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Saturday, December 31, 2022

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2022

The ten best--most enjoyable, most thought-provoking, most edifying, most question-raising, most fun--books I read this past year, in alphabetical order by title.

The Arc of a Scythe--Scythe, Thunderhead, and The Toll--has been a young-adult sci-fi obsession for my wife and three of our four daughters for several years now; this Christmas break, I decided to dive in, and I'm glad I did. The genre Shusterman writes in has some inherit limitations, but this series--a three-part story of a futuristic, utopian world where disease and death have been conquered, where all needs are satisfied that an incorruptible, all-powerful AI, and where for over two centuries the population has been controlled by an, ultimately, highly corruptible and power-seeking group of "scythes"--transcended those limitations in many ways. It was a quick read, relatively speaking, but Shusterman consistently surprised me with his characterizations and plotting, working through his outlandish scenarios with insight, creative foreshadowing, and writing persuasive enough that the holes (and when you're dealing with something as crazy as essentially Logan's Run as a Lord of the Rings-length--at least insofar as page numbers are concerned--epic, there were more than a few!) mostly had me asking questions--just what kind of religions would emerge in an age where death and crime no longer existed? just how would a perfect AI committed to its original programming respond to humans attempting to subvert it?--rather than complaining. As a Christmas vacation read, this was a great, fun choice.

Jesimin's The City We Became is a genius work, the best literally "urban fantasy" I have ever read. Imagining that cities themselves, once they reach a certain size and age, become conscious in the form of avatars which are selected from their population in some mystical, representative way, is terrifically cool; imagining further that gentrification, corporate chains, suburbanization, and other threats to the organic, heterogeneous, diverse, and decentralized nature of cities (or, at least, to the nature of one particular vision of urbanism) takes the form of some kind of racially obsessed Lovecraftian monster is coolness doubled. I had some frustrations with the political strawmanning Jesimin engaged in throughout the book--sometimes it was more polemic than fantasy--but those frustrations didn't come close to making me love it any less. I can't wait to dive into the sequel this year.

A classic that I only got around to reading this year, Koestler's Darkness at Noon is a haunting short novel. Built around a barely disguised portrait of an early 20th-century communist revolutionary betrayed and ultimately executed by the Community Party of the USSR, the heart of the book is its exploration of how the psychological effects of the totalitarian politics pursued by the Soviet Union played out in the minds of partisans, intellectuals, dissidents, and those who just wanted to survive. The interrogations of Rubashov, and the way they opened up recollections and conversations between him and is primary interlocutor, Ivanov, allowed some great, powerful philosophical observations. Rubashov's fate is obvious an influence on George Orwell's Winston Smith; it made me want to re-read 1984, which years ago had an immense impact of me.

One reading project I fell into this year was reading Willa Cather; of the three novels of hers I read, Death Comes for the Archbishop stands out as perhaps the one in which Cather's command of the English language struck me most deeply. The steady, controlled pace of this story of the long life and slow, but also steady, successes (as well as failures) experienced by Catholic missionaries in 19th-century New Mexico can't help but be experienced by a thoughtful reader, I think; Cather ties the passage of time and an almost tangible sense of the colors, smells, and temperatures of the physical environment to how she tells her story, in a way I have rarely encountered before (but which is common to all of the Cather novels I read). I've never been a fan of the desert, but Death made me, once again, recognize and even kind of feel the stark holiness and deep sensitivity that arid, slowly evolving environments can provide.

An Inconvenient Apocalypse is not a book I entirely agreed with; while I am certainly not climate scientist, and don't have any deep familiarity in the environmental data which grounds the dark predictions of Jackson and Jensen, the fact remains that my own take on how human history operates prevents me from seeing the apocalyptic end of industrial civilization which they present as inevitable as occurring in a time frame which would result in all the calamities they foresee. (Basically: it would make a massive difference if the reduction of the human population by half occurred over a millennia, as opposed to a century.) All that being said, I had nothing but admiration for the book, because the stark language they used, confronting directly what kind of hope they think is possible in the face of climate catastrophe was marvelously bracing. I wrote more on this wonderful little book here.

My obsession with Sir Paul McCartney has been demonstrated repeatedly on this blog over the past three years or so; hence, it was probably inevitable that I would love The Lyrics, which is probably the closest we'll ever come to an autobiography from the man. It's widely known that Macca, arguably the single most-interviewed human being on the planet, regularly regurgitates the same lines in response to the same questions, over and over again; by getting him to thinking about the words of his songs, this collaborative work brings out insights and memories from McCartney that we might never had read otherwise. A genuine treasure-trove of Beatles trivia, musical insight, historical reflection, and just plain Sir Paul charm.

This was my favorite of the three Cather novels I read, just because the characters presented in My Ántonia were so admirable, curious, engaging, tragic, and real, and none more so than the marvelous creation of Ántonia Shimerda herself. Her resourcefulness, determination, and abounding fertility (metaphorical and literal!) never made her seem like some kind of simplistic folk creation; every one of those virtues came with great costs. And that's really Cather's greatest accomplishment in this novel: showing us a slice of American history wherein the forces of America's prairies and the human heart brought forth, through the choices her characters make, immense sacrifices, terrible mistakes, genuine triumphs, all of which those characters carried forward through their dialogue and plot arcs, leaving us--or me, at least--just wanting more.

A third classic, but actually my least favorite of the three Cather novels I read this year. Of the three, O Pioneers! has the most predictable and melodramatic plot, but that doesn't get in the way of the amazing way Cather captures the look, feel, and smell, the beauty and ugliness, the color and the grayness, of the American prairies. Nebraska may not exactly be Kansas, and the 2020s certainly aren't the 1890s, yet I found in her physical descriptions of the land and the people who live upon it an immense amount of truth. A lovely book, even though she wrote even better ones later.

Paradise Now is a wonderful history of 19th-century utopian movements, including both the communities they built, the individuals and ideas which motivated them, and the internal contradictions which led, in almost every case, to their eventual dissolution. By so doing, Jennings is able to use these movements to explore rich ideas pertaining to capitalism and socialism, to democratic individualism and familial communalism as they were articulated and responded to during the transformations of the Industrial Revolution. I wish the author could have extended his sympathetic look at the utopian impulse into continuing efforts to live out, or at least explore, dissent from both globalized capitalism and the centralized state today, but I suppose he'd already done enough by the time he brought this long history to a close; I attempted to extend upon his thoughts here.

Yep, a celebrity memoir; but honestly, Surrender is pretty wonderful. It's a book filled with funny, insightful, often simplistic but nonetheless sometimes also challenging observations and ideas about music, Ireland, charity, international development, America, the record business, personal trauma, family history, global geopolitics, and being an arrogant ass (as Bono freely and regularly admits he often was throughout his long career, and still often is). I wrote some reflections on the elements of the book pertaining to Bono's activism here, but honestly, just read it for Bono's lyricism as he writes about his bandmates, his friends, his enemies, and most of all his wife and family--the man is a fine writer, that can't be denied.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The 10 Best Movies I Watched in 2022

As always, the movies which I watched in 2022, whether they were released this year or not, that I thought the best and/or that I got the most out of, in alphabetical order by title.

Coming in at the very end of the year, my first response to The Banshees of Inisherin was more admiration than love: gorgeously shot and hauntingly acted, it was a great little tragic-comic horror story, but probably not more than that. But conversations with my daughters afterwards helped me see some marvelous coherences in the film's story; the fact is, in light of morning-after thinking, this movie is a gem, a scary and sad portrait of human limits and human choices, with multiple brilliant revelations packed into short exchanges and scenes. (Hint: the movie maybe focused on Pádraic and Colm; but it's really about Pádraic and Dominic, and Colm and Siobhán.)

I watched Bathtubs Over Broadway early in the year, and it was such a delight. It introduced me to a slice of American art that I'd never known anything about, and indeed can't remember having ever even heard anything about before; it was a genuine revelation. And a pretty delightful one, done with great spirit and nostalgia and joy. Honestly, everyone should learn about "industrial musicals," the grand shows that corporations put together for the annual meetings of their stockholders or whatever, year after year, throughout the middle of the 20th century. Such a fun film.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is absolutely a lot of movie; maybe too much. But it reduced me to tears when we saw it in the theater, and I know why: I couldn't contain the admiration I felt for, my sympathy for the pain felt by, and my hopes for the future of Waymond, and every other decent person who just honestly wants to people to talk to each other and listen with compassion to what they have to say, even when--especially when--what is being said makes no sense. "This is how I fight," he says: with kindness, not comprehension. I'm an intellectual who loves trying to understand things, and I won't ever change--but I'm a better person for being reminded, as I am not nearly often enough, of the limits of that approach.

Flee is a remarkable movie, one whose stylistic choices in how it unfolds its story didn't always seem to me to make perfect sense on their own terms--sometimes the movie would depart entirely from the conceit that we were watching an animation of an originally recorded interview, but then there would be a scene which leaned hard into maintaining that pretention--but all of which added up to a film that was more than the sum of its parts. The story of Amin, an Afghan whose family fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Mujahideen, then spent years attempting to escape the USSR as it slowly collapsed through the 1980s and into the 1990s, is a powerful one, and I appreciated the creativity and honesty--despite the frequent artifice of the movie--with which it was told.

For Mormons like myself--heterodox, liberal, critical, but still settled in our identity--the past couple of years have delivered a lot of media content almost perfectly designed to get us arguing about and dianosing ourselves and our history. I never got into Under the Banner of Heaven; my wife and I watched some of, but couldn't maintain interest in, Mormon No More; I thought Murder Among the Mormons was terrific. But by far the best documentary about my tribe, or those associated with it, I watched this year was Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey. A deeply creepy story, told with remarkable clarity and restraint considering the ugliness of the child and sexual abuse and the religious fanaticism at its center, it provides all the interviews and all the context and history you need to understand this small, horrifying branch of the fundamentalist movement within Mormon culture; if you can handle this sort of thing, I can't recommend it strongly enough.

I'm not sure I'd ever even heard of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp before a friend of mine did a complete rundown of all of the movies by the mid-20th-century British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and praised it to the high heavens, but now I mention it whenever the topic of British movies comes up. This is simple a spectacular yarn, telling in miniature the whole cultural story of the British empire from WWI to WWII, through the character of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, whose great virtues and perhaps even greater "Blimpish" flaws are laid out with affection, insight, and great wit. I was constantly being surprised and impressed by how the movie is put together; for what it wants to do, it's practically flawless.

Once again, a Spike Lee joint makes my top ten list, but this is an early movie of his, the first one he made after his career-defining film Do the Right Thing, and his first movie with Denzel Washington. And I have to say, I'm not sure Washington, whose work I love, didn't set himself a high bar that he has only ever equalled, never exceeded, in Mo' Better Blues. People can complain, legitimately, about how Lee makes use of crude--but funny!--stereotypes in filling out his films, and about the way he inserts himself--literally or metaphorically--into his movies, but here his camera is centered on Washington's amazingly calm, yet nonetheless deeply expressive, face, as the leader of a jazz band who thinks of nothing but music but is also intelligent enough to recognize all the trouble his lack of thought for anything else is getting him into. The soundtrack is tremendous, and the final 10 minutes, though completely predictable, are made transcendent by being accompanied by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Absolutely worth seeing.

Salt of the Earth is a nearly 70-year-old melodrama, and it shows--the dialogue, acting, and staging all reflect a very different story-telling sensibility, one lacking the sort of abiding aesthetic which allow musicals similarly decades-old to still work for us. So no, it's not the style of this movie that made it so good for 2022-me; it's just how damn contemporary its honest, unflinching, thoughtful engagement with complicated issues of poverty, labor, exploitation, gender politics, cultural difference, faith, inequality, racism, and more all felt to me. The story it tells is an almost entirely fictionalized tale of an actual strike at a New Mexico zinc mine, with some of the actual participants appearing in major roles in the film. Written, directed, and produced by men who had been blacklisted in Hollywood, and dimissed as communist propaganda by many when it was first released, this is a great, powerful, however melodramatic, document of women and men fighting hard--against the power of capital, and against their own weaknesses--to achieve something better.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was just a totally unexpected blast. Terrific, nutty, often downright hilarious yet on-the-nose characterizations (Sherlock Holmes as a paranoid, traumatized drug addict? Sigmund Freud as a manly swashbuckling hero?), complete with a bonkers, definitely politically incorrect yet entirely entrancing plot? An adventure story-slash-costume drama, with hokey (but well-intentioned!) psycho-analytics, corrupt (but absolutely proper!) European aristocrats, confused and falsely accused (yet still guilty!) English academics, and a run-away train? All that, and tennis? Sign me up!

Sorry folks, but this is just cinema. Complain all you want about Tom Cruise; with this film, he did everything that Tom Cruise, Inc., does best: give us fabulous stunts, a perfectly efficient plot, lots of sharp and edited-to-perfection scenes, a few moments of almost-entirely-honestly-earn sentiment (Iceman! The hero we--and he--always knew he could be!), and, yes, plenty of non-distracting but solidly landing jokes. Just in terms of movie-going, popcorn-munching delight, Top Gun: Maverick was absolutely the summer flick of the year.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Blame Christmas

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Towards the end W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written 80 years ago, Auden gives an imaginative narrative voice to a marvelously contemporary and thoroughly professional Herod the Great, the man responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, at least according to Matthew 2:16-18. The Herod of Auden’s prose-poem is a hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible man, someone wise enough not to imagine that he knows everything, but grounded enough to be confident in the consequences of even that which he does not know. The story of Jesus, he realizes, whether or not it is true, must be stopped immediately, because the masses of people in the world are delicate, desperate, and often deplorable, and in need of the disciplining, dependable myths which are central to the religious and civic order. Allow them to start thinking about God’s relationship to humanity as a personal Gift, as an expression of divine Love, as fundamentally a Mystery, and madness will reign. In imagining Herod in this way, Auden was perhaps updating, and making more relatable, the equally hard-working, highly intelligent, and rigorously sensible Grand Inquisitor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but honestly, this man is a figure well-known to many of us, and sometimes--especially for people like me who take traditions seriously enough to think they are worth arguing about--maybe is us as well.

Auden’s Herod wasn’t fundamentally wrong: Christmas actually is a Surprise (and a Liberal one too, in its most topsy-turvy and transformative, not its most cramped and Clintonite, sense: the line from the Lords of Misrule to Scrooge dancing and laughing after his--literally--Spiritual experiences to Drag Queen Christmases is pretty obvious, I think). The surprising (and sometimes even harsh) mysteries of forgiveness and liberality and equality and grace completely defined Jesus’s mortal life, at least so far as the Gospels tell us, from beginning to end. So Herod got that right; he just was wrong in thinking that such Surprises, if they are not Explained and Made Accountable and Properly Directed, are a bad thing. They are, on the contrary, as challenging as they can be to those of us with even a little small-c conservative sensibility, the best things possible. So in the spirit of that grace, and of those best things, let's pass the mic for a moment respectfully to those hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible, and sadly wrong folk who blame Christmas (even without realizing it) for the madness of our world, and will keep on doing so, right up until the moment when God saves their souls, and ours, at the very end.


The Massacre of the Innocents

I. Herod

...Judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”

One needn't be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions--feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism....Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible ldol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumors, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? O dear, why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it can only mean this: that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in, He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Justice and Inclusion: From Isaiah’s Pen to our Eyes and Ears

[Cross-posted to Religious Socialism. A version of this post originally appeared on By Common Consent]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year, I decided to repeat that read, because Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the text, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I’d missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall’s surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God’s seraphim descends from heaven and touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal taken from God’s altar, thereby cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God’s will).

The Book of Isaiah has, of course, been heavily proof-texted and read selectively by Christians for centuries. No other set of Hebrew poetic and prophetic texts that made their way into the canonical Old Testament have had as massive an impact on how Christians, from ancient to modern times, articulated the faith which the recorded statements of Jesus and the accounts and letters of his early followers inspired. It’s not just that Jesus himself is shown in the Christian Gospels to be quoting from or referencing Isaiah more than any other older text besides the Psalms; it’s that Christianity’s entire cultural and theological approach to and interpretation of Jesus’ message and meaning comes through a heavily Isaian lens–the language of Handel’s Messiah being just the most obvious example. (And with the commemoration of the Messiah’s birth just a couple of days away, this seems like a good time to revisit the text.)

Separating myself as a reader from that inheritance was no easy feat, and I can’t say I was entirely successful. Thanks to Alter’s translation, however, a couple of key ideas were made profoundly clear to me. First, that from its beginning, the book of Isaiah–far more than those associated with any of the other Hebrew prophets–is a text that presents calls to social justice on the same level as its condemnations of the cultic failures and ritual sins of Israel. Isaiah 1:14-17 sets the theme for the entire text, with its explicit condemnation of those who hypocritically attend outwardly to religious duties but ignore the needs of those who are part of that same religious community. As Alter renders it:

Your new moons and your appointed times I utterly despise. / They have become a burden to me, I cannot bear them. / And when you spread your palms, I avert My eyes from you. / Though you abundantly pray, I do not listen. Your hands are full of blood. / Wash, become pure. Remove your evil acts from My eyes. Cease doing evil. / Learn to do good, seek justice. / Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow’s case.

The text of Isaiah regularly connects the evil that must end if the orphan is to be defended with the accumulation of wealth itself, entirely aside from whatever charitable purposes to which such wealth might be set. Growth itself, in a society where land had been–at least insofar as the legends of the Israeli conquest of Palestine suggested to those living in the 7th century BCE, the like era of the author(s) of Isaiah–distributed to every family as an inheritance, risks great evil:

Woe, who add house to house, who put field together with field till there is no space left, and you alone are settled, in the heart of the land. / In the hearing of the Lord of Armies: I swear, many houses shall turn to ruin, great and good ones with none living in them (Isaiah 5:8-9).

Of course, in today’s globalized and financialized economy, far more shaped as it is by speculative, debt-financed, corporate-dominated exchanges of information and images than by productive, non-alienated, land-based labor, such warnings about growth might be easy to dismiss as limited to the agrarian world of ancient Israel. Still, perhaps the pastoral and anti-urban context from which such beautiful visions and invocations of God’s justice were articulated ought to be recognized as potentially inseparable from the repentance that these prophet-authors called for as well, which in turn might suggest hard questions for leftists like myself to struggle with as we contemplate our responses to capitalist accumulation and industrial growth. Consider Isaiah 32: 13-20:

On My people’s soil thorn and thistle shall spring up / for on all the houses of revelry, the merrymaking town, / the villa is abandoned, the town’s hubbub left behind. / The citadel and the tower become bare places for all time, / wild asses’ revelry, pasture for the flocks. / Till a spirit is poured on us from above, and the desert turns to farmland and farmland is reckoned as forest / And justice abides in the desert, and righteousness dwells in the farmland. / And the doing of righteousness shall be peace, and the work of righteousness, safe and quiet forever. / And My people shall swell in abodes of peace, in safe dwellings and tranquil places of rest. / And it shall come down as the forest comes down, and in the lowland the town shall come low. / Happy, you who sow near all waters, who let loose the ox and the donkey.

Pastoral visions like this naturally generate all the usual individualistic reactions–start associating God’s promises with some kind of communitarian ideal, and the next thing you know everyone’s on the hunt to drive out the dissidents, the foreigners, and anyone else who is seen as not fitting in with the community. To be sure, there’s no way to discern honestly in the Isaian voice any kind of validation of liberal concerns; it just isn’t there. Isaiah is concerned with God’s covenant with the descendants of Israel; that is undeniable. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, another concern is there–a concern I’d never noticed until I read Alter’s translation. It is the degree to which the prophecies in the book of Isaiah reflect the Mosaic insistence upon respect for, and even the inclusion of, the stranger–including strangers whose lives (including, at least on the basis of one reading, their sexual lives) might seem to exist in opposition to the mandates of Israel’s faith:

And let not the foreigner say, who joins the Lord, saying / ‘The Lord has kept me apart from his people,’ nor let the eunuch say, ‘Why, I am a withered tree.’ / For thus said the Lord: Of the eunuchs who keep My sabbath, / and choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, / I will give them in My house and within My walls a marker and a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name will I give them that shall not be cut off…./ For My house a house of prayer shall be called for all the peoples (Isaiah 56:3-5, 7).

Note those final three words. At a time of year when most of us are surrounded with presentations of these prophetic calls in entirely predictive, Christological contexts, it is good to remember that this kind of almost-if-not-quite-entirely universalist sentiment can be found frequently throughout text of Isaiah--especially in the later, so-called Second Isaiah sections--entirely apart from the Christian gloss generally (however sincerely, or even, perhaps, arguably legitimately) placed upon it. That leftists like me can learn from the Hebrew prophets is hardly a new insight, but this year, thanks to Alter’s help, I appreciated the reminder.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Bono, Christian Neoliberal (but also, Perhaps, a Little Bit More)

[I was asked to write about Bono's memoir for Current; my review is here, but, as usual, I've posted my longer version here, as a Christmas gift to U2 haters and fans alike. Enjoy!]

Bono’s raw talent as the lead singer, primary songwriter, and frontman for the rock band U2 for all its more-than 45 years of existence is–unless one is fervently committed to maintaining the absolute purity of one’s musical hipster or snob credentials–pretty much undeniable. His talent for striking much of his band’s audience as pretentious, outrageous, hectoring, and annoying is–as the above caveat makes clear–also pretty much undeniable. Bono’s famous, self-conscious rant (“Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug ya”), captured in the 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum (the accompanying album to which being, perhaps revealingly considering what I’m going to argue here, my single favorite U2 album) shows that his reputation was already becoming part of his shtick by the time the band was barely a decade old, and it has only grown since. Like him or hate him, acknowledging Bono’s enormous accomplishments, both as a musician and as a social activist–accomplishments which were celebrated when U2 were received the Kennedy Center Honors this year (the ceremony took place on December 4, and will be broadcast on December 28)–means accepting him for what he is. So this Christmas, let's ask: just who, exactly, is he?

Millions of words, both of praise and criticism, have been written about U2's music and Bono’s leadership in efforts to fight poverty and promote development around the world over the decades; Bono’s own memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, now adds to it. It’s a charming, revealing, and–in my opinion–only occasionally annoying book. Bono is skilled with words, and he relates with real thoughtfulness and often funny self-deprecation dozens of stories about his childhood, the formation of U2, his courtship of his wife Ali, and the ups and downs of song-writing, touring, recording, and making artistic and business choices (and sometimes regretting them) as the band became more and more successful; he has interesting, even intelligent things to say about all sorts of musicians and bands (from Joy Division to Johnny Cash, from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Frank Sinatra) that shaped Bono's personal musical milieu. And his sketches of the rich, the famous, and the notorious that he, his family, and his band have encountered along the way are a particular delight, even when they border on the glad-handing (aside from Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump–and maybe, just maybe, Prince–Bono is fulsome in his praise for pretty much everyone that gets a mention in the book, up to and including many leading members of the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations). While his turns to introspection do eventually weigh down the text's lyricism towards the end, as he struggles with his own health and mortality, mostly the result is a fascinating and even poetic survey of the life of a man whose restless, searching, passionate mind is constantly pushing him onward. In what direction? Simply put, towards God. 

As Bono writes in an early chapter, while relating his pre-U2 memories of attending a “Holy Roller” church with a teen-age friend in Dublin in the mid-1970s:

[L]istening to the speakers at these meetings, I was...attracted to the God of the scriptures that they read from. I wasn’t sure I’d ever encountered such a presence in our lovely little Church of Ireland in St. Canice’s [Bono’s mother was a Protestant, his father was Catholic; as children, he and his brother attended Protestant services with their mother]....I did have a sense of the divine, but it was inchoate and formless, so when I started to uncover clues about the nature of this presence, I was fascinated. The Bible held me rapt. The words stepped off the page and followed me home....

I’d always be first up when there was an altar call, the ‘come to Jesus’ moment. I still am. If I was in a café right now and someone said ‘Stand up if you’re ready to give your life to Jesus,’ I’d be the first on my feet. I took Jesus with me everywhere and I still do. I’ve never left Jesus out of the most banal or profane actions of my life (pp. 47-48).

This isn’t a surprisingly revelation; despite the members of U2 having never identified themselves as a Christian band, and in fact having regularly rejected that label over the decades, the deep, however heterodox, Christian piety which has characterized so many of the songs Bono has written is hard to miss. This isn’t just something that U2 super-fans discuss on online forums; anyone who can use Google can find multiple articles (see here) and even whole books (see here) devoted to Christian explorations of the band, beginning with stories about the influence the Shalom Fellowship–a radical Christian movement which the young Bono, lead guitarist Edge, and drummer Larry Mullen were all members of (bassist Adam Clayton is the one secular member of the band)–had on their early history, including nearly ending the band while in the midst of preparing their second album, October, when the question of balancing burgeoning fame with a Christian vocation seemed impossible to navigate. (As related in Surrender, their manager reminded them that he had already, on the band’s behalf, signed off on all the arrangements for their upcoming post-album release tour, and that if the band broke up there would be legal ramifications; this led Bono--in a wonderful recreation of the confused yet straightforward, immature yet sincere, religious devotion of the young adults they all were at the time--to conclude: “Good point. God is unlikely to have us break the law”--p. 142.)

Still, Bono’s Christianity and his orientation towards the divine is an interpretive key many misunderstand, particularly when it comes to his activism. In a lengthy interview published in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of Surrender’s release, Bono’s religious motivations are never mentioned. This is unfortunate, because inquiring into the connection between Bono’s faith and the way he has approached social activism tells us something about that faith, and its social manifestations, in a manner very relevant to our political moment, I think.

Central to that connection is Bono’s contempt for organized religion, and by extension almost any kind of institutionalized expression of an exclusionary ideological or moral or metaphysical claim, has to be placed front and center. The “Bloody Sunday” of January 30, 1972 (which Bono says is “tattooed on the mind of every Irish person of a certain age”–p. 164) inspired not only one of U2's most iconic songs but also grounded Bono’s rejection of both Catholicism and Protestantism, both nationalism and sectarianism. It’s not hard to see the connection between his dismissal of organized Christianity (“Was there any evidence Jesus even wanted a church?”) and his dismissal of his fellow citizens that attempted to draft U2 into taking a side on "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland (he describes shouting “This is not a rebel song!” during performances of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and the threats he and his wife received from Irish republican forces afterwards–p. 169). But if Bono’s deepest, and deeply universalist, Christian beliefs force him away from fully embracing any particularizing creed or community, to what does he acknowledging belonging to, if anything?

His struggle to articulate his own desires and doubts regarding how, and how much, and in what way he belongs to his wife and children, to his extended family and its complicated history (Bono’s mother died when he was 14, and before his father passed away at age 75, Bono learned that one of his childhood friends was actually his half-brother from an affair his father’s), and most of all to his fellow band members, is a consistent theme throughout Surrender. But that kind of belonging has no obvious social component to it. Instead, the belonging which has led him, from his young adulthood on, to feel enlisted in fights against global poverty is purely scriptural: as a believer, he cannot avoid the fact that “the poorest people are at the heart of Christianity,” and that “only once does Jesus speak about judgment, and when he does, it’s about how we treat the poor” (at which point he quotes Matthew 25:44-45–pp. 204-205).

The vocational connection to humanitarian service that many hundreds of millions have over the centuries felt called to is one of the greatest witness of Christianity, and Bono’s indefatigable involvement in, from the 1980s on, raising enormous funds for--and convincing governments to forgive even more enormous debts weighing upon--African countries is a tremendous example of such. But in being passionately, scripturally, connected to the acts of service themselves, and not to any community necessarily grounded in either providing, benefiting from, or even just understanding and adjudicating the impact of that service, leads to some interesting and, given the history of liberalism, perhaps predictable places. That Bono credits his fellow Irishman and longtime friend (and, incidentally, committed atheist) Bob Geldof--the musician behind the much-mocked Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (not a bad song, I still insist!) and the celebrity-charity-defining concert-event, Live Aid--with being one of the primary catalysts in turning him to anti-poverty work is almost too easy, with the same accusations of historical ignorance, cultural condescension, and uncritical simple-mindedness which Geldof received having become a regular part of Bono’s reputation over the decades. (Though admittedly, that these two acts, and the organizational infrastructure they gave rise to, raised a quarter billion dollars, saved perhaps thousands of human beings from starvation, and established systems that continue to provide support to African communities in moving away from the legacies of colonialism today, is rarely mentioned by philosophically informed critics like myself today.)

As one who relishes an argument, Bono often in Surrender leans into this sometimes crudely transactional, sometimes blandly individualistic, liberal humanitarianism. “Fame is currency,” he writes; “I want to spend mine on the right stuff” (p. 357). He defends, despite the contention it causes, his friendships with billionaires and world leaders (when Bono received a humanitarian award from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom he had praised for his work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, his own bandmate Mullen condemned the prize in the media the very next day, calling Blair a war criminal--p. 178); defends his monomaniacal focus on international development and whatever donors or developments, regardless of politics, might enable it to happen faster (leaving aside the post-punk posture of his early days, when Bono joined with other artists in support of Greenpeace, now he meets with scientists funded by Bill Gates to discuss nuclear power in Africa, much to the displeasure of his resolutely anti-nuke wife--p. 255); and defends the practical results of his work (after talking about his work with--and, I think, about genuine fondness for--such leaders as George W. Bush or Warren Buffett in pushing AIDS relief, debt assistance, and food aid to African nations, he adds it all up: “In the coming years, more than $100 billion of U.S. taxpayer money would be invested to ensure those children, women, and men did not lose their lives....One hundred billion dollars. That’s a lot of lentils”--p. 425). 

That Bono sees no essential conflict between his rootless, devout Christian humanitarianism and the complicated, often perverse realities of technological expansion and financial globalization is clear; the positive language which he uses to describe the transformative power of tax competitiveness and capital flows being just one example. Ireland, a “small rock in the North Atlantic,” realized that “ideas are more portable than objects,” and doubled-down on attracting businesses focused on pharmaceuticals and computer technology, thus turning--wonderfully, in his writing--“the land of saints and scholars” into “the land of sinners and software engineers, our once-light industry now entirely weightless” (p. 458). And as for the United States, which seems to dwell in Bono’s mind as the embodiment--at least potentially so--of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount (“the light of the world”), its “entrepreneurial capitalism” is just part of the story. More than a nation-state to him, America is a mythological “dream,” the manifestation of a non-specific creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a “poetic idea in which we all have a stake” and “the greatest song the world has not yet heard” (pp. 463-464).

But despite all this (let’s call it “Christian neoliberalism”), it can’t be denied that Bono, in his memoir, also documents with real honesty his struggles with the limitations inherent to this kind of globalist vision. Sometimes these comments come ruefully and with humor (when he reflects on the bad press U2 received when they moved one of their companies to Holland for the tax savings, and how they defended themselves by saying it was not contradictory “to be tough-minded as well as high-minded,” he observes “Maybe there are some arguments that just by being in them you have already lost”--p. 479). But other times they come out of an earnest desire to come to a better understanding of what the best possible application of his Christian calling involves. He details the efforts he and others in the development community have taken over the decades to move from a charity-mindset to a justice-oriented one, to confront what he (and many others, particularly a new generation of African activists and thinkers who have pushed-back against Bono’s defense of globalization) calls White Messiah Syndrome. “I still believe aid is essential, but how it is decided upon and delivered is just as important as the money itself, as is listening to the people it is designed to support” (p. 451), is his conclusion. It’s not a sign he’s going to return to the punkish leftism he flirted with as a young artist, but it is a sign of ideological humility (in his interview with The New York Times Magazine, Bono, though still defending what he sees as the empowering, wealth-building force that is capitalist development, acknowledges that he’s been so focused on the massive inequality between developed countries and undeveloped ones that he’s not paid much attention to the--arguably more important, insofar as self-governance and democratic legitimacy is concerned--growing inequality within those countries themselves).  In one of Surrender’s most insightful paragraphs, he further writes:

I have often regretted that we didn’t stop to think a little more carefully about what right we had to take on this work, to barge our way into the corridors of power. We took it for granted that because the problems of global inequality were mostly created by the Northern Hemisphere, it fell to those of us in the north to solve them. I recognize now how arrogant this position was. I learned late the wisdom in a Senegalese proverb, “If you want to cut a man’s hair, be sure he is in the room” (p. 396).

U2's music, and Bono’s words, have helped bring light to the rooms of hundreds of millions around the world for decades, and the soft power he has gained from this accomplishment has been, overwhelmingly, used on behalf of a deeply Christian set of humanitarian principles. His universalist articulation of those principles, and especially their cultural implications, are not above criticism, and Bono, musical journeyman and mystical poet though he is, is at least grounded enough to hear those particular criticisms and struggle with them seriously. In the end, Surrender should be understood, at least in part, as a document of that struggle. The New York Times Magazine missed that part of the story; hopefully Bono’s many other readers will not.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Friendly Disagreements with Justice Stegall (A Continuing Series)

[This is an expanded version of a column of mine making the rounds here in Kansas; as usual, I pretentiously felt I needed more space to make my point entirely. Mea culpa.]

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall and I have known each other for going on 20 years. We're not close friends; I think we’ve met in person four times at most. But all through those years--particularly in the early ones, before I found a permanent place here at Friends University and he found a permanent place on Kansas's highest court--we regularly shared ideas, and argued about ideas, and not-infrequently fiercely disagreed with each others' ideas. Thanks to all these online interactions we’ve come to know each other and, I think, like each other, despite our deep disagreements, perhaps because we can also see in each other some foundational beliefs and loves we share. I look back on the appreciation I wrote on him eight years ago, when Governor Brownback appointed him to his current position, and I don't think I'd change a word.

All of this is just to that when Caleb made the news recently for a letter he wrote to several faculty at KU Law, his alma mater, stating that he would not continue on as an adjunct teacher there, I was surprised. I wanted to understand his reasons for cutting those particular ties--and now, having read the letter, I think I do. As usual, though, I have questions about it, and a disagreement or two as well.

Two years ago, Caleb did another surprising thing: he publicly rebuked leading members of the Kansas Republican party--which he is a longtime member of--for orchestrating a successful vote against Carl Folsom III, a lawyer with a long career as a public defender on the state and federal level, whom Governor Laura Kelly had nominated to the Kansas Court of Appeals. It was, of course, just a partisan, party-line vote, but GOP leaders had claimed justification because Folsom had, as was his job, defended people charged with various crimes, some of them pretty horrible ones, and that was used to smear the nominee. This frustrated Stegall, and he called out those Republicans for failing to honor “the ideal of a public-spirited, deliberative, and reasoned engagement with others.” 

Now, my philosophical understanding of that ideal isn’t exactly the same as Caleb’s; as I've written before, classical liberal notions of open discussion depend, among other things, upon a degree of civic friendship, which in turn depend upon the maintenance of norms which many people today, for many different reasons (technological as well as ideological, historical as well as cultural), may rightly feel to have been rendered moot, over perhaps even entirely (or perhaps even justifiably) overturned. Much of our divergence here is likely reflective of what Caleb asserted in his letter as the imperative of "privileging individual character and merit above group characteristics"; leftist and communitarian that I am, I'm much more willing than he to consider how norms may be tied up with structural, collective, and historical realities which must be considered whenever one makes judgments in reference to individual rights or claims.  But whatever those particular philosophical disagreements, the liberal ideal he defends remains one which I--as a college professor and occasional pundit whose whole career is dependent upon communication, discussion, and engagement--I have great respect for as a crucial component of our civil society. And regardless, I admire how that ideal has guided Caleb's thoughts and actions over the years as well. 

So how does ideal come into play with his decision to end his teaching association with KU Law? On my reading, it turns on his concern that his old stomping grounds have shown “an institutional failure to cultivate the norms, habits, and skills necessary to the task of lawyering.” The precipitating cause of this concern of Caleb's was what he called the “bullying” response made by of certain members of the KU Law community (specifically, those associated with the school's Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee) when the conservative KU Law Federalist Society invited a speaker from the controversial Alliance Defending Freedom to campus. The bullying he mentions included calling student leaders of the club into a meeting to warn them against the invitation, and those students being subsequently labeled as facilitating hate speech by the aforementioned committee. (The speaking event went forward as planned, by the way, with accompanying protests; everyone's First Amendment rights were fully respected, or at least so it appears.)

Now in light of prioritizing engagement, Caleb is plainly correct that, like them or hate them, the ideas promulgated by ADF—which generally frame almost any advance in LGBTQ rights as an attack on religious freedom (consider the role they played in pushing forward a current lawsuit over the supposed potential interference which a Colorado law poses to those who do not wish to acknowledge the legality of same-sex marriage)—have long been present throughout Kansas’s legal environment, including at events sponsored by the Kansas Bar Association. Hence, discouraging students from confronting certain ideas—even those which, as Stegall admits, may be seen as “existentially threatening”—is probably not the best way to prepare Kansas’s future lawyers. Quoting Professor Richard Levy, a longtime KU Law faculty member, Stegall rightly makes the point that “if lawyers cannot talk to each other about difficult subjects on which they disagree, how can we expect anyone too?” That position seems consistent to me.

But I'm not sure how to square that consistency with his decision to separate himself from KU Law. I suppose that if in his considered judgment his alma mater really has caved into a kind of "authoritarianism" which threatens to "cripple a person's ability to critically engage with ideas or people with whom they disagree," then it might not be unreasonable to speak out against those developments by way of withdrawing from the institution. Perhaps we could understand that as a form of protest, or as the posing of a countervailing power as a way to pushing KU Law's leadership to take corrective action. (Caleb perhaps implies this, when he wrote in his letter that he is acting on this matter with a consciousness of others who may feel the same disgruntlement as he, but lack the "authority or security to speak up"--something which, as a state supreme court justice, he obviously is in full possession of.)  But still, in our present moment, it seems to me that remaining present exactly so as to continue to engage, as a colleague and friend, with those whom one disagrees—including disagreements over how to respond to the way some at KU Law may have dealt with an ideological disagreement!--is vital.

Last year, Caleb gave a wonderful address--which he quoted from in his letter to KU--that addressed in part the fact that the law can never be entirely disentangled from the arguments over the ethical concerns and procedural outcomes which always surround it. After sharing an old Jewish parable, he concluded that, in the midst of these quandaries, “heaven smiles mischievously down on us”--then added, “we can smile back, if we have the stomach for it.” It's entirely possible to read this passage--and I suspect this was Caleb's intention--as suggesting a criticism of KU for lacking the stomach to deal with serious, even "existential," disagreements. But by the same token, that line could be understood as a petard upon which Caleb has hung his own arguments. 

To be sure, every person’s stomach for dealing with disagreement is going to be different, and to repeat what I said above, I can certainly see withdrawing in the face of a disagreement as sometimes a productive way of engaging with it. It's not like anyone, I suspect, can entirely refuse to ever draw lines in the sand which they will never cross, or will always withdraw to one side of. So I take seriously Caleb’s reasoning for drawing his line here; I'm not in a position to say he did wrong, and I'm not in agreement with those with condescending takes on my friend's decision. But still, I must admit: it just doesn’t seem consistent to me with his own best arguments; it's not entirely like the smart and gleeful debater I've known over the years. No doubt, this will be something we can continue to disagree about as well.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I'd missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall's surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God's seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet's lips with a burning coal taken from God's altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God's will).

The centralized Sunday school schedule followed by the Mormon church around the world has only recently finished reading Isaiah; it is a heavily proof-texted and selective approach--but then, Isaiah itself has been heavily proof-texted and read selectively by Christians for centuries. No other set of poetic and prophetic texts which made their way into the canonical Old Testament have had a similarly massive impact on how Christians, over all the course of ancient and medieval and even modern Christendom, articulated the faith which the recorded statements of Jesus and the accounts and letters of His early followers inspired. It's not just that Jesus Himself is shown in the New Testament gospels to be quoting from or referencing Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book besides the Psalms; it's that our entire cultural and theological appropriation to and interpretation of Jesus's message and meaning comes to us via a heavily Isaian lens--language of Handel's Messiah being just the most obvious example. And Mormons like me have our own particular doubling-down on this; you can't get a more unambiguous association than the resurrected Jesus explicitly stating in 3 Nephi 23:1 in our Book of Mormon, "great are the words of Isaiah."

That the words of the prophet--or possibly two or even more prophets, spread out over a century, all writing under the name of Isaiah--are great is something I fully agree with. (When I summed up my Old Testament journey before with personal ranking of its books, I put Isaiah in my top ten but near the bottom; now that I've read Alter's translation, I think I need to push him up a few slots.) The poetry of the book is stunning, and frequently arresting, especially for a life-long Christian whose background assumptions include a Christianizing of the language of the Isaian text at such a basic, routine level as to often not even be aware of it. It soars to immense heights, but also digs deep within; it's lovely. For whatever it's worth, I want to share some of what Alter's translated words captured for me--and also push back against Alter is one crucial way, where is deeply informed secular perspective struggles to make sense of something which all us clumsy, pious proof-texters over the millennia might have gotten right after all.

From the beginning, the book of Isaiah is--far more than those associated with any of the other Old Testament prophets--is a text which presents calls to social justice on the same level as its condemnations of the cultic failures and ritual sins of Israel. Isaiah 1:14-17 sets the theme with its explicit comparison of those who hypocritically attend outwardly to religious duties, but ignore the needs of those who are part of that same religious community:

Your new moons and your appointed times I utterly despise. / They have become a burden to me, I cannot bear them. / And when you spread your palms, I avert My eyes from you. / Though you abundantly pray, I do not listen. Your hands are full of blood. / Wash, become pure. Remove your evil acts from My eyes. Cease doing evil. / Learn to do good, seek justice. / Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow's case.

Importantly, the text of Isaiah regularly connects the evil that must be ceased if the orphan is to be defended with the accumulation of wealth itself, entirely aside form what charitable purposes such wealth might be set to. Growth itself, in a society where land had been--at least insofar as the legends of the Israeli conquest of Palestine suggested to those living in the 7th century BCE--distributed as an inheritance to every family, risks great evil: "Woe, who add house to house, who put field together with field till there is no space left, and you alone are settled, in the heart of the land. / In the hearing of the Lord of Armies: I swear, many houses shall turn to ruin, great and good ones with none living in them" (Isaiah 5:8-9). Of course in today's economy, far more shaped as it is by speculative, debt-financed exchanges of information and images than by productive, land-based work, such warnings about growth might be easy to dismiss as limited to the agrarian world of ancient Israel. That the author(s) of Isaiah were primarily reflective of an agrarian sensibility is undeniable--but perhaps recognizing the pastoral and anti-urban context from which such beautiful visions and invocations of God's justice were articulated ought to be recognized as potentially inseparable from the repentance which this prophet-author called for as well. Consider Isaiah 32: 13-20:

On My people's soil thorn and thistle shall spring up / for on all the houses of revelry, the merrymaking town, / the villa is abandoned, the town's hubbub left behind. / The citadel and the tower become bare places for all time, / wild asses' revelry, pasture for the flocks. / Till a spirit is poured on us from above, and the desert turns to farmland and farmland is reckoned as forest / And justice abides in the desert, and righteousness dwells in the farmland. / And the doing of righteousness shall be peace, and the work of righteousness, safe and quiet forever. / And My people shall swell in abodes of peace, in safe dwellings and tranquil places of rest. / And it shall come down as the forest comes down, and in the lowland the town shall come low. / Happy, you who sow near all waters, who let loose the ox and the donkey.

Pastoral visions like this naturally generate all the usual individualistic reactions--start associating God's promises some kind of communitarian ideal, and the next thing you know everyone's on the hunt to drive out the dissidents, the foreigners, and anyone else who is seen as not fitting in with the community, right? To be sure, there's really no way to honestly discern in the Isaian voice any kind of validation of liberal concerns; it just ain't there. But, perhaps surprisingly, what is there--and which I'd never noticed, until I read Alter's translation--is the degree to which the prophecies in the book of Isaiah reflect the Mosaic insistence upon respect for, even the inclusion of, the stranger--even strangers that live in ways contrary to the community's shared faith. "And let not the foreigner say, who joins the Lord, saying / 'The Lord has kept me apart from his people,' nor let the eunuch say, 'Why, I am a withered tree.' / For thus said the Lord: Of the eunuchs who keep My sabbath, / and choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, / I will give them in My house and within My walls a marker and a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name will I give them that shall not be cut off..../ For My house a house of prayer shall be called for all the peoples" (Isaiah 56:3-5, 7). These kind of almost-if-not-quite universalist moves appear frequently throughout text (especially in the later, so-called Second Isaiah sections). Of course, that move away from understanding God's revelation solely in terms of a tribal covenant and towards recognizing in it the seeds of a kind of universal love, is, culturally at least, inseparable from Jesus's message in the Sermon of the Mount and elsewhere that God calls us to higher law. And while Alter's presentation of the book of Isaiah is rigorously committed to a secular literary interpretive lens, there comes a point when even he struggles to separate the voice coming through these ancient prophecies from the Christian promise.

It's not the usual suspects; passages like Isaiah 9:5 ("For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and leadership is on his shoulders") are pretty obviously--at least in Alter's capable linguistic hands--presented as belonging to 7th-century BCE concerns particular to an Israel longing for an escape from the threats posed by Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. But then you come to Isaiah 53, starting with a powerful question--"Who could believe what we heard, and to whom was the Lord's arm revealed?"--and going from there into a long, unprecedented vision of a Servant, first mentioned in the previous chapter, who redeems Israel through his suffering. Alter, while dismissing the Christian interpretation, to his credit admits that the verses perplex him, suggesting as they do a posthumous restoration of a Servant whose identity--as least insofar as "virtually all serious scholars" are concerned--remains unclear:

Yet he was wounded for our crimes, crushed for our transgressions. / The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, and through his bruising we were healed. / All of us strayed like sheep, each turned to his own way, / and the Lord brought down on him the crimes of all of us. / Afflicted and tormented, he opened not his mouth. / Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like an ewe mute before her shearers he opened not his mouth. / By oppressive judgment he was taken off, and who can speak of where he lives? / For he was cut off from the land of the living for My people's crime, bearing their blight. / And his grave was put with the wicked, and with evildoers his death, / for no outrage he had done and no deceit in his mouth..../ My servant shall put the righteous in the right for many, and their crimes he shall bear. / Therefore I will give him shares among the many, and with the mighty he shall share out spoils, / for he laid himself bare to death and was counted among the wrongdoers, / and it is he who bore the offense of many and interceded for the wrongdoers (Isaiah 53:5-9, 11-12) 

My reading of the Old Testament over the years has, more than anything else, taught me to think in terms of God's patient, always evolving, always emergent work: the divine power manifest through the inconsistency and inconstancy of we fallen human beings. Such haphazardness, revealing almost against its own grain the loving attendance of the Creator, has come to me to be essential to understanding the whole complicated structure of this ancient, fascinating, maddening collection of texts. What I have come to not expect, by and large, is exactly the sort of thing so many Christians like myself were raised to focus solely upon: proof of the truthfulness of some doctrine or practice or miracle, delivered to us whole, across centuries of time and thousands of editorial interventions (both intentional and unintentional), in the plain words of the text. I'm pretty confident at this point that I'm really not missing much actual spiritual nourishment by discounting pious claims of such. But when a text more than 2500 years old lays out the possibility of resurrection and restoration, one that has barely any connection to what we know about Hebrew thought of the time, and which matches both future texts and the spiritual experiences of hundreds of millions so well? In this case, bring on "All We Like Sheep," says I. I mean, Christmas is on its way, isn't it?

Friday, November 11, 2022

Planning and "The Politics of Beauty": Reflections on Stewart Udall

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic

John de Graaf, an author, filmmaker, and friend of Front Porch Republic, has recently completed a documentary tribute to a hero of his: Stewart Udall, the pioneering conservationist who in many ways defined (almost entirely for better, though perhaps, in a small way, partly for worse) the environmental agenda of the U.S. government and, more specifically, the Democratic party for the past 60 years. “Stewart Udall: The “Politics of Beauty” is a gorgeously shot and highly informative short movie, a wonderful introduction to a fairly unique and entirely admirable figure from 20th-century American history: a crew-cutted WWII veteran and New Frontier liberal whose passion for the natural world literally changed the landscape of this country--but also an open-minded thinker, a lover of poetry, family, and community, whose conservationist passions led him to be ever more conscious, as the decades went by, of the complications inherent to the liberal statism through which he did his greatest work (even if he never did turn against it entirely). In an essay last year, de Graaf called Udall a “true conservative,” someone who “really wanted to conserve things: land, air, water, beauty, the arts and graces, gentle human relations, the best of tradition, democratic ideals,” and this movie reflects that aspect of Udall’s life very well.

Udall’s early history—his birth into the Udall family in 1920 (which was already by then an expanding political clan), his life as a young Mormon in Saint Johns, Arizona, and the poverty, the conflicts, and the fellowship which existed in that arid farming community—is by no means the focus of de Graff’s film, but I was entranced by those opening shots and the story it told, complete with comments from Udall’s surviving siblings. It put me in mind of my own maternal grandfather, Joseph Arben Jolley, who was born just four years before Udall in Tropic, Utah, a similarly remote and tiny Mormon hamlet on the Colorado Plateau (though 300 miles, a couple of mountain ranges, and several Native reservations separate the two towns). Like my grandfather, Udall’s early years were without electricity or running water, something which FDR’s New Deal (specifically the Rural Electrification Act) changed, with radical consequences for the Udall family—among other things, they became Democrats, convinced that government action really can improve human lives.

It was that conviction, tied to his passion for racial and, especially, environmental justice, which shaped his public career, first as an elected representative, and then as Secretary of the Interior under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. During those years, Udall orchestrated the establishment of more national parks, historical monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational areas than any other Interior Secretary either before or since; if you’ve ever visited Canyonlands National Park, or hiked the Appalachian Trail, or spent time at over a hundred other similar locations across America’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems and geography, it’s likely that you have Stewart Udall at least partly to thank. His years of government service were not restricted to what he did to strengthen and expand the conservationist mentality in Washington D.C.; de Graaf’s documentary does an excellent job highlighting Udall’s broad engagement with cultural issues, as well the tensions and frustrations he faced as a leading government official during the heights of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and all the protests both unleashed. But still, it is the lessons he leaned in Saint Johns, the way he applied those lessons, the things he learned from his struggles over them, and how his own take on those lessons thus evolved over the decades, which strike me as most valuable to America today.

In 1963, Udall published his first book, The Quiet Crisis. An idiosyncratic and unsystematic but still deeply insightful history of conservation attitudes and efforts throughout American history, its perspective on the role of government in protecting wilderness, particularly in the American West, was in some ways superseded by later books of his. But the original remains something of lost classic, regularly rediscovered and praised by those trying to understand the development of American society’s relationship to the land. Reading it in conjunction with watching de Graaf’s film both complicates and deepens our understanding of this indefatigable public servant.

In these pages, there are a fair number of embarrassing paeans to the presumed virtue and wisdom of American planners and policy-makers. Among others, the book begins with Udall presenting the national government’s Indian Claims Commission, which is generally accepted to have utterly failed in its task to treat Native land claims justly, “as a singular gesture of atonement, which no civilized country has ever matched,” and then towards the conclusion includes some glowing praise for Robert Moses, the devastating over-builder of American cities, highlighting his efforts to “overcome earlier failures to plan” and bring to American urban areas “asphalt for beach parking lots, for playgrounds, and for roads” (pp. 11, 163-164). But between such missteps, there much worth admiring and pondering.

In The Quiet Crisis, Udall provides thoughtful portraits—and critiques—of influential naturalists, conservationists, and geographers like George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and Frederick Law Olmstead. He off-handedly introduces the idea of global warning decades before scientific debates over such crashed into the public consciousness ("What are the long-range results of man's modification of the environment? When men clear a forest in order to make space for agriculture, how does this clearing affect the climate, the rate of erosion of soil, and the populations of birds and other wild animals?"--p. 81). Predictably, the book includes vicious condemnations of what he various refers to as the “Big Raid,” the “Great Giveaway,” and the “Myth of Superabundance,” the guiding ideology of many American business interests and monopolists which, facing only occasional resistance, exploited and denuded American forests, ecosystems, watersheds, species, grasslands, resources, and more throughout the 19th century and the first part of the 20th. Perhaps just as predictably, he lavishly praises those who took executive action on behalf of environmental interests, particularly Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to Udall, TR “regarded himself as the trustee of the lands owned by the people” and “dared to use his pen,” aggressively expanding the application of the Reclamation Act and the Antiquities Act so as to more than quadruple the size of protected natural lands in the United States (though whether TR’s actions really “dealt a decisive blow to the Myth of Superabundance” in America is doubtful--pp. 131, 136). And in Udall’s view, FDR’s New Deal aimed to reverse effects of “the Big Raids…[during which] much of the nation's resource capital had been borrowed and used up to advance the personal fortunes of a few”; through the creation of the REA, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Soil Conservation Service, and more, the government aimed to “to invest in land-rebuilding programs that would assure adequate resources for tomorrow….[with] the needs of the community and of the next generation…given first priority" (p. 144).

Udall’s reference there to “the needs of the community” may give one pause here, and it should. Because as the aforementioned tendency in The Quiet Crisis to occasionally see national planning as an obvious solution to any environmental or historical or urban problem demonstrates, Udall’s passion for the American landscape and wildlife was not always entirely cognizant of the local people who actually live in those landscapes and with that wildlife. It’s an attitude he clearly struggled with; in “The Politics of Beauty,” de Graaf shows an excerpt from a 2003 interview with Udall, in which he reflects that “there has always been local opposition, regional opposition, state opposition to the creation of new national parks….because people…wanted to control [the land around them] and do it the way they wanted to do it.” But even 40 years earlier, Udall was, I think, conscious of the ambiguity here. On my reading, the heart of that ambiguity resides with Henry David Thoreau, whom Udall calls “one of our first preservationists” and “a naturalist’s naturalist,” and whom, I believe, haunts his thinking. Consider his criticism of the man’s oeuvre:

Thoreau was alarmed by the Raider spirit, but he failed to realize that the land spoilers were already in command, and were committed to a course of action that would destroy the land values he prized the most. With his negative feelings about government and politics, he failed to perceive that it would take government action to stop the destruction. There were other contradictions:  although he abhorred the very thought of social action, land conservation could not begin until men organized for action; he was anti-reformer, but it would take the crusading zeal of reform-minded men to save the woods and wildlife; he was, moreover, the most thoroughgoing nonconformist alive, though the dangerous drift of the time pointed to the need for conformity to minimum rules of resource management. In short, government action was necessary to curb the exploitation of resources and allow the land to renew itself, but Henry David Thoreau was constitutionally and unalterably antiprogram and antigovernment (p. 52).

To Udall, the results of this disposition was obvious: no national parks, no resistance to those would abuse the natural world for their own profit. And yet, consider also Udall’s concluding remarks, in which he looks out the suburbanizing, postwar America he was partly responsible for leading:

We are now a nomadic people, and our new-found mobility had deprived us of a sense of belonging to a particular place. Millions of Americans have no tie to the 'natural habitat' that is their home....A land ethic for tomorrow should be as honest as Thoreau's Walden....Henry David Thoreau would scoff at the notion that the Gross National Product should be the chief index to the state of the nation, or that automobile sales of figures on consumer consumption reveal anything significant about the authentic art of living. He would surely assert that a clean landscape is as important as a freeway, he would deplore every planless conquest of the countryside, and he would remind his countrymen that a glimpse of a grouse can be more inspiring than a Hollywood spectacular or color television. To those who complain of the complexity of modern life, he might reply, 'If you want inner peace find it in solitude, not speed, and if you would find yourself, look to the land from which you came and to which you go (pp. 189-190).

This ambivalence—leavening what is otherwise a learned and vigorous defense of what Udall clearly understood as a progressive and beneficial fight by experts to tame American individualism and protect America’s natural bounty, most especially in the arid ecosystems of the American West—shouldn’t surprise anyone who sees in Udall the mature wisdom which de Graaf’s movie so ably demonstrates. Udall was a person capable of changing his mind—about the postwar passion for dam-building, most prominently—and of growing and rethinking as the years went by. That growth helped him come to see the foolishness of his support for Cold War policies which have paved the way for American militarism, and to regret his support for energy and highway development projects which have only led to greater urban centralization and pollution. His deep, almost religious commitment to principles of frugality, family, and justice (my sole complaint with de Graaf’s wonderful documentary is that its brief references to Udall’s Mormonism don’t capture the complicated reality of his membership in his and my shared tribe) may have expressed themselves in different ways over the decades, but they surely only grew stronger with time.

It would be too much to say that the work he committed himself to in the decades following his later years—among other things, a long legal struggle to get the national government to acknowledge the harms of the radiation it had exposed thousands to through nuclear testing in the American southwest through the 1950s and 1960s—was something he took on as a penance. On the contrary, it’s unlikely he ever regretted his role in using the power of the national government to accomplish ends which provided great benefits to the broader public, to say nothing of the benefits to the ecosystems which his push for conservation and protecting wilderness areas made possible. But I do think that over the years the ambivalence I sense in his writing--an ambivalence which reflected a frustration with Thoreau's rejection of collective action, but also an admiration for Thoreau's committed locality--put him on a somewhat different trajectory. He's not alone in finding himself struggling over the best balance between the local and the national, or between engaging individual ecological tending and establishing collective ecological boundaries. As I noted years ago, in connection with other contentious acts of national conservation--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, specifically--Udall's trajectory has been shared by other Interior Secretaries as well. In an essay for Front Porch Republic, Nathan Nielson once spelled out this dynamic well: reflecting upon the protective routinization which the National Park Service provides to America’s beautiful places, Nielson observed that while “local governments have a better sense of what the land means…the federal route is the only viable option when the clamor for nature reaches critical mass.” Indeed.

In a letter Udall wrote to his grandchildren in 2005, Udall had a lot of advice, some of it still quite programmatic and planning oriented, and perhaps defensibly so. But he also brought his mature, reflective perspective to bear on his own part in the ambitious planning of his generation:

Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant, I admit, led my generation to make misjudgments that have come back and now haunt and perplex your generation. We designed cities, buildings, and a national system of transportation that were inefficient and extravagant. Now, the paramount task of your generation will be to correct those mistakes with an efficient infrastructure that respects the limitations of our environment to keep up with damages we are causing.

Not a fully Thoreau-esque statement, to be sure, but one that is perhaps animated at least in part by his non-comformist, place-loving spirit nonetheless. Sharon Francis, Udall’s longtime aid who knew his work as well as anyone, was extensively interviewed by de Graaf; she called Udall “the Henry David Thoreau of his generation.” Ignoring all the circumstantial ways that comparison doesn't quite work (to say nothing of the fact that, two generations on from the high point of Udall's impact sixty years ago, perhaps environmentalism needs less Udallian confidence and more Wes-Jackson-style apocalyptism), and focusing instead on the shared, fundamental passions which make it essentially true, one can’t help but wonder: what better tribute could a true “conservative”—that is, a conserver of the land and the resources which provide human communities and indeed the whole human race with life and joy—possibly receive than that? "The Politics of Beauty" reminds us of this romantic, poetic, but also practical conservation-minded Udall, and that alone is reason to watch it again and again.