I get knocked-down, but I get-up-again.

Permanently Moved. (click to leap)

Update your life.

The Ring of the End of Liberty

Paraphrase from Voltaire, for 2010 in America:

I disapprove of what you eat, but I will defend to the death your right to eat whatever you want--but I think you should be penalized financially for your poor choices. Sure has a ring to it, doesn't it?

Make sure to re-visit the comments page from my recent post on intervention / "nudging" / tyranny. My last comment could've been a fine post on its own!


Conversation about my daughter, after reading Meister Eckhart

I opened my laptop to see this picture of my 5-month old on my desktop:

I showed the screen to my wife, and said, "Look at your daughter. God, she's perfect."

"What did you think she'd be like?--look like," my wife asked.

"Well, I guess about like this--but the way a doll would look like this. I couldn't animate her. Couldn't imagine her being human and responding to me as she does..."

"Yeah, but--"

"It's like--she sees me, and stays perfect. Somehow."

Getting Bruised from all the Nudging

Appearing today: another article about "nudging" Americans to make better choices. I'm really disappointed and somewhat surprised (decreasingly surprised) that others don't see this as a corrosion of liberty--or that if they do see it that way, that they aren't bothered by it. Somewhere one of my Austrian economists said something like, "Without economic liberty, there is no political liberty," and so when I hear some bureaucrat (or doctor who will probably soon be a bureaucrat) say, "We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice," I know that they're talking about raising prices on junk food.

Now, are you "free" if your government intervenes between vendors and consumers? If your government artificially increases prices on choices that it disapproves of? Do you care for choices? Or were you such goodie-two-shoes as children that you never felt an impulse to clench your jaws shut and throw your asparagus at your mom?

Republicans have overused the term "Nanny State" for a long time, admittedly. But I'm just so discouraged that people believe that it's the government's business whether I eat my vegetables. And of course--of course!--it almost officially is now the government's business whether we eat our vegetables, because health care is now a public good. But then why stop at vegetables? Certainly vegetables will soon be subsidized, and cigarettes and whiskey and pastries will come with taxes attached. But why not take the school lunch program national? Oh, you know you namby pambies would love to drink a half-pint of Chocolate milk and some Salisbury steak or some bullshit every day. G-d save us from the State.

Or else: somebody convince me that Freedom isn't really an absolute value.



WTF am I doing wrong? This blog is so awesome, with upwards of 30 posts a month. Still none but the highest-quality, most-discerning readers. Oh well; to quote Melville, "Though I wrote the gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter."

Blogs like fine wine, I guess--right?

(I just finished glass two of Shiraz.)

Objective Confirmation: The Author of B.W.B.M. is a Genius of Style.

Recently I got an email from a really fine academic journal, who had two "outside-readers" go over my manuscript. The first reviewer answered the first of fifteen questions as follows (the other 14 answers weren't as flattering, needless to say):
1. Is the paper's style readable? Does it read appropriately like an article rather than, say, a dissertation chapter?

This article is eminently readable--gracefully written, mercifully free of jargon, and not at all dissertationy.
Thank you, Reviewer #1, for giving me objective reassurance of something I've always felt to be the truth! Hahaha! So this is just a thank you to my 4 or 5 regular readers for helping me to refine my "eminently readable, graceful, jargon-free, not-at-all-dissertationy" style.

Seriously, I did this...

Here's the quiz I gave my students today on chapters 31-47 in Moby-Dick:

Quiz on Moby-Dick

  1. What does Captain Ahab nail to the mainmast?
    1. A map of the Pacific Ocean.
    2. A statement of purpose
    3. A gold doubloon
    4. A silver chalice
  1. One of the shipmates hesitates even after Ahab’s Quarter-Deck speech. Who is it?
    1. Starbuck
    2. Flask
    3. Stubb
    4. Queequeg
  1. What phrase best expresses what the white whale represented to Ahab?
    1. “all evil”
    2. “a mystery”
    3. “the great democratic god”
    4. “a meaningless freak."
  1. What do you think of Ahab?
    1. he’s crazy
    2. he’s awesome
    3. he’s crazy
    4. both a & b
    5. both a & c
    6. Other (explain): _________________________________
  1. What’s up with the chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale?” What do you think that was all about? – try to use one specific example in your answer.

[P.S. -- the answers are C, A, A, D, and "Ishmael is a spineless postmodern liberal."]

What is Religion (again)?

Well, something freed me in my sleep last night, so I'm starting over again. I'm discussing with an ancient friend behind-the-scenes Karen Armstrong's definition, in the video below, of "Religion":

If you want to watch more of the speech, here's a longer version of (I think it's not!--it's better!) the same talk. Sidenote: I used to think the highest aim for my career was to make it on C-Span. Now I think it's to get to do a Chautauqua lecture. Monica, don't miss the reference to midrashic reading around 15:30 in this longer version!

Anyway: the question that most interests me here is: can there be Religion without rituals? And on the other hand, is there any sensible justification for rituals?


Funny Passing Thought

Lately I've been suffering from this mindset that nothing happens as fast as I'd like. I click a webpage, and it pisses me off that it takes two seconds to load, because I know where on the webpage that's laboring to load I want to go, to click a link, to get to another webpage, but now I'm just waiting.

This morning I went in to make some copies at the copier, and the idea was complete in my head: so it just pissed me off that I had to wait for the copier to warm up (30 seconds), and then go-through-with my copying job (1 minute). And I was supposed to just stand there?

At the gas station or the ATM, I'm supposed to wait while your 20th century receipt printer "processes" what's just taken place! Jeeeez!

But this morning I woke up and conceived of the whole day--a whole Thursday--and had the same feeling of imposition: I knew what was going to happen, and couldn't believe I actually had to allow it to develop in time. I'm like a psycho/manic dog, panting for the future, aren't I? Guess that's check-mate, isn't it, Technology?

Finding Just the Right Amount of Evil

There's an interesting sleight of mouth going on at the Federal Reserve, one that might serve as an(other) [you like that, Wrangler?!] example of the difference between moral speech and sophistry, as I understand the difference.

Tyler Cowen's a badass of Economics blogging, but even he seems to understate this shift in my liberal-arts-educated opinion.

In short, the major charge of the Federal Reserve Bank has long been to fight inflation--and by "fight inflation," I mean keep it as low as possible. Zero, ideally.

But now there's talk of "managing the pace" of inflation, which suggests a continuum along which the ideal amount of inflation is somewhere in the middle, rather than at zero. But consider what inflation is--what that means, exactly: it means that the Federal Reserve is going to make credit available to big banks in hopes that those banks will lend to people who, right now, they won't lend to. In other words, the Fed is creating another round of what was called "Predatory Lending" just two years ago... and promoting that as the cure for the disease that such practices caused!

Only the Zen logic of Nobel Prize Winner Paul Krugman could bring this strange state of affairs about: Krugman has succeeded in making "us all" fear a "deflationary spiral" (sounds scary!) as much as we fear inflation.

Well, he could be right. Maybe the new view of inflation is like the modern view of germs: the goal need not be to eliminate them altogether by bathing in Clorox Bleach. Okay. But if Krugman is right, then I don't understand what caused the 2008 recession and foreclosure rodeo.


Passing Thought

I can't recall ever convincing anyone of anything. Do people ever change their minds anymore? Did they ever? Am I doing something wrong?


Have to Watch the First to Laugh at the Second

Pop Quiz on Sophistry

What's the difference:

Here is a man who is in favor of the state recognizing same-sex marriage. He reads a speculative article in Newsweek that suggests that STD rates even among heterosexual people may run higher because same-sex marriage is illegal. The argument seems implausible to him; he is a professor of biology at a state university. He imagines that if he could make this argument cogent, it might be persuasive in Washington, but he doesn't try to make the argument because he doesn't believe the data is there. [Or: he applies for a grant and runs some experiments, but discovers relatively inconclusive data, and pursues the line of thought no further, despite knowing that if the data were more conclusive, it would help the case for same-sex marriage.]

Now here is a man who is in favor of the state recognizing same-sex marriage. He reads a speculative article in Newsweek that suggests that STD rates even among heterosexual people may run higher because same-sex marriage is illegal. Although the article seems implausible to him, he decides to try to discover some data along these lines just to help the cause of same-sex marriage. He applies for a grant, and runs studies where he gets relatively inconclusive data; then he makes charts to make the data look as conclusive as possible, and contacts his friends who have friends in Washington. The charts are smattered across the evening news, and the headlines in the New York Times read, "Legalizing Gay Marriage May Reduce STD rates -- in Heterosexuals!"

In my hypothesized view, this is the difference between moral people and sophists. A sophist will say anything to achieve his ends. A moral person requires that the ends are not deceptive or manipulative.

And this is the only thing keeping me from trying to propagandize all of my students into being afraid of their "carbon footprint." See, I dislike exhaust. It hurts my asthma, and I find it unaesthetic. Indeed, I've tried to tell my students that they should not only not litter, but also that they should drive less, and not work for polluting companies--but I've always made those requests on the grounds that I find the results of those pursuits ugly or unappealing to me. But guess what: my students find me laughably unpersuasive.

Now it occurs to me that I could persuade them by telling them that the very planet they depend on for existence is going to die in one generation if they don't stop littering, stop driving, and stop working for polluting companies. But that would be deceptive and manipulative, despite the fact that it would serve my ends--and so I refrain from making the argument, because I'm a moral person and not a sophist.

Okay now I'll listen to how this hypothesis is flawed.

Climate Science, a Follow-Up

Here's a terrific follow-up article to our comment-string on "Climate Change," or whatever it's called most recently.

Through the Mud and Slush of Opinion

I know I generate almost negative traffic here, but read Pure_Sophist_Monster's recent post on meaning-making.

He reiterates very clearly a point I've heard made time and again--a point that's always sparked what feels like a "next thought" in me. Well actually, let me just quote who he quotes, Ed Hutchins, who says:
The illusion of meaning in the message is a hard-won social and cultural accomplishment.
I don't have a problem with that. I feel like maybe I'm supposed to, as a literature professor? But I'm okay with that. But what I've always struggled to understand--and always been fascinated by--is how, given our culturally contextufied situatedness (ahem), we are able to wriggle our heads up through the sludge of comfortably calcified "meaning," to critique that culture (that meaning) within which we discover ourselves to be situated. The easiest example is something like slavery, which required a whole web of social meaning to support it: how does one minister in the 18th century finally snap himself out of it and say, "Wait a minute!--that's wrong!" What I'm asking is, from what perspective is he thinking? He seems not to be distracted by the "illusion" of meaning. But what/where else is there?

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp=post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer.
The Sophists would have it that there is no such reality. But then as I said, how/from-where are we able to critique this set of meanings we've accumulated? Where does the needle on your Justice-magnet point?--what attracts it?


Adonai, Hashem, The Ultimate Reality in which we all exist... Or: G-d is the Beer!

Good talks, Rabbi:

Visual Rhetoric: A Dumbinstration

I really believe that most people were bad enough at understanding graphs in math class that they are easily manipulated by "charts." That's why AlGore's An Incovenient Truth was persuasive: it showed graphs featuring temperatures over the last 100 years, followed by graphs showing temperatures over the last 600,000 years, and pretty much any graph within that time span that made things look dire. Of course, showing a graph of temperatures over the past 250 years would make it look flat. So he didn't show that one. Wrangler just shared a link to the same kind of pseudo-persuasive bullshit (but again, that's just me; I was really good at math). Here's two graphs I just made, hurriedly, because I need to be grading papers and not teaching the truth right now:
These two graphs show the same data: about a .7-degree rise from 1.3-2.0 in the time from the start of the industrial revolution through now. I just made these numbers up as examples, but you can manipulate a graph like this with whatever numbers you select. Somewhere there's probably a tool specifically made for zooming in and zooming out and getting the graph to look like a hockey stick or a baseball bat, depending on which "look" benefits your fake cause more.

But anyway, don't litter, okay? And check your mufflers.


"Global Climate Disruption"

Yeah, what this guy says. Your silence is being mistaken for tacit agreement. Or if your tacit agreement is really tacit agreement, then your tacit agreement is going to ruin civilization. And that's because, even if (goliath sized-"if") you were right about the ends, the means are disturbing the very basis of civil society. See Confucius on the Rectification of Names.



Fareed Zakaria Slips a Gear, or, "Pure" Islam is Terrible

Listen to the first minute of this video, but pay really close attention to the language Zakaria lets slip around :58 seconds in:

Sufi poets routinely extol the virtues of wine and song, both forbidden in the purer versions of Islam.
This makes it sounds curiously-much like Islam is itself a problem. But maybe this was just a very poor choice of words, right?

Augustine's "Confessions" versus "The House on Mango Street," or, This Anthology Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us

Revisiting the canon wars. Great article in the New York Times. You know what I think, and you probably know what you think -- but let's refresh our memories. And this is a link to a maybe-even-better article on the same general topic. The second one features Bob Dylan, walking the narrow path that leads to eternal life, disappointing natterers on the left and the right:
When Wenner pressed him as to who would solve the world’s problems if not politicians, Dylan came out with words so Biblically harsh or nakedly Libertarian they are frankly astonishing to the modern ear. Forget politicians: “The world owes us nothing,” he told Wenner, “not one single thing.” And: “Human nature really hasn’t changed in 3,000 years. … It’s not meant to change. It cannot change. It’s not made to change.” Which does rather leave social engineers out in the cold.
Social engineers, or "behavioral economists" who are into "nudging."


Foot-in-Mouth Disorder

In an ironic twist, I'm teaching excerpts from the Qur'an this week in my introductory college writing course. I just read a little ditty that I love:
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, and in the ship that runneth in the sea with that which profits man, and in what water God sends down from heaven and quickens therewith the earth after its death, and spreads abroad therein all kinds of cattle, and in the shifting of the winds, and in the clouds that are pressed into service betwixt heaven and earth, are signs to people who can understand.
All-h!, who would ever consider burning a book with that in it?!

Nudge me one more time and I'll cut you, Sunstein (figuratively)

If you haven't heard of Cass Sunstein, you're obviously not watching any Glenn Beck. And in that case, you're probably going to disagree with the main premise of my argument/resistance here. But give it a listen:

Sunstein is the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In this role, Sunstein plans to bring his work on "behavioral economics" (oh, Euphemism, thy name is Bullshit) into practice.

Slate's website has a review/summary of Sunstein's book, co-authored with Richard Thaler, titled Nudge. "Nudging" has become hot lingo lately, and academics seem to like the idea. Slate says in the review:
Laissez faire economics holds that faced with a broad menu of choices, most of us will choose wisely.
This is flatly false. Let me reiterate: that's not true. Laissez faire economics doesn't recognize an objective/transcendent "wisdom," but allows that each individual might define and act-out wisdom in different ways. A strictly logical person might assume that anyone who has approached and/or gone through a postmodern-perspective ought to appreciate that, but alas... so here the philosopher kings show up, only this time they're talking not like Platonists, but like sophists. Out of one corner of their mouth, they talk about the need to respect cultural differences, to understand that there is no authoritative "Truth," etc. -- out of the other corner, they're disappointed that you're not making value judgments in the same way that they would.

Enter Cass Sunstein, endorsed and lauded by Obama & Co. Now as long as you prefer electric cars and arugula, Sunstein may not be much of a bother. But if, as Sunstein himself has spoken, you desire to occasionally let your inner Homer Simpson have his way--then watch out. You might be, ummm... "nudged," back toward making "wiser" choices. Wikipedia reports:
Sunstein (along with his coauthor Richard Thaler) has elaborated the theory of libertarian paternalism. In arguing for this theory, he counsels thinkers/academics/politicians to embrace the findings of behavioral economics as applied to law, maintaining freedom of choice while also steering people's decisions in directions that will make their lives go better. With Thaler, he coined the term "choice architect."
Yes, Cass Stein is going to let you choose--but he's going to, ummm... "nudge" you in the right direction. "Libertarian Paternalism" -- Oh, Euphemism, thy na... wait, I already used that one.


"If you don't like my fire, then don't come around..."

Oh, I can't believe I didn't think of this a week ago. Now I'm finally ready to move on from the Koran/Bible-burning obsession:

Let it go, Casey--

Nope, nope -- still haven't moved on. I wish I had heard this view in the media last Tuesday, but better late than never.
If Muslim sensibilities are so tender they can't ignore the bizarre rants of an insignificant American fanatic then this is a culture with a serious anger management issue, and one the West can't help with.
I strongly agree with the first part of that. As for the last part, I wonder. I wonder if the West can help by refusing to respect and fear that kind of fanatical response. In other words, I wonder if the West is helping precisely by producing Terry Jones and others. It's a good article, though. Go read it. Go.

Repost on Law & Anarchy

I didn't get any thoughts on this old disagreement the first time, but I'm curious -- even if you leave only a word -- what everybody thinks about this old post that didn't get any comments the first time around.Publish Post


Smoking a Koran & a Bible

Sometimes it takes a lawyer to dot the i's and cross the t's on an "issue" like Koran-burning. A lawyer and/or an Australian.

Identity & Stuff

Interesting article on Non-Jew Jews from Killing the Buddha.

A related confession: I was skyping the other day with Wishydig when we were talking about Identity--which is your primary identity? Can you have dual-primary identities? Can you be, for example, a Seventh Day Adventist who is also an American, or do you have to be an American who happens to be SDA, or an SDA who happens to be American? At one point Wishydig suggested that America might dissemble into smaller units of political organizations--fall back into Disunited States or something. And I started riffing on how I would be okay with that: my identity is not terribly caught up in that, I said. Nor is it caught up in my European ancestry, nor is it caught up in any particular religious discourse or tradition.

But I wouldn't be okay if all of that was taken from me. I told Wishydig I would: I said, "You know, I mean--I'd be okay because I'd always have 'Casey' as my primary identity." But in reflecting on that statement later in the day, I felt a little vertigo. I'm not sure there is a 'Casey' that is: not white, not American, not insured, not loosely Judeo-Christian with a mystical influence from Gnosis and Neoplatonism, etc. What would be left? And the same of my friends? Who would we all be if it weren't for the New York Times and television and English?


The Author of Both Wearing Black Masks, Reproached by Bulleh Shah.

Remove duality and do away with all disputes;
The Hindus and Muslims are not other than He.
Deem everyone virtuous, there are no thieves.
For, within every body He himself resides.
How the Trickster has put on a mask!

Bulleh Shah (1680-1757)
...and effectively reproached by The Huffington Post.

Okay, I'm Dropping This...

Here's some video of the guy who lit the Koran on fire yesterday in Manhattan. I find his performance to be utterly dignified, the definition of civil. He even refused to give his name to reporters, and complied as soon as the police asked him to stop (on the grounds that fire is illegal, or something?). So here's to you, Joe-the-Koran-burner:

One reporter late in the video asks: "Are you worried about, uh, repercussions; are you worried about people, uh, Muslims, coming after you about this?--you don't care?" And if you missed Update 2.0 from yesterday, check out this video of Terry Jones being interviewed. Very interesting to me.


Silencing the Opposition

I gotta say, I was very disappointed that no Korans burned today, not because I disapprove of Islam (jury's still out) or Arabs (I certainly don't), but because I strongly believe that people who mistake the symbol for the thing itself are in need of confrontation. Just as we would challenge a racist ideology because it mistakes skin color for something significant, and just as we would challenge those who would burn witches as superstitious and ill-informed: I think it's necessary to confront untruth wherever it finds expression.

That's why I think this is a disgraceful moment in American media:

I realize that holier-than-thou posturing and self-righteous moral indignation are big sellers, especially on MSNBC; but to altogether refuse to listen is enough for this particular program to have permanently lost at least one viewer.

I know this'll sound too conspiratorial for ya'll, but I can't even find a video-interview with Terry Jones on the internet. This ABC News transcript of an interview conducted by Terry Moran bizarrely mis-spells "Moslem" whenever Jones says the word (but not when Moran says it) throughout the text. Notably, Jones seems to me perfectly coherent and certainly not frothing at the mouth in this interview -- he cites Acts 19:19 as evidence that there is precedent in Christianity even back to the early church for burning other so-called holy books. "The News" seems to confuse the fact that book burning is not much of a part of American history with the notion that it's not part of Christian history. See also, Cyril of Alexandria. Here's an excerpt:
Moran: But there are a billion and a half Muslims in the world. Most of whom aren't radical and you are going to burn their holy book.

Jones: Right.

Moran: You think that will persuade them of anything but the fact that they feel you hate them?

Jones: No, I think that they probably will be hurt and insulted by it.

Moran: So why do it?

Jones: Well when people burn the flag when they burn the bible when they burn down churches I'm also hurt and insulted. But we feel that this message to that radical element is that important. In fact to a certain extent we would expect moderate Moslems to agree with us. We would expect for them to say the burning of the Koran we don't agree with that's not a message that we agree with. We do not believe that this man this church this society should burn our holy book, there is no problem with that. But the message we are trying to send with that even Moslems should agree with. We are trying to send a message to the radical element of Islam. They should also be against that. Because it makes their religion look very, very bad. They should also stand to that and say yes that we agree with. We do not want sharia law. We do not want radical fanaticism Islam.
The very obvious fact about this transcript, to me, is that it ought to be considered within the realm of discussability. If Jones were calling for a genocide of all Arabs or Muslims, I would expect him to be ushered off the television. The points he makes in this interview are far from warranting this kind of treatment, and in a sane society, would be an embarrassment to Mika, Joe, and even Willy (I'll miss him most of all).

If any of you can find a video-interview with Jones, will you pass along the link?

UPDATE: Oh, good. One guy did burn a Koran today near ground zero. And for good measure, somebody burned a Bible too. Now if only somebody would burn some Derrida...

UPDATE 2.0: Oh, I found some video of Jones being interviewed. He sounds just like Hitler. I honestly can't believe the Obama administration is saying "it puts the troops at risk" to burn a Koran. That's mind-boggling to me. "A recruiting tool for the Taliban," they say. Really? So if we just do their bidding, recruiting for the Taliban will struggle? That's so paradoxical it's Zen. Fascinating 4-minute vid there, though.

How 9/11 Changed America

The most fascinating observation that I've ever personally made is so keen and interesting, that you won't believe that I'm the one who noticed this, and you won't believe you never heard it before (unless you read it on my blog a few years ago). The three images below are screen captures from the year 2000. Take a look:

So... what's missing? The constant stream of scrolling "news" at the bottom! One of the strangest facts of American history is that on 9/11/01, all three channels adopted the scroll bar at the bottom of their screens, and the scroll bar has never stopped scrolling since!

That's true. And if you ever use that fact in a book or paper, I expect citation.


Another Angle

Today I asked my students if they could describe the difference between the way that they approach reading the Bible and the way that they approach reading, say, Thoreau's Walden:
"I start reading Thoreau critically, whereas I accept-already what the Bible will say."

"If Thoreau bores me, I blame him. If the Bible bores me, I blame myself."
Now: are these reasonable, good answers? Is that an acceptable distinction to make in our minds? Can any of you see how this question is related to the question of where values come from? It seems we make up our minds about books before we open them. Same with values, in many cases. But there is another conceivable attitude, wherein the reader approaches all books with the same attitude: the attitude I recommend is to always approach them as if you are unknowing, and the book is knowing.

Skeptics might interject: "But what happens when you read a book that is awful, or untrue--a false prophecy?" My answer, and of course you'll have to sort of take it on faith, is that something in you will let you know if you encounter that kind of thing even if you are reading with the eye of faith.

So then: what we are simultaneously talking about is something I've talked about before (in this YouTube video): what is a religion? We seem to conceive of it as a special category, and give it special protections, so understanding its nature seems important. We generally believe that all religions should be honored; but we do not believe that about ideas. And what I'm trying to suggest is that the supposed difference between "an idea" and "a religion" is illusory, is non-existent, and reflects only the fact that we are taking certain assumptions into our confrontation with these ideas before we learn the ideas. And I don't think we should be content to do that--not any longer. I think public schools should deal critically with religions, and not give them a free pass: obviously, this would involve doing a better job of teaching metaphor and symbolism and "figurative" literary style and consciousness studies, etc. -- but it seems worthwhile. Will it offend the Southern Baptist in the classroom who believes the Bible is the exact and infallible word of G-d? Probably: but it sounds like he needs to hear it. In any case, these ideas are obviously too important and influential to leave them out of public classrooms.

If we treat Christianity and Islam as ideas, rather than as religions, I believe we would all be better off. I asked jokingly in one of my recent posts, "Should we respect other people's bad values?" Maybe that's not fair: maybe I'm approaching the Koran as my students are approaching Thoreau (in contrast with the Bible).

Then let's ask: Why? Why can't I open my sensibilities and read the Koran as if I were dim, and it were wise?

Also, a friend linked me to a now-relevant video, and I really appreciated it, so:

A Contest of Ultimate Values


On one side, SIDE A, we have a group of people who hold in common an particular value: namely, these are the people who are "offended" in varying degrees if you burn copies of the book they deem most holy. This group includes some Muslims, some Christians, and maybe some Jews, and maybe some people of other faiths.

On the other side, SIDE B, we have a group of people who hold in common a particular value: namely, these are the people who do not believe that it is wrong to burn anything that is a) not a sentient being and b) not their property. And possible c) nothing that emits toxic chemicals. There are probably Muslims, Christians, Jews and everybody else in this category also.

Now, the news is covering this Koran-burning as if it's all about the values of SIDE A. Why is that? Why aren't the values of SIDE B to be respected by those in SIDE A?

News Item

Well, finally, we've reached the point of no return: a Tennessee pastor has seen the extremist Muslims' bet and called them on it: "I believe I am right and I am willing to die for that." Interesting.

More on Why the Good is Good

Sorry about the low-light quality here. This is from another Iris Murdoch book (I'm on a kick with her), The Sovereignty of Good. It is directly related to our conversation from yesterday about the source of value and value judgments. Enjoy. Pages 52-55 of the edition linked above:

Facebook status updates that were almost...

"First they came for the Koran burning pastor in Florida, and I said nothing..."

"Would Paul Krugman stop writing columns if I told him I was offended and threatened violence?"

"Bikkhus, the All is on fire..."

"Where was this indignation when Jesus Camp was released?"

"Before the Holocaust, Nazis refrained from burning Korans."

"If a Christian told an American cartoonist to stop drawing Jesus, and threatened violence, should the cartoonist self censor?"

"Can somebody turn the sensitivity down in here?"

"Should other people's bad values be respected?"

"Cyril was made a saint for burning the whole library of Alexandria, so don't say that book burning is 'against the principles of Christianity.' "

"What's worse: inciting violence, or doing violence?"

"Were those Korans going to be English translations, or...?"

"In private conversations, you've all agreed with me about the frivolity of Koran burning; publicly, silence?"

Freud: "What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books."

"The paper burns, but the words fly away." --Akiba ben Joseph

"Not burning a Koran on Saturday will offend me, and I will retaliate with thunderous violence."

"Mark Twain once said, 'people should burn Korans sometimes, just to keep 'em honest.' "

"Hey, has anyone ever read the Koran?"

"New Marketing Opportunity: fire retardant Korans!!!"


Still Disagreeing with the Consensus View

I'm think about burning a Koran.

Here's a sampling of headlines from Drudge Report:
'Meant to Be a Warning'...
Church website shut down...
Obama says call it off...
Then sends 'best wishes' to Muslims worldwide...
Vatican: 'Outrageous'...
NYPD: 'Dangerous'...
Holder: 'Idiotic'...
Clinton: 'Disgraceful'...
Palin: 'Unnecessary provocation'...
FBI: Retaliation 'Likely'...
I remember a few years ago when I was at a bonfire and whipped out a dollar bill and set it on fire, and then another few of them -- all of the American idolaters around me just about lost their minds: "That's a felony!" "Are you insane?!" And I'll definitely burn a Bible as kindling before throwing the Koran on the pile. Only the Buddhists wouldn't object (all things are on fire), and even those f*ckers are starting to get stupid about it (anybody see the documentary about the destroyed Buddhas of Bamyan?). Same goes for anybody who would do any violence for "Holy Land." It's all stuff, stuff!

It's not like it's actually burning Allah. I mean Jesus Christ. Paper and ink, people. And don't call me a hypocrite, because I'm not a "Christian," at least in any sense of the word that's generally understood. And even if I were!!! [I secretly am]--I'm currently reading Camus' (equivalent of a) master's thesis, titled Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, and he makes the very interesting point that early Christians were intentionally, doggedly, unlearned in all of the contemporary supposed-wisdom of their day. If they had been educated in a Greek tradition, they threw away all of their books and stopped speculating when they converted to Christianity. Indeed, legend has it that St. (that is, SAINT!) Cyril was the one who burned down the Library of Alexandria, so there's a long and honorable tradition of book burning within even the most ancient version of Christianity. Have we all forgotten the images of burning American human soldiers hanging from a bridge somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever?

I'll burn whatever the f*ck I want. Your mom's house, if I want. Well no, that's private property, which is the basis of civil society. :)

Somebody's gonna learn a lesson here. Either it's Americans, and the lesson is not to burn holy books from other countries or cultures. Or it's extremist Muslims and the lesson is... "we'll burn whatever the hell we want to burn. Shut up."

Somebody explain to me the difference in offensiveness between the two videos below.

P.S. -- it's a wonder to me that I don't get more readers at this blog. It's such an ongoing masterpiece. Probably, like Melville, I'll be forgotten until after I die, and then I'll be rediscovered by some 22nd century scholar and hailed as the prophet of a new era of thought and culture.

Conversation with Gorgias

The frustrating exchange on Facebook yesterday has sent me into a tailspin of moral frustration. So ya'll-my-loyal-readers can help two ways: a) I need a good, new translation of Plato's complete works. I'd like something that's exact, even if awkward, in its translation & terminology.

B) Take a look at this: I'm looking for help around the bold spots. Commentary welcome!

Casey: So, we finally meet in person, Gorgias.
Gorgias: Don't be so dramatic.
Casey: Look, I just want to know what the essence of "the good" is, but since nobody wants to talk about "the good" anymore, I'll be satisfied with getting your take on what "the ethical" is. I have a suspicion that you'll say, "It's a matter of convention--something sprung from consensus and always contested, always 'becoming.' " Am I close?
Gorgias: That's pretty good, actually.
Casey: Thank you for being so concise in your answers.
Gorgias (rolling his eyes): Oh, spare me the Socrates act.
Casey: I was just kidding. But so, if all of this stuff--"being ethical" or "doing good" is conventional, I want to know why people are so concerned with defending one convention over another?
Gorgias: So you mean, you want to know why some people think it's good to give 10% of their income to the Catholic church, and why others think it's better to give to Greenpeace?
Casey: Well, okay... something like that.
Gorgias: Those reflect their values.
Casey: So, so, so... slow down. I asked, "What is good," and you responded by saying, "What is good is a reflection of value." Is that right?
Gorgias: Right.
Casey: Come on; aren't you just deflecting here? Avoiding the question? Now don't I have to ask, "Well why do people hold certain values"--
Gorgias: --and I say, "values are conventional."
Casey: Right, and I ask, "But then why are people so concerned with convention?"
Gorgias: Because they are afraid of what their own social-consensus/convention network will do to them if they dissent.
Casey: What!?! -- would you really say that, Gorgias? I mean, if I weren't imagining you right now and putting words in your mouth? Is that the Gorgian/Sophistic answer?
Gorgias (again rolling his eyes): Oh, Jeezus. Now we're going to do the whole are we in a cave act, aren't we?


Respecting Violence Because It's a Religion

This kinda drives me crazy. I'm not understanding why I can't just see it as simply and as starkly as everybody else. I feel like others would look at my role in this conversation and say, "the mistake Casey makes is to worry about what others are doing that is evil." But the fact is, the people in Florida are just as "other" to me as the supposed Jihadist Muslims are. I'm judging both.

And am I really supposed to "respect" some other religion if that religion condones violence against infidels--and I'm considered an infidel? How long do I respect it? How close to my doorstep do I let it get?


Sarah White What an incredibly unchristian and repugnant thing to do. Stupidity has to be the deadliest sin of all...

A Florida church led by pastor Terry Jones has spent weeks publicizing its plan to burn Korans on September 11. But now that hundreds of people in Afghanistan and Indonesia are protesting the planned event and General David Petraeus has condemned it, saying it will endanger his troops, the U.S. i...
Yesterday at 9:36am · · · Share · Report
  • Nancy Fahy likes this.
    • Dan Coffey Free speech protects their right to do this, but hopefully there will be enough counter-speech to reach the humanity of this congregation and get them to do the right thing. I wonder if the damage is already done, though. The actual burning may just be symbolic; what's already discovered (in the mideast) is that there are kooks in America who want to burn their sacred texts.
      Yesterday at 10:03am ·
    • Blaise Allen such hypocrits!
      Yesterday at 10:42am ·
    • Molly Whitmer I hate how some Americans take rights that are given to all and only apply those rights to themselves. Christians are not the only ones allowed to worship as they see fit, so are Muslims. Such ignorance!
      Yesterday at 11:07am · · 1 person
    • Marylene LeFurgy To do something like this is against Gods teaching of love our neighbor as our self. This is against our neighbor and God.
      Yesterday at 12:30pm · · 1 person
    • Casey Pratt Actually, murder is the deadliest sin of all, and we should at least make passing mention of the fact that, however crazy it is to burn someone else's holy text, it's WAY crazier to be so offended by someone burning your holy text that you decide to violently retaliate. I mean I agree: burning the Koran is mean. But reacting as these offended people (assuming they exist?) supposedly might is so insane as to preclude any impulse to respect their preferences about our own behavior.
      Yesterday at 12:54pm · ·
    • Dan Coffey Casey, you're fine up to your second comma. Direct violent retaliation is not the chief concern. Building a positive relationship between two nations (well, one nation and one region of the world), is what's at stake here. What I'm reading is that you're assuming the worst is going to happen ahead of time, judge them on that basis, and then in using reverse-causality logic, justify the burning of the Korans because their reaction makes them deserving?
      Yesterday at 1:15pm ·
    • Ryan Ernst I hate to think how many of my fellow servicemen may be harmed by this fanatic act. Living in the Middle East, I hope rationale minds will prevail or the public outcry from my fellow Americans will deafen the hypocrisy of this ignorant pastor. Truly extremists exist in every religion.
      Yesterday at 2:16pm · · 1 person
    • Casey Pratt
      Dan: I'm not assuming the worst is going to happen: Petraeus is. My students trash my favorite books all the time, and I don't get violent with them. -- and if I did, would that be a reason for them to stop trashing Moby-Dick? Because I'l...See More
      Yesterday at 2:47pm · ·
    • Sarah White Of course, I would also say that "favorite book" is a quite bit different than "sacred text." I still think stupidity is the deadliest sin of all...
      Yesterday at 3:51pm ·
    • Stacey Timmons Higgins I agree with your post completely!
      Yesterday at 5:50pm ·
    • Julie Sugg Peebles Whole heartedly agree with you!
      8 hours ago ·
    • Turgay Bayindir
      Casey, even though I am not a practicing muslim, I come from that culture and I am really baffled by your comparison of your favorite books to what a large part of world population consider sacred.

      The point is, 'sin' is defined by differen...See More
      7 hours ago · · 1 person
    • Casey Pratt
      Turgs, I hear you. But just as we can't define "sin" for anyone but ourselves, we can't well define their religion either -- apparently *this* bunch of Christians in Florida doesn't find it to be against the principles of their religion to...See More
      7 hours ago · ·
    • Sarah White Dr. Pratt, I think you're wrong :) A "sacred text" is what I said--not a '"holy text." That is different than "favorite book." I believe academic and scholarly perspectives would allow that there is a major difference when discussing a text that members of a particular society hold "sacred" and Moby Dick...Also, it may not go against the "principles" of that Florida church to burn Korans in vengeance, but it is against the religion they claim to practice...
      6 hours ago ·
    • Casey Pratt Okay, I'll concede the point about holy texts and favorite books if you address a question: isn't killing infidels for burning Korans against the religion that the Muslim extremists claim to practice? Or not? Who is to say? Certainly a moderate/mainstream Muslim would claim that killing infidels IS against that religion, just as you claim that burning Korans is against the Christian religion. All I'm looking for is a moral equivalence, I guess?
      6 hours ago · ·
    • Sarah White Why do you look for moral equivalence in two different cultures and two different religions? It's not against the Christian religion to burn Korans. It's the motive behind the act that is...Bottom line: both religions have extremists who are looking for an excuse like this to do more stupid things to each other and the rest of us...
      6 hours ago ·
    • Turgay Bayindir
      Casey, as you all know, there is something called 'jihad' in Islam, which means fighting to protect and preserve the religion against attacks from infidels. Now this 'fighting against infidels' is interpreted differently by different groups...See More
      5 hours ago ·
    • Casey Pratt
      What I'm getting at is that on one hand, Turgay, you're saying that there is cause for Jihad in the text. If that's true, then we must conclude that Islam is a violent religion. If that's true, then we *can* blame the Koran and its religi...See More
      5 hours ago · · 1 person ·
    • Turgay Bayindir
      I won't go on any more Casey. The one thing I would warn against, though, is not discuss this issue vis-a-vis 'first amendment' because that is a legal issue that is only binding to American citizens within the borders of the US. The action...See More
      5 hours ago · · 1 person