Sunday, February 28, 2010

oh enemy of straw

An emailer to the Daily Dish violently misunderstands. To be honest, the strawmanning is so intense I'm shocked Patrick Appel posted it.

"Apparently, once you don't believe in a deity, any and all earthly concerns about the real, observable effects of religion in the world we all share become irrelevant."

Of course not. Look, if you're going to ignore the content of the post, I'm not sure why you would bother to engage at all. I oppose the actions that lead to these negative effects the same way that I oppose anything else, by participating in democracy. That opposition is independent of any belief or non-belief in religion. There are a whole host of arguments for the limitations on religious action that do not begin from an assumption of atheism. Indeed, a great number of them are referred to as "Enlightenment values." Again, I don't know why this is so hard to understand: many of the most vocal and effective defenders of the separation of church and state are religious and practicing. The large majority of the intellectual figures who devised the liberal Enlightenment values that compel us to separate church and state were themselves Christians. If you can't imagine how you can both believe and not want that belief to be involved in politics, science or medicine, I'm afraid that's simply a failure of your own imagination, and a flagrant one, considering that this is how most of the population of the world operates.

"Since Harris does not believe in a god he should not concern himself over the trifling matter of jihadists flying planes into buildings. Since Hitchens is an atheist the murder of teenage girls at the hands of their fundamentalist fathers, brothers and uncles should be of no concern to him."

This is a strawman of such pathetic character I'm tempted merely to ignore it. As I said, and I have always said, people do things out of religious conviction that must be opposed. Opposing those actions has nothing to do with eliminating the religious devotion that supposedly inspires them. Killing your teenage daughter is illegal regardless of why you intend to do it. It isn't the justification that matters. It's the action. Flying planes into buildings is an action. I am opposed to violent actions such at that whether they are undertaken for political or religious or any other reason. You stop a terrorist by killing him. You don't stop him by arguing away his religion, in part because it is precisely because of his fanaticism that he is immune to convincing.

"Later in the post he makes the almost as ridiculous claim that though of course there are people who would like to force their religious views on the rest of us and this must be fought against (gee, I forget, who are the strongest voices against this sort of thing....Sam something, Christopher someone else) the underlying truth of the religious claims on which policies are formed is irrelevant to the discussion. How someone is supposed to make the argument that a religiously mandated death penalty for homosexuality can be argued against without touching the underlying theology and rationality he does not say."

Simple: by arguing that his religious beliefs are inappropriate justification in political discourse in a democracy, the same way we have been doing for hundreds of years. People have been arguing the separation of church and state without pushing for atheism since the idea of such a separation was created. Really, this is elementary stuff, dude.

Let's talk tactics, shall we? This emailer with the terrible reading comprehension and I have as a first goal the same thing, which is keeping religious conviction out of politics, science and medicine. The history of the world teaches us that this is best accomplished not through atheism but through religious moderation. This is something many atheists must come to grips with if they are ever going to grow up: religious moderates do a far better job of opposing extremists than atheists do. Look, aside from all of the "American theocracy" hysterics, this country does quite a good job of keeping the secular and the religious separate. There is much work to be done, but this is not Saudia Arabia, it is not Yemen. And why? Not because of atheism, but because of moderate religious people who have worked to divide theology from governance for centuries. When people express incredulity at the idea that people can both be practicing and religious and yet function in a secular society, I wonder what world they live in. Here on Planet Earth, in America, you interact with such people every day. They seem to have no trouble with it whatsoever.

Look to the Muslim world. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It has a significant Muslim minority. And yet it also has significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities that live quite unmolested. Women wear pants, work in public, vote, hold office. Why? Not because some tide of atheism swept through Indonesia, but because of religious moderates embracing Enlightenment values and liberal democracy. I assure you, the large majority of these people are devout. They simply see no conflict between their religious devotion and their participation in civic life. If denying terrorism or other kinds of religious extremism can come only through the enforcement of atheism-- if I am compelled, as this emailer insists, to wish to convert the unfaithful-- then the prospects of liberal democracy and Enlightenment values are threatened indeed. Those values defend the religious as well as the areligious.

There is a lot of nonsense in the competing claims of the public face of atheism, but none is more obvious than what claims it is credulous to and what it is overly skeptical about. Many atheists, presumably like this emailer, have overly skeptical opinions about the ability of most religious believers to balance religious and civic life. Again, you probably know many people who believe, go to church, and yet never think to inject their religion into politics. Balanced against that is a frankly absurd naivete about the power of argument to convince people to abandon God or religion altogether. Which do you think is easier? To convince someone who has religious faith to totally abandon that identity? Or to convince them of the righteousness of dividing it from political life? Elementary human psychology teaches me that the more you attack the fundamental basis for someone's worldview, the more likely you are to earn violent pushback as a result. If you are a liberal, you don't try to bring a conservative around on a particular issue by asking him to abandon conservatism altogether. You ask him to reconsider the issue at hand, and you do so in a way that demonstrates respect to that larger overarching belief.

This is not fun. You can't post a vlog about it on Youtube and get people applauding you for it. You can't posit that you are one of the few brilliant geniuses in a sea of idiocy by doing it. You can't come up with all sorts of self-aggrandizing narratives with it. But it is the basic task of liberal democracy and it is the path of adulthood.

I have written about a great many controversial topics since I started blogging. I never get email that is more angry or embittered than I do when I criticize militant atheism. Why? I think it's because, for most people, atheism is not just inimical to belief in God. It is inimical to pluralism. Some people just don't like to be disagreed with. Left unchecked, that can devolve to obsession with the people who you oppose. And that's exactly the poverty which I described, being defined by what you aren't.

Update: A commenter at Secular Right quotes this (perfect) passage:

I was reminded of the English novelist Howard Jacobson’s brilliant insight about Holocaust deniers: “You will know them because they know more about the Jewish religion than you do. As soon as you meet one of those, and think, by God they’ve got a lot of quotations, by God they know everything about Jews—then that’s what they are. And what cheers me about all this, is that your true anti-Semite, like your true Holocaust denier, is doomed to a kind of Dante-esque hell of living among Jewish things, Jewish books, Jewish artifacts. You can see them in the library, they’ve got the Talmud up here, and they’re burrowing away to find more and more evidence against the Jews. Few Jews live a more perfect scholarly Jewish life.” 

Sunday Poem and thoughts

A Passionate Shepherd to his Love
by Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of th purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

 I'm sorry if this is an obvious point, but I wanted to say: in creative fields, advancements in equality are most important at the level of creativity. What I mean by that is that if I understand the facts correctly, the last decades have seen an increase in the number of women working at the administrative, financial or executive level, but the number of women in the chief creative positions barely improved, if at all. And that's a major problem, because the equality that matters in a creative industry, ultimately, is equality at the level of the artistic enterprise.

If I'm right in that women have increased their presence in the executive levels of Hollywood, that's all to the good. But what is most important is that we get more movies which have been crafted by women, woman directors, woman screenwriters, woman cinematographers. This is important not just because of a general preference for a multiplicity of voices, although that is important. It's also beneficial because I think many big movie buffs are more than anything tired of the repetitiveness and boredom of movies that are too often similar on the level of plot and thematically identical. More women in the creative process might represent a chance to break out of those stale conventions, and not just because they are likely to write more or better female characters, but merely because they are likely to have a fresh perspective.

So I'm jazzed Kathryn Bigelow is up for an Oscar. I actually am not the biggest fan of The Hurt Locker. I think, like the large majority of war movies I've ever seen, it is hampered by a tremendous amount of cliches, and is sort of hokey on the level of character. (The soldier who can only make sense of the world when he's at war is a pretty well played out trope at this point, right?) But those are complaints about screenwriting, not directing. The movie's strength is as a series of distinct set pieces, and while Bigelow's direction isn't my favorite of the year, neither are any of the other nominees, and direction is a great place to honor a movie that has largely deserved the recognition it has received.

Friday, February 26, 2010

vlog on self image, Facebook

vlog February 25 2010 from Freddie deBoer on Vimeo.

I should say, if the title of this blog doesn't make it clear, I say "part of the problem with the French existentialism" in a context where they represent perhaps my most enduring and important intellectual influence.

When I say that people have an idealized view of themselves that is expressed online, I don't so much mean idealized in the sense of being unrealistically positive, but merely idealistic in that it operates on the level of ideas. That is, they don't necessarily or usually think of themselves as looking better than they do, they simply have a vision of themselves which they have developed a certain level of pained comfort with. Or, anyway, this is the way it works with me. I could be projecting this on to other people, although in my experience if you want to make a group of people really unhappy rather quickly, just show them a video of themselves. I mean, most of us know someone who legitimately thinks of him or herself as less attractive than the consensus view. When someone sees a picture or video of herself and recoils, it probably isn't because the picture looks significantly less attractive than the self image. It's likely just because it doesn't look quite like the self image, whether attractive or not, that he or she has become comfortable with.

Anyhow... you do have to give yourself a break, and for me, adulthood has been a struggle to at once give myself a break, and to simultaneously recognize that the internal forces that compel me to be easier on myself are worthwhile primarily to the degree that they enable me to be easier on those around me. One of the insights that I think I appreciate most about self-esteem is the notion that people with the highest self-esteem aren't necessarily or even usually the people we think of as good people. (This idea might be gaining a little ground, but even cursory Googling suggests self-esteem is still the dominant orthodoxy.) I think, ideally, the urge to be happy with yourself should be symbiotic with an urge to be better towards other people, and in part this should involve being more forgiving of their faults, while you ask for more forgiveness of your own.

Life isn't that clean, I'm afraid. Personally, I agree with those who argue that there are many various levels of self-evaluation going on in any person, and some tend to be too harsh, and some too conceited. Also, I agree with the idea that there is both level of self-esteem and durability of self-esteem, so some people (ahem) have high visions of themselves in certain areas, but those visions are easily hurt by others or by failing to meet expectations. It's all a confused soup.

I imagine I'll get some snide emails about this. Some will tell me that all this stuff probably is best not being thought about. They might be right!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the problem with DVDs of certain TV shows

So I went home to my sister's house this weekend, and before bed one night I was looking for something to watch, and I was very tempted by my sister's DVDs of Dawson's Creek. Some of you might be inclined to hate on such a choice, but please-- it's the Creek. It's an essential artifact for all of us who were teenagers in the 90s. It's a little ridiculous now, but then it was always a little ridiculous, and that was one of the reasons to love it.

I ended up putting the DVD back on the shelf, though, because I remembered the tragedy of Dawson's on DVD: because of the great cost of clearing song rights for DVDs, none of the wonderful/terrible 90's midtempo poppy rocky pop that was such an essential element of the show has survived into the DVDs. It has all been replaced by truly horrid, cheap-to-clear, nothing-and-nobody-you-ever-heard-of fodder. So, if, say, Joey and Pacey were leaning in for that first forbidden kiss, and the sweet strains of the Cardigans came on over your TV's speakers, or if Dawson was mourning Jen's descent into drugs, and a somber number by the Counting Crows came piping up-- well, on the DVDs you get something that sounds a little like the Cardigans and the Counting Crows, only shittier. (Perhaps I should say "even shittier" for the Counting Crows.) Now, a certain degree of anonymity was sort of the order of the day-- even at the time and by its own standards, the music in that show was middle of the road and eminently replaceable-- but honestly, the stuff is so bad an inauthentic, I find the show rather unwatcheable.

It's even worse than you think-- you know that iconic, terrible theme song, the "Do-do-doo-da-doo" one? Gone! Replaced. Must have cost too much. I'm sure there are other shows that have this problem, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.

Incidentally, on the copyright front-- here's an example of where I think there has to be a better way, that at once pays the rights holders something for what they contributed while at the same time not making the DVDs exorbitantly expensive. But, you know, maybe not; maybe the people who created the music or hold the rights will simply pick a price and dig in their heels, and the people who make the DVDs will refuse to pay it, and a less satisfying alternative option like this is found. That's the thing about ownership; sometimes people can be unreasonable about it, and if ownership means anything, they have to be entitled to. Yet we preserve the concept, and one reason I can't quite get on board with the "information wants to be free" crowd is because I don't think you can piecemeal reform what ownership means. But that's an argument for another day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

nota bene

Barbara Hernnstein-Smith is, by my lights, an invaluable commenter on the postmodern/pragmatist/constructivist turn in theories of knowledge. She is an able defender of many of the theories that constitute such a turn, which is helpful, considering that many of the original theorists were not the best defenders or presenters of their own work. She is particularly successful in demonstrating the difference between the false relativisms (sometimes referred to as "folk relativism") of people who invoke postmodern theorists without understanding them and the genuine article, and in articulating how someone can believe in a contingent, socially-originated vision of truth while still making normative ethical or moral claims. Additionally, I have met Dr. Hernnstein-Smith, and she was extraordinarily gracious and warm.

Her book Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy is a good place to start, and in particular the chapter "Unloading the Self-Refutation Charge" is useful as a response to the common complaint "pragmatic claims about truth are self-denying, because they rely on a framework of absolute truth in order to deny absolute truth."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Up In the Air

In general, the two forms of public sphere blended with each other in a peculiar fashion. In both, there formed a public consisting of private persons whose autonomy based on ownership of private property wanted to see itself represented as such in the sphere of the bourgeois family and actualized inside the person as love, freedom, and cultivation-- in a word, as humanity.
--Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

I finally saw Up In the Air a while back and wanted to say so. I'm conflicted about a few things.

On the elementary level-- the important level-- I think it's a very good movie, a modest achievement that is aware of that modesty and so works with an admirable restraint. There isn't that much to it, but that can be a virtue, and it is a well-crafted film. George Clooney is indeed very good in it, although it's fair to ask what he does in the movie that's different from what he does in a half-dozen others. I wasn't nearly as enamored with the two female leads and their performances as some, but they get the job done.

The problem is, on a broader level, that Ryan Bingham is a privileged person with privileged problems. An argument that this would somehow disqualify the movie, somehow, is of course ridiculous. Movies should be constrained, in what content we consider appropriate, only by the limits of the human imagination. Ran is about the most privileged people imaginable; it is also the best movie ever made, in my opinion. It isn't as if I want to dismiss Up In the Air as a bourgeois artifact and thus ineligible for my praise. The failing is that it is a movie that doesn't seem aware of that privilege, which is odd, since it takes such pains to present the hardship of the people that Bingham and his protege are firing. Put it this way: the movie doesn't mistake Bingham's unhappiness as identical or commensurate with that of the people he is laying off, but there is something unsatisfying about how it positions his (deep, understandable and moving) unhappiness.

Not to get too cute with this, but I have been struck, at several occasions, at the symmetry between this dissatisfaction and my feelings about the movie's director, Jason Reitman. He's a talented guy, and his work on Up in the Air deserves the recognition that it has gotten. It's just that he often complains about how people assume that he has been the beneficiary of nepotism, and how hard that has made his journey into Hollywood. What he seems not to understand is that being the beneficiary of nepotism, and being talented and deserving, are not mutually exclusive qualities. And for all the times he has observed catching flak for having a famous director for a father, there must have been times which he wasn't able to observe when his father's reputation quietly helped him. That's not a knock on him. When he talks about how hard it was coming up in Hollywood as the son of Ivan Reitman (such as in this podcast), though, it's hard not to say, give me a break, man.

What really worries me about this way of thinking is that I'm afraid I'll become Wesley Morris, in the sense he defines here. You see, for Morris, the emotional reality of the characters from movies like Adventureland just doesn't rate; those concerns aren't "serious" enough. One of the many major failings of contemporary film criticism is that so many fall (over and over again) for the heavy-handed manipulation of directors and screenwriters. What is privileged, always, is violence, gravitas-through subject matter, the self-important, the portentous. Morris may not be a "Caucasian virgin boys from the burbs," but there is more than a little self-hatred in his description, seeing as he is, of course, a part of a profession of navel-gazers.

What I mean is that whatever my politics, the day I fail to feel empathy for the Ryan Binghams of the world, the day that I can't see myself within their problems and in the context of their lives, it's time to take criticism, box it up and pack it away.

Monday, February 22, 2010

the power of the pickle vs. the power of the schlock rocking douche

I'm not ordinarily interested in Facebook fan pages, but when I saw one entitled "Can this pickle get more fans than Nickleback?," I knew I had to join post haste. A man must live on principle. (There are now some derivative groups, but they are nothing compared to the pickle.)

Anyway, the pickle achieved its goal on February 19th. It appears now, however, that Facebook is shutting the pickle down, as it is an insult to Nickleback, or some similar bullshit. I dug around a bit and it seems that the page really has been the subject of official complaints, although I'm not entirely sure to what degree that comes from Nickleback, their record company or a third party. Anyway, the page posted this. Now, I know, in this day of Photoshop, that this could be faked, or even just done with a fake Chad Kroeger account. Still....

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Poem and Reading Recommendation

from Musica Humana
by Ilya Kaminsky
(from a reading at Bowdoin College, 2 February 2006)

I am reading aloud the book of my life on earth
and confess, I loved grapefruit.
In a kitchen: sausages; tasting vodka,
the men raise their cups.
A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger
into sweetness. Mother washes
behind my ears. And we speak of everything
that does not come true,
which is to say: it was August.
August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August
filling hands with language that tastes like smoke.
Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.

Thanks to my friend Steve B. for pointing me in the direction of the above.

I want to recommend Sarah Orne Jewett's short story "A White Heron," with  a bit of a directed reading angle. Psychoanalysis, as a field of literary criticism, is quite out of fashion and has been for some time. I'm not much of one for psychoanalysis myself, as a reading schema (although I am not a literary critic at all). Schools of crit come and go. Sometimes they come back, or are reinterpreted. Certainly, there are still psychoanalytic critics who continue to work now, and the true plurality of analytical and critical styles is one of the enduring strengths of English scholarship. New Historicism, so dominant for so long, seems an exhausted discipline, and no insult in that-- 30 years is a long time. But will anecdotal historicist readings continue on, even if at the margins? Of course.

Anyway-- if you avoid overdetermined readings or one-to-one equivalencies between literary content and symbolic objects, psychoanalysis can be, well, fun. Jewett's story is a good example of how. It's pre-Freud, and very homespun, and very, very ripe for a little psychoanalytic mining. It's about a young teen girl who meets a young hunter boy, and is somewhat enamored of him, but isn't sure if she wants to sacrifice this pure white heron to him and his rifle. Pay special attention to the description of how she climbs that tree. High comedy. If literary criticism doesn't have its roots in fun, throw it on the fire.

deep thoughts

The problem with reputation is that you never control yours and yet most of the time, you deserve it. I know I certainly do, and so much the worse for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

still relevant

No Enemies
by Charles McKay

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas, my friend, the boast is poor.
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made Foes, if you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You've hit no traitor on the hip,
You've dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You've never turned the wrong to right,
You've been a coward in the fight.

when will piracy advocacy grow up?

You know, for a long time I was firmly on the side opposed to the overreactions and silly orthodoxies of the media companies and copyright enforcement zealots. Over time, I guess I have moved to the other side of that divide-- not because I have changed my position, but because the default has become so entitled, childish and selfish when it comes to paying for media. People simply don't understand that, yes, it's true, no matter how many utopian fantasies you entertain, the media you enjoy costs money and will disappear if people don't pay for it. I really think a lot of the attitude in the "information wants to be free, so I should never pay more than a pittance for any media I consume, ever" crowd comes from the fact that they literally cannot think of movie studios or record companies or video game makers as anything but all-powerful corporate monoliths. People still really seem to think that, even though they torrent 300 movies a year, they couldn't possibly be making any difference. It's facile.

Anyway, this image has been making the rounds, and people have been posting it as though it is obviously an unassailable argument. What they neglect to mention is that the "free content forever" utopians constantly harp on the possibility of advertising replacing the time tested economic model of making a product and selling it at a profit to people who want to buy it. Strange, then, to see this image, because previews are advertising, and yet here you go, tons of people insisting that watching a preview is simply a bridge too far.

Here's the truth. The truth is that I'm someone who is naturally inclined towards the side of more lenient copyright, against the likes of the DMCA and the RIAA, but I have been pushed to the other side by the absolutely juvenile, "I want it all" attitude of most of the people who pirate and argue the moral legitimacy of piracy. I read the gadget blogs, and I'm really hungry to read a principled argument against restrictive copyright that nevertheless recognizes that if we want to continue to enjoy the music, movies, games and shows we love, there must be a revenue stream. The profit margin can't survive 100% free, 100% of the time. I am convinced that there is some conciliatory philosophy that both stops mistreating paying customers in the race to stop piracy, establishes easy access and affordable price points, but also maintains the rock-solid economics of make for a dollar, sell for two. I want to see an admission from piracy advocates that, no matter how many counterintuitive arguments they come up with to argue the point, the quantity of movies and music being made is gradually eroded by a disappearing profit pool. I want to see a copyright reform movement that recognizes that dedicated amateurs could never have made Lawrence of Arabia or Sgt Pepper or Half-Life 2. I want to see zealous advocacy, but I want it to come from a movement that finally decides to grow up.

But I never see that. I just see more whining, more absolutism, more insistence that somehow everyone has the right to whatever media they want at no cost, without anything resembling a coherent economic strategy for how it's to get made. It's enough to drive a sympathetic moderate like myself right over to the side of harsh restriction. Copyright desperately needs reform-- I think most copyrights should expire at the death of the creator, for example-- but without any protection of media rights, there can be no professional artists or writers or filmmakers or musicians. And even aside from our desire to continue to consume what they make, that is a terrible thing. This should be a culture that values art and creation, and like it or not, as a capitalist system we must reward that value with monetary compensation if it is to survive. When I hear people insist that all of our various media can survive only with dedicated amateurs-- naively, I believe-- I think they are positing a really terrible and depressing evolution in human society. What statement would it make about this culture if we became one where endless numbers of people can be first and foremost investment analysts or realtors, but no one could be first and foremost an artist, musician or writer? Is that what we want our culture to become?

I imagine I've heard them all, the many arguments for how people can and should pirate with no impact on the creation of media. Some are nakedly self-interested. Some are principled but naive. ("People who pirate will turn around and buy the album if they love it!" Will some small number? Sure. For most? No. No, many, many people love the album and never buy it. I know many people like that, and so do you.) The truth is that there's a million arguments from principle, but at the end of the day it is very rarely really a principled stance at all. Usually, it's just give me what I want, and for free, and nothing else. Until piracy advocates recognize that and reform, we're just going to head further and further down the road of less and less cool, moving media for all of us.

(Of course, there is the larger question of whether the capitalist model can survive recent revolutions in technology and demographics at all, but that is for another day....)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am not Not-Religious

Above, beyond, and separate from any moral or ethical duty that atheists have to extend basic elements of tolerance and restraint towards the religious in a pluralistic society, there is a compelling, even essential, argument for an atheism of absence that is fundamentally an argument towards self-interest.

I once listened to a recording of a lecture by the New Age guru Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert) in which he was talking about the unfortunate tendency for people who have quit smoking or drinking to become dominated by that rejection, to become in a sense defined by their not-ness. One really can become dominated by the things one rejects, and it's a terrible way to live. As Ram Dass put it, "you die from not smoking."

One of the profound weirdnesses about militant atheism is just this kind of presence-through-denial, the absolute presence of religion within these atheists. Spending your time not believing in something is, well, odd. I have often said, and only partly in jest, that the advantage of atheism is that you don't have to get up in the morning on Sundays. The point is that atheism compels you to nothing. It does not ask you to serve. There are no sacraments and no sacred duties, no commandments, no elect to bow to and nothing forbidden to avoid. This is a virtue both in loftier philosophical ways (non serviam) and in the simpler graces of free time and free travel. Contrast this to, say, the apocalyptic and bellicose rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, who writes as if atheists have some duty to oppose religion. The absence of belief and the absence of duty are symmetrical qualities.

Even aside from that more obvious notion of things that I don't have to do, there is the larger sense in which atheism is a nothing, a not-thing. Even the statement "I am an atheist" is perhaps more of a positive statement than I would like to make. But religion has compelled me to make it, and I do believe the path of conscience is towards a place where the default is, if not non-belief, than no statement about belief. Perhaps we're there now, but I don't think so. And, yes, of course, there are those who shamelessly insert their religion into politics, in defiance of Enlightenment values and the American character, and yes they have to be fought. That fight is irrelevant to the question of the existence or non-existence of gods or God, and the existence or non-existence of God or gods is irrelevant to that fight.

Not to belabor the point, but think about, say, an atheist convention. An atheist convention! A bunch of people sitting around not being religious! People brought together by their absence of belief in something! Spending money to hear speakers talk to them about how they can better be not-something and not-believe in the not-deity! Several fun-filled days thinking about God because you don't believe in him and think he's a jerk! What could it possibly matter to me if my neighbors go to church? What could I possibly feel towards them because of what I don't feel? How could a genuine atheism compel one towards anger or bitterness? No, what anger exists is anger at the God you say you don't believe in.

No. Atheism is not a project.It has no purpose. It proceeds towards no end. It has no meaning beyond the simplicity of absence. It has as little negative presence as positive and demands no philosophy. Sam Harris's life is dominated by religion. It's what he thinks about; it's what he writes about; it's how he pays the bills. He speaks all over the country about religion, he opines on it constantly, denying it is his constant endeavor. His intellectual and philosophical life could hardly be more centered around religion if he were a monk.

Me? I go weeks without thinking about religion or God. And why would I?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Poem and thoughts

Night Crow
by Theodore Roethke

When I saw that clumsy crow

Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
Further and further away
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.

I just read an article in the n+1 from this past fall about "repressive sentimentalism" as it applies to the effort for gay marriage and to abortion. It's well-written, and I think it makes some salient points about the limits of the contemporary gay rights movement (about which I have written quite a bit) but on balance it is hindered by its stale criticisms of marriage and monogamy.

As you are probably aware, I am not taken with these arguments, as I have written before. But I'm ultimately much less interested in bringing this up (or in bringing up my old piece about monogamy and marriage) to once again prosecute my argument in favor of permanent monogamy for those who choose it than I am to highlight an epiphenomenon which the author of the n+1 piece, Mark Greif, exploits in his essay, and which my old essay was in part a reply to: the great need writers have to make sweeping descriptive or prescriptive claims about what other people want or should have. Here is Greif, and this is a totally representative and ultimately boring line: 

"For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence."

I really can't imagine a statement of greater solipsism, self-seriousness and bad faith, and yet this bald and shameless statement is really perfectly in keeping with its time. You hear this sort of thing all the time: I think something, and I think it so much, I cannot allow it to stand as a simple statement of the reality of my life but must instead assert that it represents the truth of man. I am not some myopic Twitterer who only reflects on my own life, no-- I can see for miles, and I have taken an accounting, and I have judge. Kneel before Zod.
That this simply isn't true-- that there are very many post-1960s individuals who count the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence and yet continue to inhabit and enjoy their permanent monogamy-- is irrelevant in the face of the certitude that is required to launch any provocation. Quiet statements about individual truths that respect difference and the right of all people to define their own desires, values and happiness may be compassionate and true, but the don't pay the bills, and well... you gotta knock Keith Gessen dead, I guess.

It reminds me, actually, of Jonathan Franzen's ponderous, self-serving attacks on experiment in fiction, his pronouncements that no one could ever like William Gaddis et al., because he didn't like them. Then, thank goodness, came Ben Marcus asking the exasperated and entirely reasonable question of why Franzen couldn't just say that he, himself, didn't care for experimental fiction. The same question insists itself on a man like Mark Greif: I'm glad you get off on what you do, but what papal legation elected you human spokesman? You are not the cosmos. That your definition of meaningful existence says nothing about ethical or moral obligations to those around you chills me, but isn't a problem for you, and isn't that the joy of it all, and what a country, huh? 

Here is what I think: I think actual pluralism is much less popular than people imagine. I think that people aren't actually into diversity beyond the degree that it allows them to be the embodiment of that diversity in just the way they want for themselves. I think that we have gone through tolerance to a pretty twisted parody of tolerance, where actual diversity of opinion must be ignored or outright denied, because implied judgment hides in the alternative behavior of others. In this way nonjudgmentality comes to demand the most sweeping kinds of judgments.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Mole People

I was assigned Jennifer Toth's The Mole People in a sociology class many moons ago and was really moved by it. In addition to the obvious drama of the storyline, I was touched by the idea that even the most downtrodden and beleaguered among us might be able to find some saving grace, even in very small doses, by being members of a community that might look out for us. I was touched by the book.

You can imagine my dismay when I came across (quite by accident) this thorough and damning debunking of virtually all of Toth's narrative, and later this little bit of reporting, which gives Toth an opportunity to prove her story-- which, I'm sorry to say, she utterly fails to do. It's impossible to say for certain about a lot of her story (that's part of the reason books like this get written), but it seems quite likely that Toth is a fantasist and her book a fraud.

I've heard a certain argument that is made in regards to unreliable memoir or ethnography or similar-- not just The Mole People but also A Million Little Pieces and I, Rigoberta Menchu and, to a lesser degree, the work of Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris-- that these works are still valid because they represent the "essential truth" or some similar euphemism. Well, look, I dig creative nonfiction a great deal-- as long as it is clearly and unambiguously labeled as such. Without an explicit statement that tells if a book is fictionalized and to what degree, calling a book memoir or nonfiction when it isn't an accurate rendering of the facts is dishonest. Feel free to punch up your life story, feel free to take liberties with the truth of your history or sociology-- but say that you've done so, please.

Incidentally, this is all coming from a Richard Rorty-loving constructivist critic of non-contingent visions of truth. There's no contradiction there; even someone in that position can (and should) recognize the importance of whether someone believes that they are accurately describing events when they tell a story that they claim represents the facts. That's the operative question: did James Frey think the story he was telling was an accurate rendition of the events of his life? Did Jennifer Toth think that she was accurately rendering the facts of her investigation as best she could? The answer to both questions seems to be no, and that's a shame. My younger self read Toth's books and was emotionally invested in it, primarily because he was told it represented a faithful recounting of events and conditions on the ground. In that, he was deceived, and it's fair and appropriate for me to feel wronged in that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mass Effect 2

The first time I ever saw The Shawshank Redemption, I had to take a long walk afterwards; I was that moved. I'm feeling similarly emotional at the moment, and I'm not ashamed that it was inspired by a video game. Mass Effect 2 is that good.

It's funny. There's still a hint of embarrassment at being so emotionally inspired by a computer game, no matter how much we all say that we recognize that games are art and that they deserve to be judged as such. I think the only way to change that is for people such as myself to unapologetically recount what truly great games mean to them, to remove the continued stigma of video games as kids stuff. So, here goes.

I played the original Mass Effect and just couldn't get into it. I found it kind of boring, to tell you the truth. But I was reading so many positive notices about its sequel, and with the ease and (close to) immediate gratification of direct downloading through Steam, I couldn't resist. I'm very glad that I didn't. Where Mass Effect felt like a slog, it's sequel is at once epic (an overused word these days) and yet fast-paced, with an incredibly well realized world, polished game mechanics and, most importantly, truly affecting characters. My favorite computer game of all time has been and continues to be The Secret of Monkey Island, a graphic adventure from LucasArts which is 20 years old by now. When your favorite game is that old, people tend to think that you are saying so as an affect or just being a curmudgeon. The truth is, though, that what stays with you from a game as fantastic as Monkey Island is the characters, their personalities and interactions. (Some gamers don't care about such things. To each his own, I guess.)

That's what makes Mass Effect 2 such a wonderful experience. Bioware, the game's creator, did a fantastic job of creating a cast of fully realized, complex characters, who you really care about. Their stories and personalities are revealed gradually through a series of interactions that never seem forced or out of character with the rest of the game. And the setting and characters complement each other. It's funny; for someone who is as big a reader as I am, I'm often impatient with dialogue or exposition in video games. But in ME2, I found myself compulsively clicking on the dialogue choices that took me deeper into the story-- dialogue choices, by the way, that you can safely ignore if you are the impatient type.

The depth of the story and the value of the characters wouldn't mean much, of course, without a good fundamental game play dynamic, and I'm happy to say that the cover-shooter dynamic, first popularized in Gears of War, is executed nearly flawlessly. I always found cover-based gameplay interesting, but I was bored by GOW's tired hyper-masculine routine. Mass Effect 2 weds cover shooting with a deep squad combat experience. It also is the next in a tradition of games I really love, space exploration journeys like Star Flight, Space Rogue and Star Control II (one of my absolute favorite games of all time.) Mass Effect 2 takes these elements and integrates them into a moving, exciting story.

The way that story plays out is famously malleable in the Mass Effect series, and my game experience won't be exactly like yours-- who lives and dies, who you romance, and a huge decision at the very end of the game. That means that you always wonder what happens if you made another choice, but there too I think is a step taken for games as art-- ambiguity, though never popular, is an essential element of mature artwork. You can of course always load a saved game and go back and try different choices, but I don't know if I'll do that anytime soon. The experience at the end was a little too moving for me to want to cheapen it by running the ending again with different choices. And they are real choices, ones you agonize over, particularly when the can potentially lead to the death of one of the characters you have grown to care about. It's interesting, when I had to make those choices, I felt a bit annoyed-- I didn't want to care about the characters! I wanted to be able to use them as cannon fodder the way that I have in lesser games. But I also knew that this experience was deeper, richer, more rewarding. It really is a great achievement.

I've written before that at times, the biggest boosters of pieces of art come to unwittingly hurt them, because they set the expectations too high to be met. But I don't care; I have to say it. Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece.

The Hive Mind vision of human knowledge and the academy

First, there's to very interesting new voices blogging at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Rufus F. and David Schaengold. They have each written introductory posts that you should check out. There's always room for more non-news, non-politics, non-gadget, non-gossip bloggers out there.

Anyway, Rufus F. also blogs at Grad Student Madness, where I found this interesting provocation. Rufus writes
It's problematic, this academic habit of making people study everything for years before they can write on it, while teaching undergrads a little bit of everything. On one hand, this system has produced some of the best scholars in the world. But, there's a tendency for academic writing to be so narrow and specialized that you have to go through six years of grad school to read it! This causes there to be a gap between "popular" books and "academic" books, and it's hard to tell if that gap isn't really a matter of snobbery and university press protectionism. The end result, however, is that less and less civilians want to commit themselves to the humanities, which are really accessible to all people, but which we like to pretend require some specialized "higher" knowledge. The humanities seem arcane and obscure to people, when they actually take human beings as their subject matter.
First, the humanities certainly do require "higher knowledge," or at least in so far as that means complicated thinking and a great deal of background reading. Human life is complicated; the relationship between language and the world is complicated; philosophy is complicated; the human endeavor is complicated. I have no patience for the idea that the humanities is the realm of uncomplicated feelings, or a place to do no more than to react to what is encountered on a surface level within a text, free from third party scholarship.  The idea that the humanities has become too professionalized and too specialized requires a little more attention. As I said in the comments, the reason for this is the hive mind vision of human scholarship.

If you're like most people, at some point in your childhood you imagined that one day you would be a scientist. And if you're like me, the scientist in your mind was the kind of generalist that, if it ever existed, hasn't for many centuries: moving constantly from chemistry to biology to physics to astronomy to geology, pushed by whatever intellectual whim strikes you, dedicated to nothing more specific than the nature of the physical universe. It's a romantic vision, and one that of course has nothing to do with science as it has been practiced for centuries.

Why? Because the point of being a scholar, whether in the humanities, physical and social sciences, professional disciplines or assorted other fields, is to advance the cause of human knowledge, not personal knowledge. The purpose of high school and undergraduate education is to become a more educated human being. The purpose of graduate level education and professional scholarship is to contribute to human knowledge and human understanding, to increase what we know about the world around us and the interior world of the mind. It's for this reason that we professionalize and specialize. Someone who spends his or her days learning a few things about a great many subjects will certainly become a wiser, more fully realized human being, but he or she is not going to contribute much to those who are advancing the larger field of human inquiry. We specialize in seemingly minor areas, and we separate our academic focus into seemingly minute divisions from our peers, because when we have explored these tightly defined and narrow areas of inquiry we leave our scholarship behind for those who come after us. They can access our scholarship and continue on their own path without having to devote themselves to answering the questions we have already considered.

The self-interested thing would be to not specialize, to be a generalist, to let whim and chance guide us forward in our academic path. I would love to be able to be a generalist, to study history at one moment, literature the next, then composition, take a lap around anthropology.... But the academy as a whole has discouraged this precisely because my interest is subservient to the path of human enterprise. 

Rufus is himself an academic, so none of the following complaints apply to him. One thing that this topic brings to mind for me once again, though, is just how irrelevant outside critiques tend to seem from inside the academy-- not because we are uninterested in critiques from the outside; most academics I know are deeply concerned with how the university conforms to the dictates of larger society. Rather, outside critiques of the academy are rarely useful because they are so rarely consistent, principled, educated or serious. The large majority of critiques of the American university are of the drive-by variety, conducted by people with an ideological (read: conservative) axe to grind against academics, who couldn't care less about the university 99 days out of 100. I can't tell you how many times I read some political blogger who knows nothing about academic culture or the university system launch into some lazy critique, totally uninformed, not consistent with any larger, more dedicated criticisms, and uninterested in actually producing positive change.

(One of the most common and least useful of these is the attack on "relativism" in the university. Hundreds of brilliant, dedicated philosophers and literary theorists have spent years of their lives and thousands of pages trying to untangle the puzzle of the relation between human cognition and the physical universe outside of it. I assure you, blogger, you will not "refute" them in the 45 minutes you take to write a post, nor do you do yourself any favors by reacting to the caricature of folk relativism rather than to the actual scholarship of the thinkers you haven't read.)

We are hungry for greater engagement with the popular culture outside of the university, but we will not reduce our lives in the effort to satisfy the whims of people who spend brief moments considering the university, outside of the spirit of constructive debate and often with a political purpose that begins from the assumption that the university is not worth improving. If people show a consistent dedication to considering the university over a period of time, and write with the purpose of improving the university (not of engaging in yet more anti-intellectualism and disregard for the academic mission), I assure you that their voices will be valued by a professoriate that is if anything overly concerned about the academy and its health. It has to be pointed out, again and again, that the university is on balance fantastically successful, that it succeeds very well both at producing new scholarship and preparing many thousands of young people for the workplace. It does the latter imperfectly and not without considerable problems, but given the flatly unrealistic notions that everyone in our society is capable of completing a four-year university education and that everyone should, it is doing a fantastic job, particularly given the harsh constraints on public funding and the endless politicization of the university by those who take as their express desire the destruction of the academy as we know it.

(If you want to improve the university quickly, and to create an enormous benefit for this country and its people as a whole, rebuild the American job market for uneducated workers, which was once the lifeblood of our economy and our country, the most vivid realization of the American dream, and the backbone of several generations of huge gains in basic American living conditions and achievement.)

Two quick contradictory complaints spring to mind from Rufus's interesting post: first, the academy is criticized for not reflecting on real life enough, that it is out of touch with "regular Americans" and their interests. But when academics do consider those things, with classes in reality television and dissertations about video games, they are immediately attacked as frivolous by people like Bill Maher or David Horowitz. Another familiar set of paradoxical criticisms is the notion, as echoed by Rufus, that those in the humanities write about subjects that are too obscure or difficult for non-specialists to understand. But the alternative, discussing works of literature or history or assorted on the level of feelings and impressions, is dismissed as unserious and not worthy of academic interest.

The leaders and ruling class of the world, in great numbers, send their children here to learn, and not without cause. The American university system is the envy of the world, and it should be. That it demands many reforms and needs continued introspection is a given, but such thoughts have to take place within a context that recognizes the enormous value of our system and that is dedicated to actual positive change and not to what has become the conservative norm of opposition to the very nature of human scholarship.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bleak House

This essay is adapted from a longer research paper I wrote as an undergrad. I hope you like it. 

Bleak House is so universal in scope and so broad in ambition that it defies simple categorization. There is considerable debate over even the genre of the novel . While such a categorization may never be possible, it is possible to define the novel by its prevalent attitude: outrage and anger over bureaucratic and legal excess. More than anything else, Bleak House is about the tragic power of societal structures to damage the lives of individuals. The reader sees, in scene after scene, the terrible toll that these structures take on the human lives that work within them. Yet in spite of this barrage of painful reality, the novel, and the novelist, never abandon the saving grace of personal connection. This is the redemptive aspect of the story, this acknowledgment of the indebtedness of all people to each other. And it is precisely because of this quality that Bleak House cannot be seen as a straight work of satire. For all of Dickens’s desire to create tangible change—in the law, in society—this kind of quantifiable reaction is not the purpose of the book; that is to say, Bleak House was not produced simply to alter any law or structure of society. I would argue that Dickens’s true outrage-- his despair-- lies not just in the pain caused by the law, but the fact that it is precisely the existence of human connectedness that creates this damaging bureaucracy. The fact of human interconnectedness creates the necessity for the social institutions which, in turn, sever and damage those connections at every turn. It is this sad phenomenon that drives Dickens in the creation of Bleak House.

Sunday Poem

The Anthologist
 by Freddie deBoer

Sifting, slowly sifting
I play them along the mesh--
vast sediments of gangue, dead dry,
caked with slag.
Quiet I work.
No need for the precious, I sift
only for the rare--
beads of glass among the sand.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Very sorry for my paralysis. I have started and stopped at least a dozen posts in the last couple of weeks. I am stopped not by questions of quality but questions of use.

Stepping away from politics has been good for me, as a person and as a student. I have to quiet my mind, and at risk was not only the spirit of friendship but my patience and my discretion, both of which are valuable to me. I have not been altogether successful in not reading blogs or following the news, but I have done well enough.

The truth is that politics is a little word for a little thing that covers bigger things, and those things couldn't ever leave me. The problem is that I don't know how to talk to them without pretension, or how to embody them without abandoning the spirit of friendship. And for this reason, it's hard to write. Suffice is say that there is a certainty inside me and it wearies me with my feeling that there is a vast distance between the way the world is and the ethical vision that insists itself on me. The fact of the matter is that I have to live, and live with other people, and I have to respect their dissent; but I can't turn off the thing inside of me that tells me that there are things that I have to do. And on it burns.

There isn't any way to say that, I've found, that isn't guilty of pretension, or at least of not seeming so, and I'm sorry, for that. Sorry, too, for not being very good at this.

Since I have to figure out a way to do all this, I keep thinking about the future, which is a future I had hoped I would have arrived at already. It comes back to Tolstoy, moving forward, as it so often does: "I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a man desire?”

Friday, February 5, 2010


A real post is coming, tonight. I'm sorry to have been away. You know how it is. Anyway, here's a picture of my boy.