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Friday, December 24, 2004

Seeing Him

Most of the people reading this blog, I assume, don't believe in Santa Claus. I can understand: the evidence for his existence is scanty, as far as these things go; the (perhaps traumatic) revelations and/or realizations of one's youth--whether via friends, parents, annoying relatives or one's own snooping--have in all likelihood not been countered by any authoritative source; and your own experience probably confirms his continued non-existence. So really, I understand where you're coming from.

I happen to be a believer in Santa Claus--or rather, a believer in the existence a Santa Claus-type agent, perhaps multiple ones. My dad actually called us older kids aside one day when I was about eight, and solemnly informed us there was no Santa. I said I didn't think he was right, and I still don't. No, I'm not saying this ironically, and no, I'm not going to haul out "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" and take the Santa-dwells-within-us-all line. I actually believe that some sort of supernatural, possibly divine, Santa Claus-Father Christmas-Weihnachtsmann-St. Nicholas-Grandfather Frost-Ghost of Christmas Present figure is present and doing his work over the holidays. No, I've never seen him, and I'm not sure what his work is--plainly, he doesn't in fact deliver toys to every single child (or even just every good child, or every good child who happens to celebrate Christmas) every year, at least not if our family is any indication. But yet I find it hard to believe that something isn't out and about this time of year, the same way I find it hard to accept reductive (whether economic or psychological) explanations of the religious impulse generally. Of course, I believe in such irrational things as a God who sends His gifts and agents out amongst us regularly too, though I've never seen any of them either, and have no idea what they do or why they don't do what I wish they would. There's plenty of cause for existential despair, that's for certain. Still, if so many people feel something so strongly, and so much of that which hinges upon those feelings cannot be obviously accounted for--an anonymous gift, a helpful stranger, a happy coincidence, a fortunate find--it just doesn't strike me as implausible to adopt naive belief, in the sense of Paul Ricoeur's "second naiveté," rather than "mature critique" as a response.

I don't consider myself a man of strong faith, but as I once wrote elsewhere:

"I've tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn't pretend to myself that I didn't believe, that I didn't suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. . . . Certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere. . . . What I'm describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. . . . [Yet] I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn't something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he 'knew nothing'). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or Verstehen . . . [or of] King Solomon's wisdom, which the Old Testament record curiously [describes] not only as knowledge, but as 'largeness of heart'--which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others' claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said as well."

So, I believe in Santa, and Melissa goes along (though she thinks my philosophical reflections on that belief are taking a good thing too far). What do we do in our home? We buy presents and give them to our girls of course, setting some aside as from Santa. Does that display hypocrisy on my part? No, because we try not to nail down in their imaginations the specificity of transactions on Christmas Eve. We don't particularly encourage their belief in the dominant, rather materialistic Santa Claus account (factory at the North Pole, the latest toys being pumped out by elves night and day, etc.), and we definitely try not to get sucked into all the (too easily corporatized) tropes of that account--Santa at the mall, e-mail accounts, and all the rest. If and when one of the girls--the oldest of whom is now eight--ask me, "Did Santa bring this particular present?" I'll tell them what happened. But I'm not going to tell them there's no Santa. The fact that he may not have, and may not ever, come down our chimney doesn't mean I know that nothing ever comes down any child's chimney anywhere on Christmas Eve. That would run against too strong a feeling to the contrary--a feeling that is both very old and very widespread.

Of course, for some others, who might like to be naive (if only at Christmastime), the fact that there are and have been so many different gift-givers, doing so many different things at different times and in different ways across Christendom--the Three Kings, the Christkindl, Sinterklaas, La Befana, and more--may seem an impediment to believing. But again, I don't really get this. As I implied above, I consider myself basically a philosophical realist; I don't think perspectivalism goes all the way down. But hermeneutics is, fundamentally, a realistic endeavor; it denies nothing about the text to think carefully about the, shall we say, "spirit" in which a text is seen and received. And that's the point, really: seeing what's there is so much a function of our receptivity to that which may be seen. Is that the same as saying "believing is seeing"? No, because it's not that straightforward: Linus's belief in the Great Pumpkin didn't create a Great Pumpkin. But if the stories and folkways and prayers of millions of people over centuries of time have included seeing something in common at Christmastime, even if there is disagreement over what exactly it was that they saw . . . well, that strikes me as a pretty good case for not allowing cultural criticism and rational maturity to reductively strip reality entirely away. Seeing is feeling too, after all.

I've heard some believers criticize the wonderful carol, "Some Children See Him" because it makes the birth of the world's Savior "relative." He doesn't look different depending on who sees Him!, is their refrain. What silliness. Such a believers are simple, Cartesian empiricists; they have accepted the idea that every belief must turn on an objective sight. But what we are prepared to see, what we are receptive to seeing, and what we feel when we see it, ultimately matters much, much more, I think, which is why the lyrics of this quaint Christmas hymn, as cloyingly liberal as they may be, are utterly appropriate to the holiday:

Some children see Him lily white
The infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
With tresses soft and fair

Some children see Him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair

Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue

Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah, they love Him so

The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus' face
Like theirs but bright with heav'nly grace
And filled with holy light

O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
'Tis love that's born tonight

Merry Christmas, everyone. Best wishes for a happy holiday. Close your eyes, listen to the skies, and all those good things.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Why Do We Travel at Christmas?

Melissa and I are very much at peace with the idea of throwing our kids in the car, stuffing the cooler full of deli meat, carrot sticks, milk, bread, and juice, carefully arranging all our gear in our car's quite limited space, and hitting the road. Of course, we travel by plane when we can, but we often can't afford that, and even if we could, the endless expenses and hassles of planning excursions around airports and rental cars and long-term parking rarely seems worth it to us, especially if you want to cover a lot of ground at your destination. So, mostly we drive. We've hauled our kids back and forth across the country and beyond; we've taken them to New Orleans and Boston, Seattle and Chicago, St. Louis and Toronto. We've become experts on roadside excursions and rest stops; familiarized ourselves with turnpikes and less-traveled highways; taught our kids all sorts of tricks and games to help pass the time. We were both raised this way, by parents who threw us in the car at a young age, and drove the family to Niagara Falls and Yellowstone, Disneyland and Omaha, Cape Cod and the California coast; as difficult as those trips often were, we remember them fondly, and feel they offer something worth passing on to our own kids. Traveling as a family hundreds of miles down the highway, starting early and stopping late, pulling into at this park for lunch and this motel for the night, teaches you a lot about what you can do, what you can see, and what you can experience, with just some mechanical know-how, some creative budgeting, some patience for each other (and some openness towards those persons you meet along the way), and a little bit of luck.

It's that last one that regularly fails us at Christmastime.

I sit here, in my in-law's house in Ypsilanti, MI, slowly recovering from the ordeal of the last two days, and I'm tallying up our record. What have the holidays given us over the years? Begin with flying, just to cover all the bases. Stuck on a plane for hours in Spokane, WA, waiting for a de-icer to arrive. Delayed and missed flights at Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis. Stranded in the Atlanta airport (by a snowstorm) for most of the night, and then trying to get the kids to sleep in the lobby of a Sheraton Hotel (every place in town was booked solid once the airport closed) at 3am. After that last one, we swore: we'd never again fly anywhere at Christmas. So, driving you ask? Admittedly, our luck was slightly better there: there's been bad weather-related hang-ups in Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania (twice, I think) and elsewhere, but nothing we couldn't handle--or so we thought. But then . . . this year. We departed Arkansas at 5:30am on December 22, trying to get north before the rain turned to freezing rain. We failed. Slow going up through Missouri and over the Mississippi, as the ice turned to snow, then complete paralysis on I-57 in southern Illinois, where we waited for about 1 1/2 hours for an accident to be cleared away. We tried to make up for lost time up I-57 and onto I-70 into Indiana, but we heard more snow was coming from the north. Michigan was already looking bad; which way should we go? Foolishly, we decided to head into Ohio before turning north . . . and promptly plunged directly into the blizzard. More paralysis about 40 miles from the Ohio border, this time lasting more than 2 hours (by which time it was after 9pm, all five of us having been in the car for about 15 hours altogether). There were rumors (when you're stuck in traffic for a long time, even when it's only 20 degrees out, you tend to get out, wander up and down the line, and beg people with cell phones or truckers with radios to tell you want they've heard) that the Ohio border was closed; we finally managed to pull into Richmond, IN, and grab one of the last rooms in town. Blessed sleep. Then: up around 5am, digging the car out (the drifts were over Caitlyn's head in some places), slowing inching our way back to Indianapolis, then turning north to Fort Wayne (on--heaven be praised--a plowed interstate!) and Michigan, and finally arriving at Grandma and Grandpa Madsen's house at just before 3pm. Total time on the road driving: 22 hours in a 33 hour period.

The kids were troopers; they napped and played and whined a little but basically endured. Alison, our one-year-old, of course was miserable, but she seems to have emerged psychologically unscarred, though we don't want to show her the car seat at all for a few days, for fear she'll have a screaming fit. As for Melissa and I . . . well, there's always this point, when your luck is poor and your choices are turning out even worse, that you all of a sudden stop being angry and frustrated--at delays, the weather gods, other people's driving--and you start being scared. That point hit me at about 8:30pm last night. This is bad, I thought. We could be stuck here all night. And even when we can finally move again, we could be snowed in--maybe they won't open the freeway. Maybe we'll be celebrating Christmas in a Super 8 Motel. Tell me again--why the hell are we traveling at Christmastime? I mean, didn't we seen Melissa's brother's wife just last March?

So that's when Melissa and I made a pact: we're never going anywhere for Christmas again, ever. Believe me, we like traveling. We're pretty good at it. We want to take the family on big road trips to the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, Quebec and the Gaspe Peninsula, Key West. That doesn't intimidate us, because we're pretty resourceful, and our track record is pretty good. But it sucks when it comes to traveling at Christmas. Sure, it's the weather that has got us every time, but really it's more than that--it's how we deal with the weather. We're always choosing the routes with the delays. We're always getting slowed down just when we need some speed. Most importantly, we're always making crappy weather-related decisions. We could both have National Weather Service satellite implants directly feeding data to our brains, and we'd still blow it. ("Which way is the storm going? South! No, wait, west!") So no, far better to just to take the option off the table entirely. This is it. Maybe are standards our too high, but we've too much pride in our long-haul vacations to continue to allow Christmas catastrophes like these weaken our resolve. (And our kids' endurance: how many good trips will it take for them to live the memory of this terrible drive down?) No more traveling at Christmas. I love my in-laws, and I'm glad the kids will have a chance to play in the snow, but this one, yes, this one was definitely enough.

I'm off to bed. I'll try to post something appropriate to the holiday tomorrow. For the moment, those of you who have (perhaps once again!) safely traveled to your Christmas destination, to celebrate with friends and family both old and new, as I know millions do every year, I salute you. I envy you. And I'm going to stop trying to be you. From now on, folks can visit us for Christmas. I mean, why tempt fate when you can be fairly confident that you'll come out the worse for it?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

ROTK and LOTR: Jackson's Masterpieces

Timothy Burke was luckily able to approach Return of the King in the best way possible: he was one of those who saw the film on its original release immediately after having watched the extended editions of previous two, all on the big screen. (The Nielsen Haydens did too.) This gave him the perspective necessary to write what remains, I think, the single best assessment of ROTK's strengths and weaknesses, and some of the strengths and weaknesses of Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy as a whole. I can't do what he did, but I've just finished what might be the next best thing: watching the extended edition of all three movies in a row, over a period of about a week. My report follows.

I think there is little dispute among fans of both film and J.R.R. Tolkien that Fellowship of the Ring was, as far as the original theatrical releases are concerned, the tightest, most coherent, best movie of the three. The sacrifices Jackson & Co. made to the storyline of the first book, and their innovations in communicating and weaving together those threads of narrative which they emphasized (or just plain invented) were both complementary to the spirit of the whole and excellent on their own terms. The creative use of the Palantir, the "mad scientist" visualization of Saruman, the confrontation with the Balrog, the journey down the Anduin, the parting of Aragorn and Frodo: all, as Tim says, just about perfect. The materials which the extended edition of FOTR adds--some good stuff with the hobbits back in the Shire, but primarily scenes which from Rivendell and Lothlorien which deepened and complicated Aragorn's story, and his complicated relationship to men, elves, and his own destiny--were great, but not transformative: anyone familiar with Tolkien who thought much about FOTR when it first came out quickly realized that this Aragorn was "modern" in the sense of having an existential dimension: rather than being an actor in a broad historical saga, he was going to have to struggle with his doom. Well, so be it; the "modernity" of Jackson's vision is apparent in many aspects of the films (the substitution of a sometimes overwrought "love" between Frodo and Sam to take the place of Tolkien's much more unambiguous--and, of course, idealized--master-servant relationship being the prime example), and the extended edition doesn't alter that direction; it simply allowed Jackson to further his take on the hobbits and Aragorn in an excellent but not-necessarily-crucial (from a narrative point of view) way.

The Two Towers is a different case. While some--mostly those who either weren't familiar with or didn't care for Tolkien's sweeping historical vision--thought this film the best of the three on its own terms, a lot of us agreed that it had some real narrative and thematic problems. The Ents looked silly, but more importantly their actions were forced; they seemed to do little else besides provide a ham-fisted set-up for heroic speeches from Merry and Pippin, and then burst onto the scene as a deus ex machina at the end, which was both demeaning to the characters and less than thrilling overall. Jackson's occasional tendency to play fast and loose with time and distance were on full display as well--early on we are given a sense of the size and lay of both the lands of Rohan and Fangorn forest, but by the end those Ents and Huorns nonetheless seemed to be able to zip around pretty quick. And the total reworking of Frodo and Sam's encounter with Faramir, while perhaps justified in light of the aforementioned "modern" interpretation of Aragorn, as well as by the narrative demands of Jackson & Co.'s depiction of Denethor, ultimately felt pretty contrived also--not that everything in that whole sequence rang false, just that the pluses (the sharp, nail-biting scene where Frodo puts Sting to Sam's throat) were outweighed by the minuses (Faramir scaring off a Nazgul, which was only about five feet away from the ring at the time, with a single arrow shot, which really makes you wonder how useful or tough these guys really are). Of course, overall the movie still rocked. Helm's Deep, the brilliant realization of Gollum and his interactions with Frodo and Sam: all of it first-rate. But I'd disagree with Tim in thinking that the changes to TTT actually were pretty significant--and unfortunately, not repaired by the extended edition. Gandalf's speech to Gimli in Fangorn, and the flashbacks to Boromir, as well as some other introspective scenes with Faramir, do add some significance and coherence to what Jackson gives us at Entmoot and Osgiliath...but not enough. As before, most of the best additions have to do with Aragorn: Aragorn and Brego, Aragorn and Eowyn, etc. TTT remains, even in its extended edition, the flawed chapter of the trilogy.

Of course, the flaws of ROTK, in its original release, were legion. The rhythm was often wildly wrong: rushed and confusing scenes followed one after another, then a big shift into prolonged and interminable endings. Tim accurately captures many of the problems with the choices Jackson made in adapting the final book: the way Faramir and Pippin are seemingly moved around like props for the sake of depicting Denethor's petulant descent into madness; the "pell-mell incoherency" of the battle at Minas Tirith (what time of day, or night, is it? which gate have they broken through? where's the Witch-King?); the simplistic treatment of Frodo and Sam's crossing of Mordor and the equally weak "diversion" at the Black Gate; the showy treatment of Legolas in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields at the expense of everyone else; and so on. Let's be clear: the battle at Minas Tirith is nonetheless spectacular, even superior to the one at Helm's Deep; and Jackson got so very, very much right in his adaptation of ROTK, and what he invented so often worked so well (most especially the terrific and poignant tension between Frodo, Sam and Gollum), that it seems somewhat churlish to complain. But still: the 3 1/2-hour movie Jackson put into the theaters had something to bother everybody (why was the Balrog a superbly conceived demon, but Shelob--who is even older and darker than the Balrog--just a great big spooky spider? what was the point of the whole Arwen-is-dying subplot?), and bother them it did. Repairs were needed.

The extended edition of ROTK delivers just about all the needed repairs, and then some; the troubling or less-than-satisfactory elements which remain are, in my view, reduced almost to mere nitpicking. The final confrontation with Saruman at the beginning of the movie, and Aragorn's mastering of the Palantir after the battle at Minas Tirith near the end, were both absolutely necessary scenes that should have been in the original movie. Not just because they're great scenes--which they are--but because they so superbly and compactly set up and deliver on a set of consistent themes throughout the films: the weakness of men (and wizards!) before the lures of Sauron, the fears and doubts which everyone--from Elrond to Sauron to Aragorn himself--had about whether of a true king of men could ever emerge with the strength and determination of the Numenorians of old; the constant and fearful watching and passing of secrets and suspicions, all revolving around a sense of corruption which lurked near and in the hearts of all the major characters. If, as I think can't be denied, Jackson basically wanted to tell a story about the triumph of men (with hobbits helping out), then he needed these crucial scenes. But the extended edition gives us even more: it gives us a wonderful encounter between the Mouth of Sauron and Aragorn, which--along with the additions to the last debate before the march on Mordor, makes it clear that even wizards can doubt (and thus fall); in the end, it is Aragorn, who apparently believes Arwen is dead and the last light of the Eldar gone from Middle-Earth, who holds everything together, as a man of the West and a king. Tremendous stuff.

But Aragorn isn't the only human who benefits from the extended treatment: Theoden and Denethor are both far more fleshed out. Denethor can't be improved that much; still, his madness is given a little more grandeur, his pride a little more bite. Some additional lines here and there (especially the wonderful inclusion of his contempt for Faramir as a "wizard's pupil"), and the very helpful scenes of exposition between Gandalf and Pippin, at least give us a sense (and leads us to believe that Denethor, in some twisted way, also has a sense) of what the real stakes in the war for Gondor truly are. But Theoden especially is magnified by the extended edition. His exchange with Saruman and Wormtongue at the beginning of the movie is great stuff. And, of course, he benefits from a far more coherent and well-rounded battle before the gates of Minas Tirith. Really, it's difficult to describe just how good the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is now. The cavalry charge is more easily followed, Theoden's commands and actions against the Easterlings and the Mumakil now appear both reasonable and even somewhat effective, and the Army of the Dead doesn't seem quite as monolithic as before. Notice, for example, how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are running along with the Dead, shouting at one another, engaging the armies of Sauron without joining with or even acknowledging the Rohirrim: that's a sensible presentation of the confusion of battle from their perspective, without necessarily mixing up our own. (I thought it was delightful that Gimli and Aragorn could take out the head orc without noticing Eowyn, Theoden and Merry laying wounded near them, or even realizing who it is they've just killed. Also, the way Aragorn actually directed Legolas to the Mumakil lessened the sense of showboating; instead, it just seemed like on-the-fly strategy: "Legolas, since you can climb, take out the oliphant while Gimli and I stick to the ground troops.")

And then, of course, dozens of little touches: Pippin finding Merry on the battlefield, as well as Merry's expression of worry and love for Pippin to Aragorn back at Edoras (where, delightfully, they slipped in an insidery reference to the hobbits' ages). The drinking scene with Legolas and Gimli was silly, sure, but at least it fit: a continuing development of the friendship between an unworldly, intimidating elf and an earthy, often underestimated, very worldly dwarf. The additional scenes of the House of Healing wasn't enough, but at least it was there. Frodo and Sam's reunion at the Tower of Cirith Ungol and their journey across Mordor is far more affecting and logical now; you can feel the weight of it, whereas you didn't before (a very nice shot of Sam and Frodo, realizing that there will be no return journey from the Crack of Doom, casting aside their orc armor and throwing it down over a cliff really emphasizes this well). Overall, the development of all the characters, without exception, now fits in with the whole sweep of the trilogy marvelously well.

It's been commented that Jackson has taken the advantages made available by dvd technology and re-invented the epic. It's true. Not that old-style epic cinema is gone forever; there's no reason why someone couldn't try to pull off a David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia-style movie, where a single character pulls together a single, unbroken cinematic creation. But the new epic is a more diverse and interconnected one; the demands of the big screen are not final. Now you can take use the dvd to fill in nooks and crannies of narrative that previously would have needed to be streamlined into a single continuous visualization. The problem, of course, will be the temptation to turn a story which really doesn't contain or need all of these angles and elements into the sort of massive cinematic sprawl which Jackson has done to LOTR. (Arguably, this is the tragic fate of the The Matrix: a great sci-fi flick whose creators felt impelled, given all the tricks and extras which dvd technology makes possible, to transform it into a huge multilayered epic, with rather poor results.) Fortunately, Tolkien's world does contain multitudes, and it is possible to visualize all those multitudes, when placed in their proper context, as part of a grand, sweeping story. And Jackson has showed us that such multiplicity and detail, which previously most had assumed could only be made to cohere on the printed page, can be rendered in a film idiom, give enough time, room, and creative editing. Not that he did it perfectly: TTT remains the weak link, and the prolonged, multiple endings (complete with what Tim rightly pegged as the strange and slightly squirm-inducing moment when all of Gondor bows before all four hobbits, as opposed to just Frodo and Sam) of ROTK will still bother some. But overall, the extended edition of Jackson's final LOTR film truly is a masterpiece, and moreover, it pulls out from the whole 10+ hour creation a masterful new kind of epic film. Like Tolkien's epic itself, these movies are for the ages, no doubt at all about that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Insurgents, Iraq, and Identity

I haven't written about Iraq in a very long time, partly because I think my past support for the war in Iraq--support that I've come to regret--to a degree disqualifies me from having much to say about how the conflict has proceeded, and partly simply because I don't have anything to say that isn't being said much better by many others. But recently an old friend of mine, Matt Stannard, has been asking some pointed questions about how the fighting in Iraq ought to be understood, and we've discussed the matter some via e-mail. Most would read his challenges--which basically boil down to the provocative claim "I simply fail to see the basis for the arguments necessary for a conscientious person to support U.S. action but not Iraqi counter-action....likewise, I fail to see the basis for any command to close such moral inquiry on the basis of patriotism or nationalism"--as almost a stereotype of the sort of "moral equivalence" talk which so many crudely associate with leftist thought, and from which most pragmatic liberals desperately fled throughout the election season. But the way Matt frames his questions--generally eschewing any tabulation of atrocities or death counts, and focusing on the explicitly Habermasian issue of democratic legitimization--is much more intellectually and morally serious than that which one might hear from some cut-rate Noam Chomsky knock-off.

This is not to say that those other considerations are meaningless, or that accusations of moral equivalence are just a right-wing dodge; there are--as Matt himself is quick to admit--checks on American behavior which don't appear to exist on the other side, and to the degree one can assume that whatever regime results in Iraq will reflect the attitude of the victors, everyone should hope it'll be the U.S. forces (which at least felt embarrassed about Abu Gharib) rather than Sunni thugs. But nonetheless, to simply dismiss all discussion of the "morality" of the insurgents as false or distracting is to ultimately leave oneself philosophically defenseless against a foreign policy premised upon nothing more that raison d'estat. In some ways, this is exactly what Peter Beinart's essay on a "fighting liberalism" left out: the philosophical work that needs to be done if you're ever going take a manifesto against Islamic fascism, and turn it into a policy which can justifiably, on its own democratic terms, carry on that fight. Obviously such justification isn't sufficient; as many of us liberal hawks have learned to our deep dismay over the last year or so, just because an argument exists which justifies a certain potential action--say, a pre-emptive war grounded in liberal principles--doesn't mean that all actual actions taken in accordance with (or, more accurately in the case of the Bush administration's waging of the Iraq war, any actions which can hypothetically, if you are willing to squint a little, be vaguely associated with) that justificatory theory are automatically self-justifying. They aren't, and to content oneself with having worked out a philosophical or moral account doesn't get you to a good policy. But failing to do the prior intellectual work won't get you a good policy either.

Just because I take seriously Matt's questions, however, doesn't mean that I think he frames things properly. Basically, Matt wants to know "why what 'we' are doing is more ethical than what 'they' are doing"--why, for example, we call those killing American soldiers "insurgents" when it is we who are "surging into" their country. (And we have to assume that it is theirs, not ours, because 1) otherwise all our claims and acts in regards to encouraging the development of a democratic Iraq are exposed as lies by our own rhetoric, and 2) because otherwise no coherent psychological account of the current situation is possible, something which Matt Yglesias rightly notes many pro-war writers were in denial about for the longest time.) The complication arises from those very properly placed quotation marks, particularly the latter one: while it is (and must be) indisputable that someone other that the U.S. takes a proprietary position as to the territory called Iraq, just who "they" are isn't clear, and hasn't been clear from the very beginning of this enterprise. Which means that attempts to justify the morally privileging the actions of American troops in Iraq over the actions of the insurgents, or vice versa, have to begin with the very non-Habermasian, affective-aesthetic question of the identity of whomever it is one is talking (or fighting) with, and how their talking (or fighting) is to be understood.

Obviously, identity-based justifications which depend upon an implied and/or condescending racism ("they're Iraqis, they're backward, they've been psychologically traumatized, they worship a strange god, they're uneducated, they don't know what they want," etc.) are can be, and must be, for the most part rooted out and dismissed--and unfortunately, there's more than a little rooting out in our thinking which still remains to be done in that regard. (I say "for the most part" because I don't think psychological or cultural factors should be wholly ignored here; indeed, part of the problem with the original case for the invasion, I eventually realized, was that it didn't include any thinking, or at least not much proper thinking, about cultural factors relevant to any literally "forced" encounter between the U.S. and Iraq.) However, the question of who American troops are fighting, and their motivation for such, remains central. Much of Matt's argument turns on a Habermasian emphasis on deliberative and procedural justification; such deliberation has to begin, however (as many critics of Habermas have forced him to acknowledge), with the pre-political recognition of who one's interlocutors are, and who isn't part of that conversation.

The data on the internal constitution of those opposing American forces can be disputed, to say that least. But let's say Matt is right: for the purpose of examining our own rhetorical and ethical scheme, we should consider those whom American soldiers are killing and being killed by are "Iraqis," citizens of a sovereign (and thus politically defined and legitimated) nation who should count every bit as much in any possible discursive arrangement as those Iraqi expatriates who pushed the invasion, the Kurds who cautiously approved it, the member's of Saddam Hussein's family and inner circle who violently opposed it from the beginning, and everyone in between. What we have, then, is a divided society; through our invasion of Iraq, we have arguably made it legitimate for some segments of that society to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their society to the extent that they see what is properly, "nationally," their own being infringed upon. Of course, their "defense" of that partial, imagined community (to invoke Benedict Anderson) is also an attempt to establish a new social construct, one which is beneficial to their segment of Iraq. In having sundered a (forcibly united, according to most available evidence) sovereign state, how should we think about the justness of attacks on those who did the sundering, when it was the sundering which created the anarchy and thus the arguably legitimate terms of defense in the first place?

Thought experiment: what if, upon the Union's invasion of the Confederacy, former slaves for the most part had embraced the model of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, and begun a revolt to drive whites from power? Quickly, the Civil War against the southern states would have become a free-for-all, with some former slaves aligning themselves with the Union, others joining with poor whites in a class war upon both the plantation owners and the Yankee carpetbaggers, others embracing out-and-out race war. The last two categories would have waged war on the Union forces, especially given the occupation of the South by Northern troops during the Reconstruction. I wonder--and I honestly have no answer for this--whether it would have been wrong to extend the revolutionary language of "freedom," which guided the Union actions under Lincoln, to whatever "insurgent" forces which might have arisen in the South, had things been a little bit different? Again, I think the whole thing comes down to identity. Who is an American? What is it "American" to fight on behalf of, and what causes are "un-American"? Upon such judgments would any Habermasian legitimate response by the Army of the Potomac depend. I don't think the answer would be easy, and in that case we would be dealing with a conflict which emerged within a more-or-less unified national context.

Paradoxically, it is America's own particular context, and the degree to which it is complicatedly tied up in (I think flawed) arguments about the possibility of a purely civic patriotism or national identity, which makes the application of Habermasian criteria even more difficult in the case of Iraq. We resist the idea that any successful articulation of the identity of Iraq could be primarily, or even significantly, ethnic or religious: we want, instead, Iraq to be a democratic state that will be united around a constitution and a constitutional process. But the act of constitutional formalization always follows a much more fundamental and vague (and, yes, sometimes bloody) process of affective inclusion and exclusion; by making ourselves a part of the conflict in Iraq, we stuck ourselves in that process. We cannot adequately assess our own or anyone else's participation in this struggle on the basis of discourse ethics, because through invasion we removed whatever oppressive boundaries of identity and recognition which cleared a space for discourse in the first place. Of course, it is just as arguable--indeed, I think even more so--that such boundaries as did exist under Hussein were inauthentic anyway, being the result of a tyrant's whim rather than a long, historical, national collective process. Does that mean that Matt's questions are wholly moot? I don't think so. It simply means that philosophically assessing our own and the insurgents' actions--getting to, as Matt put it, "an account of universal ethical responsibility that might forgive conscripts and fighters on both sides"--is going to require a sensitivity to the aesthetic, meaning nationalistic, underpinnings of sovereignty that Habermas alone cannot provide.

Last year, Charles Taylor wrote a thoughtful piece in which he joined together the reconstruction of Iraq and the questions of expansion and democratic legitimacy before the European Union. In both cases, the fundamental question is one of identity, because the idea of democracy, much less ethically justified democratic action (whether one hopes to see such realized or at least conformed to through the EU's bureaucracy or, as in the case of Iraq today, through American troops), is not a free-standing rational principle; it is a basic political principle, and politics comes through the establishment (hopefully peaceably, but often not) of a polity which recognizes itself, and can be recognized by others, as such. "There can be no democracy without a shared identity as participants in a common agency," as Taylor puts it. Exactly right. And infuriating, for those of us who would like to believe that some truly democratic expectations and standards can be established, and be made binding upon, all those caught up in the war in Iraq, most especially ourselves. The ambiguity surrounding the identity of those claiming to fight on behalf of Iraq plays into Bush's "fly-trap" strategy, giving him a certain justificatory cover: as long as terrorism continues in Iraq, then he and those around him anc assert that we're dealing with terrorists, and by definition (well, his definition anyway) you can't "deliberate" with terrorists. Therefore, American troops must be the one's on the side of democracy, because we we're trying to give it to them, only we just haven't been able to get to the point where we can ask them in any legitimate if they like the way we are delivering it or not. (But don't worry, elections are coming soon; no doubt that will solve everything.)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Our LOTR Geekout Begins

Melissa and I don't really have the time or the opportunity for our mutual passion for the Lord of the Rings--both the books and the films--to develop fully. But over the next several days, we're going to give it our best shot. Tonight: a close study and rewatching of the first half of our Fellowship of the Ring extended edition dvd. Tomorrow: the second half. Sunday and Monday: the first and second half of The Two Towers extended edition. That will leave us ready for Tuesday evening, when we will begin our 4 1/2-hour journey into the Return of the King extended edition dvd, which will be on sale as of that morning. I'm sure it'll take us a couple of days to get through it, but get through it we will, night after night, however long it takes us. Expect a report on Peter Jackson's final, complete masterpiece when I come back up for air.

Being a Teacher

Things wrapped up for the semester this week at Arkansas State University: last day of classes, review sessions, etc. Finals are going on now; then grading, and then the Christmas break. The halls will fall quiet, for a while at least. We'll be leaving for a couple of weeks to spend the Christmas and New Year's holidays with family and friends in Michigan and Canada, so now is the last chance to get things done that have been put off all semester. And it's a good time to think about my job, too.

On Tuesday the faculty of my department gathered at a local Italian restaurant for our annual end-of-the-semester Christmas dinner. I suppose it would fulfill certain expectations were I to go on to list a host of drunken embarrassments and humiliations which occurred, but I can't, because there weren't any. Partly because Craighead County is dry, of course, and so the only alcohol consumed that night was that which several participants brought themselves; but even if the wine had been flowing, I doubt there would have been any scandals. Ours is not an especially interactive or combative department; most of us are content to tend to our own little corners of the curriculum, and have few dreams (or illusions, as the case may be) about pulling off anything transformative or radical, at least not insofar as the institution itself in concerned. The upside to this is that no one, so far as I can tell, is fearful of having their oxes gored by any of their fellow faculty, which makes for many easy acquaintanceships, and even a few deep friendships, between us. And that was much on display last Tuesday: everyone got along and had a good time. Our dean and associate dean joined us, and there was much loud complaining about the administration, and our old chair and resident showman handed out some joke gifts (I received a bottle of aspirin, to help me cope with the headache which our department's setbacks and struggles over the last year or so have caused me in particular), and there was a lot of trading and taking of photographs, and there were hugs and holiday wishes. Melissa and I had a wonderful time. Fact is, this is a pretty good group of people I get to work with here at Arkansas State, and I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Of course, we're all elitists here: how could we not be? As John Holbo explained, "academia is aristocratic....if you don't think some beliefs are better than others, why would you ever expend time and money to change anyone's beliefs by sitting them in a classroom?" John makes this point, which has been made many times before, as part of a much larger argument about conservatives and liberals in the academy; an important discussion (and no one has written on the subject more intelligently or with greater thoroughness than John, though Timothy Burke comes close), but not one--as John and Tim would probably both quickly admit--that has much salience outside the sort of academic environments wherein the elitism of the professoriate is sufficiently settled and empowered (financially, socially, and structurally) so as to make arguments over the internal or ideological distribution of that elitism worth having. The problem of elite groupthink, in other words, only arises when elite groups have enjoyed plenty of time and space to generate their own parameters of thought. That's not something which the faculty of Arkansas State University, or indeed the faculty of probably more than half of all universities and colleges in America, have experienced, at least not lately if ever. As far as the liberal/conservative thing goes, I think it's probably fair to say that most of my colleagues are more left-leaning than otherwise, but in only a couple of instances do I have any actual evidence of this. We talk politics with each other and our students, but for the most part we don't talk partisanly, and we certainly don't connect whatever partisanship may exist, so far as I know, to how we understand our pedagogical role here. I mean, it's easy to imagine that we do so, if only privately: that we see ourselves as the liberal Aufklärer of the local, benighted and provincial populace. But the project of enlightenment, even if we wish to assume that such is the secret program of every and all academics everywhere (which it isn't), nonetheless has certain financial and social structural requirements, or at least it does insofar as we academics, like anyone else who in possession of a vocation, perform our roles in accordance with practices and norms inculcated into us by years of training and which were shaped by a long and continuing history of disciplinary specialization and legitimation. In other words, there are practical limits to how we can do what we are supposed; if there is an elite political project contained in our job performance, it's not likely to be especially discernible if we don't have the power to establish the terms of our own intellectual work.

Still...we're elitists, because of the very nature of our work. As I put it in another post, anyone who has been through graduate school and sought a position in academia "has been highly educated, socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways, and schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, vocational, guild-protected elite." This isn't about politics, or at least it isn't necessarily about politics; it's about assuming, through one's daily habits and casual talk, that dealing with abstract data, methodologies, ideas and arguments--the life of the mind, in other words--is an exercise worthy of institutional support and economic remuneration. In the post I just linked to, my concern was with the fact that being an academic means being, in a sense, "upper-class" in both personal expectation and popular reputation, despite the fact that our incomes--at least, again, at likely a large majority of all the colleges and universities in America--don't really make such a lifestyle an option. There's an internal aspect to that same disconnect which so many of us college and university teachers have experienced at one point or another, if not continually. A meeting is called; the administration's representative arrives; budget cuts are announced; new accounting procedures are explained. The bottom line? You don't need any additional faculty/teaching assistants/research and travel money/classrooms/whatever, is the implied message; what you need to do is maximize what you already have! But the presumptions of maximization are exactly those which our profession--meaning, very specifically, the faculty which this university hired, the ones listening with inarticulate frustration to this message--was not supposed to operate in accordance with. Why say what you're doing (and obviously I'm referring vaguely to my own situation, so perhaps I should just drop the vagueness) is "providing a political science major" when the process by which the political science discipline has evolved and is taught is not, in fact, your baseline assumption? To the accountants in the administration, that baseline may well reflect an inefficient and even astonishingly aristocratic presumption about how knowledge is produced and conveyed; and truth be told, they're right. It is a rather elite thing to say that, no, this particular form of knowledge (say, a comparison of Kantian and Lockean social contract theories) actually isn't compatible with an arrangement wherein, for example, 500+ students are taught the same material daily (in classes of 200 students or more) by one professor who has them fill out bubble sheets for their midterm exam. Innovative methodologies and transformative technologies (which are really the same thing, when you get right down to it) are of limited application. On the contrary, some subject matters require (relatively) small classes with (relatively) high levels of writing and reading, which means a lot of one-on-one time: for better or worse, that's the way the field is constituted. One might be forgiven for thinking that--given the sort of resources which such a field of teaching involves, and the costs (which really aren't that great, but aren't insigificant either) it would generate--such knowledge might really be the sort of thing which, well, only upper-class students could bother to learn, much less afford. And yet here we are, serving the students of Northeastern Arkansas, not exactly an elite locale. You begin to see the multifacetedness of the problem.

A long time ago, when I was newer to Arkansas, I wrote somewhat depressingly about this same set of issues, framing them around a rather tired metropolitan/provincial dichotomy. I don't feel that way anymore, partly because I've come to a greater appreciation of populism, and the surprising ways in which this university, and all us elites who inhabit it, can connect in a very fundamental way to the students who come here. Of course, just because my appreciation of what I can do has deepened doesn't mean I do it as well as I might; there is always room for improvement, and there is always a place for (some) financial and social critique of our practices and norms. But that doesn't mean that I'm at peace with what others think is required of us either. It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where "education" in the research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse. Still, I hope to be able to find my way inside, whether here or elsewhere, and discover a more-or-less permanent niche, so I can continue to do some good and maybe even shore up, to whatever extent I'm able, the social and financial structures which make possible the teaching of whatever small corner of the discipline I get to work in. I love teaching; I love talking to students about their papers, leading them through discussions, reading their feedback and conducting review sessions and, yes, "enlightening" them, if only a little bit. We all love that, and maybe we even love the disconnect, the "elitism" which comes with it, even when it's uncomfortable and puts our situation under the microscope. We even love having dinner together, and swapping stories about it all. I realize there are plenty of disfunctional, even hateful, faculties out there: but then maybe, here at Arkansas State, in not having the luxury of allowing our little elite group to forget just how tenuous and strained an endeavor it really is, being a teacher in this place and at this time, we don't ever get around to developing any groupthink problems. Not that I expect teachers at more truly elite institutions would choose to give our unintentional "solution" a whirl, but if they'd like to give up half their endowment to us, so they can see what effect scarcity might have internal departmental politics, I'm sure we'd all be happy to help them out.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Best Christmas Recordings Ever

Well, maybe not ever, but I'm allowed a little hyperbole, aren't I? Anyway, everyone has their lists of Christmas favorites; this is mine. We've had the Christmas music out since the day after Thanksgiving, but last week I was too busy writing finals and getting caught back up from the holiday to post anything. My apologies, but you still have plenty of time to bulk up your collection and increase your listening pleasure, should any of the following strike you as interesting. Last year, on my old blog, I gave a brief rundown of my favorite Christmas albums and collections; this year, I'm listing specific songs. Some are originals, but most are hymns, carols and popular songs that have been recorded a thousand times or more; these are, in my opinion, the best versions one is likely to find of them anywhere. Clearly, some won't agree with my choices; as always, suggestions, corrections and outright rejections are welcome. (The list is in alphabetical order according to artist.)

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings," Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan. Yes, this is a brand new recording, but this version is clearly going into the canon. A smart, up-tempo take on the material, with a wonderful blending of two oft-abused carols.

"In the Bleak Midwinter," Blind Boys of Alabama with Chrissie Hynde. Just about the strangest vocal combination one can imagine--but it works.

"Away in a Manger," BYU Choirs and Orchestra. Years ago, when I was a student at BYU, Mack Wilburg arranged this humble carol and lullaby for a couple of hundred voices and a full orchestra; a single quiet oboe line guides the number throughout. A gorgeous treatment, one that I often heard imitated in recent years, but this recording has never been surpassed.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," The Canadian Brass. An old version, but still funny. The members of CB trade gossipy comments about Rudolph and his cosmetic problems while the instruments pump away.

"Once in Royal David's City," The Chieftains. Really, it's The Renaissance Singers who deserve praise here, for an ethereal and glorious rendition of this hymn.

"Love Came Down at Christmas," Shawn Colvin. Shawn gives this quaint traditional just the right touch.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," John Denver and Rowlf the Dog. Yes, from the Muppets Christmas album. No performance of this song has ever gotten to the heart of its lyrics the way this version does.

"Winter Wonderland," The Eurythmics. The first Very Special Christmas album was by far the best, and this compelling techno-version is the stand-out recording of the whole bunch.

"Frosty the Snowman," Ella Fitzgerald. No one has ever swung this snowman the way Ella did.

"Jingle Bell Rock," Hall and Oates. Almost impossible to find, but you need to get it. Why? Because you were alive in the 1980s, that's why.

"Santa Baby," Eartha Kitt. The first version I ever heard of this song was Madonna's vaguely creepy Betty Boop-style take. Yuck. Much later I heard Eartha Kitt lay it down, and it became immediately clear where the real talent was to be found. Available on several collections, but you might as well get it straight.

"The Cherry Tree Carol," John Langstaff with the Christmas Revels. I've rarely heard recordings of this old traditional carol, and never a better one than this.

"Stille Nacht," Mannheim Steamroller. Out of the probably tens of thousands of versions of Silent Night, why this instrumental one, from the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album? That it's a touching, delicate arrangement goes without saying; that the music is beautiful is indisputable. I think it must be because of the guest appearance by Santa Claus at the end. (Listen for the sleigh bells; you'll hear it.)

"Here Comes Santa Claus," Elvis Presley. The thing which so many people don't get about Elvis is that he was kind of dopey, as well as kind of dangerous, at the same time: his voice was both blusey and filled with bathos. Hence the greatest track on this, the greatest rock and gospel Christmas album ever, isn't the much imitated sexual hustle of "Blue Christmas," but his silly take on this old chestnut. Picture The King wearing a Santa Claus hat while slightly snearing and thrusting his hips. Yep, now you've got it.

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," Rockapella. Hehehehe--Barry Carl's bass voice can't be beat.

"The Night Before Christmas," Carly Simon. A charming and thoughtful original, mostly unknown because of its appearance on the soundtrack to a movie hardly anyone's ever heard of. It wasn't even on Simon's Christmas album, strangely.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen. Loud, heartfelt, hilarious holiday fun. To my knowledge, not available anywhere except on this cd-single.

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Andy Williams. Andy couldn't hold a candle to any of the truly talented crooners of the 1960s, but his recording of this homey, delightful tune remains definitive. Get it the original LP.

"Jesus Jesus Rest Your Head," George Winston. An elegant and spare piano solo rendition of this haunting folk hymn.

Hmm, I thought I had 20 favorites, but I guess not. Oh well, that's probably enough for now.

Update: Hah--I knew I was forgetting one. Thanks to the comments on a similar thread over at Times and Seasons, I'm reminded of Take 6's recording of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"--a positively angelic a cappella rendition.

Oh, and it's not a Christmas song, but since you never hear it besides at holiday time, we might as well include "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The definitive version? Clearly, Barry Manilow and K.T. Oslin's take, with a minimal jazz arangement and so much crazy swinging-60s banter that it's practically performance art. ("Well, I must say, this couch is very comfortable." "It's not a couch, pudding-pop, it's a love-seat.") Groovy, man.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanks a Lot

Last year, at this time, I shared my favorite Thanksgiving hymn. This time around, let's go with a much humbler song, but one no less appropriate to the day:

Thanks a Lot

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the sun in the sky
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the clouds so high

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the whispering wind
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the birds in the spring

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the moonlit night
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the stars so bright

Thanks a lot
Thanks for wonder in me
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the way that I feel

Thanks for the animals
Thanks for the land
Thanks for the people everywhere
Thanks a lot
Thanks for all I've got
Thanks for all I've got

(Text and music by Raffi)

This song came into my head yesterday afternoon, as I was walking home from the office. I walked through the mostly empty campus, past the athletic field, past another street of faculty homes, through a stand of oak and pecan trees (featuring deep red leaves and bare branches), over a small creek than sometimes floods with rainwater, and down to our little home, with the lights on and Alison awake and ready to play. It was foggy and wet out, and turning cold; the few rays from the setting sun played on wisps of cloud hanging low. Inside it was warm and bright. It was a beautiful walk, which I'm lucky enough to be able to make every day. There's a lot I'm lucky to have. A whole lot.

Happy Thanksgiving, to one and all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

That's Entertainment!

Over the last year or so, our girls have become captivated by a lot classic Hollywood musicals. They sing the tunes to each other as part of games, and sometimes just to themselves. (Recently, at a playgroup with some other kids, another woman from our church was taken aback to hear Caitlyn, our four-year-old, singing quietly to herself "If I Were a Rich Man," except she tends to change the lyrics around a little; more often than not, it becomes "If I Were a Rich Woman.") Some of their favorites include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Sound of Music (of course), Singin' in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Annie, The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz and more. Granted, not all of these are what most people think of when you talk about old Hollywood musicals; interesting how Mary Poppins, for example, since it was produced by Disney and features animation, is left off most musical lists. But for the girls it's all the same; something about the way in which music mixes with story, becoming part of the story, has really grabbed them. I think in some very basic way it's teaching them about what art and entertainment really are. For one thing, it was exciting for them to discover on their own that "Esther" from Meet Me in St. Louis is also "Dorothy" from Wizard of Oz, and so forth. More fundamentally, I think it has helped them see that, as people in real life do not break out into song depending on their mood, these otherwise very realistic stories (all right, maybe Mary Poppins and Wizard of Oz don't qualify) must therefore be a peculiar kind of "comment" on real life, a way of throwing some aspect of it--its humor, pathos, pain, unpredictability, whatever--into sharp relief. Megan, our eight-year-old, in particular I think has been helped by these musicals. Since she was very young movies of all sort have just overwhelmed her imagination; the musical cues alone would, when it looked like there was going to be any conflict featured on screen (and we're talking about Cinderella-level conflict here; we police our children's viewing habits pretty closely), drive her out of the room, to hide in closets and under bed sheets. It's not that she doesn't have a strong and powerful imaginative sense, or an ability to focus on the story; she'd continue to peak out at the tv, or run back and forth asking us what she'd missed. It's just that, for whatever reason, she's particularly sensitive to intense imaginative presentations, and tends to so clearly identify her own thinking with what she's seeing that the merest sign of danger or embarrassment or confusion is often too much for her. (She's like this with books as well as visual entertainment, as I explained in my Harry Potter post.) But the confrontations and adventures she's seen in musicals have had a different effect on her; she can handle them, via the music, much, much better than I had thought she could. She's learning about being a viewer, about what it means to be entertained, in other words. Which, when it isn't constructed as a passive enterprise but a critical and engaged one, is a very good thing.

Their interest in musicals followed Melissa's and mine; at some point about a year or two ago we decided that we were really lacking in the classic Hollywood entertainment department; my mom loved all these old musicals, directed several for local casts in our church when I was growing up, and I felt particularly embarrassed by the fact that I'd forgotten so many plot points and songs. So we started building up a collection. We're getting most of them on DVD, which makes it easy for the girls to play their favorite scenes over and over again, and also makes it easier for us as parents: we can more easily show them great songs without them begging us to let them watch movies we don't think they're ready for yet. Fiddler on the Roof, despite its very accessible and engaging music, is clearly a little too heavy and mature for them at this point; ditto for My Fair Lady (possibly my favorite of them all) and West Side Story. (And they'll have to age about another ten years before we let them watch Chicago!) And the fact is, we've found that we don't really think all of these movies, even some of the most famous, are worth the time. Oklahoma? Great music, but the characters and story are terribly boring. Carousel alternated between creepy and dull. And Hello Dolly! was a horrible vanity project; An American in Paris, while not horrible, suffers similarly. So it's not like everything out there is gold.

Recommendations, for us or for the girls? What classic works of entertainment are we missing? We should probably rent The King and I, and see if it hold up to our memory. I've still never seen South Pacific, amazingly enough. How about Anchors Aweigh? That's where Gene Kelly dances with Tom the Mouse, right? Any others?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Comments Post #1: Christians, Libertarians, and Civic Obligation

As promised (though a couple of days late, as usual), here's my first round-up of comments, which hopefully will become an irregular but consistent feature. Enjoy.

My post on Alabama, Moral Values, and Education generated a lot of comments, thanks to the link from Crooked Timber. Several were critical of my assertion that any Christian who seriously wanted to see their mostly socially conservative values incorporated into, and reflected by, our social policies ought to be ashamed at the way the Christian Coalition simply dug in their heels at the prospect of Alabama potentially recognizing a public right to education. Thomas wrote:

"I live in a state with a constitutional guarantee of public education, and we've been held hostage by a state court for more than a year. Instead of letting the legislature fund education, the judge wants to dictate the acceptable level and distribution of funding, in order to protect the rights guaranteed. I'd vote to take that guarantee out of the constitution in a heartbeat, to get the case out of court and put the issue back into the political sphere. The political sphere will raise my taxes without doubt, but I'll know who to credit and who to blame."

That's a sentiment I can respect, if not fully agree with; as I noted in that post, Arkansas has been subject to litigation arising out of our state constitution's educational guarantee for over a decade, and no one is particularly happy with the results (not even the school district that started the original lawsuit, since in winning its case it has also been shown to be unsupportable insofar as equal funding requirements are concerned, and thus has been consolidated). I'm no fan of judicially driven politics. That said, I think there is an important civic aspect to the issue of what a state's constitutional language includes which is being ignored; namely, the idea that a state, as a body of people, ought to collectively reflect certain egalitarian priorities, including (I think) a guarantee of at least a minimal fair education. Such collective action out to arise popularly, I agree. But then again, for various avowedly Christian interest groups to work to stop popular changes in the language of a constitution doesn't sound any better to me either--in fact it sounds worse, because it seems to be not all that much different from working to prevent the establishment of any civic obligation to the poor whatsoever...which is kind of where other comments went. As TW put it:

"[A]nyone who thinks that they have a 'right' to vote themselves or another a subsidy paid for with someone else's tax dollars (regardless of whether they're willing to pay more themselves) is a thief, pure and simple. While arguably giving your own money by voluntary choice to a needy person is Christian, there is nothing 'Christian' about voting to raise the taxes of others in any sense of the word."

Harry's response to that was dead-on:

"TW is operating with a very odd sense of theft. Would it, for example, constitute theft to raise taxes in order to secure a fair justice system? Or to secure a police force sufficiently capable and non-corruptible to protect churches from fire-bombers? No; because we are all obliged to contribute to the maintenance of a system in which all our fellow citizens can have their rights secured . . . Of course, that can only be secured through a system of taxation, and no-one has the right to exempt themselves from contributing to the maintenance of a fair system of rights. The thieves, if you want to use that language, are those who vote to maintain low taxes so that they can refrain from fulfilling their moral duties to others."

I'm not a fan of "rights-talk" by any stretch of the imagination; still, the basic "fairness" that Harry is talking about here is an egalitarian principle deeply embedded in the Christian ethos (as well as many other philosophical and ethical systems). Given that the realization of this principle requires sharing, common concern, and collective action, to say that taxes--even taxes voted upon by the people, and taxes shared throughout the population!--cannot be considered anything other than "theft" leads me to believe that TW either 1) rejects the applicability of Christian principles to the modern world entirely, and thus either rejects Christian morality out of hand or rejects modern forms of organization and the state itself entirely (neither of which, given the context of his post, strikes me as likely), or 2) thinks that any and all "subsidies" (again, including those which strive to provide a common and fair system to all contributors), whatever their motivation, have to overcome some kind of logical barrier which automatically gives priority to one's possession of one's own dollars. In other words, public provision, whether or not it's morally defensible, is all fine and good, but holdings are still sacred. Which leads DJW to add:

"[T]here's something funny about political ideology here in the states. Namely, we're susceptible to ill-conceived, simple-minded libertarian rhetoric."

Which I agree with completely. I appreciate Harry and others being willing to give the socially conservative voters who helped push Bush to victory credit for their beliefs, and look for ways to bring about some progressive consistency between what their religious and moral beliefs call for, and the best egalitarian traditions of the Democratic party. But this isn't going to be an easy transformation, assuming it's even possible. Dsquared thinks the evidence suggests, speaking of red-state religious voters, that:

"They're not lost sheep who have strayed into the rightwing fold despite being Christians, simply for lack of love from leftwing democrats. They're deeply rightwing people who have managed to reconstruct, on the basis of some pretty creative scholarship, a version of Christianity which accords with rightwing values."

On the other hand, following my The Democrats and My (Social) Hopes post, Nate Oman suggests that religious progressives like myself ought to concentrate on the Republicans rather than the Democrats:

"The Democrats are . . . institutionally incapable of moderating their position on abortion, civic religion, and the other sorts of issues that you would like to see the party change directions on. The chief reason is economic. The Democratic party survives on the cash of metropolitan elites, who while moderately friendly to progressive economics are desperate to keep the barbarian hordes from the heartland at bay. The party simply cannot afford to permanently alienate this group and it never will . . . From my point of view, the only route to the sort of politics that you would like see is to transform the Religious Right into a more economically progressive movement and then to get the Religious Right to transform the GOP. In this sense the Religious Right is much like the metropolitan elites who play money bags to the Dems; it is a constituency that the party cannot afford to alienate."

He could be right. My resistance to thinking this way, however, is grounded in what seems to me to be fundamental to classical liberal and libertarian thinking: that an individual's acts have an irreducible economic element to them. This kind of liberal decisionmaking posits socio-economic "spontaneity"--namely, the expression of individual interests--as the heart of all decent and free societies; to bring politics--the collective act of ordering society in accordance with ideas--into the mix is to threaten coercion. The doctrine of laissez-faire, so central to contemporary Republican party rhetoric, has identified spontaneous liberty (in the sense of accumulating or disposing of property) with moral action, whereas the Democrats, going back to through the Great Society and FDR all the way to the Progressives, have been the one major party which has provided intellectual shelter to a more positive conception of liberty. Obviously, I think the Democrats today have failed to recognize and reach out to the other positive thinkers in America's political landscape, but at least the tradition and the rhetoric is there; whereas for the Republicans, you've got to go back to Lincoln (though Teddy Roosevelt felt the lure of this older, more political notion of liberty to a degree). In other words, I think it's easier to change the perspective of liberal elites (like by helping them see the best that popular Christian morality has to offer, even if that obviously isn't often on display today) who at least supposedly accept the reality and the priority of the commons, then it is to change the whole economic worldview of mainstream conservatives, because for so many of them, as noted above, even the ethical demands of Christianity as they understand it appears to be, in some ways at least, subject to the test of property. Either way, it's not going to be an easy battle, but for the moment I'd rather take on libertarians nearer to home than farther afield.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Marriage and Social Policy

Many thanks to Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber for linking to my post on Alabama and the likely rejection of Amendment 2, which would have removed the language which denied the existence of any general right to an education from the state constitution. Quite a few people posted insightful comments, including Harry himself; I'll have to fish some of those out (along with a few comments from some earlier posts as well) and present them along with some comments of my own about libertarianism, Christianity, and "moral values." But for now, a couple of quick notes on some related subjects, specifically having to do with welfare, marriage, and the role of the state.

This week, Slate ran a dialogue which featured posts from Mickey Kaus, Ron Haskins and Jonah Edelman on Jason DeParle's new book, American Dream, which closely describes the lives of the poor in America during the era of welfare reform. All of the e-mail exchanges on DeParle's book are superb; one should read the whole series (here, here, and here). Among their praise for DeParle's work, several conclusions emerge: that Clinton-era welfare reform got at least a few very crucial things right; that linking welfare to work is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of poverty; and that an immense distance remains to be traveled if equal opportunities are truly to be available to the urban poor. All three discussants agree that the single greatest contributor to that distance is the dreadful state of the family in inner cities. Again and again, the facts makes themselves undeniable, in the words of poor women themselves as well as in statistics: the violence, despair and bad choices which plague the poorest communities in America are profoundly wrapped up in the irresponsibility and criminality of men who father children, refuse to look for or keep jobs, abuse girlfriends and the welfare system, sell and do drugs, intimidate friends who try to change, and generally fill the lives of so many struggling working mothers, desperately trying to raise their children (usually illegitimate, generally torn between multiple homes as well as the street), with pain, confusion, and fear. What could possibly alter this dreadful legacy? Obviously what's really needed is both a general cultural revival as well as the preservation of a economic world where the jobs which cities once provided cannot so easily be taken away by globalization or illegal immigration; but the discussants don't go in that direction. What they do talk about is increasing the minimum wage (to try to compete with the drug economy which "employs" so many poor black males) or even legalizing drugs (if only to bring some disciplinary consequences and legitimacy to the "jobs" most of these men have at least some familiarity with). Mostly, however, they talk about marriage: whether the slowly increasing earning power of formerly welfare-dependent working mothers will lead to more women finding the strength to refuse to put up with unproductive men in their lives, and what, if anything, the state can do to them help get to that point. This leads to a discussion of Bush's "marriage initiative"--which DeParle, who has long been associated with liberal critics of Republican efforts at welfare reform, has cautious approval for. It isn't every day that one sees a discussion about welfare embrace both promoting marriage and universal health insurance--but to my mind, they both have the same goal in mind: helping people get into the sort of situation where they can live a life of security, both financial and emotional. The pathologies of poverty in the U.S. make it clear that both the Republicans and the Democrats have missed, or refused to see, for a very long time how both of these two securities are profoundly mixed.

Meanwhile, here in Arkansas, our governor is pushing "covenant marriage"--a recent legal innovation, also available in Arizona and Louisiana, which requires couples to accept pre-wedding counseling and allows divorce only in cases of adultery, imprisonment, abandonment, abuse and after a substantial waiting period. Arkansas has a very high marriage rate, but also an extremely high divorce rate, which is pretty common throughout much of South (a point that can be legitimately made as part of an accusation of red-state hypocrisy). Again, the real issue here is one of education (the lack of it), poverty (the extent of it), and the culture of divorce itself--which is present everywhere, but more easily manifest in areas where the sort of habits and choices that clearly work in favor of staying married are less common. Fighting this culture is thus only one part of the problem (and a difficult one, so long as no-fault divorce remains the law of the land), but nonetheless an important part, and trying to make marriage into a stronger and more binding association through political and social pressure sounds like a good (if limited) strategy to me. For those who find any sort of state intervention or involvement in the supposedly "private" matter of marriage to be distasteful (which is really a way of saying that any sort of public judgment about one's lifestyle is to be avoided), Governor Huckabee's agenda will of course seem like more moralistic interference. It think, on the contrary, that it's one aspect of a broad and necessary movement, a movement to strengthen and make more valuable the marriage relationship for everyone, for dozens of easily empirically demonstrable reasons. Of course, that won't satisfy those with philosophical objections, which is why my arguments about the legitimacy of (some) state actions in relation to a popularly held, communally articulated moral agenda continues (and will likely long continue) to run up against the arguments of those who don't see why there need be many (or perhaps even any) collective obligations, whether financial or personal, in a liberal state. But in the meantime, the fact that at least some people are recognizing the relevance of the "moral issue" of marriage to social policy, both for the inner cities as well as elsewhere, is an encouraging sign.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Alabama, Moral Values, and Education

I've spent the two weeks since the election writing again and again about how the socially conservative religious and moral concerns of large portions of the American population (mostly in the rural South and West) need to be granted more respect by progressives. My argument has been that incorporating such religious and moral thinking into the campaign for progressive causes is not only strategically necessary, if any sort of coherent movement to preserve social justice is to make headway in America today, but also wise, in that such values can support and extend the progressive argument in important ways. I believe all that. But I don't want to be painted as someone who believes that religious conservatives in America today, and particularly in the South, are at this moment ready and willing to join in some sort of populist-socialist crusade, because that's ridiculous. Making recommendations to my fellow progressives doesn't mean that I don't realize that most of the hard work has to be done in local religious communities themselves, which have (for both understandable and perverse reasons) to a great extent locked themselves into mindset that rejects much social obligation. Case in point: Alabama and Amendment 2.

This morning, I read John Brummett's column about the close but likely defeat of Amendment 2 in Alabama, a proposed amendment to the state constitution which would have repealed segregation-era language included in the document back in the 1950s. The strategy of Alabama politicians back then to avoid any potential interference with their racist educational system was to amend the constitution so that it included, besides poll taxes and mandated segregation, language which denied the right to an education at taxpayer expense for any Alabama child. Thanks to federal action, poll taxes and the doctrine of separate-but-equal was rendered moot; but the rejectionist language itself remains in the constitution, and has become a branch which many of those who reject a sense of obligation to the larger (and multiracial) social unit which Alabama in fact is continue to cling to. The push for Amendment 2 was led by Governor Bob Riley, who has bravely fought for a better Alabama before, and done so on explicitly Christian grounds. But once again, the Christian Coalition of Alabama and many of their Republican allies refused to budge on their opposition. Not that they necessarily still harbor segregationist sympathies; Amendment 2's opponents insisted that the racist language in their state constitution is meaningless, and that they would introduce legislation to strip them in particular anyway. But to actually get rid of that specific aspect of the constitution which at one time allowed the white population of the state to avoid obligations to the black population, and which is now embraced as a way to keep taxes low and keep the state from being obliged to actually repair the deeply divided and unequal public education system in the state...well, that's taking things too far. Roy "Ten Commandments" Moore took to the barricades, insisting that Christian schools and home schoolers of all sorts would be forced by itchy trial lawyers, looking for a chance to sue the state, to accept onerous and unfair tax burdens if a right for all citizens to be equally educated were recognized by the constitution. His argument appears to have worked, at least barely.

The discussion about this ugly vote over at James Joyner's blog is revealing. Yes, Alabama does have a terrible constitution, a convolunted mess with over 700 amendments running to 12 times the length of the average state constitution; perhaps it is not unreasonable to believe that a great many voters simply vote against any and all amendments purely out of disgust. And no, of course the tax-via-lawsuit issue isn't a red herring; as a resident of Arkansas, I understand very well the complicated and painful issues which arise when the state constitution's guarantee to educate the children of its residents is forced by legal action to confront terrible disparities in wealth on the one hand and strapped state coffers on the other. I'm not crazy about addressing education inequalities through judicial intervention, and while I think a state education is valuable on its own merits, I'm not unsympathetic to those who wish to preserve a certain independence, for religious or moral reasons, from the public school system. And of course, there are communal concerns which come into play here, which bump up uncomfortably against class issues and more (see Alan Ehrenhalt's article about the reaction of isolated-- and mostly white, though he doesn't mention that--rural communities to Arkansas's school consolidation plan here, and my response here (scroll down for both)). But the fact remains that public education is perhaps the single most extensive and widely supported egalitarian program in the history of the United States; whatever its failures, supporting it (in principle, if not in its every detail) surely ought to be an obvious obligation on the part of everyone who professes to believe that God created us to bear one another's burdens, and to make no distinction between the poor and the rich. Were the opposition to this amendment by many conservatives complemented by an earnest effort to redress the injustices of Alabama's tax code, or at least ask themselves how Alabama can do better in educating all its citizens, then I could understand, if not agree, with their actions. But no such effort was made; leaving aside vague concerns about not making Alabama's messed-up government any messier, this boiled down to a simple refusal on the part of a very slight majority of Alabama voters to see themselves as obligated to those who lack the resources or opportunity to either escape from or improve their own public education. I dislike seeing Southerners tarred with the legacy of segregation, but Brummett is not entirely wrong in referring to many Christian schools as "retro tools of resegregation"--spend much time in the South, particularly the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana), and you'll see how many churches and social organizations set up "private" academies in the wake of desegregation, and how the continuing impact of those admittedly often excellent religious schools warps (and depletes) the funding and administrative resources of the local school districts which remain to take care of that portion of the population left behind.

Dealing with civic obligations is never easy, and the compromises which follow the demand that, for example, a right to an education be recognized are never going to satisfy everyone. But I'd much rather see every Southern state go through the stress which Arkansas has experienced over the last ten years or more than watch a large number of white Christian voters unknowingly (or worse, knowingly) brush aside a fundamental egalitarian and Christian principle as part of a partisan struggle. Many social and religious conservatives in the South and West have drawn themselves away from civic responsibility, shamefully allowing archaic and otherwise rejected political strategies to provide them with a way to hide from the inequality and need that education can provide at least a partial solution to. In this case, progressives like myself have our work cut out for ourselves locally; the problem isn't blue, but entirely and embarrassingly red.


Since I rebooted the blog, I think I've grown more comfortable with the time it takes up, what I can do with it, and what I expect out of it. (We'll see how long that feeling lasts.) Laura's right that a lot of what goes into a blog is about "honing" yourself, your ideas and arguments and thought processes, "finding yourself," as it were, in the midst of intellectual currents, the news of the world, and most especially the everyday. Obviously, one of the best ways to measure how that honing project is coming along is through feedback. At first I was wary of installing a comments feature; now I'm delighted I did. Reading comments is such fun, and so helpful. Of course, so long as I'm on Blogger the best patches in the world still won't give me a platform where real online discussions can easily take place, but that doesn't bother me too much; if I went to Typepad or some such system, I almost certainly wouldn't be able to resist interacting with those of you who comment, and that would throw whatever balance I've achieved with the present blog out the window. I admire very much the wonderful online communities which have grown up around the great, interactive blogs out there (Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Crooked Timber, John and Belle, etc., as well as my own Times and Seasons), but even attempting to replicate that here (assuming I could, which almost certainly wouldn't be the case) would take a lot more time and energy than I'm willing to give.

But as I've read the comments from many of you, I've become dissatisfied with just leaving them down there. So I've decided to institute an irregular "Comments Post." I might end up doing it weekly, but given that there are some weeks when I don't write, that might not hold up. We'll see how often I do it (it'll probably be an end of the week or weekend thing). Laura used to do a "reader e-mail day" on her old Blogger blog; I hope this feature can be something like that. I'll just sample (or excerpt) some recent comments, publish them as a regular post, and add some comments of my own to some or all of them. I hope it'll work. Anyway, expect the first such entry before the end of the week, and thanks for reading.