10.31.2008

The Music of Politics

I was watching Chappelle's Show tonight, and here's what I learned:  delivery has become more important than content, and everyone -- yes, everyone (except me and Chappelle) -- is falling for it.  Here's a funny clip.  Listen to the narrating voice:


I was sort of napping next to my fireplace when this clip came on, day-dreaming about Fenhopper's funny post, and when I heard the voice, I thought I was hearing aNOTHER political commerical about how scary Obama is or how atheist Elizabeth Dole is or how communist Bev Perdue is.  But then I heard, "Nowadays we all know that cash rules everything around us," and I looked up... that was just a little too True to be... well, true.

Here's a (true) ad that's been playing in North Carolina:



The voice of deep concern enters the ad right from the beginning -- and it's all one needs to hear.  I'm convinced that almost everyone ignores what is being said, and focuses on how it is being said.  Most people hear a scary voice and learn to associate the bad feelings that accompany it with, in this case, Elizabeth Dole.  Here's an example of an anti-Obama ad that uses the same technique.  The anti-McCain ads, targeting a different audience, use a slightly different (more sarcastic?) tone.

The point is, young people are better at picking up a tune -- it's always been that way.  And what we're dealing with here is precisely a kind of music.  People under 40 have heard the tone of deep concern too many times to automatically associate it (anymore) with danger.  Instead, people under 40 are likely to be able to pick up on the tone as an indicator of overprotectiveness or something.  And that's cool: way to go, young people.

What's frightening is that the tone of Obama's ads are not altogether different -- it is "our" music, yes... but it's still a kind of music.  And when we turn 40, the twenty-somethings are going to start hearing our ironic/sarcastic tone, a tone that will seem to appeal to us naturally (it always has), with a kind of antiquated world view.  In short, when I go into the voting booth, I'm going to wait until I hear in my head this kind of music... and I'll vote for whoever that music makes me vote for: "Money falls like an avalanche over me" (39 secs.).

Underlying Structure, the Prison of Language, and "True Felicity"

"A mind enclosed in language is in prison." -- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace translated by Gustave Thibon
Prediction: In about three years, academia's going to re-begin its search for a foundation, and when it does, the work of Neoplatonist philosopher/mystic Plotinus is going to become interesting again. The trick will be learning to think in terms of underlying structure instead of linguistically. Since I've been on the Philip K. Dick train lately, here's a clip from Waking Life (Linklater, 2001) that I mentioned to Fenhopper privately yesterday -- it concerns the possibilities of underlying structure:



I had a professor once who told me a story about his time in gradute school. He was studying Renaissance mechanics and physics and he was very interested in Da Vinci because (this was in the early 70's) a new codex of Da Vinci's work had just been discovered or released or something... and there were like 5 or 6 pages of drawings that were not accompanied by any writing. Scholars couldn't make sense of them -- at first.

My professor's dissertation was a kind of interpretation of the language of those drawings -- he told us that he trained himself to think like Da Vinci, which meant thinking without language. This kind of thinking is not irrational, it is just non-verbal (and perhaps not customary), it involves shapes and colors and other kinds of abstractions. When academics re-discover the possibilities of thinking non-verbally, Plotinus will, as they say in the music industry, "blow up." A fun pair of excerpts from The Enneads:
The secret is Indetermination.

Likeness knows its like: the indeterminate knows the indeterminate. Around this indefinite a definite conception will be realized, but the way lies through indefiniteness. (from his chapter "Matter")
And, showing the often unsettling blend of Platonic idealism and Christian Gnosticism that makes Plotinus so unique (this excerpt was in paragraph form -- I have lumped it together for the sake of readability. The paragraphs are all very short. Most are two sentences.):
...we must consider what a perfect life is. The matter may be stated thus: It has been shown elsewhere that man when he commands not merely the life of sensation but also Reason and Authentic Intellection, has realized the perfect life. But are we to picture this kind of life as something foreign imported into his nature? No: there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing which we hold to constitute happiness. But are we to think of man as including this form of life, the perfect, after the manner of a partial constituent of his entire nature? We say, rather, that while in some men it is present as a mere portion of their total being -- in those, namely, that have it potentially -- there is, too, the man, already in possession of true felicity, who is this perfection realized, who has passed over into actual identification with it. All else is now mere clothing about the man, not to be called part of him since it lies about him unsought, not his because not appropriated to himself by any act of the will. To the man in this state, what is the Good? He himself by what he has and is. And the author and principle of what he is and holds is the Supreme, which within Itself is the Good but manifests Itself within the human being after this other mode. The sign that this state has been achieved is that the man seeks nothing else. What indeed could he be seeking? Certainly none of the less worthy things; and the Best he carries always within him. He that has such a life as this has all he needs in life. Once the man is a Proficient, the means of happiness, the way to good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him. (from his chapter, "Happiness")
More than anything, I like to think about the incredibly daunting task of translating Plotinus, which fell, in this case, to Stephen MacKenna. I wonder what MacKenna's designation "the Proficient" was in the original Greek, and whether it might have connoted salvation, or enlightenment, or awakening. Consider the phrase "not merely the life of sensation, but also Reason and Authentic Intellection": the words are so abstract that they almost force readers to begin playing the game of structure -- Authentic Intellection denotes something that corresponds to something called "Reason," and seems to supplement something called "the life of sensation," and none of these terms can be easily understood without context. I would share some enthralling excerpts from MacKenna's introduction, but I can't, because I can't figure out how to type the Greek.

Plotinus will return to favor not when people start to read Plotinus, but when they start to read through Plotinus.

10.30.2008

Against a Multiple Choice Jesus

One of my ten best friends (she wouldn't have guessed she was in the top ten; but so it goes...) has been doing these ridiculously entertaining "Torah Talks" on a -- how to describe it? -- unpredictable website called lukeford.net. They're covering everything awesome in this latest talk -- from the nature of G-d to the nature of sex to close readings of Genesis and so on.

I really recommend you watch some of these videos, but I want to focus briefly on the last one (scroll to the bottom of the page). In the video, Monica's making a superstar point about how knowledge can bring melancholy -- Luke, our moral leader, asks the question: "Like which knowledge has been the most... unhappiness-giving?" Here's Monica's reply (starting around the 2:10 mark in that last video on the page):

The more I learn about religion, the more I learn about Judaism, the more I learn about the Hebrew Bible, the more I study it – it’s kind of a paradox because in many ways I feel closer to G-d, but in other ways I feel farther because I learn so many things about like the construction of the text and so on and so forth that, like, I don’t know any more, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know… what G-d is anymore. I don’t know. I mean I know—I know the Hebrew Bible, that I know, but I don’t know what that means… I think that… that’s just, it’s scary, I mean there’s something liberating about it, but I think it can be kinda frightening too. Like it’s easier just to know – that’s what’s so easy about Christianity… it’s… just, Jesus is [inaudible]. That’s so easy.

The reason that Monica's in my top-ten friends list is what she says in the first half of this soundbite. It seems so deeply true to me that knowledge brings a kind of sadness, and that the more we learn about G-d, the less we feel that we know. In my experience, it has been the rare person who is able to express this point as authentically as Monica does, and to (nevertheless) go on living in the unknowing. As I complained yesterday, almost everyone I know seems to know what they believe in, whether that's "Obama" or the Bible or Darwin or ABC's LOST or whatever... most days I feel like the only person I know (except Monica) who is utterly confused.

Read my post from yesterday. Nothing seems as complicated to me as trying to bring people to agreement on what Jesus was... undoubtedly, Monica would be frustrated by the strange and calcified orthodoxy of my Southern Baptist students who seem to imagine Jesus as a kind of clean-cut business man along the lines of Clark Kent. But what about Jack Kerouac's Jesus? What about Philip K. Dick's Jesus? What about the Jesus of African American theology? Or the Jesus of mystical theology, as presented in St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila? What about Simone Weil's Christianity? And most importantly, what about the Jesus of my meditations?--my understanding of Jesus is absolutely too complicated for words, so complicated that I haven't even begun to convince myself that I know what G-d was, and how (or if) Jesus fits into that. The widespread reaction to Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright ought to reveal precisely how deep the divisions of interpretation run within Christianity -- but it has been anything but "easy" for Jeremiah Wright's congregation to continue supporting him. It has not been easy for me to agree with his views while mainstream Christianity has been appalled by his "radical" interpretation of the life of Jesus. Read about Philip K. Dick's experience in Christianity (seriously, take the time to read PKD's essay!) -- no one could call that "easy." What about Kierkegaard's Jesus? Or Dostoevsky's? Or Gabriel Marcel's? To pick on "easy" Christianity is no different than to "pick" easy Christianity instead of selecting a more complicated version (including even, possibly, a version that leaves behind the label "Christian" altogether?).

While I agree that the Jesus of Sunday school and Christmas plays and the Methodist Church of my parents seems uncomplicated, I recognize that I am and have always been fully able to disagree with that oversimple (and possibly entirely misrepresentative) presentation. After all, the Adam, Moses, and Abraham of Sunday school seemed just as two-dimensional.

I used to dislike Classical music. Then one day I realized that my "dislike" probably revealed much more about me than it did about Bach... the problem was with me, not with Bach's music. Watch Letterman interview Lauren Conrad, and watch the look of surprise on LC's face when Dave asks her if she might be the problem (right around the 1:10 mark):



So... well, I guess I'm trying to kindly ask Monica to stop bashing a big part of my secret religion!

In another of Monica's appearances at Luke's website, Monica says, "Within Christianity I wasn't necessarily encouraged to think about different interpretations of the same verse." I can't encourage Monica from "within Christianity," but maybe she'll be pleased to hear (from "without") that I wholeheartedly encourage that kind of interpretation of the New Testament -- indeed, I encourage that kind of (Midrashic) reading of the OT, the NT, and any literature (supposedly "Holy" or not) that Monica might stumble upon.
--------

THE SOUL selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I ’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

(Emily Dickinson)

10.29.2008

Teaching is Hard -- Pay us more, Obama!

Mind if I vent a little?

Thanks. I just finished teaching a 75 minute class on Ralph Waldo Emerson. I intended to spend only a few minutes on Emerson, since the last two classes involved extensive discussion and analysis of "Nature" and "Self-Reliance." But the discussion in those two classes was sticking in my head -- one of my students said, "Emerson's crazy," and others, more Southern Baptist still, implied that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, a false prophet. They reduced the godfather of American literature to a heep of ashes, and were ready to move on. Over and over again, the question of authority arose, as it should, with Emerson (he writes in a prophetic voice).

So I started with this:
So... imagine it's the year 30 AD. You're Jewish. You live on the outskirts of Rome, because Rome doesn't like Jewish ways. You hear about this guy who is baptizing people in a river out in the desert. Rumor has it he's eating only locusts and a little honey from time to time. He wears nothing but a loin cloth and he never shaves. Most of the people you talk to, Jewish and Roman alike, dismiss him as crazy. Would you go to hear him? Would you get baptized?
They say they'd go to hear him. They say they'd have to listen to what he was saying before they decided to get baptized. I ask, "What would he have to say to get you to accept the baptism?" They look a little confused. I continue:

Imagine it’s a couple years later – You’re Jewish, and you hear about a guy wandering around talking about how he IS G-d. He’s talking as if he has more authority than the holy texts. Would you go listen to him? He never shaves, he’s quit his job… he's got long hair... would you recognize, then? Would you believe in him, or believe in your sacred texts?

See, I'm asking all of these questions because I see Emerson as a kind of true prophet, as a prophet who is delivering, faithfully, the unchanging/eternal/holy-divine Spirit of the world (I see Jesus this way too, and Moses and Daniel and Hafiz and Walt Whitman). I see my students as "in-danger-of-not-going-to-get-baptized." So my students struggle to understand me, but I don't struggle to understand them. They see it like this:

[Jesus: Good]-----------------------------------[Emerson: Evil]

And I see it like this:

[Jesus, Emerson: Good]-----------["Evil is... privative, not absolute."]

When pressed, they retrench behind the language of orthodoxy: "Jesus said he is the Way, the Truth, the Life." If Emerson tells us to rely on "the Self," my students object: "the Self is fallen, the heart cannot be trusted." Their definitions make their argument for them. I try the route of deconstruction, asking them again how they would recognize G-d in the world. They say "Revelation says [something about trumpets]." I say, "But how would you have recognized Jesus as G-d?" They say "Miracles." THEN I REMEMBER: I've been meaning to read C.S. Lewis' book, Miracles, for a long time... maybe there's a crack in my argument... what if they're right? I haven't read enough about ancient Rome, or about Judaism during the time of Jesus--maybe I'm presenting John the Baptist unfairly... What if it is a horrible corruption of the Tr-th to say that every person is G-d, or to say that the Self can be trusted, or to say, as Emerson does, that "If... a man claims to know and speak of G-d, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not." (?)

That is what my students are doing. They are claiming to know and speak of G-d. They are carrying me backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world.

But, by rigid allegiance to their holy texts, my students have turned the camera around on me: I find myself in the situation I wanted them to be in: I have to think about where I see authority. Emerson tells me I should "Believe them not." But do I believe him?

My students leave, having learned far less than I have. I retreat to my office disheartened, doubting that I'm in the right profession -- in short, I discover that I don't trust myself. The "THEN I REMEMBER" above is the lightning flash of doubt, and it always, always hits me, and nobody else, never my students, and I'm sick of it!!! Everyone else walks around sure of what they believe, whether that's the Bible or Emerson or Chomsky or Whitman or Henry Miller or whatever... and like a bratty child, I find myself wondering: am I alone in this f*ckin' exile? Ironically, it turns out that even if Emerson's claims about virtue are correct, I fail to live accordingly. I guess I'll drive home tonight half-Southern Baptist, tail between my legs.

10.28.2008

Break Time! -- (Conquered Eyes, Part Two)

As a follow up on the post below, and in preparation for my post on Adyashanti, please do this 90-second experiment (unless you have epilepsy).

You're welcome.

Conquered Eyes

I had some very interesting discussion with my sophomores and juniors yesterday about Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance." This particular class has an interesting dynamic -- the conversation is usually steered by the convictions of five or six evangelical Christians who tend to object to everything written in America after Jonathan Edwards' sermons.

The standard question with this essay goes like this: "What is the SELF that Emerson argues we should rely on?"

Students are usually quick to point to passages like this, where Emerson seems to answer the question: "Whoso would be a man must be a noncomformist." Yesterday, my students read this passage and responded with pointed hesitation... especially because Emerson follows it up with this zinger: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind." For my Baptists, this is going too far; recoiling, they cling to dogmatism and literalism.

Not surpisingly, I love that reaction -- gives me the teachable moment I'm looking for. My students are reluctant to trust the SELF because they feel that it is in some kind of eternal disharmony with that which they do trust, the Bible. I sharpen the distinction by quoting the same paragraph: "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature... the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it."

Emerson's language so opposes the structure of the original-sin-nature language that pervades Baptist theology that students retrench when they hear this stuff. We talk some about Jesus, about whether he was "a nonconformist" (they tend to think not, which makes me grin), about whether Jesus' opposition to "the Law" was similar to Emerson's rejection of the Bible (again, they think not).

We turn to Emerson's most interesting description of what the SELF is, or should be:
What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text in the face and behavior of children, babes and even brutes. That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has not computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.
It takes a while to get my students to understand what Emerson means by "that divided and rebel mind," and what it means to say that a child has a whole mind, and an "unconquered" eye. What always makes it clear is when I point to them as examples: "Well, you--you, Emerson would say, for example, have divided, rebel minds. Conquered eyes."

They ask how that's true, indignantly. "You disagree with him, don't you?" The look of recognition passes especially flashingly across the faces of those who had most strongly opposed Emerson's thesis. Yesterday, for good measure, I asked them to remind me what Jesus thought about little children...

To think always in terms of distinction, always critically, always academically -- this is the mindset that Emerson (and Plotinus, and Swedenborg) wishes to disrupt. At the end of class, I showed this video ("Listening," by Adyashanti) to help them understand just how radical Emerson would've sounded to his contemporaries:


They left rolling their eyes, and thinking "that guy sounded crazy" -- a sure sign that they are on the road to academic success, the good little critical thinkers. Like Odyssey's Penelope, I hope they have a good journey, and trust that they will return home, long and fraught with difficulty though their adventures may be.

[I'm going to comment further on Adyashanti and his thinking in my next post.]

10.25.2008

Half Awake in a Fake Empire

I heard this earlier today for the first time -- seems like everything I've been talking about on my blog lately, so I thought I'd post it.

10.24.2008

Dwelling in It

Here is my drawing of the situation in Plato's mythical Cave after the first prisoner has been released from his bondage and dragged up into the world as we know it. As Glaucon and Socrates agree, the enlightened man would remember his fellow prisoners and try to go back to convince them that everything they have known is an illusion. The following is an imaginary conversation:

Guy who has been above ground (Earl): Holy, crap, Gustav -- you're never going to believe this!
Cave Dweller (Gus): Where have you been?
Earl: Listen to me man... this is going to sound crazy, but... see us talking there? On the wall? That's a shadow! It's not real!
Gus: Earl, what's a "wall?" What's a "shadow?" What are you talking about?
Earl: Look, you've gotta dig deep here man -- I know you think that those two dark blotches there are us, but...
Gus: Those two dark blotches there? Where exactly do you think you are, Earl? And don't refer to me as a "blotch."
Earl: Dammit, Gus -- I've seen a glorious other world, where objects have three dimensions... they are wide and tall, as you know them... and also "deep."
Gus: "Deep?"
Earl: Like, um... look at yourself. That isn't the real you! You're looking at a projection of you, and you're hearing an echo of your voice.
Gus [looking at his shadow]: Oh, really, Earl? So [pointing to his shadow head with his shadow hand] this isn't my head?
Earl: That's right! -- that's just a projection of your head... your real head is so much different, Gus. It's textured, and curvy, and bumpy, and round.
Gus: Listen Earl, you are out of your freakin' mind. You're talking nonsense.
Earl: Okay wait wait wait. Let me tell you a story.
Gus: [waiting]
Earl: Okay... so, uh, this world [Earl begins slowly, pointing around his shadow self with his shadow hand] seems very real to you. But, in the future, when you are ready, you're going to "get free" and move to another place that is just barely like this, but totally different.
Gus: That's not much of a story, Earl. Still nonsense. Who are you voting for, anyway?
Earl: What are you--kidding me? You're not listening, man. This. Isn't. Real.
Gus: You ever hear of schizophrenia, Earl?
Earl: Okay, okay... gimme a minute. A story:
Gus: [waiting]
Earl: Okay... okay. So, imagine a prisoner who has never seen his shadow--
Gus: Shadow? You keep saying that. What is that?
Earl: I mean -- I'm sorry -- who has never seen himself. Imagine a prisoner who has never seen himself. He's never had vision, since the time he was little.
Gus: Okay...
Earl: Now, let's say your job is to go and tell him that he does have a... uh... a body, like you have. How would you explain it to him? And imagine that all he has to do is open his eyes, but you can't do it for him. He has to do it himself. And remember, he has no notion that he has eyes, because he doesn't know that he has a body.
Gus: Dude, just tell me who you're voting for.
Earl: Dammit, man -- you aren't gettin' it.
Gus: Try another story, maybe?
Earl: Alright... this world is an illusion. You think that that [pointing to Gus' body] is you--
Gus: Damned right I "think" that's me. It is me, Earl.
Earl: Okay, sorry. But what if I told you that there's a "higher" world that's "like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field."
Gus: I dunno, Earl... this is lame. I mean, if there's another mystical "world" somewhere, and you've seen it, why don't you just explain it to me? I mean, what's it like?
Earl: It's brighter and in three dimensions.
Gus: Dude, I don't even know what that means. I can't wait for the election, though.

------

Finis.

Comments?

For some reason Blogger has been removing the comments option after I post my most symphonic, most masterful essays. If you have something to say about the Jesus & parables post, leave remarks here!

Taking G-d out of the Dictionary

In a recent conversation with a friend (who happens to be [for now!] my only reader) I was redirected to a blog post about Jesus and his use of parables. Because this is one of my favorite three things in the world to think and talk about, and because, characteristically, "I disagree," I offer a shabby response:

Here is the scrutinized text, from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (NIV):
10The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" 11He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: " 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' 16But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
Of particular interest to The Ridger, FCD, is the 13th verse in which Jesus explains why he speaks in parables. In Ridger's reading, "Jesus had the secret of how to get to heaven, but he chose to speak (like some oracle or wizard in a bad fantasy novel) in parables and riddles to prevent the wrong people from finding it out. And then he damned them to hell for not getting it...." Ultimately, Ridger complains that "Christians try to pretend that this isn't the way God works - even to ignoring the plain meaning of the words they quote Jesus saying."

Well, I don't know so much about Christians. I was raised in a church, but barely -- when I attended, I usually attended a kind of cut & paste/picture-book Sunday School session with my friends after listening to the first few songs sung by the choir and a little "invocation" or something. I was an atheist from 19-29, and probably was before that even though I would've called myself "Christian" because everybody else did.

-----

This morning I was teaching Plato's rock-star-famous "Allegory of the Cave" to a classroom full of college freshmen. To help them understand the allegory-parable, I showed a clip from The Matrix where one of the characters actually chooses to settle for the false world of the matrix because he finds the real world unbearable.



It's a really interesting and important scene because it considers a possibility that was overlooked by Plato: that a person might choose what is false over what is real. In the allegory of the Cave, Glaucon grants it to Socrates that the enlightened being would prefer to suffer anything instead of being forced to re-enter the cave and live in the old way according to the customs he knew were illusory.

Students sometimes try to sympathize with "Cypher" for choosing to plug back into the matrix, even though he know it is a simulation. But when, through discussion, the strict structure of the allegory comes into focus for them, they sometimes have a bizarre reaction: they simply refuse it altogether. They say things like, "But we are not like those people. This world is not like that. I have not been in chains since my youth."

I raise my hands and I point to the room around me -- "This world," I pronounce, emphatically, "these things," I say, pointing to the objects in the room, "My face--," I say, overseriously. "These are Plato's shadows, according to this allegory. There is another, brighter, truer world of which this one is a mere shadow."

"No," they say, "It is not so. We are not like those prisoners." In my students' resistance, in that response, you can understand the meaning of the words in Matthew: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

-----

Of course, like my students, you may disbelieve the allegories and parables. You may refuse the premise altogether... but consider the pedagogical problem from the perspective of one who has (hypothetically) actually seen the "higher" or "more real" world. If you had been strapped into an underground prison cell your whole life, and had seen nothing but shadows... what words could I (or the shadowed image of me on the wall, with its misleading echo), who have seen the higher reality, speak to you to make you understand that there is a more real world?

Could I say, avoiding parable, "You are looking at two-dimensional shadows on a wall; there are three dimensional objects that you can see and touch if you'll come with me." Would that make sense to you? Would it sound insane? Would you capable of imagining a so-called "third dimension?"

It is this dilemma -- this pedagogical problem -- that I believe explains Jesus' use of parables. It is not that he wants to keep people from entering the "Kingdom of Heaven." Quite the converse: people are unwilling and unable to understand what he is trying to describe.

In the words of Morpheus, in The Matrix, "no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." To reemphasize a point I have made before: the distinction betwen critical analysis and experiential understanding is of profound importance in the search for truth and wisdom. The difference between the cave and the three-dimensional world, the difference between the matrix and the "desert of the real," the difference between this world and the kingdom of heaven -- in each of these cases the difference is so vast that the higher realm cannot be described in the language of the lower realm. At best, the teachers of the higher realms are able to hint at how vast the difference is; they can give no picture of what is on the other side.

In my view, Jesus speaks in parables because they are all he has -- ask yourself why Dostoevsky turned to fiction instead of simply writing Schopenhauer-esque philosophical essays. Ask yourself the same about Melville and Hawthorne. Melville wrote, in a letter to Hawthorne,

We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason's mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron, -- nothing more! We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us. But it is this Being of the matter; there lies the knot with which we choke ourselves. As soon as you say Me, a God, a Nature, so soon you jump off from your stool and hang from the beam. Yes, that word is the hangman. Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have Him in the street.

Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have him in the street. What an idea. The truth is not language. It is not this blog post. It is an experience -- one that I, I am sure, cannot give you.

I agree with Ridger on one point, though: it does seem to me that G-d has chosen from the beginning of time which people will be able to decipher the parables. But like a high-wattage radio station, I think Jesus sent the signal to whoever could receive it... G-d seems to have distributed the radio-receivers eons ago. The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven is like the radio, not the high-wattage signal.

10.23.2008

More on (Not-) Talking Politics

If I had ever had a mystical experience, according to William James, that mystical experience would've included an overwhelming sense of the unity of all things -- I might describe such an experience as involving a boundless sense of "Oneness."  In this experience, which, according to reports, transcends religious nomenclature, all division is seen to be an illusion.

But of course, like James, I haven't had such an experience.  Still, the fact that others have weighs heavy in my conscience.  On the other hand, asked to imagine the experience of people whose experience apparently differs from my own, I have been encouraged to acknowledge difference by many learned people, by people I respect.  In my attempt to stay "true" to both of these demands on my consciousness (and conscience), as I have suggested before, I feel stretched.

According to W.C. Harris's book E Pluribus Unum, the tension I'm feeling is quintessentially American.  Harris argues that the tension has led certain thinkers to argue in favor of Union or Unity (Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, MLK, Jr., etc.) and others to demand that diversity be acknowledged (Patrick Henry, Melville, Twain, Du Bois).  Responding to the pressures of their time, each of these writers can be understood as moving toward a "still-more-American" center, a center that, it seems, must always be shifting.  In Harris' view, then, the ancient philosophical problem, first made explicit in the Neoplatonic work of Plotinus (in the Enneads, which are awesome!), is anything but an effete abstraction when it comes to America.  Instead, according to Harris, this problem is at the center of what America is, and what it means.  Harris writes, for example,
Like Poe, Whitman, Melville, and James, [Frederick] Douglass understands that the problem is not just historical but profoundly structural: "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham.... It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union."
In other words, "Difference" was not an antagonistic force that arose in opposition to a Union that was intended to be perfect -- instead, Harris writes, "Difference... was there from there start." (Harris points to the 3/5 clause that was in Article I of the Constitution.)

Let me reiterate: this tension between union and difference was created intentionally by our founders, and during the 19th century (at least), this tension was a profound source of cultural (and social) creation and change.

To all of this, Harris adds the point that the American literary project, which got underway serious in the 1830s, was a continuation of its earlier philosophical project -- that is, writers like Poe, Melville, and William James were trying to "reground" the Constitution.  Here's the critical point: America's 19th century writers must be understood as writing "supplementarily," as adding to and responding to an already-existing body of literature.  Harris writes,
What I am suggesting, then, is that the supplementary relation assumed by certain nineteenth-century literary texts toward traditionally nonliterary (political or theological) modes of social organization takes its precedent from the relation between America's operative documents of state formation, each of which (the Articles, the Constitution, its amendments, subsequent legislation, and judicial opinions) either replaces its predecessor text or omits or revises those passages that, by logical contradiction, block the full realization of some founding principle.
That's one poorly written sentence, no doubt -- but I believe understanding Harris' thought is profoundly important to understanding America.  For perspective, I might suggest that the American Legislative project might be best understood as a kind of continuation of the original Protestant revolution: just as Protestantism spawns renewed churches each generation, America would give rise to a perpetually revolutionized government.  Although Harris doesn't say it, I deduce the following "under-thesis": America is a kind of anti-Institution... it was intended to resist the natural processes of calcification, of ossification, of orthodoxification, or whatever.

Q: What does this have to do with refusing to participate in contemporary political discourse?

A: Partisanship has always been with America.  Pamphleteers and orators were no more scarce in 1851 than political bloggers and pundits are in 2008.  As if in spite of partisanship, however, American literature has tended toward Romantic or transcendental themes.  We know that Hawthorne supported Democrat Franklin Pierce.  Pierce defeated Winfield Scott, a Whig, in 1852.  By 2008, of course, Hawthorne's political affiliation seems unimportant precisely because it is -- it is unimportant because it is entirely without contemporary context.  And yet, somehow, The Scarlet Letter is still taught in American literature classes, and still seems (like Emerson's "Nature," and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Melville's Moby-Dick), to certain people, very important.

Needless to say, I'm one of these "certain people."  I don't go on quoting Whitman and Emerson because I assume my readers consider them to be authorities -- I do it because I consider them to be authorities, and because I'm far less eloquent than they were.  In withdrawing from political discourse for a season, I do not mean to suggest that anyone else should follow my lead, or to suggest that I am doing a noble thing.  I hope that much is apparent.

When we look at Obama and McCain, we see competing definitions of America.  Considered from a certain perspective, it is a minor difference.  That's the best I can put it.

10.22.2008

"How is this a quest for truth...?"

When you type in "schizophrenia + enlightenment," which you would, if you understood a damned thing about what your revered idols Deleuze and Guattari were saying, you'd find disappointingly little.  There are a few interesting articles, but nothing to hang a hat on--mostly stuff by schizophrenics.  If you're looking for videos, the pickings are even slimmer.  You'll find this one, and little more.

The guy giving that talk on schizophrenia and enlightenment has a website: click here.  This guy, probably diagnosable as schizo-typal, believes that he is G-d.  Not "part and particle of G-d," as Emerson might put it, but G-d incarnate (incidentally, he believes you are G-d too).  William James described this attitude in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
'That art Thou!' say the Upanishads, and the Vedantists add: 'Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that absolute Spirit of the World.'
It's an unusual attitude -- one that's certainly difficult to defend, in the West, at least.  Although (ahem) I have no personal experience with this kind of thinking, like William James, I find it to be a long and broad enough tradition that it is difficult to ignore.  So while I may not declare "I am G-d," I do find some truth in the notion that there is at least some divinity in all human beings.  [Note: I would add here, mostly for Mxrk, that I don't think this is an objectionable point even for an atheist, if the atheist is smart enough to read between the lines, which, in your case, I know he is -- that is, all I mean is that everybody is inherently valuable.]

SO! -- that point being established, I have begun my defense of why I am withdrawing from political discourse for yet another season.  My justification lies precisely in the notion that I take each and every human to be a shining reflection of the One (i.e., G-d, "the Universe," Brahman, whatever).  Imago Dei, Michael.

If I think that way -- and I try to -- then what opinion arising in these faces of G-d could I possibly want to change?  Listen -- don't interrupt-- to Emerson:
Therefore the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet. It respects the end too much, to immerse itself in the means. It sees something more important in Christianity, than the scandals of ecclesiastical history, or the niceties of criticism; and, very incurious concerning persons or miracles, and not at all disturbed by chasms of historical evidence, it accepts from G-d the phenomenon, as it finds it, as the pure and awful form of religion in the world. It is not hot and passionate at the appearance of what it calls its own good or bad fortune, at the union or opposition of other persons. No man is its enemy. It accepts whatsoever befalls, as part of its lesson. It is a watcher more than a doer, and it is a doer, only that it may the better watch (my emphasis).
I cannot defend myself in terms better than these.  I consider myself to be very good friends with some people (Mxrk, Michael) who have told me to speak up this political season.  I know that they are precisely the face of G-d. But I am friends no less with others (B. Dunn, Walt Whitman) who have told me that politics is nothing more than a passing season.  I take all of that in; it becomes me -- I appreciate it and agree with everyone.  To borrow the wonderful language of Sen. Obama, I can no more disown my semi-racist McCain-voting grandmother than I can disown my most progressive Obama-fawning friends.  Undoubtedly, this seems like a rhetorical ploy, but they all are a part of me, and what they assume, I shall assume.

The question was: If this quest for the truth is keeping you from writing about things, how is it a quest for truth?  The answer is: the quest for truth is not keeping me from writing anything--I am speaking freely and without reservation; the quest for truth is only keeping me from believing that which might motivate me to speak on political matters.

And, I might add: when I asked (Michael) about whether Jesus voted for the Sadducees (R) or the Pharisees (D), I meant to imply a direct and pointed correspondence to contemporary politics.  

-------

Forthcoming: 1) a post on the difference between Separatist Puritans and non-Separatist Puritans in the 16th century, and 2) a post on W.C. Harris' thesis concerning "the supplementary relation assumed by certain nineteenth-century literary texts toward traditionally nonliterary (political or theological) modes of social organization [which] takes its precent from the relation between America's operative documents of state formation, each of which (the Articles, the Constitution, its amendments, subsequent legislation, and judicial opinions) either replaces its predecessor text or omits or revises those passages that, by logical contradiction, block the full realization of some founding principle" (pg. 3).

(I'm not kidding about that 2nd post, ridiculous as it sounds -- it's very important, and I'm going to write about that sentence until it makes sense to all of you... especially you, Mxrk, with that prelim encroaching.)

May He Rise Again

In case you missed it, the actor who played Dolemite died yesterday, at the age of 81.  All I know is that 2 Live Crew couldn't have been as nasty as they wanted to be without him -- R.I.P., Mr. Moore.

Margaret Atwood is still alive?

Here's a link to Atwood's important article, published today, in the NY Times.  She argues that debt has a moral aspect to it, and that it transcends money.  Somehow, we've forgotten that very important point.

I will only add: if you agree with Atwood's thesis about debt, will you agree that goods and services themselves somehow transcend money?--that there is a real, unavoidable value (a moral value, no less) attached to something like a 3-bedroom home?--and that that value is derived from humans demanding and producers supplying these products?

If you'll agree to all of that, good luck trying to explain to yourself what the hell the Federal Reserve Bank (or the IMF)  is, if it is not a monster.


10.21.2008

Against Politics, or, "I'm not a divider, am I?"

Once again, as happens every four years, I've become convinced that politics is bad for human beings, and largely unnecessary. The most fervently committed people, committed with nothing but good-intentions, are perfectly willing to completely forget about loving their enemy when political season rolls around. Only the stoic remains unmoved:

Not to be a fan of the Greens or Blues at the races,or the light-armed or heavy-armed gladiators at the Circus.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I suppose the irony is nowhere as conspicuous as it is when throngs of partisans cry "Unity!" and mean "Division!"

Of course, it would be easy to argue with me on this point -- "What about Justice, Casey? Doesn't the world need to be fixed, Casey? Ever heard of progress, Casey? Isn't Obama a terrorist, Casey? Isn't McCain a racist, Casey?" And so on. I'd like to counter with two literary excerpts, both mystical in tone. The first is from Walt Whitman, and will be easily recognizable for anyone reading this blog (except maybe Santos... it's "There was a child went forth"):

THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the
Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.

I post that just to set the tone for this next one, and to remind people about the difference between waiting-until-it's-your-turn-to-refute... and, listening. It's the difference between critical apprehension and experiential imagination. This next one is from the "Gnostic," non-canonical Gospel of Philip (one of my favorites):
It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself - and what you see you shall become.
I find this to be an almost unutterably true thought. For me, this notion is at the foundation of ethical behavior, and I'm not willing to concede that it's something that's commonly practiced. Indeed, it seems to me to be remarkably rare for a person to understand and seek to overcome the difference between "waiting" and "listening." In this light, our behavior every four years seems to me to be a tragically overlooked manifestation of the very injustices we claim to seek to remedy. We line up on opposite sides of a field and bark loudly at one another, or fire our muskets at the whites of each others' eyes. I know because I have participated from both sides.

Of course, this is the secret: unless you recognize yourself in your opposition, you have not fully understood your opponent. And if you do not understand, why do you oppose? Our situation is quintessentially Biblical: we are throwing the first stone, "removing the speck from our brother's eye" before removing the log from our own. While I'm on the Gnostic mystical stuff, I'll do one more -- this time, from The Gospel of Thomas (#72):
A [person said] to [Jesus], "Tell my brothers to divide my father's possessions with me." He said to the person, "Mister, who made me a divider?" He turned to his disciples and said to them, "I'm not a divider, am I?"
The political discourse I have heard recently from both sides has finally made me uncomfortable, and so I'm withdrawing, with Jesus... Does this seem irresponsible? Shameful? Hateful? Gutless?
Long live the umpires.

[How's that, B. Dunn?]

Public Trading in Celebrity

Maybe you heard about the guy who invented those windshield wipers because of the recent movie, Flash of Genius. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I do this kind of thing all the time. In 1985, for example, when I was seven-years old, I invented headlights that would turn on when it got dark out after seeing a display at a local science museum in Lansing, MI. Of course, I didn't contact Saturn, so they stole my idea two years later.

My latest invention is nothing less than just-what-is-needed to save America's (and the world's) struggling economy. We need to turn rich people, celebrities, and politicians into publically traded commodities. Hear me out.

On this stock exchange, investors would purchase a certain amount of shares in a celebrity for a certain amount of gold. So let's say you see Miley Cyrus' career taking off over the next ten years. Her IPO (Initial Offering Price, for those of you who don't know anything about markets) might put her at 25 shares/oz. gold. All of the money that Miley takes in from investors would be hers to spend in R&D or advertising or however she decides (unless she sells the majority share of her stock) to spend it. If she lands a big contract or a movie deal, undoubtedly, her stock would go up. If she gets preggo, needless to say, her price would plummet.

Is Katt Williams' stock up?--maybe Chapelle's is down. Is Britney Spears' career over, and her shares without value?--or does she have enough name recognition to stage a major comeback in her forties after discovering Kundalini Yoga? Is it possible that, when we take the red-button and other powers away, Americans might start to love George Bush?--maybe now is a good time to buy stock in G.-Dub.

And, best of all, this could be an alternative to buying and trading and selling sports cards -- when I was nine, I bought 100 rookie cards of Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell. It cost me $25.00, but I thought he was going to be the next Ted Williams. If he had had the career I expected him to have, I might be rich right now. Instead, Mike Greenwell turned out to be the next Larry Herndon, and I'm not sure I've broken even on my initial investment. Tiger Woods busts his knee?--his stock plummets. In other words, young men (and creepy old guys) have been playing the market on athletes for a long time -- why not play with gold instead of paper cards that can burn when your dad's sister leaves an attic light on in 1966 when your dad heads off for college (Dad guesses there were at least eight 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle cards in there before the attic caught fire!).

So... how great an idea is this? America's economy is in shambles -- our young people are dumber than young people in any other modernized country in the world. We can't manufacture, we suck at borrowing and lending, we're running out of good real-estate. But we got famous people, and the world would love to play in this kind of stock market. I mean, should I quit everything and be the guy in charge of all this?

10.16.2008

Pro-life? Anti-Stem Cell Research? Palin Supporter? Pro-War?: Vote Obama

Conservatives are sort of passing this audio link around to each other -- I have lunch with some business and finance professors once a week.  They loved this stuff.  I have to agree: it's pretty funny.

Joe the Plumber, cont'd.

I think the real story here is that a PLUMBER can make $250,000/yr. + in America... What!?!  I am definitely encouraging my children to turn their backs on education as early as possible in favor of skilled labor.

10.15.2008

Joetheplumber.com: URL already registered (I checked)

Man, you wanna talk about funny! Could McCain blink a little more, please? My brother texted me during the debate tonight and wrote, "try talking to gretchy without showing your upper teeth; it's fun." Then he texted me saying, "i love it when He just laughs at mccain like i do; it just makes mccain angrier and angrier." And right then, my wife goes, "Wouldn't you just love to see McCain blow his top and say what he really thinks right now?--you can see the steam coming out of his ears."

And then somebody I know said, "When Obama moves into the White House, he should grow his afro out." And that brought the house down, because that would be the thing to do.

And I guess it's a little funny how Obama crescendos all of his "Ands": "uh, AaaaND!..."

And it's also funny how, when John McCain smiles, he looks like the devil. At first, I thought I'd post the speech by Al Pacino (playing the devil) in Devil's Advocate to make fun of McCain's laugh, but then I saw this, and knew right away that it was perfect:



And "Oh, snap!" when Obama goes, "Here's your fine, Joe-the-plumber [holding up the universal finger sign for ZERO] -- Zero." And McCain going, "Zero?!?" and then trying to keep himself composed for the rest of the debate...

Humor, Politics, and the Politics of Humor

[I'm not sure why, but the "comments" button isn't appearing below this post... seems appropriate, somehow. Leave any comments in the joe-the-plumber post above.]

Michael and I are debating what may seem like a nanotechnologically fine point -- but I just had a revelation.

In Michael's latest comment, he suggested that the problem we're having might stem from our divergent understanding of what is meant by "intelligent." But I just realized, in re-viewing Maddow's segment with Frum, that it seems to me that we're disagreeing over what is funny. Here's the original:



And though this video isn't full of Maddow's characteristic "humor," if you're still reading, you've seen it. Compare it to this video, a three minute clip of Ann Coulter being "funny" in front of her own choir:



There's no debating this: some people, at least the ones laughing, think this is good stuff -- really good "humor."

This reminds me of the occasional debate I've had with specialists in American Literature about a book like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the question of aesthetic merit. People who tend to see Teddy Roosevelt as their political hero hate that book; people who prefer FDR tend to like it. To me, enlightened as I am, that particular kind of divided judgment concerning literary quality suggests something that is relatively unimpressive.

Or: maybe our misunderdisagreement stems from what we expect as viewers: for whatever reason, I don't turn Rachel Maddow on with the same expectations about the relative importance of politics and humor in the same way that I turn on The Daily Show. With Maddow, I expect humor to serve her end of political commentary. With Stewart, I understand that humor is the end. I suppose a person could watch Maddow in the same way, but approached that way, Maddow's show is an abysmal failure by comparison to Stewart's.

Of course, I recognize that it would be snobbish to the point of boorishness to suggest that all humor ought to be transcendent humor, apolitical and eternal in nature. Nor do I want to suggest that America is in a worse state than it has been in some imagined super-serious and conscientious past. On the other hand, I'm still struggling to understand what either Maddow or Coulter are contributing to the world -- if humor, they're horrible hacks. If political insight, I fear that their subject matter is too important to warrant our attention. Here's Abraham Lincoln's opening lines in the second of his debates with Douglas:

Mr. Lincoln's Speech

Mr. Lincoln took the stand at a quarter before three, and was greeted with vociferous and protracted applause; after which, he said:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: It will be very difficult for an audience so large as this to hear distinctly what a speaker says, and consequently it is important that as profound silence be preserved as possible.

While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.]

Awesome, Mr. Lincoln. Hilarious, if I agree with your assertation that black people are not really humans. But stick to the finer points of policy in the future, okay? But wait, there's more:
I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject,) that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.]
Is there such a thing as responsible political humor? I can imagine it. Are there better ways to spend our time, like... signing emancipation proclamations and stuff? Seems like it. I guess it seems to me like there's politics that has to do with Justice and everlasting rights and the current disastrous economic collapse and so on, and then there's a conversation that lasts ten minutes about William Ayers and the Keating Five and Rachel Maddow's "tone."

[I'm going to get an "unsweet" iced tea right now, because I fear Mr. Hyde is taking over again... it's 3:30 pm]

...Later that day...

[8:15 pm] I'll try one more way of making this point. My wife, an accomplished poet, once changed my mind about poetry -- she taught me that good poetry must be an exploration. Good poets do not sit down knowing what they want to say. Instead, they sit down with something much more like a question... and the writing process is, ideally, a process of discovery.

Most decent people will "support" the content of the following poem by John Piedmont (1843), but few (I think) would suggest it rises to a sufficient level to warrant serious consideration as an aesthetic accomplishment:

PRAYER OF THE CHRISTIAN.
___________

With thy pure dews and rains,
Wash out, O God, the stains,
From Afric's shore;
And, while her palm trees bud,
Let not her children's blood,
With her broad Niger's flood,
Be mingled more!

Quench, righteous God, the thirst,
That Congo's sons hath cursed —
The thirst for gold!

--------------


Is it too much to ask that all our political pundits behave more like Emily Dickinson and less like John Piedmont? Yes... of course it is. Hmmm.

One more way to make this point: if you get up every morning already knowing what you think and who you agree with and who you disagree with, I think you will have a more difficult time listening to other people. There is an AM talk radio host here in Charlotte that really irks me sometimes because he generally asks the caller, as soon as they get on the air, "So are you one of those Obama supporters?" And if the caller says, "Yes," he begins immediately patronizing, half-listening, and tuning out. Limbaugh does this. O'Reilly does it. Maddow does it. Olbermann does it. Coulter does it. Chris Matthews does it. I don't think it's good. I don't think it's ethical. I think my reaction is sincere, even if I'm having a very difficult time persuading Michael (or anyone else) of the point.

Essay on Economics

Alright, my friends: there's no funny way to tell you this -- widespread economic growth is opposed to racial justice. And I can't decide which is more important.

I found a good link here after being directed to that site by a Google search for "Clinton 1992 Housing Bill." That site sent me to just what I was looking for: a 1999 article published in the Los Angeles Times that applauded the Clinton administration's policies and credited those policies for expanding minority home-ownership. Here's an excerpt:
In 1992, Congress mandated that Fannie and Freddie increase their purchases of mortgages for low-income and medium-income borrowers. Operating under that requirement, Fannie Mae, in particular, has been aggressive and creative in stimulating minority gains. It has aimed extensive advertising campaigns at minorities that explain how to buy a home and opened three dozen local offices to encourage lenders to serve these markets. Most importantly, Fannie Mae has agreed to buy more loans with very low down payments–or with mortgage payments that represent an unusually high percentage of a buyer’s income. That’s made banks willing to lend to lower-income families they once might have rejected.
So in 1992, the same year of the Los Angeles riots that were a direct response to the Rodney King beating (and probably an indirect response to pervasive racial injustice), Congress "made banks lend to lower-income families they once might have rejected."

The result? Seemingly not bad -- the 1999 article in the LA Times sums it up this way:

It’s one of the hidden success stories of the Clinton era. In the great housing boom of the 1990s, black and Latino homeownership has surged to the highest level ever recorded. The number of African Americans owning their own home is now increasing nearly three times as fast as the number of whites; the number of Latino homeowners is growing nearly five times as fast as that of whites.
Fine and dandy. Indeed, an evident success for Progress and racial harmony and human equality... right? I mean, there haven't been any widespread "race riots" (as the 1992 riot was described) since that time. Maybe things are getting better.

And then, early this month, the hope bubble -- I mean the housing bubble -- finally burst. As the housing boom was underway in the 1990s, "underqualified buyers" (a euphemism for African Americans and Latinos, no doubt) who could not afford to keep making payments could always sell their houses. A house they bought for $130,000 might have increased in value to $135,000, and if they couldn't make the monthly payments, no loss: they simply sold and moved on.

But when the housing market became "surplussed," or bloated -- when too many houses had been built and prices weren't low enough anymore -- people who could not make payments could ALSO not simply sell their houses. Banks stopped bringing in money. Financial collapse ensued.

Now, some people are blaming the housing crisis on the market economy -- and more specifically, on the GREED that's endemic to the laissez-faire situation. But look at their language, and compare it to the language of the 1999 LA Times article above. The 2008 article, the first thing that comes up on Google when you search "What caused the economic crisis?," goes like this:

I think we can sum up the cause of our current economic crisis in one word — GREED. Over the years, mortgage lenders were happy to lend money to people who couldn’t afford their mortgages.
Really? Mortgage lenders "were happy to lend money to people who couldn't afford their mortgages?" Hmmm... were they happy? Or did Bill Clinton make them?: "In 1992, Congress mandated [i.e., regulated] that Fannie and Freddie increase their purchases of mortgages for low-income and medium-income borrowers." Sound familiar?

Now all of this would be partisan bickering and would qualify as "who-cares" if it didn't have everything to do with what kind of country we want to have in ten years. The Huffington Post would have you believe that de-regulation has been the cause of the current economic collapse. I hope I've made a case for precisely the opposite.

Without a doubt, economic recession hurts those who can't afford to be hurt more than it hurts the bluebloods. So we are faced once again with the same question: widespread economic prosperity or racial justice? I know, I genuinely understand, that all of you who might read this wish that we could have both. But Clinton's experiment in 1992 (since I cited The Huffington Post, I'll mention: Ann Coulter describes Clinton's initiative of 1992 as "an affirmative-action time bomb") with very well-intentioned social engineering ought to reveal the danger of market regulation.

So we're back where we started: America's fate is tied to the fate of its poorest. As Melville put it: "I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two: that my free will had received a mortal wound." The hour of our judgment is upon us again: riots and fire in the streets, or continued expansion of credit at an ever-accelerated pace that will lead, inevitably, to worsening economic "crisis" that will eventually culminate in a Great Depression?

Any votes?

Bad Sex Literary Award

I was not blogging last year when I heard about this, and I promised myself to post it if I ever started blogging again. This is an excerpt, an excerpt that won him the dubious award for worst sex scene in fiction, from Norman Mailer's 2007 book, The Castle in the Forest:

His mouth lathered with her sap, he turned around and embraced her face with all the passion of his own lips and face, ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety.

How bad is that!?! I mean, that is awfully bad, isn't it?

10.14.2008

Preliminary Remarks

I'm back (again). Some of you will appreciate that I almost named this blog Premature Ejaculations, but decided against it in favor of something more... measured. More literary. I take my title from a scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, though Hawthorne never wrote the phrase "both wearing black masks." Anyway, I like the mysterious sound of it, and the image it conjures up: two people, facing each other, both wearing black masks.

This time, the impulse to re-enter Blogadelphia is the result of a recent intensification of an old feeling... a feeling that is difficult to describe. Once, I tried in a poem:

Ode to Isthmus

Holy, rarest land formation—
When I learned your name in grade school,
Was I aware then that I would become like you?
Would I have wanted to know your name?
Land mass connecting two larger land masses,
You and I are the stretched, the go-betweens.
If you could read, Isthmus,
You would prefer the apocryphal Jesus,
Understanding his cryptic “Be passersby.”

Between North and South, Avalon and Newfoundland,
Gibraltar and Spain, there is Isthmus, unremarkable.
I learned your name, Isthmus, your strange and holy name
With a red-headed boy named Steve.
Isthmus tell me: has Steve has been haunted
By certain geographical features:
Plateau, peninsula, or steppe?

Man learns the shape of his soul twice.

Neither North nor South,
Isthmus is without direction or place.
Isthmus is an isolato, comforted only
By the knowledge that there are other isthmuses.
Isthmus happens at dawn and dusk and during wars,
As when Alexander constructed an isthmus at Tyre.

Once I watched a miniature isthmus fall apart,
Rode the pressurized flood of water from a small inland lake
Into Lake Michigan, saved a younger cousin
From drowning. What were we then, Isthmus?—
What is that horribly mechanized canal in Panama?
What are the boats that cheat the oceans,
And what is the locked water in between?
What does it mean to be a natural target
For canal builders, for us, Isthmus?
But of course, that's embarrassing because I'm not (by "calling") a poet. Here's a different kind of example: Yesterday I attended a lecture on the current economic crisis. I went there ready to defend the free market against people who were uninformedly blaming the current crisis on a laissez-faire philosophy. But after listening for ten minutes, then twenty, then forty, without hearing a single reference to the issue of "race" in America, I realized that I would instead be defending market intervention for the evening.

The expert economists in the room were claiming that Bill Clinton's 1992 Affordable Housing initiative -- a bill that sought to extend the privilege of home-ownership to "risky borrowers" (read: black people) -- seemed to me to have been born of good intention. I remember the early 1990s. I remember Rodney King and the riots in L.A. and all of that, so it seems to me that America reached a(nother) crisis point in about 1992: should we ask the really difficult question, which is "Why are all the so-called 'risky borrowers' racial minorities?" Or should take an alternative path, hardly less difficult, to obscure and essentially try to "fix" that problem by manipulating credit?

Talk about a difficult moment in history: Publically address the question of racism in America OR pass horrible economic legislation? To be honest, I'm not sure we made the right decision, and I'm not sure we made the wrong decision. Seriously: what's worse? -- burning stuff in L.A.?... or exploding pension funds and dire times on wall street and plummeting real estate value? Deciding is beyong my pay grade.

So I'm stuck -- isthmus-like -- between people seeing what I think is half the picture on the libertarian side (understanding bad economics but not acknowledging racism) and people seeing what I think is half the picture on the social-engineering side (understanding racial injustice but not understanding economics).

And remember, this is all only an allegory, a way of trying to explain a feeling I have that makes me want to blog: I won't be addressing my motivation after this first post.

Note: I just noticed that if you just read the first word in each line of that poem above you get an almost better poem. It would look like this:

Holy
When
Was
Would
Land
You
If
You
Understanding

Between
Gibraltar
I
With
Isthmus
By
Plateau

Man

Neither
Isthmus
Isthmus
By
Isthmus
As

Once
Rode
Into
From
What
What
And
What
For