Monday, May 29, 2006

Bonhoeffer Redux: Time to Panic

Church seeks spirituality of youth . . . and doesn't like what it finds - Britain - Times Online

THE Church of England has debunked the widely held view that young people are spiritual seekers on a journey to find transcendent truths to fill the “God-shaped hole” within them. A report published by the Church today indicates that young people are quite happy with a life without God and prefer car boot sales to church...The authors began their work believing that even if the young had little knowledge of Christianity they would still have religious or spiritual yearnings. They were shocked to find that they did not...The researchers were also shocked to discover little sense of sin or fear of death. Nor did they find any Freudian guilt as a result of private sensual desires.

Bonhoeffer said it in Letters and Papers from Prison, c. 1943 so why are we surprised? There is no God-shaped hole--the bourgeois, at home in this world, happy with his family, his work and his hobbies, doesn't need, or want, religion. The Existentialist theologians who try to convince him that he's missing something are wrong, and moreover are trying to create sickness where there's health to conjure up more business for the church. That's a paraphrase because the quote is ungoogleable.

Here's a thesis with significant empirical support, not only in the sincere avowals of secular youth--Sinead Berrigan, 19: “I don’t believe in God and I think, to a certain extent, religions are a waste of time. I don’t like being told how to live by a set of religious rules. I just want to be happy”--but in the global theological landscape. Religion flourishes where people are poor and powerless, and withers away where they have decent this-worldly prospects.

Bonhoeffer's response was "religionless Christianity": we don't need God but God needs us--to suffer with him and work for him in the world. This inspired the Christian Left activism of the '60s in which I was indoctrinated. But I don't think that my mentors, or even Bonhoeffer himself realized the extent to which it undermined Christianity. Why should we work, suffer or sacrifice, as Bonhoeffer did? We have a dilemma. If the answer is in any sense religious, what's in it for me religiously? If there isn't a god who dispenses reward and punishment, why should I bother? If I don't get to enjoy religion--the art and mysticism--why should I bother? I've had this discussion with colleagues in theology who're into "liberation theology" and hold that the whole business is about forming "base communities" for Latin American peasants. Well that's very nice but I keep asking them if the kickback isn't Bach (I'm now listening to Bist Du Bei Mir) and high liturgy why should I bother? If the Church doesn't provide any reward, if you liberation theologians take away all the goodies of religion and then demand all the shit work, why should I comply?

On the other horn, if the impetus is secular--some impulse to promote the good for people, work for social justice, etc.--why should I bother with religion? Yes, Bonhoeffer, a moral hero, had a religious story to tell but lots of other moral heros who resisted the Nazis, hid Jews in their attics and took on risk to do the right thing out of common decency, didn't have religious stories to tell. So what is the point of introducing the religious story into this picture? There's the dilemma if you start with the Christian Left assumption that the whole business is geared up to promoting political action in the interests of social justice.

It was only much later in retrospect that I realized how fundamentally conservative these '60s "radical" clergy were. They were dealing with people who bought the idea that they should be nice for the Kingdom of God's sake but assumed that being nice consisted in contributing to charities, operating soup kitchens and sending condolence cards to the bereaved. The aim of these priests was to push the idea that being nice consisted also in marching in demonstrations, working politically to promote a more just society and boycotting non-union grapes. Well that's right, but it doesn't address the fundamental question of people like me who wonder why we should bother being nice in any way in the first place--or what doing the right thing, whatever it is, has to do with religion.

In their advice to the Church, the report’s authors say that the first thing to do is “avoid panic”

But why? Bonhoeffer was right: there is no God-shaped hole in people's lives. And no matter how much clergy nag and whine they are not going to convince anyone that there really is--that their this-worldly happiness is an illusion or that lives that are good by secular standards are really desperate and empty. The message of the Christian Left has no purchase on anyone who isn't already religious: dispensing with the metaphysics may be a relief for dutiful Christians who've had it beaten into them that in addition to all the obligations of niceness they have an even more stringent obligation to believe metaphysical claims that they find implausible, uninteresting or simply incomprehensible but it's not going to do anything for secular people who never felt that sense of doxastic obligation in the first place or persuade them to buy into the ethics game. There are too few aesthetes and history buffs like me to support the Church and most people who have the yen for romance, aesthetic experience and metaphysical thrills get their jollies elsewhere--in popular music, in science-fiction, fantasy and ghost stories, in computer games, and in New Age products.

Even if the Church, using all that data from surveys and focus groups could reconstruct itself to satisfy a wider range of consumer tastes--and it's very difficult to see what that reconstruction would look like--consumers wouldn't believe it: most wouldn't even notice. After a generation or two of secularism, the Church is so remote that it's off the radar screen. The secular world provides all the goods and services reasonably comfortable people in affluent countries want and there's no point in looking any further.

Time to panic.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bravo, UMBC!

Why American College Students Hate Science - New York Times

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, opened for business in a former cow pasture not far from downtown just 40 years ago. Still in its infancy as universities go, U.M.B.C. is less well known than Maryland's venerable flagship campus at College Park or the blue-blooded giant Johns Hopkins. But the upstart campus in the pasture is rocking the house when it comes to the increasingly critical mission of turning American college students into scientists...

Initiated in 1989, U.M.B.C.'s Meyerhoff Scholars Program is so well known that the university no longer needs to recruit for it. High school counselors and teachers nominate about 1,900 students annually, mostly from Maryland, for merit-based scholarships. About 100 scholarships are offered, and of these about 50 are accepted. The new students are welcomed into a well-established community of scientists and scientists-to-be through a summer program that sets the stage for the next four years...

Critics have sometimes accused the Meyerhoff program of cherry-picking bright students who would perform spectacularly well wherever they went to school. But the numbers suggest that the school's instructional strategy makes a real difference. Meyerhoff students are twice as likely to earn undergraduate degrees in science or engineering as similar students who declined the scholarships and went to school elsewhere. Most significantly, students who completed the Meyerhoff program are 5.3 times as likely to enroll in graduate study as the students who said no and went elsewhere.

I'm a quasi-alumna. My degree is from Hopkins and I'm proud of it, but I took a linguistics course at UMBC and that was one of the best things that happened to me in grad school.

I've just finished my semester--triumphantly submitted my grades to the registrar's office a week before the due date, posted them at my class site, and ducked--set an auto-reply to email saying that I would be away and unable to check until the end of June. I will answer the phone in a thick generic accent: "Dr. ____? Yo no se, no comprendo. Ich spreche keine English. Je ne se quoi. You wanna Tony Soprano?"

The hardest thing about this business isn't teaching but complying with the rules and standards that stymie one in teaching, in particular the obligation to get a spread of grades and keep them low. Academia operates on the Signal Theory rather than the Human Capital Theory. Our aim is not to pump up that Human Capital but to rank students to that they can be assessed for the allocation of scarce goods. It's all like some parody of an undergraduate's worst nightmare:

Tee-hee-hee, Professor X--I only gave 3 A's this semester.

Chickenfeed, Professor Y--I didn't give any A's at all AND I flunked half the class.

[Professors X and Y in unison, beating their breasts and scratching their armpits] We're tough!!!

I don't doubt that we could do better if our aim was simply to teach, if college were on the model of Microsoft certification or music lessons, where the aim was simply to achieve a result. Years ago academics probably had that luxury. When I was growing up a college degree, regardless of major or grades, guaranteed a you perch in the middle class: a white-collar job if make and marriage to a white collar worker if female or at worst a teaching job. Now we're got to sort out the 10% or so that will get decent jobs and decent lives from the 15% who will go the death of a salesman and the rest who will wash out and subside into the working class.

You'd think it would be better in the sciences where the jobs are there and where the aim is to teach specific job-related skills. And this piece on UMBC suggests that it can be better. But it can't do better in my field where nothing I teach is of any direct relevance to what students will eventually do on the job. All I can do is certify that students are clever enough to do tricks--to do natural deduction derivations--and sufficiently literate, organized and intellectually acute to write decent philosophy papers. I'm stuck with this.

Of course I love what I do, and believe that it's worthwhile. Philosophy though is a luxury that few people can afford, least of all undergraduates working to get their credentials so that they can avoid grunt work and drudgery.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Slippery Slopes

Heaven Can Wait :: Dissent Spring 2006 Issue

Feldman, a professor at the New York University School of Law, suggests that more religious activities and expressions of faith should be permitted in public institutions but that no public money should be used to support religious institutions. In other words, let public school prayer alone but don’t spend public money on religious charter schools. What Feldman fails to recognize is that the Christian right’s drive for more publicly enshrined religious expression is inseparable from its demand for public financing of explicitly religious activities: the first is a stalking horse for the second.

Feldman also espouses the peculiar idea that religious minorities should not be bothered by explicitly Christian activities in tax-supported venues, say, the recitation of a prayer before a football game or the use of school facilities for Bible classes. He argues (a quote Kazin cites approvingly) that “there is nothing shameful or inherently disadvantageous in being a religious minority, so long as that minority is not subject to coercion or discrimination.”

There is something bizarrely ahistorical about the eagerness of certain Jewish intellectuals to proclaim their lack of discomfort in the presence of Christian symbols in public institutions. Their great-grandparents from Minsk and Pinsk knew better: the hairs on the backs of their necks would have prickled when they were invited to join public school classmates in singing carols about the birth of the little Lord Jesus.

The problem with slippery slopes is that there's no a priori method for determining which way is down hill or where to draw the bright line and dig in. Slippery slope arguments per se aren't fallacious--the slippery slope fallacy consists in ignoring the empirical premises they require or failing to support these premises.

Does Feldman "fail to recognize" that school prayer and other trivial religious ceremonies and symbols are "inseparable" from fundamentalist Christian's drive to get public funding for more substantive religious projects or does he disagree about the tilt of the slope and the suitable place to draw the bright line? Even if members of the religious right regard school prayer and the like as a stalking horse for the establishment of religion in some genuinely objectionable sense it doesn't follow that it will in fact make that more likely. It's an empirical question whether permitting trivial symbols and ceremonies will make it more likely or less likely that the Christian right can get through its theocratic agenda, or whether it will simply have no effect. There is no a priori reason to hold that the connection between these inherently harmless practices and those that impose a burden on religious minorities is "inevitable."

It is also hard to understand why Jewish intellectuals', or any other non-Christians', lack of discomfort in the presence of Christian symbols is "bizarrely ahistorical." What is ahistorical if anything is the idea the US in the 21st Century is in relevant respects like Eastern Europe in the 19th. There are important empirical questions here that are fudged under the rhetoric. Why would the Jews of Minsk and Pinsk get nervous if they were invited to sing Christmas carols? Was their worry that the display of Christian symbols was the means to rally the troops for a pogrom? Was it that it was part of a larger program to indoctrinate and convert them? Were they worried that they would simply find all the stuff so attractive that even without any evangelistic campaign they would be won over? Assuming that the Minskites and Pinskites had reason to worry about all these things, do members of religious minorities or secularists in the US now have reason to worry about any of them?

I don't see any pogroms, crusades or inquisitions in the offing. As far as evangelism goes many fundamentalists do imagine that religious symbols and ceremonies work ex opera operato: they have the idea that mere exposure to religious stuff can magically effect conversions--or at least soften up prospects. However one would assume that non-Christians don't believe in the magical efficacy of religious stuff or worry that they will be brain-zapped if they sing Christmas carols or look at the cross atop Mt. Soledad.

Is the real worry that there's religious stuff that operates naturalistically on individual's aesthetic sensibilities? That would be my concern if I wanted to raise my kid secular or non-Christian. If however the aim is to protect impressionable youngsters from the lure of religion then secularist parents should be careful to avoid exposing them to the Bach B Minor Mass, Paradise Lost, the Metaphysical poets and all decent religious art and church architecture. It's the religious products that have aesthetic merit, presented as culture objects, that are the most tempting--not prayer in the schools or Jehovah's Witnesses at the door. But to protect kids from this you have to knock out a huge hunk of the choral repertoire, stop teaching European art history prior to the Renaissance and much of Renaissance art history as well, avoid quite a few major literary works and ignore ecclesiastical architecture.

Is there something I'm missing here? During the campaign to remove crucifixes from the classrooms at my place a number of years ago the argument was that non-Catholics, particularly religious minorities, were offended, hurt and even panicked by them. This seemed pretty far-fetched to me but if in fact, as some of my colleagues claimed, Jews and Muslims had an immediate visceral reaction with flashbacks of the Inquisition and Crusades that might be a reason to take them down, just as there would be reason--though not IMHO compelling reason--to keep my cats indoors if their shit offends my neighbor. But Jacoby's complaint is that religious minorities aren't offended. She thinks that they should be--and should campaign vigorously to get all religious stuff, especially Christian stuff, removed from the public square because she is convinced that public religious expression will "inevitably" start the slide to coercion and discrimination against religious minorities, the dominance of the Christian right and theocracy.

But, as I've written in the margins of innumerable blue books--"evidence for this? argument for this?"

Darwinian non-voters

America's Scary Non-Voters ::

[N]on-voters appear particularly attracted to things that give them "strong jolts of sensation" – extreme sports, gambling, realistic video games, and psychotropic drugs...Even more worrying, however, is the rise in the values that Adams categorizes as "Darwinism and exclusion." Those who embrace these values, he writes, demonstrate "a mindset that sees brutal competition as a natural, exhilarating, and even cleansing condition for human coexistence …a dog-eat-dog world in which winners win by any means necessary, including violence, and losers get what they deserve – and are unworthy of sympathy or help.

That's seems right--and it's depressing. Is it what's this younger generation coming to or is it just a feature of being young as such?

Probably the latter. That's the sexual meat market: "only the brave deserve the fair." Young males fight for dominance. The alpha males collect harems--the losers "get what they deserve." Women "get attention" so long as they're good for breeding--then get thrown away. That at least is my son's conjecture--that when women get old they bug their kids because they can't "get attention" anymore. Probably better for women since almost all women get their innings even if all eventually get thrown away whereas, in this state of nature, most males never even get a shot.

I suppose it's the more hopeful scenario because it suggests that people will grow out of it. BUT WHEN?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The scapegoat - Los Angeles Times

THE UPROAR IN the Netherlands over its Somali-born member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is much more than a national controversy. It goes to the heart of the culture of appeasement that currently grips Europe... The failure goes far beyond the Netherlands and Hirsi Ali. Britain, Washington's principal ally in the war on terror, has succumbed to just the same cultural cringe. It allowed Islamist demonstrators to parade on the streets with placards proclaiming, "Death to the Infidel," and it even initially threatened to arrest those citizens who protested at such displays (it was subsequently shamed into arresting a demonstrator). Meanwhile, Tony Blair's government is inviting Muslim Brotherhood radicals into the heart of his administration in the hope of drawing the sting from the Islamist scorpion...This has produced a systematic appeasement of all minorities — racial, sexual and religious — in terror of vilification as racist, sexist or Islamophobic.

Well not exactly all minorities--just the ones that have financial clout or threaten violence. Middle-class gay males certainly get a hearing which is probably a good thing--we wouldn't have cared much about AIDS if it were just one of those nasty African diseases like malaria. And, of course, young lower-class males threatening violence always get a hearing, especially if gang leaders are clever enough to spin their activities ideologically as an uprising of the Oppressed. We're afraid of them. No worry about the veiled, sequestered Muslim women who Ayaan Hirsi Ali defended--they haven't got money and aren't likely to do damage.

As far as Hirsi Ali goes, she got too hot to handle. Once it became inconvenient to keep her safe, support peeled away and once she was vulnerable an opportunistic politician, playing to blood-and-soil racists who didn't want black people around, however integrated or assimilated, revoked her Dutch citizenship. That's politics though--and why I'm not in it.

The racist right wants people of color out, but the only socially acceptable way of putting that is by making noises about integration and assimilation--given the assumption that they cannot or will not assimilate. Anyone who genuinely supports integration and assimilation will be drawn into their orbit and, if she happens to be black like Hirsi Ali, will be spun off. The multicultural left isn't likely to be sympathetic either--after all this is politics: you have to make the right noises and, if black or brown, play the designated role of a "community leader" who is "representative" of the "community" and able to mollify the thugs, like Tony's friends in the Muslim Brotherhood.

I wonder how long before the American Enterprise Institute spins off Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Happy Birthday J. S. Mill!

Happy Birthday John Stuart Mill
The 19th-century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born 200 years ago today, and although he has been dead for more than 130 years, he still undeniably lives. His thoughts fashion our laws, enliven our scholarly debates and shape our political opinions. Best of all, his genius still inspires and provokes us.

As an undergraduate I had to take a required history of philosophy course that covered the territory from Kant to the turn of the 20th Century. Kant was ok, though it seemed to me needlessly complicated but the rest of the stuff was perfectly awful--except for Mill. When I told the instructor that I wanted to write my term paper on Mill he was disgusted: "You have been given Fichte and Schelling, Nietzshe and Kierkegaard, and yet you choose to write on Mill??!!?" he said. Needless to say, the only other philosopher in the 2 volume anthology we had who interested me was Mach--and he wasn't on the syllabus.

Cutting to the chase what always struck me, pace Plato, was the irreconcilable conflict between Beauty and Goodness. Butterflies and Wheels has a link to a piece by Scruton on Mill with the blurb "'Harm' doctrine has subverted laws founded in inherited sense of the sacred and prohibited." And that is it: utilitarianism, the harms principle, the whole Enlightenment package that Mill bought into, which I myself buy, is inimical to romantic notions of moral heroism and honor, of goodness as beauty and nobility. Goodness as Mill conceived of it is strenuous but practical and pedestrian--achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, not interfering with people who aren't interfering with that project, fighting the dead hand of tradition that imposes pointless constraints. The good people are the political activists, licking envelopes for the cause, and the humane technocrats making tedious adjustments in policy.

This is a tragedy. I understand the pull of Beauty, of heroism and honor, of the Great Chain of Being. I learnt about all this in English classes--Spenser and the Court of Glorianna, the Great Chain of Being, the juicy, religious, vermin-infested 17th Century, with the Metaphysical Poets, the hopelessly romantic Stuarts and all the baroque eccentricity of the old world expiring. Further back, I've read The Waning of the Middle Ages at least 20 times and thrilled to the introduction, describing a world where the colors were brighter, the emotions more intense, the rituals, hagiography and iconography of the Church dominated everyday life and everyone lived in a costume drama. It amazes me that the undergraduates I teach are completely cut off from this romance and that most people, apparently, aren't susceptible to the seduction of it: I am.

But it always struck me how costly that fantasy was--how the opulence of the high aristocracy ate up resources, how the Great Chain of Being cashed out for the bulk of the population who worked to eat and ate to work ground under the heel of their social betters higher up on the food chain, how notions of honor wasted people and wealth, how utterly constrained people were by the circumstances of their lives, how utterly unlovely it was on the ground.

That's where utilitarianism comes into the picture for me: better a population living in little boxes made out of ticky-tacky and spending their evenings vegging in front of the TV than a population of peasants in picturesque cottages without indoor plumbing drudging all their waking hours; better real opportunity for all to improve their lives than the Great Chain of Being where everyone knows his place; better a world tarmacked over, with clean water, medicine, food and clean cinderblock houses for everyone than an expensive fantasy at the cost of widespread human misery; better dishonor than death.

It's a horrible choice, but that is the choice for now.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Kids!!!--he wants to be a lawyer!

#2 Son has just announced that he wants to be a lawyer! We are very upset. Law is one of those overcrowded professions for people who can't do math. To get a job in these professions you have to get straight A's and hustle because anyone can do it but most people can't do it well. By contrast our engineering majors can get decent jobs as juniors with C averages. With math, if you can do it at all you're set.

This lead to a surprising dinner table conversation. After 30+ years of marriage I discovered that my husband would have gone into a humanities discipline even if he could handle the math for a science. This seems insane--or maybe it's a male-female issue.

I loved science as a kid--such as we got of it. I watched Mr. Wizard faithfully and did all the messy experiments in my mother's kitchen. What I really liked in high school were the labs which, to me, were like gym class--recreation. I caught on immediately how to peek though a microscope with one eye and use the other to do the drawing--and my sketches of dissected frogs were magnificent. What I really loved though was chemistry because it was tidy and organized--the periodic table, the equations. All of my experiments came out perfectly--I never had to repeat them or fudge. I still remember my lab partner's gratitude. I cried when I packed in the bunsen burner and flasks at the end of the year, knowing that I'd never do any science class again.

Truly, I don't believe that women go for humanities disciplines because they prefer them--I believe they go for them because, like me, they assume that they can't handle the math. That's why I went for philosophy--the most analytical and, in an extended sense, most scientific of humanities fields. I also like to fight so to that extent I can understand the appeal of law. I can certainly understand wanting to be a litigator on the Rumpole model--but not corporate law or scholarship.

Now I'm old, and I've lost my interest in science. When I read Scientific American on the plane to conferences I never read the physics article. I look at the splendid color pictures, and then read the econ article. Because of the way that my professional life has gone that's what interests me. I like the tidiness. Maybe that's why I like teaching logic so much. Still, when it comes to it I'm the perfect gut level philosopher because what I like to do and do best is to analyze, organize and fight.

But oh these kids, my kids. What do we do? My idea is simple: go for a math-intensive area--math, hard sciences, engineering or econ. That's what matters. Humanities disciplines, including philosophy, are like sports and other extra-curricular activities. They're good things, but they're luxuries--not what education should be about. So what do I say to my daughter, majoring in biology who doesn't much like it? It's tough and time consuming to get a science degree but if you don't you're pretty well worthless, out on the job market with all those other literati, just another woman applying for secretarial jobs.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bush's Multiculturalist Immigration Policy

Border Illusions - New York Times

These are the people who say illegal border crossings must be stopped immediately, with military boots in the desert sand...America must send its overtaxed troops to the border right now, they say, so a swarm of ruthless, visa-less workers cannot bury our way of life under a relentless onslaught of hard work...The United States is not an Arab emirate. It does not ennoble our democratic experiment by importing a second-class society of worker bees who are vulnerable to exploitation and have little incentive to adopt our values. If there must be guest workers, there must also be a path so they, too, can seek citizenship if they choose. Mr. Bush last night specifically — and shamefully — urged that such a path be denied to temporary workers.

So here we have it: multiculturalism at work. The Bush plan, as the NYTimes editorial notes would not "put illegal workers on a path to assimilation and citizenship"--it would create an underclass of slaves and helots to do our dirty work who will always be separate and never equal, who will maintain their own culturally distinct communities in our midst, and be sent away before they have a chance to get uppity.

This should hardly be a surprise. Conservatives have always been multiculturalists: now they have their feet to the fire and have to come clean. Their worry isn't that immigrants will not assimilate but that they will.

On the May 1, the day of the immigrant boycott, there were crowds of immigrants, documented and undocumented, and their families surging through the streets, waving American flags and Mexican flags, singing the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish. Some people were outraged by the Mexican flags and the Spanish version of the National Anthem--which isn't particularly singable in any language. But give me a break--this is the old time religion. Every tacky mail order house features ethnic products, IKEA flies the Swedish flag, St. Patrick's Day is a national obsession and everyone claims to be at least a little bit Irish. Hispanic immigrants and their children are just doing what every other group of immigrants have done: being American.

So here is the conservative multiculturalist agenda: "We don't want you here if you won't assimilate, but we don't want you here if you do assimilate." Simple constructive dilemma.

I'm trying to remember--how long did Sparta last before the helots revolted? Maybe that's not an issue--we're in a better position to run the system than the Spartans were. But the costs will be the same: an expanding military and paramilitary controlling the border and policing the "guest workers." More broadly, it undermines all the rhetoric about our interest in exporting "freedom" and "democracy," promoting our values and our way of life. We don't want to let people in to our country or to our culture, and we have no interest in enabling them to get the material goods that make our way of life possible. We want their sweat and their oil.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I am not happy with the current Sopranos season, which has become moralistic. On yesterday's episode, Vito leaves his lover and heads back to New Jersey, shooting an innocent bystander along the way. The parallel is with Chris who cannot face the prospect of living like family he sees at the gas station. Running out of money, Vito cannot cope with the tedium of an honest handyman job and cuts out. The moral is that Mafiosi can get out but will not.

Meanwhile however Johnny Sack who cannot get out takes on a 15 year prison sentence to see to it that his fat wife is provided for. How does all this fly for Tony? I don't know--nothing has gelled yet. As for Carmella with her dumb little "spec house," I have no sympathy.

Big Love is doing a little better. After teasing us with the idea that polygamy isn't such a good thing--Nicki's bad behavior and Margene's childlishness--the family comes together. Nicki beats up on Barbara's bad big sister and Margene breaks up with the neighbor who is tempting her to pull out of the family. Unlike The Sopranos, Big Love isn't pandering to viewers' desires to get the moralistic story that a social arrangement of which we disapprove is bad, and will yield bad consequences for all concerned. At least not yet.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good Neighbors

This is my blog so I can cry if I want to.

My neighbors, the Carlos's, object to my cats, Tom, Katherine (Kitty) and Little One, because they poop on their lawn and because Tom sprays their front door. They have put it to me that I should keep these cats locked up in my house--which is not feasible because they're old cats, accustomed to prowling and largely self supporting. I keep the door to our fenced yard open for Ducati, our chocolate lab, a.k.a. Britynic Cadbury of Bourneville but the cats can, and do, fly over the six foot fence and, in any case, when I've tried to confine them, retaliate. Cats are free--at least those like ours who aren't seriously domesticated and make their living eating birds.

Mr. Carlos has taken to pitching cat shit against the steps to our side door. Personally I do not believe that all this shit is ours and would be seriously interested in a DNA test. The neighborhood is full of feral cats. Moreover, some of the crap he's dumped at my side steps, in my opinion, isn't cat shit at all. My cats shit all over the kitchen and the the Carlos' turds by comparison are much bigger than any my cats can squeeze out. In short, I believe this is dog shit rather than cat shit. Some is petrified and covered with dirt: it is pretty clear to me that Carlos has been digging in his garden to find shit to deliver to my doorstep.

My family, characteristically, thinks it's all my fault. Sorry, I don't buy it. So, if anybody is reading this--is this my fault, dammit?

Straining at a gnat

Christian Foes of 'Da Vinci Code' Mull Tactics - New York Times

In "The Da Vinci Code," two sleuths uncover a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to conceal that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that the myth of his divinity was written into the Bible at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. by the Roman emperor Constantine. "The Da Vinci Code" was marketed as fiction, but Mr. Brown said in a preface page that his descriptions of artwork, documents and rituals "are accurate." To be sure, there are many Christians who do not regard the book or the movie as a threat. But the outrage is widespread

There are innumerable reasons to doubt the truth of Christian, and more generally, theistic claims--and the hypothesis flown in The Da Vinci Code is among the least of them.

To me, as a recovering logical positivist, the Verificationist Challenge is the most personally compelling. As far as I can see, the world is exactly as it would be if there were no God. There is no compelling evidence for the occurrence of miracles or the power of petitionary prayer. Science is chugging along quite nicely, explaining more and more of what goes on, and it seems highly likely that everything that goes on and will go on is explicable in purely naturalistic terms. We don't need the God hypothesis--it has no implications for experience and is, therefore, neither verifiable nor falsifiable in experience.

Even if we stop short of concluding that theological claims are therefore meaningless, this effectively blocks theistic arguments that purport to be inferences to the best explanation. And that is devastating: short of arcane a priori arguments spinning off of the Ontological Argument, there is no reason to believe that God, or any supernatural entities, forces or states of affairs, exist.

Speculation about Jesus' sex life, the Church's concoction of Christological doctrines and the alleged cover-up are of negligible importance. Fantasies about Jesus dating from as early as the second century in gospels that didn't make it into the canon have always been flying around. Every undergraduate who takes a course in New Testament for general education credit--and passes--has learnt about them. Why are people surprised by the Da Vinci code? Every educated person knows, or should know, that doctrine developed over centuries: there is no high Christology in the Bible. Even in the Fourth Gospel it is simply not clear what kind of claims, if any, are being made about Christ's divinity. Anyone who reads the New Testament with reasonable care can make this out. And conspiracy theories about the Church's power politics and role in suppressing dissent are as old as the Church.

So why the surprise--and where's the beef? This is just more of the same, recycled for popular consumption. Jesus was an obscure figure of no interest to most of his contemporaries, so from the historical point of view we know very little about him. But the idea that he got to France and became the progenitor of the Mergovingian dynasty is almost as bizarre as the theory that he went to Tibet to found an esoteric tradition of Ascended Masters. You would think that fundamentalists would be more worried about the plausible story than by these implausible ones, viz. that Jesus was an obscure Palestinian Jew who became the hook for a Hellenistic mystery cult which, for a variety of mostly arbitrary reasons, beat out the competition.

What disturbs me most about this bruhaha is the extent to which any interesting story, however implausible, even if it is explicitly claimed to be a fiction, will fly. People apparently believe things just because they're there. When stories compete, they believe whichever one they find more interesting: beyond dull facts about middle-sized pieces of dry goods, truth is not at issue and it's all a crap-shoot--you buy what you like. Of course this is how religious seekers in the Hellenistic world made their doxastic decisions too: Jesus, Isis or the Elusinian Mysteries--what's more interesting? Why not try them all? Lots of people did. Constantine certainly did--with Christ and Sol Invictus as the leading contenders, until he became convinced that, for political purposes, it would be desirable to promote exclusive allegiance to the Jesus cult--suitably modified to encompass most of the attractive features of others that were operating at the time.

In once respect, the fundamentalists have done themselves in. By ignoring the theological controversies and the whole body of serious Biblical criticism, and by putting it out that the standard Jesus story is uncontroversial and so obvious that anyone who doubts is perverse, they've set themselves up for a situation where any competing hypothesis, however implausible or bizarre, knocks the socks off of people. You can certainly be orthodox without being in the least worried about the Da Vinci Code. It's the public's sheer ignorance about the Bible and church history that makes this silly fantasy a threat.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Is cultural membership a good or a bad?

I was taken aback reading an article on cultural exemptions and expensive tastes by a reference to Kymlicka who apparently suggests that cultural membership is a good and, indeed, on that is crucial for autonomy. I suppose I should read the book—I’m only starting on this research on multiculturalism in a serious way.

Nevertheless, to my untutored intuition, cultural membership is, at best, neutral and potentially bad. Cultural membership has to be distinguished from the consumption of cultural artifacts—cuisine, costume, arts and crafts, sports, and various practices. It’s good to have access to these items—the more ethnic restaurants and street festivals the better. But consuming the goods associated with a particular culture, however avidly or comprehensively, isn’t being a member of the culture. To be a member of a culture is a matter of behavior, social ties, and beliefs, in particular, beliefs about how people, at least people who you identify as fellow members of your culture, ought to behave.

Cultural membership is something people rarely think about. It’s like having a particular telephone number—assigned, immutable but for the most part trivial. Culture consists largely of innumerable trivial habits and practices: how close you stand when speaking to a person, whether nor not you queue and how strongly you feel about it, etc. As with telephone numbers, there’s nothing particularly good in cultural membership even though changing cultural membership is a hassle.

There are some less trivial features of cultural membership: the stories we know, and the history with which we identify. Last night I watched the nth costume drama on the life and times of Queen Elizabeth I. We all know this story in detail though with a lot of confusion—her various lovers, semi-lovers and marriage prospects, the ruffs and plucked eyebrows, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Armada and the “I, a weak woman” speech to rally the troops. On the American branch of the culture tree, we know about George Washington and the cherry tree, honest Abe walking through the snow to return a penny when he mistakenly overcharged someone, etc. Here again, even if it’s a hassle to change, one culture is as good as another: in becoming Americans, immigrants get loaded with the Queen Elizabeth, Geoge Washington and Abe Lincoln stories, and much, much more.

But there are also deep, non-trivial features of every culture that are positively detrimental to people’s interests—rules, role obligations and taboos. Every culture has them—but some have more than others. Some cultures are more constraining, make less room for individual differences, and treat deviants more harshly. Back on the Sopranos, Vito is on the lam in a cute little tourist town in Vermont because he knows that having discovered he’s gay his Mafia colleagues are out to whack him. No problem being gay in Vermont he discovers.

I gather from the article that cultural accommodations are supposed to be licensed in the interests of fairness to immigrants and cultural minorities so that they can retain the deep features of their cultures and maintain some sort of dual cultural membership. But why is this supposed to be a good for the individuals in question? We aren’t talking about ethnic cuisine here or even cultural stories—you don’t need to be a member of the culture to consume these goods. The deep features are the rules, role obligations and taboos—bads, not goods. And when it comes to immigrants and cultural minorities in open, tolerant, cosmopolitan societies, shedding cultural baggage is liberating even if it takes some effort to get over the hump. Vito resists and gets into a fistfight with his lover-to-be before letting go of the rules and taboos of the Mafia culture that hemmed him in.