Saturday, March 30, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Dead Man's Rope"

It's Holy Saturday; tomorrow is Easter Day. So, a song from an artist who politely rejects the Christian faith, but who has nonetheless captured here the faith's central idea--the hope of being freed from oneself, from one's own sins and mortality, by a divine power which descends with grace and forgiveness, and invites those blessed by it only to follow Him in love--as well as any any five-minute pop song probably ever could.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Shatner Must Never Die. Never.

I don't even play video games, but I can tell an irreplaceable thespian treasure when I see one, wherever he appears.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "New York State of Mind"

This started making the rounds last week, and it's pretty fantastic. Billy Joel, whatever crap the critics throw at him, is an artist and a gentleman indeed. (And yes, that student has serious chops--and guts too. Good for him!)

Monday, March 18, 2013

10 Years of Blogging

So, I started blogging 10 years ago today. (Just about at this exact moment, too.) We're on the road today--driving from Mississippi to Florida as part of a family spring break vacation, if our prior plans haven't been derailed--so this pre-written and scheduled post will have to do.

My very first blog post is here. (Or nearly; Blogspot won't quite let me connect to it directly. It's that old.)

My single most popular and commented upon post is here. (Second place is here. See a pattern?)

My most controversial and criticized post is here. (Second place is here.)

Don't know what else to say beyond that. My slowest year on the blog was 2006, the year I thought the life I'd hoped I was building for myself and my family through academia and teaching and writing (and blogging) had come to an end...and then surprising started up again. My busiest year was 2011, which the year I finally ended the Friday Morning Videos feature, which I think was one of the main reasons anyone ever read me anyway.

Don't how long I'll keep it up. If Google Reader can go away, perhaps Blogspot will too, and would I actually care enough to shift to another platform after all this time? Maybe. But maybe not.

Some of you other bloggers have been out there, occasionally checking out my perhaps sometimes insightful, but usually just belabored and silly, yammering for a long, long time. You have my thanks, especially since many of you are an inspiration to me. Whatever you do, you do it better than me, and I hope you'll keep doing it, because it teaches me and it goads me (in a good way). It's made me laugh and think and maybe even become a tiny bit wiser. To whatever extent I've been able to contribute to any of the same for anyone else, I'm grateful.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Little Wing"

I feel bad at having not been able to find any live footage of the haunting, idiosyncratic jazz singer Cassandra Wilson performing any of her pieces from Blood on the Fields for last week, but here's a find that may be even better: Wilson, with some delightfully jazzy, psychedelic accompaniment, taking on the Jimi Hendrix classic. She does fantastically well, of course.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Resolving Existential Crises Through Philosophy and/or Film (or, My Dinner with Megan)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Last night, our delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, and very smart oldest daughter, now aged sixteen (and getting ready to graduate a year early; help support her year abroad in India here!), had an existential crisis. She's been studying other religions--particularly Buddhism--at school, and while at an activity at our own church last night, it suddenly struck her: what if Buddhism (or, as I would emphasize to her, the version of Buddhism she'd become familiar with) was correct, and all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation? Late-night bull-session thoughts, you might say, but they really shook her, and by late that evening she was crying and shaking, desperate to make some sense of the world. What did it all mean? Was there such a thing as meaning? Was there such a thing as herself--much less God or reality or anything else?

I'm a modern human being, with a modern sense of subjectivity, which means that there is no obviously, material, unchallengable response to the "why is there something rather than nothing?" question immediately available to me. I suppose my own religious faith ought to provide with such immediate conviction, but for better or worse I've never been blessed with that kind of revelatory confidence. What I do have, however poor a substitute it may be, is philosophy. I can remember many angry, frustrating, intellectually- and emotionally-fraught episodes over the years, where I find myself doubting and grumpily or angrily lashing out against just about everything--and (perhaps most revealingly) often doubting and lashing out against the significance of, or even the reality of, my lashing itself. (I tried to communicate some of this in an old religious post of mine, in which I lamented by double-mindedness and pre-occupation with doubt.) Faith has never healed me of this tendency, but philosophy gave me a different way of thinking about faith, and one of the results of such is that, for all my many remaining problems and struggles, I'm a happier, less intellectually plagued man than I once was.

Now it so happened that the philosophy which was of greatest assistance to me was phenomenological, particularly of the German romantic and hermeneutic tradition: the idea that we are thrown into being, thrown into interpretation, and that meaning is both constructed and revealed through responding to that thrownness, that "givenness," with attentiveness and care. Heidegger, Ricoeur, Taylor: these are the people who help explained the world, and myself, to me. But I confess that such philosophy was no help in Megan's existential crisis last night. (A friend of mine, afterward, told me, "That's not surprising; Heideggger writes to inspire existential crises, not make them go away!") What worked for me didn't work for her. To my surprise, what did give her some solace was the complete opposite of my philosophical approach: Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum. The rationalism and empiricism at the heart of the modern scientific method. As we spent an hour or so talking, that idea--that whatever else she doubts, she can't possibly doubt that someone or something which can irreducibly identified as "her" is, in fact, doubting--or, at least, experiencing doubt. That became a lifeline to her, and so I have to give Descartes therapeutic props for that, at least.

This morning, though, in talking about the whole thing with another friend, I was reminded of a film which I love, and which I've tried (with no real success) to bring into various classes of mine over the years. A philosophical film with a decidedly Heideggerian tone to it. I'm talking about the cult classic My Dinner with Andre--and after poking around online a little, I've been able to put together a rough outline of its message through clips. Megan probably won't go through watching all of these, but maybe she will, or maybe someone else will...and thus, by putting them together in this way, perhaps I'll be helping someone else's existential crisis the way this sort of thinking once helped me:

The setting is a dinner between two very different people who are also good friends: the playwrights and writers Wallace Shawn (yes, of Princess Bride fame) and Andre Gregory. They begin a long conversation, in which Andre relates the extreme distances he has traveled and experiences he has had in an attempt to find some true connection to community and meaning and transcendence in his life:

Eventually, he does have an experience with transcendence--and what a weird experience it is:

Wallace can't accept any of this, and strongly defends the idea of taking joys from the banal, ordinary, quotidian realities of life.

As they move towards the climax of their argument, Wallace wants to know why anyone can even respond to life as his friend does, experiencing a need for a deeper meaning and attachment. Andre responds that perhaps our problem is modernity, and the way in which capitalism and government and the mass media strand us as intellectually as isolated monads, unable to realize the actual beauty and significance and connection and truth in and around ourselves.

If that is so, what can we do? Well, we do things, and we try to attend to that doing; we discover care through doing things. That's not a religious experience, it won't convince us that we aren't phantoms or ghosts, but it is, as Andre hints as their dinner comes to a close, a kind of revelation, a like a haunting melody, a reminder of our limitedness, our closeness to death, that through caring something more than forgetfulness will be given to us.

Towards the end of his life, Heidegger famously summed up his whole philosophy of modernity: "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten"--"Only a God can save us." The Christian God? A religious God? Perhaps. But that, in the end, is what works for me--the idea that we can realize the truth of our need for transcendence (and our part in it) through our attentive engagement with givenness (other people, most particularly). I wouldn't mind some propositional truth about the world simply being revealed to me; I know a lot of people who claim to have had that experience, and I have no obvious reason to doubt them, and in fact I kind of envy them. But for me, the existential crisis has been overcome (to the extent that it has been) through conversation, a conversation which uncovers and reveals. Your mileage may vary, of course. Megan's, for now, certainly does.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Soul for Sale"

Wynton Marsalis's reputation has gone through several ups and downs over the thirty years he's been active, but no one can ever deny his enormous energy and productivity. One of the highlights of that energy was his 1997 three-hour jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields. Melissa and I saw it at the Warner Theater in Washington DC (the same show this fellow reviewed), and that long, awesome evening (which concluded with Melissa and I sneaking backstage and managing to speak with Marsalis and getting him to sign one of his cds for us) overflowed with more music than I can possibly remember. But no one could forget Jon Hendrick's scatting on this number, that's for sure.

Communities and Herder's Political Thought

Vicki Spencer's excellent Herder's Political Thought: A Study on Language, Culture, and Community is the second scholarly work on Johann Gottfried Herder I have read this year, and it is the better of the two, even though the first one I read--Sonia Sikka's Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference was both more rigorous and more clear in its treatment of Herder's ideas. The primary difference between the two is that Sikka's book was stalking bigger game: she constructed an argument to situate Herder philosophically, exploring how Herder's commitment to thinking anthropologically and organically about history, language, culture, and more, all supposedly revealed his unique combination of "universalism" and "relativism." By seeking to make such a broad statement, Sikka's otherwise excellent and thoughtful book was marred (slightly, but still significantly) by its non-engagement with Herder's many religious writings, thus resulting in Sikka's insightful but still flawed treatment of Herder's whole project. Spencer, by contrast, is not attempting here to make any such comprehensive argument; as a result, what seems to me to be similar flaws in her presentation (she also doesn't pay sufficient attention to Herder's Christian ideas) don't affect the results nearly as much.

Spencer's whole intention is to bring Herder's political thought into conversation with Anglo-American political theory, and particularly to show the value of Herder's positions on language, identity, community, nationality, and government to the liberal-communitarian debates of the 1980s and 90s. She does this by defining the kind of communitariansim which she believes Herder's overall work sketches out: a "liberal-communitarianism," one that is premised upon a "weak pluralism" and a "holistic individualism," one that allows for a wide variety of communal constructs, primarily realized through the public use of language, and all of which are historically constitutive of their individual members, though they are also subject to a degree of independent critique. In describing this interplay of the natural human self and variable human communities, she writes:

Herder regards a cultural community not simply as an attribute that its members possess. It is not simply an object that is external to the self and that we utilize to achieve our ends. It is constitutive of our identity as individuals....The character of a Volk cannot be considered as the mere aggregate of individual personalities. As an organic whole it emerges...from mutual relationships and interactions as more than the sum of its constituent parts....It does not follow that an individual possesses no identity apart from the whole any more than a word cannot be defined independently of a sentence. Yet an indivudal's identity is fundamentally transformed if these relationships dissolve....

An understanding of life as a process of self-clarification and discovery does not...negate people's capacity to criticize and reject individual cultural and linguistic practices. Culture, like language, possesses an objective dimension and a subjective one. While their dynamic and public nature means that neither can be fully brought under an individual 's control, they are nonetheless social practices that are created by the people who participate in them. Just as language is a 'treasure room of human thoughts to which each person contributed something in his own way!' so, too, is a community's culture. Neither is a historical given that the individual absorbs passively. Herder accords to artists, poets, and writers a significant role in the development of a community's culture....As much as Herder recognizes that our cognition is bounded, he also believes that 'cognition without volition is nothing as well, a false, imperfect cognition. (pp. 85, 87-88)

It wouldn't be difficult to come up with a liberal-communitarian axis, line up various thinkers and writers who were influential in this old (but still relevant) debates along it, and then situate Herder, as Spencer describes him here, accordingly (definitely further along than Will Kymlicka, not as far along as Alasdair MacIntyre). Charles Taylor is a heavy influence on her thinking, and as such one might argue the argument she is showing Herder as advancing is one we've already heard, and in more philosophically rigorous form than she provides here. While there is truth to that, it is also the case that, in applying this particular communitarian model, Spencer insists upon some distinctions and applications which results in some genuinely original observations, leading even someone like myself who spent years exhausting himself trying to work through translations of Herder to see things differently. For example, her treatment of Herder as a "republican" thinker, making a parallel between his defense of the Volk with the role of decentralized (and often stateless) political communities, designed to provide real possibilities for participatory self-government and self-realization, was thought-provoking:

Following Montesquieu, and like modern liberal-communitarians, he places his faith in local communities as the basis for public participation. He identifies the lack of public spirit in his own society as party due to the influence of those who believe that true citizenship lies beyond local communities, with civil servants placing their faith in dynastic empires and philosophers supporting the notion of universal citizenship....In Herder's political thought, the state is by no means a universal necessity or even a desirable unit of association. His form of republicanism does not require the state in its modern form, but he recognizes the need for some form of unifying association among the constituent parts of a whole. Far from being  absolute opposites, Herder envisages unity and diversity as two sides of the same interactive process: 'In this law: to effect many things in one, and to combine the greatest variety with an unconstrained uniformity: consists the height of beauty'....There is a significant difference between the kind of multi-dimensional and multi-cultural state Herder envisages and the uniform constitutionalism that has dominated modern conceptions of the state (pp. 164-166, 202).

Spencer's account and defense of Herder's argument for local communities is a strong one, but it admittedly depends upon the above-implied balancing act. Somehow, the public groupings capable of sustaining the natural and historical development of a language and culture (which must be more than just a family unit or some other tiny gathering seeking mere survival against the elements; while Spencer attempts to read Herder's arguments in an as non-statist and as local a light as possible, she acknowledges that his reasoning leads to the conclusion that "for humans originally to have created language...'sociality' is essential"--p. 39), which is what is necessary for people to realize their own contributions to Humanität (Herder's highest ethical ideal, the collective achievement of an individual's and their community's fullest moral potential), had to grow and development so as to allow for opportunities for participation and discourse, while nonetheless remaining in some associational connection to one another, reflecting some kind of underlying "uniformity" (though not, Spencer thinks, a "uniform constitutionalism"). In our political world, this would seem to be a perfect fit for federalism, wherein basic associational rules govern a variety of sovereign communities which can develop morally and linguistically along their own separate histories. But federalism does not fit well with communitarian ideas perfectionism, and Spencer, while she sees Herder's ideas for moral improvement usually making use of educational rather than political entities, acknowledges that he writes that ideally "politics and morality...'must become one'" (p. 175). Thus Herder's attempt to integrate, as Spencer sees it, both unity and diversity simply re-iterates one of the longest standing arguments within the communitarian tradition: completely aside from the question of how one justifies or defends the substantive development of any particular given community, what situates it in regards to any other? How is it that a defense of the distinct moral development of different communities can avoid falling into the same overall trap of atomistic individualism, with just publics being the monads in question rather individuals? Is Herder ultimately just a relativist after all, or might he, perhaps, not be as much an opponent of imperialism as he seems? Spencer would say no to both, and I would agree, but that leaves us in need of a solution.

The usual solution for those who articulate Herder's communitarianism is through nations. "Nationality" becomes a framing concept, ratifying an important element of human diversity, while also providing both a degree of Volkish (arguably essentializing) uniformity within them and a kind of broader, conceptual (but non-centralizing) uniformity throughout the whole history of human endeavor. Humanität is thus understood as something realized around the world and throughout history in and through nations, with national identity providing the clearest, and most concisely identifiable, markers of the boundaries as well as the constitutive elements of a productive human community. Many of those who find Herder's ideas appealing have in essence taken this route (myself included). But Spencer denies the appropriateness of this conceptual framing, insisting that Herder's ideas hardly support nationalist arguments at all, much less the civic and communitarian defenses of national identity made by authors like David Miller (see p. 149 and passim). Noting that Herder defines neither nations nor the Volk as dependent upon any given "geographic borders" or "parliament of rulers," but rather ties both to the public discourse and participatory associations formed through language itself, she concludes that Herder's analytical focus and moral concern addressed groupings very different from "the modernity, civic conception of the nation," and that if his insistence on "cultural respect" resembles nationalism, it is largely because of an international system which "accords autonomy almost exclusively to states while often failing to accord due respect and public recognition to cultural communities" (p. 133, 153-154). I really appreciate Spencer's hammering home of this point; in my past work on Herder, I don't think I appreciated the politically anarchic and pluralistic character of many of his writings, despite that having been observed--as Spencer notes--by important Herder scholars like F.M. Barnard and Frederick Beiser before. But in making this point, Spencer leaves unexplained two matters: first, Herder's own frequent usage of locutions like "national character" or "national religions" when arguing against any kind of universalism, and second, the still-unresolved problem mentioned above: how did he imagine the stateless dialogical operation of individual and community development, with all its moral substance, to nonetheless follow or even just ultimately achieve some sort of baseline "uniformity"?

It might be possible to solve this problem by making use of Herder's thinking about nature and anthropology; given that he was deeply committed to an empirical reading of human endeavors, it would not be difficult to simply present Herder's whole philosophical project in light of his thinking about a connecting "organicism" and "vitalism." Spencer is open to some of this, talking about how Herder's liberal-communitarianism partakes of an "open teleology." But that kind of emphasis upon natural law has its own problems, not the least being that advances and changes in the way we understand human evolution, cognition, and anthropology will have therefore made Herder's teleological arguments that much less persuasive. (While there are probably some who might be convinced that the diverse substantive moral commitments which we articulate through all our cultural communities nonetheless share a similar innate and expressive code, the 18th-century science needed to support such beliefs is mostly dismissed today, as it is implicitly by Spencer herself, when she distances Herder's philosophy of language from Chomsky and others who speak of "innate ideas" underlying linguistic development--pp. 30-31.)

But there is another way to resolve this dilemma, and that is with religion, with Herder's ontology of being. That may not be any more persuasive to contemporary secular audiences than trying to urge a reflection upon communitarian themes, particularly regarding cultural membership, via a philosophical anthropology of human history, but it has the virtue of incorporating something relevant to politics too often left out in accounts of Herder's ideas. Spencer, like so many other students of Herder, does not address at any length his religious writings, though she recognizes that he identifies Humanität with Christian principles (p. 167-168). Her emphasis on the distinction between Herder's cultural communities and the state helps buttress her implication that Herder, as one who often condemned evangelistic religious imperialism, did not mean "state church" by "national religion" (which is, in fact, something he ruled out explicitly in his essay On National Religions, an essay which Spencer does not cite), but I think she misses an opportunity to notice how Protestant ecclesiology nonetheless provides a way of conceiving this balance between uniformity and diversity. If Humanität was ultimately a kind of divine potential, one realized through diverse exposures to and distinct cultural and linguistic articulations of a singular revelation, then Herder's whole vision of a world of interacting and interdependent cultural communities, not centralized around any state structure but nonetheless treating each other with equal respect, with "enlightened 'aristo-democrats,' as he refers to them....helping individuals develop and understanding of the self both as an individual and as a member of a community 'with a firm sense of justice and duty'" (p. 170--and I think someone familiar with Herder's religious background and interactions would be hard pressed not to recognize the idea of Lutheran conventicles and congregational leaders and educators like himself here) holds together much better, I think.

As I said at the beginning, it was clearly not Spencer's intention in this book to get Herder's whole philosophy to "hold together," though; she wanted to explore the implications of his ideas for debates over community, identity politics, multiculturalism, language policy, and much more. It may be the flaw of someone like Charles Taylor--and myself, for that matter--to want to turn Herder into a Hedgehog, when he really is obviously much more of a Fox. A line of thinking which can connect all of Herder's disparate moves can be found, I think, but hunting for it is perhaps a distraction from what Herder actually offers to political thinkers. Early in her book, Spencer admits that Herder never produced "one major text to include in the philosophical canon" (p. 20), though she insists that isn't a valid reason for his ideas to have been so rarely incorporated into the Western canon. I agree--and while I'm hedgehoggy enough to regret that this fine book can't quite tie together all the excellent ideas she retrieves from Herder's writings, it's worth keeping in mind that we rarely actually need complete philosophical arguments to be persuaded of valuable ideas. Herder has many such ideas; I'd already come to agreement with a lot of them, but Spencer here has persuaded me of a few more. For that, she has my thanks.

Some People's Hangouts are Just Much More Fun than Other People's Hangouts

Via Twitter. Can you name them all? (Melissa couldn't name Lorne or Paul, but she was the first to recognize Tom in the back.)

Thursday, March 07, 2013

George Takei (or the Teeming Masses of Flunkies who Supply Him with Internet Awesomeness) Gets it Right Again

From GT's Facebook page:

Something About Which Leftists, Localists, and Libertarians (But Perhaps Not Philosophical Liberals) Ought to Agree

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Senator Rand Paul's filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be head of the CIA--something that he did in order to "draw attention to deep concern on both sides of the political aisle about the administration’s use of unmanned aerial drones in its fight against terrorists and whether the government would ever use them in the United States"--came to an end just after midnight on Thursday. I disagree with probably over 3/4's of everything Paul claims to believe: I think his libertarian ideology is fundamentally flawed, I think this reading of American Constitutional history his deeply misinformed, and I think his distrust of the federal government is grounded more in paranoia and (whether he realizes it or not) a fetishization of property and states rights than anything chastened or wise. All that being said, Paul was the wise person in the U.S. Senate last night, and as someone who ends up (while often holding his nose) voting for far more Democrats that Republicans, I found it outright embarrassing that, aside from a couple of brief supporting comments from Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Dick Durbin, Paul's only allies all yesterday afternoon and evening were on the Republican side of the aisle, and rather marginal and dim Republicans at that (seriously...Mike Lee?). So many strong Democrats that were attentive to and tried to protest against the civil rights abuses inherent in the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's expansion of the government's war-making powers sat on their hands. Supporting one's own President (or America's quasi-imperial foreign policy agenda) trumps all, I guess.

But I suppose that isn't actually surprising, because supporting the nominees of one's President, and trusting in the technological and legal enabling of our expansive War-on-Terror global apparatus is just business as usual for both Republican and Democratic members of the political class, is it not? The Senate is a ridiculously dysfunctional institution, one which regularly defaults in favor of the business-friendly establishment, but when all is said and done it knows what it wants, and the whole reason Paul went through with this old-school, grand-standing filibuster (which basically never happens any more) was in part because the "majority seemed unfazed by giving up the day to Paul’s filibuster"; Brennan's nomination, in other words, like the administration's continued reliance upon drones, is basically already in the bag. And much of the news coming out of Afghanistan is moderately positive these days; isn't it likely that a good deal of that increase in security is the result of the Obama administration's aggressive waging of a nearly cost-free (for American soldiers, that is), drone war--made possible thanks to highly invasive, high-tech intelligence operations, of course--in the mountains of Pakistan? Who wants to get in the way of a war which is, at long last, both winding down and coming up with defensible results? And besides, isn't it simply a given that the President of the United States ought to be able to wield these kind of powers? The Constitution explicitly gives the president broad power defend the United States in the face of all sorts of "insurrections" and "conspiracies," doesn't it? (Well, actually, maybe that was the Insurrection Act which does that...or maybe it was the 2007 amendments to the Act...of course those amendments were later repealed...and anyway, there's the strict guidelines of the War Powers Resolution over there, the actual law of the land, but drones are perhaps not actually "armed forces," as specified in the law, so we can probably just continue to ignore it, as every president, both Democrat and Republican, has since it was passed over Nixon's veto.)

In the end, no doubt Senator Lindsey Graham spoke correctly--the only people who are worried about Obama's use of drone warfare and terrorist-assassination, which is clearly only an extension of Bush's prior building up of the president's war-making power, are libertarians and the left. Well, actually, no, let's that amend statement a bit--localists are opposed to it too. But we know who perhaps aren't: liberals.

By liberals, I'm not talking about the Democratic party, or any particular subset of it. I'm not talking about those often referred to as "progressives," since their concerns about civil liberties and economic justice are ones which we all ought to be in sympathy with. No, I'm talking about all the folks who, because they prioritize individual rights in the usual juridical way, basically are primarily concerned about making sure that the economic-freedom-and-equal-rights-protecting modern liberal technological order keeps operating smoothly. As was famously noted by Alasdair MacIntyre, "contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals." Democrats and Republicans alike--indeed, pretty much the entire mainstream of political opinion in the United States, it sometimes seems--fits under this label. Some want more money spent here, some want less money taxed there, but they all are basically in agreement upon the same project: a powerful and opportunity-guaranteeing and well-defended state, which will pragmatically take care of all the messy business of maintaining one's wealth and position in a diverse and dangerous world...without bothering too much with requiring the citizens themselves to take charge. This utilitarianism, and its consequent reliance upon technology and the marketplace and bureaucracy, has been part of the American order from the beginning, despite the dissident voices ranging from the Anti-Federalists in the 18th century, the Populists in the 19th, and the New Left in the 20th. By this standard of measurement, the demand which Senator Paul was making of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder--that they put in writing their commitment to never make use of the immense and deadly power which drone technology makes available to the President either against an American citizen or U.S. soil, at least not with the formal due process of law--was really a bridge to far. Drone warfare is working, after all! Don't you want the liberal (and by now, quasi-imperial) American project to work?

Well, I can speak for the left, sort of: no, not necessarily, not any more than we automatically want any state project to work, not when it is as susceptible as America's has been to the un-equalizing economic forces of globalized capital and the corporate marketplace. Drone warfare is just one more element in a depersonalizing and thus profoundly undemocratic process, which takes more and more equalizing authority away from the people or their representatives and puts it in the hands of those in power--and, thus, those economic agents who profit most from writing the rules of the democratic game so as to keep them there. I can, perhaps, speak for localists too, though there my cred is probably somewhat less: no, again not necessarily, not at least if the project in question is implicitly a centralizing and cosmopolitan one, making use of political authority to wage wars (and greater or lesser cost, in both lives and money) in distant lands for ideological (or corporate-driven economic) causes, obliging the economies and the family patterns and the social norms of communities to be subservient to priorities which they had no real part in choosing.

And the libertarians? I confess my suspicions there. There are, to be sure, many thoughtful people who associate themselves with that label, and do so in ways which focus on exactly the sort community-destroying, democracy-undermining government and business collaboration and centralization which localists and leftists generally oppose. But I look at Senator Paul, and it seems to me that, on the basis of what he's gone on the record saying before, that his is the unfortunately too-common neo-Confederate style of libertarianism, where the central issue is not so much democracy or even civil liberties but rather my rights--that is, keeping other people away from my stuff, my rights, my property, at all costs. That's no way to organize a decent society, in my opinion. Part of me suspects that Rand Paul-style libertarianism might be perfectly okay with drone warfare, even he was assured that the only folks that would ever be taken out by the president would be Hugo-Chavez-style strongmen who threaten America's influence over oil markets.

But that's probably unfair. The fact of the matter is, whatever the true nature(s) of the Tea Party movement which help put him in the Senate, Rand Paul yesterday stood up for a principle that I think needs standing up for--and if the libertarian argument motivated him to say something which any good leftist reader of The Nation or any good localist reader of Front Porch Republic would agree with, good for him. Drone technology, like nearly any technology--as thinkers from Wendell Berry to George Grant to Martin Heidegger have taught us--has the ability to distract us, to mask the real world from us, to everything (even human lives) into tools and checkboxes on a list. Philosophical liberals, generally speaking, just don't see this, because their notion of individuality depends, to a great extent, on just always making maximum use of the best, most cost-effective, most efficient, least demanding tools possible. That's a sad reality, and not one easy to change (especially since most us, working on our laptops and living lives in which terrorist cells and the mountains of Pakistan are fortunately just abstract notions, really kind of like tools which enable us to not bother with such things). Senator Paul didn't change any of that yesterday, but he made it clear that he was someone--whether he realized it or not (my guess is he doesn't, at least not fully)--who was willing to contemplate, via putting down some absolute limits on the president, some real change in the way things are supposed work in the liberal order to day. May his tribe (well, actually, not really, but still: the tribe of differently-thinking people who agree with him on this crucial point) increase.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

If There is Any Better Way to Filk Downton Abbey Than With a Ukelele, I Don't Want to Know What It Is

(And that sotto voce conclusion? It's gotta be true. There's no way Thomas alone can be supplying all the gay in this awesome show.)

Monday, March 04, 2013

Bollywood Did This to My Daughter

Okay, so Melissa and I have been getting this announcement about our first daughter up around Facebook and elsewhere, but I haven't put in on my blog yet. So, first of all, watch this:

Second, if you feel so inclined, go to the GoFundMe website which Melissa and Megan have set up, and help make her dream a reality.

Third, I'll answer some basic questions.

Q: Are you insane? Why will you allow your sixteen-year-old to spend a whole school year in India?!?

 A: Well, one, she'll be seventeen by the time she goes. Two, Rotary International's student exchange program is an excellent one, with a fine reputation for enuring the safety of those individuals they sponsor. And three, I don't see any good reason to stand in the way of a smart, focused, confident young woman who has found a way to pursue a truly wonderful goal. Will she get sick? No doubt. Will she sometimes she be uncomfortable, out-of-place, confused, maybe even scared? Certainly. Will it be worth it to her? Absolutely.

Q. Is this really going to happen? It's not a scam, is it?

A. It isn't a scam. I freely confess that I was a skeptic for a long time, primarily for financial reasons. I just thought that this was a pipe dream of Megan's, and that ultimately the other shoe would drop, Rotary would come to us and say "And now, cough up the $5000 donation," and we'd have to back out. But these people have been as good as their word. Megan has her passport, and this week she's going in for her TB and other shots, after which the paper work will be able to be filed with the appropriate agency in India, and she'll be able to be placed with a host family in Dehli. Yes, there are still any number of obstacles, not just financial ones, which may appear. But after two years of work, it really looks like Megan's plans are coming together. Melissa and I are very proud; she is being far more ambitious than either of us were at her age, and we want to pull as much together over the six months we have remaining to make sure her experience is a fantastic one.

Q. Just what's the appeal of Bollywood movies anyway?

You know, I actually can't really say; I'm not nearly as familiar with the cinema of India and South Asia as I am with the cinema of East Asia, and what Bollywood movies I've seen have struck me as kind of entertaining but in a rather narrow and predictable way. Still, maybe I just haven't been watching the right ones. And in any case, ripping off Hollywood conventions must be worth doing, if it can create awesome nonsense like this:

Religion, Gays, and Minority Rights in the American Community

This past weekend I got into a discussion on Facebook with some friends of mine over Damon Linker's latest (and, I think, very smart) opinion piece. Damon makes the argument that, given that the movement towards the broad legalization and public acceptance of same-sex marriage in America is probably inevitable--which he calls an "astonishing cultural and political sea change, one that looks likely to expand significantly the frontiers of liberty and equality in the United States"--specific legal provisions need to made to make certain that religious traditionalists (which, in regards to the acceptance of same-sex relationships, basically described my position for years, until I finally realized that I couldn't accept my own arguments and changed my mind) can continue to teach and witness in the way their beliefs obligate them to. When I linked approvingly to his essay, I was challenged: why? What is it about churches and religious organizations that deserve any particular First Amendment protections beyond those already conveyed to individuals who expressed politically unpopular, even bigoted, opinions? In retrospect, I think my responses to that challenge on Facebook were a little confused, so I wanted to write something at greater length here.

That is not to say that the challenges to Damon's piece are entirely clear either, as I'm not sure that Damon is calling for anything beyond a reasonable interpretation of standard First Amendment protections anyway. What he does talk about--"taking concrete, legal steps to guarantee that the religious freedom of traditionalists is recognized and protected....[and] build[ing] on what states such as Connecticut and New Hampshire have already begun to do: include passages or amendments in same-sex-marriage legislation that explicitly define and protect the religious freedom of sexual traditionalists"--sounds to me like making use of principles already at the heart of arguments over the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. He is saying that when the coming legal changes to accommodate same-sex marriage (with all its consequences for divorce, child custody, adoption, and more) make their way through all the different institutions of civil society--hospitals, adoption agencies, schools, libraries, etc.--we ought to provide firm exceptions and protections to those whose religious views lead them to condemn and push back against such arrangements. In other words, he calls us to follow the line charted by such Supreme Court decisions as Sherbert v. Verner, Wisconsin v. Yoder, or Presiding Bishop v. Amos, all of which suggest that any regulation or lawsuit which aims to invalidate a public action or individual choice taken by a religious citizen or institution demonstrate a "compelling interest" in favor of doing so, or else be rejected as an unconstitutional violation of that person or organization's First Amendment rights. This is contrast to the line of thought promulgated by Employment Division v. Smith (or, for that matter, going way, way back, Reynolds v. United States) which takes a much less accommodating view of religious difference. It's possible that those who were criticizing Damon (and me for agreeing with him) prefer the Reynolds route when it comes to thinking about rights. More likely, I suspect, they are simply reluctant to take seriously any demand for exceptions on behalf of conservative churches and believers, since, in their view, those people and institutions have long exercised majority power in this country, and don't have anything to worry about any time soon, so why toss them a bone?

In this matter, they surely have a point. I'm fairly convinced that most of the claims on behalf of "religious liberty" that have been made by traditionalists and conservatives in regards to same-sex marriage over the past fifteen years are mostly based on paranoid nonsense. Damon himself acknowledges this, in a backhanded way; when he talks about the "restriction" of religious liberty, he's obliged to talk about how various religious believers and organizations "predict" or "anticipate" or "envision" possible future restrictions on or interference with their beliefs. Yes, it's possible that religious universities might be sued for refusing to allow same-sex couples to move into their married-only couples' housing, it's conceivable that ministers might have their licenses taken away for declining to perform weddings for same-sex couples, etc.--but nothing like that is remotely on the horizon. At least, not in the United States, that is. One does have to search and do some cherry-picking, but still, it's not all that difficult to find examples of all of the above, and more, in societies that don't have as robust a religious culture and history as the United States--and while the isolated instance here and there shouldn't give people license to spout off the tiresomely too-frequent nonsense about Christianity being a "persecuted religion," it doesn't hurt to be overly cautious, I think.

But that, in some ways, gets us to the real heart of the question: why be overly cautious? Everything we know about homosexuality suggests that it will never characterize more than just a very small percentage of the population, so gays and lesbians are always going to be a minority. And shouldn't minorities be the ones who enjoy the benefits of the protections provided by a liberal society, especially minorities who have often suffered great psychological harm over the decades (centuries!) at the hands of these traditionalist views? Won't being overly cautious simply stand in the way of allowing needed reforms in how homosexuals are treated in our society to proceed as they presumably should?

If we stick with thinking about rights solely in terms of power and influence here--that is, who holds a majority position in our democratic political culture, and who doesn't--than this might seem to be an easy question. But it isn't, not really. Jonathan Rauch wrote a very thoughtful essay (Damon cites it in his piece) which takes seriously the idea that, should the acceptance of same-sex relationships becomes normative and reflected in law, than the small minority of gays and lesbians in America might find themselves, with their allies, in a majority position, and hence the position of power will reverse; traditionalist opponents of same-sex marriage will be the one's claiming the need for minority protection:

A lot of gay people have trouble taking this narrative seriously, partly because it sounds so paranoid and nutty—as when Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, recently said, “If this case [overruling California’s ban on gay marriage] stands, we’ll have gone, in one generation, from 1962, when the Bible was banned in public schools, to religious beliefs being banned in America.” It would be a false comfort, though, to suppose that the gays-as-oppressors narrative can’t and won’t take root among moderates and thoughtful, mainstream conservatives—people like Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, former Bush administration officials, who write, “If [gay] marriage is deemed to be a civil right—and if opponents are therefore deemed to be the equivalent of modern-day segregationists—churches may eventually be compelled to act in a way that complies with the spirit and letter of ‘anti-discrimination’ law rather than with orthodox Christian teaching.” Stated that way, the claim happens to be true....In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically. The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.

This is essentially where Damon stands; he wants to keep the various institutions of our civil society functioning on a truly neutral basis, which means providing a means for those who profoundly disagree with the way those institutions are changing to nonetheless still feel welcome (or, at least, tolerated) in their use of them. For example, he suggests, the urge to "educate traditionalists away from their deeply held religious convictions" would only result in "a mass exodus of religious traditionalists from the public schools," and hence is something to avoid. Similarly, while he allows that religious institutions that provide public services must be obliged to conform to the standards which civil society accepts as normative and which may be enforced by law, those laws themselves must be written in such a ways as to "unambiguously protect the right of traditionalists to preach their beliefs about the evils of homosexuality and to pass those beliefs on to their children." All his fits very well into the same strongly pluralistic Sherbert model of liberalism which Rauch clearly accepts as well.

The reasons why I, despite liking the conclusions which Damon and Rauch come to, feel a need to clarify my own support for their position, though, is that I don't really accept that model of liberalism. Oh, it's definitely one way--and a good way at that--to function in a pluralistic society, but I'm not sure it's the best way to achieve the goods it results in, especially considering its costs. One of those costs is that if you really believe, in the end, that rights are fundamentally about "defending the rights of dissenters"--which is how Damon ends his piece--then you're locking yourself into a constant majority-minority contest, one that will actually make the sort of consensus by which any practice or belief can become normative in the first place that much more difficult. It's a kind of individualism, in other words, and while particular individuals--and certainly not especially religious ones!--definitely don't at have the legal ability to operate utterly without regard to their surrounding communities, it is the case that this sort of thinking robs communities of some of the basic tools that, within the context of basic liberal freedoms, ought to be available to them. In other words, yes, I believe that churches need strong First Amendment protections, but if you do it solely around a Millian fetishizing of "minority" or "dissident" expressions, the result will be Supreme Court decisions like Snyder v. Phelps (which I deeply disagreed with) wherein legitimate questions about the harm or even the substantive rationality of various outrageous claims are free from any sort of private or political judgment. I recognize that in saying this I could be suggesting that the doors need to stay open for tort actions or local regulations that would target exactly the sort of conservative believers and organizations which I just agreed with Damon need robust First Amendment protections. But I do think they deserve protections--and I think that not because I think civil society is necessarily well served by making certain that every dissident expression is fully protected in every possible case, but because I think these particular expressions (the opposition to same-sex marriage primarily, but also the whole traditionalist religious morality which condemns sexual activity outside of wedlock) are rational and deserves respect, even if I (like lots of people!) no longer agree with elements of that argument any longer. As that position is not, to quote myself, "obviously silly or just a cover for raw distaste and prejudice," even in parts of it are wrong, it ought to be guaranteed recognition--the way that, I think, the religious expression of the Westboro Baptist Church, that God is killing American soldiers in order to punish America for tolerating homosexuality, doesn't deserve respect.

Do I really expect our liberal judicial order to start extending different levels of legal protection to distinct religious expressions on the basis of how rational we democratically decide said expressions to be? Not really, and certainly not formally (though one might argue that we informally do that anyway, through the subtle perseverance of a vaguely Protestant Christian civil religion in American life). And, lacking the ability to persuasively articulate that kind of communitarian judgment regarding religious expressions in America, I'll go along with Millian pluralism and Damon's valuable warning against allowing this slow-but-all-but-certain sea-change in the American understanding of marriage and family life to push traditionalist believers so quickly and self-justifyingly into the crouch of victimhood. I've changed my mind about same-sex marriage; I'm far from the first to do so, but I'm also quite certain I'm far from the last. As this process continues, as reluctant as I am to admit it, the courts can't avoid getting involved and laying down some precedents, especially given the specific case history here (David Watkins and several commenters on the post he put up responding to me have convinced me of that much). Those will precedents will invariably--and perhaps rightly--narrow the allowable window for dissent. But I hope that, at the least, whether it's done in the name of allowing for continued debate over the rationality of different religious claims, or just for the sake of making sure the new traditionalist minority enjoys their full First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court will allow us to keep that window open as much as we legally can.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

My Final (?) Mormon Moment Thoughts

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Over the past 20 months or so, I--like a lot of other Mormon academics and bloggers--have found myself being contacted by reporters, being invited to conferences, and being asked to write up some thoughts, all of which had to do with the "Mormon Moment" which the coincidence of several pop culture trends and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign combined to create. (You can find versions of those thoughts here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That moment isn't over, I think, though it's obviously moved into a different phase, one that is far less public than was the case a year ago. In any case, there was recently yet another Mormon Moment gathering, this one held at Utah Valley University, and I was privileged to be a part of it, along with Kristine Haglund, James Falconer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Matt Bowman, and others. UVU has now put up a video of the main presentation (which doesn't include the wonderful Q&A with Matt, unfortunately); my contribution begins at 53:15, but really, if you're at all interested in any of the issues which pertained to the Mormon Moment, however you defined it, you should take two hours and watch the whole thing.

My presentation covered material which I have presented about four times now, and each time I lay it out, I think my argument gets a little more clearer, a little more focused (which means it's unfortunate that it's the first version is the one which is probably going to get published). Since a couple of people (including my dad) have asked just what I had to say at UVU and at other presentations, I decided to lay it out here.

There are, of course, a lot of things to say about the Mormon Moment, from a lot of different disciplinary directions. My direction is a political one, and in particular on having to do with political ideas and theories and history. So while I could talk a lot about Romney as a candidate (and Jon Huntsman too), and about how voters viewed them and why, that's not relevant to the meat of my argument. What I'm really interested in, politically speaking, is not how voters or candidates viewed Mormonism, whether from the inside or out, but rather how Mormons talked about this Moment, and what that talking shows us about Mormonism's place in America's political culture, which for me revolves significantly around issues of civil religion.

"Civil religion" is only one way to talk about this; in other places, I've made use of the idea of "establishment," and how even though in the United States there are fairly clear rules rejecting any kind for formal religious establishment, there is reason to argue that Americans--and all people, really--nonetheless tend to seek for some kind of socially settled religious or moral order to their lives. In any case, when it comes to America's civil religion, what we're talking about is the idea that our laws, our civic expectations, and more particularly our publicly accepted ways of talking about morality and truth, reflect Biblical, and more particularly Protestant, norms. Absolute truth claims, and appeals to higher or revealed sources of moral authority and guidance, can be communicated as part of America's civil religion, but it has to be done in ways which our cognizant of the pluralism, the open-endedness, the individual subjectivity which characterizes--rightly or wrongly--the way most Americans think about such things, or at least think they think about such things. It is simply, I would argue, a given--it's "established," if you will--that religion will function in American life in Judeo-Christian but also liberal democratic ways. So, that means there will be a degree of public discursivity, a non-specific form of evangelism, etc.

Now, check out the following three charts, all of which are measurements of the attitudes of religious believers in the United States. All are taken from American Grace, a tremendous detailed and rigorous sociological examination of religion in America by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. The first chart shows how much Mormons like myself tend to think highly of, well, ourselves. Of course, the membership of every religious group is likely to feel positive towards their own group, but look how Mormons exceed everyone else in their self-love:

The second chart shows the degree to which the members of different religious groups in America tend to make the claim that their own religion is the "only true" religion:


Finally, the third chart shows how members of the different religious communities in America feel about one another. Note that, while non-Judeo-Christians--that is, Muslims and Buddhists and atheists, those who consciously present their own religious beliefs in such a way as to put them outside America's civil religion entirely--are the least liked of any grouping, Mormons are clearly the least liked, least trusted Christian group:

Now, there are all sorts of ways in which this data can and should be contextualized or have caveats attached to it, some of which Putnam and Campbell examine, and some of which is just common sense. There is Mormonism's pseudo-ethnicity to consider, its historic isolation and doctrinal emphasis on in-marriage, and its particular style of evangelism, to name just a few. But my overall argument--which is heavily based on some theoretical explorations (inspired by this book) of how we Mormons, through our treatment of one of our key scriptures, The Book of Mormon, internalize the ideas of revelation and truth--really comes down to the claim that these three charts all reveal something about what might be called the Mormon publikum, which is just using an old German term to express the idea of a public world of words. What these sociological snapshots give us a glimpse of is a people who 1) spend a great deal of time focusing inwardly on their own appreciation for their mutual membership in the Mormon community, and 2) strongly assert that their community is ultimately the only one which truly matters, and 3) are still, in the early 21st century, considered outsiders to and disconnected from Judeo-Christian life in America. I believe these three observations are of a piece. While there are, surely, any number of reasons for the relative suspicion of Mormons out there--to name three obvious ones: the fact that we are still a small church, mostly an unknown quantity to many of our fellow Americans; the fact that our prevailing moral positions are at variance with most of secular and liberal America; and the fact that our extensive missionary program sharpens the doctrinal distinctiveness (or, more simply, the doctrinal heresies) of the Mormon church in the eyes of many other conservative Christians--I think we Mormons, and all scholars of religion in America, are missing something important if we do not consider how the way we Mormons talk (to ourselves, mostly!) about morality and truth leaves us disconnected and outside the norms of America's civil religion. It can't just be that we're the only ones standing for the particular unpopular moral positions which American church members (and the institutional church itself) mostly do, because obviously when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, divorce, and much else, the majority of American Mormons are already on the same page as the bulk of the (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christian right. And nor can it just be simple disagreements over theology, since studies again and again demonstrate that, outside of a few surprisingly strongly affirmed Christian doctrines, America's "non-established Christian establishment" simply doesn't take theology seriously at all. No, I think rhetoric--the plain matter of how and who with one talks about religious truth--is a big part of it as well.

Did the Mormon Moment especially put all this on display? Perhaps--there was Mitt Romney's notorious difficulty in situated his language about faith and religion in a ways that didn't appear clumsy, reserved, even duplicitous. But arguably, much of that could be accounted for by innumerable other factors: Romney's own personality, the left-over dynamics of his 2008 presidential campaign, the shifting make-up of the Republican primary electorate, etc. Perhaps this aspect of Mormonism's relationship with America's civil religion was highlighted by the way the language of identity shifted around Romney--Matt Holland, the president of UVU (and an impressively well-prepared last-minute substitute presenter at the conference), threw out the fascinating observation that the frequent refrain amongst many committed Republican party activists that Romney "wasn't conservative enough" might not have been just the consequence of Romney's changing positions as he moved from being a moderate Massachusetts Republican to someone who wanted to win Tea Party votes, but might also have reflected a kind of evangelical Protestant identification with American conservatism, and that therefore a man who just didn't speak the evangelical Protestant language could never seem authentic enough. But whether Romney's campaign really brought any of this explicitly out or not, the experience of being under the national mass media's microscope for the better part of two years certainly generated a great deal of introspection (Kristine Haglund's presentation is especially sharp on this point), and I'd like to think this argument of mine has some relevance in furthering such internal criticisms.

In fact, if my experiences are any guide, it has certainly seemed relevant to other, non-Mormon audiences that I've spoken to. When I've described Mormon "testimony meetings" to non-Mormons, they're really struck by, and often slightly unnerved by, the notion that Mormons, when they stand--every month, like clockwork--to witness to the place of God in their lives (something that some of the other religious audiences I've spoken to are very familiar with), they tend to--or at least are nominally expected to--do so in ways so that almost every experience which is related, good or bad, comes around to being a confirmation of and an expression of gratitude for the fact that "we (the person speaking, and every person they're speaking to) have the truth." Those of us on the inside may not realize the impact of that ethos on how we interact with America's religious pluralistic society, but other believers surely do.

Is the upshot of my argument that Mormons, because of our highly inwardly focused notions of revelation and truth, are going to be permanent outsiders to America's civil religion? Not at all--after all, Catholics themselves have very strongly articulated and non-pluralistic positions on moral authority as well, and they had the additional burden of carrying around some explicitly anti-liberal and even anti-American dogma for decades. And yet, in time, Catholics found themselves part of America's civil religion. No doubt, as the decades go by, Mormons will find their way in as well. But whereas in the case of Catholicism the change was mostly a top-down, doctrinal one, I think we Mormons will likely have to work our way into the American establishment (assuming that's what we want to do--there's always the chance that Mormons could elect to turn Amish, reject modern society, and seek to retreat and rebuild our private isolated Zion communities once again...but for better or worse, I don't see that happening) by adapting our public ethos to Protestant and liberal norms, one believer and one congregation at a time. That may take decades, but it'll very likely happen. So Mitt Romney's Mormon Moment may turn out, in retrospect, to have been an Al Smith moment. Our truer, Kennedyesque Mormon Moment is, according to this way of thinking, a ways off yet.

The Five Best Television Detectives Ever

I've finally finished watching the very last Prime Suspect, the justly celebrated series of British police programs that ran from the early 90s to the late 2000s, and I have to say, Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison--the focal point of the whole series--was every bit as fascinating and compelling in her final scene as she was in her first. Part of me wants to say that she was the greatest detective character that I'd ever watched on television...but upon thinking about it, I have to say: almost, but not quite. And so, of course, because this is the sort of person I am, my usual round-up.

#5--Detective Mick Belker, Hill Street Blues

I'm actually not even entirely certain Belker (the brilliant creation of Bruce Weitz and dozens of scriptwriters over the years) was a detective; some of the descriptions of him online have him listed as "Sergeant Belker," and I don't know anyone who has a stack of TV Guides from 1983 for me to check. But it doesn't matter, really--whatever they titled him on show, Mick "Biter" Belker was the reliable loose canon detective, the one who the writers would regularly throw into hilarious, filthy, and humiliating situations--usually involving him going undercover somewhere as a sanitation worker or horse-semen salesman or whatever--and wait until he'd blow his stack, doing something ridiculous and usually resolving the case while he was at it. He was far from the regular comic relief of the show, but he probably had less of a character arc than any of the other regulars; for Belker, it was all about showcasing some gritty or gross element of police work, and giving him a wise-ass comment that, because of his surroundings, was all that much more entertaining.

#4--Detective Frank Pembleton, Homicide: Life on the Street

The complete opposite of Mick Belker--cool, rational, tightly wound, racially proud, and impeccably dressed--Frank Pembleton was exactly the sort of ruthlessly diligent, wicked smart, and strict Super-Detective that viewers often love to imagine that we want the police who investigate crimes to be like. We don't, actually, but we so enjoy the visceral thrill of watching a detective take apart another human being--particularly a scummy one!--through investigation and interrogation, and the scenes with Pembleton in "the Box," leading another suspect on towards confession, are justly famous; probably half the fans of Homicide were hooked just for that reason. Andre Braugher fortunately played Pembleton as a man conscious of the role he was playing in the homicide division itself, as well as an enormously vain jerk, thus giving this character we rooted for a dose of complicated reality.

#3--Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire

I came late to The Wire, but I fell in love with it just the same. But in a tremendous television series that gave us so many compelling, intriguing, alternately frightening or hilarious or pathetic police detectives--Kim Greggs, Bunk Moreland, Roland Pryzbylewski, and of course the incomparable Jimmy McNulty--why do I put Clarke Peters' Lester Freamon on this list? Because, in the same way that my fondness as a viewer for the wild man Mick Belker was balanced out by my later fascination for the generally icy and hyper-rational Frank Pembleton, so does Lester Freamon provide some balancing reality for the whole idea of some force-of-nature Super Detective. The possibility that Freamon--as well as McNulty himself--may have been designed by the creators of The Wire as a way of deconstructing the cult of Pembleton has been noted by at least one thoughtful watcher of both series. But even if it wasn't done consciously, the results were deeply satisfying--Freamon, the wise hand who has seen his ups and downs in the Baltimore police bureaucracy, who knows the dangers of sticking with the job despite all the pressures to back down, wisely assesses those dangers, and then follows the money anyway, was a brilliant creation. The fact that the makers of the show allowed him to find some contentment with Shardene Innes, and thus have a life beyond just his money-making hobby with the doll house furniture, was icing on the cake.

#2--Detective Chief Inspector (and later Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect was much more than just a series of fantastic police procedurals made over a 15 year period; they were also a thoughtful portrait of the underclass of England, the technology of detective work, and most importantly of a singular woman: Jane Tennison, a "gloriously flawed" character, as one reviewer put it. Helen Mirren played Jane Tennison is numerous different ways throughout the seven programs which make up the whole series; we see her as a still-youngish working woman, trying to have professional success as well as find happiness while play role of wife and mother (though she was never either); we see her as the victim of bureaucratic sabotage and sexist judgments which threaten to derail her career; we see her as an almost stereotypically brave television cop, facing down an armed and angry gunman with nothing but her words to protect her; we see her, in the end, as a woman fighting alcoholism and dealing the family tragedy, determined to follow her instincts even when she was no longer strong enough to prevent them from taking control of her. All of the programs are wonderful (and loaded with an abundance of terrific English actors: Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, David Thewlis, Ciarán Hinds, and more), though I think the first episode of Prime Suspect 4, "The Lost Child"--in which Tennison makes a fiercely unsentimental decision about the fate of her own unborn child, all while pushing past the violent logic of an engaged police bureaucracy to find the real culprit in the death of a small baby--was my absolute favorite. I wish I could have found a short clip of that online, but instead, just watch the whole thing here:

#1--Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law and Order

Why do I put Lennie Briscoe at the top of this list? A character who, thanks to Jerry Orbach's delightful realization of the man through L&O's sharp and endlessly repetitive format, became his own stereotype while he was still on the show? A character who was so perfectly delineated that the briefest gesture of parody was all Abed needed for us to look at Danny Pudi's typically blank face and see Orbach's awesome, knowing, world-weary smirk staring back at us? It's true that he was never given scenes that showed his life to us as we got with Tennison or Pembleton. But repetition and ritual have their own ways of revealing a character, and Orbach made the most of them. The way he'd role up his sleeves, lean over to walk beneath the yellow tape surrounding the crime scene, be able to recollect with amazing specificity all sorts of New York cop minutiae--it was delightful, and I'd revel in it. I ought to--I watched the man find evidence, interrogate suspects, give testimony, blow his stack, grimace in despair, grin in triumph, and crack wise for more than a decade. After having spent that much time with the man, how can I not consider him the best of the bunch? Jerry Orbach, RIP.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "In the Air Tonight"

Melissa and I caught Naturally 7 when they opened for Michael Bublé here in Wichita in 2010. They did this number, and it was every bit as good, if not better, than what is captured here. Bublé is a hell of an entertainer, and his show was great, but these guys simply blew him away.