Monday, May 21, 2012

...But the mood of the conference was best summed up in the title of the keynote address, by the political philosopher Michael Walzer: “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” What was once a proud inheritance now seems like a problem in need of a solution. For many Jews, it remains axiomatic that Judaism is a religion of social justice and progress; the phrase “tikkun olam” has become a convenient shorthand for the idea that Judaism is best expressed in “repair of the world.”

In his speech, and in his new book In God’s Shadow: Politics and the Hebrew Bible, Walzer offers a contrary vision of traditional Judaism, which he argues “offers precious little support to left politics”—a truth that he recognized would surprise those who, like himself, “grew up believing that Judaism and socialism were pretty much the same thing.” If a leftist political message cannot readily be found in the traditions of Judaism, it follows that the explosion of Jewish leftism in the late 19th century was actually a rupture with Jewish history, and potentially a traumatic one.


Walzer’s reluctance to associate Judaism too simply with leftist politics, or indeed with any politics, represents a break from his earlier thinking. In his influential 1985 book Exodus and Revolution, for instance, Walzer argued that the Exodus narrative had provided a template for generations of revolutionaries and progressives in Western society, offering a model of how to escape an oppressive past and create a better future. The contrast with his new book could not be sharper. In this work, Walzer reads the Bible with an eye to its explicit and implicit teachings about politics and finds that its most eloquent message on the subject is silence. “The political activity of ordinary people is not a Biblical subject,” he writes, “nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community.” ...

...Much of In God’s Shadow deals with the ambiguous status of the prophet in the polity of ancient Israel. When contemporary liberals and leftists want to anchor their beliefs in Jewish tradition, it is to the prophets that they most often turn: the scathing denunciations of Amos and Jeremiah, the messianic vision of Isaiah. “We have a picture in our mind of the people described by Amos,” Walzer writes. “They are, so to speak, the local bourgeoisie,” and Amos speaks for the Israelite proletariat.

But if you look at the actual content of the prophets’ message, Walzer points out, its political bearing is not so clear. “Theirs was … a fiercely antipolitical radicalism,” he writes, which had little to say about the power structures of Israelite society. Indeed, one of the themes of In God’s Shadow is that the writers of the Bible were so uninterested in politics that they included remarkably little information about how the Israelites were actually governed on a day-to-day basis—almost everything we can say about the functions of kings, judges, and royal officials is speculative. When the prophets called for justice, they didn’t mean a redistribution of power but a society-wide submission to God: “God’s message overrode the wisdom of men.”

The same thing was even more dramatically true when it came to international politics. Jeremiah, for instance, was active toward the end of the Kingdom of Judah, at a time when that small nation was caught between the empires of Egypt and Babylon. Much of the last part of Kings is made up of the attempts of successive Israelite monarchs to ally themselves with one of these imperial powers against the other. But, as Walzer emphasizes, the prophets simply refuse to accept that this geopolitical problem is a problem at all. If the Israelites trust in God and obey him, all will be well; if God is determined to punish them, nothing they do will avert his justice. “All that he and his fellow prophets have to say in the global arena is ‘the God of Israel, the God of Israel,’ ” Walzer writes, “implying that diplomacy and defense are unnecessary so long as faith remains firm.”

The long-term effect of this usurpation of the public sphere by God, Walzer concludes, was the growth of Jewish messianism. “The secret source of messianic politics is a deep pessimism about the self-government of the covenantal community. … Israel was more often the subject of absolute judgment than of conditional assessment and counsel.” And while Walzer does not say so explicitly, it is easy to imagine what his denigration of messianism means for the modern Jewish radical tradition, which has so often prided itself on holding out for a messianic transformation of human society. If the Messiah is what we demand when we can’t or won’t engage in politics, then the Revolution, too, must be seen as fundamentally antipolitical, a dangerous dream that rests on the abdication of human judgment. The rejection of Revolution as a concept is perhaps the dividing line between liberals and leftists, and Jews increasingly find themselves on the liberal side of that line.

The left’s rejection of Judaism, Walzer concluded in his speech at YIVO, was both “necessary and profoundly wrong.” Necessary, because traditional Judaism did not offer a basis for a social justice movement; but also wrong, because the severance with tradition rendered the Jewish left culturally disoriented and spiritually impoverished.

While a number of speakers at the YIVO conference invoked Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew”—figures like Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected on principle any definition of themselves or their goals in Jewish terms—both Walzer and Ezra Mendelsohn warned against the idea that identity could be so abstract and universalized. Walzer called instead for a renewed critical engagement with Jewish tradition, including a return to the Jewish calendar and Jewish lifecycle events.
more--and obviously this is an interpretation, which by its nature leaves out some things and emphasizes others, but I found it pretty fascinating and I think many of my readers will want to grab Walzer's book. The Groom's Family, I'm looking at you....
MORE on the problems of meta-emotions!
It is significant for our understanding of the nature of the religion of Israel among the religions of the world that meaning for her is derived not from introspection, but from a consideration of the public testimony to God. The present generation makes history their story, but it is first history. They do not determine who they are by looking within, by plumbing the depths of the individual soul, by seeking a mystical light in the innermost reaches of the self. Rather, the direction is the opposite. What is public is made private. History is not only rendered contemporary; it is internalized. One’s people’s history becomes one’s personal history. One looks out from the self to find out who one is meant to be. One does not discover one’s identity, and one certainly does not forge it oneself. He appropriates an identity that is a matter of public knowledge. Israel affirms the given.
-Jon Levenson, which I found here

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bernard always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rarther pious but Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers so he marched up to bed. Ethel stayed as she thourght it would be a good thing. The butler came in as he was a very holy man and Bernard piously said the Our Father and a very good hymm called I will keep my anger down and a Decad of the Rosary.
-Daisy Ashford, The Young Visiters, found in the comments here!

Friday, May 18, 2012

THE NAME OF THE MIRACLE OF THE ROSE: I was kind of startled that the "Why do you identify as 'gay'?" question didn't come up in Denver. Possibly that's just because I talked way too long, so the q&a was cut short. Anyway my impression is that lots of people, both straight and not-so-much, really want to know about this question. I don't know if I understand the question too well since it isn't one which has ever exercised me--but here's where my thinking is right now, on what some people may be hearing when I say I'm gay and what I'm actually saying. (A previous post on this subject, written in a sort of galumphing-drunken-elephant style, is here.)

First, I think for some people taking on a gay identity is seen as setting up a competing community to the Church, which commands our loyalties in the way only Christ should. It's seen as surrender to something other than Christ. I'm sympathetic to this since I do think our surrender to Christ must be total and unique, and it's obvious that other communities and identity groups can compete with that surrender. The most obvious example for me is nationality: It's clear that one's self-concept as an American can compromise one's identity as a Christian.

And yet when somebody says he's Greek, the response of the non-Greek Christians around him isn't immediately to respond, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek!" and to assume compromised faith on his part. There's an understanding that national identity both must and can be taken lightly, considered as a part of one's situation rather than a warped lens through which the Gospel is distorted. (The majority of people to whom I describe myself as "gay" view that identity the same way. They don't actually perceive any contradiction--they might see an added and maybe weird difficulty, but not an internal contradiction--in saying that I'm gay and celibate.)

Second, "gay" describes a community (or really, a big, contradictory, feisty tussle of communities) and a relationship to that community, and if you don't have any notable or positive relationship to that community then that is a fact about you which presumably would lead you to identify differently. My sense is that people who have had very little experience with gay communities, or whose experiences have been largely negative, are a lot more likely to identify as "same-sex attracted" and resist identifying as gay. My own relationship to queer communities has been important to me, largely positive, and characterized by belonging, and that's what I mean when I say I'm gay.

But there really are no terms which don't in some way mark out a community. "Same-sex attracted" is identity-jargon too, delineating a specific way of understanding one's eros: a new way, a way which would be as difficult to explain to St. Aelred (for example) as "gay."

I've written before (from a somewhat different perspective than the one I have now) about my coming-out process: that click of recognition, the key turning in the lock. I thought at the time that my alienation was explained by my sexual orientation. "Oh, so that's all it was!" That turns out to be only partly true--my alienation stems really from the Fall, not from being queer, but queerness is one way I've experienced a heightened or stylized version of that universal alienation. That experience was really important to me--and, ultimately, important to my conversion to Catholicism. Explaining it without "self-identifying" as queer would feel really artificial and strained.

Similarly, look, I was a pretty self-centered kid. I don't know how much progress I've made there, but I know that gay and queer communities were among the places where I learned to try to listen to other people, admit my own faults and blind spots, and generally be more giving and less awful. I've said before that I was a better girlfriend to girls than to guys and I expect that's related to my self-identification as well: "Gay" names a place where I became a somewhat better person. I want to honor the people who put up with me.

My sense is that if you're Christian and you've had experiences like these, you're more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven't, you're more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.)

Also, notice the real but limited role played by sexual desire in this description. "Because I'm gay" I've been sexually drawn to women; but also, "because I'm gay" I've felt intense difference from those around me, felt recognition and a sort of exhilaration when I found writers and musicians and artists who described queer experience, felt a need to be of service to women, and been a part of various communities which shaped me. Collapsing all of these elements of my "gay experience" into wanting to have gay sex seems to me to be a misunderstanding of eros--and a willful erasure of every possible element of gay experience which might form part of a positive path toward Christ and conversion. It seems like a demand that the path from the gay community to Christ must be a path of rejection rather than reunderstanding.

Christianity has always confronted specific communities which were held together by elements which seemed inimical to the Gospel. One major response has been to identify the "unknown gods" in those communities, the places where their own self-understandings indicated a longing for Christ. The community could then be baptized rather than rejected or destroyed. One reason I really loved Frederick W. Roden's Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is that he talks about the ways in which the cultures and communities which eventually transformed into "gay culture" had intrinsic affinities for Catholic faith. It's obvious to me how my eros could be baptized, and I've written about that stuff a lot here.

Third, I persist in thinking that the tangle of experiences we've decided to call "being gay" is interesting. I've said, cattily, that I oppose gay marriage because I think homosexuality is interesting rather than banal. A lot of the "don't identify as gay" stuff seems to me to be an attempt to gloss over real differences in experience, to pretend that homosexuality makes no important difference in one's life path as a Christian in contemporary society. That seems to me to be an effort to understand gay difference and gay experience as banal. ("I'm not married, so I have to be chaste too! Our situations are just the same. So why are you acting like you're different and special?" No. Our situations may have important lessons for one another. Your situation may be harder than mine in various ways, e.g. I don't sit up nights wondering why I haven't found a nice girl to marry me. But solidarity requires acknowledgment of difference, not suppression of it.)

And finally, "gay" is a blunt term, a quick tabloid kind of term, garish and in-your-face. I like that in a girl!
"DAN SAVAGE WAS RIGHT": My friend Joshua Gonnerman in First Things.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THE DEATH-HAUNTED ART OF FRIENDSHIP, PART II: At Catholic Lane. This time, sacrificial friendship in the Bible and in our everyday lives:
How often in Scripture we find violence mingled with love, like water mingled with wine: in the Song of Songs, the watchmen beating the lover as she searches the city for her beloved; in Genesis, Abram’s knife poised over Isaac’s breast. Yet it is friendship that features most prominently in this strange dynamic of love and violence. It is most explicitly and insistently linked to death and sacrifice.
A FANTASY OF SALVAGE: My review of Tim Powers's new novel, at Crisis:
Zombie voodoo pirates. Time-traveling Mossad agents. Djinn in the Cold War. The dark fantasy novels of Catholic author Tim Powers can seem like pure high-concept, and his newest book—a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a.k.a. What If the Romantic Poets Were Sort of Vampires?–has the same instant audience appeal. Christina Rossetti fights vampires! A hard-luck ex-prostitute who’s too stoic for her own good might finally find happiness with an animal-loving loner! Tough women, sensitive men, London by gaslight, sinister rituals, and even Boadicea back from the dead: Hide Me Among the Graves seems custom-designed for a cold, rainy weekend curled up under a comforter with the cats.

And yet this thrilling, compassionate book is much more than its concept. Powers excels at a fantasy of salvage: a human-scale, kitchen-sink drama in which characters take what seem like small steps into darkness, only to find themselves in far over their heads. The way out requires terrible physical and emotional sacrifice. The great, heroic actions in these novels are often acts of renunciation, earning no glory.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

GUYS AND LADIES: My post about Damsels in Distress, at AmCon.
THIS IS THE DENVER POST STORY ON MY TALK. Very nice! And I love that their blog is called "Hark!"
IN SCHEMES BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES: I have a post about the Great Brain books, over at Acculturated!
A SUMMARY OF MY TALK IN DENVER is up at the Spiritual Friendship blog.
About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
"Do no harm to yourself; we are all here."
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
"Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

--Acts; from today's readings. This jailer is one of those startling marginal figures who duck into the New Testament, react in unexpected ways, and then duck back out of sight.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The key to the shop’s comprehensive business plan: offer as many services as possible to any conceivable customer. In the florescent-lit rooms behind espresso machines, walk-in clients can see a notary or submit a urine sample. If that’s not enough, go upstairs to have family portraits taken in the on-site photography studio.

Jimmy Jackson made use of the document-services center last week, printing job applications as he waited to testify in court. He said his brother, whose custody case was pending, had his taxes done during the trial.

“And the coffee ain’t half bad,” Jackson added.

On a normal day, jurors and lawyers mix with criminal defendants, city bureaucrats cross paths with recovering addicts from the nearby methadone clinic — and everyone comes to see Mona Pryor, whose job title as City Coffee’s operations director scarcely hints at her many roles.

“Lawyers are always coming in here to ask me to put in a good word with judge so-and-so, or asking me to introduce them to someone from the other side,” said Pryor. She is the one-woman force behind most of City Coffee’s services, with an associate’s degree in accounting and a variety of specialty certificates.
more (via Ratty)
I’ve recently released a website providing convenient access to the digitized archives of a wide range of periodicals from the last two centuries, most of which have never before been available outside the dusty shelves of research libraries.

Although many of these are generally conservative or rightwing, such as The American Mercury or Social Justice, many others are liberal or leftist, including IF Stone’s Weekly, The New Masses, Encounter, and The Reporter, while the majority are mainstream and relatively non-ideological. ...

Therefore, as a means of publicizing the website, I have announced a Historical Research Competition with a $10,000 First Prize, for the most interesting and important research discovery based on these archives.
"AGAINST THE AMERICAN JESUS": My review of Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Also, I will be blogging at TAC's group blog, State of the Union, mostly talking about arts-and-culture. Look for more on Damsels in Distress later today/tonight.

And come see me tonight in Denver!