Category Archives: Quotes

#700

A new year begins, and I find myself (coincidentally) engaged in my regular ritual of remembrance as I pass yet another milestone here. Once more, my screaming into the void have seen me safely and sanely through another one hundred meandering thoughts. The last fourteen months or so since my six hundredth post has given me more opportunities to write about my own interests–books I’ve read, research I’ve done, problems I’ve grappled with–and to ignore, as best I can, the constant state of ritual panic and outrage that dominates our public discourse. From all of that, I have culled the ten best quotes from the last one hundred posts.

10) The journey began with Walrussia Day (only slightly more commonly known as Alaska Day), in which we commemorated the purchase of Alaska by recalling the unflattering portmanteau of “walrus” and “Russia” by which the territory was known by opponents of the purchase.

The icy cold colors of Russia will give place to the Stars and Stripes, and Walrussia will henceforth become the north star of the republic….The hoisting of the Stars and Stripes will be a great event for Walrussia. She will launch into new life. All the Esquimaux [Eskimo] will be at the gathering; the Common Council of Sitka will make appropriation to celebrate the occasion; roast walrus, boiled walrus, fried walrus, walrus a la mode, whale scraps, whale blubber and whale oil will be served up in abundance; the choicest wines from the Arctic vineyards will be furnished; the Esquimaux girls will be in at the first national ball; all around the harbor of Sitka the seals, the polar bears and the walruses will turn out en masse to see what’s up, and finding that it is the American flag and Brother Jonathan, will join in the general Jubilee.

Thus we nationalize our new purchase of real estate. Where is the next slice, Mr. Seward!

9) The amusing anecdotes of history continued with a series drawing on the late nineteenth century Book of Christmas to explore a “very Victorian” holiday season. Perhaps my favorite tradition–transfigured but carried on today–was the copious drinking. On Twelfth Night, even the foliage imbibed:

The merry bowl which, notwithstanding that it had been so often drained, was still kept brimming throughout all the Christmas holidays, was now when they were drawing to a close actually flowing over; and the warm heart and jovial spirit of the season, not content with pledging all those who could drink in return, proceeded to an excess of boon-companionship, and after quaffing a wassail-draft to the health and abundant bearing of some favorite fruit-tree, poured what remained in the cup upon the root, as a libation to its strength and vitality.

8) Other historical topics were less cheery and much nearer to my own research interests. Such was the case with a series of homework assignments from Japanese students under the tutelage of the American William Elliot Griffis. Griffis had assigned his students the task of writing about their impressions of foreigners, almost certainly seeking and (at times) eliciting effusive praise of the West. One student, however, didn’t take the bait, dismissing western triumphalism thus:

Everyone’s residence is the best place in the world. So every nation thinks itself to be better than others in many respects…

7) Every teacher has contrary students like that–or at least, I hope that Griffis and I aren’t alone. The last fourteen months have coincided with a significant increase in my own teaching load that prompted more reflection on pedagogical theory. Among my many readings was Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools. I was generally unsparing in my chapter-by-chapter blog-along criticism of Robinson, but if all his talk of “revolution” was empty, at least some of it was inspirational. This paean about localism particularly resonated:

[T]he best place to start thinking about how to change education is exactly where you are in it. If you change the experience of education for those you work with, you can change the world for them and in doing so become part of a wider, more complex process of change in education as a whole.

6) I was significantly more laudatory when it came to John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, which, though it also did not live up to its state purpose, offered dozens of interesting insights and quotes. Especially useful were his thoughts (significantly abbreviated here) on Genesis 1-3, which he defends as an atheist from the scorn of atheists:

The primitive character of the new atheism shows itself in the notion that religions are erroneous hypotheses. The Genesis story is not an early theory of the origin of species….The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a mythical imagining of the ambiguous impact of knowledge on human freedom. Rather than being inherently liberating, knowledge can be used for purposes of enslavement….Unlike scientific theories, myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience. The Genesis myth is a more truthful rendition of enduring human conflicts than anything in Greek philosophy, which is founded on the myth that knowledge and goodness are inseparably connected.

5) My favorite reads in the past fourteen months have been mostly fiction, an unusual departure for me. Perhaps the best modern literature I have read in recent time is Nakamura Fuminori’s acclaimed novel The Thief. I shared here a comment from one character who, though more de Sade than Camus, gives a wonderful account of the  kind of total engagement with being at the heart of existentialism. He says, in part:

In this life, the proper way of living is to make use of both joy and suffering. They are both merely stimuli that the world presents to us. So by blending them skillfully within you, you can use them in a completely different way…Taste everything in the whole world. Even if you should fail at these tasks, taste the emotion that comes with failure. Savor with all your senses the fear of death.

4) For all the joy of reading and thinking, though, it is now 2020 and impossible to ignore politics altogether (at least not if you intend to stay engaged with the public discourse). Back in March of last year, I engaged in a kind of archival experiment, creating for myself a record of what people thought about the Democratic presidential candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Much of what was said continues to be said, showing the intractability of political narratives (though the high praise for Harris and low blows for Klobuchar have largely dissipated). This comment about Beto O’Rourke (who featured here more than once) seems particularly prescient now:

It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.

3) Politics are not the only, or even the most heated, battle grounds in our culture at the moment, and debates about race and gender intruded here more often even than electoral politics. (Probably because of the whole no voting thing.) I have been particularly productive–to my own benefit–filtering debates about cultural appropriation through the logic of “going native” and about creator vs. product through the history of Donatism, nothing has offered up a better quote than my frequent returns to the question of causality vs. moral culpability. Laura Kipnis’ book, Unwanted Advances (soon to be reviewed at length here), was particularly useful in this. Kipnis offers this confirmatory gem:

No one’s saying women get assaulted because they pass out in dicey locales: I fully believe that women should be able to pass out wherever they want–naked, even–and be inviolable. One hopes such social conditions someday arrive. The issue is that acting as if things were different from how they are isn’t, thus far, working out….(Self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress.) Two different things can be true at once: men are responsible for sexual assault; and women who act as if sexual assault weren’t a reality are acting incoherently.

2) I’m never sure how I’ve managed to endear myself to any of the women in my life, particularly my wife. I try not to think about it too hard, particularly given my choice this year of a Valentine’s message (taken from Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers):

[A man] thinks it is obvious when he marries a woman he has demonstrated once and for all that he esteems her above all other women, and that when he works hard and provides for her he is demonstrating day by day a fundamental concern for her well-being (it would probably be a little sentimental to refer to it as happiness), and that therefore it is superfluous to mention either fact. So he doesn’t. He only mentions what he considers worthy of note–the respects in which she depart from the ideal, and respects in which their well-being (hers as often as his) would be greater if she would do differently from the way she naturally does.

1) As always, though, the best post of any cycle has to do with God’s greatest creatures, who scientists in Japan painted up like zebras to prove (successfully) that stripes deter flies:

If it works for wild horses in Africa, why not cows in a Japanese pasture?

 

 

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Rumors of War: A Sword and a Gospel

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

I began these thoughts with a quote from just before the start of World War I (though Apcar dealt with broader conflicts than that). I’ll round them out with reference to a different war: the American Civil War. With the possible exception of World War II, no war has so unblemished a reputation in American memory as a just war, a necessary war, a “good” war–if there be such a thing.

Yet in 1860 there were still Christians at Boston’s Advocate for Peace who understood that–no matter how pure the motives, no matter how desirable the outcomes, no matter how just the cause–there could be no reconciling Christianity and war:

Let us put the main aspects of the two side by side, and see how far they agree.

Christianity saves men; war destroys them. Christianity elevates men; war debases and degrades them. Christianity purifies men; war corrupts and defiles them. Christianity blesses men; war curses them. God says, thou shalt not kill; war says, thou shalt kill. God says, blessed are the peace-makers; war says, blessed are the war-makers. God says, love your enemies; war says, hate them. God says, forgive men their trespasses; war says, forgive them not. God enjoins forgiveness, and forbids revenge; while war scorns the former, and commands the latter.

God says, resist not evil; war says, you may and must resist evil. God says, if any man smite thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also; war says, turn not the other cheek, but knock the smiter down. God says, bless those who curse you, bless and curse not; war says, curse those who curse you, curse and bless not. God says, pray for those who despitefullv use you; war says, pray against them, and seek their destruction. God says, see that none render evil for evil unto any man; war says, be sure to render evil for evil unto all that injure you. God says, overcome evil with good; war says, overcome evil with evil.

God says, if thine enemy hunger, feed him, if he thirst, give him drink; war says, if you do supply your enemies with food and clothing, you shall be shot as a traitor.

God says, do good unto all men; war says, do as much evil as you can to your enemies. God says to all men, love one another; war says, hate and kill one another. God says, they that take the sword, shall perish by the sword; war says, they that take the sword, shall be saved by the sword. God says, blessed is’ he that trusteth in the Lord; war says, cursed is such a man, and blessed is he who trusteth in swords and guns.

God says, beat your swords into ploughshares, your spears into pruning-hooks, and learn war no more; war says, make swords and spears still, and continue to learn war — until all mankind have ceased from learning it, i. e., fight, all of you, until all of you stop fighting!

There are no good wars for Christians. They may be profitable, legal, and just according to the conventions of secular society (though I would venture that the present conflict is not), but Christians are called to a higher logic. God has given to governments a sword of vengeance and to Christians a Gospel of peace. Let us not be confused into thinking we can take up the one without surrendering the other.

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Rumors of War: Diana Agabeg Apcar on Peace

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

Perhaps the signal profession of Christian bloggers in moments like these is to dredge the depths for inspirational and authoritative quotes from the past meant to focus our minds on the imperative of peace. I appreciated in particular this selection from an 1897 Anglican Encyclical shared by Joel Watts:

There is nothing which more tends to promote general employment and consequently genuine comfort among the people than the maintenance of peace among the nations of mankind. But besides and above all considerations of material comfort stands the value of Peace itself as the great characteristic of the Kingdom of our Lord, the word which heralded His entrance into the world, the title which specially distinguishes Him from all earthly princes.

For my own contribution, I turn to Diana Agabeg Apcar, a figure so remarkable in her own right that it’s a little surprising that she hasn’t made an appearance here before. Apcar was a member of the Armenian diaspora, born in the 1850s in British-controlled Burma. I know her from her time spent living in Yokohama. Taken there by her husband’s family’s booming business trade, Apcar eventually became instrumental in securing Japan’s early recognition of the independence of Armenia and served as an honorary consul to Japan–one of the first women in the twentieth century to occupy a major diplomatic post.

Apcar lived in perhaps the darkest period of Armenian history, when constant conflict with the ruling Ottomans culminated in the deaths of roughly one million people in the Armenian genocide. This gave Apcar a keen understanding of the atrocity of war, a subject she wrote frequently about to the Japan Gazette while living in Yokohama. In 1912, as the genocide was just beginning to take shape, the Japan Gazette collected many of her contributions and published them under the title Peace and No Peace.

Though the cruelties of the Ottomans are never far from view for her, Apcar focuses heavily on the hypocrisy of European powers, where peace was an empty mantra as they continued to press their imperial interests around the world. Though Europe has now been eclipsed by the United States as the global meddlers, much of what Apcar has to say resonates still with eerie relevance for the present crisis.

“Peace! Peace! when there is no Peace.” Never in the history of the world has the cry of the prophet of Israel been verified as in our day: for never have the nations voiced the cry for Peace, as now, and never have the foreign policies of the governments of Europe worked so systematically to destroy Peace in the world. Let the nations cry out Peace! Peace! but the Damocles’ sword of war must ever hang over the world, ready to fall at any time, so long as the governments of Europe pursue their un righteous policies, so long as they continue to make misery and desolation outside of their own fences.

The whole argument against war was clinched for us nineteen hundred years ago in the condemnation. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence even of your lusts that war in your members?”

The lust of power and the lust of gold and the lust of territory have been the altars on which human flesh and blood, and the happiness of human life, have ever been sacrificed in our world.

If the nations will have Peace let them break the altars of ambition and greed in their own countries, and let them say to their own politicians and their own capitalists: “We will have Peace!”

The nations of Europe have cried out Peace! Peace but the cry has proceeded from their throats only, and not from their hearts; they have each and every one of them been desirous only to see the altars of greed and ambition broken down in the other men’s countries, whilst eagerly stipulating to keep their own; and if Peace must come to the world, it can only come when the cry has gone forth from the hearts of the nation.

The equation is simple. If Americans want peace, they must stop making war. They must stop feeding those dark parts themselves–the fear and the greed and the pride–that make war seem necessary and inevitable. But, since I know universal peace won’t be achieved until Christ returns, at the very least Christians must resist these impulses in themselves, cutting them away as with an offending limb. The prophetic voice of the church must declare, while the world goes to war, “We will have Peace!”

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Christmas on the South China Sea (1865)

The following selection is taken from the writings of James B. Lawrence of the United States Marine Corps. His “Account of a Cruise in the Waters Of The East Indies, China, and Japan” (1870) consists of letters and reports “from remote regions, which, while any information respecting them is intensely interesting, there is yet comparatively little known.” (He had a secondary purpose of promoting interest in and reform of the US Navy.) The trip itself lasted from 1865 to 1868 and took Lawrence from the East Coast around Cape Horn to China and Japan before coming back by the same route.

In the course of his travels, Lawrence has occasion to describe a great many things (not all of them, mind you, with great accuracy or impartiality), including this description of what his first Christmas of the journey was like from the South China Sea:

The day before Christmas the crew had double rations of whatever they wished served out to them, and the cooks were busy from morning until night in making preparations for the Christmas dinner. After hammocks were piped down, they were piled up upon the hatches, and the berth-deck brilliantly illuminated. The band were then collected and, seated upon the hammocks, they discoursed sweet and feet-stirring music to all that were of a dancing turn. This together with singing and other sports, was kept up until nearly midnight, one and all enjoying themselves “hugely.” I did not feel very well, and consequently did not join in the festivities to any, great extent; still, I enjoyed myself very much in looking at the rest.

Christmas was made as much of a holiday as possible, having no quarters, and no more work than was absolutely necessary, with the privilege of smoking all day, which is granted only on rare occasions. Then the dinner ! It was the best we had tasted for many a day, and much better than I thought it was possible to get up under the circumstances. There were plumb puddings, chicken pies, mince pies, cakes, and any amount of ale and wines which were sent forward from the ward-room.

This Christmas, however, was far from being a merry one to me ; for up forward in the sick bay, swinging in a cot, I was tossing restlessly about, with the pains of scarlet fever. Up to this time the holidays had been associated in my mind with snow, sleigh rides, and certain frozen ears and noses, but this Christmas will ever be remembered in connection with sweltering heat, as- the thermometer stood in the neighborhood of 100° above zero on that day and for many days afterwards. During this time the wind entirely died away, so that it was almost suffocating on the berth deck.

It is unpleasant to be sick under the best of circumstances, but how much more sad it is thus to be far away from home, in a foreign country, or in foreign waters, amongst strangers, with no one caring whether you live or not ; more than that, ” I hope the poor fellow will get well, but I am afraid he never will;”—a passing remark from some Jack Tar, the subject of the remark speedily dropping from his mind. Sick at sea ! No one can know the force of those words, unless he has had the experience, has been sick on a man-of-war, out at sea, where those many little delicacies that a sick man naturally craves cannot be obtained, without the comforting and tender care of mother, sister, or some female friend, and surrounded by the discomforts and unpleasantnesses which are hard enough to bear when one is in the best of health….

The. truth is, a sailor in a little while learns to look upon sickness and death with contempt, or utter indifference, and to expect the sickness and death of some near friend as a matter of course. I am sure that I have no reason to complain, for I had as good and ten4er care as could be expected
under the circumstances ; yes, and far better.

Here’s hoping that your holiday has all the foot-stirring music and none of the scarlet fever of a Christmas at sea.

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It’s War on Christmas Time

This is the time of year when someone on Fox News or some Fox News proxy becomes apoplectic about the “War on Christmas,” and I post something snarky and self-satisfying about the stupidity and/or hypocrisy of that. So I was drawn immediately in by the title of this Peter Laarman post: “Yes, Virginia: There IS a War on Christmas.” Ready to revisit my annual ritual, I actually found that Laarman was making my usual point for me:

I am troubled…by the way in which the greatest beneficiaries of a season that is supposed to be all about exalting valleys and leveling mountains—about social reversal and about good news for the poor—are invariably not the poor at all but rather the comfortable rich: i.e., people like me, and people situated well above me in the economic pyramid.

What this means is that we have an inverted Christmas, one that exalts the rich while further humiliating the poor. This as true in our time as it was in Charles Dickens’ time. But unlike the Victorians who read Dickens and pressed for reform, we appear incapable of becoming outraged about it.

Laarman rightly points out that the war on Christmas is actually the continued pillaging of the poor by the rich at precisely the moment we should be celebrating and acknowledging the world-shattering, society-inverting in-breaking  of the Kingdom of God. Real wars call Christmas truces, but this war only intensifies as the pressure to consume reaches a fever pitch at the holidays. Those who have devour, those who barely have struggle to keep up, and those who have not are reminded, as Laarman indicates, of their humiliated position in the socio-economic pyramid.

This Christmas, when you read a trite bumper sticker or wall placard about the “reason for the season,” try to remember that buying a nativity instead of a Santa or signing a religious carol instead of Jingle Bells is not sufficient to the calling we have received. Jesus came into the world to do something more, and he left us here to continue his work until he comes to call us home.

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Laura Kipnis on Causality and Sexual Assault

Nearly a decade ago now (uncomfortably near a decade, if I’m being honest), I waded into debates about a sexual assault case and got myself into a bit of low-grade, Internet trouble. My point then was that there is a difference between causality and moral culpability that is critical for the construction and preservation of a healthy society, and that we should not behave as though efforts to try to avoid or forestall evil is somehow a capitulation to its existence. For example, saying you should lock your door if you don’t want to be robbed is not the same as saying you are to blame if don’t lock your door and you are robbed. I made the argument again a little over a year ago, when the same problem erupted from the opposite ideological direction, as the president (who can be legitimately blamed for quite enough it turns out) was the subject of controversy over whether or not he was responsible for inspiring acts of violence. I made the point then that, even if the president and Republicans are not morally responsible for the assaults of their constituents, actions has foreseeable and often avoidable consequences.

I could just let you extrapolate from there how that reasoning might apply to sexual assault. But as I continue to read through Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances and consider the aims, blind spots, and shortcomings of contemporary feminism, I found that she mirrored my argument well–and about sexual assault, no less. (Somehow, it sounds less dastardly in the hands of an avowed feminist than when I wrote it.)

No one’s saying women get assaulted because they pass out in dicey locales: I fully believe that women should be able to pass out wherever they want–naked, even–and be inviolable. One hopes such social conditions someday arrive. The issue is that acting as if things were different from how they are isn’t, thus far, working out….(Self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress.) Two different things can be true at once: men are responsible for sexual assault; and women who act as if sexual assault weren’t a reality are acting incoherently.

The phrasing is less precise than I would like, since “because” can refer either to cause and effect or moral responsibility. People in Hiroshima did die because they were in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, even though merely being in Hiroshima does not make them responsible for their own deaths. But that semantic quibble aside, Kipnis makes the point well. Sexual assault shouldn’t happen. It does happen. It’s not women’s fault. It’s in women’s best interest to minimize risk.

Kipnis is in favor of education as a solution, one she believes will be more effective than more stringent campus regulations and increased administrative control over the lives and choices of students (who Kipnis is keen to remind us are adults–legally if not always developmentally). Teaching women about risk factors. Teaching women about saying no. Teaching women about the “incoherence” of saying yes to removing your ability to say no. All of which sounds benign, as long as you don’t subscribe to the utopian delusion that to ask women to take charge of their own wellbeing is somehow a capitulation to rape culture.

I suspect before long I’ll have some more comprehensive thoughts on Kipnis’ book to share here, but I find her indictment of the hypocrisy of this line of thinking particularly reassuring (as someone–an academic even–who has been accused of victim blaming and slut shaming on more than one occasion). The idea that empowering women to escape a cycle of assault and unwanted sex is somehow anti-feminist because it removes the onus of men’s actions from the men themselves is hard to reconcile with feminism as I was always taught to understand it. It seems impossible to imagine in our current discursive climate, but I’d like to think there is still a viable feminist current that says that the more responsible women are for their own sexuality and the more empowered they are. In that world, teaching girls not to voluntarily surrender their capacity to consent and throw themselves on the mercy of “a drunken college guy [with no] more self-coherence than you’re willing to have yourself” is not misogyny. It’s progress.

 

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The Wisdom of Karl Polanyi

A recent post on the Society of Intellectual History blog about the debates between economic history and the new history of capitalism sent me on a curious drift across the source material–curious most of all because I have no special interest in economic history, the new history of capitalism, or their petty squabbles. It landed me, perhaps not unexpectedly (for those who, unlike me, are in the know) at Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Polanyi was an against-the-grain economist of the early twentieth century who resisted the tendency to see the free market as the default state of economic nature. Instead, he worked to situate the idea of laissez-faire and liberal economic theory more generally in the specific historical contexts in which they arose.

I cannot recommend the whole book, which I haven’t bothered to read, but in skimming I came across this quote which seems to sum up his point nicely:

There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course….To the typical utilitarian, economic liberalism was a social project which should be put into effect for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; laissez-faire was not a method to achieve a thing, it was the thing to be achieved. True, legislation could do nothing directly, except by repealing harmful restrictions. But that did not mean that government could do nothing, especially indirectly. On the contrary, the utilitarian liberal saw in government the great agency for achieving happiness…. Administrators had to be constantly on the watch to ensure the free working of the system. Thus even those who wished most ardently to free the state from all unnecessary duties, and whose whole philosophy demanded the restriction of state activities, could not but entrust the self-same state with the new powers, organs, and instruments required for the establishment of laissez-faire.

This paradox was topped by another. While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate State action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not….[T]here had been complete absence of any deliberate intention to extend the functions of the state, or to restrict the freedom of the individual, on the part of those who were directly responsible for the restrictive enactments of the 1870s and 1880s. The legislative spearhead of the countermovement against a self-regulating market as it developed in the half century following 1860 turned out to be spontaneous, undirected by opinion, and actuated by a purely pragmatic spirit.

Economic liberals must strongly take exception to such a view. Their whole social philosophy hinges on the idea that laissez-faire was a natural development, while subsequent anti-laissez-faire legislation was the result of purposeful action on the part of the opponents of liberal principles. In these two mutually exclusive interpretations of the double movement, it is not too much to say, the truth or untruth of the liberal creed is involved today.

In the late nineteenth century, the US enjoyed a free market fever that promoted unprecedented industrial growth alongside monopolistic excesses. The perception has generally been that this was the “Wild West” of the US economy before the government stepped in (for better or worse) to impose order on the primitive and natural state of chaos. Polanyi convincing argues otherwise. The free market was the invention of early industrial societies, one that served their interests well (at least superficially) but not one that was in any way natural or inevitable.

Just recently, as I wrapped up a modern US history class, I asked my students to compare the pre-Progressive economy of the late nineteenth century to the post-Reagan economy of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century. They concluded, all but unanimously, that we had entered another Gilded Age. I think they’re right. It should come as no surprise either, the way American societies led by liberal economic theorists, have completed the apotheosis of the free market as a natural, inevitable, ultimately beneficent force. (Could the Cold War have really produced any other rhetoric?) It is worth reminding ourselves that the free market is as manufactured by government intervention as a mixed or command economy is. Whether or not it is good, therefore, can be judged not with reference to its apparent naturalness but only its evident consequences.

 

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This Postmodern President

I’m trying to re-read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Inifnite. Or, more accurately, I am re-trying to read it, since I began it as an undergraduate and found it too difficult to ever finish. Every sentence I read that I understood struck me as incomparably profound, but the further I read in the fewer sentences I seemed to understand. It’s been many years (and many degrees) since then, and I’m now ready to give it another shot. Only a few pages in–and still not sure I’m understanding quite everything–I came across this quote:

Perhaps [Milbank] is right; if nothing else, good intentions rarely retard the effects of malign metaphysics, and the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture. Milbank merely echoes (among other things) Dostoyevsky’s prognostications of post-Christian “nihilism’s” ineluctable antinomianism, and if his language regarding the inevitability of fascism may be hyperbolic, he still correctly grasps the inescapable amphiboly of any “postmodern ethics” or “politics”: if being is not also the good, but only “eventual,” then force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally “true.” And power enjoys a certain greater eminence.

This more than anything has helped me make sense of the current presidency. When I hear media personalities (and primary candidates) complain about the demise of truth, of decency, of morality, I look on those laments with a certain measure of cynicism. There has never really been truth or decency or morality in politics. At the same time, though, I cannot deny a certain measure of nostalgia and mourning myself. Because whatever my conscious conviction was about the nature of politics, I always took some unconscious comfort in the civility of American politics.

Hart makes the argument–or at least concurs with John Milbank’s argument–that if civility, morality, and truth have not disappeared from contemporary ethics and politics then they have at least been reordered in a great postmodern democratization of value. Power (or would it be more illuminating to say “potency” or “efficacy”) has at least as much theoretical value and a fair bit more immediate and visceral appeal. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president lies. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president breaks the moral, social, or legal rules. If anything, this merely confirms his potency. He doesn’t need your approval or your legal sanction. He continues to effect himself. He is, in his own words, “winning.” And, however much many of us may hate to admit it, he’s doing so much winning that we are (as predicted) getting tired of it.

The irony, according to Hart, is that most postmodern theorists espoused “some form of emancipatory, ‘left-wing,’ and pluralists politics.” Postmodernism is the cultural and political language of the left. It has taken the hammer of Nietzsche’s philosophy and smashed everything gleefully to bit with it, freeing people from antiquated conventions in favor of unfettered self-actualization. In a postmodern age, however, the best self-actualizer is the tyrant, who’s will is actualized purely for the sake of the self and without consideration for the other. Politics by potency is not a break with the trajectory of American life; it is the culmination of it. Time will tell whether or not the genie can go back into the bottle, but it is safe to say that–contrary to apocalyptic predictions from the left–the current president has not changed American politics forever. The current president is the change in American politics.

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Kizaki and the Absurd

Kizaki is a gangster and principal antagonist in Nakamura Fuminori’s acclaimed novel The Thief. While the actual philosophy of Kizaki is more de Sade than Camus, there is a wonderful passage where he is lecturing the titular character about how to enjoy life that smacks of absurdism.

In this life, the proper way of living is to make use of both joy and suffering. They are both merely stimuli that the world presents to us. So by blending them skillfully within you, you can use them in a completely different way. If you want to be steeped in evil, you mustn’t forget good…Taste everything in the whole world. Even if you should fail at these tasks, taste the emotion that comes with failure. Savor with all your senses the fear of death. When you can do that, you transcend yourself. You can look at this world through different eyes….If gods or fate had personalities and emotions, don’t you think this is close to what they would fee? In this world where children and saints die outrageous deaths?

That kind of total engagement with being seems to be at the heart of existentialism; the desire to transcend and the certainty of immanence, at the heart of absurdism.

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A (Victorian) Word about English Food

Some months ago now, I romped my way through Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Christmas Book to catch a glimpse of what the winter holidays were like in Victorian England. In the course of his thoughts on Christmas day, I noted that he described plum pudding as a kind of national dish. The reference stuck with me, so I thought I’d share in brief a candid (and amusing) assessment of English food offered up by an actual Brit:

Plum pudding is a truly national dish, and refuses to flourish out of England. It can obtain no footing in France. A Frenchman will dress like an Englishman, swear like an Englishman, and get drunk like an Englishman; but if you would offend him forever, compel him to eat plum pudding. A few of the leading restaurateurs, wishing to appear extraordinary, have plumb pudding upon their carts; but in no instance is it ever ordered by a Frenchman.

There you have it. Anything a Brit can do a Frenchman can do as well, except stomach English food. That, presumably, was the key to the unprecedented success of the British Empire. Not iron wills, but iron stomachs.

Plum Pudding Political Cartoon

 

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