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Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Thriller"

As if on this Halloween weekend, I could possibly choose anything else! Enjoy, everyone, and watch out for Michael Jackson's freaky eyes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Because I Owe It to My People...

...and because to allow it to fall into obscurity would be a crime against the spirit of the holiday, I give you now, once again, for anyone who cares, a Bill Atkinson/Jonathan Green production of, truly, the greatest Mormon Halloween costume of all time.

It's beyond nerdy. It's beyond blasphemous. It's perfect. Sorry Abe, but not even getting your whole ward to dress up in Federation outfits could touch this. Star Trek may be vaguely Mormon in some ways, but Moroni is definitely moreso.

You Can't Touch This

You thought about shooting for "nerd" this Halloween? Thought about getting all ironic and cool and pop-culture and fan-boyish? Give it up, you losers. My brother Abe, sister-in-law Betsy, and their whole family, have already beat you.

It's funny; I thought Abe had gotten rid of that old Spock uniform (he wore it when he took his senior picture). Nice to know it still fits him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movies Without Melissa

Over the past couple of weeks, my wife has been away--first to a conference, then to a family funeral--for about six days. What have I done with myself during that time alone, besides take care of the girls the way a good husband and father should? I've watched movies my wife isn't interested in seeing, of course.

Melissa is enough of a reader that we already often retreat to different corners of the house for the hour or so we have after we put the kids down before we head to sleep ourselves. But I'll usually be using that time for grading papers or writing or reading the blogs; only occasionally will I pop in a dvd to watch one of the dozes of films on my ever-changing "to-see" list, because generally when we see movies, we see them together. But there are plenty of films on that list that Melissa has no interest in watching, so I tend to put them off until I can safely abandon her for a while and indulge in my passion for the violent, the weird, the off-beat, the rare, the historical. Since she's been abandoning me lately, it's meant late lights and lots of crossing-off of films I've meant to get around to for years. Herewith, a brief report on the past 13 days (in alphabetical order):

Aguirre, the Wrath of God: good, but not great. I suspect I would have considered it great if I'd seen it on the big screen; the power of Klaus Kinski's depiction of a soldier's descent into madness and how he drags of 16th-century expedition off down the Amazon with him seemed to depend to a great deal on the background music, and the expansive visuals of the endless, dispiriting water and jungle which Werner Herzog filmed all around him. As it was, I found it affecting, but not grandiose, and I think that's what the movie was aiming for.

The Darjeeling Limited: it started out funnier, and better, than any other Wes Anderson film I've seen (and I've seen them all). Yes, you had all Anderson's usual so-hip-it's-ironic-or-is-it? tricks: the non sequiters, the brilliantly oddball musical cues, the slow motion tracking shots. But I loved it nonetheless. It was a hipster road movie, and it had me giggling like a hyena. (Best bit: when Jack Whitman--Jason Schwartzman--goes for his mace to break-up a fight between his brothers.) But then Anderson I guess started feeling guilty about using poverty-stricken Indian villages as a backdrop to a satire of secular upper-class Americans searching for themselves, and decided to give the movie Real Meaning. Which slowed it down, made it predictable, and less fun.

Eraserhead: no one can say that David Lynch didn't start out every bit as weird as he has ever been. I've never been a huge Lynch fan, and this film--his first--didn't convert me, but my respect for him remains. It's a crude, surreal, sometimes shockingly blunt horror-film expression of some of the ugliest fears human beings have about love and sex and marriage and childbirth. It is also frankly nonsensical, especially with the brief interlude which suggests, so far as I can tell, that the main character might actually be a No. 2 pencil having a dream.

The Last Temptation of Christ: my old friend Matt Stannard recommended I see this years ago, when I went along with the huge crowds and checked out Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. My verdict is like my verdict for Aguirre above--good, but not great. The scenes of Jesus's arrest, torture, and crucifixion were handled much better than the overloaded gore of Gibson's approach--David Bowie actually made a find Pontius Pilate, I thought--but one thing you have to give Gibson credit for is that his film, from beginning to blood-drenched end, had a consistent theology throughout. Whereas Scorsese's film didn't. I'm not criticizing his choice to tell a story where Jesus is confused, struggling, filled with doubt and partly just making it up as he goes along; I just was less than satisfied with, in the wake of giving us that kind of Jesus, Scorsese gives us an ending in which Christianity appears to happen anyway, suggesting that God is really the master of the situation, an implication which isn't supported the rest of the way through. Did Jesus give in to His final temptation to leave the cross, and God later put Him back on there when He changed His mind, or was it all a dream? Scorsese kind of likes those kind of endings, but when he's talking about God, they may not be the best way to end a film.

Letters from Iwo Jima: kind of deadening, as war flicks go. Which is surely very true to life; the story of the battle of Iwo Jima, as far as the Japanese soldiers who fought and died there were concerned, was almost entirely about slowly starving to death in tunnels as the American war machine slowly, painfully, one by one, took them out. So I give Eastwood credit for putting together an ambitious, honest war film. It was just one that gave me a sinking, grey feeling throughout, and I'm not sure how intentional that was.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller: I'd put it in the middle of my personal ranking of Altman films. As with Lynch, I'm not a major fan of Altman, but I respect the kind of work he did. Some of the films he made I think are first-class stories on film: wickedly funny, stylistically unique, surprisingly (sometimes eeriely) insightful. Nashville, one of my favorite movies, a creepy and brilliantly panoramic slice of Americana, falls into this category. McCabe, by contrast, was doing Altman's frequent trick of capturing as much of life as possible on the margins of the film's supposed main story, but only succeeded about half the time. Possibly his insistence on staging and shooting the film so naturalistically became, ultimately, itself a kind of fake artiface (is it really plausible that John McCabe (Warren Beatty) will always turn away from the camera and mumble whenever he has a big line to deliver?). It's great to see the Pacific Northwest--in wintertime!--in a western, though.

Pineapple Express: much of it was very, very funny; Red (Danny McBride), the paranoid middle-man who is so high and so stupid that he keeps fighting even after he's shot and bleeding from multiple wounds, was my favorite character, and a couple of scenes--like when Dale (Seth Rogan) and Saul (James Franco)--get spooked for no reason and run like mad men through the woods--are just fall-down funny. But ultimately, I don't know. I think it just might be a fact that drunk people are funnier than stoned people. (As my friend and restauranter Nick Zukin once put it to me: "Drunk people + Hollywood = funny.")

Sweeny Todd: I have to say, a failure as a movie musical. This musical--which I've never seen live, only the filmed Broadway production with the insanely terrific (terrifically insane?) Angela Landsbury--has, in my opinion, Sondheim's greatest score, perfectly melding soaring music and sleazy, blood-soaked melodrama into a soundtrack that's an outrageous black comedy delight. Tim Burton had some fun with some of the visuals, and there was some great creative set-ups and shots for the actors, but ultimately, they just couldn't do what musicals demand: use the song to make their characters persuasive, and the story captivating. In something like Mamma Mia, this doesn't matter: we're just having fun with the songs after all, and the story is irrelevant (and completely stupid, at that). But you can't do that with Sondheim. When you're supposed to be seeing lurid madness and despair in the raw, the movie's singing can only offer you Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter looking like a couple of pissed-off Goths. And besides, couldn't Burton have at least given us that tremendous, haunting final chorus, if only over the credits?

Monday, October 26, 2009

That Was Pretty Wicked (and Other Musical Thoughts)

Melissa and I went out to Wicked on Saturday, which just opened its short run here in Wichita. What a fabulous, fun event! It's been too long since we've seen a big spectacle like this, and we miss them. Salt Lake City isn't a huge metropolis, but as it and Denver are the only really large and wealthy markets between Kansas City and the West coast, lots of shows would stop there, and we would drive up from BYU and catch a fair number of them as the years went by in the early 90s: Forever Plaid, The Secret Garden, The Will Rogers Follies. And then we were in the DC area while I was in graduate school, and we saw a ton of great stuff while there (it had just exploded into the national consciousness when we saw Riverdance, but it hadn't yet gone global; Colin Dunne was still with the show, and Irish step-dancing had not yet become a punch-line on The Simpsons). But since then, living in college towns in Mississippi, Arkansas, western Illinois and now Kansas, while opportunities for small and local theater productions have been plentiful, there generally just hasn't been sufficient critical mass to attract the big-money, big-stage shows, at least not anywhere within driving distance for us. (The last one we saw was The Lion King, when it came to Memphis.) So the fact that Wichita was able to land Wicked was awesome, and something we weren't going to miss.

How was it, as a show? There are a lot better musicals, to be sure. We're fans of musicals around here, as I wrote about years ago, and things haven't changed: our oldest girls, now 13 and 9, were jealous of and excited for Melissa and I (we bought the way-out-of-our-budget tickets back in August, as an anniversary present to ourselves), and they excitedly watched clips on Youtube, printed off the lyrics to the big songs, and took to singing "Defying Gravity" around the house. But being fans doesn't mean you worship every story that gives an actress the chance to hit a high note while in costume under the lights. For a musical to be really good, in my mind at least, it has to bring its story and its style together. A lot of folks are just kind of turned off by musicals, on stage or on screen, because they don't like the singing; or even if they don't mind the singing, it just strikes them as...well, stupid. People don't break out in song when they're sad or angry or happy or love, they say to themselves, so why should I watch a bunch of dressed-up folks do so? Well, for entertainment, of course. But that complaint has a point to it.

The modern Broadway musical--really, everything since Oklahoma or Show Boat, but nowadays especially monstrous ones which get taken on the road, and price their tickets at $80 or more a pop--generally set themselves up to something more than diversions, a variety revue with little comedy and a little dancing and music. The songs, and the singing of them, have to serve the play, and vice versa--they need to complement each other. Which means there ought to be some discernible, persuasive, dramatic or comedic (or both) arc that carries the story and characters from song to script and back again, all the way to the end. In the case of Wicked, I thought the book--the plotting and staging and spoken words--failed: not a total failure, but not a great success either. The first act was choppy, rushing from point A to point B without allowing us to get to know or emotionally relate to the main characters (Elphaba, who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, who becomes Glinda the Good), while the second act crammed too much into too little time. So I had those complaints. On the upside, both Melissa and our friends who went with us, all who have read the original novel the musical was based on, said that the story the musical told was an improvement on the book, and so there's that. And besides: how was the music? Just stunning. Solid all the way through, with a few real break-out songs that I think will really last. (Everyone loves the show-stopper "Defying Gravity," of course, but I actually thought the smartest, wittiest number was the Wizard's "Sentimental Man.") We applauded until our arms were exhausted, and it was deserved.

What's the best musical I've ever seen? Well, I've seen so many more as movies rather than on stage, that it's hard to compare: movie musicals can do different things, and should do different things, than those on stage, and that calls for different standards of measurement. (I think the greatest movie musical of them all is Singin' in the Rain, and I suspect that would be simply atrocious and stupid on stage.) On stage, I might have to say Man of La Mancha, a play where, when it's done right, the music puts the characters both inside and outside the story they're telling, and that's just remarkable. Into the Woods is also very, very good. Unfortunately, probably the single best musical I've ever seen on stage is also the one about which I have my most embarrassing musical story to tell. When I was seventeen, my parents and older brother and I went on a trip to Israel. On our way back, we stopped in New York City, and spent a couple of days seeing plays, something my dad arranged mostly to please my mother. The highlight was that my dad got tickets--this was in the summer of 1987, remember--to Les Misérables. And I thought it was so boring I fell asleep. In retrospect, I'm simply humiliated. I mean, I saw Les Misérables in New York during its original run with its original New York cast! And I hardly remember any of it. What an idiot I was. (You were a stupid teen-ager, people say to me. That's no excuse, I reply.)

Any choices for favorite musicals out there, or good memories of musicals you've seen? Feel free to share. I have to salve my wounded pride somehow.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Misunderstanding"

[Update, 10/23, 12:45pm, CST: Sorry all who contacted me about the missing FMV. I messed up; I had accidentially it scheduled to appear at 7:00pm tonight. To those who went without their morning fix, my apologies. It won't happen again.]

My very favorite early Genesis video, before Phil Collins starting getting high ambitions and hair stylings all his own. I love it because it really is just the band and a film crew driving aroung L.A., shooting footage wherever the mood strikes them. I've been told by old Los Angelos, folks that have lived in the city ever since it actually was a real city, and not just a bunch of isolated and mutually suspicious enclaves, that this video is a treasure trove: filled with shots of old restraunts and streets and drive-ins and theaters and intersections that were well-known once, and are long-since gone today. Let's bow our heads for the glory that was 1980, everybody.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Capitalism, Socialism, Localism Bleg

I haven't done one of these for a fairly long time, but it's time to call upon the wisdom of the internet once more.

Next semester I'll being teaching my Topics in Political Theory course, which I only have a chance to do here at Friends once every couple of years. I seriously considered doing Ancient and Medieval Political Thought, since I haven't taught Plato, et al, in ages, and I kind of miss them. Still, after bouncing that and a couple of other ideas around with my colleagues, I've decided the time has come for a good survey of the social and political theories behind various approaches to economic policy. Thus: "Capitalism, Socialism, Localism." I have in mind a nice announcement flyer for it as well, featuring Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Jesus. (Guess which one is which.)

That just leaves a question of the assigned reading material. This will be a 300-level course, so the majority of the students will be juniors and seniors, though given how small the program is at Friends, I may well end up with some sophomores in there. What should form the basic foundation of the course, and what are the best books or essays to deliver that foundation? Selections of Adam Smith (but which?) and Karl Marx are a must, of course. I also dearly want to include Rousseau's "Discourse on Political Economy" in there, if only so I can make use of the new (Jacob-Levy-recommended, and quite good) The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau, though it (and Rousseau too; I'd probably have to require them to read the "Second Discourse" first) will probably be way over their heads. G.A. Cohen's last (and simply terrific) little book Why Not Socialism? will probably also be assigned. For some introductory background, I'll probably use that stand-by, Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, unless someone has a better suggestion for a general primer. As a analytical framework for the class, looking closely as libertarian, liberal egalitarian, and socialist approaches to markets, I like Stephen Nathanson's Economic Justice. As for localism, I'll probably use some Wendell Berry (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community is probably his best collection for this purpose, though though he has other essays which address economic localism more specifically), but Bill McKibben's Deep Economy is also tempting. Some essays by Lawrence Goodwyn would also be nice to bring the explictly populist People's Party perspective into it, though there's no way I'll be able to include everything.

So, what do you think? What am I missing, and what should I throw out? Should I add something by de Soto, Friedman, Nozick, Krugman, Polanyi, or others? If so, what is expendable? I throw myself upon your good graces and knowledge, Fair People of the Internets. Guide me in my hour of need, preferably before book orders come due on November 1.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Update to Sharing the Kids Equally

One of America's more interesting and less predictable feminist public intellectual voices, Arlie Hochschild, has a few things to say about the general topic of family life and child care in a consumer capitalist world (hat tip: Laura McKenna):

Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed a profound shift in the American family, one that bears the deep footprints of a disappearing economic sector and a transformed culture....In survey after survey, Americans show up as valuing marriage more than people almost anywhere else. Yet at the same time we have the highest divorce--and romantic breakup--rate in the world, Andrew J. Cherlin observes in his highly insightful book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. We step into and out of romantic relationships faster than couples in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. By age 35, 10 percent of American women have lived with three or more husbands or domestic partners--a higher proportion than in any of these countries. Children born of married parents in America face a higher risk of seeing them break up than children born of unmarried parents in Sweden.

Why are Americans on this marriage-go-round? Is it the "restless temper" Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago? It is true, Cherlin observes, that more than people elsewhere, we move from job to job, city to city, and even church to church. Could this be linked to a missing government safety net and ­family-protective policies? Cherlin gives little credence to this idea, but he leaves us with another useful notion--that more than we realize, we’ve become accustomed to a move-along life-go-round world.

If Americans came to this country as restless seekers in search of a new and better life, capitalism made superb use of that impulse. We believe in the new....The culprit is not the absence of family values, I believe, but a continual state of unconscious immersion in a market turnover culture. It is this that sets us apart from a more stable Europe. For some adults, the search for a new partner leads to a better life. But not so for many children. Reporting on his research about the nation’s teenagers, Cherlin says: "For each partner who entered or left the household of a single parent, the odds that the adolescent had stolen something, skipped school, gotten drunk or done something similar rose by 12 percent."

Working-class families, where breakups come faster, have suffered a one-two punch. They have absorbed the decline of the industrial sector. They have also been exposed, like the rest of America, to a curiously consumerist approach to love. Paradoxically, those who call for family values also tout the wonders of an unregulated market without observing the subtle cultural links between the family they seek to regulate and the market they hold free....

So what can we do? In response to our fast-food culture, a "slow food" movement appeared. Out of hurried parenthood, a move toward slow parenting could be growing. With vital government supports for state-of-the-art public child care and paid parental leave, maybe we would be ready to try slow love and marriage.

There is much in Hochschild's piece worth pondering (her criticisms of social conservatives wisely alert to cultural threats to family life, but unwilling to pay for the social programs they recommend in response to such in particular); so really, read the whole thing. But I do think she would have been well-served if she was somewhat more aware of the strong arguments which have taken place online, here and elsewhere, about being "slacker" parents. Meaning, not slacking off on one's responsibilities to one's spouse and one's children, but rather, refusing to let an individualistic culture and the capitalist order which sustains it (complete with demands about how work around the house is going to be divided) dictate how a family will operate. The bosses are insisting you put in longer hours at work? The neighbors' kids are embarrassing yours because of the electronic toys they lack? Rising mortgages or the expectation of owning multiple cars is turning your family into a frazzled two-income one? Slack off! Or, at least, aim to get to a situation where you can.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Smooth Operator"

Here's a change of pace--somthing soft, jazzy, sultry. Ignore the pseudo-Miami Vice subplot to the video; just enjoy the music.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sharing the Kids Equally (Thoughts on Feminism, Capitalism, and Simplicity)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So, Melissa has flown the coop, escaping to Washington D.C. for the next four days to hang out with friends old and new, and chat in person with many of her online book-blogger peers at the KidLitosphere Conference, an annual gathering of bloggers who specialize in children's, youth, and young adult fiction. (Melissa will read and review anything, but she does have her preferences.) That leaves me at home, responsible for four girls ranging in age from 3 to 13. Which makes me wonder about a few things. But first, the obligatory "Mr. Mom" clip:

I know for a fact that I'm not that pathetic. Not quite, anyway.

The humorous reputation which most husbands and fathers in America carry around when they're--when we're; no reason to leave myself out of this--obliged to take up duties which are usually, and stereotypically, assumed by wives and mothers is pretty insulting, of course, however true it may be. Not primarily to us guys, I think; in all likelihood, when such humor is engaged in we'll find ourselves happily appropriating it as way to set ourselves up for failure, and excuse our reliance upon women to keep the family alive and the house operating normally. No, mostly it's insulting to women, in a kind of putting-them-up-on-an-inverted-pedestal sort of way. Not that women don't use the same humorous stereotypes too; of course they do. But I think when I've heard Melissa and her friends chortle about the fact that, say, I don't know the first thing about laundry, it seems to be a bit of a defense mechanism, a reluctant, self-martyring, head-shaking justification for the world of work which invariably seems their lot in life. Of course, I'm not saying anything new or original; anyone who has taken even the tiniest glimpse at the literature--hell, anyone who has ever been married, or even in a more or less permanent heterosexual relationship--knows for a fact that most women do most household and child-rearing chores, partly by choice, but also partly because apparently even the most egalitarian of husbands and fathers find it hard to fight patterns of socialization which have surrounded us for generations.

A lot of that socialization, obviously, is tied up in a particular model of the bourgeois, post-WWII, middle- and upper-class, suburban household: one bread-winner, the man, who leaves home to work in a factory or office, and then returns home to the woman, who has stayed there all day to tend the children, prepare the food, and maintain order. It's an unequal form of socialization which has been attacked by feminists at least since Betty Friedan, if not earlier. (Some conservatives have criticized this artificial division as well, but such localist or distributist "conservative" messages have never had much luck escaping the untouched from Republican machine.)

The success of the feminist attack on this arrangement has been limited, I think, pretty much exactly to the degree to which it has not, for the most part (at least outside of purely academic circles), been extended into a attack on the capitalist presumptions which underscore it. So long as women and men are going to want to have children and bring them up in an environment of at least some stability, and so long as this essentially natural and historical process has to happen in a socio-economic context which hammers home, again and again, the arbitrary demands of specialized labor and consumer acquisition, then obviously some sort of bifurcation of the home and the workplace is going to occur, and mothers and fathers are going to have to adjust their lives so as to accommodate that. So we have the SAHMs and their incompetent husbands, or we have working moms with daycare stresses and guilt, and husbands who are enlightened enough to actually help out with some of the vacuuming occasionally. Of course, there are numerous exceptions to this, and perhaps we're seeing more all the time; but still, overall those exceptions remain just that: exceptionally rare. (I just got back from picking up Kristen, our youngest, from her half-day pre-school, and I was the only man anywhere in the building. Admittedly, Wichita isn't going to be particularly rife with folks choosing to buck traditional stereotypes, but I seriously doubt that even in New York or San Francisco would you see such numbers skewed a whole lot the other way.)

I think about all this, because I think about equality, and would like to believe that, in small ways, here and there, Melissa and I have managed to make for ourselves a somewhat more egalitarian home than the ones we knew growing up. Part of our success in this, I believe, can be attributed to the fact that we've been conscientious enough, or lucky enough, or both, to develop a way of life which minimizes some of the ways which the marketplace can drive a person away from a home environment where it's possible to implement and maintain a little more balance.

As in so many things, I find Laura McKenna to be a brilliant guide to this tangle of issues, and she's contributed some sharp observations to the debate again and again. In one of the above posts, she comments about the idea of families embracing the kind of equal division of labor which opting out of consumer capitalism potentially makes possible; while she's dubious of going the whole "radical" distance, she thinks the idea has merit, point out that "[t]here is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism." This comment of hers came back to me when I read Rod Dreher's recent post about how much he--a full-time journalist and writer, a man who has confessed several times that, despite his localist aspirations, he'd simply feel lost and useless if he had provide for his family without relying upon the broad world of information and words and ideas--depends on his wife to manage a life which dissents in even small ways from the pressures of consumer capitalism. Rod quotes at length from the always provocative Sharon Astyk, who, in the context of a discussion about dealing with economic breakdown rather trenchantly observes:

[W]hile collapse as a whole, with its radical dislocation of male roles and providers, is probably scarier and more destructive to men than to women; volunteering to live a low energy life probably is more frightening to many women than to men--and for pretty good reasons. Because there's an excellent chance that the reality is likely to be that the practical burdens of hauling groceries home on a donkey, emptying the composting toilet bucket and stoking the sauna are likely to become the wife's chores...I [do not] think it is coincidental that many women married to more traditional men are unthrilled with the vision of a low energy future, and a return to the bad old days, in which "men may work from sun to sun, but women's work is never done."

It's not unusual to get arguments from a variety of mainstream liberals--not populists or social democrats or others that can sometimes be called up short by arguments about what kind of socio-economic and cultural conditions really make democratic communities possible, but ordinary, smart progressives--that recognize Astyk's point, and as a result want to call the whole thing off. Matthew Yglesias, when talking about the way certain celebrity chefs have turned to a celebration of locally produced, home-cooked meals, observes very simply: "If...gender norms were shifting toward the idea that women should get married young and drop out of the workforce in order to do unpaid domestic work, then obviously people would start cooking more. But that’s not what’s happening." Indeded, it's not. And rightly so; the revolution which enabled women to exercise rights and develop themselves as full participants in public life has been, whatever its incidental downsides, an overwhelming moral and civic boon to Western civilization (when you've even got folks on a localist website like Front Porch Republic observing that downsizing one's involvement in consumer capitalism is harder on wives than husbands, or writing that "I'm not sure if, given the choice with the sweep of history in front of me, I would choose a century or place other than the 20th Century west, and I’m even more inclined to think I wouldn't choose anything else for my daughters"--a sentiment I completely agree with--then you know there's no going back). So clearly, there is going to be a limit to how far the great majority of us who desire the many natural and historical goods provided by your basic family unit are going to be able or willing to fight against the specialization and consumption which I mentioned above. The question, I suppose, a question without any one lasting or universal answer, will figuring out where those limits are, and whether they can be pushed in any way, in the name of a life both humble and equal.

Rod argues that the only hope for families to achieve both goals is to have a relationship that focuses on something besides each other. He has a point there. I wonder if it may be that only a higher trust can make it possible for each partner to truly trust that the other will do whatever is necessary, or learn whatever skill is necessary, to support the other as they turn, if only partly, away from systems of consumer dependence that may be truly liberating in particular (as they historically have been for most women) but which overall make any long-term equality that much more difficult to achieve. But I also wonder--in the spirit of the aforementioned compromises, or at least in the spirit of sharing the tensions involved in such--if that trust might not be productively aided by a little wise public policy. Which takes me back to one of my favorite pieces of writing: my friend Damon Linker's essay about when he first became a father, and the conclusions it brought to him in regards to family life:

Ever since the 1950s, a woman choosing the life of the stay-at-home mom has faced the prospect of isolation far more profound than would have been typical in earlier times. After her husband walks out the door in the morning, she is usually left alone with only her child for company. Such a life is hardly traditional; nor is it, for many women, appealing...Instead of asking women to suppress their desire for the goods that come from pursuing an occupation outside the home, men could begin to put somewhat less emphasis on their own careers and recognize the very real goods that flow from sharing more of the joys and the burdens of parenting--even if it means that they must live with the same tensions faced by modern women...[S]uch tensions could be somewhat diminished for both parents if the government would expand the provisions for maternity leave that are part of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. We could also follow the lead of many European countries in providing for paternity leave. Surely a nation as wealthy as ours could afford the costs of policies that would so clearly benefit the modern family.

That wouldn't solve the whole dilemma of sharing the kids equally (a dilemma particularly vexing for those of us who want to pursue a simpler, more local way of life), of course--no one thing ever could. But at the very least, Laura agrees with me that a little European-style "conservatism" might make for family relationships that are a little more equal, a little more feminist, and slightly less filled with complex and confusing competing. Worth striving for, wouldn't you agree?

All right, Kristen's done with Backyardigans; time to clean up a bit before everyone else comes home. Back to doing my bit, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obviously, My Education was Compromised from the Start

Good, dues-paying, conference-attending member of the political science community that I am, I received my issue of APSA's PS: Political Science and Politics in the mail today. It being the October issue, they included the annual "Censure Lists" from the American Association of University Professors--my union, you might say. Anyway, flipping through the issue I ran across the list, and was reminded that both of the schools I received university degrees from have been found to have "unsatisfactory conditions of academic freedom and tenure." What that says about the education I received at either institution I don't care to speculate. Strictly speaking, I suppose I could claim to have been untainted by Brigham Young University's listing on the AAUP's list, since they weren't censured until 1998, and I graduated from there in 1994. But then I went to Catholic University of America for my PhD, and they've been on the list since 1990, so I definitely got it there.

What the "it" I got exactly was is harder to answer. I suppose this would be an appropriate time to write at length about the problematic relationship which schools that posit a sectarian identity (in the above cases, Mormonism and Catholicism, respectively) as part of their vision for higher education will always have with the ideal of "academic freedom," however defined. It might be an interesting thing to write at length about too; as someone with a fair amount of experience at the many different ways in which religious belief can be instantiated in the context of the university experience (after all, I've settled at a religious school to teach at as well, and Friends definitely does some things differently than either CUA or BYU), I have some strong opinions on the matter.

But I don't have the time or inclination to write anything right now, so I won't. I just figured, any of you who read this blog, that you ought to know I was taught by a bunch of professors who either did, or soon would, operate under the shame of AAUP censure. In case you need a reason to dismiss my arguments, you know. Of course, you could attempt to do the same by claiming I'm not a U.S. citizen (WHERE'S THE OFFICIALLY NOTARIZED LONG-FORM VERSION OF YOUR BIRTH CERTIFICATE, MR. "FOX," IF THAT IS YOUR NAME?!?!), but this just seems so much easier. I only want to help.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Decline the Honor, Obama!

Look, the Nobels are a contest, not a sport or an election with more-or-less specific, public, well-defined rules. It's a group of people--the Norwegian Nobel Committee--awarding a prize to a contest-winner, and just like every contest, the choice of the winner will reflect popularity, mixed with various personal motives (some relevant, some not), which are further mixed with lots of claimed measurements of various criteria (again, some relevant, some not). So the committee has awarded President Barack Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" (as well as his "vision"). Very nice, to be sure; and, given that awarding said prize to Obama is the very best way for the Committee to make their real beliefs--which are surely, as one commenter has already put it, "boy is the world relieved you guys didn't choose McCain"--known, it's reasonable. But, honestly, c'mon.

The Peace prize is already the most baldly political, and hence the most mocked and derided of the Nobels. Does that derision almost entirely come from American conservatives, sneering at Nobel Peace Prize recipients Jimmy Carter (2002) and Al Gore (2007)? Yes. Does that make such criticism illegitimate? No, it doesn't. Contests can always, rightly, be criticized for almost any choice they make; those who set themselves up as prize-awarders have to be prepared to deal with that. With Jimmy Carter, they could point to decades of international diplomatic work in dangerous parts of the globe: again, much of it derided or condemned by parts (and not always just conservative parts) of the American intelligentsia, but nonetheless the work was there, which anyone could point to. Al Gore is a somewhat smaller fig leaf for the Norwegian committee to hide behind, but still, there have been years of activism on behalf of environmental causes to point to there. But President Obama? At the very, very, very best, one can only put it the way Michael Russnow does (hat tip to Rod Dreher): this is an "enormously premature" award, which "to a certain extent cheapens the prior recipients and the work all of them performed over so many years."

Respectfully decline the honor, President Obama. It's not your time for it yet.

Friday Morning Videos: "Straight Up"

For some reason, last week's video--the black-and-white photography, the sharp choreography--made me think of this one. Ah, Paula. Others know you as a reality-television show judge, but to me, you'll always be a tap dance instructor to the stars.

That's Arsenio Hall that shows up there for a second at the beginning, isn't it?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Defending Lasch, Left and/or Right

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

No one, I think, has ever summed up the longing for a life of simplicity and locality--which are, obviously, a couple of my personal obsessions--better than Christopher Lasch did, in this plaintive passage from his masterpiece, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, when he spoke about his and his wife's hopes for their family life when they were young:

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of "significant others." A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children--that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education. We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by--joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship--they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the "nuclear family." Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit (p. 32).

With this passage's reference to extended families and its suspicion of an over-reliance upon public schools, with its invocation of moral and cultural virtues and of dozens of humble, bourgeois practices (evening meals, organized sports, family games, etc.), it could probably be labeled--by those who usually identify with the left, that is--as either a nice but harmless bit of right-wing nostalgia at best, or as a canny bit of "traditional values" agitprop at worst. But it's neither, of course, because Lasch was himself a product of the left side of our confusing and often inaccurate ideological divisions. Though he never took socialism particularly seriously, and though he spent most of his career probing the pathologies and misunderstandings of American liberalism, his fundamental political and economic aspirations were generally clear: he liked democracy, and believed in equality (among his last political acts were a vote for Bill Clinton in 1992, and speaking out in favor of a "huge jobs program" in the pages of Salmagundi in 1994). But such convictions don't lay to rest his critics on the left, however.

A couple of months ago Crooked Timber, a well-known left-liberal academic group blog, hosted a symposium discussing a terrific collection of essays by George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? In that book, Scialabba--a wonderfully smart and incisive reviewer of and commenter on the intellectual currents of American life--provides sharp takes on all sorts of writers and thinkers, from (moving left to right) Richard Rorty, Edward Said and Irving Howe to William F. Buckley, Victor Davis Hanson and Allan Bloom. The only author, though, to receive two full essays all to himself is Lasch, whom Scialabba clearly considers a hero of sorts, and this made some of the respondents to Scialabba mad. Rich Yeselson, in particular, really let him have it, shaking his head at the sympathy a leftist like Scialabba shows for a man like Lasch, who believed the real hope for democracy and equality was to be found in local cultures, intact families, supportive neighborhoods, independent labor and ownership...in other words, in ordinary--and therefore, it must be admitted, usually rather defensive, and perhaps often somewhat exclusionary--producers and workers:

Because all of [Lasch's] hardy "Artisans against Innovation"...plus the populists, plus the virtuous small "producers" have been wiped out by the early part of the 20th century, and because these folks were all proud of their skills and because they were ethnically homogeneous, Lasch can’t explain how the hell millions of unskilled, ethnically heterogeneous workers formed the CIO in the 1930s--and with it the backbone of the American middle class for the next two generations....So why does Scialabba let Lasch off the hook? Perhaps because he seems drawn most to writers and thinkers whom Sartre might have called the "unsalvageable," after Hugo [Barine], the disillusioned leftist who goes down in a hale of Stalinist bullets at the end of Dirty Hands while shouting that he is "unsalvageable" (as opposed to those The Party cynically deems “salvageable” for its own instrumental purposes)....So Lasch, shouting out the Great Refusal to all of modernity, is another in this long line of gutsy truth tellers who push against the grain of the conventional wisdom. And Scialabba gives him bonus points for his unsalvageability.

Way too many. Lasch builds a vast transportation device that does not move. His fantasy of a producerist ideology somehow redistributing wealth and power in a multi-polar world dominated by large pools of capital is just goofy. Lasch fears the very State that is the only entity capacious enough to circumscribe the power of private interests. He’s all dreams, he’s got no plans, and we want the plans....The people are busy--I've spent a lot of time around them. I've got a pretty good feel for this. Their jobs suck and they’re exhausted. When they get it together to do something amazing like build the CIO or create the Civil Rights movement, it’s a mitzvah composed of all kinds of things, especially incredibly tenacious, labor intensive organizing. Some of them are wonderful, and some of them are awful, and most of them are in between--kind of like everybody else. People who actually spent time around working class people...do not think of them or write about them in the way Lasch did....Lasch spent too much time trying to demonstrate that some stratums of the downtrodden were right or noble or resistant to the encroachments on their way of life. [Richard] Rorty spent his time just trying to argue against those with power who were trying to screw them, regardless of whether the downtrodden themselves were so wonderful or their way of life was so great. Because frequently they aren't and it isn't. A lot of local knowledge isn't so humane....The world has always been a scary place, and it’s always been the fit though few who have undertaken to make stuff better. And, over time, they pick up some fellow travelers, and, oddly enough, things do get better.

This is, of course, a particularly influential strand of the liberal progressive mentality in a nutshell: the conviction that most people, most of the time, are too invested in taking care of their own, or too exhausted by the simple demands of survival, to care much about systematic exploitation, and hence that any real "progress" towards equality and democracy is almost always going to have to come from the "fit though few," not from ordinary people, in their own places, speaking from their own limits. It is a mentality that Lasch denies the truth of, root and branch. Genuine democratic and egalitarian improvement in the lives of human beings--ending slavery, improving working conditions, respecting civil rights, providing education--always has at its heart, Lasch maintains, the activism of men and women from more or less well-defined communities, demanding independence and respect. It should be noted, though, that unlike some critics of the progressive ideal, Lasch himself didn't think that the so-named "Progressives" of American history were themselves so thoroughly addicted to that liberal progressive worldview that they failed to recognize the communitarian and cultural undercurrents which efforts to better one's own and others' lives must invariably draw upon. He wrote, in his last complete work, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, that:

Progressive thought was lively and suggestive precisely because so much of it resisted the political orthodoxies associated with the idea of progress. A number of important progressives refused to accept the division of society into a learned and laboring class as the price of progress. Nor did they embrace the welfare state as the only way of protecting workers' interests. They admitted the force of the conservative objection that welfare programs would promote a "sense of dependence," in Herbert Croly's words, but they rejected the conservatives' claim that the "wage-earner's only hope is to become a property owner." Some of the responsibility for "operating the business mechanism of modern life," Croly maintained, would have to be transferred to the working class--or, rather, wrested by the workers from their employers since their "independence...would not amount to much" it is were "handed down to them by the state or by employers' associations" (p. 82).

So readers of Lasch--perhaps especially Front Porch Republic readers of Lasch, drawn to him because of his populist case for an economy of producers, a society of communities and neighborhoods and families--remain confused. He praises Progressive reforms, but attacks the dole. He speaks glowingly of strikes and labor unrest, and calls it all "conservative." How to defend such a person, when you don't know which direction the target is facing when attacks come from left and right?

Many of Lasch's fans have tried, of course. Alan Ryan, in an old essay in The New York Review of Books, wrote that Lasch's "populist values...defy categorization," since "Lasch sounded very like a member of the Republican right when denouncing work-shy, sexually predatory young men, and like an unreconstructed member of the Old Left when denouncing hard-working but financially predatory bankers, managers, and brokers." Jeremy Beer, in an essay for Modern Age a few years ago, suggested that The True and Only Heaven was Lasch's "attempt to provide a pedigree for a more radical, more democratic--and more consistent--brand of cultural conservatism," one that combined economic leveling with traditional and local ways of life. Kenneth Anderson, in a Times Literary Supplement essay published soon after Lasch's death, seemed to want to remove Lasch from his frequent association with communitarian critics of modernity, and align him instead with the left-libertarian cause, emphasizing his "anti-statist and anti-capitalist" teachings, suggesting that it wasn't so much radical self-interest and individualism which Lasch opposed, as it was "authoritarianism, the peculiar form of communitarianism emerging from the conjunction of state and therapy," and concluding that the public virtues Lasch rightly believed to be necessary for democracy could never come from such communitarian-praised actions of the 1990s as "Bob Dole's railing against Hollywood or Bill Clinton's preaching against pregnancy to black teenage girls," but rather that "communities [must be allowed] to reformulate themselves, if indeed they will and along such lines as they will."

Which, really, isn't at all an untrue claim...but it is an incomplete one, and Lasch's own writings show why it is incomplete. While that may not settle Lasch's place once and for all--which is a bad goal anyway; isn't the whole point of criticism such as Lasch's to "unsettle" us?--responding to this particular claim, at least, may make it a little clearer exactly how we who love our local places should defend Christopher Lasch.

The one time that Lasch engaged with communitarian thought in a sustained way (in the chapter "Communitarianism or Populism? The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect," in Revolt of the Elites), he described his disagreements with the movement as a "difference in emphasis" rather than one of "irreconcilable opposition." In fact he has many good things to say about some of the movement's foremost thinkers, including Robert Bellah and Amitai Etzioni, and lumps communitarianism together with populism as "third way" projects, "reject[ing] both the market and the welfare state." At its roots, his real reservations with communitarian arguments are, in essence, class reservations: as he saw it, communitarianism emerges from an academic, sociological perspective, and tends to look upon the crucial virtues which participation in the traditions and rough equality of decent communities can teach people as something needful and precious, and thus in need of conservation and compassionate support. Whereas populism, on his reading of its arguments, is more defensive, radical, and grounded in a defiant expression of the limits of life in a decidedly non-elite (usually, though not always, rural) working world. Academic defenders of community can be misled by top-down thinking, missing the essential structures--including the bottom-level socio-economic class structures--which populists intuitively know that their communities depend upon if their expressions of respect, competence, and judgment--all essential parts of their contribution to democracy--are not to be blown away by elite and/or intellectual reconstructions of social life. He writes:

Communitarians regret the collapse of social trust but often fail to see that trust, in a democracy, can only be grounded in mutual respect. They properly insist that rights have to be balanced by responsibility, but they seem to be more interested in the responsibility of the community as a whole--its responsibility, say, to its least fortunate members--than in the responsibility of individuals....But it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of conduct....Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than of intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become and excuse for apathy (pp. 106-107).

The ability to make judgments is a function of maturity, and maturity comes, Lasch argues, drawing upon both history and psychology, when individuals depart infantile worlds of helplessness and instant gratification, and instead come to appreciate--and eventually fiercely protect--the chastened lessons of experience, struggle, and the limited victories of life. An environment where wealth and respect is fluid, mostly untied to practical disciplines requiring time to master but instead rewarded to those who excel in pleasing or manipulating their human and intellectual surrounding, will result in gaps between winners and losers that no person can consider legitimate, thus making any attempt to impose community-wide standards and responsibilities slightly ridiculous and primitive to members of the new class of elites; it will be obvious to those in power that those ordinary folk who have not made the meritocracy work for them, and entered into the world of financial and social opportunity and mobility which it makes possible, will likely have no grasp the modern world. Which, of course, in turn leads to resentment, and a poisoning of the very virtues which a localized economy of limits once taught. Lasch's overall conclusion, in analyzing this process, is that democracy needs a defense of community that is more specific than the kind which some sorts of arguably condescending, vaguely redistributive, communitarianism promises; it needs some local, historical basics, and bite. He concludes:

"Back to basics" could mean a return to class warfare (since it is precisely the basics that our elites reject as hopelessly outmoded) or at least to a politics in which class became the overriding issue. Needless to say, the elites that set the tone of American politics, even when they disagree about everything else, have a common stake in suppressing a politics of class. Much will depend on whether communitarians continue to acquiesce in this attempt to keep class issues out of politics or whether they will come to see that gross inequalities, as populists have always understood, are incompatible with any form of community that would now be recognized as desirable and that everything depends, therefore, on closing the gap between elites and the rest of the nation (p. 114).

I think this is unfair to many communitarian writers, at least some of whom have very clearly articulated the impossibility of preserving the democratic and egalitarian potential of community membership in an environment where often unregulated and technologically unlimited capitalism ruins any sense of common life between the classes, and thus often ruins as well any possibility of collective, virtue-teaching participation, the sort where--as the quote at the beginning of this post emphasized--families could take a secure place in, and thus contribute to, a wider context of life. But whether you call it populist or communitarian or something else entirely, the driving charge of Lasch's critique is clear. As he says in his introductory essay in Revolt of the Elites, "a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation...civic equality presuppose[s] at least a rough approximation of economic equality" (p. 22). Scialabba sums up Lasch's overall claims similarly in one of the essays in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: "[Lasch's] ideal has at least two radical implications. The first is that democracy requires a rough equality of conditions. Dignity and virtue cannot survive indefinitely amid extremes of wealth and poverty; only someone with a paltry conception of virtue could believe otherwise. The second is that the democratic character can only flourish in a society constructed to human scale" (pp. 182-183).

What follows from such a diagnosis? Good question, and one might be justified in thinking that Lasch's vocation as a critic too-easily saved him from the harder work of answering it, and thereby building up some alternatives. (In this, he was perhaps taking too much comfort in being in the same position as his populist forerunners; on the last page of Progress and Its Critics, he called the populist tradition failure to develop a strong political or economic theory "its most conspicuous weakness"--p. 532.) But it is not as though answers are impossible to find in Lasch's oeuvre: he wanted to see jobs defended, wages secured, trade limited, cultures respected, neighborhoods supported, manual labor revived, proprietorship encouraged, industry regulated, corporations restricted, families embraced...and he wanted, to every degree possible, this done in a manner which did not rob authority and integrity from (quoting John Dewey--another Progressive!--here) "the local homes of mankind" (Revolt, p. 84). Complicated? Obviously. Some of the above would require broad reforms and expensive legislation and politically unpopular stands, while some of it--perhaps the even more difficult parts of it--would depend upon individual and family sacrifices and changes. Is the goal itself impossible? Yeselson thinks so; in one of his further responses to Scialabba, he insisted that "Lasch somehow thinks, that in the name of a greater sense of self and stronger connection to one’s productive capabilities, you can mitigate the great productive power of capitalism--but yet have plenty that will be left over to expropriate from the expropriators. It doesn’t work that way--dividing up less leads not to serenely making your own buttermilk, but to fascism." That's quite a leap there--a not-completely-unreasonable leap, but a big leap nonetheless. One can only hope that Yeselson is wrong, and we can make compromises which move us in a Laschian direction, seeing as how our current global environmental and economic situation suggests what we will have to accept "dividing up less" anyway. Scialabba, assessing the final value of Lasch's perspective, suggests that at our present moment we have only three options for the future: "1) ecological catastrophe; 2) a domestic and international caste system, with extreme and permanent inequality, harshly enforced; or 3) a voluntary renunciation of universal material abundance as our goal and of mass production and centralized authority as the means"...then adding that "[o]bviously, only the last is even potentially a democratic future." Assuming that people who like localism like it at least in part because of its democratic promise, then defending Lasch's fierce commitment to economic and civic equality seems to be a necessary step in any vision that includes front porches.

Lasch's connection of democracy and community to equality--as both a prerequisite and a result--moves him definitely to the left, I think (making "equal prospects for a flourishing life" a central value being almost stereotypically a left-wing attitude rather than a right-wing one), but it's an odd left, a left that owes more (and more directly) to Rousseau's moralistic concern with how modern economic life could warp private life and the development of individual character (a point Ryan made in the aforementiond NYRB essay). A left conservatism, perhaps? Or maybe, more simply, just different, more serious, religious left? Paul Gottfried, in a long, thoughtful and lyrical reminiscence about Lasch (and others), wrote that Lasch's ultimate goal was to articulate "a religiously based communitarianism that could serve as an alternative to multinational capitalism." Why religiously based? Because, it seems, he doubted that individuals would be able to recognize and adhere to the limits of local communities (and thus receive and be able to contribute to the virtuous blessing of such membership) when confronted by market-and-technology-driven inducements (or delusions) of personal liberation and opportunity...unless, that is, there was a tangible belief that such limits--moral, social, and economic--were reflections of, or perhaps even instantiations of, a higher order of things. It is actually at this point that Scialabba's defense of Lasch hits its most difficult patch: "[Does Lasch] propose to resurrect 'the theological context'--the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul? The Covenant and the Incarnation? Must we believe in order to be saved? If so, then we are lost. We cannot believe the unbelievable, even to salvage our culture" (What Are Intellectuals Good For?, p. 172).

If we assume from the outset, of course, that religious belief--perhaps especially the kind of beliefs which sustained many community-grounded populist and progressive pushes towards greater democracy and equality throughout American history--is "unbelievable," than it would appear that Lasch's whole oeuvre is compromised. His close analysis of the role families and local communities do and should play in developing democratic citizenship and economic egalitarianism won't hold water, if there is no reason for anyone to ever stay on the farm once they've seen the city. We might as well accept Yeselson's--and many others'--criticisms, and consign Lasch to the dustbin as we ponder strategies for extending justice. Or else, of course, we could just give up on social and economic egalitarianism entirely. Which if, to be honest, where the majority of devotees of localism probably already are, anyway. But, so long as belief has a chance, Lasch's criticisms remain pertinent for making a defense of his great populist/communitarian insight: that local producers and democratic egalitarians needn't be enemies after all.

Bias, Book Reviews, and the FTC

A couple of days ago, Laura McKenna commented on the recent ruling by the Federal Trade Commission that targeted bloggers who receive free stuff for the purposes of reviewing it (and, that is, promoting it) on their blogs. She pretty much nailed the whole affair, I thought: it's a ridiculous ruling, and an unenforceable one, which targets the wrong people because it misunderstands the whole nature of blogging. She writes:

I've heard that the mommybloggers get stuff, but I'm sure it's a small group of bloggers with the biggest audiences. Dealing with thorny ethical matters about receiving free stuff is a problem that most of us would be happy to have. Bloggers, for the most part, aren't corporate shills. If I started giving reviews of products I didn't believe in, I would very quickly have no audience. Actually, if I started reviewing products of any kind other than books, even ones I believed in, I would probably lose my audience. The bigger problem are publishers and corporations that try to manipulate the bloggers....As a group, the blogosphere may be a powerful thing, but the individuals aren't. There are a handful of people who have made money at this thing; most aren't making a cent. They aren't receiving swag. They are providing a service with very little to zero compensation.

I don't think there would be much to say beyond that, but my wife does. Melissa is part of the book-blogging (and hence book-reviewing) community, and as you can probably imagine, the notion that the FTC feels obliged to involve themselves in tracking, supervising, or regulating the exchange of books as part of the reviewing process makes about as much sense to that community as, say, the FTC telling movie reviewers that they are going to have to start itemizing on their tax returns every comp ticket to a preview of a film they receive would seem reasonable to Roger Ebert. I wouldn't say her fellow book-bloggers are up in arms over it all, but they do all agree it's ludicrous, and completely fails to appreciate what the words "book review" actually mean. Anyway, now Melissa has said so, in detail. My favorite part:

When I am reading "reviews"...of clothing, shoes, strollers, computers, cameras, or cars, I want to know how well they work. I want to know which brand or item is going to give me the most for my money. It's reasonable that such things are "reviewed" on the basis of their form and function, because their value comes from how well they perform those functions. Reviews of those products need to be clear about any bias which might have come into the review, because being biased or dishonest about the performance of a product will diminish the value of those products in the hands of consumers....But books are different. Sure, they can be perceived as a product: they are physical in ways that, say, movies are not. There are publishers and authors who benefit from their production and sale. However, this is not what book reviewers are reviewing....There is usually no (or very little) mention of the physical or utilitarian aspect of the actual book. There is also almost never any mention of which "brand" of book -- be it Bloomsbury, or LittleBrown, or HarperCollins -- is better than the other. Rather, what we are reviewing are the ideas, the outpourings of a person's imagination, in the book's story. And for that, we often want bias. When it comes to books -- or movies, music or art -- biases (of some sorts anyway) can be helpful. It can mean that you've read a lot of other books (some of which you got for free, some of which you bought on your own, some of which you checked out from the local library), that you’re familiar with the author, that you understand what the publisher is trying to accomplish. This will enable you to be more sympathetic (and thus give potential readers a chance to learn something new) or more critical (and thus warn potential readers away when a book is really just more of this or more of that, and not as good).

It's very good. So, as we used to say all the time around the bloggernacle, do read the whole thing.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Building a Home

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Lately, themes of home--as a project, a problem, a possibility--have been echoing around my head. But considering my own pre-occupations, perhaps that's not surprising.

Last Wednesday, our sewer line began to back up, spreading crappy (literally) water all over the basement. A neighbor, a fellow church-member and a very generous friend, spent a good chunk of his evening figuring out that it was an electrical problem, and getting the pump motor working again, thus restoring our sometimes doubtful belief that owning your own home is worth it. Then on Thursday I had dinner with a long-time community activist, and we talked a little about the politics of health care and immigration in Wichita, mostly we chatted about our kids, about how hard it is when you move around a lot and you don't have a stable network of relatives or friends or teachers to help you out, and how valuable it is to finally be able to develop local ties with your children's classmates and their parents. Then on Friday it was homecoming for Northwest High (which is just up the road from our house), and Megan, our oldest daughter, who plays the clarinet in the band for Wilbur Middle School (just across the run-off and down the street), got to march and play along with crowd. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and we sat in the bleachers under a rising full moon, as our two middle girls, Caitlyn and Alison, ran about to sit beside and talk with their friends and parents of their friends and teachers from Peterson Elementary (yep, that's in walking distance too) who were in the crowd along with us. Then finally yesterday, in honor of Chusoknal, the Korean Thanksgiving, Melissa and I got out to a Manna Wok, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the east side of town, where we ate some of the best Korean food I've had in years. The owners have been in Wichita for twenty-six years, and the restaurant, despite development all around them, had hung on for sixteen; every inch of the walls were covered with snapshots of regular diners, some of whom have apparently been coming back again and again for a decade or more.

All this, and it's General Conference weekend for us Mormons. The same weekend as Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, as observant Jews are building their sukkah in their homes as part of their worship services, Mormons worldwide are--assuming they're equally observant--traveling to church buildings with satellite projectors, or crashing the homes of friends with cable television, or firing up their laptops, all tuning in to hear words of counsel from church leaders...in essence turning our ears towards our spiritual home.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post on Sukkot, in particular on its connection to notions of harvest, and finding security for oneself and one's family after a season of labor and trial. While there is nothing directly related to Sukkot which makes an appearance in any form of Mormon belief and practice I'm aware of, that's probably not for lack of desire. We Mormons have long had both an ambivalent and a longing relationship to the Jewish faith, with elements of its language and perspective--such as that which relates to ideas like "Zion" and "covenant"--popping up unexpectedly (and often unknowingly) in the lives of Mormons everywhere. In that post, though, I was kind of morose about the whole thing, expressing real doubt that Christians, even (or especially?) Mormon Christians, could ever properly, doctrinally, feel themselves as home in the world. Part of that, surely, was the frustrating search we were going through for a home of our own at the time, a frustration intensified by the fact that it was finally truly possible for us to buy a house, thus making every obstacle and set-back seem massive. But part of it, also, is the fact that at this time of year, when our faith's semi-annual conference weekend rolls around, the degree to which ours is a church that has--in admittedly not all, but nonetheless in many key ways--aligned itself very much with modernity and the electronic, global media is basically unavoidable. Modern Mormonism has relatively little liturgy or ritual to tie its faithful into doing specific things in specific places at specific times--to a feeling of groundedness, physicality, and being at home--and that's a loss, I think.

Rosalynde Welch, who is about as smart and careful a writer on Mormon matters as anyone I know, is a little more positive than I. In a column of hers which appeared today, she argues:

General Conference is the closest we [Mormons] get to a liturgical feast, a high point in our spiritual landscape and a time of renewal and rededication. It’s characteristically Mormon--and I say this with the greatest possible affection--that a pinnacle of our spiritual lives has such a prosaic name. But General Conference, arriving as it does together with the natural beauty of every autumn and spring, is indeed a beloved event for many Mormons....To some, the prospect of listening to a speech streamed online might not seem particularly transcendent. But for Mormons, the communication of shared spiritual knowledge is a form of worship; the experience of knowing together is a central part of our religious practice. And watching General Conference online provides an opportunity for members near and far to reconfirm that knowledge as one.

This bothers me, but not because I disagree with it, because mostly I don't. I wouldn't defend it as the most truthful description of modern American Mormon life possible, and I would dissent on theological grounds from calling "the communication of shared spiritual knowledge" a style of worshiping, but I can't dispute its basically accurate account of how your typical American Mormon congregation (and many if not most Mormon congregations around the planet as well) likely responds to the call of conference. We are a faith that, these days anyway, has mostly packaged away the charismatic and visionary, instead discerning spiritual power in propositions and testimonies--which, of course, lend themselves to speeches, heard words that can be received in a spirit of confirmation: I know what I'm hearing is true; in this moment of hearing, I am feeling my place, I am taking my stand. And to the extent that such can be done in a crowd, then perhaps it really is a tool of building community, of building a home. Moreover, in the broad historical sweep of things, perhaps this move towards a kind of internal (yet shared?) dialogue of confirmation and witnessing is the safest way of cultivating individual dedication without risking schism: of balancing authority and individuality. I'm glad I don't have to make such decisions myself (though to be honest I doubt many of those who do have that heavy responsibility often think about such things anyway). For myself, I prefer to develop a belief that draws such strength as it has from religious services and practices tied up with sacrament and service, performances that are either strictly liturgical or dependent entirely upon the idiosyncratic needs and lives of the parishioners amongst whom I live. Generally, these don't conflict by my snarky desire to complain about the way many of my fellow believers will point with pride to a correlated system of instruction which will guarantee most visitors to most Mormon congregations on any given Sunday worldwide of hearing pretty much the same lessons being taught, as if that's some sort of fabulous achievement (McDonald's does the same thing, millions of times a day, and not just on Sunday), thus saving me from unnecessary crises of faith. I can generate enough of those on my own, thanks very much.

Before I get too snarky, though, I have to share Rosalynde's concluding point:

Of course, worship always involves more than an act of communication; it is also a sensory and social experience that video can never fully replicate. So streaming video will never replace the experience of worshiping together during the rest of the year. No matter how capacious the broadband connection, it cannot transmit the warmth of a handshake, the space of a chapel, the taste of the sacramental bread and water. Those human-to-human connections will always be at the heart of Mormon religious practice--and of virtually all other cooperative religious endeavors, as well.

Which makes the same point I kind of snuck around to above, much more honestly. "The space of a chapel"--I like that. What is the desire to have a home, a hut, a land, of one's own, after all, than the desire to have some space that will be filled with others, others with whom you can share something you love and want to share...knowing, somehow, that in sharing it (with children, with friends, with fellow citizens and saints) you'll receive more and better as they all receive your gifts and include you in their giving the same? The children of Israel suffered and wandered and, when they found a homeland, had to fight for it and then struggle to make it fruitful and fully their own. Building a sukkah--a transitory, limited dwelling, just as everything we have, even our bountiful harvests and good meals and fine evenings are also temporary--is a way the Jewish people have of ritually acting out a sense of belonging and gratitude, one tied to a physical space, a home made by one's own hands. To my great pleasure and surprise, I look around at neighbors and colleagues and Wichitans far and near, and I find that we've managed to make a bit of a sukkah for ourselves as well. A slightly more permanent one, to be sure (despite that sewer problem), but essentially just that: a place to retreat to, a home to turn to, as the seasons turn.

As a Mormon, General Conference, and the words of men and women I consider to be inspired, is part of that seasonal turning. Listening to a kind, elderly man speak wise and loving words over a satellite broadcast in a dark and mostly empty chapel this morning probably can't on its own provide much sense of shelter or liturgical place--but as Rosalynde pointed out, it is, thankfully, only one part of the spiritual homes we build for ourselves. So long as we still have more human homes and places to be, with elementary schools and homecoming parades and friends knowledgeable in the ways of home construction and congregations of real people, such acts of mediated communication, for people of my particular faith, can only make the sukkah that much stronger, however long it lasts.