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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

After Schiavo

I'm going out of town for a few days, and so will probably miss the Schiavo endgame. Perhaps it won't be the end--at this moment the Schindlers and their lawyers are no doubt rushing to the Supreme Court, in hopes of overturning what the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said early this morning: namely, despite the clear intent of the legislation written by Congress and signed by the President over the weekend, there remains no good reason to challenge the decisions of the state courts. Perhaps the Supreme Court will decide differently; perhaps not. Either way, I'm sure I'll hear all about it from our hotel room.

My suspicion is that the Supreme Court will split 5-4 or 6-3 against intervening, and that will be the end of it. That'll make me said, let there be no doubt. The post I put up Monday was mainly addressed to 1) the peculiarities of this given case, and 2) my frustrations with the way I think a great many, probably most, professed advocates of a "culture of life" in the U.S. allow their message to be warped and unevenly applied (the Schiavo case is not the cause of this, but a symptom, and perhaps also a contributor). My view is that our default decisions in disputed cases such as these should never be one of death. Accordingly, the best possible solution I can come up with in the Schiavo case is for the husband to let go (since he plainly has, in a not insignificant sense, already done so); however, I can see no way for that to be accomplished under current law. I personally don’t see a grave constitutional crisis emerging from what Congress and President Bush have done and said over the last few days, but I also don’t see much good being done. As I said before, I prefer to see contested issues like this played out in the political rather than the legal arena--but I do not see how the federal government can do anything to get into that arena. The one thing they definitely cannot do is write some sort of ex post facto law undoing the process by which the state courts have handed Michael the authority to make decisions for Terri. And so unless someone comes up with some new constitutional angle for re-examining the medical evidence, the issue (and the woman) is as good as dead. I would prefer that the matter not rest on that issue and that issue alone--I'd like, instead, to talk about our responsibility to the dying, and to what degree the participants in this case have shown such. But at this point, it's beyond me to see such a discussion can be made applicable.

I hardly ever agree with Charles Krauthammer anymore, but I liked his column this morning. Not his legal analysis so much as his legal recommendations:

"Given our lack of certainty, given that there are loved ones prepared to keep her alive and care for her, how can you allow the husband to end her life on his say-so? Because following the sensible rules of Florida custody laws, conducted with due diligence and great care over many years in this case, this is where the law lead....There is no good outcome to this case. Except perhaps if Florida and the other states were to amend their laws and resolve conflicts among loved ones differently--by granting authority not necessarily to the spouse but to whatever first-degree relative (even if in the minority) chooses life and is committed to support it. Call it Terri's law."

This may go too far--but perhaps some variation of it would work well. I would still want to give priority to the spouse, but there is also a great possibility of conflicts of interest between spouses, perhaps greater than that between parents and children. One of my fellow bloggers, in a discussion of this case, put it this way:

"Besides having a smart and loving wife, I have two smart and loving parents and seven smart and loving siblings. If my wife is unable to persuade any of those nine good people that she’s right [that he should be allowed to die if he is in a persistent vegetative state and has not made his own wishes clear], then she’s probably not right....I would trust a group more than a lone individual for such an important decision. For those reasons I...[structure it so that my] wife plus one a majority, which still offers a strong spousal privilege (2 votes would defeat 8, so long as hers was one of the two)."

Of course, most people don't have such a united and responsible family as this fellow has. But then again, absent such an active and interested family group, conflicts between family members probably wouldn't arise in the first place. (The Schindlers definitely united, responsible, and interested!) It wouldn't cover all the bases, but it would be a start towards a more responsibly grounded culture of life, rather than one driven by hysterics.

Also, don't miss Marshall Wittmann today either.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Frayed Garment

In C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce--his finest achievement, in my view--there is a moment where the soul of a bitter, shrewish woman, condemned to hell upon her death but given a chance to repent and enjoy an afterlife in heaven, refuses to do so, because her son--who died as a child, and whose soul already resides in heaven--cannot personally accompany her on her way. The angel sent to comfort and guide her in her hoped-for transition to heaven tries to explain that it is exactly her demand that her son be with her, in her care, as her possession, that warped her life and made her such a hateful person in the first place. Her husband, her other children--they all suffered because this woman's "mother love" became twisted and ugly after she lost her child, so much so that she could admit no other need, no other principle, no other thought into her life that might distract her from her never-ending, justified yet also self-indulgently distraught mourning. Her child, in death, became a fetish object, and thus she lost the ability to care for all of God's children as any Christian is commanded to do. When confronted with this realization, the woman rebels, insisting that she has a "right" to her dead son, and that it is a cruelty beyond imagining to keep them apart--even in death, even if that would mean that her son's soul would have to dwell with his smothering, demanding mother in hell for all eternity. As this crisis plays out--and ends tragically for the woman's ultimate destiny--an observer (the narrator of the book) confesses amazement to his angel guide: he had seen souls marked with truly depraved and manifold sins embrace God's grace and ascend into heaven; how is it that this woman's excess of love could pose an even greater obstacle to change?

"Did ye say excess?" the angel responds sharply. "That was no excess. That was defect."

Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, went before television cameras on her way into the hospice and tearfully begged, "President Bush, politicians in Washington: Please, please, please save my little girl."

That the Terri Schiavo case is complicated goes without saying. I don't know the heart of any of the participants (and neither does anyone else); not Terri, not Michael, not the Schindlers. In cases like these, where medical technology and subjective experiences combine to create thorny legal questions, there'll always be room for debate, disagreement, and recriminations. That is not to throw up one's hands and say that the issue is fundamentally irresolvable--on the contrary, depending on how one frames the issue, there are very clear resolutions available. But since the framing of the issue itself is put into question by the aforementioned technology and experiences, there's little hope that any one resolution will ever satisfy everyone. For my part, let me go on record saying that I'm in agreement with those who doubt that any of the medical testimony presented by the Schindlers amounts to a plausible challenge the original and subsequent decisions of Circuit Judge George Greer to define Terri as in a persistent vegetative state and thus support Michael's contention about his wife's presumed wishes. However, let me further go on record as saying that I'm also in agreement with those who insist that Michael's behavior--as one who has plainly left his wife emotionally, if not legally--is a legitimate ground for challenging the rightness, though unfortunately probably not the legal legitimacy, of his ability to play the role which judicial decisions have delivered to him. In short, I see no good reason to believe that the more-hopeful-than-actual "evidence" supplied by the Schindlers and others ought to sustain an argument for re-examining everything all over again, and I further see plenty of reason why the Schindlers parents and others would want to force that re-examination insofar as Michael's personal role in the matter is concerned. If that doesn't put me on both sides of the fence, I don't know what would.

As for the actions in Washington DC over the past two days, put me down as doubting that the "Palm Sunday Compromise" reaches the level of an unconstitutional bill of attainder (for it to do so, it would have to uniquely punish Michael and/or Terri Schiavo, and the point that there continues to be a dispute over whether Judge Greer's interpretation of his and/or their wishes is final means that remains disputable as to whether this law causes harm to any legitimately recognized interests), and more generally as not finding the Republicans' actions particularly scary--the U.S. Congress is hardly a populist assembly, and the possibility that they're reacting to a true groundswell of opinion is remote at best, but all things considered I'd still rather have contested decisions played out in the political rather than the legal sphere (I see to recall more than a few Democrats rightly making this argument in regards to a little matter called Bush v. Gore.)

But all that is just a matter of making my own relatively worthless opinion known, and besides my real point.

Yet, the most striking protesters were the quietest. All along the street, young people--many of them appearing to be no more than teenagers--kneeled silently, their mouths covered with red tape with the word "Life" written on it. Most would not return the smiles of passersby, instead gazing somberly at the hospice where Schiavo is staying.

Everyone in the blogosphere who cares has long since read the important post from Mark Kleiman which points out the, at best, inconsistency of those fighting on behalf of Terri Schiavo's continued existence. Parents object to the ending of medical treatment for terminal children all the time, and all the time are rebuffed, by hospitals and other institutions who aren't interested in or can't afford the expense--and who, of course, aren't the subject of intense protests and media attention which would force them see keeping such patients breathing or eating as a priority. And since a lot of the funds which might make it easier for hospitals to respond to parental pleading without any supplemental media glare come from Medicaid, the fact that more than a few of the same Republicans who voted in support of federal intervention in the Schiavo case also voted to cut Medicaid--with barely a peep from Schiavo-focused culture warriors--ranks as a deep and terrible hypocrisy. As Matt Yglesias put it, one is hard-pressed to come up with any explanation besides the possibility that the "organized Christian Right in the United States [is] willingly play their part as hack partisans rather than genuine advocates for the culture of life."

Matt, of course, is turning this against the Christian right because it's a handy tool, not because he would consider himself a strong supporter of "the culture of life." But what about those of us who are? Is there any explanation besides the possibility that whole movement is a circus, manipulated in exactly the way Thomas Frank alleges, with foes of abortion and euthanasia, many of them young and dedicated, passionately protesting on behalf of a party that doesn't care?

Well, yes there is. Maybe the "culture of life" position is one which really does resonate with Red America (and more), and one which many Republicans genuinely endorse--but for any number of reasons, is also position that has been misunderstood, curdled, and used (perhaps consciously, certainly unconsciously) to provid cover for warped and misguided (if sincere) passions. As the culture of life is originally (though not solely) Catholic, we might as well turn to the source here for a correction:

Nowadays, in America as elsewhere in the world, a model of society appears to be emerging in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless: I am thinking here of unborn children, helpless victims of abortion; the elderly and incurably ill, subjected at times to euthanasia; and the many other people relegated to the margins of society by consumerism and materialism. Nor can I fail to mention the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty when other bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons....This model of society bears the stamp of the culture of death, and is therefore in opposition to the Gospel message....If the teachings of the divine and natural law are to be upheld, it is essential to promote knowledge of the Church's social doctrine and to work so that the values of life and family are recognized and defended in social customs and in State ordinances....At the same time, it is essential for the Church in America to take appropriate measures to influence the deliberations of legislative assemblies, encouraging citizens, both Catholics and other people of good will, to establish organizations to propose workable legislation and to resist measures which endanger the two inseparable realities of life and the family. Nowadays there is a special need to pay attention to questions related to prenatal diagnosis, in order to avoid any violation of human dignity. (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, Part 63)

The key phrase there is "the inseparable realities of life and the family." For some people, this makes the Pope--and Catholic social teaching in general--into an advocate of a "seamless garment" ethic, a "progressive pro-life" position. Some would question that, pointing out that a "true defense of life is more subtle and complex than the so-called consistent life ethic....Distinguishing between evils is one seam in the garment of life." Very true, and an important point; without that perspective, it because too easy for people such as ourselves, caught up in the sympathies and sentiments of everyday life, to become monomaniacal, focusing all our efforts on a single, overriding principle (and, of course, our preferred interpretation of such). You can, of course, dismiss Catholic teaching on this or any point; there is no reason to take the current pontiff's words as authoritative in how one as a Christian responds to the call to defend life. But one ought not dismiss the basic wisdom in JPII's message: inseparability. A true culture of life would be one which takes all considerations which impinge upon living a flourishing life and address them collectively, some prioritizing one over another, sometimes changing priorities, but never losing contact with the garment which makes up the whole.

As I said before, I have no idea what, in the end, motivates the Schindlers. Let us grant them the best of all possible motivations--that they genuinely want to attend to their child's body and whatever life (in the sense of conscious, spirited existence) may or may not remain in it. There's no evil in that, even if (perhaps even especially if) you merely engage in utilitarian calculations. But what about the worth of that motivation itself? Even if it is understandable, at what point does the anguished cry of a mother for a "little girl" who has resided in a bed for over fifteen years become, well, possessive? This is not a criticism; such possessiveness is part of our nature (and the natural world as well--as Lewis's angel gently told the soul of the defensive mother when she trumpeted her devotion to her children as something noble and deeply humane, "tigresses feel that way too!"). But is it a good way to articulate and construct and enlist people into a movement for life? I doubt it. Those teen-agers with the red tape over their mouths, silently shouting "Life!" to those who pass by--I would not critique the purity of their intent for a moment. But when the movement which makes use of their intentions is one which separates concern for the unborn from concern for the born, which disaggregates social policy governing feeding tubes from that which governs food stamps, which rushes to engage the federal government to give Terri Schiavo every therapeutic measure, but provides no therapy for those who already lack such...well, perhaps what we have here isn't wrongheadedness, isn't crass manipulation, but defect. Something cultish, engaged in a selective and derivative witnessing, rather than something broad and decent. I defer to no one in my horror of abortion, but to make abortion and abortion alone (or euthanasia and euthanasia alone, or even just this case or that case but not all the sundry--and expensive!--cases in between) the measure of one's seamless garment of life is to wear something frayed and threadbare. (To say nothing of the fact that such garments are unlikely to be thick and strong enough to resist their appropriation by dangerous, self-deluded grandstanders like Randall Terry. Pro-lifers will have a hard time denying that such men are part of their base if they themselves don't notice or take care to make certain their seamless garment already covers all possible bases.)

Why do progressives like myself knock ourselves out trying to inject moral and religious values--not just respect for such, but the concerns and positions themselves--into the left? Because we strongly fear that the culture of life won't go anywhere unless it is taken up by people inclined to view more than a few select threads; such sewing does not a seamless garment make. My heart goes out to the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo and everyone torn apart by this case; my mind tells me that such focus, such pre-occupation, such hysterics, only lead to a kind of idolatry, a distraction and defection from larger, inseparable issues. What we have allowed to develop in America isn't a culture of death, but a culture where "life" is associated with a few (very crucial, yet also very distinct) topics, and so long as society allows whosoever is so concerned to play with those threads, it can continue on its merry way, uncontested. I can't guarantee what a truly progressive, pro-life society would look like, but I strongly suspect it wouldn't involve grateful Christians singing the praises of Tom DeLay. If he's today's culture of life champion, then the culture of life has very low aims indeed.

Friday, March 18, 2005

What's Retribution, and What Isn't

Robert Jubb, commenting on the previous post, asks just what it is I'm "ruling out by reference to vigilantism and personal retribution" given that I acknowledge that retribution can have a legitimate, collective role to play in the administration of a criminal justice system. In his view, I'm not saying anything which would prevent the legalization of torture, since that's not personal retribution--and as he sees it, both torture a victim and a victim's participation in the conducting of such are "obviously wrong."

I suppose it was problematic to bring up both the question of torture and the question of personal vengeance in the context of Eugene Volokh's original comment; as Scott points out on Rob's blog, there is a very clear category difference between the legal acceptance of personal retribution and of torture, one premised upon "mental state" (or mens rea) involved in each. State sanctioned torture may well be appalling for a host of reasons (I certainly am opposed to it), but it isn't necessarily appalling because it tolerates a vengeful mindset; by making torture a purposeful part of a criminal justice system, you excuse the issue of the mental state of the torturer, because he's doing his legally recognized job. (The same way that a doctor performing a tracheotomy, or a jailer locking a convict in a cell, are not going to be accused of having stabbed someone in the neck or imprisoned someone against their will, even though both of those descriptions are accurate, because assuming they do their jobs correctly we do not consider anything criminal about their motivations.) My post was an argument against incorporating the retributive, "vengeance" mindset beyond a certain point in matters of punishment, not against the forms such retribution could ever possibly take under any given legal system. In practice, I strongly suspect that most forms of torture, however justified and sanctioned, can never escape the kind of bloody-minded pleasure and anger that is exactly at the heart of the desire of victims to exact retribution upon those who hurt them, and consequently the desire to keep personal retribution, in the form of torture, mostly out of the criminal justice system can be articulated under the terms of my original post. But formally speaking, Rob's right: I'm arguing against victims personally torturing and/or violently punishing those who caused them harm, not against torture and/or violent punishment as such.

I think a major hang-up which prevents people from recognizing both these distinctions and these parallel concerns is the reluctance so many people have to admit the social or collective aspect to retribution. There can be (and should be) serious attention paid to the affective value which people draw from and manifest through the social body they are a part of; a social body which insists that punishment is finally simply a matter of individual treatment and utilitarian calculation (this guy causes X amount of harm to Z number of people; what is the most efficient way to rectify this imbalance?) is one that people cannot, in the end, have much love for, or trust in, and hence will withdraw their support from. "Retribution" against those who violate that which a political body, on whatever moral or religious or social level, is presumed to sustain isn't "vengeance" so much as an ordering (or re-ordering); to take that order as a legitimate concern of how one punishes malefactors is the right thing to do, even if it does lead one into complicated questions about victims or victims' families confronting those accused or convicted of having done them or their family harm, or the administration of other such "public" measures of exposure, denouncement, and expressive contempt. None of this necessarily legitimizes torture, though as I said above, the desire to personally torture or hurt those who hurt you (or to do so on behalf of such persons) would likely play a huge role in any actually sanctioned torture regime, and thus becomes a practical argument against anything beyond very minimal forms of it. (I'm thinking here about chain gangs, scarlet letters, corporal punishment, and all sorts of other measures which use shame and/or pain as a public expression of retributive emotions, about which there is a robust debate.) But in any case, drawing the line against torture does not, and should not, require that the retributive sensibility--assuming it is conducted in terms conducive to public order--need be denied any place whatsoever.

All I'm saying, I guess, is that I agree with Mark Kleiman's framing of the problem, and disagree with Matt Ygelsias's. So read both of them too.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Personal Vengeance, Community Need

Chris and Henry at Crooked Timber have rightly expressed a fair amount of disgust at this surprising comment from Eugene Volokh:

"Something the Iranian Government and I Agree on: I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing--and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act--was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging....I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way."

The man whose bloody and public execution Volokh is celebrating is a convicted serial killer, who dealt out immeasurable pain and suffering to not just his victims but their families and indeed society as a whole. What's wrong with seeing him receive his just rewards? Nothing, assuming one believes that capital punishment can be just. (A big if.) But that's not what leaps out of Volokh's comment; what leaps out is his causal embrace of the rightness of personally extracting death and vengeance upon a criminal. That is, he is applauding the idea that if someone commits a terrible crime against you or the one's you love, you ought to be able to take a hand in bringing that person's crimes back home.

What's the problem with this? As is discussed on both the above threads, Volokh is blurring an important line, a line which keeps the retributive aspect of punishment vicarious, and properly so. This is not to say that there is no place for retribution itself in meting out justice, even retribution of a very confrontational kind. Volokh is correct that eschewing the "deliberate infliction of pain"on the one to receive punishment can undermine and thus corrupt a deeply felt hurt, and to the degree that our or any criminal justice system tends to medicalize or psychologize crime in such a way as to make the desire for retribution itself seem misplaced or wrong, popular support for that system will not last long. Punishment isn't, and shouldn't be, simply about delivering some sort of neutral, merited penalty; there's a legitimate place for the social expression of horror or anger, and that means some penalties ought to be made to serve a larger purpose than merely reforming the offender or, at the very least, keeping them off the street. Discussions of "victim-impact" evidence and testimony goes to show that this point is hardly absent from our own debates over criminal justice, and for all I know Islamic legal and political thought provides some important arguments on behalf of such arrangements as well. But there is a huge gap between making the argument that it is legitimate for a criminal justice system to incorporate the expression of pain by victims and others into the establishment of penalties, and claiming it's good for said victims and others to directly cause pain to the criminal in revenge. That's a line that has more to do with basic law and order than any particular political theory.

You'd like to think that this line would obvious, but I fear it's not, especially given that it appears a kind of vigilante-mindset, which insists that direct action is superior to careful procedure, seems to be winning the day in America (such as in regard to the acceptability of torture). The problem is with making personal feelings of hate and despair not simply a part of a larger retributive argument (that much is probably appropriate and to a degree necessary) but as component of retribution itself. That short-cuts civilization, the very idea that there need to be rules which sublimate our most anguished self-interests to larger goods. It reminds me of that terrible debate back in 1988, when Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis if he'd change his opposition to the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered. Dukakis answered like a cold-blooded machine, which cost him dearly. An expression of rage has it's place. But the rage itself is not a justification. To justify actions in a civilized society means a willingness to submit those feelings to civic scrutiny--and, just to be safe, to probably relocate at least some of the actions taken by the civic body away from those who are most interested in seeing them executed.

This isn't an argument against the death penalty--as a friend of mine commented, there is strong reason to doubt the legitimacy of a system "that allows Jeffrey Dahmer to live out the rest of his life in state custody supported by tax payers' dollars (including those of many of the victims' families." I'm for the most part an opponent of the death penalty, but I don't think that it is necessary to turn society into a passionless entity, incapable of saying to some horrible act "we reject you utterly." (It'd be nice if exile were still an option in this world, but it isn't.) Dahmer--and the "desert vampire" too--very well may have deserved that ultimate community sanction. But when it is the community expressing that retributive need, it no longer is simple, potentially law-threatening vengeance. "Vicarious," communally expressed and administered vengeance, isn't exactly vengeance anymore; it's no longer a victim taking what is theirs" from an evil-doer because he and she hurt the victim, etc. Rather, it's society saying, "We cannot tolerate this," which properly sublimates the retributive aspect to a concern for, as I said, basic law and order. To talk casually, as Volokh did, about how he'd personally like to twist the guy's neck, isn't to embrace order; it's to embrace ego-driven retribution, pure and simple, and hence weakens the obstacles in the way of just going all the way to simple vigilantism. Honesty requires that I admit I probably won't lose a minute of sleep over the killing of this murderer. But I would lose a minute of sleep over the possibility that the hurt my next door neighbor feels, however great, is, in itself, sufficient justification for him to commit a killing himself.

How Much More MOR Could I Be?

This Michael Berube post (via Laura) rubbed me the wrong way, I'm embarrassed to say. I mean, hey, it's only pop music. What's the big deal if I happen to like a fair mount of Sir Elton John's oeuvre, however unhip it may be? I don't need to haul out yet another huge populist/simplicity-inspired analysis of the complex problem(s) of pursuing expensive, elite tastes in the context of popular entertainment, do I? Of course not. (Thank heavens, the readers sigh audibly.) Let it go.

I think it's my personal pop music history which does this to me. I grew up in a nice, medium-size, mostly agricultural city--Spokane, Washington--in a nice, big, religious family. I've nothing but praise for both of them. However, one consequence of this environment (which wasn't especially sheltered or restrictive, just...well, not in the mainstream of things, shall we say) was that I didn't get much of an education in popular music. I played the violin, listened to classical and church music and my mom's beloved Hollywood musical soundtracks. It was with great excitement that I discovered, sometime around when I was twelve, Casey Kasem and the existence of a "Top 40" on the radio (which, up until that time, I had mostly surreptitiously utilized to listen to late-night mystery dramas hosted by E.G. Marshall). I suppose my level of cultural awareness during my junior high and high school years weren't that different from that of your typical Napoleon Dynamite-type nerd, but still: the lack of exposure to anything remotely hip or alternative (there was no "college radio" station in Spokane) was painful, to me at least, once I left for college in 1987. (And yes, I attended BYU; but the Salt Lake City area, as those familiar with it can well attest, is one of the better and more diverse radio markets in the U.S.) The embarrassments of my freshman year, as I struggled in vain to pretend to my far more worldly peers that I too had ridden the New Wave, were legion. I attempted to speak knowingly about that hot new band from Australia, "Inks" (oddly spelled "I-N-X-S"). I mortified myself by reciting the chorus of 'Til Tuesday's big hit as "let's go downtown; it's so scary." I could go on. Suffice to say, I ended up spending most of that year in a defensive crouch when it came to popular music.

I've managed to straighten up a fair amount since then. For one thing, I realized that a lot of people couldn't give a damn about pop music anyway, and I spent several years learning from them all about jazz, the blues, a cappella, folk, and classic rock and roll. And it gradually dawned on me that pop music itself isn't a single stream, and I found myself digging all sorts of stuff from the 60s and especially the 70s (an unfairly maligned decade, culturally speaking) that weren't even remotely on the average white American's radar back when I came of age. I'd like to think that Melissa and I have managed to develop for our family a pretty broad and eclectic taste in music. But then I read something from Berube about the great old days of WNEW-FM in New York, and I get reminded just how middle-of-the-road my everyday pop tastes have become. The evidence? I own, and enjoy, Elton John's Greatest Hits--Vols. I and II and III. Or how about this? I have, in my office right at this moment, every single album James Taylor has ever released. Yep, I unapologetically (but perhaps not entirely undefensively) decided on a James Taylor marathon this week, beginning with James Taylor, continuing on through Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and JT, all the way up to New Moon Shine and October Road. (My favorite album? Flag, of course.) Am I enjoying myself? Well, seeing as it's spring break and no other faculty are around to observe me grooving in my seat to "Sun on the Moon" or "Lighthouse"...yeah, I am.

But I promise: tonight, at Chez Fox, it'll be The Chieftains! It is St. Patrick's Day, after all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Swedish Addendum and a Summary (Simplicity, Part 5)

I suppose I've pushed the "simplicity" thing about as far as it can go. As a concept I've stretched it in all sorts of probably unjustifiable ways, but that's because I simply couldn't shake it as a basic frame of reference, and so for the better part of three months I've kept trying to find ways to apply it to various, disparate concerns: trade and economics, home entertainment, travel, dining, whatever. It's a powerful idea, elements of which you can find in ideologies ranging from the far right (nationalists longing for a homogeneous state) to the far left (communists longing foran undivided economy); it finds a home in the mainstream (plant a garden!) and the radically counter-cultural (get rid of your car!). It's the ghost of Thoreau which lurks over all our Franklin Planners, and it's good that it's there, I think. But what do you do with it?

My original simplicity post elicited thoughtful comments from Nate Oman and Timothy Burke, both of whom essentially said the same thing (though from very different perspectives): to the extent "simplicity" means a kind of enclosing and enabling of a particular living arrangement, separate from the speed and change and complexity of modern life, then it must be the product of a group of people consciously choosing--in the face of the constant experience of modernity--to maintain it through the imposition of some kind of regime; simplicity cannot remains simplicity, because preserving it on its own terms cannot avoid being both coercive and complex. I'm not sure if I ever actually denied that point, but no doubt I was hoping to elide it to some degree. Consider my example of Sweden, and the $3 cup of coffee--as I described it, "wage controls, universal education, and other actions by the [Swedish] government have constructed in an environment where certain basic social realities are protected, reliable, even guaranteed: jobs and neighborhoods and vacations and so forth." The Swedes themselves don't call this "simplicity," but I took it as an example of such, because it showed one way to think about how a given people can strive to enclose themselves, and thereby exercise a kind of simple control and freedom over the consequences of their own choices. But there is far more to Sweden than I let on in that post. Christopher Caldwell's Weekly Standard cover story on "A Swedish Dilemma" made it pretty clear that the particular transactions which the Swedes have embraced in the name of resisting the "Golden Straightjacket" of globalization are ones which have pretty significant costs, costs which are cultural and sociological and not just economic. To withstand the tides of modernity on such a significant, state-wide scale requires that a people have the resources and willingness to internalize and respond to whatever those tides may wash up--in Sweden's case, a huge, mostly unemployed and segregated immigrant population attracted and sustained by the Swede's own commitment to building a society around the "moral superpower" ideal. The dynamic here is pretty clear. The economics of globalization demands fluidity; to resist such, and to build an economy around security and simplicity (as I call it), requires that prices being kept high and wages equally so. This can be done through policing borders (in matters of trade and immigration, which Sweden has not done) or carefully controlling work and income through taxes on goods, universal unionization and wage ceilings (which Sweden has done). That has created something of a classless, egalitarian society, of the sort which the simple life (in which all are producers and mutually self-sustaining) itself assumes. But it also creates an underclass: and in Europe today, that also means a multicultural (mostly Islamic) one, from which follows all the same tensions which formerly ethnically and religiously homogeneous states like Denmark, the Netherlands, and France of been struggling with so much in recent years. As Mauricio Rojas, a Chilean-born history professor and liberal reformer in Sweden today, put it at the end of Caldwell's article, Sweden has not confronted what its own tax policies demand as a "community." Instead, Sweden has been a "tribe--a good tribe! Very peaceful and nice! But a tribe."

That comes close to putting the whole debate about concisely as one might imagine. Opponents or critics of the communitarian hopes that lurk around this talk of simplicity insist that it is only possible, only plausible, to the degree one puts oneself out of the modern world entirely and back into a tribe (Rousseau's rustic man, perhaps!). And of course we can't do that (not even Rousseau thought we could)--certainly not living as we do in the civilization of states and laws. And so there will be coercion, which will backfire, and thus make the whole endeavor pointless. On the other hand, seriously community-minded folks will similarly shake their heads at Sweden's half-hearted attempts at enclosure, and even more so at my conscription of them for the cause. A nation of millions, with high-tech industries and international obligations and aspirations, they will say, cannot be a tribe. (And if it attempts to build policies as if it were one, well, it'll be unpleasantly surprised in the end!) True simplicity has to do what the critics say is impossible--gather together the faithful, and beat a retreat: back to the farm, to the village, to a tribal life of tradition and faith. Look to the good people who produced Caelum et Terra--they had the right idea, they knew what simplicity really meant. Anything else is so compromised as to be a sham.

Maybe so. Still, I'm nothing if not romantic (and perhaps a Romantic too, at that), and so I keep trying to learn lessons. Maybe the sort of tribal affectivity which makes possible a unified front against the transformations of the modern life cannot be wholly achieved, but what parts of it can? What role does history, language and religion, as reflected in education and civic life, play in making at least some sense of community possible? Is any part of it compatible with nationality, or do we need deeper federal arrangements? And that's just the first part of the inquiry: it only establishes the minimum requirements for a collectivity capable of sustaining the complex burden of resisting elements of modernity, leaving the whole matter of persuading people of the value of security untouched. The fact that some of the best progressive minds out there agree that "security/simplicity" alone can never again constitute an effective political message has to give one pause. Okay, so thoroughgoing simplicity simply isn't appealing on its own terms. It still remains to ask what kind of technologies and strategies ought to attend our individual engagement with and enjoyment of the risky, open-ended, supposedly non-coercive world. Isn't it the case that many of them structurally force us into patterns of work and leisure that are unintentionally more alienating and more complicating than they need to be? This leads us to Emma Goldman's comment on my original post, where she lays down some strong general principles about simplicity: minimizing distance over which any given economic transaction is operative, balancing necessary (and necessarily sufficient) centralized provision with local control, and (in a delightful phrase) getting a handle of the "tchotchke-fication of life." Cut back on the stuff! Not a very clear socio-economic argument, and one that, when applied to such disparate topics as watching TV, traveling to far away places, or eating haute cuisine (such as I've considered them), fails to result in any definite program of action. Still, one must not shy away from asking.

Michael Walzer years ago defined the communitarian critique of liberalism as more a "communitarian correction," a recurrent attempt to qualify and moderate the consequences of liberal modernity. I think that's probably correct, but not because communitarianism (or populism, or simplicity, or whatever) is merely derivative of the liberal order. Rather, I think there is something real to be gained and felt in lived experiences whose roots transcend that order; that the living a liberal life is both a good and important historical accomplishment does not make liberalism itself an order which goes all the way down. There is a more fundamental teleology--or a "direction in being," as Charles Taylor put it long ago--present in our worldmaking than that provided by superficial liberty, and taking our unenclosed and unpatterned modernity to be more than it deserves to be distracts us from that fact. Accessing that direction is no simple matter, paradoxically; it thus it may be that we will always be more edified by our attempt to grasp the call of simplicity than whatever complicated compromises with such we may actually come up with. But some other romantic once said something about our reach exceeding our grasp, right?

Defending the Fourth Estate

I haven't seen much debate in the blogosphere over the story in the New York Times on Sunday about the Bush administration's increasingly common and sophisticated use of prepackaged video segments, generally passed off as "regular" news stories, to get their message out to the public. Timothy Burke has a typically smart and unconventional take on it: whatever else is wrong with the practice, it is also clumsy, banal, classless, "tinpot"--making the U.S. that much more like every other place in the world which lacks a robust public sphere. And John Quiggin brought it up over at Crooked Timber, tying it into how the age-old collusion between advertisers and the media often crosses over into plain propaganda: "Of course, reprinting press releases with minimal editing has been a standby of lazy journalists for decades. But...[e]ven if the reader is led to imagine that the statement was actually made to an audience of reporters, there's no serious deception, though a well-designed press release can certainly ensure that the writer's key points get prominently reported in a way that makes them seem like fact rather than opinion. But the video news release goes way beyond this. The closest analog in the print world is those supplements, designed to look like news, with 'advertisement' in small print at the bottom of the page." I agree with John, though I think the problems inherent in this practice (which, to be sure, long predate the Bush administration) go way beyond the advertising mentality. In fact, I think the important issue is the need to distinguish between what government does and what advertisers do.

Advertising exists to sell things. In a very crude way, so does the government, at least in its executive function; it's the branch responsible for enacting policies and enforcing laws, and communication is a big part of that. Every department in the federal government--Agriculture, State, Defense, Education, etc.--has public relations people who are responsible for communicating with Congress and innumerable constituents, making a case for what they're doing and how they're doing it; if they fail to do that, then they aren't going to be able to do their job. That's a reality of public administration, and no one denies it. But advertising, in its selling, seeks to make a particular kind of case for its product, a case which involves a good deal of selectivity, misdirection, even deception in how it conveys its message. We don't want the government to make that kind of case for itself, however much it might increase its public effectiveness in the short or long term. Why? Because, to invoke Rousseau, we do not want the government--meaning specifically the executive branch--to exercise its own institutional or "corporate will" independently of what the people (ideally the legislative branch) desire. (As he put it (Social Contract, Bk. III, Sec. 2), the corporate will is "the common will of the magistrates, which is relative solely to the advantage of the prince"--or in other words, those actually holding executive power.) It is a precarious but necessary thing that certain specific persons and agencies be entrusted with the power to enact and enforce policy; a legitimate polity will be one which limits and watches the power of the executive to do so. To allow such limits to collapse is to allow the executive too much command over not just the establishment of policies, but also the determination of such. We're tolerant of advertisers exercising a significant degree over control over how their work is received by the public; after all, it is private goods they are selling (though we properly lay down certain standards, especially when it comes to goods that could potentially impact the health or safety of buyers and others--medicine, automobiles, etc.). But the government is selling public goods: our own business, in other words. And hence, we ought to be careful about letting the people in executive positions determine what or how much about that business is known.

In other words, we want an independent media. One needn't go deeply into political theory to make this case--the idea that press ought to form a "fourth estate" representing a defined body of interests in society, one set in opposition to those who are actually in government, is practically synonymous with the modern age. Still, I think the detour into theory is helpful, because it clarifies some important distinctions. Consider the obvious defense one might make to this article (a defense which, in fact, an old friend of mine, a former employee of the Department of Energy who regularly handled press releases and all manner of "strategic" communications): it's the journalists fault! The article makes it clear that financially strapped local affiliates and unprepared reporters can be counted on to desperately make use of any prefabricated story which falls into their laps; if they don't do the work to come up with "the other side of the story," or at least identify the source of the footage or words, it isn't the government's fault, right?

The reply to this response can take one of two forms. First, you could argue that the media is supposed to be "neutral," and that, by taking advantage of the decentralized structure of the American media today, the government's clever use of prepackaged news stories undermines the "objectivity" which news organizations are committed to. The news, in short, is supposed to be disinterested and trustworthy enough to give us the facts without interpretation, thereby enabling the people to decide things with an open mind. This ideal of journalism as a selfless, impartial labor on behalf of democracy is a great myth, and it makes for a strong argument against tolerating, at least not without strict limits, the ability of government agencies to use their PR resources to provide unnecessary crutches to media affiliates across the country. Unfortunately, I think this argument also has a serious flaw: as soon as anyone can plausibly make the case that reporters are not, in fact, neutral, objective, impartial and disinterested, then the door is kicked wide open for the party in government to step right in and claim that the "real story" hasn't been told, and justify using their position to spread as much partisan (that is, in service to their own party) information as possible. The fact that Fox News, which has never seriously pretended to be anything other that a voice for the Republican party, can insist that they're just playing the same objectivity game as everyone else ("we report, you decide"), I think shows just how weak this liberal ideal in practice actually is.

I don't particularly mind a partisan media, at least not in many things. Michael Kinsley made the argument years ago that, especially in regard to stories involving highly contested political, social, or economic facts and issues, he'd rather read the Wall Street Journal or some other similarly slanted paper, because someone not worried about hiding their opinions is more likely to dig into the real implications of the story than someone who feels constrained by an "on the one hand, on the other hand" ethic. I think his point is basically correct--the goal is to have a responsible media, and such responsibility isn't necessarily incompatible with a partisan one. The way to preserve that responsibility isn't primarily making certain that the media has no interests; rather, it is making certain that the media remains an interest entirely distinct from the institutional or corporate interest of those actually making and enforcing policy. That makes, I believe, for a much sharper and brighter line--no running of news stories which directly originate from the government without identifying them as such!--than the attempt to impose a nonpartisan perspective on the mainstream media itself.

Of course, the problem with partisanship is that partisans will form alliances, and from there you're only a step away from the government (or business, or liberal advocacy groups, or whomever) just writing the news themselves. Even the sharpest line will have some gray edges to be negotiated, and negotiated again. But to baldly accept the idea that the government has every much "right" to sell it's own version of the news to supposedly independent institutions is to blind oneself to the very real power imbalance here. It is one thing for a reporter to tell a story in such a way to make it easier for his or her preferred lawmakers to do what he or she hope they'll do; it's another thing for the lawmaker herself to tell a story to increase her own popular power. I see the real harm here not in the willingness of some news organizations to do some advertising, and let their sympathies show, but rather in the blinkered arrogance of a state or party that makes use of the needful and important tropes of journalism directly on its own behalf--and the fact that many journalists, too concerned about political goals or slashed budgets, are apparently happy to let them. To the extent that such is the reality of television journalism today, then the fact that video segments are flowing out of Washington D.C. without big red stamps on them, marking them "A Department of Agriculture Production," is a potentially a far greater threat to democracy than it may first appear.

Monday, March 14, 2005

My Dinner at Charlie's (Simplicity, Part 4)

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for over six months. As they say, better late than never. Don't worry if this doesn't seem to have anything to do with my previous simplicity posts; that comes in later.

On September 3, 2004, I had the pleasure of eating dinner at one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the United States, and thus the world--Charlie Trotter's, in Chicago. We--myself, two old friends (one from Portland, the other from Dallas) who are themselves superb guides to good food, and an acquaintance well-connected to the Chicago food scene--sat at the Kitchen Table, and got to watch the wonder of world-class cooking, serving, and restaurant management unfold all around us for three-plus hours. Plus we ate the finest meal I've ever had in my life. Not that I can claim any sort of expertise in that matter--I do all right with the culinary arts, on my own level, but when it comes to "Aka Yagara with Emerald Cove Oyster and Peas" I'm at a loss: I just eat it and enjoy (or not). There are, I've come to learn, profoundly differing philosophies out there guiding how one might assess any particular restaurant or dish--debates over the presentation, ingredients, and overall aims which go into the construction of every menu. Some of that I can, perhaps, say something about. But as for the food itself--for that, I just sat back in wonderment.

Just for the record, out of more than 17 separate courses served us, what did I really like? (Fortunately, one of my friends kept a very complete photo record of the whole evening.) Well...

Bluefin Tuna with Cucumber Soup (also here and here): The soup had jalapenos in it, somewhere, and immediately set me to fantasizing about making some cucumber salsa (which I've since learned is actually not at all uncommon). One of our favorite dishes at home is just a very simple salmon with salsa, and as a well-prepared tuna has all the taste of salmon, I took to this wonderful mix of flavors immediately. It was my favorite fish course (there were five) all night.

Heirloom Tomato with Arugula and Heart of Palm Sorbet: Leaving aside the sorbet, of which I remember nothing (I confess I didn't really understand or appreciate the restaurant's tendency to dress up every other course with multiple special sauces, souffles, and sorbets, but I guess that's haute cuisine for you), I have to say this was the tastiest tomato I've ever eaten in my life. Great presentation too.

Bread and Olive Oil: Someone, I don't remember who (maybe me) asked for some oil to go with our bread, rather than the (very cool) unsalted butter and separate sea salt available on our table as condiments. This being Charlie Trotter's, they didn't just plunk a bottle of olive oil on our table; they brought us three fine selections, one from California, one from Italy, and one from Spain. The Californian olive oil tasted flat, but the other two were wonderful, the Italian being my favorite. I love good bread, and I must have emptied most of oil dish all on my own.

Lamb with Rutabaga and Black Truffle: I haven't had lamb nearly enough in my life. An incredibly tasty course.

Cashew Cheese Cake with Peaches, Kumquats and Star Thistle Honey: This was, hands down, my favorite dish of the night, and very likely the best dessert I've ever had in my life. The egg-like thing in the picture is a compact, smooth cashew "cake," with a consistency almost like ice cream. I have no idea how they made it; something about whipping cashews in a machine until they're reduced to a paste. I could have eaten a pint of it--simply astounding. It was served alongside a caramel custard with espresso jelly, which was quite nice, but which couldn't even touch this luxury. I wish Trotter's had been the kind of place where I could have ordered some of this to go.

Hot Chocolate with Nibs and Cream (also here and here): Since a few of us aren't coffee drinkers, someone asked for some hot cocoa, and this is what Charlie Trotter's came up with. Delicious, rich chocolate, complemented by some tasty, mildly bitter chocolate nibs. I generally prefer hot cocoa to chocolate; the latter is usually a little too sweet and syrupy for my tastes. But the nibs made up for that, and made for a tremendous finisher to the evening.

What's the point of listing all these fine dishes? For someone who loves good dining, going into the details of what restaurants like Charlie Trotter's--or any restaurant for that matter, whether pricey or cheap, world-famous or entirely local--is much the same as movie fans listing their favorite scenes from great movies, or arguing about the choices great actors have made in interpreting classic roles. It's about enriching our appreciation of a particular cultural endeavor: filling in the nooks and crannies of, and thereby situating our own preferences in relation to, a given creative space.

Ah, but is it a space worth exploring? Movies are available to everyone nowadays, or just about; fine food, at least on this level, is most certainly not. Furthermore, as huge as Hollywood may be, the fact is that it is a mostly enclosed economy, one that we can shut ourselves away from, or selectively partake of, as we think best. But food is something else: buying (literally!) into a world of great food is to partake of and thus support a truly global economic superstructure, where foodstuffs are grown and raised and traded and shipped worldwide, where tremendous energy and expense (and waste) go into the manufacture a single, ridiculously labor-intensive, complex and therefore pricey desert. This isn't primarily an environmental question--after all, a truly wealthy place like Charlie Trotter's can afford to select from only the rarest organic and free-range meats and vegetables, and thus come off smelling quite green. It's a question about turning something as basic as keeping our bodies fed into a competition, a business, a luxury, something with a hierarchy, economy and ranking that puts certain diets and food choices beneath others, encouraging us to spend our time, if we're so inclined, climbing the ladder, spending our money and searching out culinary experiences instead of dealing with simpler, more necessary things. Sitting there in Trotter's didn't exactly fill me with guilt about starving masses in Chad or Bangladesh (though there's every reason it could have), but it did make me wonder if it wasn't flirting with a kind of idolatry or addiction, waiting to see what amazing new thing the cooks have discovered you can do with caviar, whose very presence in a restaurant in Chicago goes to show that we sometimes seem to care a great deal more about such complex things as making the arrangements so that fish eggs can be transported across continents, than the innumerable humbler, more egalitarian things that would employ and feed ourselves (and others, especially desperately hungry others) just as well.

In George Orwell's fantastic Down and Out in Paris and London, he talked about how he worked as a plongeur (a dishwasher and general errand-boy) for a just-opened restaurant in Paris. His workday was hell, and the conditions in the kitchen were worse. When I first read that book, I could sympathize: I'd washed dishes in a restaurant before, and I found his reading of the tense interactions of the backroom staff (waiters, cooks, hosts, etc.) at a busy restaurant exactly right. But what stayed with me even more was his general condemnation of the whole enterprise:

"People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose. They see somebody else doing a disagreeable job, and think that they have solved things by saying that the job is necessary. Coal-mining, for example, is hard work, but it is necessary--we must have coal....And similarly with a plongeur's work. Some people must feed in restaurants, and so other people must swab dishes for eighty hours a week. It is the work of civilization, therefore unquestionable. This point is worth considering. Is a plongeur's work really necessary to civilization?...He earns his bread in the sweat of his brow, but it does not follow that he is doing anything useful; he may be only supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury."

Orwell then went on to talk about rickshaws, and the people and ponies who carry them. The animals are driven until their death, and then shipped off to the knacker; the men run themselves ragged, "earn thirty or forty rupees a month, and cough their lungs out after a few years." And for what? The luxury of riding in a rickshaw--usually an uncomfortable and even slow ride--is hardly great; it only exists because the upper classes (or those who wish to pose as such) of south and east Asia long considered it vulgar to walk. "They afford a small amount of convenience," Orwell wrote, "which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals. Similarly with the plongeur....He is the slave of a hotel or restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, what is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it....Some restaurants are better than others, but it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant as one can get...in a private house....Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want."

Now, of course, things have changed in the last seventy years. There is a great deal more wealth in the world, and a great deal more labor protection too; between minimum wage laws and health code inspections, the working lives of most of those who wash the vegetables and clean the dishes in our restaurants are significantly better than they were for Orwell. Moreover, Orwell lived in a world where there was relatively little travel, and comparatively less exchange of goods: the enormous rush of attention and money which would be pored into the creation of easily replicatable living environments to serve mobile populations (hotels, restaurants, highways, etc.) was still a few decades away. But I wonder if that changes anything essential about Orwell's diagnosis. He's still right that there's little to the luxury of restaurants that isn't obtainable in the home--or at least would be, if people still knew how to cook and the global economy hadn't either enticed or thrown so many of us into patterns of work which leave few with the time to learn. He's right that the luxuries afforded by these institutions are rarely all that luxurious, especially once the expense and the time and the distance have all been tallied up. And he's especially right that such luxuries are a product of a relentless push by owners to get those who labor under them to create something that is, almost certainly, unnecessary. Which means, as Orwell thoughtfully concludes, that on some level perhaps, as consumers of luxury, we do not see the labors of plongeurs and their contemporary equivalents as "honest work," and thus hypocritically figure that those who can do no better than to wash sheets and clean carrots are probably better off being left there, out of sight and out of mind.

But wait, a possible response! At Charlie Trotter's, the carrot cleaners were not out of sight and out of mind; on the contrary, we watched them all night, as they bustled around us. They made us part of the meal, in a way; there was a kind of interactivity to our eating, as the passers-by asked us questions about the food and we asked questions in return. One could argue that there was a bit of performance art going on in that setting; that the dirtier work, the expensive, complicated, crude work of transforming foodstuffs into a luxurious experience had perhaps been outsourced, so that we could imagine the eating experience as something spare and simple and direct. Maybe. But then again, perhaps treating fine dining as a performance art is the better way to think about it. Clearly, a fine restaurant could simply be about feeding, our personal nutritional satisfaction transformed by competitive acquisition. But to the extent such is the case, and we buy into it, we've allowed our natural appetites to be co-opted by an attitude which insists that eating ought to be luxurious, and the more luxurious the better: that food makes demands on us ("What, you eat that? Haven't you heard? No one eats that any more!"), and we have to respond, giving credence to those food profiteers who insist that we must be so hungry, so weary, so bored, so unsatisfied that we've no alternative but to clamber on up to the next feeding level, or else be condemned with the rest of the pizza-munchers below. But art doesn't have that attitude, or at least it needn't. It isn't so demanding; it's inviting. Try something, and see if you like it; if you don't, try something else.

That's not to say there can't be a place for normative concerns in food as in any other cultural space--actually, some food is better than others, and just as it's worth developing an ear for music, it's worth developing one's palate. At Charlie Trotter's, my palate was stretched a long ways, and I'm a better person for it. But I went into that restaurant--that expensive, complicated restaurant--and was treated to a show, a show (however truthful it may have been) of honest work in the name of adventuresome, avant-garde tastes and combinations. It was like going to see a Picasso--which is also a luxury, but one which doesn't inject itself into my daily life, encouraging me to unknowingly burden myself with all the expectations and unseen costs of a complicated, luxurious act. The cruise ship, the command performance, the complete collection--usually unnecessary, almost always wasteful, rarely as good as anything you couldn't do more humbly on your own terms. But a bit of fine cashew cheese cake now and then--that's craftsmanship, and I was blessed with the chance to draw up a chair and watch them do their work. An expensive blessing, to be sure; Picasso may not have worked entirely alone, but he didn't need nearly as complex an economy and organization around him to do his work as Charlie Trotter does. Still, given that we live in a world where such resources abound (and sometimes oppress), putting them to work in an artistic way, wherein the food really does matter as much as the feeding, perhaps Trotter's aim is more simple than it appears.

Orwell ended Down and Out by resolving, among other things, to never again "enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant." "That," he concluded," is the beginning." He may be right to think so; maybe the complicating costs and distractions of pursuing great food in even as careful and admirable an environment as Charlie Trotter's just can't be justified. I'm not sure. I know that the artistry of food doesn't call to me the way it calls to so many others, and I'm fine with that. As with most every act of cultural consumption, the gains have to be weighed against what that cultural practice depends upon, and what it encourages. It'd probably be much, much better if all of us stuck with eating simply and humbly. But for those who want a good honest show, if only once, I know a great place in Chicago I'd recommend in a heartbeat.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Comments Fixed

I've got it fixed; the comments should be working now. Or at least, they were when I tested them. Changes in Blogger messed up the hack that I'd installed to allow the comments function to operate smoothly in the first place; thankfully, this good gentleman has provided an update to the hack, and now all is well. I think you'll still end up jumping to a Blogger page when you post a comment, but you'll be able to click back, and you shouldn't have to sign in at all. So, comment away.

Oh wait, I guess you'll need something to comment about. Sorry; it's been a stressful few weeks around here. But blogging should resume shortly. Thanks to everyone who has continued to check in.