Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Change is the new pink

"Classic--a book which everyone praises, and no one reads."--Mark Twain

Martin Luther King is in danger of becoming a classic, so I want to consider the words of a man who really stood for change. His sermon on 31 March 1968 was: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution . He took as his text Revelation 21, and he started off with the story of Rip Van Winkle who slept through the American Revolution, a revolution which, as Dr. King noted, changed history.

First, think about how truly frightening this statement is (and the fact that it was made over 40 years ago; there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun):

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away."
Why do I call it "frightening"? Because I learned in ministry that the one thing people do not want, is change. We all say we do. We all claim we want to be different, that "change" is good, that "improved" is better than the status quo, that we have to "move forward" toward an undefined goal which is always identified as better than what we have now.

And yet nobody wants that.

What we want is what we have: the familiar, the known, the same cereal/soap/politics/spirituality, just in a shinier, re-designed, labeled "NEW & IMPROVED!" box. We don't want something we've never had before; we want more of what we know. I look back over the 40+ years I've been observing/participating in American politics, and I realize no real change was ever in the offing. The ending of the interminable Vietnam War was supposed to change things, finally. A generation later, here we are again. The Civil Rights struggle was supposed to change how we talk about race in this country. 40 years after the death of Dr. King, the hidden wound of racism in America means we still discuss the candidacy of Barack Obama in terms of race. Some support him simply because of race, others say almost any criticism of him is inherently about race; and how does one argue they are wrong? Any attempt to slap that tar baby just gets you mired more deeply in that which you assure yourself you don't participate in. Change is the most frightening thing of all. It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.
But Dr. King could speak words of reassurance as well as challenge, something seldom heard from public officials today (and almost never heard from politicians). Change can be what happens to us; or it can be what helps us in our predicaments. The impact of "automation and cybermation" makes it possible for you to read these words right now, for me to access the sermons of Dr. King and read them again and again, even to listen to them. Change can certainly be a good thing, but that kind of change, again, largely happens to us, not with us. Someone brought us computers, the internet, blogs; and we took them and accepted them and adopted them. "And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away." And still nobody wants that. Look; look at how much has not changed:

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, "Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out."

There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used wither constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, "Now you are free," but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, "You’re free," and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.

There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.

I remember some years ago Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India. And I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India, to meet and talk with and to speak to thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.

But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year. And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist.

As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" And an answer came: "Oh no!" Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, "I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night." And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.

I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Whitman County, the poorest county in the United States. I tell you, I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear. I saw their mothers and fathers trying to carry on a little Head Start program, but they had no money. The federal government hadn’t funded them, but they were trying to carry on. They raised a little money here and there; trying to get a little food to feed the children; trying to teach them a little something.

And I saw mothers and fathers who said to me not only were they unemployed, they didn’t get any kind of income—no old-age pension, no welfare check, no anything. I said, "How do you live?" And they say, "Well, we go around, go around to the neighbors and ask them for a little something. When the berry season comes, we pick berries. When the rabbit season comes, we hunt and catch a few rabbits. And that’s about it."

And I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment and this welfare mother said to me, "The landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years and he hasn’t made a single repair." She pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. I said, "How much do you pay for this apartment?" She said, "a hundred and twenty-five dollars." I looked, and I thought, and said to myself, "It isn’t worth sixty dollars." Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.
The hidden wound is racism; but the hidden wound is also denial. We willfully inflict this wound on ourselves everytime we deny the reality of poverty, of sin, of selfishness and evil. Two words in there are theological ones, and perhaps are too freighted to be included in that catalogue. But they are not just concepts; they are realities as much as selfishness and denial are realities. Still, Dr. King puts it just a bit better, when he introduces the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and he points out that the rich man didn't go to hell becaus he was rich:

Now Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.
Dives went to hell because of his sin; because he was selfish; because his selfishness was evil.

And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.
Does this mean hell is a place, and the country itself will end up there? Not at all; but can anyone who has observed the national scene for the past 7 years seriously argue that the country hasn't gone to hell, and that our national selfishness, our pursuit of evil to ostensibly defeat evil, hasn't taken us there? We can quibble about the terminology, or we can focus on the reality. But don't take my word for it; consider the words of Dr. King:

One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, "That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me." That’s the question facing America today.

I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.

It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.

The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done—and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world. There is not a single major ally of the United States of America that would dare send a troop to Vietnam, and so the only friends that we have now are a few client-nations like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and a few others.

This is where we are. "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind," and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.

It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
Auden famously removed his poem "September 1, 1939" from his canon because it ends with the line: "We must love one another, or die." "That's a damned lie," he explained; "we are going to die anyway." But there is physical death, and there is spiritual death, and the choice between nonviolence and nonexistence presents both to us. But one comes individually, and as a nation we are clearly willing to pay that price over and over again. The spiritual price, however, is another matter. That's the one we don't even acknowledge paying anymore; that's the one we're almost not permitted to acknowledge paying. I can't help but wonder, if Dr. King were to preach this sermon today: would the IRS investigate the church he preached in, for violating its 501(a) status*?

One day a newsman came to me and said, "Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?" I looked at him and I had to say, "Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion." Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
I've let Dr. King's words to most of the talking here as, indeed, how could I not? But his words speak to us today as much as they spoke to his audience 40 years ago. If change is the new good we seek, and certainly change from the political status quo of this country is a good thing, a desirable goal, what kind of change do we seek? "New styles of architecture/A change of heart," as Auden once described it? Or something more fundamental, more radical, something digging down to the root and seeking replacement, not just redecoration? "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away." That is God speaking, not us. That is not the voice of the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit, or the blogger; that is the voice of the Almighty, and when God says all things are new, former things have passed away, who are we to cling to those former things and insist this "new" not include them? We want the box to be new, but the cereal inside to be the same; the soap inside to be familiar; the politics and policies to continue the status quo. Most of all, we want to be safe, to be assured the future will look like the past, and deviate from the present only by leaving what we don't like, behind. But as Dr. King never tired of pointing out, there are very few times in history when we have that luxury; and this time, is not one of them, either:

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain’t goin’ study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man.
Our goodwill is not proven by how well we take care of ourselves, or our own; it is not proven by how secure we are in our goods, in our possessions, in our comforts, even in our opinions. We are sleeping through the revolution if we don't realize the revolution must include a change in our hearts and minds also, that everything old must pass away in order to realize, to see, the new that is being made.

The words from Revelation Dr. King cites come at the end of the long symbolic descriptions of destruction and judgment that book is famous for. Dr. King makes no reference to that theme, but it is an important one. Just as there is no Easter without Good Friday, there is no new heaven and new earth without the destruction of the old heaven and old earth, and the hope is in the redemption after the calamity, not in avoiding the calamity altogether. Revelation is about how unjust the world is, and about how God will ultimately bring justice. The Greek idea of John's culture was that creation would return to chaos; while John saw that creation would ultimately be redeemed by justice. The idea that science or nature (evolution) leads inexorably to a telos or even makes progress, is rooted in John's assurance that all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Even our science, our knowledge, is rooted in this confidence, despite the chaos our senses percieve and history teaches. So we don't have to speak in terms of sin and evil and salvation, in order to understand justice and morality, or even to pursue ethics. But we do need to understand: the problems that face us today are the problems that faced us 40 years ago, are the problems that have faced us for millenia. And the only valid response to them, the only proper answer, is a massive act of conscience, and the agreement, the confession, that we aren't going to follow the old ways, anymore. And we aren't going to sleep through this revolution; because if we do, there'll be no revolution at all. And we'll have only ourselves to blame, for that.

*King's sermon was given at the National Cathedral, an Episcopal church. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I am lazy and indolent at the moment

so all I can say is: what Barbara Ehrenreich said:

All this is true, but it is also a form of economy fetishism, or should I say worship? If we have learned anything in the last few years, it is that the economy is no longer an effective measure of human well-being. We’ve seen the economy grow without wage gains; we’ve seen productivity grow without wage gains. We’ve even seen unemployment fall without wage gains. In fact, when economists want to talk about life “on the ground,” where jobs and wages and the price of Special K are paramount, they’ve taken to talking about “the real economy.” If there’s a “real economy,” then what in the hell is “the economy”?

Once it was real-er, this economy that we have. But that was before we got polarized into the rich, the poor, and the sinking middle class. Gross social inequality is what has “de-coupled” growth and productivity from wage gains for the average household. As far as I can tell, “the economy,” as opposed to the “real economy,” is the realm of investment, and is occupied by people who live on interest and dividends instead of salaries and wages, aka the rich.

So I’m proposing a radical shift in rhetoric: Any stimulus package should focus on the poor and the unemployed, not because they spend more, but because they are in most in need of help. Yes, when a parent can afford to buy Enfamil, it helps the Enfamil company and no doubt “the economy” too. But let’s not throw out the baby with the sensual bubble bath of “stimulus.” In any ordinary moral calculus, the baby comes first.
(I especially like her metaphor for the economic "stimulus" package, but this is a family blog...sort you can read the whole thing for yourself. And "moral calculus" in a discussion of economics; what a concept! I feel so, so..."radical" and 19th century and all!)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Good fences make good neighbors"

On the occassion of repairing/replacing a section of fence (the one between our lot and the neighbor's), I wonder why we often mock the sentiment of Frost's neighbor (along with Frost), yet when we speak of repairing old relationships, or damaged ones, we call it: "Fence mending"?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"I too have sailed the world, and seen it's wonders

for the cruelty of man is as wondrous as Peru/But there's no place like....!"--Sweeney Todd

Interesting. Scout Prime is right:

So now Mississippians are in the same boat as New Orleanians. Once upon a time they were applauded for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and now they are lazy begging losers in a loser state. It really was inevitable. When reality can be twisted once it can be twisted again and again. And as I feared, being caught in the middle and used in a false narrative is a dangerous proposition and so very cruel in the end......
She is responding to comments on an article about the troubled recovery of Pearlington, Mississippi, comments like this one:

MY GOD! Get up off your butts and do the work yoursevles and quit begging and depending on everyone else in the country to keep taking care of you. For all the sake in the world, get jobs wherever you have to. Get out of that losing state if you have to. Get a life for real. It's been three, do you hear me, three years that the rest of the country has taken care of you and we are sick of it.
And this one:

So, according to these posts, Pearlington is a soup bowl filled with crime, drugs and lazy, stupid idiots who look for handouts, and play the blame game. Huh, sounds like New Orleans.
But in another post, she also links to this:

As informed citizens who study the past, historians have a unique opportunity, and thus a particular obligation, to make the present comprehensible in terms of what has gone before. Like any occurrence in the here and now, Hurricane Katrina derives its meaning partly from contemporary circumstances and partly from perceptions that are shaped by accumulated experience, or what is sometimes called historical memory. The relationship between Katrina and its historical context is, of course, dynamic and recipro cal. As historians have long recognized, current events—especially traumatic shocks that disrupt the status quo—alter our perceptions of the past. In the shadow of human catas trophes, scholars are pushed to formulate new questions and to revisit old orthodoxies as they probe for fresh meaning in what Robert Coles has described as “that flow of human affairs that gets called history.”[1]
But as the comments about Pearlington seem to establish, the conversation on Katrina in its historical context seems to be one only professional historians and a few other scholars can have.

We are a country which has always preferred false narratives. The West was "won" by independent pioneers free of governmental restraint. Except the land west of the Mississippi was settled by people given land grants and incentives by the Federal government to claim and settle the Louisiana Purchase made by Jefferson, and the railroads that eventually linked the continent were built on government land grants and at government urging. The capital expense would have been too great for private enterprise, the return on investment too slow and uncertain. Slavery itself was poverty enforced and insured by government backing, and it was the string of forts, established by the federal government, stretching from San Antonio, Texas, along El Camino Real, that made settlement and trade possible from Texas to California through the northern Sonoran desert. Without those forts, few would have ventured into that wilderness.

But the dime novel mythology of rugged independence dies hard. We all know American history, and we all know it chiefly involved John Wayne; just as we all know Texas looks like Southern California, or perhaps the Trans-Pecos region or the Davis Mountains. Most people don't even realize how big Texas is, much less how varied its climates and geography are. From the Gulf Coast to El Paso is nearly half-way to California, and you haven't left Texas yet, yet you've gone from sea level grasslands to high desert. Then there are the stories (recounted when Bill Richardson first announced he would run for President) about New Mexico, and how many Americans don't realize that's a state of the Union, not a designation for a foreign country. Ignorant as we are of simple geography, or even the states of the Union, how surprising is it that our history comes from Hollywood? And on and on it goes.

We are not very good at history, and empathy is even harder. Empathy is commonly considered a particularly Christian trait, but empathy has little to do with the commandments of Christ to his followers. Jesus never said "feel sorry for the poor and the destitute, so you will be moved to help them." He simply made it a commandment. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, take care of the unjust as well as the just, in the same way that God makes the rain fall on both of them (rain, of course, being a valuable commodity in a desert culture). Empathy, sympathy, having the "bowels of compassion" as the phrase would come to be, being emotionally motivated, in other words, had nothing to do with it:

But to you who listen I say, love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you, bless those ho curse you, pray for your abusers.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and when someone takes your things, don't ask for them back.

If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. You reward will be great, and you'll be children of the Most High. As you know, the Most High is generous to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate in the way your Father is compassionate."--Luke 6: 27, 30, 32-36 (SV).
And the model for that compassion that Luke presents, is the Wonderful Father; the man who is so irrational, even his eldest son doesn't know how to respond to him. And yet the father there doesn't command even his eldest son to have empathy for his returned brother. Empathy cannot be commanded, cannot even be expected. We cannot rely on empathy to make us do what is right. The question is: what will? And the answer is: not individual motivation; not human emotions alone.

In the America of 2007 only the most irrepressible optimist would imagine a world in which the opinions of historians were actively sought by those in the high councils of government. But for citizens on the storm-wracked Gulf Coast, optimism has become a Darwinian survival trait, and if Lawrence Powell is correct in his assessment of Katrina as a “detonating event,” the winds of change may have been concealed within Katrina’s ferocious eye wall.
The question is: where will that change come from? This event, and the response to it, are embedded in "that flow of human affairs that gets called history." The response so far is, frankly, muddled. In a country so concerned with economics (the state of the economy, we are told now crowds out concerns about death and destruction and our part in all of that, in Iraq), but, as Lawrence Powell notes:

Resilient cities that rebound from disaster almost always benefit from vibrant economies. But ours is in shambles. According to one outside economist, “This is the first time in U.S. history where a city has sat dormant for almost a year.”
And still there is no national cry of: "My God, what have we done?" If empathy will not move us, what will?

In America, optimism has always been a "Darwinian survival trait." That's one reason we cling to it so fiercely. But we need it, because while the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away. And that, too, is as American as violence and cherry pie.

Mr. Powell's article is probably the most accessible to the non-historian, largely because it deals with New Orleans as it is today, and has been only since Katrina struck. But he also has a real gift for getting to the heart of the matter:

People with resources—homeowners and proprietors of small businesses—are not faring well, either. The city has made a hash of posthurricane planning, and the invisible hand of the market is raising its middle finger. The view from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers or the top floors of mold-remediated homes is clouded with uncertainty. Markets are all about coordinating expectations, but that is tough to do when the future is so opaque. Residents’ simple questions lack clear-cut answers: Will the neighbors down the street ever return and at least cut the grass? Should I take out a small business loan in the hope that my dry cleaning customers will move back next month—or next year? Today entire neighborhoods are struggling to prove their right to exist by showing they can rebuild. The odds are steep, and the struggle is, to quote organizers from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), “grossly unfair.”

And probably unworkable. As Thomas C. Schelling, the Nobel Prize–winning expert on complex bargaining, observed in December 2005: “There is no market solution to New Orleans.” Yet that is exactly what is being attempted in my adopted city, with the consequence that everything feels stuck-in-limbo. The iconic Lower Ninth Ward remains desolate; north of St. Claude Avenue, where a break in the Industrial Canal levee unleashed a minitsunami, one-quarter of all homes have been razed, and fewer than 3 percent of the former residents have applied for electrical permits. In the wealthier Lakeview neighborhood, the affluent are at least getting by. But in New Orleans East, where much of the aspirant and upwardly mobile black middle class once lived, the news is mixed. Electrical permits are up, but only 17.4 percent of the former population has applied for them. Those dismal statistics bear out a recent survey that found one-third of the city’s current population (a population half its pre-Katrina size) is contemplating leaving for good.
And, in making his argument that Katrina was a "detonating event," Mr. Powell notes this:

But for every radical novitiate evangelized by dedicated anarchists and global justice activists, there have been ten apolitical volunteers who have been drawn to New Orleans by faith-based organizations, professional gatherings, or the simple call of conscience. There have been Barefoot Doctors, Mondo Bizzaro Productions, a multidisciplinary arts group, and the Rainbow Family of Living Light. Faith-based volunteers stand out. They come as Bible study groups, sleeping in rvs and tents, chainsaw-toting pilgrims on missions of earthly salvation. Katrina recovery is “the biggest domestic relief effort we’ve ever faced,” said a spokesman for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The newly elected president of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, shaken by a tour of Lakeview and the Lower Ninth (“It looks like something after a nuclear bomb”), pledged to get the word out to the autonomous churches constituting his confederation. “I have access to the Baptist press, and I’m going to use that,” he told the Times-Picayune six weeks before Katrina’s first anniversary. “I have a weekly address, and I’ll use that. I’ll be speaking all over the nation for the next six months, and I do pledge and promise to make New Orleans’s neighborhoods a point of great emphasis for our ministry.”

His promise and similar pledges by like-minded religious leaders have not been empty. Thousands of faith-based volunteers have been arriving in the Katrina zone every month to spend a week or two, but sometimes longer, pulling Sheetrock. One Iowa volunteer drawn to New Orleans by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana gave up her job in the Des Moines statehouse in order to help manage volunteer operations on the ground. Samaritans have usually returned home transformed by the house-gutting experience. “Now that we are back in Michigan,” wrote an Ann Arbor volunteer with the Catholic Charities program Operation Helping Hand, “we are urging others to band together, travel to New Orleans and help as well.” It is hard to haul curbside the sodden contents of another family’s life—its broken dishes and waterlogged photo albums, their snapshots dissolved into tie-dyed artwork—without stretching the boundaries of one’s moral obligation.
One has to note that some of that effort is spurred by empathy, not just by the commandment to love one another. That is not a critique made in anger, but an observation made in sorrow. It is also a recognition of reality, because the other problem with relying on empathy is that all the efforts of all the motivated volunteers in the world, whatever their motivations, is never equal to the effort that can be, should be, expected of governments:

But is volunteering enough? Can the methods of a nineteenth-century barn raising drag a twenty-first-century disaster area from the mud and the muck? Even prior to Katrina, as the cutbacks in social spending sank in, mainstream volunteer organizations were starting to question whether “compassionate conservatism” could do everything being claimed in its name. Or as Sara Mosle has put it: “The problem with volunteering isn’t with volunteering, but with what we’re asking it to do.”[32] It is a realization that has started to dawn on many outside volunteers. You only have to spend a backbreaking week pulling drywall and mucking out houses to appreciate that altruism alone cannot restore electrical grids or fix broken pipes, let alone solve the myriad insurance and financial problems that currently stymie the post-Katrina recovery. You only have to strip one or two houses down to their studs before asking, shouldn’t government be playing more of a hands-on role in the recovery? Those conversations have already started across backyard fences. It is more than likely that an entire generation of young activists will look back on their volunteer service in the Katrina zone as a life-changing experience, as a time that shaped their political values for years to come. Every generation has defining memories. For mine it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. For this generation it may turn out to be 9/11 and Katrina—and maybe more so Katrina, whose aftereffects may become more iconic, at least of the failure of government, than the toppling of the twin towers.
My world was shaped by the same forces: the assassination of Kennedy; Vietnam; Martin Luther King. Yet now our country is run by people whose philosophy of governance was also shaped by Vietnam, and Watergate, and even the assassination of Kennedy (how else to explain Bush's paranoia?) We all take different lessons from the same events; we all have different levels of empathy, different classes of persons we will allow ourselves to empathize with. If empathy born of national experiences is the only hope of change we have, we have little hope of change at all. But then, with history, it's always something:

The problem with writing instant history is that there is always a new instance. I derived this article from a talk that tried to encapsulate a moment in the post-Katrina recovery that I was sure fell somewhere in the middle of the story. It is now clear that the narrative is stuck near the beginning, and that it will require at least another ten years for the saga to reach its conclusion. Even so, little has happened since the Mobile conference in March 2007 to change my mind about Katrina’s political aftereffects. It is safe to say that there was more national news coverage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007 because of the heightened public concern about the state of national infrastructure engendered by the levee failures in New Orleans. Moreover, there is continued movement toward the enactment of a national catastrophe fund, an emerging debate over so-called catastrophe bonds as a market-focused way of spreading post-Katrina risk, and investigations by both Congress and the courts into allegations that insurers shifted their own damage claim liabilities onto the federal flood insurance program. The Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans, continues to attract volunteers, except now they are coming to stay, not for a week, but for a year. Two new developments are worth noting. Since March, the troubled Road Home program has turned some kind of corner, closing on more than sixty-four thousand applications as of mid-October 2007, but now faces a possible $6 billion shortfall. The other development has surprised me: the reemergence of the poverty debate. There may be no better measure of Katrina’s power to unleash ethical energy than the return of that subject to the national agenda.

Katrina, in short, continues to cast a long shadow over national politics. Paul Krugman recognized as much in a New York Times column, “Katrina All the Time.” It is one of the most frequently e-mailed of all of his opinion pieces. He wrote, “Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point. The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.”

I remain guardedly optimistic that Katrina marks a turn toward the former.
Optimism is a survival trait. We have to guard it well. But I'm not confident that "neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others" is a new American way. Because one point these articles are clearly trying to make, is the one Faulkner made: "The past isn't over. It isn't even past." What we do about that is up to us; and not just up to our hearts, either.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sweeney Todd: A Theological Consideration

No, I'm not kidding. Saw the Tim Burton version of what I consider the greatest musical ever written (a play about a serial killer barber and cannibalism set in a Dickensian vision of London, with music by Stephen Sondheim. What's not to love?), and while I consider this Burton's best movie (it's ideally suited to his talents, and yet restricts some of his more idiosyncratic excesses), I was actually thinking about it this morning in terms of that quote at the top of the blog:

"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
Rather a stretch, isn't it, to consider this musical in light of "the central doctrine of Christianity"? Well, perhaps....

...or perhaps not. The structure of "Sweeney Todd" is what I consider the typical American musical, which is to say: it's a love story. (Quick, think of a great American musical which isn't! I'm sure there are some obscure and bad musicals which have almost nothing to do with romance, but anything notable come to mind? Mine, either.) But the entire story (movie/play; there are slight changes between them in the storyline, so I'll focus on the movie, which I just saw and found rather improved for not being quite the Victorian pastiche the play was) is about misplaced love.

Start with Todd, which is where the story starts. He tells Anthony his story in song, about the "barber and his wife/And she was beautiful!/A foolish barber and his wife/She was his reason and his life!/And she was beautiful!/And she was virtuous!/And he was naive." The wife catches the eye of the true villain of the story, Judge Turpin; a man who, the movie makes clear (and the play not quite as clear; a song excised before the Broadway production illustrated just how perverse and deviant Turpin's ideas of "love" are; in the movie, Turpin presents to Anthony his collection of erotic literature from around the world, much to Anthony's, and our, discomfort) has mistaken lust for love (and I mean here, throughout, romantic love).

When Todd meets Mrs. Lovett, we learn with him more about the Judge's idea of love: after Todd was sent to Australia, Turpin lures her to his house where he rapes her during a costume ball. The party-goers, Mrs. Lovett (don't neglect that name!) tells Todd, thought she must be feeble-minded, and so watch the rape with sophisticated, not to say perverse and evil, delight. Before the play is over, everyone is villain, because everyone misunderstands the true nature of love.

Anthony, of course, sees Johanna, and it is for both of them love at first sight. Judge Turpin notices Anthony's attention and warns him away, but Judge Turpin keeps an eye on his ward through a hole in her bedroom wall (we are left to imagine he has observed her at other times than sitting primly in her bedroom windowseat), and announces to his beadle his plans to marry his ward, in order to "protect her."

There is more than a little selfishness in this play, which is perhaps the best opposite of love there is. Todd nurses his grief and injustices until he is a perfect monster of revenge. Even as he sings a love song to his razor blades, Mrs. Lovett sings a love song to him, one Todd is oblivious to, and there we see together two misdirected loves. Todd's only "friend" is his set of razor blades; Mrs. Lovett has apparently loved Todd from afar ever since he was the barber Benjamin Barker. Todd mourns Lucy, especially after Mrs. Lovett tells him about her rape and how she took arsenic afterwards, but as Todd has said to Anthony's question about Lucy at the beginning of the story: "All that was many years ago/I doubt that anyone would know." Many years ago, yet he nurses it still. His love for her has perverted into hate for Turpin which, when it seems he has lost his one chance to get Turpin into his barber's chair for vengeance, turns to hatred of all humankind. Todd's love is for Todd's hatred and lust for revenge.

And then there is the young boy, Toby, the assistant to Signor Pirelli who is himself the first victim of Todd's razor, just as Toby will make Todd the last. By the end of the story the boy sees Mrs. Lovett as his salvation, little thinking that she is as responsible for murder and horror as Todd is. He loves her as a child loves his mother, and while she is hardly a mother figure, she's the closest he's ever known. He tells her that: "Nothin's gonna harm you/Not while I'm around," and "Demons are prowlin' everywhere, nowadays/I'll send 'em howlin', I don't care, I got ways," the simple assurance of a child in a world of horrors he almost, but not quite, takes for granted. His is one of the closest to a clear moral vision the story supplies.

Johanna's is the other, and here the movie is superior to the play. In the play, Anthony goes to Fogg's Asylum to rescue Joanna, under pretence of being a wig maker's apprentice looking for blond hair of a certain shade. When Anthony confronts the asylum keeper with a gun, the director senses Anthony's reluctance to shoot, and Anthony drops the gun in despair. Joanna, however, takes it up, shoots, and they make their escape. She has lived the horrors of the asylum, if only for a few days, and she will do what must be done, what innocent Anthony cannot bring himself to do.

In the film, Anthony is bolder, and leaves the asylum's doctor to the tender mercies of his charges (who descend upon him like the Furies). Back in Todd's shop; well, here's the dialogue from the script:

Don't worry, darling, in those
clothes, no one will recognize you ...
You're safe now.
(She picks up the largest razor, looks at it, an eerie echo of
her father.)
(darkly ironic)
Safe ... So we run away and then all
our dreams come true?
I hope so...
I have never had dreams. Only
Johanna ... When we’re free of this
place all the ghosts will go away.
She looks at him very intensely:
No, Anthony, they never go away.
She's right, of course. Robert L. Short, in his work on theology and the comic strip "Peanuts," used a few cartoon panels to explain original sin. Lucy leaves Snoopy with a balloon, and strict orders to hold it until her return. Snoopy clamps it in his mouth, falls asleep sitting so still, yawns, and releases it. In the last panel, he's walking down the railroad tracks with a stick and bundle over his shoulder, thinking: "You make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life." Yes, and eating sour grapes sets your children's teeth on edge.

All of this misdirected love ends up as it must: Todd murders the beadle and the judge, but also murders his own wife, now a mad street person (interestingly, in the play she's also clearly a prostitute, but none of this is hinted at in the movie), and nearly murders his daughter (whom he doesn't recognize, having never seen her except as an infant). When he realizes the mad woman was his beloved Lucy, he gives Mrs. Lovett a fitting end, tossing her into the giant oven where she cooks her meat pies. Her young protector, hiding out in the cellar bakery and now himself quite mad, having seen the body parts and realized where the meat for the pies is coming from, slits Todd's throat as the barber grieves over the body of his dead wife.

There is no redemption here, no salvation, no Aristotelian recognition of responsiblity, so it isn't even appropriate to call this grim tale a proper tragedy.* In the play, when Toby reappears to slit the throat of a grieving Todd, his hair has turned white, the hoary Victorian chestnut that indicates a frightful shock. In the movie, Toby emerges from the sewer as grim faced as Todd and Lovett, his face powder white, his eyes blackened as a prize-fighters. If the sin is not genetic, it is certainly as contagious as a virus.

It seems, here, that sin is not in the genes; but love is. Augustine posited sin as passing down, father to son, mother to daughter, through the act of procreation, and so we all were "sinner[s] in our mother's womb[s]," in the words of the Psalmist. Sin is not, however, the general state of the world in "Sweeney Todd." Evil comes from the institutions, from the fact that the history of the world, as Todd sings to Lovett, "is those below serving those up above." Love is genetic. Joanna knows love, not perversion; Anthony, despite having sailed the world, has beheld only its wonders, not "the misery of man" Todd responds he has seen. Anthony is an innocent, even more innocent than his beloved. In this he is like Todd. Sin, however, is contagious, and Todd catches it from Turpin, as Toby catches it from Todd. Toby is an innocent, too, despite his appetite for gin. That appetite is foisted on him by, again, the system. He is not born a gin drinker; he's made into one, at far too early an age. But he is born seeking love, and when he finally has a mother figure to give it to, even if that mother figure is the cannibalistic Mrs. Lovett, he does so unreservedly. But he learns, as does every character in this play (except, perhaps, Anthony; but undoubtedly that's another story), that if you don't love, you're dead; and if you do, they'll kill you.

Everyone in this story loves the wrong person, or for the wrong reasons. Todd's love for his wife turns him into a monster; Turpin's lust for sex makes him as monstrous as Todd, and the origin of the evil in the story. Mrs. Lovett loves a man long dead (as Todd declares Benjamin Barker to be), and cannot see past her own fantasies to recognize the monster Toby describes to her when he promises to be her protector. Anthony loves Joanna and the idea of love itself, and while Joanna loves Anthony, she is neither so idealistic, nor so in love with an idea, as he is. Toby's love is closest to Joanna's; having never known a world in which he could dream, he doesn't even have nightmares, just a child's trust and a heart searching for a mother to finally imprint on. When he does love Mrs. Lovett, he doesn't really love her, either, but only what she's done for him, only the relative kindness she has shown him, the first he's ever known. His trust, however, his naivete, keeps him from seeing her for what she is, and like every other character in this story, he loves his idea, rather than the person. This is the fatal error of the story, and leads to the Grand Guignol ending, with Todd kneeling, throat slit and dripping blood, over the similiarly bleeding corpse of his wife.

One thing you will notice in this description, if you know the play, is that "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is missing. That ballad serves as the Greek chorus in the play; introducing the story and explaining the feelings of Todd as the story progresses. At the end, the ballad underlines the "moral" of the story:

Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,
Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.
Sweeney waits in the parlor hall,
Sweeney leans on the office wall.
No one can help, nothing can hide you--
Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?
Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney's weeping for yesterday,
Is Sweeney!
There he is, it's Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!
He served a dark and a hungry god!

(sharply to Mrs. Lovett)
To seek revenge may lead to hell.
(coldly to him)
But everyone does it, if seldom as well--
--As Sweeney...
As Sweeney Todd...
The Demon Barber of Fleet...

The ghosts begin to disappear ... fading into the shadows of
the bakehouse ... leaving Todd and Mrs. Lovett alone...
... Street!
All of that was in the script, too, but excised from the movie. Movies can do things intimately that plays cannot. In the play, when Todd finishes his ballad to his razors, he raises his hand with a gleaming razor in it and declares in a near scream: "At last, my arm is complete again!" Johnny Depp does it quietly, alone in his garrett, and it is even more chillling because we seem to be standing right beside him, not watching him in the middle of an empty stage, in the glare of the spotlight. One way is not right, one way wrong; both work well for the different media. The movie excludes the ballad entirely, and the ghosts of Todd's victims, the people who populate the streets of London. Morality and redemption are not on offer, even though Todd sings of it in the movie, in his angry declaration of his soon-to-begin murderous spree:

You, sir, too, sir--
Welcome to the grave!
I will have vengeance,
I will have salvation!
But he doesn't, of course; because he doesn't love. He did love, once; and for that, he had to die. As almost everyone in the story does. But memory and loss have replaced all feelings for him, and he has become a solely possessive creature, incapable of taking what is offered to him in the here and now, or of giving up any portion of that self he has self-created. In the most beautiful ballad in the play, as he casually slices the neck of one customer after another, Todd thinks about the daughter he has never known:

And are you beautiful and pale,
With yellow hair, like her?
I'd want you beautiful and pale,
The way I've dreamed you were...

And if you're beautiful, what then,
With yellow hair, like wheat?
I think we shall not meet again--
(He quietly slits the
Gentleman's throat)
My little dove, my sweet...

Goodbye, Johanna,
You're gone, and yet you're mine.
I'm fine, Johanna,
I'm fine!

You stay, Johanna...
(He quietly cuts the
customer's throat)
The way I've dreamed you are.
(Todd notices dusk outside
the window)
Oh look, Johanna-,
(Pulls the lever and the
customer disappears)
A star!(Tossing the customer's
hat down the chute)
A shooting star!

And you'd be beautiful and pale,
And look too much like her.
If only angels could prevail,
We'd be the way we were.

Wake up, Johanna!
Another bright red day!
(He slits the customer’s
We learn, Johanna,
To say...

As the note continues, he pulls the lever and the customer
disappears down the chute...
The moral focus of the story is in that song. Todd is doing what he's doing for an idea of a child he's never known, a woman he has, by his own admission, all but forgotten (he can only tell Mrs. Lovett his Lucy had "blond hair.") "If only angels could prevail/We'd be the way we were" he says to Johanna, but it isn't angels he relies on, it's the demons Toby warns Mrs. Lovett about. And there's the theological crux of the story, too: "If only angels could prevail," but since they will not save us, we must provide salvation for ourselves. "I will have vengeance, I will have salvation." Todd will, of course, have one, but not the other, and the reason is not just because he confuses the two. Having chosen that course, he is, of course, right: "We learn, Johanna/To say/Goodbye."

So Todd becomes "Töd," the angel of death; and Mrs. Lovett makes the first expression of love in the play, but she can only "love it," her idea of Todd, not the person himself (whom she clearly cannot see, not until her final scene, and by then it's too late); and "Lucy," the patron saint of light as Lucia, brings finally to light all the evil Todd has done in his perverted memory of her, while Johanna, a feminine form of John, refuses to believe in signs (semeia) even as she lives her life by them (her love for Anthony is purely "love at first sight," but there is the unanswered question of whether she loves Anthony, or simply sees him as the means for her escape from Turpin, a confusion she may yet puzzle out for herself). Just as Todd ultimately gives up his only begotten child, not for the world's salvation but simply, he thinks for his own. The two questions play themselves off throughout the play: the question of ethics (given that the history of the world is those below serving those up above, how should we then live?) and the question of salvation (if society will not save us, mustn't we save ourselves?). The moral question is never even asked. Even Toby fears only that Mrs. Lovett has made a deal with the devil, a deal which will cost her more than she can pay; as, indeed, she has. But he doesn't represent a moral vision in the story, any more than the guileless and naive Anthony does.

It is easy, at this point, to step outside the story and point to a morality which judges Todd and so save ourselves from the story's implications. And it is true the story raises questions its limited universe cannot answer, as any good story does. Does our world, however, provide those answers quite so easily? If we see the story as one working out of the idea that, if you don't love you'll die, and if you do love, they'll kill you, what does it offer us? Sweeney cannot love, once he has been sent away on false charges, and Benjamin Barker dies. Lucy and Johanna and Anthony and Toby and Mrs. Lovett do love, and only two of them survive, one by a lucky accident. It's a story; it's not the world we live in: but isn't it? It's a story, it can easily produce questions it cannot answer; but is our world any different? The central issue of the play is not love, but where love is directed: to whom, and to what purpose, what end? When Johannes de Silentio asked: "Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical," he was asking that question of precisely the universe of "Sweeney Todd:" a universe where the ethical is always teleological, just as Aristotle intended. So de Silentio was positing a paradox: a suspension of the ethical precisely to achieve a goal not contemplated, or even contemplatable, by the ethical. That, of course, would require positing yet another system, one that encompassed the ethical but was greater still, great enough to answer the question the ethical could formulate, but not provide an answer for. What do we love, and why? That is the question of "Sweeney Todd." The question should be, of course: who?

And therein lies the dilemma, and the purpose behind the statement. It isn't what we love, or that we love; it is who we love, that most matters.

*The script and the play include the tragic elements of a chorus and a seeming acceptance of responsibility by Todd, in both the final scene and the opening and closing ballad. The ballad declares that Todd "serves a dark and a hungry god," with the implicit statement that he accepts the responsibility for such service. While Todd accepts responsibility for his crimes in the play, he is defiant to the end, slamming a heavy metal door on the audience on the final note of the ballad, ending the play in clangor. The movie script has Todd unbutton his collar and offer his neck to Toby, perhaps because the boy in the film is more obviously a child than the actor in the original production, and no one wants to see a child slit a man's throat as dispassionately as it is done in the movie. Johnny Depp is more ambiguous in his portrayal than the script calls for; he leans back, his throat exposed, seemingly lost in his grief, apparently oblivious to the presence of Toby. It is an ending more Shakespearean than Sophoclean; more Othello than Oedipus Rex or Creon grieving his errors in Antigone. But even the complicity in Todd's death is unclear, and it seems more likely the sin, the contagion, is simply passed on.

Going political too early in the morning

Or, Why I am not on the Digby Bandwagon.

Digby posts this, which earns approval from Baby Blue (a/k/a Not the Great Orange Satan):

If the Democrats win the presidency, expect many more of these little dramas. The inflated egos of powerful Democratic Senators and Congressmen require that they consistently step forward to knee-cap their president whenever possible lest anyone get the idea that he (or she) is actually in charge.
Okay, now I'm confused: who is in charge? The President, or the Congress? I thought the Imperial Presidency was a bad thing, and that we wanted Congress to be in charge. Or is that only true when "our" guy is in the White House? And since the Congress can't speak with one voice, having 535 of them, who does speak for Congress? And isn't the problem with the GOP the subordination of the individual to the mass, something we like Democrats for not goind (do we really want the DLC in charge? Do we really imagine we could make a "DLC" that would operate the way we want it to, without imposing its will on the party, or doing so only for the "good" of the party?

You know, we really can't have it both ways: we can't condemn the excesses of Bush and then praise the wisdom of Any Democratic POTUS. We can't declare an "11th Commandment" for Democrats without becoming even more like the party we oppose. As it is, it's hard to slip a piece of paper between Hillary and Obama and John McCain, which is probably why he's considered the candidate hardest to defeat (per an NPR report this morning). As it is, John Edwards' question last night is still the only one we should be asking: "How many hungry children is this going to feed?" Which is a rather more even-handed slam at both Bill Clinton's bitching and Ted Kennedy's whining.

But otherwise? This is politics as usual. As Will Rogers famously said: "I am not a member of any organized party. I'm a Democrat." Do we really want to ape the GOP in all things, until it's not even Tweedlee and Tweedledum anymore, just Tweedledee and Tweedledee+? Because we're practically there already, and apparently the only fundamental difference between the parties is who shows greater loyalty to the, I mean, the President.


Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK Day observed: January 21, 2008

If I hadn't posted something about the Rev. Dr. King recently, I'd be ashamed of myself for not doing so now; but such is the day that I have little time to write, even though it's a holiday for me.

Then I saw this article, all the more surprising because it's by the AP. We really do need to remember that the Rev. Dr. King was neither a uniter nor a divider; he was a prophet.

Oddly enough, that, too, ties in with what I've been reading in Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, and Dr. King's many struggle bring into sharp relief the distinction I want to insist on between "morality" and "ethics."

Now if I just had a few more days off....

Sunday, January 20, 2008

O noes, not miracles!

Thanks to olvlzl, we have this for our edification and entertainment, and it is simply too good to leave in comments alone:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
The article (if you haven't read it yet, stop, do so, and come back) is about Carl Sagan's book A Demon Haunted World. As I've mentioned before, I'm not exactly a fan of the late Dr. Sagan's reasoning on this point, although I was (full confession) a huge fan of "Cosmos." I would not characterize Richard Lewontin as "fan" or "not-fan," but he is a very clear headed thinker who recognizes that reason, like all other forms of human thought, has its strengths and its weaknesses, and above all, has its limits. And when reason becomes a substitute for truth, a shortcut, if you will, all it yields is truthiness.

My seminary professors, interestingly enough, were as anxious to dispossess of us our trust (i.e., faith) in miracles as Dr. Sagan would have been. Their goal, however, was not to make us scientists, but to loosen our reliance on that which could not be established. I went 'round and 'round with my professors because I realized precisely what Lewis Beck did: if I confess a belief in the Creator of the Universe, how can I reject any belief in miracles? On the other hand, even the author of the Gospel of John realized there are miracles, and there are miracles. And are we looking at what is miraculous, or are we looking for signs that confirm our preferences, our prejudices, if you will? Reason is a wonderful thing, but do we realize that, even if it is not a formal system, it is still closed? That it can generate questions which it cannot answer?

Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
Funny coincidence; I've been working on a post about John's gospel. It's about providing just that power; the power to discover the truth. Which is not to say that gospel contains, or even reveals, truth. But it raises some very interesting questions about the nature of truth; more interesting than, so far, I've been willing to give it credit for.

Like I said, this is gonna be fun!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blessed are the Peacemakers

New Proposed economic stimulus package: $1600 per household

Cost of Iraq War: $4100 per household.

Cost of the tax rebate: an estimated $145 billion.

Cost of the Iraq war: $500 billion has been allocated by Congress. The expected cost is now estimated to be $1 trillion. To put that in perspective:

The cost of the war in Iraq and other military operations has soared to the point where "we are now spending on these activities more than 10 percent of all the government's annually appropriated funds," said Robert A. Sunshine, the [Congressional] budget office's assistant director for budget analysis.
But, of course, "the institutional investors understand the limits to the government's ability to enact economic change."

Besides, there's only so much money to go around, right? And most of it needs to go to businesses, as in the President's latest proposed "stimulus package," or as in the war in Iraq. Spending money on human beings is just...socialism, or something.

I'm sure that's the reason, anyway.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, the proposed "rebate" from the Administration won't cover people who didn't pay taxes. It's a "tax rebate," not a handout! Which means this money ain't free! It's gotta come from somewhere! Of course, taxes have not been raised to pay for the Iraq war, which means it will be a bill to the nation for decades, according to the CBO. But that's different; somehow.

I'm sure it has to do with avoiding creeping socialism.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Prologue to a discussion of Christ and Culture

I'm not a fan of Steven Pinker anyway, but the opening paragraphs of this recent New York Times Magazine article surprised even me:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish.
The assumption here is that an "objective" assessment is ever and always an unalloyed good. By this measure, of course, Bill Gates and Norman Borlaug are both better persons than Jesus of Nazareth (who, after all, only healed a handful of people, and that's only hearsay, at best; "Go, and sin no more"? Talk about an "air of sanctity"!), or Mahatma Gandhi (sure he liberated a country, but how many people did he feed? Did he leave any charities behind to continue his work?).

Yes, the comparisons are more than a bit absurd, but you get the idea. Morality as measured by material benefit; is that really morality? Is utilitarianism truly the only measure of "good" possible in this world? Of course, the opposite extreme cannot be argued as the only measure, either. Morality that doesn't provide some good to the agent is a pretty dessicated thing. That's one understanding of why Jesus of Nazareth reportedly performed healings and other miracles, as a sign that the "good life" had its own rewards.

Pinker's point is, of course, that objectivity has its own rewards. He concludes:

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.
But only, of course, once we recognize the universal good of science, and the awesome truthiness of objectivity.

Pardon me if I sound skeptical; but I've heard this argument before, and it's about as subtle (and persuasive) as any argument against religion that I've stumbled across, or had shoved in my face, on the Web. I don't, for one moment, deny Pinker's thesis: science can certainly add to our knowledge of something so fundamental to human existence as morality. But used this way science remains a tool of utilitarianism (interestingly enough, the "morality" of those "who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians." Hmmmm.....) and the advance he seeks is defeated by the claims he makes.

What Pinker seems to be doing is trying to place morality on a scientific basis, the better to get us all to agree on what morality is, or what rules should be followed. Ah, would that it were that simple. Morality, for example, is not necessarily limited to "a ... reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish." That's the basis of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and while it's a perfectly valid basis for assessing "good" and "not good" (to avoid the judgmental overtones of "bad") conduct, we would do well to conduct this discussion by first separating "ethics" and "morality." Contrary to popular opinion, they are not mere synonyms for each other, like "far" and "away" or "null" and "void." I find it far more useful to separate ethics (how should I behave in a community to maximize my happiness; a/k/a Aristotle's standard) from morality (how should I behave on a desert island?). It's a distinction Pinker thoroughly fails to recognize, and thereby hang a number of problems with his analysis.

Where am I going with this, besides engaging in pointless Pinker bashing (after all, what does he care what I have to say)? I'm building an approach to the topic of ethics, and morality, because I'm re-reading Richard Niebuhr's classic work of Christian ethics Christ and Culture. I also have a new book, a 'conversation" between Vattimo and Rorty, which promises to provide some interesting insights into questions of religion (including the fact that post-modernism is neither), and I need a starting point for that discussion. Niebuhr, for example, makes much of the conundrum of Christ as presented in the gospels, and the conundrum is, quite apparently, an ethical (not to say moral) one:*

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

The ancient criticism of Christians bears consideration in light of Pinker's critique of Mother Teresa. Is there a universal standard or morality, or not? If there is, what is it? Everything old, you see, is new again.

Dig a little deeper into Pinker's argument, you find all kinds of assumptions running wild in it. F'rinstance, he makes much of studies which show that people on the Web all think alike, despite their culture. Culture, however, isn't all that distinctly ethnic, and as could be argued from the recent phenomenon of Ron Paul raising a record amount via the Internet, while failing to make more than a marginal showing in any Republican primary (or even to surprise one pollster with his electoral successes of failures), samplings from the Internet may seem very broad, but are actually very thin. The aggregation of the like-minded from the world population that has Internet access is hardly statistically significant of anything, except the ability to aggregate the like-minded with the aid of communications technology. Branching away from that, Pinker cites brain studies involving different ethnicities again (which, for Pinker, stand for different cultures). But how fundamentally different are modern cultures which have access to, and understanding of, modern medical technology of the type which can scan and survey and record brain activity? These studies, in other words, aren't exactly of people in "fringe" regions far from the influence of Western culture (which pretty much dominates the globe, at least in terms of countries which could employ such technologies, and the people who would submit to them for purposes of biological studies). Do these studies prove biology underlies all human behavior? Well, only if they first remove the possibility that culture does so, and that Western values haven't become largely universalized at least broadly enough to account for the similarities of judgment Pinker relies on.

I do not mean to say that such similarities cannot exist. One of my seminary professors introduced me to the study of the works of Emmanuel Levinas by telling a story I haven't otherwise corroborated, wherein Levinas saw a man save a child from an oncoming car on a busy street. The child and the man were strangers to each other, so Levinas began to wonder what forces were at work in this interaction, and being a philosopher rather than a biologist (or a linguist!), he began to develop a philosophy of relationship based on the concept of the Same and Other. Which is only to say there are several possible explanations for such altruistic behavior, and if science is going to lay claim to presenting the "true" one, it's going to have to do better than Pinker's presentations.

What Pinker is not discerning here, in any way, is the nature and influence of culture on any ethical or moral judgment. Which is not entirely surprising; Niebuhr takes several pages to carefully describe in the most general terms what "culture" is for the purposes of his discussion, after first averring he is describing it in "...tenuous fashion." Still, he comes up with seven basic elements, which he elaborates better than I can do here (we'll get back to this, I hope):

1) Culture is social, "it is inextricably bound up with man's [sic] life in society...Individuals may use culture in their own ways; they may change elements in their culture, yet what they use and change is social. Culture is the social heritage they receive and transmit. Whatever is purely private, so that it neither derives from nor enters into social life, is not a part of culture. Conversely, social life is always cultural."

2) "Culture, secondly, is human achievement....[W]e are dealing with what man [sic] has purposefully wrought and with what man can or ought to do. The world so far as it is man-made and man-intended is the world of culture."

3) "...the world of culture is a world of values....What men have made and what they make, we must assume, is intended for a purpose it is designed to serve a good. It can never be described without reference to ends in minds of designers and users....To be sure, the ends that human achievement serves may change; what was intended for utility may be preserved for the sake of aesthetic satisfaction or of social harmony; yet the value-relation is inescapable wherever we encounter culture."

4) "...the values with which these human achievements are concerned are dominantly those of the good for man....In defining the ends that his activities are to realize in culture, man begins with himself as the chief value and the source of all other values. What is good is what is good for him."

5) ...culture in all its forms and varieties is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values." Niebuhr links this, not to mere material gain, but to efforts "to embody in concrete, tangible, visible, and audible forms" the ideals of the culture, or "what has been imaginatively discerned." It seems to me here we have a definite linkage between rational ends, which flow from desires, and emotional needs, which determine (after all) what we consider "rational."

6) "Because all these actualizations of purpose are accomplished in transient and perishing stuff, cultural activity is almost as much concerned with the conservation of values as with their realization....Culture is social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason." When Pinker identifies thoughts which are repugnant even questionnaires, has he identified a principle of biology, or of sociology? "Never think my thoughts, never share my hearth, whoever does such things."

7) "Finally, attention must be directed to the pluralism that is characteristic of all culture. The values a culture seeks to realize in any time or place are many in number....Culture is concerned with that is good for male and female, child and adult, rulers and ruled; with what is good for men in special vocations and groups, according to the customary notions of such good." One quick example is from the tale of Gilgamesh. When Enkidu is created by the gods to be a companion to Gilgamesh, he is all animal. A temple prostitute goes to him, and they copulate for several days, until he is civilized. The value, of course, is for culture to have stable persons in it, persons who fit in the community. The people have asked for Enkidu because Gilgamesh, their ruler, is himself so uncivilized and wild in his appetites. The method by which Enkidu is civilized would hardly satisfy a post-Victorian Western society, or even occur to the post-"Free Love" American culture; but the value of such "civilizing" is apparent to all. Is that value, however, biological? Or is it merely a concomitant of human communities, one without which communities cannot function, or sometimes even survive?

From these brief description alone you can already question Pinker's reliance on the studies he cites. Is what he sees in those results the consequence of culture, or of biology? Which of these tenets of culture, in fact, can be said to be wholly biological, even if they could be said to be shared by human societies as different as those of Gilgamesh and Beowulf and Shakespeare's Othello? Are these similarities not as likely to come from the human need for community, and for the social orders that arise therefrom? The society of Gilgamesh barely resembles that of Beowulf, or that of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath is particularly unimaginable in either of the other two contexts), yet the ways of ordering that we call "culture" are fundamentally the same in each. It takes a bit more than a political boundary or an ethnic designation to answer that question, and Pinker frankly fails to address it.

In the end, Pinker is not wrong, but his assumptions are as specious as those of the advocates of the Social Gospel which Niebuhr's brother Reinhold (ironically, Christ and Culture is dedicated "To Reinie.")dissected in Moral Man and Immoral Society. Like the advocates of the Social Gospel, Pinker wants to find a system of thought which will eradicate all disagreement:

The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately.
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
Once we all become objective enough to see the truth as Pinker does, once we, in other words, all think like Pinker, then we can usher in the new millenium; or at least all learn to get along. Unfortunately, as "Reinie" pointed out, it will never be that simple:

While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves. Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists.

All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. Where the factor of mutual consent is strongly developed, and where standardised and approximately fair methods of adjudicating and resolving conflicting interests within an organised group have been established, the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent. Divergence of interest, based upon geographic and functional differences within a society, is bound to create different social philosophies and political attitudes which goodwill and intelligence may partly, but never completely, harmonise. Ultimately, unity within an organised social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of a dominant group to impose its will.


The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. "Power," said Henry Adams, "is poison"; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The individual or the group which organises any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
And that's without even bringing in the prospect of "Original Sin."

*I won't attribute my distinction between "ethics" and "morals" to Niebuhr. The terms are usually used interchangeably, even in discussions of ethics and morality; but part of my presentation is, that they shouldn't be.