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, September 29, 2009

Michaelmas

Thou Michael the victorious,
I make my circuit under thy shield,
Thou Michael of the white steed,
And of the bright brilliant blades,
Conqueror of the dragon,
Be thou at my back,
Thou ranger of the heavens,
Thou warrior of the King of all,
O Michael the victorious,
My pride and my guide,
O Michael the victorious,
The glory of mine eye.

I make my circuit
In the fellowship of my saint,
On the machair, on the meadow,
On the cold heathery hill;
Though I should travel ocean
And the hard globe of the world
No harm can ever befall me
‘Neath the shelter of thy shield;
O Michael the victorious,
Jewel of my heart,
O Michael the victorious,
God’s shepherd thou art.

Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my wooly sheep in flocks,
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machair, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack,
Every thing on high or low,
Every furnishing and flock,
Belong to the holy Triune of glory
And to Michael the victorious.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Neither in Sorrow Nor in Anger


I posted this in part because it was a reminder that the '60's were different; and in part because I've been listening to my old Judy Collins albums, albums with songs like this:

Tear down the walls, listen to freedom ringing out,
Tear down the walls, can't you hear the church bells singing out,
Give every man the chance to take his brother's hand,
Tear down the walls, tear down the walls.
chorus:
The music's everywhere, when every man is free,
The music's in the air that lights the road to liberty.
And while those lyrics, especially after the '70's when such earnestness turned into selfishness, sound almost childishly naive, something about their earnestness is true. Something about their optimism, their hopefulness, is inspiring. There's also something not at all naive about them, not on an album that includes "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol" (a black service worker beaten to death in a hotel restaurant for inadvertently touching a white man. He was acquitted.) or "Medger Evers Lullaby." Racism may be alive and well in America to this good day, but it is nothing like it was only 45 years ago. Ms. Collins even introduces the songs "Red-Wing Blackbird" and "Coal Tattoo" (as fierce an indictment of corporations and the powerlessness of laborers as was ever put to music) by mentioning with some excited anticipation the President's Committee on Poverty, which will soon (as of the date of the recording) begin "to find out why we have the "invisible poor." There is a sense, in what are now historical documents like this, that America was founded on equality and freedom to pursue happiness, and that liberty comes from the people and their ability to help each other, not from their wallets or the stock market.

My, how times have changed.

Yes, the optimism and naivete of the '60's gave way to the crass hedonism of the '70's, where "free love" became "open marriage" and music became "disco". And it's unfair to blame the '70's alone, as they were merely the transition period to the '80's and Reaganomics and "yuppies" and "dinks" (Double Income No Kids) and the first really heady sense that anyone could get rich in America, and the purpose of America was to make people rich! And, of course, when you are trying to get rich or trying to stay rich, the dominant social moré is no longer "Give every man a chance to take his brother's hand [sic]," but: "Blow you, Jack! I got mine!" The pursuit of happiness goes quickly from being an invitation to the mountain, where you can buy wine without money and food without price, to a zero sum game, where your gain is my loss. And our politics is rapidly descending into this:

The Republican Party's strategy against health-care reform has been something of a kamikaze mission: destroy the bill through a strategy that also destroys the party, at least in the short-term. The hope is that if they win the war, they'll be in better shape come the 2010 midterms. Maybe that'll work. Maybe it won't.

But if it does work, it won't leave them in a better position to govern. What Republicans -- and, when they're out of power, Democrats -- are doing is essentially discrediting the political process. Piece by piece, bill by bill. The argument, essentially, is that politicians are untrustworthy and Congress is corrupt and interest groups are trying to do horrible things to you and problems are not being solved.

All these thing might be true, but they're being said, in this case, by politicians who want to take back Congress and start negotiating with interest groups to solve problems. That's not going to work terribly well, and for obvious reasons. Republicans may think they've found a clever strategy in making it hard for Democrats to govern, but what they're really doing is making it nearly impossible for anyone to govern. American politics is trapped in a cycle of minority obstruction, and though that's good for whomever the minority is at the moment, it's not particularly good for making progress on pressing issues.
The indictment of both parties is true if only because the Democrats have, since 1972, let the Republicans set the terms of the discussion, hold the national reins, lead the march into hell. We no longer question what government should do, only how much good or bad government will do to us. We no longer ask what we can do for each other; we only ask what we will be left, and who will leave us the most for our own.

I'm left thinking of the words of Walker Percy as the only words I have for this. Percy speaks to marriage and family, but it all begins there, as metaphor if not as fact.

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ask not what your country can do for you...

This, too, is a fine sentiment for the equinox:

It was on this day in 1961 that Congress passed the Peace Corps Act.

Kennedy first spoke about the idea of a Peace Corps in his final weeks of campaigning for the presidency. At 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, after a long day of campaigning, the young senator stood on the steps in front of the student union at the University of Michigan. The journalists had gone home, thinking that nothing more would happen that day, but 10,000 students remained, hoping to see and hear Kennedy. He gave a short speech, in which he said:

"I think in many ways it is the most important campaign since 1933, mostly because of the problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented to us in the 1960s. The opportunity must be seized, through the judgment of the President, and the vigor of the executive, and the cooperation of the Congress. Through these I think we can make the greatest possible difference.

"How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete."
Garrison Keillor

It's Raining Down in Texas

So this seemed an appropriate sentiment for the equinox.

On Monday will come the great storm
Which the airy firmament will pour,
We shall be obedient the while,
All who will hearken.

On Tuesday will come the other element,
Heart paining, hard piercing,
Wringing from pure pale cheeks
Blood, like showers of wine.

On Wednesday will blow the wind,
Sweeping bare strath and plain,
Showering gusts of galling grief,
Thunder bursts and rending hills.

On Thursday will pour the shower,
Driving people to blind flight,
Faster than the foliage on the trees,
Like the leaves of Mary’s plant in terror trembling.

On Friday will come the dool cloud of darkness,
The direst dread that ever came over the world,
Leaving multitudes bereft of reason,
Grass and fish beneath the same flagstone.

On Saturday will come the great sea,
Rushing like a mighty river;
All will be at their best
Hastening to a hill of safety.

On Sunday will arise my King,
Full of ire and tribulation,
Listening to the bitter talk of each man,
A red cross on each right shoulder.
--Carmina Gadelica

Friday, September 18, 2009

WWJD?


I read the news today, o boy....

CQ reports that Democrats have now largely abandoned ACORN, with most Dems voting for Republican efforts to deny them funding in the wake of recent scandals. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), for example, voted for the recent Republican amendments to bar ACORN funding, after having opposed them in the past. "I felt it was time to send something of a message that there's concern," said Feingold. "It was specifically not about politics. It was about bad policy."
It's a dangerous comparison, but Jesus of Nazareth was treated as a criminal and crucified for being a rabble rouser and a threat to the Empire (crucifixion being reserved for what we would, today, call "political prisoners"). And most of what he did was work with the poor. There's no record in the Gospels that he ever had contact with anybody more important than a Roman soldier or a Nicodemus, a Jewish priest.

Working for the poor never wins you many friends in the corridors of power.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I have three cats


"All cats die.
Socrates is dead.
Therefore Socrates is a cat."--Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros


I've had 8 cats, five of which are deceased. Perhaps I should name one of the dead ones "Socrates."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"The Winners Are At War"

"With the losers, and the fix is in."



"The prospects for peace are awful."--Kurt Vonngegut, Jr.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

You Cannot Get Away


"Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love." - Butch Hancock, Musician, the Flatlanders
I'm trying to figure out how to work this into my blog header.

It explains a lot.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Power of Story



An interesting question:

Isn't the answer that the non-conservative media will simply blindly follow whatever conservative media decides to gun up? Don't media types privilege conservative mini-controversies and hissy fits? Isn't there literally no way they could lay off something like this? Isn't that the problem?
Why, yes, yes it is:

Some school districts in Texas, Illinois, Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri and Minnesota are even refusing to show the president's address.
I wonder what's really going on. After all, the context of that ABC report is that people are "upset" that the President will be pushing a political agenda on school children (like they'd pay attention!). So I went looking, and this is what I found:

At least three Central Texas school districts — Georgetown, Wimberley and Leander — say they will not show a live webcast by President Barack Obama planned for next week.
And why not?

The Leander district late Wednesday announced that its schools will not show the webcast "due to the logistics of making a webcast available during that time of the school day."

But Leander Trustee Lisa Mallory in Web posts, to her Web site and on Twitter, wrote: "Leander ISD will NOT participate in the Obama broadcast to school children! Texans support LOCAL control of education!"

District spokesman Dick Ellis, when asked whether Leander was not showing the webcast because of political reasons, said, "Of course not." Ellis said he didn't know whether the speech would ever be shown in Leander classrooms.

In a statement, Georgetown district officials said that to preserve teaching time, the district wouldn't air the speech. "If parents would like their children to view the president's remarks, we would encourage families to record the speech and watch the event as a family," they said.
Logistics, not politics. I suspect those school districts, like the one I know locally, got no small number of phone calls about this, but I also doubt any school district is requiring teachers to re-jigger their lesson plans to require students to watch. Indeed, the 11:00 a.m. schedule means some students will already be going to lunch at my local schools, which guarantees not all of them could sit in rapt attention. Unless, of course, the school was willing to restructure its entire day for this "event."

There are various articles on the speech now. School districts in North Texas, for example, have varied responses, as this article notes toward the end. At my local school district, they didn't even know the speech was planned until parents started calling in to complain about it. That might seem to make Gov. Perry's question seem reasonable:

"Nobody seems to know what he's going to be talking about ... why didn't he spend more time talking to the local districts, superintendents?" he said.
Until you consider there are 1289 school districts in Texas alone. And, of course, the speech is VOLUNTARY! The President has no more power to compel the schools of America to carry his speech in classrooms than he has the power to compel networks and cable channels to carry his speeches. Which is where the matter becomes truly absurd, because most of the complaints are about the compulsory nature of the situation. Maybe we should use this as a "teachable moment" to consider how we educate our children?

Naaahhh!

I'd venture to guess that the school districts who have announced they won't show it, are doing so to quiet parents, not because they've decided it should be banned. Most of them probably had no district policy on it at all, but had to say something due to the brouhaha, not due to their feelings about the President. But in the context of the narrative now established by the "media"....

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"I announce with trembling pleasure...."



Well, no, not quite that bad. But I have read a good book recently. And it's moral seems to be: Mommas, don't let your babies grow up reading Narnia.

Which is part of the conscious antecedent of this novel. The other part is Harry Potter. Start with the premise of the story: Quentin, the protagonist, is "invited" to enter Brakebills, an exclusive school for magicians in upstate New York. Not wizards, witches, sorcerers, or warlocks, but magicians, because there the comparisons to Hogwarts start to wane. The root in "magus" is intentional. Entering Brakebills is not as easy as getting into Hogwarts; one must pass a rigorous test, because magic itself, while real, is a product of knowledge and training as much as ability and talent; and like but unlike Harry Potter, Quentin's ability and failure to grasp this important point is one of the driving forces of the story.

But this novel is less about story than it is about characters, which is its greatest virtue. That's not a slight on J.K. Rowling; but The Magicians is not focussed on a complex plot that has to unravel over 7 volumes; it is centered on a set of characters who are at once more adult and more American than the children of Harry Potter. But there's a reason for that, and it's not built on diminishing Rowling's achievement; indeed, it's impossible to imagine this novel without Rowling's work, and it's even easier to understand this novel if you know the story of the boy who lived.

First, let's set out the premises of this novel. Magic is real (except it really isn't; more on that in a moment), but it is a matter of manipulation of forces no one really understands (students are, in fact, warned against pursuing the question "How is this possible?" That way, they are assured, lies madness. There are more than a few dark areas of this "world" where maps are clearly marked "There by Tygers"; it is part of the pleasure of the plot that the characters are drawn into exploring so many of them. They are, indeed, places that lead to madness, in ways J.K. Rowling's childrens books could never contemplate.). Magic "works" by knowledge: knowledge of spells, which function only in their original tongues, so students must learn Old Norse or Arabic, Estonian and Middle English, etc., etc. One of the wonders of Grossman's world is how international it is, and how dependent magicians are on learning arcana (without pursuing scholarship, the attempt to understand arcana), as well as learning just how to wiggle their fingers (there's no easier way to describe it) in order to create the spell they are looking for. No one knows how it works, they only know that it must be done in a certain way in order to achieve the result desired. They also know that one mistake, one dropped syllable, say, in a spell in Old Dutch, can have disastrous consequences.

Which is one of the key parts of the plot, and it illustrates a central theme of the book: peril lurks everywhere. But one of the pleasures of the plot is that those perils have a source, and that source doesn't lie in the mysterious nature of the magical forces being invoked. Indeed, magic plays a supporting role here (as in Harry Potter) but not a dominant one. What dominates here are the characters. The evil that men do comes from, well...men. And women. But not just randomly from the universe.

The children of Adam, as C.S. Lewis quaintly called them in Narnia, are not just the source of law and order, but the cause of disorder, too. Quentin is, like Harry Potter, a talented magician who knows nothing of the world of magicians. But he does know the fantasy world of Fillory, a clear literary descendant of Narnia. There are 6 volumes in the Fillory series, each set in a magical land of mythical creatures, but watched over by two magical sheep, not a Christ-figure lion. Each volume, we are told, involves children, but children of different generations (as they grow older, they stop visiting). The first of the children to visit Fillory finds it through the back of a grandfather clock (and why he was hiding there becomes another important character point, again lifting this book above the "won't somebody think of the children?" level of most children's books, and into the land where adults, sometimes unfortunately, live). Ironically (again, post-modern irony), the last volume of the series, "The Magicians," is lost. No fan of the series (and all of Quentin's friends at Brakebill's are fans of the series) has seen it. More's the pity when Quentin finally does.

The first half of the novel is seeing the world of Brakebills through Quentin's eyes. In this, he's a Harry Potter figure, introducing the reader to a world as strange to him as it is to us. But in a sort of reverse of Harry, Quentin is a "geek" in his own world, only to find at Brakebills that every student is as smart as he is, if not smarter, so his achievements in magic are no more remarkable than Harry's, and he lacks Harry's distinction of being "the boy who lived." One of the themes of the novel is evident in life at Brakebills, (and a sharp contrast to Hogwarts) and that is: what does a magician do after life at Brakebills? Like any modern university (in contrast to say, art schools which pride themselves on placing their students after graduation; most US universities give you a degree and don't want to see you again, or care what you do), Brakebills sends their graduates on their way with a single answer to the question "What now"?: "Whatever you want to do." And this is where the dissipation, that most modern of American afflictions for those who can afford it, sets in.

It's also where the character development truly sets in. Unlike either Narnia or Harry Potter, there is no evil menace to battle after Brakebills, and Quentin and his friends all feel that lack keenly. What is available to them is sex, drugs, and alcohol, which they consume with abandon, and with consequences. Sex, especially, is not pursued with affecting other people, and the relationships of the characters is often more interesting than the premise of this "alternate" world, which, like Rowling's story, raises this novel above the usual fantasy fare. Far, far above; and not least of which because it so artfully uses the fantasy fare of our childhood, even if we are Baby Boomers and not recently graduated from Hogwarts ourselves.

That fantasy intrudes when reality overlaps the fantasy of Fillory. Fillory, it seems exists; it can be traveled to, though even the journey there is not a simple one, or overseen by benevolent (or even interested) forces. Some mysteries of the plot are answered by the end, as they should be; plot points you weren't sure were plot points explained and tied up. Others, though, like the "way station" between Quentin's world and Fillory, are not explained; nor should they be. At one point Alice, Quentin's lover, mocks him because he alone of the students they know believes magic is "real." "It isn't?", he asks, confused. No, she tells him it isn't. We end up believing her because, like Hermione, she knows so much more than Quention/Harry does. But we also end up like Quentin, wondering what she means; sure she is right, but not so sure we like that answer. Like the theory, and even in the end the practice, of magic, some things are better left unexplored. That way, we learn, truly does lay madness.

Because Fillory never lives up to the stories the characters have all read about it. They never quite shake the conviction that Fillory is a place where the desires of their childhood will be fulfilled, where they will be the heroes of fiction who always prevail no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how little they know about what they have stumbled into. And only when it is much, much too late, do they find they haven't stumbled into it at all. Which is another point where the plot takes up an element from one of the Harry Potter novels, and puts it in a very, very different perspective. Oh, and did I mention the centaurs, who seem drawn as much from Harry Potter as from Gulliver's Travels? And the evil? Well, let's just say there is more evil than just one person is responsible for. And yet the lessons on power and powerlessness are almost equal to those Rowling had to teach.

I am trying, if you hadn't guessed by now, not to reveal too many spoilers. But to come back to the characters and do them justice, first: when Quentin is invited to Brakebills, he's already facing the end of high school and the question of what to do next, and mooning over his girl friend (but not "girlfriend") Julia, and living in the shadow of his friend James; whom Julia loves. Brakebills brings an abrupt end to that life long friendship, one that was going to end with college anyway, but Quentin abandons his life at home once he's accepted to the school of magic. Only later does he learn more about Julia and James; but that would be telling.

Quentin makes friends at Brakebills, including one enigmatic but powerfully talented girl who is almost a reverse Hermione: her parents are magicians, but she wasn't invited to Brakebills; and she is neither talkative nor bossy, but she is also the superior magician, as it turns out. By the time they graduate, she and Quentin are lovers, but it is clear she is the adult, he is still the immature man. That is shown both in their relationship (which he almost destroys, in an alcohol-induced haze), and in the end of the book. They live with a group of friends both at school and afterwards, in a sort of "St. Elmo's Fire/Friends" situation, an an ennui that leads them to dare journey to Fillory (they have been warned not to seek such places in school, after an object lesson in the dangerous power of magic). That they don't learn that lesson is both necessary to the plot and a logical outcome of their characters. It is the character that rules here, as it should in any good story.

The lesson in power comes at the novel's climax, and to say too much about it would give too much away. It recalls, in some ways, the best of the climactic scenes of the later Harry Potter novels, especially The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows. But it is quite different from either of them, and if anything underlines Lord Acton's aphorism, first addressed to the Pope who formulated the doctrine of papal infallibility: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." The novel takes up that idea in the dissipation and moral corruption of the characters, and then takes up the question of absolute, or near absolute, power, especially the power of death. Rowling and Grossman teach much the same lesson about that, but with radically different results, and not necessarily from the same perspectives. Still, the almost unavoidable contrast between the two, set up by Grossman's premise and the plot he employes, yield revealing insights into the question. Grossman does not preach the powerlessness that allows Harry to prevail in the end, and which is key to Voldemort's defeat; but he does examine, rather fully, the dangerous nature of power, and the evils that result, even unintentionally, from wielding near-absolute power.

In the end, consequences in a children's novel are not quite the same as they are in adult novels. Childrens novels ultimately teach that, despite whatever happens, the consequences can be overcome, can even be controlled. No death in Harry Potter is as shattering to the characters (not even Dumbledore's, because Harry sees him again, and Dumbledore explains it was all part of a plan, and therefore even death works for the good) as the deaths in The Magicians, and where Voldemort only thinks he is controlling events, he is a piker compared to what happens to who, it turns out, is manipulating Quentin and his friends. Evil, too, is the result of more terrible, and more human, things than even patricide and envy. It is a consequence of that world adults find themselves living in, and the one they try so valiantly to shield children from knowing about, until they have to. Consequences in The Magicians are not, finally, teaching moments, or even epiphanies. They simply are, the way the shattering of a falling glass on a stone floor is what happens when you knock a glass off in your carelessness. This is what distinguishes Grossman's world from Rowling's, but the distinction does not make one superior to the other. It is simply a difference, and in a reading world where Narnia and Harry Potter already exist, it is a tour de force to pull off the conceits of The Magicians without ever once denigrating your predecessors.

Where this novel goes, in the end, is back to where it begins, and that is neither Narnia nor Harry Potter's England, but the teachings of Ecclesiastes:

Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile. What does anyone profit from all his labor and toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures for ever. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, REB)

That is not an idle or passing reference. When the novel begins, Quentin is on his way to an interview pursuant to an application to Princeton, but he's mostly pursuing the college degree because that's what "nerds" do. He is diverted to Brakebills instead, through a circuitous (and not, it turns out, serendipitous) route. But it is also the motto of Alice's parents, both magicians; and of the students Quentin lives with and among, when they all leave Brakebills; and even to the "trust fund" that sustains their lifestyle of comfortable ennui, a gift from previous generations of magicians. Those few verses are the warp and woof of this novel, and another few provide its denoument:

One futher warning, my son: there is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome. (Ecclesiastes 12: 12, REB)
By the end of the story, all the knowledge of magic they have accrued has endangered them, saved them, ruined them, and cost them a price they can never repay; and it has all been in the service of still another power, which they too belatedly discover. If this sounds like a dreary and almost existential theme, it almost is; but Grossman's writing redeems it, and pulls it back from falling over the edge of the abyss. I would tell you more and explain how Ecclesiastes fits into the long denoument), because I would really like to explore both the premise of this novel, and the consequences of the characters' actions (and talk about Brakeills South, and all the related stories about people who affect the story and the characters, that I haven't mentioned), but I would give too much away. It's a fascinating read. Mine was a borrowed copy, but I intend to put one on my shelves and have it to read again. The only pity is I'd have so much trouble getting the British version, which is the jacket above. For some reason, British publishers have cooler dust jackets than American publishers. The American one is below.


Good-bye, Dr. Hawking?


I hear something like this:

Goldhill says the problem is that health care costs are hidden from us. He says that over the course of your lifetime, you and your employer spend $1.7 million on your family's health care.

"Let's take all the money we're spending on insurance, give it to the patients and have the patients spend much of it directly," he says. "Let's have catastrophic insurance for the worst cases — the truly rare, major, unpredictable events. And the rest, let's rely on the consumer. The key is that the patient is actually getting the bill."

Goldhill's proposal is what many economists call a consumer-driven model. Individuals would be required to buy some sort of catastrophic plan. Only expenses over, say, $50,000 would be covered. That's a high deductible, but you would have $1.7 million over your lifetime that you currently do not see. That amount would be built up slowly in what is often called a health savings account.
And immediately I think of someone like "a wheelchair-bound woman with 'two incurable auto-immune diseases'".

How long would $1.7 million last for her? And what if she never gets the chance to build it up? She has to come up with $50,000.00 first? And additionally, another $1.7 million? And this is better than the current system how? How would this magic number build up slowly, if the disease takes you early, and persistently? Good-bye, Dr. Hawking? Sorry, but the irony is, your health care is too expensive?

Because, you know, some health problems are not "events," but simply: "life." Do we have no more sense of moral obligation, no more sense of communal responsibility, than did the crowd who booed this woman at a town-hall meeting? Is that what we want to be: a country, a people, a culture, a nation, concerned only with our money, and wholly unconcerned about our humanity? There is an obvious religious appeal I could make here, but do I really have to? Isn't it obvious, even to the most militant atheist, that Goldhill's concept is not only ethically bankrupt, but fiscally bizarre?

I'll retire to Bedlam....

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Ignorance is Strength


I've long known that what bugs me most about Richard Dawkins on God, or Robert Wright on theology, is that they clearly know nothing about the subject on which they write, and this blissful ignorance is what makes them experts! Clearly it is so, because they are not blinded by the "conventional thinking" that hinders trained theologians and philosophers from seeing what is obvious to the ignorant and unlearned. And since most people have no training in philosophy or theology, clearly someone completely out of their depth, like Dawkins when he strays away from biology, is more knowledgeable on the subject his audience is equally ignorant of, than those trained in the subject. They, after all, have given up reason for indoctrination, and can't hope to see the "big picture" that only those who are completely ignorant can see.

Which, if that assessment sounds harsh, need only be turned around. The greatest complaint wielded against "Creationists" and those who oppose any talk of evolution on religious grounds, is that they know nothing about biology, geology, paleontology, or even science. And it's a fair criticism, and a valid one. But apparently it isn't a valid criticism when those scientists turn their critiques on theology or philosophy. Because, after all, nobody else understands that stuff either, so it must be full of whatever straw men Dawkins and company construct and then set ablaze.

This complaint would all be so much grousing and maybe sour grapes (longing for the days when theology was the "mother of all sciences," perhaps) except that it has application to matters other than why Richard Dawkins is clueless on the subject that has brought him so much recent fame. The real heart of the complaint is the issue presented by Dawkins and Sam Harris and even Robert Wright: it is that expertise is now measured, not by knowledge, but by ignorance. Witness the ongoing debate about the efficacy of torture.

There is clear and compelling evidence, presented before the Congress, that torture does not work. There is clear and compelling evidence from FBI interrogators, experts in getting information from prisoners, that torture is counter-productive and cuts off a flow of information that might be obtained from something as simple and humane as a plate of sugar-free cookies. Indeed, ask any trial lawyer, and the best ones will tell you that cross-examination is an art, not a brutal frontal assault. No one is more reluctant to reveal information than a witness in a civil trial, especially when that witness is the opposing party. Cross-examination is the art of eliciting that information, and the best lawyers at it are the most gentle, the most subtle, the most careful in what they ask and how they ask it. They build a relationship with the witness. What they don't do is engage in an authoritarian smackdown. We all know you get more flies with honey than with vinegar; and yet we are all "experts" on how "torture works" because....well, because we want to believe it. Ignorance is strength, and we want to be strong.

Or perhaps we think torture works because we let Dick Cheney repeat that absurd notion ad nauseum, with no real-time challenge to his lies and base ignorance. But ignorance is strength, because the less expertise we have in the field, the less knowledge we have, the more we can be sure we are right and that the "experts" are blinded by the strictures of the discipline they've devoted their lives to.

I run into this a lot, if only because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is easy to find people who have read, or more likely heard of, Hyam Maccoby's The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which is, to put it bluntly, crap. No Biblical scholar takes it seriously, but that is, of course, because they have all "drunk the Kool-Aid" and so can't see what people with no background in Biblical studies can. And the people who haven't read Maccoby's book, or heard of it, know that Paul hated women (he didn't; he treated them as equals. It was later Christians who tried to destroy that relationship and lower women's status) because, again, they heard it somewhere, or read one of the pseudo-Pauline letters, or something, and anyway it's what most people think so it might as well be true, and it's easier to blame the Paul of our imaginations than to study church history, so "expertise" is a waste of time, and besides it's dull, and, well, you know.....

Which is not a brief for relying on "experts" because they proclaim their expertise, but it is a call for reason and learning, something most people on and off the Web seem to stop doing just as soon as they've settled on what political or social or religious position they want to take. And frankly, it's tiresome as hell. Not because everyone should know what I know; the more I learn, the more I realize I know almost nothing that is worthwhile. No, my standard is Aquinas, one of the greatest minds of human history, a man whose works Thomistic scholars spend lifetimes studying and never fully understanding. But near the end of his life, Aquinas had a mystical vision, after which, he said, everything he'd written seemed like so much straw. And he never wrote another word.

I aspire toward that level of insight. But I also understand the importance of knowledge, and the weakness of ignorance. The more I learn, the more ignorant I realize I am. Which is why the people who don't realize their own ignorance, really piss me off.

I know, I know; I'm working on it.

All the News that Fits

I'm not much for news bashing, but this story on "Countdown" last night intrigued me because it was from Texas (and nearby), so I went looking for it. What I didn't find was the most interesting part about it.

Here's the story I first saw:



I looked up "Pete Olson town hall" to find more. And all I found about this was on blogs or websites. Through Think Progress I found this article from "The Daily News of Galveston County", which is remarkable for two things. One is this:

Even a group of Girl Scouts found themselves part of the debate. Cali Brown, 9, of Clear Lake, was joined by some Galveston County Scouts to hand out different colored ribbons that served as code for how those attending felt about health care reform.

Brown, who said she was inspired to get into the health care debate after watching her mother struggle to find insurance to cover the family, plans to send the ribbons to Congress as an informal poll of what people expect from the government when it comes to reform.

She said most of those who pulled ribbons for her project chose the aqua marine-colored piece of cloth that represented a desire for improving the system.
The other remarkable part of this article is the dog that didn't bark. There is absolutely no reference to the events in the video "Countdown" had. So either this encounter wasn't newsworthy, or this article is about a different town meeting. Rep. Olson did hold a town meeting in Sugar Land on August 22nd, but The Daily News article is dated August 30, so it probably reports on a meeting on August 29th. I found one news report on the August 22nd meeting, and one blog post. Think Progress and Raw Story only refer to "a recent townhall meeting," but the Crooks and Liars post seems to indicate the meeting was on the 29th (the post was put up late on the afternoon of August 30th). Let me close this tedious loop: the YouTube video was put up on August 29th. And it's even better than what "Countdown" broadcast:



So this happened on August 29th, was reported by the local news (which didn't deem this contretemps newsworthy), and hasn't been reported by anyone else since. This is what I got searching the Houston Chronicle through Google. Nothing more than a schedule of meetings; no report on this at all.

Now, granted, a town hall meeting by a freshman GOP representative in a small community south of Houston is not earth-shaking news for which you could expect more reporters than participants. But this kind of reaction, especially in Texas, is interesting. I wouldn't call Lamarque a hot bed of Texas liberalism:

La Marque, also known as Highlands and as Buttermilk Station, is an incorporated residential community on Interstate Highway 45, State Highway 3, and Farm roads 519, 1765, and 2004, some twelve miles northwest of Galveston in northwestern Galveston County. The community was originally known as Highlands, probably for its location near Highland Creek, and was renamed in the 1890s when residents learned of another mainland community of the same name. Madam St. Ambrose, postmistress, chose the new name, which in French means "the mark."
So apparently even in south Texas there isn't universal support for the "deathers" and disruptors of town hall meetings who grabbed all the headlines in August, or a universal belief that government is what's wrong with American healthcare.

Wonder if this will get any more headlines than it already hasn't?