Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SOME LINKS which strike me as important reading for those following the discussions of Pope Benedict XVI's role in the sex-abuse crisis. (This old post of mine may give some sense of where I'm coming from on any theological questions here.) John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter has a historical analysis, "Will Ratzinger's Past Trump Benedict's Present?":
...In retrospect, the Burresi and Maciel cases crystallized a remarkable metamorphosis in Joseph Ratzinger vis-à-vis the sexual abuse crisis. As late as November 2002, well into the eruption in the United States, he seemed just another Roman cardinal in denial. Yet as pope, Benedict XVI became a Catholic Elliot Ness -- disciplining Roman favorites long regarded as untouchable, meeting sex abuse victims in both the United States and Australia, embracing "zero tolerance" policies once viewed with disdain in Rome, and openly apologizing for the carnage caused by the crisis.

In a papacy sometimes marred by scandal and internal confusion, Benedict's handling of the sexual abuse crisis has often been touted as a bright spot -- one case, at least, in which the expectations of the cardinals who elected him for a firmer hand on the rudder seem to have been fulfilled.

That background makes the scandals now engulfing the church in Europe especially explosive, because by putting the pope's all but forgotten tenure as the Archbishop of Munich from May 1977 to February 1982 under a microscope, they threaten to once again make Benedict seem more like part of the problem than the solution.


A second piece by Allen, "Keeping the Record Straight on Benedict and the Crisis," which corrects a few misconceptions promoted by e.g. the New York Times, but also includes this sentence, which is a truth much harder to accept and understand than the role played by one man:
Anyone involved in church leadership at the most senior levels for as long as Benedict XVI inevitably bears some responsibility for the present mess.


If you want a short version of both pieces you can read Allen's NYTimes op-ed, "Pope Benedict's Conversion on Sexual Abuse."

Ross Douthat's op-ed in the same paper, "A Time for Contrition," also struck me as really good.
"ZOUNDS! FIVE REFLECTIONS ON THE WOUNDS OF CHRIST." My latest for Inside Catholic. The last two are my favorites.
This, probably more than anything, is what keeps the story from being a Tarantino fantasy. The Bielskis want to die like men, but they also recognize their own impotence. As much as Tec highlights the importance of their resistance, in contrast to the more typical images of Jews as passive victims, the Bielskis are ultimately also waiting for a much bigger war machine to rescue them. And so they have neither the moral purity of the ghetto victims, nor the masculine heroism of American mythology. Instead, like most people, they live somewhere in between.

more (and my grandfather on the Jewish Councils, here)
Language is changing at a torrid pace in China, and it's not just a massive infusion of English words that is to blame. Nor can we simply ascribe the dramatic changes in language usage to rampant, wild punning for the purpose of confusing the ubiquitous censors.

Creative manipulation of lexical and grammatical constructions is another way to express ideas that are not permitted under the harsh social controls imposed by the government. ...

Lately, it has become fashionable to use the passive voice with verbs that don't normally allow it and in situations that seem ludicrous. One of the most celebrated examples is bèi zìshā 被自殺 ("be suicided"), with the implication that someone was beaten to death, but the authorities made it look as though he had committed suicide. Once coined, bèi zìshā spread like wildfire, so that it wasn't long before it merited its own entry in online dictionaries and encyclopedias.

more (via Ratty)
"Turn around, Ti-Jeanne," said Tony from the doorway, in the voice of someone who had looked into hell and seen his own face. "Turn around so I can see your hands."
--Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring

Friday, March 26, 2010

SAUL ALINSKY'S LITTLE PLATOONS: A fascinating piece from Jesse Walker. Summary: "Critics of the expiring activist group [ACORN] say it was driven by the vision of Saul Alinsky. If only that were true." But there's lots more inside.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar,
“There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you
in this matter.
If our God, whom we serve,
can save us from the white-hot furnace
and from your hands, O king, may he save us!
But even if he will not, know, O king,
that we will not serve your god
or worship the golden statue that you set up.”

--from the readings for yesterday

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD! I watched Spider Baby (1968!) two nights ago and zomg, is this the best movie ever made?? Lon Chaney Jr. is the tenderhearted guardian of two We Have Always Lived in the Castle-style crazy chickadees and their manchild of a brother. Mayhem ensues when a conniving aunt arrives, lawyer in tow, to steal the family manse by having the kids committed. There is spider-, cat-, and person-eating. There is scream-queen lingerie. There is a theme song!!

Seriously, I adored every single minute of this. Like all the greatest camp, it knows when to add real poignancy--Chaney's final speech to the kids apparently wrung tears from the crew on set--and the performances, especially from the blonde daughter, are amazing. She has this tilt-a-whirl smile that's way too long for her face.

If Richard O'Brien has not seen this movie two hundred times I'll be knocked down with a feather boa.

It's available on Netflix Instant Viewing (though you can't order it from them on dvd), so you have your assignment, people!
KITCHEN ADVENTURES: I'M GONNA GIT YOU SOCCA. I decided to make these chickpea-flour pancakes because other than the flour, all their ingredients were things I always have on hand. Super simple, just flour, olive oil, water, s & p, and whatever other thing you want to use. The Atlantic food blogger says:
Socca (without the subtle, wood-smoked flavor) is easy to make in a skillet on top of the stove. The batter, which has no egg or leavening, will keep for days covered in the refrigerator, and can morph into a variety of useful preparations. I often make socca as an instant snack, standing by the stove and eating it as it comes out of the pan (it is a good way to eat beans).

Socca also makes a marvelous hors d'oeuvres. I put the large skillet with the finished socca right on the table and let guests help themselves, tearing pieces off with their fingers. It's also a great crêpe-like base in which to wrap warmed leftover shredded long-cooked meats and stews.

Though it's probably something of a heresy, socca batter makes great silver-dollar pancakes for a grownup breakfast; their slightly eggy flavor marries perfectly with maple syrup or jam.

Doesn't that sound good?

So I made five medium-sized socca (socci?) with various accouterments. They were all delicious, and incredibly easy to make, so I strongly suspect there will be more socca-experimentation in my future.

First I heated the oven to 375 (you'll probably want to set it higher--my oven gets very hot very fast) and cut a yellow onion into fat slices. I drizzled the slices with olive oil on a foiled baking tray and stuck them in the oven to get sweet and slightly browned. Then I sliced a knob-end of mozzarella I had hanging around.

Then I followed the recipe in the link. I wasn't fussed about whisking in exactly one tablespoon of water at a time or anything, and I didn't need to be. But keep in mind that you may need less water than the recipe calls for. I got the heavy-cream consistency with less than a cup of water, probably because my cup of flour was a bit scanty. I also spread the oil over the pan with my fingers, before the pan got really hot. I, uh, wouldn't do that if I were cooking for people who aren't me.

My socci took noticeably longer to cook than the recipe calls for, probably due to irregularities in both my stove burner and my pan. I needed maybe five or six minutes on the first side, and two or three after I flipped the pancakes. I took the onion out of the oven and dumped it onto a plate. After I flipped the pancakes, I laid the mozzarella slices on top of the larger socca to melt.

These first two came out moist and delicious! I topped the smaller one with some of the onion. The larger one became a sort of socca grilled-cheese sandwich, folded over the mozzarella filling.

Then I made three more: one with dried rosemary, one with cumin and dried oregano, and one with cumin, curry powder, cayenne, ground ginger, and a tiny bit of cinnamon. The smell from this one was amazing. It was also the tastiest of the second batch; the rosemary and oregano didn't do much for the pancakes. I let the second batch cook at least a minute longer than the first, which meant that they were drier and browner but no less tasty.

I finished the meal with a glass of whole milk--the perfect accompaniment!

Verdict: This was easy and delightful. I can't wait to try more with this batter--maybe making a thicker batter and turning it into fritters with fresh peas? Or... onion rings?? And I know I'll be making more socca.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"I went home and listened to classical music for an hour, trying desperately to recreate that feeling I had when I saw your breasts in the window...."
--via Ratty

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DON'T LOOK NOW: Mini-reviews, mostly horror. I realized that there are a lot of books and movies I'm glad to have read or watched, even though I don't have enough to say about them to warrant a full-length post here. So this is a roundup of a bunch of things you might want to know about.

Hugh Kennedy, Everything Looks Impressive. Yale in the '80s; is the protagonist supposed to be unlikable and unwilling to learn? Class resentment, demi-dykery, survivor guilt. I've been reading a lot of college novels lately, and I'm surprised by the regularity with which survivor guilt surfaces as a theme. I note that Everything Looks Impressive is oddly reminiscent of The Sterile Cuckoo, a college novel written some 30 years earlier. The books' narrators are equally narcissistic, but Kennedy's guy isn't as sexist in his narcissism, so... that's something?

Bonus POR mention on page two or three, as a "neo-fascist organization." I love you too!

Recommended for Yale obsessives (boola boola!) and people with my intense interest in the college-novel genre.

Deadgirl: I watched this on Netflix Instant Viewing after reading this description at Kindertrauma. This is a horror flick with a truly rancid premise: Two high-school losers are exploring an abandoned asylum when they find a naked woman strapped to a bed, behind a door which hasn't been opened in so long that it rusted shut. What follows is gross and cruel and immensely sad.

This is a horror movie about misogyny, and abuse of power more generally, which isn't itself misogynist. It's extremely hard to watch. I found it totally effective. (I'm not convinced that it fully earns its ending, but I also don't think it could really end any other way, so I'm willing to go along.) The color scheme is appropriately raw, moldy, and corrupt.

Helen Oyeyemi, White Is for Witching: Experimental horror novel in which a house in Dover, England develops a malevolent power and personality, which it uses to destroy the local immigrants and the women of the house. There are some real shivers here, and the fragmented, multiple-narrator style makes the mystery more compelling and frightening rather than serving to distance the reader from the events.

Sudden Fear: Joan Crawford's husband is trying to kill her! She's so fantastic in this, with her giant eyes and man-face and her telenovela acting style. There are some nice noir shots as well, including a gorgeous shot from above as Crawford runs down a dark street. Very easy to watch despite the relative predictability of the story.

The Experiment: German suspense flick based on the Stanford Prison Experiment. Moritz Bleibtreu is terrific! Unfortunately, the film doesn't get over the most basic hurdle: It's really hard to make a fictionalized version of the actual events which is even as horrifying as what really happened. So despite some raw moments and tough-to-watch scenes (I was struck by the early glimpse of the prisoners' feet unprotected in sandals while the guards wore heavy boots) the movie still feels tarted-up and tinfoil compared to the visceral events on which it was based. The romance subplot is also distracting and kitschy.

My Little Eye: Fluffy C-level horror movie about a group of twentysomethings recruited for a reality-show webcast which requires them to live in a creepy old camera-riddled house together for six months. If anyone leaves, everyone forfeits the million-dollar prize money. I enjoyed the Breakfast Club echoes, both explicit and implied.
DAVID "BEYOND GAY" MORRISON AND SOME GUY, in "a conversation about the Church and same-sex marriage" at Blessed Sacrament in Chevy Chase (DC), tonight at 7.30 pm. I may be there! Because I can't get enough of that wonderful Duff, apparently. Anyway, I thought you all might be interested.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Uyeda says that his approach to cocktail-making is grounded in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is an "adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order."
--"Tokyo, Cocktail Capital of the World," Hugh Garvey, in Best Food Writing 2009

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I CANNOT POSSIBLY TOP CAMASSIA'S POST TITLE but you should know that she continued our secular-morality discussion from last week, here, and I replied in comments.

ETA: Oh, possibly my old post about St. Anselm would be relevant??

Saturday, March 06, 2010

PRIORITIES. Via the Rattus. Several of the other ones she links are also great, e.g. "Destiny."
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS is having a fairly epic book sale. I'm snapping up two books of medieval Jewish poetry. You should check it out!

Friday, March 05, 2010

"FANTASY AND THE JEWISH QUESTION." More, and well worth your time: "But it's America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism." Robust comments thread as well!

And a bit more here: fantasy vs. critique of fantasy. I'm pretty sure I prefer the latter, although there are exceptions.
While many of Thiessen's opinions are appalling from a moral perspective (he justifies torture and abuse through the religious writings of St. Thomas Aquinas), the book is comprised of errors, omissions, and a whopping dose of fear-mongering. I'll concentrate here on his worst misstatements and why his conclusions ultimately make us less safe.

read it here

probably via The Agitator
HE LOVED SOMEBODY BUT IT WASN'T ME: A bit more on whether there are secular reasons. This post is fairly tentative.

Camassia replies to me and Fish and Steven Smith here. I will concur in part and dissent in part!

First, Fish and Smith are both using a philosophically sketchy definition of "religion." They seem to be influenced by the (Rawlsian??? is he to blame for this??) notion that all "comprehensive doctrines" are suspect in the public sphere. They're also talking about a fairly specific kind of religion--I don't think this discussion would make much sense if you assumed that "religion" referred to vodoun, or the Greek pantheon, or (maybe?) Shintoism.

I do think they're right to say you can't get teleology from undirected nature--you need a Creator--and that most moral arguments do rely on teleology. Most moral arguments rely on an account of human nature which is about what humans should be, not what humans demonstrably are. In fact I'm not sure how you'd get a moral, "should" argument from a bare evidentiary "are" claim.

And so I'm not fully on board with Camassia's proposed knot-cutting:
This experience of looking at yourself as if you were someone else, and liking or disliking what you see — in other words, having a conscience — is essentially a brute fact for nearly all people. They have varying explanations of why it exists, or they may have no explanation, but still it’s there. And this experience compels at least a rudimentary morality; if you like people who are good to you, then you must be good to them, if you are going to like yourself. By the same token, if you respect people who don’t take crap from you, you’re going to be uncompromising towards others if you want to respect yourself. I didn’t say this was all warm and fuzzy. But it’s also why I don’t entirely agree with Fish’s claim that ideas like justice and equality are totally empty without God. The ability to see yourself as a person among persons, to put yourself in another’s place, implies a certain equality, or at least similarity. There’s a certain justice that comes when you dislike yourself in proportion to the cause you’ve given someone to dislike you. And — this is the less obvious point — this identification with others also means that you assume other people have that capacity, and can therefore make claims on them. I think this is why these words have meaning for people, even if they can’t agree on precisely what they mean or how to apply them to a given situation.

Because I agree that we are able to see ourselves in another's place... sometimes. We are able to extend empathy, and derive "should"s, morality, from that empathy.

But within this human-scale morality, can we ever say you should love someone you don't? Can we say to the Spartan citizen that he should see himself in the face of the helot?

So yeah: Justice and equality are not totally empty without (a specific conception of) God. But I do think they're importantly empty.

As I understand it, both Judaism and Christianity cut the knot by identifying the source and summit of morality with a Person, thus a possible object of our love. God is not an abstraction but a powerful dude working in history; God is not just a big goon, but the essence of goodness. God is simultaneously (among many other things!) a specific beloved, and that-which-is-to-be-loved. So to say, "Why should I love God?" is a question which--if you are actually talking about this God, and not denying that He exists or that He is what Jews and Christians say He is--simply unravels.

Obviously none of that is an argument for the existence of this God. Which may be why this kind of argument rarely plays a role in conversion! But I think possibly this line of thinking influences Fish and Smith when they say that morality doesn't really get off the ground without some smuggled incense in the balloon.

(...Hmm, I think that metaphor probably fails at physics. Heh.)

[edited: I think perhaps the next place to go is the Birthday Cake of Existence: What do we do when our moral claims appear to conflict with our metaphysical beliefs? There's more than one option!]
STILL PREFERRING THE TINSEL: I recently finished Melinda Selmys's Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. (Insert "sounds like a Heideggerian lingerie ad" joke here....) I wish I could recommend the book, because it does grapple with some concepts close to my heart--I was really excited to see that later chapter headings included "Beauty" and "Vocation." But this book did not work for me, at all. I'm not going to do a real review, but I do want to highlight five problems I had, because I think these problems are endemic to orthodox Catholic writing on Gay Whatnot.

So here are five things I wish Sexual Authenticity had done.

1. Remember the miniskirt rule! Discussions of sub-topics should be long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Selmys covers sodomy in Christian history in two pages, ex-gay therapies in maybe five and a half. Better to skip these topics entirely than to skimp.

Selmys, for example, describes some of the more shocking 20th-century "cures" for homosexuality, like electroshock and hormone replacement, and then tells us that contemporary ex-gay therapy shouldn't be similarly reviled. That's groovy and all, but Selmys doesn't actually describe even one contemporary ex-gay program. So is she saying we should give this a chance, or the programs described by Peterson Toscano and Lance Carroll in my NRO piece here, or this, or something else? I don't have to think Carroll is today's Alan Turing to think Love in Action is cruel, ugly, and silly. (I'd really recommend the posts here for in-depth, specific looks at various different approaches to ex-gay identity, practice, and culture.)

2. Avoid monocausal explanations. There are a lot of reasons people drink milk in the morning! Surely there are even more reasons someone might be promiscuous, or unhappy, or defensive. And yet Selmys frequently falls back on rhetorical forms like, "Promiscuous sexuality is, at its heart, an attempt to access something like the Communion of the Saints--to be able to enter into the intimate life of a much larger range of humanity than you would ordinarily be able to access."

This is intriguing and in a way quite charitable. It's in line with Augustine's stance that sins are virtues misapplied. But it's also, I would wager, unrecognizable to most people who have actually been promiscuous. (Not speaking from experience, MOM.) If you only offer one explanation or reason for an action, you lose the chance for your words to resonate with people who did the action for entirely different reasons. This isn't such a big deal if a) you're just talking about your own experience, or giving other specific examples of actual people, or b) you don't rely on monocausal explanation very often. Selmys went to that well way too often for me.

Oh, here's another example, and a worse one I think. While arguing that ex-gay therapies fail, when they fail, because they don't promote friendship and spiritual succour, she says: "The 'cure' consists not in the healing of father-wounds, nor even in the assumption of heterosexual relationships, but in humbling yourself enough to admit that a struggle is taking place and that you can't do it by yourself. This is why frequent confession and compassionate spiritual direction is effective, while testosterone-replacement therapies are not. ...This is also why there are some people who will never be 'cured.' Because for someone whose primary struggle is the struggle with same-sex attractions, being cured is tantamount to being saved. Regardless of what certain Protestant theologians would like us to believe, that is something not completed until, finally, you stand before the judgment throne of God...."

It's really just not true--and it's damaging--to say that people whose same-sex attractions persist throughout their lives are insufficiently humble or are assuming that they'd be saved if only they went straight. I mean, I know people who do frequent confession and have compassionate spiritual directors, and who seek to live entirely in accordance with God's will as expressed in the teaching of the Catholic Church... and they're still pretty gay.

3. Don't say you have special insight into experiences you almost had. This one is tricky. Almost having an experience can give you relevant insight into that experience, depending on the reasons you stopped short. But if you deploy your empathy too readily, you may come across as if you're attempting to colonize other people's experiences for your own worldview.

For example, Selmys writes, "I am going to stand up and confess, here, that I understand exactly what my homosexual brothers are feeling when they give up on the quest for chastity, leave the Church, and try to find hope and happiness in the gay lifestyle. I have felt it myself: there are times when I look up at my ceiling at night, and I don't see the face of God--I haven't seen Him, or felt Him, in months, and I can't understand the burdens that are piling up on me--and I want to say, 'To hell with it.' Literally. Let this entire project of the moral life collapse under its own weight; just let me get out of the building first."

Which... I'm pretty sure I don't understand "exactly what my homosexual brothers are feeling," but obviously a lot of people view leaving the Church as taking on a new moral project, a better and truer one, not giving up on the moral life. I think they're wrong (though they're quite sincere!), but it's just not true to diagnose their problem, universally, as despair or willful immoralism.

She concludes that section by writing that if she did not believe in God, "I would run away from my family, or commit suicide, or become a raging alcoholic and curse everyone who came my way. I would be worse--a hundred times worse--than any of the people hanging around the bars down in the Village." But really, if you'd be a hundred times worse than them, doesn't that mean you don't share their experience or know what makes them tick? Or to put it another way, if the problem of the guys at JR's is atheism, and Selmys understands their temptations and experiences as intimately as she claims, why aren't they acting as badly as she says she would?

4. Try to have something to say to people who are happy being gay. This is not so relevant if you're basically writing autobiography. But Selmys is attempting a more theoretical work, aimed at a broad audience. And I think one of the reasons it really didn't speak to me is that it assumes that lesbian experience will be kind of fakey-fantasy, inherently unsatisfying, and gay life is depressing. This... has not been my experience.

I like being gay! I love being Catholic. (Love is obviously a more fraught emotion than liking.) The intersection of the two can be humiliating, lonely, irritating (it's very tiresome being constantly told by strangers that you hate yourself), frightening, philosophically challenging, and generally difficult. But it's also immensely fruitful and, in its own way, fun. Certainly we've got a lot of historical precedent to play with! Pasolini is me... and all that....

5. Acknowledge the diversity of vocations. This point is obviously related to the previous one. Selmys, now married with children, often writes as if marriage is the summit of vocation, the only opportunity for real love. She writes that gay relationships are more like friendships than like marriages, which isn't true on its face (I think gay relationships are different from both, but similar to both--they're the middle circle in the Venn diagram, overlapping the two outer circles while retaining its own boundaries) and, in context, treats friendship as a cute accessory to the real business of life.

For example, elsewhere: "Friends may hope to stick together 'through thick and thin,' but in reality, friendships tend to dissolve quickly when bonds of mutual interest cease to hold them together--they may linger on in name, and occasion the odd greeting card at special holidays, but they cease to involve a genuine knowledge of and involvement with the other." (I don't know whether that sentence is more ahistoric, tragic, false, trivializing, or self-fulfilling.) And elsewhere again: "Love involves the whole person. Romantic or erotic love involves the whole person most of all--there are plenty of other kinds of love in which you make a sincere gift that comes out of yourself, but do not actually give yourself entirely."

You all know by now that I can't be havin' with that sort of thing. Friendship is real love. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.

I'm not sure how Selmys's latria toward married love can allow for priestly vocations, let alone devoted friendship.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

THE FACE OF ANOTHER: Not quite a review of That Face, playing at the Studio Theater through March 14. (YOU CAN STILL SEE "IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER," PEOPLE. IT'S PLAYING THROUGH MARCH 7. GO SEE IT NOW.) This is just a slightly scrubbed version of what I sent Ratty after I saw the play....

Audience comments afterward included "intense" and "interesting," so... yeah! It really was not what I was expecting. It's the debut of a like 19-y.o. British playwright, and it opens with two prep-school girls hazing another one. Things spiral out of hand and the girls end up seriously injuring the haze-ee, landing her in the hospital. I'd actually thought, going in, that that incident was the focus of the play--I thought the "face" in the title referred at least in part to the girl's injuries. And honestly... I wish it had been that, since the two scenes with the haze-ee are incredibly brutal, and I was left wanting to know so much more about her--how she ended up in that position, how she could possibly manage to go on after being really thoroughly dehumanized in both of her scenes (both in the hazing and in the hospital).

But instead the play turns out to be about this wildly [messed]-up family--like, Southern gothic but set in ASBO-Tesco-yobbo Britain (and in fact, the crazy incestuous drunken mother's actress had played in both THE GLASS MENAGERIE and SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER--I bet I can guess which roles!). The daughter of the family is one of the hazers, is how it connects to the opening scene, and because the school threatens to kick her out, her divorced-and-remarried father flies in from Hong Kong to deal with them, setting in motion all the other events. And... yeah, the complete awfulness of the family was intense to watch (and funny--this is a REALLY harsh black comedy), but I still... wanted to know more about the first girl.

The very disturbing thing is that some of the scenes/dialogue reminded me of one of the worst nightmares I've ever had, which made it especially hilarious when the father has the great line, "This scene has a nightmarish quality I don't like!"

Anyway, I was very shaken-up when it ended (abruptly), in large part because of that resemblance to my nightmare, but ultimately I don't know that it's more than a really grim family-gothic comedy. There's a kind of demi-theme of irrevocable acts, of repentance that comes too late to repair the damage, which of course I liked.
They sentenced me to twenty years of blogwatch
For trying to change the system from within...

Camassia: More on The Last Station.

MarriageDebate is just a cornucopia, people. "Are Sperm Donors Really Anonymous Anymore?"; "Would Your Boyfriend Be Pleased By Your Surprise Fetus?"; Can a court tell a parent what religion his child will be?; Catholic girls (and Canadian schoolteachers) gone wild; Yale administration promotes sincerist sex; and whether major economic shifts are leading women to redefine "marriage material." And much, much more. As always, send me links if you've got 'em....

The Rat is back to frequent, linkalicious blogging! Opera, lit, meta-cannoli and much more.

"Why There Is No Jewish Narnia." Really intriguing, though I'm way too far from being a Tolkein or Narnia fan to address its claims. I'd be interested in others' reactions. Two recent novels, Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Hagar Yanai's Ha-Mayim she-bein ha-olamot (The Water Between the Worlds), are reviewed as part of a longer and more speculative essay. Plus the piece is worth it just for the rabbinic description of the fate of Leviathan! Via Arts & Letters Daily.

"Weaponizing Mozart," and other present-tense dystopias from the place that was England.

To Save a Thousand Souls, a new book for men discerning a vocation to the priesthood, has excerpts posted here. The book aims to answer "frequently asked questions" with clear examples and stories. Via Mark Shea.

Stanley Fish asks, "Are there secular reasons?" He says no, but--kinda like what I did when I addressed the same question here and here--he equivocates on how a fully-secular philosophy might proceed. What are the possible objects for the philosopher's eros, the nuptial meaning of the mind, in a fully secular worldview? I dunno, because I've never done it, but I welcome your thoughts. Anyway, here is a bit of Fish, fishifying:
...Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?” ...

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers.
. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction — to even get started — “we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations — to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation.

more (and yet more of me here, a familiar link to longtime readers)

And this Peter Steinfels column from 2006 makes some good, basic points in crisp language:
But otherwise, Mr. Saletan's approach emphasizes making pregnancies intended and presumably wanted. The Democrats for Life approach emphasizes making pregnancies wanted, whether intended or not. Mr. Saletan emphasizes making any abortion choice unnecessary. Democrats for Life emphasizes making it what the group would consider a genuine choice. And at a very practical level, which is the level of political reality, the two approaches would finance very different and in many respects adversarial networks of organizations and ideology.

It is at this point that the ambiguity remaining in Mr. Saletan's use of ''bad'' cannot be avoided. Is abortion bad like hurricanes or cancer, or is it bad like persecution or child abuse?

whole thing
"HEARTBREAK HILL": Subscribers to the American Conservative can get my new column here (PDF)--it's about Capitol Hill.