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Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I've rarely used this space to talk at all about my own spiritual life before--I've talked my beliefs a fair amount I suppose, but always, I think, only in connection to current controversies or the questions of others. I'm going to start changing that this summer. Not that I foresee this blog becoming primarily religious; that's not my preference. But I will be doing some more merging (or cross-posting) of the stuff I've written for religious blogs and other outlets, beginning with this one. I hope none of my eight or so regular readers mind too much.

So, today is Whitsunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, a holiday in honor of the Day of Pentecost. Pretty much exactly four years ago, I wrote something about the gifts demonstrated on that day, and about those–-decidedly less spectacular–-gifts which I like to believe (or just want to believe) I have. I’m somewhat proud of it; I think it is one of the more honest things I've ever written about myself. So I'm reposting it, with a few changes, here. (You might want to check out the comments on the original post, if you're interested.) I should note that the Mormon church doesn't celebrate Whitsunday, or acknowledge it in their Sunday meetings, at least not anywhere I've ever been or heard about. To tell the truth, for all the supposed authoritarianism and ritualism sometimes associated my church, as far as the course of weekly Sunday observances are concerned the only days of truly special note the whole year through are Christmas and Mother's Day (though, depending on how attentive the local--and always overworked--leadership is to these things, there might be special Sunday programs set up for Easter or Pioneer Day (July 24th, the day the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated; it's a state holiday in Utah)). We're very much an American Protestant "low church" in that way. So these reflections are ones I've come up with, and attempt to make a part of my faith life, on my own.

Whitsunday is a commemoration of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on Pentecost. Acts 2:2-4 (KJV): "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."

I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni (a Book of Mormon prophet). I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I have never seen an angel, discerned spirits, or spoken in tongues. With only a very few and very small exceptions, mine has not been a life graced, so far as I know (or so far as my own pride and sins allow me to recognize), with spiritual guidance, revelation, confirmation, or testimony.

Yet I know I have been given one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing (a somewhat formal blessing which Mormon men and women often receive when they are young adults) describes it as a gift of wisdom, but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier: while to some it is given to know "that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world," it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.

I am, in short, a believer, not a knower. While I have never seen with my own eyes evidence of any of the aforementioned, more spectacular spiritual gifts, and while I am often critical of accounts of such, I do not fundamentally doubt any of them. 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. In short, 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...and when I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found God through Christ’s grace, through the Bible and the Book of Mormon, through service in my church, I can see no reason to dispute them. I believe them: I believe the words of my father, my wife, and so many teachers and neighbors and friends that I have been blessed with. While I don’t have within me any great, foundational conviction or sure knowledge that they are all right, it also doesn't strike as at all plausible that they are all wrong.

What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. I believe in lots of things (like Santa Claus, for instance), as I tend to think it reasonable to not discount the possibility that truth and beauty and God’s power may dwell within practically all things. (Which makes me into a kind of panentheist, I know.) But I’m also a debater and a doubter. Is that contradictory? I don’t think so--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 to borrow from the German romantic tradition, of Verstehen. When describing King Solomon’s wisdom, the Old Testament record curiously speaks of not only his knowledge, but of his "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.

The fact that I can get all philosophical about what it is that I suspect is my most fundamental spiritual condition shouldn't be taken to mean that I consider it to be an excellent one, as I don't. Frankly, I'd much rather have conviction. I’d like to be able to speak with certainty about this thing that I did and these words which I spoke and this miracle which I witnessed. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism always ends up becoming self-criticism. ("You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?") It can be a very effective tool in polemical settings, but talking about deep yet inarticulate feelings by way of what you doubt you have any good reason not to believe ("I've never felt inclined to discount the very real possibility that the leaders of the Mormon church may well sometimes receive direct revelation from God," etc., etc.) really kind of stinks as far as bearing testimony and witnessing ones faith goes. So I still pray for confirmation and revelation, though admittedly far less often than I used to. For now however, reflecting upon those I've known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and thinking about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am yet gifted to be bound by naive belief to the gospel of Christ.

In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to think about this. Paul Ricoeur described it (in The Symbolism of Evil [1967]) as a "second naivete," one which calls us across the "desert of criticism" and makes possible a certain kind of belief or intuition of the reality of the sacred. To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics--but then hermeneutics was originally a theological (indeed a pneumatological) endeavor, concerned with the role of spirit, or spirits, in the text or symbol or world. While I realize that it is dangerous to wish for things--as you may get what you desire--I still wish that I could be one of those who see and feel, with great immediacy, as did the early apostles, the gifts of the spirit. But in any case, on this Whitsunday, I’m grateful that I at least believe that such things are there.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Any Way You Want It"

I am told that I need to repent for mocking Steve Perry and his hair last week. (See yesterday's post.) So be it.

Huh. I'd forgotten that every member of Journey looked that way.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Some Short (or Not-So-Short) Takes

1) I love walking around the Friends University campus at this time of year. It was right around now--the end of May--when I first came here for a late (and, as it turned out, very lucky) interview three years ago; having expected Kansas to be brown and dull, I was struck by the trees, the landscaping, the flowers and benches that make this campus a small jewel here in Wichita. It's especially easy to appreciate it when most everything is quiet and empty. Melissa has never liked me working on academic stuff on the computer at home--"being there, without being there," is how she puts it--and so has routinely kicked me out of the house once summer arrived, ever since I finally got an office of my own. Being able to sit here on sunny Kansas days, being able to look out over the campus from my third-story office, I don't mind that at all.

2) A lot of my thinking about various academic and professional complaints and concerns will always be colored by the fact that I was just so hysterically happy to get this job in the first place, that I still like it so much, and that I recognize--despite all the annoyances that my position throws at me--how ridiculously and unjustifiably blessed I am to have a relatively secure job doing something which I gambled much of my and my future's on, and which I genuinely love. I have good friends who are still hanging on by their fingernails, hoping to make their dream of a career in academia come true for them; I look at wonderfully talented people, like Laura McKenna, who suspect that this just-ended semester may be the last time they'll ever teach, and I am struck by and arbitrariness of it all. In the end, all I can do is say a prayer of thanks, send my best wishes and advice and hopes and thoughts to those who need them (as so many did for me, a little over three years ago), and take another walk to enjoy the blue skies above me.

3) I've been made an Editor-at-Large for Front Porch Republic, so you can expect me to continue to cross-post between there and here. Hope you don't mind. They're a great bunch of folks over there; as crazy as I think some of them sometimes are, they're also taking my kind of ideas--populist, localist, agrarian, etc.--seriously, and so they're teaching me a lot. I'm grateful to be able to do my part to keep the site going.

4) Related to that, my friend Damon Linker has thrown my name out as part of a post about where he thinks conservative thought and right-wing commentary is going these days. As I told him, I appreciated the link, though I kind of wonder why--it's been one of my constant themes that I don't really believe that the stuff I mentioned above--a concern for populist economics, local democracy, agrarian culture, etc.--necessarily translates into anything "right-wing"; rather, I see such "conservatism" as being on the left. But I also have to recognize that, at a certain point, I'm probably protesting too much. And I can't deny that his post gets me thinking about what I hope from my involvement at a site like FPR. In a nutshell, as the events of 9/11 and my subsequent long and slow disengagement from where those events intellectually took me merged with my own vaguely antiliberal populist/agrarian/localist sympathies, I realized that, assuming no Red Tory party will appear in America to solve my allegiance problems, I really only had two options for my political hopes: try to make the Democrats for religious and communitarian, or try to make the Republicans more egalitarian and socialist. For a long time, I stuck with the first option, and despite my membership in the DSA, practically speaking that's the way I still usually think. But FPR is making me wonder if Damon's suggestion that some of this sort of unconventional thinking might help "contribute to the emergence of a new [more concerned with democracy and social justice, perhaps?] right to take the place of the one that left such a profound mark on the nation over the past three decades." If nothing else, the recent addition of another avowed progressive leftist, Lew Daly, to the list of FPR contributors, seems to be another point of evidence that, given the current state of conservatism, maybe both options are now viable one.

5) On the pop culture front (that's an obvious segue from discussing theories of politics, isn't it?), my family and I have totally fallen in love with the BBC series Robin Hood. (We're not quite through with the first season yet, so don't tell us what happens.) It's so completely a creature of classic episodic television tropes (will every episode include a scene of Robin and his Merry Men somehow breaking into and then escaping from Nottingham Castle? of course!) that I can turn off my brain and delight in it as just some great, family-friendly adventure story-telling. It's the best non-sitcom tv show that we've discovered since Monk.

6) Last week, at the final jazz band concert of the season at my oldest daughter's middle school (she plays the clarinet), the regular program was interrupted by an appearance by "Spoiled Milk," a rock quartet that her teacher and a couple of students had put together on their own. They played Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", and the crowd went wild for it. They weren't too bad either. (And note that this was a week before the song was revived--once again!--on Glee, which I suppose we're going to have to start watching now too.) Now my two oldest girls are nuts for Steve Perry's sound, have downloaded the song to listen to it all the time, and are learning the lyrics and singing it all around the house. Part of me is concerned about this, but another part of me remembers that when my older sister was around Megan's age (she'll be 13 this August), she had a 45 record of Robbie Dupree's "Hot Rod Hearts" that she rocked around the bedroom to, and she turned out okay, so maybe I shouldn't be worried? I suppose I'll just have to figure out this parenting-of-teenagers thing as I go along.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Electric Blue"

Last week's comment about the hairiness of ZZ Top makes me want to remind you all that men's hair in the 80s came in many varieties, and more often than not was beautifully coiffed. Men (some of them, anyway) truly believed in their hair in the 80s, after a decade of letting it get long and shaggy and dirty, or just thinking that a blow-dryer would do the job. Sure, there were some holdouts who kept up those unwashed stylings (*cough* Steve Perry *cough*), but their were plenty who celebrated the new decade by showing off the possibilities of the perm.

Now, you're thinking to yourself, "he's talking about mullets, and man, they were lame." Not true! There's so much that the clever pop singer could do with the mullet. Consider Iva Davies's masterpiece, for example.

He had a pretty good voice, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Or Should I Say, Declan MacManus, International Art Thief?"

I'm sorry, I know I don't have the time to do this now, but last night my wife and I watched "Kidney Now!" on Hulu, and honestly, I just have to ask the question: is there anything right now, being broadcast anywhere on this planet, in any electronic medium whatsoever, that is nearly as funny as 30 Rock? I sincerely doubt it.

[Update 11/18: Oh bother, Hulu has taken the clips down. Oh well; you can still find the best bits here.]

The whole episode is hilarious, as nearly all the episodes are, none of it more so than the final big tribute number, with dozens of celebrities gathered for the cause "One Song. One Man. One Kidney." It was the best star-studded season finale I've seen since The Simpsons' "Krusty Gets Kancelled" ("Oh no--Bette Midler!!"), which I maintain is quite possibly the Funniest 30 Minutes In All Human History.

Oh, will someone assure me that I'm not the only person who thinks he caught a wickedly obscure M*A*S*H joke in the episode? Thanks.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Two Notes on Civil Religion

I don't have the time to do this properly now, as we're heading out of town for a Memorial Day weekend holiday on Thursday, and I have a writing project (and little things like packing) that will occupy most of my day tomorrow. But a long and productive e-mail exchange with Caleb Stegall, and this post by Jacob Levy, have convinced me I need to say something more about what I meant in this post by, and more broadly what I think people can hope to get from, a "civil religion." Plus, I think Damon Linker may be cooking up something as well. So, next week, perhaps. But for now, I want to emphasize--or extend my typically rambling arguments to include--two points:

1) I didn't mean to claim--and was wrong if I did claim--that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is right now, under President Obama, the clear majority civil religion of the United States. It's not, for reasons I'll elaborate in the next point. All I meant to do was explore some of the "liberal" and "therapeutic" and "consensus-and-conversation-and-common-ground" elements of Obama's own religious and moral rhetoric (as demonstrated by his speech at Notre Dame, for instance), and draw out the parallels it has with (as well as the possible conceptual and historical roots it may share with) MTD, all for the purpose of suggesting that MTD isn't necessarily the complete collapse of substantive Christian civil politics that some people make it out to be. I freely admit that there is much to MTD, to the extent that one takes it as an accurate description of what many young people in America believe (and, with some qualifications, I think it probably is), that is simply stupid, hollow, and repulsive. But not all of it is, and I think Obama's rhetoric can help us discern elements worth trying to build up and instantiate.

2) Jacob notes correctly that I spoke of a civil religion being unavoidable, because people are religious, and people will take their religiosity with them into democratic politics, through which majorities will bring about through acts of legislation and just their ordinary civic practices some reflection of what they happen to believe. But the problem with this, of course, is that in democratic societies, you don't ever really have majorities which achieve Rousseauian consensus, even if that may happen to be one of the operating aspirations of the civil religion in question; rather, you have majority coalitions which outvote others, and get to do their religious reflecting...until they start losing, at which time those other expresses of civil faith, which never disappeared, will come right back. Speaking specifically of MTD at the present time, Jacob claims that

...it may be the de facto religion of a majority of northern whites. I can't see anything more than those that it could possibly be. To name only the two biggest outlier groups: The black church rests on beliefs and languages that are incompatible with it; neither jeremiad nor prophecy sits at all comfortably with this other thing that sits halfway between Episcopalianism-lite and Unitarianism. The white southern evangelicals, charismatics, and fundamentalists (overlapping, not identical, groups) who made up the core constituency of the Republican civil religion (Catholics were well-represented among its intellectual class but not its voting class) aren't going anywhere, and aren't going to be persuaded to join the MTD civil religion. They never have been; they might withdraw from politics as they did post-Scopes, but that only makes them a disaffected, partly-seceded internal minority, not part of the hoped-for consensus.

Exactly true. Now, I like Rousseau enough to be willing to argue that his particular model of civil religion, whatever its relationship to MTD, is important enough to out thinking about political things to be a cause to inquire into whether our current construction of democracy, with majority coalitions and like, isn't going about things the wrong way; maybe we should be looking at some polity that is smaller, more participatory, more communal. But we have what we have, and what we have isn't at all bad. And so I have to admit the point of Jacob's observation; that anytime we get to talking about civil religion, we potentially get ourselves into a frame of mind which asks how appropriate this conception may be, how well it will "work," for everybody. And that's a bad frame of mind, because it won't include everybody; it will, by contrast, almost certainly be an instantiation of some form of exclusion or another. Which gets us into a discussion about boundaries and limits and so forth, and that's a good discussion to have. So consider this just an introduction to such, for now.

Summertime Blues

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I'm more than capable of putting on my localist and communitarian hat(s) during the fall, winter, and spring: I defend the public schools, speak out in favor of walking, urge everyone to buy local and eat right, and generally envision--and do my own little part to encourage--an environment where people can collectively take responsibility for their lives and those of their families and communities. Summer though...in the summer it gets harder. Doesn't everyone just kind of want to run wild, be irresponsible, be an individual, during the lazy, hot months of June, July, and August (give or take a couple of weeks either way at both ends of the season)? I know I do, and probably you do to. More importantly, with the school year ending in just a few more days, I can see my daughters--especially the oldest one--feeling the same way. Sure, she'll have church and friends and her job volunteering at the local library, but will it be enough? When the unstructured summer comes upon us, will anything ever be enough? I'm not sure; even when we outgrow those questions, the restlessness is often still with us. It's weird, how we've all internalized this love-hate, always-at-loose-ends relationship with summer, somehow.

I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a holler
About a workin' all summer just to try to earn a dollar
Every time I call my baby, and try to get a date
My boss says, "No dice son, you gotta work late"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

Maybe we can blame Eddie Cochran. Or actually, we can't; we'd have to blame the world he was part of, and the world he helped make. Ray Edward Cochran was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1938, then (and still) a small agricultural and manufacturing city near the Minnesota-Iowa state line. He grew up in a nation that went to war, and which, in going to war, changed the way jobs and industry and farming were distrubuted about the country (or at least began changes that would procede apace for decades to come). Cochran's family started out in Oklahoma before moving to Minnesota, and from Minnesota they went to California--the Los Angeles area to be exact, where Eddie (who had learned to play the guitar and drums while growing up, and had imitated the country and folk songs he heard on the radio) found himself, in the 1950s, a young man in possession of a fine talent: the ability to make songs that this new breed of consumer, the "teenager," loved to listen to.

And teenagers wanted music. They were living in the cities and suburbs of a postwar nation, and that meant that while they went to schools which had been built around the agrarian schedules of mostly rural world, they didn't have any fields to go out to work in and keep themselves busy during the summer months, and so they found themselves jobs in the new service economy. These jobs took them away from the authority figures of their parents, but gave them other authority figures, doing work that few of them felt any kind of connection to, work that had no meaning except for the wages they were paid. (Karl Marx had some things to say about this, but few American teenagers were reading him during their summer breaks in 1958.) Of course, being adolescents who were no longer children and not quite yet adults, they wanted to associate with one another, but no longer living in tightly ordered communities (though, to their credit, some areas did their best to recreate them as suburban and neighborhood enclaves throughout the country), they mostly had to find their own ways of doing so. That meant making the money to pay for the date that, too often, they had to plan for themselves. And if the boss's work schedule interfered with those plans...well, there wasn't much you could do about that, was there?

Well my mom and pop told me, "Son you gotta make some money,
If you want to use the car to go ridin' next Sunday"
Well I didn't go to work, told the boss I was sick
"Well you can't use the car 'cause you didn't work a lick"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

You'd think the parents would be sympathetic to this plight which their children, the children born during and immediately after the war, found themselves in, and many were. But many others had come back from the war having been taught, above all, the value of being a foot soldier in an organization, and as the new service economy and the other concurrent develops of the infrastructure of postwar urban life gave rise to ever more complex needs, profitable industries--in advertising, banking, insurance, law, education, and more--followed in their wake. Not that any of these jobs were new, any more than living in the city was something new (if anything, American had crossed over that particular socio-economic Rubicon by the end of the 19th century); it's just that, living in the new-fangled suburbs, dealing with these socially needy and economically empowered (though never really empowered enough, if you know what I mean) teen-agers, figuring out rules--often arbitrary ones, because of course the family had, in pursuit of economic opportunity, moved away from the communities where their grandparents and ancestors had lived, perhaps married into families with traditions much different from their own, with the result that much of the authority of age and permanence was lost on the new generation--was the important responsibility of the parents. Clamp down on disobedience, teach them respect, take away privileges as necessary, and (silently) wait for school to begin again, so they have something to do with their time...unlike these long, difficult summer days.

I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation
I'm gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my congressman and he said Quote:
"I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

Well, somehow the country survived that first onslaught of teen-agers, and they grew up to be our parents (or, depending on the age of the readers of this post, they grew up to be us--or maybe grew up to be our grandparents). In retrospect, they turned out fine; better, I would argue in fact, than most of the Baby Boomers who came after them (no offense meant to any Boomers out there). For one thing, the lessons of their parents and grandparents were still mostly acceptable to them: sure, their folks and their teachers were squares, out working for the man, not understanding the whole complex modern phenomenology of girls and cars and parties and summer jobs, but still, there wasn't anything in principle wrong with the parents and pastors and cops and other authority figures that attempted--sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, but generally still attempted--to connect young people with their nation's more settled pre-war past. Yes, of course, you had radical movements, you had Allen Ginsburg and the Beats and Jack Kerouac (though Kerouac was never himself radical, being a rather conservative Catholic instead), you had Norman Mailer and his "White Negro" paen to the hipsters, but really--none of that stuff translated into a counter-cultural agenda in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That came later. (The earliest anti-war protesters remembered to wear their ties when they went to burn their draft cards.) So our parents--or mine, anyway, born in 1941 and 1944, respectively--listened to Eddie and Elvis and Frankie Avalon (all just a few years older than them) at the parties they went to, and they drove their cars fast, but they also went off to work and to college and got married and had kids and worked within the system, eventually managing to convince the Nixon administration to give 18-year-olds the vote, among other things. Not a bad legacy, I think.

And today I look at my oldest daughter, looking forward to her thirteenth birthday later this summer, and I hope for a similar legacy. But I also see boys at church starting to flirt with her (thankfully unsuccessfully, so far), and I watch her rush through books and then look out the window, feeling bored, perhaps wondering when she'll be able to drive. And I kind of wish I had a family farm readily available, someplace I could send her off to for some work over the summer. Anything to keep her, as best as I can, away from the blues.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama's Civil Religion (or, Giving Moralistic Therapeutic Deism its Due)

Well, as promised, I've read Obama's Notre Dame commencement address. As Patrick Deneen notes, perhaps reluctantly, it was an excellent speech (he actually says "masterful," but I wouldn't go quite that far; he's done better before), demonstrating Obama's (and his speechwriters') great facility with words. And Patrick rightly hones in on the strongest passage in the speech:

Unfortunately, finding that common ground--recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny"--is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man--our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

Now, as Patrick notes, Obama was obviously referring primarily to our society's economic sins in this passage, and there's good reason to question the point of such words so long as the similarity of the self-centeredness behind not just or socio-economic disorders but also our moral and cultural ones--in other words, the way greed and lust and all their attendant sins are in fact linked--is neither acknowledged nor seen as worthy of joint action. Obama has shown himself fully capable of thinking in terms of law and justice to respond to the harmful socio-economic ills of our body politic; both Rod Dreher and Amy Welborn ask the question: is he prepared to do the same, or at least to talk respectfully with those who want to do the same, in regards to what they see as moral and cultural ills, like abortion? If he isn't, then just what is this "common ground" he hopes to call to the attention of the better angels of our fallen natures?

Jacob Weisberg made an interesting point in a Slate article on Obama's character yesterday. He observed that, for our president, "the middle ground [is the] high ground," then added:

Obama's focus on reconciliation is clearly more than shtick....Engaging with opponents animates him more than hanging with friends. This is a wonderful instinct that is bettering America's image and making domestic politics more civil. But listening is not a moral stance, and elevating it to one only highlights the question of what Obama really stands for. The consensus-seeker repudiates torture but doesn't want to investigate it; he endorses gay equality but not in marriage or the military; he thinks government's role is to do whatever works.

Weisberg also picks up on the idea--endorsed by Obama himself--that he is "ruthlessly pragmatic." Which begs a very particular sort of question, one which is obviously central to trying to figure out where Obama wants to lead the nation (if anywhere) in regards to abortion, but which is more broadly relevant to the whole idea of renewal and reconciliation and change that has always been synonymous with his candidacy: if he really is ultimately pragmatist, one who sees listening and bringing opponents together as itself a morally worthy act, because it helps get things accomplished, then what, exactly, are the principles by which he judges a thing to have been accomplished? In other words, what are his ends? He speaks of prayer (and has a nice anecdote about such from his Notre Dame address), and is obviously a committed Christian, but is his Christianity simply one of processes? Or, that is, does he think the means of Christianity (or any other moral belief) really is tantamount to it is aiming for?

Well, I'm not going to play armchair psychologist--or theologist--and attempt to put Obama's beliefs on the couch here; there's still a lot of his presidency to go, and far more insightful people than I will be able to weigh in what to make of Obama's calls for service and sacrifice and overcoming self-centeredness. But I do want to say something in defense of the possibility I just sketched out above: that Obama's moral center might be more about the context of his actions, then the content of their ends, and that such might be a good thing. (And yes, longtime readers might be thinking, I've harped on the context-content distinction more than a few times before. But bear with me, for just a few paragraphs more.)

A little over a month ago, my friend Damon Linker got into a rambling back and forth blog-argument with Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and Daniel Larison talking about what many have come to refer to as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." This concept, developed by some scholars of American religion, is understood as a way to describe the kind of moderately theistic, feel-good-and-treat-others-nicely-and-whatever-else-you-do-just-don't-judge-anybody Christianity-Lite that, if polls are to be believed, sums up pretty well what a growing number of young Americans believe--indeed, it's probably a pretty accurate description of the majority of the students I teach any given semester. The argument itself began with Damon's comments on the future of Christianity and civil religion in general in America, and just flowed on from there. But rather than picking apart different aspects of the thread, I want to focus on his original claim: namely, that with the fortunate passing of the Bush administration's attempt to instantiate a more or less "public orthodoxy" of a particular evangelical-Catholic persuasion, and with the tremendous unlikelihood of any kind of liberal mainline Protestantism regaining its hold upon America's character, what then will be our civil religion?

This, of course, is really a two-part question: first, do we need one, and two, if we do, what should it be? My answer to the first part is, very simply, yes, because you can't not have one; religious establishments--defining the term fairly broadly, of course--our an inevitability in democratic societies, because people the great bulk of human beings bring religion with them wherever they go, and so long as you allow the unwashed masses to occasionally vote and even run for office--that is, so long as you actually have some elements of democracy--then you're going to have majorities looking to order their communities along the lines of their beliefs, and so some kind of "civil" belief ought to emerge and be established so as to provide such majorities with both guidelines and boundaries. Which brings me to the second part, and Damon's answer to such: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems like an excellent candidate. I agree...assuming we understand just what MTD (and--don't worry, I haven't forgotten--Obama's way of approaching these kinds of issues) really or at least potentially implies.

Damon quotes from the original research on MTD, summarizing it thusly:

1) A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

Damon claims that this "catechism" is, theologically speaking, "anemic" and "repulsive," but insofar as politics go, it will work splendidly. Could be...but it needs a little taking apart. First, begin with Damon's tossed-out allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Creed of the Savoyard Vicar," suggesting the long pedigree to this kind of liberal theologizing. That's a very good start, because Rousseau, recognizing that the modern consciousness of history had shaped the human sense of subjectivity so as to make impossible the maintenance of non-alienating communities of the sort enjoyed by the ancients, or even half-heartedly preserved by the good folks of Geneva, desired to see people instructed into a new form of community, a new sense of attachment and sympathy to one another, with the aim of occasionally being able to make possible the creation of a new, non-alienating kind of social contract. Crucial to this instruction, and thus the social contract it hoped to complement, was a civil religion, a civil religion that would be premised upon honoring the foundation and laws of the community, to be sure, but more prosaically would focus on getting people together, addressing on another with decency and kindness, participating in common projects, not allowing foreign or non-civil or private distinctions to create artificial interests and factions that would compromise one's ability to stand alongside one's fellow men and women, and most of all helping every part of the community recognize their common dependency upon one another and their common origin as joint-members of society.

Sound idealistic? It most certainly is. But it's also, if you think about it, pretty substantive too. At the very least, it takes points 1, 2, and 5 above, and puts some meat on their bones. (Nothing can be done to save or re-orient number 3--that one will invariably be a drag on any human community which allows such self-centeredness to flourish; and as for number 4, well, fortunately or not, questions about divine intervention and soteriology are rarely of important in modern society.) In fact, I would claim that we can look at the world around us--a world characterized, of course, by the enormous sins which Obama mentioned; sins of selfishness, pride, stubbornness, acquisitiveness, prejudice, self-interest, materialism--and see some of the benefits of a Rousseauian MTD at work. The global regime of human rights, worldwide activism on behalf of the indebted and the poor, volunteerism and service in tens of thousands of places across the globe, the spread of democracy, the collapse of apartheid and totalitarianism, and so on, and so forth. Or just here in America, the gradual fading of racial prejudices, the greater acceptance of the handicapped, the increased attention and funding given to women and children and families who struggle with non-conventional and previously long-ignored problems (abuse, divorce, depression, etc.), and much more. All of these could be, of course, attributed to carefully applied, hard-headed, secular and clever power politics; they could also be claimed by advocates of a strict, theologically heavy and detailed religious program. But I wonder if wasn't so much Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II--not to dismiss either of their contributions, to be sure!--that brought the Berlin Wall down, as it was just thousands and thousands of people who slowly, bit by bit, absorbed some of these "anemic" liberal doctrines, about not shooting people who just want to get a better job or to express themselves, about recognizing the need to actually sit down and speak with and learn from those whom you had previously oppressed. No, I wouldn't claim MTD, or more accurately a few elements of it, to whatever extent they truly are or in the future ever will be present in our or any other nation as a civil religion, are "working" in an obviously wonderful...but neither would I count it out as inevitably doing a worse job at instructing people in how to recognize and make room in the dialogue for other members of their community than whatever preceded it.

Of course, one could claim--as Rod does, rightly responding to a snarky comment of Damon's (look at the updates to both posts)--that all those bureaucratic and historically abetted accomplishments of parts of the MTD attitude, even assuming you grant that was even a partial cause of all that I mentioned above, didn't involve any prophetic speaking of truth to power; that MTD can't give us a Martin Luther King. On that point, I'd agree...if, that is, I agreed that MTD, or at least the aforementioned elements of it, actively works against substantive, collective, moral and religious expressions. But I don't think that's true, and so as long as MTD doesn't, to my mind, actually "drive substantive Christianity out of the public square," as Rod puts it, then I'm willing to take on MTD as a civil religion worth working with, rather than necessarily as an anti-realist, anti-Truth "nemisis" to be attacked at its every appearance.

Recently, the wonderful scholarly blog The Immanent Frame launched a new discussion. Taking off from President Obama's statement during his Inaugural Address that "those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism" are both old and true, it is looking to develop a discussion (the first two contributions to which having already been posted) about what Obama's contribution to the future of America's understanding of civil religion and public virtues and the common good really is. As the lead-off post puts it:

Obama has been quite effective and persistent in his attempts to tell a meaningful public story about America and American virtues. He has proven to be a master of public rhetoric--a form of engagement understood by the ancients as the art of persuasion. As with the classical art of rhetoric, Obama enacts the basic principle that one needs not only well-reasoned argument but also a sufficiently deep and engaged understanding of an audience’s values. Why? In order to effectively persuade them of something like a sense of shared and elective affinities or a mission of common purpose. In this regard, Obama, as expert rhetorician, is also a master of the mythopoetic, an expert maker of myths: especially myths about the meaning of "America," and of the values and institutions that constitute a common national tradition. With his combination of charisma and the attribution of elevated purpose to the work of politics, Obama has proven astonishingly effective in generating an enchantment about new possibilities, about a renewed American dream, and about the centrality of a public language of hope. To this end, an alluring quality of Obama’s rhetoric of common purpose and good is his invitation to participate in public service and to consider the possibilities of an expansive and engaged conception of citizenship.

Some people, of course, hear the word "myth" and assuming we are talking about peanut-gallery, bread-and-circuses, cheap-words-for-the-masses sort of stuff. They assume we're talking about MTD, and other ways to condescendingly pigeon-hole the weak, self-interested moral beliefs of so many modern Americans. Well, sometimes that's true. But there are other stories of modernity besides that one, and there are ways of understanding "myth" which emphasizes the power of prosaic story-telling, the power of binding people into communities of respect and decency and dialogue, by using a language that can bring even opponents together. There are limits to what story-telling can do, of course; there's no way on Earth that even the best language Obama and his people could ever muster might have resolved the issue of abortion, an issue cuts to foundations of belief more surely than any other contemporary topic. To those for whom abortion really is the only issue that matters, that pretty much ends the possibilities of Obama's civil religion, his context- and process- and listening-obsessed Christianity, right there. And it may be that they're correct; before the Judgment seat (as Ross Douthat suggested and I worried about, back before the election), that we will discover that Obama's kind of religious response to the disorders of modern life is, at least in this case, exactly the wrong response to make. But for the moment, I feel more calm about, and more called to, Obama's approach, even if that does mean I'm hoping for too much from all these vague MTD believers around me. And perhaps that's as it should be: I'm a college teacher, after all, and if I thought the majority of my students were misguided idiots for believing how they did, however "right" I might be, I'd still probably be pretty bad at my job. And in Obama's America, being good--or at least, getting better at--your job is a pretty fine virtue, after all.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Own Catholic Graduation

Pretty much exactly eight years ago, give or take a week or so, I received my doctorate from Catholic University of America, and graduated for the very last time. It was my third graduation ceremony--yes, I had previously walked for both my bachelors and masters degrees; as anyone who reads this site could probably guess, I'm often a sucker for big, ritualistic, community-wide events--and my favorite of the three. For one thing, it was held outside on the steps of Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is on the campus of Catholic University of America, where I went to graduate school. It was a beautiful, warm spring day; there was green and flowers and just enough clouds on the sky to provide regular shade for all of us in our chairs. For another thing, I just loved the pomp of it all: the individual degrees awarded in separate morning ceremonies, and then the march across campus with us all in our robes, with some of us going up to the top of the steps, for our hooding. I loved that Melissa was there, and my parents made it out, and that my advisor made it back from a foreign trip in time to be there. And, last but not at all least, I loved the commencement address.

No, I'm not kidding--I'm the sort of person who listens to commencement addresses. I don't necessarily remember them, but I do remember this one. It had been an interesting six years for me, a Mormon graduate student at CUA*, and listening to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then the Archbishop of the Washington Diocese, was an appropriate way to wrap it up.

I'm thinking about this, as you might imagine, because of President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame's commencement today. I'll read through his speech with some interest later, perhaps tonight or tomorrow. I'm curious as to what he'll say, or not say. Will he mention the controversy that has attended his speech? Will he talk about abortion at all? My old CUA advisor, Steve Schneck, himself a Notre Dame graduate, has expressed hopes for the speech, hopes in regards to the extending of a "common ground" approach towards abortion reduction, an approach he sees reflected in official Vatican statements, rather than the scorched-earth approach favored by many American Catholics who have fallen in love with the culture wars. As for myself, well, not being Catholic, and more specifically as one who does not embrace the particular theological assumptions which drive much Catholic opposition to abortion, my own discontent with abortion rights is a much murkier thing, one which, despite my clear desire to see the practice made rare and even formally deterred as much as possible, perhaps nonetheless includes too many caveats and qualifications to really be of any use. Part of me wishes I could exercise the same sort of angry, contemptuous condemnation towards abortion that this post demonstrates. But for better or worse, that's not what I learned at CUA.

What did I learn? Well, too many things to list here, that's for certain. But one thing I did learn at that specifically Catholic place, and which I'd like to believe has stayed with me, with a minimum of doubts and obfuscation, is what Cardinal McCarrick reminded us all of at one pleasant afternoon in May, eight years ago: that we were, and are (all of us who live here in the United States, everyone who is able to obtain a college education at a good university) astonishingly blessed people, and hence have a moral obligation to remember those who are not so blessed. As McCarrick concluded his address (which is worth reading in full): "[W]e are all so very conscious that as you set out from this university you have so challenging an opportunity in today’s world. Make the most of it. Change the world. Don’t forget the poor. Don’t forget that what you do affects every corner of this globe. Don’t forget that perhaps the greatest lesson you have learned at The Catholic University of America is that God watches us and loves us and reaches out into our lives to make a difference so that you and I may make a difference too." I don't know if that's the sort of religious point that President Obama would ever be inclined to make, and I don't know if those sniffing for further fuel to continue their cultural conflicts would ever stop to listen long enough to hear such words if they were there, and maybe even give the president credit for voicing them if he did. But those were the words I heard, and I stood there, decked out in my dark robes and burdened by about $30,000 in debt, I believed every one of them. Still do. I hope those graduating from Notre Dame today can take away something similar to what I did; if they do, they can consider themselves blessed too.

*My favorite relevant anecdote from those years: once, for some reason that I don't remember, I needed to get a copy of my original application to the graduate program there. I looked over the typed-up, official version that they had on file, and I noticed that in the space asking about religion, where I had painstakingly written out, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)," there appeared simply "Protestant." Now, I mentioned this to my advisor, and he just laughed. "You have to understand, Russell, that to us Catholics, everybody's Protestant."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Legs"

So all right, I say that I'm all done--for now, anyway--with all the early 80s synthpop New Wave stuff. That means, I suppose, that I ought to find a video that expresses a completely different aesthetic to take us in a different direction. But what could that be? So much of the music I (and you all) watched on Friday Night Videos way back then was influenced by that cool, fey, sophisticated, carefully programmed style; they didn't call it the second British Invasion for nothing. What could its total opposite be?

Lecherous hairy men from Texas, surrounded by beautiful women in short skirts and various dorkily-dressed stereotypes, playing big guitars really loud, that's what.

I must confess, for years the image of the ZZ Top guys spinning their furry guitars around on their belt buckles hung in the back of my adolescent mind as just about the coolest thing ever.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Filling Up My Kansas Summer

Well, yesterday was the last day of our annual semester wrap-up meetings (and thankfully, they weren't nearly as annoying as last year's were). Tomorrow, the university officially goes to half-days on Fridays. As for us, well, we finally got the garden planted last Thursday (a very wet and cool late spring slowed us in our tilling and preparations), and this morning I finally got the soaker hoses all set up. It seems to have had to fight its way against a crazy spring (snow in April!) that didn't want to let go, but I'd say that summer is finally here. (As far as I'm concerned, that is--let the calendar wait until June to make it official.)

For the first time in three years, we're not going to be spending a good chunk of the summer traveling all the way across the country, to visit Utah and Washington state and all my old--and my extended family's current--stomping grounds. We've traveled west too much; it's time for a break. So we're going to head east over the Memorial Day weekend, to rendezvous with Melissa's folks and siblings at a family gathering in Cincinnati (any last-minute recommendations?), and then after that we're mostly going to be right here, watching our girls and our garden grow, perhaps taking a couple of short jaunts here and there, and reading and writing and watching movies the rest of the time. Sounds pretty good to me.

Last year, I provided a list of big projects--some professional and some home-related--that I was going to focus on for the summer. What was our score card? Well, the tomatoes were a bumper crop, but the corn was a total loss; we're trying again this year, having learned a few things in the meantime. We did double the size of our herb garden, though the aforementioned late snow and cold rains killed off much that we planted there. As for out budget, well, we managed to get out credit card debt significantly down...but now it's climbing back up again. With my promotion this year to associate professor I have a decent raise coming my way, but we also have braces and glasses for the girls on the horizon. And reading-wise? Well, I got a lot down, but I never did make it through either Taylor's A Secular Age or Tolkien's The Children of Hurin. Someday, perhaps.

And this year? Well, I'm not going to lay out quite such a broad set of plans for filling up my summer days this time around. Not that some of the stuff on my plate isn't pretty wide-ranging and demanding; just that I'm going to try to keep it a little more focused, broken down into slightly more digestible chunks. Let's assume that the house and garden and budget will take care of themselves, and stick with academic, professional, personal, and family:

1) Along with my old advisor and friend, Steve Schneck, I apparently have a contract (I say "apparently" because Steve is the one who invited me on board; I haven't seen or signed anything myself) to co-author a book on the political theory of Fred Dallmayr, in my opinion one of a handful of truly brilliant contemporary theorists working in the phenomenological tradition, and, no coincidentally, Steve's old dissertation advisor (meaning he's my doktorvatervater, though I think I've used that joke before). Fred's always been generous to me, both personally and professionally, and I've learned a tremendous amount from his writings, particularly in regards to comparative philosophy and cross-cultural thinking. It's that part of his career that I'm going to be focusing on, producing two or three chapters, while Steve handles his more explicitly continental work. I already have a pile of his books and articles on my desk that I need to work through, and that pile will no doubt grow (assuming Interlibrary Loan does its job). But it's going to fun.

2) This past year I was finally talked into running the Model U.N. program for Friends University, something that I'd supposedly been hired to do along with my other responsibilities from the beginning, but which I'd always been able to put off. I wish I hadn't; it was one of the best classes I've ever run, and the Model U.N. conference was a blast--it was one of those sometimes rare moments in a life as a teacher when you can really watch students making use of ideas, concepts, and strategies that you've taught them, and plus we all just had a lot of fun. I'm already looking forward to next year...which means, I need to start working this summer about how I'm going to raise money for it, and how I'm going to recruit students for the program. A lot of this goes hand-in-hand with various changes to the political science program here that I've finally, at long last, been able to get through all the relevant committees. A pre-law track, an international relations track, greater alignment with the history/government teaching major; all of that is finally on the books. But of course, the work of curriculum reform never ends--just yesterday a colleague and I were discussing recent results in various capstone courses, and reflecting on the need to create some sort of library-research "boot camp" course, for freshmen and sophomores who have absolutely no idea how to do the basics of archive work, or source citation, or a dozen other things. Anyway, at least one class of mine is going to get completely reworked this summer, and maybe more.

3) As for my down time, well, everyone has got to read for fun, at least a little bit. And right now, I've been sucked into Terry Pratchet's Discworld, and I'm loving it. It began, as I mentioned before, with Pratchett's wonderful stories of Tiffany Aching, a young girl (though now a teenager) and a witch-in-training. They're smartly plotted, often laugh-out-loud funny, and surprisingly wise and tender, when the tale calls for it. (The last one actually had me sniffling a bit, at points.) I've finished The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and am now working on Wintersmith; following several recommendations, I'm also about to start in on Small Gods. But what should I read next? I can always use more advice; the Discworld is so enormous, everyone seems to have a different idea about where to start, or go next.

4) If I can get enough recommendations, then I'll know what I'll be taking with me to read in the evenings at Girl's Camp this summer. Our church runs a camp for young women, ages 12 to 18, and they're always looking for male volunteers to go down and help out. I signed up back in March--with nothing but daughters, I figured I might as well embrace my destiny as soon as the sign-up sheets starting floating around. There's one fellow in this area who has been working summers at Girl's Camp for going on 30 years, and as I suppose I may very well be heading off to the same place for the next 15 summers or so--until Kristen, our youngest, leaves home--perhaps I could aim to become as much as a local institution as he is. I like the idea. Our girls are growing older, and while I'd like to think of myself as a decent father (we try to schedule one Saturday every month where one of the girls and I go off and do something, just us together), the truth is that most of their time, relationships, and conflicts, are with friends or schoolmates or with Melissa. Girls Camp would be one more small way in which I can put myself into their lives as they grow up, which is something I think I need to do. Katherine Dalton and Laura McKenna (or at least her commenters), in very different (or, maybe when you think about it, perhaps not so different) ways are talking about the same thing: how do we communicate with daughters and young women, how do we introduce them to and educate them in a world that so often communicates a message--a sexualized, commodified, materialist, misogynistic, self-centered message--that too often suggests to them that there is only one possible way of achieving maturity? Well, I don't have the answer to that; not in a grand sense. But I do think I can pull off a lot of little answers, to small crises and questions as they occur. But of course, to answer those cumulative little questions, you have to be there when they are asked. This summer, along with everything else, I want to start trying a little bit more to be there for my girls.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What's Fate Got to Do With It? (or, The Only Thing the New Star Trek Does Wrong)

(Beware; the following assumes you've seen the movie, or else have read enough about it not to have anything spoiled by what I'm about to say.)

The reviews are plentiful; you can find them everywhere, and all of them are saying the same thing: the new J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek as a near total success, so go see it, right now. It's by turns exciting, funny, dramatic, visually spectacular and emotionally affecting, and overall just a ton of fun. Even those who disagree on the essential thematic upshot of the film--does the film's revival of the original franchise's optimistic, high-tech, better-living-through-advanced-organized-technology vibe fit in with the Age of Obama? Or is the innocent, adventuresome excitement that animates the characters and their conflicts signal the decision to just make Star Trek into the pulp comic some always wanted it to be?--don't disagree on its awesomeness. Head to the theaters for the best Star Trek film ever...or at least, the best science-fiction/space-opera/adventure-with-spaceships-and-lasers (excuse me, phasers) film that you'll see this year. And I can't disagree--at least not with most of the above.

Not having spent a great deal of time investigating the internet, tracking down every sliver of plot detail I could come across--a geek I may be, but a Trekker, not so much--my original concerns with the film were almost entirely about the casting. The Star Trek franchise is just so immense, in so many different media, and so much of that immensity is tied up in the physical and artistic representations of the storyline's primary characters--Shatner's Kirk, Nimoy's Spock, etc.--that I was worried that the imagination of viewers like myself wouldn't be able to quite take it in. ("Viewers like myself"--what's that mean, you ask? Well, viewers like Rob Perkins, with whom I used to watch reruns of the original series and new episodes of The Next Generation back at BYU in the late 80s and early 90s; as he puts it in his review: "Today’s audience is composed of all the old people like me, and all the people even older, who loved that original 1960s series. But it also will include all the people younger than me who first encountered Star Trek in the late 80s and 90s. To them, the characters of that first show are already iconic, archetypes of all the other sci-fi heroes roaming the modern meme-space.") Will those of us who learned a particular kind of heroic, pop story-telling from those actors speaking those lines as those characters, those of us who didn't already know all about them as memes before we ever saw them perform, ever be able to enjoy our old friends being embodied by new actors? Just how would that work?

Well, I hereby put my original concerns aside. Again, as Rob says, "this movie wins." Everyone makes it work, and no one more than Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk. People can talk all they want about Spock, and the crucial, cool-yet-hot role he must play in these stories, but no--it wasn't just William Shatner's arrogance (well attested to by just about all his fellow actors on the original series) which forced his character again and again to the center of the episode's action; it was the fact that only a genuine, larger than life, immensely capable yet always needful persona could plausibly hold the loyalty and command the attention of the crew of the Enterprise (and, of course, of all those viewers in rerun-land, as well). And Pine pulls it off. As does Zachary Quinto as Spock, as does (truly, the greatest joy in the film for a real fan) Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy. As for the rest of the crew, who were always there but nearly always on the sidelines? Well, their performers have been much more room to develop and alter our old favorites, because they don't have nearly the weight on their shoulders. And so now Sulu is the sword-wielding Errol-Flynn-style warrior the fans always wanted him to be; Chekhov is a nerdy whiz-kid, which makes far more sense for his character anyway; Uhura is given intelligence and responsibility and sexiness (her relationship with Spock was the coolest narrative innovation of the whole basic meet-the-cast storyline, I think); and Montgomery Scott, of course, just really wants a drink. I have to agree with AICN's wonderful Alexandra DuPont: "The cast is a damned miracle."

So, that takes care of that. Does that mean there's nothing left to say; just, "it's a great summer film, go see it, and if you liked Star Trek before, you'll love it now"? Um, not quite. Because Alexandra makes another point, and it's not a particularly large concern for her, but I confess it weighs kind of heavily on me:

Almost everything else that bothers me about "Star Trek" is tied to the film's occasionally ridiculous embrace of coincidence--Kirk and his father run afoul of Nero in space battles, once at the exact moment of Kirk's birth; Kirk runs into old-Spock on an ice planet after being chased by a couple of monsters to a precise set of coordinates; Kirk and old-Spock then run into Montgomery Scott, who works a couple of miles down the road; etc.

Most of this head-scratching stuff happens during the 10-minute stretch of movie devoted to explaining the whole time-travel/reboot premise--and not coincidentally, it's only part of the movie that feels a bit sluggish. I guess you could argue that this is J.J. Abrams exploring the idea of fate in the "Trek" universe (i.e., exploring the idea that this crew was destined to be together). But that's a major philosophical break with a lot of the humanist/agnostic "Trek" material that's come before; Roddenberry's whole deal was that mankind was capable of solving its own problems without the help of God or Fate (see especially: "Who Mourns for Adonais?").

I found the larger story so charming and thrilling that this wasn't even close to a deal-breaker for me. But I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan--who isn't on the bus already, basically--will react to the coincidence-fest.

This isn't exactly what I had in mind as my wife and I walked out into the parking lot last Friday night, but it's close enough. Probably none of the above makes sense to you if you haven't seen the film, and so what I'm about to say may sound even more confusing, but let me just press on for the sake of those geeks in the know who care about this sort of thing.

Think about it this way: what are all those hundred of other people in uniforms doing running around on the Enterprise? (Or, for that matter, looking helplessly at Nero's energy drill as he prepares to destroy the Earth, just happening to decide to do so while in geostationary orbit above Starfleet's San Francisco headquarters?) Well, on the television shows we knew: they were physicists and historians and archaeologists and weapons specialists and dozens of other occupations, because the whole thing is part of a plan, see--the plan to take the collected knowledge of the human race and use it explore and solve the mysteries of the universe, and be amazed and get beat up and learn a few things along the way. Now obviously, those old shows all had their stars, and everyone else (except for the occasional guest star) was kept in the background, waiting for the next red-shirted security guard to get killed. There were good--or, at least, defensible--narrative reasons why that was so. Still, the conceit of the show was that Kirk and Spock and McCoy and all the rest were one of those hundreds of others--luckier and braver and cooler and all the rest, sure, but still, not different. The original conceit of the show was thus anti-mythological; it was rigorously, deeply, collectively, humanist.

Now we have Star Trek, a movie that takes that original conceit, and suggests that at some point in the future the elderly Ambassador Spock, in an effort to save the planet Romulus, has blown a huge (black) hole in it. That black hole as led to the complete re-invention of the whole history of Star Trek, the storyline, as we knew of it. So far so good? I suppose--except then we are given the aforementioned 10-minute sequence in the film, in which Leonard Nimoy appears as "Spock Prime" and plays the Wise Old Man From the Future and gets Kirk and Spock to be what he (and the universe?) needs them to be in order to do what they need to do. In other words, J.J. Abrams makes Spock himself into his own--and Kirk's--deus ex machina. Now they aren't like everyone else; now we have a story in which God or Fate (or the mysterious "red matter") in a sense touches a couple of the characters on the shoulder, wrests them away from who they were and where they were going, and puts them somewhere else, as someone else. That is, as the movie has Chris Pine's Kirk say, in a bit of wise self-consciousness, "cheating." Unfortunately, all we can do with that cheating is note that it's a clever homage to the whole Kobayashi Maru plot point, which makes us think of Wrath of Khan, sigh and/or shake out head, and then get on with watching the film. Which is great, let me say that again.

I was never so hung up on Roddenberry's vision--or, more relevantly to the point I'm making here, his style of presenting his science fiction stories--that I find something wrong with the Star Trek franchise getting religion, having become fated, in a sense, with everyone else (the characters in the story and us viewers) kind of standing outside, being observers to a couple of awesome yet ordinary people who happen to have been lifted up and taken around a corner by the person who put the corner there in the first place. I mean, hell, what was Gandalf's resurrection in The Two Towers, or the Hand of God appearing at the end of The Stand, except a "cheat," a story of one type turning suddenly into the sort of story in which someone or something can upgrade the program while you're still running it? (Just to stick with Rob's computer metaphors here.) Such stories are fine; in fact, they can be wonderful. So I don't know. Melissa pressed me on exactly what was wrong with letting the story play out this way, given that the stories the sequel movies will tell are always going to be treating a few main characters as something very much like demigods anyway, and I couldn't tell her. Maybe it's that McCoy was, in a sense, "left out" of the reboot, and so now the classic Trek trio seems lopsided. I don't know.

Let's face it, these are the sort of complaints that only someone who lets their moral philosophy and geekery get mixed up could ever make. So let me just say that I enjoyed the film thoroughly, would recommend it to anyone...and, well, if part of me kind of wishes the reboot had taken place off screen, that we'd instead been given, as Tim Burke suggested, just a "complete do-over," rather than 10 minutes of Leonard Nimoy stitching together two different milieus, the seams of said stitching being plainly visible in how Kirk and Spock are played, well, that's my problem isn't? It sure doesn't need to be yours.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Big in Japan"

Okay, so I'm getting tired of this particular excursion too. But before I go on to something else, I must face the question: why am I being so parochial? I mean, it's not like the synthesizer only existed in England. What about German New Wave...or "Neue Deutsche Welle," if you prefer? That made it onto American television more than a few times in the early 80s. So, all right, let's put something up. But which video should I choose? Falco's "Der Kommissar" (later crappily remade in English by After the Fire)? Maybe Nena's gorgeous "99 Luftballons" (even more crappily remade in English by herself)? No, might as well stick with the bands that sang in English from the beginning. And that means, of course...Alphaville. (And I make no apologies for not embedding the video for the ridiculously overplayed "Forever Young"; the Youth Group version is much better.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How Germany Made Us "Conservative"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I got married, we had a lot of inchoate ideas and aspirations, many of which were relatively humble, generally egalitarian, and broadly communitarian. Looking back on them now, I suppose it isn't hard to imagine how we ended up where we are today--riding our bikes, recycling our waste, planting our garden, shopping at farmer's markets, and generally trying to live low-key, localist lives. But the truth is, it wasn't long talks and trips to buy eggs from a local farmer and book groups and graduate study that got us to start turning all those beliefs into practice: it was Germany. More than any other single event in our married lives, I'd say it was the three months we spent in a cramped, wonderful, upstairs apartment in a small neighborhood just outside of Kronberg--itself a city of about 20,000 people in the Taunus mountains, not far from Frankfurt--that set us on course to being the sort of weirdos who walk to church on Sunday, dragging a little wagon with all our stuff in it (hey: the kids are still young, and church meetings can run long, sometimes) behind us.

We went to Germany because of my dissertation research, and because we'd managed to get some support from the DAAD--the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or German Academic Exchange Service--to help us pay for it. We stayed in Kronberg because it was an easy train ride away from the university libraries where I'd be doing my translating and writing, and because it was there we found a generous older couple, Horst and Ingrid Heydtmann, who rented us their upstairs room, though we had a noisy three-year-old daughter and had to be instructed several times before we finally grasped all the intricacies of the local garbage collection service. And when we came home, we brought with us...well, let me just quote a little from an old, wonderful post by Patrick Deneen, which expresses much what we learned there very well:

[In Europe,] I have been mightily impressed...by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence....[For example, in Swabia] outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a "pfand" (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density--even in the smallest towns--and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of "big box" stores outside town and city limits (yes, it's there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times--a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S....

In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I've learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren't driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America's wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever "give" there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life....

Now, we didn't see as much of rural western Europe as Patrick has, or even the small slice of it he reflected upon in his post of his. Nonetheless, I think back to the chimneys and small fields and orchards which dotted even our little temporary home not far from the metropolis of Frankfurt, and I can see much of truth Patrick was gesturing towards. His post, which became part of an important exchange on the nature of "conservatism" between a couple of other well-known bloggers, is one that I've cited more than a few times over the years, because it brilliantly crystallizes the lessons our experience in Germany taught us, especially as regards those things we want, as a family, to have and preserve.

What do we want? In a nutshell, what we want is a living environment which will enable us and our children to be able to operate at a pace and in a way not necessarily set by global trends or cosmopolitan economic imperatives, but rather choices and obligations that they can we appreciate as part and parcel of the community in which we live. That means we want to be able to live in a place that is well defined as a place...a place that is connected to the larger world, of course, but which also has some integrity apart from it, which would mean there would be a "whole" there which we, as residents of that place, could interact with and exercise some authority over. This is a rather high-falutin' way of talking about participatory democracy and populist control, I suppose (not that being abstract ever stopped me before), but in practice it means mostly a lot of very simple things: we want local stores to shop at. We want local schools our children to attend. We want safe streets to walk down, and bike paths when we ride, and people to be there when we call on the phone, and buses and trains which can take us to further destinations with minimal pollution. In short, we don't want to be forced into an over-reliance on cars and computers and other technologies which can make our paychecks and daily schedules and our livelihoods dependent upon decisions and calendars drawn up by corporate bosses and bureaucrats over which we have no influence. We want a calmer, slower, less expansive, less hurried, less ambitious way of life.

Which is what we got in Kronberg, soon after unpacking out suitcases. We realized that the refrigerator our apartment included was so small that multiple weekly hikes to the local marketplace--about a mile away, down a hill, past the bakery and church and school, and then around a park and up another hill. We learned that we had to be careful with the ceiling windows, because they were left open to provide circulation, and so we had to remember to close them whenever we left, in case of sudden rains. We were taught, as I mentioned above, that composting and recycling is a serious and responsible business, and that you needed to take the time to separate out your waste and put it in the right receptacles, at the right time. And most of all, we were taught what you can do when you are given a small space, and the time and support to make something beautiful with it. The Heydtmanns loved to show off their little neighborhood, with all its mountain paths leading off into the woods and alongside berry patches, and in particular they loved their little and well-tended flower garden behind their home. My weeks may have been spent sitting in libraries, concentrating on old texts, trying to expand my mind beyond my inherited frame of reference, but aside from those hours working the shelves, what was mostly happening to my wife and I was a concentrating, a focusing, a limiting, that helped make us into the sort of "conservative" people who like to keep things simple.

Which leads to another important lesson: keeping things simple often means thinking big. If you want a society with good mass transit, for example, then among other things--as has been pointed out in the excellent thread here--you've got to be able to develop large plans, plans that will protect and empower those collective actions--like choosing to ride a bus or a train--that will benefit everyone, rather than allowing developers and construction crews and the automobile industry and their compliant politicians to run roughshod over the common good, all in the name of "individual choice." This is the point Patrick made above about the subsidies and taxes which support solar energy in Germany; it is a point that I have tried to make a couple of times before in regards to the economic choices that Sweden has made; and it is the point smartly made by Russell Shorto, in this fine article about how he has been helped to recognize the freedom which comes from the Dutch welfare state (hat tip, once again, to the wonderful Laura McKenna):

[Not long ago], I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each [in my bank account]. The remarks line said “accommodation schoolbooks.” My confusion was not total. On looking at the payor--the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank--I nodded with sage if partial understanding. Our paths had crossed several times before. I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit. As the SVB’s Web site cheerily informed me when I went there in bewilderment after the first deposit: “Babies are expensive. Nappies, clothes, the pram . . . all these things cost money. The Dutch government provides for child benefit to help you with the costs of bringing up your child.” Any parents living in the country receive quarterly payments until their children turn 18. And thanks to a recently passed law, the state now gives parents a hand in paying for school materials....

Such things are easy for an American to ridicule; you don’t have to be a Fox News commentator to sneer at what, in the midst of a global financial crisis, seems like Socialism Gone Wild....But there’s more to it....There is a historical base to the Dutch social-welfare system, which curiously has been overlooked by American conservatives in their insistence on seeing such a system as a threat to their values. It is rooted in religion. “These were deeply religious people, who had a real commitment to looking after the poor,” Geert Mak, a well-known Dutch author, said of his ancestors. “They built orphanages and hospitals. The churches had a system of relief, which eventually was taken over by the state. So Americans should get over ‘socialism.’ This system developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi.”

[But then] if "socialism" is then something of a straw man--if rather than political ideology, religious values and a tradition of cooperation are what lie beneath the modern social-welfare system--maybe it’s worth asking a simple question of such a system: What does it feel like to live in it?

In 1992, Julie Phillips flew from her home in New York to visit a friend from college who lived in Amsterdam. She found that she liked the city. “You don’t know any nice, single, straight men here, do you?” she asked her friend. He said he knew one and introduced her to Jan. Julie married Jan, and Amsterdam became her home. Julie is a friend of mine, part of my American expat cabal in Amsterdam. She’s a fellow writer, and the second of her two children, Jooske, was born at home. Julie told me she isn’t a “hard-core granola type,” but giving birth at home, with the help of a midwife, is a longstanding Dutch tradition, so, she said, “I was very when-in-Rome about it.” She is now a fan of home birth. “It was incredibly pleasant,” she said. Bart (“one of the Netherlands’ only male midwives,” according to Phillips) showed up at her door at 11 in the morning. The baby was born a few hours later. “It was just me and Bart and Jan. Later, I was with the baby in the bedroom, listening to them yakking in the kitchen. I thought, Here I am with my baby in my bed, and everyone is having a nice time in my house”....

Nobody thinks the Dutch health care system is perfect. Many people complain that the new insurance costs more than the old. “That’s true, but that’s because the old system just didn’t charge enough, so society ended up paying for it in other ways,” said Anais Rubingh, who works as a general practitioner in Amsterdam. The complaint I hear from some expat Americans is that while the Dutch system covers everyone, and does a good job with broken bones and ruptured appendixes, it falls behind American care when it comes to conditions that involve complicated procedures. Hans Hoogervorst [the former minister of public health] acknowledged this--to a point. “There is no doubt the U.S. has the best medical care in the world--for those who can pay the top prices,” he said. “I’m sure the top 5 percent of hospitals there are better than the top 5 percent here. But with that exception, I would say overall quality is the same in the two countries.”

Health care is maybe the most distinguishable part of social welfare, but the more time I spend in the Netherlands, the less separable health care becomes from the whole. Which is to say that to comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind. People have a matter-of-fact belief not in government--in my experience the Dutch complain about government as frequently as Americans do--but in society. As my Dutch teacher, Armelle Meijerink, said: “We look at the American system, and all the uninsured, and we can’t believe that a developed country chooses for that. I have a lot of American students, and when we talk about this, they always say, Yes, but we pay less tax. That’s the end of the discussion for them. I guess that’s a pioneer’s attitude."

Now, I don't want to dismiss that pioneer attitude: it built my country, after all. And it's not as though the lessons we learned in Germany were so obviously true to everyone around us: one family we got to know well through our church there, a family with three children, were desperate to move to America--they wanted to buy a house of their own, with a yard the kids could play in, rather than just trucking them to the local (though admittedly, very nice) park and contributing to the community garden for the next twenty years of their lives while they saved up for something that was prohibitively expensive for young people at that stage of their careers. They looked at our living experience in America, and they envied us, and the genuine and virtuous desires behind that envy are worth contemplating. I don't want to give up entirely on the undisciplined individual freedom and sometimes destructive economic opportunity which our tree-slashing, go-at-it-alone pioneer ancestors bequeathed us with; probably no one who has ever actually lived in America would. But then again, I can't help but think that if more people could see the sort of compromises which many of the socialist countries of Western Europe have made, and the equally genuine and virtuous "positive" local freedoms they make possible, few people would want to dismiss those "conservative" lessons entirely out of hand either.