9.30.2009

Against Postmodernism; For Truth

Here's a proposition for you: Postmodernism is against ethics.

Please do me the favor of reading these two paragraphs carefully (I can't imagine why you would, but, maybe...):

Paragraph 1: I have finally understood the source of my frustration. I now understand why I've typed so much and failed to change the world. I see what you see. You look at me see hypocrisy. I have healthcare, a wife, and a stable and respectable job. You know that I am a liar because you know that I could not have gotten myself into such a situation without being a liar. You will not listen because of what you see; and now that I see what you see, I cannot understand why you would listen. You are right not to.

Paragraph 2: But, consider what your refusal to listen (that is, to take me as an authoritative speaker) reveals to you about your own knowledge and assumptions. If you have heard me speak of Truth and rolled your eyes, it is because you knew what Truth was, and saw that I was not living it (so fearful am I of the cross). You know that speaking the Truth is not impossible, but only severely punishable in this culture. Like me, you know what a hypocrite is. You know what a hypocrite is.

"Postmodernism is against ethics." But you don't need to be admonished not to take my word for it -- you already don't. And I don't blame you. I wouldn't believe a word out of my mouth either (I wear tassels on my shoes, for chrissake!). But I just listened to a lecture by Os Guinness that stopped me in my tracks, that convicted me not by argument, but by my own conscience. It reminded me of something so clearly that I don't know how to proceed. I don't know what to do now that I remember.

Click on that link; listen for half an hour. I wish I could say I'm done with Postmodernism and "Rhetoric" -- I fear that I'm not. My only hope is that that fear will count for something when the silent dark thing comes looking for me.

At one point he says, "Without Truth, there is only manipulation."

9.29.2009

Confessions, Truth, and Tenure

The other day Wrangler linked me to a story about an academic dean (or something like that) who recommended that male professors "enjoy" looking at their female students--as a kind of job perk, sort of. We started a short dialogue:
Casey: Isn't [the dean's] mistake... only a matter of saying so... ? I mean, was there ever a time when a man didn't look? The last question, "Should Kealy be allowed to have his fun, or..." -- I mean, how are they going to stop him from looking?

Wrangler: Yeah, I hear you. But he has to know better. The social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics in play here just SCREAM "don't press send."

Casey: Definitely.
And it seems the Wrangler is happy to leave it at that. I've got a few more thoughts, tho'. Let's start with defining the "social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics":
Social power dynamics: I assume here Wrangler means things like the consequences that follow when a person refuses to follow well-established social mores. Everything from losing friends to being blacklisted to cold stares and so on.

Cultural power dynamics: it might be okay to ogle your students in Russia, but not here.

Institutional power dynamics: if you want to keep your job and get tenure, and this topic comes up, keep your mouth shut (or agree with whatever your female colleagues are saying).
And I take it that this is a good example of what a good practicing Rhetorician would do. He or she would say all the right things -- would end up making lots of friends and influencing lots of people, and probably even getting promoted a year early. Around these kinds of delicate maneuvers, an academic discipline has organized.

Is it really necessary? FLASHCARD: "You're in a meeting and your boss farts. Do you a) pretend not to hear, b) make a light-hearted joke to help them through the embarrassment, or c) say, "Jeezus, woman -- that is disgusting."

So Rhetoric can give me a sense of what kinds of things I should or shouldn't say given a certain set of social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics.

Anything missing here? Any five-letter word beginning with T, ending with H, and containing "RUT" in the middle?

I'm mildly frustrated by the fact that a Rhetorician looks at an issue like this and simply says, "Well, a good way to avoid negative consequences is to... either lie or shut up." Isn't that so obvious as to not require a discipline?

Let me get to where I'm going. I'm imagining the publication of a popular book in the field of Rhetorical theory in the year 2012 that contains the thesis, "If Jesus would've simply avoided saying he was the Son of God, he probably wouldn't have been crucified."

Really? Isn't that a pretty obvious "duh?" Doesn't that overlook the issue itself, which is whether or not he was the Son of God? Doesn't "negotiating" social, cultural, and institutional pressures without an eye and ear for Truth somewhere between vapid and unethical?

And finally, No, the Rhetorician cannot get him or herself off the hook by deconstructing Truth. I know that Wrangler, at least, has a precise understanding of what I mean by the term in this case--he said as much in our dialog: "I hear you. But he has to know better." So it's as clear to Wrangler as it was to the sketchy professor that men have ogled women since the beginning of time, but Wrangler's essentially willing to pretend that his eye is not attracted to the skirt in the front row... so that he doesn't have to suffer the social, cultural, and institutional pressures. I'm not blaming him or accusing him. I love him for being willing to drag this into the foreground. He's not alone in his playing pretend. But.

What a fucked up life we're all living when we've come to this.

N.B. -- I understand how wildly idealistic this is. I understand that Truth needs to be balanced against discretion. I don't blame those who don't want to be crucified for telling the Truth (I'm with them), but I don't like that we pretend that it's a difficult term or that there's no such thing. There is such a thing, and we all lie about it.

9.28.2009

Sometimes a Dahlia is just a Dahlia, Sigmund

Recently, in a message to Wishydig, I tried to account for my taste for Philip K. Dick:
What hooked me is his claim that he had a mystical revelation in the spring of '74 in which he punctured, for a moment, the veil of time... and his little experience--whether acute psychosis or mystical revelation he refuses to judge--was sorta the only thing that ever interested him again.
Today I'm reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's last & unpublished novel, Septimius Felton, or, The Elixir of Life. The title-character wants to live forever, and a flower described as "more like a dahlia than any other flower with which I have acquaintance" plays a central role in his possibly (I haven't finished!) discovering a path to immortality. Here's Hawthorne, describing how a single profound transcendental experience may overtake all else as the holiest of holies describing that flower:
Day after day the strange crimson flower bloomed more and more abundantly, until it seemed almost to cover the little hillock, which became a mere bed of it, apparently turning all its capacity of production to this flower; for the other plants, Septimius thought, seemed to shrink away, and give place to it, as if they were unworthy to compare with the richness, glory, and worth of this their queen.
I wonder if this kind of monomania could ever be anything but a dangerous thing.

9.26.2009

See!!!


(I mean, did you even bother reading the post below?--and why should you've?)

Visual Culture

Most of have heard lots about how Native American culture (or whatever) was an oral culture. The West has placed itself in a position of contrast, identifying as a written-culture. But, as much as I hate to admit it as a professor of literature, I think that's coming to a fast end. It may be that we're on our way back to an oral culture, but I think there's a chance that we're on the verge of synthesizing the old-fashioned oral culture with a new-fangled visual culture.

After I read something masterful like Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" with my students and observe, by watching their faces, that they'd rather watch a re-run of The Simpsons, I ask them: "How'd you like this story?" They say, "It was okay." But then I say, "Is it 'okay'--or 'okay for a story?' " That's when they all light up and admit that no story can ever compare to a funny YouTube clip.

I disagree with them, of course. I genuinely do like reading Nathaniel Hawthorne more than I like watching LOST... but I see now that I'm swimming upstream. They say "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but I've never been much of a joiner. I wonder how this'll turn out.

9.24.2009

Correction/Retraction

Sometimes I get juvenile (okay, often) and try to lure people into defending bad arguments. This time I got my foot shoved in my mouth. So I'm officially backing off what I said two days ago about denying the historical existence of Jesus. Well played, Mxrk, well played. Make sure to check out the quintessentially modern logical fallacy that won Mxrk the point.

Still, I retain the right to, at some point in the future, deny your earthly existence.

Terrific!

9.23.2009

Thanks, Politics!

Today, President Obama told the U.N. it was time for a "contiguous" Palestinian state. I wonder how that'll look, and if maybe Obama misspoke, considering the fact that almost any conceivable Palestinian state will/must include both the West Bank and Gaza:

I mean, who's going to draw that connective border-line from Gaza to the West Bank? That seems a little... delicate? Does this mean a divided Jerusalem? Ach! Thankfully, in the same speech, Obama reassured his listeners: "Now, I am not naïve..."

Whew! Because I was beginning to think--

Concerning the Deniers

The other day, the supreme leader of the Idiot Party, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, found time to call the Holocaust a "lie."

***

If you've been following me for a while, it won't surprise you if say that I sorta believe that "G-d" is just a shorthand for that which is most awesome in all of us. For some reason, I feel that it's important to emphasize the universality of that "divine" inner thing, whatever we call it. And if I sometimes think it's important to recognize that Jesus was G-d, it's only because I mean to say even that poor sucker was "It." And I sometimes think that that's what the first century Jews who took up his name were trying to communicate and commemorate: even that guy was divine.

See, it's easy to be persuaded that the President speaks with authority, that you should listen to what he says, that you should carefully consider it, and so on. Same with the good-looking wealthy people you're acquainted with. But it's more difficult to imagine that you should pay such close and careful attention to what a guy eating locusts and wild honey and living in the desert in a hair skirt is saying. Or a guy getting crucified for claiming to be the son of G-d.

Obviously, the word "G-d" is annoying and overused--to the point of being meaningless for most people. So leave that issue aside. Answer only this: was there a Jesus back then, who got crucified by a combination of the powers-that-were (Caiaphas and Pilate, etc.)?

Most people will say "yes" easily enough. However, some people are willing to question the historicity of Jesus' life and death. They will say, "Maybe there was no Jesus at all." One of my blogging friends used to make that claim.

Now then, to my controversial question: how is denying the life and death of this poor wretch living under Roman authority 2000 years ago different from denying the Holocaust? Is it only a matter of degree? Is it worse to suggest that "only" 4,000,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust than it is to estimate that 15,000,000 were killed? Is fifteen million too many to forget, but one not enough?

What I'm suggesting is that it is right, true, and correct to effectively disallow serious academics from denying the historicity of the Holocaust. To deny the Holocaust is the taboo it should be. But I'm adding to that: serious academics ought also to disallow one another from denying the historicity of the existence of this guy named Jesus. They may debate his ontological status or his divinity or even the place of his birth or the circumstances of his death. They may call him different names in different languages. But to deny his human existence seems just awful to me. I have personally read serious references to Jesus not only in the Bible, but also in the work of Josephus, and also in the work of Tacitus. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Justin Martyr all make reference to Jesus and his followers fewer than sixty years after his death. On the other hand, the earliest documents explicitly denying the existence of Jesus don't show up until the 18th century. The Wikipedia page on the historicity of Jesus can supplement/support what I'm saying here.

So I'm on record suggesting that we refuse to take any scholar (or novelist!) seriously who refuses to acknowledge the historicity of this poor, possibly delusional, Jewish wretch named Jesus. Repent, Mxrk! ;)

CAPScapsCAPScapSCapSCAPScapesSCAPEScapesESCAPES!

A wise (for "man's insanity is heaven's sense") Zen-woman I know at second-hand recently wrote and published something worthy of our attention. Don't be fooled by glancing. I recommend reading it aloud.

How's that feel?

9.22.2009

Prediction

The world will end when a group of insurgent/terrorists (or even an individual) refuses to be bought off for any amount of money.

I've heard in the news lately talk that America's military strategy in Afghanistan should/will include the tactic of paying off insurgents to fall into line. That seems outrageously unethical to me. I can't say I blame the insurgents for choosing money-ideology over their ideology, but this strategy makes one huge presumption--a huge presumption that may or may not be correct in this case: that everyone has a price. Money (more specifically, valuing money) is the One World Government called for in Revelation, and we're nearing the time when every person on the planet gets on board. Here's hoping there'll be one exceptional and courageous individual waiting at the end of that undignified line of assent. G-d knows he or she is going to pay the price for refusing to value money.

9.21.2009

An Exercise in Generalizing: Two Ways

This is not a polemic, though it might feel that way for a minute. Be patient. Take a look at these two columns, and before you continue reading below, admit to yourself whether you are drawn-toward or repelled by either side (and which?--and why?):
Zoroaster --------------------------------- Parmenides
Egypt, Babylon -------------------------- Rome, France
Yoga ------------------------------------------ Rhetoric
Whirling Dervishes ------------------ Deconstructionists
Sotapanna ----------------------------- Ph.D. Candidate
Poetry ---------------------------------------- Criticism
Enlightenment, Salvation -------------- Benefits , tenure
Osiris --------------------------- Jean Francois Lyotard
Participating --------------------------------- Analyzing
Gnosticism ----------------------- The Frankfurt School
Practicing Meditation ------------------- Watching LOST
Learning about Jainism ---- Learning more about Derrida
Vietnamese Food ------------------------------ Pinot noir
2012 ---------------------------------------------- 1968
Parables ------------------------ well-crafted arguments
Yerba Mate ------------------------------------- Coffee
erowid.org -------------------------------- dailykos.com
Jorge Luis Borges ----------- Edmund and Kenneth Burke
Jiddu Krishnamurti ---------------------- Barack Obama
Okay so that should be sufficient. Obviously, as I suggested the other day, it is possible to be interested in "all of the above." Some people doggedly refuse categorization. But I think this set really does give us a beginning sense of another kind of cultural divide. Many of my academic friends and colleagues and acquaintances would come down on the right side. Many of the people who go to Burning Man every year would come down on the left side. To be clear: neither list is inherently "superior." I recognize that, and hope that my readers do too.

Watch Saul Williams, and see whose side you think he's on. Make sure to listen to the list he rattles off from about 1:55-2:55:



I suppose there are some could-go-either-ways in there, but Williams' list seems to defy being "located." It is not racially homogenous, it draws from different time periods, and different continents. It is not nearly as anglo-European as my list on the right, above.

Anyway, it's my sense that most of those who are drawn to the right column tend to say things like, "Western culture is limiting," yet never look East. They say things like, "Mysticism is mental masturbation," without ever reading the mystics. This morning a friend posted an excerpt from Isocrates, presumably sympathetically: "And let no one suppose that I claim that just living can be taught; for, in a word, I hold that there does not exist an art of the kind which can implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures." That's very interesting to me, but I wonder--

To be fair: many of my marijuana-smoking friends outside of academia roll their eyes really hard at the list on the right. But there's one important difference here: many of the sources on the left claim that you ignore them to your own peril. But the sources on the right are very adamant that everything is relative, that post-hoc pragmatism is all we have, and that there's no such thing as salvation... in other words, there's no argument on the right side about why one shouldn't ignore the right side.

Is it impossible to implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures? If you read deeply in the above list on the right, it would appear so. If you are able to tune out those names and concepts listed on the left, it may very well appear impossible, as Isocrates suggested.

So, in summary: in order to believe Isocrates, you need to not believe what the Oracle at Delphi is telling you. Because if you believe what the Oracle is saying, then you believe that you can be "un-depraved."

Question: could a person spend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday thinking of Buddha as a more authoritative speaker than Kenneth Burke, and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday thinking of Burke as more authoritative than Buddha? Is that possible, or is it too much for a single mind?

***

When I was little I was an incredibly picky eater. Mostly only toast, waffles, Pop-Tarts, and peanut butter. No vegetables. No meat. Only apples and green grapes among fruits. People were always saying, "You really should try macaroni and cheese. It's so good. You would like it." I persisted for more than twenty years ignoring their speeches. When I finally tried macaroni and cheese, I'm embarrassed to say, I loved it. Since then my range has improved dramatically: now I like most kinds of meat, lots of vegetables, new spices, herbs, etc. Even Vietnamese food!

Why didn't I listen to those imploring me to try macaroni and cheese? Why did I refuse to listen for so long? Why did I finally come around? Does all of this have something to do with trust? How did I decide at age 4 who I would(n't) trust? Why did I change who I trusted at age 25? I really can't say...

9.20.2009

On Bowling, or, "All that and more"

There's an awesome 10-page article in today's NYTimes.com about Carl Jung's mysterious, almost mythological "Red Book"... I recommend page 2 in particular (Wishydig). Of Jung's 1913 breakdown:
It has been characterized variously as a creative illness, a descent into the underworld, a bout with insanity, a narcissistic self-deification, a transcendence, a midlife breakdown and an inner disturbance mirroring the upheaval of World War I.
My vote is for "descent into the underworld." The journal/book is available for $100.00, and will be published this October. Interlibrary loan, anyone?

9.18.2009

Today's Gray Agenda

  • Teach a class on Charles Chesnutt's "The Passing of Grandison"
  • Teach a class on 17th century poet Edward Taylor
  • Play 9-holes of golf
  • Attend a Poetry Slam in Charlotte

9.17.2009

Race matters, but it's not what you thought it was...

Warning: The following essay is intended for an academic audience, and may be perceived as radical or controversial by those who are not well-acquainted with the author's previous body of... uh, "work." Anyway, I really think this is a top-notch analysis, so please read carefully and entirely before commenting. Enjoy.

Point #1: What's race?
I think something really interesting is happening -- and I want emphasize first that I think of it as an "ethically," and historically, neutral event. That is, what's happening is neither "good" for us nor "bad" for us. It just is. Here's what's happening: the concept of "race" has served as a sticking point for issues of cultural differences. To clarify, consider this metaphor: when farmers want it to rain, they sometimes shoot missiles that explode saw-dust into a cloud; this process is called "seeding," and it theoretically gives something for the moisture in the air to condense around. Think of "race" as the tactile seed, and moisture in the air as culture. It's about to rain, finally.

So, in the near future, "black" is going to denote not a skin-pigment, nor even a genetic background, but only a feature of culture. Similarly, "white" will denote a certain kind of culture... obviously, a culture that is perceived, and perceives itself, as somehow "opposite" or "opposing" black culture.

The difficult part -- really the only barrier keeping everyone from seeing this immediately -- is that right now it's still very difficult/taboo to try to identify what "black culture" is, and what "white culture" is. It's still offensive to say, for example, that black culture values basketball, while white culture values golf. But the offense goes away if we recognize, from a transcendental/enlightened position, that golf and basketball are simply two different possibilities for human beings, and to choose and prefer one sport over the other is a neutral decision, not a decision on a sliding-objective scale. Basketball and golf are like apples and oranges. Neither food is "better." One simply chooses what one likes.

In the days before race became culture, "stereotyping" was offensive precisely because of the obvious exceptions. It was not morally right and just to associate vegetarianism with white people and fried chicken with black people because there were exceptions all around. "I know a black vegetarian," someone would say. Further, everyone (and by "everyone" remember that we used to mean "white people) agreed that vegetarianism was morally superior, healthier, and just all-around better than eating fried chicken.

But phrases that are increasingly common -- phrases like, "You're acting black," directed at a white person, or vice versa -- indicate that we have an intuitive sense about which behaviors belong with which culture. All that's left to recognize is quite simple, really: Carlton Banks was white, and Eminem was black.

[Nobody who is not deeply familiar with a rebellious/protestant way of thinking will take easy to this concept. But remember: America was a rebel/protestant country for a long time, and the risidual consciousness lurks even if it is separate from the outward forms of religion. The protestant mind is only the mind, churchgoing or not, that can understand how a gentile could become a Christian, or how a Brit could become an American.]

Point #2: What's a racist? In the old paradigm, this was an easy question to answer: a racist was a white person who held unjustifiable views about people who weren't white, and who, because they were empowered by a majority privilege, used those views to justify a socially unjust political order. But in the new paradigm, where "black" and "white" are simply cultural choices, racism will be nothing other than preferring your own culture to that of another (which everyone does, implicitly, by choosing to be a part of their own culture). A white racist, regardless of skin color, will be a golf-playing, vegetarian-eating, elevator-music-listening, dress-shirt wearing, minivan driving person who prefers those forms to the alternatives offered by black culture, which might be things like art, basketball, community-sponsored-events, and louder music.

If all of this sounds "racist" to your ear--well, indeed it is! But whether it's a problem or not is the new question. Consider that it is only a terrible thing to define these cultures as I just did IF you presume, "a priori," that one list is intrinsically better or nobler than the other. And if you do think that way, I suspect you haven't made the quantum leap with me yet.

Point #3: What's to be done? The answer should be obvious by now: nothing. Just choose your culture, and enjoy! In an interview last night on Gwen Ifill's PBS program, linguist-turned-social-commentator (no, not Chomsky) John McWhorter, who is black ... er, white (?!) said this:
I actually think that it is a very important thing that Jimmy Carter has mentioned this. I don't think there's any harm in pointing out the fact that racism may or even does play a part in what's going on. But it just seems to me that it used to be that we were talking about how the racism out there might keep Barack Obama from the White House. I found that to be a very urgent issue. This time, we're saying that the racism, well, what? We're really just describing something that's not going to go away any time soon and I don't think really has that much effect upon the way our lives and the way the government of our lives is going to be going.

...because what's "not going to go away" isn't the old kind of unjustified, unconscious racial prejudice -- rather, it's the new kind of "racism," based in existential choices about which culture is "ours," and which is the dying culture. It's the Barbarians vs. the Romans, and it's the Romans vs. the Christians, and it's not clear whose way is better. What's at stake now is nothing less than this: who are we? And are we really a "we" at all?

One final point in conclusion: obviously, there is the possibility of those culturally-hybrid people who like both basketball and golf, but I think we will see, increasingly, that the "middle way" becomes a difficult position to hold. Or as Yeats said, "The center cannot hold." The "grays," people like me and Harold and Kumar and Barack Obama, who iron our shirts, hold graduate degrees, drink pinot noir and who love fried chicken and occasionally enjoy a good Bob Marley album (and who know what I mean when I say "a good Bob Marley album," ahem...) are going to have to choose. Just as moderates have been drown-out of the national political dialogue for years by the polarization of Republican and Democratic ideologists, the cross-overs, those comfortable in both black culture and white culture, will be ignored and ultimately unrewarded-out-of-history.

P.S. -- I really think of this as my finest blog-essay to date. Thanks for reading.

9.16.2009

Civility

My mom was complaining to me last night about Serena Williams' recent outburst and about Joe Wilson yelling "You lie!" at Obama. I sort of shrugged off her complaints as indicative of her incipient old-age.

Today politico.com printed a list of how the members of congress can (and cannot) insult the President. First the can-list (from section 370 of the House Rules and Manual):
  • refer to the government as "something hated, something oppressive"
  • refer to the President as "using legislative or judicial pork"
  • refer to a Presidential message as a "disgrace to the country"
And so on. On the thou-shalt-not list?:
  • call the President a "liar"
  • call the President a "hypocrite"
  • describe the President's veto of a bill as "cowardly"
And so on. What do we think of this? Isn't "liar" a relatively clearly defined term, that may or may not apply at a given moment to any human being? Even partisans will admit that Presidents lie sometimes (think of Clinton initially denying the Lewinsky, or Bush & Iraq). What is a member of Congress to do in such cases? Refrain from speaking?

I guess I can get behind people who would like to see a little common decency return to this country, even if it means some inconveniences to me (like, maybe I need to stop dropping F-bombs so as to not offend women born before 1955). But does America really benefit from banning its own representatives from using certain kinds of political speech?

9.15.2009

Developing...

I'm onto something -- give me a day or two.

"To avoid the deep saves not from storm." -Herman Melville

9.13.2009

A Must Listen. C'mon. Seriously this time.

It's not often that I can recommend with so little reserve any media as this recent podcast on the nature of money. I kind of regret that the source will strike some of you as questionable: I understand that Jan Irvin's Gnostic Media Podcast doesn't sound like a creditable channel to most of my six readers.

But listen: almost nothing's as important as the question of what money is. I don't insist that you agree with Stephen Zarlenga, but I do think you'd be ill-advised to ignore this issue. Zarlenga is the author of the American Monetary Act, a bill submitted to Congress by Dennis Kucinich earlier this year.

So do whatever you have to do to get through the first four or five minutes of this audio -- with all its dubious references to entheogens and Jesus and divine mushrooms and so on -- get through all of that so that you can hear the interview between Irvin and Zarlenga. I'm throwing all my weight behind this one. I'm not sure what I think about it yet, but I'm very confident that it's an issue that we will ignore at our own widespread peril.

I'm Kind of Important on the Internet

I just discovered that anyone who's curious can read an abstract and a 24-page preview of my dissertation, which is pretty cool (the accessing it, not the dissertation itself). Check it out.

9.12.2009

Comment:

Liberty is more important than Equality.

9.11.2009

E Pluribus, Pluribus, Pluribus...

Without endorsing this article by Patrick Buchanan, I'd like to recommend it. Here's one of the very interesting passages:
One half of America sees abortion as the annual slaughter of a million unborn. The other half regards the right-to-life movement as tyrannical and sexist.

Proponents of gay marriage see its adversaries as homophobic bigots. Opponents see its champions as seeking to elevate unnatural and immoral relationships to the sacred state of traditional marriage.

The question invites itself. In what sense are we one nation and one people anymore? For what is a nation if not a people of a common ancestry, faith, culture and language, who worship the same God, revere the same heroes, cherish the same history, celebrate the same holidays and share the same music, poetry, art and literature?

Buchanan ends the essay on a more direct note: " 'E pluribus unum' – out of many, one - was the national motto the men of '76 settled upon. One sees the pluribus. But where is the unum? One sees the diversity. But where is the unity?"

Part of me thinks he makes an interesting point: after all, I don't sense that most of my academic friends and colleagues would be sorely disappointed if all of the people who oppose abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and preach about Jesus all moved to North and South Dakota and started their own little nation. From Buchanan's view, the inmates are running the asylum. It's a fascinating reversal of history.

When I teach William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" in my early American literature class, I always emphasize the conflict of cultures that sprang up almost as soon as the pilgrims landed in Plymouth. Bradford wrote, in the 1630s:
...they fell to a great licentiousness, and led a dissolute life, pouring out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism. And after they had got some good into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it vainly, in quaffing and drinking both wine and strong waters in great excess, and, as some reported, ten pounds worth in a morning. They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, like so many fairies, or furies rather, and worse practices.
But the Puritanical settlers managed to shut down Morton's operation. Morton and his revelers were kicked out, and disbanded. My direction today is spurred by the article I read yesterday about moral culture as a necessary foundation for a market economy. An email from a friend yesterday convinced me that moral culture might be necessary regardless of the structure of the economy. If you didn't read the article yesterday, read it today.

We've talked enough about ethics. It's time to implement that culture. Time to... what?--"strongly encourage it?"--in ourselves and also in our compatriots. I asked a question yesterday at Wishydig's place about whether a nation could stay unified in a situation where different parts of the nation spoke different languages. Buchanan may be giving up prematurely, but I think his concern must be considered a valid one -- after all, he too must be considered a part of this country if this country is going to remain "United."

Near the end of Bradford's tract, he described a situation in which the formerly close-knit community began to fragment. Take the time to read it--judge for yourself whether it be prophecy or cynicism:
For now as their stocks increased, and the increase vendible, there was no longer any holding them together, but now they must of necessity go to their great lots; they could not otherwise keep their cattle; and having oxen grown, they must have land for plowing and tillage. And no man now thought he could live, except he had health insurance cattle and a great deal of ground to keep them, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay, quickly, and the town, in which they lived compactly till now, was left very thin, and in a short time almost desolate. And if this had been all, it had been less, though too much; but the church must also be divided, and those that had lived so long together in Christian and comfortable fellowship must now part and suffer many divisions. First, those that lived on the other side of the bay (called Duxbury) they could not long bring their wives and children to the public worship and church meetings here, but with such burthen, as, growing to some competent number, they suied to be dismissed and become a body of themselves; and so they were dismissed (about this time), though very unwillingly. But to touch this sad matter, and handle things together that fell out afterward: to prevent any further scattering from this place, and weakening of the same, it was thought best to bailout some major corporations give out some good farms to special persons, that would promise to live at Plymouth, and likely to be helpful to the church or commonwealth, and so tie the lands to Plymouth as farms for the same; and there they might keep their cattle and tillage by some servants, and retain their dwellings here. And so some special lands were granted at a place general, called Green's Harbor, where no allotments had been in the former division, a place very well meadowed, and fit to keep and rear cattle, good store. But alas! this remedy proved worse than the disease; for within a few years those that had thus got footing there rent themselves away, partly by force, and partly wearing the rest with importunity and pleas of necessity, so as they must either suffer them to go, or live in continual opposition and contention. And others still, as they conceived themselves straitened, or to want accomodation, break away under one pretense or other, thinking their own conceived necessity, and the example of others, a warrant sufficient for them. And this, I fear, will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord's displeasure against them.

9.10.2009

Consumer Confidence, Expansion of Credit, the Latin word "Credos," Faith, etc.

A friend recently directed me to a truly insightful article -- one of the best articles I've read since last Fall. Or at least, I'm persuaded blah blah blah...

The Parousia is Present and Hidden

"...what counts is the prospect of a new advent, the fever of an essential expectation--a debased, modernized Parousia from which arise those systems so dear to the disinherited. Poverty is in fact the utopianist's great auxiliary, it is the matter he works in, the substance on which he feeds his thoughts, the providence of his obsessions. Without poverty he would be empty; but poverty occupies him, allures or embarrasses him, depending on whether he is poor or rich; from another point of view, poverty cannot do without him--it needs this theoretician, this adept of the future, especially since poverty itself, that endless meditation on the likelihood of escaping its own present, would hardly endure its dreariness without the obsession of another earth." --E.M. Cioran, History and Utopia, 1960
Many of my friends in academia are still awash in the afterbliss of the recent Presidential election, content to play the role of swooning cheerleaders as history marches on, so long as this man leads the way. Many of these same friends carefully explained to me, with a grave sense of duty, the cause of the great miseries of the 20th century: It was the mistaken certainty, derived from Enlightenment rationalism, that brought about the Holocaust... and the starvation of millions in the Soviet Union. If asked for more details, they could go on: It was the unwillingness to face that aporia of the present, the fragmenting epistemology beneath their own feet, that caused so much horror. I learned from friends in graduate school that it was not so much that Plato and Marx and Hitler were wrong--it was that they were certain. The Rhetoricians were busy in those days, persuading the masses to withhold judgment, to continue becoming, to refuse self-assurance and the dangers that inhered in such an attitude.

Now, with perhaps a single half an exception (Wrangler?), those same teachers are throwing their weight behind an American president. If cornered, they will not admit that they are "certain" about this American president's aptitude (their memories are too long for that mistake), but they will admit to being powerfully persuaded that America is moving in a good direction under this president's leadership.

So I mean to ask one more time: how does the Rhetorician decide which path to take? In theory, it was explained to me, Rhetoricians recognize that no path is objectively superior to other paths. Then: I am interested in the subjective. How is the decision made? Why support the guy who persuades that healthcare needs reforming instead of the guy who argues to the contrary?

It is not enough for the academic to say, "I support the President because he has persuaded me to support him." Nor is it enough to say, "I was persuaded by his fine use of the pathetic appeal, combined with a convincing string of data."

This question remains open for me; it seems a weak spot in the Rhetorical worldview. At present, I believe that Rhetoricians are refined Charlatans. I believe they are motivated by truth and reality as much as the next crowd, but discovering themselves to be part of a minority group (in terms of power), they resort to refusing the notions of truth and reality even as they believe very strongly that there is something true and practical about their view of what policies need to be enacted. The Rhetorician who says, out of one side of his mouth, that there is no objective foundation for judging, zealously believes what he won't speak out of the other side of his mouth--that his way would be more effective, more practical, and measurably better.

9.09.2009

I'm for Healthcare Reform

Two and a half glasses of wine and almost an hour into Obama's speech, I am stunned at how effective the pathetic appeal can be. And I say: why not? Forget about paying attention to logos for once -- dare to act on nothing but raw gut instinct. I love it.

So while my liberal friends are saying crazy things, pretending to desire to hear a conservative say "screw the poor," I wish I could hear -- just for once -- an explicit admission that we're going to head off into the forest in the dark now... we have no idea what the hell will happen, but maybe it'll be better. That's what we're basing policy on. Scared? Tough crap. We're gonna try it!!!

That's how I hope this bill passes, if it does -- because Maggie McGee in Missouri's insurance screwed her over for not reporting an acne problem. Because you know what, that hasn't happened to me, but I'm with Maggie McGee! To hell with "federal deficits" and "equal treatment under the law" and all your other slippery-slope arguments. Forget about whether we can afford it or not, and who will shoulder the cost. This is about love, man, and you're either with us, or you're against us.

[BTW: I was reading Henry James' The American during most of the speech, and only watched the last four minutes and listened to NBC's commentary afterwards.]

9.06.2009

Postmodernism is really cocaine, fly-agaric tea, Babylonian mysticism, and money.

I've been pushing Victor Pelevin for years -- not just on this blog, but also on my old one. I've been waiting since at least 2007 for the Russians to get their crap together and make this film. The film, "Generation P," is based on a book that I first read in 2003 (it was published in 1999 in Russia, and translated into English in 2001) called Homo Zapiens. The cover gives you some idea of how great the book was:


Anyway, check out the trailer for the movie -- it looks like the highest quality production I've ever seen out of Russia (possibly excluding Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark). The movie will be released in February of 2010... look for it shortly thereafter on Netflix:



(Did you notice the protagonist, Babylen Tatarsky, playing old-school Mario?)

9.04.2009

Knowledge and "Salvation"

What is knowledge? Is it important? Check out a very interesting lecture by a professor from the University of Toronto about Gnosticism:

Back to Rhetoric, for a moment

The only thing that qualified me to teach introductory English classes when I arrived in graduate school was that I had passed my own introductory English class as a freshman in college. My mentor taught me one thing, or three, if you take the trinitarian view: ethos-pathos-logos.

It's been a useful model for me, but I am sometimes frustrated that it is not a heirarchical model. That is, we can't say (for example) that ethos supercedes pathos in importance. To answer that problem, I think we're supposed to turn to kairos, which suggests that circumstances of time and place, etc., determine which mode of persuasion is most effective.

But here's a current problematic example. I'm persuaded by the pathos of the left on the issue of healthcare. I feel great loads of sympathy for those who've struggled with huge payments and shady fine-print refusals and those kinds of things. I wish it didn't have to be that way. But on the ground of logos, I'm often convinced by passages like the following, from arch-conservative Walter Williams:
President Obama and congressional supporters estimate that his health care plan will cost between $50 and $65 billion a year. Such cost estimates are lies whether they come from a Democratic president and Congress, or a Republican president and Congress. You say, "Williams, you don't show much trust in the White House and Congress." Let's check out their past dishonesty.

At its start, in 1966, Medicare cost $3 billion. The House Ways and Means Committee, along with President Johnson, estimated that Medicare would cost an inflation-adjusted $12 billion by 1990. In 1990, Medicare topped $107 billion. That's nine times Congress' prediction. Today's Medicare tab comes to $420 billion with no signs of leveling off. How much confidence can we have in any cost estimates by the White House or Congress?

So what do I do to make a decision about which "side" to support? Keep in mind, whether you disagree with my judgment matters little with regard to this question... ultimately, I'm just asking, what does one do when he's equally persuaded in different directions by different modes of rhetoric?

"Let my people... buy cheap underwear"

A while ago I put up a Facebook status that said: "Casey's people are the people who--at least once in a while--shop at Wal-Mart after 10:00pm."

Now there's a new website devoted to my people. Check it out.

Make sure not to miss this one.

9.02.2009

The Tree of Liberty

I'm starting to think American culture is off the tracks. Two epigraphs (can epigraphs follow an opening statement?) -- read them closely. Don't skim:
1. What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world... The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. --This is an American.
2. Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper-consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath. Until such time as it will have to hear. The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he's got to do it secretly.
The first is from letter III of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The second is an excerpt from D.H. Lawrence's book, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).

Here's my position: a significant number of the people who voted for Obama (including me) were hoping for a destructive kind of "change." We saw clearly that America had been "conserving" a system that was not worth conserving for too long. But President Obama has done little to remedy the situation. His administration has been fundamentally conservative in many ways. His maintenance of the war in Iraq, the already-existing structure of the banking and auto-industries, his adding-to, rather than starting over, in the arena of healthcare -- all of these are decidedly Toryish maneuvers.

Think of it this way: when you wake up in 5th grade and realize your parents have been dressing you in their own image, you don't want the kind of change that means putting dimes in your penny-loafers instead of pennies, and trading in plaid oxford-cloth for argyle cashmere. You want Kurt fuckin' Cobain.

See I didn't grow up in a household where... I ever heard (of) NPR. Not to brag, but, the guys I hung out with in high school didn't know what letter (R or D) preceded the current administration, but they'd have been as comfortable telling Bill Clinton to shove off as any republican.

So upon arriving in graduate school in 2001, I was very pleased to find that I was in the company of other people who were willing to question the fundamental structures of the American government--or so I thought. In reality they only targeted Bush, not the government in general. Upon electing Obama, the resistance-impulse seems to have vanished... it's just what I was afraid of. All of the bullshit, piled up for generations, all of the handouts, earmarks, lobbyists, it's just a steaming mountain -- but it's all okay 'cause our guy is in charge of it.

Obviously, this is an unsophisticated analysis, far more emotional than rational. But it's a sentiment that I've been meaning to express for a while.

But is this culture-of-complacency a problem? Actually, I'm not sure. Maybe it's time for America to simply mature into a middle-aged empire and rest on its laurels for a thousand years until it collapses from exhaustion. I'm honestly not confident that a bloody revolution would solve anything or improve anyone's conditions... but I wonder how perfectly confident any revolutionaries are? Everybody's heard the famous admonition from Jefferson:
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ... And what country can preserve its liberties, if it's rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
Anyway... is it time for something like that? Or is that, as MSNBC would have it, a cold and frightening thought?

Are we collectively convinced that we're just three or four legislative measures away from ushering in a new golden era? Or is it time for a new defense of Liberty? Is it time to destroy for the sake of the New, or are the voices of Crèvecœur and Lawrence like passionate love-letters written by an 8th grade, discovered years later when the formerly-passionate 8th grader has moved on, found a new girl, married, had children, and found a steady job?

9.01.2009

Ethical Monism: Yes, but why...?

I always hate it when people like John Stuart Mill talk about the 10,000-word essay they wrote at age 3 on the fall of the Roman Empire. Even just hearing a colleague casually mention how much they enjoyed reading Middlemarch "the first time around, when I was 13 or 14" sort of makes me freaked. But I'm not lying when I say that I've been wondering about Christian soteriology since I was about 14.

Of course, I didn't know what soteriology was back then (it's just the study of how one gets "saved"). But the explanation always seemed fundamentally unclear, even illogical, to me: I get to live forever because Jesus died for my sins (...if I believe that he died for my sins).

It seems like an unjustified equation.* That's not a technical term, it's just my way of saying, why? I mean, what does Jesus dying on the cross have to do with me? And why doesn't the fact that he died on the cross just mean that I live to be 900-years old or something? In other words, cause doesn't seem to necessarily bring about effect.

But this post isn't about Christian soteriology. It's about ethics. For the past decade or two, academics have really been winding up around Levinas' explanation for ethics. I've read two of his books, and I've listened to dozens of explications on his entire corpus, and I have to say: Levinas' ethics seem like another unjustified equation.

"The Other has a face, and I have a face, so..." Or, "I have a 'subjective constitution' so..." in other words, the final prescription (or description) -- that I must defer to others -- does not seem to necessarily follow on the preliminary propositions. I mean, why does it matter that the other has a face and that I have a subjective constitution, and so on?

I'm disappointed that nobody seems to be asking these questions (not to mention answering them). It's possible that I simply haven't read or heard a good description of the foundation of Levinas' Ethics. But for now, it looks to me as if someone simply said, "You should be kind to others because the sky is blue," and everyone stood around and politely applauded the prophet's genius.

Fortunately, until I get my explanation, I have a solution -- and one that makes sense. And better still, I just found out that I'm not the only person to offer this as a foundation for ethics... someone else has already termed this other solution for me: ethical monism. Published in 1899, Augustus Strong Hopkins' tract argues that we should be kind to one another because we are not separate in any meaningful way. There is only One, and you are it, and I am it... and because that's the case, doing good to you is doing good to myself.

It's true that whereas Christian soteriology and Levinasian ethics breakdown in their metaphysics (in my view), ethical monism may be very problematic in the epistemological phase (e.g., "I do not believe that you and I are one.") -- but it seems to me that ethical monism is no more or less probable than the Christian or the Levinasian explanation.

Something to chew on.

---

*Another great example of muddled soteriology is the case of Dostoevsky's Kirilov, who decides to commit suicide consciously -- that is, not out of despair, but to show that human beings really do have freedom of the will. Kirilov reasoned that if just one man did this, it would clear up the question for all future generations of human beings, and no one would ever kill himself again because there would be no more despair about whether or not we have free will. Circular logic, I suppose.**

**For fun, you might think about what would happen if Kirilov's reasoning were correct, but he only went through with the suicide in the course of Dostoevsky's fiction. Would a "real" human being need to commit that one conscious suicide, or would it be "good enough" that a fiction writer figured it out and depicted it?