Apr 30, 2010

What do you mean, reasonable?

There's an odd moment of structural instability in the criticism of Arizona's new immigrant documentation law. The criticism, for the most part, hangs on the idea that by making "reasonable suspicion" an acceptable reason to demand documentation, the law will allow racial profiling, violating the Bill of Rights' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. The critics don't think that race is a valid reason for suspicion -- since American isn't a race -- but think it will, under the new law, count as a reasonable. So the argument, here, as I understand it, is that the law is to be opposed because, under this law, the unreasonable reason will be considered reasonable.

But if racial profiling is unreasonable, then how could it count as a reason for suspicion?

The critics of the law have kind of taken to just assuming the racism of their opponents and the phrase "reasonable suspicion," which is probably true but also cedes too much. Maybe it would have been better if they had just said, over and over, "yeah, reasonable ... but, um, what is a reasonable suspicion? Could you give me an example?"

The text of the law does, also, allow for at least some profiling, with the half-prohibition that documents cannot be demanded "solely" on the grounds of "race, color or national origin." This opens up the same weird indeterminacy in the law, in that race-based suspicion is considered to be both reasonable and unreasonable, sufficient and insufficient, a kind of half reason that both can and can't be used to justify something. What this probably means, practically, is that an officer cannot cite race as a reason for demanding documentation, but that if a defense attorney can show race was a factor in the officer's actions, the officer can admit it without any negative consequences. This doe mean that even overt racism wouldn't get the case thrown out of court, since the officer can easily give an account of race plus something, while the defense has the impossible task of arguing race was the one and only reason.

The real issue of the law is probably more rightly the question of whether people in America should be required to carry documentation at all times (something that's pretty normal in much of the world and yet which seems somehow opposed to core American principles); the real issue in the debate over the law is probably actually the question of what an American looks like. The mistake, however, the misplaced emphasis of the criticism, and the odd indeterminacy of the idea of reasonableness in the law points to some of the strained seams of the legal concept, which is to say the way that it is a fiction and an after-the-fact construction.

In criminal law, for instance, a person's actions can be judged by comparison to what a "reasonable person" would do, which is meant to be an objective standard. That requires, however, a jury (say) to imagine a hypothetical person who is a kind of theorized ideal. The "reasonable person" can't actually be a person in order for the legal fiction to work, since any actual person would necessarily be subjective, and would not provide an objective standard unless the law declared that this particular person was arbitrarily going to be the standard (allowing legal questions to be settled by just asking the person what he or she would do). But how can anyone know what a hypothetical person who is really reasonable would do? If two people disagree on what a "reasonable person" would do -- say, for example, at what speed such person would drive on a highway during the rain -- what can they appeal to as support, except their own, subjective, conjecture? Wouldn't any disagreement on reasonableness automatically be at an impasse?

The fictionality of this quickly becomes complicated and possibly confusing, too, when it ceases, in practice, to be a fiction. For example, in the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, a soldier can be dismissed for "language or behavior that a reasonable person would believe intends to convey that [the soldier is] homosexual or bisexual." But if, for example, a Marine major believes a private is acting gay, the private can't argue that a reasonable person wouldn't think so without arguing or at least implying that the major is not a reasonable person. Thus thinking something is true is almost ipso facto transformed into it counting as true because of the "reasonable person" standard, unless, again, there's not a consensus, and, to quote a phrase, reasonable people disagree.

Even this, though, misses the kind of obvious and strange point that reasons and reasonableness are almost always constructed after the fact of the action. This is, in some ways, necessarily true, since we don't have access to the intentions or thoughts of the person acting, but only to the actions, and to the person's own account, which, 1) can only occur as an after-the-fact explanation and which, 2) we would have to assume is as least somewhat biased. There is also, however, no requirement, for example, that an officer have good reasons for something as it occurs, but only that reasons can be found in the future. An officer might well act on instinct, or not think at all and only react, as might be necessary in some emergency situations, and this is normally acceptable if an explanation can be found that could, theoretically, have been the reason, even if it wasn't. However, this is not to say that to say a suspicion that turns out not to be true is then, therefore, unreasonable, if one can construct a way in which it could have been reasonable, even if it wasn't and isn't.

There is, in this sense, a kind of tenselessness to the law enforcement phrase "reason to believe." On the one hand the reason seems to be present and projected into the past ("there was reason to believe" not necessarily meaning that that reason was the reason, but instead meaning there is, now, a reason that can be put in the past tense) and, on the other hand, the reason is not present now (so "there was reason to believe" means the reason can not be supported in the present, with present information, but could have been in the past, which puts it in that past perfect formation, "to have believed" but without actually having happened in the past). The reason, then, in this little bit of law enforcement lingo, is grounded neither in the present nor in the past, but in a hypothetical. It's almost as if there's a hypothetical tense.

But even if one ignores the fact that a reason for a suspicion is, in a way, a construction and a fiction which is, perhaps, both tenseless and indeterminate, it is close to impossible to chose among possible reasons for an interpretation of an action without resorting to conjecture. When one is presented with multiple possible reasons for a past action, all of which are constructed from the evidence of accounts and one of which involves there not having been a reason, how does one decide between them, how does one reach a conclusion of reasonableness (except, possibly, through charity)?

For example, I reported on a case where a police officer detained and deported about a dozen teenagers. In his account of what happened, he was responding to a report of truancy, a group of Hispanic high school students having a party in the middle of the day. When they told him they didn't have to be in school because of their age, he asked for documentation, and then, he says (and there was no way to verify this), they told him they didn't have any because they were in the country illegally. He then detained them all and called their parents. When some of the parents showed up, they were asked for documentation and, according to the officer, didn't have any, and so were also detained for deportation. I was later told, however, in a secondhand account (which also could not be confirmed), that the officer had a history of derogatory comments about Hispanics, and that the students had "mouthed off" at the officer, possibly calling him a racist nigger, and he had said he was going to "fucking deport them and their whole spic families."

Given what would seem to be three possible reasons for the detainment and deportation -- racism, retribution, or accepted, legal law enforcement procedure -- or some possible combination of reasons, plus the fact that none of the facts can be independently verified, how should one go about deciding on a reason or choosing a constructed account of a reason, without just picking one, or deciding on a bias to take?

Neither court nor jury ever got to consider that, of course, since the teens disappeared into ICE vans with only a few inches of text recounting the police's account in the paper and 20 seconds of typically breathless and unquestioning footage on that night's news.

So maybe reason has nothing to do with it.

Apr 28, 2010

If your mother says she loves you

In his big book about the New York Times, Gay Talese writes about the reporter's instinct, "a special sense that good reporters develop and use in a crisis" to separate rumours from facts, to feel their way to what's true. If they have to, he writes, they can "write blind." He describes how Tom Wicker covered the Kennedy assassination, with the incredible chaos of information and misinformation, sheer pandemonium, and how Wicker nonetheless knew, perhaps in a way he couldn't have articulated, what was reliable and what wasn't.

"He was feeling the facts and guided by instinct," according to Talese.

This is amazing when it happens and feels amazing when it happens but what bothers me is that bad reporters, and mediocre reporters, and good reporters on bad or mediocre days, don't do anything like this. Instead they report everything, putting it all in without any sort of serious winnowing, all of it equal, and all of it attributed, all of it dubious. The reporter, on a normal day, takes a position of complete gullibility and complete, simultaneous, skepticism. All of it's treated as true, and as though none of that truth is believable.

Reporters have a tendency, too, to oscillate between being idealist believers and real cynics. And both of those are in their stories at the same time. They don't believe their mothers love them and they'll have to check it out, as the old line goes, but they'll print it as it is as long as it's got "she said" after it, and they'll do it exactly the same for the drunk guy who won't go home when the party's over.

"I love you, man," he said.

Maybe it doesn't matter if it's just the journalists, but what happens when the whole national conversation -- economics and politics, foreign affairs and everything -- is this wild oscillation between gullibility and believing nothing?

Apr 27, 2010

Trying to say the sadness

Repeatedly, in interviews, David Foster Wallace says he was trying, with Infinite Jest and then again with Oblivion, to write something sad, even though he didn't think he had, or wasn't sure, or worried that he hadn't.

Even if there were no other reason, I would like him for that.

Apr 26, 2010

The button I remember

Sometimes the nightmares still come. Called up by what I don't know. There's some connection, some link, some invocation unseen, and I remember, in my sleeping mind, a detail.

It's never a narrative. Never a story or a sequence of events. I don't even know if nightmare is the right word, since it's not fear that I feel but just there's this sense I don't understand, and there's one thing and I focus, and I can't let go.

The smell of body rotting in August. Two legs bones tied together by a red blanket, which didn't disintegrate even though the flesh in the dirt decomposed. The way a mom's face looked -- impassive, but pained -- as she didn't talk about her son. Wire hanger scratches down the throat of a baby. A man crying in the dark of a church parking lot after killing his cousin with a gun, his wife with an ax he'd bought the day before. A button almost lost in the long carpet.

I don't know why I remember the button instead of the body, naked in the bath tub.

The woman was raped by a neighbor, either before or after she died, and left in the tub, and then he tried to burn the place down, turning on the oven and stuffing in rags. But what I remember, when I'm not thinking about it and it comes up anyway, is the button, ripped from her blouse and left in the carpet, the little threads still stuck in the holes like the roots of a ripped-out eye.

When a friend went to check up on the woman and found the door open, it was the button on the floor that made her think something was wrong.

Compared to the cops I didn't see much, as a crime reporter. Just enough that they sometimes felt like they could show me what they'd seen. Some of them were haunted too, in ways I never was and never could be, feeling like they had to fix something that couldn't be fixed, where all I ever tried to do was write something sad enough.

Apr 24, 2010

"At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you from enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't ... spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrates, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it."

-- George Orwell, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad

Apr 21, 2010

Notes on the rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards' 'Sinners in the Hands of Angry God'

1. What have we done to make God mad? The sermon is filled with descriptions of divine rage but it isn't ever clear why. We're at fault, for sure, "provoking his pure Eyes," and we can't stand it, "cannot bear the Fierceness and Wrath of the infinite God," but the reason isn't explained.

God, Edwards says, "abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours."

What's rhetorically brilliant about this is that instead of arguing guilt, or attempting to construct it for us, Edwards instead assumes it, but more than that, assumes we feel it. We condemn ourselves, supplying our own guilt, confessing to filth we feel, crimes of which we have not been accused.

Our guilt is a great, untapped reservoir under the surface: he just drills and our guilt gushes forth.

2. Who is he talking to? The personal pronouns shift as the sermon progresses. Edwards starts with the first person plural, we, which can be a bit presumptuous, but is also very non-threatening, since he's not saying anything about anyone he wouldn't also say of himself. He then switches to the second person singular, speaking directly to the unnamed audience member who is damned, saying repeatedly and pointedly, you. This is forceful, even violent -- "there is Hell's wide gaping Mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon" -- yet also allows for that force, in part, because each individual listener can displace that pronoun, so it applies to someone else. It's possible, at this point, to urge Edwards on in his diatribe, since he's not speaking to you-you, he doesn't know you and couldn't mean you, even as there's an uneasiness that this isn't true.

Edwards then takes this ambiguity and uneasiness and ratchets it up, shifting to the third person plural, they. But who are they? Even as one might look around to see who is being spoken of, even as one might feel relief at the shift away from you, Edwards defines they as those who don't think they are they, as those who are, at that exact moment, looking around: "it may be they are now at Ease, and hear all these Things without much Disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the Persons, promising themselves that they shall escape."

The rhetoric works so that they only way an individual is not the one being spoken of -- and how horrible is it to hear yourself spoken of like this, like you're not even there? -- is if he or she confesses to being that person.

The shifting pronouns involve this ever-heightening, horrible uneasiness a little logic trap, which can only be resolved by coming forward and confessing.

3. The metaphors, ostensibly all about God's wrath and the precarious human state, often involve tension, and increasing tension. "The Bow of God's Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow ..."

There's almost a high pitched thrumming sound to the sermon, as if Edwards is plucking at the too-tighten strings that can't take any more strain and the tension tightens, tightens and tightens -- until the listeners cry out to make it stop.

Apr 20, 2010

The house Wittgenstein built
The house that Wittgenstein built in Vienna (now the Bulgarian embassy)


Park toilets
Imaginary Cormac
The volcano of 1883
Ron Silliman + nude
Ron Silliman likes flarf
Q & A with Greil Marcus
Penises in religious art
Mark Twain, 100 years dead
Who confesses; who absolves
The GOP's zero-sum strategy
Charles Bukowski, family man
Pictures of Eyjafjallajokull
The Smithsonian's taxidermist
20 years of Hubble telescope
Autobiography of an execution
5 New Orleans brass band jams
The violence shall rise again
Atlantic Monthly's fiction issue
AP caves to spelling of 'website'
Academic writings on Ron Silliman
Better public restrooms by design
Fact checking with the German press
May 2: A global photographic mosaic
Robots tap into data cloud, get smarter
German's develop and realize invisibility cloak
Lobbyists, lawmakers and Bruce Springsteen concerts
Hans Kung's open letter to Ratzinger and the bishops
The quiet death of a Nazi in a Stuttgart nursing home
Honoring Confederate history with pictures of former slaves
The downside of the first amendment -- racist/political speech
Justin Jackson, Eastern Orthodox Giradian scholar, interprets Gen. 1-3
Jack Herer, father of movement to legalize pot, dies at 70. May he rest in peace.
Bill Clinton on OK City, political fights, violent rhetoric and siren song of simplicity

Thinking -- or not -- with Heidegger

It's not about Heidegger. It's not about Nazis. The argument is an argument about the priority of politics.

The debate's been going on for some time now -- seemingly cyclically -- and always the attackers say, Heidegger was a Nazi, and they use the evidence of his affiliation, which is, in fact, a fact, and which was, in fact, never in question. But they argue from the assumption of a conclusion. Instead of wading into the thinking and showing how and where the thinking errs, and that the thinking errs, they pre-judge the philosophy by its apparent political end. This means, though, that thinking itself is sapped of any power or potential. The argument erects a structure where the only acceptable answer to whatever question is the one we have already decided upon, and all thinking is inadmissible unless it ends up at the right conclusion.

The defenses of Heidegger do the same thing, though -- ceding the priority of the political, ceding that it would be right to reject him if he were a Nazi, ceding that thinking is to be evaluated not as thinking but according to its final alignment with what we, in some consensus, already accept as true without having to thoroughly think it through at all. They argue Heidegger was not really a Nazi, or he was but that was an accident of time and place and an error, but not of thinking, not of philosophy, but ambition and understanding.

In doing this, though, in defending him, they assent to the main point, which was never about Heidegger himself, but is, in fact, a dismissal of the entire project of philosophy.

At Hillsdale, a school whose public persona is hyper-political, even as real liberal arts are taught, the philosophy department is occasionally visited by hyper-political senior citizens, in town for a seminar, or hyper-political high schoolers, considering application. Almost without exception, they eventually interrupt the class with a question that is always, in spirit, the same: But how does this -- this of Plato/Aristotle/Kant/Hegel/Wittgenstein's -- support our politics?

When someone says Heidegger was a Nazi, or even that he wasn't, the same thing happens. Thinking is delimited, boxed in -- and only allowed if it doesn't have the potential or power to overturn what we think we know. It is only allowed to operate as the hack to our machine. It is only accepted if it serves and is rightly deferential to our orthodoxy and our agenda. Politics has priority, and thinking is good thinking only insofar as is serves our end.

Remember here the conservative mantra, popular a while back, that ideas have consequences. Ostensibly this works as a caution against ivory tower idea-mongers who were, somewhere along the way, overly cavalier about the outworkings of ideas, thinking them "just" ideas, in some sense, safe within the confines of being completely impractical. It is not quite clear, of course, who is supposed to have thought ideas weren't also causes with effects. Even the worst caricatures of liberal hippie profs preaching Marx didn't do that. Or course ideas have consequences. Of course they work out and unfold and have effects. In this sense, the mantra is meaningless.

Yet the silliness of this actually serves to underline the true subversiveness of the slogan: ideas have consequences works to elevate conclusions over thinking, to give politics priority. It's not just that ideas "have" consequences, but that they are to be judged by them, that the consequences are what count, what matters. This is not just a question of priority, either, because thinking isn't thinking if it doesn't have the space or the freedom to arrive at conclusions. Here, under the conservative slogan, with this prioritization, thinking is smothered. Thinking is killed. All that's left is hackery.

We'd do better to reverse the mantra, to say, consequences have ideas. Because consequences and results are manifest all around us, but we don't even and can't even know what they are unless we're free to think. And we cannot think -- cannot interrogate the world as it is, as we find it, as we assume it to be -- unless our thinking has the potential to change us, which is also the power to convince us, at least possibly, that everything we think we know is upside down and backwards. Thinking isn't thinking unless it can dismantle us and our world. Mutatis mutandis, with the priority placed on thinking, the slogan makes thinking free and gives it priority, which is the only way it's possible, but which also means dangerous.

When someone says, "All I know about Heidegger is he was a Nazi," they are also saying that this is all they want to know, all they want to be known. In the most recent eruption of the debate, it's no accident that the argument went from Heidegger's affiliation to banishing him from philosophy. Politics, here, is totalized, which means thinking vanishes, and we're left with dogma, but at least we're safe from the anarchic potential of ideas.

It is not about Heidegger, though. It's not about Nazis. It's about thinking, and whether we're going to do it or not.

Apr 19, 2010

The two arguments of Anthony Flew

A slightly mismatched pair of arguments -- with one Anthony Flew disbelieved, and with the other he believed. Both are about science, both about God, and both, I think, are ideas that fall apart.

The philosopher decided as a boy to disbelieve in God because of unfalisifiability, according to his obit in the New York Times, but then, as an old man, he changed his mind and chose to believe1 because of unexplainability.

The latter argument seems to be particularly bad.2 For one thing, it equates God with whatever it is we don't know, an algebraic x, an answer that isn't an answer but a placeholder for whatever the answer will be. Answers do come, too, so the scientific unknown shifts, over time. Thus the belief in a God who is the action supplying the solution to problems of physics or biology is either belief in an ever-shifting thing -- what was once God is now gravity, what is now God might tomorrow be a newly-discovered particle -- or, more perniciously, a belief that requires one to hold some problems are unsolvable and the abracadabra! premise, which is not a solution but a question or blank space, an unknown, is to be considered enough, and no other solution should be sought. This is a bit like proposing 2 -x = 5 as the answer to 2 - x = 5, giving up the whole project of solving for x.

The former argument is more interesting and raises a good question: what evidence would make one reject the idea of the existence of God?3

I wonder, though, if it doesn't mistake God for a philosophic or scientific theory, and stretch those standards of proof further than they can really rightly be stretched. It doesn't seem, for example, like there could be any falsification test for hope or love -- what evidence would make you reject the idea of the existence of love? Not that God is a necessarily analogous to hope or love, but certainly the world as we understand it involves our acceptance of some non-scientific, unfalsifiable things.

It's interesting how closely related and yet asymmetrical these arguments are. In the obit they bookend his life. Both of them, though, seem flawed.


1. The God rejected and accepted were not the same, however. He rejected the God of Methodists, and, as an old man, confessed to believing in something like Aristotle's God.

2. There is a different and, I think, stronger argument to be made for the Aristotlean God, in which that God operates as a logical premise, but not a scientific one. It's stronger, in part, because logic is fixed in a way science isn't.

3. This is a profoundly worthwhile question in that it clarifies what is being taken to be God, and also in that it reveals the ground of God, which then raises the very fideist/Karl Barth/Kierkegaardian question of whether that ground isn't given a higher authority than God. For example, if you believe in Jesus on the basis of history, then don't you believe in history in a more fundamental way than you believe in Jesus?

Apr 15, 2010

What a dragonfly was doing out here in the desert, he couldn’t say. It was a creature of water, a sluggish slime-coated nymph that had metamorphosed into an electric needle of light, designed to hover and dart over pond and ditch in order to feed on the insects that rose from the surface in soft moist clouds. But here it was, as red as blood if blood could shine like metal, hovering in front of his face as if it had come to impart some message. And what would that message be? I am the karmic representative of the insect world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba! For a long while, long after the creature had hurtled away in shearing splinters of radiance, he sat there, legs folded under him in the blaze of 118-degree heat, thinking alternately: This is working, and I am losing my mind.

And this was only the first day.

T.C. Boyle, The Silence

Apr 14, 2010

Where is Facebook?

Whenever anyone describes the early days of computers, they describe the bulk and sheer size of the things. They were monsters! Dinosaurs! Lumbering beasts upon the plains! As if the size and shape and tangibility told us something. Tom Wolfe, for example, says, "Computers were huge, hellishly expensive, made-to-order machines as big as a suburban living room and bristling with vacuum tubes that gave off an unbearable heat."

What happens here, besides the description being fun and fairly easy, is that the computer's physicality is presented as evidence of how it's archaic. This, we are told, is strange; This is not us anymore. Old, in the simple math we use, equals huge and new equals tiny; old equals baroque and monstrously gothic; new equals sleek.

New technology is sleek and modern, thin and small only in the product reviews, though -- after that, in most of what's said about technology and how it's used and what it does, it is described as if it is completely immaterial. The attention is all on interface and function, to the web as it works, which is to say, as we experience it. The physical, tangible parts of the digital age are all as hidden as the town dump. It's easy to read digital reams of writing on tech today, and social networking and our digital world without ever hearing about how and where the virtual world is physical. The emphasis, in this writing, is always on the overcoming of geography, the overcoming of the physical, as if the digital didn't also participate in and contribute to our geography (with, e.g., server farms, satellites, warehouses, mailrooms, etc.).

The mechanical reality of the digital age and how it works, what has to happen for a facebook update, a netflicks purchase or a google search, are almost without exception ignored. It's complete opaque to us.

But why?

The immateriality seems to be taken evidence of something -- yet it's not clear what. Physicality is used to make the technology seem strange, so what does the move in the other direction mean? The move is so smooth and so consistently done what's being covered up can maybe only be uncovered by reversing the move, by reversing the procedure, and focusing on the physical, material, tangible manifestations of technology, and how weird and surreal they are, and then to ask, why is it they're so weird and surreal?

What is it about them that makes us uncomfortable?

I suspect it's something about ethics.

Apr 12, 2010

And so starts the semester, Summer 2010
And so the semester starts, Summer 2010.

Apr 11, 2010

"I am the hero whose job it is to write comma splice in the margin beside, My ex-husband held me down, he put himself inside me."

-- William Bowers, All We Read is Freaks

Apr 10, 2010

Contortions and what 'conservative' means

1) I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around this transition cut in a clip of FOX's Megyn Kelly. How is it possible to propose a critique of nuclear disarmament and then cut to a mushroom cloud? The implied argument is completely contorted.

It's also difficult to see how it could be made in good faith. It's increasingly hard to see how any of conservatism's critiques can be made in good faith or with any charity at all.

2) The New York Times reports, "Justice Stevens, a Republican, gradually became the leader of the court’s liberal wing .... Over time, he became increasingly skeptical of claims of government power."

I know this is true, and it makes sense, especially in the contexts of specific issues of criminal justice and the death penalty, but also it's completely amazing. What is conservatism if it's not skeptical of government power?

And yet it is and isn't, and that's the internal incoherence of it.

Which is why I can't tell the difference, anymore, and maybe this is my fault, but I can't see what seperates conservatism and the shit I used to think was just using conservatism as a disguise.

Apr 8, 2010

What do the 'preachers who are not believers' not believe?

What these clergymen really have to offer is ultimately not the fact of whether they believe in God or not but, rather, the struggles of honesty, faith, and reason that are a part of so many people’s lives today. Yet Dennett and LaScola dismiss the nuance in what their subjects say, foisting a severely restrictive framework onto the ministers’ carefully thought-out positions. Even in the title, the study labels them “not believers,” though that doesn’t really describe them at all.

As one of the men says, “We are not ‘un-believers’ in our own minds.”

In whose minds, then, do they disbelieve? In the mind of Albert Mohler, Jr., certainly. The prominent Southern Baptist calls their beliefs “heresy, apostasy, and hypocrisy.” Dennett and LaScola seem to agree with this when they write that the five ministers “live out their ministries in secret disbelief.”

Read the rest of essay, Faithful Apostasy, @ Killing the Buddha.

Snopes and the internet's paradox
Good writers. Bad men. Does it matter?
Justice Stevens weighs the pros and cons
Journalists arrested for peeing in public
What's interesting about the Shroud of Turin
Vonnegut library to have home in Indianapolis
Disgrace mayor on a greyhound home from prison
Douglas Adams: Parrots, the universe and everything
Why do progressive Catholics stay in the church
The rock writing of Robert Palmer
Preparing for the next Supreme Court justice
Charles Bernstein and the Jewish avant garde
Translating Don Quixote into Modern English
Prince William promises to find a skull
Eagleton on the substance of evil
How the paperback changed things
A dialogue on the death penalty
Scrabble now with proper nouns
Palestinians try non-violence
Where objects meet anxiety
Keith Richards: librarian
American's idea of heaven
Norman Mailer's last wife
For Godforsakenness' sake
Fix prison = fix crime
Oklahoma bigfoot prank
The disappearing sea
Letham: crazy friend

Apr 7, 2010

Patterns within patterns within

First comes the question: Why a pattern?

(Every individual snowflake is unique, but each has six sides. Why?)

And then, Why this pattern?

(Why not some with 12 or 13 or 117?)

Then comes the question without the assumption: Is this a pattern?

(There are stripes on a zebra, stripes on a tiger, and stripes on rocks and beaches. Are they connected? Really? How?)

Then comes the trick: These patterns look the same, but are they?

(Ruptures of earth around the San Andreas fault line look exactly like cracks in the paint on a dried window sill. Can you compare them? Beside their apparent similarity to me, are they the same?)

Because sometimes they are, and sometimes they're not, and you have to say how. You have to find a way to say what counts as a pattern, though you're the one who counts, and mostly it comes as a kind of recognition, this and that/this is that/this is like that, that reaction of assent, which is a feeling that sometimes falls apart, sometimes stubbornly repeats itself everywhere. But if you see a pattern and see it everywhere, how is the pattern not a projection of you or something within you (your aesthetic, your longing, you fear), and how would you know?

How would you know?

How we answer that last question is the difference between a science of fractals and conspiracy theories.


Apr 6, 2010

Montage American landscape

Hills and fields and ribbons of highway, deserts and wastelands, oceans and mountains, rocky canyons and cacti and redwoods.

There's not much to make me homesick. I don't tend that way. I miss times and moment, but not really places, even places I have loved.

One thing that does do it though is movie montages of American landscape. There might be a whole sub-set or sort of movies that have this, that use these, though I guess it's a trick that cuts across genres1. Crazy Heart has one early, when the main character is driving from a show in a bowling alley to a show in a Southwest bar2, and there are several more throughout the movie. I know what these montages do. It's not like it's a mystery how they work as metaphor and for pacing, and how they manipulate you to elicit a vague ache that isn't articulatable, but they move me nonetheless.

Oil rigs and storms on the skyline, sun going down, sun coming up, the flicker of light through an orchard as it's passed on a highway, and the way the mountains don't get any closer for days as you drive.

I've never seen this effect, I don't think, in cinematic montages of a city. Not because I haven't loved cities, either. When it's urban, though, it seems like the trick is more for the sake of orientation, the flashing of a landmark for tourists and a backdrop for characters, rather than for a feeling. It always seems like it's for the setting, not to communicate something in itself3. Tom Waits' song Small Change can, piling up images, get you a feeling of a city or, maybe, a feeling you'd feel in a city, but I've never got even that from a sequence of shots in a movie.

Maybe this is the way the montages work. Or maybe it's the way we think of the land, and the way that what we think of land is the site, it seems, for both the best and worst in us.

What it feels like is this little ache that doesn't articulate very well.

Sky that won't stand still and a creek at a trickle under a bridge, acres of scrub and snakes, Indian ruins and arroyos in bloom, turning stars, big-eyed bullfrog, flats of salt and flats of sand, glint of dew, coyotes coming through the dawn.


1. Disproportionately set in the Southwest, and almost never the East, though, God knows, there's enough amazing landscape there. Also, disproportionately Westerns, but not just those.
2. A moment to be amazed by Robert Duvall: The man seems to play basically the same character in everything, these days, but he is still amazing. In Crazy Heart he gives great advice while fishing, and he's a bar owner who takes people to a detox center/AA meeting. The completely wild incongruity of this (I mean, it's like a slave owner who also hooks you up with the underground railroad) is never explained, except by Duvall's damn amazing face and that chuckle-grin.

3. Possible exception: Opening credits for The Sopronos?

Apr 4, 2010

Obstacles
Rape and Easter II

A detail: If the little boy didn't pull away, the priest would say he wanted it.

A detail: The woman said "no," but the cop accused of rape said, "you know -- you know -- girls like that are always embarrassed. They just lack self esteem."

Rapists, of all the kinds of criminals, are different. They just have a different logic. Murderers sometimes say they're sorry. The reality of it overcomes them, remorse rolls like waves and they weep and say they're sorry. Even though the word sounds weak and they know that and know it doesn't fix anything, change a thing or redeem anything, they say it and say it again, they're sorry. Thieves sometimes take responsibility. Embezzlers often feel bad afterwards, a little queasy inside, and wife beaters almost always want a chance to apologize, or at least explain. But not rapists. They seem to be remorseless. But more than that -- it's as if they've sealed themselves against even the possibility of remorse.
They've hermetically sealed themselves against guilt.

It's not just that they don't take responsibility, though, but that they've structured their thinking so responsibility isn't even possible. It's always displaced. It's always someone else. Apart from the crime, there's this pernicious logic. They can't even see how they might be responsible.

"Most are highly narcissistic," Fr. Thomas Brundage wrote of those who abuse children, "and do not see the harm that they have caused ..."

It's weird how this narcissism works, though, because it doesn't just reorient the world and warp things so they're all about the narcissist, it also serves as a shell. As protection. Narcissism, as we normally think of it, is how a person lays claim to everything, always conceiving of themselves as the center of everything, but here, with rapists, with abusers, it actually means conceiving of a crime, of this horrible event, as if it had little or nothing to do with them at all.

Look at the logic at work: In a Texas prison, a guard forces a man's face into the laundry, hand cuffs him and holds him down with his weight. The man is thin, the guard, heavy. Afterwards he uncuffs him, and the man pulls up his boxer shorts and the guard says he should be silent, because this was nothing. He shifts the criminality, displaces the rape. He makes this move, this rapist's logic. This was nothing, he says, and the raped prisoner should be grateful, actually, because the guard could send him to a rougher section of the prison and there they'd rape. The gangs there would rape him "all the time."

This structure of thought is pervasive, though. It isn't just limited to rape. We commonly think in a way, and structure our thinking so it's always someone else who is guilty. Our crimes are always justified. The worst thing we do, the worst thing we imagine, is always justified in our own mind. We shift and displace and it's someone else who's to blame. It's always someone else who should feel remorse, never us, never me -- I can't even understand why I might possibly be guilty.

It's not just rapists who do this displacing. Cops, victims and even average citizens semi-regularly wish for violence and retribution, but with this logic, so they’re not the ones carrying it out, not the ones responsible for what they wish would happen. The father, for example, of a murdered girl south of Atlanta had one chance to say something, to make an official statement, a victim's statement, and he said, "I hope they rape you every day for the rest of your life." What’s horrible, here, is that out of his pain, into the emptiness of the world without his daughter, he wishes for the same sort of violence that caused his pain. This is a wish reenacted regularly on TV. It's what we want to see. It's almost a trope on cop shows, telling the criminals they'll get what they've got coming. Whenever there's a story in the paper where something heinous has happened, the commenters always turn to rape. It’s almost immediate. And always it's done, whether by cops or commenter, by victims or on TV, so that we will feel no blame, so we're sealed off from guilt, and can feel it fully justified.

"Look," we can say, "they were asking for it."

We see the same thing in the the common critique of psychoanalysis, and actually here the move redoubles. The common critique is that psychoanalysis is just a way of avoiding responsibility. I have a dream about my mother and the analyst tells me it's my mother, it's her fault and that's why I am the way I am or do what I do. But the whole point of the counselling is to get me to take responsibility, to own whatever it is I've refused to own, and have instead suppressed. Slavoj Zizek writes, "the common misconception (is) that the basic ethical method of psychoanalysis is, precisely, the one of relieving myself of responsibility," but, he says, "responsibility is a crucial Freudian notion," and "responsibility" is actually the basic move, the "procedure of analyzing dreams." The point about me having this dream about my mother can't be about my mother. It has to be about me, having this dream, displacing whatever this is onto my mother and my subconscious and my dream. But the misunderstanding is crucial here because it's a redoubling of the whole point: the dream is a displacement of responsibility, but rather than taking responsibility, I dismiss the whole thing again, accusing psychoanalysis of doing exactly what I'm doing now to the second degree, refusing responsibility, and sealing myself off from any guilt.

Structurally, we think exactly like the rapist guard who warns of rapist gangs. Distracted by the horribleness of the child-abusing priest, we're unable, just like those priests, to see the harm we've done to others.

This is why Peter's betrayal of Christ is so critical. Christianity, with this story, contains the logic that undermines this logic of displacement and self-justification. If Peter had just been faithful to the death, following Christ to the cross and never wavering, never leaving his side, then he and the other apostles, the other Christians, could have dedicated themselves to the justified persecutions and punishments of the people who killed God. This was how the medieval Passion Plays functioned when they provoked pogroms against Christ-killers. This is essentially what we see and how we feel at the end of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, when we, the viewers, have faithfully followed Christ to the grave, and feel not that he has suffered because of us, but that we have suffered along with him. The very last scene of the movie is Christ's resurrected feet, coming back, and there's an action hero swell, and we prepare for Christ to kick some ass. This isn't what happens with Peter, though. Peter betrays Christ, and because of that, cannot morally distinguish himself from Judas, or the ones who killed Christ. Instead, he has to take responsibility. He did it. He's responsible. There's a moment of realization, and, the Gospel tells us, "he went out and wept bitterly."

Christianity, at this moment, becomes an association of those who take responsibility for the brutal death of Jesus. It is here that the entire narcissistic logic is interrupted, arrested, and we're invited not to avenge or join the avengers, but to confess. We can use this moment, sure, to justify and assure ourselves of our self-righteousness, to continue what has always continued as we scapegoat scapegoaters, rape rapists, and kill killers, leaving the logic of their evil intact.

Or we can follow Peter outside.

We can let the remorse roll over us, own it and cry and say, for what its' worth, that we're sorry.

Apr 2, 2010

Rape and Easter I

It is not always easy to know what a church is supposed to be.

At St. Stephen's, in Vienna, a gate cuts through the Gothic cathedral, dividing the space inside. On the one side is the mass, the mass in session as the sign says, and on the other, in the back, are the tourists, visitors and gawkers, with a clutter of languages and cameras. Each side, though, is divided again: As the mitered archbishop speaks, some old women wander around, ignoring him, and a couple of people drift up an aisle; in the back some pray, focusing on one candle amid the banks of candles, and some stand at the gate and try to see, but others examine the sound system screwed into stone pillars or try to take pictures of the icons, the candles, and the organ pipes. At some churches in Europe everyone prays, and others are museums, even charging fees. But here at St. Stephen's, the church is both things at once, and the two sides jostle against each other, prayers against camera clicks, bulletins against brochures.

Then the man I think is an archbishop finishes his homily, and steps down and removes his miter, and the people in the pews, instead of saying "amen" or singing something, clack their clackers, plastic pairs of hands that smack together. It's an applause that sounds like protest.

And it could be protest. It's hard to stand in a Catholic church these days without being aware of the split in the very heart of it, as some are angry, some defensive, some condemning and some excusing. It's hard to miss that what the Church means in the world is an open question, now, even to those who love it. For though this seems as solace to some -- as solace to me -- this mass, this communion, to others it must look like an orgy of power, as soulless, an excuse, using God as a cover-up. As I stand at the gate, I try imagine this as it must seem to the victims of abuse. How does this look to the now-grown who, as children, trusted the priests and the hierarchy and the Church and had that trust betrayed.

Try to imagine it: They were, as they understood it, molested by Christ.

So much of the response to the scandal has been cover-up. So much has been deflection. Implicitly and explicitly it has been argued that to hold the church accountable for these crimes is to attack the church. These complaints and cries, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, before he was the pope, are "intentional, manipulated, (and characterized by) ... a desire to discredit the church." This outrage, it has been argued in First Things, is part of "the larger agenda that some are clearly pursuing in these controversies. For the crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance has been seized upon by the Church’s enemies to cripple it." Unstated in this, under this, is the doctrine that the Church is Christ, Christ on Earth, so to attack the one is to attack to the other, to hate the one and what it did is to hate the other too. Implicitly and explicitly too, this is an argument about Christ, and what Christ means. Since the Church is not just a church, criticism is understood as anti-Catholicism, which is also, underneath, understood hatred of Christ. It's an argument, underneath these arguments, about the meaning of Jesus.

These people, it is said by the defenders of the Catholic Church, do not just blame bad priests, or bad bishops, bad apples, but take them as representatives of the Church. Because they want to hurt the Church. Because they're goaded into it by the media and the public, who want to hurt Christ. Who hate Christ ...

Christ who died. Who hangs there, in the church, still dying. Who said suffer the little children and whose own suffering, every week, is repeated, reenacted again.

Isn't this the question of the crucifixion? Isn't this the question of the mass?

Jesus suffered. What does it mean?

Those who were molested, are they the ones breaking the body, or the body broken?

As the archbishop prepares the table, prepares the bread and wine and preparing to say, in persona Christi, "this is my body, this is my blood," the people at St. Stephen's start to sing: Meine Hoffnung und meine Freude, meine Stärke, mein licht, Christus meine Zuversicht ... But who is this hope? What is this joy? This strength and light we trust?

Brian McLaren recently wrote, "God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering." For this, he was called a spiritual wolf. To this, the head of the Southern Baptists responded, "If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life."

This is, indeed, what's at stake. What is the Gospel? Who is Christ, and what does Christ mean? Is Christ a part of the cover-up and consolidation of power, the thing attacked when someone stands up and says "I was abused by a priest," or is he the God of the victims?

Put it another way: This Easter, a man is holding up photos of priests' victims in Rome. This Easter, part of the procession, part of the goings-on at the celebration of the resurrection, will be this man protesting with pictures of the abused. Does this "spoil the festival of redemption"? Do these faces somehow distract from or clash with the suffering of Christ?

Or is this exactly what Christ's death was about? Do the faces in those pictures not also represent Christ, the ones who, like Christ, had their bodies broken? When we see these pictures, should we not identify them with Christ, as Christ, who came to suffer, identified with them?

If these photos distract from redemption, if they distract from the salvific work, then what could that redemption even mean?

I think I know and I think it's clear which side I'm on, but maybe it's not. Maybe my mere presence here, at the gate in the Gothic cathedral, singing, auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht, acts as a "but" to the scandal. As if I've mitigated it somehow. "People were hurt, it was hideous and horrible, but ..." But I'm still here. And does my presence seek or act to justify? To excuse? When I stand here, waiting to watch Christ die again, who am I identified with: the crucifiers or the crucified, the rapists or the raped? I may have already answered, by standing here, the question of the meaning of this, but how? I find solace here, and find, here, I can seek to surrender my own violence, my own perpetrations, can give up that and the power I think I have, but what if I, in bowing my head, have instead communicated solidarity with those who victimize and seek to silence the victims?

When the people clack their clackers in St. Stephen's, I don't what it means. It comes in the place where other congregations say "hallelujah," or "amen," but it doesn't seem like assent. It sounds like fury. It sounds like dissent, like disruption and protest and no. It is inscrutable to me. When Christ dies on the cross, I wonder if that's not inscrutable too, since even those who fix their eyes on this can't agree on what they see. And maybe I'm inscrutable, here, for it is not all clear what my standing in St. Stephen's means.

It is not always easy to know what this, or I, am supposed to be.

The archbishop raises up the bread, and I can see him from the back, even though he has no miter now, but only because I'm tall enough to see. Later, he will say, "For some of us, the church's immaculate appearance was more important than anything else." Later, he will say, "We confess our guilt to the many whom we have wronged as a church." Now he takes the wine from a boy, and a little water and a cloth with which to wipe his hands. The ritual proceeds as it always proceeds, even though we may not know what it means. Behind me, a man with a video camera plays the scene back to himself, to see if he's got it, and on the little screen the tiny church, small and tinny, sings:

Meine Hoffnung und meine Freude,
meine Stärke, mein Licht,
Christus meine Zuversicht,
auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht,
auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht.