Tuesday, April 22, 2003

MIDEASTERN GEOGRAPHY MAP QUIZ. I actually did (much) better on this than I expected--in general, as my mother knows and has long lamented, I am about as good at geography as I am at math. (Yes, I know, this is a huge problem for anyone interested in politics or history.) The following are the countries I couldn't accurately place on the first try: Niger (I thought it was Chad, d'oh); Western Sahara; Morocco; Mauritania; Tunisia; Pakistan (I got this on the THIRD attempt, extremely embarrassing, it's not like this is a minor country in world affairs...); Uzbekistan; Tajikstan; Yemen; Qatar. Anyway, definitely give this test a spin if you feel you may be shaky about who's north-northeast of whom.
CRONACA has a wealth of important posts on the Baghdad museum looting. Via the Cranky Professor. This one is perhaps most relevant to the "don't be so sure" post below, but you'll find many, many more articles at the main Cronaca site, so please check it out.
I'M GOING OUT OF TOWN tomorrow (Wednesday). Below you will find gobs of chocolatey blog goodness--including reviews of "Richard III," "Jezebel," and Cat Power's new album, plus stuff on Fides et Ratio and the nuptial meaning of the mind. I'll be out of town until Monday or Tuesday. At some point when I get computer access, I'll post on forgiveness and humor, political theory vs. political philosophy, whether jurisprudence is whatever they'll let you get away with, and anything else that comes whiffling through my tulgey brain. For now, enjoy the fine folks linked on the left! (And welcome Amitai Etzioni, Cronaca, and Lawrence Solum to the blogroll.)

Monday, April 21, 2003

I STARTED SOMETHING, AND NOW I'M NOT SO SURE, so I have to fill this space somehow, since Blogger seems to be denying me the right to just eliminate posts. Therefore: This is not the best ice cream in the DC metro area. York Castle, on GA Ave. in Silver Spring, is far superior. Sorry, I had to put something in this space. Link via Tepper.
SHOULD I READ IRIS MURDOCH? Specifically, should I read The Black Prince? Any opinions are welcome.
LOOTING. I don't have a lot to say about this. Have tried to think whether I have anything to say, but ultimately, no. The only thing I really want to say is, Don't be too sure.

It's been strange to see people so sure of the reasons behind a rough, destructive course of events, when I am so unsure. Some people think the looting is just untidy (no--my apartment is untidy, it ain't quite the same thing). Some people think the looting proves Bush hates language. Some people think freedom's just another word for nothing left to loot (and there's no way encouraging people to loot Saddam's hidey-holes could ever lead to looting of hospitals, museums, or small businesses!). Some people think we definitely could have prevented the looting (it has nothing to do with the startlingly quick fall of Baghdad, or possible reluctance to fire on Iraqi crowds). Some people think we definitely had to choose between protecting people and protecting libraries (even though America is full of lots of people, right? who could maybe be in the military? and maybe protecting Baghdad? and hello, hospitals were looted too, so it's not just cuneiform vs. children here...).

I just don't know.

I don't offhand dismiss speculation that this is all a neoconservative plot to privatize Iraqi art. Never underestimate human depravity, that's a basic conservative rule. But doesn't this seem like an, uh, inefficient way to get Iraqi stuff into private hands? I mean, a lot of stuff has been straight-up destroyed. If evil neocons are behind this, they are strictly from hunger, because this would be a very stupid way to get what they supposedly want.

But I just don't know.

There's a great post here on why the Iraqi National Library is important. John Derbyshire points out something I never would have guessed from the blogosphere coverage, which is that the Iraqi National Museum has not been open to the public for years. Both Mickey Kaus (scroll around) and Stanley Kurtz (here and ff.--argh, this link isn't esp. relevant, but I could swear I found much more relevant Kurtz-blogs in a time period not covered by NRO's archives) have strongly hinted that they think this happened because we had too few "boots on the ground"--I get the impression that Kaus blames Rumsfeld and Kurtz blames Clinton, but I suspect each can spare some anger for the other's primary target. That sounds right to me, and I strongly encourage everybody who's been following this topic to read both sets of posts.

Would stuff have been looted at any future date, when the Ba'ath regime finally fell? Yeah, probably. Both outside and internal forces would likely be more or less just as eager to loot then as they were last week.

Does that let the US off the hook? Of course not. The subjunctive tense is not a get-out-of-blame-free card.

If US soldiers had shot looters dead, would they be criticized from some of the same people who now say they should have done more? Surely.

Does that mean they shouldn't have shot looters? No, not necessarily.

I just don't know what should have happened. But I'm pretty sure you don't know either, at least not when it comes to specifics ("I'm guarding this quadrant of Baghdad, and these events are happening, what do I do?"). I guess all I'm asking is that we hold off a little on forming judgments.
SHE PUT A SPELL ON US. Nina Simone passes away at age 70.
"RICHARD III" AT SHAKESPEARE THEATRE: Something else I saw last week. Not an especially coherent production. I'm not sure what it was trying to do that would distinguish it from the other RIII productions one might have seen (most notably the excellent Ian McKellen movie--although why does he always make the same gesture--hitting his knee with his fist--in practically every movie where he appears??).

This production used the same modern/fascist setting as the McKellen movie, which is starting to get kind of played. At first, modernizing the setting is powerful: Five hundred years on, and we are no more gentle than in Richard's day. But once you've seen a bunch of fascist-Shakespeare it starts being silly and alienating. The sets are quite sterile, and I very much liked the device of dressing one set of murderers in hospital scrubs; that captures the utilitarian kill-to-be-kind ethos nicely, though what it had to do with "Richard III" I couldn't tell you.

The production takes what I think were probably unwise risks: It doesn't do much with the initial monologue ("Now is the winter of our discontent..."), with the "Shine out, fair sun, 'til I have bought a glass" speech, or even with Richard's seduction of Lady Anne over the coffin of her husband (murdered at Richard's hand). Lady Anne is basically portrayed as suffering from battered woman's syndrome, so purely terrified by Richard that she has lost the ability to say no. This is not especially interesting. Later, the scene in which Richard persuades the former queen Elizabeth that he wishes to win her daughter is played the way the Richard/Anne scene is often played: The more extreme and cruel Richard's language gets, the more seduced and bewildered Elizabeth becomes. She's attracted by his willingness to go all out for evil. This is more interesting, but this scene comes much further toward the end of the play, which is doubtless why most directors use this dynamic for Richard/Anne rather than Richard/Elizabeth.

The actors set up an intriguing parallel between Margaret and Hastings--I wouldn't have thought to place those two together. But both are clearly thrilled by the misfortunes that befall their enemies. Hastings is played by David Sabin, who has a moment that's both totally endearing and chilling: Contemplating the murders of his political enemies, he gets the beaming innocent look of a well-fed baby, and actually puts out his tongue like a happy dog as he giggles a little to himself. And the production definitely sets up Margaret as the only worthy opponent Richard recognizes. When they face off, you can feel his discomfort at coming up against someone whose fury and singleness of purpose match his own. The parallel is reinforced in Margaret's crouching posture throughout their first big scene, mirroring Richard's hunchback. Margaret, like Richard, is purely negative; suffering; ferocious; self-aware; and self-dramatizing.

The curdled-Christian atmosphere of the court is drawn out well, with frequent, almost obsessive references to piety, humility, conscience (there's an early exchange between murderers that echoes Richard's famous line, "Conscience is but a word that cowards use"), and especially pity.
"JEZEBEL": THE GLAMOUR OF EVIL: Last week I saw "Jezebel," which, rumor has it, is the film Bette Davis was given as a compensation prize for not being picked to play Scarlett O'Hara. (Quick DC note: I saw it at the newly-opened AFI Silver theater in Silver Spring, which was super-convenient for Metro riders, and not the world's most wonderfully-designed movie palace but still quite good.) When I first left the theater I was underimpressed with the movie, but it grows on reflection.

"Jezebel" is basically a tearjerker. Davis plays Julie Marsten, a bitchy Southern belle who is unaccountably attractive to all and sundry despite pouting and whining and manipulating in the grand style. The movie is one long comeuppance.

There are two points of interest, both concerning the portrayal of the antebellum South. The South does not get the sweetness-'n'-light treatment (although--argh, I hate to spoil--it does get redeemed in the end). The black characters are pure stereotype, grr, but the white characters are much more interesting. Davis is something of a synecdoche for her society--petty, willfully self-defeating, using "honor" purely as a tool to manipulate others, and trapped in her escapist memories of the past ("The moonlight in the magnolias, Pres, do ya 'member?"). The implicit criticism of the Southern aristocracy was, I thought, more scathing and unforgiving than that of GWTW (a vastly superior film in general--"Jezebel" is something you should see if you want to watch a movie about the cinematic South, but GWTW is something you should see if you want to know about people). There are several scenes that play the South's impending defeat as a self-inflicted catastophe--for example, the scenes in which the local lordlings refuse to protect New Orleans against yellow fever--which is also present in GWTW, but more of an undercurrent, and hedged around with more Southern self-justifications.

But the other fascinating thing about the movie is that the South is portrayed as both inscrutably evil, and attractive. Its danger, its jackdaw honor, its bloodthirst, its deep feudal alienation from Yankee society, its lurid emotions and its icily refined use of manners as stilettos--all are presented as equal parts repugnant and alluring. In "Jezebel" cruel and selfish people are attractive because they are cruel and selfish, not in spite of those traits.

Which strikes me as a cutting little commentary on fallen humanity. Of course, setting your story in the South has always been a convenient way for writers and filmmakers to displace questions of sin, violence, and class; but I don't think "Jezebel" entirely lets the rest of us off the hook. It's not just the South that gets eviscerated.
IN THE DAYS WHEN YOU WERE HOPELESSLY POOR/I JUST LIKED YOU MORE. Have spun Cat Power's new record, "You Are Free," several times (uh, but only twice all the way through, for reasons I will explain pronto), and can't recommend it. I'm glad I have it because I am a huge, colossal Cat Power fan. But if you are not already fanatical about the howlin' chanteuse, DO NOT buy the new record. Instead, PLEASE, go get yourself her amazing first record, "Myra Lee." Let me tell you why.

Let's start with the new record. When I first played it, I thought it was catchy and pretty cool. It's a mild thrill to hear Chan Marshall (the voice, words, and stumbling guitar of Cat Power) backed by instruments that, you know, harmonize. Songs with symmetry, grace, pop polish. It's also great to hear Marshall just face up and sing without the waify softness she used way too often on her most recent albums, "The Covers Record" and "Moon Pix."

And there are some great moments in the first half of the disc. "Good Woman," while maybe too quiet, is a blunt, harsh country tearjerker ("I want to be a good woman/And I want for you to be a good man/this is why I will be leaving..."). "I Don't Blame You" and "Free" had me nodding along with a rueful grin. But even in those two songs, some problems start to creep in: the lyrics of "I Don't Blame You" and the vocals in "Free" are kind of petulant, kind of rock-star-pouts-re-own-celebrity. Marshall has often used her high-lonesome voice to convey resentment, usually to terrific effect ("Mr. Gallo," "Three Times," "Enough"), but I get the impression that now we're supposed to think that resentment is cool. (The lyrics of "Free" are pretty sweet--"It's okay if you can't stand to let her dance/It's okay it's your right..."--nice jab at the ways we twist freedom into compulsion and coercion--and even the poor-little-celeb-girl lyrics are good--it's just her voice that gets smirky.)

Things get more problematic as the songs get more political. Marshall used to break your heart singing bleakly, "All the lies aside, I believe I am the luckiest person alive"; now she tosses out cheap shots about Americans' complacent "fortunacy" (?? don't ask me why the lapse into Bushspeak). "Names" is a potentially affecting song about children the narrator used to know, children doomed by parental cruelty and other circumstances. (Title + lyrics reminded me of Dorothy Allison's painful essay, "River of Names," the epic catalogue of seemingly foreordained disasters that had burned through her family tree.) Maybe it's just because by the time I got to this song I was already annoyed, but it struck me as vaguely exploitative, and didn't really add anything besides, "Here's a list of children to whom horrible things happened, doesn't that suck."

Marshall's songs are often opaque--any ideas on what the actual plotline of "Wealthy Man" is??--but in "Shaking Paper" the mysterizing gets frustrating rather than allusive. "Wealthy Man," from "Myra Lee," is an incredible, suggestive homage to the subjunctive tense--"Maybe I will dream that you would tell me/You've always been thinking of me," Marshall sings, crawling through about six levels of disconnection and alienation. "Shaking Paper," from the new album, isn't nearly that subtle; it struck me as a basic anti-war, isn't it sad that young men hold guns, moral-equivalence song, with the only real question being what the heck "shaking paper" refers to ("and demons despise the sound of shaking paper/but guess what/I found out/that you do too").

There's a lot less isolation in "You Are Free" than in the earlier records (especially "Myra Lee" and "Dear Sir"). There's a lot less creepy, unsettling, "you'd edge away if this person sat next to you on the bus" characterization. There's a lot less of the howl, a lot less resignation, a lot less of what makes Cat Power unique. (I mean, "Baby Doll" is basically a slightly better version of PJ Harvey's "Dress," which is... okay, I guess.)

Chan Marshall has a startling, ice-axe-for-the-frozen-sea-within talent. She's not like anything else out there. I heard "Myra Lee" on a scratchy dubbed tape in a friend's car, and immediately knew I had to hear more. It hurts to hear her sanding down the edges of her rough, splintery talent.

BEST CAT POWER SONGS for your listening pleasure:
1) "Ice Water," "Wealthy Man," "We All Die," "Great Expectations": All from "Myra Lee." All angry heartbreakers. "I'm not made of successful things."
2) "Rockets," "Mr. Gallo," "Yesterday Is Here." From "Dear Sir."
3) "Bathysphere." I forget where this is. Quiet memory of something that was lost. "When I was seven/My father said to me/that you can't swim/And I never dreamed of the sea again... I want to live in a bathysphere."
4) "Moonshiner," "Still in Love with You." More covers. Mmmm.
5) "Fate of the Human Carbine." Stupid title; sad, incisive song about peepshows. Lyrics.
6) "Three Times," "Enough." Resentment never sounded so good.
7) "Good Clean Fun" ("After this there will be no more good clean fun"); "Nude as the News" (weird song but starts off with "I still have a flame gun/For the cute, cute, cute ones..." which won my heart).
THE PRESIDENTIAL BIOETHICS COUNCIL has a super-interesting "bookshelf" website with suggested readings on different topics and sample study-guide-type questions. Really fascinating stuff, from Homer through contemporary short-story writers (good choices). And the selections + questions seem to me to highlight both the strong and weak points of Virginia Postrel-type biotech-enthusiasts, Leon Kass-type bio-skeptics, and all between. I've added a couple of their picks to my reading lists. (Via Oxblog.)
THE VERTIGO TOUR OF SAN FRANCISCO: Via Rick McGinnis, who comments: "It's amazing to see how little the city has changed in some views, like the Brocklebank Apartments, or the intersection of Post and Stockton, where there's still a flower stand on the same spot after forty-five years. Sometimes the change is due to something as simple as trees maturing, as in the approach to Lincoln Park, but in other spots it's drastic, such as the former location of the St. Paulus Lutheran Church, which burned down and was replaced by some really dreary apartment blocks."
LINKS RE IRANIAN BLOGGER ARREST: Thomas Nephew has a host of email addresses. Relapsed Catholic has advice. Oxblog has a letter.
oh the blogwatch comes stepping along
he don't even break the branches
where he has gone...

InstaPundit: Anti-Patriot Act roundup. In case you somehow missed this.

Regions of Mind: "Christ is risen!" "Indeed He is risen!"

Rick McGinnis: Movies in Baghdad.

EDITED TO ADD: Sheep-Free Zone rightly provides a substantive slap upside the head to Oxblogger Patrick Belton, who wrote some really silly things about the whole Is-Daschle-Catholic affair. Long and link-rich post on Catholic politicians' responsibilities.

How come The Corner calls Robert Mugabe "Chirac's pal" but doesn't talk so much about Bush's pal, Prince Bandar? Wait, wait, the answer's coming to me... hang on... (Note: NRO has done some good pieces on the Saudis, certainly, but they don't bang the drums on this subject nearly as loud as I wish they did; and drum-banging on this topic is much more likely to do good than further Frog-bashing.)

Matthew Yglesias: "A lot of people question the motives of the Bush administration, and rightly so. Those people need to ask themselves, however, whether George Bush + Tony Blair + Vladimir Putin + The Communist Party of China + Jacques Chirac is any more trustworthy than George Bush alone. My spidey-sense tells me that the answer is 'no.' Chirac and Bush are two sides of the same oily nationalist-conservative coin, Putin is an authoritarian KGB operative, and the government of China has already brought the world such things as the government of China." Heh. It's just a short squib of a post, but tartly phrased.

Loving the Church in a Time of Scandal--haven't read yet, but looks good.
QUOTES FROM FIDES ET RATIO (with a splash of commentary from me):

"Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal." Here the Pope is pointing out that the ordinary experience of life, and especially the experiences of suffering and existential questioning, all but force philosophy on people. This search for answers begins in wonder (which is not always pleasant...) rather than in doubt, unlike, to use the most obvious example, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. This line strikes me as in line with the Pope's "theology of the body" in one significant way: He sees men and women as arrows, incomplete until they reach their target. Hence the "nuptial meaning of the body"--the body is directed toward its fulfillment in union with another. And hence the identification of living a "genuinely personal" life with "wonder": Wonder is what sets us off on our various personal quests, seeking our targets. So there is in some sense a nuptial meaning of the mind as well. More on this below.

"In effect, every philosophical system, while it should always be respected in its wholeness, without any instrumentalization, must still recognize the primacy of philosophical enquiry, from which it stems and which it ought loyally to serve." Yes!!! More on this when I write about political theory v. political philosophy.

"Modern philosophy clearly has the great merit of focusing attention upon man." I like this line because it comes in the middle of a strong criticism of modern philosophy, and so it forces us to think about the ways in which "humanism" is similar to and different from "personalism." Both focus attention upon man; I wonder (ha) if the major difference is that humanism lacks the "nuptial meaning of mind and body" and considers individuals as sufficient unto themselves. Not sure, but it's an interesting path to start down.

"The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt."

"It is rightly claimed that persons have reached adulthood when they can distinguish independently between truth and falsehood, making up their own minds about the objective reality of things." The Pope vs. conformity to culture--more of this comes later: "Human beings are not made to live alone. They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity. From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively. Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry."

"The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going?" More of philosophy as quest.

Right after the second passage about maturity and enquiry quoted above, we get this: "It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are 'recovered' as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning. Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

"In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring."

I found that really interesting because it connects certain failures of philosophy with failures to trust other people. Philosophy is best performed in a matrix of close friendships, and when there's no trust in those friendships there is so much less willingness to leave one's familiar practices and unexamined beliefs. Philosophy's demands are radical and life-changing, and people who have adopted a "once bitten, twice shy" attitude may find it harder to leave their few comforts. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom discusses the ways parental divorce made his students more cautious, less willing to give themselves not just to another person but to an idea; that obviously doesn't always happen (sometimes parental divorce makes people much more determined to give themselves fully, to find a place to set down their anchor) but it makes sense to me that it would happen for a lot of people.

"Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others." More on philosophy as self-giving and as necessarily embedded in a web of relationships.

"From all that I have said to this point it emerges that men and women are on a journey of discovery which is humanly unstoppable—a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves." There it is again.

"The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend,(29) and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Now that is a perspective on the principle of non-contradiction that I had not considered!

"As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself. In a spirit both sceptical and agnostic, some began to voice a general mistrust, which led some to focus more on faith and others to deny its rationality altogether." Yes, this is your ten-drachma tour of the history of philosophy (as one of my favorite professors would say), but I think it's an accurate summary from oh, say, the Black Death through Nietzsche.

"As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time. Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional." Two points of interest here: 1) Nihilism is attractive--it's not just a fallback, a sigh of exhaustion, a defeat. It's also a seduction--even if it's a Richard III/Lady Anne-style seduction. 2) There's the philosophical-commitment/personal-commitment parallel again, the divorce mentality in philosophy.

"It should also be borne in mind that the role of philosophy itself has changed in modern culture. From universal wisdom and learning, it has been gradually reduced to one of the many fields of human knowing; indeed in some ways it has been consigned to a wholly marginal role." Yes. Philosophy is a quest, not a department.

"Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so run the risk of no longer being a universal proposition. It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition." Yes!!!

"In synthesizing and solemnly reaffirming the teachings constantly proposed to the faithful by the ordinary Papal Magisterium, the First Vatican Council showed how inseparable and at the same time how distinct were faith and reason, Revelation and natural knowledge of God. ...Against all forms of rationalism, then, there was a need to affirm the distinction between the mysteries of faith and the findings of philosophy, and the transcendence and precedence of the mysteries of faith over the findings of philosophy. Against the temptations of fideism, however, it was necessary to stress the unity of truth and thus the positive contribution which rational knowledge can and must make to faith's knowledge: 'Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth'.(65)"

Am I the only person who hears a marriage metaphor in that? "Inseparable yet distinct"--a one-flesh union of two individuals. Couplehood. And the description of the relationship between faith and reason kind of sounds like standard Christian discussion of the husband/wife relationship, although I admit that's a stretch. I like the "wife" metaphor better than the "handmaiden" metaphor though (as in "philosophy is the handmaiden of theology")--might be more accurate.

"Nonetheless, in the light of faith which finds in Jesus Christ this ultimate meaning, I cannot but encourage philosophers—be they Christian or not—to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing." Yay, very JPII. Be not afraid!

In general F&R struck me as more focused than Veritatis Splendor (see below), which was something of a grab-bag, but VS contained more elements that I hadn't considered before. Nonetheless, the philosophy/trust stuff was cool, and surprising.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

NOLI IRRITARE LEONES has well-justified criticism (and possibly-justified praise!) of my Iraq/guns JWR piece. I could natter on about why I said the stuff I said, but it's really not relevant--she's right, I was wrong. Should have put more thought into the piece.
DAPPLED THINGS has an enormous amount of awesome stuff up.
AMAZING GRACE: Lyrics by John Newton, except for the last verse, which is by an unknown author--
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, Who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
I SAW THE LIGHT: Lyrics by Hank Williams Sr.--
I wandered so aimless life filled with sin
I wouldn't let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

I saw the light I saw the light
No more darkness no more night
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

Just like a blind man I wandered alone
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light.


I was a fool to wander and stray
Strait is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

"Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown in union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus."
--Romans 6:3-11 as read last night at the Easter Vigil

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"NO TO AMERICA. NO TO SADDAM." God only knows whether this will develop into something large and nasty, or simply sputter out, but it surely isn't good. Via Unqualified Offerings.
PROUSTBLOG. Via Rodney Welch.
STUFF FROM VERITATIS SPLENDOR that struck me for whatever reason: "Jesus' conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection: the young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom ('If you wish to be perfect') and God's gift of grace ('Come, follow me')." (in this post, all itals in original, all bolding mine)

"Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.(58) As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: 'Conscience has rights because it has duties.'"

"Taking up the words of Sirach, the Second Vatican Council explains the meaning of that 'genuine freedom' which is 'an outstanding manifestation of the divine image' in man: 'God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God'.(64) These words indicate the wonderful depth of the sharing in God's dominion to which man has been called: they indicate that man's dominion extends in a certain sense over man himself. This has been a constantly recurring theme in theological reflection on human freedom, which is described as a form of kingship. For example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: 'The soul shows its royal and exalted character... in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will. Of whom else can this be said, save a king?...'"

"The teaching of the Council emphasizes, on the one hand, the role of human reason in discovering and applying the moral law: the moral life calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. On the other hand, reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself."

"It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This 'something' is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being."

"It has been rightly pointed out that freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action; it is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one's own life for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against God. Emphasis has rightly been placed on the importance of certain choices which 'shape' a person's entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop."

"The unacceptability of 'teleological,' 'consequentialist' and 'proportionalist' ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behaviour, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today. ...Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever 'human meaning' one might claim to attribute, even in 'exceptional' conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. ...Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God's holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society."

"It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. Jn 19:34), that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God's holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships."

"It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy."
We were at the beach
Everybody had matching towels
Somebody went under a dock
And there they saw a blog
It wasn't a blog
It was a blog watcher...

The Agitator: Big Government vs. the banana. In the same post he describes the conditions under which, pace President Bush, the human being and fish cannot coexist peacefully. I am pretty sure the Agitator does think we can make the pie higher, though.

CalPundit: More on Teach for America and Emery Elementary.

Noli Irritare Leones is blogging her way through the Book of Kings. Via Camassia.

Regions of Mind: Fascinating stuff about the Rev. Jonathan Edwards. “Jonathan Edwards is sometimes criticized for having too dim a view of human nature, but it may be helpful to be reminded that his grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great-uncle was an ax-murderer.”

The Corner: Why is barring "political preaching" in the classroom a good thing? Seriously. Yes, many professors push their political beliefs in obnoxious ways. (And not just in the classroom: When I was at Yale, one professor caught a student--I think a student of his, but I'm not 100% sure--chalking a sidewalk advertisement for a pro-life demonstration on campus, and snapped, "I thought students at this school were educated!") But a classroom sanitized of political perspective is a classroom sanitized of philosophical and personal perspective, and I can't think why that would be good. Here I describe ways a professor can inject his own perspective in a way that engages rather than alienates his students.

Down, down...
THE NEW CITY JOURNAL includes this excellent piece from Theodore Dalrymple, on colonialism in Africa. Stanley Kurtz makes the connections to postwar Iraq here (and scroll up for more). Excerpts: "Like most of the people I met in Rhodesia, we tried to treat our staff well, providing extra help for them for the frequent emergencies of African life—for example illness among relatives. In return, they treated us with genuine solicitude. We assuaged our conscience by telling ourselves—what was no doubt true—that they would be worse off without our employ, but we couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the vast gulf between us and our fellow human beings.

"By contrast, our relations with our African medical colleagues were harder-edged, because the social, intellectual, and cultural distance between us was far reduced. Rhodesia was still a white-dominated society, but for reasons of practical necessity, and in a vain attempt to convince the world that it was not as monstrous as made out, it had produced a growing cadre of educated Africans, doctors prominent among them. Unsurprisingly, they were not content to remain subalterns under the permanent tutelage of whites, so that our relations with them were superficially polite and collegial, but human warmth was difficult or impossible. Many belonged secretly to the African nationalist movement that was soon to take power; and two were to serve (if that is the word to describe their depredations) as ministers of health.

"Unlike in South Africa, where salaries were paid according to a racial hierarchy (whites first, Indians and coloured second, Africans last), salaries in Rhodesia were equal for blacks and whites doing the same job, so that a black junior doctor received the same salary as mine. But there remained a vast gulf in our standards of living, the significance of which at first escaped me; but it was crucial in explaining the disasters that befell the newly independent countries that enjoyed what Byron called, and eagerly anticipated as, the first dance of freedom.

"The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe, and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family. Mere equality of salary, therefore, was quite insufficient to procure for them the standard of living that they saw the whites had and that it was only human nature for them to desire—and believe themselves entitled to, on account of the superior talent that had allowed them to raise themselves above their fellows.

"...Africans tend to find our lack of such [familial] obligations puzzling and unfeeling—and they are not entirely wrong.

"...The expansion of education in Tanzania, where I lived for three years, was indeed impressive. The literacy rate had improved dramatically, so that it was better than that of the former colonizing power, and it was inspiring to see the sacrifices villagers were willing to make to enable at least one of their children to continue his schooling. School fees took precedence over every other expenditure. If anyone doubted the capacity of the poor to make investments in their own future, the conduct of the Tanzanians should have been sufficient to persuade him otherwise. (I used to lend money to villagers to pay the fees, and—poor as they were—they never failed to repay me.)

"Unfortunately, there was a less laudable, indeed positively harmful, side to this effort. The aim of education was, in almost every case, that at least one family member should escape what Marx contemptuously called the idiocy of rural life and get into government service, from which he would be in a position to extort from the only productive people in the country—namely, the peasants from whom he had sprung.

"...Perhaps the most baleful legacy of British and other colonials in Africa was the idea of the philosopher-king, to whose role colonial officials aspired, and which they often actually played, bequeathing it to their African successors. Many colonial officials made great sacrifices for the sake of their territories, to whose welfare they were devoted, and they attempted to govern them wisely, dispensing justice evenhandedly. But they left for the nationalists the instruments needed to erect the tyrannies and kleptocracies that marked post-independence Africa. They bequeathed a legacy of treating ordinary uneducated Africans as children, incapable of making decisions for themselves. No attitude is more grateful to the aspiring despot.

"Take one example: the marketing boards of West Africa. Throughout West Africa, millions of African peasants under British rule set up small plantations for crops such as palm oil and cocoa. (Since cocoa trees mature only after five years, this is another instance of the African peasant’s ability both to think ahead and delay gratification by investment, despite great poverty.) Then the British colonial governments had the idea, benignly intended, of protecting the peasant growers from the fluctuations of the marketplace. They set up a stabilization fund, under the direction of a marketing board. In good years, the marketing board would withhold from the peasants some of the money their crops produced; in bad years, it would use the money earned in the good years to increase their incomes. With stable incomes, they could plan ahead.

"Of course, for the system to work, the marketing boards would have to have monopoly purchasing powers. And it takes little imagination to see how such marketing boards would tempt an aspiring despot with grandiose ideas such as Dr. Nkrumah: he could use them in effect to tax Ghana’s producers in order to fund his insane projects and to subsidize the urban population that was the source of his power, as well as to amass a personal fortune. A continent away, in Tanzania, Nyerere used precisely the same means to expropriate the peasant coffee growers: in the end causing them to pull up their coffee bushes and plant a little corn instead, which at least they could eat, to the great and further impoverishment of the country.

"The idea behind the marketing boards was a paternalist colonial one: that peasant farmers were too simple to cope with fluctuating prices and that the colonial philosopher-kings had therefore to protect them from such fluctuations—this despite the fact that it was the simple peasants who grew the commodities in the first place."

This issue of City Journal also includes a story on ACORN, the living-wage pushers, which is not so remarkable in itself but which includes this chewy little tidbit: "For more than a decade, ACORN has used foundation grants to start up its own New York public schools, something the Board of Ed sometimes allows community-based organizations to do. With warm-sounding names like the Bread and Roses High School, ACORN’s schools are political-indoctrination centers with mediocre academic records. Their curricula abound with 'social justice' themes that wouldn’t be out of place at an ACORN community organizers’ training school. Bread and Roses, for example, holds an annual 'Why Unions Matter' art project to 'teach students how labor unions work and what they do to support social change, economic growth and democratic principles.' The schools have even bused kids to Washington to demonstrate against 'tax cuts for the rich.'"
IF GUNS PREVENT TYRANNY, WHY DID ALL THOSE IRAQIS HAVE GUNS? My Jewish World Review column. Includes stuff about how different rights reinforce one another, and also includes the usual typo (I refer to "two connections" between American gun-rights debates and tyranny, but only had space to mention one connection--the other had to do with police refusal to protect minorities). Original title was "Guns of Baghdad" but the Clash reference seems to have been excised.
OK, HAVING GOTTEN THAT OUT OF MY SYSTEM... work and taxes have been keeping me away from the blog. I have a lot of things I'd like to write about but don't have the time or mental energy to do it right now. For now I'll point you in the direction of other cool things. Either Wednesday or Thursday, expect reviews of "Jezebel" and the Shakespeare Theatre's "Richard III"; lots of quotes from Veritatis Splendor, maybe with my commentary, maybe not; thoughts on looting; forgiveness and humor; and whatever else boils forth from my brain. Maybe a current-events Spenserian stanza, too! After Thursday, though, I will be maintaining radio silence until Easter Monday, for reasons that should be obvious.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003


(I am just a teeny, tiny bit bitter, having just filed my taxes. Connecticut is especially hated because 1) I don't even freakin' live there anymore, and 2) even though I owed them less money than anyone else, their forms were significantly more confusing. Given that Barbie could teach me math and the one thing that can send me into a frothing, Skeletor-like, mortal-sin-level rage faster than technology problems is bureaucracy, I really, truly, wildly, deeply hate complex tax forms. Did I mention I'm self-employed and reported income from something like seven or eight sources? Grrrrr.)

Thursday, April 10, 2003

IRAQ FUTURE NOTES: Last night I went to a roundtable on postwar Iraq, put on by the America's Future Foundation (a.k.a. "Free Food and Beer for the Right!"). John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation debated Charles Pena of Cato (although in the chunk that I saw, they were mostly agreeing). I missed Pena's opening presentation, sorry... Here are my notes; make of 'em what you will. Stuff in quotes, they said; stuff not in quotes is generally my paraphrasing of them unless I indicate differently:

[Hulsman:] "If you elect a stooge, you have to stay forever. Because that person has no credibility." Thus do not put in Iraqi exiles. They'll be hated/killed and we'll have to either abandon or go back--anarchy or empire--and either one of those options helps Al Qaeda recruit.

Is Iraq different from Clinton-era foreign policy adventures? It's economically viable (not like Haiti). It should end up with a confederation. "What Clinton did in every one of those cases where the state fell apart... is reinstate [impose?] a strong central government..." i.e. try the thing that just failed.

We should offer the Kurds a share in oil revenue for the first time, and a share in government for the first time. In return, they don't secede or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves.

We offer the Shi'a a share of their even greater oil revenue for the first time, plus share in government, and in return they don't let Iran make trouble, and guard the oil.

The Sunni are the most pro-Saddam. We offer them the rebuilding of Baghdad (i.e. we will do it, but it will benefit them most), a good chunk of the oil revenue, the promise that we will leave them alone after successful de-Ba'athization, and--I quote--"We will prevent the [Iraqis] you oppressed from eviscerating you." That's a pretty good deal considering what they've been doing for the past few decades.

[Pena, in response to questions:] "Iran next" is a very bad move--an attempt at "just add water" liberalization--by trying to liberalize (they both used "democratize" but it sounded like "liberalize" was more accurate) too fast you end up with nothing. Invading Iran would destroy the nascent freedom movement there.

[Hulsman:] Saddam is not insane. He has normal, rational geopolitical aim: regional dominance. That's why he fought the Iran/Iraq War, that's why he invaded Kuwait. He has not been wrong... until now. Yeah, he lost insofar as he didn't win, but he didn't lose anything he couldn't afford to lose. Lots of lives; bupkes to him as long as he never took the big dive. Lots of money; shrug, he owns the whole country. So he kept trying to get into a position where Iraq would be the biggest player in OPEC, so he could pressure the Saudis. So now we imagine that he gets a nuke. He invades Kuwait again. The price of oil triples. The European economy tanks. The U.S. economy plummets. Chaos. And what happens if we threaten him with--anything? Invasion? Nuclear war? Oh right, sure. How many allies would we have in such a threat? Nobody. We had a hard enough time rounding 'em up now, there's no way we could have gotten them with another Hiroshima at stake. So, Saddam had been playing one game for two decades, and despite all the defeats he was inching closer to winning.

(Eve adds: So the argument here is that Saddam Hussein was not deterrable, not because he's nuts, but because he wouldn't believe we would hit him--we didn't do it before.)

Hulsman: "The most important thing is to be as transparent as we can about the oil."

You must reward (with a role in the redevelopment) people in the coalition who stuck their necks out--Aznar, Poland, Romania. (Eve adds: Presumably Blair also.) If you don't reward them, what incentive structure are you setting up? Next time no one will help you. And if you give France or Germany a role, what incentive structure are you setting up? Next time everyone will be against you, because you will have led them to expect that there will be no penalties for crossing you. Don't let France, Germany get away with opposing the war and then profiting from it.

Pena: The role of the United Nations isn't significantly different now from what it was two years ago, except that now it's obvious that the UN is "convenient when it's convenient, and ...ignored when it's not." (Eve adds: But that obviousness, the on-the-table-ness of it, does strike me as a significant difference. Acknowledging something like UN impotence/irrelevance reinforces it. That's OK by me, see my previous statement about the UN as the United Governments and sometimes the United Dictators.)

Pena had opposed the war beforehand but is now basically trying to wring some good effects out of what he still believes was a bad decision. He argues that North Korea learned the lesson of Iraq: Get nukes ASAP in order to prevent regime change.

(Eve: Both of 'em beat "neocons" like red-headed stepchildren. Neocons couldn't find a friend at that table.) Hulsman: "The problem with neocons is that they're like a drunken gambler at Las Vegas--every time they win, they double down. And eventually they're going to lose. And when they lose, we lose."

Eve: The main mood of the event: cautiously hopeful, emphasis on cautious. Lots and lots of talk about the US's track record of losing the peace. Photos of sweet Iraqi girls waving American flags were passed around, but the general atmosphere was resolutely sober.
"PASS/FAIL": The story of two college grads who entered Teach for America and were dumped into DC's dysfunctional school system. One is Josh Kaplowitz, who wrote "How I Joined Teach for America--And Got Sued for $20 Million" for City Journal.

Excerpts: "Teachers are forever leaving this place: One says she'll never teach again; another says this wasn't teaching, it was guard duty; still another never really knew how rewarding his profession could be until he got out of here and into a different system. The principal is gone -- demoted, transferred -- another name remembered with a grumble and a shake of the head, one of five principals who passed through Emery Elementary School in two years, a roller coaster of raised and dashed hopes. One mom says things are getting much better, but immediately asks for advice on how to get her child out -- now.

"...When I asked people to describe what the school was like, three teachers, two mothers and an administrator each separately chose the same words: 'The inmates ran the asylum.'

"...'Every day for three months, I thought, "This is not working,"' Ehrmann says. 'They curse at you, and, at first, I played the game. I would raise my voice, send them to the office. And they'd be bounced right back to me.

"'Our school was bereft of a discipline system -- period.'

"...'She made it clear that the children were in charge,' says Wallace, who estimates he spent 80 percent of his classroom time trying to maintain order.

..."'Mr. Kaplowitz was totally inexperienced,' Walcott continues, 'and he thought he could conquer the world. But at least he wanted to push our children. I appreciated that, even if it was threatening to some of our parents.'

"...Meanwhile, two doors away, Nick Ehrmann stood frustrated and disappointed before a room full of children with similar troubles and behaviors. But one of those maddening moments pushed Ehrmann to a breakthrough.

"It happened when his students were supposed to order copies of the class photograph and only three brought in the fee. Something pivoted in Room 312. 'I just decided they were missing out on documenting their childhood,' Ehrmann says. So he brought in his own camera and started taking pictures of his students. Every week, he would show the results to the children, and soon, he was encouraging them to make their own pictures."

Basically, Ehrmann passes and Kaplowitz fails--but the stories of the other teachers, which you only glimpse along the edges of the Teach for America stories, strike me as even more indicative of the system's crisis. I'd like to read a story about the teachers who stay while new TFA novices cycle through the schoolroom doors year after year.
THREE MOMENTS: Thrilling picture series. Report on the ongoing humanitarian efforts at Umm Qasr. Caution about returning veterans of a just war. First two links via Oxblog, last via Regions of Mind.
DICTATORSHIPS AND DISEASE. How the Chinese government's hatred of Taiwan is helping spread SARS.
I'M A TOTAL SHANK. Have been forgetting, for weeks and weeks, to tell you that Amy Welborn is back to regular blogging. She's basically turned her site into a Catholic warblog. If you are interested in that, you probably know this already! --but just in case, I figured I'd slap a note here on the blog. Go, read!
"Faith in 'progress'--in the lower spheres of intelligence appears as ascending life; but this is self-deception; in the higher spheres of intelligence as descending life.

"Description of the symptoms.

"Unity of point of view: uncertainty about standards of value.

"Fear of a general 'in vain.'


--Will to Power

OK, WTP is basically Nietzsche's notes, so it's often hard to tell precisely what he was getting at, and this snippet is no exception. But given the other things he's been saying in this section, here's what I think this note means: The belief in "progress"--in history as a slow but unstoppable movement toward some good goal--is a symptom of the decay of belief in particular standards of value (e.g. religion). People no longer have a fixed standard of value by which they can judge life (and this is good--Nietzsche believes that to judge life according to some outside standard is necessarily to condemn life; that's why modern science gets grouped with other forms of "asceticism" in the Genealogy of Morals). But they are not ready to accept that there is no purpose or direction to life. So they basically abdicate their responsibility to create values by abdicating their freedom: Let History take care of everything! I can just sit back and watch the sweep of destiny.

And that perspective rapidly becomes unsatisfying, and they are left with complete nihilism--no purpose that they themselves seek out, and no purpose that they will be forced to whether they like it or not. So they're left in purposelessness, and since they've already decided to condemn life if it has no purpose, they have to condemn life.

Most of Nietzsche's positive project is an attempt to suggest, more musically than philosophically, what it looks like to knowingly give purpose to a purposeless life. He's trying, I think, to evoke a response from people who feel themselves to be potential value-creators, givers of value. This notion of the self as a giver of value is one of the aspects of his thought that I think closes him off from an accurate understanding of love or awe; part of the point of awe, especially, but also love, is that it makes no sense if the beloved is a blank slate painted with value by the lover. Oh so much more on this here. Anyway, I found what you might call the psychoanalysis of this note interesting--the way it describes the roots of historicism--so that's why I blogged it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

JUSTICE, MERCY, AND THE FALL: Have been thinking a lot recently about justice and mercy, especially about the famous Adam Smith tagline, "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent." Here is a very much unformed thought about that, for you to handle as you wish.

In a lot of ways, contemporary political debate caricatures the left as the party of mercy and the right as the party of justice. Leftists want to free prisoners, end war, give poor people money and things, treat everyone equally, and protect kids' self-esteem; right-wingers want to kill bad guys (domestic and foreign), give people only the money and things that they earn, treat people according to their deeds, and punish or hold back kids who haven't done what they should. So goes the stereotype, anyway.

Smith's quote points out some of the ways that naive or misapplied mercy can become itself merciless, thoughtlessly cruel--an obvious example would be freeing a murderer who then kills more people. Many of the debates about how widespread welfare affects culture and creates perverse incentives revolve around more subtle examples of Smith's principle. Policing may seem like a "justice" act, but live in an unpoliced neighborhood for a while and you'll see that it can also be a great mercy to a populace terrorized by criminals.

But justice isn't just merciful to the innocent. It can also be a means of keeping the guilty from doing further harm--and thus a blessing in disguise to them. Chastisement can provoke repentance. Chastisement can force self-examination. It doesn't always do that, of course, but anyone who's seen how children behave when they receive no discipline, no training in accepting justice, should be able to see the point of justice. Mercy, when construed against justice, takes all kinds of distorted forms, from relativism (who are you to tell me what I'm doing is wrong? who are you to judge?) to utilitarianism (compassion trumps everything, and compassion is construed as the avoidance of suffering--cf. the statue of "Comfort" outside the euthanasia site in A Canticle for Leibowitz).

So that is the argument "from the right." But then there's Hamlet's quick, harsh rejoinder: "Use each man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" As I see it, that quote captures the central problem with both the "justice is greater than mercy" viewpoint (the "give 'em what they deserve--no less but definitely no more" stance) and the "mercy trumps justice" viewpoint (the "but it hurts!" stance). Both stances avoid grappling with the consequences of the Fall.

The mercy-uber-alles stance is based, I think, on an unwarranted faith in human goodness, such that if you treat people nicely they will be nice in return; it's good to give people what they want, because what they want is good; and suffering is always bad, thus if something makes you suffer it can't possibly be true, noble, or necessary.

But the justice-trumps-mercy stance is also flawed, because it divides the world into the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, and if you ever fall off the cliff into BadGuyLand, that's it for you--you'll get what you deserve. If you have a kid out of wedlock, don't expect my help--you should have kept your pants zipped. If you rob a store, don't expect me to visit you in prison, bring books to the prison library, or give you a second chance--I ought to ostracize you, both to maintain the disincentives to robbery and because you earned it. What have the sheep to do with the goats?

There are a lot of problems with this view, but perhaps the most obvious one is just that there is no one who does not need mercy. In life as in film noir, no one is innocent. Hamlet is right. "Oh, sure, fine," you may say, "everybody makes mistakes. But the stuff I've done wrong is just, you know, little stuff, not like the really awful stuff that puts people beyond the pale, the stuff that makes them forfeit any mercy." Well, yes, everyone likes to think that her own particular train of petty or not-so-petty deceits, cruelties, betrayals, and failures are mere trivia. This is why we lie to our diaries. But an honest review of our own lives should provide ample evidence for the prosecution (and I've noticed that the people who lead the best lives--the ones who really soar above decency into honor--virtually never consider themselves better-than, or even good-enough, or one of the "sheep"). I don't think this claim can be argued for, really--it has to be lived through--so I won't say more about it, except to say that we should learn mercy and humility from the times when we, or our loved ones, have needed them from others. (As for the claim that some people are Just Evil, it might be helpful to inquire why we are so certain that we would have done the right thing given the situation and some rough degree of personality similarities--would we have become Wei Jingsheng, or Deng Xiaoping? What about everyone we love? If we would want them to receive mercy--even if we knew they must also receive justice--how can we deny mercy to another?)

One of the things I found most attractive in Christianity (admittedly this is a long list) was its constant references to metaphors of marriage, union, communion. And one of the most powerful examples of that is the Christian belief (spelled out in St. Anselm's terrific treatise Cur Deus Homo) that the Incarnation and Crucifixion were God's way of marrying justice and mercy, being both fully just and fully merciful. In the words of the Psalmist, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Psalm 85:10).

Like I said, scattered thoughts, possibly in need of revision. I hope to post tomorrow on forgiveness and humor.

Monday, April 07, 2003

BLOGFEST QUICKIE: The fest was fun. Greasy food was eaten, new bloggers were met, intriguing stuff was discussed. I'd like to blog sometime soon about a conversation/argument I had with Eugene Volokh about the legal/common-law vs. the philosophical approach, but I have neither the time nor the mental acuity for that right now. So instead I'll just tell you who was there. It was a heavily legal gathering: Law types included Gary O'Connor of StatConBlog, the statutory construction blog; John Rosenberg of Discriminations; Dave Tepper; Der Volokh. Representing the lawless world were Thomas Nephew; Quare; Unqualified and Mrs. Offerings; and me. Also one guy whose URL I didn't get, and whose name is an Eastern European thing that I lamely can't recall (used to be Katz). Please email me if you see this!!!
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC... but not everyone is as useful and charming a critic as Tepper, who points out that my most recent JWR column was... less than maximally coherent. He's right. I tried to clarify in the comments box; this link, to an earlier post on a related topic, might help too. Or maybe not.
DIVERSITY AND UNITY IN EDUCATION: This post from temporary Volokhonspirator (hmm, sounds too much like a dinosaur really) Eric Muller is right but not right enough. Muller notes, "[M]y own personal experience of teaching for four years at a racially homogeneous law school (the University of Wyoming) and now at a racially integrated one (UNC) tells me that racial diversity does in fact contribute importantly to full and rigorous discussion and debate in a law school classroom." I expect in many situations that's accurate; while race isn't a terrific proxy for diversity of experience and perspective plus ability to articulate that experience and perspective, it is a partial proxy.

The unanswered questions, though, are: 1) Are there other proxies for diversity of experience and perspective that would be equally or more useful to the university classroom? (e.g. diversity of economic background, religious belief, political view, regional background, national origin?)

2) Is it possible to cut the use of proxies entirely, perhaps by relying more heavily on essays and interviews? (That's part of what my earlier post, linked below, explores.)

3) Is the educational value gained from diversity greater than the educational value gained from unity? By "unity" I don't just mean the lack of diversity--I mean an actual, consciously chosen similarity in viewpoint among students. For example, when I was a freshman I took a course on the history of Christian doctrine. I'm about 95% sure that I was the only non-Christian in my section, if not in the class. One of the reasons the class was so great was the sense of a common project: All of us (including me) were convinced that understanding this material was crucial to our futures. A high degree of cultural unity can provide some of the same sense of a common project, though less pronounced and less conscious, therefore probably less intellectually stimulating; I would guess that that's part of what students are seeking when they choose historically black colleges, with race again being used as a proxy for experience and perspective.

More on affirmative action here. A big post on college admissions and affirmative action, ending with what I think is a good way to combine the benefits of unity and the benefits of diversity, here.
FILM NOIR QUERY: Just finished The Noir Style, an excellent collection of telling shots from noir movies, with just enough commentary to be useful without being intrusive. I'm very, very interested in analyses of film noir (from narrative, motif/imagery, lighting, camera angle, character, really any perspectives at all), so if you have a favorite site or book, I'd greatly appreciate an email. Thanks!

The only noir Net site I know of is "The Dark Room," which is a lot of fun but not much more than a diversion.
TECHNICAL QUERY: Somehow, I hit some keys randomly (was trying to balance a book on the keyboard--reading while a website loaded--stupid stupid...), and now lots of the fonts on my screen are vaster than a right-wing conspiracy. I have maybe selected "high-contrast large font"?? But when I tried to undo that in the "display" menus, nothing happened. (I clicked on "normal font," then rebooted. No change. Fonts still unnaturally large.) Any ideas? This is a mere annoyance, but I'd like it fixed nonetheless.
MORE ON "THE VIRTUE OF HATE": Kesher Talk has a good round-up post, and links to this excellent discussion from the very cool-looking blog Baraita.
VERY SWEET second item.
DEAR_SALAM. A blog of letters to Salam Pax.
"On the second floor [of the Army Museum in Beijing], we entered a room filled with bronze busts. Here were the heroes of the Chinese revolution, from Chairman Mao to President Jiang Zemin. The "Ten Marshals"... were there. So were Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and General Zhu De. As a fraternal gesture, the North Korean "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung was smiling benevolently from his pedestal. And there, perhaps as a salute to another authoritarian Chinese leader, was a scowling Lee Kuan Yew, scourge of the Singaporean Communist movement, standing among the Communist rulers of China. It all looked extraordinarily old-fashioned yet still menacing, all these bronze balls of power.

"I heard laughter. It was my Italian friend. 'Listen to this,' he said as he knocked his hand against Deng Xiaoping's head. A hollow sound echoed through the room. I tried it too, and started knocking Lee Kuan Yew, then Kim Il Sung, then Mao himself. We went about the room like children who had discovered a new game, knocking one great leader after another. And all of them sounded hollow, for they were made to look like bronze but in fact were made of plastic."

--Buruma, Bad Elements

Friday, April 04, 2003

DOLLARS AND DISSENTS. My Jewish World Review column, on consumerism, and stuff.
MARYLINKS: Vast trove. Found 'em in my referrer logs.
STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR: Ah, disturbing search requests... (click at own risk, by the way.) Here are some of the search-engine queries that have brought people to this fine weblog in the preceding months. Roughly in order of my preference, from least funny to funniest (not all of these were Google searches, but I can't remember where they all came from, so I'll just give you the Google links):
sexy comics ferocious english
alien hallowing e-cards
keep hell beautiful
infant marsupial journey
aggressor language esperanto
phoney bead patterns
sibilance in poetry implies
young girls looking for oil
twisted freak show
awesome thesis of school prayer
elephant joke trauma
false eye lash fetish
madeup theories of society
vivid bold fascinating
understanding Chinese women
heteropatriarchy causes capitalism
metacrock AND feminism
homosexuality wind in the willows mole rat
another poem about snow sometimes looking forward
passages in the bible on the apocalypse crabs
Leo Strauss nude

and the all-time most cryptic search request I have ever seen: although how
"...The Chinese ideal was rule by virtuous men, not by law. The law was an instrument for officials to control the people, which is why some argue that benevolent authoritarianism is more natural to China than democracy, that Jiang Zemin is more 'Chinese' than 'bourgeois liberals' such as He [Qinglian] and [Martin] Lee.

"In fact, however, Chiense thinkers reflected on the rule of law and how to limit the power of rulers long before bourgeois liberalism or communism were even thought of. Huang Zongxi, a seventeenth-century scholar, wrote a famous treatise, entitled Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince, that somewhat resembles Machiavelli, even in its title. But more to the point, Huang was wrestling with some of the very same issues that exercise liberals in China today. Once, he says, princes were unselfish guardians of the empire's well-being, but that was long ago. Now, once a ruler had attained absolute power, 'he clubbed and flayed the bones and marrow of the empire, and he scattered the sons and daughters of the empire, in order to provide for his own sensual pleasure. He deemed it natural, and said that this was the profit from his own business.'

"And here is Huang's solution: 'Should it be said that 'there is only governance by men, not governance by law,' my reply is that only if there is governance by law can there be governance by men. Since unlawful laws fetter man hand and foot, even a man capable of governing cannot overcome inhibiting restraints and suspicions.'

"By unlawful laws, Huang meant dynastic laws, which only served the interests of the imperial family. Rulers, in his view, should be subject to higher laws, devised by the ancient sages Confucius and Mencius and administered by learned mandarins. That Huang, a Han Chinese, resented being ruled by a dynasty of Manchus no doubt had something to do with this opinion, as did his desire to strengthen the position of scholar-officials like himself. But still, his ideas, which were to have a profound influence on the republican revolutionaries less than three hundred years later, illustrate that Chinese also understood how law could be the most effective tool to limit the inevitable excesses of absolute power."

--Buruma, Bad Elements

Thursday, April 03, 2003

UPDATE TO MEANNESS/POETRY POST: UO wonders if we disagree. We don't. He's right. I'm still thinking about what to call the thing I think Hoagland is trying to praise; will blog if I come up with anything cool.

ANOTHER UPDATE: For pity's sake, could I possibly have written more convoluted sentences in that freakin' meanness post? I need to curb that.
AWESOME, AWESOME TRIBUTE TO THE COLOSSAL SQUID. Seriously, click now, all ye who love the vast beasties of the deep.

I fell in love with the giant squid (again I note that these huge critters are smaller than the colossal squid under discussion) when I saw the pickled one at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Never saw a reason to reconsider my wonder at the great chieftains o' the squidly race.
UTTERLY RANDOM THOUGHT (BOOK RECOMMENDATION): There are a lot of reasons I rave about how good The Secret History is. (Donna Tartt's, not Procopius's, although the latter is fun too if you like ferocious accounts of sixth-century court scandals.) Vivid writing; exactly as lurid as I wanted it to be; captures the feeling of entering a world in which every gesture and joke is a meaningful and often sinister allusion to past offenses, or a tactical strike in an ongoing, covert factional war. But one of the main reasons I love this book is that it presents education as the search for ecstasy. There are two competing versions of ecstasy in the book: the drug-addled weekend self-forgetting that is itself forgotten during the week, and the central characters' attempt to revive ancient mysteries. I don't think it's revealing too much to say that neither one of these options ultimately achieves what the main characters are seeking. But the belief that education is spurred by and involves a search for ecstasy, a sublime standing outside oneself, strikes me as exactly right; and Tartt's portrayal of different versions of that search also struck me as pretty much right-on. (No, I have not read her new book, because it sounded lame. Sigh.)

I would link to a piece I did for the Yale Free Press on this very topic, but Yale's finest publication seems to have destroyed its archives in order to save them. Oh well. Will fix link if/when undergrads revamp website.
POETRY THURSDAY THURSDAY: From George Herbert. Got what I think is the most famous line from this poem stuck in my head earlier today. The formatting is totally off because I don't know how to do it right in Blogger, sorry, that's just an awful thing to do to Herbert. It's "Affliction (IV)."

Broken in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat'ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God ! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav'n, and much more, Thee.
POETRY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY: The Williams poem referred to below. "Last Words of My English Grandmother."

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her small table
near the rank, disheveled bed---

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat---
They're starving me---
I'm all right I won't go
to the hospital. No, no, no

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please---

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher---
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear---
Oh you think you're smart
you young people,

she said, but I'll tell you
you don't know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy--looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.
GOLDEN MEAN? Unqualified Offerings posted an essay from Poetry Daily, "Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People." Although I think Hoagland identifies some real problems with confessional poetry, ultimately I don't think the essay gets beyond those problems; and Hoagland seems confused about what "mean" actually means.

The paragraph UO quotes is sharp and on target: "In fact, it's significant that ugly-truth-tellers are much more common in our fiction than our poetry. Much of our mainstream poetry is confined by an ethic of sincerity and the unstated wish to be admired (if not admired, liked; if not liked, sympathized with). American poetry still largely believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker. And, for all the freedom and 'opening up' engendered by Confessionalism, to be uninhibitedly mean, we all know, is itself prohibited. Welcome to Poetry City: Hurt someone's feelings: Go to jail."

But that paragraph is the best part of the essay (not counting the fact that it turned me on to the poem blogged above). The rest of it meanders through various definitions of meanness: "the willingness to be offensive," being a "ruthless observer," being "the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts" (are second thoughts impeding, or can they also help us free ourselves from thoughtless, conformist, or predictable first reactions?), a refreshing menace that makes us sit up and take notice of what the poem is doing, anarchic bad manners (um, personally I find the studied anarchy of confessionalism one of its biggest flaws...), a "willingness to make the occasional stabbing motion" (oddly trivializing), the bursting forth of a "suppressed truth" (complete with pop-Freudian metaphors of repression; yipe), and much more. (Kafka's parables are great, but I have only the fuzziest notion of how they snuck into this essay as examples of "metaphysical meanness." At this point I began to suspect that Hoagland just says "mean" when he means "good," "unexpected," or "painfully insightful." Is everything that hurts to read--the way taking a breath of very high mountain air knifes the throat and lungs--"mean"? How come? Is this post mean, or is it only mean if you think I'm right?)

At one point meanness expresses an aloof stance, looking down on the rest of us--"poems which view humanity from a chilly altitude, with great clarity but little charity"; at another point the mean poet is "not retired from the battles of selfhood, removed to some philosophical resort where experience can be codified in tranquility. She or he is still down in the dirty human valley, fighting it out with the rest of us." These are, like, radically different, my friend.

"Mean" poetry that implicates the speaker--like the harsh, wry William Carlos Williams poem Hoagland quotes--tacitly acknowledges some truths that Hoagland suppresses. (Maybe one way to put this is that I think Williams's portrayal of the grandmother is harsh but not cruel--she is almost the opposite of the caricature I slammed in "Willard," for starters.) Hoagland writes, "Meanness clears the air of sanctimony, falsehood and denial, of our sentimental, ideological wishes about how things are alleged to be. Because it does not intend to forgive nor ask forgiveness, because it does not imagine reconciliation as an end, meanness has an advantage over other kinds of discourse."

I don't know about you, but I generally find people who present themselves as unwilling to forgive nor ask forgiveness to be sanctimonious in the extreme--it's called self-righteousness. A poem need not incorporate the moment of asking forgiveness in order to attain the basic truth that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God"; but a poem that seems to be part of a strategy for exempting the poet from condemnation or from the humiliating necessity of forgiving and asking forgiveness strikes me as self-centered, self-deceptive, and almost self-mutilating--cutting oneself off from some of the most important things a poet could talk about.

Part of the problem is that Hoagland still, relentlessly, focuses on the character of the poet--a legacy of the confessionalism he half-rejects. It's still all about whether the poet is "mean" or "nice"; the only difference is that for Hoagland mean is better. This gives poets no guide, first of all, no way to figure out how they could make better poems. "Be meaner" is not nearly as helpful as "figure out what it is you are really seeing," for example, since sometimes what you are really seeing will not be "mean enough" for those seeking meanness. Hoagland's vision of the purpose of poetry, in this essay, shifts between "tell the truth" (fair enough) and a more ingrown approach focused on shoring up the poet's self-image as a taboo-breaking truth-teller (booooorrrrring).

(For the record, I should note that I don't really expect a quick essay to include a comprehensive theory of the purpose of poetry; I expect Hoagland's actual beliefs on the subject are a lot more nuanced and accurate than the hints he drops in this piece. So these are thoughts spurred by this one particular essay, not an attempted takedown of Hoagland, or whatever.)

If "meanness" is a Socratic willingness to deny the gods of the city; if it's a willingness to follow one's thoughts to their conclusions, rather than drawing back for fear of giving offense; if it's painful observation, a willingness to follow Lear onto the heath, to howl when howling is needed, to cauterize one's audience or oneself; to give oneself and others something more than what we want; then I'm there. If "meanness" is a belief that truth is opposed to charity, that the artist is beyond good and evil (and thus it's OK to be cruel in art because hey, it's great art, who are you to stand in its way?), or that destruction is cooler than creation, I think that's stupid, and highly unlikely to produce good rather than self-indulgent poetry. Hoagland mostly means the former stance, I think, but his language tends to confuse it with the latter.