Wednesday, October 30, 2002

YES SIR, YES SIR, SIX BAGS FULL... of mail. Which I will try to answer this weekend. Saturday, expect mail and (in some cases) replies about: Derrida; rock'n'roll conservatism; metaphysics and/or ethics; and other stuff that I'm forgetting.
POETRY WEDNESDAY: In honor of Halloween (see below), a poem from an excellent, short, spooky old collection of stories and poems for kids--called, I think, The Haunted House and other tales. There were some pretty terrifying scraps in there--like "The Erl-King"--but also this, from Theodore Roethke:

The Bat

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night.
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
Weare afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

and this, from W.S. Gilbert:

'Twas on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig."

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn't help thinking the man had been drinking,
And so I simply said:

"O, elderly man, it's little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
But I'll eat my hand if I understand
How you can possibly be

"At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig."

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,
He spun this painful yarn:

"'Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
That we sailed to the Indian sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.

"And pretty nigh all o' the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o' soul),
And only ten of the Nancy's men
Said 'Here!' to the muster-roll.

"There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig
And the bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig.

"For a month we'd neither wittles nor drink,
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and accordin' shot
The captain for our meal.

"The next lot fell to the Nancy's mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed.

"And then we murdered the bo'sun tight,
And he much resembled pig,
Then we wittled free, did the cook and me,
On the crew of the captain's gig.

"Then only the cook and me was left,
And the delicate question, 'Which
Of us two goes to the kettle?' arose
And we argued it out as sich.

"For I loved that cook as a brother, I did,
And the cook he worshipped me;
But we'd both be blowed if we'd either be stowed
In the other chap's hold, you see.

"'I'll be eat if you dines off me,' says Tom,
'Yes, that,' says I, 'you'll be,' --
'I'm boiled if I die, my friend,' quoth I,
And 'Exactly so,' quoth he.

"Says he, 'Dear James, to murder me
Were a foolish thing to do,
For don't you see that you can't cook me,
While I can -- and will -- cook you!'

"So he boils the water, and takes the salt
And the pepper in portions true
(Which he never forgot) and some chopped shalot,
And some sage and parsley too.

"'Come here,' says he, with a proper pride,
Which his smiling features tell,
' 'Twill soothing be if I let you see,
How extremely nice you'll smell.'

"And he stirred it round and round and round,
And he sniffed at the foaming froth;
When I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals
In the scum of the boiling broth.

"And I eat that cook in a week or less,
And -- as I eating be
The last of his chops, why, I almost drops,
For a wessel in sight I see!

"And I never grin, and I never smile,
And I never larf nor play,
But I sit and croak, and a single joke
I have -- which is to say:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig!"
HALLOWING HALLOWEEN: Why Christians should embrace the "devilish" holiday. Via Oblique House.

And here are some costume suggestions from Zorak.
NOWARBLOG: Anti-Iraq-war site that spans the political spectrum. Looks like this will be one of the must-read sites for the foreseeable future. Contributors include Ampersand, Radley Balko, Gene Healy, Jim Henley, Julian Sanchez, and Tom Tomorrow. If they do requests, I strongly suggest they get Jeanne D'Arc on board--maybe that will spur her to come out of hibernation--but she also might want to change her handle if she's going to spend a lot of time bagging on war.

EDITED TO ADD: And if you really want to add spice, what about Telford Work? Salam Pax?? (even though Raed seems to have given up on getting him to keep the warblogging off his site)
"I hate your living guts! You're ugly! You think you're going to make a slave of the world! Go on. Try your intellect on me!"
--Beverly Garland to the giant cucumber that is trying to take over the Earth, "It Conquered the World"

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

SMACKDOWN: JACQUES DERRIDA VS. MILDRED D. TAYLOR: Final thought on Derrida for the moment (although I did get some interesting mail about him). Derrida's insistence on always privileging the fissures and gaps in community, privileging scattering rather than gathering, actually seems to distance him from the oppressed people he tries to fight for. If you privilege the things that make "community" a problematic concept, if you focus on the ways in which the black community (say) is not really a community at all, you're doing a lot of good things (focusing on people as individuals rather than on "group rights," blah blah blah) but you're also dissipating political energy. You're also making it harder for the "black community" to act as more-or-less-a-unit. You're making it harder for people to identify themselves as inheritors of a once-denigrated history, and therefore you're making it harder for them to reclaim and honor that history.

Like I said, there are all kinds of reasons to downplay the importance of community. In the US now, for example, I think it's fairly obvious that "the black community" is a seriously contested term. Are African immigrants part of the "black community"? Usually not--they're competitors for jobs. Marlon Riggs's movie "Black Is, Black Ain't" explored a lot of the areas of tension, discontinuities in the circle of "community," mostly relating to how homosexuality is viewed in native-born black communities. So it's not as if Derrida is making up the idea that no community will ever be homogenous, all communities will also alienate at least some people who you might expect to be community members, all communities will have people who are half-in, half-out of the community, and it's important to keep all that stuff in mind and to allow for that individuality rather than trying to force homogeneity. This is all true enough.

But about a week ago I was struck by the title of one of Mildred D. Taylor's books. Taylor wrote children's/young adult books about embattled Southern black communities before the civil rights era; her most famous book is probably Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. And one of the sequels to that book has a title whose metaphor goes totally against everything Derrida says he wants to do: Let the Circle Be Unbroken.

In my earlier Derrida post, I pointed out some basic problems in his privileging of scattering over gathering. So I'd just like to amplify those points by saying that his stance goes against some of the basic ways that people in oppressed, marginalized, or alienated groups organize their lives and marshal their strength and resistance; he misses the needs and hopes that Taylor's title evokes.
JULIAN RIFFS ON METHOD (AND ME). I think we've come to the end of this trail, but I do have (a bit) more to say about his "mentalities" theory of personhood/moral worth, which I will deal with... later. Maybe Friday.
GREAT-POWER STRATEGIZING--toward peaceful regime change in North Korea. Not sure what to say about this yet; more later.
THE ROOTS OF TODAY'S BUDDHISM--the Protestantizing of Buddhism. Really interesting stuff. Via Touchstone's blog.
"It should interest you to know that I have visited hundreds of other worlds and your Earth seems most suitable."

--Bug-eyed alien and Earthman, "The Atomic Submarine"

Monday, October 28, 2002

IRAQ BLOGWATCH: There's even more worthwhile reading than usual at Where Is Raed, the blog comin' at you live from Baghdad. Salam Pax, the Raedblogger, also pointed me to Shi'aPundit, a super-intriguing Islamic blog. Go!
BUILDING A BETTER BIRTHDAY CAKE: A rambling reply to Julian about epistemology and ethics and stuff. I apologize in advance for the length and rambliness--there are a lot of issues here, and I hope to hit all the major ones and some interesting sidelights.

1) What am I arguing for? My basic claim here is: There will be times, in the course of doing philosophy (pursuing truth through reason), when you arrive at an ethical conclusion that appears repugnant to you. The two examples I gave were infanticide and Stalinist purges. If your underlying metaphysical principles and reasoning appear to drive you to accept baby-killing or mass murder, that is a pretty good sign that either the underlying principles or the intermediate reasoning are wrong. So instead of accepting the evil ethical conclusion, you investigate: Did I screw up on the way from metaphysics to ethics? That's the "easy" part. The next question is harder: Are my metaphysical principles a) wrong or b) insufficient? (= true enough, but lacking some important components.) One good way of investigating that question is to look again at the moment of ethical shock (the moment when you realize your philosophy is driving you to accept infanticide, purges, etc.). What happens if you hold to the ethical principle rather than the metaphysics? What happens if you say, "No, purges are just wrong"?

If you're being rigorous, you won't just stop there. You won't stick with all the underlying pro-purge metaphysics and a conflicting anti-purge ethics. Ethical claims do come embedded in a metaphysical framework; accepting an ethical conclusion requires acceptance of its implied metaphysical foundations. So once you experience ethical shock, you need to figure out whether your anti-purge ethics can be justified by a metaphysical framework that you find acceptable. You can use the moment of ethical shock as a spur to investigate philosophies you'd previously dismissed. The "if/then" choices we often find in philosophy (e.g. "Without God, all is permissible"--that doesn't actually tell you if all is permissible!) are only the most obvious places where we are faced with a choice between two ethics+metaphysics conglomerates. (Is that the word I want? Basically you're faced with "There is no God and all is permissible"--a metaphysical claim plus an ethical claim--vs. "There is a God and some things are impermissible.")

One place where the usefulness of ethical shock is most obvious is in dealing with a philosophy that's internally consistent but false. Something from outside has to enter if the person holding the consistent+false philosophy is ever to change his mind, since he won't run across a troubling internal contradiction. Assuming that Julian believes that consistent+false philosophies do exist, I wonder if he would find ethical shock a valid way to leave such a philosophy. (Or a valid way to confront someone who holds such a philosophy.)

I fear we're skidding off into Abstract-Noun-Land, so here, have an example: Ayn Rand works hard, adding all kinds of funky "epicycles" to her philosophy, in order to justify giving your life for a cause or person you value. I think her attempts to justify these acts totally fail. Pretend that I'm an Objectivist who does not see internal contradictions in Rand's metaphysics. I really want to keep being an Objectivist (for what should be obvious reasons--keeping my fun Objectivist friends, fear of looking like a flighty idiot, inertia, embarrassment, let's say I've made a name for myself as an Objectivist speaker) but I am also utterly sure that Harriet Tubman and Harry Wu were right to risk their lives to aid others. Once I realize that underlying Objectivist principles conflict with that particular ethical judgment, that Objectivist attempts to praise Tubman and Wu are incoherent, I have to ditch one or the other. My only claim throughout this discussion has been that it is not self-evidently better (more courageous, more rational, etc.) for me to choose the underlying Objectivist principles as vs. the ethical claim that Tubman and Wu were right.

2) Is reason more trustworthy than intuition? Julian argues that even if I say I don't want blank acceptance of ethical intuitions, that's actually what will happen, because out there in real reality the emotional pull of ethical intuitions is stronger than that of metaphysical convictions. There are a couple of things to say about this:

a) I'm not opposing instinct and reason and choosing instinct. As I tried to make clear above, the "moment of ethical shock" is a beginning, not an end-stage. Moral intuitions are not get-out-of-philosophy-free cards. If you say, "I am more sure that Tubman was right than I am of Rand's metaphysics," you have a lot of work to do--you have to figure out whether there are metaphysical frameworks that explain the world accurately while justifying Tubman's heroism. So I think I can sign on to something Julian says later on: "The intuition needs to be cashed out: we need to get behind it and see what feature of the case is causing us to have that reaction. ...The point of those intuitions is to serve as guideposts in the revision of theory." But then he adds, "That is, we should make revisions on the prompting of an intuition only when we can find an internal motivation in the theory for making that change." And this I disagree with, because I do think some internally consistent philosophies are false, and also because the particular ethical shock I've experienced with some philosophy may not actually be related to any of its inconsistencies! (Dialectical materialism may be incoherent, but its incoherencies [if that's a word???] may not have anything to do with the wrongness of Stalinist purges.) Nonetheless, I think Julian and I are more in agreement than he thinks--ethical shock is a question not an answer.

b) It's hard for me to buy the "people always choose ethical claims over metaphysical claims" argument since, as I said in my previous post on this subject, I've made the opposite decision. I realized I was more sure of the truth of Catholicism than I was of the falsehood of several of the Church's ethical claims. That experience sucked, really, in terms of how it felt; but fortunately I had i) lots of reasons to be Catholic and ii) friends who offered models of philosophical rigor, models of how to accept a philosophical truth even when it's personally difficult. So I tend to think that when people do have models of philosophical rigor, and training in ditto, they will be willing to ditch ethical claims when they think they have to. Obviously this kind of rigor requires careful introspection, as well; but again, I think my own experience at least suggests that the emotional pull of ethical claims can be overcome.

c) Attempting to be rational can also lead to major, major screw-ups. I know this is fairly obvious, but it might help to explain where I'm coming from here if I point out that I've known people who seriously derailed friendships and other relationships because they were trying very hard to choose rational metaphysics over irrational ethical principles like, oh, say, charity and humility. Again, I don't see that as an argument against putting metaphysics first in any particular case (see point b!). I say it only as a caution to those who are quick to see the drawbacks of privileging ethical intuitions but slow to see the drawbacks of privileging often overly-abstract philosophical speculation. In pointing out the weaknesses of the "birthday cake" model I'm actually trying not to privilege either ethics or metaphysics in any particular case.

d) The Objectivist-Tubman-lover example should also underline one of the other problems with assuming that if a metaphysics vs. ethics fight is truly even, ethics will always win: Ethics don't always carry the greater emotional weight. If you're heavily personally invested in a philosophical system (like Objectivism; or Catholicism; or atheism; or Communism; or relativism; or whatever), you have major emotional incentives to stay put! You may actually have to work pretty hard to discern conflicting ethical intuitions and judge how certain you are of them. In this respect, someone trying hard to stick with metaphysics even when his ethical sense rebels against the consequences often becomes like Julian's "astronomer with two data tables, one for recording 'empirical observations,' which fit with his theory, and another for recording 'telescope malfunctions' – anything that doesn’t." In this case the "telescope malfunctions" are ethical shocks.

I wish there were some easy way of saying: Here's how you do philosophy. First, you derive your metaphysics... etc. But neither the philosophical claims themselves (since so many involve "if/then" choices) nor the process of reason and introspection by which we come to know them work that simply.

Finally, Julian "tells a story" of how condemnation of infanticide, specifically, may be a mere result of biology with no particular ethical significance. Sure, that might be true--although there are good reasons, as well, to think that evolution might predispose us not to care for deformed or burdensome infants. Cf. Steven Pinker's wildly controversial "Why Do They Kill Their Newborns?" article. And it's not as if there have never been cultures with widespread infanticide--especially of infants deemed unhealthy, or infants whose legal fathers suspected they were not the children's biological fathers. This line of thought only becomes really interesting if we can see that ethical intuitions are more likely than metaphysical claims to be products of outdated evolutionary adaptations. I'm not sure how Julian would go about demonstrating (or suggesting) that; if he wants to, that might be intriguing, although really it all becomes pretty tangled since (for the materialists) culture is one way evolution expresses itself in humans. So a culture based on abstract reasoning, or on various metaphysical precepts, may itself be simply a product of evolutionary change. (If the change from a God-centered worldview to a human-centered worldview is an evolutionary response to changed conditions, I doubt that would lead Julian to say the change was wrong or unfounded, no? So too with a change from valuing healthy, wanted infants whose parentage is sure to valuing all infants, which may be, for all I know, similarly an evolutionary response to changed conditions.) Anyway, this whole paragraph is probably MUCH more speculative than it should be, and not necessary to the argument above.
AND TO YOUR LEFT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN (AND OTHERS)...: I've added some links to the blogroll (and removed Ginger Stampley, argh, gnash teeth, rend garments). They are all Catholics of various dispositions. Mark Shea is a tireless warrior for the right and true. Nordog is an occasional elbow in the ribs. Tenebrae offers lots of poetry, bizarre locutions, and Darkness. And Oblique House is the diary of a mad homeschooler. All are well worth your time.
"Beware! Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep! He eats little boys! Puppy dog tails! Big fat snails! Beware! Take care! Beware!"
--Bela Lugosi, "Glen or Glenda?"

Sunday, October 27, 2002

We're only making plans for da da dirty dirty blogwatch
We don't like him so much cause he's very ug ug ugly
We're only making plans for da da dark brown blogwatch
He has a right to live though he's ill ill ill-shaped
He's on his way to extinction
We only want what's best for him
Bear up blogwatch never say die!

The Agitator: Long post exploring his decision to oppose war on Iraq. I think he ignores some stuff (e.g. he doesn't explain why "we can't invade them all so we shouldn't invade the one we can get away with" is a good argument) but the post is nonetheless well worth your time. I remain on the fence, because a) I'm lame and b) I want to read the much-discussed Threatening Storm before I say anything more.

Regions of Mind: Back to school in Afghanistan.

Amy Welborn: Quick but fascinating post on abortion in short fiction. Sandra Miesel chips in via comments box. Here's an earlier take on it from me.
MORE FUN WITH GOOGLE: The latest disturbing search requests that brought visitors to my site. In order ending with my favorites--though truly, it was hard to choose.

guatemalan laws on marriage between cousins
angry women are building paula gunn allen
free animation about IVF in farm animals
someone pierce navel in kuwait and where can I pierce my navel in Kuwait?
interracial wicca lust
christian thought thinking fun
porn movie cops search for aliens cloning human
centurions of Rome free porno
psychology and thigh boots
discussion against cloning monster
passion vs. reason
porn star Dred Scott
everyone hates the irish catholics
bill o'reilly corleone
schlock 'n' roll scalia
how to marry a moderately intellectual jewish man
BERNARD SHAW ON PAPAL INFALLIBILITY: Found a quote in this month's First Things that offers a useful, clarifying, and humbling perspective on papal infallibility: "I had better inform my readers that the famous dogma of papal infallibility is by far the most modest profession of its kind in existence. Compared to our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, our infallible parliaments, the Pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before God."
"The Terror of the Monster Rabbits--Out to Destroy Everything in their Path.... They Multiply, They Weigh 150 Pounds, They're Four Feet Tall--And They Kill.... Even Dynamite Can't Stop the Hopping of These Giants."
--Advertisement for "Night of the Lepus"

Saturday, October 26, 2002

JANE JACOBS ON CRIME IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: So the crime referred to in yesterday's post took place in the middle of the afternoon, in broad daylight. This is the criminals' MO; they've done the same crime several times, to different victims throughout the area. How did the criminals get away with it? It was easy. The area they hit is entirely residential. No stores. No gathering places. No watchful eyes. The place empties out during the day. This is exactly the kind of danger of single-use areas that Jane Jacobs described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities; it's the same reason that office areas become dangerous at night, when the office workers pour into the subways and leave the streets deserted and vulnerable. It was very odd to sit there dealing with the (very helpful, generous, and professional) policewoman and suddenly realize that I was a public-policy case study.
CAMP: I'm confused when people try to describe something as "camp" because it treats some usually-serious thing (religion, or sex, or love, or patriotism, or whatever) as just ridiculous. That style of mockery generally has a heavy dose of contempt for people who don't find the ridiculous thing ridiculous. It also usually presents breaking away from conventional values as much easier than it really is. Camp, to me, is darker, more nuanced, more double-tongued. To be camp, rather than just plain old ordinary mockery, doesn't there have to be an edge, an acknowledgment of the force of conventional judgments (in the world, and also in the performers' own hearts and minds)? Would "Sunset Boulevard" (say) still be attractive raw material for camp if there were no real tragedy in the story, or no real grandeur in Norma Desmond?
"A TEEN STAR FOR A NEW, BLEAKER AGE": Have been looking over the zine I used to do with my best friend from high school. It went through 26 issues (# -1 through # 24) and I said a lot of stupid stuff, oh well. But it was a good exercise in humility, like reading old diaries. Angsty, Magritte-influenced (yet still cliched) fiction; obsessive gay-pride stuff; and willful obscurity. It was fun though. Certainly a precursor to this blog. Lists of "vanished joys of childhood" (your sister making you a latchhook rug for Christmas; making kazoo noises without a kazoo; the intoxicating smell of blue ditto ink); reviews that reminded me to dig out my Severed Heads tapes, get Diamanda Galas's "The Singer," and re-read Genet to see if I still think he's terrific; "evolutionary ideas that failed" (trilobites of the tundra, rampaging squid of the deciduous forest--no, I don't know why we printed this list any more than you do); a paean to PBS because it used taxpayers' cash to run unpopular programming; bizarre rants that occasionally skidded into actual insight or oblique expression; and a music review that ended, "(This is the end of the review, in case you didn't guess)". It was strange to watch the trajectory of my high school years--junior year was totally fun, a big punk rock party, probably the happiest year of my pre-20s life, but then in senior year a lot of things fell apart (breakups, illnesses, hideous actions by ex-friends--objectively hideous, not just hideous from the perspective of melodramatic teens) and the tone of the zine got much darker and angrier. Odd to revisit the time when I could quote the first paragraph of Neuromancer from memory, shouted "Keep hell beautiful! I want it nice when I'm there!" at anti-gay protesters, and used pretentious Brit-spellings like "recognised" and "stylised." Grunt. Sigh.
BLAH!: So Thursday evening, I was returning to the office to work and blog, and I had this cute little post worked up in which I explained that I'd gone home during the day to take a nap, which had turned into a MUCH longer nap than I'd anticipated, so I hadn't posted anything all day. I was planning to tell you all, in this cute little post, about my dream, in which I'd been at sea, on a kind of barge or cruise ship. There had been french toast there, mmmm. And I had realized (in the dream) that the barge was especially attractive to relativists, because the unstable motion of the boat upon the waves mirrored their own foundationless worldviews.

Yes, that is what I dream about.

So there I was, settling in before the computer for a few hours of work and bloggery, when the cops called. I spent the rest of the evening, and a substantial chunk of Friday, dealing with the criminal activity mentioned in yesterday's post. So no blogging until now--I've managed to get very behind in work, and am slowly, slowly catching up. Lots of fun stuff to say, which will be spread out over the next few days. Today: short posts. Monday: ethics, epistemology, and abstinence. (Oh my.)

I still want french toast, too. Grrr.
"I think you're wondering how you might get us to reveal our knowledge of interplanetary travel. And how you might force that information from us. Others of you are estimating the heights to which you might rise if you could personally arrange for our cooperation in space travel techniques. Well, forget it."
--Helmut Dantine (as a Venusian), "Stranger from Venus"

Friday, October 25, 2002

BACK IN A FEW: Hey there. No time to post. Spent much of last night & today dealing with extremely irritating criminal activity in my vicinity (don't worry, everyone's OK), so now I'm way behind on work and basically don't have any time for you all. However, I have at least ten things to post about! So I will be blogging late tonight, this weekend, and so forth. Weekend topics: epistemology & ethics; my punk past; sex ed; camp (the thing with feathers, not summer camp); Jane Jacobs explains my local crime; Derrida; and Jesus in Hell. Should be fun.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Mister Trouble never hangs around
When he hears this Mighty sound.

"Here I come to watch the blogs"...

Unqualified Offerings is still your clearinghouse for sniper news. This post also argues, rightly IMO, that we should be a pack, not a herd.

For those following the Ossuary Discovery, this post from Telford Work and the comments at Amy Welborn's site provide lots of food for thought.

I'm, uh, really really glad that I seem to have mostly missed a large dust-up over left-wing anti-gay slurs. Light of Reason has several posts on the subject; my own take is probably best represented by Agenda Bender's posts. And the line, "Don't try to dazzle me with your superior minefield waltzing skills when you've never danced anywhere near it," is worth keeping in mind, all the time. I can't count the number of times I've wanted to say it. (AB is wrong about Tony Kushner though--his understanding of a) politics and b) the psychology of people who disagree with him are utterly detached from reality, but boy can he write plays.)

Black People Love Us! (via The Agitator, I think. Not to be missed.)

The Ultimate Drinking Game Homepage. (Via the Rat.)

And two free-market think tanks--one in Kenya, one in Nigeria. I can't remember where the heck I got these links, so many apologies to the blogger who first truffled them up.
REVELATIONS. Last night I finished my travel reading: Scott Hahn's Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth (borrowed from the Oligarch). It's a terrific book--"reads" the Mass through the Book of Revelations, and vice versa. Read it! It'll illuminate one of the Bible's wildest books, and, simultaneously, it'll illuminate the Mass we attend (at least) every week. Ignore the cutesy pun-titles ("Oath Meal"--sigh); the book is solid.

In New York, I went to the "Time to Hope" show of Spanish Catholic art, on display at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church. I hope to review the show itself for publication, so for now you just get a capsule review: Go. It's a treasure trove. The show is roughly organized into themes, so you'll have, for example, a room dedicated to depictions of the "Ecce Homo" (one of these was the most powerful work in the entire show, for me--a statue of Christ, scourged and dressed in the mocking "kingly" robe--but if you looked closely, the artist had carved the Agnus Dei on the cloak--really intense); or a room dedicated to depictions of the Immaculate Conception (Mary as Revelations' Woman Clothed with the Sun) and the Crucifixion. Pretty much all the art had the tactile, sorrowing, rawly physical quality everyone associates with Spanish Catholicism. The dates ranged from the 12th century (a small but striking statue of King David with musical instruments) through the Renaissance. The show was part of a series called "The Ages of Man," and so there was an intellectually stimulating contrast between secular and Christian humanism--how do we know what man is, what we are? Is it art that we're trying to live up to (which seemed to be the show catalog's position), or Christ (which was the position of the art itself)?

The church in which the show was housed is a grab-bag, a big vaguely Christian attic. Representations of the Platonic forms, nooks honoring Gaia (whuh?), a plaque commemorating the Declaration of Independence (ohhhkay), and, tucked away where I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been seeking the restrooms, a terrific statue of the Return of the Prodigal Son. The contrast between the church (whose brochure proudly noted that its stained-glass windows did not depict "just" religious scenes, but also an early television [could I make that up?], Michelangelo carving the David, and other random stuff I forget) and the intensely Christ-focused, Heaven-directed art could not have been greater.
POETRY WEDNESDAY: From Lewis Carroll, "The Mad Gardener's Song":

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
'The bitterness of Life!'

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said,
'I'll send for the Police!'

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
'There won't be much for us!'

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
'Were I to swallow this,' he said,
'I should be very ill!'

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing!
It's waiting to be fed!'

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage Stamp.
'You'd best be getting home,' he said:
'The nights are very damp!'

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
'And all its mystery,' he said,
'Is clear as day to me!'

He thought he saw a Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'
TIME, LIKE AN EVER-ROLLING STREAM. Awesome pictorial display of individual continuity over time. Via Diana Hsieh.
Step two: Wait (at least a year).
Step three: Read old diary entries.

Repeat as necessary.
"African vampires don't go for Chinese women."
--"Armour of God II: Operation Candor"

Thursday, October 17, 2002

OFF WE GO, INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER: I'm off to sunny New Haven. Blogging will be nonexistent until Tuesday or Wednesday. I hope to come roaring back next week with reflections on America, art show reviews, and much other flotsam. See you then!
NEW CATHOLIC SITE, much poetry, another Smiths fan, etc.
I WAS JUST REMINDED of one excellent reason to like the name "luminous mysteries."
"We're vampires, all right, but only in a synthetic sense."
--Hippie vampiress, "The Wild Wild World of Batwoman (She Was a Happy Vampire)," a.k.a. "She Was a Hippy Vampire"

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

I FIGURED OUT why I'm not a fan of Richard Avedon's photos: He manages to make people look well-combed even when they're covered with BEES.

Better pix: Weegee
Lee Miller
SOMEONE ASKED ME what I think of the new rosary mysteries. Haven't read the Pope's letter yet, so no comment on that, but... what's not to like, really? I've prayed the rosary a couple different ways; I love the way that each time you meditate on a mystery, a new aspect of God's work in the world is revealed. You see how the Visitation, or the Assumption, etc., relates to the particular situation you're in or the situation you're praying about. You gain new insight on your life and God's will. It's just awesome and I don't do it even remotely resembling often enough. Anyway, I generally view the form of the rosary as pretty flexible--there are all kinds of funky ways to pray it, as Disputations (go there!) has been discussing all month. So more mysteries is A-OK by me. I like the focus on the public ministry of Jesus. I like the re-emphasis on the fact that the Marian mysteries are themselves Christ-centered. I agree with people who think "luminous mysteries" is an odd name, and switching from three to four sets of mysteries will throw off some rhythms of prayer. If the new mysteries don't work with your own prayer life... don't use 'em! We'll see whether the new mysteries "catch on" or whether they remain one of the many alternatives to the "standard rosary," all of which have their devoted followers.

Basically, I think this is cool and I'm excited to start praying and meditating on these mysteries.

Remember, the Dominican rosary + the Fatima prayer is just another lifestyle choice!
PS: Probably the best way of summarizing the vast post (drink!) below --the best way of capturing the fact that I'm not advocating ethical stasis--is just to repeat what I said on Monday: "Until I am convinced that I have to, I won't sanction infanticide." So far, not convinced. Still working on understanding the issues involved, and, like I said, will post in greater depth when I return from sunny New Haven.
BITE-SIZE BLOGWATCH: Amptoons: Afghanistan: Still no place for a lady.

Unqualified Offerings: Important shooting updates and thoughts, esp. this.
THE BIRTHDAY CAKE OF EXISTENCE: Tangentially related to the cloning stuff posted below. (To which Will Wilkinson has responded. My reply to him will have to wait: I'm going out of town tomorrow, and won't be back until maybe Tuesday or Wednesday, and I almost certainly won't have time for heavy lifting on the blog before then. But I will reply when I return.)

Back when I would spend Monday nights hanging out at OSGAY (the Objectivist Study Group at Yale), debating the nature of productivity and the whichness of the why and that sort of thing, every meeting would include at least one bizarre diagram on the chalkboard. (The most elaborate one involved the two-headed, drooling dragon of government menacing Liberal Happy Land; my favorite was a box divided into thirds, which I believe was simply labeled, "Life.") One of the diagrams that came up constantly was the Birthday Cake of Existence. I don't know why it was the Birthday Cake, since it was actually shaped more like a wedding cake, with a series of layers resting one atop the other; I guess weddings are even less Objectivist than birthdays. The "classic cake" goes in this order, from bottom to top: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics. This will be familiar to anyone who recalls Ayn Rand's famous definition of Objectivism while standing on one foot--"Metaphysics: Objective reality. Epistemology: Reason. Ethics: Self-interest. Politics: Capitalism." Each layer of the cake rests on the one below it. Later we debated the ramifications of placing "aesthetics" on the cake--was it the candles on top (i.e. a kind of optional extra) or was it the frosting (i.e. an entire approach to life that colored all the layers and distinguished them from seemingly similar layers in non-Objectivist cakes)? And we argued over whether it was legitimate to include a cake plate, labeled, "Do I care?", or whether there was simply no point in talking to or about those who decided they didn't care. Then we all went out drinking together.

Anyway, my point (and I do have one) is that we like our intellectual lives to proceed according to the order and the categories of the Birthday Cake of Existence. We can argue about the lowest two layers of the cake--should Epistemology come first, because you have to get that squared away before you can agree on a method for discerning the truth? Or should Metaphysics come first, because it's ontologically prior--you need Stuff before you can Think about that stuff? But intellectual types, people who argue about that sort of thing, generally don't like the implications of deriving their metaphysics from their ethics (say).

I'm not so sure. I understand the desire to keep reason pristine, sealed away from the emotional weight that ethical commitments carry; I understand the caution about one's culture or one's personal inclinations that would lead one to say, "Even if it appears repugnant to me, I've got to do it because all my premises require it." I'm definitely not saying that ethical judgments should remain static--that if accepting a certain metaphysical idea would require you to jettison an ethical stance, that in itself is an argument against the metaphysical idea. After all, I've personally changed a lot of my ethical stances, often because I was convinced, not of other ethical positions, but of underlying metaphysical claims that necessarily entailed certain ethical stances. (Becoming Christian is the big obvious underlying metaphysical change that requires lots of ethical changes, but there are others in my life. For example, my view of the nature of truth changed, which affected my view of the value and methods of philosophy, although now that I think back on it those changes came more or less at the same time--I was simultaneously convinced of a non-relativist understanding of truth and convinced out of my previous anti-philosophy stance. Anyway, I'm sure there are other examples in my life.)

But the picture of how we build our understanding of the world--and how we should build it--is more complicated than the "Birthday Cake of Existence" model suggests. First, of course, we're often convinced of ethical and metaphysical stances simultaneously (in a process over time), as I described above. Second, there's the question of "which thing you believe more." When I was trying to figure out if I should enter the Catholic Church, I had a mountain of reasons pressing me toward the baptismal font. But I also really didn't understand and didn't like the Church's teaching on some issues, most prominently contraception and homosexuality. (I think I understand the teaching on contraception a lot better now; homosexuality I'm still trying to figure out.) I had to decide which thing I believed more: that the Church's claims about itself were true, that it was an institution ordained and inspired by God and that it had the authority to teach on these ethical questions; or that condoms and same-sex canoodling were OK. I think I even surprised myself a little when I realized that I was more convinced of the former.

Many principles come to us with "if/then" clauses built in; and we have to delve into our own experiences, with not only rational questioning but also introspection, in order to figure out where to go once we accept that particular way of framing a dilemma. For example, suppose I become convinced that "Without God, all is permissible." This may lead me to a Nietzschean "overturning of the tables of values"; or it may lead me to seek God, and try to discover whether He might be found. Which journey I embark on will depend on what I believe more strongly: that there is no God, or that some things are genuinely impermissible. These "if/then" principles can't be easily reconciled with the simple bottom-up method depicted in the Birthday Cake diagram.

I'm sorry if this all sounds fairly simplistic and intro-level. I'm trying to cash out reasons, from within philosophy, why we might want to be wary of a certain sentiment that can strike intellectuals. This sentiment is an overly simplistic or cliched understanding of intellectual courage; depending on the personality of the intellectual, it can become self-congratulatory in the extreme. This sentiment says, basically, "I'm courageous enough to accept any conclusion my reason pushes me toward--even if it means accepting Stalinist purges, rape, or any other repugnant acts."

The problem here should be obvious: If you think your reason has forced you to accept Stalinism (for one example that actually happened to people trying to be rational), then maybe you should take some time to examine your premises. Maybe you shouldn't say, "OK, Stalinism then!", but should instead assume that your premises were screwed up somehow, and it's your job to unscrew them.

The connection to the cloning/infanticide debate should be pretty obvious, really. If your philosophy ends up at baby-killing, maybe it's time to take a step back and see if either a) you have screwed up in your reasoning, or b) you have taken the wrong path after an "if/then" choice.

Like I said, this is not an argument for ethical stasis. It's a strong caution. And it's a reminder that it's OK to say that you are more convinced of certain ethical claims (e.g. baby-killing, or mass murder, is just wrong) than you are of certain metaphysical claims that you thought you held but that drive you to unacceptable ethical conclusions. That's an if/then choice, not a rejection of rationality. If you believe a) historical materialism and b) that purges are bad, but you investigate and come to believe that c) historical materialism justifies purges (sorry, I think I'm massacring this example by oversimplifying it, but I hope you see my point), then you have to reject either a) or b). It is not irrational to decide that the ethical claim is the better one, the one you're more sure of, and so you need to radically rework your metaphysics in order to justify that ethical claim.

In this particular case, I'm not sure, right now, whether the "babies: they're what's for dinner" side (which may just be Julian, at the moment, but I think he's right that his premises lead to an infanticide-accepting conclusion) has failed to get from premise to conclusion or whether it has chosen the wrong "if/then" option, and, if so, what the other options are. I'm still working on it. As I've said throughout this discussion, I don't believe that the anti-killing-currently-rational-persons stance can be justified through secular reason alone (my readers are probably getting tired of this link), but I'm not sure yet how far down into the premises we have to drill before we hit the "Without God, all is permissible" level. I believe we ultimately do reach that particular if/then choice, but I'd like to forestall it a bit longer. What I do know is that I'm more sure of the ethical claim, "Don't kill Junior," than I am of the rather tortuous paths I've taken in defending that claim. And, although of course all these judgments are subject to change, I don't think that greater certainty about the ethical issue is a bad thing, or a sign that I lack intellectual courage.
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Stayed up late last night to finish Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God. I'll be reviewing it, so I won't post my whole take on the book here, but suffice it to say that I got a lot out of the book. It's a very easy read that nonetheless packs in lots of spiritual insight. (Winner was raised Reform Jewish, then became Orthodox Jewish, and is now an evangelical Anglican.) She also anticipates many of the criticisms and reservations I might have had about her story, which is disarming--just as you're about to put some pointed question to her, she puts it to herself! This is a good book and I suspect it would make a good gift.
"Although his name is untranslatable to any known Earth language, it would sound something like... Zontar!"
--NASA scientist in re alien, "Zontar, the Thing from Venus"

Monday, October 14, 2002

And what blogwatch will the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties?

The Agitator found two excellent posts on the dockworkers' strike--from Julian (see, I don't just beat up on him) and Brink Lindsey.

Cacciaguida: Good post on the role of the laity and a "three-word summary of Opus Dei."

Crazy Tracy: Psychiatric nurse's take on life. Good stuff. Via Noli Irritare Leones.

Noli Irritare Leones: Quakers, technology, and reformations; and a good question about Iran.

Unqualified Offerings: How's Afghanistan going?

Telford Work: Falwell, Muslims, and "intellectual dhimmitude."

So there are these two blogs that have really good writing, and although I for sure don't agree with a lot of what's posted there, I get a lot out of reading them. So why don't I add them to my blogroll, you ask? Good question. So let it be written, so let it be done. Oh, and if you don't already know that Ginger's back--now you know.

I Used to Believe--neat site about stuff people believed when they were kids. Via AgendaBender. I may do a post on this if I have time.
EMBRYOS AND STUFF: I'm a shank. Although I'd skimmed Julian's last post in our argument over abortion (which turned into an argument over infanticide; some slopes really are slippery), I hadn't read it carefully until I was reminded of it by his notes from his speech at the America's Future Foundation cloning debate. So I'd like to briefly revisit points he made in both those posts. I don't know that either of us will be able to make the best possible case for our respective positions--we are both struggling to hit the highest notes in our philosophical registers, and our voices show the strain. But I do think that my muddle is more coherent than his muddle....

I apologize in advance if I bring up points that he responded to directly during the panel. I wasn't there; in one of life's sardonic little rhymes, I had to volunteer that night at the pregnancy center. I'm also only going to address one of the many issues that group themselves under the heading "cloning"; I'm only going to talk about the destruction of pre-rational human individuals, whether they be cloned embryos, regular old embryos, newborns, or pre-linguistic young children. I'm not going to get into stuff like reproductive cloning, giving your baby a higher IQ or bat wings, and all that stuff, because the issues there are different. If you look to your left you'll find two longer essays I wrote on embryo-destructive (therapeutic) and reproductive cloning. I have two things to say--one thing about alien babies, and one thing about mourning.

ALIEN BABIES: Julian asked me how I would respond if I met a rational alien. He assumed, correctly, that I would not kill the rational alien. ("Rational" here means--I think, although Julian's fought rather shy of confirming this--simply being able to use language. It doesn't mean fulfilling a Randian telos, or behaving as a perfect rational actor, etc. A four-year-old is "rational" in this sense, but a newborn is not.) I should make clear that saying, "All individual humans have value," is not the same as saying, "Only individual humans have value."

I wouldn't kill the alien. But neither would I kill a baby alien! (assuming that these aliens have pre-rational stages, just as we do.) Julian wants to claim that I am really, in my heart of hearts, concerned only with rationality--with "mentality." (For a cashing-out of that term, take a look at the previous posts in this dispute; here, this is probably the best place.) If I would treat a rational alien species differently from a non-rational alien species, doesn't that mean that I really value rationality-as-such?

I think Julian is ignoring the difference between valuing individuals in a rational species, and valuing currently-existing rational mentalities. Will Wilkinson does this too, actually, when he accuses anti-cloners of assigning metaphysical status to a tangle of DNA. (Later, here, Wilkinson conflates not-gonna-be-rational-again individuals with pre-rational individuals. OTOH, he posted more complete notes than Julian did, so he wins in that regard.) The important thing about DNA is not that it happens to be a clump of human DNA--so is a toenail, or a foot, or a cancer, or a corpse. The important thing about the human DNA in, specifically, an embryo, is that it marks the presence of a living human individual. It is that individual whom I value. Individual rational beings go through more and less rational stages; our rationality develops; thus there is a period before we are rational. If I came across aliens who had rational and pre-rational stages, I would value these individual alien lives as I value individual, developing human lives. I would do this partly because the most plausible alternative--Julian's "mentalities" view--has a lot of problems which I deal with here and which I don't think he's resolved; partly because until I am convinced that I have to, I won't sanction infanticide (more on this at the end*); and partly because, as I've said before, I believe that the physical component to our individuality is both important and good.

* EDITED TO ADD: Oops, I forgot that I promised to talk about this. Will post on it later.

Moreover, let me just make a couple quick points on the alien analogy. It's striking how human Julian's aliens are! They're sort of like the aliens on the original "Star Trek," where an alien is basically a funny-colored human with a clipped, vaguely British accent. In order for the hypothetical to work here, the aliens must a) be "rational" in a way that humans can understand, and b) be able to express that rationality in a way that we recognize. In order for the parallel to really work, they need to go through pre-rational stages of development, just like humans. Now possibly an alien would tell me that its people don't have a human-like conception of "individuality"; perhaps its species really does think of itself as mentalities. I'd listen to this alien, on the grounds that it probably understands itself better than I do; but I'd also be willing to subject its self-understanding to the same scrutiny I gave the "mentalities" position earlier, because I really do think that position is incoherent. I can, if I stretch, imagine aliens for whom a "mentalities" position would be coherent--this might make an excellent science fiction premise (I mean that, not trying to be snarky)--maybe. But those aliens would be extraordinarily difficult for us to understand. How would they set up their laws? Without physical individuality, how would we handle contracts between two mentalities, who were housed in bodies but have since vanished, leaving the new mentalities housed in their old bodies to pay the consequences? And so forth. What these confusions teach me is that it makes more sense to look at what we know about human life, and try to understand hypothetical aliens in terms of that, rather than trying to understand human babies in terms of hypothetical aliens. Or to put it more bluntly, some hypotheticals obscure more than they reveal. However, if this hypothetical has allowed me to clarify the difference between "all humans have value" and "only humans have value," then it's served some good purpose.

FOR WHOM NONE WILL GO MOURNING: In his AFF notes, Julian argues: "What do we think is so awful when someone we care about is killed? What makes it worse than a hamster's death? Not, surely, the microstructure of the particular organism -- we don't lament that a particular kind of physical entity is gone. No, it's that this person -- with a unique perspective, with a way of being in the world, with projects and goals to pursue, who hated the smell of onions and liked Bob Dylan -- because THAT has been snuffed out."

Now, I think in context he's attacking a position I don't hold (the "only humans are valuable" position); but his argument would also apply to my position ("pre-rational individuals have rights too"). And I think he's just straight-up wrong here in a bunch of different ways.

First, he's wrong, factually, about what we mourn. Obviously the projects, goals, and perspectives are part of what we mourn--and a significant part, when we mourn someone who has had a chance to develop those projects, goals, and perspectives. But--what do we think is so awful when a baby dies? What do we think is so awful when a woman miscarries? It is the death of an individual who has never even had a chance to develop the projects, goals, and perspectives of a rational human.

Julian could respond that we actually value our own desires for that child--parents grieve because they wanted a baby, not because their baby died, if you see the difference. Again, I think this is just false. It is generally part of the truth--of course parents grieve partly because their hopes for their child will now never be realized. But they also just plain old grieve the death of the child. They grieve not only for their own closed-off futures, but for the snuffed-out future of the baby. Moreover, this account doesn't explain grief over an abortion. There, the woman typically is not grieving the loss of her own goal of having a child. She simply grieves for the dead child. (I have no idea what the stats are on grieving after abortion. All I know is that one of the most surprising things about my work at the pregnancy center has been how many of the women we see either are personally grieving from one--even if they are considering aborting again--or know someone who is. Some of the women we counsel are startled at how strong and persistent their grief is. Some aren't--some quickly move on, and that's OK; emotions aren't ethics, so I'm not trying to make someone feel bad about something she did that she can't undo. Anyway, this whole digression was just to explain that I'd read a lot about how "post-abortion syndrome" is a myth, and I was pretty startled to see how frequent that sorrow is among the specific population [mostly black, low-income women; about half are members of Christian churches, the other half are mostly nothing-in-particular] I counsel. Sorry for digression.) Julian can respond here by saying that our culture has conditioned us to mourn the deaths of pre-rational individuals; but that cuts both ways, of course. If we allow that culture provokes mourning (which it does; I don't know that the Romans got all too worked up over the children they exposed) then Julian can't appeal to mourning to support his own position.

Second problem: This position strays close to defining people's worth by the feelings they provoke in others. If I do not care for myself, and no one cares for me, then my death interrupts no one's plans or hopes. Does that make my life worthless? Does that make the action of killing me morally equivalent to the action of persuading me to live, or covering me so I don't die of exposure, or getting me to a hospital so I can take my medication?

Third problem, related to something I touched on above: What we mourn in other people's deaths, and what we fear in our own, to some extent varies by culture. Does that mean that human worth similarly varies by culture? I assume that Julian would argue that in fact, some reasons for mourning are the kind of reasons he would encourage and/or base policy on, whereas other reasons for mourning he would discourage (not by being a jerk to individual mourners, of course, but through influencing the surrounding cultural climate--though this distinction is hard to pull off in practice, cf. discussion of mourning an abortion as "the forbidden grief") and/or reject as a basis for policy decisions. So... how come?

AND FOR A CHEAP SHOT: In re Julian's account of "summoning reasons into being"--a friend of mine once described this position as, "He wills reason; I will tacos." She said snarkily.
SO I REALLY LIKE unusual baby names, as I made clear in this post about gender and naming. Nonetheless, this site--eight pages of real bad baby names--had me laughing 'til I cried. Really hilarious. Even if it did slam "Jelynne," which is the only -lynne name I like.
THE HIGH AND THE LOW: One of the sections in Deconstruction in a Nutshell (see below) concerns Plato's Timaeus, and its description of the khora. The khora is... well, it's there, and that's about all it is. "Khora is the immense and indeterminate spatial receptacle (dekhomenon, hypodokhe) in which the sensible likenesses of the eternal paradigms are 'engendered,' in which they are 'inscribed' by the Demiurge, thereby providing a 'home' for all things." And later: "For the khora is an 'abyss,' a void of empty space; it is also an infinite play of reflections in which the paradigms produce their images, simply 'reflecting' sensible things like a mirror that is not altered by the images it reflects." Later still: "It might appear at times that khora looks a little like the unknown God, the deus absonditus, the mysterious origin beyond origin, about whom we cannot say a thing. ...[Derrida's essay] 'How Not to Speak' explores the analogy and, more importantly, the disanalogy of khora with the God of negative theology.

"...In this essay Derrida draws our attention to the tension between what he calls two 'tropics of negativity,' that is, two opposing ways in which philosophical thought finds itself up against its limits, against something that resists being said, two things equally unsayable but for quite opposite reasons. The first is the most familiar and prestigious text in all of Plato's work--the one that makes all the standard anthologies used in 'Introduction to Philosophy' courses--the famous and sublime passage from the Republic, 509Bff. in which Plato describes the idea of the Good as 'beyond being' (epekeina tes ousias). Here the movement (the 'tropic') of negativity, of not-saying or unsayability, is upward, hyperbolic, 'obeying a logic of the sur, of the hyper, over and beyond, which heralds all the hyper-essentialisms' of Christian Neoplatonism. For the tradition of negative theology, stretching from pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to Meister Eckhart, turned on a view of the Christian God that had been basically cast in the terms of Plato's theory of the Good beyond Being. In this first movement, thinking has run up against an excess of transcendence, a being of such supereminent sur-reality that, while giving birth to being, movement, and knowledge, it is itself beyond them all. Still, as the offspring of its father and cause, the sensible world is 'like' the Good, and, so, the excess of the Good is situated within an 'analogical community' in virtue of which the sensible world is said to be 'like' the intelligible world. Hence, the Good can be sensibly compared to the 'sun' of the sensible world; for, like the sun, the Good is neither seeing nor visible, neither knowing nor intelligible, but a third thing, viz., their light, cause, and medium.

"But the khora constitutes another way to be otherwise than Being, another kind of third thing, one moving in a fully opposite direction and submitting to different tropes. Rather than 'hyperexistence' or supereminent being, khora seems to drop below being, barely to be at all, to be if at all next to nothing.

"...The discourse on khora thus forms an almost perfect inversion of the discourse on the Good. ...On the one hand, hyperbole and the excess of being, essence, and meaning; on the other, defection, less than meaning, essence, and being."

OK. I do not pretend to understand all that very well; when people waver off into words like "essence" and "being" without giving me some sense of what the heck we're talking about, I get lost. I am also generally uninspired by, and not well versed in, negative theology; so again I am at a disadvantage when it comes to interpreting this stuff about khora vs. God.

Nonetheless, I think there are some interesting things to think about here. The suggestion seems to be that the same experiences, graspings, sense of something beyond reason or ordinary experience that has inspired so much religious thought, could just as easily be a signal of something "below" reality as something "above" it. And I don't really know what to do with that suggestion, except to say that I would need to know a lot more about what an apprehension of something "below" reality looked like before I could comment.

It's obviously useful to be chastened, to be reminded that once we spiral off into ineffable-experience-land, we may be confusing the divine with mere chaos. But I don't really have any reference points for an experience of chaos. The experiences of God's presence that I've had have been experiences of an intense, almost animal aliveness; a sense that the things in this world are arrows toward something greater (like the Jewish theological idea that objects in the world are words spoken by God); a deeply positive sense of a "greater than," not a less-than. Maybe this is just because my culture had prepared me more for the "greater-than" experience. Who can say? All I can say is what the experience actually resembled to me. It is difficult to talk about, but it can be alluded to, as when Harold Bloom (I think?) writes that Hamlet "dies upward." There is a discernable difference in a play in which someone dies "upward" as vs. a play in which someone dies "downward." So asking, "Is your 'ineffable experience' really an experience of God, or of khora or chaos?" seems to me a bit like asking, "Why do we ally the sublime with the beautiful, instead of the ugly?" After all, the sublime is painful; it is often not-beautiful; why do we give it the exalted term "sublime" rather than the degraded term "ugly"? The only real answer to that question is to describe a sublime experience. Or, more accurately, the only real answer to that question is to have a sublime experience.
DERRIDA IS DRIVING ME NUTS. Well, not really--but I am about 10 pp. from the end of John Caputo's Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, and I think the guy's got some 'splainin' to do. The book is largely an attempt to refute misunderstandings of deconstruction (for example, that deconstruction aims to destroy reason, or religion, or science) while introducing us to deconstruction via six examples (six "nutshells")--deconstructive approaches to institutions and "the right to philosophy," Plato, community/hospitality, justice, the messianic, and James Joyce. I'm reading this book because the Old Oligarch lent it to me, so blame him if this post bores you. Some of it is taken from an email to him. This will be a series of my questions re Derrida/deconstructionism; I have a larger or weirder question/response which I'll post next.

--> The first, and broadest, question is, What is there in Derrida's work that can't be gotten better from other thinkers? I am still not clear that Derrida has actually contributed to philosophy rather than just rearranging philosophical/theological ideas or terms in a not terribly helpful way. When I did feel like I grasped what he was getting at, generally I thought other people had put the matter better, and I fairly often was just puzzled as to why he didn't seem to feel that his intentional vagueness was a PROBLEM. So this suggests that, assuming there's a point to Derrida, I totally missed it. Any thoughts on that would be welcome.

--> So Derrida speaks of these misty abstractions/prophetic pronunciations without content (justice, messiah, the other, hospitality, the avenir), none of which CAN be cashed out, because to cash them out even a little, even merely by analogy or allusion, would be to constrain them. (Though Caputo indicates that perhaps they ARE constrained despite Derrida's best efforts; Caputo implies that, merely by using terms taken from Judaic contexts, deconstruction must still be constrained [but how?] by specifically Jewish notions of justice and messiah.) And then when we come down from the cloud-hung mountaintop, Caputo gives us these specific policy
choices--affirmative action and other leftist nostrums. And there's NO connective tissue between the prophetic abstractions and the concrete policies! In fact, if I understand the book, there can't be any connective tissue, b/c to show how "a deconstructive notion of justice" should lead, via these steps, to affirmative action would be to constrain the understanding of justice. So you're left (no pun intended...) with a philosophy that says, in effect, "Do the good! Eschew the bad!"

This is unsatisfying on many levels.

--> It seems like decon. is privileging the creation of an ethos, or the shaping of a character, over against the following of a set of rules (or even principles). I felt like many of Derrida's obscurities might be clarified--if clarification were what he was after--if he just said, "Deconstruction is an attitude toward the world, more than it is a method or a principle." But maybe not. One problem is that decon. seems, at times, to be "any approach to the world that Derrida/Caputo likes"--which makes it hard to figure out how I might go about deconstruction!

--> When he speaks of traditions and institutions, is Derrida actually saying anything MORE than Jaroslaw Pelikan's line, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living"?

--> The section on the way that a gift always implicates the recipient in a debt (you have to give a gift back, or at the very least be thankful for the gift you got) would benefit from an acknowledgment that giving thanks can be pleasurable. Thanksgiving is a feast, after all. We, humans, often enjoy thanking others for the gifts they gave us. That's not the only true story of gift-giving--it's obviously true that gifts can be "poison" (apparently that's a pun if you speak German), a "commercial" exchange in which the giver manages to pat himself on the back and command an unpleasant debt of gratitude from the recipient. But the poison-gift isn't the only kind. Thus there can be such a thing as a gift of love.

--> Similarly, the section on "justice vs. law" (quickie summary: "justice" signifies perfect justice, the ability to respond to each individual's unique situation with the fullness of justice; "law" signifies codes, rules, abstractions, which necessarily prevent us from responding to individual situations--the Abbe of Digne [was he an Abbe?] was acting in accordance with justice, not law, when he said he had given the candlesticks to Jean Valjean) would have benefited from an understanding of why law is necessary. Here; let Radley Balko explain! Trying to institute perfect justice means rejecting the staid predictable rules that allow people to build lives for themselves. The criticism of the universal in favor of the particular is necessary; but the law is equally necessary.

--> Derrida is right (although I think Pelikan does this quicker and with less self-congratulation!) about the need for a second "yes" to tradition, a "yes, yes" in which the second yes is not just a robotic repetition of the first but a renewal, a re-engagement. This is part of what I was getting at in my post about "progress, return, or renewal."

--> I wonder why deconstruction engages in a kind of hyper-privileging of scattering over gathering. If you focus only on the things that show tension, dissimilarity,
disjunction, etc., your community dissolves. There then is no tradition or institution, there's just a bunch of people squabbling over which neglected bits of history they happen to like. The whole importance of the history is the fact that it's a history of a tradition and institution; if you focus solely on the "gaps" or suppressed aspects of the tradition, you LOSE the tradition, which will make your archeological work look sort of silly. (For an oversimplified example: Why are you spending all this time on problems with the Founders' leadership unless the Founders are crucially important?)

--> Deconstruction engages in a similar hyper-privileging of the avenir (future; what is to come) over the present. There are two ways, I think, of taking a decon.-like stance toward the relationship of justice to the present order. One is a constructive (!) approach, using our constant anxiety about the ways in which the present order does not measure up to the ideals of justice as a goad to get us to work harder, to investigate more intensely, to imagine new ways of approaching the fullness of justice, even if we know we'll never attain that fullness.

George Orwell had a line about the other way of approaching the difference between (what Derrida is calling) justice and law. I can't remember it exactly, but he basically responded to some pacifist arguments against Britain entering WWII by saying, "This is the carping of people who have never borne responsibility." If you focus solely on the faults of the present order, it's very tempting to remove yourself from that order, to pretend that you do not have any personal responsibility for the relative sucktitude of the current situation. You are the Prophet! and so you don't have to actually prophesy against your own failures. (Or if you do discuss your own failures, it tends to be in a self-congratulatory way--"Look! I'm big enough to discuss my own failures! Aren't I responsible and humble?" Much talk of "white privilege," for example, would fall under this category.) Similarly, you don't have to exercise charity toward those who are (stupidly or incompetently or unluckily or immaturely or...etc.) bearing the responsibility of leadership. And most importantly, you don't have to come up with positive alternatives and try to put them into practice--and watch them fail, too, and learn that you require the charity you deny to others.
"This is bad."
--Leonardo di Caprio, as ship meets iceberg, "Titanic"

Friday, October 11, 2002

AND THEN THERE'S DE FEO. Joseph De Feo, who is no longer turning and turning in the widening gyre, adds: "I think I would almost be comfortable with the term 'Viennese Waltz Conservatism,' except for the fact that the waltz is a bit risqué."
ACTUALLY, "JAZZ JUDAISM" SOUNDS KINDA COOL...: Got a good challenging email from Ben A., which I think will allow me to clear up some misunderstandings and give a much better sense of what "rock'n'roll conservatism" is and isn't about. As always, Ben is in bold and I'm in plain text:

"Rock and Roll Conservatism" is a catchy phrase, and I support the desire to tell Allan Bloom to suck eggs. But, at the risk of being hyperbolic, I think it makes about as much sense as "jazz Judaism."

I suppose I am reacting to a pet concern. Too many people read their politics off their larger cultural identification: the things they like to do, the movies they watch, and yes, the music they listen too. Well, this is a mistake. Verdi doesn't have a position on the gun control, and even if David Bowie does, we shouldn't much care what it is. But sadly, people do care: about Rage Against the Machine, about the whole silly story of rock music as Symbol of Social Rebellion.

I realize you don't mean to rediscover rock and roll as a conservative voice: that's the same mistake in reverse. Rather, you seem just to be signalling that you're not a culture snob. But if so, I would think it's irrelevant to your politics. Indeed, of your listed principles, surely an appreciation for popular culture is the most trivial and negotiable, right?

Let me talk about what I'm not doing first; then I'll get to what I am doing:

1) Actually, I dig Allan Bloom a lot; I just disagree with his account of rock music, which is sloppy.

2) More importantly, I totally agree that people shouldn't "read their politics off their larger cultural identification"; I think that's one of the criticisms Jonah Goldberg leveled at Rod Dreher's whole "crunchy conservative" deal. I actually don't listen to rock all that often these days; I'm more into random shards of punk, country, New Wave, and various film scores. You can be a rock'n'roll conservative even if the only music you ever listen to is Hank Williams Sr. and "The Ring of the Nibelung," or Public Enemy and Palestrina, or what have you. "Rock'n'roll" is being used half as allusion, half as metaphor. If it is confusing, we'll have to drop the term and find something better.

3) So, OK then, what is "rock'n'roll" supposed to allude to? What are we supposed to be thinking of here? First, the dynamic quality of rock--the way it constantly reinvents itself, the way it is willing to borrow and meld and confuse genre boundaries, the way it's willing to capture good ideas, powerful hooks and rhythms, or iconic storylines wherever it finds them. Second, rock connotes a certain rough and ready quality.

4) And most importantly, rock alludes to some of the ways that the five of us came to become what we call, for lack of a better word, men and women of the right. Engaging pop culture isn't in any way peripheral to our project--it's actually a central and extremely useful method, because it relies on a) the strengths inherent in contemporary culture--it builds on what's already present; and b) surprise. Rockers, scriptwriters for movies and TV, comedians, and all kinds of other pop-culture types are, whether intentionally or not, presenting us with songs and stories that reflect the world in either true or false ways (or, of course, a mixture of truth and falsehood). Conservatives tend to deal with pop-culture stuff in one of two ways: Condemn/ignore it, or attempt to use it to prove their hipness ("I'm not a culture snob! I'm COOL!"). Both of these approaches are really lame. Condemning/ignoring, of course, totally fails to meet people where they are and to show the implications of the roles, characters, and stances they already embrace. But an uncritical, self-congratulatory approach to pop culture ("Look, this is me, enjoying a Tori Amos album!") is condescending--because it treats pop culture as unworthy of tough examination--and unhelpful.

Instead, RNRC will very often use the method of drawing out the underlying, unspoken implications of movies or books or songs that people already love--here are a few examples: "Malcolm in the Middle," a bunch of rock songs, "Vertigo," DMX. The basic idea is to show people the implications of what they already know and love. I was surprised--and intrigued--when I started investigating the underlying philosophical stances of the kids' books or TV shows or music I liked. With the companionship of friends, I was able to draw the conclusions that ultimately led me to shift from left to right politically. (And other, more important changes.)

5) The important thing to keep in mind is that RNRC is not only a list of principles; nor is it only a stance, a way of being in the world, an ethos. It's both. (And "ethos" here doesn't mean "lifestyle"! Like I said above, this is not about whether you like Pink Floyd or--shudder--Cristina Aguilera, etc.) The tension contained within the odd name is intended to draw that out--"conservatism," which we generally think of as a list of principles, lived in a "rock'n'roll" way.
TELL TED BARLOW WHAT TO READ! Plus check out the other good stuff on his blog.
PERSON WHO SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN THE 2002 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE: Harry Wu, in honor of this anniversary.

I'd also be cool with giving the prize to Cardinal Ratzinger. His name has brought laughter to millions.
THE NOBEL COMMITTEE SHOULD HAVE GIVEN JIMMY CARTER to Philip Roth, as a consolation prize. Roth could have eaten him or something.
"What a crazy day! The first time I've seen you in three years and we're buried alive!"
--Woman to ex-boyfriend, "Cave-In!"

Thursday, October 10, 2002

"The town is infested with man-eating cockroaches. Repeat: man-eating cockroaches!"
--George Peppard to Jan-Michael Vincent, "Damnation Alley"

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

INTERESTING CONTRAST between this nifty Kathy Shaidle article on Jewish comic-book superheroes and this Telford Work piece on the anti-heroic "Veggie Tales."
DISPUTATIONS is doing an awesome monthlong series on the rosary. Go! Read! Pray!
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Shlemiel, shlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated.
We're gonna do it!

Give us any chance, we'll take it.
Give us any rule, we'll break it.
We're gonna watch our blogs come true....

The Agitator: Good wrapup of the New Jersey follies; and an inspiring story. And yes, this will keep me busy for a long, long time. (How can people prefer egg to butter???)

Regions of Mind: Pat Buchanan, American Platypus.

Uggabugga: Saudi graphic. Via Ted Barlow.

Telford Work: His review of the Veggie Tales movie. Very intriguing.

Matthew Yglesias: Is hosting a quick but interesting discussion of why people do bad things, in his comments box.

National Review Online: "Migrant sex work."
NORM!!!! Via Shamed.
POSTSCRIPT. So last night I was thinking about the last post from yesterday. Two things about it in particular. The first was that I forgot to mention one other good result of my early unhappiness, which is the sense of lack and necessity that drove me to philosophy. Unhappiness can make people really self-protective and risk-averse, thus averse to rigorous philosophical seeking. And I think I did that too, especially when I was in high school and on my big relativist kick. (Relativism, of course, means never having to say you're sorry.) But the more lasting effect of unhappiness for me was a sense of drivenness, a goad--something the Rat has called "being pursued by Furies." That sense of drivenness and need makes it harder to stop philosophical questing when things start seeming dangerous or unpleasant.

The second thing was that I wondered, "Why did I post that?" It seemed pretty unusual for me. I think there were three main reasons:

1) I had figured some stuff out. And at this point, I'm so used to having the blog that when I figure things out, I tend to either post them here or incorporate them into my fiction writing.

2) I'd been blogging about politics for days and days and I was starting to bore even myself. Wanted something different in the mix.

3) Arthur Silber of Light of Reason asked me to comment on this post, and on Richard Dawkins generally. You can read my somewhat over-strenuous and irked comments at his site; but I wanted to give some idea of why Dawkins's worldview strikes me as totally insufficient. And I think the post below limns some of my reasons for thinking that.

This last point is easy to misunderstand. The immediate response is, "So... you bought into this whole religion because of some bad experiences you had?" I tried to show, in the initial post, that my experience was part, but only part, of the evidence I use to try to figure out what the world is. And the point of that post was to show the connections between my own experiences and various philosophical or religious stances and questions.
"The level of the mysterious radiation continues to increase steadily. So long as this situation remains, government spokesmen warn that dead bodies will continue to be transformed into flesh-eating ghouls."
--TV newsman, "Night of the Living Dead"

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

AND I WAS YOUNG: Recently I had a bad weekend. A really, really lousy, stressed-out, low, hateful weekend. And at some point I realized something: You know, I used to feel like this all the time! Thinking over it, actually, I used to feel worse than that, all the time. Like between the ages of, say, five or six, and 20. After 20 or so, I've had frequent bad patches, grim little self-hate-fiestas, but they've been interludes between longer calm, basically happy stretches. This correlates very roughly with my entrance into the Church, which is interesting; I don't know what to say except "interesting," because entering the Church has certainly provoked new anxieties and fairly painful self-assessments. But there it is.

And so I was thinking, after the bad weekend had passed, about the particular kind of unhappy childhood I had and what I gained from it. I think it actually cleared away some of the obstacles that might have prevented me from finding truth, rather than creating obstacles as many other kinds of unhappiness might. Here are four benefits of this particular kind of unhappiness:

1) My unhappiness came from a deep sense of personal inadequacy, due to specific failings on my part. (And so this unhappiness did not come from, say, betrayals or failures by my family, who have always been just awesome.) The language of sin, when I got over my allergy to it and started actually listening to what Christians said about sin, struck me as exactly right in describing my experience: I did things, and had intense, passionate desires to do things, knowing that they were wrong. Not "knowing that other people told me they were wrong"--the sense of wrongness was, as far as I can tell, at least mostly independent from other people's judgments. It was an internal sense that something inside had warped and was inclining toward evil. So I never had to be persuaded that I needed saving. I never bought the Pelagian line that if you just work hard enough you can earn your salvation. I was never even tempted by belief systems that claimed that people were inherently good. The description of man as not good, not bad, but Fallen seemed to me much more like what I knew: People know that there is some standard of good that they have fallen away from, but they can't, by their own efforts, ever attain that righteousness. Something has gone wrong.

2) I have little attraction to or patience for nostalgia. I think this is basically a benefit, though there are probably drawbacks that I'm ignoring. Philosophically, this helped me see that Augustine's discussion of happiness (brief and probably tangled synopsis, filtered through C.S. Lewis: How do we distinguish random pleasures from true joy? We must have some standard in mind, and, because of the subjective nature of joy, the intermingling of joy with fear and similarly painful emotions, and the "sui generis" nature of most joyful experiences, our standard can't just be "what my culture tells me is joyful." We must have some memory of actual, experienced, full joy against which we can compare the flashes we receive in this life. Augustine speculates that this remembered happiness is Adam's--we share in his happiness as we shared in his Fall) is not just about missing your happy childhood. (Augustine himself is not exactly filled with longing for the carefree, innocent days of his childhood.) And politically, I think this general non-nostalgic-ness inoculated me from the longing for an imagined past that so many "social conservatives" suffer from.

3) I haven't had a certain kind of hideous, stomach-lurching moments of disillusionment, when our bargains with the world ("You're basically an alright world, so if I just behave myself, nothing bad will happen, right? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, World...") fail. I never held the underlying "benevolent universe premise" that those bargains rest on. (For this I can also thank my mother, who works for prisoners' rights; once you've heard a few horror stories from the American prison system, you at least no longer believe that humans "can't be that horrible...") I don't want to be too cocky here--I haven't had this moment of disillusionment, but that doesn't mean I never will have it. I am sure I still have some illusions that will be painfully ripped away before the end of days.

4) I think that I try to keep those who suffer or are alienated from society front and center in my politics partly because of my own experience of deep-rooted alienation. That's not a claim of moral superiority--there are major drawbacks to that alienation as well, and there are all kinds of other and perhaps better paths to a commitment to the suffering and alienated. But this post is about the uses of adversity. And for me, personally, I think the "first tenet" of rock'n'roll conservatism is so central is in part because of my experiences.