Thursday, January 29, 2004


A friend of mine read the post below, and watched the ad I liked, and had a completely contrary reaction. I'm posting my friend's comments here (anonymously, with permission) because I think they encapsulate quite well a certain pro-Bush position that is central to any fair assessment of the man's strengths (and weaknesses). (Note: you have to have watched the ad to make sense of what follows.)

"The unintended flip side of the ad expresses the feelings of many other people. Bush will paint the apartment. His roommates will complain, carp, debate, get high, talk about all the other things that need to be done around the house, ultimately doing nothing. Bush sees a need for a paint job, he arranges for it to be done.

"You can complain about the details of what Bush has done over the past several years. But you can't reasonably complain (though some always will) that he hasn't done anything. The guy doesn't claim to have all the answers. He's flexible and adaptive. He compromises often. And he gets things done. Educational standards? Done. Campaign finance? Done. Prescription drug benefits? Done. The Taliban? Done. Tax reductions? Done. (And to anyone who would vote for a Democratic candidate, I would urge them to go to one of the many online 'Bush Tax Cut Calculators,' find out how much they've saved in taxes over the past several years, and donate that amount to their Democratic candidate of choice, just in the interest of ideological consistency.) Whatever he sets out to do, he does. (4/5's of the Iraqi deck of cards. 2/3's of known al Qaeda leaders.) Take your recent sex slavery blog entry. Bush spoke out about the need to do something to stop that brand of exploitation. (Were any other major political figures in the US speaking out about it? Was this a problem that didn't exist during the Clinton years?) And, according to the article's laundry list of recent legislation pushed through by the administration, he followed through. Bush makes things happen. Whether you like the color green or not, a fresh coat of paint is better than pock-marked, dingy, pizza-smeared walls.

"I'm frightened by Bush's success. But, in a lot of ways, it's nice to see a leader, rather than a poll-reader and hand-wringer, in the White House. And when people feel unsafe (as many still do, after 9/11), that's the kind of President they want."

My response is basically: I don't think I made the complaint that Bush isn't doing anything, and if I did I would recant it. He's certainly a busy man. And as I tried to express in my first post, there's a fair amount of that busyness that I can't help but find admirable. He is, in fact, getting a lot of things done, or at least pushing others towards getting things a lot of things done (immigration reform, educational standards, faith-based initiatives, etc.) that I approve of, his response to the Taliban most triumphantly. But that's not sufficient. Maybe he is flexible and adaptable; but maybe that's another way of saying careless and inconsistent. All too often there is an irresponsibility, insularity, and ignorance in how he crafts, articulates, and pursues--and frequently dismisses, if they don't seem be meeting with instant public acclaim--his policies. (See Hendrik Hertzberg's devastating take-down of Bush's SOTU speech for more on this.) And I'm speaking here of those intentions of Bush's which I agree with. It goes without saying that there are also a lot of elements of Bush's political platform which I dislike--and as the occupation of Iraq has gone on, more and more of these have emerged.

Granted, it's more fun to say that Bush is evil incarnate than to allow that he's a decent man with some good ideas and some bad ones, capable in some ways and completely over his head in some (ever-more important) others. But the latter, more nuanced view is the more accurate one--and in fact, I suspect that the more the former view predominates, the easier it will be for Bush & Co. to continue to stigmatize their enemies, and go on without any engagement with the real world.

Should I Like Bush?

Lately I've been wondering if, against my better judgment, President Bush isn't in fact somewhat close to the sort of person I'd like to be president--or, more accurately, if his policies aren't in fact pretty much the sort of policies I'd like a president to endorse. I mean, think about it--I'm an upper-left-hand quadrant communitarian, a social conservative and a social democrat, a believer in morals and equality. So what does that mean, practically speaking? Well, it means I believe in...a lot of things Bush believes in, or at least says he believes in. Faith-based initiatives? Check. Promoting democracy abroad? Check. Support for the institution of marriage? Check. Funding for the arts and education? Check. And so on. I'm open-minded about his immigration proposal. Like George Packer (scroll down), another chastened liberal hawk, as much as I am embarrassed and dismayed at how the Iraq war and occupation was executed, "I can't wish the fall of Saddam's regime undone." And so, yeah, the man's got problems, real problems...but shouldn't I, of all people, be basically sympathetic to the guy? I mean, the libertarians of the blogosphere are always describing this particular mix of positions as "authoritarian"--and now we have a president who, as Andrew Sullivan recently put it, wants to be our "Nanny in Chief," combining "Big Government liberalism with religious-right moralism." Shouldn't that be what I'm all about?

Well, anyway, here is David Bernstein's libertarian take on why an economic and/or foreign policy and/or civic liberal like myself ought to actually like Bush. (He posted a follow-up here.) Matthew Ygelsias was foolish enough to think that David had a point; his readers have subsequently let him have it for deviating if only hypothetically and temporarily from the Bush-hating faith. As for me--well, I could challenge the democratic or communitarian substance of most of Bush's policies pretty easily. The way he proposes to pay for all the (in some ways) good things he's doing is all wrong (even assuming he does intend on paying for them, which is doubtful); the way he articulates his (in some ways) reasonable social and domestic policies is short-sighted and divisive; the way he's enacting his (in some ways) admirable foreign policy goals lacks humility, cultural awareness, historical sensibility or basic competence and seriousness. And besides, even allowing for all that, the man is a complete failure when it comes to labor (temporary and politically-driven trade tariffs notwithstanding), and not much better when it comes to the environment (yes, a lot of accusations made against him are overwrought, but still: it's clear that in Bush's heaven, Jesus drives an SUV.) In the end, the "If The Bush Administration Was Your Roommate" ad, out of all the entries at "Bush in 30 Seconds", expresses my current feelings about the man best. Maybe his policy sensibilities aren't all wrong, maybe his political instincts are pretty good, maybe his heart is mostly in the right place. But that doesn't stop him from being foolish, careless, and (as I wrote a while ago) exploitive of people and citizens who expected more from him, and in any case deserve better.
Note: When I write "support for the institution of marriage" above, I'm talking about Bush's embrace of pro-marriage policies in connection with fighting poverty and teenage pregnancies, not his position on "traditional marriage" vis-a-vis other versions of the institution. My opinion on same-sex marriage is, to be frank, in flux: I change my mind a lot about it. (Those interested in some long, religious, specifically (though admittedly peculiar) Mormon reflections on the topic can check out what I think here.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Nicholas D. Kristoff, George W. Bush, and the Intervening American

A confluence of depressing stories of late: Peter Landesman's horrifying tale of the traffic in sex slaves in the U.S., and Nicholas Kristoff's heart-wrenching, ambivalent dispatches from Cambodia, telling the tale of his attempt to free a couple of Cambodian girls from a prostitution ring (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4; only the final two are still free). One doesn't have to say too much about the horror in these stories. The blight of prostitution, especially in the third world, is a terrible one, and as for sex-trafficking...well, even if, as seems likely, not all the details in Landesman's story pan out (and everyone with a heart should hope it isn't all true), I can still only agree with Timothy Burke: everyone involved in this trade, the enablers, the pimps, the cargo-carriers, and especially the johns, is evil.

But Timothy's condemnation puts me in mind of another set of reflections from his pen (or keyboard, as it were); an essay on intervention that I cited long ago, back when my feelings about international intervention, and the Iraq war, were a lot more settled. It also puts me in mind of The Quiet American, Graham Greene's intense meditation on sin, ignorance, and good intentions, all in the context of America's growing involvement in--and, crucially, America's eclipse of European influence over--Vietnam. Timothy, reflecting on how "a weak and evasive leader, George Bush, can pursue an utterly destructive method of intervention and [nonetheless] command the loyalty of many people of good will [solely] because the alternative seems to be the hypocritical defense of a corrupt network of hollow national leaderships, and the betrayal of human emancipation," came to a heavy conclusion: "We [meaning, I think, us liberals] are all interventionists now...The question of the 21st Century is not whether interventions should happen, but how they should happen. It is a question of method and result, not of yes or no." I said at the time that he was right, and I still think that, as much as the past year has shaken my liberal (inter)nationalist dreams. Intervention is an unavoidable reality at the present moment. What I have also been thinking lately, and that which I connect with Kristoff's small-scale experiments with "liberation," is that the real imperative of intervention isn't just a function of this moment, but a moral imperative of much deeper and murkier roots.

Consider Kristoff: the intervening American. He comes to Cambodia, checks out sweatshops, observes the girls selling sex. He travels with an interpreter, with a producer and a cameraman and a driver. He has loads of cash and contacts. He gets it into his head to buy the freedom of a couple of these girls enslaved in local brothels. He has to pick those he's going to free (a morally complicated story all on it's own). He has to haggle with the brothel owners. He has to deal with--and if you read between the lines, understand that this really means "override"--their doubts and fears. He takes them away from one social network (and exploitive one, to be sure, but also one that envelopes and perversely sustains them) and returns them to another one: their families, which in one case rejoiced in their return, and in another case couldn't care less (they'd gotten her into prostitution to pay debts in the first place). The conceptual realities which Kristoff has used his money and power to leap over in pulling this off--differences language, social mores, gender roles, moral schemes and so much more--are the sort of thing that could keep multiculturally sensitive academics busy for years. And, in the end, one of the girls returns to the brothel, while the jury is out on the second.

Was he right to do so? Was it worth it? The answer is, of course, yes: prostitution is hideous, and the poverty that drives one to it is a sin. Of course he should intervene, no matter how clumsy his interventions may or may not turn out, in the long run, to have been. Perhaps the long-run shouldn't be our criteria for judging interventions: maybe the immediate need is all we can properly label, and respond to.

You can see where I'm going with this with Bush, of course. Leaving aside the possibility that the Iraq war really was just a Haliburton conspiracy from beginning to end, what are you left with? An ignorant but good-intentioned American, with a big army and lots of money and all the popular support in the world. And over there is Iraq, and it might be a threat, and in any case the Iraqi people are suffering horribly. Clearly we can do something. So...why don't we? Alden Pyle came to Vietnam, and he figured communism was bad news, and moreover, he didn't like how the British journalist Robert Fowler just strung along his Vietnamese mistress, never offering her the chance of the decent marriage. So he got involved. In Greene's view, the result was catastrophe, because the stupid "quiet" American couldn't imagine how complicated the world really was (easy analogy to the Bush administration here: "The Iraqis will welcome us with open arms"); and more importantly, he couldn't conceive at just how bloody his hands already were, and how much more bloody they were likely to become. However, unlike in the film (as I wrote in a thread at John Holbo's blog), Greene recognized in the book that sin covered Fowler as well; that his "wise detatched European" was every bit as compromised by his actions in Vietnam has Pyle's were. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. In which case, if damnation will follow regardless, why not act? At least someone might not have perform sex acts for money for a little while. At least a tyrant will be overthrown. At least someone's life might be at little bit better, right?

No easy answers, especially not for us middle and upper-class liberal Americans, who have the power to intervene--to buy the freedom of sex slaves, to bomb a tyrant's palace, give help the poor and desperate in the way many others cannot. To be sure, the imperative of "evil" does not end the conversation: there are, after all, consequences to consider. And clearly, the calculation of consequences in Kristoff's case was far less troublesome than it was in the case of Pyle's, or Bush's--Kristoff's acts may well result in a lot of confusion and false expectations on the parts of those whose freedom he swept in and bought (and those he didn't), but at least by no stretch of the imagination was anyone going to die. Whereas Bush's intervention was all about violence. So no: they are different sorts of Americans, performing different sorts of interventions. And yet still, I can't help but wonder if the call to intervene, the weight which the fact of poverty and horror and hurt places upon us, and the reaction it elicits from us, isn't fundamentally the same in all cases, and I wonder if getting hung up on those "consequences" isn't a way of brushing aside evil (well, sex-trafficking is a really complicated subject...), walking past hurt (hey, for all I know, those prostitutes like the life they're leading...), keeping our wallets shut when we hear the call of the beggar (you know he's just going to spend it on alcohol anyway...), and wasting time talking about concepts like "sovereignty" as if they were eternal realities, when they are in truth anything but. Obviously, I'm trying to load issues of war and freedom, sexuality and dignity, on to my earlier post. Unreasonable? Or are they, ultimately, the same issue after all?

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Europe-Islam-Identity Round-Up

In some ways it's odd that I've written so much lately about European identity, Islam in Europe, and the EU; I'm not a Europeanist nor a scholar of Islam by any stretch of the imagination (what little actual knowledge I have in the area of comparative politics is grounded in East Asia). But still, Europe's present (and likely to continue for the foreseeable future) crisis fascinates and worries me, and fires up all my philosophical pistons. Europe (like Canada, and Israel, and Iraq, and really any society dealing with the mixed issues of history, identity, political modernity, nationality and constitutionalism) is at the forefront of the essential, worldwide debate which 9/11 helped throw wide open: what kind of sovereignty--the ability to rule oneself, to achieve democratic legitimacy, to have a foreign policy--can exist in a postnational age? (The corollary questions to that big one being: do we have, and do we need, a new definition of sovereignty? and are we in fact "postnational," or is that even possible?) So I just can't get away from it, and I follow up on every argument pertaining to it (from Habermas's and other's heavy theory, to the latest secularist nonsense coming out of France) as best I can.

Which doesn't mean I have the time to get it all down on this blog. So let me review some recent matter that I've haven't commented on (at least, not here) the way I would have liked, but which anybody who is into these debates ought to be familiar with.

There's always good stuff to be found over at A Fistful of Euros, and one recent thread in particular made for good reading. Responding to an essay on immigration and belonging by Amitai Etzioni, a leading communitarian writer and thinker, Edward Hugh invoked French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to claim that "one of the measures of our degree of civilisation as a community is our open-ness to the other"--or, in other words, as I understand his point, that any sense that immigrants and others ought to conform to some static, cultural "us-identity" is to wrongly privilege a false communal unity over the actual fluid diversity of "otherness." Interestingly, he titled the post "Diversity within Unity," and I'm not sure if he was aware that that's the title of one of Etzioni's more influential political platforms, or if he was and meant to criticize it. In any case, his comments gave rise to a vigorous debate over the changing character--social, ethnic, and otherwise--of Europe and various European nation-states as a consequence of Muslim immigration, and Scott Martens and I tangled some over what kind of diversity is and is not possible within a legitimate community. Read and enjoy.

Speaking of Scott, he's active again at his own blog Pedantry, thankfully, and producing great stuff. He recently put together a very long, insightful and thoughtful post on versions of secularism, the ways in which religious identity might be expressed in the social context of such, and particularly what Islamic law and thought might be able to contribute to the growth and adaptation of the European secular tradition of justice of law. He's done a tremendous amount of reading and thinking, the results of which enlightened me about a great deal.

On the opposite end of things, George Weigel's mournful diatribe in the latest First Things against Western Europe's "atheistic humanism," and how it has led to Europe's moral, demographic, and political decline, is anything but informative. Granted, it's a wonderfully written piece, and plays to the conservative view of "Old Europe" expertly. But as a work of political theology, it was weak: to simply say that Europe has turned atheistic is neither entirely accurate, nor new, nor particularly insightful. He does do a good job deepening and expanding on Robert Kagan's rather simplistic America-Europe, Mars-Venus, Hobbes-Kant thesis, and there were a few points where I thought Weigel was touching on the real heart of the matter: that politics takes place within horizons, and that by lacking (spiritual) horizons Western Europe has thus to a significant degree weakened its belief in the possibility of political construction, improvement, progress; bureaucracy and top-down justice (via the European Court of Justice, for example) thus becomes a refuge from a deeply human, democratic enterprise that has perversely come to seem barbaric to a great many European minds. But Weigel doesn't, at least in my view, make nearly enough of that hermeneutic; in the end, he just baldly claims that they're all a bunch of secularists over there, and hence lack faith in the future, and hence have become secretly (or openly) bitter of those states whose faith in God enables them to continue to still insist upon their cultural viability. He makes an interesting connection to WWI, and how it became an orgy of "self-mutilation," but to say that WWI was made possible by an "atheistic hubris" is insufficient. WWI was the result of decisions made by robust, culturally assertive, spiritually confident states (maybe not Russia, but definitely France, Great Britain and Germany). There was a great deal of piety on both sides, with churches lining up to bless the troops. If Weigel wants to trace Western Europe's struggles to a civilizational crisis which began in the trenches in France, then he needs to explain how atheistic humanism somehow got into the bloodstream of societies which tolerated a war conducted via trenches. (He does, rather reluctantly, suggest that part of the answer might be found in thinking about what the Catholic Church--and presumably other churches--were doing in response to the rise of democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but he goes no further, which is too bad: if he did, then he might have to acknowledge that the "secularism" he decries (as Charles Taylor, whom he uses crudely, could have told him) was more than just a "turning away" from the spirit, but was in part an outgrowth of the purposive direction of the spirit of Christianity in Europe itself.)

Finally, check out this opinion piece from last Sunday's Washington Post. There are uncomfortable questions that need to be asked about Europe demographic transformation and immigrant Muslim populations, and too few people are asking them. This essay is a good start.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Poor Oppress Me

A week and a half ago, Jennifer (I don't recall her last name) came to our door. It was raining out and Jennifer, who was wearing jeans and an old knit sweater, was soaked and shivering from the cold. I'd never met her before. She was short and fat, had tattoos on her forearms; her hands were calloused and her face had heavy lines--she looked to be in her late 40s, but poverty (and abuse) can age you prematurely. She was desperate for $13 so she could afford a bus ticket to Oklahoma to visit her ailing mother, and had--in a wet garment bag--a wedding dress she was willing to sell. She told me that she'd already walked downtown (they had no car), and tried to sell it at a couple of second-hand stores, but no one would buy it. She stood dripping on our doorstep pleading with me, fumbling with the zipper of the bag, explaining to me the quality of the dress, and her lack of any other funds (lots of debt, no job, husband on disability), while our oldest daughter stared at this stranger from behind me. I told her to put the bag aside; I'd give her a ride to an ATM (we had no cash in the house) and get her enough to buy her ticket. We chatted on the way; she learned I was Mormon, I learned what had happened to her husband (back injury). After I gave her $15, I took her back to her apartment, which has about a half-mile from our home.

She could, of course, have been making up the whole thing. Maybe she needed to pay rent. Maybe she wanted to rent some movies. Maybe she wanted to buy drugs. Maybe she'd lost a bet. Maybe she was too embarrassed to say the money was for food. Moreover, maybe she'd already gone around our whole block with the same story. It really doesn't matter to me; I've long since decided that I have neither the wisdom nor the heart to subject the decisions and actions--the strategies and humiliations--of those poorer than I to critical analysis. On the contrary, whenever I'm approached by those in need (and I've been approached a lot), I feel drawn out, weighted down, and pulled towards a response: any response, the more immediate the better. A dollar for the homeless man here, fifteen dollars for the woman on the doorstop there, putting someone up in a hotel room over there. The poor oppress me, or perhaps it's the fact of poverty which does: it burdens me, robs me of judgment and independence, obliges and makes demands of me, turns me into a beggar like them (though of course, to compare the oppression of one's conscience to that of actual financial hardship is insulting in the extreme).

I'm not the only one for whom poverty is an intellectual or spiritual tripwire. Just a day or two after I met Jennifer, I read David K. Shipler's presentation of the story of Caroline Payne in The New York Times Magazine. It is a depressing story, a pathetic and desperate one. Caroline is one face of the working poor in America, a woman who has made a few bad choices in her life and had more than a few bad days, and has found--as many millions have found--that the free market is remarkably unforgiving of either. The result is that, after decades of hard, continuous work at bottom-level jobs--at a Wal-Mart, a clothing factory, homeless shelter, a thrift store, a tampon factory, a bank, and so forth--Caroline can barely put food on the table for herself and her mentally handicapped daughter, Amber. It's not an easy story to read; Caroline lacks a stable home, a supportive family, helpful friends, a secure future, and all of her teeth. Hers is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a happy or fulfilled life. Shipler's article sparked numerous, angry threads in the blogosphere, as conservatives and liberals and socialists and libertarians had at each other with great viciousness, trying to prove that the capitalism was exploitive, that the welfare state corrupts, that the rich are greedy, and that the poor deserve it. Nothing cuts those of us in the middle and upper classes to the quick more quickly than the fact of poverty, and its ugly intractableness. Shipler knows this, which is why he spreads the blame:

"Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing, not just one problem but a constellation of problems: not just inadequate wages but also inadequate education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves."

For some, such blanket assessments (the causes of poverty are nearly endless, and all proposed solutions likely fruitless) are justification to wash one's hands of the whole endeavor. Work hard, treat your employees well, hope for the best, encourage economic growth and make some provision for the needy, sure--but that's the extent of it. For others, such a broad assessment of the problem of poverty is a cop-out, a dodge of that one true revolutionary progressive solution that just hasn't been tried yet. (Laura says it brings out her "inner commie.") I wish I could say that I confront poverty with such clarity, whether in terms of ideology or practicality or something in between. But no: hardships like Caroline's make a fool of me. They make me weak, and remind me of an encounter I had while when I was serving a mission for my church, years ago, in South Korea.

I was working with a Korean church member, and had been in the country about five months. We'd visited a contact in a small town on the outskirts of our area, and were waiting for a bus to take us home. It was just your average street in a small, rural Korean town: muddy roads, half-finished construction projects, groups of men talking, working, waiting or drinking. About ten feet away from the bus stop, someone had dumped a pile of garbage in the gutter, just a minute or two before. Suddenly, a woman appeared from out of an alleyway behind me: hair cropped short, face scarred and burned, thin, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, sweats and sandals (though it was winter). She dove into the pile of garbage, and began to eat, desperately. She grabbed rotten and cast-off vegetables and bit into them; she scooped up something soft (rice mush? ice cream?) and gobbled it, smearing it all over her face. I watched her, revolted and amazed. She turned, and caught my eye. A man who had been waiting for a bus along with us walked over to the woman, yelled at her, and proceeded to kick her in the ribs and stomach and face. She rolled over, bleeding, but kept on grabbing at food in the pile. Then our bus pulled up, my companion said, "Let's go," and I got on the bus and lost sight of her. And I thought right then, and have thought ever since: I've just committed a terrible sin. She looked at me, and I did nothing. Much of what I'd been taught about "big sins" and "little sins" seemed to wash away in that instant, and I thought: what greater failure could there possibly be than what I have just done?

I acknowledge that my ignorance was total: I had no idea where that woman was from or what her real needs were or whether that man kicking her was her father or husband or whether she was a criminal or a mental patient or anything else. Moreover, I also know full well that, practically speaking, there was nothing I could have done. I was a twenty-year-old kid who with little knowledge of the local language or culture. I had very little money on me, and besides, someone driven crazy by hunger and heaven knows what else needs more than money. The idea of me trying to drag her onto the bus along with us would have been ludicrous, and where would I have taken her? To our apartment? To the mission office? To a hospital? I was a proselytizing missionary: I wasn't trained to provide welfare to those in need, and didn't have the resources available to do so anyway. There are passages in the Mormon scriptures which remind us that we are all beggars, and caution us against judging those who petition us for aid (these, for example); but those same passages--as if their author had fear of a too-radical application--also make allowances for those without the resources to help, and suggest that such things were to be done with "wisdom and order" in any case (see here). I agree. And yet...I could have helped. I could have given her everything in my wallet, and walked home. I could have stayed with her, stood in the way of her attacker, wandered around to shops begging for food for her, selling my possessions (my briefcase? my suit? my camera?) if need be. It would have broken mission rules. It might have gotten me beat up. It probably would have ended in farce and an embarrassment to the local church, with both of us starving and abused on that street corner. But I could have done it, and at least she wouldn't have been alone. It probably wouldn't have been wise or orderly, but at least I would have responded--and that, whatever the effectual end of my response, I thought then and continue to think now, would have been better than doing nothing.

Certain thinkers, drawing upon Rousseau, would likely suggest that the feeling I had for that woman--and for Jennifer, and all the other desperate folk before whom I have felt singled out and called upon--isn't charity or love, but rather a corrupted kind of compassion or pity. Corrupted because such "compassion," according to this view, isn't outwardly directed at all; rather, it's a twisted self-love, a sense of obligation which rests not so much on fellow-feeling as on self-remorse: their pain causes me pain, reminds me that "there but for the grace of God go I," and otherwise engenders sympathy. Real charity responds to the whole person, in light of an eternal (or natural, or traditional: pick your moral philosophy) scale of virtue that helps us judge what is needed and what is not. Pity, on the other hand, responds instinctually to the hurts of others, as we respond instinctually to remove the causes of our own discomfort. Such an interpretation might link my responses to deprivation and desperation to the failures of modern politics and the welfare state: giving aid without critically assessing those requesting it is a recipe for dependency, they might say; it's a (self-)proclamation of sincerity and feeling, rather than actual (and therefore demanding) love.

I don't disagree with that criticism, at least not entirely. There is a real weakness, in the classical sense, in my genuflection before those who beg. But moral concepts change and evolve, and not all evolutions are negative. If one believes (as I do) that ideas are not abstract, but rather are embedded in a world of material and history, then one might also consider the possibility that the meaning of ideas might change as the times change, and yet still be as truthful as before. One scholar once called Rousseau "the prophet of history who despaired of history," and he was right: Rousseau saw better than any other thinker of his day that the modern world, the world of markets and contracts and the masses, was separated by an enormous gulf from thomogeneous, hierarchical, homogenous, trusting world of the past; as much as we might want that world to return, it is lost, and hence must be recreated rather than recovered. Rousseau's project was a large and in many ways dubious and dangerous one, but in regards to modern forms of attachments perhaps he had moral cause (even if he perhaps didn't acknowledge such) to make the claims he did. Perhaps it is, in fact, an advance to be weak in the face of hunger, sorrow, suffering, and the furtiveness and desperation of those who want. No doubt the social and economic breaking down of old orders (of class, lineage, race, gender, and so forth) has resulted in a great deal of dysfunction and pain in our civilization; but maybe that breaking down has also allowed the call of weakness, of submission, of being a humble and responsive servant to all--in other words, the call of Christ, at least as I understand it--to be heard better than ever before. Perhaps with the extension of sympathetic subjectivity has come some moral good. Or so I told myself, as I tried to salve my conflicted heart after hearing Jennifer's humiliatingly abject thank-yous when I dropped her off.

Poverty, squalor, ignorance, want: all are, I think, offenses before God. It is a sin that any of God's children should suffer such. Jesus warned us that offenses will come--must come, in fact--but still condemned those who are instruments of their coming (Matthew 18:7). Rightly or wrongly, I feel that condemnation. It's a strange thing ("realistically" speaking, it is a nonsensical thing) to feel at fault for, or oppressed by, the stranger. But then, perhaps I'm a stranger here myself.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Those white, middle-class, intellectual, colicky-baby, night-driving, open road blues

(Warning: this is, in retrospect, a weirdly pretentious post. My only excuse is that I'm functioning on about four hours of sleep a night, and my self-editing function is down. My apologies.)

As I've mentioned, our new baby Alison is colicky. Technically, it's not quite that: she has, according to her doctor, a "mild anal stricture"--she has a terrible time getting anything out, be it poop or gas. This means she spits-up often, and has frequent stomach aches and gas pains, all of which means she's frequently too uncomfortable to sleep, which makes her cranky and...well, you get the picture. Like hundreds of thousands of other parents of colicky, uptight (literally) infants, we've discovered that driving in the car is good, if temporary, relaxant. Between the vibration and the passing lights and the sound of the motor, she usually calms down (or exhausts herself screaming; that happens too) and sleeps a bit, sometimes deeply enough that we can get her into her crib without waking her. Most of the time, of course, she just wakes up as soon as I park the car. Still, either way, it's a break.

I took our first daughter, who was also colicky, out on night drives when she was an infant; at that time we lived Alexandria, VA, and I made more midnight drives around the National Mall and the monuments than I care to count. But now, in Jonesboro, AR, the land is mostly flat and empty. (The city itself has only a little over 50,000 people; any serious night drive with Alison crying in her car seat will very quickly exhaust the city limits, and I'll hit the country.) To the north there are some hills, gradually leading towards Missouri and the Ozarks, but directly west, south and east is farmland: rice to the south and west, and cotton in the Delta country to the east. The latter is where I usually go: I'm generally wiped out anyway, so the empty straight rural highways are probably safer than anything with twists and turns.

Saturday night I headed out, and since Alison was only occasionally crying I turned the radio on low. I tuned in KASU, the public station at Arkansas State University, and very reliable source of good jazz and blues. Keith Brown, a fine Memphis-based blues guitarist, was performing a set that had been recorded live in Jonesboro, and he was working through some great old numbers by Robert Johnson and Son House. As his tough, mournful voice delivered "Preachin' Blues" and other classics, I covered 20 miles or more of rural roads, passing one darkened farmhouse after another. In the distance I'd occasionally glimpse lights high above the ground; lights from a cotton mill, or a rice flour mill, or (closer in to Jonesboro) from one of food processing factories around town. After Keith's set was over, KASU served up Beale Street Caravan, a terrific blues program. Beale Street is in Memphis, only 70 miles from Jonesboro, and in the dark night I thought about all the thousands of others who have lived and worked on these ragged farms over the decades, fiddling with their radios in the evening, trying to catch some music from so-close-yet-so-far Memphis, some tune that could inspire them and sweep them away.

A friend of mine and I once argued about the blues: was it simply just a set of chord progressions, a beat that anyone could learn, or was it truly a form of folk music whose authenticity derived from its context--the cotton fields, the train whistles, the juke joints, the flat landscape, all the elements of that made of the life of so many poor rural black men and women throughout the Delta and mid-South? I'm not a philosopher of art, so I hesitate to say much about the relationship between aesthetics and identity. But I mostly defended the latter position; while forms of music and musicianship can be multiplied and reworked for as long as there are people to hear them, that shouldn't suggest that all forms of music are equally themselves in any context: blues music has traveled far and influenced many beyond these fields (and a good thing it has), but there is a sensibility to the place it emerged that makes its form, its telos, ever so clear. If that wasn't the case, why would people bother with vintage Robert Johnson recordings; why would people travel the blues trail from Natchez to Chicago? The cynical answer, I suppose, is that it's just tourism; it's just another artifact finding a way to sell itself to people (like myself) hung up on experience. There's a point to that cynicism, to be sure. But it doesn't explain the whole phenomenon; it can't entirely justify why some practioners of an art are so hung up on returning to and retrieving, again and again, that art's own roots. No, some music--maybe all music--has a home, and while being rooted in that home may not make you a better performer or critic or fan, it does help you seen something that is going on in the form, something that you may not have ever known in another context. Or at least that is what I told myself late last night, taking our '98 Ford Escort down another empty cotton field road.

Blues music came, of course, from individuals who, materially speaking, were nothing like myself: a white middle-class academic. So I'm outsider to that history, that form. But what about the emotional core? The blues communicate a sadness, and a defiance: not a heroic defiance, but instead one having to do with simple endurance. This bad thing happened, then that bad thing happened, and tomorrow another bad thing will happen again. Life is hard, but the hardest thing about it is its continuation, its repetitiveness, its inescapability. The sharecropper looked out at that flat land, and knew that the next day would be much like the one just past. To be able to do, and then do again, and then still do again...well, that's not heroism, that's just living: living without any payoff or intellectual summation or spiritual reward, living with a sense of larger things but also a feel for one's disconnect from them. You get swept away not by the evocation of an another place, but by the heaviness of what you're already in. Spelling it out like this makes it seem pathetic, I know. But I wonder if the bluesmen of old, in pounding out their songs and their lives, didn't do a great favor to people like me, by discovering and articulating in artistic form a mode of living appropriate to all of us who sometimes feel disconnected, out of place, left behind by the train. That's everyone at one point or another, I know. But, as insulting as it may be to suggest it in light of all the real suffering in the lives of so many around the U.S. and the world, perhaps there is something bluesy to the life of the typical academic today. Committed to a vocation that was imagined and set up in a different era, we find ourselves (at least the overwhelming majority of us) teaching at underfunded and overwhelmed state schools and community colleges that look nothing like the preserves of excellence that we willingly conditioned ourselves to expect; aspiring to a frankly appalling ideal of detachment (an elite, cloistered way of life) while lacking either the resources or the institutional support or the social justification for doing so. In other words, we're stuck, psychologically--and while the social forces which kept poor rural blacks stuck were in every way viciously political, social and economic, it was the psychological sense of being stuck which most inspired the blues. And so, in a small, perhaps silly way, it inspires us as well. In the meantime, we teach and write, though few of us do enough of either, and none of us do it as well as or in the way that we should. It is crumbling edifice, the academy in America is, but still an attractive one: in all honestly, for all our bitching, most of us wouldn't leave even if we could. So we keep at it, living a kind of disconnected, fractured, perpetually out-of-step life: the middle-class academic at the dawn of the 21st century. This, I guess, is our blues.

I'm driving late into the night, and I'll be up early the next morning, and I may be up in the middle of the night as well: that's just what you have to do with a colicky baby. Lesson plans aren't going to get written as well as they should, and some things won't get written at all. I hope for a better job, but the longer I live here the less I want to move. I tune into the radio, and listen for the old man to sing some song about a preacher, and a woman, and the devil, and a train, and a death letter, and when he hits the refrain everyone in the audience murmurs in response; "that's how it is," you can almost hear them say, "that's how it is, every day." Indeed it is.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Update to the Update

Scott replies to my comments in another very smart post. As he notes, our disagreement (which isn't great) is at least as much terminological as it is philosophical. He writes that he is "not actually opposed to the religious arrangements in Belgium," that "Belgium's compact with the Catholic church appears to me to be a functional and fairly satisfactory compromise, and that he "would like to see European Muslims reach a functional compromise of their own." I couldn't agree more. Then he goes on to write:

"However - and here is perhaps where we differ - trying to negociate solutions within the social and historical framework you actually find yourself in is not the same as having a national identity to which someone demands that you comply....I want to make a two-fold claim: First, the standards that a society imposes on its immigrants are the product of a political compromise that follows the refusal to simply integrate. Second, since people are sometimes going to refuse to accept the culture that they are expected to integrate into, and sometimes I think they are right to refuse, the standards that a society really ought to stand its ground on should be the ones that their defenders genuinely believe ought to be universal."

Scott notes that his comments lead away from the particular issue of Islam in Europe, and towards a more philosophical consideration of relativism and universalism. This is much too large a debate to get into so casually, so let me just say that while Scott and I may have very different ontological presuppositions in regards to what it is that is called "universal" (I think, for example, following the work of such thinkers as Herder or Gadamer, that universals as such are necessarily particularized: that is, they are solely manifest as particular cultural expressions, outside of which they lose substantive form), practically speaking we mostly agree: in this case, Islamic headscarves, as opposed to say female circumcision, should not be understood to be a fundamental threat to the articulation of ways of being fully human in any European context.

Scott also adds that "whatever is determined to be Belgian should not result in the interdiction of whatever isn't Belgian....I don't see a general argument for making impositions on immigrants beyond the dual obligation, both on immigrants and their indigenous neighbours, to try to find a way to coexist." Again, we would probably disagree on some of the mechanics of "complying" with a culture, or "co-existing" with one, but I can't dispute his ideal.

(Finally, also check out Brad's excellent comment on this thread, and his World Religion class's wise take on this issue.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2004


An excellent post by Scott Martens, over at Fistful of Euros, on the creeping spread of anti-Islamic headscarf paranoia among demographically threatened, mostly secularized Europeans, this time in Belgium. I've already had my say on this issue; suffice to add that I agree completely with Scott's proposal:

"It is my hope that these kinds of laws will never be passed, and that if they are passed, that national courts will strike them down. Failing that, I hope the European Court of Human Rights will do its duty. But in the meantime, I hope that French students will take matters in their own hands. This sort of hypocritical nonsense is just begging for some civil disobedience. I suggest that French students make headscarves, yarmulkes and big crosses the fashion accessories for 2004. Make sure that no kid is cool if they don't wear something religious. Use that teenage hatred of authority to actually accomplish something."

That being said, I do thing Scott's reasoning on this issue is less than thorough: while it's certainly not wrong to interpret these kind of debates in light of women's rights and/or dress codes, he seems to me to be unaware, or at least dismissive, of how significantly the issues of nationality, secularity and identity are tied up in this argument. This is both unfortunate and odd, because a couple of points he brings up as part of his condemnation of Chrac's and others' decisions actually underline, as I see it, the abiding relevance of these very issues. For instance, he makes reference to the Catholic institutions of Belgium, how they have long since, after many long struggles, been peacefully and consensually incorporated into Belgian life, so much so that any talk of "banning the appearance of religious allegiance" would be, in Scott's view, enormously controversial. I would think properly so: identity is an ongoing argument, and the public institutions of Belgium reflect that argument, an argument which is there own, not anyone else's. In other words, these are issues which require some kind of communal, historical, and/or national context within which to be worked out: if secularism is to be achieved, it will be (whether its adherents recognize it or not) a particularized secularism. Part of what plainly bothers Scott is that these proposals to ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school are not emerging from any process of particularization: their proponents are not addressing the real, varying Islamic populations of these coutnries with their disparate needs, but are rather dressing up their proposals in terms of "the defence of secularism and universal values." No wonder Scott suspects their rather empty rhetoric is a "crock of shit," a mere cover for xenophobic pandering.

Scott's second point makes this even more clear. He about how the RCMP in Canada dealt with the challenge posed by Sikh men, who always wear turbans, joining their ranks. Rather than forcing the Sikh Mounties to wear the traditional hat, or creating an arbitrary exception for them, they came up with "an official RCMP turban, made of blue cloth held together with a maple leaf pin." A brilliant solution, which correctly, as Scott concludes, "said that being Sikh is not only compatible with being Canadian, but....that there is a Canadian way to be Sikh." I couldn't agree more. But then Scott goes on to say that:

"The idea that there is some conception of Frenchness, Belgianness or even Europeanness to which immigrants must comply is an idea that deserves to be consigned to oblivion. Instead, governments ought to advance the idea that just as Arab Christians are still Arabs, and that [as] Christians in the Middle East have distinctive institutions that are different from those found in Europe, [so too] European Muslims need to have distinctive institutions of their own too. Institutions which are at once Islamic and European, which are not necessarily shared by their non-Islamic neighbours but which aren't shared by their extra-European brethren either, will do far more to advance the cause of a common identity than social integration at gunpoint ever will."

I agree with that concluding sentence--but in what sense does it require the first? On the contrary, it seems to me that if one wishes to develop, in the long term, French or Belgian or European ways of "being Muslim," then it is absolutely essential that you know what is and isn't proper (historical, particular) to that "way." There couldn't be a Canadian way to be a Sikh if there wasn't something which was properly Canadian and essentially Sikh. So, as opposed to what seems to be Scott's anti-national wishes, it is exactly the preservation (or, at least, the continuation of the argument about the nature of) Frechness, Belgianness and Europeanness which will make it possible for the rituals and institutions he hopes for to emerge. Without strong sense of the difference between one identity and another, no productive hybrids or bridges between them will emerge. Consequently, if Europe--especially the French-German-Benelux core--is to adequately respond to Islam, then it will need to ever more clearly think about and express the historical and communal particularity of its response; otherwise, the amount of denial and distrust on both sides will only grow.


I don't have a blogroll here, as should be apparent. Part of the reason is that, when I first designed this site, I purposefully wanted it to be as bare as possible--maybe for style reasons, or maybe just to make it different from so many other blogs which have links galore stretching for miles down their sidebars. The other reason is that I'm somewhat obsessive-compulsive about ordering my working environments, and that includes my electronic ones. I have a collection of links on my home page that I'm always tinkering with, to make sure it reflects sites that I actually visit as opposed to inactive ones or ones I've long since lost interest in. Yes, I know, everyone updates their blogroll occassionally, but I fiddle with my links practically every week, and I simply didn't want to feel obliged to go into Blogger and mess with the code on an equally regular basis. (That's also partly why there are no comments on this blog: it would only be one more thing I would feel driven to obsessively fine-tune and oversee. And my e-mail is just right there on your left, after all.) Hence, a very simple and spare blog.

That being said, I've received some nice links, referrals and comments over the last month of so (perhaps not coincidentally, while I've been writing posts that have been somewhat more personal than usual). So I thought it might be nice to note, just this once, some of the blogs I read regularly, and whose presence on the web I very much appreciate. Since I am, as the blurb at the top left puts it, primarily interested in political and philosophical matters (at least insofar as my blog writings go), many of my regular blog stops are predictable: Tacitus, Joshua Micah Marshall, Daniel Drezner, Eric Alterman, Andrew Sullivan (yes, I read them both: I'm fair and balanced), Matthew Yglesias, Oxblog, and so forth. But there are at least a few other regular stops of mine which fall outside these parameters that deserve particular note. I'm sure they are all read by more people than this blog is; still, they deserve a link.

Laura at Apartment 11D. Laura's musings on life in New York City, with small children, with diminishing academic expectations but with excitment for the future, are unfailingly funny, insightful, intelligent and sharp. More importantly, her fundamental decency always comes through. I'm unclear as to why her blogroll associates me with Bill Murray as opposed to with the Coen brothers, but I'm not one to talk.

Noah Millman at Gideon's Blog. In many ways, he's my ideal blogger. He almost never posts unless he really has something to say, and then he'll say it at length, with all ambiguities examined and very few stones left unturned. Discussions of politics, yes, but also morality, religion, fatherhood, Judaism, and many other topics. If you're interested in substantive food for thought, Noah never fails.

Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted. Timothy is very much cut from the same cloth as Noah: sometimes weeks will go by with no posts, and then he'll come forward with a brilliant little essay on class politics, or fantasy literature, or movies and gaming culture, or academia. Worth waiting for.

Speaking of academia, of course I read Invisible Adjunct. There is no other blog dedicated to academic matters that I read as regularly as I read hers. Why? Because she's can think and write about the nonsense of the academic--and the non-academic--world with both a sharp theoretical knife and grounded, humane common sense: a rare combination. She's the best example I can think of an academic who is really working through their vocation, with humor and curiosity and strong opinions. Also she's Canadian, which is almost always a plus.

The only thing better then being Canadian is being a bitter, conflicted Canadian, which is why Innocents Abroad is a great read. I can really get into a lot of the heavily theoretical posts here; while I generally don't share the conservative outlook of the blog's authors, they unapologetically employ the canon of political philosophy to make sense of matters both esoteric and banal, and I like that very much. They provide a rare, vaguely Straussian, Euro-American perspective which I've learned a lot from. And when Colin May uses his learning to diagnose what he sees as the maladies of his fellow Canucks...well, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy it.

A very different, but equally rare and important, Euro-American perspective is provided by the many authors over at A Fistful of Euros. As someone interested in language and politics, I particularly look forward to Scott Martens contributions.

Amy Sullivan at Political Aims. Amy diligently uses every opportunity she can find to state over and over again her very important point (insofar as American politics is concerned): that there is such a thing a "Christian left," that social justice issues are not incompatible with American Christianity, etc. Other bloggers make this point, but not with anything like Amy's determination. I sometimes doubt the coherence of her worldview, but I always learn something from her posts.

John Holbo and Belle Waring. They live in Singapore; Belle is expecting a baby (their second). Read John for the philosophy and cultural criticism; read Belle for the recipes. It's all good.

Anything else? Oh yes, Crescat Sententia. They basically just blog about sex and libertarianism, but it's entertaining, and undergraduates are allowed their obsessions, after all.