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Friday, September 30, 2011

I've Never Wished to Have HBO More than I Wish We'd Have it Next Week

The story of the greatest Beatle, told my America's greatest living director. About time, I say.

Friday Morning Videos: "Someday I Suppose"

Now this early-90s bit of ska-punk really takes me back. Utah Valley, the home of Provo and BYU, was bizarrely also the location of a pretty serious ska scene back during my undergraduate years, with fine local bands (Swim Herschel Swim, Stretch Armstrong, tour appearances by some great contemporary acts (the Crazy 8s, in particular), and even major reunion tours (The Skatalites, Special Beat) stopping by. It was pretty intense, if you got into that stuff...and Melissa and I certainly did.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting Everything Wrong (Even What He Gets Right)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The October 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine features as its cover article a lengthy, provocative, at times insightful, but mostly wholly tendentious anti-Mormon screed by Chris Lehmann, entitled "Pennies from Heaven." Lehmann's thesis basically boils down to 1) Mormon doctrine conveys a particularly pure version of the "prosperity gospel," in which the tightly organized collective acquisition of non-speculative wealth (mostly gold or land) is held up as the ideal characteristic of God's chosen people, and 2) this ideological mix of piety and material plenty has spread through the Tea Party movement and into the mainstream of the Republican party, with Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman being exemplary contributors to this continuing economic conversion. This thesis--both parts of it--is, to put it plainly, complete balderdash. At one point Lehmann, in criticizing the Tea Party, speaks of their "tortured and largely confabulated vision of the Founding Fathers" (p. 36); the exact same sentence could be used to describe how he treats what he calls "Mormon economics," or indeed how he treats Mormonism itself. Even when he touches on an important point or two that could contribute to a thoughtful story about the unfortunate alliance between much of contemporary American Mormonism and the G.O.P.'s free-market fetishization, he still manages to get the actual argument wrong.

In short, Lehmann's piece is the very model of the modern, high-brow anti-Mormon essay: one which purports to wrestle with a heavy and challenging thesis, of the sort which the much-discussed "Mormon moment" makes relevant to public discourse, and while so doing does manage to generate a fair amount of insight...but then shines that illumination in overwhelmingly false directions, ones that the author apparently has neither sufficient awareness nor ability to be able to double-check. Alan Wolfe's "White Magic in America", a fascinatingly wrong-headed excursion through Mormon history from more than a decade ago, in which Stephen R. Covey's organizational mantras presented the theological key to understanding the faith, is another example of such intellectual confusion; Lehmann unintentionally aspires to that level of baseless, high-powered thesis-mongering, and he very nearly reaches it. Rebutting Lehmann, therefore, requires more than just pointing out all the ways which many of his claims are wrong; you have to talk about how he misunderstands, or just plain misses out on, all the claims that he actually gets right.

Not to say that you can't write a long piece focusing just on what he gets wrong; Hal Boyd did just that for the Deseret News, and he did a thorough job of it too. Very simply, Lehmann's reading (assuming he actually did read it, which is doubtful) of the "prosperity cycle" in the Book of Mormon is patently ridiculous. Even if some libertarian economics professor with good Mormon connections says that the dramatic tale of the Nephite people developing themselves economically, and then suffering tragic reversals as they grow in pride and selfishness, and then ultimately ending their existence as a people in, as Boyd puts it, "utter destruction," is really just an example of the "business cycle" in operation (p. 34)...well, that doesn't make it true. It's just not true, on any reading of church history, that Joseph Smith's purported "awe of gold" (forgive me for not taking seriously such thoroughly discredited works as those of Fawn Brodie and John L. Brooke here) became part of "a theology of New World abundance" (p. 35). The Book of Mormon can, of course, be read in all sorts of diverse ways, as any scripture might be. But Lehmann is simply making stuff up when he draws connections from the Book of Mormon--building upon such misreadings as the notion that Jacob 2:17's reference to "your brethren...[becoming] rich like unto you" is comparable to some Kiwanis Club notion of corporate do-gooding, whereas it is actually a condemnation of wealthy Nephites who dressing in fine clothes, putting on airs, and failing " to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted" (Jacob 2:19)--to the idea of a whole religion that draws its adherents together through a promise of God's approval of material wealth. The fact that the American Mormon economic thinkers he cites "don't really experience any such tensions" over the idea of wealth accumulation (p. 37) is an indictment of those Mormon thinkers themselves and the American Mormon political culture in which they are doing their thinking (and not even an accurate one, at that; Lehmann makes no mention of influential Mormons like the liberal Democrat Harry Reid or the quasi-socialist Hugh Nibley), not an indictment of the religious texts at the heart of the faith. Lehmann's statement that "one scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith's revelation in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the lives of believers" (p. 34) only demonstrates, as Boyd shows at length, not only Lehmann's utterly flawed grasp of what "Joseph Smith's revelation" includes, but also that the man probably never so much as cracked open one page of the Doctrine and Covenants (which is, you know, only part of the standard works for the church).

Well, I could go on, but the point is made: there is no solid foundation to Lehmann's allegations about "Mormon economics." What is more disappointing, though, and what makes a particularly frustrating example of high-brow anti-Mormon writing, is that he's not just making things up--there is something real to what he's observing. American Mormons do tend, by and large, to think about wealth in ways that are different from many other Christians, to say nothing of many other Americans. For reasons that have at least as much to do with our church culture's development through a history of political persecution and geographic isolation as with anything in our scripture, many American Mormons are infatuated with ideas of self-sufficiency, individual responsibility, and independence from government. Lehmann aligns this perspective with the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party (pp. 36, 41), and in making that alignment he's advancing an electorally plausible, if theologically flawed, argument. But it's the wrong argument to make. The right argument to ask--and which he would have asked, one suspects, if he hadn't been primarily interested in simply holding up Mormons as money-obsessed villains at a time of great economic distress and disagreement--is why that alignment has any plausibility at all, given the distinct groundings which separate Mormon economic thought and practice from most of modern-day capitalism. Asking that kind of question might have opened up important lines of inquiry about both Mormonism and capitalism itself--but of course, doing that wouldn't have given him much of a punch line.

What are the "distinct groundings" that I'm talking about? Lehmann asserts, repeatedly, that Mormons festishize tangile, material assets: Joseph Smith hunted for gold and set up a bank; Brigham Young set up vast business cooperatives; and Mormonism produced the flaky and bizarrely high-selling economics guru Howard Ruff, who has been urging people since the 1979 to fight socialism by investing in land and gold (pp. 35, 37, 39-40). There is something to that, of course: my father surely wasn't the only Mormon conservative who read Ruff and Cleon Skousen, picked up material from the John Birch Society (strongly promoted by former church president, Ezra Taft Benson), and as a result invested in a small canvas bag full of gold and silver bars which sat in our basement for who knows how many years. But he's missing the point, even when he all but states it clearly. The economic thinking which has emerged from the Mormon church in America has tended to be "deeply corporatist," full of joint-stock companies and cooperative welfare plans, and premised upon a kind of pioneer ethic: Lehmann quotes Kim Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School, as saying that his whole outlook begins with being brought up in a home where the children were expected to "make our bed, do the dishes, do our chores, and go to Church" (p. 38). You do what you're supposed to do; you remain part of what you're supposed to remain a part of. What is all this? It is, in a word, non-speculative. It is a vision of an orderly and sustainable and faithful and economically sound life that doesn't admit much, if any, of the sort of risk, ambition, complex creativity, and appeals to profit upon which modern finance capitalism mostly operates.

Lehmann essentially passes over the Mormon church's entire history of cooperative economics and attempts at local consecration practices; he reduces it all to a couple of sentences about how one early Mormon leader, before his conversion, had been an evangelical socialist. That's a huge flaw, one of many such flaws, in his article. However, consider what he does identity from out of those decades of Mormon economic history: the fact the the Mormon church has a tradition of binding its people together, and together they build things. Real things. Irrigation canals, food banks, welfare farms--indeed, hundreds of communities all throughout the American West. Well, now if you want to believe there is such a things as "Mormon economics," and that those Mormon economics fits right in with the paranoid, anti-government, economic-independence mindset of the present-day Republican party...doesn't that present something a little strange? Why all this joining up, and building up, of fairly staid corporate forms? How does that fit into a modern capitalist state when most of the wealth being created in the country is being done under the terms of (and, for that matter, most of it exists in the hands of) institutions of speculation and investment and rapid growth and turn-over? Since the financial meltdown of 2008, if you've been willing to listen to some of the confused voices of the left, or listen even more carefully to some of the most marginalized voices on the right, you'll will have heard this exact point made again and again: the real problem isn't so much (or isn't just) capitalism, but an unregulated, over-sized and over-grapsing, too-big-to-fail, government-entwined capitalism. This would seem to suggest that the Mormon economic argument, if there really is one (and some of us would desperately like it if our fellow church members recognized or remembered that there is such an argument out there), ought to be one that uses its supposed "obsession" with material, practical, personal and possessable and shareable wealth to critique the world of Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs from the right (or even from the left, though that ship has, unfortunately, probably sailed). I mean, we are talking about a world where economics has become an abstract and elite game in which we all are, in essence, expected to embrace our dependency, and--whether we admit it to ourselves or not--pathetically beg for either big government to let loose with money to save the banks and hence our credit card interest rates (because I'm buying all my groceries on credit now anyway), or for big business to free itself from public obligations and redistributive taxation (because who needs libraries and school teachers and public parks anyway?) and start some of that wonderful "job creating," preferably right here where I live. No, neither of those attitudes seem particularly Mormon--at least, not the corporate, cooperative, tangible, practical, material, debt-avoiding, pioneer-oriented Mormonism that Lehmann unintentionally touches upon in his article. And that suggests an even greater paradox: the prime Mormon candidate for president, the focal point of so much of this attention, is Mitt Romney, who...made his millions in equity-fund management? Who pioneered a whole industry of leveraged buyouts, corporate take-overs, and economic restructuring? And who, of course, strongly supported the TARP bank relief bailouts in 2008? How odd. How...un-Mormon, perhaps?

Alan Wolfe did a slightly better job with a later, second high-brow essay on Mormonism, "Mormons and Money," which plowed somewhat similar ground to Lehmann's. But in that essay, Wolfe didn't dig into--and thus, like Lehmann, unintentionally (if wrongheadly) expose--any kind of purported Mormon economic ethic. He focused on the notion that Mormonism is a practical religion, a "this-worldly" religion, and hence that we tend to be organizational people, people who build, and thus like those who build well. Romney has certainly built well--and, if he becomes president, he'll no doubt be able to build even more grandly. Lehmann's clumsy attempt to show that the crackpot right-wing is, in some fashion, irreducibly Mormon, accomplishes really only one good thing: it presents the thought that maybe, just maybe, not all economic building fits into the corporate vision (a vision which, I would insist, even if Lehmann leaves it out, includes a healthy dose of equality and humility) of Mormonism. Which would imply, if you can believe it, that Romney's financial success, and his possible success in winning over Republican party primary voters, may be happening exactly to the degree he, and the people who are supporting, have forgotten an important lesson of this hypothetical "Mormon economics." Now that would have made a fascinating, provocative article. But Lehmann would have had to have actually done some reading first if he wanted to write that one.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"We Have Seen Strange Things To Day"

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I recently finished reading through the four canonical gospels (the KJV versions). I didn't embark on this scripture study project because we Mormons are studying the New Testament as part of our gospel doctrine curriculum class this year, but because, after having completed both another family and a personal read of the Book of Mormon, I thought I should do something different. I thought about reading the Old Testament, which I've never completed all the way through (the closest I ever came was more than 20 years ago, on my church mission, when I made it all the way to Lamentations before I just gave up). I thought about the Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but the truth is they're my least favorite books of scripture; much better, to my mind, for occasional study, both historical and theological, than for devotional reading. And that's what I've come to view my own scripture reading as: an act of ritual and repetition, a brief, daily, meditation upon The Word. The New Testament presented the obvious text of choice. And in reading through the gospels, one point seemed to me to be clearly hammered home by the text, again and again: Jesus seriously freaked people out.

Consider the story that prompted the passage that I use in the title of this post, in Luke 5:16-26. The word of Jesus's healings and miracles have spread like wildfire from one small village to the next, and rumors abounded about Him. People were leaving their fields and homes and places of work, following Him about, pleading for healings and desperate to hear whatever controversial thing He may say next, and Jesus had to travel into the wilderness to find some peace and quiet in which to pray. Local authorities passed the word when He was spotted teaching, and showed up to watch and challenge him.

And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy: and they sought means to bring him in, and to lay him before him.

And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.

And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?

But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts?

Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.

And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.

And they were all amazed, and they glorified God, and were filled with fear, saying, We have seen strange things to day.

Fear, amazement, confusion, curiosity, hysteria, awe: those emotions seem to be a constant in the gospel narratives. In reading those texts for the first time in many years, and eschewing all commentaries or debates over authorship and intentionality, what I saw, again and again, were ordinary people feeling a kind of panic, desperate to stay near this man who was demonstrating such power, hungry for His miraculous touch, begging for His approval and forgiveness, ecstatic over feeling the divine amongst them, and slightly terrified at what Jesus's words and actions seemed to imply. It was very difficult for me to avoid thinking about how I would have responded--or not responded--to the appearance of a savior, a god, in my own midst. No doubt I would rationalize, contextualize, and express my doubts. But if I saw it, with my own eyes? I would like to think I would have a presence of mind to speak honestly and directly, as the story has Peter doing just a short while the aforementioned story: "When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me: for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). But more likely I would be found in the admiring, demanding, wary crowds surrounding Him, praising God for every good thing and asking for more, but fearful of whatever unexpected, unaccountable, outrageous, miraculous thing might come next.

I substitute for our regular Sunday school teacher today, and took a class of about 40 members of our congregation through Paul's letter to the Romans. There is so much in there--it is one of the few New Testament epistles that is truly all about doctrinal teachings, as opposed to resolving ecclesiastical problems and offering pastoral care--that obviously one can only scratch the surface in a single day. But if anything, I hope those in the class came away with an impression of the deepness, the power, and mystery of what these men, living and writing in the first couple of decades after Jesus's death and resurrection, we're trying to make sense of. Grace, law, spirit, flesh, death, righteousness: all strange things indeed. I've mentioned before Romans 8:38-39, as perhaps my favorite passage in the whole New Testament. I love it, because of its finality, its comprehensiveness: it's a passage that, in our very act of reading it, reminds us simultaneously that we are invariably not seeing the whole program, the big picture...and that we, strangely enough, somehow have a place in it all the same.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reviving the Review

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

When I began my university education at nearly 25 years ago, Student Review, an independent, non-correlated, student-run newspaper at BYU, was a year old. I'd never heard of it before, but when walking through the parade of booths set up by clubs and other student organizations during Freshman Orientation, I spotted a man with a beard. Since this was Provo, that was, of course, unusual. I walked to him, and learned he was Bill Kelly, the publisher and one of the three key founders of the newspaper. (He had to shave the beard the next week, when the semester officially began.) I'd worked for student newspapers before, and like the--admittedly, rather self-congratulatory--feeling of being a bit of a rabble-rouser, so I immediately signed up. And that was it. For all the rest of my time as an undergraduate--throughout my freshman year in 1987-1988, after I returned from my church proselytizing mission in 1990, and until I graduate in 1993--Student Review (or "SR" as we near-universally referred to it) was one of the defining elements of my education.

At different times I, along with a constantly changing cast of dozens of talented volunteers and the occasional talentless hanger-on, wrote for the paper, edited it, did lay-out and design for it, sold ads for it, conducted meetings for it, delivered it to the printer and distributed it, and towards the end of my time in Provo briefly served as publisher of it. You can't be involved in something--especially something with as much financial stress and emotional angst as SR--for that long and not have conflicted and even intense feelings about it, and that certainly describes me. Consequently, I felt some genuine regret when, long after I left BYU, Student Review finally, after many close shaves and attempted re-boots, officially closed shop. And when I learned that a group of BYU students we're reviving SR, with an all-new look and a snappy new website, there was no question about how I felt: it was fantastic news.

I say that with almost no knowledge whatsoever about who these students are or what there plans are of if they even really know what they're doing. BYU is, for certain, a very different place than it was when me and my generation of SR conspirators were there; at the very least, the economics and mechanics of creating an open news and artistic forum are so different than they were in the 1980s-1990s that the very notion of actually putting out a paper with newsprint on it strikes some of us as pretty bizarre. But still, unless BYU is an entirely different sort of place today, then almost by definition an alternative media source is a good thing, a valuable thing.

Why? Because BYU's official student newspaper, The Daily Universe, as much as I enjoyed working there (until they fired me, that is), still isn't and probably never can be a truly broad campus voice, which means that there always going to be folks on campus who will want to add to the "official" story; because Provo, UT, despite all the changes of the last quarter-century, still isn't a particular diverse place whether speaking religiously or ethnically or ideologically, which means that there are all sorts of opportunities for sparking ideas and insights that students will miss out on; and college life, no matter where it is or who is involved, is still something that can use a little dissent and mockery once in a while. In retrospect I have no illusions that, in being part of the Student Review, I was engaged in some grand struggle over freedom of thought or the validity of the First Amendment; but at the time, and in that place, contributing to an alternative voice seemed really important. I don't doubt at all that such a need still seems important to hundreds, if not thousands, of twenty-somethings in Utah Valley today. There are many things that I did during my BYU years (often for SR-induced reasons) that, today, I feel rather conflicted and embarrassed about; Student Review is not one of them.

There are lots of stories I could tell about SR, but thinking about it now, most of them seem like dated in-jokes, tales told by a 42-year-old to other 30- and 40-somethings, laughing loudly and rolling our eyes and muttering regretfully over this outrageous editorial, that audacious bit of plagiarism, this disappointing discussion, that insightful interview, this hilarious bit of art, that party which got completely out of hand. But let me point you to some other stories: check out this fine Mormon Matters podcast with Bill Kelly himself, one of the ringleaders of the current SR revival, Craig Mangum, and two of the more famous/notorious SR alumni, Joanna Brooks and Matt Workman. Or check out this delightful reminiscence (and entertaining comment thread) by Kent Larsen, another member of the founding triumvirate, and the organizational rock upon which the financial success of the first few years of SR were built. Or just check out the Student Review itself online, and send some fond thoughts to those working to bring it back to life. In the meantime, here's a selection of some other points of view from a few SR alumni I've stayed in touch with:

Matt Workman--

As for as the Student Review is concerned, it was my college experience. With about two exceptions, my classes at BYU weren't worth showing up to. But at the Review, I learned how to become a writer (something I didn't even know I wanted to do), I learned how to write on a deadline. It was like a boot camp for humor writing. And it was fun. Some of the most fun I've ever had doing anything. One of the most fertile creative periods of my entire life.

Sean Ziebarth--

Back in the early '90s Student Review was to BYU what the Island of Misfit Toys was to Rankin & Bass's Christmas classic. Most of us didn't fit in anywhere else. And it wasn't for our lack of trying (I for one gave BYUSA the ol' college try, but just couldn't stomach their Big Brother practices). Student Review gave me the voice to explore my quirky tastes in art, music, fiction, gospel doctrines. That voice was powerful. In our heyday it lead to a radio show of the same name and eventually an entire AM station run by BYU students during a brief but unforgettable summer. Many of us used our new-found SR friends and skills to launch companies and careers. Not only did I meet some of my best friends in the world through the Student Review, I can trace every job I've held since back to my work with SR.

Matt Stannard--

Each generation is free to define what they believed the general philosophy of SR was. Our generation was far more openly political--not predominantly left OR right, but predominantly political. Of course, the very fact that we included left perspectives in our plurality opened us up to the charge of being "leftist" in the campus community, because any disruption of homogeneity will tend to seem subversive. But we published pieces for and against the Iraq war, for and against free markets, etc. I think different periods of time have relative luxories of being apolitical or political. If we hadn't published our pieces for and against the war while the nation was at war, that would have been inexcusably irresponsible. If we hadn't published feminist pieces at the dawn of VOICE and in the midst of sexual assault scandals on campus, we would have been irrelevant. If we hadn't run editorials discussing capitalism at a time (the early 90s) of waves of massive layoffs and increasing labor activism around the country, we would have deserved to be labeled ignorant, white privileged Mormons. I still consider the time I spent at SR to be among the most relevant of my life. And the friends from BYU I keep in touch with are almost exclusively the SR crowd, many of whom continue to write provocative, relevant commentary, now to a wider audience, with skills they honed at SR.

Kent Larsen--

The original Student Review didn’t have any agenda except giving voice to BYU’s students, and as long as its efforts were limited to that, instead of some other agenda, it had the ability to stay successful. So most of Student Review’s content was simply what the students in its audience wanted to hear—a lot of humor, arts coverage and discussions of campus life. I hope the new Student Review will maintain that focus.

Friday Morning Videos: "Sabotage"

Also not quite punk. But who cares? The Beastie Boys started out that way, after all.

I want to be Sir Stewart Wallace.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Saved by the Fall

We've had a couple of truly beautiful weeks here in Wichita--temperatures in the 70s and 80s, clear blue skies, and some nice cool mornings (not quite cool enough yet for my tastes, but still, you take what you can get). I've soaked it all up as I've been riding my bike into the Friends University campus every morning, and loving it. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the only time I've been able to love it. Because ever since the semester began, it's seemed as though every spare minute I'm not on my bike has been spent in my office, preparing for one event after another, desperately trying to get everything squared away so I can actually enjoy the start of the school year and what is, in some ways, my favorite time of year.

I have no one but myself to blame, I know. I was the one that, after we returned from our wonderful, three-week long sojourn through the eastern United States, pretty much let the terrible heat which we, along with most of the Central States, suffered through during the second half of July and all of August, just about kill me off. Summertime is a wonderful break, of course, but for an academic and a teacher, it's a good time to get things done as well. Book reviews, lecture preps, syllabus changes, all of that stuff. I had a good five or six weeks to be productive and move ahead on various projects and get ready for events that I knew were going to crowd up right at the beginning of the semester...and I didn't. And then school started, and I had to get things done, and that meant buckling down and plowing through all the stuff which had piled up, just as the weather finally turned nice.

Well, anyway, enough of that moping. It's late and I need to sleep, but tomorrow is the first official day of autumn, and I'm feeling on top of things, at last--for the first time in weeks my desk is cleared, my schedule is made, the checkbook is balanced, the assessment tools and evaluation data have all been submitted...I can actually begin enjoying the fall a little bit. Yes, yes, just in time for me to start getting reading for midterms in only three weeks, I know--but give me a minute to celebrate finally getting to where I should have been a month ago, all right? September comes better late than never, I suppose.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Tubthumping"

I think this may the most recent video I've ever posted on this feature--it's not even 15 years old! Nor is it especially punk. But it has a bit of that spirit, I think.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"That a Country as Vast and as Various as Ours May Still be Experienced as a Community"

Yesterday, I acknowledged the communitarian danger lurking about in some powerful words which Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote a year after the attacks on 9/11. I also acknowledged that it was that very dangerous frisson--a thrill of reading words which made one aware of suddenly belonging, of feeling committed and conscripted and captivated--which, I think, made them powerful. Wieseltier's comments a few days ago, at "An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection", a beautiful memorial concert given at the Kennedy Center the same night we at Friends had our small commemoration, said much the same thing, though perhaps more wisely, less dangerously, though no less meaningfully (hat tip to Damon Linker):

Though we encounter it as suffering, grief is in fact an affirmation. The indifferent do not grieve, the uncommitted do not grieve, the loveless do not grieve. We mourn only the loss of what we have loved and what we have valued, and in this way mourning darkly refreshes our knowledge of the causes of our loves and the reasons for our values. Our sorrow restores us to the splendors of our connectedness to people and to principles. It is the yes of a broken heart. In our bereavement we discover how much was ruptured by death, and also how much was not ruptured. These tears lead directly to introspection.

Here is what we affirmed by our mourning on September 11, 2001, and by the introspection of its aftermath:

that we wish to be known, to ourselves and to the world, by the liberty that we offer, axiomatically, as a matter of right, to the individuals and the groups with whom we live;

that the ordinary lives of ordinary people on an ordinary day of work and play can truthfully exemplify that liberty, and fully represent what we stand for;

that we will defend ourselves, resolutely and even ferociously, because self-defense is also an ethical responsibility, and that our debates about the proper use of our power in our own defense should not be construed as an infirmity in our will;

that the multiplicity of cultures and traditions that we contain peaceably in our society is one of our highest accomplishments, because we are not afraid of difference, and because we do not confuse openness with emptiness, or unity with conformity;

that a country as vast and as various as ours may still be experienced as a community;

that none of our worldviews, with God or without God, should ever become the worldview of the state, and that no sanctity ever attaches to violence;

that the materialism and the self-absorption of the way we live has not extinguished our awareness of a larger purpose, even if sometimes they have obscured it;

that we believe in progress, at home and abroad, in social progress, in moral progress, even when it is fitful and contested and difficult;

that just as we have enemies in the world we have friends, and that our friends are the individuals and the movements and the societies that aspire, often in circumstances of great adversity, to democracy and to decency.

It has been a wounding decade. Our country is frayed, uncertain, inflamed. There is hardship and dread in the land. In significant ways we are a people in need of renovation. But what rouses the mourner from his sorrow is his sense of possibility, his confidence in the intactness of the spirit, his recognition that there is work to be done. What we loved and what we valued has survived the disaster, but it needs to be secured and bettered, and in that secure and better condition transmitted to our children. Our dream of greatness must be accompanied by an understanding of what is required for the maintenance of greatness. The obscenities of September 11, 2001 exposed the difference between builders and destroyers. We are builders. Let us agree, on this anniversary, that it is an honor to be an American and it is an honor to be free.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Favorite Written Text for Remembering 9/11

The Fall
Washington Diarist

Leon Wieseltier
The New Republic, September 9, 2002

I have been reading collections of writings about September 11, and they are wearying: so many bruises so feebly expressed, so many people searching for a poem to protect them. Dickinson #341, perhaps? Literariness is a kind of sedative, I suppose, and in this way it differs from literature. There are circumstances, of course, in which unoriginality of feeling or form is not a shortcoming, in which the really advanced statement is the modest expression of a common sentiment, in which banality is a guarantee of decency. In a huge volume called September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, I encounter a letter by Richard Wilbur written a few months after the catastrophe to the book's editor, declining the invitation to art:

Dear Bill,

The only thing I can say right now is this. There is no excuse for the cold inhumanity of 11 September, and there is no excuse for those Americans, whether of the left or the religious right, who say that we had it coming to us.


The poet's disinclination to make a poem is affecting. It is the truest thing in the book. But elsewhere in this book, and in the other books, there is only banality in the bad sense, and remaindered habits of dissent, and the occasional hilarity, as in the observation by Avital Ronell that when George W. Bush remarked that we were tested on September 11, he "reverted to a citation of pretechnological syntagms that capture the auratic pull of the test." Surely the syntagms were his staff's. But now it is the anniversary, and it is Elul, and I must be forgiving. I am prepared even to agree with Stanley Fish that postmodernism did not destroy the World Trade Center.

But as I leaf through A Nation Challenged, the "visual history" of the catastrophe that has been produced by The New York Times, I gasp at the sight of the picture that frightened me almost out of my mind when I saw it in the paper a year ago. Here it is again, the size of a page, and in color. It is the photograph, taken by Richard Drew of the Associated Press, of the man falling to his death from the north tower. His head faces the earth, his feet face the sky, but there is no earth in the picture and no sky, there is only the striped geometry of the "exoskeleton" of the building in the background, still intact in its spurious attitude of invincibility. The lines of the faade look like ladders without rungs. The tower is half in shadow, half in light, and the man is dropping between the shadow and the light. There is no sign of his velocity. His physical integrity is extraordinary. He is standing in the world but the world is upside-down. He does not appear to be wounded. He seems composed, a stoic in the air, except for the tails of his white shirt, which hang from his trousers like snapped wings. His hands are smartly at his side, his legs look as if they are marching. It is almost possible to make out his face. It is an African American face, a full, tender face. I do not see panic on the man's countenance. I see thought. I shudder that he may have been thinking. I do not impute philosophy to his face, only mindfulness. I suspect that his eyes are open. His direction is clear.

In our souls, we are vertical; or so we have been taught to think since the beginnings of spiritual speculation in the West. "The way of life is upward to the wise," Proverbs advises. Heaven is above, hell is below. We seek the top, we fear the bottom. When we are worthy, we ascend; when we are unworthy, we descend. The good will rise, the evil will fall. We look up to our betters and our rulers, they look down on us. The "ladder of ascension" is a central myth of salvation in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam. (God is "stably and permanently at the top of the ladder," Maimonides instructed.) And in the later inversions of the traditional teachings, in the almost irresistible doctrines of redemption through sin, according to which the depths are as spiritually attractive as the heights, the dream is still a vertical one. I have often worried that the grip of this directionality upon our souls is owed simply to the fact of our physical bearing. We aspire to paradise in the manner of upright beings. Levinas thought otherwise. "Height introduces a sense into being," he wrote. "It is already lived across the experience of the human body. It leads human societies to raise up altars. It is not because men, through their bodies, have an experience of the vertical that the human is placed under the sign of height; because being is ordained for height the human body is placed in a space in which the high and the low are distinguished and the sky is discovered." And we not only dream high, we also build high. The vertical conception of human greatness is nowhere more apparent than in architecture. Was there ever a structure so "ordained for height" as the World Trade Center? These buildings were extravagantly consecrated to the proposition that glory is celestial. Visitors to Windows on the World used to marvel about its God-like view of the city. A philosopher who visited the World Trade Center in the 1980s remarked upon "this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more." To escape one's finitude, one had only to take the elevator to the 110th floor.

These associations I use to defend myself against this picture of this man who did not escape his finitude. I look at what an AP photographer brought back from the inferno—the actual one, not the one peddled by clerics—and I see an emblem of what used to be called soteriology. Too many books, I guess; but this is a way of insisting upon the scope of the horror in New York a year ago. It is also a way of turning back some of these spatial superstitions. For there is something inhumane about this metaphor of the summit. The heights can be fatal, and the exhilaration can be cruel, and this man falling from the tower is falling for no reason except the evil in the hearts of other men, and wisdom is not in the clouds, and God is not in the sky. Surely our minds can develop a view of the world that is not merely a corollary of our bodies. I would rather be ordained for truth than ordained for height.

The remarkable thing about the falling man is that he is not looking down. He is looking straight ahead. And as I say, he is in the stance of a man who is marching. There is, in other words, a strangely horizontal quality to him, which may account for his terrifying dignity. He seems to be fighting his vertical doom with his horizontal dignity. What matters to his gaze is not what is above, but what is ahead. Turn this picture of the upside-down world upside- down, and he appears even to have a sensation of purpose. He is not on a ladder, he is on a track. Regarded in this way, he looks like nothing so much as a soldier. Regarded in this way, his testament is plain.


Why is the my favorite written text, out of the millions of words that have been written, from immediately in the wake of until a full decade afterward, about the attacks of September 11th? This essay was much attacked, as I recall, for taking such a horrible photograph--capturing a mere millisecond out of some doomed soul's journey towards death, a death that he didn't ask for, a death that perhaps he chose to hasten by jumping from the tower, rather than remaining to be burned alive or blown to bits--and turning it into a work of art, of philosophy, and yes, of propaganda. I confess, those are exactly the reasons why it has likely stayed with me for so long. (I didn't save a copy of the essay, and had to search to track it down for this post; but some of the Wieseltier's lines--especially "His direction is clear"--have never left my mind.) For better and/or for worse, in the days and weeks and months and years after this tragedy, we made from it something, as we always make something of all our experiences and memories, both good and bad. By the time this essay was written, the making which a majority of Americans had voluntarily contributed their memories to was mostly one of propaganda: those who died on 9/11 weren't unfortunate victims, but the first casualties in a war--they were, in essence, all soldiers, and their heroic deaths were a witness to the rest of us soldiers to get on with our duty. There was something, for me at least (though certainly not just for me; millions of others agreed with me), appealing about that kind of ideological conscription--something Rousseauian, something republican, something honorable and communitarian and good. It was abused, to say the least. But in re-reading this piece, I can still feel the pull--I can still hear a voice that tells me "Make sure the Falling Man did not jump in vain!" Wieseltier's voice is a dangerous one, even if there is really nothing necessarily dangerous in his intentions or his language (though perhaps there is). But regardless, it is perhaps that frisson of danger--of having witnessed something much larger and deeper and more meaningful and more deadly than our own lives, and in having witnessed it, having been conscripted by it as well--that makes his beautiful, thoughtful words hauntingly, dangerously attractive at the same time.

My Favorite Video Text for Remembering 9/11

"We're told that they [the terrorists who hijacked the planes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers] were zealots, fueled by religious fervor. Religious fervor. And it you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?"


Why is this my favorite, most memorable bit of video, from the no doubt millions of hours of footage, news, and commentary from the hours, days, weeks, and months which followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? Partly because it's David Letterman, a man whom, though I hardly ever watch his show anymore, once had a big influence on my outlook on life. Partly because I can appreciate it on the meta-level; I can see David Letterman, the man, struggling to speak beyond "David Letterman," the personality, though not fully escaping him, because the personality and the man are too closely entwined, and besides, the man knows that it's the personality that people want and expect to see. Partly because Letterman is one of the quintessential voices of New York City; his love and sorrow for his city is real, and that comes through. But mostly, I think, because it's so very, very much of the moment: a moment of sadness and fear and confusion and resolve, a moment desperate for direction and leadership (Letterman's, in retrospect, over-the-top praise for Rudy Giuliani isn't at all much different from the way most of us in those days were looking all our elected leaders and suddenly seeing, because we wanted to see, more than was actually there), and most of all, a moment of realization that, when tragedies strike, you're probably just going to have to make up your own kind of courage, as you go along.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Would You Shoot (a Computer Image of a Zombie) Sarah Palin?

Back in January, when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, and six people were murdered, during a rampage by your stereotypical gun-toting, conspiracy-believing, drug-addled, psychologically-imbalanced, maladjusted lunatic, I--like a lot of people--kind of lost it. I got mad, I searched for blame, and I found it, in an advertisement put out by Sarah Palin during the 2010 midterm elections. As part of her campaign to defeat Democratic politicians that had won election in previously Republican districts, and had gone on to support the president in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Palin used gun sights, and spoke in speeches about the need to "take out" those who were part of what she considered to be an atrocious, presumably socialist, presumably unconstitutional bit of legislation. Over-the-top, violent political rhetoric, combined with armed and impressionable crazies, equals murder. QED.

So I wrote a post making that claim...and was pilloried for it. And rightly so--and not just because as more information emerged about the man who attempted to assassinate Giffords, the more and more obvious it was that there was almost no chance his murderous intentions were inspired by or even connected to Palin's vicious (but, let us be frank, pretty standard) rhetoric. No, I was pilloried because I was taking a tragic, actual event, and quickly, emotionally, and irresponsibly targeting one person as responsible. As I put it in my apology, "in writing what I did, I became part of exactly what I was truly responding to: not the horrible news out of Tuscon (to which there was only one decent reaction, namely one of mourning and sorrow), but more largely the environment within which this shooting happened to occur." Rather than responding carefully to a terrible event, I piled fuel on the rhetoric fire. That was wrong.

I was thinking about all this yesterday, when a local television station called me up, and asked if they could talk to me for a bit about the latest appalling bit of "entertainment" coughed up by an internet economy which naturally sees such rhetoric as a commercial opportunity: a video game where you get to kill as many "Tea Party Zombies" as possible, including such luminaries as Palin and the Koch brothers, before they "teabag" you.

My comments in that news piece were brief and innocuous, I suppose. There were just a tiny segment of a 15-minute conversation, mostly dealing with the difficult balance that any society which respects free speech (which, frankly, I think we respect a little too much) has to strike between actively discouraging speech which is grossly inflammatory, on the one hand, and not going overboard--as I have before and as we all usually will at one point or another--over some whatever new and appalling bit of language or imagery shows up which offends our sense of propriety or decency or security. I told the reporter a joke which I can remember going around on Facebook months ago, one which made my wife livid: its punch line involves President Obama being thrown off an airplane. He laughed. And why shouldn't he? It's just a joke, right? And Charles Koch shouldn't be concerned that some anonymous twerp looking to have some fun--or some liberal with a rather ugly sense of humor, or both--has created a game in which players get to shoot a two-headed zombie-version of him. It's just a game, right?

The best thing I said to the reporter--which, of course, also didn't make it into the piece--was a few thoughts drawing on things which Cass Sunstein and Jay Rosen have both argued at length: that the internet has mostly resulted in our ways of sharing and receiving information being broken apart, atomized, sealed off into separate bubbles. We live, too many of us anyway, in various blog-anchored echo chambers, chatting endlessly on Facebook with our selectively chosen friends. Of course everyone has always created in-groups and out-groups; that's nothing new. But the internet has really ramped it up...and if you combine that with all the stresses and breakdowns our democracy is currently experiencing (an almost wholly dysfunction Senate, major parties that no longer share much of any kind of incentive to actually govern responsibly, etc.), then it's not hard to suspect that there has been an increasing in violent rhetoric in American politics, because it's just so easy for everyone in all their little bubbles to continually egg each other on, say the same jokes ever more loudly and ever more fervently, develop a shorthand of humor and rhetoric that is perhaps completely innocent but nonetheless, in retrospect, perhaps is also thorough dehumanizing, angry, and contemptible. Step out of your bubble, if only for a moment, and ask yourself: would you really proudly display your liberal hunting license or your President Obama urinal target, or whatever else the endless free-flowing invective of the internet encourages folks with sick minds to appeal to, if you weren't just displaying it where only your ideological comrades-in-arms will see it? Would you really enjoy hacking a video image of Sarah Palin to pieces on your home computer, if it was anything for you except a private joke between friends? Perhaps not. Now ask yourself this question--is anything on the internet capable of remaining private for long? Also a negative answer, except in that case I don't think there's any "perhaps" to it.

Some liberals, at least, are trying to get ahead of the usual cycle of blame (which, I confess again, I've been part of before!), and calling for boycotts of the game. Good for them, though I wonder what difference it will make. The genie--a genie of anger and contempt, fed by a technology that simultaneously encourages people to act out within their little boundaries as well as makes certain no boundaries truly last--is out of the bottle, and fear that, absent a profound political change which leads people to accept that our democracy can function, that government can listen, and that the rules and procedures and methods of elections and parties can be taken seriously, there's nothing that will get it back in. I'm as much at fault as anyone, I suppose. But I can at least refuse to play the game. We could all do that much, at least.

Friday Morning Videos: "London Calling"

Keeping up with the punk theme. Sure can't hurt (though I think it's supposed to).

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Remembering the Day

In about an hour, I'll be conducting a gathering here at Friends University, to commemorate that terrible day, nearly exactly ten years ago, in which close to three thousand people died in less than an hour, as planes crashed into buildings which burned and subsequently, horrifically, collapsed. 9/11 changed America in many ways, many of which--perhaps most of which--came out not so much because of the attacks, but because of our grief, terror, paranoia, and overreaction to what had just happened. The territory of the United States of America had suffered a horrendous terrorist attack, in which our own passenger jets, and our own comparative ease and freedom of traveling, working, and communicating, had been used against us. It was--to be brutally frank--a brilliant, audacious, even (Bill Maher notwithstanding) courageous attack. Also, and more importantly of course, a desperately, totally evil one. There's no apologizing for or justifying of it, and while I am more than happy to apologize for all the unfortunate ways I let my own anger and--again, to be brutally frank--my own ideological opportunism (at last, America can speak as one community, as a carrier of Western civilization, as something with an enemy which can pull us together!) stampede me into agreeing, even if only theoretically, with the notion that our "War on Terror" justified acts which bordered on quasi-imperialism...the attacks themselves still remain. I don't mourn their author's execution at the hands of American troops. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more found their lives torn apart and perhaps ruined, and millions around the work have felt the political and social and military consequences, because of what Al-Qaeda's particular form of radical Islamic jihadism, because of what Osama bin Laden and others like him promulgated. On September 11th, 2001.

I've told the story before. How the Wold Trade Center was hit by one plane, and then another, as I went about my business of getting ready for another day at my first teaching job, at Mississippi State University; how by the time I'd biked into campus people were already spreading rumors, and watching in silence CNN on televsion sets being hastily set up in classrooms and corridors, listening to the radio (how primitive that must seem to readers today, thinking about those dusty old pre-smartphone years!); how I was on the phone to Melissa on and off through the whole day, as we learned about the strike on the Pentagon (and desperately tried to contact friends in Washington DC, from which we'd move only weeks before), and swapped what little we knew (me from constantly hitting refresh on the New York Times's, the Washington Post's, and Andrew Sullivan's websites; her from switching between all the channels in our cable-enabled apartment), and absorbed the horror the the fifth largest building in the world (at the time) collapse in smoke and dust and noise. That's our story of the day; everyone has one. Except, perhaps not all the students we (myself and other faculty members) hope to be able to speak to tonight. One of my students worked at the Center for American Progress over the summer, and one of his projects was to develop a program to reach out to people like him--"Millennials," the "9/11 Generation," those who were children or adolescents or barely out of it, kids that were in high school, middle school, elementary school, the day the planes flew out of the sky. In a sense, they all have stories too--of lockdowns and tearful school assemblies, of prayers around the flagpoles and boastful claims by those looking forward to a fight. But their stories are limited, I suspect, because for the most part the aforementioned grief, terror, paranoia, and overreaction have been mostly all they've known. Multiple wars? Military tribunals? Taking off your shoes before you get on a plane? Did it really used to be different? Actually yes--maybe not entirely, but mostly, yes, it was.

So we want to tell stories, to help them appreciate the change, to help them remember the day. And, maybe even more importantly, the day before the day. Only by remembering both, I think, can we really hope to learn what 9/11 changed, and what it didn't, and what it needn't, and what perhaps we really need to change back again.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Rise"

My friend Dan Weingarten reminded me of this kick-ass tune a few weeks ago, and it put me in a very punk mood. Not a bad mood to be in these days.

I never even knew this song had a video. Maybe it Johnny Rotten was just too controversial for NBC?