Archive for December, 2009
Jem says “morality has nothing to do with it,” and Lee says that if somebody didn’t put professionalism ahead of religion, she couldn’t take him seriously as a professional.
Let’s start with “morality has nothing to do with it.”
Morality has everything to do with it–you’re just looking for the morality in the wrong place.
Thousands of librarians across the country put their feet down and refused to comply with demands by the FBI, CIA and DHS that they had over lists of patrons who had tried to check out certain books. My guess was that, if they had been faced with either turning over those lists or going to jail or losing their jobs, most of them still wuoldn’t have turned them over.
And my guess is that if there was no way not to comply and still be a librarian, several at least would have quit outright or shut down their libraries rather than provide such “services.”
That’s morality–that’s putting a moral commitment above the commitment to professionalism.
And I can think of several other scenarios where something similar would have happened. For instance, what if your town decided that some books were so evil they had to be burned, and librarians would now have to provide the “service” of book burning for their communities.
Do you really think the proper response to such a thing would be to comply, or to hand the facility off to people who would comply?
Of course not, and I know that from Lee’s response to the question about the state demanding that all animal shelters provide the “service” of executing “unwanted” animals.
As for people putting their professional obligations over their religion–that just means that they do not in fact believe in their religion.
This is an important point in a wider sphere than here, because I think it goes a long way to explaining why we have such a hard time understanding Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism that goes with it.
A Catholic who puts his obligations as a librarian, or a doctor, or a lawyer, ahead of his Catholiism is not a Catholic–he’s a librarian or a doctor or a lawyer who uses Catholicism as a hobby.
Religious commitments–like all serious moral commitments, including quite a few secular ones–is a primary focus. It is the single most important thing in a life.
To say that no such person could be taken seriously as a professional is, first, to fly in the face of reality–plenty of such religiously committed people have in fact led highly distinguished and dedicated professional lives, and do so now.
It is second to spit in the eye of the free exercise clause, which says that this government may not “prohibit the free exercise” of religion–trust me, denying religious institutions tax deductions and demanding that “professionals” do things only marginal to the profession in violation of their religion (or their secular ethical code) is tantamount to establishing the State Church of Accepted Conduct and Ideas.
I’m also highly suspicious of claims that such-and-such a profession is acting in “the best interests” of anybody, especially children or old people or the disabled who cannot decide for themselves.
“Best interests” is an elastic concept whose fundamental definition seems to be highly subjective–as we speak, dozens of states refuse to allow the placement of black children in white adoptive homes, on the principle that growing up in the really wretched confines of the foster care system is more in their interests than the chance that they might “lose their ethnic idenity.”
That’s a moral premise masquerading as a professional one, as is the demand that all hospitals provide the morning-after pill to rape victims (or to anybody). The issue is not “professionalism,” but a moral judgment asserting itself against a contradictory moral judgment it finds invalid or abhorent.
I doubt if most people could really put “professionalism” above their core moral commitments–and you wouldn’t like those people if you had to live with them. They’d be Good Germans, valiantly carrying on the work of the hospital after the government has taken over one wing to murder Jews, because, well, that has nothing to do with them, they farmed out that wing of the hospital to a government-approved “services provider.”
Lee is right, however, that my concern in primarily legal.
What is not mandated is none of my business. If the Catholic hospital on one side of town can do what it wants and doesn’t, while the secular one can do what it wants and doesn’t, then it’s none of my business if one of those has policies I do not approve.
(And yes, I know, there are extreme cases where it would be my business, but let’s stick to the actual for the moment.)
Back at the beginning of all this, I said I had something specific in mind for this set of posts, and I do–and it has everything to do with legality, and also everything to do with real life.
Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.
In the meantime–the old canard that Catholic hospitals, faced with a choice of saving mother or child in an either-or situation, automatically save the child is just that, a canard.
There is, in my own family, at least one case dating to 1948 when the father, asked which should be saved, said the mother and was listened to. In such an either-or situation, that is the usual process–to ask the mother if she’s conscious and capable of answering, the father if not, and to respect the wishes of the family.
That being said, such cases are almost unheard of in our present state of technology, and Catholic hospitals and doctors are required (by the Church, not just the secular authorities) to treat the patient in front of them. If, as one result of such treatment, a child in the womb necessarily dies, the doctors, nurses and other professionals involved in the treatment are not considered to have committed any sin.
But back to legalities, and ‘services,” later.
I’ve been watching the comments on that last post with increasing fascination. And the rather casual assumption that if people “need” something–or even need it without the quotation marks–they have the right to force their fellow citizens to provide it against their wills is staggering to me.
First, the US abolished slavery in the 19th century. Each US citizen, at least, offers his services in the marketplace and accepts the terms he is willing to accept in exchange for those services. If the terms he is being offered are not acceptable to him, then it is completely within his rights to refuse.
This is the case even if there is no other source of the services in question, and if the person seeking such services will have to do without. It is the case even if the person seeking the services is in desperate need of them.
If I am the only hospital in town and I am unwilling to provide the morning after pill to rape victims or anybody else, then I don’t provide it–and if there’s no other place to get it, then rape victims have to go without.
If you pass a law that says that I must provide it or not operate an emergency room, then short of taking Lee’s suggestion of continuing in operation while refusing to abide by the law, I close my emergency room and that is no longe available to the community.
And in that case, the person responsible for losing the services of the emergency room is not the operator who shuts down because he is not willing to operate under the new terms, but the government that insists on imposing the terms. If that government wants that particular emergency room to remain in operation, then must accommodate the hospital’s terms.
And that’s the case whether the hospital refuses for religious OR OTHER reasons. Several secular CT hospitals did not offer the morning after pill because of liability considerations.
Second, it’s interesting to me as well what people think of as the alternatives in this case. There’s a Seventh Day Adventist hospital, it’s the only one in town–well, that means we have to make the SDAs give blood transfusions!
But the chances are good that the alternatives are not “SDA no transfusions” and “hospital required to give transfusions.” The other option is “hospital closes down and provides no more services at all.”
The question is–which is better, to have a facility with partial services, or NO facility?
Third, if a service you wanted isn’t voluntarily offered in your area, then you go elsewhere to find it, or you go without.
You don’t have a right to force your fellow citizens to provide you with that service against their wills–see the point about slavery above.
I’ve lived in a lot of small towns and rural areas, too, and we do a lot of going without. Fully 80% of the counties in the US have not a single available abortion provider. Abortion is just as legal there as it is anywhere else, but none of the doctors in those areas are willing to provide the service.
Women from those areas who want the service must go elsewhere, into the city, into the next state, whatever it takes–or not terminate.
Fourth, being willing to help your fellow man does not abrograte your right to personal autonomy. Setting up a soup kitchen does not suddenly pull the rug of rights out from under you, so that you have no right to stop providing the service ever again unless you can somehow get somebody else to do it.
If the state relies on me to run a homeless shelter, and it knows in advance that I will not aid, say, in the involuntary commitment of my clients to mental institutions, then it should also know that if they pass a law that says all homeless shelters must allow state psychiatrists to test clients to determine if they should be so committed should expect that when the law goes into effect, I will cease operation.
If they don’t want me to cease operation, they shouldn’t pass the law.
If they want a different kind of operation, they should start and fund their own.
If they think the people in my area should have access to a pharmacy that provides birth control pills and no pharmacist in my area is willing to provide them–then the state has the option of opening a state clinic that will provide them.
We none of us have a “right” to services from our fellow citizens, because they are fellow citizens–not slaves.
It’s always difficult to know where to start in discussions of these things, and I find I’m about to do an extra, intermediate post in a series I thought was going to be fairly straightforward.
Let me start out by saying that I think Lee gave a good example of precisely what I think is the wrong approach to this problem.
Lee’s post makes a number of unstated assumptions–for instance, that the primary purpose of a Catholic hospital, homeless shelter or adoption agency is to provide “services,” and that the nature and content of such services are properly defined by the state.
There is therefore one Real, Official, Serious Thing going on here–what the state has determined is important–and a lot of private, not particularly serious things, like moral and religious belief, which should not be allowed to intrude on the first things.
But precisely what I want is for Catholic and other religious institutions to refuse to accept the definitions erected by the state. And I’ll admit to wanting that for rather selfish reasons, in some way–but I’ll get to the reasons in a bit.
Look at it this way–if the Catholic church honestly believes that all abortion is the murder of a child, then, faced with the requirement to hand out abortofacient pills in its emergency rooms, it should have shut those down forewith and without compromise.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at an analogous example–if such a hospital had been operating in Germany in the Forties and was told it could only continue to function if it agreed to euthanize patients who were deemed mentally defective or otherwise unfit–should it have looked around for somebody who WOULD provide that service, or should it have shut down without compromise?
And it’s no use saying that the German example is of something “really” wrong while the Connecticut example is not, because in both cases, the people sponsoring the hospital would think that the required “service” is really wrong.
But the Connecticut example is a good illustration of what I want to see some pushback on, so let’s go into that for a minute.
To answer John’s question–in the US, given the free exercise cluase of the First Amendment, the courts tend to provide wide lattitude for religious beliefs, including lots of exemptions to laws for religious reasons. Therefore, although all states require children to be vaccinated for certain things in order to attend school, they give religious exemptions from such vaccinations to the children of religious groups that oppose them.
And I think it’s too bad that the Connecticut dioceses did not drag the state into court on this one, because they almost certainly would have won.
Consider the situation as it existed, and existed.
Connecticut has exactly four Catholic hospitals.
Every single one of these is in a city with another, secular hospital that also has an emergency room.
The morning-after pill does not have to be prescribed in a hospital, and can in fact be obtained from any licensed physician, and can be taken up to seventy-two hours after intercourse and still be effective.
The state requires private hospitals in its jurisdiction to provide NO OTHER SERVICE in order to stay in operation.
In other words, your hospital may or may not have a cardiac unit, may or may not have kidney machines, may or may not do MRIs.
There was one reason and one reason only to demand that Connecticut’s Catholic hospitals prescribe the morning after pill–to assert the will of the state in the service of one moral standard and to declare the Catholic Church’s moral standard to be marginal.
I think the church did the rigt thing in Massachusetts–its primary responsibility is not to provide services but to serve God, and it should not collaborate in acts it judges to be immoral and unacceptable, whatever those acts may be.
In Connecticut, what happened was not exactly what it looks like on the surface.
In each of the four cities with Catholic hospitals, the emergency room remained open even in those hospitals, but it didn’t remain the same.
The outside providers need to make money and cover expenses, which means that emergency room visits that used to cost a couple of hundred dollars–being largely subsidized by church donations–now routinely cost over a thousand. Or fifteen hundred.
Fifteen hundred is what the nearest Catholic hospital’s farmed-out emergency room service charged my older son for cleaning a wound and giving him a tetanus shot.
In other words, the poor of the state of Connecticut now have a much more difficult time getting health care of any kind than they did before the law went into effect.
And not a single person has been provided with a “service” that wasn’t readily available before.
It was, as I said, a power play, pure and simple.
But we are coming to a time when I’m going to want a hospital that will stand up to state requirements to provide “services,” and I’m only going to be able to get one if the churches operate their charitable institutions as religious institutions first–that they refuse to compromise even a little with requirements to provide “services” they find to be morally wrong.
But, more on that tomorrow.
And I will, indeed, get to the Muslim cabdrivers.
It was Wolcum Yule, by the way. The name of the album by Anonymous 4 I was talking about yesterday. I’ve got it on as I speak.
But it occurs to me that this being a religious season, it might make sense to talk about religion some, and I’ve got a number of different ways to go with that. One of them is the idea of Christendom, which has come to be caricatured in the modern period as a vast “theocracy” where scientific thought was suppressed, minority viewson religion were relentlessly persecuted, and the West got the idea that it had the right to rule the world.
In point of fact, the West got that idea with Alexander the Great. But that’s another story.
What strikes me today is something else: it seems to me that the people, mostly evangelical Christians, who feel that freedom of religion is under attack in America today are right, but they’re wrong about what that attack consists in.
First, let me say that I am a big fan of the separation of church and state, but also that I do not define it as too many people seem to these days–as a situation in which religious ideas and religious motives must be entirely absent from public life and rigorously relegated to the private.
Not only was that not what the founders intended, but it would be an impossible position to maintain while still proclaiming oneself in favor of freedom of speech, never mind freedom of religion.
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion mean first and foremost that all of us, religious and otherwise, have the right to say what we think and advocate for it in the public square, and to believe what we believe and to advocate for that in the public square.
The problem with coming out and saying “abortion should be illegal because God says it’s wrong” is not that you’re basing your policy decisions on abortion on what God says, but that in a pluralist society you’re likely to turn off a significant part of your audience who doesn’t believe as you do.
In contending for public policy, it makes sense to make arguments that can be heard by and accepted by the majority of your fellow citizens.
What’s more, I don’t think it violates separation of church and state for individual citizens to make up their minds about public policy based on what they believe religiously–in fact, I think it’s inevitable that all of us will make up our minds about public policy on the basis of what we believe to be true, whatever that is.
What I think is a much graver danger to freedom of religion in the US is another thing, not so widespread yet but getting there: the redefining of religion as “beliefs and rituals” alone.
I can’t speak for Islam, because I know too little about it, but both Christians and Jews are required, as matters of religion. to commit a great many public acts that are not rituals and do not subsist in expressions of belief.
There is, for Christians, the Great Commission, to go forth and teach all nations–but Christians and Jews both are required to commit what the Catholic Church calls “acts of corporal charity” as a religious duty.
Catholics run huge hospital systems not because they want to convert other people to Catholici Christianity, but because they believe they are enjoined by Christ to “feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned.”
I spent a good part of my time in high school listening to nuns tell me that one could not call oneself a Christian if one did not fulfill that commandment, that reducing Christianity to beliefs and rituals was to join the Pharisees.
But there is, at this moment, an active movement to redefine “freedom of religion” to mean simply tolerance for the private beliefs and practices (although not all of the practices) of religious people. Public acts–running a hospital or an adoption agency or a soup kitchn or a homeless shelter–are consider “not essentiall religious” and therefore open to various kinds of regulations which demand that their staffs and sponors violate their religious commitments.
In Massachusetts, for instance, the state requires all adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. The Catholic Church’s only recourse was to close all its adoption agencies. In Connecticut, the state requires all emergency rooms to provide the morning after pill to women who come in claiming to be victims of rape. The Church’s only recourse was to hand the operation of the emergency rooms in its hospitals to outside secular providers.
The existence of such legal requirements is the reason I don’t think that churches are being hysterical or alarmist when they say they oppose recognition of gay marriage because they’re convinced that the result will be that they will be required to accommodate it themselves in their own religious institutions–and hospitals and adoption agencies and schools and homeless shelters can be religious institutions.
This is a problem that cuts both ways–it not only causes a truncation of religious freedom, but it actually makes it less likely that secular people will get some of the policy changes they want, like the government recognition of gay marriage.
What is going on, I think, is very different from a crusade to save all of us from “theocracy.” It is, instead, a major push to redfine the public consensus.
Here is the truth about culture wars: there is no such thing as a “multicultural” society. In any society, one particular brand of believe, or worldview, of common understanding of right and wrong prevails, and it always does so by marginalizing all the other forms.
Pluralist societies–which is what this one was set up to be–allow the reality of difference to be lived within the, but at the same time they give up any hope of everybody being comfortable with what they are and what they believe.
In pluralist societies, each group not only contends for what they believe, but contends that what they believe is True, whereas everything else is false. They claim that what they believe to be right is right, and everything else is wrong. They tolerate differences of lifestyle and opinion, but not by hiding their distrust or dislike or condemnation of those alternatives.
If I was a Christian of the right or of the left in America today, I wouldn’t be fighting the war on Christmas or worrying if some small town in Texas has started calling it a holiday tree.
Instead, I’d be insisting, publicly, that religion is not about private beliefs and rituals, but about much more than that. I’d be insisting that my Catholic hospital or Lutheran homeless shelter or Methodist soup kitchen is a religious institution whose primary function is to fulfill an essentially religious duty, and that being restricted from so fulfilling such a duty is indeed to have the right to free exercise of religion denied.
And now that I’ve got about half of you mad at me, I’ll postpone the rest of this until tomorrow.
At which point I promise to take up the issue of things like Muslim cabdrivers who won’t pick up people carrying liquor bottles.
It is very early on Christmas Day morning, so early I’m still thinking of it as Christmas Eve night. I’m awake and wandering around for reasons both banal and too complicated to go into. Let’s just say that I’m the kind of person who finds it impossible to go back to sleep once I have been woken up, so I expect to be up and around for quite a few hours today.
And by the time I’m ready to sleep again, there will be people in the house and things to do. I’ll jut have to make it to the end of the day and then fall over like a tree.
At any rate, I’ve made myself my tea and I thought I’d do a Christmas shopping list of things I like for this season. I’m not the kind of atheist who refuses to celebrate Christmas in any form, so there are a tree and presents in my house, and I read and listen to things that are not part of the post-modern project.
So–a few recommendations.
For a nonfiction book, I’d suggest a Christian book for a Christian holiday, Ricard John Neuhaus’s American Babylon.
In spite of the title, it’s not a polemic about how awful and corrupt America is, or how we must get back to God right this minute of suffer destruction.
Neuhaus was a Catholic priest by the time he died–he was a Lutheran minister for most of his early adult life–and he certainly would have been pleased if we’d all gotten back to God, but the book is a short meditation on “what it means to be Christian and American.”
And Neuhaus really liked being an American.
This is one of the books I recommend to people who froth at the mouth about how there are two kinds of people, “stupid and superstitious” believers and “intelligent” atheists. In a chapter called “The Age of Irony,” Neuhaus takes on the work of Richard Rorty and the whole postmodern “there is truth for me and truth for you, but no Truth” thing in a way I’ve rarely seen it done elsewhere.
His chapter on “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens” is as interesting for its definition of what makes a good citizen as for its inevitable answer to the question at hand.
In short, Neuhaus has thought longer and harder about faith and reason than most of the atheists I know, including most of the New Atheists now in print, and he doesn’t get his intellectual history wrong.
For a work of fiction, I’d give you Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, or maybe a really funny cozy by Charlotte MacLeod called Rest Ye Merry. MacLeod is much cozier than I usually like mysteries, but it was a book of hers (The Family Vault) that got me back to reading mysteries after a couple of decades of having abandoning them, and got me back to thinking about someday writing them.
You could say that my first novel, Sweet Savage Death, was inspired by the two of her books I’ve mentioned above, and Gregor would never have existed without her.
For music, I’d give you Anonymous Four’s Wylcomen Yul.
At least, I think that’s how it’s spelled. I’ve been frantically looking for it all morning, without luck, which means one of my children–who aren’t children any more, and should know better–has been moving my stuff around. Again.
Anonymous Four is a four-woman a capella group, disbanded now, who sang Medieval music of various kinds, from masses and chants to secular love songs and, yes, Christmas carols. They did at least three Christmas albums. I like this one both because it is carol-based (rather than a collection of religious ritual music), and because it is upbeat in a way a lot of Medieval music isn’t.
If you want to know what people in the Middle Ages sang at Christmas–ordinary people, not necessarily the nobility, although there wasn’t as much of a break between the classes as there would be later–here it is, and there are even a couple you’ll recognize (“The Holly and the Ivy,” “I Saw Three Ships”).
Besides, they have really gorgeous voices.
For movies, I’m back to A Christmas Carol–and really, the Muppet one is spectacularly good, one of the best out there. I don’t know. Maybe you have to have a rather peculiar mind to take Muppets seriously, but I do.
Just not too seriously.
Of the other available versions of this story: George C. Scott does the best Scrooge, but the Mr. and Mrs. Cratchitt in that version are played by David Warren and Susannah York, and York, especially, comes off as the Queen of England temporarily misplaced in a small house in Camden Town. The best Cratchitss are definitely the pair in the Patrick Stewart version.
The Stewart version, by the way, is the only one I own that has Scrooge going to church on Christmas morning–interesting, when you consider Stewart’s very public atheism. On the other hand, Stewart seems to be something of a Christmas Carol fanatic, so much so that he once did a one-man show of it off-Broadway, where he played all the parts.
Of the modern adaptations, I’d give you Scrooged, with Bill Murray, where Carol Kane plays the Ghost of Christmas Past like some psychotic version of the Tooth Fairy. The Vanessa Williams A Diva’s Christmas Carol isn’t bad. The Henry Winkler An American Christmas Carol is just odd, and Cicely Tyson’s Ms. Scrooge is sort of uncomfortable. In most ways it’s very well done, and it’s the only majority-black cast version I can think of, but Tyson seems to have just had a mild but not insignificant stroke, and it’s hard to watch sometimes.
There is also another one out there, whose exact title I never caught the one time I found it on television. It takes place in a modern suburban neighborhood, the Ghosts go to the wrong house, and Jacob Marley is supposed to have been one of the ancestors of Bob Marley.
I wish I could find that one.
Right now, I’m going to go back to seeing if I can locate Wylcome Yul.
For those of you out there who celebrate Christmas–kala Kristouyina.
For everybody else–I hope it’s a good day.
Years and years ago, one of my good friends from college gave me the single most important piece of investment advice, once you get past that thing about “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
“Never,” she told me, “never ever ever ever ever invest in anything if you don’t understand how the company makes its money.”
She had started from nothing and made herself very well off all on her own by work and investments, and she’d never been willing to touch a share of Enron stock, so she had credibility.
It’s too bad that half the people involved with Enron itself, and with Bernie Madoff, and with a dozen other scams and debacles, hadn’t had that particular piece of advice.
I bring this up for two reasons. One is a conversion I had with Robert, off the blog, about my love for true crime–and my feeling that most mystery readers also love true crime, and also are interestedin how murderers and other criminals think.
I’ve got industry stats and lots of anecdotal evidence to back me up about the affirinity of mystery readers for true crime. As to the interest in murderers–well, for me, it depends on the murderer. Serial killers bore me to tears in real life and true crime and fiction. Mental illness does not fascinate me. There are, however, other murderers who present more interesting problems, to me–for instance Sante and Kenny Kimes–although their decision to murder isn’t necessarily what strikes me the hardest.
The other reason this is on my mind today is that Tis the Season, and as I said, people send me books. Over the last few days there’s been a little snowfall of books abou Bernie Madoff, the first round in what I’m sure will be several rounds of published material on that particular case.
And if people know me well, they know that the true crime I really love isn’t about murder, it’s about money.
There are a number of reasons for this, the first of which is just the financial porn. It’s inherently interesting to me to watch big whacking unks of cash go flying around the landscape.
I find it interesting even when there isn’t any scam involved. When I ws first living in New York, I dated a trader from Bear Stearns for a while. We would go out and drink with his friends every once in a while, and I would sit quietly and listen to them talking about money and commodities and stocks and bonds and whatever. Then I would sit even more quietly over my Scotch while the whole group of them stampeded to the men’s room to do…well, I can’t prove what I think they did.
But the experience gave me a very nuanced idea of just how much I could trust the stability of Wall Street.
The second thing is that it is a fact that one of the best ways to learn to understand how any business operates–I mean really operates in the real world, not the way it’s described in textbook ought-to-bes–is to read about how somebody scammed it.
I know a lot more about how energy markets are made in this country, and how energy resources are bought and sold and traded, after fifteen books about the fall of Enron than I could have if I’d gone through every business school volume on the planet meant to “explain” the business. The same goes for books on the fall of Bear Stearns and how the mortgage meltdown happened.
But the most interesting thing about true crime books about financial crimes has to do with the “victims.” The scare quotes are ambivalent there. Sometimes, you really are dealing with victims, pure and simple.
But a lot of the time, the victims are in fact complicit in their own victimization–part of the success of any con is to get your mark to collaborate with you, and people do collaborate.
In every account of every financial true crime case I’ve ever read, there has been some second assistant bookkeepr somewhere going, “Hey! Look at this! This doesn’t make sense!”
And there have been dozens of people not listening, or actively blocking their ears while they yell “la la la.”
In the Madoff case, the signs were so obvious it’s hard to understand how the man managed to go on operating as long as he did. And although their were real victims–old people, his family, some foundations who took the attitude that a fellow Jew would never rip off Holocaust survivors–there were three times as many people who must have known there was something wrong and did not investigate, or blocked it out of their minds, or…
The psychology of marks is more interesting to me than the psychology of Bernie Madoff himself, who is, in spite of the mind-boggling sums involved, essentially a small man in every sense of the word.
But then, the psychology of those second assistant bookkeepers interests me, too, as well as the question of why they always seem not to be the people getting promoted into the positions where they could actually do something about the things they see.
Tis the Season. Bernie has just managed to become a big deal trader on Wall Street without actually being registered as a trader or having any of his traders registered–and, you know, you’d think somebody would have noticed.
So. The term is over, and I’m calmer than I was a couple of weeks ago. It’s the start of what looks like a long, bad week-end of nasty weather. I’ve got enough food in the house to not care, and my older son is home for the vacation, which means I’ve got somebody who shovels snow reliably.
I’m left thinking of what has been a recurring, and intensfying theme among my students lately, both the remedial ones and the regular ones when I have them.
If you ask my students what they think they deserve for a grade, and why, what you get is something like this: I deserve an A, because I came to every class and handed in all my papers on time, and I worked very hard in this course.
Or you get I deserve a B, because I know I was late on a bunch of stuff and there was that period when I didn’t get to class as much as I could have, but I really tried hard.
I could go on at length about the fact that nobody ever thinks they deserve less than a B, and maybe I will, at some point. I could go on, too, about the assumption that there is no such thing as standards, that just “trying” is all that’s necessary.
But it’s been occuring to me that this particular set of assumptions is a very bad preparation for real life, because in real life, there are people with talent.
Whether we like it or not, there are people in this world who are good at some things not because they’ve worked at them, but just because they are. If they do work at them, they get better. And if there are other people in the world with the same level of inborn talent, they’ll have to work at them to prevail over the others, or just to compete with them.
But the simple fact is that hard work will n ot always make you succeed, and lack of hard work won’t always make you fail. And some people can work night and day for lifetimes and still not achieve some goal or the other that they truly want.
Institutional settings almost require a concentration on hard work over talent, because talent is inherently anarchic. I used to have a thing I said all the time–school rewards conformity, life rewards creativity.
People would get upset with me over that and say that life rewards conformity, too. And of course it does, at certain levels of employment and skill, it does. If you want to be a bookkeeper or a banker or a garage mechanic or a teacher, conformity is definitely the way to go.
If you want to be Steven Spielberg, however, or Bill Gates–well, that’s another thing. Practically everybody I can think of who has made a significant national or international success, or who has changed the world in a visible way, seems to have a life story that relies more on talent than conformity.
A lot of these people–including Albert Einstein–simply weren’t very good at school. Some of them flunked out. Some of them dropped out. Some of them meandered through without paying much attention.
And in some fields–the arts especially–it’s practically a truism that people who do well at school-based “Courses” in the field are virtually never the ones who make an actual success in the field in later life.
That is the explanation, I think, for why the contemporary “literary” novel is what it is. It’s n ot an art form any more. It’s not even a subgenre of one. It’s an academic exercise. People like Jonathan Franzen and Ann Beattie write what the MFA programs teach. Sometimes they teach in those very same programs.
Whatever gave us the idea that we could teach anything that human beings could do? Composition programs these days teach “writing as a process,” but it’s not a process that any actual working writer I know of has ever used.
I’d go absolutely nuts trying to write anything the way the “process” says I should. The truth is that we don’t know why some people write well and some people write badly. Once we get beyond the basic mechanics–grammar, punctuation, spelling–we haven’t a clue.
We don’t know what makes some people write like Mozart and others write like Tiny Tim, either. Tiptoe through the tulips…
You’ve got to wonder what it is about this society this m inute that we have such a mania to produce school courses in everything. Want to be a garage mechanic? The Connecticut community college system offers an “associates degree” in that. You can get master’s degrees in things like creative writing and dance performance.
Maybe I shoul dhave called this post “the trouble with a meritocracy,” because I think that’s at the root of it all. Meritocracy depends for its legitimacy on the assumption that all of us who aren’t actively brain damaged are, in all essential ways, born equal, even if it is demonstrable that we are not.
Really, okay, not a good term. And now I’ve got two feet of snow coming.
And don’t ask me why that’s the title, because I don’t know.
First, I’d like to say that if it was up to me to pick something for the general reader to get a good and accurate picture of the Middle Ages, I’d still go with Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages. There’s a new, revised version of this thing out, and I don’t know what has been improved or if anything has been messed up, but I do know that the edition I had nearly twenty years ago, I think, was damned near perfect for non-specialists.
Cantor is one of the grand old men–possibly the grand old man–of Medieval Studies, one of the scholars who broke the reflexive dismissiveness against the period by departments of history and literature, and he had the good fortune to write before the departments became obsessive about “gender, race and class.”
If I was going to recommend a novel with an accurate depiction of life in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t use Brother Cadfell–the sensibility there is distinctly modern–but Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. That’s the Middle Ages in Italy and France mostly, rather than England, but Eco is a Medievalist with a significant reputation and he knows what he’s talking about. If you’re looking for nonfiction about the Middle Ages, he’s also produced a book on Medieval art that is one of the touchstones in the field and short on top of it.
There are also some neat little studies of the kind that require sort of a mental hobby to suit–I have a wonderful little book about life in a Medieval “great house,” going through the rooms and what they were used for, the people who lived there, the schedule of a typical day, etc.
Okay, you have to be seriously obsessed to find that kind of thing really interesting.
What I wouldn’t rely on is anything that has come out of either Women’s Studies or Cultural Studies. In spite of the yelling and screaming, there has been some interesting work coming out of Women’s Studies departments, but not much of what applies to the Middle Ages is among it. The book that I can’t get out of my head is an emense volume called Sisters in Arms, which purports to be about women in religious orders.
And, you know, really, if you’re going to do a work about the Middle Ages from a feminist perspective, women’s religious orders is definitely a good place to start. Due to the way the Roman Catholic Church is organized–note I said Roman. Some day, maybe I’ll go into the whole thing about the structure of the Catholic Church, but the point here is that we’re talking about what are called Western Rite Catholics–anyway, due to that organization, abbesses were as thoroughly in control of their monasteries as abbots were, and some of them controlled and administered vast tracts of land and collections of cottage industries that sometimes rivalled those under the control of secular authorities.
For all the silly contemporary talk about “weaker vessels” that dotted the sermons and the pious tracts of the time, the Church in practice tended to assume that women could hold their own as the heads of vast enterprises, and the state actually gave women more rights than they would later have during the reign of Victoria, especially when it came to owning and running their own small home-based businesses.
What they didn’t have was twentiety century feminist sensibilities, and that seems to have caused the author–I can’t for the life of me remember who this was, exactly–to see conflicts an “transgressiveness” where none existed.
If you’ve looking for something more specialized, there’s always Marcia Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, which is a bit dry and a little unfocused for my tastes, but gets through tme material well enough. It’s also part of a really great series, the Yale Intellectual History of the West.
Then there’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, by Stephen Ozment, which is the High Middle Ages shading into the Renaissance.
And, you know, you’d have the best possible view on how people in the Middle Ages saw and understood each other just by reading The Canterbury Tales, and Penguin has a really excellent modern English version of those.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I love doing this stuff.
There’s your Medieval reading list for Christmas.
For what it’s work, the movie of the Jean Annouilh Becket, and also of The Lion in Winter, both with Peter O’Toole, give what are probably pretty accurate depictions of what it was like to live day to day as a nobleman in Middle Ages–meaning, really, you have no idea what a difference central heating makes. But also, the incredible nakedness of things, the lack of art and decoration even in the homes of people who had the best their societies could offer.
Oh, and if you’re a biography sort of person, there’s Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitane. If you think of feminism in the post-modern sense of a consciousness of systemic oppression, well, she’s hopeless. But if you think of it in the sense of women being willing to bust balls where needed to get the world to work their way–what can I say? Eleanor was a woman and a half.
But as much as I like reading and writing about this stuff, the reason I keep bringing it up is because inaccurate knowledge of the Middle Ages in particular and of intellectual history in general is contributing to a much bigger problem.
I think we are, for better or worse, at the end of the time when the foundational narrative of modernity is going to be servicable.
It would help to find a new one if we actually knew where we’d been over the course of the last 3000 years.
I’m going to go look into tea and cats.
Okay, a couple of things here, on a day that’s sort of crowded for time.
First, the reason why what you “know” about the Middle Ages is so completely wrong about the Middle Ages is that what you “know” is actually the myth of “Medieval stagnation and repression” put out first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.
The narrative is so entrenched now that it is almost impossible to get people to discard it. First, it says, there was the reign of religion and the Church, that controlled everybody’s lives and forbid the study of real science. Scientists were hounded and condemned. The world was “demon haunted” and men and women quaked in fear of fairy tales and heresy trials. Then a few brave souls came forward to fight for the right of people to use their eason and be guided by it, instead of being guided by silly superstititions out of the Bible. Behold! The modern world!
This is so much nonsense, it’s difficult to know where to start debunking it. The Middle Ages were actually a better period for science than the Renaissance was, and the Church–although it had a lot more influence than you and I would be comfortable with today–actually supported most of that science.
Copernicus was a figure of the Middle Ages, not the Renaissance. It was he, not Gallileo, who first provided proofs that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. His book was dedicated to a Pope, who had Copernicus’s theories taught to students in the Vatican school. Those theories were still being taught in the Vatican school and in the Cathedral schools of several Christian cities right through the time Galeleo was being condemned. Sounds like there’s a story there, doesn’t it? Well, there is, but that’s another rant for another time.
Whoever it was who said that there was a Middle Ages throughout Europe is quite right. I talk about England because I studied English literature, so I know more about England than I do about the same period in Italy or Germany.
But I also talk about England because I am a resident citizen of the Anglophone sphere, and the intellectual history of England is my intellectual history in a way that the intellectual history of Italy is not.
England has always had an unusually large and powerful middle class relative to those in other European countries, but more important than that, England has always been culturally middle class in a way that no other country in Europe has ever been, even those that frequently lacked aristocracies.
It’s odd to read about the Medici, for instance, because in one way–they were bankers, haute bourgeoisie (upper middle class) in origins and business activity00they were nearly the definition of middle class. Culturally, however, they were aristocratic, to an extent that even a monarch like Henry VIII couldn’t have gotten away with in England.
As to whether there was a middle ages in Turkey, the answer may be–maybe not. “Medieval” was a term invneted to specify a stage in intellectual history that came between the classical world of Greece and Rome and the “modern” period inaugurated by the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, depending on where you were standing at the time. That’s what the Middle Ages are the “middle” of.
I don’t know enough about the intellectual history of Islam to be sure, but my guess is that this schema would not work for Muslim countries. There was a flowering of science and reason in the Muslim world in what is the high Middle Ages in Europe, but unlike Europe, and unlike the Christian Church, Muslim contries and Muslim religious authorities largely rejected that flowering and eventually repressed it.
There really is a period of religious hegemony and repression that corresponds to Enlightenment fables about the Middle Ages, but it didn’t take place in Europe or under control of the Catholic Church–it took place in Islam.
In the same period of time that Muslim authorities were condemning the works of Averroes and trying to wipe them off the face of the planet, the Catholic Church was busy throwing fistfuls of resources at European scientists, many of them monks, because Aquinas had convinced the Church not only that there was no conflect between science and religion, but that the study of nature was a kind of prayer, because in studying nature we had our one chance to look into the mind of God.
Okay, I seem a little scattered these days, I know. I can’t seem to help myself. I am coming off a very bad year, one of the worst I’ve ever head, and scrambling to fix a piece of writing that ended up being the victim of it. The only thing I’m happy with right now is this set of short stories I’m evaluating for a friend’s class. So I can’t seem to keep my mind on anything for more than a minute or two at a time.
All of this is by way of an explanation. I thought, yesterday, that I would be writing this post on the existence of the middle class in Medieval England–and there was one, a very significant one, not one that was vanishingly small–but instead I’m doing something else. I mean, whatever.
Here’s the thing: at and around Christmas, lots of people send me books. They send lots of books, and all kinds of books, books that have been out for a while and books that aren’t out yet, books they know I’m looking for and books they’re sure I’ll like. Sometimes, as I’ve noted before, they send me books they hope will make me explode, because apparently the resulting e-mails are amusing.
About a week and a half ago, I received in the mail a newish book by a French writer named Jean Francois Revel called Last Exit to Utopia. I like Revel in general. the person who sent me the book knew it. Revel died a few years ago, and this was apparently the last thing he wrote. It is just being published here.
I looked through it for a bit, saw that it concerned Revel’s long-time obsession–the reasons and ways in which French intellectuals get high on totalitarianism–and put it aside. I’ve still got lots of Kipling to read and then Eudora Welty, and it helps me to fix my own writing when I’m reading fiction while I’m doing it. I’m not likely to get around to reading the Revel until well after Christmas.
This morning, however, having finished “real’ work and gone on to looking around the web, I looked at Arts and Letters Daily and found…a review, from the Wall Street Journal, of the Revel book.
So, just to be clear here, what I’m about to say refers to that review, and not to the book itself. But something the review said strikes me.
According to our guy at the WSJ, Revel examines not only the obvious intellectual defense of totalitarianism, from Stalin to Fidel to Mao to Khomeini, but the underlying wish to personally submit to one.
I don’t like the way that sentence reads, but I’m not quite sure how to say this. According to this review, Revel believes that French intellectuals not only hate and fear “modernity,” by which he means the modern democratic state, but also have a positive attraction to being unfree.
I really am making a mess of this. I think I may have a problem with the very concept. It’s not that I’ve never known anybody with a secret wish to be dominated and oppressed. People like that come along from time to time. Generally, however, we tend to think of this as a mental illness.
What Revel seems to be saying–if, that is, the review is accurate–is that there is a large class of people, of a very particular type, who harbor almost irrational urges to be dominated and controlled, who need such domination and control in order to be emotionally comfortable.
I think the reason this sounds absurd is that it is, on one level, exactly that.
But it occurs to me that I can rather see his point, at least with a certain kind of person.
What strikes me, of course, is that this is sort of the obverse of the way we usually explain the behavior of people like, for instance, Sartre, or Chomsky. The usual assumption is that these people are looking for power in order to wield it themselves. Revel’s (?) thesis is that a lot of them are looking for power in order to be rendered powerless.
It’s the worship of totalitarianisms as a sort of intellectual B and D.
But, like I said. I can think of a few people who have wandered across my life who would fit this.
And the first thing about the kind of person is that using the term “intellectual” for him is a bit misleading. There are lots of different kinds of intellectuals in the world, and in history, and not all of them exhibit this need for personal oppression.
Almost all the Founders of the US were intellectuals, some of them (see Jefferson) the leading lights of their time, but no matter what their failings (or virtues), I can’t think of one of them with this impulse. The issue is less clear with John Stuart Mill, but not at all unclear with John Locke, who was neither an admirer of totalitarianisms nor in search of any. The same could be said about Milton, whose nonfiction work comprises some really remarkable defenses of individual liberty.
And then there’s Revel himself, and a long list of his contemporaries.
In other words, the defining characteristic of people who have a deep emotional need to submit to totalitarianisms cannot be that they’re “intellectuals,” and it cannot be that they’re intellectuals with interests in the Humanities, either. We can find lots of people who fit those categories who don’t have the impulse, and lots of those who don’t fit those categories–physicists, teen-aged converts to radical Islamic jihad–who do.
These days, the usual paradigm is to say that “elites” want top-down control of society and “ordinary people” do not, but aside from the fact that I think that’s a very iffy description of what’s actually going on in, say, the US at the moment, the fact is that historically it doesn’t work. There’s a lot to learn from the fact that the German elected Hitler, and that so many of them threw themselves into near orgasmic paroxysms over the society he delivered.
I don’t actually think it makes much sense to ask why people are attracted to this sort of thing, why some people want to be dominated and surpressed. Some people are going to want anything that is available to want, no matter how odd the rest of us think that is.
I think the real question is why such a taste should have become so integral to the intellectual history of the West since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, after all, an intellectual enterprise, and an intellectual enterprise that intellectuals succeeded in bringing into the world. Four hundred or so years after the death of Locke, nobody in the world except some radical Islamic clerics questions the ultimate moral rightness of democracy as a basis for social order, and of meritocracy as a basis for rewarding individuals.
We’re so used to all this, we forget that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson made their arguments to a world that flatly rejected the idea that people could be self-governing, or that they ought to be. The Catholic Church flatly opposed democracy as a form of government right down to the beginning of the twentieth century. Society, the Church said, should reflect the order that God put into the Universe. Christ was the King of Kings, not the President of Presidents, and nobody had the right to elect him.
Sometimes I think we profoundly underestimate the extent to which individual rights and society as a meritocracy pose a significant threat to the personalities of a significantly large minority of the people on earth.
For most of us brought up in the system–intellectuals or otherwise–these things represent an enormous opportunity, the chance to reinvent ourselves, to reject or accept what we were born with and to become the people we want to be.
For some of us this means making lots of money. For others it means publishing books, or getting a degree in cosmology, or rescuing dogs, or raising the perfect family. For anybody more excited by the opportunity to try to succeed than they are afraid of failure, this looks like a pretty good deal.
For people more afraid of failure–more afraid of it than they are afraid of anything else–I think there might be a different calculation going on here. Settled societies, totalitarian and otherwise, provide their members with ready-made identities and the certain knowledge that their lives are not their fault or their responsibility.
And here I am again. Back where I always end up when I start thinking about this stuff.
Tomorrow, maybe I’ll get back to the English Middle Ages and the English middle class.