. How do we integrate ourselves into the pluralist framework? It has been fairly easy for as long as this country has existed, because Christian morals, broadly speaking, have held sway in the public square. But that's rapidly changing, and conservative/traditionalist Christians are now and going to be a diminishing minority in this country. John Schwenkler, I believe, has suggested that libertarianism is the best hope for traditionalists, insofar as it is compatible with the American framework, and allows trads of all sorts a relative amount of space in which to live out their convictions in community.
“Bottom line, though: the Benedict Option is looking to be the only viable solution to a truly conservative/traditionalist social order. If that can only exist in America within a libertarian meta-order, then perhaps we should explore the possibilities of a new fusionism.”
Which is a very nice summary of where the whole Alasdair MacIntyre track seems to take us.
But that's not even the end of it! Will Wilson jumps back in to distinguish kinds of federalism and libertarianism:
“Don’t get me wrong, a new fusionism of neo-Benedictines and libertarians could acheive a great deal in the short term. I merely wish to caution us against the idea that they are philosophically compatible in the long run given the vast difference between their conception of the relationship between the individual and the state. On my reading, neo-Benedictines hold that individuals should regard themselves primarily as members of political communities, properly understood, even if the communities themselves should not regard their members primarily as subjects of political communities. A ‘hard’ libertarian cannot and will not accept that proposition.” [emphasis added]
And though I don't have much to say about it, I can't neglect John Schwenkler's entry in this stage of the discussion, where things get a little bit more specific. (Incidentally, Schwenkler adds an argument that everything is political, from family to food. If this means that liberals are right about the proper scope of politics and conservatives are right about the scale, could this make Schwenkler a small-government liberal? After all, we have so many big-government conservatives…)
II. The liberal and the libertarian.
I'm registered to vote in the Fourth Congressional District of North Carolina. This year, first-time contender B.J. Lawson is running on the Republican ticket against 20-year incumbant Democrat David Price. Now, Price is clearly an Old Pro, and as an elitist, I am predisposed to like him. Also, he's a Carolina grad. Dr. Lawson is clearly very sharp as well—he has experience in engineering, medicine, and entreprenuership. (Unfortunately, Lawson went to school “down the road” from UNC, if you know what I mean.)
For some context, read the Independent Weekly's story on Lawson. Lawson is running on something like the Ron Paul model; in fact, he has Ron Paul's endorsement. And he's raised almost half a million dollars for his effort.
I watched Lawson and Price debate at UNC last Tuesday (video here). It was not a situation where winning and losing on points really mattered (it was, after all, a campaign debate). Most of the people in the room seemed to be supporters of one campaign or the other. What was immediately clear was that Price is in the mainstream of contemporary American politics, and Lawson is not. But it's the mainstream that Lawson is really running against.
So I'm sitting there in the audience, not really persuaded one way or the other. Price seems thoughtful, competent, and well-positioned to provide the Fourth District with a voice in Congress. He makes a pragmatic case to the liberals and progressives of Orange County: if the Democratic Party is going to change things next year, they need Democrats in Congress.
Lawson runs against the system. He attacks Price for voting for the Patriot Act, for voting for versions of the bailout plan, for voting for compromise budgets. Price tries to make Lawson's charges seem outlandish: compromise is what legislators have to do (he doesn't say this, but it seems to be behind his words). That's government. And I think this is a reasonable case.
So what does Lawson want to do, besides vote “no” on just about everything?
From Lawson's website:
- The Read the Bills Act: Congress should read legislation before it votes on it.
- The One Subject at a Time Act: Congress should limit legislation to one subject per bill.
- The Write the Laws Act: Congress should write laws and be accountable for their results, and not delegate rulemaking authority to unelected bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists.
- The Enumerated Powers Act: All legislation must specify the Constitutional authority upon which it is based.
It's certainly inspiring when Lawson asks us to take back the government from the corporations, or to build a sustainable community here in the Fourth District. But it's hard to see how we can get there. Meanwhile, the pragmatic case sounds all right.
III. The stories I want to hear.
I want to hear the story of other movements in other parts of the country. I want to hear that if we start something here in North Carolina, it could happen elsewhere too. I want to hear that Lawson is not a Quixote of liberty.
I also want to hear the story of how we got to where we are. Sure: let's consider the ideals of the founders. But let's also be honest about their flaws, and about the things that made it necessary for the Federal government to expand.
First and foremost: let's not mince words about how badly the South ruined federalism for everyone else. When you have a whole territory that not only oppresses an entire class of human beings, but builds its economy on that oppression, what do you do? Especially when that territory seems to have the Constitutional on its side, first with nullification and later with secession? You change the Union, through violence. When liberty is abused that badly, it has to be taken away, or significantly changed at the very least. A story about getting back to the Constitution needs to revisit the Civil War.
Second: we have to talk about where corporations come from. There seems to be an enormous tension between Lawson's free-market ideals and anti-corporation rhetoric. Is it not the case that business grew before government did? In a perfectly libertarian society, what would prevent powerful businesses from gaming the system again? Am I wrong in thinking that it was not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who considered the problems of enormously powerful businesses, but Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson? A story about getting back to the Constitution needs to wind its way through the Gilded Age.
IV. Don't get me wrong; I do like some parts of the story.
On the other hand, I would love to have libertarians in Congress so that they could ask the really tough questions about militarism and debt.
(One time, I tried to make up political bumper stickers I might actually put on my car. I can remember two of them. The first was “Be Careful!” which is not such a great political bumper sticker because most people would think it is about being careful while driving, not while creating legislation. The second was “Thanks for All the Debt, Boomers.” Not that I expect my generation to do much better.)
V. And back to theory…
I am finding myself in a position where I love the idea of what Rod Dreher is advocating, which I take to be a scaled-back, libertarian framework within which all sorts of communities can function. But it should be clear by now that I am not fully convinced by what I see in practice, i.e., in the sorts of libertarians who are actually running for office. And I have written this post, not because I don't think that libertarians (or strong federalists) don't have answers to these questions, but because I don't yet know what these answers are. Many of the libertarians I have known have been more concerned with the New Deal and the Great Society than with the Civil War and the Gilded Age.
Those of us who are attracted to theory are tempted to construct our cities in speech and measure reality against them. This isn't a bad thing: it can be a way to appeal to a standard of justice beyond the structures of the present moment. But, as Burke said, reality refracts the light of theory…
If this line of thinking seems too oblique and too far from the issues for the last few weeks of election season, well, it probably is. But outsider politicians and their supporters will have to address these issues at some point: why not now?
I guess that's enough for now. More later, perhaps.
16 October 2008
15 October 2008
“…I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life…I'll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees.”
Looks like even he's not too excited about his prospects anymore.
(Yeah, I abused the ellipses…)
“Literary theorists used to say that their most abstruse prose was ‘writing the difficulty’—that the sentences were tortuous because there was no briskly commonsensical way of representing a complex issue. Sarah Palin, alas, talks the difficulty. She may claim, as she did in last Thursday’s Vice-Presidential debate, that ‘Americans are cravin’ that straight talk,’ but they are sure not going to get it from the Governor—not with her peculiar habit of speaking only half a sentence and then moving on to another for spoliation, that strange, ghostly drifting through the haziest phrases, as if she were cruelly condemned to search endlessly for her linguistic home: ‘I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.’ And words do matter, after all: it matters that our Vice-Presidential candidate says, as she did to Gwen Ifill, that ‘nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all-end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.’”
I'll admit that I feel some embarrassment about how much pleasure I take in seeing an eminent literary critic absolutely destroy someone who is probably just trying her best, but I'm basically an “élitist” (to use the New Yorker's diacritic markup), so… yeah.
“Perhaps most remarkable about the attempt to portray Obama as a lightweight celebrity is how true of McCain that description now seems to be.”
My father and I have discussed this question in the abstract: “Who would you rather have in high office: an incompetent ally or a competent opponent?”
The answer, of course, is that it all depends. What degree of incompetence are we dealing with? What are the stakes?
I'm still at the point where I can see both sides of the argument. But it has been a long time since I doubted that this is the relevant question for (heterodox) conservatives in 2008.
14 October 2008
John Hodgman's previous book was my sense of humor, but refined and amplified to sublimity.
Here's something that is apparently not a book trailer:
Another good description of Sarah Palin's strange grammar, from Heather Mac Donald at City Journal:
“Palin favors relative clauses that hang precariously at the end of sentences: ‘I am [interested in defending McCain’s health care plan] because he’s got a good health care plan that is detailed.’ Or: ‘I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.’ Her speech differs somewhat from the verbal knots into which George W. Bush so often tied himself. She is less given to malapropisms; apart from her teen mannerisms, her linguistic oddness is more subtle, and seems more often driven by a failure to grasp subject matter.”
(To be charitable, I will allow that she might have just been really, really nervous in the interview and debate.)
Another possible explanation is that she hired President Bush's old speechalist, Harlan McCraney, as a debate coach:
One of my favorites is an alternate universe in which the United States is a multiparty parliamentary democracy.
They're also having an election right now, but it's a much more interesting one. Ron Paul, of course, is still in the running, with a large coalition of libertarians supporting him. There is a social conservative party, and there is a progressive party. Barack Obama is still establishing himself in national government (but where?), and John McCain is more of a marginal figure, because “mavericks” don't do as well in a parliament.
So here's the game, and this is where I need your help, since I am not exactly a “politics junkie”:
1.) What are the names of the parties, and who is the leader of each? (e.g. Social Conservatives, led by Sam Brownback.)
2.) What unlikely coalition might come to govern?
3.) Assume that there are real debates in this wonderful fantasy America. Which neglected issues would become important?
EXTRA CREDIT: How did this alternate USA come to have a parliament, anyway? (Please provide your answer in the form of a 400-600 page multigenerational epic with a comic touch: something like James Michener crossed with Michael Chabon.)
13 October 2008
It might just be that I perceive things differently now, or that I spend less time around hipsters, but Chapel Hill seems far frattier to me than it did when I lived here before.
12 October 2008
And now I'll try to stop geeking out about a band that nobody I know really listens to.
A description of “postmodernism” to which I am partial, but which will do little to reassure the already suspicious.
-David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's, 2003. (5)
This has to do with a discussion that came up over on, umm, Another Damned Blog. If I ever say “postmodern,” this is probably what I have in mind.
11 October 2008
But, strangely enough, the story's power dynamics match the war on terror fairly closely. Not that it's an allegory.
(I'm still afraid the movie will make a mess of things.)
(May I take a moment to recommend Eve Tushnet's 2004 essay on Watchmen to any fans?)
10 October 2008
Christopher Buckley, son of William F., and successful novelist, is planning to vote for Barack Obama. His reasons—for Obama, and against McCain—are worth a read, even though he's not exactly the first conservative to have reservations about the McCain-Palin ticket. But the best section, I think, was this:
“As for Kathleen [Parker, who argued against Palin in the National Review], she has to date received 12,000 (quite literally) foam-at-the-mouth hate-emails. One correspondent, if that’s quite the right word, suggested that Kathleen’s mother should have aborted her and tossed the fetus into a Dumpster. There’s Socratic dialogue for you. Dear Pup once said to me sighfully after a right-winger who fancied himself a WFB protégé had said something transcendently and provocatively cretinous, ‘You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.’ Well, the dear man did his best.”
Just imagine: only a few scant decades ago, this album would have been burned in a totally different way.
I don't really have many policy opinions, and the ones I have, I hold loosely.
I'm conservative and Christian (Presbyterian, to be specific) because I was raised that way, and I still think I can make it work, although I often have to warp the former to fit the latter.
I'm trying to bootstrap my way to some understanding of the world I live in.
My imagined audience here is “people who see the world as I do.”
At the same time, I try to refrain from saying things that would seem stupid to, say, atheists or liberals or leftists, though it certainly happens. This reticence is a bad strategy for blogging, because saying (bold) stupid things generates large numbers of comments, and hopefully some readership (e.g. the one time I got quoted anywhere else was for something I can't actually defend).
So does saying smart things. But I'm pretty sure I always land somewhere in the middle (although my “middle” may be someone else's “stupid”).
I like these Postmodern Conservatives very much, but I'm not exactly one of them. I take their project to be something like this:
“Unreflective traditionalism is no longer possible because of modernity. How, then, can we conceive of a new, more fluid traditionalism that carries the good things of the past forward, past modernity, without necessarily founding it on an absolute?”
In my reading of post-structuralism (and I haven't read much, so I could be completely wrong about everything that follows), it seemed apparent that the significance of the event of structuralism was taken for granted. Or, rather, the major thinkers had evaluated the significance of structuralism, and their acolytes took it for granted.
The temptation with postmodern conservatism, for me, is to take the evaluation of political modernity for granted. (I mean, have you read MacIntyre?) The PoMoCons have their reasons. But, suffice it to say, liberalism as a political theory may still have a few things to recommend itself to me. I'll find out when I get around to Jeffrey Stout.
And so I'll keep reading them and supporting them, but as long as the failure of the Enlightenment is an open question for me, I can't be one of them.
And though I wish I could offer settled opinions, as long as I have all these live hypotheses playing in my head, I'm going to keep jumping around.
09 October 2008
Also, see lead singer Kurt Wagner play some songs for NPR. (I haven't watched it yet; I'm in the library.)
(While I'm recommending CDs that I don't yet own, I should also mention Life Like by the Rosebuds and Snake Charmer and Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight by The Physics of Meaning.)
07 October 2008
“It is one thing to lament the discourtesy of those who delight in giving offense, but another thing altogether to provide an effective remedy for it; and only when we honestly ask ourselves what remedy we are willing to contemplate will it become clear whether as a people we are truly engaged in a ‘culture war’ (as we are often told we are) or are simply witnessing the effects of a genuine but transient tension between more refractory and more energetic elements within a single cultural process.
“I say this because my first impulse is to suggest that the simple (if not sufficient) answer to our cultural dilemma is probably censorship, against which almost every argument in the abstract is predictably fatuous. Upon this, it seems to me, any sane society should be able uncontentiously to agree. And yet ours cannot. That such a prescription should be either controversial or scandalous—as in fact it is—suggests that something is profoundly amiss in our culture, some defect that runs far deeper than any mere division between the pious and the profane, or between the puritanical and the hedonistic. Certainly there is nothing in the constitutional charter of free (political, religious, ideological) speech that obliges us to permit any product, no matter how depraved its content, to be created, sold, promulgated, procured, or kept. More importantly, though—and this should be obvious—a society that refuses all censorship is in some very crucial sense extremely unjust.”And so I'll come out in favor of a soft censorship, at least in theory, while conceding with Hart that “as things now stand it is difficult to say whom—what class of persons—one would care to entrust with a censor’s authority.” Nobody who would be a good censor would want to be one. Unfortunately for us.
*I wish I could link to the First Things archive, but for some reason the first paragraph of the essay is missing and it doesn't quite work with “This, for me at least, places the episode of Ms. Jackson’s outraged bustier in a somewhat more forgiving light” as a first line.
06 October 2008
-Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. (55)
This controversy is pretty clearly coded into what Senators Obama and McCain are saying about Iraq, and it is part of why Obama's early opposition to the war has so much resonance with so many people. But because the subtext has not become explicit, no non-outsider politician seriously questions the premises of global power projection. But I for one would not be sad if we had a serious national conversation about said premises. (Not that I would have very much to contribute.)
05 October 2008
-William James, “The Will to Believe”
On a first reading, at least, “The Will to Believe” strikes me as offering some very useful terms for any kind of inter-traditional conversation. That is, when I am approached by, say, Mormon missionaries, I want to be able to tell them, “Listen, I am sorry, but I see no way in which your propositions will be living hypotheses for me. Would you still like to talk?” And then we could talk. (Of course, they are actually trying to convince me that Mormonism should be a living hypothesis, but the term seems to capture in two words what it usually takes a minor monologue for me to express.)
This distinction between living and dead options lets us further distinguish between describing what it is like to face such choices and actually trying to get someone to make such a choice. So if I know that Christianity is not a living hypothesis for you, I can describe my own situation without assuming that you face the same choice. This is something we very often do implicitly, but it's good to have a phrase for it.
04 October 2008
“I am still bewildered by those who insist on social justice — for those times, I suppose, when simple justice is somehow inadequate. Social justice seeks to conform politics and culture to one another by inventing a sphere that encompasses them both — ’society’ — and then promoting politics out of its subsidiary position into a freshly-empowered supervisory position, one from which society itself (which has just already been redefined as its relationship to politics has been changed), may be observed, controlled, disciplined, and instrumentalized.
“. . . Conservative political philosophers need to make a persuasive case to social conservatives that they ought to turn mostly back into cultural conservatives. Cultural conservatives turned into social conservatives when the militant, politicizing left convinced them that the only way they could maintain their local ways of life — their own community justice — was by nationalizing and politicizing themselves. This effort was an understandable past error; it now appears as a present failure. To an important extent, cultural conservatives must have the courage to be good and let the chips fall where they may. In several fashions, this looks and smells a lot like a retreat from politics. But a culturally conservative political philosopher might assert that the politics to be abandoned is one which never should have been taken up in the first place. Perhaps, at the time, it seemed or even was necessary; now it is necessary to reverse that. It has been tried, under conditions of commanding power, and it has failed. Spectacularly. At incredible cost.”
Poulos has been slowly rolling out what may be turn out to be the blogosphere's best argument for both American federalism and the principle of subsidiarity in politics more generally. He often climbs to higher parts of Theory Mountain than I can reach, but he returns with treasures.
As I watched Sarah Palin struggle to get her thoughts out against Joe Biden, I thought to myself: well, there goes the grammarian vote. Sure, she had every right to be nervous, but that only explains so much. I have to admit that I prefer even George Bush's terse malapropisms to Sarah Palin's mess of conjunctions and appositions. Of course, spoken English is not written English, so diagramming is of limited use in these contexts. But Kitty Burns Florey at Slate tried it anyway, with entertaining results. It's not fair, but it's fun. Although I wish there had been more examples, and, from the very little I remember from middle school, I can't vouch completely for Florey's diagrams…
03 October 2008
Othello begins with Iago plotting the interruption that sets the play in motion. Iago’s first attempt at an interruption, getting Brabantio to accuse Othello of stealing Desdemona, seems to fail, but this failure only spurs Iago to “double knavery.” The play reveals what Othello sees as a long series of minor interruptions—Cassio’s drunkenness, the handkerchief mischief, Iago’s carefully suggestive wordings—as the work of a single Machiavellian interrupter. The audience understands completely the relationship of seems and is in the play, but Othello has them exactly backwards. For Othello, the first really troubling interruption, the beginning of his crisis, is Iago’s sly suggestion in the third scene of the third act that there is more to Desdemona and Cassio’s relationship than meets the eye. So the play gives us a long view of the manufacture of the primary interruption, and some insight into what makes it tragic.
Consider for the moment what it would have meant if Iago’s first interruption had succeeded. If the Venetians had not needed Othello’s military services, and if Othello were not so eloquent an expositor of his own side of the story, one could imagine the city’s rulers deciding the case in Brabantio’s favor and sending Desdemona back to her father. This would have been sad, perhaps even unjust, but one would hardly call it tragic. It would have represented the defeat of the protagonist, but not the downfall. Othello and Desdemona would have known the truth of their situation, and they would have understood the forces that separated them. Such adversity might have brought out the best in Othello; the play might have been a broad romance, or a lesson in the nobility of perseverance. But Othello does escape Iago’s first plan, Iago resolves to interrupt Othello on a much deeper level, and so begins the tragedy.
01 October 2008
Peter Suderman's take:
“Sure, you sometimes end up with an Ang Lee Hulk, but more often than not, pairing established properties with unique voices is the way to go.”
But Ang Lee's Hulk was by far the most interesting in theory, even if it wasn't the best to watch, because it failed in all the wrong ways, unlike, say, Daredevil, which failed in just just the ways you would expect it to.