Thursday, May 29, 2003

HAVE YOU STARTED A SMALL BUSINESS? Do you want to talk about it, and brainstorm ways to make the process easier? I'd greatly appreciate it if you'd email me at Thanks!
COMING ATTRACTIONS: Sorry for the light blogging. Work and stuff got in the way (boo, hiss!). Tomorrow, I hope to post on: resolving the "confirmation wars" (judicial confirmations)--why it won't happen any time soon, and why Lawrence Solum is a bit less than half right; questions about assurance of salvation; tentative, possible answers to the Hayekian anti-war argument a.k.a. "If the government can pre-emptively strike in Iraq, why can't it provide universal health care?"; and "The Matrix: Reloaded," Foucault, and how radical feminism destroys language. Fun stuff! It's also possible that I will blog about the sacrament of confession, but don't count on it.
YET MORE INTERESTING MATRIXBLOGGING FROM THE OLIGARCH. This movie is much more interesting to think about than to watch...! Spoilers aplenty, be forewarned.
"There it is, the unicorn thought, feeling the first spidery touch of sorrow on the inside of her skin. That is how it will be to travel with a mortal, all the time. 'No,' she replied. 'I cannot turn you into something you are not, no more than the witch could. I cannot turn you into a true magician.'

"'I didn't think so,' Schmendrick said. 'It's all right. Don't worry about it.'

"'I'm not worrying about it,' the unicorn said."

--The Last Unicorn

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

"THE SAND GOES PIT-PAT IN THE GLASS": Your Spenserian stanza for Poetry Wednesday. I have twenty minutes to finish this before Thursday rolls around! It was initially inspired by the reports of looting at the Iraqi National Museum and the Library, but its point is, I think, broader.

Each year the sea chews further up the beach;
The tide that never ebbs, the years that seize,
Draw things unreachable more out of reach:
The way the Romans really said their V's,
The songs the Vikings sang on Viking seas--
Our ignorance is sea-deep, old, and vast.
We live conditioned; therefore, on our knees.
Learn from the past detachment from the past.
Time is regret; eternity alone will last.
"UNBREAKABLE": Just saw this the other night. Good movie, not great-with-a-capital-G, but very fast-paced and engaging. I expect Maggie Gallagher would appreciate the statement about the lengths we're willing to go to in order to find our role, our place in the world. I was really glad I rented this.
IN THE FLESH: "There's something very weird about a Christian simultaneously believing that his Lord fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and believing that self-mortification is a weird and alien thing imposed on Catholics by the Evil Church Hierarchy[TM]. Any stigma to beat a dogma, I guess." Excellent comments-box discussion, as well. I need to read Mark Shea more often, I think.
THE CONGO. Amygdala blogs on the atrocities there. Very much worth your time.
VOLOKH VS. THE HARM PRINCIPLE, in re sex, and other stuff. A long way of giving the conventional wisdom; but might be very useful for people enamored of the h. p. For my part, I believe that the harm principle is harmful, thus it should be banned, or at least its use should be strictly regulated. Do it for the children.
VAST "MATRIX RELOADED" POST FROM THE OLD OLIGARCH, with excellent discussion of the nature of freedom and will. I remain super-unsold on this movie but the post is definitely worth a read.
"The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone."
--Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

MAN IS WOLF TO MAN: Horror shows in Saddam's Iraq, and in Uzbekistan. Don't read the first link, especially, if you are not sure you can handle graphic description of evil. As far as policy goes, I make zero claim to understand the reasons behind or possible justifications for US aid and friendly relations with the Uzbek dictator. It may, though I'm skeptical right now, be a necessary alliance (a la Stalin in WWII) and one in which we're doing what we can to pressure the regime. It may not. At any rate, the link above is a starting point.
MOVIE MISTAKES now includes movie trivia. Some neat stuff in there.
U.S. YOUTHS REBEL AT HARSH SCHOOL. Update to my "Casa by the Sea/subcontracting child abuse" post. Seriously, keep your eye on this stuff. Tracking the political ties in the US, especially, is something I'd love to assign a reporter to. Link via Matthew Yglesias.
"But we must still consider a few other names and images for that perduring element that continues on after the act of sinning is over. For instance, the tradition speaks of a condition of bondage and imprisonment that the soul has brought upon itself by sinning--a view that seems especially convincing to raw experience. Once more we quote from the journals of Andre Gide, who knows this experience well: 'The Evil One kidnaps us for his cause and puts us in his service. Who dares to speak of liberation here? ...As if vice were not more tyrannical than duty!'"
--Josef Pieper, The Concept of Sin

Monday, May 26, 2003

THREE WAYS TO REMEMBER ON MEMORIAL DAY. I haven't investigated any of these places, but the basic idea is great. I'll also pitch the Special Ops Foundation yet again.
THE BEST OF CRAIG'S LIST. Some of this is hilarious. "to the beautiful woman whose dog i drop-kicked this morning"... Via Kesher Talk.
LARGE AND LINKALICIOUS post from Kesher Talk in re prospects for a liberal-democratic Palestine. Worth your time.
READING RORTY IN TEHRAN: Finished Azar Nafisi's new autobiography, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Highly recommended. Nafisi was a professor of English literature in Iran, who grew up before the Revolution; lived through the Ayatollah's rise to power, the Iran/Iraq War, and the aftermath; taught an underground literature class for women; and recently immigrated to the US. The book would be fascinating for her life story alone. Her eye for detail and her sense of pacing (especially noticeable in the first sections of the book) only add to the attraction. She occasionally overwrites, like many of her favorite novelists (paging Mr. Henry James, Mr. James, please meet your party at the information desk), but generally she keeps the ol' lush rhetoric and abstraction-mongering in check.

My larger problem with the book was a philosophical one. Nafisi comes pretty close to endorsing the view of literature that Richard Rorty espoused in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Nafisi makes her case much better than Rorty did, in large part because she's a more careful reader (please don't get me started on CI&S's bizarre attempt to draft Philip Larkin into Rorty's sweetness-and-light-brigade). But the basic stance is the same, and while its attractions are obvious it's got several huge problems.

The basic idea is that literature gains much of its value from the way it enlarges our sphere of sympathies. We learn to really listen to people who are very different from us; we learn to eschew cruelty by thinking, not of "how would it feel if Billy did it to you?", but of "how did it feel when they did it to your favorite character?" Reading fiction enlarges our imaginations; specifically, it makes us imagine the inner lives of other people, and so it makes us more reluctant to hurt them, more willing to allow them space in which to carve out their own lives.

Nafisi often puts this in terms of dreams: The Islamic Republic imposed its own, utopian-totalitarian dream upon its subjects, just as Humbert Humbert imposes his dream of Lolita on Dolores Haze. Both, by imposing their dreams by force, act with great cruelty. Eventually the victims' own dreams are all but replaced by the dreams of the oppressors; there is some space for the victim to maintain some selfhood, but not much. Nafisi often talks about the way her students could barely imagine themselves outside the hated constraints of the Islamic Republic--the ayatollahs left their fingerprints all over her students' imaginations.

It's obvious that this insight is true. My trouble is that it is only part of the truth. Here are four reasons to be wary of the Nafisi-, and especially of the Rorty-, view of literature's role in our lives:

1) Literature is a complex beast that can have all kinds of effects on its readers, some less savory and less gentle than the ones Rorty and Nafisi describe. For example, many people who love literature retreat into it for an escape from the world; such people have a very hard time forgiving the actual, everyday people around them for not being as deep and meaningful as the characters in books. Reading fiction can be a means of shutting oneself away from other people, retreating into dreams that destroy the possibility of full connection and sympathy with others.

2) If you turn to literature to enhance your empathy, you are very likely to find that your empathy is only enhanced toward the kind of people who are empathetic in literature! In other words, your empathy and your desire to provide help will be most fully engaged for articulate, insightful, writerly, or intriguing people--and none of those characteristics, I note, is a moral characteristic. The most articulate and interesting person in a dispute is not guaranteed to be right. Moreover, these people already have natural advantages--after all, they're articulate and interesting! Do they really need you to work hard at engaging your sympathy on their behalf? What about the unpleasant, the dull, the puritanical, the narrow-minded? Should the world really be organized to promote the comfort of the articulate at their expense? (Anyone who has known lots of avid readers can probably tell you that this is a real temptation--the temptation to favor Our Kind Of People and to reject charity and mercy toward anyone else.)

3) Rorty and Nafisi get around this difficulty in part due to the particular writers they champion. For example, by making Humbert Humbert an articulate and writerly type, Nabokov heads us off at the pass and makes us reconsider our instinctive readers' empathy for the eloquent artist type. But even at its best, when the sphere of empathy is most expanded, Rorty's position becomes a matter of reducing the suffering of all those vast hordes with whom we now empathize. Because there is no guiding standard of value, no overarching telos, our only empathetic response to others must be a desire to reduce their suffering. When two empathized-with beings conflict, again, we have no standard by which we could side with one over the other except which action will provoke the least suffering.

But that is just utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is one of my recurring nemeses on this blog--here, you can read about it in the context of fighting terrorism with torture. Here it is w/r/t Peter Singer. We need some way of justifying the many honorable acts that can lead to suffering; and we need some way of knowing what it means to do right by someone, not merely to do what will be least painful to him, or what he wants.

4) That brings me to the final problem--the idea of the individual dream. Nafisi, yet again, is careful here--check out her section on The Great Gatsby for a nuanced treatment. You can feel her desire to affirm the sanctity of the dream and the romantic individualist, as well as her deep concerns and uneasiness with that affirmation. But in the end, the frequent references to dreams in the memoir make me pretty sure that she does end up affirming individuals' self-contained (i.e. not imposed on others) dreams and acts of self-creation.

And that's hugely problematic, since so many of our dreams are self-destructive or self-deluding. It's not enough to just refrain from cruelly imposing our visions on someone else; what if someone we love is trapped in a self-destructive or self-deluding dream? Is there any standard by which we can say which dreams are genuinely self-destructive? Is seeking to free him from a self-destructive or self-deluding dream an imposition on his individuality? If so, is that acceptable? If it is not acceptable, then I don't really see how love--or even friendship--can be acceptable, since lovers and close friends seek to do what's best for one another, not merely whatever the other person wants. Lovers and close friends necessarily leave their fingerprints all over each other's imaginations, and interfere with each other's dreams, though they do so for motives far removed from the motives of the ayatollahs. Acting with love toward another person requires a standard that goes beyond individual perversities of desire and dream.

So. Philosophically, Nafisi's book is flawed. But as a memoir of a literary life, and as a memoir of life in revolutionary Iran, it is hard to imagine how it could be better.
IF MY TEMPLATE IS ALL WEIRD AND FREAKY (or at least weirder and freakier than usual), blame Blogspot. Sigh.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING: A ramble through my thoughts on American lit. Please don't expect coherence--I'm all about the random shards of commentary today.

For a while I've thought that the best and most American literature arose in opposition to the Enlightenment currents in American life and thought--the innocence/naivete, the exaltation of the powerful and good individual, the optimism and the rationalism. I'm trying to work out whether American literature is unusually obsessed with the Crucifixion (i.e. more obsessed than other national literatures--French, English and so on)--please feel free to email me about this. Certainly the movie critics will tell you that "redemption through violence" is an American cliche; and I think you see that, in less cliched forms, in the great literature as well, from Dickinson through As I Lay Dying. Not to mention the unique grimth of Philip Roth. And I've written before about the tragic conflicts inherent in a nation of immigrants, which you also see throughout our fiction.

California is possibly the most archetypically American destination, more so even than Henry Roth's (or Sidney Falco's) New York. For me the distilled California story is Irwin Shaw's "Where All Things Wise and Fair Descend" (I got this from the Rat, a California almost-native) and the song, of course, is "California Dreaming"--almost, but not quite, a caricature of longing.

"America" is the name of a dream; and the collision of the dream-America and the real one necessarily produces bitterness. It turns out that we can't reshape ourselves, escape our pasts, make ourselves at home. Which is one main reason American literature is so full of passionate reaction against the dream: Disillusioned idealists are ferocious critics, and America breeds idealists as if you could make money off it.
THE MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY: I just started Josef Pieper's Concept of Sin, and was reminded of this novella. The basic plot is, a young hothead gets mixed up with Aaron Burr and ends up on trial for treason. In the heat of the moment he exclaims, "D--n the United States!" (dashes in the original), incensing the judge, who sentences him to an unusual punishment: He must spend the rest of his life in a kind of floating house arrest, transferred from ship to ship, never allowed to return to the USA or even hear news from his own country. So he spends the rest of his life repentant and yearning for home.

It's a 19th-c. tearjerker, and I first read it when I was maybe nine? or thereabouts, so I can't read it now without crying. The book stuck with me for years--I remembered most of the plot, and how powerfully it had affected me, long after I'd forgotten the title. So I was thrilled to rediscover it a couple years ago.

I think the book hit home for me for a number of reasons, all centering on the issue of alienation or exile. Philip Nolan's situation mirrors the situation of the damned--his exile is his punishment, there's no need to add extra torment, just as the sufferings of Hell are the result of our being cut off from God more completely than we can ever be in this life.

And Nolan's suffering also mirrors our daily situation, our basic, deep-seated alienation, our sense that something has gone wrong and we are not at home. The book is unsparing in its portrayal of justice, the fact that his exile was deserved; and that too very much rang true to me. My sense of exile was always intimately tied to a sense of guilt. The sense of something wrong in the world was intrinsically connected to the sense of something wrong within the self--an anti-heliotropism, a straining toward sin. Heroism came from recognizing and accepting justice, acknowledging one's own wrongdoing, and seeking to make amends.

More of me on alienation: here and here. More on what I learned from my early reading here.
A NOIR CAROL: "Plenty of guys barge into my office without knocking. This guy was different: he came in without opening the door. I always heard Marley had no guts, and now I believed it--you could see right through him." Hee! Via Cacciaguida.
EXCELLENT DEAL ON CRISIS MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS: Ten bucks--66% of cover price--gets you eleven issues--EDITED TO ADD open to the first 500 people to apply. Sweet. Via Relapsed Catholic. And I'm in the June issue, BTW, reviewing Ian Buruma's Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing.

Main Crisis site
"One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi [a student], I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure--you are as different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute--decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!"
--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

I caught my blogwatch kissing a replica
Oh God--she looked just like me!...

Note: For all Blogspot sites, I've just directed you to the main page rather than the individual post, since the sites are wigging even more than usual. Oh well, it's better than learning HTML!

Ninomania: Comments on Balkin/Solum boxing match. I have some questions about Solum's really strong reliance on stare decisis but I'm not sure I can formulate them without further study.

Oxblog offers the most substantive "best of the web" roundup I've ever seen.

Unqualified Offerings: Uber-creepy quotes from California state official: "'You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that (protest),' said Van Winkle, of the state Justice Department. 'You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act.'" More. If this guy was quoted properly (the article is not exactly evenhanded, but then the quotes are pretty wild), he should be out prontissimo. I can certainly understand that cops need information about protests that might turn violent*, but this guy seems so clearly biased against protesters that I can't imagine his information would even be accurate. Over-frightening bad information is just as much a problem for cops trying to assess threats as under-frightening.

* A note: I wish the article had taken the time to tell us what some of the "direct action" protest groups, like the Ruckus Society, think "nonviolent" means. If I recall correctly, many of these groups view property damage as "nonviolent protest." That puts a very different spin on their claims to be Joe First Amendment. But it doesn't change my problems with the California justice dept. guy.

"[New York], like Daisy, has in it a promise, a mirage that when reached becomes debased and corrupted. The city is the link between Gatsby's dream [i.e. the fantasy self he seeks to become] and the American dream. The dream is not about money but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving a dream. There is nothing crass here, or the crassness is so mingled with the dream that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two."
--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

"MANKIND VERSION 2.0?": Good column from Charles Murtaugh--corrective to rampant technophobia and technotopianism.
MORE OF ME ON FAITH AND REASON: Response to an Objectivist. I would post my notes from reading Fides et Ratio but they've been blogspotted, grrr.

EDITED TO ADD: Here they are.
CORROSION OF CONFORMITY: Note to artists and such: If you call your own work "edgy," that's a pretty good guarantee that it isn't.
EXCHANGE ON FAITH AND REASON: Between me and reader Eric Enlow. He's in bold, I'm in plain text. Sorry it's so long and my last reply is so disorganized--I think I said some worthwhile stuff but it's not exactly crisp and tightly-structured.

Him: I enjoyed your remarks on God and Reason. But you misquote the First Epistle of Peter in a telling way. Peter admonished us to give an account of the HOPE, not the faith within us. If he had said faith (with its connotations of doctrine in some camps), perhaps we could read him as urging philosophical apologetics.

But a better reading is that Peter calls us, specifically in the context of times of persecution, not to provide a logical proof of the contents of our faith, but to explain ("in meekness and fear" which are not the usual adjectives for rational argument) why we do not despair. The emphasis is not on the rational exegesis of the grounds of our belief, but on individual's personal testimony of Christ as a source of Hope even in the teeth of martyrdom. Our confidence in Christ's love for us is the reason we have hope, not some set of philosophical proofs in an unmoved mover.

Additionally, to put it bluntly, I cannot find any content in your proposed distinction between the suprarational and the irrational that would save you from calling faith irraitonal. All things are either rational or irrational, just like all things are either triangular or not triangular. The suprarational may be a subset of the irrational but it is still irrational. Nor do I understand how the postulated unity between being, goodness, unity and beauty will help you reconcile faith and human reason. To the contrary, the great chain of being proposed by Plato (and in one form or another by all humanistic thinkers) opposes itself to the contents of Christian revelation, where divine being stands opposed to created being -- where the whole drama of Incarnation derives from the surmounting of the insurmountable barriers between divine and created. Similarly, the eternal universe of Aristole stands completely opposed to the created universe of Genesis. The lesson of being that we derive from humanistic philosophy is, not surpisingly, that we are linked to divinity, that we are fundamentally one with Being, that we are a part of what has always been and always will be. The lesson of being that we derive from revelation is that we are cut off from Being and can only be rejoined to it because of the grace of God, that what is now, was not, and will not be soon when the Judge and Savior comes to lead us to a new creation.
Me: I'm trying not to engage in much theological dispute/discussion during Lent, in order to discipline myself and help me avoid some of the attendant temptations. Here are a few brief thoughts:
a) I knew I should have checked the wording of the passage I quoted! But I am not sure I understand the
distinction you are making between doctrine and reason for hope. Surely "don't despair" is both a doctrine
(despair being sinful and all) and based on doctrine (Christ's Resurrection and the salvation He brought),
no? I think we may be getting tangled in vocabulary here, using the same words for different things. [...]

b) I'm not surprised you didn't find any basis for my irrational/suprarational distinction, since I didn't give any. Didn't (and don't) have time to flesh it out as it deserves. Suffice it for the moment to say that there are things which either are not, or cannot be, known by reason, that are nonetheless not contrary to the things that are or can be known by reason. I suspect this is another vocabulary issue, though probably not a Protestant/Catholic divergence.

c) I'm unclear on what you're saying about rationality and revelation. Maybe an example will help: Was St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo both anchored in revelation and produced using reason? If so, which bits were which (if they can even be separated)? Is revelation antithetical to reason? Can it spur and guide reason, or is reason just kind of sitting off to one side getting everything wrong?

As I have probably mentioned to you before, I think some of our differences MAY spring from the fact that I was brought to Christ through a) poetry (most prominently Eliot's "Preludes"); b) the belief that things in the world have inherent meaning, that the physical world is intrinsically important and good; c) a strong belief in original sin (once it was explained to me), and d) trying to work my way through the philosophical consequences of b) and c). In other words, the goodness and the Fallenness of this world were equally important to me, and the use (or attempted use, anyway!) of reason played a pretty enormous role.
Him: Midst trials, I have lost track of whether I responded to you or not while waiting the lifting of your theological fast.[...]

Anselm is an interesting case. His "Faith seeking understanding" is (1) aspirational, i.e. seeking not having found, and clearly subordinates reason to faith in the Christian life, not only in the methodological but also the chronological sense (1st you get faith then you seek understanding). Anselm believes in order that he might understand whereas the path that you describe suggests, though I don't think you intend, reasoning oneself into faith. Like you, Anselm is quite bold in what he thinks that reason might show. For example, in Cur Deus Homo, as I recall, he argues that reason can show that the incarnation of God is a prerequisite to the salvation of man. Actually, again as I recall, the premises of his argument are not exactly "self-evident," i.e. appealing to a strict rationalist. Rather than proving that belief in the incarnation is rationally necessary, to my mind, he proves that if you accept a large number of related proposition of Judeo/Christian doctrine (eg related to the infinite offensiveness of sin), then incarnation is entailed. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo is powerful soteriology but the argument's dependence on fairly involved premises drawn from Chistian theology bars it from being considered seriously as an argument "from reason" for the necessity of the incarnation.

In any case, the tension between faith and reason that I am talking about is less occasioned by the difficulty of proving elements of Christian doctrine, than it is the irrelevance of such proofs to faith. Our faith in God, like the faith of a child in his father, cannot be proven into being nor even justified on anything like ideal grounds. It is personal -- two minds, two faces, two spirits, two loves intertwined and mutually reflective. I can prove that God exists or does not exist, that he is simple or complex, that he is X or Y. None of it ever can generate or constitute faith.

Are faith and reason actually opposed though? Well, look at the paradigmatic examples in Hebrews 11. Faith overcomes what seems to be true to the rational mind, i.e. the mind judging on the basis of what can be known, in each example: (1) by trusting God that the unseen made the seen; (2) by trusting that a mortal man will not see his death; (3) by trusting God that things never yet seen would occur; (4) by leaving the comforts of home for an unknown destination; (5) by trusting God that a child can be born by a woman past her age etc etc. The person faithful to God makes judgments that the rational but unfaithful person would never make. Paul teaches us in Romans that the Greeks' pursuit of wisdom, i.e. the life dedicated to rational reflection, is as opposed to true trust in God as the Jews search for miraculous signs. Trust in God begins in silences, imponderables, action without foundation. We must like Gideon fight without soldiers to see that the Lord fights. We must like Abraham leave our homes to seek a home in an unknown land in order to know that God provides the home. We must like Sarah wait for a child whom we know can never come. We must like Noah build a boat far from water for a storm that defies all rational conception. Only then do we trust God, not signs, not rational reflection. Our certainty, whether grounded in reason or miraculous signs, affords no occasion to trust.

On the last issue, I do not think that the misunderstanding of words is responsible for the misunderstanding between Christians. I think that they reflect mostly real theological differences. Roman Catholics and evangelicals, for example, speak differently about salvation because most of them have very different ideas about what salvation is. They talk about Jesus differently because they know Jesus differently. It is true that the language can mask agreement, but I do not think that is the primary reason for the differences.
Me: OK, a bunch of different issues or approaches here, let's take them one at a time.
1) "Reasoning oneself into faith": Eh? Not totally sure what this means. I wasn't raised Christian. I was pretty hostile to Christianity. Therefore, I had a lot of misconceptions about what Christianity actually entailed, a lot of anti-Christian beliefs that I needed to realize were wrong, and a great reluctance to consider Christianity worthy of my attention. Once I had figured out that Christianity explained a lot of the world around me--more than any other belief system I'd found--I still didn't have faith. I prayed, trying to be responsible (not assume I'd received an answer because I was seeking one), and eventually got what I needed to trust God and know He existed. But even that answer to prayer was enmeshed in and depended for its interpretation on the conclusions I'd already come to: In other words, I was at the point where I was convinced through philosophy that if objects in the world were in fact meaningful and good, the only valid explanation for that fact would be Christianity. And so when my prayers (essentially a kind of cross between "Lord, help my unbelief" and "Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret") were answered, they were answered not in specifically Christian terms but rather with the faith in God as Creator. I was able to trust that the world was God's creation. Because of prior conclusions I'd reached, that was enough for me to trust Christ.

Later--especially the week I was Confirmed, the summer after my Confirmation, and the fall term of my senior year (fall 1999)--I really wrestled with my faith. I had a lot of doubts, a good amount of prideful rebellion, and a hint of despair. I can think of non-philosophical ways for people to struggle with faith and doubt (Chesterton has a tart little line about, I think, a man who says he cannot accept the Trinity when he means that he is sleeping with his neighbor's wife). But for me, not only were these struggles raised by (among other things) philosophical concerns, they were also allayed through philosophical seeking. In other words, I prayed so that I might think more clearly, and as I came to understand better I also was more able to trust.

I don't think either of those situations (how I initially came to Christianity, or how I dealt with doubts) is "reasoning myself into faith" in the sense of a) treating the faith as impersonal intellectual propositions to receive my "sic" or "non," or b) thinking that I'm doing the work here while God is standing off to one side waiting for me to pull myself up by the bootstraps. Obviously, God made me such that I could come to know Him; He gave me opportunities to find Him; He answered my prayers when I finally was able to seek Him honestly. He's the Hound of Heaven, yo, and not lightly put off the chase! But I also had a responsibility to use the opportunities He gave me, to seek Him, to respond to His call, to open my heart.

2) Self-evidence, reason, and rationalism. As I understand it, Enlow's objection to considering Cur Deus Homo as an argument for the Incarnation "from reason" is that it relies on premises that only Christians would accept in the first place, rather than relying on premises that, say, Spinoza, or Hume could accept. I have a few objections to that view.

First, it seems to conflate reason and rationalism, which seems to me to be forfeiting a game we can win. The Cartesian "I'll only allow premises I can't possibly doubt!" project is not only not the only possible understanding of reason--it's an incoherent understanding of reason. (Argh, I don't esp. have time to get into that--you could either read the section on Descartes in The Will to Power, or, better yet, you could just read Meditations on First Philosophy and watch the [unintentional] sleight of hand.) Other attempts to ground an account of reason on solely "rational" or "natural" or "in no way, shape, or form theological" premises fail too--here's a quickie argument along those lines. Therefore, I really, really want Christians to keep away from rationalist accounts of what reason is. They aren't necessary and don't work.

All reasoning works with premises. I believe that any account of reason will ultimately become either an account of selfishness or an account of God. I do not think reason, by itself, can prompt a person to choose one of those two accounts--reason can't push you to choose love over pride or vice versa. But reason can do a lot of things. Reason can show you what the choice really looks like. It can force you beyond your premises and it can change your premises (for example, by showing you that two beliefs you hold are coherent in themselves but incompatible with one another, and you've got to decide which one you're more sure of). It can show you the consequences of unexamined beliefs you already hold--showing you how some of your "premises" drive you toward pride and some toward love.

That's what Cur Deus Homo did for me. It was so striking to me precisely because I wasn't Christian, yet I found the view of sin, justice, and mercy Anselm presented really made sense to me in light of my own beliefs and experience. Anselm's account of sin rests in part on a definition of wrongdoing as a violation of the given order--not a social construct, not bad because it's self-destructive, etc. Anselm's account of justice, similarly, involves punishment as redress for wrong, giving each man what he deserves, and, therefore, Hamlet's realization, "Use each man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" I realized, reading and discussing and prodding at CDH, that, based on my experience, I believed these things but had not understood them before. I then had to work out the relationship of my beliefs about wrongdoing and justice to Anselm's beliefs about God and Christ. Notice that it's possible to cash out the aspects of Anselm's thought that immediately struck me without using the word "God." (OK, so I equivocate a little by saying "the given order"; suffice it to say that I had no idea how much my own sense of personal sin relied on a sense of Creation, and a loving Creator, and it's hard for me to work my way back into the way I thought when I was first realizing the consequences of my beliefs.) So, much of my intellectual quest has involved figuring out the stuff I just said in this paragraph; figuring out that premises which I thought did not logically require belief in God in fact did require such belief; and then choosing these necessarily theist premises over the many atheist beliefs I also held (beliefs I eventually realized were incoherent, untrue, and damaging).

3) Trust without reasons. I totally agree that God requires trust in things that go against our ordinary experience of the world ("Therefore Sarah laughed"). I would not characterize that as "going against reason." Let me see if I can make clear why.

Think of a Mormon, or a Nietzschean, or a Raelian. Despite their varying levels of weirdosity, each of these evangelizing folks could say the same thing to me that Enlow is saying: Reason won't get you to the truth, you have to just trust without asking for a reason to trust. "'Trust in God begins in silences, imponderables, action without foundation'--that's why you should be a Mormon. I know it looks like it makes no sense, but that's the beauty of it! Credo quia absurdum and all that..."

I have stuff to say to these people, because I do think that reason can illuminate the truth of Christianity and the falsehood of the Mormon or Nietzschean (or, presumably, Raelian, not that I've spent a lot of time on this one...) worldview. Reason can't force them to leave aside their wrong beliefs; you can always choose conformity or comfort over truth, self over God, Hell over Heaven. But you can show them reasons they should be more interested in what you believe than you are in what they believe.

There are all kinds of situations in which reason illuminates the truth of Christianity. There are non-Christians--Avery Dulles reading his books and worrying that he might have to come back to Christ. There are Christians struggling with doubts--is "original sin" just nonsense used to induce a feeling of shame? If you said to me, when I was in these situations, "Trust God and don't worry about your questions," I really don't see how that would have helped, since the whole point was that I needed to know why I should trust God, or trust Christ over the vapory Deist god, or trust Christianity over Judaism.

Take two examples of people who say, "Trust me." Let's say my best friend, Gloria, is generally a totally stand-up chick, really loyal and awesome, but lately when I call her she's never in, I caught her whispering darkly in a corner with a guy I'm interested in, she stops talking when I enter a room, and she seems to be avoiding me. I ask her what's going on and she says, "I can't tell you yet! Trust me."

Meanwhile, my friend Patty is having some trouble with her husband Tom. He comes home too late, he gives fishy excuses, a strange woman called the other night and hung up when Patty picked up the extension. Tom has had scores of affairs in the past, and Patty is in agony wondering if it's starting all over again. She breaks down and asks Tom whether he's seeing someone else. "Trust me," he says tensely, not looking her in the eye.

It's pretty obvious that Gloria (who's planning a surprise party for my birthday) and Tom (who's sleeping with his co-worker Betty) are at different levels of trustworthiness. It makes sense for me to trust Gloria, even though she's asking me to deal with a situation that makes me tense and uncertain. If I were Patty, I don't think I'd trust Tom as far as I could throw him.

Similarly. I have reason to trust God... to trust Christ... and to trust the Catholic Church. Therefore, when I don't understand something, I have reason to believe that God's right and I'm just confused. But in order to get to that place of trust, of belief even though I have not put my hand in Christ's wounds, I had to figure out why I should trust. And that is where reason can shine its light.
Don't you know I got the blogwatch boys out
Changing someone's facial design....

BuzzMachine: Interview with Salam Pax.

Camassia and Noli Irritare Leones: How do you know that your Redeemer lives? There's some good stuff in these posts. I have nothing in particular to add except that Anselm's getting a bad rap here w/r/t atonement. I really don't have time to get into this, but my understanding of his position (which I find super-convincing, and, as I've said many times before, was a big part of my decision to seriously investigate Christianity) is heavily influenced by thinking about the relationship between original sin and the Crucifixion, esp. in light of I Cor. 15:22 ("For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive").

KausFiles (no permalinks): Possibly excellent news re concentration of poverty. I haven't read the articles yet--haven't had time--but if true this is a big deal.

Oxblog: Letter from Dearborn, Mich.

Regions of Mind: The gulags were everywhere.

The Mission: A new priestblog! By a priest in the Dominican Republic. Via Dappled Things, who is back from his moving-induced blog hiatus.
TOTALLY FASCINATING LEGAL-THEORY DEBATE between Lawrence Solum and Jack Balkin. They're operating well above my level of competence, so I won't comment much, just point you to the two sites. Should offer food for thought no matter what your jurisprudential theory. My only comment so far is that Balkin's posts also stand as an oblique answer to my long series on jurisprudence, though he doesn't address two of the points I thought were pretty important (philosopher-kings, and limits of judicial power i.e. are there any good policy outcomes judges shouldn't impose?).
READER ERIC ENLOW WRITES that my admittedly highly unsympathetic description of "blessed assurance," below, was unfair and uninformed. That may well be true--I was basing my understanding of the idea on what a very sweet, very devout, but not very theologically-inclined woman told me about it. I may have misunderstood her words, or she may have been misunderstanding it herself. I stand by the claim that lots of people do in fact hold the belief I described, and that it can provoke real despair once the initial glow of the altar call has worn off and people return to sinful habits; but there may very well be a much better way to understand the concepts of "blessed assurance" or assurance of salvation. I don't really understand the explanation that Enlow gave in his email, so I think what I'll do is reread it, work out what my questions are, and post more on this later in the week. For the moment, I'll just note his sharp disagreement.
"These students, like the rest of their generation, were different from my generation in one fundamental aspect. My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us, making us exiles in our own country. Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin. This generation had no past. Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had."
--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Monday, May 19, 2003

"ELECTION": Saw this over the weekend. Highly recommended. Very funny. Themes of moral weakness, difference between our self-images and who we really are. Be forewarned though, it earned its R rating.
"Is this how it all started? Was it the day we were sitting at his dining room table, greedily biting into our forbidden ham-and-cheese sandwich and calling it a croque monsieur? At some point we must have caught the same expression of ravenous, unadulterated pleasure in each other's eyes, because we started to laugh simultaneously. I raised my glass of water to him and said, Who would have thought that such a simple meal would appear to us like a kingly feast? and he said, We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich. And I said, Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran.

"...Was not life exciting when every simple act acquired the complexity of a dangerous secret mission?"

--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Friday, May 16, 2003

POETRY WEDNESDAY/FRIDAY: As part of my warming-up exercises for writing fiction, I sometimes write Spenserian stanzas about the characters I'll be dealing with. The tight form of the stanza forces me to carve out phrases I wouldn't come to without the formal constraints, and imposes a precision and compression on my language that is generally alien to novelists (esp. in the age of 500-plus page blockbusters). Here's one for a piece that may or may not eventually be titled "Mexican Honeymoon." It's about a newlywed couple and the way that each spouse uses the other to reinforce his or her own self-image. This desire to use does not completely crowd out genuine love, but it is opposed to such love. And I think it's pretty common.

"I love you when you're less like me!" she cried--
Displacing all her anger on his gun.
He holstered her; he cradled her; he lied,
Protected her from knowing what he'd done;
And let her feel superior. It's good fun:
She got to be the good girl, have her strong
And silent man; he got to be the one
Who got the good girl. Is it really wrong?
They're not too kind, but they're determined to last long.
"EYEBALL IN MY MARTINI" UPDATE! Long-term fans know that although I am adept at teasing out the theological subtexts of the Cramps' "Eyeball in My Martini," I did not quite catch all the lyrics. I can now fill in the gaps.

I went to the Institute
And asked the doctor there
In the department of eyeballs
What's this burden that I bear?

Emphasis added.
Bikini girls with blogwatch guns, oh
Bikini girls with blogwatch guns--
This stuff'll kill ya, it's loaded with fun,
Bikini girls with blogwatch guns....

Body and Soul: Forgot to mention that Jeanne gets the last word w/r/t left-right divisions or emphases on human rights.

Cacciaguida: Neat chart comparing Tridentine and Novus Ordo rites.

Charles Murtaugh: "Apatheism." Those interested in more of Jonathan Rauch on this topic can check out my Crisis piece on "Christianity from the Outside" (which also features The Rat). I will say that there are places where some of the theological divisions Murtaugh considers abstruse really do matter--before I started working at the pregnancy center where I volunteer, I had to sign a statement of faith that was so weird (w/r/t faith v. works) from a Catholic perspective that I got a couple theologian friends to advise me on whether I could honestly sign it! (I could.) And I do think that some of the problems we see at the preg. ctr. are theological in nature--everything from "providence is when God does what I want Him to do" to "What do you do with 'blessed assurance' when you've already screwed up several times in your post-altar-call life?" (I personally think "blessed assurance," a.k.a. pray the sinner's prayer and now everything is OK, is one of the least pastorally accurate, and therefore least helpful, theological concepts out there. Especially if you're dealing with women who Made A Decision For Christ, and then, you know, had sex out of wedlock and are trying to figure out if they're pregnant and what they should do if they are. Anyway, that's very much MY view and not the view of the center....)

EDITED TO ADD: Oops, forgot very interesting E-Pression comments-box discussion of natural family planning and contraception.

The Old Oligarch: The only convincing positive review I've seen of "The Matrix Reloaded" so far.

Excellent editorial from the National Catholic Register, comparing the recent CT court decision ruling that a fetus is a part of a woman's body to medieval marital law.
"Of course, all murderers and all oppressors have a long list of grievances against their victims, only most are not as eloquent as Humbert Humbert."
--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Thursday, May 15, 2003

ASK CLINT BOLICK YOUR SCHOOL VOUCHER QUESTIONS! Neat feature, via TheAgitator. (I haven't forgotten the "madrassa vouchers" thing, and will return to it next week--sorry for delay...)
DESERT OF THE REAL: Ehhh, I was all gearing up to write a response to the half-cocked paranoia of some of the recent slams on Salam Pax, but I see Jesse Walker and Needlenose have done it for me. (And, more ambivalently still, BuzzMachine.) I'll just say a couple things: a) Now is a good time to re-post my "how you guys heard about Salam Pax in the first place" story. Tell me if this sounds like the Mukhabarat, my fine feathered friends.

b) I tend to think the more baroque speculations here (Salam is a Baathist agent... Salam only meets ordinary Iraqis when he's interrogating them... Salam never criticizes Saddam Hussein except when he criticizes Saddam Hussein in order to win credibility with his foreign readers... Salam is really heterosexual [yes!]...the Mukhabarat are the Agent Smiths of the Eastern world and can do 'most anything...) are a result of the human tendency to want the world to be more rational and more novelistic than it is. In novels, every gesture has a meaning, every word and every detail are full of discernable intent. We prefer evil to randomness, malevolence to incompetence, when we're trying to figure out how to explain the world.

On the broad metaphysical level I think this tendency of ours is accurate--things in the world do have meaning; reason is not merely the will to power seeking to smooth out the rough edges of an utterly random world; novels are distillations of real life, not utter falsifications or mere "beautiful lies." But in particular cases, hello, sometimes people are just weird. Sometimes people are conflicted, risk-averse in geopolitics but risk-taking in their personal lives, irrational, intermittently insightful and wilfully blind, and a bit random. Welcome to the world of the unreliable narrator.

If nothing else, you'd think you could learn that from blogs.
Strange... how you stopped watching blogs
How you stopped needing blogs
When she came along... oh, how strange...

Amptoons: How to handle domestic violence charges against cops?

Amy Welborn (no permalinks): Pertinent Flannery O'Connor quotes about the Christian artist's responsibilities. My favorite: The average Catholic writer (and reader, we can assume)..."has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him."

Church of the Masses: The Joan of Arc Show--on CBS; and more pithy O'Connor quotes.
RANDOM MAILBAG: Here's a bunch of stuff that requires little or no reply from me. Stuff requiring reply will come later. As is traditional, I am in plain text and my readers are in bold. If nothing else, this should give you some idea of the wiggy variety of topics addressed on this blog--this is the unorganized flotsam skimmed off the first three screens of my overstuffed inbox.

An anonyreader, on "National Outdoor Intercourse Day": Some more information on "National Outdoor Intercourse Day," which really sounds like a prolonged exercise in self-parody: (my comments set off by *'s)


"Hooray, hooray the eighth of May--outdoor intercourse starts today," Sanchez quietly sings.

This year the center, along with Primary Prevention Wellness Center, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance and the Women's Center, will introduce "Condom Inquisition," Bekki Brown-Winkels, Resource and
Outreach Programs Director, said.

"(During the "Condom Inquisition") one thousand condom packets will be distributed," Brown-Winkels said.

**Is "inquisition" really the best name for a voluntary event?**

The Sexual Awareness Center will also present Pornfest on Friday. The center encourages students to view a variety of porn to decide for themselves how they feel about the images, she said.

"The display will offer thought-provoking questions," Lombardi said. "We are not trying to pollute people's minds with pornography."

**Have they never heard of Catherine McKinnon? Don't they know that they are reinforcing the patriarchal culture of rape? The only person they could find on the campus to suggest that there might be a connection between porn and sexual violence, or that they might want to consider educating about the latter, was a Campus Crusade for Christ member.**

Tim Sandefur has started a series of responses to my Questions for Objectivists--the first few ones are here.

A different anonyreader, on "blind spots of the Left" w/r/t human rights: I think the worst of these is the left's apparently unthinking support for environmentalism, especially its support for that variety of environmentalism known as "deep ecology".

It is this that leads a certain class of left-wing thinkers to support the crasser forms of population control; to assume that "traditional" agrarian or hunter-gatherer societies must be preserved intact and unchanged, regardless of the human costs to that society's members; and to support land reforms that "give the people back their land", no matter whether such efforts may lead to mass starvation because the land is too exhausted or too heavily populated to support traditional forms of agriculture.

I strongly suspect that nowadays the left in rich countries draws many supporters who simply do not like human beings very much, and would welcome a mass catastrophe that stripped the Earth of most of its human
population. (I have seen speculation by "deep ecologists" suggesting that the ideal human population of the earth would be about 10 million people or so. But don't ask me where; I can't remember.)

It is very strange, in that the left was not, historically, associated with conservation and preservation movements. Or at least the Marxist left was not. Marx's theory of history was intended as an _answer_ to those "iron law" theorists like Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, who believed that increases in population and the desperation of the poor would inevitably keep food supplies low and prices depressed. (Of course, Adam Smith also attempted to forumulate a theory to address their pessimism - a very different theory.)

Marx and most of the 19th and early 20th century leftists who followed him supported technological innovation because it would end man's enslavement to his bodily needs. As late as the 1930s, Orwell was writing that it was impossible in England for a man of the left to say that he liked horses or the countryside without provoking howls of derision among his fellows.

I have to confess that I have some regrets - both sentimental and real--for what human culture loses in the process of modernization and "development". As one of Tolkien's characters put it, "many fair things will fade and be forgotten." As a foreign service brat, I had the chance to travel in the "Third World" from the mid 1960s until the late 1970s, and saw much that is probably now going or gone, cultures that were primitive but whose beauty still haunts me.

But I don't share the barely concealed misanthropy of today's lefties. (For a good example, check out the interview in Salon with T. Coraghessan Boyle a few weeks ago.) Sometimes it strikes me as being properly labelled as aristocratic rather than "left wing"; that is, if the left still has any connection with democracy and human rights. After all, conservation was traditionally the concern of the noble classes; that's why they had gamekeepers while the laboring classes were poachers.

FWIW, I think the left's unwillingness to look critically at population-control programs has more to do with American abortion politics than with deep ecology; but I have known a few (human!) leftists who had deep emotional attachments to the idea of humans as disease, people who I am pretty sure wanted to believe Malthusianism was true.

Lynn Gazis-Sax: [quoting me quoting Juan Non-Volokh] 'Well now you know how we felt about [insert Roe, Baker, Miranda, or some other outrageous case here].'

I've never understood the upset over Miranda (it always struck me as a perfectly ordinary extension of the Fifth Amendment, and a good one).

[quoting me:] That's one reason the term "textualism" seems to me to be something of a misnomer (I prefer "judicial humility in the face of text and legislature," though I can see why people don't rattle that phrase out at every opportunity!).

I like the "judicial humility" phrasing - there's more humility in it about what people are actually capable of doing (often conservatives seem to me to be saying they show a lot more fidelity to text than they actually do, and even more than they're realistically capable of).

[quoting me quoting Nietzsche:] "Philosophers are prejudiced against appearance, change, pain, death, the corporeal, the senses, fate and bondage, the aimless."
--Will to Power

I think I'm prejudiced for pain, death, the corporeal, and the senses (I have an aversion to philosophies that seem to want to make these things less than real), and against fate and bondage.

Rob Dakin [quoting me quoting Nietzsche again:] "Philosophers are prejudiced against appearance, change, pain, death, the corporeal, the senses, fate and bondage, the aimless."

Wouldn't you say that Jesus Christ was prejudiced against all of those things, as well? (Particularly the final item!)

Sara Asmann: If you're going to stay up late for Adult Swim be sure to check out Cowboy bebop -- I hope they are still showing it. The most interesting Cartoon series I have seen in a long time.

Bob Finegan: I've enjoyed reading your blog and often find myself impressed w/ your writing and your spiritual insight. I especially appreciated the wisdom of your post on Hamlet & faultfinding/judgment a few weeks ago. I'm glad there are Catholics like you out there. I grew up Catholic, rejected the Church and Christianity in general during my proud and rebellious teen years, became an Evangelical after college, grew disillusioned w/ that brand of Christianity, found myself attracted to Catholicism again during grad school and later, went to church sporadically. But there were a lot of questions that Catholicism couldn't answer to my satisfaction, such as how the inheritance of sin or its effects could ever be just to those plunked down w/o their consent into a fallen world buzzing w/ all the attractions and shocks that flesh is heir to. I was also troubled by the ambiguity of the Gospels concerning the divinity of Jesus, the way Jesus himself seems to hedge about it, or even sometimes to be confused concerning his mission or identity. Also, discovering websites like yours and Amy Welborn's has been a sort of revelation to me since almost all the Catholics I've ever known personally seem pretty uninterested in learning about their faith -- my mother and sister, both regular churchgoers and college grads w/ degrees in education, recently asked me who Saul of Tarsus was, and once I attended a mass during which the lector, reading a passage from Job, repeatedly pronounced his name w/ a short o (as if the poor guy hadn't already been through enough!)

So my Catholicism was of the Flannery O'Connor/Walker Percy variety, and though they and Merton and Augustine and Aquinas addressed a lot of my questions, I had plenty more questions about the human condition, God's personality, the afterlife, the multiplicity of religions, and most of all, theodicy issues that weren't getting answered satifactorily by any Christian writers or philosophers. Simone Weil had a huge influence on me -- she answered some of my questions but raised many others, especially about other religions, that Christians writers, at least those I know of, couldn't address very well. Huston Smith's book "The Forgotten Truth" led me further away from giving credence to orthodox Christianity's sometimes exclusionary claims about truth or salvation.

I kept praying for answers, asking God to guide me through all the ambiguity and the profusion of contending doctrines, to show me what Major Barbara called "the truth behind all this frightful irony." My prayer was basically, "I'm confused by all these faiths saying different things, so please show me what you want me to believe." Then a few years ago, through some rather odd chains of events, I encountered Krishna Consciousness -- about which I had, at the beginning, many of the prejudices most people in this culture who don't actually know any Hare Krishna devotees harbor. After I got through many layers of resistance, I was shocked at the depth, the detail, the comprehensiveness w/ which this ancient Vaishnava faith answered all the questions which Christianity had either ducked altogether, or answered only in an incomplete or speculative way. Vaishnavism is actually a monotheistic faith with a highly personal God (Krishna) who is described, and who speaks to us, in amazingly generous detail in the Vedic scriptures. This was another thing I'd sort of missed in Christianity -- while Jesus is a person we can get to know and love to a certain degree, the First Person of the Trinity is a hazy, amorphous, elusive figure about whom so many Christain theologians harbor such fears of anthropomorphic projection that he's often characterized, as in the apophatic mysticism of St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, etc., as an impersonal power that "transcends" personhood and thus a frustratingly difficult object of prayer.

I ain't trying to proselytize. But your post on Nietzsche's derogation of a personal God and your postulation of a Person as the only valid source of a compelling overarching morality, a la Ivan Karamazov, got me thinking. It's been hard for me to find Christians or any other Western monotheists to have a fruitful interreligious dialogue with; some Christians get visibly nervous when I begin to tell them about my current religious life (in case you're wondering, I'm a strictly plainclothes devotee). It's a shame b/c I actually still consider myself a Christian -- Vaishnavism, with what seems to me its stronger explanatory power and devotional nourishment, has not so much replaced my Christianity as enveloped it. Of course I'm no longer an orthodox Christian (I've given Vaishnavism a sort of doctrinal line-item veto power), but these two faiths have a common central goal -- in the words of Jesus, to love God w/ all your heart, soul, mind and strength. As you pointed out, only persons can love, and thus reciprocal love can only happen between persons. Through Vaishnavism, my love for God has grown much stronger b/c I'm able to get to know God in ways I wasn't able to as an orthodox Christian. But I'm cheered whenever I see Christians like yourself emphasizing the personhood of God, since so many Christians I've known seem to think of God in his ultimate nature as a sort of big pulsing cloud of vapor, a cosmic mainframe tricked out with nebulae-sized strobe lights -- cool-looking, awe-inspiring, but still just a machine. This sort of thinking is bad for spiritual life b/c it only alienates people from God.

So, I'm looking for open-minded, spiritually and intellectually hungry people like yourself, Christians or otherwise, to correspond w/ on topics like these, if you're interested. Other topics too, of course -- e.g., I'm curious about your fiction. (I'm a fiction writer myself, right now working on a satirical novel about pro wrestling and religion.)

If you're too busy or have a surfeit of correspondents right now, I'll understand. Either way, thanks for your bog -- I think you're helping a lot of people w/ their spiritual lives.

P.S. The links below are to articles I think you might find interesting.

A quibble: You said "Leather/silk not harmful, but not admirable, either" -- I think the cows might have a different opinion about whether the leather industry is harmful.

Cacciaguida: Great post on gambling. I've never done the casino scene myself, but from what I've heard (which traces back to sources inside the Gambling Commission, headed by Kay James), casinos often take affirmative steps to encourage addiction. E.g., they rarely if ever have windows or clocks: people spend and risk more if they lose any sense of time. Also, re slot machines, the ones that pay of most readily are located near the entrance, to give gambling newbies a false sense of how easy it is to get money from those things. The more rapacious "one-armed bandits" are, of course, located further inside. Now, liquor stores of course try to make themselves attractive, like any retail establishment; but I've never heard that they take deliberate steps to encourage addiction.

Also, legalized gambling quickly spills into the surrounding culture. The Las Vegas airport has slot machines; I spotted a nun playing one of them as I dashed to connect from my flight from Chicago to my flight to San
Francisco for the APSA conference in 2001. In Connecticut, where gambling is still confined to the "Indian" casinos, you can't turn on a radio without hearing ads about jolly New Yorkers just rarin' to go on their trip up
to Foxwood.

Rob Dakin: [quoting me:] "We frequently hate responsibility and therefore hate freedom."

That's the basis of the Existentialists' scorn of the bourgeoisie, n'est-ce pas?

And Dakin again: My Gnostic tendencies should not cause us disagreement on this one. Maybe a definition of terms is necessary. My concept of "person" is, I think, similar to yours. When used in the ordinary way, however, most people mean by "person" that which I would characterize as "persona". Persona is certainly not capable of love in the fullest sense. We would probably also have to come to agreement on a definition of "love" to remove all ambiguity from this exchange. Does it not follow, however, that the more you and I each put off the old Adam and put on Christ, the more we will come to resemble each other in the process, and the truer will be our mutual love?

This is one of the few bits of this mailbag where I should respond. First, I do think that part of the nature of eros is the desire that the other remain other, not-assimilated, not-self, and therefore in some way both unique and un-selflike. Second, I don't think that putting on Christ means becoming similar, necessarily. In some respects it certainly would make us similar--in level of charity, say! But in others, it would make us dissimilar--for example, Dakin and I probably have many, many things in common that are more a result of our conformity to American culture than of conformity to Christ. Those commonalities would likely dissolve as we became more of who we were meant to be. I'm very, very leery of the view of perfection, sanctity, as a kind of burqa for the personality, shrouding all one's most spikily individual qualities. The lives of the saints certainly show an enormous amount of variety! I think Dakin and I may be using similar words for dissimilar things--I don't think he's actually proposing that virtue is a burqa--but I'm trying to point out some of the dangerous and false implications that can be drawn from his words. I know people who have really struggled with the Church, or rejected the very idea of virtue, because they think living virtuously would make them conformist automatons. That's why I react so strongly against that kind of language--again, though, I don't think that's actually what Dakin is saying here.

Jendi Reiter: Thought this would interest you...poetry, feminism, reclaiming the feminine. Greenberg is an exciting new poet --- her attempt to create a new synthesis of feminism and girlishness reminded me somehow of rock & roll conservatism!

From Elderlyn Lacson: I do agree that the finest purveyors of ice cream are based at York's Castle.

My favorite flavors are mango and Guinness.

For a close second, I highly recommend Gifford's over by Bethesda Landmark Theatre. They have a yummy Swiss Chocolate sauce!

From Kate Coe: Here's a little piece of Jezebel trivia--Julie's shocking red dress was actually brown--as the only color that would photograph as a contrast to all that white (most of which are every so lightly blue).

I think the most interesting part is the the quarantine of the fever victims.

Matt Rustler on Iraqis, guns, and rights.

Bill Hauk: I appreciate your hesitation to make any definitive statements one way or another on what American troops in Baghdad should have done to prevent looting at the Baghdad Museum. Obviously, at first glance, doing nothing to stop the looting at the museum seems really lame, and it’s quite understandable that many people are upset about it. However, one thing that never seems to be brought up in these discussions is whether or not the American troops legally could have stationed themselves at the museum. I’m not a lawyer, and reading treaties gives me a headache, but article 6 of the 1999 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict states that “imperative military necessity…may only be invoked to use cultural property for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage”.


Given that all Iraqi resistance had not been cleared out of Baghdad at the time of the looting, would stationing U.S. troops at the museum have been an imperative military necessity? If troops had been there making themselves targets for a Fedeyeen Saddam suicide bomber, would they have been exposing the building to likely destruction or damage? In retrospect, not stationing troops there did have this effect for certain, but ex-ante, what would the probabilities have seemed like? I can’t give an unequivocal answer saying that they shouldn’t have been there, but it does throw another wrinkle into the argument.
"The two photographs [of Azar Nafisi's underground literature class] should be placed side by side. Both embody the 'fragile unreality'--to quote Nabokov on his own state of exile--of our existence in the Islamic Republic of Iran. One cancels the other, and yet without one, the other is incomplete. In the first photograph [of the class in their chadors], standing there in our black robes and scarves, we are as we had been shaped by someone else's dreams. In the second [with chadors off, revealing Western-style street clothes], we appear as we imagined ourselves. In neither could we feel completely at home."
--Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

"CONFESSION GAFFES": DID MY PRIEST VALIDLY ABSOLVE MY SINS? Your questions answered. This is an issue that became annoyingly relevant to me a few months ago, due to the shankery of a couple priests. WHY do people feel the need to inject their own personalities and little phrasings into a sacrament? It is not hard to just say the words everyone knows, so that no one is confused. Via the Old Oligarch, who is back and blogging up a storm.

Monday, May 12, 2003

LATER IN THE WEEK, mailbag. Mostly legal and theological. Until then, blogging will probably be pretty light, as I have much to do.
Farewell to this land's cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a blog between watches...

Body and Soul: Response to my post from last week. A few points of varying importance: a) A line that I meant as sardonic but not bitchy in fact turned out to be bitchy. Sorry!
b) The right definitely does need to get more serious about corporate abuses and collusion with vicious governments. That strikes me as probably the biggest blind spot on the right w/r/t human rights.
c) I'm not sure what the biggest blind spot on the left is--I don't follow left-wing human rights work as closely as I do right-wing work--but population control (longer treatment here) is one contender.
d) Jeanne is drawing a much sharper line between funding Wahhabism and human rights abuses than I would. IMO if you fund the theory you are promoting the practice, and the specific brand of radical Islam funded and promoted by the Saudi government is adamantly opposed to human rights. So I do think articles tracking and exposing the money flow are human-rights articles.

Cronaca: Good Hapsburgs. Bad looters outside Baghdad. A possible break in the Baghdad museum looting mishegoss. Plus lots of other interesting stuff.

Kieran Healy: Plagiarism stories. There are some real doozies here--I expect the Old Oligarch will get a real kick out of these. My favorite so far (haven't read all the way down yet) is the idiot who turned in the same paper to two professors... who just happened to be husband and wife. Best line so far is from Unfogged: "Does no one take pride in flunking anymore?" Link via Camassia.

Regions of Mind: Rebuilding the German army after WWII--interesting in its own right, doubly interesting in light of the current situation in Iraq.

Very neat--college kids pass out condensed versions of Love and Responsibility in order to counteract the lame, porn-culture messages of their campus's "National Outdoor Intercourse Day" (?!). Via E-Pression.

Prison rape info links: here and here. I'm adding TalkLeft to the blogroll by the way, can't think why I haven't done that already.
MICHAEL CHABON'S UNUSED X-MEN SCRIPT. Interesting stuff, though a) his bad guy is too amorphous; b) too little agency on part of mutants, too much mutants being used as pawns, making decisions based on false (implanted) memories, that sort of thing. But this treatment stuck with me since the first time I read it, a while ago--there are several memorable images and good calls.

Church of the Masses had more or less the same reaction as I did to "X2." I infest her comments box.
FUN WITH REFERRER LOGS: Here are some of the many searches that brought people to my site in the past month or so. In rough order of my preference, least funny to funniest. Not all of these were Google searches, but I'm using Google links because that's easiest.

internal conflicts of dr. frankenstein (this one isn't THAT weird, since I did write about it here)
a world without promises
LUX compete other soap in bangladesh
articles on emotional branding in Pakistani context
coupon clipping behavior of Chinese people
doe decal
the sims skins hussein
patriotic nude
best bar washington dc get laid
afscme sucks
capitalism cause postpartum depression and postpartum influenced by Capitalism
globalization baby doll
grow a carrot experiment
scum public defender
queene bar swine
newsweek articles arrogant empire celibacy
quotes from to kill a mockingbird resembling mocking bird
colorado gay paramedic
effective techniques to convince smart people to believe what you say free articles
Robert H. Bork screwball
killing people whenever the notion strikes you
transcendence smooth feeling sex touching stimulating witness pure intention love
the many uses of a cucumber
coriolanus effect toilets
bloggers are creepy

Saturday, May 10, 2003

SUBCONTRACTING CHILD ABUSE: "Specialty schools"--discipline farms for wayward youth--are going international to escape increasing US scrutiny and legal liability. This is one of those grim little stories I've been following for a while now; there are some truly terrifying stories that come out of these places. Even the ones that aren't as insane as Straight, Inc. can be foul. NOTE: Not all "tough love"-type programs are bad. But there are so many awful ones out there (kids dying in Arizona desert, etc.) that I would not recommend using one of these programs unless you have done extensive, skeptical investigation of it beforehand. Excerpts from the NYT article:

Ryan Fraidenburgh was 14 when he was brought here shackled, kicking and screaming.

Two men carrying handcuffs and leg irons came for him at his mother's home in Sacramento, Calif., shoved him into a van and bound him hand and foot. They drove him 12 hours south, over the Mexican border, into a high-walled compound near here called Casa by the Sea.

"It was nighttime," Ryan recalled. "I look around and I see kids sleeping on cement. I was really, really scared. The big honcho, Mauricio, said, `You don't speak English here.' I didn't know how to speak Spanish."

Ryan quickly learned the rules: stay silent, be compliant, don't look up, don't look out the window, don't speak unless spoken to. The punishments for breaking the rules included solitary confinement, lying on the floor in a small room, nose to the ground, often for days on end.

Ryan was not a criminal. He was only skipping school, his parents said in telephone interviews. But in August 2000, they said, in the middle of a bitter divorce and custody battle, they decided to send him away to Casa by the Sea, which calls itself a "specialty boarding school" for behavior modification.

Like hundreds of other parents, the Fraidenburghs made their choice largely on the basis of a glossy brochure and a call to a toll-free number in Utah. They came to regret their choice.

The idea of sending a child to such a program in Mexico was unheard of a decade ago. But in the United States, behavior-modification programs and boarding schools for troubled youths have faced increasing legal and licensing challenges over the past few years.

More and more are moving abroad — some to Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean — where they operate largely under the regulation radar and where some employ minimum-wage custodians more than teachers or therapists, say government officials, education consultants and clinical psychologists.

The behavior-modification business is booming at Casa by the Sea, on Mexico's Pacific Coast, the largest of 11 affiliated programs with roughly 2,200 youths, about half of them in Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica. The programs are run by a small group of businessmen based in St. George, Utah, under the banner of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or Wwasps, and Teen Help, the programs' main marketing arm.

Over the past seven years, local governments and State Department officials have investigated Wwasps-affiliated programs in Mexico, the Czech Republic and Samoa on charges of physical abuse and immigration violations. The Mexican program, in CancĂșn, and the Czech program closed, and their owners left those countries saying they feared unjust charges. The Samoan program cut its affiliation with Wwasps.

Ken Kay, the president of Wwasps, would not allow a reporter to visit Casa by the Sea; Dace Goulding, the program's director, declined to answer any questions. But Mr. Kay, responding to inquiries in writing from his office in Utah, said no charge of abuse had ever been proven against any of the programs in any court.

...For Laura Hamel, 17, of Vienna, Va., who counts herself as a success story, it was a slow two-year ascent to graduation in March. She said she was demoted from Level 3 back to Level 1 after giving a weeping, lonely friend a hug and a kiss on the cheek at Thanksgiving. Affection of that kind is forbidden.

A youth who rises to Levels 4, 5 and 6 can become a "junior staff member" and "participate in the discipline process" against lower-level youths, Casa's contract with parents says.

...Tuition and fees at Casa by the Sea run about $30,000 a year, half of what some United States-based programs cost. Its staff members "do not need and may not necessarily have" teaching credentials, Casa's contract with parents plainly states.

...Teen Help, the affiliation's main marketing arm, was the single biggest corporate campaign contributor in the state of Utah in the 2002 election cycle, donating $215,290 to Republican campaigns, according to online federal election records posted in March.

..."No authorities in Mexico control these institutions," said Elisa Ledesma, a lawyer at the American Consulate in Tijuana. Consular officers demanded and received access to several such programs in Mexico, one official said, after they "heard horror stories from parents."

...While some dissatisfied parents have sued Wwasps and its programs, the contract that parents sign with Casa by the Sea sets high hurdles for them. It states plainly that the program "does not accept responsibility for services written in sales materials or brochures" or promises made by "staff or public relations personnel" and that any dispute between a parent and the program must be settled in a Mexican court, not in the United States.

..."I sent him there sight unseen," said Patti Reddoch, of Sweeny, Tex., who considered Dundee Ranch for her son, Edmund Brumaghin, now 17, but chose Casa by the Sea instead. "The music he was listening to started getting darker and he was getting more into the drugs, and that's when I decided I needed to do something."

...Reality may differ from the brochures, however. "Everyone has a shaved head," Michael Zieghelboim, who was formerly enrolled at Casa by the Sea, said in a telephone interview. "They walk around like zombies. Most of the staff have no training."

"Casa by the Sea was the scariest thing that ever happened to me," said Mr. Zieghelboim, who now lives with his father in El Salvador.

He said that despite falling behind in his education at Casa by the Sea — at 17, he is now in the 10th grade — he rates himself a success. "If I had never gone there, I'd probably still be doing cocaine," he said.

...Ms. Maxym, author of "Teens in Turmoil: A Path to Change for Parents, Adolescents and their Families" (Viking Penguin, 2000) said, "I find it interesting that parents will spend less time finding a school for their child than buying a new car."
GOOD COLUMN ON PRISON RAPE --Rich Lowry's syndicated column. He uses the same Dostoyevsky quote I used in my big piece on prison reform.

Friday, May 09, 2003

NO MORE KESTON NEWS SERVICE. Aaaarrrrgggghhhh. OK, so scrap that part of my right-wingers and human rights post. This is really a loss.
Now you look down and there's blog on your hands
All your frustrations watched out of control...

Amy Welborn (no permalinks, you must scroll): Tons o' relic-related links; plus this: "One intriguing moment came when Di Noia suggested that the emphasis on whether or not a doctrine is 'infallible' that followed the First Vatican Council has in some ways placed the accent on the authority of a teaching rather than its truth. He said that when the New York Times called him upon the release of the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae to ask if it was infallible, he responded that this was 'the least interesting question to ask.'

“'The better question is, is it true?' he said."

Cronaca: Still the must-read site for Baghdad museum looting news and analysis. Who can you trust?

Matthew Yglesias: Spying for China, raising cash for the GOP. All in a day's work? Allegedly so.

Unqualified Offerings is right--I should have been reading Tacitus for a while now. I'd checked in on the guy before and not really seen what all the hype was about. Now I feel stupid. He will be blogrolled forthwith.

The Dullest Blog in the World. Hilarity. Via Unqualified Offerings.

So you want to make a golem. Via Making Light. Very, very funny.