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Archive for October, 2009

On Having One of Those Days

with 3 comments

Well, nights really.

Greg and I like to watch political opinion shows, and at eight at night, right before I go to be, we watch either Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly, depending on three factors:  who is likely to have the funniest take on the story of the moment; whether we’re presently annoyed at  Republicans or Democrats more; and whether either of them is off for the evening and being covered by a host substitute we don’t like.

That last one is the deal breaker.   O’Reilly tends to be subbed by a right wing blonde named Laura Ingraham, and I find her more annoying than any other human being in politics except for Nancy Pelosi.  Olbermann’s sub tends to be this bland, sort of not very exciting person who ends up sounding very odd, because the writers are still delivering scripts that are written to Olbermann’s style, and, um..

We’ve been watching more O’Reilly than Olbermann late, since Olbermann’s father is very ill and he’s been taking a lot of time off, but last night, both of them were off.   Greg and  bounced around a bit trying to see if there was anything worth putting up with the sub hosts for, and as there wasn’t, we ended up where we sometimes do these days:  at a show called Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy on–wait for it–CMT, Country  Music Television.

For those of you who are actually interesting in hearing country music, you should know that most of the music is on another country cable station, called GAC (Great American Country).  CMT, which seems to be owned by the same people who own VH-1, is mostly, you know, shows.  World’s Strictest Parents.  Extreme Home Make-over. That kind of thing.

At any rate, we got to thise particular episode of Fifth Grader late, and we found ourselves staring at a young woman who teaches seventh grade world history in the Teach for America program. 

The way the game works is this:  there are two questions from each grade, one through five, up on the board.  Each is worth a specific amount of money, and if you get one right you get that amount of money, and if youget one wrong you get that amount subtractred. 

The young woman had managed to screw up the game to the point that she had ended with exactly $2000 as she entered the bonus round–out of a possible $25,000.  She now had the choice of either taking that money and going home, or taking the bonus question.   If she answered that question correctly, her money was multiplied by ten.   If she answered it incorrectly, it was eliminated, but she got the consolation prize of a pre-paid Visa card with $2500 on it.

Apparently, she could count.   Which was good.  Because the bonus question was in the category of fifth grade American History, and things were about to get ugly.

Her parents were in the audience right behind her.  Every once in a while the camera would pan back to them, and her m other looked like she was in pain.

Here was the questiong:  who was President when the last of the states joined the Union?

I don’t think that was the exact phrasing, but it was the question. 

The yoyung woman stood there and said, “I can’t remember when the last few states joined the country, but I’m pretty sure it was in the mid-1800s, so I’m going to say–John Adams?”

I really don’t make these things up.  I couldn’t make them up.  I barely believe them when I see them.

Believe it or not, this was on my mind for the past few hours because it reminded me of that discussion about process and outcome in the criminal justice system.  Robert has expressed the opinion that the only reason anybody ever goes to jail is because he doesn’t have the money to fight forever, since the process is so stacked against conviction by n ow we’d never convict anybody with adequate resources to fight.

I don’t agree–I mean, I really don’t agree–but I know something else about the justice system, and that is that the vast majority of cases never go to trial.  That’s not because the accused doesn’t have enough money for good lawyers.  Even most rich defendants plead out.

It’s because the vast majority of crimnals make that woman on Fifth Grader look like Einstein. 

And that’s true even when these people seem to be smart enough in their everyday lives.  If you don’t believe me, think about that NBC show To Catch A Predator.  That show has been on for years, and guys are still driving up to those suburban houses in SUVs, armed with sex toys and videotapes–and then being shocked as hell that the whole thing is a sting.

The other reason most criminals plead out is that any good defense attorny knows that most juries lean towards conviction–after all, if he wasn’t guilty, why was he arrested?  And they’re hypersensitive to the idea that “smart laywers” get guilty people off by confusing everybody.

That’s how a substitute teacher in a Connecticut public school got sentenced to ten years in prison and a place on the sex offender registry after ner classroom computer started spewing out porn while she was using it in a demonstration.  A computer can be hit by a virus that  makes it throw up porn images and the person using the computer can’t stop it?  Yeah, right.  If that was possible, we wouldn’t be having this trial!

Juries like to convict.  They tend to think police officers and prosecutors are automatically more reliable than defense lawyers and witnesses.  That’s why when they don’t know somsething–like how a computer virus works–they take the prosecution’s explanation over that tof the defense, even when the defense is right.

Fortunately for the young woman in the case above, the appeal was heard by a judge who did now something about computers, and he threw the case out, voided the verdict and had a screaming fit at the prosecution, but her life is likely to be largely screwed up permanently.

I am not the kind of person who thinks that all police officers and prosecutors are corrupt and care only about getting their arest and convict records up as high as possible.  I know that the Ray Nifongs of this world are blessedly rare.

But I also know that Ben Franklin was wrong.  The only things certain in this world are n ot death and taxes.   There is also human ignorance and stupidity, of which we havee a supply so vast that if we could figure out how to run cars on it, we could give ever man, woman, child and flea their own personal Volkswagen to run for free.

But then, if I’d been on the OJ jury, I’d have voted to acquit–and not because of anything OJ’s lawyers did or did not do.

Written by janeh

October 31st, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lenin, Stalin, Robespierre

with 5 comments

So, okay, let me try to work my way through this.

I want to get one thing out of the way first.

When I say that punishing an innocent person is a greater wrong than letting a guilty one go free, that doesn’t mean I think the wrong of letting a guilty person go free is negligible. It’s just that I think it’s the lesser of the two evils.

And I’ve got to admit that this is, and has always been, a sort of “thing” with me.  I can trace it back as far as the year I was seven years old–the whole idea of someone being imprisoned unjustly and agains his will.  (My first explosive issue with that came whem somebody explained the draft to me–no wonder I turned into something like an anarchist.)  But the point is that this sort of thing makes me literally physically ill, so much so that I won’t stay in a movie theater if that’s the direction the movie takes, I’ll turn the channel on the television, I’ll dump the book. 

And I never suggested that we should make it impossible to catch and punish actual criminals, only that we should take care first and foremost not to wrongly punish the innocent.  As for perfecting the process, of course I want it perfected, precisely because I think justice resides in the process.  If the process is flawed, then the process is not just, and justice is not served, even if the right person goes to jail.

And I am, as you can tell, talking only about the criminal law.

But is fear really “exculpatory?”  Sometimes it is, of course–if John beats the hell out of Mary three times a week, puts her in the hospital a few times a month, and then gets liquored up and starts chasing her through the house with an axe, it’s certainly the case that her fear of what he’s about to do to her is at least partial exculpation when she kills him.

But let’s say that Mark murders Officer Krupke because he’s scared to death that Krupke figured out he was the guy who robbed the bank–I don’t see any exculpation there at all, and I don’t think anybody else would either, even though Mark might be genuinely terrified.

And the phenomenon I’m talking about has been noted by other people.  My guess is that a good two third of every Ayn Rand villain exhibits it at some point in every Randian novel, especially in Atlas Shrugged.  Henry James noted it, too.

I’m not talking about the ways in which such people may fear the people they kill–I don’t think they fear those people at all.  It’s precisely because they don’t fear them that they kill them.

If that makes any sense.

But let me try to set this up as a scenario, something I think applies fairly well to Robespierre, a little less well to Lenin, and not at all to Stalin–because it requires an “idealist” to get himself into this kind of mental mess.

Take the case of Jedidiah.

Jedidiah is brought up in a religious family, and for most of his childhood he is very devout.  He really does believe in God, and the Commandments, and to live a holy life, as far as that is possible to a child.

As he grows up, however, he begins to resent the whole thing–the rules, and the hypocrisy of religious people and clergy, and the stories about God, which start to sound more and more bogus.

The problem is that if he ditches all that, he’s left with nothing but a long look into the abyss.   Death is final.  All the pain and suffering on earth have no relief.  Everything just plain sucks.

And that’s when Jedidiah discovers the ideology of revolution, which tells him that heaven is meant to be realized on earth and all that religious stuff is just keeping us from reaching the pinnacles of human happiness.   If we throw off religion and redesign society,  human life will finally be happy, pain free and meaningful.

And that one works only until our Jedidiah hits a wall that makes it impossible to deny that heaven can never be realized on earth.  The abyss is part of the human condition, and nothing can be done about it.

Think of is as a kind of reverse Pascal’s Wager

I don’t think Jedidiah is afraid of the people he kills, or that he kills them because he fears them.  In the end, most Jedidiah’s like killing if they kill at all, or they get adept at ignoring the killing that goes on around them, if they don’t.

I think Jedidiah is afraid not only of the abyss, but of the fact that he lost his bet. 

And in the loss of that bet is the complete and utter destruction of a life.

I’m doing this badly again.

But you get this kind of thing on a small scale in some of the more marginal areas of the Humanist movement, people you run across on e-mail discussion lists and those sorts of places.  They go completely ballistic if you say something like, say, that the evidence for the existence of an actual, human person who was Jesus is no worse than ambiguous–that it really cannot be proved that Jesus did not exist at all.

There’s nothing really outrageous about such a statement, nor does anything in it “prove” that atheism is wrong.   Even if we could prove for certain that Jesus really lived and did at least some of the things (let’s say the non-miraculous ones) ascribed to him in the New Testament, that wouldn’t mean that Jesus was God or able to do miracles or even that Christianity is true.

And sane people get this.  When I read arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, I go “mmm, interesting,” and then sort of pass on to something else. 

But these people do not.  They’ll argue themselves and everybody else on the list into the ground just hammering it in over and over again:  nope, Jesus never existed, he never could have existed, it’s completely irrational and superstititious even to entertain the possibility that he existed–

They go, in fact, completely nuts.

This is not the reaction of an atheist.  This is the reaction of a person who still believes at the very core of his being that his original religion is true, who has made a bet against it and who is completely panicked by the implications of turning out to be wrong.

I’m getting that feeling, again, that I’m making no sense.

But it does seem to me that that reaction–the reaction of my guy on the e-mail list above–would explain why “idealisitic” revolutions, revolutions for ideological reasons (rather than just taking over the country so that you can milk it dry) inevitably end up not just in violence, but in violence of a particular kind.

Every once in a while, you do get a Lenin, who is just coldblooded, who pursues violence for the sake of violence.

But I think a lot more of the people involved in these things, both in actual revolutions and in arm’s length support of the same, are doing what my Jesus-just-couldn’t-have-existed guy did.

Okay.  End of blithering.

Written by janeh

October 29th, 2009 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

If there is one thing this blog is good for, it’s reminding me how much of a difference mental frameworks make.

A couple of months ago, I made the statement that I thought that justice resides in the process, not in theoutcomes.  And Robert responded that he did not agree, when the guilty are let free there is no justice.

But when I made my statement about process and outcome,  I wasn’t thinking about the guilty going free, I was thinking about the innocent who are wrongly convicted.  Certainly there are some cases–negligance on the part of the investigators, incompetence on the part of defense counsel, corruption, whatever–where an innocent man wrongly convicted is a case of injustice done, but these are all cases in which the process was not correctly carried out. 

And, of course, letting an innocent man rot in jail once h is innocense is known is also an injustice, but it’s again an injustice of process–once innocence is known, the process is in place to rectify the wrongful vredict.

It’s not that I think there are more cases of wrongful conviction than of wrongful acquittal.  It’s that I think the evil done in wrongfully convicting and punishing an innocent man is vastly more serious than that done in letting a guilty man go free.  To me, no system is inherently just unless the number of wrongful convictions approaches zero.

Yesterday I said something about revolutionary panic, and this time Robert felt that I was giving an excuse for the way these people behavie.

But I don’t think I was making exuses for their behavior.  I was just trying to explain two things to myself, because they’re things that I find inherently puzzling.

The first is the level of personal hysteria that exists in some many of these movements–the wild hyperbole that equates bleeping a few expletives from a sitcom or being turned down for an NEA grant with jackbooted thugs raping your soul.

The other is the inevitable–and it is inevitable, in all utopian esperiements–volcanic explosion of violence and terror. 

It cannot be a coincidence that every single one of these things, from the French Revolution onwards, has ended in the same place, in the trial and elimination of heretics.

And that is what this is, a decent into heresy hunting.  Calling the heretics “class enemies” doesn’t change the nature of what they are for the system that persecutes them.

But think about this for a minute–why bother?  The search of power isn’t enough of an explanation, because very often the resort to terror undermines the power, and it always undermines the wealth and viability of both theleaders themselves.

It’s the difference between Saddam Hussein and Mao, or Pol Pot–Hussein stole from his people and let them starve, tortured his enemies and confiscated anything he could get his hands on , all in aid of living high on the hog and getting to screw more women.  Mao destroyed the technological talent of a generation, and Pol Pot did that and took the agricultural economy along with it–and for what?

It’s difficult to maintain that a Mao wants only what a Hussein wants.  And “power” is less of an explanation than it is another symptom.  There’s something psychiatrically peculiar about this business of “I’d rather have us all dead than admit the possibility that there are people in the world who do not believe that what I believe is true.”

There’s a thought in here somewhere, although I seem to be expressing it badly today.

Written by janeh

October 28th, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

with 3 comments

So, let me speak up for the people who are so desperate to perfect the world.

In their defense, they’re dealing with a lot more than just a sloppy term paper or a holiday project gone bad, or even the building of a bridge or a building. 

On a social level, the history of the world is about as depressing as it’s possible to get, except that real progress occurs every once in a while.  We did manage to develop indoor plumbing and anitbiotics and Sachertorte and a whole list of things that have made life objectively better for a great many of us.  We’ve even managed to invent social structures–liberal democracy, the free market system–that work better for more people than anything that’s come before it.

Even with all that, though, we haven’t eliminated war and probably never will, no have we managed to train ourselves out of the worst of our natures.  Some wars are defensive and some aggressive wars are fought for good reason, but it’s astounding how many wars amount to a vastly escalated version of a fight with a schoolyard bully.

And for all our civilization, there are still places in the world where people are routinely enslaved and tortured and starved to death, just because somebody wants to.

On an individual level, we aren’t much better.  Not only do we rape and steal and kill with no end in sight, but even the best of us are sometimes beset by disease, disability, accident and–finally–death.

I don’t think it’s all that odd that a culture that has ceased to have confidence in a religious denouement to the human story–that is unable to accept ideas of an afterlife of one sort or another, or a vast cosmic plan that fits all the pain and suffering into a meaningful structure beyond itself–would go looking for a way to eliminate all the pain here on earth.

And surely there’s nothing ignoble about wanting to eliminate the pain.  A lot of human progress consists of exactly that–of inventing antibiotics to make disease less lethal to human beings; of inventing surgery for the same reason; of inventing labor saving devices so that more of us have the leisure to think and read and play really loud music while attempting to jetski while stoned.

The most important question in history is, I think, this:  is it possible to perfect the human being, to eliminate once and for all all those causes of pain and misery?  Or is the human story a tragedy no matter what we do to alleviate it, so that we have to find a way to live with it and within it.

By now, most of you know that I’m for the second answer, but I don’t think that the original impetus–to alleviate pain and suffering and death as much as possible–is in any way evil.  The problem is not the goal, but the assumptions made in pursuit of the goal. 

The English Enlightenment was interested in alleviating pain and suffering just as much as the French Enlightenment was, it just made different assumptions about the nature of human beings and human life.

And, like I said, got it right.

I wonder sometimes if the escalating violence of things like the French Revolution, including all the revolutions that followed the same model, isn’t actually a form of panic–if most people, unlike me, do not feel comfortable with accepting a flawed and imperfect life as the only one out there.

I’m blithering. 

But I’m tired.

Written by janeh

October 27th, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Almost Perfect

with 5 comments

I once corresponded for a period of three years with a very elderly and very dotrinaire Humanist who was convinced, no matter what evidence I showed him, that the Renaissance followed the Reformation–that the Renaissance was made possible only once “the people” had “broken the back of the Catholic Church.”

He died without ever accepting the reality that the Reformation spelled the end of the Renaissance in every place in Europe except  England–which is an interesting circumstance of its own.

In the end, the Reformation spelled the end of the Renaissancce in England, too, as Cromwell and the Puritans shut down theaters and tried to impose, by law, the kind of plain living and high thinking New England mothers hoped to instill by hectoring.

But there was one thing the Renaissance and the Reformation had in common, and that both had in common with the Middle Ages–and that was the emphasis on the perfectability of man.

Humankind.  Whatever.  I am aware of the fact that changes in English usage are such that it is no longer possible to use “man” as a universal and have it sound right, or even be understood correctly, but my head keeps channeling actual quotations from much earlier periods.

Whatever.  The idea that it is possible to perfect the human being, and that this is a goal towards which both society at large and each individual human should be dedicated, is at its foundations a  Christian one.

Granted that Christianity never expected this perfecting would be completed on earth, there is, from the earliest writings of the Church, a constant and unfaltering emphasis on the project.

Each man is born, the early Church said, and Augustine said more loudly and at greater length, to work out his salvation in fear and trembling.  It was as an aid to this that Confession became a regular and frequent part of the life of the Christian, because Confession was a way to examine the conscience, to make oneself accountable for one’s faults and to commit oneself to correcting them.

And Confession in the Middle Ages was not a matter of walking into a dark little box and coming out with the obligation to say five Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers and a perfect Act of Contrition.  Penitents were instead required to do things like kneel at the door of the church every day for three months, begging their bread, in penance for the sin of pride, or going on foot to the Holy Land, begging all the way again, for such crimes as murder and sacrilege.

What’s interesting to me, of course, was that people did these things, in spite of the fact that the civil authorities did not back them up. 

Of course, the mere acts of human beings could not remove the stain of sin from the soul–and although Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross saved the soul from eternal damnation, which its sins deserved, it didn’t remove the stain either. 

In order to be perfected, man must not only be saved, but must atone for his sins at a lesser level as well, must scrub out that stain, must be made clean.

And that was what pergatory was–and is–for.  Christ removes the eternal punishment due to sin, but the temporal punishment remains.

Think of it like this.  If you murder your wife and are convicted of it and go to prison, you may find religion in prison, join a church, be baptized, and be saved.  You will then n ot need to fear going to Hell when you die.  You will, however, still have to serve out your sentence.   The debt you owe to society–the debt you owe “in time” (temporally)–does not disappear.

I hear a number of people argue, in arguments against religion, that Christian thinking on sin and salvation is fundamentally immoral, because all Hitler would have had to do was confess his sins at the end of his life and be truly sorry for them, and he’d go straight to Heaven no matter how many people he’d murdered and tortured.

In Catholicism, however, this is not the case.  Hitler could indeed confess and e forgiven his sins, but he’d still have to spend a really, really, really long time in Purgatory working off the temporal punishment due to them. 

If you use the standard Catholic image for this, Hitler couldn’t enter Heaven until h is soul had been cleaned of the stain of his sins, and those stains were going to take a lot of time and elbow grease before they came out.

I don’t mean to beat you all over the head with the doctrine of Purgatory, only to point out that the Enlightenment didn’t invent the idea of the perfectablity of man–it just moved the time frame.

And it’s not such an odd thing that it did.  Look at it any way you want to, and humankind looks in need of some perfecting, sooner rather than later.  On the biological level we have disease, disability and death.  On the interpersonal level we have pride, greed, violence and that unbelievably resistant narcissism which seems to be the common theme of all human beings everywhere at every time in history.   On the social level, we have war, tyranny and corruption.

Once people stopped believing automatically in a world beyond this one where wrong were righted, it was almost inevitable that men and women would try to find a way to perfect themselves and their fellow men right here, in the here and now.  The only other choice was to accept evil as inevitable and the essential tragedy of the human story as unrelievable.

The remarkable thing about the Enlightenment is not the bloody Romanticism of the French Revolution, but the measured common sense of the Enlish variety.

Then ask yourself something else.

The Brits were the only ones in Europe–or anywhere else–on the right side of the single most important question in the history of civilization.

So what is it exactly they’re always apologizing for these days, and always to the people who got it wrong?

Written by janeh

October 26th, 2009 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Robin Hood and Christian Humanism

with 4 comments

Okay, I’m not really going to talk abou Robin Hood, even though it’s one of those things that make me all kinds of  nuts. 

If you want to judge just how incredibly messed up our understanding of the Middle Ages really is, Robin Hood would be a good place to start.  We’re told that Robin “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” as if he were some kind of protoCommunist looking to redistribute wealth.

What Robin Hood actually did was rob the tax collectors and give the people back their money.

Think about that for a moment.

And, okay, I did talk about  Robin Hood.

Christian Humanism is, obviously, something else.  For one thing, “Humanism” was the term scholars and  artists in the Renaissance applied to themselves. 

But what’s important here is that Christian Humanism started as a movement in theology, not in the arts or philosophy.

Most Medieval theologians took seriously their mandate to “explain God to man,” and in that capacity wrote mostly about the nature of God and of “things unseen,” and on the nature of revelation.

Aquinas is an obvious exception to this, since Aquinas wrote about everything, but the emphasis in Medieval theology was on the nature of God. 

Christian Humanism begins with a movement among theologians to begin to write and think about the relationship between God and man.  Man is made in God’s image–what did that mean?  If man was such a miserable, sinful creature, then why did God send his Son (who is also Himself) to suffer and die for him?  How was the Bble written, and do we really understand it?

As part of this movement, a number of very important things were done that would have enormous effects later.

The first of these was the production of what were called “parallel texts,” editions of the Bible printed in columns showing the text in various editions and languages.

The two most famous of these were the  Complutensian Polyglot and the Textus Receptus.  The first is traditionally attributed to Ximenes in Spain.  The second is certainly the work of Erasmus in Holland.  The Polyglot is important for its Old Testament.  The Textus Receptus is important for its New.

And both of them made plain to any educated reader that the texts of the scriptures were often different in different places and times, usually only in minor ways, but sometimes with more serious implications.  The texts had not come down to us pristinely, and where there was an issue of translation between languages, there were some issues that definitely needed to be addressed.

The parallel texts marked the beginning of Biblical scholarship as scholarship, rather than just as exegesis.  They also marked the beginning of skepticism for the sake of skepticism, and coupled with the newly wide distribution of ancient texts that had been lost or unavailable for general use for some time, the beginning of what I think of as the quasi-pagan artist.

I don’t mean to imply by that that figures such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo were not believers.  They were believers, passionate believers.  They just also imported, into their art and lives, classical elements that would not have been possible for them at an earlier time.  Not the least of these was a reworking of the status of homosexuality from an unnatural abomination to a sin that was, well, only natural. 

Renaissance Italy was good for that kind of thing.

I’m not an expert on painting and sculpture, but if we believe the people who wrote at the time, the new style, not only the rise and spread of the use of perspective, but the tendency to idealize the human form whether it was presented as human or divine, human or angelic, was directly related to that new theological concern–what does it mean that man is greated n the image of God? 

If man is created in the mage of God, maybe, when we paint and sculpt him, we ought to make him look like it.

What’s always interested me is that the one place where a Renaissance artist could be counted on to produce the figure of a human being that looked realistic and not idealized, it was in images of Christ Incarnate.  Adam reaching out to touch the finger of God on the Sistine is a triumph of human beauty.  Christ lying dead across the lap of the Virgin in the Pieta is as brutally realistic as any corpse in the morgue. 

And with that, I think I’ll head out for the harpsichords.  I know it’s only Saturday, but what the hey.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2009 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Oh, Good. An Excuse to Talk About the Middle Ages

with 4 comments

And the Renaissance. 

As if I  needed an excuse.

But Jem brought up something that’s out there in the air, and that has been out there in the air for centuries, and it’s a misreading of history–a deliberate falsification of history that started in the eighteenth century–that makes it virtually impossible to understand Western intellectual history in any coherent way at all.

First, the rise of intellectual atheism did n ot begin in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment, and especially in Eighteenth Century France.  The philosophes were the first to reject Christianity in particular and traditional religion in general in any systematic way, and they were also the ones who established the narrative about the history of science and the arts that most of us now just assume must be true.

That narrative went like this:  first there were the Middle Ages, which were dark and benighted, ruled by a tyrannical Church that surpressed science, burned people at the stake for making scientific discoveries, and forced everybody to concentrate on God and their own sinfulness by spending all their time on their knees begging for mercy.

The first break came with the Renaissance, when science valiently struggled to be free of religious schackles and the Church condemned Galileo for proving that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.

The second break came with the Reformation, as people threw off the superstitions of Catholicism and broke the stranglehold of Church on science and learning.

The final and most important break came with the Enlightenment, when man finally overthrew all vestiges of irrationality, and valiantly chose to put reason over religion.

I’d say that that particlar narrative, or something like it, is what most of my generation was taught was the progress of culture in the West, and versions of that narrative remain with us in the New Atheist narratives of Dawkins and Harris, who are still casting themselves as the brave ational Scientists beset by the forces of superstittion represented by “fundamentalists,” Creationists, and Catholics.

Unfortunately, that particular narrative of cultural history is, in virtually every item, wrong.

Let’s start with the Middle Ages.

First, far from concentrating only–or even mostly–on God, the Middle Ages was one of the most determinedly pragmatic periods in all of Western history.

The Middle Ages invented the university as we know it, and the great universities that arose in this period were largely concentrated on training…lawyers.

Yes, I know, lawyers don’t sound all that pragmatic.  But one of the other things the Middle Ages did was reestablish and extend the rule of law, first conceived and implemented in classical Rome, then obliterated first by the excesses of the Empire and then by the great invasions.

This was not a small thing.  Amost everything we like about Western culture over and above other cultures depends on the rule of law for its very existence.  It’s in the Medieval reconstruction and reimagination of the rule of law that the idea of separation of church and state first appears in Western thought.  They meant something different by it than we do, but they did mean it.  For a while, kings and governments were forbidden to put priests and religious on trial secular courts for any reason whatsoever.  Beckett ran afoul of King Henry because he refused to allow Henry to try a priest in a crown court…for murder. 

Nor were the Middle Ages short on science.  It was Copernicus, not Galileo, who proved that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, and Copernicus was a figure of the high Middle Ages, not the  Renaissance.  

What’s more, his work was not suppressed, but celebrated.  It was taught throughout the Medieval schools and universities, including at the Vatican’s own school. 

The Middle Ages saw advances in many areas of science and technology, not only in astronomy but in agriculture, architecture and engineering.

Even that staple object of derision–how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?–wasn’t as stupid as it came to sound, but just a way of formulating a uestion about the nature of the soul.

So what did the Renaisance do?

It ushered in the reign of something called Christian Humanism.

I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 23rd, 2009 at 7:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Really Wandering Around in the Fog Here…

with 8 comments

Okay, let me see if I can frame this in a way that it sounds coherent.

I am working out the characters–and eventually the plot–in a new Gregor Demarkian.  This is not the Demarkian that will come out next year, which has already been written, but the one for the year after that.

This new one begins with an on-and-off continuing character, an extern sister in a cloistered Carmelite convent who left a partnership in a prestigious old money Philadelphia law firm to become a religious. 

For those of you who know little or nothing about Catholic religious orders–nuns in a cloistered convent do not come out into the world at all, ever.  They even receive vistors behind a grille, so that they cannot be seen, and when they have to travel, they wear what are called “exclaustration veils” that cover their faces, as well as what are usually (even these days) fairly elaborate habits.  A number of cloistered orders still wear full habits, as does the Carmelite house where my character lives.

(An addendum here–technically, only cloistered nuns are actually “nuns,” sincel only cloistered nuns take what are known as solemn vows.  The teaching sisters you remember from school, the nursing sisters you remember from the local Catholic hospital, are what are called “religious sisters,” and take only simple vows.)

Anyway, an extern sister, like my character, is a religious sister and not a nun proper, and she takes only simple vows–because somebody has to.  Cloistered religious orders do a lot more than you think–most of them run small businesses of various kinds, some of them even farm, and all of them need somebody who can deal with the outside world.

Thus:  extern sisters, who, taking only simple vows, can go off and get the shopping and the shipping down, run the gift shop, and all the rest of it.

So, my semi-continuing character is an extern sister at this Carmelite monastery (all cloistered convents are called monasteries, even though there are only women in them), and she used to be a lawyer in this big firm.

And one day, she’s visited by a woman she knew, a lawyer at the same firm, and the kind of strident-hysterical atheist who seems not so much to have rejected religion as to have reacted to something much deeper psychologically and then gone completely off the deep end.

And then, you know, soon after that, the woman ends up–well, never mind.  You can read the book when it comes out.  Knock wood.

BUT–and here’s the thing that was getting me today:  when and why did it become the norm for intellectuals to be nonbelievers?

I don’t really feel like deconstructing the patently bogus claim that “intelligent” people don’t believe in God, because it obviously isn’t true even of this century, never mind of earlier ones.  Augustine, Aquinas, Graham Greene, James Schall…I can name lots of very intelligent people who are highly committed Catholics.  I’m a little sketchier on Protestants, but I’m fairly sure I could find some intelligent people there, too.

And it certainly hasn’t always been the case–Yvor Winters’ very intellectual work made him a believer in God, although not a Christian.  And if you look at every part of every century in the West up until the last half of the 20th, there have been plenty of intellectuals who were believers as well as plenty of the other kind.

And, I suppose, we have some intellectuals even in this period who have been or are believers–William F. Buckley comes to mind–but the fact is that the pairing of intellectual vocation and professed unbelief has become so common as now to constitute a cliche.

Someone like Hilton Kramer would say–if you don’t know Kramer, go check in at The New Criterion–that intellectuals are always religious, but the religion of modern intellectuals is some form of Marxism.  Okay, Kramer might come right out and call it Stalinism. 

And I tend to side with the people who find Marxism to be a religion–to function as a religion, may be the better way to put it–in spite of its protestations of scientific foundations. 

But then, I know a fair number of people who use science as a form of religion.  I’m putting this badly.  But I still can’t get over the guy on the Internet forum I sometimes post on who excoriates the mindless conformity of religious believers while declaring that he knows evolution is true even though he doesn’t understand it, because it’s “science.”

I want to skip, for the moment, the conjecture that religion never really goes away.  When we deny it, most of us–and maybe especially those of us whose vocation is one kind of intellectual work or another–simply find something else that does the same thing on the front that is really necessary to us:  exegesis and interpretation.

I don’t think it’s an accident that so many first class names in the academic Humanities have been either Catholics or Jews, because in both Catholicism and Judaism there is a tradition of the close reading of texts (scripture) and the importance of disputing about them and interpreting them.  Which is, after all, what a decent literary scholar does.

So, yes, I do think that there is something there, a habit of mind, that almost compels academics in the Humanities towards religious-like thinking, if not towards religion itself.

But the puzzle gets deeper, because if there is something the standard academic Humanist is not it is, well, how to put this?  Highly sexed.

That’s an ancient construction there.  I’m dating myself.

The thing is undeniable, however, that the concentration of so much “rebellion” and of almost all intellectual “rebellion” since the Sixties has been sex, and that in spite of the fact that the people doing most of the hyperventilating about it are the people least likely to be having much of it–middle-aged and getting to be geriatric, sedentary, nebbishy academics…

Okay.  It’s a cliche.  But it’s true.

I sort of get the sexual rebellion of the Sixties.  At eighteen, your mind is basically in your biology, and that’s evolution.  I even get the oversexed mania of much modern youth culture.  At eighteen, once again–yes, okay.

But most of us grow out of that after a while.  We get older.  We find reliable partners, so that sex is no longer a matter of not being able to get any when our bodies really want it.  And our bodies calm down.  We have children.  We go on to other things.

Modonna hasn’t gone on to other things because she makes millions of dollars sticking with the freak show.  It’s not so clear to me why the average literary deconstructionist is still fixated on all things genital. 

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a large part of the reaction against traditional religion in academia is really a reaction to the idea of a cultural climate that would not allow full, flagrant, unjudged access to any and all kinds of sex for anybody at all at all times and under virtually all circumstances–some of the male versions of this won’t even completely condemn rape–no matter what.

And if what I was looking at here was a group of people who were having orgies every night and a quickie every afternoon in the faculty bathroom, I could see it.  But in general, that is not what is going on here.  The middle-aged nebbishes live as all of us middle-aged nebbishes do–they are no more interested in running around screwing everything that moves than their religious counterparts are.  They’re just interested in defending the running around.

The question is–why?  If there’s one thing you learn growing older, it’s that the mania for sex of your adolescence was not terribly good for you, and not terribly interesting, and you’re a lot better of putting sex in perspective and getting some work done.  And I know these people have in fact come to the same conclusion on a practical basis, even if their theory is very different.  If they hadn’t come to some such conclusion, they’d never have finished their dissertations and gotten tenure. 

And certainly there is no necessary connection.  The most flagrantly public of the New Atheists don’t seem to be this fixated on sex, or much concerned with it at all.  Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and Dennett are not writing passionate defenses of having multiple anonymous partners while wearing a chicken suit.

Somewhere here, there’s a connection I can’t quite make, although–if my screwing around witha first draft of this thing is any indication–I do seem to be able to write it.

(And there’s a question for you–why is it I do in fact understand how someone like a Nurse Ratchett works but I can’t write from inside her head, but I don’t understand this and yet I seem to be able to write from inside this head just fine?)

Anyway, there I am.  It’s not too coherent, but it’s what’s on my mind lately.

In case you want to know, I’m reading Hilton Kramer’s The Twilight of the Intellectuals:  Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War, and I’m probably going to follow it by reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness.

But I don’t know.  The week-end’s coming up, and I’ve got Agatha Christie.

Written by janeh

October 22nd, 2009 at 9:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Different Kind of Puzzle

with 5 comments

Yesterday, I had one of those days that explains a lot about why I do what I do in my spare time.

This term I have had, in one of my courses, a student we’ll call X.  X is very bright, but she’s also very belligerent.  If you’ve never worked with the kind of student I usually work with, you have no idea of the level of anger that can just sort of free float through a classroom.  Those of my students with the worst of “socioeconomic backgrounds” have two modes:  passive beyond belief and angry on an second by second basis.

X is one of the angry ones–or has been, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next–and up until yesterday I had basically ticked her off in the back of my head as one of the ones who was not going to last this term.  For one thing, X has yet to hand in a single thing all term. 

And I do mean a single thing.  She hasn’t only missed all the homework and every one of the papers, she’s even failed to hand in work we’ve done in class.  She’s there.   She never misses.  She’s doing something in the seat she’s in.  She just never hands anything in.

At the eginning of class yesterday, we had one of our standard snippy cat fights, with X declaring that she didn’t understand how we could expect her to do anything because she hadn’t learned anything and it was up to me to tell her.  And, of course, I had told her, but when I did tell her she’d go, “well, okay, but how am I supposed to do that?” 

Yesterday, the issue was introductory paragraphs, which X declared she couldn’t do and didn’t understand how to do.  I gave the usual little speech, you can open like this, you can open like that, and X just got more and more mulish.

And then, I don’t know why, I just sort of exploded.  “Look,” I said.  “if you really can’t do this at all, do a railroad paper.  It’s what we were told to do in grad school when we were stuck.  State your thesis in the first sentence.  Then use each sentence after that to state the topics of your body paragraphs to come. It’s clunky.  It’s not elegant.  But it’s never wrong.”

X got the most peculiar look on her face and then she said, “No.  I get that.  It can’t be wrong.”

Then she just sort of retreated, and we went back to discussing the best way to do outlines.  X seemed to be working hard at her seat.  But she always seems to be working hard, and she never hands anything in.

At the end of class, X walked up to me, handed me a paper, and asked me what I thought of it.  Instead of writing the outline she was supposed to be writing all through the class, she’d written the intro paragraph for the short essay we were supposed to be working on. 

And it was, really, a perfectly decent piece of work.  Which I told her.  She then took back the paragraph, stuffed it into her folder and went chortling out of the classroom saying, “I really can get this stuff.  I knew I could.  I really can get this.”

I’d never actually heard anybody do anything I would call chortling beore, but she was doing it.

I have no idea how this is going to work out in the long run.  I do know that that was the first time she was ever willing to show me any of the work she had done.  I also know that what seems to ahve broken her resistance was the idea that there was a method out there that she could use and never be wrong.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed.

But I’ll repeat something I’ve said earlier.

The single common denominator among all my kids from inner city high schools is this:  they’ve all come through a system that seems to have been designed to teach them that they are completely stupid and worthless, so deeply and fundamentally so that they shouldn’t bother even trying to be any different. 

I’m going to go listen to some Domenico Scarlatti.  I need harpsichords.

Written by janeh

October 21st, 2009 at 6:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Something of a Puzzle

with 4 comments

Before I start in on this here, I’d like to point out that I was not advocating in favor of “progressive” government policies in my last post–I was just pointing out the obvious, which is that the way to GET such policies is for the people (Wall Street, the insurance companies, etc) whose ox would be gored by them to insist on behaving like jerks.

If Reason–the monthly publication of one of the most vigorously libertarian think tanks in the country–could figure that out, my guess is that the rest of us can, too.

That said, I have this puzzle, and it’s an interesting one.

Some of you may remember from a few posts ago that I had just received a little stack of conservative books from various people, one of which was Glenn Beck’s Arguing With Idiots.

I first heard of Glenn Beck entirely by accident.  During the bad weather months, I keep my car radio tuned to a local AM radio station that happens to have the best and most complete weather information available for where I have to drive.

This station is about fifty-fifty music (oldies–real oldies, from the Fifties sometimes, even) and talk, and the talk is relentlessly conservative, both because talk radio tends to be and because the station is a FoxNews affiliate.

The talk show I caught most often was hosted by a local guy named Ed Flynn, who makes “farther right than Atilla the Hun” seem moderate.  I’d listen to long rants about how George W. Bush was practically a socialist and Obama was going to be worse if he was elected–I told you this was a while ago–and by then I was usually where I wanted to go.

Every once in a while, though, I’d be late, and being late I’d catch the next show, which was Glenn Beck’s syndicated talk.  And it struck me, right from the beginning, that this man was completely beserk. 

Now, I’ve listened to Limbaugh on radio on and off, and not liked him much–although I did rather like his short-lived television show.  I don’t know.  Too much screaming on talk radio, I think, too much aggressive belligerance. 

But Beck was much farther out there than Rush, or at least than the Rush I’d heard, and, like Ed Flynn, he tended to see both major US political parties as socialist in deed if not in word.  And Beck was much more flamboyant, too, and much more emotional–ack, it’s hard to describe unless you’d heard it.  Some of you may be old enough to remember the ads that used to run for a chain of electronics sstores called Crazy Eddie’s.  Beck’s talk show was like those.

Then there was a vacation and I didn’t drive in that direction for a while, and when I went back to it the Beck program seemed to have disappeared.

A few months later, I found out why–Beck had his own program five nights a week on FoxNews. 

And he was, on his program–and is, on his program–just as he was in his radio addresses–completely beserk, over the top, borderline nutso in a way that neither Olbermann nor O’Reilly could even begin to approach.

And some of what he does on air (I think he said at one point that he was live, at least for the originating show) is just peculiar–there are times that he’s almost reduced to tears and other times when he’s bouncing around like a pingpong ball.  He makes no secret of having been an alcoholic, but what his behavior looks like is a kind of rapid-fire version of bipolar–up down UPPP doownnn….

There are graphs, there are charts, there are conspiracy theories–the man really did spend a program “proving” that the iconography of Rockefeller Center–ROCKEFELLER CENTER–was “socialist.”  And he’s so completely off the wall about the Obama administration that I can’t believe he isn’t screwing over his own cause by saying some of the things he says.

So I opened the book expecting the diary of a nutcase.

And got a perfectly reasonable exposition of the hard end of libertarianism.

I mean it.  There’s nothing crazy about the book, at least as far as I’ve gotten, and I’m four fifths of the way through it.

There are things I don’t like, not the least of which is the book design.  The thing is outsized, like half a coffee table book, and it’s designed to death, with sidebars, graphs, all kinds of things. Beck says he’s ADD, or maybe ADHD (REALLY wouldn’t surprise me), and I can see how the design is meant to mimic a mind that works like that.

And I’ll admit that the design is at least consistent, so that I finally did figure out how to deal with it without getting tangled up in it.

But still.

And there are some things I don’t agree with, although there’s a great deal I do agree with.  I’m more of a soft libertarian than a hard one, but the basic philosophy remains, and it’s the details we’re arguing about.

And Beck writes well–he’s clear, he’s straightforward, he keeps his logical fallacies to a minimum, and I mostly do know when he’s joking.  Like when he put Tiger Woods higher on the list of 10 Worst Bastards in History than Adolf Hitler.

So I started looking around, and came up with the information that the man went to Yale, although he dropped out before graduating.

Yale.  ADHD.  Alocholism.  The Bonzo act…

I’m at a loss to explain what’s going on here.  I suppose that the Bonzo act draws in listeners (on radio) and viewers (on FoxNews), but it also repels quite a few. 

The message of the book is coherent, focused and clear. You can agree or disagree, but you won’t come out of it thinking that Beck is certifiable.  You often do come out of that television program thinking he is.  Or worse.

If what this guy is trying to do is convince more Americans to be libertarian instead of liberal…he needs some kind of reality check.

Written by janeh

October 20th, 2009 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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