Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Where your treasure is



This is the photo provided by the San Diego Sheriff's office touting their helicopter. I can't honestly tell if these deputies are meant to be the three guys from "Ghostbusters," or the thin green line that stands between San Diego and anarchy. But the militarism of the image is a bit disturbing.

I've written before about this; about the creeping militarization of American society, about how we only have a civilization because we have a military, or militarized police. It's a Hobbseian view of government that would make Hobbes think twice. What's worse, of course, is that helicopter and 8 squad cars were used to subdue a Democratic fundraiser that was already breaking up when sheriff's deputies arrived and proceeded to pepper spray anyone within reach. What intrigues me about it, though, is this persistent idea that what we really have to fear are the people who will do us physical harm.

I live on the north side of I-10 in Houston. The south side, across from me, is some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the city (apart from River Oaks). There is a grocery store on the freeway, on the south side. The freeway access is important, not only to shoppers, but to any would be thieves in the parking lot looking for a snatch and grab on a purse, and a quick getaway. But because the store is on the south side, on the edge of the expensive real estate, it is considered "safe."

There is a new grocery store, near me, on the north side, equally accessible to the freeway, and much nicer than the store on the south side. Within a week of its opening, though, an e-mail made the rounds describing a frightening purse snatching incident, on top of which another victim (as the writer of the e-mail is describing her ordeal to another shopper in the parking lot) runs up to declare her car has been broken into, and the thieves escaped on...yes, the freeway. Shortly thereafter closed circuit TV cameras went up conspicuously in the parking lot (none in the lot on the south side of the freeway), and uniformed security officers stand at the doors, looking like police (and sometimes they are off-duty police) and riding around on a kind of Segway, to be sure the shoppers are safe. (Again, no such security measures deemed necessary at the south side store.) What's the difference between these stores? Location, location, location. On the north side of the freeway we are all poor, or dopers, drug runners, and cutthroats. At least according to those on the south side. Oh, and we're all shades of brown, too, since we can't afford the exclusive environs on the south side of the freeway. That part is true; we do have a lot of Asians, Hispanics, and Blacks on this side of the dividing line. Is it any wonder the freeway through this part of town was just widened to 26 lanes? It's a powerful symbol of demarcation.

Why am I telling you this?

Because police and the military are needed to keep us safe from those who would harm us. And yet, yesterday, Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Go to TPM and listen to what was said about him. He was very much a criminal, very much a danger to society. Bernie Madoff is white, Jewish, respected, and at no time presented a threat of violence to anyone. Yet he did more harm to more people than anyone in my neighborhood, or in the city of Houston, has ever done. Why didn't the police and the military protect us from him? Aren't the greatest threats to our way of life "those people" who dream only of taking what we have by force of arms? Surely the people we trust and willingly hand our property to are not as dangerous as the people we fear and constantly worry about protecting our property from.

And what was it Jesus said about this?

Don't acquire possessions here on earth, where moth or insect eats away and where robbers break in and steal. Instead, gather your nest egg in heaven, where neither moth nor insect eats away and where no robbers break in or steal. As you know, what you treasure is your heart's true measure. (Matthew 6:19-21, SV)
Yeah, but he didn't really mean that. After all, the biggest church buildings in Houston are all on the south side of the freeway; or downtown, or inside the Beltway, where the high-rent districts are. So he couldn't have been serious about that. Besides, the helicopter riding Ghostbusters will protect us from what scares us most.

I ain't afraid o' no ghost....

Friday, June 26, 2009

Candy is hard! It's hard!


Been working all day for an event at a local bookstore selling this tonight at a book signing.

The power of celebrity is truly appalling.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί

The doctor walks into the basement room, the ER level of the hospital, a room empty except for you and the woman from your church you have just met. He tells her that her husband is dying, that only life support is keeping him alive, that the sudden heart attack he's just been brought in for has killed him, but his body doesn't know it yet. One thing the doctor cannot decide, though, is whether or not to remove life support. She has to make that decision; he won't.

And she turns to you and asks: "What do I do?"

The client walks into your office seeking legal advice. She tells you horror stories about her ex-husband, none of which arise to the level of actual child abuse, but none of them leave you very comfortable about how he behaves around their young daughter. And the problem is, he is trying to take custody of the child from her, because she works as a stripper. She has few marketable skills, and working as a stripper pays better than anything else she can do. She doesn't do drugs or bring men home from the club. She keeps her life separate from the life she leads with her daughter, at home. But she has no other source of income that pays the bills as well as this, and you know child support is a poor substitute for earned income. You do the best you can to represent her, but it's an uphill fight and legal representation is expensive and you have to always be aware of how much time you are spending on her case, because you have to pay your bills, too. In the end you lose, because of her job and her ex-husband's convincing manner (you are convinced by now yourself that the best liars are the worst parents, and wonder why judges never see that). You wish you had the money for investigators and time to build a serious case and present more facts about your client and her ex-husband; and you realize it may work that way on T.V., but this is real life. And you hope the daughter will be alright, and you try to put it out of your mind.

The patient comes to you with signs of gastrointestinal distress. Do you get them to change their diet, wait a few weeks to see if it resolves? Or do you order tests and refer them to a surgeon, reasoning the patient won't change their diet and it's better to be safe than sorry? According to Atul Gawande, the doctors of McAllen, Texas, one of the poorest communities in the country, generally choose the latter course. And the result, overall, is poorer healthcare against the national average, while healthcare spending in McAllen is nearly the highest in the country.

Most likely you've heard of the article, but if you haven't read it yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. Gawande's thesis is sound (and it's the one relied on by countries where health care is provided by the gov't, one way or another): unless costs are contained, nothing can be done to provide health care for an entire population. But it's when he tries to get down to the facts on the ground about McAllen that it gets interesting:

Beyond the basics, however, many physicians are remarkably oblivious to the financial implications of their decisions. They see their patients. They make their recommendations. They send out the bills. And, as long as the numbers come out all right at the end of each month, they put the money out of their minds.

Others think of the money as a means of improving what they do. They think about how to use the insurance money to maybe install electronic health records with colleagues, or provide easier phone and e-mail access, or offer expanded hours. They hire an extra nurse to monitor diabetic patients more closely, and to make sure that patients don’t miss their mammograms and pap smears and colonoscopies.

Then there are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream. They instruct their secretary to have patients who call with follow-up questions schedule an appointment, because insurers don’t pay for phone calls, only office visits. They consider providing Botox injections for cash. They take a Doppler ultrasound course, buy a machine, and start doing their patients’ scans themselves, so that the insurance payments go to them rather than to the hospital. They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.
The "invisible hand of the market," of course, is supposed to take care of this, so we don't have to. But McAllen is the near-perfect example of why this doesn't work, and Gawande puts his finger on the problem in those three paragraphs. Just before that he visited the chief executives of the newest hospital in McAllen, one the other hospitals and doctors blame for raising costs without raising benefits. Why do they blame Renaissance, the new hospital? Because it is run by doctors, which means there is an inherent conflict of interest that makes those doctors order more procedures, the better to make money. Except the man who runs Renaissance doesn't see it that way:

So I asked him why McAllen’s health-care costs were so high. What he gave me was a disquisition on the theory and history of American health-care financing going back to Lyndon Johnson and the creation of Medicare, the upshot of which was: (1) Government is the problem in health care. “The people in charge of the purse strings don’t know what they’re doing.” (2) If anything, government insurance programs like Medicare don’t pay enough. “I, as an anesthesiologist, know that they pay me ten per cent of what a private insurer pays.” (3) Government programs are full of waste. “Every person in this room could easily go through the expenditures of Medicare and Medicaid and see all kinds of waste.” (4) But not in McAllen. The clinicians here, at least at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, “are providing necessary, essential health care,” Gelman said. “We don’t invent patients.”

Then why do hospitals in McAllen order so much more surgery and scans and tests than hospitals in El Paso and elsewhere?

In the end, the only explanation he and his colleagues could offer was this: The other doctors and hospitals in McAllen may be overspending, but, to the extent that his hospital provides costlier treatment than other places in the country, it is making people better in ways that data on quality and outcomes do not measure.

“Do we provide better health care than El Paso?” Gelman asked. “I would bet you two to one that we do.”
Did you get that? Government is the problem because it doesn't pay enough, so the private sector has to make up the costs (I guess). There's lots of waste in government programs. But nobody at Renaissance is responsible, because they practice sound medicine. And finally, ultimately, it's not all about the money, or what can be measured scientifically.

Which doctor is ever going to say otherwise? Maybe you cheat, but I don't. Your costs are excessive; mine are reasonable and necessary. Your patients may get better, but mine get well! You can't measure that in dollars and cents! One can see easily how Gawande reaches his conclusion as to how we all miss the big picture because of our quotidian duties.

Which brings me back to my opening comparison. Two of those three scenarios I've lived through. All professionals face something similar, some point where they are responsible for the words coming out of their mouths, responsible in ways that go bone deep and provide a pivot point in some individual's life. Is it worse in the emergency room when you are the doctor, or the pastor? Is it harder to make decisions about a patient/client in your clinic, or in your law office? It's an impossible argument, ultimately. The burdens come with the territory, and you accept them or move on. But I will say this, about the financial side, speaking strictly from my personal experience:

The pastor gets paid whether he gives the right answer to the soon-to-be widow, or not. And whether he helps her or not, he may still lose his paycheck. The outcome is almost entirely personal and individual; it needn't affect your ability to pay your bills or have a place to live.

The lawyer gets paid only to the extent he can convince the client the work done was reasonable and necessary. Lawyers don't get paid by third-parties, generally. They don't get to insist extra work must be done, more pleadings filed, codicils to the will be drafted, pages added to the contract, simply because it might seem necessary and somebody will pay for it, so why not do all you can and then some? Indeed, I don't know of a profession where you could regularly charge any client more for doing what is arguably (according to Gawande) less; except for the practice of medicine.* Consider, again:

Beyond the basics, however, many physicians are remarkably oblivious to the financial implications of their decisions. They see their patients. They make their recommendations. They send out the bills. And, as long as the numbers come out all right at the end of each month, they put the money out of their minds.
I worked for a large and wealthy law firm, before going to law school. The partners were always aware of every hour billed to their clients, and that included my billable time as a paralegal. The thought of what was in the bills was never out of their minds. When I entered private practice, this was equally true for the small firms I practiced in, and doubly true when I stepped down into family law, where only individuals hire you, and never even a small company. I couldn't be oblivious to the financial implications of my decisions, even when those decisions were regarding child custody or child welfare. I never had a third party paying my bill.

Is this to damn doctors, condemn hospitals, assault the industry? No. It's simply a fact. Doctors get paid for what they do, and that's the key difference between doctors and hospitals and almost any other profession: they get paid for what they do, and, as Gawande points out, that's part of the problem. There's nothing to keep them from getting paid, whether the outcome is better, or worse, or the same. Pastors get fired for displeasing the wrong people; lawyers get stiffed on their bills because the client didn't like the outcome, or didn't have the money to pursue the custody fight or to collect the past due child support (most people who really need a lawyer need a family lawyer; and they are least able to pay for those services). Doctors, if Gawande's article is to be believed, pass the costs on until someone picks up the tab. Does this make them evil? No. But it makes the system untenable, and unsustainable. I almost said "and liable to collapse," but in many ways, it has already collapsed. Michael Moore showed us that; but we just collectively shrugged our shoulders and went back to our quotidian lives, consumed with the details of our own existence.

Are we evil? Are the doctors?

It is worth pointing out that Gawande seems to disagree with my analysis:

When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no more difference than changing who pays the electrician. The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes. You get McAllen.
Which takes us back to his thesis, actually, as I was saying. No, we can't take the third-party payor out of the equation. So we have put some kind of controls into the system, as Gawande points out in his conclusion. But that's merely saying what I am saying: without someone controlling the expense, without a system that works to control costs, there is no solution. We cannot make health care that unique in America, or it will fail more and more of us than it already does.

*I saw only one instance of a lawyer grossly abusing a client's pocket book, but the client was wealthy and the lawyer had obviously persuaded her the courtroom appearance was a necessity (it wasn't; I was trying to withdraw from the case because my client had quit paying me or returning my phone calls; he wanted nothing more to do with it). I cite it as the exception which proves the rule. No doubt it happens, but it is no more common than doctors who order extra procedures just for the money, not for the sake of the patient (many doctors in Gawande's article accuse other doctors of doing this; some give accounts of outright fraud. But is that the root of all the evil?).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Coincidence? I think not....



Prof. Wombat leaves this comment, which I find this morning:

They all make the usual points, with which it's hard to disagree. But all accept the Enlightenment entirely uncritically, as an unmitigated good. All accept the notion of 'scientific truth' similarly, and that science should be free of politics, objective and like that.

George Bush as a potted Romantic hero, actualizing his ego, making one pine for those serene Enlightened slaveholders, racists and warmakers?

Needs more thinking, this stuff does, than even these worthies give it, seems to me...
ProfWombat |
And then my morning reading leads me to this post:

Actually, the line of the piece that sends chills down my spine is this quote from the original piece by Gelb, the foreign policy maven who talks about his own initial support for the war in Iraq. From Gelb's perspective:

“My initial support for the war,” he writes “was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.”

There are wars that merit support -- Afghanistan was the training ground and safe haven for terrorists that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, for example -- but it didn't take much probing to see that Iraq was not one of them, that this was a country that not only had nothing to do with 9/11 but had allowed the entry of inspectors unable to find weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. But Hastings correctly notes that there is safety in the pack, that journaliists who got it wrong had the comfort of knowing that so did everyone else -- and that you could always change your position with everyone else as events on the ground changed.

The real-world consequences of being wrong...well, those were 11,000 miles away. They were things that were unpleasant to think about -- like roughly 100,00 Iraqi civilians deaths, many of them the very people these career-minded and very serious war pundits had advocated liberating,
There is an excellent point there, but it is all but undermined by the unintended irony of brushing aside the war in Afghanistan as a "good war." Everyone knows a "good war" is fine and dandy, while a bad war must be analyzed endlessly for the marks of its failure and the signs of its parentage.

The war in Afghanistan consistently manages to be excused from such analysis, despite the manifest fact that the pointlessness of that war cannot be overstated. One might as well say we should invade New Jersey and blame the Gov. for the presence of the Mafia, or blame the mayor of Boston for the presence of Jack Nicholson's gangster in "The Departed." We don't, of course, because those persons are not official guests of the government. Anyone remember "Move" in Philadelphia, and what happened when the Mayor decided to remove them as a police problem? An entire neighborhood went up in flames. It was not considered a "good" police action, any more than the storming of the Branch Davidian compound worked out well. Force is very attractive; but beyond movies and television dramas, it's seldom as effective as advertised.

And you will say the Mafia doesn't run New Jersey (no, but they ran Las Vegas for decades, and no one invaded Nevada), so the comparison is inapt. True, but while we've chased Al Qaeda into Pakistan, we have yet to invade there. Gee, I wonder why not.....

In the dim recesses of my memory there remain some glimmers of an idea that the Taliban might have given up Al Qaeda, with the right incentives. That war was initiated, after all, by the same guys who initiated the Iraq war shortly thereafter, the same guys who would have sneered at the suggestion a plate of sugar free cookies would do more good than a month of waterboarding.

Diplomacy, IOW, was never even tried in Afghanistan, and yet we still insist it is a "good war" because of 9/11. Except that wasn't Pearl Harbor, and Al Qaeda was not the government of Japan. And all we've gotten for our pains is a quagmire we can't seem to get out of, a national government that rules Kabul, at best, and some vague muttering in left blogistan about how we might, someday, improve the position of women in Afghanistan, if we keep trying.

"Keep trying," of course, means keep fighting the military situation. As if culture came from the end of a gun, or could be benevolently imposed by an invading army. Pardon my obvious cynicism and listen carefully to the question, because it's not hyperbole: isn't that exactly what the Nazis wanted to do? Impose German culture on the rest of Europe, and do it by military might? They were, at the time, the greatest military power in the world. Are we different because we shoot people benevolently, because our missile laden drones are compassionate, because our "daisy cutters" are merciful?

Does no one remember how the war in Afghanistan has been conducted? Or do deaths only count in certain wars, and not in others? Needs more thinking, this stuff, it seems to me.....

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"How to be Topp"

"A gerund shut out. No place for it in one of my sentences."

The discussion at the Crack Den turned to gerunds, and how they were formed by adding an "ing", which lead to this post:

smithing is a verb, so i don't see why locksmithing wouldn't be.
chicago dyke, greened
-------------------------
so is rogering, and billing, and franking.
foolme1ns
And then, of course, this post:
I'm still trying to get "roberting" accepted.

Just need to decide what it should mean.
Rmj, Love Stupid Theologist
And wrapped up (so far as I was concerned) with this post:

Just need to decide what it should mean.
Rmj,


roberting: the act of annoying atheists and making pithy comments in the morning that are cynically amusing.

chicago dyke, greened
Now I just need to figure out how to work it into the masthead.

"Social snobery. A gerund 'cuts' a gerundive"


Images courtesy of St. Custard's.

"Of making many books there is no end..."


Because:

a) I like Anthony

b) I've nothing better to do; and

c) The ideas expressed here are not necessarily those of the management,

I decided to pick this up and give it a fuller airing than it will get in comments, below:

Can I beg your indulgence to post this here first?

The New Atheism As A New Dark Age by Anthony McCarthy

Are the ScienceBlogs supposed to be a place where people can go to find out more about science and reason? Is it unreasonable to ask a ScienceBlogger with a PhD in Mathematics, who teaches mathematics at a university, to clear up a disagreement about his subject on the thread of his blog?

http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2009/06/mooney_on_dover.php

The question is whether or not mathematical probability could deal with the proposal that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, conceived by miraculous means and born to the Virgin Mary. What are the odds of The Virgin Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the only begotten Son of God, an event held by those who believe it to have happened exactly once in all of history.

I thought probability couldn’t honestly come up with the odds of that happening, apparently some of the new atheist faithless at the blog of Jason Rosenhouse PhD thought it could. I had pointed out exactly why science couldn’t deal with the question on the thread.*

Having had enough of trying to reason it out with the new atheists on his blog, I asked Jason Rosenhouse to settle the question by either telling us how it could be done or to say that it wasn’t possible to apply probability mathematics to that claim. If he thinks it can, would he sign his name to an attempt?

In the process of participating in the thread discussion this request was made in, it became clear to me that the new atheist program is a manifest failure. All over the blogs, the knowledge of the most basic requirements of science and logic demonstrated by the new atheists who post comments there, proves that they are generally quite ignorant of those. In many cases they are abysmally ignorant and as ready to spout their clueless blather as the most ignorant religious fundamentalists.

Many of the fundamentalists at least have the excuse that they’re not trying to pass themselves off as practitioners of science.

Is the level of science knowledge demonstrated by the new atheists of the blogs really what the new atheists are aiming for? Because it looks more like the dark ages to me, complete with sectarian bigotry and irrational hatred.

I thought that some other people might be interested in this question. Pass it on, if you think it’s interesting.

* 81 They are at odds because the scientific process by which one arrives at an understanding of the formation of, say, the blood clotting system is fundamentally *incompatible* with the theological process one uses to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was the product of a Virgin birth.

I'm glad you used the Virgin birth, which I don't happen to believe in [see below], because it's such a good example of why you can't subject it to science.

1. There is no physical evidence to examine 2. It is held to have happened miraculously 3. It is held to have happened once in history

No evidence means no evidence that could identify a human father.

It happened miraculously, which means there is no way to explain how it couldn't have happened.

It is held to have happened once in history. As a unique event you could not debunk it by pointing to another or even every other human birth in history.

There is absolutely no reason you should believe it, as I said I don't, but any statement that you can subject the actual assertion to science only shows that you lack any real understanding of science.

[Note: I should point out I don’t believe in the literal truth of the story. I fully believe in the allegorical truth of it.]
I'll start by saying "Miraculous" already puts the matter beyond the purview of science, as "miracle" is, by definition, a violation of the scientific principle of "laws" of nature, or physics, or what have you. So calculating the odds of a miracle is a dubious prospect, at best. I mention this because I'm sure Anthony has an answer for that, and this creates an opportunity to solicit that answer.

Interestingly (coincidentally? synchronicitally?), this book came into the store yesterday, and I got a chance to look at it. The chapter which caught my eye was, of course, the chapter on religion: "God is a Liberal." Not sure what the title of that chapter means, as the author talks of "neo-liberalism," which some observers of international affairs have likened to a virus (it is as well regarded as the neo-conservatives are in America, and around the world, so "liberal" does not automatically mean "good"), but the thesis of the chapter draws a direct line from Henri Bergson to Karl Popper to the Reformation, arguing that the modern iteration of the Protestant ethic runs through Bergson and Popper to Wall Street, where we have ensconced the notion of the free market which makes all good, or, to paraphrase Eliot (and emulate Proust, with this sentence): "I think the market is a great green god...."

It's a fascinating analysis, especially as it includes the comments of several imams regarding Western culture. They admire the successes of Western science, indeed, don't gainsay them (how can you argue with success?), but they question our definition of "success." Science has succeeded, they point out, but at what cost? Materially we have benefited, although as the technological noose tightens we more and more understand there is, indeed, no such thing as a free lunch. But the imams question the moral, even the spiritual, cost (the former is still acceptable secular discourse, the latter deeply suspect; so it goes) to a culture so devoted to technology (which is all that science really is, anymore; at least to the larger society). And to the extent science is a philosophy, well, you get posts like the one Anthony linked to.

Anthony complains that the bloggers of such posts lack fundamental logic and reason; and I don't disagree. Alastair Crooke points out that our Western logic and reason has not been an unalloyed good which has led us, like a savior, to the Promised Land. I've commented before on the problem of the Big Idea, the one that miraculously works to save us from all our failings. Crooke points out that the Muslims we bestride (and we do, even we "liberals" and "progressives") see us has having moved away from the very roots of wisdom we claim to be rooted in, including Hellenism and even Hebraism (the former has become synonymous with science and "good," the latter with superstition and "bad." There are more than a few problems with that dichotomy, as the imams who spoke to Crooke point out. How many of us could provide the same trenchant understanding of Middle Eastern culture?). I've come to the conclusion the intertubes will no more save us than the political parties will, that both suffer from the same fundamental problem:

They're made up of people.

Soylent green is people. So are blogs. What now?

People are no smarter on blogs than anywhere else, and gathering PhD's is no better guarantee of wisdom or clarity than gathering a group of illiterate migrant workers. That sounds demeaning, only because we've been taught to honor PhD's and belittle the illiterate, but it's a certainty that Jesus of Nazareth was illiterate (who would have taught him to read? He wasn't a scribe or a Pharisee, like Paul, who couldn't write more than his name, either.). Illiteracy is not a sign of intelligence, nor certainly of wisdom. Solomon was probably illiterate, too. He had money, and money bought scholars, and scholars bought the patina of wisdom. Andrew Carnegie did the same thing by building libraries across the country after making money as a robber baron (one of his libraries was central to my childhood, and I cherish the memories of it, but Carnegie was still a robber baron). Same as it ever was. What we honor is power and privilege, and so people on blogs lay claim to both, myself included. I won't even bother with the details of the post Anthony linked; one glance convinces me it's in line with what Crooke critiques: the idea that empiricism and positivism (two terms I'd almost guarantee Jason Rosenhouse can't place in Western cultural history, much less adequately define or explain) are the roots of truth, and no other claimants need apply.

In radical political circles they used to call that attitude "hegemony." Apparently it's still okay, so long as the right people are doing it. The people Alastair Crooke rights about and quotes, understand this. We, for the most part, still don't.

And this is why I despair of the "blog project." There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Same as it ever was.

Monday, June 01, 2009

I blame literature

No, really, I do. Dime novels, pulp fiction, 19th century romances, historical romances, Leatherstocking tales, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dumas pere et fils; what have you. It's not just "24" and "Dirty Harry" before it, and all the spew of "action films" out of Hollywood. It's the simple fact that drama demands conflict, and convinces us who have nothing to do with that conflict that brutality is strength, and strength is the only viable response to "evil."

And that evil is very, very real, and very, very pervasive; in the souls of the "Evil." Never in ours, of course.

So maybe it isn't literature, after all; maybe it's just the all-too human proclivity to declare the "other," and the all-too human inability to initially seek to understand the "other." But if that were true, then this story couldn't possibly be true:



"They" hate "our freedom"? Who did we hear that from? The interrogators? The agents of our government who worked to get information, intelligence, from those who would attack the people of this country? No. We heard it from our leaders, men with great experience in politics and ideology, and no experience in criminal investigations or intelligence gathering. Listen to those stories again, and hear the "terrorists" appalled that their side killed their own, in the name of the cause. Listen again to the terrorist who relented when the agent of our government apologized for what our government had done. Listen again to the terrorist who gave up information for the consideration of a plate of sugar free cookies.

Listen again to the description of the words and actions of the evil villains we are supposed to be afraid of, the ones we are supposed to commit ourselves to destroy, as if that was the only purpose for America in the world. Listen again, and think about the villains in pulp fiction, dime novels, action movies: the kind of people you never meet in real life, because they are as rare as hen's teeth; or simply because they are fiction, not reality.

Update: Anthony McCarthy, in comments, links to this essay by George Orwell, which is well worth reading, and contains at least two very interesting (and relevant) observations about "crime fiction." Writing about the book No Orchids for Miss Blandish," he makes this observation about the plot: "Ultimately only one motive is at work throughout the whole story: the pursuit of power." And this, about the genre of the novel and its context (the 1940's):

As I have mentioned already, NO ORCHIDS enjoyed its greatest vogue in 1940, though it was successfully running as a play till some time later. It was, in fact, one of the things that helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed. Early in the war the NEW YORKER had a picture of a little man approaching a news-stall littered with paper with such headlines as 'Great Tank Battles in Northern France', 'Big Naval Battle in the North Sea', 'Huge Air Battles over the Channel', etc., etc. The little man is saying 'ACTION STORIES, please'. That little man stood for all the drugged millions to whom the world of the gangster and the prize-ring is more 'real', more 'tough', than such things as wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines and pestilences.
There is more than a little something in that observation: fiction always appeals to us, especially in times of crisis. While we know how the decade of the '40's ended, those living in 1940 couldn't possibly see the future we know. Fiction is better that way: it ends quickly, and it seldom ends without justice, even rough justice, being done. If it confirms for us that everybody is scum (Orwell points out the detective in "No Orchids" is more concerned with money than duty), at least we're the survivors, and that's supposed to mean something.

The practical answer to morality is always going to be: "What good is it if you're dead?" Orwell goes on to point out No Orchids is written in American, not British, English, which says a lot, to him, about the story:

There exists in America an enormous literature of more or less the same stamp as NO ORCHIDS. Quite apart from books, there is the huge array of 'pulp magazines', graded so as to cater for different kinds of fantasy, but nearly all having much the same mental atmosphere. A few of them go in for straight pornography, but the great majority are quite plainly aimed at sadists and masochists.
Not a pretty picture, is it? But then who is the target audience of "24"? Or all the crime and mystery novels that pour onto bookstore shelves every month like clockwork? It's really quite an interesting article. Take this, for example:
The thing that the ordinary reader OUGHT to have objected to--almost certainly would have objected to, a few decades earlier--was the equivocal attitude towards crime. It is implied throughout NO ORCHIDS that being a criminal is only reprehensible in the sense that it does not pay. Being a policeman pays better, but there is no moral difference, since the police use essentially criminal methods.
Dirty Harry. Anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a policeman/government agent. I immediately thought of "The Departed," which is nothing but a meditation on this theme: how the police and the criminals need each other simply to justify their existence. But that was a moral examination of the question, and nobody paid much attention to it because it didn't involve the Mafia, Robert DeNiro, or Joe Pesci. "The Godfather" movies are much better, because they're "operatic." Or something.

Orwell makes one final point, a point worth considering more broadly than I have done here so far. He refers to:

what is now fashionable to call 'realism', meaning the doctrine that might is right. The growth of 'realism' has been the great feature of the intellectual history of our own age. Why this should be so is a complicated question. The interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate.
Which is the real issue for people like Dick Cheney: he is a "realist," he understands the world in ways no one else does; which probably explains his determination to speak as often as possible about what his Administration did, even as he now backpedals and blames the failures of intelligence on George Tenet. It is still "somewhat indelicate" to examine what Cheney's reasoning actually means; but it is high time we did.