(occasional entries, sometimes revised after first writing on the date given, more often not)
22 April 2019 — Politics & Identity
Politics is the art and science of living together. That’s a difficult thing for human beings to do, whether at small or large scale. Doing it at all requires some sense of who the ‘we’ is that’s doing the living together. For the nation-state (mine is the US), the basic category for talking about that ‘we’ is citizenship. One of the problems about political discourse in the US at the moment is that appeals to citizenship have receded into the rhetorical background. Supplanting it are appeals to various imaginary sub-identities: male, female, gay, straight, cis, trans, black, white, latinx, &c. Candidates for elective office, and those charged with formulating party-political positions on this or that, are by now too often identified principally by the sub-identities from which they come and to which they speak. This is a mistake. In its more extreme forms, most of which are now frequent in the US, it’s a racist, exclusionary, and violent mistake. The Democratic Party is by now hospitable to and in some part actively supportive of traditional and rhetorically violent forms of anti-semitism; the Republican Party is by now hospitable to and in some part actively supportive of recent and rhetorically violent forms of white supremacism.
What we Americans need, as Americans, is to think together about what our life together should be like, and for that we need to think first about what we all — we citizens, that is, which is to say we Americans — need. What are the needs that all Americans have, and how might the machinery of the state help provide them and address obstacles to them? There are some obvious-enough answers to this question.
We all need: security from violence; enough to eat; care when we’re sick; decent housing; work suitable to our capacities; voice and vote in our government. Or, more briefly: we all need, as citizens, to feel, and to be, safe & useful. (We need more than that, but the more isn’t in the purview or gift of the state; we need, for instance, to be loved — but looking to the state’s machinery for that would be a category mistake.)
An ideal candidate for office, the person who should be the next President of the US, would focus remorselessly on these needs, and on the real, measurable, inequalities preventing them. Such a candidate would neither exhibit nor encourage imaginative effort aimed at the particular needs of imaginary sub-identities. (S)he would, rather, return the discussion always to what’s measurable: being poor, being subject to violence, being sick and uncared for, being homeless or in substandard housing, being unemployed or underemployed, being without voice or vote. If you’re a citizen-in-need in these ways, it’s the state’s first task to help you. So the ideal candidate would say. Where is (s)he?
Many Americans are poor, in both income and wealth; they therefore lack some among the necessary goods: safety, food, housing, medical care, good work, voice and vote. Rich Americans typically have those things. And poverty, unlike racial or gendered identities, is real & measurable. It doesn’t need to be imagined. We already know, broadly, what and where it is. The principal task of the state’s machinery is to address the divide between rich and poor with the sole purpose of making more widely available than they now are the goods fundamental and proper to citizenship.
And the principal task of a candidate for presidential office now, in these divided and difficult political times, is to direct the nation’s imagination toward these fundamental and common goods, and away from imaginary identities. There aren’t, for the purposes of politics, any black people or white people or latinx people or gay people or straight people or trans people or cis people or male people or female people. There are, rather, citizens. You are, of course, free to imagine yourself into any identity you wish; but in so far as it’s an identity other than that or citizen, you should do it on your own time. For Americans, as Americans, there’s another job to do. It’s to move America toward being a place in which all Americans are safe and useful — and in which they may therefore also find themselves able to love and be loved.
18 April 2019 — Michel Houellebecq’s Baptism
Michel Houellebecq appears as a character in La carte et le territoire, by Michel Houellebecq. MH-the-character is murdered and dismembered so that his bodily remains fit into a child-sized coffin. Who wouldn’t delight in killing off a fictional self-representation so thoroughly? The dead-&-dismembered MH, famous author of Les particules élémentaires as he’s described in La carte, was secretly baptized. Christianity is consistently depicted in Les particules, La carte, and Soumission as real, strange, and unavailable to the French. All that is true, and that it is, and that it’s shown with such directness, makes it attractive to suppose that more than one of the available Houellebecqs has been baptized in that way. The text of Les particules, attributed to MH in La carte (&, not coincidentally, by various publishers) is, after all, capable of having a central character quote Pascal contra Descartes on the futility of “composing the machine” — which is to say of geometrizing spacetime: Doing that, “est ridicule, car cela est inutile et incertain et pénible. Et quand cela serait vrai, nous n’estimons pas que toute la philosophie vaille une heure du paine.” Well, yes. And whether or not MH-the-author-of-les–particules endorses Pascal’s criticism, the truth of what Pascal writes is at least seen & shown. Someone who can do that is ready for baptism — at least the secret & fictional kind, and maybe also the water & spirit kind.
15 April 2019 — transparency & sexual abuse
Paul Elie’s long, lucid, & sometimes moving essay, What Do the Church’s Victims Deserve? has just appeared in The New Yorker. It’s well reported, & is especially illuminating on the Diocese of New York’s use of an external agency to adjudicate abuse claims, & to make settlements without gag rules. A few months ago, Peter Steinfels’s evisceration of the 2018 Pennsylvania grand-jury report on priestly sexual abuse appeared in Commonweal. It, too, is well reported and illuminating, especially on the lengths to which attorneys general sometimes go, and have gone in this case, to mislead and obfuscate.
Both these pieces are in significant part about obfuscation, which is transparency’s opposite. Elie is interested in the ecclesial version of this; Steinfels in the executive-judicial. Both would like more transparency. They’d like the bishops & the courts & the prosecutors to speak the truth & to speak it plainly. Yes. And again yes. But what might that look like? What, in particular, might the church do to foster transparency about priestly sexual abuse?
Ideally, transparency would be based upon, shaped by, & responsive to the following almost self-evident truths: first, some accusations of sexual abuse are false, because the accuser is lying or otherwise confused; second, some denials of sexual abuse by those accused of it are false, because the accused is lying or otherwise confused; third, when accuser & accused differ about who did what to whom, evidence additional to an accusation is needed for third parties, corporate or individual, to come to any reasonable conclusion about those matters; in the absence of such evidence, the ordinary assumption should be that the accusation is unwarranted.
With those axioms in mind, the question again: What might transparency on the part of the US Catholic Church with respect to accusations of sexual violence against priests look like?
Perhaps, ideally, like this: The establishment of a public database, available to anyone who wants to look, of every priest, secular & religious (including bishops: they’re priests too), who’s served as such anywhere in the US since 1970. Under each priest’s name & brief biography, there’d be the following information: First, the number of accusations of sexual abuse lodged against the man, together with particulars of time, place, the nature of the acts alleged (for which anglo-saxon brevity & specificity are better than obfuscatory latinate technicality), & the identity of the accuser. Second, the accused’s response to any accusation, whether acknowledgment or denial. Third, whether there’s any corroborative evidence of the allegations, and if there is, a brief statement of the kind of evidence it is. Fourth, the occurrence & upshot of any investigative or judicial proceedings, ecclesial or civil, which should include the amount & conditions of any financial settlement. Fifth, the current status and/or assignment of the priest.
There’d be problems in collecting the data & keeping it current; there’d also be legal & practical problems, especially about identification of accusers & of the particulars of settlements. Full transparency is always an aspiration rather than a reality, but it’s a worthwhile one, & in this case the aspiration should be to identify everyone (accusers & accuseds) and everything (offenses, times, places, settlements, judgments). There’s been enough obfuscation on every side. Where data isn’t available, or is blocked by legalities, that state of affairs should be noted in the database – & the church should do everything in its power to make good the lacks.
There’s be pain on this model: priests who’ve done nothing wrong but have been accused would suffer by seeing the fact of their accusation made public; accusers who want privacy would suffer by having their identities disclosed. But these are the costs of transparency. The church, & civil society, should be prepared to pay them, or at the very least to aspire toward paying them. Those costs are unlikely to be steeper than the ones everyone is paying now. And the Catholic Church in the US might take the establishment of maintenance of such a database as an element in its public penance, the need for which is evident to and painful for many Catholics – including this one.
19 December 2017 –– the jews: eight days ago (11 December 2017) the Institute of Religion & Public Life sponsored a meeting in New York City to discuss the state of play in Christian theological thinking about the Jews, & more specifically the question of what Catholic Christians might say about Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism, and what Messianic Jews might say about Catholic Christians & Catholic Christianity. There was participation by Catholics, and by Jews, including Messianic Jews. If we say, too briefly and simplistically, that Messianic Jews are Jews who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Messiah & the New Testament as authoritative; who are baptized; and who continue, more or less, halakhic practice, then the questions are immediate & important. They include: is Messianic Judaism a kind of Christianity, a kind of Judaism, or a kind of both? Is it coherent to think that there are forms of life that are both? It’s beyond reasonable dispute that there are Christians-who-are-Jews and Jews-who-are-Christians; but the form of life question is distinct. A preliminary judgment, tentative in the extreme, about that latter question is that since the parting of the ways, which can be dated to AD 70 for convenience, there is no form of life both Jewish and Christian. Baptism in the triune name, for Jews, on this view, is a kind of apostasy; as is conversion to Judaism by baptized gentiles, including the adoption of halakhic practice. From a Catholic-Christian point of view, this is a lamentable state of affairs, but also one that may be understood as infused with elements of grace. Not least among these, for Christians (who lack standing to say anything at all about what’s good for Jews), is that there’d then be a form of life intimate with the LORD, covenanted to the LORD, embraced and transfigured by the LORD, other than that of the baptized. The opportunities, on such a view, for receiving instruction in what it means to be conformed to & baptized into Jesus by those who aren’t so conformed & baptized, but are nonetheless lovers of and beloved by the LORD, are many & fascinating. It’s a view that Catholic Christians (at least) should (at least) entertain.
6 December 2017 –– political régimes & human flourishing, part one: A political régime is a means of organizing the life of a sovereign state. All such régimes include legislative, judicial, & executive procedures & institutions because it’s not possible to organize the life of a modern sovereign state without these. Political régimes are alike in this highly formal sense, but they differ in their professed & implicit understandings of what human creatures are & are for; of what political life is & is for; of what states & nations are & are for; of what the distinction between ‘state’ & ‘nation’ comes to; & of much else. They differ, too, in the degree to which they separate, institutionally & procedurally, legislative, judicial, and executive action, & in the ways in which they distribute & transmit power. Political régimes can be assessed in terms of these differences, & there’s much literature devoted to that enterprise. Argument, for example, about the advantages of democracy over constitutional monarchy, or of military dictatorship over hereditary oligarchy, or of régimes that meld judicial & legislative institutions over those that separate them, tends to identify, but then founder on, differences about basic matters such as the nature & purpose of human creatures & of their common life. Those differences, when they arise, are difficult or impossible to adjudicate, if by that is meant provide arguments about them with whose conclusions most participants to the debate are likely to agree. ¶If we’re interested in assessing the relative merits of political régimes, perhaps as part of an effort better to form our own political agency as citizens of whichever state or states provide us that doubtful blessing, there may be a better way than theoretical argument. Perhaps it’s possible to establish a set of indices of human flourishing that could command broad agreement – broader, anyway, than what can be had about disputed questions in anthropology or political theory. If this is possible, & if reasonably good data can be had about the extent to which citizens of particular states flourish, then we’d have to hand a means of assessing the degree to which citizens or inhabitants of particular states flourish & fail to. And if it should turn out that citizens of some types of political régime (democracies, say; or dictatorships) do significantly better – flourish more – than those of other types (dictatorships, say; or democracies) by this or that measure, then this would be instructive for the enterprise of assessment. It would also be instructive if this turned out not to be the case – if, say, citizens flourish or fail to in patterns that show no correlation with the types of political régime under which they live. ¶Even if there are no clear correlations between types of régime & kinds of flourishing, it would still be interesting to know, with as much accuracy as can be mustered, whose citizens flourish or fail to in particular ways. It needn’t be the fault of a régime that its citizens fail to flourish in some way – other causes are likely to be in play, & correlation doesn’t establish causation; but it ought at least to be relevant to the task of political assessment to consider what the data show as to the flourishing of citizens. If, for instance, it should turn out to be the case that North Korea’s citizens have unusually high rates of malnutrition (& if it’s allowed that being well nourished contributes to flourishing), then this is relevant to the assessment of North Korea as a polity; likewise, mutatis mutandis, if it should turn out that citizens of the USA have unusually high rates of suicide. ¶What might the appropriate indices of human flourishing be? They’d need to be broadly agreeable – that is, at least not such as to stimulate widespread disagreement about whether they have to do with human flourishing; and they’d need to be easily measurable, at least in theory. Some good work has been done along these lines by Amartya Sen & Martha Nussbaum, inter alia; but there is still need for good & easily accessible statistical information about the degree to which citizens of particular states flourish or fail to. <more on this to come>
5 December 2017 –– three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a film written & directed by Martin McDonagh, & starring Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, & John Hawkes. It has strong performances, too, from Peter Dinklage & Clarke Peters. A teenaged girl is raped & murdered, her body burned. Seven months later, the police investigation has yielded nothing. The girl’s mother (McDormand) rents three billboards outside town, &, in harsh red-and-black, calls out what she takes to be the police chief’s (Harrelson’s) incompetence. There’s a lovelorn dwarf (Dinklage), a violently racist cop (Hawkes), and several other sharply-drawn characters. The story’s unfolding includes a defenestration, a suicide, several beatings, an assault on a dentist with his own drill, the fire-bombing of a police station, much misunderstanding & violent language, & an almost-total lack of resolution. The rape-murder isn’t solved; the dead girl’s mother, she of the billboards, is last seen on a road trip with the racist cop, contemplating murder but maybe also imagining repentance; no loose end is tied. The film is violent, exaggerated in fabulist mode, & shot through, too, with love & longing & desire & repentance & grace. It shows the world’s devastation as it is, & avoids both sentimentality & cynicism, which is a rare thing. It is, although it’s unlikely that its writer-director or its actors had this in mind, a deeply Christian film. Jesus is everywhere in it, as is the possibility of redemption. McDormand & Harrelson are both superb: real people in a real fable. Dinklage, though he hasn’t much screen time, has some of the best lines & the single emotionally strongest scene, when he aborts his attempt to date the McDormand character by puncturing her contempt for him with deep-cutting words. He’s not much of a catch, he admits; but neither is she, &, after all, who is? Catholics might watch the film with I Timothy 1:15 in mind; they should certainly watch it.
24 November 2017 –– carbon indulgences: a principal cause of global warming is increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we – we humans, that is – don’t want global warming, or if we want less of it, then we should reduce that concentration, or at least slow its rate of increase. This can be done in two ways: by reducing carbon emissions; and (or) by removing carbon dioxide already present. There are feasible ways of doing both, although by most accounts we’re not doing enough of either to make much difference in the rate of global warming. One thing we – we wealthy American humans in this case – are doing, however, is indulging ourselves by using money and power to effect carbon neutrality without altering our behavior. Some wealthy institutions (universities, corporations, municipalities) have, and tout, an ambition to be carbon-neutral by some date not far from now – 2025, say, or thereabouts. What this usually entails is paying for an offset. That is, we continue to do just what we’ve always done (travel by air, drive automobiles, heat & cool our homes, power our laboratories, air-condition our offices, &c), but outsource the problem by paying others, somewhere else, usually, to do something that’ll reduce carbon concentration. Perhaps we pay to have some trees planted; or to have a carbon-scrubber installed; or to subsidize sucking carbon from the air by way of chemical filters. Good-enough things, all; but indulgences nonetheless, in the strict-&-negative theological sense (the Reformation was in part about this). These solutions outsource virtue; they permit us viciously to continue to do what we want to do, while paying someone else to remove the effects of our vices from us. A better thing for our carbon-neutrality-seeking institutions would be to seek it & boast of it only when the activities that belong to them effect it. Otherwise, acknowledge the use of indulgences, & read Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ for description of a better way
20 November 2017 –– bodycounting: In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine there’s a long, well-researched & well-reported piece (published online a few days earlier) about noncombatant deaths produced by coalition airstrikes against IS in Iraq from 2014 until now. Among the findings of the piece are that about one in five of the coalition’s 14,000 or so airstrikes in Iraq during this period yielded noncombatant deaths. If that’s right, the noncombatant bodycount is in the thousands. If the number of IS’s combatant deaths is added to this, between 10,000 and 25,000 deaths have been caused by coalition airstrikes in Iraq since 2014. That total is many times higher than the total of those killed by IS in Iraq, or worldwide, during the same period. The bodycount doesn’t speak to the legitimacy or otherwise of the coalition’s or IS’s causes. But it does speak to the legitimacy of the coalition’s, and especially the USA’s, more-or-less official expressions of outrage at IS’s atrocities. Those expressions might carry some conviction if they were accompanied by lament for our (I am a citizen of the USA) own atrocities. Such laments are almost impossible to find, and that creates a distressing equivalence between the coalition and IS. We, like them, show little but contempt for those we slaughter, &, also like them, little but celebration of the fact of that we’ve slaughtered them. And, we slaughter many more than they do. Which bears repeating: the coalition, with the military forces of the USA as its principal weapon, slaughters many more people than IS at its bloodiest. The people’s elected representatives in the USA, of all parties, do not acknowledge these facts, & when they perforce approach them, it’s usually with unholy glee. The fourth estate, too, in the USA, by & large doesn’t acknowledge the facts: it pays endless attention to the slaughter of Americans, but little to the slaughters that Americans perform. That is a moral & vocational failure, a sign of corruption on the part of that estate; The New York Times deserves, in the case of this piece, congratulation for being an exception. We the American people should want to know the bodycount produced by those we depute to kill on our behalf. Not to want to know it, to celebrate our ignorance & to refuse lament when we’re faced, unwillingly, with what we’ve done & are doing – these are fundamental failings of our belovèd country.
13 November 2017 –– veiling eros: It’s no news that those in positions of power often use their power to sexually manipulate, abuse, & insult those over whom they have power, which is lamentable. The recent accusations of such behavior leveled against men in politics & the arts have, therefore, prima facie plausibility. And some accusations have been confirmed by those against whom they’ve been made, in which case they’re more than plausible. But. And again but. There’s manipulation, abuse, & insult, and then there’s ordinary eros. Performance professions (politics belongs here) are by nature deeply & dramatically erotic. Performers require an audience, & that relation is always in part erotic. Teachers know this; politicians know it; actors know it; everyone, really, knows it. Seduction & excitement belong to audience & performer, both; they’re ingredient, too, in unequal power relations, & bidirectionally so. Commentary upon the recent spate of accusations, together with the abject, ritualized apologies of the accused-who-confess, is often explicit in its commitment to the de-eroticization of our professionalized spaces for performance – to their gating and fencing against the impurity of desire and its enactment. That won’t work. Seeking it contributes, causally, to the proliferation of abuse, manipulation, & insult in much the same way that the liberal state’s sequestration of religion to the private sphere intensifies & warps religious behavior & expression. When the veil is the only thing left, what happens under it is likely to be worse than what would happen were it lifted.
11 November 2017 –– here’s a recent publication of mine on judicial execution, aka ‘the death penalty’.
11 November 2017 –– it’s now abundantly clear that many false &/or misleading posts aimed at influencing the outcome of the US presidential election appeared during 2016 on Facebook, Twitter, and other (social) media platforms. It may also be that they did indeed influence the outcome of the election, at least in the mild sense that some American voters may have been persuaded by them to vote otherwise. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen: everyone would be moved to vote only by goodness, truth, & beauty. But this is not an ideal world. No election has ever been free of widely-promulgated public untruths intended to influence voting. No candidate for office in an election has ever been elected without lying. These are features of democracy. Over-excitement about them is misplaced, therefore. It’s especially misplaced when it results in attempts to control public speech by legislation or regulation. American voters, like all other voters, are by and large ill-informed & driven by passion rather than intellect when they decide whom to vote for. (I am no different.) The appropriately democratic, and deeply American, answer to political lies & distortions isn’t to use the soft violence of the law to stifle them. It’s to counter them with (what you take to be) nuanced & accurate truths. If those truths don’t find purchase, then so be it. It’s a fallen world. If you want to be an informed and thoughtful voter (you’ll be in a tiny minority if you succeed in being that), you should do the following: (1) abjure Facebook, Twitter, and their like, systematically & completely; (2) read news, commentary, & analysis, at most once a week (once every two weeks would be better), preferably in hardcopy (you’ll read more closely, more slowly, & better); (3) make sure that the sources you use include at least one whose editorial stance you find repellent; (4) make sure that the sources you use include at least one written largely or entirely outside the US. If you do these things, you’ll find your relation to what goes on in this, my beloved country & perhaps yours too, altogether more interesting. That’s the best you can hope for, the best any of us can hope for. And, incidentally, so far as it in you lies, resist legislative & regulatory constraints upon speech. That is a true American political distinctive.
30 October 2017 –– emily st. john mandel has published four novels to date. Their world is surfaces & colors & scents & tastes & movements shown as if through a screen, as though Tarkovsky had filmed them. Her protagonists seek, through travel or art, to redeem the world & themselves by moving detachedly through it; they fail (how could they not?), but their failure shows the world’s beauty, & their own. The world of these books is that of the damaged observer, floating beautifully but never quite freely. To read e-st-j-m is to have daily distractions made less pressing. Snow on the water, wind in the trees, deserted ship-hulks illuminated in the unreachable distance, Burmese pythons in the Everglades – these seem, for a while, as though they might suffice if one could only look at them closely enough. One can’t; even her protagonists don’t; but they – and her readers – glimpse what it would be like to do so. Reading her makes it seem possible that the world as we find it, all that is the case, is enough. ¶e-st-j-m also has her particular obsessions: hats (fedoras), reporters, detectives, boats, light, snow, stillness, detachment, hotels. Antecedents and resonances in the echo-chamber include: Howard Norman (especially); Nabokov (Lolita’s road-trip prefigures, often closely, Lilia’s in Last Night); contemplative cyberpunk (Z. Mason rather than W. Gibson, with occasional hints of C. Miéville), and, above all else, Raymond Chandler. e-st-j-m is a loving poet of the world’s surfaces; reading her can make you want to live on the road, learning to look at them – & to welcome an armageddon that might remove the distractions that make such looking impossible.
28 October 2017 –– proof in brooklyn: Until January 2018, there’s a show called ‘proof’ at the Brooklyn Museum. It was earlier (2016-2017) shown at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, and will later go to the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. It juxtaposes work by Goya, Eisenstein, & Longo. All the images are black-&-white, and each of them ravishes with its depiction of violence or its threat/implication of violence. The images span more than two centuries, & their juxtaposition lifts them out of time & into the eternal present of the dismemberment, crushing, screaming, & massing of fleshly bodies, as well as that of the traces & remnants & fragments of inanimate bodies broken. Only one-half, perhaps, of the images is explicit in its depiction of violence. The rest suggest & expect & wait: crowds surge together at Mecca; stormclouds gather as Obama departs the presidency; matadors enter the arena. Or, the images show the aftermath: corpses produced by revolutionary violence lie still, dead, bleeding; Lenin orates; deposed monuments lie grounded; striated icebergs break free; & the perambulator jounces endlessly down the steps, violently displaced. The black-white-steelgrey of the images strengthens them by avoiding cheap visceral thrills; there’s no bloodscarlet, no greenyellow flash of the musket’s discharge. Black-&-white asks for attention; giving what’s asked for scars the giver. As it should. Attention to violence is its only remedy. And attention to violence shows that its performance, yes, even that, has beauty. No better evidence of the fall.
24 October 2017 –– custom: Pascal has a good deal to say about coutume, habitude, automate, and machine. We are, he says, barely human without custom-given habits; with them – and we can’t avoid them – we become particular persons with particular lives: tant est grande la force de la coutume qui, de ceux que la nature n’a fait qu’hommes, en faites toutes les conditions des hommes. The right custom-driven & grace-given habits make Christians; that is because those right habits overwrite (or: transfigure; or: baptize; or: re-order) the persons who come to have them so that they are displaced from themselves by being made ecstatic. These right habits are fundamentally & constitutively liturgical. They are our seconde nature qui détruit la première. But, what is nature? Pourquoi la coutume n’est-elle pas naturelle? No reason at all: we do just as well to call what we’re pleased to understand as our nature ‘first custom’ as we do to call our customs ‘second nature’. So calling can help us to see that nous sommes automate autant qu’esprit –– or more. This is good. Saying it serves to constrain too-crude Aristotelean Thomisms, according to which esprit is the thing that counts about us. It isn’t. Thought is much over-rated. Learning how to do the right thing without having to think about it (in this courtesy is like liturgy) is much to be preferred.
19 October 2017 –– angst & its objects: Those I love and those I like, almost all those I’m closest to, are worried. They think that things are very bad; that nuclear war is close; that climate change is a disaster now no longer impending but here; that all things Trumpian, but especially the man himself, are dangerous & repellent & contemptible; that democracy is on the edge of the end, hopelessly compromised by gerrymandering & money & Russians & homegrown fascism; and – especially – that those who think things are just as bad as usual but not more so are dangerously deluded. Something, they think, Needs To Be Done because we live in a wasteland from which there’s no direction home. This is puzzling. Yes, things are very bad; yes, killing & torture & rapine & climate-destruction & rumors of war & corruption & insults & all the other horrors you can think of are here, right in front of us, grinning at us, licking their chops in anticipation of new victims. All those things couch at the door, under the bed, and, especially inside our own hearts & minds, where they remain largely invisible to us. But it’s always like that. It’s never been otherwise & can’t be otherwise. Until the end of things it won’t be different. Local improvements are sometimes made (the bodycount goes temporarily down, sometimes, for a short while, here or there) but they never come to much (the bodycount rises again). It’s never the best of times & never the worst of times; it’s always a very bad time, & a good politics, predicated neither on nostalgia nor hope, oughtn’t be surprised by the particularities or the extent of local horrors. However bad they are, they’re just what’s expected. The central political task is to lament them, resist them when they stare you in the face or rise from inside you (where they’re likely more firmly lodged than anywhere else), & to know that your lamentation & resistance, while required, won’t alter the fabric of things. No one’s ever have, and yours won’t. “Keep your mind in hell & despair not” (thanks to Staretz Silouan & Gillian Rose): that’s the political task. Today’s liberal-American angst doesn’t like being in hell, and, worse, is under the delusion that it was once somewhere else & might be again.
17 October 2017 –– universities: What are they & what are they for? There’s no substantive agreement about that among those who inhabit them. Forty-two years of experience in them in several countries suggests the following: a university is a place of thought; more exactly, it’s a holding-pen for those who wish to devote their lives to thinking. It pays such people, & gives them facilities & supports for their work. ¶Those who think don’t merely do that: they also communicate the results & the processes of their thinking to others, orally, in writing, or visually; & they enter into various forms of exchange about whatever their topic is. These communicative acts vary in form according to the topic being thought about; & the norms & procedures & measures of success in both thought & communication vary similarly. Those thinking about mathematical topics & those thinking about biological or literary or historical ones communicate differently, & often with little mutual comprehension. But for all, the feedback loop between thought & expression is there, & it is the characteristic virtue of universities to provide support & nourishment for those whose vocation & profession it is to think hard & repeatedly over the course of a life about some topic or topics. ¶This way of describing the work of universities – simple, formal, unimpeachable – has the virtue of obviating any deep or principled distinction between teaching & research. Each of those is a thought/expression activity, differently modulated & directed but not different in kind. It also has the virtue of establishing a center & a periphery: the center is thought/expression & its nurture; the periphery is everything else – the parking lots, the sports teams, the attempts at moral uplift, the efforts to make the world a better place, &c &c. Those, & many more, may be goods with their own virtues, but they are ancillary – ancillae, I’d like even to say – to the university’s character. When these ancillae aspire to centrality, & are permitted, unopposed, to do so, the university is diverted from its characteristic purpose & becomes lukewarm. Administrators, & others with power to shape what goes on in universities, might, when faced with decisions about what to support & what not to, ask: Is this proper to thought & expression, or does it directly nurture those activities? If yes, then encourage & support it; if no, then consign it to the flames.
17 October 2017 –– pope francis & judicial execution: On 11 October, in a speech to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization in Rome celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis made comments that show decisively that Catholic doctrine about judicial execution is developing. In that speech, he said, inter alia, that “it is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attempt against the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Francis has earlier written similar things, for example in a 2015 letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty; what’s new in the October speech is that he advocates the provision of a “more adequate and coherent space” for the topic of judicial execution in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If that happens, the development of doctrine will be solidified, and it will be correspondingly more difficult for Catholic defenders of the legitimacy (or in some distressing cases even the necessity) of judicial execution to make their case. That’s cause for unambiguous celebration.
12 October 2017 –– assumption abbey at the edge of Richardton, North Dakota, after a visit of three days. Perhaps 25 monks in residence; warm hospitality shown, & a chance to get to know some of the monks because they talk during lunch (not always the case among Benedictines). A truncated office: Morning Prayer/Lauds (06:20), Noon Prayer/Sext (11:40), Mass (17:00), Evening Prayer/Vespers (19:00), Compline (20:10). All beautifully done: reverence & some passion. A very good library — maybe 150,000 volumes (a guess): five large rooms; strong in theology & philosophy & literature; a place to lose oneself in. And a spectacularly beautiful setting, perched above a vast expanse of prairie. The refectory has a wall of glass, perhaps one hundred and fifty feet long, looking north: the sky dominates; few trees & fewer buildings in sight; weather visible approaching from a long way off. The effect is of dissolution: I’m drawn out of myself, spread thin, taken up by the Spirit-winds that seem always to blow in this place. Gratitude & surprise are the proper responses to the existence of places such as Assumption Abbey.
08 October 2017 –– dead sunflowers: this week there are fields of withered sunflowers in southwestern North Dakota. It’s too late in the year (surely?) for them to be awaiting harvest, and they’re shriveled, the intense yellow that would have garlanded them a month or six weeks ago now a dark-orange-threaded black. Drought, perhaps? They lend to the landscape a mildly devastated air, as though luxuriant life has departed without anyone thinking to bury it. They’re a good vegetative complement to the collapsed barns that ornament the American countryside: memento mori.
05 October 2017 –– america: the end of the second day of a road trip. 1400+ miles driven in two days, from Durham, North Carolina, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The country is a vast empty tapestry of gorgeousness, from the mist-filled valleys of West Virginia yesterday to the rain-drenched plains of South Dakota today. Sunrise at the Mississippi crossing at St, Louis this morning, a forty-car funeral cortège just north of Kansas City this afternoon, the opening-out of the country in Iowa and South Dakota by early evening – trees & people thin out, the horizon opens up, & the sky becomes more significant. Moving west & north, the speed limits increase until, in South Dakota, they’re 80mph on the interstates. I was able to drive from Sioux City to Sioux Falls, a distance of 75 miles or so, in 51 minutes, while being passed by other drivers. ––– A billboard in SD: ‘Eat steak / Wear fur / Own guns / The American Way’. Yes, it is. Its equivalent from where I live, in the Triangle of North Carolina, would be; ‘Eat quinoa / Wear cotton / Support NPR / The Cosmopolitan Way.’ But no one who does those things feels the need to proclaim them on a billboard; they’re too confident of rightness for that. Billboard-proclamation signals the need to protest against a perceived regnant orthodoxy. The quinoa-eaters don’t need to do that: they are the regnant orthodoxy as they see it. I eat steaks & quinoa; I wear cotton but not fur; I listen, but don’t give money, to NPR (which, in the Trump era, is increasingly disgracing itself); and I am an American. My sympathies are engaged by the first (real) billboard in a way they’d never be by the second, were it to exist. And yet my habits are closer to the second than the first. That’s typical of the shop-floor worker who’s become a foreman. Not less lamentable for that.
02 October 2017 –– spectacular bloodshed: Fifty-nine (or so) people are now dead because of yesterday’s shooting in Las Vegas. Those who loved the dead are suffering, as are the hundreds of injured and those they love & are loved by, & as are those who loved the killer. Much is being made of this slaughter by commentators, at least for the few days that the blood of Vegas can be respattered & regored without boredom setting in. Why? The number of murders in the USA in 2016 was between fifteen and sixteen thousand. That’s about forty-five a day, every day. Las Vegas accounts for about twenty-eight hours of murdering at the usual rate. There’ve been 519 murders so far in 2017 in Chicago alone – about nine times yesterday’s Las Vegas count. We care more about Las Vegas & Sandy Hook & Pulse & Virginia Tech than we do about these ordinary killings because we’re fascinated by the spectacular & without interest in the quotidian. The drip-drip-drip of a shooting here, a knifing there, a strangling down the block, a fatal beating next door – that we don’t care about, even though a week of those drips kills many more people than any single mass killing, and even though mass killings (those in which six or more are killed close together in a short space of time) account for less than 1% of killings in the US in almost every year since records have been kept. Our caring is out of proportion, and culpably so. Spectacular killing isn’t more horrible, or more tragic, or more anything other than spectacular, than the quotidian kind. Attending to it as we do, idol-dazzled & bloodstruck, is duplicitous complicity: the certainty that attention of this kind will be provoked by it is among the causes of spectacular killing. If you want to contemplate the blood of the slaughtered, to drink it up with your eyes, try attending to the kind quotidianly shed. It’s time to look away from the spectacular.
01 October 2017 –– changing your mind: the Gospel lection for today’s Mass was the parable of the two sons: one son says he’ll do what his father asks & then doesn’t; the other says he won’t but then does. Mind-changing: both sons do it: they think better of what they’d said they’d do, change their minds about it, and do the opposite, one for better & the other for worse. But mind-changing is an odd thing. When I intend to do something, begin doing it, and then stop and do something else, leaving what I’d begun undone, it’s not usually because I’ve decided there was something wrong with my first thought. It’s because something else has come to me, shown itself to me, something that turns (drags) my gaze from what I was doing toward something else. That something can be a momentary distraction, or it can be something powerful, something that reconfigures me for the long haul (like Jesus). It’s a question of desire & the gaze, not of thought & decision. Pondus meum amor meus, Augustine writes: my love is my weight, and eo feror quocumque feror, I’m carried about by it wherever I go (Confessiones 13.9.10). That’s a good trope. The two sons did something other than what they’d begun & intended to do because the weight of their desire shifted & they were moved differently. Not because they’d given the matter deep thought.
26 September 2017 –– what a natural disaster isn’t: The elements — earth, air, fire, water — have been violently active lately. The earth has shaken in Mexico, wind & water have scoured the earth in the Caribbean & in South Asia, the skies have opened over Houston, forests have burned in the western United States. Thousands have died; property damage is in the billions of dollars; & more of the same approaches. Perhaps these disturbances are becoming more frequent & more violent; and it seems likely that, if they are, what we humans do is helping to make them so. But whatever is the case about those matters, the elements have always been violent on our planet, & at many times in the past much more violent than they are now, without human action playing any part. Our contributions to these elemental disturbances, & their likely future frequency & intensity, are by now mostly beside the point. The human deaths & injuries produced by the disturbances are tragic; the property & infrastructural losses are unfortunate; but the truth is that a short period (perhaps three centuries or so) of illusion is passing, & it would be good for us (& for the other living things on our planet) if we recognized it. The illusion is that we can always protect our buildings & our bodies against the work of the elements by such as better building codes, higher levées, more effective forest management, faster & more accurate early-warnings. That illusion causes us to build & live in flood plains, on swamps, in hurricane corridors, on fault-lines, where forests burn, & where tsunamis crest. And then, when the elements are violent enough that our protections fail, we lament the wreckage & carnage & vow to do better next time. But the problem doesn’t lie with the elemental disturbances. It lies with our resistance to them, which, when the disturbances become violent, is about as effective as Canute’s rebuke of the sea. In 1755, Jean-Jacques Rousseau responded to the death and damage wrought by the Lisbon earthquake by writing, in dispute with Voltaire, that we shouldn’t have built so many houses in Lisbon. He was right. Our best response to rising seas isn’t to defend against them by fortification or insurance; it’s to stop living where floods happen, or to adopt a mode of life into which floods can be welcomed. We should acknowledge that there are limits to our control of the elements, & live as though we believed in those limits. Adaptation is better than fighting unwinnable battles, and if there’s anything that unites climate-change deniers & affirmers, it’s the denial of that truth.
26 September 2017 –– verbal & fleshly violence: Betsy DeVos lifted, last week, some of the procedural constraints binding US colleges & universities in their handling of Title IX harassment complaints. Most of these complaints have to do with sexual harassment, and range in seriousness from rape to unwanted speech. At the moment, in response to 2011 guidelines provided by the Obama administration (& to some other legal considerations), colleges & universities have to find only that there is a preponderance of evidence in support of an allegation in order to punish the person against whom it was made. They ordinarily, too, make very little of the substance of the allegation, or its evidentiary support, available to the person against whom it was made. DeVos’s action last week provides more latitude in all these respects, though it’s unclear to what extent colleges & universities will avail themselves of it. There’s no ideal solution. Abiding by ordinary due process (raising the evidentiary standard & giving the accused a chance to know what he — it’s usually he — has been accused of, & to face his accuser) would certainly discourage some genuine harms from being addressed. But failing to abide by ordinary due process means that some illegitimate complaints are supported, and innocent men thereby found guilty. Here’s one way to thread the needle: abide by due process when the complaint is solely about speech; keep things as they are when the allegation includes physical contact. I write this as one who has recently been, at Duke University, accused of harassment-by-speech and tried via the usual Title IX procedures. The complaint against me, laid by a colleague motivated (I think) by some combination of personal malice & desire to punish me for voicing opinions unpalatable to her, was judged unfounded, as it certainly should have been. But I was given no chance to know the substance of the accusations, their evidentiary basis, or the rationales and procedures used by Duke University’s Office for Institutional Equity in adjudicating them. That can’t be right. It’s also not right that there’s no consequence for those who make unfounded and frivolous allegations such as those laid against me. Such time-wasting & illiberal frivolities are proliferating now in our colleges & universities, and taking advantage of the DeVos instruction to reinstate due process for complaints that involve only speech would be a way to restrain them. So also would be the establishment of recognizable consequences — public censure, at least; perhaps also community service; & remedial retraining in what the intellectual life, the life of colleges & universities, is & is for — for those who make frivolous or malicious allegations. I hope that administrators in our universities & colleges will consider these things.
22 September 2017 –– i would prefer not to: the day after Rosh Hashanah & the Feast of St. Matthew, a hot September day in North Carolina, too hot for September, a day on which, instead of ‘working’, doing the things my superego tells me to do (adding words to a book I’m supposed to be writing, thinking about the class on Calvin & Barth I’ll teach next week, reading the theology I’m supposed to be, & sometimes am, interested in), I’ve been reading some deep ecology (sogennante): Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake, Beast, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist), Timothy Morton (Dark Ecology), and George Orwell (Wigan Pier). Of these, Orwell is an old love, and a real deep ecologist: an apostle of withdrawal & the refusal of the machine — on which see, weirdly, E. M. Forster’s story ‘The Machine Stops,’ from more than a century ago; there isn’t much more to be said, really, on the topic of the machine, and it’s a surprise to me how rarely this story is mentioned by ecologists or by readers of Forster. Kingsnorth, too, is a refuser: he wants to recover humanity by withdrawing from activism and into life. He is, of course, right; and he can write, too, which is a benison. Morton is a harder case: too impressed with his own cleverness, too dazzled by the resources of the intellect; altogether too self-conscious — a Ciceronian academic. A thread in them all is refusal, a Bartlebyesque ‘I would prefer not to.’ Clarity about what to prefer not to, though, is the thing, and a hard thing. Today, I’ve preferred not to ‘work’; I’ve preferred to have lunch with a friend & otherwise to refuse human society; to sit on my porch reading; to do some laundry & hang it out on the washline (it gleams and dances there); &, imminently, to make some dinner. That seems like enough. For today. It’s a minor refusal of the machine, except for these words, which were written as a work of the hand, ink-on-paper, & then transcribed (for you, as gift; for me, as gift; for the LORD, as acknowledgment) into this machine. Consistency isn’t just a hobgoblin; it’s an impossibility, & knowing that is a deep, human pleasure.
19 September 2017 –– violence & hope: a warm early autumn day, trees on the edge of exhaustion, days drawing in; the world full of violence; blood in too many Chicago streets, hunger & agony & displacement on the borders of Myanmar & Bangladesh, poverty everywhere, grief upwelling. Hurricanes in the Caribbean, homelessness & devastation in the British Virgin Islands. Missiles in East Asia, and, as always, we Americans at the forefront of arbitrating & causing the violence we lament. And yet, the Spirit moves over the waters, even over the oceans of blood we shed with such eagerness. There’s hope, even if no assurance & no peace. The world insufferably beautiful & insufferably uncaring.
18 September 2017 –– remorse: Emily Dickinson on remorse: Remorse – is Memory – awake – / Her Parties all astir – / A Presence of Departed Acts – / At window – and at Door – // Its Past – set down before the Soul / And lighted with a Match – / Perusal – to facilitate – / And help Belief to Stretch – // Remorse is cureless – the Disease / Not even God – can heal – / For ’tis His institution – and / The Adequate of Hell – So to understand remorse is to see it as a condition from which no exit is possible: it’s the adequate of hell because it is hell, a cureless torment. I know what she means, as do you. The first-personal, past-directed remorseful thought, ‘I would it were otherwise’, when there’s no remedy apparent for the suffering produced by the presence of departed acts, is an endlessly repeated hell-cycle without hope of surcease. The only way out of it is to acknowledge that there’s no way (for you) out of it; then, perhaps, it can be healed, but only by the one whose institution it is. ED appears not to acknowledge this possibility. Without it, despair is remorse’s only gift.
14 September 2017 –– include me out: Last month in a small town in Northern Arizona I saw a placard tacked to the wall of a local diner (June’s Café it was, in Overgaard, Arizona) with these words on it: “Hillary calls me deplorable / Terrorists call me infidel / Trump calls me American / Fight for freedom [image of gun]”. There’s a certain lapidary elegance to this. How to read it? One sentiment it suggests is that of anguish at exclusion, & of relief at hearing a voice of welcome & inclusion. Whatever your political convictions, if you’re an American you should find it easy to resonate with the exclusion/inclusion trope. Everyone, from antifa to KKK, from lgbtqia to NRA, from buildthewall to opentheborders, from blacklivesmatter to bluelivesmatter, understands themselves to be excluded & to need inclusion. At the level of rhetoric that’s our (our American) political problem. The rhetoric of inclusion & diversity is endlessly generative of its own mirror-images, and the only place it takes us is to the level plain of contempt: check your privilege, too many of us say; and as soon as it’s said those it’s said to say it back, identifying ways in which they don’t share in the privileges of those who say it; and the race to the rhetorical bottom, which is now too often also the place where blood is shed, is unavoidably on. There are different & better ways to talk when we’re talking politics. One is to identify, with as much clarity & precision as possible, nodes of actual, measurable, specifiable suffering & lack, & then to ask what can be done about them. Who’s poor? Who’s being killed? Who’s not getting an education? Who’s ill & not getting treated? These are real. They’re what we should talk about. The language of inclusion & exclusion moves at too high a level of abstraction to make these real problems visible. We should drop it, and all the more because we all feel it. What do we talk about when we talk about politics? We talk about the common good. To talk about inclusion is to change the subject.
11 September 2017 –– For the last few weeks Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom (2017 in English; 2014 in French) has been on my nightstand, & last night I finished it. On the surface it’s mostly about Luke: the author of the gospel of that name & the Book of Acts. There’s also, inevitably, a good bit about Paul. That part of the book is a mixture of close reading of Luke’s texts & some of Paul’s, from which Carrère derives a speculative history of Luke’s life. It’s fun, but worth about as much as all such histories, which is to say, as a statement of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, close to nothing. Carrère sees this, & offers it anyway. Why not? What he has to say about Luke & Paul is on a plausibility-par with what you’ll read in the glutinous & heavily-footnoted prose of most professional interpreters of this material. The difference is that Carrère writes much better: with wit & allusiveness, & without treating his readers as if they were idiot schoolchildren or doctoral students in need of some footnotes. More fundamentally, the book is about Carrère & his relation to the church & the kingdom. He was a Christian, he tells us, more than two decades ago, & for a long time he hasn’t been, and now he … isn’t, not really. Is he? No. But … (of course, he’s baptized, marked as Christ’s own for ever, so there’s nothing he can do about it: he’s a Christian). On the nature of the kingdom he is very much worth reading. He sees, about that, what Flannery O’Connor also saw when she wrote, at the end of ‘Revelation,’ that those ascending to heaven have even their virtues burned away. Carrère is evidently lucid, intelligent, well-read, and (I expect) delightful to have dinner and share a good bottle of wine with. Even more delightful: he sees that those characteristics may be just what close the kingdom to him. Still more pleasing (one more turn of the crank): he is self-aware about his self-congratulation on seeing what the preceding sentence says he sees.
09 September 2017 –– Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn (2017 in English) is a set of close descriptive observations of the things of the world, of the particular forms & lives of the world we inhabit as they seem to us: wasps, apples, the sun, plastic bags, porpoises, adders, & so on. The book’s conceit is that it’s addressed to his then-unborn (now, presumably, born) daughter. He wants, he writes, to show her “the world, as it is, all around us, all the time. Only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it” (5). The accent is on the second purpose: Knausgaard is clarifying the world to himself in words, and delighting me (at least) by doing so. The book is a lovely reminder of the beauty & violence around us everywhere; his few pages on wasps show both in a way that brought me close to tears. There’s a wasps’ nest in an air vent in the wall of his house, & in about five hundred words he shows us the wasps, gorgeously armored for battle, energetic in defense of their nest; & himself, sealing their nest and killing them all. My reader’s echo-chamber conjured Nicholson Baker’s The Size of Thoughts as an analogue (but Baker is more analytic, precise, distanced; Knausgaard more lyrical, romantic, engaged); the Scotist treatments of haecceity, as mediated through Gerard Manley Hopkins; & Eckhart’s depiction of istigkeit. What Knausgaard shows us is a world of excessive beauty & endless pain, the particulars of which repay close attention. I’m grateful for that.
04 September 2017 –– I learned today that Geoffrey Hill died more than a year ago. That news passed me by, which I regret, though I’m glad to know it now. Hill was a Christian poet, and a man of words. He’s often difficult to understand, though less difficult to resonate with. He’s cerebral, erotic, and intensely sensual. Here’s an example from 2002, called ‘Offertorium’ (a number of GH’s poems are called that, and it’s not a bad rubric for his work as a whole):
“For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard / admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent / stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light: // for late distortions lodged by first mistakes; / for all departing, as of ourselves, from time; / for random justice held with things half-known, // with restitution if things come to that.”
Yews are trees of darkness & graveyards; hence also of resurrection. They guard & shroud dark red (“atrorubent” — like rubies, like blushes) berries, which show, & can be praised (offered words to) as showing, closed-in light-in-darkness, which is the pattern of our lives, lives in which we err, never more than half knowing, & in which, nevertheless there is unanticipated & uncalled for (“random”) justice, given to us even when — especially when — we don’t know what it is or that we need it — justice that may permit us to make restitution if it comes to that (it always does) — but only because restitution has already been offered. The poem’s words are an offering that effect what they represent, which is the baffled gift-return. That’s the Christian life. Hill’s poems write it (and other things, too). I used to find him often obscure beyond use, but now less so. Perhaps that’s because I’m older. Read him, however old you are, whether the early work (King Log), or the upwelling of late work from the 1990s and 2000s (A Treatise of Civil Power, The Orchards of Syon, Scenes from Comus, Without Title).
04 September 2017 –– Civility, politeness, courtesy: these are reflexes, patterns of speech and action deeper than thought. If, when I meet you, I think about whether I should shake your hand, speak politely to you, or wish you the time of day, then I’m thinking about whether you’re worth the ordinary gestures of politeness. And that means it’s not immediately clear to me that you are: the decision might go either way. In that situation, even when I do offer you what seems to me like courtesy, I’ve left its proper sphere behind, just as I would if the only reason I don’t kill or rape or wound you today is that I decide, all things considered, that I won’t. For civility to be civility, it needs exactly to be thoughtless. But what if I offer you the immediate etiquette-reflex, and you respond by accusing me of incivility? If, for example, in the seminar room or the faculty meeting (I’m a university creature: these are the examples that come naturally to me), I say to you, ‘That’s nonsense, and here’s why,’ and you respond with the intake of breath and the stiffening of sinew and muscle that follows the insult? This is a common situation now, in university life certainly, but also in politics and in our civic (!) life more generally. We have little agreement about what counts as civil discourse, and one thing that means is exactly that we can’t speak to one another civilly. We can only think about what it would be to do that, trying, with puzzlement, to find forms of words that, as best we can tell, won’t seem like an insult to those we speak to. Such thought doesn’t, and can’t, belong to the sphere of civility. It’s a negotiation, and what it produces is a hedged and guarded gambit, heavily armored in expectation of a violent response. One response to it, which is at least honest and consistent, is to acknowledge that the courtesy-game can no longer be played and to exercise the rhetorical freedom that comes from such a realization. Another response, less honest and less clear-sighted, is to say that the game can indeed be played, and that you’re the only one who knows the rules. That second response is an attempt to take the moral high ground without acknowledging the nature of the local terrain. It won’t go well.
31 August 2017 –– Robert E. Lee departed the chapel of Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina at almost the same time that Jesus entered it. More exactly: following its defacement on 17 August, a statue of Robert E. Lee that had been in the chapel since it was built in the 1930s was removed on 19 August. Shortly before that, the Duke Catholic Center installed in the chapel a tabernacle housing the blessed sacrament, which is to say housing Jesus, fully and really present. That tabernacle is to be dedicated this coming Saturday, 2 September. There’s a symmetry in this, not least in that neither eventuality would have made sense in the Duke University of the 1930s; Robert E. Lee was then a hero of the white Protestant culture of the South that Duke represented; and the reserved sacrament would then have been understood by that same culture as a Catholic abomination. That neither state of affairs is any longer the case is matter for celebration.
29 August 2017 –– Two distinct attitudes toward the past’s horrors & injustices & violences & agonies: to erase them & all their traces; or to preserve, overwrite, & comment on them. The first is the Protestant principle. I call it that because of what happened in the English Reformation, when serious attempts were made to erase the material traces of England’s Catholic past. Stained glass was smashed, statues were beheaded (yes, statues were beheaded: that takes work), monasteries were emptied & destroyed, and what’s left isn’t properly memorialized. Those who like this way of doing things find the past’s weight unbearable, & so they try to wipe history’s pages clean & start again. The second attitude is Catholic. Catholics take a pagan obelisk from Egypt, cuneiform-covered, laden with devotion to Isis & Osiris, and overwrite it with Latin, Christian inscriptions. The obelisk isn’t destroyed, but reframed & commented upon. History’s weight remains, & is redirected. That’s a better way. Our current American desire to remove traces of our country’s dreadful past – of its foundation upon genocide & its fattening upon slavery & its war in defense of slavery – rather than to overwrite & reframe & redirect them shows very clearly the Protestantism of our attitudes. It’s a shame & it’s unnecessary. The statue of Robert E. Lee in Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, was defaced a couple of weeks back, and is to be removed (or may already have been). How much better it would have been to let it remain, defaced, with commentary explaining & celebrating its defacement. The past would have been given its due by doing that, as would our present attitudes; and there would have been scope for future generations to provide their own commentary upon what they will no doubt take to be our own errors in these matters. As it is, we’ll have a void & forgetfulness.
26 August 2017 –– Providing furniture & other household goods to those who lack them is a corporal work of mercy I sometimes do, courtesy of my Catholic parish located in the heart of the small-to-medium-sized southern city I live in. I have a small truck, and with others similarly equipped I collect donations from those who have & take them to those who don’t. Doing this provides a fine focus on local maldistribution of wealth. We don’t collect from the rich, but, rather, from the middle classes. They usually have large (three thousand square feet seems typical) houses overflowing with material goods. Sometimes, bless them, they give some of those goods away, usually to make room for more; it’s a constant struggle for the middle classes (I include myself) to find room for the goods that flow in. Those we deliver to, though, are certainly the poor. They’ve just moved, typically, into a cramped, dark, dank apartment or house with nothing in it, established there by one or another social service agency. The beds & chairs & tables & couches we bring provide something to fill the emptiness, something to ease the flesh. The household I collected from this morning had a net worth well in excess of a million dollars, I should think, which is now an ordinary middle-class figure (disclosure: my own net worth – I live alone – is between half a million & a million; is there, in the US today, any more intimate disclosure to make?). The household I delivered to had a net worth very close to zero, and perhaps in negative territory. There is something terribly wrong with difference on this scale, and with our insouciance about it. The fact of it, the ordinary, horrible, fact of it, ought be the principal focus of our politics. If there were a political party of & for the people, this would be what it would remorselessly talk of and do something about. But there isn’t. Democrats talk of American diversity and Republicans of American greatness, & activists for each are prepared to shed blood in the streets for their shibboleths. Meanwhile, the poor remain where they are: invisible behind a shrill rhetorical screen.
25 August 2017 –– Manichaeism is, I’ll say stipulatively, a radically dualistic family of views. Manichees think that there are two kinds of thing in the world: those without remainder evil; and those without remainder good. The task, for Manichees, is to discriminate, and once that’s been done, to erase (if you can) or separate yourself from (if you can’t erase) the evil things. Violent erasure & banishment are the hallmarks of Manichaeism. Manichaeism isn’t a possible Christian view. Christians think, or ought think, that the extent to which anything (any material object, any person, any view, any piece of writing, any idea) exists is the extent to which it is good. That axiom derives from the doctrine of creation: other than the LORD, creatures are the only things there are. And all creatures are, definitionally, brought into being by the LORD, which entails the truth of the axiom. Manichaeism is very evident in American politics now. You can see it on the editorial pages of The New York Times as much as in The Daily Stormer; the one is a mirror-image of the other in this respect. Manichaeism is a mistake. The task in politics, as in everything else, is neither erasure or banishment; rather, it is discernment of what, in your opponents’ views & in your opponents, is good, & what is damaged by lack. Embracing that task leads to a different politics & a different political rhetoric than what we now have. We should try it.
15 August 2017 –– Charles Lamb (1775-1834) wrote, in 1825 or thereabouts, an essay called “The Superannuated Man.” It’s a paean to retirement, the period in life of “NOTHING-TO-DO.” Lamb began work in the accounts office of the East India Company at the age of fourteen, and worked there, he says, for 36 years, six days a week and ten hours a day, with only one week of holiday each year. Then he retired, full of years, as it seemed to him, beyond the years of work; & now, as he writes “The Superannuated Man,” he has nothing but time: “A man can never have too much Time to himself, nor too little to do.” From retirement to death he has almost ten years of this open, unfilled, anti-calendrical time, and while he doesn’t do altogether nothing – he continues to read the seventeenth-century dramatists who were his principal literary passion – he gets close. He writes against the spirit of our time, in which retirement, if we contemplate it at all, seems full of everything except otium. We’re ashamed of having nothing to do. Lamb wasn’t. Read him to understand what it might mean to say of your life, opus operatum est.
14 August 2017 –– Violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. Chronology – who did what to whom when & in what order – is still unclear (to me). News reports, written and spoken, have so far largely confused two separate issues. One is about political substance; the other is about the use of extra-legal (vigilante) violence. Many, far too many, Americans of every political stripe are by now willing to endorse, encourage, and use vigilante violence in defense of political positions they like & in opposition to those they don’t. There appears to have been such violence from both (all) sides in Charlottesville this past weekend, fascist & antifa. That is a very bad thing, & failure to criticize it even-handedly, especially on the part of the fourth estate, is almost equally bad. The two sides are of course not equivalent in their ideologies; but they are equivalent in one important way: they’ll break your head & shed your blood if they don’t like your politics. Violence is a legitimate monopoly of the state, & the taking of it into private hands, no matter the merits of the cause in which it’s so taken, is reprehensible because it moves the body politic toward chaos & turns the public sphere into a field of blood. If you don’t like racist, antisemitic, & fascist ideological positions (I don’t), & you advocate or engage in vigilante violence to oppose them, you’re performing what the ideologies you oppose commend. Don’t. Rather: be vehement and energetic in support of first-amendment freedoms, theirs as well as yours; join with the ACLU & other friends of liberty in supporting the right of those you reprehend to assemble & speak; advocate with all the energy you have, political & rhetorical, what you take to be good, true, & beautiful. And leave the mace, the clubs, & the guns to the police. Avoid, that is, the performative incoherence of using vigilante violence in putative defense of liberty. You may, of course, decide that vigilante violence is the only reasonable option left; but if you do, you can’t criticize your opponents for making the same decision. You have, in your advocacy and use of vigilantism, become them.
09 August 2017 –– A body politic that spends a disproportionate amount of its political energy & capital on policing its procedures is a self-consuming artifact. Eventually, there’ll be nothing left.