Monday, August 24, 2015
Cabinets of Wonder: the Shroud of Turin & the Museum of Jurassic Technology
by Leanne Ogasawara
Friends have been talking about Michael J. Lewis' recent article, How Art Became Irrelevant. An art historian at Williams College, Lewis is basically stating what we all have come to suspect: that museums have become the bread and circuses of our day.
Arguing that that there has been a collective disengagement with the fine arts in our society, he says that young people no longer care or have an emotional response to the art works themselves. And that is a worry.
Like many people, I have wondered about the pretty significant changes seen in art museums over the past twenty years. I'm pretty sure that no one passing the mob in the room where the Mona Lisa is hanging in the Louvre could fail to wonder if the picture itself is in any real way relevant to the experience of "seeing the Mona Lisa." Especially fresh in my mind was something that recently happened to me at the Uffizi. Standing in front of Botticelli's Venus on a very crowded summer weekend, an American family of five stepped up right in front of the painting and posed while someone else took multiple versions of their picture. It was a rather long process involving corralling the kids and then the posed shots. It was bizarre.
In LA, it is said that people go to the Getty but they don't look at the art. The Getty is putting on more photography exhibitions and flashy blockbuster shows now, maybe to address the financial implications of this (though you would think of all museums the Getty with its massive budget could do its own thing as directed by its own particular history and the endowment).It's actually not at all clear whether it is the commodification and privatization of museums (museums' disturbing transformation) that has affected these changes in museum-goers that Lewis describes or whether their lack of care is what is driving the transformation of museums into entertainment hubs. I have no idea.
I do, however, think that it takes an almost impossible level of focus to be able to emotionally connect to a work of art seen as part of a blockbuster museum show. And, I have found that more and more I love finding myself in unexpected museums, where the museum has not really caught up with the times, or --better yet-- those museums which consciously aim to exhibit the art in a more old-fashion manner.
Some of my own favorite museums are more low-tech and sleepy places like Brera Museum in Milan (home to one of the most splendid art collections I've seen) or the Saint John Hospital in Bruges (probably my favorite art museum on earth). Like the Groeningemuseum (also in Bruges) and the Sabauda in Turin (which not only lacked audio guides but didn't even have a gift shop!), these museums seem to have more humble aims; that of preserving and exhibiting their collections. In all these places, I found the other museum-goers visiting these galleries to be startlingly enthralled by .... yes, the art.
I wanted to tell a story about the wackiest museum I have ever been to. But before I do I have to ask if anyone has visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. This is a museum that museum people like to talk about-because it pushes most commonly-held ideas about museums on their head.
First of all, the museum is very strangely located in nondescript building in West LA near an auto shop and a little India Sweets and Spice Mart on Venice Blvd. Also, it is not even devoted to Jurassic technology at all! But rather it is a quirky collection that seeks to create a Renaissance "Cabinet of Curiosities"--yes, right in bustling West LA. Here is a great Smithsonian article that describes the eclectic collection, composed basically of anything that ever struck the collector's fancy! With opera arias piped in, one can view holograms and see ant eggs (believed to cure love sickness in the Middle Ages); as well as see a display of stink ants from Cameroon and the Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall (with this latter one you can see that "fact" is less at issue in this place).
In its original sense,” reads a Museum brochure, “The term museum meant a spot dedicated to the muses -- a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.” This museum certainly is that spot. The displays evoke an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, ranging from micro-sculptures in the needle of an eye to “Garden of Eden on Wheels,” a collection devoted to trailer park culture. Many exhibits are confusing, nonsensical, or simply made up, but don’t expect to get answers. Just enjoy the sense of wonder.
Ok, brace yourselves--because some of you are not going to like this next part!
So, here is a story about one of the most moving experiences at a museum I've ever had. It happened very unexpectedly this summer, at a place where I would have never imagined myself becoming so moved: at the Museum of the Shroud, in Turin.
This small museum is run by the Confraternity of the Most Holy Shroud, an order founded in 1598 to promote the devotion and worship of the shroud. It was absolutely grueling to get there, walking across Turin in a blazing heatwave and then having to wait till they finally re-opened the museum after their long afternoon break. It was incredibly hot and from the street, you couldn't see the church (where the famous replica is kept) so we were never sure if we were in the right place.
He: Well, I am just going by that sign over the door
So, we waited drinking warm coke without ice in an airless cafe on the corner. When finally the doors creaked open, we found ourselves in was really the quirkiest museum I have ever been in--so quirky, in fact, that it immediately called to mind the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA! I still can't decide which is quirkier.
Like the "Cabinet of Curiosities" in LA, the Turin Shroud Museum immediately strikes one as a kind of hodgepodge collection of artifacts, blending actual relics of historic significance along with other hard to explain items that must have simply struck the confraternity's collective fancy. Also like the Jurassic Museum, there is a striking combination of science and myth. That is to say, one steps in off the street to find themselves in a Borgesian world. (It could always be worse, right?)
The shroud itself is kept elsewhere and only on view once in a great while (we had missed the last showing by only a few weeks).
Though not home to the shroud, a great wealth of objects relating to the shroud is there on display: from contemporary sculpture on the theme of the Passion to the 16th century cedar chest used to bring the shroud from France to Turin. Also on display was the camera used to take the first photograph of the relic as well as the first photograph. There are also countless folios and books and replicas of the crown of thorns and of the nails used in Crucifixion. Absolutely everything in the museum, as this video explains, is an illumination of the final hours of the man of the shroud. (In all museum literature, they refer to him as the man of the shroud). And then finally, you see the famed replica of the shroud itself, in the confraternity's church next door.
Despite the fact that we were both enormously prone to disbelief--my astronomer, because he thinks of himself as a scientist; and me, because I am a devotee of Umberto Eco and have learned quite a lot about the ins and outs of the medieval relic trade... still, would you believe, I became incredibly moved and broke down and cried after I left the place?
The only experience that even compares to my emotional reaction to the museum was what I felt upon seeing Leonardo's Last Supper, which was another huge surprise to me since I am not a Leonardo fan nor do I care much for that particular last supper theme (the version focusing on the betrayal). But the restoration was startlingly well done and they keep tourist numbers to a small number for a limited time. I was just incredibly moved by this fresco and did feel (as others say) that the painter was somehow right there in the room. My visit to the Holy Shroud Museum was like that--both incredibly moving but also enriching to me. (By the way, some conspiracy theorists believe it was Leonardo who created the shroud)
For me as a visitor of the shroud museum, it didn't matter whether the shroud dated from the Christ's death or whether it is a fabulous Medieval creation (which I think is the case based mainly on the carbon dating results, but I will never know, will I?) It simply didn't matter because the museum was not there to persuade but rather existed to exhibit a centuries-old collection of artifacts related to the holy cloth that was brought from Chambery to Turin in 1578.
As I mentioned, in all the museum literature the image of the man seen in the shroud was always referred to as "the man of the shroud" and what one sees in graphic detail is the absolutely gruesome way this man died. Beaten to a pulp, he was then tortured to death--and it can all be "seen" in the relic. It's all there, from the nail wounds, the blood from his head and swollen cheek to the horrible postmortem injury to the side. Every drop of blood in the fabric speaks of brutality. And walking through the exhibits, contemplating the final hours of a man who was brutally beaten, whipped and then crucified--made to die slowly (maybe in front of his mother) one simply could not help but draw to mind the tremendous suffering going on in the world today--things we know about but turn away from. If it didn't happen to a man called Jesus of Nazareth, we know it happened to others since it was an ancient form of the death penalty practiced across the Roman empire, among other places. And this kind of cruelty continues today.
Anyway, this is, in my opinion, what an art museum should be doing: (to speak in Heideggeresque language) museums should be places where works of art "work." And I think this is very much tied to feelings relating to curiosity and enchantment.
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. I had suggested a few months ago here in a post about the Piero della Francesco trail that perhaps it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. And that is what is so wonderful about seeing frescoes in the churches where they were painted or to see art collections that continue in preserving art within the context of the shared values which informed their creation. This is something maybe that has mainly disappeared in US Museums, where the drive to commodify and privatize is so strong...?
I have a friend who playfully suggested that one of his top reasons for time travel is that he wants to go back in time to see musical performances back when things were not overly "produced" and when sometimes musicians simply flopped! Yes, me too! It is why I wanted to see an opera at La Scala so badly--for I had read that at La Scala, often the audience boos! Art is talked about in Italy, and opera at La Scala is part of the national conversation. Maybe the bottom line is that when you "buy" any experience you come with expectations and a need to check off a list. But the profound and unexpected experience of art comes when you least expect it, when we can have the space to experience a deep emotional connections to things-- whether playful, aesthetic or ethical.
Long live the sleepy, the playful and the quirky!
Highly recommended and fabulous writing (Pulitzer finalist): Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder
Video: Shroud Museum
A White Blackman
The first time I heard the phrase – “white black man” – Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, three-quarters of a life ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit, the joy, the freedom and dignity, I cultivated in the heart of jazz.
When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.
By William Gottlieb, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, April 1947.
My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. For one thing, this was an old recording and the sound quality was thin. I had to hear through that. For another, I’d never heard anything quite like it.
But I listened and listened and, gradually, I learned to hear Armstong’s music. There was his tone – by turns jubilant, plaintive, tightly-coiled, tender – his ability to bend notes, to worry them. And his rhythm, his amazing ability to stretch or compress time, to float phrases over the beat. This rhythmic freedom was quite unlike anything I knew in the military band music which was the staple of my instructional and playing experience, the latter mostly in middle school and high school marching and concert bands. It was exciting.
Above all, there was the blues. Its emotional provenance, grief, resignation, longing. The sound, the particular notes, those so-called “blue notes.” It wasn't until much later that I learned enough about music theory to know which notes these were, and to know that these notes didn't exist in any European musical system. But I could hear these notes, I could grasp their expressive power. I wanted to make them mine.
Fortunately I had found a trumpet teacher who was a jazz musician. Mr. David Dysert was more than willing to teach me the ways of this strange idiom. He taught me jazz rhythm and phrasing – “It don't mean a thing if it don't got that swing”. He also told me that it was almost impossible for musicians with a “legitimate” background to play with a jazz feel. The ways of swing had to be learned when you were young. That was when I first became consciously aware of the cultural distance between my immediate background and the music I loved. But my parents had no reservations about my love of jazz even if they didn’t share it.
But it wasn't until I went to college – to study philosophy – that I began seriously to think about these matters. That was in the late Sixties, with the civil rights and anti-war movements in high gear. I read about the African origins of jazz rhythm and tonality – on my own, not for any courses I was taking – about how the slaves were forbidden to play drums but that didn’t keep them from clapping their hands or from singing those “blue” notes, the tones they brought from Africa. Reading Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), among others, I became aware of how American music in general was tremendously indebted to African-American music and, by implication, African music. I began to understand that when I moved toward jazz, as many other European Americans have done, I was moving toward Africa and away from Europe. Whatever American culture is, in general, in the musical arena it is largely a hybrid of European and African elements.
Late in my college career I joined a local jazz-rock band called the St. Matthew Passion. One particular arrangement began with the horns playing avant-garde free-for-all passionate noise for a short time. Then the rhythm section started the song proper, with a regular beat and melody. At our last gig the sax player and I were alone – the trombone player couldn't make it. We began as usual, and then, something snapped. All of a sudden there was just the music, flowing through me. Through us. And the light, the almost blinding white light. It was wonderful. And frightening. We pulled back. The rest of the band came in on cue. The sax player and I never really talked about what had happened – what could we say? could talk bring it back? – but, with a significant nod, a mumbled “that was nice,” we managed to convey to each other that something special had happened.
Perhaps a year or so later I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a concert at Morgan State ¬– then a state teacher's college, now a university. He played a long solo in “Olinga” and, as the solo began to end, I had a definite sense that, in some way, Dizzy was returning to himself, as though his soul had left his body during the solo and now was returning – from a spiritual Africa, everywhere present, and available, to those who listen but do not seek the present in the future/past. While it is almost impossible to describe this event – perhaps because I must do so in the language of a culture which tries very hard to deny that such things happen, and are important – my sense of it is quite definite. To this day I believe that, if I saw a film of Dizzy playing this solo, I could indicate the precise moment when his soul rejoined his body.
Strange, and moving, as these experiences were, they were yet not unexpected. A child of the Sixties, I had read about ecstasies, about mystical experience, about “altered states of consciousness,” as the psychologists called them. But even before that, when I was first studying the trumpet, I had read Jean-Baptiste Arban's assertion that “There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained.” That statement is from Arban's Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn, a standard pedagogical text which has come down to us from Nineteenth Century France and which I knew as Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet.
The Nineteenth Century in which Arban wrote the book on the trumpet was the same century which saw the United States of America fight its bloodiest war, a Civil War growing from the cruel injustice of slavery. Those enslaved Africans survived to become free men and women in part through the strength of their religion, a vigorous religion in which an African spirit wore European Christian dress. When, back in college, I read that jazz – and the music of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the late B. B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy hisownbadself, and many others – springs from the African-American church, I was astounded. This vibrant, expressive, funky music was unlike anything I had ever heard in church. In my church people had given me puzzled looks when I sang with too much enthusiasm and improvised variations on the hymns.
It was only in late 1980s that I heard this church music live, and it was not even in a church that I heard it. It was in a concert setting on a Sunday afternoon in Albany, New York. First a local ensemble performed, the Wilborn Temple Ensemble. Then the Morgan State University Choir. Spirits were high. People in the audience shouted encouragement to the singers – “I hear you,” "take it slow girl.” Many clapped rhythmically and many were unable to remain seated. The joy and the love were infectious. I clapped, and cried, and felt renewed. This was home.
And then it was over. I returned to my apartment and reflected back on the afternoon. The music was what I had expected it to be. While it wasn’t a church service, the enthusiasm and passion of musicians and audience was what I had expected from all the descriptions I had read. I felt that, if I could have this experience every week, it might be worthwhile to attend a church where this music is sung. But I realized that, for me, it wouldn't work. Most, probably all, of the musicians I had heard that afternoon, and most of the audience, believed the religious doctrine in that music. I do not.
For me, the spirit must live in the world I can see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and share, with others. And work with them to make the world a better one, for us, for our children, and the nieces and nephews of their great-grandchildren. The human spirit was born on the savannas of Africa. It survived slavery, triumphantly so. We must not allow it to die in the ghettos of the Twenty-First Century.
That Zola Kobas saw me as a white black man is a good thing; just as it was a good thing that Ade had a party where Zola and I could meet. But it is not a good thing that we live in a world where such a good things seem remarkable. I would be happy to live in a world where racism is but a distant memory and so would Zola and Ade. That is not our world, not yet. And so we must acknowledge that I am white, they black, and work against the conditions which force that acknowledgment from us. To be a white black man is a good thing. It would be better to be just a man.
* * * * *
I first published this over a decade and a half ago on a long-gone personal website and then on a now-dormant site called Gravity. I’ve made a few slight changes in this version.
David Noonan. White Rabbit, 2013.
Silk screen on linen collage.
The Donald Is Coming! The Donald Is Coming!
by Akim Reinhardt
I've lost track already. During the past month, too many people to keep count of, each with a look of bemused panic in their eye, has asked me if I think Donald Trump has a chance. Knocked back on their heels by the frenzy surrounding Trump's recent surge, they implore me to tell them what I think.
Is it possible that this crude, bombastic display of runaway hair known as The Donald will actually succeed Barack Obama in the White House?
Alas, it's hard to blame these worry warts. Of late, the press marvels at Trump's soaring poll numbers, and ruminates endlessly on his success in spite of his obvious shortcomings and endless string of outrages, and what it says about American society and its broken political system.
From NPR to Ezra Klein, there's no shortage of media mavens trumpeting Trump and theorizing what his success means. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Or if they don't, they're desperate to find one. Confused by it all, The Atlantic went so far as to simply ask people why, oh why, do you support this man? Then, sans analysis, the magazine simply threw up its hands and published the responses.
Why, oh why indeed. Why is this barbarian at the gate? Why is this roaring, fatuous pig of a man on the verge of undressing our republic and claiming its highest office?
In looking for an answer, I believe we should not dig too deep. After all, Donald Trump doesn't seem to over think much, so we probably shouldn't over think him.
Admittedly, that's a bit glib. But if you've followed The Donald's career, it's hard to come away with any other conclusion than: What you see is what you get.
And what I see right now is the same thing I always see when I look at Donald Trump: a garish, abusive, womanizing snake oil salesman. A huckster pushing his product.
It just so happens that Donald Trump's flagship product is Donald Trump.
So if you want to understand the temporary whirlwind surrounding Trump's most recent bid for the presidency, then you have to recognize the thing Trump is best at: selling himself.
For more than three decades now, Donald Trump has been selling himself, and doing a bang up job of it. Like any other athlete or celeburante seeking endorsements, Trump has made a successful career of branding himself. That's why he keeps writing books about how great he is. That's why he purchased The Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants, which represent his twisted and dated version of "glamour." That's why he constantly scrambles to keep himself in the limelight.
Donald Trump: Real Estate Tycoon? No, Donald Trump: Celebrity Asshole Pitchman.
Why? Because it turns out that Trump is more successful at building up his self-image than he is at building skyscrapers, casinos, or resorts.
The son of a successful New York real estate developer, Donald Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But when he went into the family business, he botched it. His own career as a real estate developer has floated upon a wave of massive inheritance, loans, and bailouts. By the early 1990s, he'd gone belly up, begging his siblings for loans just to keep his office running. His appearances in divorce courts are likely outnumbered only by his appearances in bankruptcy courts. By 2011, The Donald's reputation in financial circles was that of a "deadbeat," according to a Deutsche Bank big wig quoted in The Atlantic.
It's easy enough to point out all the financial blunders and bankruptcies. But if you really want wrap your head around The Donald, then you have to understand how and why he turned himself into a Thanksgiving Day Parade hot air balloon.
As it turns out, while Trump might be, at best, a mediocre real estate developer, he's actually a crackerjack pitchman. And while he wants to sell you anything he can, selling you anything at all is largely predicated on Trump's impressive ability to sell himself.
That's why, for example, Trump spent years badgering Forbes Magazine to overstate his wealth on their annual rundown of insanely rich people. During the 1990s, when his situation was most dire, it was an annual rite for Trump to harangue Forbes writers and editors. He would insist they acknowledge his supposedly fabulous fortune by publicly listing his net worth at up to five times what the good people at Forbes thought he was actually worth. Year after year, the same routine. Forbes would estimate his value. Trump would throw a fit and bully some writer or list editor to publish a vastly higher and totally unreasonable figure. They would decline, and then the haggling would ensue.
But why was a fantastical public accounting of his wealth so important to Trump? Because calling yourself Billionaire Donald Trump, instead of just plain old Donald Trump Whose Business Practices Invite Scrutiny, is a way to brand oneself. Polish up your name, get it out there, and then use it to attract buyers.
A cornerstone of that branding process has been Trump's relentless effort to continue defining himself as a real estate mogul, despite all the bankruptcies on his ledger. He's accomplished that by attaching himself to various building projects where he doesn't actually building anything. According the The Wall Street Journal, instead of building, owning, and then selling real estate, Trump simply sells his name to other real estate developers, who then slap TRUMP on their various projects.
So the Trump-this or Trump-that, which you see on skyscrapers and resorts, was probably not made or ever owned by Donald Trump. You know. The same way some star athlete isn't really back there flipping burgers at whatever shitty, overpriced, yuppie bar-n-grill has his name on it.
But it has worked, and from there The Donald has spread his wings. Transitioning from stumbling real estate developer to successful real estate pitchman and sponsor, Trump also whores himself out to all sorts of ventures unrelated to real estate.
Such as a failed, unaccredited, for-profit "school" called Trump University. Or one particularly shady business venture that some have reasonably classified as a pyramid scheme.
And while an array of "Trump" ventures have gone belly up, Donald Trump's public image as the über successful celebrity-businessman has never been stronger. Hell, Trump has branded himself so well over the years that he even got a long running TV show out of it, right down to the recognizable "You're fired!" catch line, which comes across as just a meaner, stupider version of Gary Coleman squinting and demanding to know "What'chu talkin' about Willis?" or the flustered Skipper turning beet red and shouting "Gilligan!"
No wonder then that Forbes lists Trump's primary source of wealth as "television."
And it's all worked out magnificently for him. Two decades after all the unseemly wrangling about his wealth, Forbes now lists Donald Trump as the 405th richest person in the world. Although there are two other Donalds on the list ahead of him, much to his chagrin, no doubt.
But it is within this context, of Donald Trump as the man who has become fabulously wealthy by selling himself, that we must examine his supposedly serious presidential bid. This is not Carly Fiorina, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, Herbert Hoover, or some other incredibly successful business person who genuinely thinks they can be a great political leader because they've been a great business leader, and is willing to spend tens of millions of personal wealth to make it happen. This is a showman looking to drum up business by pushing his brand in the biggest spotlight he can find.
Lest you forget, this is hardly the first time Trump has made a show of pretending to run for president. He first publicly speculated about a run for the Oval Office way back in 1988, when he was doing well and his ego was in full bloom. Then he didn't bother with such superficial activities during the 1990s, when he was putting his Trumpty Humpty Dumpty image back together again. By 2000, however, the new and improved Donald Trump had re-emerged as a modern public spectacle, and he took a shot at the presidential nomination for Perot's Reform Party. He even won the California primary, which is kind of like winning a junior high school science fair by paying to have actual lava dumped on that one kid's baking soda-vinegar volcano. But despite claiming the Golden State in the name of fruitcake schismatics, in the end Trump failed to earn the Reform Party's nod. That special honor went to a more committed political lunatic: Pat Buchanan. In 2004, Trump once more made waves about running for president, and then again recently as 2012, in case you'd already forgotten. Along the way, he talked loud and long about running for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014.
In each case, all of these electoral bids went no where, precisely because they weren't designed to go anywhere. The point is not to become president or governor. Rather, the point is to run your name up a flagpole, see how many slightly confused and very excited people salute it, and then capitalize on the notoriety by continuing to brand yourself. Afterwards, you're not just Dubious Billionaire Donald Trump, but also Dubious Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
And that's exactly why, yet again, Donald Trump has tossed his hat into the presidential ring. Not to become president, but merely so he can get free publicity of the highest order and burnish his brand, thereby continuing his reign as the nation's most insidious, insulting and, sadly, successful pitchman.
Okay, okay, you say, so all those other half-assed, go-nowhere political dalliances were just part of his relentless self-branding operation. But this time it's different. He's leading in the goddamn GOP polls!
It's a perfectly reasonable concern, especially given what a truly horrible person Trump has been at least since 1978, when The Village Voice first ran an exposé of him.
Thus looms the important question: What in the hell is going on here?
My short answer is: Not much, and it'll be over soon.
But that may not be enough to satiate you, so let's tackle the more in depth questions. In the media, public discourse, and personal communications, the following queries keep cropping up:
-Why are so many voters attracted to Trump?
-How do you explain his current success?
-What does that success say about our political system and society?
-Will he win the GOP nomination?
My brief answers are, in order:
-It's not actually that many
-Freud + Bugs Bunny
-Not in this fucking lifetime
Now let me flesh that out a little bit.
Let's start with the supposedly massive popular support Donald Trump is garnering. Yes, it's true that as of Friday, August 21, he's ahead in the polls for the GOP nomination. His percentage is in the high teens or low twenties, depending on which polls you go by. And in a field of 15 candidates, that works out to a substantial lead. He's currently lapping second place contender Jeb Bush.
But hold on just a minute. First off, it's important to remember that these polls don't reflect the general pubic or even the general voting public. These are polls of only Republicans. So how many registered Republican are there exactly?
According to Gallup, as of this past July, it's only 23% of registered voters. Democrats claim another 28%. And by far the largest group of Americans registered to vote are Independents, who comprise 46% of the electorate. So among a polling group that constitutes fewer than one-quarter of the nation's registered voters, Trump is currently the preferred candidate among roughly one-fifth of them.
In other words, among all of the registered voters in the United States, fewer than 5% currently think Donald Trump is the bee's knees.
Now contemplate that for a moment. Is one out of every twenty people you know a bit of a numnutz? Yeah? That about fair? Right then, so before you get yourself into a tizzy about how half the nation wants this whackadoo hair pie to be our next president, keep the numbers in perspective.
Let's see if Trump can actually win a primary before we start buying gaudy new drapes and gimcrack china for the White House. Let's see if he's still standing when the Republican field winnows from 15 to 5 before we assume all of this will end up as anything other than a quaint jolt of nostalgia 10 years from now.
That being said, Trump is certainly enjoying a surprising degree of popularity at the moment, not to mention some seriously outsized media coverage. His poll numbers are at least double each of the next two contenders in the field, Bush and Ben Carson, and everyone else is in single digits. So while reasonably recognizing his current success without getting carried away, it's fair to ask: What explains it?
Simply put, it's the Donald Trump brand, and what that brand represents to a very narrow slice of a frustrated electorate.
The image that Donald Trump has fostered lo these many years is that of the successful, brash, no-nonsense businessman who offers up a loud, New York City version of being aggressively plainspoken with nary a care of what you or anyone else thinks about it.
Yes, I and a lot of other people, probably you included, think he's a tiresome blowhard. But whether you buy it or not, the popular public image of Donald Trump, which springs from his relentless branding efforts, is the guy who says what's on his mind, who does what he wants, and who, along the way, cuts through all of society's insincere and misguided niceties.
In other words, he's a little id monster in the Freudian sense. He does and says whatever he wants when and wherever he wants. You know. A complete and utter fucking asshole.
But the charismatic version of a little id monster is someone people will love, rally behind, and make excuses for. A charismatic id monster is the person you wish you could be. A desperado among martyrs and imbeciles.
Think Bugs Bunny.
Everyone loves to root for that rascally rabbit. Constantly confronting stupid and mean people in an uncaring world, he outfoxes them at nearly every turn, and that make you happy. That there bunny's making the world right for the rest of us. You know, even if he is a bit of a handful.
And that's why a relatively small group of Americans is supporting Trump right now. They don't care what he's saying. They just like the way he says things. Because like everyone else, they too wish they could say whatever they want where and whenever you want.
The actual content of Trump's statements? Almost entirely irrelevant. Seriously. Let me give you an example.
In mid-July, I was visiting the friend of a friend in Omaha, Nebraska. This person is a native of the state and fairly conservative. The kind of person who in 2015 thinks allowing gays to marry is an infringement of her rights as a Catholic.
This person was very excited about Trump. When questioned about why, she said: "He's just saying out loud what everyone else believes."
And what had Donald Trump most recently said out loud? That John McCain was essentially a loser because he'd been a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam.
"He's not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."
If anyone else had said it, it might have ended their campaign on the spot. It certainly would have required a retraction and heartfelt apology. But Trump said it, didn't backdown, and then emerged from the subsequent controversy with higher poll numbers than when he started. Among hawkish Republicans!
Now think about this for a second. We're talking about a woman who might as well be flying one of those MIA/Never Forget flags atop her garage. And she's lauding Trump for "saying what everyone else believes," just as he was making headlines for saying something that's the exact opposite of what she actually believes.
On one hand, the cognitive disconnect at work here is absolutely stunning. But it's the other hand that sheds light on the Trump phenomenon. And that hand opens to reveal a person who isn't supporting Donald Trump because she's lockstep with his policy agendas, which beyond "Send back the immigrants and build wall!" range between the vague and the unspoken. She's supporting Trump because she's buying the Trump brand.
It's not that Trump is saying what she thinks, other than on the topic of immigration. For example, Trump is pro-abortion rights. She thinks abortion is murder. So it's not what Trump is saying. It's that he's saying whatever the hell he wants. Wherever the hell he wants. Whenever the hell he wants. Including on the campaign trail while there are microphones in his face and the cameras are rolling. And that devil-may-care hubris has attracted her.
Donald Trump is her Bugs Bunny.
This woman also wants to say whatever the hell she wants. As do I. As do you. But like most sensible people, we're all afraid of the consequences should we publicly voice some of the things we think. So we keep certain things to ourselves or our close confidants. And we cheer or laugh when a charismatic character, like Bugs or maybe some clever comedian, crosses a certain line. We get a thrill from it. We root for them, and salute their courage and honesty. That person becomes a reflection of your id.
If you have really bad taste, that person is Donald Trump.
So what then does Trump's current standing atop the Republican field say about our political system? Not much. It certainly doesn't say a lot about the electorate's views on specific political issues, because Trump says almost nothing about specific political issues. He's not tapping into some deep political vein in America. He's just being Trump.
That's why the rest of the GOP field is so confused about what to do. Trump is not a serious candidate making serious statements. He's just mouthing off, and a small segment of Americans are clapping and shouting Yay! It just happens to be a small segment of Americans that are very important to those other 14 GOP candidates. So the other candidates stand there, a bit dazed and confused, some of them criticizing Trump, some of them mimicking him, and all of them waiting for Trump mania to blow over. Which it will.
Because there is absolutely no way in hell Donald Trump is going to win the Republican presidential nomination, much less the 2016 election.
And if I'm wrong, I'll sell my row home, max out my credit cards, and buy all of you aggrieved readers plane tickets to Canada, while I remain behind and endure the unimaginably surreal ravages of a Trump presidency.
But it won't come to that. So just settle down. It's still August. Of 2015. The actual election more than 14 months away. The Republican convention is nearly a year away. The very first primaries and caucuses aren't until the dead of winter, and I'm still sweating like a pig here in Baltimore.
Towards the end of the year, as the leaves turn and fall, and things begin to get more serious, the spotlight will get brighter. And then all of Trump's countless faults will be harder and harder to avoid. That small group of Americans currently drawn to his id monster persona will decide that, as much as they wish they could be like him, they really don't want an unfunny Bugs Bunny with a comb over for president.
Furthermore, as other candidates fade from the field during the first two or three months of 2015, their erstwhile supporters will not flock to Donald Trump. Why? Because the ones who currently support serious candidates will move on to other serious candidates who remain. I mean honestly now. Can you envision current supporters of Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Paul Kasich, or Rand Paul shrugging and just moving on to Trump instead of one of the other candidates who's not a walking punch line?
It's not happening. Most of those voters want someone serious. Most of them also want someone who can win the general election, which Trump cannot.
And as for those people currently throwing their support behind other loony toon characters like Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, or Foghorn Leghorn? Who knows. But their numbers are too small to matter. Carson and Santorum combined are polling about 10%. I like Leghorn as a write-in candidate, although I'm not sure he'll do well outside the South. We'll see.
In the end, however, despite what will undoubtedly be his rapid political unraveling in the weeks or months to come, Donald Trump really will win, in a way.
After his ramshackle campaign finally winds down, after the sideshow packs up and goes home, after the smoke clears and the lights dim, in the United States and around the world, the Trump brand will be more recognizable than ever before. And then he can continue to pimp himself to anyone out there who's willing to trade big bags of money for his punny name or his endless bluster.
Donald Trump will never be president of the United States, I assure you that. But he will always be The Donald, a pied piper for people with bubbling frustrations and runaway dreams. And you can buy him whenever you like.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. There, among other things, you can find his prior writings on Donald Trump, including his dissection of The Donald's failed presidential bid four years ago.
Ashley Madison hack reveals nothing surprising at all
by Sarah Firisen
Big news: millions of married people, mainly men, are using the Internet to try to cheat on their spouses. The Ashley Madison hack scandal, the data dump of records of 32 million would-be adulterers, is apparently a surprise to some people. Not to me. Ever since I started online dating after my divorce, I’ve been blown away by the realization of just how many people, not all men, but probably primarily men, are in some way or another looking to cheat on a spouse. Based on the interactions I had over a few years, I’d break down these men (and I was only interacting with men) into a few categories:
- Saying they’re in open marriages – maybe they are, maybe they’re not.
- Feeling out the waters, maybe indulging in some online flirtation for titillation but probably wouldn’t go through with anything in person – probably
- Making their status as married men looking for an affair very clear upfront – not many of these
- Pretending to be single and actively cheating on spouses
I was a big Googler of men I was considering dating. Call me paranoid, suspicious, closed minded, whatever you want. The fact is, what I used to find by pretty simple Google searches of these men was pretty horrifying. There was the guy whose Tinder profile photo turned out to be his wedding photo up on Facebook, except with his wife cropped out for his dating profile. When I called him on his marital status, he of course initially tried to pretend otherwise. When I told him his wife’s name and where she lived (people, secure your Facebook pages for heaven’s sake), he finally spiraled through a bunch of lies: they were separated – I pointed out that in a Facebook post the week before she called him the love of her life and said that these 3 months of marriage – yes, they were newlyweds – had been the happiest of her life. Then he told me that he was planning on leaving her, she just didn’t know yet. Then, he told me she was pregnant.
I do think that, as this opinion piece points out, one of the more troubling revelations of this hacking scandal is that it’s shown how many people are stupid enough to use real email addresses, and in many cases work email addresses, often government emails, to sign up for a site like Ashley Madison. Or in fact any dating website. Given how trivially easy it is to sign up for a Gmail account, I believe that the women who discover that their husbands didn’t bother to do that before signing up to cheat, should divorce them for stupidity if nothing else. A friend of a friend’s email turned up in this data dump and he is a professional IT security consultant! All his clients should immediately fire him for this faux pas.
I’m thrilled that all Americans straight and gay now have the right to marry. I’m just not sure why anyone is bothering anymore. Is anyone really happily married? Okay, past the first 5 years, is anyone happily married? Let’s take out people who never had children, they may still be happy. Everyone else? Another friend had dated a guy for a few months. Things fell apart. She found his name in the Ashley Madison list. He’d admitted to her that when he was married he had an affair when he'd been married, but he claimed that it was a one-time fling with someone he knew, clearly not true given the existence of his name in this data dump. Said friend and I both agreed that she’d dodged a bullet there; we both felt that there’s all the difference in the world between something that just sort of happens between two people who know each other. Drinking too much at the Christmas party, traveling a lot for work together, a lot of us can imagine how something might start with a colleague or friend. Maybe we haven’t cheated, but the opportunity and the temptation has presented itself. But signing up for an online dating site in order to cheat, that’s really in a different league in my opinion. And maybe that’s the problem these days, it’s just so easy to do that.
The old fashioned way of cheating took effort. It took opportunity. There was risk and the real danger of exposure. Nowadays, the barrier to entry is so damned low. Of course, if you’re an idiot and use your Facebook photos for your dating profile, or use your real email address, or any of the things that are so easy to search on and expose, then the risk and danger can be even greater than it used to be; I often knew who these men’s wives were from Facebook and could have easily contacted them. But if you employ even a modicum of common sense, it’s possible to cheat away to your heart’s content.
So the question is, how many people do? This article does a back of the envelope calculation “Let’s guess that 10 million accounts are real and from the United States, and nearly all are men. That still seems high, actually, as there are only 65 million married men in the United States, so that would put 15 percent of them on Ashley Madison.” And that doesn’t include men not using this site but using Tinder or OK Cupid or something else. That is a hell of a lot of men trying to cheat. And that number doesn’t include people who are cheating and not using online tools to meet their hookups. I read one number that claims that 30-60% of all married people in the USA will engage in infidelity at some point in their married lives. I could imagine it being higher actually. And given the number of divorces, I’m probably right.
The wedding industry is a juggernaut in this country and we’re still bombarded with treacle sweet goo about romance, love and marriage from all sides. I try to not be too jaundiced, but these days, when someone gleefully tells me they’re getting married, I start to calculate how many good years the marriage likely has. It’s so easy to get caught up in the stuff, the bridal showers, engagement parties, wedding dresses, gift registries, all the things that make weddings so desirable for so many people, honestly, particularly women. I know a disturbingly large number of smart, educated, professionally successful women in their late 30s early 40s who will willingly admit that they consider themselves failures for not being married yet. Why is this? Why do they so long to throw themselves into an institution that, by any standards, isn’t a success. Will the hard facts of this Ashley Madison hack bring a cold shower of reality to these women?
Monday, August 17, 2015
Making a Case
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Textbook discussions of logic often proceed as if reasoning were a relatively simple, albeit challenging, process. One simply begins from one's evidence, articulates one's premises, and then, by means of the application of rules of induction or deduction, one draws one's conclusion. On this common picture, the assessment of reasoning fixes on two main elements: (1) the quality of one's premises given one's evidence; and (2) the quality of the inference by which one's conclusion is drawn. From this perspective, there has emerged a wealth of important theorizing about the various logical properties that reasoning can embody, including validity, soundness, cogency, and supportiveness.
Yet we all know that in real-time contexts, reasoning is a far more complicated affair. For one thing, real-time reasoning occurs under conditions where one must draw one's conclusion on the basis of partial or conflicted evidence. We often must reason while relevant evidence is still being gathered and evaluated. Reasoning, under these conditions, inevitably involves the drawing of provisional conclusions based on premises rooted in incomplete evidence. Consequently, reasoning in real-time is largely a matter of coordinating and calibrating one's conclusion with an unsteady and still-developing evidential environment. Moreover, much of the reasoning we do as issues develop is reason in light of the fact that we often already have a view on the matter. We've drawn a conclusion earlier, and now we are revisiting the question of whether we must revise it. That is, we must not only reason critically before we form beliefs, but we also must reason critically after we form them, too. To employ a philosopher's distinction: textbook treatments emphasize the role reasoning plays in the acquisition and justification of beliefs, whereas in real-world contexts reasoning has mainly to do with the maintenance and revision of beliefs.
Of course, in real-world contexts, even modest changes of belief can be practically costly, and sometimes psychologically taxing. Unsurprisingly, then, a lot of real-world reasoning aims at preserving one's belief in the light of new and unanticipated evidence. In confronting new data, we understandably try to hold on to the belief we formed previously. One sure-fire way of accomplishing this is to show how the new evidence lends further support to what we already believe. Failing that, we can also attempt to establish that the new data poses no challenge to the existing belief. To be sure, there are methods of belief-preservation that are intellectually vicious and dishonest; what is called rationalization is one case in point. Nonetheless, holding one's belief steady in the face of new data is not intrinsically degenerate, and, again, a lot of important work has been done in argumentation theory and epistemology that attempts to give an account of intellectually virtuous belief-preservation in the face of new evidence. Of course, we cannot survey this work here. But there is one important feature of virtuous belief-preservation that we want to highlight.
We can capture the points just made about real-world reasoning by saying that much of our reasoning is aimed at making a case. Again, we often must draw provisional conclusions from incomplete data, and, given the costliness of belief-revision, we must attempt to preserve insofar as we can our preliminary conclusions in the face of new and unanticipated evidence. We might say, then, that in contexts where evidence is still being gathered, once we reason our way to a conclusion from our initial evidence, we then must reason back from the conclusion to accommodate the new data. In other words, we draw from the various considerations available to us at the time in building support for our antecedently-drawn conclusion.
The important thing to notice is that when one is making a case for a conclusion, one is engaged in a comparative enterprise. Unlike the demonstrations and proofs of formal logic, making a case involves showing how newly-collected data either contributes to the existing support for one's conclusion, or at least does not detract from it. However, the degree of support that is enjoyed by one's conclusion is partially a matter of the degree to which opposing conclusions are supported by the available data. A new piece of evidence lends no real support to one's own conclusion unless it either speaks against or does not affect its competitors. Making a case, then, must have a two-steps. First, one must show how new data lends support to (or does not detract from the existing support of) one's conclusion. Second, one must show, at the very least, that the new data does not provide an equal degree of support for opposing conclusions.
This second comparative dimension of making a case is frequently overlooked in real-world argumentation. Often in these contexts one finds reasoners simply showing that new data support or can be accommodated by their antecedent view. Rarely do they take up the task of comparing the degree of support the new data lends to their own view to the impact of that very data on their opponents' views. And this failure to compare is a mark of the intellectually vicious kind of belief-preservation. Until the comparative force of new data is reckoned, one engages only in rationalization, cherry-picking, or casuistry on behalf of one's conclusion; one fails to make a case for it.
A few lessons arise from these observations. First, we can see why a kind of intellectual conservatism arises from the procedural tasks of cognitive rationality – if one is allowed to form beliefs in medias res, then one will be inclined to reason in light of those beliefs going forward. Second, we can see why a certain vice of conservatism arises, too – if one is looking only at the rational considerations on the maintenance of the belief, one misses the comparative work of assessing how the new evidence affects the status of other commitments. Third, and finally, we can see the importance of John Stuart Mill's requirement that one know the views of one's critics and opponents well, too. Without that knowledge and comparative work, what looks from the inside as manifest rationality is actually an exercise in rationalization.
Our point can be summarized like this. Much real-world reasoning is devoted to making a case for an antecedently-drawn conclusion in the light of new evidence. If they are to avoid the intellectual vices associated with rationalization and other failures when making a case, reasoners must consider the ways in which new data impact the support not only of their antecedent view, but also of the opposing views.
Blob Justice, Part 1
"Dear Cecil! I have no secrets from you."
~ Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost
Remember Cecil the Lion? It wasn't that long ago, but given the half-life of outrage on the Internet, I will forgive you a moment of head-scratching. Let me summarize that Cecil was lured from his protected home in Zimbabwe to an adjoining game reserve only to be shot, tracked for 40 hours, finished off, and finally decapitated by a dentist from Minnesota and his co-conspirators, all of whom, the Internet has resoundingly agreed, are cowards. Said dentist, a certain Walter Palmer, has since seen his business vandalized, and has gone into hiding after receiving death threats against himself and his family. He has generally been subjected to enough unpleasantries that would rival the most botched root canal. Such is the nature of Internet justice today.
You may cry, He deserves it! Killing such a magnificent beast, etc etc. I don't dispute the obviously reprehensible barbarism of this act. But the anachronistic nature of big game hunting has been followed up by the equally anachronistic resurgence of public shaming and mob justice. So let's take a closer look at how – or better yet, why – the citizenry of the Internet fearlessly takes up the mantle of vigilantism, and to what effect. I've decided to divide this post into two parts: this first part will discuss a few concrete examples of public shaming, and the second will look at some theoretical frameworks that may help us make sense of it all.
Before Cecil the Lion, there was Justine Sacco. For those of you with exceptionally long Internet memories – and to be clear, I'm not sure why having a long memory for things Internet-related is that useful, as it's just depressing to see the same things repeated in ever-quickening cycles – Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications for IAC, a billion-dollar media corporation. Jetting off to South Africa for family holidays in winter 2013, she tweeted a few poorly considered thoughts to her 170 followers but struck outrage gold with the one that said "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
We could try to parse what she actually meant by that. For example, a generous interpretation would be that she was sarcastically musing on the conditions of white privilege. It's more likely that she wasn't thinking very much at all. What is certain is that, by the time her plane landed, her career was effectively over.
As Jon Ronson wrote in an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine on Internet shaming, "The furor over Sacco's tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc." Although it took IAC a few weeks to fire her, the furor was so instantly incandescent that the company had to tweet that she was "unreachable" as she was still in the air. After her demise, Sacco opted for the classic redemption narrative, by volunteering for an NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, she has not so much redeemed herself in the eyes of the public (as she wasn't a public figure to begin with) as simply sunk beneath the digital waves.
Let's also not delude ourselves that it's only the allegedly guilty parties that get their comeuppance. A few months before Justine Sacco's demise, software "developer evangelist" Adria Richards was attending a programmer conference on behalf of her startup SendGrid when she overheard two male attendees making crude sexual jokes. She tweeted the jokes and photos of the jokers, and within hours the two had been identified and reported to the conference organizers. Not long afterwards – and by ‘not long' I mean 24 hours – one of them had lost his job. As for Richards, she was subjected to a depressingly predictable barrage of online harassment, but the real corker came when her own employer fired her. In a blog post oh-so-delicately titled "A Difficult Situation" the CEO explained:
A SendGrid developer evangelist's responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.
What's really noteworthy here is not simply the weight of the consequences – people losing their jobs left and right – but the swiftness of it all. There is also the unsurprising fact that any corporation, even if it is a startup, has little to no tolerance for controversy of any sort. An employee who is in the news for anything other than rescuing kittens from a burning building is a liability, their own track record and talents notwithstanding. Further to their misfortune, both Richards and Sacco were communications professionals: Richards did community development, while Sacco held a fairly senior position in public relations for a much larger firm. Of course, the first lesson in communications/PR is to always be ahead of the story, but both Richards and Sacco never had a chance. Once their respective tweets had gone supernova, the narrative was permanently out of their hands. As communications professionals, I'm somewhat surprised that they were not more circumspect about their decisions in the first place; on the other hand, the fact that two communications professionals made such catastrophic errors holds out very little hope for the rest of us. We find social media attractive because, at first blush, it is liquid, dynamic and impermanent, but the presences that we have created over the years are ossifying into a permanent, easily searchable record. With the way that things are going, about half of the US population will be considered unemployable by the conflict-avoidant firms of tomorrow.
It is astonishing how the Internet, once its sights are set on an individual, incinerates immediately and without recourse. It's as if social media is a magnifying glass, concentrating the rays of righteous outrage, and we are ants, randomly selected to fry for some original sin committed 15 minutes earlier. Who could possibly survive in such a noxious environment, let alone thrive? I'm glad you asked, since this question brings us to the latest and greatest Internet outrage generator: Donald Trump. I would like to dub Trump the apotheosis of this phenomenon, but it's doubtful that anything can ever be considered apotheotic when it comes to the Internet.
Trump's great innovation has been to unapologetically, even gleefully ride the bucking bronco of Internet outrage. Every prediction of his demise has been premature, from his initial campaign salvo that Mexicans send us their rapists, to the dissing of John McCain's years as a Vietnam POW, to the most recent tussle with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. Professional wrestlers have leveraged the same formula for decades: trash talk the competition and never back down, even if or when you get thrashed by reality. But since we are playing in the political arena, the consequences have been wholly unintended, even by Internet standards: as Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone, "The [other GOP] candidates have had to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics in order to win press attention. …So much for the cautious feeling-out period: For the candidates, it [is] toss grenades or die."
It's as yet unclear how this will play out. Some would like to argue that Trump is outing the GOP for what it is: a morally bankrupt ideology flush out of not just ideas but also support, outside of an increasingly irrelevant fringe. Others, especially on the left, are glorying in Trump's candid admission that he buys favors and that's how the political system works (although I'll point out that he didn't really say that, if elected, he would fix it). Taibbi looks at it very differently. For him, Trump's harnessing of the outrage machine has pulled the GOP even further to the right, with all the foreseeable consequences for bipartisan dialogue and general political sanity. Of course, the longevity of Trump's candidacy will be the ultimate measure of his influence, but I think that even at this early stage in the election cycle, the impetus of the race has decidedly shifted to grabbing media attention much sooner than otherwise would have been the case.
It's clear that the four individuals whose cases I have lightly sketched here occupy varying positions on the spectrum of verdict-by-Internet, and as such it's equally clear that social media vigilantism is, among other things, blind. Justine Sacco blew up her career with a thoughtless tweet. Did her message reveal a callow disregard for Africans, or was it indicative of the hopelessly pervasive casual racism that it feels like we will never resolve? I don't know. Adria Richards lost her own job after blowing the whistle on what she considered to be unconscionable sexism. Were the jokers in fact hard-boiled misogynists or just maladroit computer nerds? I don't know the answer to that, either. You may maintain that the answer is in fact irrelevant, but if so, I would ask, did anyone deserve to lose their jobs over these incidents? Another way of putting it is, Were the punishments commensurate to the crimes, which weren't even crimes, at least so far as I understand the law? As for Donald Trump, he really doesn't care what you think, and there's no one to fire him anyway, unless enough voters get together to shoo him away, which remains to be seen (Exhibit A: Silvio Berlusconi).
As for poor Cecil, what lessons can we draw from his untimely demise? If Walter Palmer is to be believed, it would seem that, however reprehensible the act itself may have been, he acted in good faith and within the law. The people who broke the law – by luring Cecil out of the park and into a game reserve – were his guides, or perhaps people hired by those guides. I am sure that the story is much murkier than that, of course, but I am reserving judgment for the moment. Social media has come down hard on the side of lion conservation, and the idea that paid-for hunting has any role to play in conservation has been ridiculed. For those of us who sit in front of our computer screens and not in Land Rovers on the savannah, it is all too easy to discount the presence of complex and stressed societies that live in proximity to these wild animals. How can this not be a factor? So I was interested to hear the BBC interview one of the scientists whose organization was tracking Cecil. When asked about the issue, he flatly said that, if it wasn't for hunting license fees that went into the local economy, the entire park would be poached out of existence within a few months. Not just lions, but anything that had market value. But you go tell the mob that – I'm not going to risk it.
Next month, I'll examine some more theoretical approaches to why Internet vigilantism happens. With the help of Herodotus, David Graeber and even Slavoj Žižek, I'll try to propose a more satisfying framework; I suspect it will begin with the concept of bullying. But in the intervening few weeks, I look forward to more excellent examples of outrage surfacing.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Photograph, part of the series Ultradistancia: Monsters.
"... a sub serie from the acclaimed ULTRADISTANCIA series. From the precise eye of google earth imaginary emerges geographic shapes and geometries that transform cities, peninsulas, neighborhoods and ports into animals and monsters."
The Watchman's Tale
Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first
Even before its publication, Go Set a Watchman had become controversial, acquiring a whiff of conspiracy, inauthenticity, and foul play. It seemed unbelievable that Harper Lee would publish again after more than half a century of quiescence—and that too a novel written long ago and thematically near to her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird has become an American classic and standard reading in every American high school. It is revered for its poignant telling of a thoughtful and courageous white man who does his best to hold up the candle of racial justice in the Jim Crow South. How could anything new live up to that? Why would Lee imperil her own legacy?
Since the release of Watchman, many readers have indeed announced their heartbreak over the revelations and struggles contained within. This new story takes place in the same small Alabama town we came to know in Mockingbird, where the endearingly wild little Scout grew up learning from her father, Atticus Finch, to recognize the humanity of those who seemed different from herself. But it’s now twenty years later and we meet the young woman Scout has grown into. On a visit from New York to her hometown in the mid-50s, the twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch—who no longer goes by her childhood nickname—finds it transformed by time, the postwar economy, and the emergent Civil Rights movement. Much of the story centers around Jean Louise’s sense of unbelonging in the place where her roots remain yet deeply felt, and the cognitive dissonance she suffers as she discovers the people she most loved and trusted to be unapologetic racists:
Many readers feel betrayed because our good man, Atticus Finch, has now crossed over to the wrong side of history and become a committed segregationist. Some readers have dismissed the book altogether, proclaiming it a fraud, not really written by Harper Lee. Others hold that the existence of the manuscript was meant to remain Lee’s unmentionable secret, a horrible failure of an aborted novel that was made public without her consent. Lee is imagined to be the hapless victim of greedy publishers and lawyers, whom she might have trusted to let her fade into the sunset with quiet dignity; instead, the dear old lady has been used.
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? … Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes… but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out of the window any time, now.
For how is it that Lee’s Atticus is now heard to declaim racist, eugenicist platitudes? How could she abide this unforgivable flaw in her beloved story, undermining the whole of it, ripping away the sweet sadness we remember of Mockingbird—and with it, our complacency with its story? For did we not all identify with Atticus, the flawless patriarch who would, in time, with untiring patience and unfaltering compassion, set the world right? Were we not to learn from him and hope to follow in his footsteps? Like his own daughter, Jean Louise, we are personally injured to see what he has become in his old age.
But to dismiss the story as an error or a betrayal misses the point. What makes Watchman worth reading is not that it should further reassure us of our heroic intentions against racism, nor feed our sepia fantasies for those days when quiet heroes fought righteous lonely battles. Rather, it’s worth reading because of its raw honesty, because it shows us how pervasive and insidious racism is and lays bare how racism actually works among us. Watchman reflects back upon its predecessor the shattering light of a more adult awareness, banishing the darkness of innocence in which we had wished to hide. Whatever its flaws in novelistic structure, Watchman is a more profound and important novel than its prelude. In the way of so many first novels of youth, this one reads like an attempt at catharsis, a fire coming up raw from the gut; one can see that Lee had trouble taming it, trimming it, shaping it into something her editors would accept as a publishable work. It is not a work of great maturity, which should be no surprise from a writer so young as Lee was when she wrote this, but it’s a tellingly sharp portrait of America as it was, with implications for what it has become.
Watchman is the sprawling, angsty stream-of-consciousness of an independent-minded young woman who is finally forced to confront the knotted and deeply rooted racism and sexism of her hometown, once obscured from her view in part by her naive and privileged childhood and in part by the conventions of Jim Crow. But now the blinders have fallen from her eyes and she must wrestle with her instinctive revulsion of the odious segregationist ideas espoused by the people whom she holds most dear in the world. Jean Louise does not by any means have her ideas on race, class, civil rights, or feminism neatly sorted into politically correct semantics or ideologies: little Scout has hardly grown up to be a civil rights activist or a fan of the NAACP—nor does she seem to have had much exposure to au courant conversations on these matters. She is merely feeling her way through the issues, as most people do. We read her howling struggle, as she tries—not always successfully—to break through the surfaces of her social world in search of what her conscience tells her is true, the same conscience that those who now offend her had once nurtured in her. In the most heartbreaking scene of the book, Jean Louise confronts Calpurnia, the black woman who raised her, to discover that buried iniquities may have lain beneath even the relationship that had most intimately sustained and guided her as a child.
Jean Louise also struggles against the conventional limitations on the lives of women in her orbit, uncertain how to reconcile the independence and liberty she craves with the life she’s supposed to want. Indeed, it seems a significant omission in most of the commentary on the book that Jean Louise’s agony and alienation from her world are grounded as much in its sexism as in its racism. However, her real confrontation on this front takes place only within the sphere of her relationship with her childhood friend and adulthood beau, Hank, and her fight with him never achieves the invective she reserves for the matter of racial segregation. This is in part because Jean Louise is less confident in her convictions about how an independent woman might properly or happily live; she verges on readiness to capitulate to marriage and the diminutions it will entail for her. And for his part, Hank never seriously believes that Jean Louise might ultimately refuse him, so that their banter about the future of their relationship always remains a kind of tease. When Jean Louise finally does repudiate Hank, she tells us it’s because he’s a segregationist, not because he would ask her to subsume her life to his.
Watchman is filled with childhood reminiscences that are of a piece with its predecessor. But while the events of Mockingbird occur before Scout is ten, the memories in Watchman focus more upon her adolescence, her first menstruation, her first date, her sense of foreboding and loneliness as she approaches womanhood. It’s possible that the episodes of her earlier childhood memories were culled from this volume to be fashioned into what would become Mockingbird, expanded, shaped, and given an ending of sorts. Watchman makes only passing reference to the courtroom trial around which the central drama of Mockingbird is based, beginning with this revelation:
Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.
Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.
Of course, this isn’t what happened in Mockingbird. In fact the defendant, Tom Robbins, was found guilty and sent to jail, where he was killed. And while in Mockingbird Scout understands Atticus’s unpopular defense of a black man to be in service to a fight for racial equality, in Watchman, Lee underscores that though Atticus was indeed a man of integrity trying to do the right thing—that is, to defend an innocent man—racial inequity was not his fight. Atticus, we come to understand, is a peaceable man who wishes to treat all people with fairness and kindness, but at base his best intentions towards blacks have always been merely paternalistic. And as the fight for civil rights has heated up in Maycomb County, enabling racial confrontations that Jim Crow had once kept submerged and threatening the de facto privilege of his people, Atticus—with the same integrity, the same softness—openly aligns himself with those who wish to defend their town from actual racial equality, to defend it as a space where whites will remain socially and economically dominant.
Considering Lee’s two books as a set will be edifying for those who admit that, even when we read Mockingbird as a teenager, we had found Atticus’s occasional and subtle moral evasions unsettling, Scout’s neatly sorted world of good folks and “white trash” not fully baked, and the cloying sexism that dogs Scout to the last word distressing. For we no longer have a simple tale of unqualified heroism, but we have something more true: a story with ambiguity and dissonance, a story about a young woman trying to make sense of a difficult and disappointing world. As an adult, Jean Louise finds herself fighting both for and against the urge to break away from her people and the presumptions of her childhood in order to learn to trust her individual conscience—the titular watchman. She begins to understand the danger of casting even her father, even a man like Atticus Finch, as an unblemished hero in the way that she did as a child. And as she verges on the realization that there must come a time to put away the things of childhood and find one’s own way in the world, this book, like the one before it, ends not with a flourish of triumph, but with the sense that the struggle will continue.
Usha Alexander is a writer living in Gurgaon, India. Only the Eyes Are Mine is the title of her first novel.
Monday, August 03, 2015
Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón, Coal.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Eating Icleand: A Photo Essay
by Akim Reinhardt
It was my first time visiting, and before arriving, I didn't know much about this nearly arctic island other than some vagaries about vikings and banking scandals. So I had very little in the way of preconceived notions about the cuisine, and didn't expect anything in particular.
It turns out the food was quite good. There's lots of soup, and I'm a whore for soup, so that was a good match. Also tons of seafood, which is another favorite of mine, although it doesn't quite drive me to walk the streets with a handkerchief dangling behind my shoulder. And then there's also various treats, ranging from liquor to throat lozenges, that feature harshly medicinal herbal flavors. Cheers to that, I say.
Oh, and the chocolate. Far better than I would've guessed. No nonsense. Dark, chalky and delicious.
I don't eat meat, so all that mutton was lost on me, but overall I found Iceland to be a wonderful culinary experience. However, there were also elements of the surreal, which is often the case when one ventures into a new land for the first time. And that is what I would like to share in this photo essay.
What follows are images of and brief comments about things that are neither right or wrong, but rather just make me smile and remind me that we are all very strange.
Wait. Okay, some of them are actually quite wrong and don't make me smile at all, but we can't turn away. So let the menagerie begin.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
medieval predilections (臥遊)
by Leanne Ogasawara
In Japan, I knew a gentleman who ran a 200 year old miso shop. K san was also a bon vivant par excellance! Studying Samurai-style (Enshu school) tea ceremony, he wore stylish kimono by day and organized French film festivals for our town on the weekends. He also spent a fortune on tea bowls and art, which he often would show to his friends.
Everyone in town knew him and his miso shop was a gathering place of local luminaries.
Of all the interesting things he was involved in, my favorite was his gramophone club. Once a month like-minded collectors would show up with a favorite record (or not) and sit around listening to old records while drinking sake. Need I say more? The man had endless curiosity and tremendous style. He was my kinda guy!
Speaking of which, I recently finished the most unusual book by Normon Cantor, called Inventing the Middle Ages. The book is about twenty prominent 20th century Medievalists and their impact on the study of the history of the Middle Ages. When I first heard that this book was not just a best seller but was so popular it was even available on Audible, I could hardly believe it! Really? I love anything related to the Middle Ages and so would have read the book no matter what, but I must admit that I was utterly fascinated by the popularity-- as well as the controversy surrounding this book, which after all was on such an obscure topic.
So, I picked up the book immediately.
I wasn't disappointed either.
The book is absolutely wonderful in conjuring up the genius and style of these men. Of the twenty prominent "giants" of Medieval scholarship, Cantor is perhaps best on Johan Huizinga (whose wonderful book on "play" I recently wrote about in these every pages). He is also really engaging on the topic of the inklings--JRR Tokien and CS Lewis, in particular. They all show up as such interesting characters--sharing (dare I say it) something in common with my old friend K san (not to mention with Mi Fu (of whom I wrote about in May). Something all these "characters" share could be summed up in this quote by CS Lewis (discussed at length by Cantor ), describing the way the inklings were engaged in an active resistance to the times:
“In talking to me you must beware because I am conscious of a partly pathological hostility to what is fashionable.”
That is how Mi Fu was. And so too K san, who believed that the golden age was in the past and it was there that one could find the most exemplary models for how to live. I think the inklings were like that, as described in Cantor's book:
Both men were deeply affected by a nostalgia and a love for a rapidly disappearing England graced by the middle-class, highly literate Christian culture into which they had been born. They saw a continuity of this culture stretching back into the Middle Ages, when, in their perception, it originated. For them, these vibrant, imaginative, complex Middle Ages were in many essentials still activated in the donnish world of mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge and the English countryside, if not so much in London. Lewis and Tolkien wanted not only to preserve but to revitalize through their writing and teaching this Anglo-Edwardian retromedieval culture.
Theirs was a reaction against the mechanistic, capitalistic, aggressive age inherited by Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, he would suggest. It really was not all that unlike the last Northern Song dynasty emperor, who turning away from the barbarians at the gate, continued to focus on the ancient bronzes of a thousand years earlier, since that was where virtue was to be found, he believed. (He lost his empire accordingly). Like Mi Fu and Emperor Huizong, this kind of cultural nostalgia (and a love of unicorns) could also be seen in Catholic converts like Graham Greene and Chesterton.... and my favorite Catholic convert of all, Evelyn Waugh. Like Lewis or Tolkien, Roman Catholicism for Waugh becomes a means to escape the relentless utilitarianism of our times. As Jenny Hendrix wrote about Waugh here:
By attaching himself to something ancient, Waugh was able to remain conservative even as Modernism, as he saw it, led the rest of history astray. (Joyce “ends up a lunatic,” he once said; he abhorred Picasso, plastics, and jazz.) A man committed to the defense of a nonexistent world, he loved nothing so much as a unicorn.
My astronomer and I are getting ready to head back to Europe to look at more pictures. We became so taken by the donor portraits we saw by van Eyck and Memling in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges --and, as I wrote here, I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Christ were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds.
At that time, I wondered if this was not the ultimate selfie. I was wrong. For what I should have said was that these donor paintings must be the ultimate anti-selfie!
The tremendous transportive power of these donor portraits reminds me a lot of the Southern Song dynasty landscapes from China. Highly contemplative, both styles of art aim to spiritually elevate by juxtaposing a the realism of physical landscape or interior with that of human imagination...
Dream Journey over Xiao Xiang 瀟湘臥遊図巻 is one of my favorite paintings in the world (see below) A Song dynasty masterpiece, it is now a National Treasure of Japan. Without a doubt, it is within this landscape that I travel more than anywhere. Maybe many of you will feel the same when I say that very rarely do I meet a person who is so agreeable; who engages me so fully on the level of the heart that I am quite certain that a lifetime with that person would never be enough. That is also how I feel about this painting. And, for 10 years it has been my computer desktop wallpaper. Some of you will, I suppose, be thinking: Wow, 10 years-- that's a long time to look at the same painting. But believe it or not, I never grow tired of looking at it; as it continues to fascinate and draw me in.
Lacking a fixed perspective, the southern Song landscapes are pictures that are not only viewed but are paintings that one can "walk around in." This is the Dream Journey implied by the painting's title. It is the potentially rich empty space in the painting-- the hallmark of Southern Song landscapes-- that in effect carries the viewer far beyond the painted images into a pure and natural realm beyond the "dust of the everyday world.
Obviously, it isn't easy to brush off the dust when one is living down on the flatlands-- where the air is foul and stifling-- so one needs props. "Gayu" is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters 臥遊 "dream journey." Like the ability to imagine mountains even when you are down on the plains, for a literati scholar it was paramount to always be able to access this world of cultivated mind and spirit-- even from within the dusty and oftentimes unbearable confines of ordinary life in the city.
The donor paintings functioned like that. They served as part of the person's spiritual practice. Both pictures also function as a kind of time slip.... in the case of the Chinese landscapes connecting the viewer to the pure and spiritually uplifted world of a golden age natural world and in the case of the Renaissance pictures connecting the imperfect participants to the heavenly world of saints and gods. Both are, in effect, a kind of nostalgia. Like for that of a unicorn.
Despite is snobbery and classist politics, I have always been a big fan of Evelyn Waugh. Like the other characters in this post, they are fascinating, clinging to fantasies of the past at the expense of their actual real life realities (Mad Ludwig being my own personal favorite). What is it about them that makes for such great story-telling? And what of the similar charisma of works of the kinds of art with which they were so enthralled (not to mention of quests and relics, phonographs and the tea ceremony of the samurai)? Cantor describes his medievalists as being unable to imaginatively and intellectually withdraw and accept defeat in the face of the decline they saw in the world. They resisted the levelling power of global capitalism and resisted in the only way they knew how--through a culturally-rooted pursuit of art, beauty and truth....Emperor Huizong and Mad King Luwig; the inklings and the Catholic converts...yes, Brideshead Revisted!-- For whatever reason you can name, as characters, these lovers of unicorns remain tremendously enigmatic (as is the art they loved!)
For more: "The Best Picture in the World"
I leave you with Rilke on the Unicorn Tapestries at Cluny:
O this is the beast who does not exist.
They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist
but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed
to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,
so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.
Steffani Jemison. Personal, 2014.
Part of a video series including Maniac Chase (2008-2009), and Escaped Lunatic (2010-1011). All are currently showing at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum.
Interview with Steffani here.
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy and the Place of Religious Discourse in Civic Life
by Bill Benzon
There can be little doubt that President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was an extraordinary performance and a powerful statement about the state of race relations in the United States of America. But it is also a bit puzzling, for that statement took the form of a sermon. As such, it was religious discourse and not secular political discourse.
That’s what I want to talk about, not to reach any specific conclusions, but to raise questions, to call for a conversation about and an examination of the role of religious discourse in civic life.
Rather than develop those questions directly, I want to place Obama’s eulogy on the table to a moment and consider a recent conversation between Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, and John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. That will establish the context in which I offer a few remarks about Obama’s performance. Then I want to place in evidence a statement that Robert Mann made about Laudato Si’, the recent and quite remarkable encyclical by Pope Francis.
The ‘Cult’ of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Loury and McWhorter had this conversation at Bloggingheads.tv on July 21, 2015. After opening pleasantries and some remarks about Obama, they move on to discuss the ascendancy of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a commentator on race relations in America. Starting at somewhat after nine minutes in McWhorter argues that Coates has become somewhat like the priest of a religion:
There is now what a Martian anthropologist would call a religion. Which is that one is to understand the role of racism in America’s past and present.
And Coates has reached a point, and this is not anything that I ever predicted, where he is the priest of it. Because, and this is the crucial point, James Baldwin […] his point was often that race IS America, that the race problem is the essence of America and where it needs to go. And people read that and they quoted it but it wasn’t something that ordinary white readers really felt at the time.
Whereas today, really, that is something that whites feel such that Coates is revered. He is not considered somebody where you actually assess whether what he’s saying is true, you’re only supposed to criticize him in the gentlest of terms. He’s a priest of a religion.
Loury finds these remarks interesting, but hasn’t quite thought about things in this way. So he muses:
I have remarked here […] about the rise of Al Sharpton, I think is very interesting. I think a political scientist would probably analyze this is terms of Obama’s ascendency and how the shake-out from that has kinda’ reconfigured the whole public racial discourse and conversation. I think […] that the new era that we’re in there’s kind of an anachronistic character to the racial claim-making based on civil rights and black’s subordinated and discriminated status, and that the ground has shifted so much, you know in that the Latino, the Asian, that the character of discrimination, the exclusion, is completely different than it had been 50 years ago.
And that a lot of the white response which is solicitous of these claims, is more patronizing that it is real political compromise. That is to say, it’s more of exactly what you’re putting your finger on here about religion. It’s more of signaling a moral position, more or displaying a sentiment, than it is of politics and power, you know of coalitions. […]
So, you know, I just didn’t take [Coates’ reparations article] seriously. And yet it became this thing. So reading I decided what I was dealing with, and I don’t think this is unrelated to your religion point, is a kind of cultural expressiveness, OK. Because the language is angry, OK. It takes no prisoners, OK. I mean I actually went back, pardon me, and read James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind” piece in the original New Yorker magazine circa 1961, OK. I just went back and read it. […] Baldwin rips the friggin’ page apart with these blistering sentences! […] Ta-Nehisi Coates is no James Baldwin. […]
Though I’ve read a bit of Coates here and there, I’ve not read the reparations article, nor his current book, Between the World and Me. But in find their remarks about him, and about how (progressive white) people are taking his work, to be credible and potentially quite interesting. And I want to underline their emphasis on how people are taking his work and how they are regarding and treating Coates. Of course Loury and McWhorter do not mean that he is literally the priest of a religion much less that he intends his work to be taken as scripture. Their observations rather focus on how a large segment of his audience is according him a certain kind of deference. This audience doesn’t treat it as ordinary political or social commentary.
The religiosity thus hangs there in a liminal zone, a public space somewhere beyond Coates’ intention. It is protected speech, not in the Constitutional sense of the First Amendment, but in the informal sense of an implicit social contract that seems recently to have evolved around race relations in the United States. We now have this “conversation on race” that is mostly just that at this point, a conversation, a public expression of attitudes and beliefs, a point that both Loury and McWhorter make throughout their discussion.
What I’m thinking is that this quasi-religious discourse may be a necessary prelude to effective action. Why necessary? Well, that gets complicated beyond what I’m ready to hazard in this post. But as Loury remarks near the end (about 49 minutes in), there’s a Freudian dimension to racism that stands in the way of public discourse, though artists – such as James Baldwin, or the somewhat later and rather different Ishmael Reed, or the earlier William Faulkner – have explored it in depth and at great length. And that may well be a factor driving the quasi-religious nature of this discourse. Perhaps this quasi-religious expressive discourse allows us to become more comfortable with a certain kind of racial discourse. Once that has been achieved, then we’ll be ready to roll up our sleeves and act.
I leave that as an issue to be explored.
And that liminal zone, I suggest, is where we are to place Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Like Coates’s writing, Obama’s eulogy is protected speech, not in the constitutional sense, though of course it is also that. It is protected in the sense that it is insulated from both political critique and political action. Coates’ insulation exists in virtue of informal understandings.
Obama’s insulation exists in virtue of the explicit construction of his act as religious ritual. From beginning to end it is a sermon, with the long middle portion devoted more to the black church and the nation than to Pinckney, as would be the case in an ordinary eulogy. Obama is giving a lay sermon, which is not uncommon in many Protestant churches. Or rather I should say, the President of the United States is giving a sermon. For Obama is not present there as a private individual; he is there as head of state.
And so he is speaking as head of state, as the President of the United States. It is the President who, in the middle of this sermon, says:
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
By “our nation's original sin”, I assume Obama meant slavery, and of course the phrase “original sin” has deep Biblical resonance. But what kind of a political statement is this, if it is political at all? After all, original sin does not go away. It is a condition of mortal existence, one with which Christians must struggle, but not one they can ever eliminate. There is no way to extirpate or vanquish original sin. Only in the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ will that sin be vanquished.
Surely the President is not calling for the Apocalypse. Slavery of course has been abolished, but racial injustice remains. Of that he says “[…] this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.” Necessarily incomplete – well, yes, of course. And what of it?
He didn’t offer any suggestions, nor would this have been the time and place to do so. That is, it was not political speech, though it will have resonance in the political arena. It exists in that same quasi-religious arena where we find the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is expressive speech.
But it is also a marker placed in the historical record by Barack Hussein Obama in his capacity as President and Chief Executive of the United Stated of America. Perhaps it is neither political discourse nor religious discourse, but something else, something new aching to be born?
Meanwhile, what will he say about race relations in the next State of the Union address? That too is a ritual event. But that ritual is directly political in nature.
Laudato Si’ as a Political Document
A bit over a week before the funeral for Clementa Pinckney the Roman Catholic Church issued an important document: Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of The Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, aka Laudato Si’. It is remarkable in its scope. Writing in The Monthly for July 1, Robert Manne contrasts the Pope’s approach to the environment to Al Gore’s:
Where Al Gore and Pope Francis part company is over the relation of the climate crisis to contemporary industrial civilisation.
For Gore the fundaments of this civilisation are unquestioned. For Pope Francis the climate crisis is only the most extreme expression of a destructive tendency that has become increasingly dominant through the course of industrialisation. Judaeo-Christian thought “demythologised” nature, breaking with an earlier worldview that regarded nature as “divine”. But as the industrial age advanced, by ceasing to regard the Earth, our common home, with the proper “awe and wonder”, humans have come to behave as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits to our immediate needs.” “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the past two hundred years.” The vision of the encyclical is not straightforwardly anti-modernist, although I have no doubt that it will be mischaracterised in this way. The advances in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications are welcomed. “Who,” Francis exclaims at one point in the encyclical, “can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” But for him, in the end, the treatment of the Earth as a resource to be mastered and exploited; the limitless appetite for consumption that has accelerated during the past 200 years of the industrial age and has culminated in our “throwaway culture”; and the most extreme consequence of the contemporary crisis of post-industrial society, the climate emergency – are inseparable phenomena, part of a general and profound civilisational malaise. “Doomsday predictions,” the encyclical claims, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe.” […]
In the contemporary world there exist not “two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but … one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The most important connection between the twin social and environmental crises is expressed in these words. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” The human family is disfigured by radical inequality. This inequality should arouse our “indignation”. It rarely does.
If we are to rethink our relation to nature in the course of dealing with the environment, then, as Manne realizes, that amounts to rethinking our understanding of the world and our position in it. And THAT, Manne, argues, is a political act.
That is to say, the political extends far beyond the civic sphere to encompass everything we can touch. It is the nature of the cosmos itself that is in political play – but then, that’s what American cultural politics, with its focus on evolution, abortion, and gender roles, has been telling us.
It’s all in play. There is nothing that isn’t political. But if politics is all, then is it anything at all?
We’re entering a strange world. At this point I’d be inclined to consult the French philosopher, Bruno Latour, who’s been arguing for thirty years that the distinction the modern world has established between Man and Nature cannot hold. More recently in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence he has argued that each mode of discourse has its own ‘felicity conditions’, its own conditions of truth. That is an insight we need if we are to make sense of these odd discourses we’ve glimpsed: the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the sermon on race delivered by the President of the United States, and the papal encyclical that asks us to rethink the world from top to bottom.
These discourses do not fit into our received categories and institutions. They challenge us to remake ourselves and thereby to embark on a journey to a new world.
I have written four posts about Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-1.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 2: Performing Black, Three Discussions: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-2.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 3: The Technics of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-3.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 4: To Redeem a Nation: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-4.html
On Laudato Si’ I recommend Charles Cameron’s Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si' here at 3QD. I have written extensively about Bruno Latour at New Savanna. I would also recommend my 3QD review of Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects as Morton owes a debt to Latour. On Freudian socio-cultural dynamics, see my various posts on projection and section three of Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.
Monday, July 20, 2015
"We are at home with situations of legal ambiguity.
And we create flexibility, in situations where it is required."
Consider a few hastily conceived scenarios from the near future. An android charged with performing elder care must deal with an uncooperative patient. A driverless car carrying passengers must decide between suddenly stopping, and causing a pile-up behind it. A robot responding to a collapsed building must choose between two people to save. The question that unifies these scenarios is not just about how to make the correct decision, but more fundamentally, how to treat the entities involved. Is it possible for a machine to be treated as an ethical subject – and, by extension, that an artifical entity may possess "robot rights"?
Of course, "robot rights" is a crude phrase that shoots us straight into a brambly thicket of anthropomorphisms; let's not quite go there yet. Perhaps it's more accurate to ask if a machine – something that people have designed, manufactured and deployed into the world – can have some sort of moral or ethical standing, whether as an agent or as a recipient of some action. What's really at stake here is the contention that a machine can act sufficiently independently in the world that it can be held responsible for its actions and, conversely, if a machine has any sort of standing such that, if it were harmed in any way, this standing would serve to protect its ongoing place and function in society.
You could, of course, dismiss all this as a bunch of nonsense: that machines are made by us exclusively for our use, and anything a robot or computer or AI does or does not do is the responsibility of its human owners. You don't sue the scalpel, rather you sue the surgeon. You don't take a database to court, but the corporation that built it – and in any case you are probably not concerned with the database itself, but with the consequence of how it was used, or maintained, or what have you. As far as the technology goes, if it's behaving badly you shut it off, wipe the drive, or throw it in the garbage, and that's the end of the story.
This is not an unreasonable point of departure, and is rooted in what's known as the instrumentalist view of technology. For an instrumentalist, technology is still only an extension of ourselves and does not possess any autonomy. But how do you control for the sort of complexity for which we are now designing our machines? Our instrumentalist proclivities whisper to us that there must be an elegant way of doing so. So let's begin with a first attempt to do so: Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Some time later, Asimov added a fourth, which was intended to precede all the others, so it's really the ‘Zeroth' Law:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The Laws, which made their first appearance in a 1942 story that is, fittingly enough, set in 2015, are what is known as a deontology: an ethical system expressed as an axiomatic system. Basically, deontology provides the ethical ground for all further belief and action: the Ten Commandments are a classic example. But the difficulties with deontology become apparent when one examines the assumptions inherent in each axiom. For example, the First Commandment states, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me". Clearly, Yahweh is not saying that there are no other gods, but rather that any other gods must take a back seat to him, at least as far as the Israelites are concerned. The corollary is that non-Israelites can have whatever gods they like. Nevertheless, most adherents to Judeo-Christian theology would be loathe to admit the possibilities of polytheism. It takes a lot of effort to keep all those other gods at bay, especially if you're not an Israelite – it's much easier if there is only one. But you can't make that claim without fundamentally reinterpreting that crucial first axiom.
Asimov's axioms can be similarly poked and prodded. Most obviously, we have the presumption of perfect knowledge. How would a robot (or AI or whatever) know if an action was harmful or not? A human might scheme to split actions that are by themselves harmless across several artificial entities, which are subsequently combined to produce harmful consequences. Sometimes knowledge is impossible for both humans and robots: if we look at the case of a stock-trading AI, there is uncertainty whether a stock trade is harmful to another human being or not. If the AI makes a profitable trade, does the other side lose money, and if so, does this constitute harm? How can the machine know if the entity on the other side is in fact losing money? Would it matter if that other entity were another machine and not a human? But don't machines ultimately represent humans in any case?
Better yet, consider a real life example:
A commercial toy robot called Nao was programmed to remind people to take medicine.
"On the face of it, this sounds simple," says Susan Leigh Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut in Stamford who did the work with her husband, computer scientist Michael Anderson of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "But even in this kind of limited task, there are nontrivial ethics questions involved." For example, how should Nao proceed if a patient refuses her medication? Allowing her to skip a dose could cause harm. But insisting that she take it would impinge on her autonomy.
In this case, the Hippocratic ‘do no harm' has to be balanced against a more utilitarian ‘do some good'. Assuming it could, does the robot force the patient to take the medicine? Wouldn't that constitute potential harm (ie, the possibility that the robot hurts the patient in the act)? Would that harm be greater than not taking the medicine, just this once? What about tomorrow? If we are designing machines to interact with us in such profound and nuanced ways, those machines are already ethical subjects. Our recognition of them as such is already playing catch-up with the facts on the ground.
As implied with the stock trading example, another deontological shortcoming is in the definitions themselves: what's a robot, and what's a human? As robots become more human-like, and humans become more engineered, the line will become blurry. And in many cases, a robot will have to make a snap judgment. What's binary for "quo vadis", and what do you do with a lying human? Because humans lie for the strangest reasons.
Finally, the kind of world that Asimov's laws presupposes is one where robots run around among humans. It's a very specific sort of embodiment. In fact, it is a sort of Slavery 2.0, where robots clearly function for the benefit and in the service of humanity. The Laws are meant to facilitate a very material cohabitation, whereas the kind of broadly distributed, virtually placeless machine intelligence that we are currently developing by leveraging the Internet is much more slippery, and resembles the AI of Spike Jonze's ‘Her'. How do you tell things apart in such a dematerialized world?
The final nail in Asimov's deontological coffin is the assumption of ‘hard-wiring'. That is, Asimov claims that the Laws would be a non-negotiable part of the basic architecture of all robots. But it is wiser to prepare for the exact opposite: the idea that any machine of sufficient intelligence will be able to reprogram itself. The reasons why are pretty irrelevant – it doesn't have to be some variant of SkyNet suddenly deciding to destroy humanity. It may just sit there and not do anything. It may disappear, as the AIs did in ‘Her'. Or, as in William Gibson's Neuromancer, it may just want to become more of itself, and decide what to do with that later on. Gibson never really tells us why the two AIs – that function as the true protagonists of the novel – even wanted to do what they did.
This last thought indicates a fundamental marker in the machine ethics debate. A real difference is developing itself here, and that is the notion of inscrutability. In order for the stance of instrumentality to hold up, you need a fairly straight line of causality. I saw this guy on the beach, I pulled the trigger, and now the guy is dead. It may be perplexing, I may not be sure why I pulled the trigger at that moment, but the chain of events is clear, and there is a system in place to handle it, however problematic. On the other hand, how or why a machine comes to a conclusion or engages in a course of action may be beyond our scope to determine. I know this sounds a bit odd, since after all we built the things. But a record of a machine's internal decisionmaking would have to be a deliberate part of its architecture, and this is expensive and perhaps not commensurate with the agenda of its designers: for example, Diebold made both ATMs and voting machines. Only the former provided receipts, making it fairly easy to theoretically steal an election.
If Congress is willing to condone digitally supervised elections without paper trails, imagine how far away we are from the possibility of regulating the Wild West of machine intelligence. And in fact AIs are being designed to produce results without any regard for how they get to a particular conclusion. One such deliberately opaque AI is Rita, mentioned in a previous essay. Rita's remit is to deliver state-of-the-art video compression technology, but how it arrives at its conclusions is immaterial to the fact that it manages to get there. In the comments to that piece, a friend added that "it is a regular occurrence here at Google where we try to figure out what our machine learning systems are doing and why. We provide them input and study the outputs, but the internals are now an inscrutable black box. Hard to tell if that's a sign of the future or an intermediate point along the way."
Nevertheless, we can try to hold on to the instrumentalist posture and maintain that a machine's black box nature still does not merit the treatment accorded to an ethical subject; that it is still the results or consequences that count, and that the owners of the machine retain ultimate responsibility for it, whether or not they understand it. Well, who are the owners, then?
Of course, ethics truly manifests itself in society via the law. And the law is a generally reactive entity. In the Anglo-American case law tradition, laws, codes and statutes are passed or modified (and less often, repealed) only after bad things happen, and usually only in response to those specific bad things. More importantly for the present discussion, recent history shows that the law (or to be more precise, the people who draft, pass and enforce it) has not been nearly as eager to punish the actions of collectives and institutions as it has been to pursue individuals. Exhibit A in this regard is the number of banks found guilty of vast criminality following the 2008 financial crisis and, by corollary, the number bankers thrown in jail for same. Part of the reason for this is the way that the law already treats non-human entities. I am reminded of Mitt Romney on the Presidential campaign trail a few years ago, benignly musing that "corporations are people, my friend".
Corporate personhood is a complex topic but at its most essential it is a great way to offload risk. Sometimes this makes sense – entrepreneurs can try new ideas and go bankrupt but not lose their homes and possessions. Other times, as with the Citizens United decision, the results can be grotesque and impactful in equal measure. But we ought to look to the legal history of corporate personhood as a possible test case for how machines may become ethical subjects in the eyes of the law. Not only that, but corporations will likely be the owners of these ethical subjects – from a legal point of view, they will look to craft the legal representation of machines as much to their advantage as possible. To not be too cynical about it, I would imagine this would involve minimal liability and maximum profit. This is something I have not yet seen discussed in machine ethics circles, where the concern seems to be more about the instantiation of ethics within the machines themselves, or in highly localized human-machine interactions. Nevertheless, the transformation of the ethical machine-subject into the legislated machine-subject – put differently, the machines as subjects of a legislative gaze – will be of incredibly far-reaching consequence. It will all be in the fine print, and I daresay deliberately difficult to parse. When that day comes, I will be sure to hire an AI to help me make sense of it all.
Perceptions: New Horizons
Karen Kraven. Io, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Thebe.
How Viruses Feign Death to Survive and Thrive
by Jalees Rehman
Billions of cells die each day in the human body in a process called "apoptosis" or "programmed cell death". When cells encounter stress such as inflammation, toxins or pollutants, they initiate an internal repair program which gets rid of the damaged proteins and DNA molecules. But if the damage exceeds their capacity for repair then cells are forced to activate the apoptosis program. Apoptotic cells do not suddenly die and vanish, instead they execute a well-coordinated series of molecular and cellular signals which result in a gradual disintegration of the cell over a period of several hours.
What happens to the cellular debris that is generated when a cell dies via apoptosis? It consists of fragmented cellular compartments, proteins, fat molecules that are released from the cellular corpse. This "trash" could cause even more damage to neighboring cells because it exposes them to molecules that normally reside inside a cell and could trigger harmful reactions on the outside. Other cells therefore have to clean up the mess as soon as possible. Macrophages are cells which act as professional garbage collectors and patrol our tissues, on the look-out for dead cells and cellular debris. The remains of the apoptotic cell act as an "Eat me!" signal to which macrophages respond by engulfing and gobbling up the debris ("phagocytosis") before it can cause any further harm. Macrophages aren't always around to clean up the debris which is why other cells such as fibroblasts or epithelial cells can act as non-professional phagocytes and also ingest the dead cell's remains. Nobody likes to be surrounded by trash.
Clearance of apoptotic cells and their remains is thus crucial to maintain the health and function of a tissue. Conversely, if phagocytosis is inhibited or prevented, then the lingering debris can activate inflammatory signals and cause disease. Multiple autoimmune diseases, lung diseases and even neurologic diseases such as Alzheimer's disease are associated with reduced clearance. The cause and effect relationship is not always clear because these diseases can promote cell death. Are the diseases just killing so many cells that the phagocytosis capacity is overwhelmed, does the debris actually promote the diseased state, or is it a bit of both, resulting in a vicious cycle of apoptotic debris resulting in more cell death and more trash buildup? Researchers are currently investigating whether specifically tweaking phagocytosis could be used as a novel way to treat diseases with impaired clearance of debris.
During the past decade, multiple groups of researchers have come across a fascinating phenomenon by which viruses hijack the phagocytosis process in order to thrive. One of the "Eat Me!" signals for phagocytes is that debris derived from an apoptotic cell is coated by a membrane enriched with phosphatidylserines which are negatively charged molecules. Phosphatidylserines are present in all cells but they are usually tucked away on the inside of cells and are not seen by other cells. When a cell undergoes apoptosis, phosphatidylserines are flipped inside out. When particles or cell fragments present high levels of phosphatidylserines on their outer membranes then a phagocyte knows that it is encountering the remains of a formerly functioning cell that needs to be cleared by phagocytosis.
However, it turns out that not all membranes rich in phosphatidylserines are remains of apoptotic cells. Recent research studies suggest that certain viruses invade cells, replicate within the cell and when they exit their diseased host cell, they cloak themselves in membranes rich in phosphatidylserines. How the viruses precisely appropriate the phosphatidylserines of a cell that is not yet apoptotic and then adorn their viral membranes with the cell's "Eat Me!" signal is not yet fully understood and a very exciting area of research at the interface of virology, immunology and the biology of cell death.
What happens when the newly synthesized viral particles leave the infected cell? Because these viral particles are coated in phosphatidylserine, professional phagocytes such as macrophages or non-professional phagocytes such as fibroblasts or epithelial cells will assume they are encountering phosphatidylserine-rich dead cell debris and ingest it in their roles as diligent garbage collectors. This ingestion of the viral particles has at least two great benefits for the virus: First and foremost, it allows the virus entry into a new host cell which it can then convert into another virus-producing factory. Entering cells usually requires specific receptors by which viruses gain access to selected cell types. This is why many viruses can only infect certain cell types because not all cells have the receptors that allow for viral entry. However, when viruses hijack the apoptotic debris phagocytosis mechanism then the phagocytic cell is "inviting" the viral particle inside, assuming that it is just dead debris. But there is perhaps an even more insidious advantage for the virus. During clearance of apoptotic cells, certain immune pathways are suppressed by the phagocytes in order to pre-emptively dampen excessive inflammation that might be caused by the debris. It is therefore possible that by pretending to be fragments of dead cells, viruses coated with phosphatidylserines may also suppress the immune response of the infected host, thus evading detection and destruction by the immune systems.
Viruses for which this process of apoptotic mimicry has been described include the deadly Ebola virus or the Dengue virus, each using its own mechanism to create its fake mask of death. The Ebola virus buds directly from the fat-rich outer membrane of the infected host cell in the form of elongated, thread-like particles coated with the cell's phosphatidylserines. The Dengue virus, on the other hand, is synthesized and packaged inside the cell and appears to purloin the cell's phosphatidylserines during its synthesis long before it even reaches the cell's outer membrane. As of now, it appears that viruses from at least nine distinct families of viruses use the apoptotic mimicry strategy but the research on apoptotic mimicry is still fairly new and it is likely that scientists will discover many more viruses which rely on this and similar evolutionary strategies to evade the infected host's immune response and spread throughout the body.
Uncovering the phenomenon of apoptotic mimicry gives new hope in the battle against viruses for which we have few targeted treatments. In order to develop feasible therapies, it is important to precisely understand the molecular mechanisms by which the hijacking occurs. One cannot block all apoptotic clearance in the body because that would have disastrous consequences due to the buildup of legitimate apoptotic debris that needs to be cleared. However, once scientists understand how viruses concentrate phosphatidylserines or other "Eat Me!" signals in their membranes, it may be possible to specifically uncloak these renegade viruses without compromising the much needed clearance of conventional cell debris.
Elliott, M. R. and Ravichandran, K.S. "Clearance of apoptotic cells: implications in health and disease" The Journal of Cell Biology 189.7 (2010): 1059-1070.
Amara, A and Mercer, J. "Viral apoptotic mimicry." Nature Reviews Microbiology (2015).
Monday, July 13, 2015
On the Politics of Identity
By Namit Arora
The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.
Our identity is a story we tell ourselves everyday. It’s a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we’re different. Each of us, as social beings in a time and place, evolves a personal and social identity that shapes our sense of self, loyalties, and obligations. Our identity includes aspects that are freely chosen, accidental, or thrust upon us by others.
Take an example. A woman may simultaneously identify as Indian, middle-class, feminist, doctor, Dalit, Telugu, lesbian, liberal, badminton player, music lover, traveler, humanist, and Muslim. Her self-identifications may also include being short-tempered, celibate, dark-skinned, ethical vegetarian, and diabetic. No doubt some of these will be more significant to her but all of them (and more) make her who she is. Like all of our identities, hers too is fluid, relational, and contextual. So while she never saw herself as a ‘Brown’ or ‘person of color’ in India, she had to reckon with that identity in America.
Identity politics, on the other hand, is politics that an individual—an identitarian—wages on behalf of a group that shares an aspect of one’s identity, say, gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. Any group—majority/minority, strong/weak, light/dark—can pursue identity politics. It can be a dominant group led by cultural insecurities and chauvinism, or a marginalized group led by a shared experience of bigotry and injustice (the focus of this essay). German Nazism and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. both exemplify identity politics based on the racial identity of their constituent groups. Both Hindutvadis and Dalit activists are identitarians of religion and caste, respectively. As Eric Hobsbawm also noted in his essay Identity Politics and the Left, labor unions, too, have long pursued identity politics based on social class and the identity of being an industrial worker.
Life, and identity politics, can amplify certain aspects of our identity while suppressing others. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers elevated Tamil national identity over that of caste. Gender identity turns secondary in some contexts: Indian women often close ranks with Indian men when White Westerners lecture them on sexual violence in India. Likewise, Dalit women often close ranks with Dalit men when upper-caste women expound on gender issues among them. Especially after 9/11, many European residents with complex ethno-linguistic roots faced a world hell-bent on seeing them as, above all, ‘Muslims’.
The Value of Identity Politics
Like all politics, identity politics too is double-edged. It can be regressive or progressive, depending on its aims and methods. All groups, whether dominant or marginalized, practice identity politics, but the term is now largely associated with the marginalized (more on this sleight of hand later but this essay too, for the sake of readability, uses the unqualified term to refer to the latter).
That identity politics emphasizes one aspect of a person’s identity above all others—and explains her life in terms of that identity—is a source of both strength and weakness. Especially for those marginalized by a single aspect of identity (say, race, caste or gender), identity politics can empower both the self and her group. It can challenge deeply ingrained habits of mind and weaken structural hegemonies. Its focused advocacy can help transform popular opinion and bring about legislative reform, as with the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. It can enrich democratic debate and awaken us all to the value of diversity in public life. Identitarians have produced compelling new readings of our past and our literature and culture. They have given us new moral visions and greater self-knowledge.
For example, during the U.S. Civil Rights era, the assertion of Black identity and pride helped a historically oppressed people organize to reclaim self-respect, raise their own and the public’s consciousness, advance their rights, and combat various social barriers and exclusions. In doing so, many Black identitarians, notably MLK Jr., also civilized White Americans, emancipating them from their own prison of inhumanity—a point rarely acknowledged. Much the same is true in India with many caste identitarians, notably BR Ambedkar. What still strikes us about them is the force, the depth, and the moral clarity of their politics of identity. It was the politics of gender, raised by feminists, that brought about so many gains for women. In the former colonies of the West, the rise of nationalism—and a national identity—mobilized diverse groups behind the cause of ending colonization, though this same once-empowering politics of identity sadly later turned into a toxic majoritarianism in so many countries.
Indeed, if men or Whites or Brahmins or heterosexuals have long used whatever power and knowledge was tied to their identity in order to define, judge, and subjugate others (is this not identity politics?), can the latter fight back without politicizing those definitions, judgments, and subjugations? As long as socially constructed race remains a vector of discrimination, wouldn’t it also remain a source of social identity, around which people organize to reclaim their dignity and rights? If racism didn’t exist, would we still have our modern idea of race—or the identitarians’ preoccupation with it?
Traditional leftists complain about the rise of identity politics of the emancipatory kind, but among the things that explain this rise is the Left itself. Marxism, like the monotheistic faith of its cultural ancestors, aspires to a universalism representing everyone. But theory is one thing, reality another. In reality, the leftists, being humans, did not care about every group equally. Consider the Left in America and India. The American Left was led by White men, who didn’t seem too ruffled by racism and conveniently remained blind to their own privilege. The Indian Left was similarly blind to the dynamics of caste; was it a coincidence that its leadership was entirely upper caste? Marxist-socialists in both countries, for all their radicalism, didn’t even pursue voluntary affirmative action to include marginalized groups in their leadership ranks. Indeed, it seems the ‘universal’ Left drove various groups, whom they either marginalized or didn’t help, to organize for themselves (it was a key factor in the unraveling of the USSR). When traditional leftists chide identity politics, they reveal their poor grasp of the human material—especially of the fact that humans are not rational beings, that even card-carrying comrades can’t easily transcend many aspects of their social identity and ties of blood, kinship, and culture. Even the big stars of the Left, including Hobsbawm, failed to see this reality and maintained a stodgy opposition to identity politics in the name of an idealized, universal politics of the Left.
In other words, identity politics of the emancipatory kind is an expression of a human need for justice, a need largely unaddressed, and perhaps unaddressable, by traditional Marxist-socialists. The Left in India and the U.S. will likely remain small, unless it learns and becomes more inclusive in its leadership and concerns, realizing that class conflict isn’t the only vector of injustice, that declining wages aren’t necessarily more worrisome than rising racial discrimination or religious persecution. The origins of identity politics lie in oppressive social structures and disparities that may overlap with but aren’t subsumed under class conflict. Above all, identity politics enables a persecuted people to champion their own cause, which no one else will do. Rather than disdain particularist struggles as a burden, the Marxist-socialist Left would do well to recognize in them our collective emancipation. As citizens, we ought to embrace identity politics when it’s both progressive and pragmatic. Rejecting everything about identity politics makes no more sense than rejecting everything about politics.
Even the charge of essentialism, often invoked by lazy critics to malign identity politics, is vastly overblown and a straw man. Essentialism is the idea that there is an innate and immutable essence behind one’s primary social identity. But how many identitarians actually believe this? Why is this folly, ancillary to the dominators’ worldview, even seen as central to identity politics? Why not the entirely defensible (and more common) belief that invoking an identity forged by contingent social experience can have much explanatory power and emancipatory potential in its time and place?
Do many feminists accept gender essentialism as explanation for why fewer women than men pursue science? Do Black activists see themselves as biologically superior to Whites? Caste is entirely a social construct, Ambedkar held, yet he cited its reality to persuasively explain a host of social phenomenon, including people’s outcomes in life. Rejecting the charge of essentialism, bell hooks called us to recognize that ‘black identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile and struggle.’ At times we simply see what Gayatri Spivak has called ‘strategic essentialism’, where identitarians ‘act as if an identity were uniform only to achieve interim political goals, without implying any deeper authenticity.’
Moreover, unlike the identity politics of dominant groups, the emancipatory kind arguably dissipates with rising parity. As the marginalized groups emerge into the mainstream as significant equals with other groups, the appeal of identity politics to their younger generations also changes. Of course, as with all public politics, real-world identity politics is not without its problems, but I think these problems are not so much of essentialism. To recognize its excesses, we ought to at least hear some of the better criticisms of it.
The Excesses of Identity Politics
It’s much easier for social liberals like me to criticize the partisan identity politics of dominant groups (Sinhalese, Hindutvadi, KKK, Zionist) than of marginalized groups with emancipatory goals (feminist, Black, Dalit, Palestinian). This is partly because the former are widely seen as natural targets in my circle, but perhaps also due to liberal guilt, which has its positive side even as it can, at times, cloud reason, clarity, and good judgment. But no public politics, however well-meaning, ought to be beyond criticism, so why should the emancipatory kind of identity politics get a free pass? Most liberals will agree that even such identity politics can sometimes lose its marbles and begin to eat its own tail, though they may disagree on when and how often this happens.
Many critics argue that focusing on only one aspect of identity ignores too many key differences and similarities among people. ‘To see a person primarily as a "white male" or a "black female"’, one critic writes, ‘is to diminish both their humanity and their individuality.’ Identitarians, with their own narrow lens of social analysis, also oversimplify the categories of oppressor and oppressed, privileged and unprivileged, and avoid nuances and shades of grey. Ethnic identitarians forget what they have in common with their neighbors; gender identitarians ignore class and caste divisions among women; class identitarians fail to see race and caste divides among workers; caste identitarians overlook the oppressive hierarchy within Dalit Bahujans. And so even the revisionist histories written by identitarians may be no less distorted than the mainstream one, since they exaggerate the impact of a single aspect of social life, whether economics, gender, caste, race, or religion.
Indeed, critics claim that despite their advocacy and concern for social justice, identitarians too remain impervious to many kinds of pain and progress around them. What they see is largely along the lines of the identity and ideology they subscribe to. There’s often hypocrisy in their reluctance to look within for discriminatory habits of mind similar to those of their rivals. Male identitarians of race and caste, for instance, have a poor record of addressing patriarchy in their midst. Indeed, their equanimity towards injustices in other domains—of class, gender, sexuality, environment, animal welfare, and more—usually fails to distinguish them from their rivals.
Furthermore, identitarians usually aspire for parity between groups, not an egalitarian society, as Adolph Reed Jr., professor of political science, has argued. They seek proportional representation for their group in existing power structures (say, via positive discrimination, or voting based on identity). This may be necessary in order to make social institutions more representative and responsive to all groups, but it often also means not agitating for a more egalitarian society for all. So in a highly unequal society where, say, 5 percent control 90 percent of the resources, having the right proportion of Blacks, Latinos, or women in the 5 percent becomes the primary goal and yardstick of fairness for many identitarians (usually those who’re new to, or aspiring to, this 5 percent). This, Reed suggests, comes at the expense of joining hands with others to reform the system itself, one that’s now producing inequality on an ever-larger scale. An obvious response to Reed—a leftist to whom ‘class’ seems to be the one transcendent category—is that these two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, though his point is still worthy of reflection since they each are often pursued in ways that impede progress for the other.
Critics also lament identitarian solidarity based solely on group membership, especially when solidarity trumps even evidence of public corruption or ethical and legal wrongdoing by that group’s privileged members. Take the case of Devyani Khobragade, a Dalit and Deputy Consul General of India in the NY consulate. Her arrest and strip-search for visa fraud and violation of US labor laws in Manhattan in early 2014 caused a major diplomatic row. Curiously, identitarians of both caste and nation rallied behind her in India—and not behind the Indian maid she had allegedly abused. Meanwhile the same caste identitarians often inflate the ‘sins’ of even sympathetic allies in the rival group. Many jumped on an ill-worded, out-of-context remark by Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, which I attended. In a lapse of judiciousness, they demanded his arrest under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, never pausing to think that objectionable speech is best tackled by more speech, not a ban or jail. The right to free expression is not just good for the elites. It’s at the heart of what makes a liberal democratic order. This right, with as few exceptions as possible, needs defending even by identitarians, for it’s also a precondition for their own social justice activism.
Then there is what Tim Lott recently called ‘assumption creep’, wherein identitarians assume ‘that if you believe one thing you probably believe another thing, which you are hiding’. So an upper-caste man who praises yoga or Advaita may be seen as endorsing all of Hinduism, including caste. Ethical objections to the non-essential raising of animals for meat may be seen as a covert defense of Brahminism. Finding anything admirable in Gandhi is to suspect one’s commitment to social justice for Dalits. To say that caste and race prejudices have declined in recent decades may be taken to mean that all is well and no more work is needed. To praise any aspect of Narendra Modi’s regime may be seen as being soft on Hindutava. To wonder aloud if biology (the capacity and experience of childbirth, for instance) makes men and women somewhat different might signal to some that one also discounts the flexibility of gender roles.
Additionally, many identitarians tend to extrapolate an objectionable part to the whole: the fact of caste damns the entire diversity of beliefs and practices in Hinduism; Nandy’s clumsy remark in Jaipur means a rejection of his entire scholarship by people who haven’t read him; all of Heidegger is verboten due to his early intellectual flirtation with the Nazis; some even see corporations and globalization as almost entirely evil. Of course various degrees of this tendency exist not just among identitarians, but these are examples of how it can cause identity politics to go haywire.
Some identitarians also deploy strong labels too readily. Their knee-jerk reaction to a disagreeable article or book is to declare it racist, sexist, casteist, fascist, or imperialist—often without reading it and while discarding the entire progressive record of its author or publisher. This may produce smug satisfaction but it quickly gets tiresome and loses its rhetorical power. Many pursue the least charitable reading of their rivals and their condemnation is often permanent and collective (made easier by social media). Sanctimony rules as they habitually indulge in online tirades, argumentative jousting, and competitive displays of armchair radicalism. In time, the lofty goal of hating bad ideas, not their espousers, gets diluted or lost. Outsider opinions and scholarship—unless they bow to in-group codes, symbols, and orthodoxies—are dismissed on identity grounds. Relatively small intellectual differences lead to harsh labels and a severing of ties. Somewhere a critic wonders: Can this be anyone’s road to emancipation?
Such closed political orthodoxy breeds anxiety, self-censorship, and unreflective political correctness among their rivals, while fostering groupthink, bitterness, and separatism among identitarians. Cross-identity conversations trail off. It gets harder to respectfully agree to disagree, since the interlocuters one disagrees with aren’t also seen as complex individuals but largely as embodiments of narrow identities with black and white moralities. For a critique to reach identitarians in this milieu, it often has to be authored by brave insiders—brave because it can cost them the comfort and solidarity of their group. Such insiders often succeed in unsettling dogmas, building alliances across identities, and helping advance social justice for real people. One critic, Douglas Williams, writes:
‘Look, I am Black. Also, sometimes, I can be wrong. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, and yet we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed "sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist" and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle. And listen, maybe that is cool with some folks. Maybe the revolution that so many of these types speak about will simply consist of everyone spontaneously coming to consciousness and there will be no need for coalitions, give-and-take, or contact with people who do not know every word or phrase that these groups use as some sort of litmus test for the unwashed.’
Critics allege that identitarians’ hostile, scorched earth dismissal of their rivals, frequently laced with sarcasm, also creates a hypersensitive public space that inhibits discussion and debate—as well as learning and mutual understanding. Vitriolic responses even to interlocutors who speak more from ignorance than malice, or who make genuine errors in judgement, are sometimes matched only by a parallel inability to accept even modest criticism of their own gods and heroes, the quickness of their claim to hurt sentiments, and an immoderate fear of appropriation of their movement by dominant elites and ‘progressive’ academics. All this may be understandable in light of history and human nature, but how laudable or helpful is it?
In response though, identitarians might argue that their rivals have long been hostile to them and caused enormous damage already. Why should they play by their oppressors’ debating rules and decorum, or stoically educate them to notice the systemic exclusions they face at every step? The time for niceties and reconciliation is past, they might say. Nothing short of hostile sarcasm and loud agitation will expose the blindness and hypocrisy of dominant elites and force open new spaces for marginalized groups. Cross-identity conversations won’t get any easier until the dominant group not only recognizes the equal humanity of others but also uses its inherited privileges to undo the very systems that grant such privileges. That members of the dominant group (and a few Uncle Toms)—whose dominance was built and is sustained no less through identity politics—see problems with these tactics is predictably partisan. They feel threatened, so they pick on parts of identity politics and complain as if the whole of it were worse than what it tries to combat. Identitarians no doubt see their own tactics as raising consciousness and courage among their own—a prerequisite for their personal growth and emancipation. As Martin Duberman, historian and gay rights activist, has explained,
‘Yet we hold on to a group identity, despite its insufficiencies, because for most non-mainstream people it’s the closest we have ever gotten to having a political home—and voice. Yes, identity politics reduces and simplifies. Yes, it is a kind of prison. But it is also, paradoxically, a haven. It is at once confining and empowering. And in the absence of alternative havens, group identity will for many of us continue to be the appropriate site of resistance and the main source of comfort.’
Navigating Identity Politics
Some critiques of identity politics above are more warranted than others, but no call for its dissolution is warranted. Rather, one hopes that, given the stakes, it’d become more effective. It’s worth noting here that I, too, inhabit a politics of identity that waxes and wanes based on context, such as to whom, about what, and where I’m speaking. Indeed, is it even possible for anyone to not partake in identity politics at all? Those inclined to say ‘yes’ likely practice the invisibilized or unmarked form of identity politics common among those of privilege and power. It’s the identity counterpart of that old Band-Aid commercial that promoted itself as ‘flesh-colored, almost invisible’.
Some members of dominant groups tend to quote people from marginalized groups as support for their own arguments. This in itself isn’t brave or noble, nor does it make their arguments more solid. That depends on the arguments themselves. The truth is that there is a great range of views—some more progressive and pragmatic than others—among women on women’s rights, among Muslims on political Islam, among Dalits on tackling caste, and among people of color on race in America (contrast WEB Du Bois with Booker T Washington). Every identitarian—every one of us—lives life with imperfect knowledge and subjective experience; no two are identically sensitized towards the many vectors of injustice in social life. Within every identitarian group, individuals will differ on who, and to what degree, they see as the ‘enemy’ and which alliances make sense.
How then to navigate the turbulent waters of identity politics? One way to counter its excesses is first to listen carefully and humbly and try to see the world from the vantage point of others. Seeing the lives of others more clearly requires working on our own blind spots, irrational fears, and prejudices, many of which are byproducts of group privileges, normative identities, and mental colonization. Prejudices aren’t just the overt kind that we—well-meaning progressive liberal folk—believe we no longer possess. They also lurk beneath our everyday awareness. It’s in the nature of human socialization to imbue us with unconscious biases that hurt others and require conscious effort to undo. We may never be able to transcend systemic biases—as new ones, so often, replace the old—but it is a mark of our humanity to not abandon this effort.
Alongside, it’s also important to reflect on our own tendency to self-censor, to avoid challenging ‘our own side’. Poseurs and self-promoters surround us in every camp, each moved by his/her inner demons and drives. Who among any group, marginalized or not, deserves to speak for the whole is always an open question, to be best settled by each of us, not automatically by claims of identity. As the Buddha advised, we ought to rely on our own reason and compassion, while remembering that our views are often provisional, and social truths are subjective and contingent. We’d also do well to realize that dismissing identity politics wholesale is part of the problem, not the solution.
More writing by Namit Arora?
"... Core’s photographs replicate as closely as possible those of 17th-century artists (Ambrosius Bosschaert, Jan Brueghel the Elder), and, striving for authenticity, she grew long-lost or out-of-fashion specimens. She then composed and correctly lit them to appear like paintings and titled them the date of the earlier works ..."
Monday, July 06, 2015
Sughra Raza. Catwalk Theater, Johannesburg, August 2014.
Monday, June 29, 2015
"the best picture in the world"
I recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…
I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called "the best picture in the world."
Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called "The Best Picture?"
It is a brilliant essay --and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as "the best picture" in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?
Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley--for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:
The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.I like this last sentence very much. First of all, I also enjoy compiling lists… from the best essays to my favorite restaurants, I find such lists (and declarations of things that are "the best") to be somehow really interesting. And Like Huxley, not only does Piero top my list of best painters, but in a similar vein, I also perhaps delude myself into thinking that my lists are not merely subjective pronouncements but rather are based on some mind of shared standards of taste and virtue. Touching on two notions dear to my own heart, I think Huxley rightly bases his judgement on the idea that there are Platonic ideals at work in art appreciation and that exposure to art works that express closely such ideals have an uplifting and transformative effect on people. When I studied tea ceremony, for example, the notion that the appreciation and handling of beautiful objects had a morally uplifting element was fundamental-- that is, the beautiful was conflated with the good during the lessons. I therefore agree with Huxley that part of the reason that a particular work of art can be said to be morally, spiritually or intellectually uplifting is related to a kind of fidelity to integrity (to a shared ideal).
Anyway, the famous Piero della Francesca trail started just down the road from the foot of the hill where our abbey was located, in the wonderful town of Arezzo about an hour away. It was there that the young Piero was called upon in 1457 to finish decorating the apse of the Basilica of San Francesco, stepping in to complete the frescoes after the original painter commissioned to decorate the space in the basilica died.
Arriving at the church first thing in the morning as soon as things opened to tourists, we were allowed an hour and a half in the apse with the frescoes. (At busy times, tourists must content themselves with a 25 minute limit). Piero's pictures mainly remain where they were painted and this is what is often cited for why his name was lost to obscurity until comparatively modern times. For unlike Titian or Rembrandt, one has to travel to see his work. In John Pope-Hennessey's wonderful essay, called the Piero della Francesca Trail, he suggested that if Piero's work had been dispersed in the way Botticelli's had, it would be Piero who would have left the greater mark on history--being the better painter after all.
Once discovered from obscurity, however, his pictures would go on to inspire many modern painters--from Cezanne to Seurat (story of that interesting history here). Surprisingly modern, there is something indescribable about seeing his work in situ. We couldn't immediately find the church though. Resembling nothing more than a huge barn, an elderly lady sitting on a bench caught my eye and motioned for us to turn around, pointing at the church.
Walking in, we both were completely overwhelmed. I had never heard of the Legend of the True Cross before--and was surprised to learn it was a favorite of the Franciscans. A medieval story, it tells the tale of the Cross--from its beginnings as the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (!!); the wood was then transformed (after being buried with Adam) in the building of the temple of Solomon. (Not surprisingly, it was the Queen of Sheba, who divined its future use and thereby warned Solomon that the future savior of the world would be killed using this very piece of wood). This, foretelling the end of the Jewish kingdom, Solomon hid the wood in a swamp. From Sheba to Saint Helena and the battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, the tale of the true cross is an absolutely mind-boggling story that Piero somehow turned into an intellectually stimulating tour de force that had my astonomer and I utterly speechless.
Indeed, we were totally hooked on his work by the first stop on the Piero Pilgrimage. (It was here, incidentally, where I accidentally flushed my camera down the toilet thereby proving that real journeys are seldom as easy as one hopes). Sigh~~
After recovering from the wonderful shock of the frescoes and the loss of my camera, we had pizza before heading on to the second stop to see the fresco that Huxley declared was the "best picture in the world."
Located in what was basically the spot where Piero painted it, in the old town hall in the city of Sansepolcro, this also happened to be the painter's birthplace. Waiting for the museum to re-open at 2:30, we strolled around the quiet town, stopping to sit in front of a statue of Piero, erected to honor the town's greatest son in the town park, barely making it back to the museum before a rain shower hammered down on us, a harbinger of more trouble ahead. At this point, though, we were still quite excited to finally be able to see Huxley's favorite picture.
The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca-- There is an absolutely wonderful story attached to this fresco that ocurred during WWII. Bombing the city, the British artillery officer in charge could not get the name Sansepolcro out of his mind... "Sansepolcro, Sansepolcro," he wondered, "where had he heard the name before?" It took awhile but suddenly he remembered where he had heard that name. It was an essay he had read many years earlier by Aldous Huxley in which the author declared that the best picture in the world could be found in this very place that he was now shelling!
What a surreal moment that must have been. The officer immediately ordered a halt to the bombing. He then made his way unopposed into the town. Locating the town hall, he stood before the Resurrection which had miraculously survived the building's roof caving in!
"We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote. "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendor, the greatest picture in the world."
What was once the town hall is now the Museo Civico. However when we were finally let in, we had to console ourselves to look at the picture in bits and pieces as it was undergoing restoration. With the entire top half obscured behind scaffolding that we could simply not move around, we could not see Christ's face at all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and swearing to ourselves that we would just have to come back and see it another time, we moved on to see Piero’s oil, Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy) located in the adjacent room.
The final part of our journey involved a wonderful drive through the mountains to Urbino.
While not quite as curvy, the drive reminded me something of the famed Irohazaka road in Japan. Famous as a spot for viewing the autumn foliage, the Irohazaka was also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading up to Lake Chuzenji. For both Huxeley and Pope-Hennessey, the road to and from San Spulchro is definitely part of the great adventure and allure of the Piero Pilgrimage.
Huxley says this:
BORGO SAN SEPOLCRO IS NOT VERY EASY TO GET AT. There is a small lowcomedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor 'bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the 'bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees, it crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.
It's true, the Apennines are stunning and the valley pass was filled with wild flowers. It definitely makes my lists of favorite drives of my life! (and it does not take 7 hours as it did in Huxley's day--though it is a very narrow and trecherous mountain road!)
Arriving at the lovely hilltown of Urbino we saw what is perhaps Piero's most discussed and famous picture: the Flagellation of Christ. (this is another work of Piero's considered "one of the world's best ten." The controversy about this one stems from the three men at front. The conventional interpretation is that this is the flagellation of Christ by the Romans with Pilate looking like the Ottoman Sultan to the side... It is a very intriguing but mysterious picture done in oil and tempera on wood. Who are those three people and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on in, wonders one of the the characters (on their own Piero Pilgrimage) in John Mortimer's novel Summer Lease.
There are countless interpretations. Pope-Hennessey, for example, doesn't think it is Christ at all--but rather Saint Jerome:
As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.
A great ascetic, there was one thing Jerome found it hard to give up: Cicero. A great admirer of classical culture, the saint often read the Bible and Stoic philosophy back to back. That is, until he had his infamous dream where he was flogged before God and declared to be "Ciceronian rather than Christian!"
It is such a brilliant dream---plagued by his guilty pleasure of reading Cicero, the saint vows afterward to keep a better perspective when it comes to philosophy.
This would explains the classical sculpture. Pope-Hennessey goes on to claim that the three men on the right are an angel and two scholars who are discussing the merits of classical and patristic literature in relation to Saint Jerome's dream. Hmmm.....(this short video sums things up). It is a wonderful picture and I definitely prefer the Pope-Hennessey explanation (the Ottoman looking Pilate is hard to explain no matter what).
Piero the great: James Hall, in reviewing Larry Witham's new book, Piero's Light says,
Modern critics have compared his mesmerizingly aloof madonnas to Buddhas; his sentinel saints to Egyptian statues; and his consummate micromanagement of light to that of Vermeer. The American painter Philip Guston observed: "His work has a kind of innocence or freshness about it, as if he was a messenger from God, looking at the world for the first time."
It is true that his work is both evocative of ancient sacred art (especially the serenity and deep spirituality of Buddhist sculpture) at the same time as it is surprisingly modern. A great mathematician and dedicated Platonist, Piero is revered in Italy as an early Renaissance genius. Like Leonardo. It will come as no surprise to hear that Larry Witham's new book posits that it is precisely the painter's research into the "sacred geometry" of Plato that makes Piero's work so accessible to us today.The pure geometric shapes and incredible skill in portraying light and color has made him a favorite painter of many modern artists. And, indeed, there was a time when the Piero trail was something of a cult journey.
Differing from Huxley, Pope-Hennessey's favorite Piero is the Brera Madonna, which I am hoping to see in Milan next week. He describes the picture as being of an incomparable subtlety in the lighting, spacial structure and the beauty of the imagery. I have to say that for me it was the True Cross fresco cycle--in particular Constantine's Dream panel of the True Cross fresco series.
These paintings suspended within the stones of the church walls have a three dimensional quality that painting on wood or canvas simply lack and this particular panel of the Dream of Constantine has a night-time intensity I have probably never seen in a painting before. It must be decades ahead of its time--if not centuries? Almost like a hallucination, the fresco seems to jump off the wall in front of the eyes; other-worldly, dreamlike, it is hard to believe these works are so old.
Pope-Hennessey ends his essay on the Piero della Francesca trail in quoting Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation, where Sontag says:
"What is important to me now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum content out of a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there... the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art--and, by analogy, our own experiences-- more rather than less real to us."
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Some say it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. (Maybe that is part of the vision of this blog?) I do think it's true that science and art can "save" us in this way... For me, there was something truly wonderful about following in the footsteps of an artist--in "pilgrimage." Especially since the pilgrimage involved seeing the works mainly in situ, in the places where they were originally created. I really did feel my senses coming alive in the way Sontag suggested is so necessary for us now. But it was not just that. For being on the trail in this way allowed me to understand what Pope-Hennessey suggested at the end of his book-- that on a subconscious level the tourist who follows on the Piero route (like the Leonardo route) becomes able "of explaining the phenomenon of the trail and the pertinacity with which it is pursued." The thrill of the journey and the quest...This is a marvelous form of re-enchantment with the world, don't you think?
We didn't see the Madonna del parto or go on to Rimino, which are also part of the classical Piero Pilgrimage (someday we will go back and finish it); we did see the Urbino Madonna (Senigallia Madonna--with a Christ child very reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture) and the wonderful double portraits in the Uffizi, the splendid portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.
Burning My Confederate Flag
by Akim Reinhardt
To be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.
The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.
Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.
To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.
Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.
Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.
And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.
Maybe it was different in the South. It almost certainly was, I suppose, at least to some extent. But growing up in a Jewish-Irish section of the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Confederate flag was little more than a rarely seen piece of kitschy exotica. It was about as common as a Don't Tread On Me Flag in the pre-Tea Party era, and seemed to carry about as much meaning, which was almost none. It came across as gaudy and irrelevant, a relic of some bygone era.
If the Stars and Bars, which looked like the redheaded stepchild of Old Glory and the Union Jack, was to be taken seriously at all, it was only as a token of the losing side in the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier. But beyond that, on the rare instances the banner caught your glance, it was merely cartoonish.
The Confederate flag was something you associated with Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was painted on the side of a hot rod in the bubble gum TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. For a teenager in the Bronx in the 1980s, if the Confederate flag signified anything at all, it was drunk people in cutoffs.
Which is all just a long winded, and perhaps self-rationalizing explanation of why I bought one at a tourist trap in 1985.
Our senior year of high school, three friends and I piled into a small, brown Toyota Corolla and drove from the Bronx to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Only two of us knew how to drive a stick. Only one of us had a license.
Our parents were a bit tentative about the whole thing, but when we rotated a smattering of well timed lies among them to tweak the details, they all signed off.
My dad took me down to the bank, got me some traveler's checks, and instructed me to find a good hiding spot in the hotel room for my cash; I elected to stash it above a drop ceiling tile. Another dad, a thickly accented German Jewish immigrant, urged us to be safe and responsible, passing his son a string of condoms through the car window just before we hit the road.
It was a different time.
Our parents had suggested we stop in North Carolina the first night, as it was about halfway and they didn't want us driving tired. But we were young and full of steam, and we plowed on. Late that first afternoon, we crossed the North Carolina-South Carolina state line and pulled into a tourist trap whose billboards we'd been mocking for miles. It's called South of the Border.
For those unfamiliar with the I-95 jaunt down the East Coast, South of the Border is a massive, Mexican-themed rest stop that's been around since the 1950s. It's also got a lot of Southern tchotchkes, and it was there that, on a lark, I purchased a polyester Confederate flag for a couple of bucks.
I thought Daisy Duke was hot. I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few other bands of that ilk. I stuffed the flag into my bag, we crowded back into the Corolla, and continued embarking on our comically misguided adventure.
As the years went by, my flag languished. To be perfectly honest, I have almost no recollection of what I did with it over the next decade. I assume I hung it on various walls and draped it over random objects. But then again, it may very well have remained stuffed in the corners of closets much of the time. It made virtually no long term impression on my life. Rather, the object remained true to its origins: another meaningless piece of crap picked up at a tourist trap while on vacation. The very first, in fact, that I could ever lay claim to, and I quickly learned the lesson: Don't bother.
By the late 1990s, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in history. I had my own place, a spacious 1 BR with beautiful wooden floors, a living room and a dining room, faux Dutch molding on the ceiling, and both a front and back porch.
The back porch was really more of a mud room off the kitchen and it led out the back door. The front porch, however, was reasonably large and screened in. Being the bearded heathen I was, I squandered this pleasant space, using it to stow random crap and to house the litter box for my two cats. Since the screened porch was perpetually ventilated, I allowed myself to change the litter far less often than I should have.
One day, while scooping the poop, I noticed the old Confederate flag, crumpled in the corner and enmeshed in cat hair. I picked it up. It stank. Perhaps the porch wasn't ventilating as well as I'd presumed. Time for this thing to go, I thought. But let's do it in style.
I phoned up my friends and told them I was having a flag burning party. Come on over. We'll drink whiskey (that's about as far as my party planning skills generally take me), and at the stroke of midnight, I'll burn my Confederate flag while playing "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd.
Now that I was a history graduate student with a better understanding of the past, it seemed like a just ending for this troublesome symbol. It seemed like an appropriate demise for a piece of tourist trap ephemera. It seemed like a good excuse to have a party.
My friends arrived. We drank some whiskey. Mostly we drank cheap beer. And as midnight approached, I placed a Skynyrd album on the turntable and dropped the needle. I went out to the front porch, stood beside the litter box, held the Stars and Bars aloft, and flicked open my zippo.
The song had barely gotten underway before it was all over. I didn't stop to consider that polyester is, after all, that most petroleum based of all our beloved synthetic fibers. Nor that cat hair, of which there was a considerable coating, is also quite flammable.
When you think of a flag burning, you probably envision some angry protestor waving the flaming banner over and over in a display of fierce and dangerous recalcitrance. This, however, turned out to be more like Wile E. Coyote getting burnt to a crisp in no time flat.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. The song still had quite a ways to go. I went back inside, lifted the tone arm prematurely, and popped a tape in the cassette deck. Time to move on, lest the party end as quickly as the flag had.
The ashes remained on the front porch, amid the clutter and litter, until I finally cleaned up the apartment on my way out in 2000.
Symbols, of course, can mean many things to many people. Such is the very nature of symbols. And when those symbolic meanings clash, negotiation is sometimes in order.
In 1995, just before moving to Nebraska, I was best man at a Hindu wedding. Learning that I was half-Jewish, the groom's side assured me they would cover up the Hindu swastika that is used in one of the rituals. Hearing of this, I sent word that I understood the Nazis had misappropriated this ancient symbol from India, and that I would not be offended in the least by its presence. They covered it anyway, out of respect for me.
Shortly thereafter, while studying American Indian history, I learned that the swastika pattern appears in numerous cultural displays across Indigenous North America. In fact, it was so common in Dene (Navajo) woolen tapestries, that during World War II, the United States made them disown it.
However, the various symbolisms of the Confederate flag are not nearly as far flung as the global reach of the swastika. It's pretty much just an America thing, and the palette of meaning is much more limited.
It was the emblem of the rebellious Confederacy during the Civil War. Afterwards, it slowly faded from view, particularly outside the South, remaining in American memory with pretty much just that one meaning. Then, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists proudly resuscitated the Stars and Bars. It became ubiquitous in the South again, re-emerging as the symbol of modern racism.
Instead of just representing the Civil War of the 1860s, the Confederate flag was now waved to assert "states rights," a common and flimsy excuse for maintaining legalized segregation. And in this effort, the flag once again represented a failed cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South and in those parts of the West where it was also on the books.
After the Civil Rights movement asserted itself during the 1960s, and the bloody battle over Jim Crow ended, the Confederate flag's symbolic meaning was finally able to become a bit fuzzier. It could represent the Civil War. It could represent a modern white supremacy. Or it could, more innocuously, represent a somewhat generic pride in the South's rich heritage, culture, and traditions.
And of course, as the number of symbolic meanings grew, meaning itself could melt away into the vagaries of fashion and pop culture. It was in this sense that the Confederate flag often got waved at rock concerts, or painted onto the side of a car in a TV show, or purchased at a tourist trap during a truly epic and ill-advised Spring Break fiasco.
Consequently, there is a temptation to say we must emphasize the context. Just as there was no need for that Hindu family to cover up their swastika in my presence, and just as it was wrong for the federal government to strong arm Denes into disowning the swastika, isn't it also wrong for us to now demand that the Confederate flag be erased from official display in the South Carolina state house?
It is not wrong for us to demand that, in light of a Confederate flag-loving racist slaughtering black churchgoers in South Carolina, that the state of South Carolina finally remove this longstanding emblem of racial hatred and repression from its official public display.
For starters, the Stars and Bars is not some ancient symbol cris-crossing world cultures ranging from the Indigenous Americas to India. Rather, it is a uniquely American product, barely 150 years in age.
Second, while we can talk about fuzziness and innocuousness all we want, the simple fact is, the Confederate flag had only one real meaning for about a century. It was the calling card of the Confederate States of America: a would be nation state born from the Southern elite's desperate effort to retain slavery, and the destruction of which is the only reason the United States completely abolished slavery in 1865.
Furthermore, the Confederate flag's rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s was most certainly not fuzzy or innocuous. It was part of a segregationist program. It was the logo of racism. The fuzziness and innocuousness only came later, during my own lifetime, and I'm really not that old.
So on the one hand, I don't have anything against the harmless, reasonably innocent, though perhaps mildly misguided individual who sports a Confederate bumper sticker to announce their love of fried food and bent vowels. Many people, both black and white, love the South and, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me, would rather live there than in the North or West. The music, the food, the weather, the sweet tea, and most of all, the people.
However, I also understand the history of this very troubled symbol. And over the years, I have also met and talked with a fair number of very serious racists for whom the Confederate flag symbolizes the goal of initiating a RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) that "cleanses" America of blacks and other non-whites.
Furthermore, I also understand that the Confederate flag was originally flown atop the South Carolina statehouse dome only as recently as 1962, and it was not placed there innocuously or in a moment of fuzziness. Rather, the South Carolina state government raised the Confederate flag as a resentful, nasty, stubborn statement in support of American apartheid. And so it never should have gone up to begin with, regardless of the playfulness it represents to some people nowadays. That it has fluttered this long above a government building is both an insult and an embarrassment.
So I'm glad that not only is the state of South Carolina finally debating removing the Confederate flag from its statehouse, but that this movement of questioning the flag and other Confederate memorials has spread into the wider culture and become part of the national debate.
I'm glad that the nation's oldest maker of Confederate flags has announced it will cease production of them.
I'm glad that retailers including Amazon, Ebay, Sears, and even Arkansas' own Wal-Mart, have announced they will no longer sell the Confederate flag.
I'm glad Warner Bros. will no longer sell Dukes of Hazzard toy cars with a Confederate flag emblem.
And I'm glad that I burned my two-bit polyester version many years ago.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
C-print, edition of 7.
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.