Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Changes

When I started this blog--or rather, when I first started designing it, as I had conceived and laid out the blog long before I began writing--I had certain ideas in mind regarding what sort of blog it was going to be, and those ideas were connected to intentions I had regarding what sort of scholar I thought I was going to be, what sort of academic, what sort of citizen, what sort of person. So I came up with a rather pretension name, "Wäldchen vom Philosophenweg," to try and capture all that. I like that phrase; it's still meaningful to me. Intellectually, the idea of spending one's time walking through tangled thickets of thought is a good one; surely it's a better approach of the life of the mind than many others.

Still, over the last few months--as this blog has been on hiatus, more or less--I've become less comfortable with remaining attached to all those ideas and intentions, now well over a year old. I don't think I'm heading in the sort of direction--whether in terms of my profession or my research or my opinions or my associations--that I thought I would be. Maybe one could say that my original vision was deeply entwined with the work I'd done my dissertation, and now I've moved beyond that; that would be accurate, but incomplete. The larger truth is, I simply feel a need to be less obligated, less connected, to any one particular intellectual "take" on the world rushing past me. If I'm to have an internet presence, I want it to be a less weighted, more minimal one; a place where if my scribblings don't add up to what I once thought they would add up to, well, at least they won't seem (to me, if no one else) quite so incongruous or incomplete.

So anyway, goodbye to the old blog, hello to the new: In Medias Res. A better name, I think, for this particular time in my life. Please change your blogrolls accordingly. I've stuck with Blogger, partly because Blogger has gotten better, but mostly because it's still the easiest and cheapest thing out there. I'll be leaving this blog up and all it's archives up, since it'll probably be a while before searches start turning up the new place rather than this one, but I won't be writing anything more here. Hope to see you around.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

An Announcement, and a Couple of Notes

Well, like last year, it appears that I'm pretty much going to be taking the entire summer off. I really intended to get back into the swing of things this month, but that's not going to happen; I still have a good month's worth of work in front of me, unfortunately. So while I've broken my vow to stay away from the blogosphere, and have (mostly) returned to my old reading habits, I wouldn't expect to see anything new here until the beginning of August at the earliest.

I've really enjoyed reading Jacob Levy's numerous intelligent defenses of his decision to (probably) vote for Kerry. Despite the fact that Jacob and I have pretty significant differences in our basic moral and philosophical positions regarding politics, despite the fact that both of us dissent from the mainstream political parties in significant ways, I think our very different boats are heading in the same direction this election year. For a couple of political theorists, it's a bit disconcerting to realize that one's vote, this time around, is being dictated not so much by ideas or arguments as simple "competence/honesty/expertise" issues, as Jacob put it. But then, Bush's serious lacking in all three of those has disconcerted a lot of people, right-wing libertarians and left-wing communitarians alike.

As for the rest of the blogosphere, I can't wait to see what Laura comes up with once she's in her new home; like Harry, I'm essentially a fuddy-duddy who wishes I lived in a society that endorsed my desire to leave youth behind; and Timothy, depressingly, is still on vacation. At least I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Behold the Power of Blog(s)

This also has nothing to do with all the work I'm supposed to be accomplishing during my current hiatus (question for Jacob: does a couple of months equal "long-term"?), but as I've recently finalized my plans for attending next September's American Political Science Association annual meeting, and as several bloggers are talking about their current blog-related research, I thought I'd mention an event at this year's APSA conference that promises to be interesting. Presumably everyone directly or tangentially involved already knows about it, but just to take official notice: check out this panel. "The Power and Politics of Blogs," featuring Daniel W. Drezner as chair, a paper by Antoinette Pole, comments by Cass Sunstein, and a panel of big names to argue about it all for the viewing audience's entertainment and benefit: Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Mickey Kaus, and Andrew Sullivan. It's an interesting line-up: Kleiman is a passionate but relatively centrist Democrat; Kaus is a cantakerous and unconventional social egalitarian who sounds more like a Republican all the time; Farrell is both a liberal and a social democrat; and Sullivan and Drezner are your classic socially moderate, libertarian-leaning, free trade-supporting, mostly Republican-voting hawks. There might be some real fireworks, depending on how the discussion goes. Of course, one probably won't get any profound insight into why political blog readership skews so overwhelmingly male from this rather heavily XY chromosome-patterned panel, but hey, you can't have everything.

Actually, more than anything which might actually be discussed I'm interested in how this panel will play out in the blogosphere. Obviously all of the participants are likely to mention it on their blogs, as will some of those who may be in attendance. (Chris? Laura? Jacob?) Some may even blog about it at length...which could lead to subsequent blog-replies from the other participants, thus creating an internet simulacrum of the original panel! But really, that's just the post-game show: what about simul-blogging the panel as it happens? How many bloggers with laptops will be present in the audience, blogging these bloggers' comments about blogs on their own blogs as they speak? A few? (The conference is in Chicago; think we could get the Crescat Sententia gang to crash the room?) Personally, I think we should try to get as many as possible--it could be the blogospheric equivalent of a perfect storm!
Update: Looks like Chris plans to be there. And I have been informed that Laura is involved in the panel as well. I should have figured that out. Anyway, that should definitely further reduce any chance of this panel degenerating into an overly masculine "He-Men of the Blogging Universe Smackdown." (Which is a shame, sort of. Sullivan vs. Farrell, for the title? Could have been bloody...)

Friday, May 21, 2004

Thoughts on Education (in Abstract, and in Arkansas)

It's been a productive few weeks. I thought I'd be posting somewhat regularly on my book and some reading I'm doing in relation to it, but that hasn't happened yet. Perhaps in June. In the meantime, for a variety of reasons I've been thinking a lot about education this past week, and though it doesn't have anything to do with any of my current projects, I thought I'd put down some of my (rambling, lengthy) thoughts this Friday afternoon, if only to reward the handful of people who continue to come by (don't worry; the summer won't last forever).

Megan, our seven-year-old, finished up her second grade year at Hillcrest Elementary on Thursday. She had a good year, though not as good as she did in kindergarten and first grade; Megan is a sensitive girl, and she was made uncomfortable by the way in which her talents and test scores were highlighted by her teacher and used (mostly implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, to our chagrin) as a benchmark to critique the performance of her classmates. However, given the demographics of the school, that may have been inevitable. Hillcrest, which is in the Jonesboro School District here in Jonesboro, AR, is the largest in the area, the wealthiest (that is, it receives the most city and state money), but also serves the poorest segment of students in the city; for this reason (among others) it has a bad reputation among many locals, and has suffered a great deal from white flight over past few decades. Depending on what you're looking for in a school, though, that's not necessarily a negative; one fine member of our church--a native of the area, a blue-collar fellow and hardly any sort of guilt-ridden liberal intellectual--told us over dinner one evening that he and his wife had chosen to live within the Jonesboro School District specifically because they considered the implicit racism exhibited in other, outlying districts to be intolerable. A subjective judgment, to be sure. And not the sort of thing which ought to be the sole determining factor when deciding where to educate one's children; standing on principle is and should be easily outweighed by concerns over safety and adequate instruction. Fortunately, we haven't been faced with such a stark choice yet. And in the meantime I do take some satisfaction from the fact that Megan's best friend from school, the one she spends the most time with and talked about homework with and whom she visits and invites over regularly, is Sediah, a quite poor black girl from a crowded, welfare-dependent home. It would be foolish to try to articulate the social worth of such a friendship in accordance with some rigorous egalitarian scheme...but that does not mean I cannot recognize it as a good thing, a thing that, in too many places at least, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much of as one might think there ought to be.

The arguments and assumptions which surround the local debate over Jonesboro School District--a large district with a big central high school, a great number and variety of classes, programs and activities, but of course also more discipline problems, more poor kids and more bureaucracy--are a microcosm of the debates which have characterized public education in Arkansas over the last few years. Big schools vs. little schools, increased opportunity vs. intimate involvement--it's a complicated and divisive set of arguments, one which just about every school system has struggled with at one point or another. Just this week, at least one strand of those debates in Arkansas appeared to come full circle: Lake View School District--a tiny (about 160 students total), rural, all-black school district in Arkansas's southeastern Delta region--was instructed by a state board that it would have to consolidate with a neighboring (mostly white) school district. What is ironic about this is that it was Lake View School District's complaints about unequal school funding, complaints which ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits (lasting over a decade) that challenged the constitutionality of Arkansas's school funding arrangement in the first place...a challenge that eventually led the state to a set of decisions which included dissolving (excuse me, "consolidating") Lake View.

School consolidation has been on everyone's mind here in Arkansas ever since Governor Mike Huckabee recanted his opposition to such after his election in 2002. What changed his mind was the threat that the Arkansas Supreme Court would take over the state's schools, unless something was done to satisfy, in their eyes, the education clause in the Arkansas Constitution which states that "the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." Huckabee argued that district consolidation had to be part of any reform proposal: Arkansas simply did not have the funds or tax base to make up the inequalities directly, and fewer school districts (Arkansas has over three hundred) with a consequently larger pool of teachers to share would, he claimed, be able to provide a greater variety of classes to more students (thus presumably somewhat equalizing the great disparity in educational resources around the state) at little extra cost. Huckabee originally suggested that districts with under 1,500 students total be consolidated--which would have affected nearly three-quarters of Arkansas's school districts, thought he also proposed exceptions for especially isolated or highly performing school districts. Predictably, this did not go over well with the state legislature. But ultimately, a bill was passed which mandated the "administrative consolidation" of districts with under 350 students. Huckabee didn't like it, but it was something. The public was divided about it, but no other solution carried much support either. And anyway you look at it, Lake View itself--a Reconstruction-era, former sharecropping community that has suffered from rural poverty for decades--simply couldn't avoid the chopping block.

There are so many things that could be said about this dilemma--about the profound injustice involved in tying so much of school funding to the local and state tax base, about the burdens of Bush's spectacularly under-funded No Child Left Behind mandates, about the mania for testing and standards and how that undermines clear thinking about what different schools in diverse socio-economic settings can or ought to be expected to offer their students. To me, the most interesting issue is how one ought to conceive community obligations when small localities confront a larger one. Some communitarians defended rural school district advocates; I couldn't, simply because I think the civic project of education can properly (not to mention pragmatically) be understood as a communal concern for the whole state as well. But that doesn't make hard choices any easier. It would have been nice if the legal juggernaut which Lake View had put in motion had resulted in legislation which attempted to engage with some sort of deeper, more fundamental and better reform. There are all sorts of things I would like to see explored: perhaps reforms along lines suggested by Matthew Miller (see here and here, where he talks about ways in which vouchers could be distributed more equitably and restrictions on teachers could be loosened, thereby making them both more responsible and accountable), or Harry Brighouse (who in his book here talks about turning school choice into a tool for those who care about the autonomy of students), or any the many advocates of charter schools (here, for example) despite their admittedly profound disagreements with one another. But that wasn't to be. What we did have was an admirable resistance by the governor to the lottery-money-for-education delusion which has suckered so many state governments, and thus a need to raise whatever additional money could be found through a sales tax, and then push for some boundary restructuring in the hopes that what money there was could be distributed with slightly fewer inequities than before. This is the course Governor Huckabee pursued, sometimes honestly and sometimes not, but in the end it was one I supported. Not without discomfort: another member of our church is a school teacher in a district which serves a small farming community 30 miles west of here; his district is being consolidated, the local parents are devastated, and he will likely have to look for a new job. He's a wonderful teacher, and deserves better. But no comprehensive reform could ever make things easy for him, or for the people of Lake View, or for anyone who hopes to make public education work. It's enough to make you despair (which is part of the explanation for why so many of my siblings home school their children). But then I look at Megan, and her friends, and I think: there's too much good here to not keep trying to find some way to hold on to the principle of the thing.

Anyway, summer's here. Onward and upward into the third grade, next year.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

A Shift in Focus (In Other Words a Hiatus, Of Sorts)

Now that I've handed out my last final, and seeing that all I've managed to do lately is play catch-up, I may as well make official what I've been contemplating for the last few weeks. For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I'm going to be significantly scaling back my blogging--or more accurately, my blog-reading and blog-responding--for the next couple of months, perhaps for the whole summer. Of course, it's not like I'm a truly productive blogger (I'm pretty much confined to the Flappy Bird level of the blogospheric ecosystem), but I always have spent a good chunk of my time reading and contributing to and commenting on other blogs, here and elsewhere. That's going to change, at least for the time being. I have a few projects that having been laying around for months (even years), and if I don't finish or make good progress towards finishing them this summer, I might as well give up on them. Furthermore, I think my writing, both professional and personal, has been affected, and not necessarily in a good way, by my engagement with the blogosphere; I wonder if I'm losing my sense of how to carefully listen to, think through, and respond to a narrow and specific argument or idea, in favor of speaking rapidly and broadly. That's not an indictment of this form of discourse by any means. But I think I need a break from it, nonetheless.

I'll still post material here (perhaps around once a week or so) for the next couple of months, but whatever I put up will be reviews of books I'm reading, drafts of or notes on the book I'm writing, and other sundry research-related junk. (In other words, look for a lot of political theory stuff on nationality, community, identity, not to mention my guy Johann Gottfried Herder.) Occasionally my attention will probably wander and I may put up an essay that branches off into other areas I'm interested in (the EU, East Asia, Islam, religion, education, family, whatever), but I'm going to try my best to avoid topicality, since that will just drag me back to my favorite blogs all over again. I'm determined to keep to this schedule at least through July, when I'll be teaching a summer course here at ASU; maybe I'll keep it up longer. We'll see. (I'll probably continue to blog at Times and Seasons, though probably no more frequently than I will here.)

I figure there's probably 50-75 people who really do check my blog out regularly, as opposed to just happening to stop by; to those folks, my deepest thanks, and I hope you'll find some interest in what I put up, and what my summer work produces. In the meantime, since I just mentioned "my favorite blogs" above, I thought I may as well list them here, so anyone who doesn't already read them can know what I'm giving up. While I'm gone, read: Paul Cella, Kevin Drum, Amitai Etzioni, Noah Millman, Timothy Burke, Hugo Schwyzer, Laura at Apt. 11D, the whole gang at Crooked Timber, almost everyone at The Volokh Conspiracy, the same for Innocents Abroad, everyone at the beautifully redesigned A Fistful of Euros, Daniel Drezner, Nathan Newman, Matthew Yglesias, and of course, Andrew Sullivan. (I know, I know: you feel like you don't need to read him anymore either, and yet, you still do. Me too.)

Have a good summer, everyone.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Some More Links and Comments (Playing Catch-Up Again)

It's finals week here at ASU, and so I'm busier than usual. I've also been doing more self-evaluation than is usual; one result is some likely changes in my blogging habits, at least as soon as I get a few things off of my chest. To wit:

Matt Ygelsias wrote in defense of the draft (or at least the principle of the draft), then defended himself from the criticisms of Julian Sanchez, who was then backed up by Will Wilkinson. I've expressed my broadly communitarian support for the draft or other national service-type policies a couple of times before, so I'll content myself with basically agreeing with Matt, and picking on one point of Will's. He writes (in reference to Matt's point that the libertarian opposition to state "interference" with one's life plans doesn't acknowledge the degree to which the state and other social institutions cannot avoid being central to life-plan conceptualization) that welfare-liberals...naively overestimate the ability of state institutions to create positive expectations, and underestimate the ability of the system of voluntary institutions to not only shape positive expectations, but to lead people to search through the space of possible life plans, and present the best of these through the popular culture, in a way that enhances our abilities to formulate a fitting conception of our good." True enough, but that's not really the point, is it? No reasonable person would deny that state involvement in defining one's personal choices is a crude instrument. What must be acknowledged, however, is that maintaining the "space [for searching through] possible life plans" depends the maintenance of particular collective goods. Furthermore, the popular culture and the market (the "system of voluntary institutions," in other words) which libertarians presumably trust to sustain those goods is and always will be reflective of the interests and agendas of those with the material and social resources to influence it; that is, they're inegalitarian. And while the interest in individual choice may well tolerate the preservation of certain baseline conditions through what are strictly speaking inegalitarian modes of activity (say, for example, endowment-sensitive public education opportunities), the existence of such patterns in other areas of common life--most particularly, the armed forces of a society--can have (and arguably is already having) terrible civic consequences. In short, even if you agree in principle with the libertarian desire for individuals to enjoy a politically unencumbered search for their own personal good, and believe that social necessities will by and large be "invisibly" satisfied by such, brute civic realities suggest this cannot be so at least insofar as national defense and similar service obligations are concerned. (This is not, of course, a defense of any particular draft policy, much less any particular instance of drafting; this is a rebuke to those who thinking there's no reason to be concerned if the armed services ought to operate along the exact same voluntary the same lines as any other social need.)

At Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse called his readers attention to a valuable study by Caroline Hoxby on the voucher program in Milwaukee; it prompted an excellent discussion (replicated at Daniel Drezner's blog), where a lot of the main criticisms and possibilities for voucher-driven reforms of the public school system were discussed. Harry is an advocate of "progressive school vouchers" (as am I, though our approaches would be slightly different; given my understanding of the delicate relationship between civic maintenance and religious belief, I'm supportive of assuring those who wish their children to attend parochial schools special consideration), and as such, was impressed with Hoxby's work. Matt Yglesias pointed out some holes in Hoxby's analysis, but not enough, I think, to slow down the basic truthfulness of her argument: that vouchers can empower at the very least a selective portion of parents who currently have no alternatives to the public school market. Matt's general conclusion is to say that, even if that is so, "we're hardly going to enact a law giving vouchers to African-Americans but not to members of other racial/ethnic groups." That may be so, at least under the current all-or-nothing mentality which prevents creative thinking by both public school defenders and opponents alike. But if public schooling was understood, as it ought to be, as a more populist enterprise, which joined civic imperatives to local inputs (as best exemplified in the charter school movement), then there might be more flexibility out there, enough for people to recognize that vouchers can serve as an important tool for focusing public money without necessarily losing sight of the overall public ends in mind.

Hugo Schwyzer has another typically insightful and honest post up about the lack of respect and knowledge (regarding both oneself and the realities of social life) demonstrated by women who think nothing of wearing scanty attire in public places--and more particularly, by those who would defend dressing provocatively as a display of self-affirmation, when in reality it's a way of selling oneself. To quote Hugo: "[I]n our culture, rightly or wrongly, revealing dress, sexuality, and self-esteem are inextricably linked. I recognize as well that revealing dress fosters a culture of competition, even among college-aged women, and that competitiveness does irreparable damage to the already fragile bonds of gender solidarity that those of us in this field are working so hard to foster....As feminists, we simultaneously must hold in tension a desire not to shame the female body with a desire not to foster a culture of competitiveness and objectification. We must hold in tension the importance of individual rights of self-expression with the community's right not to be offended."

Finally, also from Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell invokes the blessed Invisible Adjunct, and points to the very Calvinistic (or at least, the Weberian interpretation thereof) mentality which attempts to justify academic markets, which are so very plainly neither as meritocratic nor as neutral as advertised. Brayden King confirms this mentality, trying convince himself that his merit (which is no doubt significant) will reward him with a tenure-track job. For my own pseudo-Calvinistic reasons, I'm doubtful, but I wish Brayden the best of luck.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Some Links

Laura excerpts some wonderful material from a City Journal article by Kay S. Hymowitz, and adds some thoughtful comments of her own. As I've discussed before, often following Laura's lead, a lot of Generation Xers, broadly speaking, are willing to risk the label "conservative" if that's what it takes to maintain a healthy, child-friendly home and marriage. In Hymowitz's words, they--we--are "nostalgic for the childhood that boomers supposedly had....growing up in the aftermath of America's great marriage meltdown, [it is] no wonder that young people put so much stock in marriage and family, their bedrock in the mobile twenty-first century." That's the sort of language that sets many libertarian liberals off...yet the desire for security, stability and domesticity is real, in so many very ordinary yet meaningful ways. As Laura puts it, "it might be corny, but I just think [it's] just smart."

Hugo Schwyzer is a brave blogger. Besides having of late shown his colors as a pro-life feminist and an advocate of gay rights who is nonetheless willing to defend those who critique it on Biblical grounds, Hugo has put up two very excellent posts on how pornography exploits both the women trapped in it and the men who consume it (though obviously in very different ways). A representative excerpt:

"Like in so many other areas (abortion, plastic surgery) we frame the debate about pornography in terms of choices. Women should have the choice to work in porn. Men should have the choice to work in porn. Women and men should have the choice to consume porn as well. As long as everyone (performer, producer, marketer, consumer) is over 18, where is the harm? The harm is in my soul when I view it. The harm is in Lara Roxx's [a performer in a pornographic film that was unknowingly infected with HIV] body right now....You can say she has some culpability, and I agree, she does. But the only reason the money is so good for young women in porn is because men are willing to pay quite a bit to see girls like Lara naked and exposed and penetrated. I confess that in the past I have been guilty of that very sin....When men like me lust after girls like she who is called Lara Roxx (she's 18, I'll be damned if I'll call her a grown woman), we scar our spirits and tarnish our relationships with all the other women in our lives as a consequence....The fact that many young girls and women choose to make themselves objects of desire does not lessen for one second my obligation to look past that veneer and see them as my younger sisters whom I need to honor, love, and care for....Porn kills many things: innocence, hope, trust, health, bodies, spirits. I know it is hip today to proclaim it harmless, but the unfashionable fact is that this is an industry built on distorted fantasy, loneliness, and despair. And we on the left need to stop hiding behind the First Amendment issues and articulate this untrendy but vital truth."

Powerful stuff. But of course, as always, read the whole thing.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

What Jon Said (or, Where Do I Stand? What Can Bush Do? Part II)

Ozymandias: "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end."
Dr. Manhattan: "'In the end'? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."


The line is from Watchmen, if you're not up on your Alan Moore. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So on Saturday, David Brooks described himself as a "more humble hawk," a semi-repentant supporter of the Bush's vision of the war in Iraq who has come to realize that he "misunderstood how normal Iraqis would react to our occupation," "did not appreciate how our very presence in Iraq would overshadow democratization," "assumed, wrongly, that the administration would launch a fresh postwar initiative to globalize the reconstruction effort," and so forth. He concludes that "We hawks were wrong about many things. But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing." Matthew Ygelsias, in an excellent, reflective post, describes Brooks's piece as "the first of what I think will be many retrospective I was wrong but I was right anyway articles. The implication here is that though Bush may botch everything in Iraq, Brooks was nevertheless correct to have supported the war because he, after all, was not in favor of botching things." Matt goes on explain what's wrong with this position:

"The trouble...is this. When George W. Bush is president and is advocating a war and you, too, are advocating for war, then the fact of the matter is that you are advocating that the war be conducted by George W. Bush....The striking thing is that many people...saw this very clearly, and yet didn't see it. Kenneth Pollack is the crucial case. Well before the war began, he released The Threatening Storm. Since that was a book and not a newspaper op-ed, it did not advocate 'invading Iraq' but rather advocated an entire Iraq policy, complete with loads of details. It was obvious by the time war broke out, that while Bush was invading Iraq, and while the Pollack policy involved an invasion of Iraq, that Bush was not implementing the Pollack policy. I know this is true because, among other things, Pollack said so at the time. Pollack nevertheless did not jump off the bandwagon and join the anti-war team. This is, shall we say with some understatement, a political strategy that is open to criticism."

Matt goes on to acknowledge that this describes his behavior during 2002 and early 2003 as well, for which he blames vanity: "'Bush is right to say we should invade Iraq, but he's going about it the wrong way, here is my nuanced wonderfullness' sounds much more intelligent than some kind of chant at an anti-war rally. In fact, however, it was less intelligent. I got off the bandwagon right before the shooting started, but by then it was far too late--this was more a case of CYA than a case of efficacious political dissent."

I respect Matt a lot for writing this post, not the least reason for which being the fact that his analysis describes my own trajectory to a great degree as well. Brayden King praised my recent repudiation of my old and always ambivalent pro-war position, which is kind of him, but the fact is that I always was, and still remain, like Matt "stuck in the middle"--indeed, perhaps moreso. I supported the war because, fundamentally, the idea appealed to me: it made sense, it matched what I thought ought and could be possible in a world of danger and oppression where the meaning of sovereignty had changed but the role of national power hadn't. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was criminal tyranny, an obstacle and blight partly of our own making, and a potential threat; as Matt continues to point out, the problem with a great many of those who were opposed to the war was their inability or unwillingness to engage the problem of Iraq seriously. That is, most of Bush's opponents adopted an opposition to the war which was "simple and wrong" as opposed to one which was "right but difficult," as Michael Walzer put it. (This is not a slam on principled pacifists; a consistent pacifism counts as a difficult and worthy position.) I suppose a lot of us liberals who came to support the war did so because we assumed that we were taking, along the lines Matt suggests, the "difficult" road, one that dealt honestly with what we had in hand (i.e., the Bush administration) while still holding onto our ideals. That was shortsighted, to say the least.

Of course, it is talk like that which makes strident opponents of the war (on both the left and the right) think that folks like me are still deluded, imagining that the war could have worked, should have worked--in other words, that the principle of Wilsonian intervention, however we articulate it, is not fundamentally unsound--assuming conditions were right (for example, if Blair had been running the show, and not Bush). A conservative friend of mine, who has opposed the war from the beginning, continues to press me on this point. What do I think might have been different? And more importantly, if I can always imagine that something might have been, or should have been, different, then is there any way my idea-driven willingness to support efforts such as these can ever truly be tested, much less falsified? If not (if I can always say "see, that's how it should have been done"), then aren't my convictions more fantasies than arguments?

He's not wrong to question me so; his position (in which national interest in a traditional realist sense combines with a respect for, and suspicion of, the magnitude of culture difference between us and the targets--like Iraq--of our aspirations) is the more rigorous one. But I cannot embrace it (though I can learn from it, and perhaps come to trust its wisdom more), because I just don't find the lines he draws to be nearly so clear or compelling. So I think my response to him and others, my response to the retort that I'm simply moving my own "lines" around at will, must be: my convictions entail, or rather are part and parcel to, a set of practices; the principles which I believed (and still believe) could be worth fighting a war over must mean that the wars I could support must be, strictly speaking, principled wars. That is, the test of the validity of these ideas (about democracy and intervention and liberation) is in their execution itself. Which is what leads me back to Brooks, and to the exchange from Watchmen I started out with.

Brooks concludes his piece by writing that "in 20 years, no one will doubt that Bush did the right thing." Twenty years--a whole generation! What I find remarkable about that isn't the length of time itself (which is perfectly reasonable, if not overly optimistic, in light of the dynamics of social change), but that it makes time part of the argument, and yet takes a stand in regards to that time; it is as if Brooks were saying: "We're now part of Iraqi history, and so one must let what the U.S. has done work itself out historically. We need to see things not in terms of their immediate costs, but their ultimate ends." But Brooks cannot see those ends, and neither can I--not simply because we're not prophets, but because there is not and cannot be an "end" in the sense he is talking about to which any given intervention can be locked into. Twenty years of events will precede that "end," and follow it, and the invasion of Iraq will become one more element in a historical tapestry. That's not an argument against action per se, but it is an argument against hypothesizing a result which will justify what came before.

In Watchmen, a superhero named Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) comes to the conclusion that humankind will destroy itself unless all countries can unite against a common foe (the story takes place in 1985). So he constructs an elaborate conspiracy about an alien foe, which results in the death of 3 million people and the wholesale transformation of human society. After all is said and done, Adrian confesses to Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan), another superhero with truly godlike powers, that he is troubled by the costs of his actions, but looks confidently towards the end that his efforts were directed towards. Jon, who is essentially omniscient, offers him no comfort: "Nothing ever ends."

I'm not accusing Bush of being Ozymandias; I don't think he has anything like that level of arrogance, and I don't think his "intervention" is anywhere near so total or extreme. But he has intervened, and increasingly it seems that action has been understood not on its own terms (what is Iraq like? what can we responsibly do? how can our ideals be applied?), but in terms of what it will, presumably, end up meaning. As I've mentioned before, perhaps interventionism is unavoidable in the present moment. If that is so, if the intractable ugliness of most our choices will always be with us, whether we respond to tyranny or poverty or abuse or not, then does that mean we can say nothing to those who intervene, who act, who get things done, whether or not they're done in the way we think is best? One certainly can't complain that Bush doesn't get things done. But still: one can refuse to get caught up in the supposing of future possibilities, and insist that whatever does happen, to whatever end, cannot be justified on such a basis. Such projections, contra Brooks, aren't nearly humble enough; they do not consider that the fact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and elimination of Saddam Hussein will, strictly speaking, never end. So you have to look from moment to moment, rather than any given outcome; you have to look at intentions, yes, but also immediate obligations and attendant realities--you cannot put them off, and just assume that things will "come around." One might think that this is just a long-winded way of making an argument for prudence, for never trusting any one idea too far, for being conscious of burdens, and it is partly that. But I believe there is an important reason to put things this way. President Bush, whatever his virtues (and he has many), seems to be, and seems to inspire or expect the people around him to be, tunnel-thinkers: focusing in on a threat or need, they undertake their work and concentrate on that future point where they plan to emerge, at which time they assume conditions will be exactly as they expected them to be when they down their chosen rabbit hole. And you know, maybe they will be. Then again, maybe they won't. And either way, an awful lot of people have been carried down into those rabbit holes along with them. Those people have to be made part of the action, even if it slows one down, even if it means you can't go as far as you need to go, even if some of those who refuse to go along are plainly in the wrong. Such is the price of living in a community, both a national and an international one: maybe communal concerns can somewhat set aside the imposition of bright lines ("sovereignty," etc.) which guide action, but they should also make clearer the participatory and collective requirements of such actions at the same time.

What does all this mean for Iraq? It means that my convictions (and Bush's, or at least those of many others around him and supportive of him) were only useful to Iraq to the degree that we attended to the existing Iraq, not the future Iraq. I cannot and will not say democratic intervention can ever be entirely off the table of policy options; there is too much at stake, too much relevance, and too much moral truth to the argument such a (appropriately humbled and "realistic") Wilsonianism embodies for that. But I know better now than I knew a year ago that my principles cannot be practicable on the basis of what can/will happen later, in the end; if they are not present before us in a real way (and even the most ardent apologists of the Bush administration and American democratic imperialism suspected long before the shooting started that they mostly were not), then those principles really are just fantasies: counter-factual hopes, without justificatory power. We can and should still hope and work for a better future in Iraq (and a future for other countries suffering under tyranny as well), as so many of the Iraqi people have themselves so hoped. And it's not at all unlikely that a great many Iraqis, given what options were before them, will say that any intervention was better than none.* But that's not enough to build a theoretical justification upon. At the very least one should admit (as Bush almost certainly will not) that we liberal (inter)nationalists have done the people of Iraq no great favors by being willing, even with the best of intentions, to carry them along towards a specific end that we pictured in our minds, but towards which they, far more than we, will have to struggle painfully day by day.

*Johann Hari, a more coherently humbled hawk than Brooks, notes in an excellent essay on his own feelings and observations that "in the recent BBC poll (hardly a pro-war source), fewer than 10 per cent [of Iraqis] said they had confidence in the occupying forces, for example, and 41 per cent admitted they found the invasion humiliating. These are not the answers of a terrified people censoring themselves. So we can trust the same polls when--among many legitimate criticisms of the coalition--they also find that 56 per cent of Iraqis say their lives are better than before the war. Only 15 per cent want the coalition troops to leave immediately."

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Update (Regarding Liberal Reasoning)

Jay, writing at Moment, Linger On, has this to say about my recent post which mentioned Stephen Newman's article in Dissent defending Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's willingness to make public policy arguments via "comprehensive" religious or moral reasons, in contrast to "publicly accessible" secular ones:

"Newman and Fox are essentially talking about me and this doesn't jibe with my recollection of how I felt about this....In fact, I don't recall any criticism of Riley because he was motivated by his Christian beliefs rather than secular reasons. And apparently Newman doesn't either, because he provides exactly no evidence to support this in his article....Newman does nothing but set up a 'hostile secular liberal' strawman and then knock it down. And that's all he can do, because he completely misrepresents the position of secular Rawlsians like myself. We don't reject arguments for things that we agree with because they aren't public arguments but rather arguments for positions which can't be supported by any public reasons. This is not even a subtle distinction and I'm surprised that people of Newman's and Fox's intelligence and education fail to see it....[P]erhaps, in the abstract world of academia where Newman and Fox live, there are actually people who demand such secular purity. But in the real world, where I support real policy positions and want to see them implemented, I'm perfectly happy to work with people whose motivations are different than mine."

A couple of points before addressing the main issue. One, Newman made it pretty clear in the article that we was responding to an argument, not necessarily particular individuals who made that argument in this particular case. What he wrote was that "there is an influential trend in contemporary liberal political theory that requires us to regard Riley's biblically inspired case for tax reform with suspicion." This is undeniably true: consider Richard Rorty, Kent Greenawalt, Bruce Ackerman, and many more. Two, Jay is probably correct that there were not a great many "philosophically correct" liberal opponents to Riley's proposed reform of the tax code jumping down his throat for daring to suggest that such social justice is what Jesus would want--but then, on the other hand, there were more than a few social justice organizations that stayed out of the debate in Alabama, at least partly because they found the whole thing (why, an evangelical Republican using our language--imagine!) distasteful. While electoral politics and stereotypes probably had a lot to do with that, the fact that many of these organizations have long since become firmly entrenched in the secular liberal establishment was certainly a factor as well. So Jay, while correct, needs to consider who did not speak up as much as who did.

Jay's more important claim is that Newman and I misunderstand the Rawlsian position; that we are creating straw men. Obviously, in any work of political theory there is going to be some imagining going on; that's how you draw principles and ideas out of the quotidian. But that said, is he correct? Is it defensible to say that, according to Rawls, the only target of secular liberal ire is "arguments for positions which can't be supported by any public reasons" whatsoever, whereas anything that can be concurred with via "public reasoning" is acceptable? If so, what would that actually mean for argumentative practice?

Generally speaking, one might believe the Rawlsian standard is a good one; it allows, within limits, for the possibility of (as Jay puts it) "work[ing] with people whose motivations are different" from one's own on behalf of common concerns. And indeed, Newman endorses this: Rawls's doctrine of an "overlapping consensus" is not, in principle, what he (or I) criticize. What is of concern, however, is the sense (which Jay may or may not share) that such a consensus cannot, if it is to be anything more than a brief modus vivendi, be constructed out of one or any number of wholly unique comprehensive (and therefore "private" in classical liberal terminology) reasons; as Newman put it, according to Rawls "shared ends are insufficient to anchor the liberal polity; there must be shared justifications as well." Or as Rawls himself wrote in the introduction to the second edition of Political Liberalism: private/religious/comprehensive doctrines can be brought forward as part of the argument for particular public policies "provided that in due course public reasons, given by a reasonable political conception, are presented sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrine are introduced to support." In other words, in the secular liberal version of the overlapping consensus, religious reasons like Riley's should only play a supplemental role; if they actually played a majoritarian or otherwise fundamentally persuasive role in the public's decisions, then conscientious liberals ought not support them. (Given this claim of Rawls's, it is not surprising to see him in the same essay struggling to justify as legitimate by his own lights the huge role played by plainly religious arguments in the success of abolitionism, or the civil rights movement.)

I choose to describe such acts of persuasion as "fundamental" because those are the sorts of arguments which are most put on the spot by liberal reasoning conducted in a Rawlsian vein: fundamentalist claims. I don't mean that category of doctrines usually described in American today as "fundamentalist" (though obviously many of those religious doctrines are relevant to the discussion here); I mean any comprehensive outlook that has both ethical and ontological dimensions. Sometimes those dimensions parallel the American experience closely enough that they can be accepted as "public" reasons without the slightest trouble (for example, the clearly comprehensive and in many ways religious claim that all human beings have fundamental "rights"); but frequently that isn't the case, such as when fundamentalists take on dominant cultural presumptions, whether in regards to sexual mores, market commodification, or any other rarely interrogated public phenomenon. Rawls's view of public reasoning requires such believers to do one of several things (here I am borrowing from the work of Andrew Murphy): change their comprehensive beliefs to fit the standard of publicity, lie, change the parameters of public debate through civil disobedience or other direct actions, or simply testify as their convictions and hope someone eventually comes along with (or they come up with) a secular rationale to cover for their previous, outlandish claims. While obviously there is something to each of these options, would it really be so hard to imagine that Rawls's conception of a "legitimate," freestanding, puntatively rational overlapping consensus, could be replaced by a more agonistic, context-based, dialogical and hermeneutical one--one which, rather than assuming the necessity of preventing the formation of democratic majorities using exclusive, comprehensive arguments, is open to the possibility that even people with fundamental disagreements (say, secularists and Christians in Alabama) could civilly engage in (in Kenneth Strike's words) "argumentative reciprocity"? Why not allow the overlapping consensus to emerge out of fundamental exchanges, even (perhaps Christian) fundamentalist exchanges, rather than previously accepted (and to a certain degree imposed) "public reasons," if that is what people find persuasive? Obviously there are matters of concern here; making agonistic civility into a reality, where persons and their arguments are accorded dignity because of their role in the discussion and not because of the category of their arguments, will involve a lot of trust, as well as constant boundary-drawing and redrawing. Many distrust this kind of expressivist approach, and to be sure it does lead one into sticky issues of establishment, dissent, minority rights, and so forth. But to dismiss such an approach simply because of the (often more perceived than real) difficulties involved is to minimize, perhaps marginalize or even undermine, right from the outset certain fundamental commitments and critiques (like, arguably, Bob Riley's), and that is something progressive thinkers ought to be reluctant to do. (As you might be guessing, I've written on this topic before.)

This isn't, I suppose, necessarily a response to Jay's basic concern--arguably, the procedural Rawlsian claim which Newman and I disagree with isn't fully present in any actual real-world debates, but only in the "abstract world of academia." If so, I can only plead guilty: I'm an academic. But to the extent that academics, and those educated by them, weigh in on debates in the real world, then it's worth thinking hard about the unstated categories within which secular debates (like debates about taxation) often operate.

Where Do I Stand? What Can Bush Do?

To very belatedly put my cards on the table regarding Iraq: I can no longer pretend that my past (and, to a degree, continuing) willingness to defend (some of) Bush's rationales for the interventionist war he has waged in Iraq can, in any way, be spun into excuses which get me out of being implicated in the consequences of Bush's actual performance as commander-in-chief of this intervention. That is, I'm part of the problem. Whatever my thoughts and concerns about democratic imperialism or national strength or international force, I had every opportunity to acknowledge that evidence of the Bush administration's interest working out a responsible policy which reflected any of these concerns was scanty, at best. We saw the lack of thought in the way the Bush approached the U.N., dealt with Turkey, conducted the war in Afghanistan. The fundamentals of Bush's decisions were defensible; the level attention paid to them was not. I ignored the signs, and went with my ideological preferences. It was wrong, or at least not sufficiently thoughtful, for me to do so. (Sound of crow being consumed.)

Of all the liberal nationalists/neo-Wilsonians/democratic internationalists my thinking was most affected by--Hitchens, Packer, Walzer, Berman, Ignatieff, etc., and of course Tony Blair--Walzer appears to have had the most steady grasp of things, as he always counseled against "this war" but not necessarily against (some of) the principles under which it was fought. Blair, of course, politically can't say what he thinks of Bush & Co.; someday we'll learn, and it should be interesting to hear. Hitchens is in profound denial, and Berman is too invested in linking Iraq to his grand philosophy of Islamic fascism to accept any rethinking. Packer and Ignatieff's comments are, I think, closest to where my thoughts are now. Packer clearly still thinks, as I do, that no one in their right mind would still want Saddam Hussein in power, yet is willing to think about (look here and scroll down) "the limits of war as an instrument of political transformation and the limits of America as its standard-bearer. Liberal democracy requires participation and consent, and as long as American military power is the prime tool for building it, Muslims around the world are unlikely to change their ideas. We need to decouple America and the promotion of democracy; the Iraq war did the opposite." Ignatieff does even better in this piece, where he writes:

"I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can't have human rights without order and that you can't have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation....The administration, which never tires of telling us that hope is not a plan, had only hope for a plan in Iraq. Hope got in the way of straight thinking, but so did fantasy: that the Shiites, whom George H.W. Bush told to rise up in 1991, only to stand by and watch them be massacred, would greet their erstwhile betrayers as liberators; that a privileged Sunni minority would enthusiastically adapt to permanent minority status in a Shiite Iraq. When fantasy drives planning, chaos results....All interventions entail some element of illusion, but if intervening requires this quantity of illusion for an administration to be willing to risk it, we should be doing less intervening in the future."

In the meantime, as every serious person knows, we have to ask ourselves the question of what is to be done. There are, of course, numerous plans and agendas out there (including John Kerry's, or at least the one which appears under his byline), any and all of which can be more productively discussed by people more knowledgeable than me. All of the plans I prefer depend, to a certain degree, on getting people with a different perspective on things in charge of the occupation, which means getting some new leadership in Washington. But that may not (tell the truth: probably won't) happen. And in that spirit, I have to point out this wonderful post which has its own, entirely different and legitimate take on things. Noah Millman, a Republican who supported the war, looks at things--and Bush's prospects--this way:

"Bush is going to present us with a choice in the next election between a guy with basically the right orientation in terms of how to prosecute this war but a severely limited grasp of the complications of the real world and, worse, a basic refusal to admit that he or his team has ever made a mistake, or to learn from same; and, on the other hand, a guy who shows every sign of being an intelligent, sophisticated, informed guy with absolutely no political courage, who has never made a difficult political decision and has spent 19 years in the Senate compiling a record so thin as to be nonexistent. If you think that absolutely no tough decisions need to be made in the next four years, vote Kerry. If you think good values are all you need, and information is irrelevant to making the tough decisions that we will face, then vote Bush. If you think we'll have tough decisions to make, but you'd like them made by an informed and savvy person, then you--we--have a problem."

His solution (which he admits Bush will not adopt)? Fire someone. Someone important, someone who can be plausibly credited with the screw-ups in Iraq, someone whose departure will signal, at least to those like Noah who really, really want Bush to fulfill the tasks he has set for himself, that Bush is capable to adapting to reality and going forward. As he puts it:

"It would have to be someone very senior. Firing a guy like Wolfowitz or Feith wouldn't cut it. The point is not to purge the Administration of neo-cons, and anyhow these guys don't make the decisions; their bosses do. There are only 5 players senior enough and important enough to the war that their departure would be noted and weighed as significant. They are: Powell, Rice, Tenet, Rumsfeld, and Cheney."

Who does he believe ought to get the axe? Cheney. Why? Read it and see. I agree couldn't agree with him more (but then, I've wanted Cheney gone for a while now).

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Even More on Europe and Islam

Via Crooked Timber (who picked it up from Scott Martens at A Fistful of Euros), comes this excellent, long article by Randy McDonald on Muslim immigration and birthrate trends in France and other European countries, and what they suggest for the cultural future of Europe. There's a tremendous amount of intriguing material in his post, especially for someone like myself who is interested in the "interesting questions" of culture, language, identity, and civilization. He gives insight into varieties of Muslim immigration (from Algeria, Turkey, etc.), levels of Muslim religious devotion in comparison to Christian religiosity, sets up comparisons with French Catholic assimilation into mainstream Canadian culture, and much more. His overall conclusion:

"France's problem with its nominally Muslim minority in the early 21st century isn't a civilizational clash, any more than the United States' problem with its nominally Catholic minority in the early 20th century was. The French problem isn't whether or not it will be a Western country, or a democratic country, in a half-century. The French problem is how a large immigrant population, already fairly highly assimilated in the cultural sense but concentrated in certain immigrant ghettos where assimilation in the socioeconomic sense is more problematic, will be integrated into itself. There's no particular reason to think it will fail, given France?s own past immigration successes; there's also no reason for complacency, given France?s problems with youth and immigrant employment, and with social exclusion. It's a touchy situation, but like graduate school it's far more difficult to fail than it is to muddle through and succeed. There's certainly no reason for ridiculous fantasies. Now, on to issues worth real debate, like how to best integrate French Muslims into wider French society."

Point taken. Still, I wonder how well Randy believes the "issues worth real debate" can be addressed unless one thinks conceptually and culturally about integration. How will the "societal culture," to use Will Kymlicka's term, evolve as the preferences of its participants change, and to what extent will those preferences result in the collapse of former civic values and institutions in favor of others, and how would one internalize those costs? By the same token, given that civic values and institutions are premised upon and are embedded within linguistic, religious, and historical frameworks, how will changes in preferred language use, religious observance, and historical perspectives by the population at large (or various influential minority groupings within it) actually open up public possibilities that were inconceivable in the midst of the prior societal matrix? Perhaps most importantly, how will the political compromises and reactions to this process interfere with either the preservation of the old or the continuation on to the new? (These are by no means hysterical or irrelevant questions; as I've written before in connection with the debate over headscarves in France, the current controversy and overreaction of French authorities is a revealing guide to understanding the way in which the existing French commitment to "secularism" does not, in fact, serve their own identity well.) In short, not all of those who think provocatively about Islam and Europe are indulging in paranoid fantasies about civilizational clashes; some of them are quite willing to imagine a variety of possible outcomes, ranging from a "creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom" to a "backlash against immigration by the economically Neanderthal right" to a "happy fusion between rapidly secularized second-generation Muslims and their post-Christian neighbors," and want to think hard about the long-term requirements and consequences of each.

It is also worth injecting questions about modernity into the mix. Randy observes that, when confronted with immigration, assimilation, and resistance, in the long wrong culture will not hold: "people will defect entirely; people will disagree with your goals; people will choose to fold in on themselves....human beings show an unerring tendency to leave restrictive cultures for more pluralistic ones." This may very well be true; certainly Randy supports his contention with a great deal of data, drawn from a variety of contexts. Still, it brings one to think about Benjamin Barber's old (and yet continually being refined and demonstrated) "Jihad vs. McWorld" thesis--is the assimilation which takes place when people enter a more "pluralistic" context really an embrace of (and, of course, an adaptation to and of) the culture of pluralism, or is simply an appropriation of the technologies of modernity (both material and social) by way of maintaining, even empowering, one's alienation from the same? That is, is modern pluralism, and its association with democratic government and egalitarian respect, a cultural and historical achievement that those who enter into it from their own social spaces can internalize and be enriched by, or is it simply a neutral process, a scheme of markets and rights, that we can only hope will work out in more or less democratic and egalitarian directions? If the former (and Barber and many other serious thinker will tell you that it is), then wondering about how one best ushers in a 21st-century Europe with a significant Muslim population cannot simply be a matter of trusting inner logic of demographics and economic choice; there has to be affirmative, culturally informed acts of both inclusion and maintenance. (Which, again, is why the headscarf debate is about a lot more than simply educational policy in France. The receptivity of an unfortunate number of Muslims in Spain to such fundamentalist thinking is also relevant.) Which is not to say that Randy's claims aren't valid; they are. It is merely to say that his data helps us get a better and more accurate grasp on the "interesting questions," not that such questions are entirely laid to rest.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Easter Monday--the Holiday, and the World's Latest Movie Review

(Interesting how in English the word "latest" can mean both "most late" and "most recent." I can't think of any other term that works though--"most delayed" would imply that I started on this a long time ago and only just now completed it, while "oldest" would mean that it's been laying around unpublished for ages. So "latest" it is. But first, Easter.)

I liked Laura's reflections on the Easter holiday, past and present. We're more like her sister than her: we're hugely into holidays and all their trappings around here. Both Melissa and I really delight in ritual, traditions, and a calendar oriented around expected and meaningful events, whether that meaning be profound (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) or rather silly (we celebrate King Kamehameha Day in June, mainly because it gives us an excuse to listen to our inexplicably large collection of Hawai'ian folk and guitar music). I have to report, though, that Easter is particularly stressful around the Fox household, because aside from a pretty regular dinner menu, we don't do anything which involves decorating, candy, or gifts. I have nothing against pagan traditions as such (I mean, they're so much fun!), it's just that...well, unlike Christmas and the Nativity and Santa Claus (who exists, mind you), somehow we could never find a way to bring all the varied elements of the Easter holiday together into a coherent whole; bunnies and chicks and all the rest seemed, to our mind at least, to interfere with keeping Christ's sacrifice and resurrection in its central place. So, soon after we married, Melissa and I decided that we'd just move the whole thing to May Day (see, I told you we don't have anything against paganism (or revolutionary worker's movements, for that matter)). Not that we forbid our daughters from participating in the holiday; if there's an Easter egg hunt at the church on Saturday we happily contribute, and we have children's stories about the Easter bunny and so forth. But basically, we keep Easter Sunday separate from all that, and don't break out the decorations until well after most other families have taken theirs down. The girls seem to understand. Besides, I think they feel that coloring "spring eggs," and finding chocolate bunnies (bought on a discount the day after Easter) in their May Day baskets when they wake-up on May 1, is something special and unique--and therefore meaningful, in a way which brings our family closer together. Which is one of the main points of holiday rituals after all.

***

I finally saw The Passion of the Christ. I went to a 10pm showing on Easter Eve, after the girls were asleep and Melissa had hit the sack. (I rarely go see movies on my own, for one reason or another. If it's something Melissa doesn't want to see--and that's not infrequently the case--I generally just wait until it's out on dvd or video.) There's no need to rehearse all that has already been said about the film; I found it astonishingly violent, disturbing, occasionally awe-inspiring, in some ways crude, its intensity sometimes organic but just as often forced. Not nearly as perverse an exercise, I thought, as many critics claimed, but not nearly as powerful as many others testified.

Upon reflection, my uneven reaction to the movie clearly originates with the way Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel, Benedict Fitzgerald, et al, chose to present the scourging of Jesus. Everyone who cares to know has either seen for themselves or long since heard how ugly and grisly this extended sequence is. My issues with the film, however, arise not with the scourging per se, but with the visual consequences of it. Jesus is left a shredded, pulpy, oozing piece of meat after the Romans are done with him; he is, literally, unrecognizable. And from that point on, I had enormous difficulty getting into the movie, its message or drama or mood, because every time the camera focused on Jesus, I couldn't help but think: "How is that carcass walking?" It was an enormous distraction, and a discomforting one (like how you try to tear your eyes away from a traffic accident, but can't). Which is really too bad, because I think the first 45 minutes or so of the film demonstrated that Gibson and his collaborators had strong grip on the material. The Satan figure was frightening and subtle; the Gethsemane sequence, though allowing more than a few Hollywood conventions (the mist, the moody music, the slow motion scenes), was gripping in a quiet and very persuasive way. Before the walking corpse of Christ came to dominate every scene, you had some nice character moments: Peter, James and John and all their varied reactions (defiant, terrified, heartbroken, filled with self-loathing and doubt); the showy, blustering, more-macho-than-real Jewish guards; the Roman soldiers alternating between cool superiority, raging annoyance, and efficient violence. Even the Jewish council was, I think, a wonderful bit of filmmaking, with quick and telling lines of dialogue that gave you a real sense of both foreboding as well as the ambiguity of events. I didn't think anything was played in a heavy-handed way (not even the demonic persecution and ultimate suicide of Judas; I thought all the elements of those scenes--the children chasing him, the flies, the maggots--were Gibson's quite effective way of getting inside Judas's head) up until the scourging. And even afterwards, there was good work and some great scenes (I loved the teardrop/raindrop falling from heaven, as well as Satan's hysterical, defeated howl). But despite the good work I just couldn't take much out of it; I was too busy staring at Jesus's repulsive, sliced-open wreck of a body for any of these scenes to really work on me as they were supposed to. (Indeed, I think the only moments which could legitimately be described as anti-Semitic came in scenes after the scourging; whereas previously there was some diversity in how Gibson presented the Jewish authorities, it was just too easy, for me at least, to make the leap from "motivated by genuine religious zeal" to "motivated by pure Satanic blood-lust" once the priests were shown as continuing to call for Jesus's crucifixion even after being confronted with his ruined body.)

Obviously Gibson and his team knew what they were doing; why did they do it this way? Maybe this just shows how much of my Mormonism incorporates a kind of "empty-cross" Protestantism; maybe for a Roman Catholic like Gibson, the meaning of the plenitude of Christ's blood is plain enough. I spoke to a colleague of mine about it this morning; he suggested that the larger point of Gibson's aesthetic choices was the idea that Jesus simply would not, could not, die until He willed it; that as God, His defeat and death would only come, no matter what the agony, when He consented to it. I suppose that's one message. But out of the final hour of the film, I think there was only one time where Gibson's aesthetic vision actually pulled me in and made me think what I was seeing on its own terms. It came when the Roman soldiers turned Jesus's cross over parallel to the ground, so to beat down the spikes they've just hammered through his feet and hands; there is a great, dull thud, and we see a horrifying jolt of pain shake the ripped and beaten body of the Christ, now suspended about a foot above the ground. Blood dribbles from his body and onto the ground, flayed strips of flesh dangle loosely in the air; his arm has been stretched and dislocated, and we can see a patch of his ribs where skin and muscle have been completely torn away. It made me think of butchering animals, cutting them up into meat and skin and bones, and hanging them up on hooks. It made me think of a slaughterhouse. And that, of course, is not irrelevant to the story of Jesus. Christ, we are told, was the Lamb who meekly went to be slaughtered. If there was not a reason for Him to go through such horror, to receive such a thorough death-dealing, then presumably that symbol--of an animal whose blood is shed and then is dismembered--would never have been given. But it was; He was, the prophets tell us again and again, the Lamb, the scapegoat, the sacrifice on the altar. So I'll give Gibson that much, for whatever it's worth. (I should note that a friend of mine, a convert to Catholicism, thinks my comments here make sense of what I described being distracted by in the previous paragraph. Perhaps--but even if what I was distracted by can be made sensible in my mind, that doesn't mean it still wasn't distracting. So, whatever the quality and efficacy of the film's message, I think we at least agree that it's execution was flawed.)

Apparently, my Easter weekend viewing of the film not only put The Passion back on top in terms of box office, but helped it become, as of now, the 8th highest grossing movie of all time, and still going strong. Clearly, unless some summer blockbuster shatters all expectations, it will be the highest grossing film of the year. It'll be interesting to see how Hollywood acknowledges (or doesn't acknowledge) it at next year's Academy Awards.

Update: My old friend Matt Stannard has, partly in response to the above comments, put up on his blog a reflective and insightful defense of The Last Temptation of Christ as a far superior movie to The Passion. I've never seen Last Temptation, though I'm pretty familiar with many of the traditionalist criticisms made of the film's attempt to present Jesus as an "imperfect, self-conscious man," as Matt puts it. (I've also heard a lot of crummy things about the casting as well.) Matt makes me want to see it though; in his view, the great power of the film's telling of the story is its presentation of Jesus's choice to reject "the mundane," the world of compromise and small victories and everyday joy, in the name of transcendent hope. (Moreover, he even uses an article from First Things to make his point!) So now that I've finally seen The Passion, Last Temptation takes its place on my "to-see" list.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Good Friday--Bitter Journey

Many of you have seen this before; Beliefnet first made it available on their website back in 1999. But if you haven't, take the time (even if you only have a dial-up connection) to load and watch this powerful multimedia feature, "Bitter Journey: The Way of the Cross". Not only is it haunting, but it carefully distills Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant liturgies and referents to the Passion into a powerful, unified message: one of pain, and gratitude, and humility, and awe, at Christ's death for our sake.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Playing Catch-Up

It's been a busy week--I went out to Chicago for a job interview, and I've spent a good part of my work days helping out students with their papers, meaning less time at the office to get everything else done. Plus Easter is coming up, and there's a lot I need to finish up before the holiday (for my own mental and spiritual health, if not for any other reason). So rather than giving any of the following the sort of attention they deserve, let me just link to them, with a few comments:

Months ago, I wrote on the effort of Governor Bob Riley of Alabama to inject some Christian social justice concerns into his state's tax code. That effort was a failure, but the ideas and inspiration behind the governor's actions live on. Now, in the most recent issue of Dissent, Stephen L. Newman defends Governor Riley from a different direction: against secular liberals who tended to "regard Riley's biblically inspired case for tax reform with suspicion" solely because it was biblically inspired. Newman goes on to dissect the liberal hostility to public arguments which do not fit the criteria of "public reason": that is, "one[s] that can be affirmed by all citizens, whatever their conception of the good." He criticizes this Rawlsian obsession with "neutral" reasoning; distinguishing between motivations and ends, Newman argues that "so long as the policy objective is within the scope of the state's authority, its sponsors' motives are irrelevant....So long as Christians and liberal secularists hold the end [in this case, a concern for the tax code] in common, and so long as what is proposed constitutes a legitimate governmental objective, it hardly matters that [these groups would] defend it in completely different ways." This is, as one might expect, a huge argument among political and legal theorists, and Newman isn't saying anything especially new here (see Michael Perry, Stephen Carter, David Smolin, and quite a few others), but that hardly undermines the important point he makes. It should go without saying, of course, that I basically agree with him.

Some people are under the impression that I'm a defender of Samuel Huntington and all he stands for; I'm not. I've been more than adequately convinced that Huntington's arguments supporting his thesis about the uniqueness of Hispanic immigration are flawed and even myopic. But that still doesn't change the fact that Huntington is willing to think about what it means to be a civilization, and what it means to be a nation; however clumsy or borderline xenophobic his thinking, he at least must be given credit for considering the nature and dynamics of identity-construction and maintenance, and what that may or may not mean for economic and social policy. In this article, also derived from his forthcoming book, Huntington further elaborates on what he understands to be the requirements (culturally, linguistically, religiously, and so forth) on preserving the "national" character of American society, as opposed to the cosmopolitan or imperial options presented by the left and the right. Is it "conservative" to even hypothetically consider such requirements? If so, then I have to say that, at the very least, "conservatives" of this sort seem to be ones uniquely able to ask truly interesting questions. And without such questions, I wonder if important considerations of population, assimilation, and language can even be properly grasped, much less coherently dealt with.

Finally, I have to announce the existence of a wonderful blogger I just discovered yesterday: Hugo Schwyzer. He describes himself as a "progressive, consistent-life ethic Anabaptist Democrat"--that is, he pro-life and pro-union, a Christian who takes social justice and moral order equally seriously. I found myself in near-total agreement with his many posts as I read through them; this one in particular, on sex, shame, and the plastic surgery women submit themselves to for the sake of social approval, is a must read.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Regarding Authoritarianism

Matt Ygelsias has been reflecting on authoritarianism, here, here, and here. The main focus of his reflections is Singapore, an avowedly authoritarian society that, for a variety of reasons (such as the fact that malpractice lawsuits are practically unheard of) is able to provide excellent services to its residents, as Belle Waring attests. In his last post, riffing off some points that the Blogtheist makes, Matt goes on to consider Pinochet and his ability to impose, by fiat, old age pensions. Matt's many commenters, when not expressing incredulity, have additionally pointed out the excellence of the Nazi-build autobahn as an additional example.

The difficulty of dealing with long-term or complicated problems in need of fundamental reform, especially in democratic contexts where there are numerous veto points, many turf-protecting stakeholders, etc., has long been a problematic one for political thinkers. Many try to avoid it by simply avoiding pluralism altogether: the sovereign, in these conceptions, ultimately has no obligation to recognizing a diversity of interests. Yet even then the realities of government, and the specificity of political action, is going to create factions, which will entrench themselves and need to be dealt with, particularly in times of crisis. (Even Rousseau, who argued that the only legitimate and free society would be one small enough so that all the members could unite around a single "general will" and therefore be sovereigns in their own collective right, still allowed that sometimes, when real emergencies arose, a "dictator" would be necessary to do what the general assembly couldn't.) The lure of violence, of simply getting rid of the obstacles which real diverse persons present, is a difficult one. (You can see it creeping into the rhetoric of liberty on many levels, whether that rhetoric be about the "liberation" of individuals from oppressive relationships or about the "emancipation" which the free market presumably supplies.)

My own observation about the Singaporean context, which needs to be clearly understood, is that an authoritarianism that "works"--that doesn't, for example, have the hideous costs which a dictator like Pinochet or Hitler had for the people of Chile or Germany--isn't going to merely be a matter of crushing factions; it is going to be something which involves the recognition and maintenance of a cultural context wherein "factions" understand their role differently. In other words, where a certain social uniformity or collectivity holds for all or practically all members (or at least franchised and economically empowered members) of the society, and hence they express their particularity with an eye towards a common good. Michael Robinson, in Matt's comments section, argues that the strong technocratic bureaucracy in Singapore is explicable by recognizing that it is "extracted from a 2000-year tradition of Confucian governance," one built around the moral authority of sages who promulgated a "mandate of heaven". I wouldn't necessarily argue that every Singaporean doctor or patient feels themselves bound to a Confucian moral order--one wherein which malpractice lawsuits would imply an antagonistic rather than a shared relationship to the goods at hand--but it pointless to speculate about how Singapore manages to keep health care costs down and the quality so high without at least contemplating the role of cultural homogeneity and communal identity in smoothing out the many ways in which individuals might otherwise drive up costs by seeing themselves as disconnected to some larger moral imperative.

Obviously, in many ways the Singapore which Lee Kwan Yew created is a less than admirable society; I've written plenty on the "Asian values" debate before, and I'm hardly a defender of Confucian authoritarianism, which can be just as persuasively attacked from a culturally communitarian perspective as from any other. But basically, given my particular kind of left-communitarian politics, I'm not unsympathetic to the project of reconnecting people to such identities and such imperatives (hence my interest in language, religion, nationality, etc.)--especially, as is at least arguably the case in Singapore, when the collective goods and cultural imperatives which the government works to embody (admittedly sometimes harshly in the Singaporean case) in fact have popular grounding support. (Imposing "shared values" where none exist and none are wanted would of course be the worst kind of tyranny.) If Matt, for whatever reason, is willing to speculate in a contrary way on the whys and wherefores of authoritarianism, more power to him. I don't care to turn liberalism into a be-all and end-all fetish, like "dellis" and some other of Matt's commenters do ("for you and your ugly kin, it's all about democracy, and basic liberalism is hardly ever mentioned")--as far as I'm concerned, liberalism shouldn't necessarily be accepted as a basic first-order rule of society; better to view it as an adjective, a way of acting within the given context of society. And if that society is authoritarian, even "illiberal" in some of its shared values, that doesn't mean that the support for the goods which those values at least partially make possible (like an efficient, affordable, and excellent health care system) is inauthentic; the popular acclaim for such achievements (such as that clearly manifest by a grateful Belle and her husband John) deserves cautious democratic credit as well.