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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.