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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Look At That Girl"

I didn't realize that I'd been catching music by the brilliant British guitarist and songwriter John Martyn, on the occasional Eric Clapton or Phil Collins album, until it was too late; he passed away in 2009. His greatest album was 1973's atmospheric and bluesy Solid Air, and you can listen to the greatest track off it played live with a wonderful folk trio here. But for tonight, a mellow late-80s jazz-pop number, with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd handling the electric lead. Beautiful.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Bye Bye Bird"

A classic bit from decades ago, introduced to me by my good friend Scott in Dallas. Sonny Boy Williamson, giving nothing but pure music. I love it when he starts snapping his fingers at the end, playing the harmonica with just his mouth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Giant

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Today, February 11, my father James Russell Fox (who was named after his father, James Wesley "Little Bill" Fox, who was in turn named after his father, James William "Big Bill" Fox), turns 70. Even in this era of plastic surgery, third or fourth careers, and aging rock-and-rollers, that still counts as old. (Check it out: my father is older than three out of the four current surviving members of the Rolling Stones. That's saying something.) He carries his age well: still waking up early, still golfing almost every day, still heading in to the office for a day's work, still laboring with Young Men's organization at church. He is, seven decades into his mortal life, the most healthy and firm and disciplined and well-rounded and loving and accomplished and thoroughly good man I have ever personally known, and probably ever will personally know. I am taller than him, and have more university degrees beside my name, and I suppose can--in a few ways--see some things which he cannot. But if that is so, it is only because I am, like my eight siblings, a dwarf who stands upon the shoulder of a giant. I am lifted up by him, yet I am also in his shadow as well. So he is above me as well as beneath me, and all around me as well. Jim Fox will follow me all my life, and for all the ways we disagree, I feel that as an enormous blessing, one I am unworthy of in so many ways.

Few people who have gotten to know Dad have forgotten him. His language is commanding, his presence charismatic, his sense of fun infectious, his commitment doing what he believes (or, as he would put it, knows) to be right inspiring (or infuriating), and to his dedication to his long and every-growing list of tasks--at home, at work, and most particularly at church--pretty much incomparable. Where did he get his drive, his thoughtful but also implacable strength of will? Perhaps from Grandpa Bill, a strong-willed, no-nonsense man, a cowboy and businessman and breaker of horses, a man who married the closest person to a saint that I have ever known, and was eventually converted to the Mormon church by her example and love, just in time to be baptized by my father before he left home, first to BYU and then on his mission to England. Or perhaps he got it from his mission president, Marion D. Hanks. During those two years (my father managed to cross paths with both Jeffrey R. Holland and D. Michael Quinn as a missionary, though he wasn't companions with either of them) he had more than his share of frustrating duties, having to follow up on the "baseball baptisms" of previous era of missionaries. Elder Hanks was a rock that they all, my father especially, held to, singing "Hold to the Rod" at every mission conference. (Decades later, my father and mother would make it out to mission reunions when they could, and as they told the story the assembled Hanks mission veterans would all stand and sing that hymn together as they had years before.) Or perhaps it is simply his gift. As a young man, growing up in a part-member family on a horse ranch and alfalfa farm outside Spokane, WA, in the 1950s, the story goes that he read the Joseph Smith story, decided if the Lord would grant a personal visitation to the 14-year-old Smith, why shouldn't He do the same for him? And so out to fields he went, pouring out his heart in prayer. No visitation came--but what did come, from without him or within, was a confident determination: that he would become the sort of man to whom God might grant a personal visitation. The whole of Ether 12 became one of his favorite scriptures: he would be that person; he would obey and work and love and be committed entirely. How many people do you know who are able to be truly self-made like that, who are convinced of the right thing to be and who make themselves into just that? George Washington, perhaps, with his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. Oh, and Batman. And frankly, I suspect my father would have a fair chance of taking them both.

Do I believe in self-made men? Not really, which is probably the real heart of how my father and I differ, whatever our seemingly many (though truly, probably fewer than outside observers or even ourselves might think) personal or political or theological disagreements. At bottom, I see individuals as anything but sovereign, but rather defined by their community and environment, buffeted about by structural forces (history or evolution or capitalism or luck or God's inscrutable interventionary acts) mostly out of their control, whereas my father is a Joshua 24:15 man: you or anyone else can choose what you will, but for him, and his house, he will choose to make servants of the Lord. The fact that Dad has long been so spectacularly successful at that self-making--not just in faith, but in family-building, child-raising, business-creating, and more--has long been, and probably as will be, a reproach to me, as well as an abiding factor in the way I judge the world, and a little bit of inspiration too. I look at myself in the mirror, or I look at others, and for all my appreciation of matters of health or wealth or any other mitigating physical or psychological factor, part of me always says: "You know, you could have woken up earlier in the morning. You could have worked a little harder on that project. You could have held your tongue, visited that family, gone the extra mile, paid more in tithing, been a little more obedient, a little more loving, a little more firm." I know it, because I saw my father do it, again and again and again. And do I really know that the blessings and success he has enjoyed in so many areas of his--and through him, his family's--life were random? That they weren't, in fact, really and truly and simply just the clear and uncomplicated result of D&C 130:21, another one of Dad's favorites? He would say that he knows that to be true: that he made the choice to submit, to obey, to put it all in the Lord's hands and trust in conforming as exactly as possible to whatever law is placed before him. And the fact that blessings have followed? Well, as he would also say, it's all in the Lord's hands, on His timetable....but it is handy to know the terms of the Lord's contract with us, wouldn't you say?

There is a comforting fiction amongst many of us Liahona types about the Iron Rod types, that they are all unimaginative or Puritanically serious or lacking in compassion or super-strict. None of those are true of my father. Well, maybe the last one, a little bit: for the older of the Fox family children, at least, particularly my older brother and I, my father's belt and our bare buttocks met on frequent occasions. There were rules, and the rules were to be followed. But there actually weren't, at least not in our family, all that many rules; mostly our very large, very loud, very boisterous, and very male gang ran about and wrecked havoc and got into huge fights with one another, breaking our mother's heart again and again but always knowing that had darn well better have our chores done before Dad came home from work. Even occasionally harsh discipline was an undramatic, straightforward affair; I can remember only one time, in all my years at home and in all the ways I disappointed my parents (and unfortunately, I disappointed them a lot), when my father raised his voice at me. I was probably six or seven years old, and I claimed I couldn't find my shoes or some such thing, and so couldn't go to church. Holding me tight by my arm, his face close to mine, father told me, in terms that brooked no dissent, that not going to church was not an option. Of course, I found my shoes, and I went.

And why wouldn't I, or anyone, want to go along with him? Dad was loud and funny and smart; he was where the jokes and the laughter and the arguments and the ideas were going to be. Unimaginative? This is the man who was called "Hot Dog" in high school and at BYU, the man who could slalom waterski and who had his license suspended for speeding and running stop signs the first week he could legally drive, the man who orchestrated massive Rook and Risk tournaments with his growing brood and extended family. Serious? About the church and family, yes; on that point, he and Mom were utterly, totally settled, to the exclusion of almost any other attachment. But anything else? Yes, my father flirted with W. Cleon Skousen and at one point bought a bag of gold and silver bars to hide in the basement in case the apocalypse arrived early, but he never seemed to take any of that doom-and-gloom seriously; life was, for the obedient and confident and hard-working, pretty wonderful, for all its heartache and frustration and occasional pain. When two of my younger siblings attempted to burn down the house (they had this plan that Dad would then have to buy us another house, this one with a swimming pool) by lighting a fire in the food storage room downstairs, my father--once appropriate discipline had been handed out, of course, via a favor from the local fire chief--just looked upon the whole thing as a humorous adventure. If nothing else, it finally meant all that ridiculous canned wheat we'd trucked around for years was gone--and my father was always one for throwing things away, cleaning up, and moving on. And so it would go. As a child I would cut Peanuts cartoons out the newspaper and tape them to pieces of notebook, eventually amassing a huge binder full of them; my father couldn't appreciate that, because Charlie Brown was such a "loser," always morosely pondering his own failures: why would anyone waste their time doing that? (Though years later he told me he'd changed his mind, and had to at least give Charlie Brown credit for never giving up.)

So, despite his occasional harshness and his relentless focus in life, not an especially strict man, and certainly not an unimaginative one, nor an uptight one. And as for lacking in compassion? Perhaps that's in the eye of the beholder, the one on the receiving end of someone else's passionate concern. I can, with only a couple of exceptions, speak as only a family member, one who has benefited from innumerable kindnesses and moments of counsel from him over the years, and as an observer, one who has gone with him and watched him, to learn from his example, as he has helped old folks move, sick people receive care, Scout projects get organized, church buildings get cleaned, sacrament be provided in prisons, and dozens more. Usually he does this good cheer and his usual unflappable determination--but sometimes the emotion overcomes him. His heart is actually pretty close to the surface, and it breaks through often. Once as a young man I attended some church meeting or another (probably doesn't matter what; at one point or another, my father has held just about every church responsibility there is), and Dad was speaking about marriage, and how there came a point in his own life where he realized he needed to change, to be there for his wife more, to do more around the home, to be more of a servant in his family as well as in the church. He wept up there on the stand, testifying of his love of Mom and how he hadn't done all he could for her, resolving to do more, with all us in the congregation sitting there kind of stunned, watching Jim Fox break down in front of us all. And another time, a harder time for me, when I'd been rejected in yet another job search, and I figured I'd planned my and my family's life all wrong, that I'd wasted years and money and was a complete failure and needed to start all over again. It was one of the two or three lowest moments in my life. My father called and, uniquely, unlike every single other friend or family member, he offered me no advice: just said, his voice all choked up, the sounds of the tears audible through the connection, that he loved me, and that his heart was breaking for me, and that he wished nothing more than to be there with me, putting his arms around me, telling that my Father in Heaven loved me and that everything would be all right. If I can, someday, show such compassion for the struggles and misfortunes of my children (which they will no more be able to avoid than human being can), and have backing it up decades of love, a whole history of firm and disciplined affirmation and commitment and kindness, as my father could...well, I will be a lucky man indeed.

Not everyone loves Dad, not immediately, and not in the same way. (My wife clashed with him a lot in the early years, when his overwhelming theological determination--"you're a Fox now, not a Madsen," he would tell her--didn't go over terribly well, to put it nicely.) But he is, I think, an unstoppable force, changing the minds or at least weakening the opposition of even those who are most different from him (and perhaps I am example of that), if only because his conviction is so sure, and the grace which attends him as he goes through his days so strong. Last year I was called into a bishopric here in our congregation, and of course, as I always do, I called my father. He immediately started making plans to fly out to Wichita, so he could follow the usual Mormon pattern of ordaining me a high priest. I told him that wasn't necessary, and actually felt kind of embarrassed by the whole thing: here comes Dad, with his usual take-charge, bull-in-a-china-shop routine. But as so often when my father puts his mind to things, I'd miscalculated. He got the flights, he arrived in Wichita, and the bishop and stake presidency welcomed him in, stepping back to let him take on his role, providing one more link in the chain connecting himself to his children and his children to God. He would see nothing unusual in this; on the contrary, he was only doing what a man, a husband, a father, a provider, a child of God is supposed to do. When a grandchild dies, you are there, to provide the eulogy. When I child advances in church leadership, you are there, to give your blessing. They are yours, after all, and when something belongs to you, when you carry something or someone on your shoulders, there are just things you--assuming you have chosen to submit, to be what you believe God has told you to be--must do. And you'll do them. Or at least, if you're Jim Fox, you will.

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes, Dad. That's what I am; that's what we all are, and we love you for it, in all our different and confused ways. It's not an easy thing, being your son. But you and Mom carry us all so well; I suppose the least that we can do in return is appreciate the elevation, and deal with the vertigo. Happy birthday; here's to this one, and many, many more.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Ho Hey"

I want to see The Lumineers live, real bad. I hope they get to Wichita soon.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Herder and Relativism (Enlightened and Otherwise)

Johann Gottfried Herder, a late 18th-century German pastor, educator, translator, literary critic, and philosopher, consumed much of my life and thought from 1998-2001, while I was writing my dissertation on him. For the first couple of years after finishing my PhD, Herder continued to be my focus, as I clumsily tried to turn my dissertation into a book (no luck), to salvage academic articles from it (somewhat more successfully), and, of course, to sell it as an important part of the research agenda I could offer to the schools I interviewed at (a complete failure). My first blog, with its ridiculous name, was a reflection of that time. After a while, though, I stopped trying to pretend to myself that I had any plausible chance whatsoever of becoming a serious Herder scholar or specialist (or a genuine political philosopher at all, for that matter), and gratefully just tried to do my best the small corner of academia in which I managed to land. Since then, Herder has only rarely been on my mind. However, it just happens that I've received the invitation to review a couple of books on the man, here at the beginning of 2013. Here's some thoughts of mine on the first one; the second will come soon.

Sonia Sikka's 2011 book, Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism, is a work of pure philosophy, first and foremost. While she reflects upon how Herder's ideas have implication for how we think about history, culture, race, language, art, and more, her primary focus is given in the title of the book, explicated thoroughly in the first chapter, and then re-occurs throughout the rest of the text: namely, how Herder should be understood as a thinker who is both a universalist and a relativist, some who, one the one hand, could hold that there is "a minimally common human nature" which makes possible definitive cross-cultural and historical judgments of "practices, behaviors, and social arrangements that appear to damage the well-being of individuals" (p. 22), and on the other hand, affirm a "relativism about happiness [which] implies a deep form of evaluative incommensurability entailing that forms of happiness possible among these different societies...cannot be ranked" (p. 37). It's not surprising that Sikka makes this the heart of her consideration of Herder's contributions to philosophy, as the larger problem of "the One and the Many," of how to make sense of both particular differences and larger unities, has been one of the central pre-occupations of Western philosophy for as long as it has existed. Herder's writings are hardly oblivious to that fact; on the contrary, Isaiah Berlin once rightly described this struggle over how to respect both historical distinctions and natural commonalities--"the notion of unity in difference, still more of differences in unity"--as Herder's "idée maîtresse." This is especially true given the argument over how to situate Herder in regards to the universalism of the Enlightenment: was he wholly opposed to it, only partly so, or best described as articulating some parallel "counter-Enlightenment" at the same time? This historical question is one which Sikka gives extensive treatment, developing at length thoughtful arguments regarding Herder's relationship to Kant (which, as those of us who have studied the man know, is also a major theme in Herderian scholarship). So in sum, while those scholars who have become interested in Herder through the ways he has been employed in recent years by scholars of culture, nationality, and community to explore the nature of belonging may not find the general orientation of this book especially helpful to them, Sikka's overarching interpretation of Herder is a strong one, and as she persuasively connects it to most of the other issues addressed throughout the book's chapters, I think all who are curious about the man's work--including political theorists, historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists, not just philosophers--would benefit from giving it some time.

The essence of Sikka's overall interpretation is that Herder's universalism and relativism find their connection through his insistence on employing an anthropological and empirical--and thus, in a Kantian sense, thoroughly "pre-critical"--lens through which to ask questions about "happiness," "identity," "morality," or any other such quality about which we might be called to make judgments. For Herder, a study of history, rather a reflection upon the categories of thought, is the best way to get clear on how human beings construct their lives, and therefore is the only appropriate way for one has recognized the great diversity which exists in the world to respectfully and ethically interact with it. Sikka admirably (and, I think, correctly) lays out the consequences of this distinction in the second chapter of the book:

Whereas Kant sees human beings as standing over against the world, Herder sees them as "woven into the whole of the world with all the threads of their existence." Ultimately, that is why emotions are, for Kant, "blind followers," whereas, for Herder, they are "discoverers leading our interpretations of the world"....As a result, Kant and Herder come to very different conclusions about what defines the character of the morally good person. Kant states that the person of cold temperament who acts from duty thereby gives himself a "higher worth" that the person who acts from sympathetic inclination. Herder claims that "merely following rules," without possessing virtue, means wanting to follow cold reason alone, and not enjoying the whole feeling part of humanity." It is not that Kant thinks the best person is cold-hearted, but, for him, virtue resides in choosing to do one's duty, and this choice is never more visible than when it is made in opposition to inclinations. Herder's idea of the virtuous person, by contrast, closely resembles Schiller's model of the "beautiful soul," in whom sense and reason, duty and inclination, harmonize....Herder always favors the perception of continuities and gradations, within the human psyche as well as in nature. (pp. 65, 67-68)

The importance of happiness, as well as other similar characteristics, for understanding Herder is fairly obvious to one who chooses to get acquainted with the larger philosophical argument which Herder (and Sikka) confront; of all Herder's voluminous writings on human culture and history, probably none is better known (thanks to the work of Isaiah Berlin, who made extensive use of it in developing his influential interpretation of Herder) than his relatively short monograph Yet Another Philosophy of History of the Formation of Humankind, which includes--in one its relatively rare crystal-clear sentences--the insistence: "Each nation has its center of happiness in itself, like every sphere has its own center of gravity!" In other words, according to Herder one really can't--not if one takes seriously the idea of basic human rights, anyway, as both Kant and Herder did--"stand over against the world" and make judgments about what will result in the happiness or progress or authenticity of those living within it; only those actually living in the culture or community in question, with its own history and character, can make that judgment. Absent Kant's elevation of the question of judgment into categorical realms, one simply has to take seriously the anthropological, empirical "facts on the ground," and thus also take seriously the language and perspective of those who belong to each particular place and time. Hence, for Herder there is presumably a genuine relativism (not a "pluralism," a label which Sikka thinks fails to recognize what she sees as Herder's insistence that "the goodness of individual lives is relative...to their achievement of the goals and ideals presented to them as desirable and worthy in the society of which they are members"--p. 4) when it comes to one's study of the world and its history.

How does Sikka see this same "pre-critical" lens as bringing some universalism into Herder's philosophy, and thus giving his relativism an "Enlightened" aspect? By treating Herder's key moral ideal--Humanität--primarily in a similarly anthropological fashion, reading it as conveying true moral import, but the nature of that importance being tied to the shared "aptitudes and predispositions" of human being; Humanität, as Sikka sees it, is fundamentally Herder's expression of "the ideal essence of the species," something which exists within the "general nature of man" itself (pp. 20-21, 75). So human beings carry within themselves a common capacity, rooted in our basic physicality and sociality, and on that basis one can authentically assess whether real progress towards moral betterment--that is, a fuller realization of that capacity--is taking place within the life of another person--or, more relevantly to Herder's interests, within the history of a nation or people. That this realization will take multiple forms is a given by Herder; hence, for Sikka, the primary ethical imperative of Herder's ideal is freedom: that is, allowing as many peoples to be able to linguistically, religiously, and politically develop their humanity in their own ways as possible. As she writes:

While Herder takes issue with many elements of Kant's moral philosophy, he wholeheartedly agrees with the basic principle that all humanity deserves respect, and that the recognition of this principle in practice entails political freedom. In this sense, Herder does promote the global realization of a single ideal....The ideal political condition of Humanität is...one in which no people is favored, insulted, or given the rights to rule over others, and in which cultures and allowed to flourish as integral wholes distinct from one another. (pp. 117, 120)

I cannot disagree with this reading of Herder's central philosophical concerns; clearly, Herder's whole vision of the world was in a very real sense anthropological and empirical--he was a philosophical realist, convinced that the best metaphors for understanding the world were sensuous and organic ones, reflecting his belief that all which as worth knowing or even was capable of being known about it had its roots in natural, knowable processes. Sikka correctly notes this realism in his philosophy (pp. 105, 206-207), and thus makes a good case for seeing Herder as a thinker who has a very material conception of both humanity's diversity and our shared anthropology (a phenomenon most clearly revealed in our expressive propensity for language, and its constitutive cultural consequences). This allows her to build her argument for seeing Herder as both a universalist and a relativist on fairly unambiguous ground, intelligently importing that philosophical framework into an analysis of Herder's ideas about history, race, progress, and more. It is a solid argument--but not, for me, a wholly persuasive one. This is not to say that I didn't learn a good many things about Herder from Sikka's book; I absolutely did. But, as she herself notes when discussing Herder's philosophy of language, "one cannot do justice to Herder's conception of language as a central constituent of cultural identity without examining the metaphysical, rather than exclusively anthropological, dimensions of this idea" (p. 183). The same could be said at many points throughout the book--to take Herder's claims on their own terms, the metaphysical must be conceived as connected to the anthropological. Sikka does frequently note that, for Herder, there is no clear demarcation between these two areas of inquiry, and she ably discusses the way Herder's concept of Kraft, an undefinable "living organic force" (p. 141) plays a connecting role here. But I remain unsatisfied with her treatment of the connection nonetheless, as if she was convinced that Herder himself would have been in agreement with her apparent conclusion that his own universalism was ultimately a thin veneer over a deeper pluralism. Herder, I think, would not have agreed with that conviction at all.

I have to admit that part of this disagreement with Sikka may simply be sour grapes, arising from her treatment of a published argument of my own about Herder. She approvingly makes use of an observation of mine about the metaphysical implications of Herder's constitutive approach to language, noting that "for Herder, what is taking place in the formation of language 'is not a purely subjective ordering, but an alignment of our thinking with truths that are there to be understood' and that...'finding forms of expression is, therefore, a way of relating to reality'" (p. 183). But then, a few pages later, she quotes me again, and writes that "[i]t cannot be true...that 'Herder believed that when we mark off and hermeneutically open up, through language, an understanding of the given historical and natural context which informs all our thinking, we are situating ourselves into communities which share a grasp of things that is fundamentally right'" (p. 190). I cannot see why Sikka would want to distance Herder from what seems apparent to both me and other students of his writings: namely, his own belief that there are true accounts of history, reality, and morality revealed through the process of expression. This is especially puzzling given that in Sikka's own thorough account of Herder's philosophy she notes multiple times that, for Herder, "words actually represent bits of the world"; that "[w]hat is special about human beings...is their ability to reflect on what presses upon them and to bring it to the explicitness of the word...[which is] a form of revelation"; and that "Herder sees the human subjects as bound up with the reality it perceives and thinks that he can claim: 'the thing itself'...exists 'in you, in me, as in all objects'" (pp. 177, 189, 211). Perhaps the problem is simply that Sikka does not see Herder's ethical universalism, and thus his invocations of reality and truth, as grounded in anything more substantive than his anthropology of human beings, since his metaphysical reflections seemed to her to be conditioned more by the particularity of human expressions of happiness and so forth than anything more unified. But if that is the case, then Sikka's problem is in fact one she has in common with some of the most important of Herder scholars: she's not reading his Christian writings. And given that Herder's actual profession was that of a Lutheran clergyman and educator, that's an unfortunate gap, however common it might be.

Herder's religious writings--not just his studies of Old Testament language and poetry, which are well known, but his sermons, his counsel to other preachers, and his reflections on Christian teachings, history, and ecclesiology--are numerous, and too rarely read. (Berlin himself almost totally ignored them.) Herder's major work on the nature of God, God: Some Conversations, his engagement in the "pantheist controversy" involving the legacy of Spinoza in 18th-century Germany, is more often considered, and Sikka focuses on it in her final chapter, though I think her overall conclusions about Herder's "enlightened relativism" lead her to miss the even deeper paradox of Herder's faith than that book showed. That "Herder's position on religious diversity blends a species of relativism--in this case an appreciation of the cultural relativity of symbolic forms--with a universalism projecting a broad ideal of human flourishing" (p. 241) is mostly correct, but it fails to address Herder's clear prioritizing of the Christian value of some specific types of human attachment to those symbolic forms over others. Sikka does note Herder's "privileging" of Christianity, but tends to understand that applause for its place in history as part of Herder's imagining of Christianity "as exclusively a moral code, stripped of ritual, ceremony, symbol, and arguably all that makes it a particular religion" (pp. 219-220). This suggestion that Herder was eliding particularity, including particular symbolic forms, which talking about the moral reality and force of Christianity is, I think, simply wrong. On the contrary, anyone familiar with his essay On National Religions (which Sikka never cites) can't help but be struck at his emphasis upon the idea that religious truth was best realized through the specific development of "a pure, free Christian religion," one which was connected to the expressive development of a particular people (which he saw most impressively in the development of Lutheranism through Germany). This is in opposition to Christianity's realization as a "national church" like Roman Catholicism (which he critically calls "state Christianity") or Henry VIII's Church of England.

The complicated, confusing truth is simply that Herder's relativism--which was quite real--perhaps wasn't so much "Enlightened" as reflecting a nuanced Protestant teleology, one which consisted of a multiplicity of divine revelations to be worked out in diverse times and places, yet all of which Herder believed shared a connection (via Kraft, the operation of which Herder equated, in a funeral sermon, with "God's own intent") to "true convictions about God and human beings." Through this undefined and perhaps essentially unknowable historical process, Christianity would ultimately become the "pure dew of heaven for all nations, which neither changes any tree's character or type of fruit, nor strip any person of their own nature." Humanität, therefore, had for Herder a much more substantive shape than that of human beings being capable of an expressive exploration and development of their own human capacities, and the ethical imperative to respect such; for Herder, it meant the revelation of the divine origin of those capacities. As he put it in probably his most consistent and important work, Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Humankind: "O benevolent God, you did not leave your creation to murderous chance; you engraved your image, religion, and humanity on the human soul. The outline of the statue lies there, hidden in dark, deep marble, but this outline cannot hew or fashion itself. Tradition and teaching, reason and experience must do this; and yet, you have sufficiently supplied the means for obtaining them." No, Herder did not believe that everyone would eventually become Lutheran--but he did believe that Lutheranism contributed to and joined in with a religion of humanity, of Billigkeit or equal treatment, a particularized and organic Christian message for everyone in every place, whatever or wherever that may be. Kant may have famously denied knowledge in order to make room for religious faith, but for Herder, relative anthropological knowledge and a unifying metaphysical faith--a Christian and humane one--were both available to us, if one would only stop constructing distracting rational and cosmopolitan philosophies and instead see the world as it really was.

In the end, I have to say that I think very highly Sikka's book; it is well-written, comprehensive but not over-long, and makes a strong argument for its overall thesis, one that should be taken seriously by any student of Herder's philosophy, and which has important things to say to those approaching Herder with an eye to his historical, literary, political, and anthropological contributions as well. I am critical of Sikka's work only in that I feel that she did not take Herder seriously enough as a religious thinker, as someone who, in his own way, was very conscious of the problem for Enlightenment Europe of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and whose response to that problem was deeply entwined in his whole philosophy of relativism and universalism. I would be fascinated to read a work of Sikka's which applied the same rigor and thought she shows in this book to those parts of Herder's legacy that perhaps didn't appear to her to be relevant to her thesis. In contrast to her, I think they are very relevant. But I can only make that observation after having worked through this fine scholarly work, and for that I'm in her debt.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage in the Courts (of Public Opinion, and Otherwise)

Yesterday, the British House of Commons voted 400 to 175 in support of a bill which will legalize same-sex marriages in Great Britain. I'm happy--for the outcome, yes (which I've changed my mind about), but more importantly for the way the outcome came about. Years of protest and agitation, days and weeks and months of discussion, hours of parliamentary debate, and then, finally, a vote. That's the better way.

I'm put in mind of this belief of mine as my church has once again involved itself in the continuing litigation over same-sex marriage in the United States. (I'm among the many Mormons who kind of hoped that some recent developments indicated that our church was willing to let the legacy of the Proposition 8 fight of 2008 fade away, but apparently we're not quite there yet.) This litigation--both sides of it--annoys me. Granted, the history of votes regarding same-sex marriage in the U.S.--whether in the form of popular referendums or legislative action--has basically been a story of many, many losses over the past decade and a half, followed by, over the past couple of years, a rising number of wins, so presumably I ought be happy that with courts making decisions about rights and taking such out of the hands of fickle voters. But the opposite is the case; the uneven record of voting on this issue isn't particularly troubling to me at all--given that I've been through a long patch of unevenness myself, there isn't anything perplexing about realizing that so many others are working their way through a similar reconsideration. No, what I do find frustrating--especially in comparison with how this matter was ultimately, and wisely, handled in Great Britain--is the way democratic activity in this country is so often reduced to judicial claims and counter-claims, taking the issue away from the courts of public opinion and giving it to other, less democratic courts. As things stand now, come the end of March, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule definitively (maybe!) on the constitutionality of both state and national efforts to legalize or deny legal recognition to same-sex couples. I suppose it would be right to say I hope they rule in favor of the legality of such, given my changed opinions on the matter--but also given that such a decision would take the form of a legal mandate which will almost certainly run roughshod over the laws adopted by dozens of states, all of which have the support of millions of citizens, I can't say I'm looking forward to it.

If I now believe that same-sex marriage should be recognized as a legally defensible and positive civic good, which should I care about those whose opinions would be found constitutionally lacking by a decision which I support? Would I have cared about the consequences of Brown v. Board of Education for racists, for example? Well, my answer to the latter is "no"--but my answer to the former is that I just quite don't believe that opponents of same-sex marriage are necessarily operating from the same kind of irrational animus which many of those who were scandalized by the end of segregation presumably were. It's quite easy to position oneself on the probably winning (and, again, I think right) side of history here, and say that the passage of time will prove that same-sex marriage opponents are ultimately cut from the same bigoted cloth, and I can't deny that might, decades hence, turn out to be the case. But for now, as one who prefers the messy imbalances of democracy to the supposedly clear (but for all that usually arbitrary) impositions of the law, and for whom the past three years have mostly just provided confirmation of my many doubts about trusting in the judicial branch), as well as one who not too long ago was persuaded by a certain argument against same-sex marriages, I just can't see in the supporters of Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act and the opponents of what the House of Commons just voted for something so obviously out of line with our country's evolving political ideas as to deserve the judicial squashing which Boies and Olson (and perhaps President Obama too) clearly think it deserves.

After all, as much mockery as the idea has received from one side of the divide, the claim which my church's lawyers have signed on to--that advocates of traditional heterosexual marriage and supporters of same-sex marriage have in mind visions of marriage which are in "deep tension" with one another, "one inherently intergenerational, the other primarily interpersonal; one focused on children's and society's needs, the other on the desires of the couple"--is not, I think, obviously silly or just a cover for raw distaste and prejudice. It is, on the contrary, entirely plausible (if not, to me, any longer convincing) to argue that the physical differences between men and women, and their reproductive potential, make it incumbent upon society to legally ratify such relationships in a socially beneficial way that homosexual couplings, no matter how loving or civic-minded, are biologically capable of ever being. Moreover, it is not obviously ludicrous to me to note that, given the widespread support for numerous statues in several states providing near marriage-identical forms of civil protection and social validation to gays and lesbians, the argument about the harms of Proposition 8 are probably not quite the same as those 14th-Amendment-centered harms which activated judicial interventions into the political deliberations of the states in the cases of, for example, Romer v. Evans or Loving v. Virginia. And finally, it does not strike me as obviously nonsensical to suggest that a society which truly takes the principle of equal respect seriously should reject the easy solution of "sameness" offered by inviting homosexual couples--who arguably will have a moral and social and sexual teleology in their relationships quite different from those of heterosexuals--into a marriage institution which was designed for people whose needs are distinct from theirs. And when this last argument concludes with a call for churches and other religious institutions to accept the Christian duty to love gays the same as straights, and work out institutions which will serve their teleology as well as heterosexual marriage has served the rest of the population, I think even the most dismissive critics ought to at least acknowledge the decency of their intentions.

All this is to simply say that these are beliefs--just like, I think, most beliefs--that deserve to be taken seriously enough to allow them to be argued out in public, and for the courts of public opinion to respond to them as they will--whether in support or in opposition. This isn't an argument that every democratic majority everywhere ought to have its way all the time, but just a wish that people were more willing to accept the (when properly limited within a reasonable understanding of basic liberal rights) wins and losses of democratic life, and how the lives which get worked out democratically will differ from community to community, and from era to era. Minds do change; they change all the time. For me--to focus just on the first claim above--the accusation that accepting same-sex marriage meant accepting as normative for purposes of social recognition a genderless choice-driven individuality ran aground on my ultimate unwillingness to fully sign on to the sexual inegalitarianism which such an accusation of individuality presumes. Obviously Melissa and I are raising daughters, not sons, and that difference matters. But I couldn't continue to believe, as we taught our daughters and encouraged them to consider themselves equal to both boys and men in the face of the pornographic misogyny which powers so much of the capitalist marketplace which surrounds them, that--to use the terms quoted from the brief above--community-preserving intergenerationality depends on impressing upon them their particular role within a companionate, heterosexual marriage, when it was obvious that such doesn't depend equally upon the men (something especially easy to challenge in world which has been transformed by technologies like the birth control pill or in vitro fertilization, to say nothing of the unfortunate--but probably inevitable--consequences of the no-fault divorce revolution). For better and for worse (yes, it's both) ours is a world more interpersonal than otherwise, and I saw that it was possible to argue against rampant individualism in a way which expanded the circle of community--by, among other things, making room for homosexual individuals in the historical practice of monogamous, companionate marriage--rather than holding tightly to a model of an intergenerational thing which had long since already been changed.

(There is, of course, a Mormon angle to all this for me as well; my church has few rivals in its cult of motherhood and its emphasis upon the special role of women in passing the faith along to the next generation. But that, of course, is something which need not be aligned with the civic sphere. Do I think it legitimate for Mormon majorities in their communities to push for such an alignment? Yes, I kind of do, though again in light of basic liberal guarantees, which itself is something which warrants continuing democratic contestation. I will say, though, that I strongly disagree with those who present such a push as something mandated by the logic of Mormon doctrine--that our (non-canonized!, I shout in vain) teachings about the eternity of gender and our (entirely speculative, I similarly grouse) claims for the existence of an exclusively female companionate deity alongside God make it incumbent upon believers to vigorously resist any attempt to suggest that such supposedly divinely sanctioned institutions as heterosexual marriage might accommodate other forms of human existence. The doctrinal grounds for justifying that kind of narrowly conceived--and inevitably party-aligned--movement would make a mockery of our historical political theology, I think.)

What about the other two claims mentioned above? I remain pretty much in agreement with the second: despite the arguments of many, I'm still unconvinced that the restriction of marriage to heterosexuals constitutes a grievous constitutional harm put in place solely with the aim of burdening a specific, disliked minority population. (That does not deny that fact that harms are a reality here--it only denies that the actually existing harms to homosexual individuals is great enough to demand further empowering the judiciary by handing over to them yet one more of our contentious disputes for resolution.) As for the third, well, that argument calls for exactly the sort of thing which, over four years ago, I thought was the best possible solution--and I'd like to be able to believe that we could wean ourselves away from the false and individualistic reading of "equality" that substitutes the idea of the full recognition of difference with legal identicalness. But I don't see ourselves ever being about to manage such a weaning, because of the legacy of a particular strain of liberalism in this country. And speaking idealistically of what we think we ought to be able to do is no good reason to not do something else which, even it does partake of that particular reading of equality, can extend some real interpersonal richness to our social lives as well. And same-sex marriage will do that.

In the meantime, as we get to wait for the Supreme Court to, sometime this summer, either strike down or legitimize same-sex marriage bans, or perhaps to simply punt the whole issue back to the states, where the rigamarole will begin again, Great Britain will get on with what governments are supposed to do--respond to pressing issues by crafting solutions. The House of Lords may delay this bill's route to becoming law, and given the number of Conservative MPs who deserted Prime Minister David Cameron on this vote, maybe there will be major political consequences, even new elections called early. In which case their own rigamarole will continue: but at least the citizens in that country will be able to say that they, however indirectly, were actually a part of whatever final compromise eventually emerges from Parliament, whereas in our case, for all our claims of freedom, we'll really only be able to have a decisive say if the Supreme Court decides we can have one. Frankly, I think same-sex marriage, which I support, deserves a better court than that.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Stairway to Heaven"

I'm going to revive this feature, for a little while anyway, and I can't think of a better song to start the revival with than Led Zeppelin's classic, performed just a couple of months back by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, one of the most accomplished and comparatively overlooked hard rock bands of all time. Jason Bonnham, son of Zep's drummer John Bonham, is on the drums, Shane Fontayne takes on Jimmy Page's electric lead duties (too bad Nancy herself didn't take a stab at it), a horn section and gospel choir with orchestral accompaniment rolls in to make the whole thing even huger, and Ann--despite an unfortunate effort to imitate Robert Plant's pronunciation right at the end of the final lyric--simply kills. An awesome performance. Watch Plant's, Page's and John Paul Jones's heads bob along to the music--you know that in their head it's 40 years ago, and they're still up on the stage, bringing it all to life.