The best thing about Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is its uncompromising weirdness — its straightforward facing of the possibility that, should we ever make contact with an alien intelligence, that intelligence might be so alien that we simply cannot understand it at all, in any way — that its motives (if it has “motives”) and its technology (if it has “technology”) could be so utterly disconnected from what we think of as motives and technology as to be utterly inscrutable. The movie Annihilation is pretty weird at times, but not nearly as weird as its source material, and its steady domestication of that material takes the edge off the story. In the moments that it embraces the weirdness, it’s memorable, but there aren’t very any such moments. It’s okay; but no more than okay.
I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.
All that by way of context.
Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance.
Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”?
I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports.
But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM).
So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again.
But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.
If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams.
(Cross-posted, with edits, from Text Patterns)
A few weeks ago I deleted my private Twitter account — it was a good way to keep up with friends, but I found it impossible to control it (via disabled RTs, muted strings, etc.) well enough to prevent the frustration from exceeding the pleasure. That left me just with my public account, which I have been using primarily for linking to my own writing (e.g. blog posts like this one) and to cool things I’ve read by others. But I really really want to be out of the Twitter ecosystem completely — for obvious reasons: everybody knows that Twitter is horrible, there’s no need to belabor that point — so I have now deleted the public account too.
My chief concern with being off Twitter altogether is that I’ll be unable to provide a signal boost to people who are writing or making interesting things that other folks might not notice — and for that reason I could, I must admit, come back. So when Twitter notifies me, 29 days from now, that my account is about to be deleted, I might have a moment of weakness and log back in. (Twitter does prompt you when your account is about to be deleted … doesn’t it?)
I am aware, of course, that most people who read this blog get to it via my Twitter links, so I am perhaps making myself more marginal than ever. Who will even see this post? But if you happen to see it, and want to see more, please try RSS. It’s great. Most of the cool things I read or see are posted here, or on Text Patterns, or on my Pinboard page. And all of those have RSS feeds.
P.S. Have I written before about quitting Twitter? Have I quit Twitter before? Yes on both counts. I am pathetically irresolute.
UPDATE (a few days later): Several people emailed me pleading with me to come back to Twitter, just for linkage. I guess for a great many people RSS is just a foreign technology. And since I can set up automatic posting to Twitter, why not? So that little experiment didn’t last long….
The newest outpost of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s local empire is Magnolia Table, and Teri and I had breakfast there this morning. It was really good. The restaurant is located in the building that for many years housed the Elite Café, and it’s nice to see the predecessor acknowledged on one wall:
It’s a lovely space:
And the food was really good:
But I was fascinated by how thoroughly designed (and therefore, of course, branded) everything in the place is:
(That leather folder is what they bring your check in.) Imagine the money that went into all this! Such attention to detail is simply impossible for most new businesses, but the Gaineses have made so much money from Fixer Upper and the Magnolia Silos — which gets more visitors than the Alamo — that they can make the investment up front.
We moved here in 2013, before the first season of Fixer Upper, and it has been quite remarkable to see a city changed so much, in so short a time, by the energy and ambition of two people. Houses and hotels are being built, restaurants and bars opened, existing properties renovated — the city of Waco has even begun to realize that they can now fix some of the terrible roads around here. It’s wonderful … and yet it feels so, so fragile. Here’s hoping that the cult of Chip and Jo lasts long enough to bring permanent improvements to this shabby old town.
I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me
Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?
It was very interesting next day to see Cambridge. In many ways it is a contrast: there is something, I can hardly say whether of colour or of atmosphere, which at once strikes a more northern, a bleaker and a harder note. Perhaps the flatness of the country, suggesting places seen from the railway beyond Crewe, has something to do with it. The streets are narrow and crowded: the non-university parts depressing enough. Some things – such as King’s College Chapel, in which I was prepared to be disappointed – are indeed beautiful beyond hope or belief: several little quadrangles I remember, with tiled gables, sun dials and tall chimnies like Tudor houses, were charming. One felt everywhere the touch of Puritanism, of something Whiggish, a little defiant perhaps. It has not so much Church and State in its veins as we. The stained windows in the Halls show figures like Erasmus and Cranmer. Oxford is more magnificent, Cambridge perhaps more intriguing. Our characteristic colour is the pale grey, almost the yellow of old stone: theirs the warm brown of old brick. A great many Cambridge buildings remind one of the Tower of London.
— C. S. Lewis, undergraduate at University College Oxford, writing to his father after making his first visit to Cambridge (8 December 1920).
For what it’s worth, I have never seen trailers that look as bad as Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time. Both of them give every indication of being absolute turkeys — Ishtar-level turkeydom. Yeeessh.
It will be asked, How is imitation to be rendered healthy and vital? Unhappily, while it is easy to enumerate the signs of life, it is impossible to define or to communicate life; and while every intelligent writer on Art has insisted on the difference between the copying found in an advancing or recedent period, none have been able to communicate, in the slightest degree, the force of vitality to the copyist over whom they might have influence. Yet it is at least interesting, if not profitable, to note that two very distinguishing characters of vital imitation are, its Frankness and its Audacity; its Frankness is especially singular; there is never any effort to conceal the degree of the sources of its borrowing. Raffaelle carries off a whole figure from Masaccio, or borrows an entire composition from Perugino, with as much tranquillity and simplicity of innocence as a young Spartan pickpocket; and the architect of a Romanesque basilica gathered his columns and capitals where he could find them, as an ant picks up sticks. There is at least a presumption, when we find this frank acceptance, that there is a sense within the mind of power capable of transforming and renewing whatever it adopts; and too conscious, too exalted, to fear the accusation of plagiarism,—too certain that it can prove, and has proved, its independence, to be afraid of expressing its homage to what it admires in the most open and indubitable way; and the necessary consequence of this sense of power is the other sign I have named—the Audacity of treatment when it finds treatment necessary, the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.
— John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
It being lawful to paint then, is it lawful to paint everything? So long as the painting is confessed—yes; but if, even in the slightest degree, the sense of it be lost, and the thing painted be supposed real—no…. In the Camera di Correggio of San Lodovico at Parma, the trellises of vine shadow the walls, as if with an actual arbor; and the troops of children, peeping through the oval openings, luscious in color and faint in light, may well be expected every instant to break through, or hide behind the covert. The grace of their attitudes, and the evident greatness of the whole work, mark that it is painting, and barely redeem it from the charge of falsehood; but even so saved, it is utterly unworthy to take a place among noble or legitimate architectural decoration.
— Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Unique to Ruskin is the combination of an exceptionally acute aesthetic sense with an exceptionally acute moral sense, and this is one of the many moments when they struggle mightily against each other. Ruskin cannot help admiring the beauty of Correggio’s work here, but he is so deeply opposed to deception in art that he wishes he could reject it altogether.
Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador responds to this post of mine — but I believe Jake misunderstands what my post is about. He reflects at some length on “mere Christianity” idea and whether it is tenable, or whether by contrast it can compromise the strength of particular traditions — but I don’t say anything about that in my post. Jake goes on to say that “Dr. Jacobs seems to suggest that there is an old First Things that essentially lived exclusively in the living room of the Mere Christianity house” — but I didn’t suggest that and I don’t think it. FT was at its best a place where people from different traditions in Christianity and Judaism (and even, very occasionally, Islam) could engage in serious conversation with one another, and what made the conversation serious was the fact that the participants held firm to the convictions arising from their traditions, even when those convictions separated them in some ways from other participants.
The point of my post is much simpler: if a magazine claims to be “interreligious” and yet (a) is run completely by people in one wing of one religion and (b) publishes essays that defend the claims of that tradition over against all the other traditions supposedly represented in the magazine, but never publishes essays that call that preferred tradition into equally serious question, then there is a dissonance between what the magazine says it is and what it actually is. That’s all I am saying.
One more point: Jake says that Comment is Reformed and has a Reformed “spin” on things, but I am not Reformed, and I believe that there are other members of the editorial board who would not describe themselves as Reformed either. So I think Comment at least has the possibility of becoming more genuinely ecumenical than the “Reformed” moniker would suggest.
When my buddy Austin Kleon posted his notebook turducken I realized that I have a three-part system too, though a somewhat different one:
I use a small Moleskine planner for my calendar and tasks, a Leuchtturm notebook for ideas and drafts, and index cards for reading notes (including notes I make for the books I teach). It would of course be possible to put all of this in one notebook, but such simplification would come at too high a price. For instance, with my current system I have a place where I keep track of my events and tasks for an entire year, but if I did that in the notebook where I also write drafts, then when that notebook was full I’d have to make a new calendar no matter what point in the year I’m at — and then lose ready access to the old calendar. Similarly, when I have reading notes on index cards, I can spread them out and look at them as I’m writing drafts, which is much better than having to turn back and forth to multiple pages in multiple notebooks.
I am breaking my Lenten silence because (a) I am a poor excuse for a Christian and (b) I can’t stop thinking about Black Panther. The movie had some flaws — chief among them, I think, the exceptionally poor CGI, which is really unforgivable in a film that depends so much on CGI — but the story is the strongest, most coherent, and most meaningful one of any film in the MCU.
But you know what could have made it even better?
Let’s consider Erik Killmonger for a moment: a man whose justifiable rage at injustice (against him and against the world’s black people) has turned him into a psychopath. We see him kill several people he doesn’t have to kill, and Lord knows how many more of those there are in his past. He is, as T’Challa says, a monster (and, as T’Challa also says, one of Wakanda’s own making). But what if he weren’t a monster?
Imagine an Erik Stevens with all of the same warrior’s skills and commitment to justice who channels his rage into strategy. Who understands the fear of the ruling families of Wakanda and seeks to win them, and the people as a whole, over to his side. Who has a dream, a dream of liberation for black people around the world, and of Wakanda as the agent of that liberation — and who can powerfully and passionately articulate that dream.
He’s never going to win over Shuri, of course. But while she may be the only supergenius, she’s not the only brilliant scientist/technologist in Wakanda. Others might well rally to King N’Jadaka, seeing his plan as one that could make them famous and influential — could make them, literally, world-changers. The new King would also have the Dora Milaje on his side — something even Killmonger manages, before he throws that boon away — which would be a powerful visual manifestation of his kingship.
What then? Could T’Challa hope to reclaim his throne when such a king has claimed it, and, according to the laws of Wakanda, rightfully claimed it? Would he not go down in Wakanda’s history as the weak son of a weak king, capable of no more than scrabbling to preserve Wakanda’s secret wealth, lacking compassion for the world’s oppressed black peoples, lacking the vision to bring Wakanda to its proper place on the world stage, as a king among nations?
That probably wouldn’t be good for the MCU franchise, of course (though I can imagine some interesting possibilities). But maybe T’Challa as tragic hero, destroyed by Nemesis, would be the best T’Challa of all.
- Yes: ban porn. Ban it.
- A blessed Shrove Tuesday to you all.
- I’ll be back in Eastertide. Ciao for now.
I’m late to this party, but there’s something to be said for taking time to think things over. The already-much-discussed book review in First Things by Romanus Cessario, in which Cessario defends the kidnapping of a Jewish child by Pope Pius IX, raises many important issues, and I want to focus on just one of them here. But first some clarifications.
First of all, there can be no question that Cessario is not simply defending Pio Nono’s action within the context of the governance of the Papal States, but is also laying down a more general principle. Thus:
No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions — the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.
The lesson is clear: If you accept Christ’s claim, you will support Pius’s decision; if you do not support Pius’s decision, then you are ipso facto denying, or at the very best questioning, “Christ’s claim.” Cessario reaffirms this view when he says, in his last paragraph, “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” Civil liberties are merely “putative”; Pio Nono acted in accordance with the requirements of faith. He could do no other and be faithful to his vocation and his office. And the “claim of Christ,” and the consequent “requirements of faith,” surely do not change from time to time and place to place. (Note that Cessario does not have any questions to pose to those who support Pio Nono’s actions.)
A second point of clarification: As Robert T. Miller points out in this post, that Edgardo Mortaro was Jewish is culturally significant, in that time and place and perhaps in ours as well, but theologically not to the point. For doctrinally speaking what underlies Pius’s action was not the fact that Mortara was ethnically Jewish but the fact that his family was not Catholic.
The operative assumption in Cessario’s argument is not that the child’s parents were Jewish but that they could not reasonably be expected to give the child a Catholic upbringing and education. Hence, if it is right to terminate the custodial rights of Jewish parents if their child somehow gets baptized, it will be right to do the same to parents who are pagans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, or — it certainly seems — Protestants and even fallen-away Catholics. I don’t deny that, as a historical matter, the Mortaras were treated so badly because they were Jewish — of course, they were. I mean only that Cessario’s argument to justify Pius’s actions in the case would, by its terms, apply to many parents other than Jewish ones, and it helps in keeping the analysis clear to think in the broader terms in which that argument is cast.
Miller concludes his post by asking Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, to “disavow the position Cessario takes on the Mortara case and to reaffirm the journal’s historical commitment to the freedom of religion as understood in liberal states.”
Writing in response, Rusty very straightforwardly does the former: “The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day.” The latter request he does not explicitly address, though much of his post does so implicitly.
However, Rusty certainly does not apologize for running Cessario’s review. He argues rather that “Cessario, however, wants to challenge me. I must not imagine complacently that my natural moral sentiments and the modern liberal principles I endorse will always happily correspond with the demands that flow from ‘the reality of the Lord’s things.’” He adds, further, that “Cessario, a priest, is perhaps more perceptive that I am about our spiritual challenges” — which, for what it’s worth, I do not read as a qualification of his repudiation of Pius’s action, though I suppose some have taken it as such.
Rusty goes on, quite movingly, to describe his own family situation: his wife is Jewish and his children have been raised as Jews, and going to church alone has been his portion for many years now. So in this light you can see what he means, and that what he means is quite powerful, when he says that Cessario wants to challenge him.
And yet, it should be said — and I hope I can say it without seeming to minimize the painful complexities that Rusty has experienced — that the challenge that Cessario poses to people who, like Rusty, already believe that the Pope stands at the head of the One True Church is different, and less offensive, than the challenge it offers to non-Catholic Christians; and that challenge is less scandalous still than the one Cessario poses to non-Christians — primarily, though not only, Jews.
Which leads me, finally, to the one point I want to make. Imagine that I, an Anglican, were the editor of First Things, and I published an essay by a priest of the Church of England arguing that Elizabeth I was perfectly justified in carrying out her lengthy persecution of English Catholics, since she was ordained by God as His royal servant implementing the True Biblical Faith in England, and the Roman Catholic Church by contrast is the Whore of Babylon as described in the Revelation to John. Imagine further that I responded to criticism by saying that I don’t agree with that argument but find that it challenges me in salutary ways. Would Catholic readers of the magazine be mollified by that explanation? I suspect not — even if my wife were a Catholic and my children were being raised in that communion.
Of course, the real-world First Things would never run such an essay, any more than it would run an essay by a Muslim arguing that the right and proper place of Christians and Jews in the world is dhimmitude under a restored Caliphate, or one by a Jew arguing that Christianity in all its forms is necessarily and intrinsically anti-Semitic and should therefore be repudiated and marginalized by all right-thinking people. As I have noted several times on this blog and elsewhere, the Overton window of acceptable positions for First Things articles has been moving for several years now, but moving in only one direction: towards an increasing acceptance of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church over against other religious communities. Whether it might be defensible for non-Catholics to be in a position of dhimmitude vis-a-vis Catholicism is a question to be asked in the pages of First Things; but the legitimacy of Catholicism is never similarly open to question. For some time now it has been quite clear who at First Things are the first-class citizens and who need to make their way the back of the cabin. And this cannot be surprising, given that the entire editorial staff of the journal, as far as I tell, is Roman Catholic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things, describes itself as “an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization.” To what extent can the Institute’s flagship publication be “interreligious” when its entire staff belongs not just to one religion but one communion within that religion? Certain questions about “religion and public life” — First Things calls itself “a journal of religion and public life” — will perforce be explored narrowly and (I think) in limited ways if one religious communion always takes the role of arbiter, if its core commitments are always considered normative while others’ fall under deeper scrutiny.
I have made arguments similar to this one before, and they haven’t been heeded or even acknowledged. But is is precisely because I believe in the stated mission of First Things, and regret its dramatically constrained current understanding of that mission, that I have become involved with Comment, which I believe is trying, in its currently small way, to take up the torch that First Things has, in my judgment, dropped. But I would be very pleased if First Things would pick it up also and we could carry it together.
A great many intellectual positions are obvious and incontestable to people who are ignorant of and incurious about history. That’s why they go to such great lengths to maintain that ignorance.
In studying your own pages I find that the great majority of the names which are quoted as those of important young writers are wholly unfamiliar to me. That will demonstrate how ignorant I am of recent literary movements. I don’t think this is a particularly unhealthy condition for an elderly writer. There are flibbertigibbets who in middle-age attend international cultural congresses and busy themselves with the latest fashions. Few of those are notable for their literary production. A writer should have found his métier before he is 50. After that he reads only for pleasure; not for curiosity about what others are doing. Please do not interpret this as scorn or jealousy of the young. It is simply that they are tastes and achievements are irrelevant to his work.
[The middle-aged writer] can contribute either to popular papers or to those of small circulation. In the first case he will find his work mutilated by sub-editors and scrawled over with inappropriate titles, but he will be paid 20 times as much as by a more humane employer. The choice is between vanity and avarice.
— Evelyn Waugh, letter to David Wright, 21 April 1960
To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.
The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. Do you hear me? . . .
So why do I say the story is chief among his fellow? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters — Recalling-is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus-fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours.
—an old man, in China Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah 
So: Anthony Burgess, back when he was alive, thought that a movie should be made about Edward the Black Prince and that he should write the screenplay. (Whether he is equally interested in the project now that he is dead I cannot say.) He drafted said screenplay, but nothing ever came of it. But, thought Adam Roberts, if the story cannot be a movie might it not become a novel? So he wrote said novel. (More details here.)
I have now read the novel, and it is remarkable: the imagination of Burgess combined with the imagination of Roberts and inspired technically by the method of John dos Passos in his U.S.A. Trilogy) — with a soupçon of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Literary collage: highly imagistic scenes rendered by Camera Eye, March-of-Time-style newsreels, brief character portraits, chunks of sermons. The story of a soldier called Black George is especially powerfully rendered. Roberts captures with precise and sometimes disturbing fidelity that interlacing of deep piety and sheer brutality that we discern when we look closely at the world of Medieval Latin Christendom.
The publication of the book, through Unbound, still needs to be fully funded. You can, and should, support the project by going here and paying the merest pittance. If you do, then I shall pray God to have mercy on your soul. If not….
You can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion; the opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is.
But maybe 2% of the people you encounter will do this. The other 98% are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime, and can’t be made to care about anything else.
You can, then, have understanding or attention. Pick.
In Huxtable’s biography of Wright she often comments on the beauty and precision of his pencil sketches: all his professional life he started his days by sharpening, with a knife, his colored pencils. These are from Time.
To maintain his Olympian position as the self-described inventor of modern architecture, he could admit to no other interest or influence, or acknowledge any work but his own. We know now that he was an omnivorous reader, in part to compensate for an erratic education, and that he was an avid collector of the latest books and periodicals on art and architecture. He was intensely aware of everything that was going on and immediately receptive to it; he never doubted his own role as an active participant in a period of great creative change. He did not miss a nuance or beat of what was happening abroad.
— Ada Louise Huxtable, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life. It’s fascinating to see how Wright was so profoundly captivated by the Romantic myth of the solitary genius that he hid, in his lifetime quite successfully, his relentlessly wide-ranging curiosity and his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary developments in architecture. How enlightening it would have been to hear Wright’s commentary on all those movements — but he kept all his thoughts to himself lest someone discover that he knew the work of any other architects.
Dear Dott. Franco,
I was moved that so many readers of your newspaper would like to know how I am spending this last period of my life. I can only say that with the slow decline of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards Home. It is a great grace for me to be surrounded in this last, sometimes a little tiring, piece of road, by such love and goodness that I could not have imagined. In this sense, I also consider the question of your readers as an accompaniment along a stretch. This is why I cannot but be grateful, assuring all of you of my prayers. Best regards.
This year we in the Honors Program at Baylor were told that we could no longer submit our annual activity reports as MS Word files. Instead, we must use an “instrument” called Digital Measures. Just take a look at that website and you’ll see what Digital Measures is all about: things like “THE WORKFLOW MODULE for ACTIVITY INSIGHT.”
What’s it like to use Digital Measures? Let’s suppose that you want to enter the data for a journal article that you’ve recently published. Digital Measures cheerfully tells you that you can just import a BibTex file, which is helpful if the journal in which you have published the article, or a database in which that journal is available, happens to make a BibTex record available. But of course you’re not likely to know that without some searching. That can be time-consuming, though not nearly as time-consuming as entering the information manually — so maybe it’s worth the trouble.
Because if you have no luck finding a BibTex file for your article, then the fun starts in earnest. How to record a journal article? You go to the landing page and discover that there are thirty-five categories in which you can enter data. Let me spare you some time and tell you that the one you’re looking for is called “Intellectual Contributions” (which suggests, by the way, that much of the rest of what you do as a faculty member does not involve “intellectual contributions”). So you click on that.
Congratulations! You are now faced with a page containing no fewer than forty-six form fields. Surely DM does not expect you to fill out all forty-six? Indeed Digital Measures does not have this expectation. However, the UI experts who designed this page did not see fit to let you know which of the forty-six fields are required and which optional — even though few practices are more standard in database UI design than to provide that information for users (most commonly by the presence of an asterisk). So you type in what you have and hope that it’s right. If you guess wrong you get a message like this:
(Of course, few people would forget the date of publication; I just chose that to get a ready example.)
Let’s go back a step, though. The first thing Digital Measures wants you to do on this page — you discover through trial and error — is to identify what type of “intellectual contribution” you are making. Once you select “Journal Article” the page refreshes and you now have a field in which to enter the name of the journal. Possible names are drawn from a database, so you get a drop-down list — but the field is helpfully pre-filled, thus:
So if on the off-chance that your article is not published in the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals etc. you will need to click in that field, select all, and only then start typing in the name of your journal.
But suppose the journal in which you have published does not appear in the list? That happened to me roughly 100% of the time, since the databases from which they draw the journal names are all in the sciences. (As far as I could tell, not one single journal in the humanities is on the list. This, along with the charmingly innocent belief in the universal availability of BibTex records, tells you which faculty members this service is designed for — and which ones Digital Measures, and very possibly your university, couldn’t care less about.) It turns out that at the very bottom of the list of dozens (hundreds?) of journals there is an option called “Not Listed.” Should you happen to scroll through screen after screen of journal titles and finally get to that little Easter egg, you’ll be able to enter the name of the journal you published your article in. (If you have been around this block often enough to guess that such an option would be available, entering “Other” or “Not in List” yields nothing. You have to get it precisely right.) It’s enough to make me want to submit all future articles to the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals from Targu Jiu.
I could go on, but that, I think, would be to belabor my point. A “service” like this is designed with absolute contempt for the people who are sentenced to use it. It is vastly expensive, so once a university commits to it there’s no going back. The only real option is to add to the cost by hiring people to help the miserable faculty navigate the inscrutable interface, thus adding to the costs. (Unless, of course, you’re a scientist, in which case you probably have the relevant BibTex files readily accessible and a research assistant to do the data entry for you.)
And the university ends up with less information than it had under the previous system! The reason is this: because the data entry is so onerous and slow, faculty typically are not required to enter all the data for their articles, nor to fill in their entire CVs. (As I pointed out to one of my colleagues: if I spent an hour a day, five days a week, entering items from my CV into Digital Measures, I wouldn’t be finished by the end of the semester.) So we enter as little as we possibly can; whereas most of us have, ready to hand, a complete CV in a Word or LaTeX file that is trivially easy to update, to share, and to parse.
So we tell once again the old, old story: the ed-tech snake-oil salesmen convince universities to spend enormous sums of money on a ineptly-designed, user-despising “service” that gives that university less data, and less usable data, than it had under the infinitely simpler previous system. A certain line from P. T. Barnum comes to mind.
The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly. […]
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there. The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.
— Rachael Denhollander. Many Christian leaders will rush to deny this, will say that it paints with too broad a brush, will say #NotAllEvangelicals. My suggestion: everyone tempted to do that should shut up instead and spend the next year praying for self-knowledge. Only then say something — if you feel you must.
This is the text, more or less, of the talk I gave at Duke University last Monday afternoon. The talk is derived from one of the key concepts I employ in my recent book How to Think — Susan Friend Harding’s notion of the “repugnant cultural other” — but I have focused here on the university context. I have added some links that I hope will be useful. My thanks to the Kenan Institute for Ethics for inviting me, and especially to John Rose for making it all happen.
In what follows there are three things I will try not to say. I cannot promise that I will succeed in not saying them, but I will make every effort.
- I will try not to ask, in plaintive tones, “Why can’t we all just get along?“
- I will try not to make a plea for civility. (I best commend civility by practicing it myself rather than chastising other people for their failures to do so.)
- Above all, I will try not to exhort you to consider that you may be wrong. As G. K. Chesterton said about a century ago,
What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.
With those three commitments firmly in place, and with the promise that you’ll have a chance later on to tell me if I’ve failed to keep them, let me move on to one more preliminary thing.
I’m talking to you tonight about university education, and everything that I think about my topic is colored by my own experience. So let me just say quickly — and sorry if this sounds like one of those “in my day we walked five miles to school through the show, uphill both ways” stories — that I am the only member of my immediate or extended family to attend college. Neither of my parents even finished high school, though they did eventually take and pass the GED exam. Through much of my childhood my father was in prison, and my mother worked to support us while my grandmother effectively raised my sister and me. The expectation was that when I graduated from high school I would get a job and pay my own way; nobody thought that college made the least sense for people like us. As a result I ended up attending for my first two-and-a-half years what was then the local “commuter college,” the University of Alabama in Birmingham — I did not know that places like Duke existed — and paying for it myself by working 25 hours a week during term and full-time between terms. You could actually do that then, which, given the student loan burden that people carry today, is amazing to contemplate. In some ways I had it harder than most of you, in some ways easier; but it was certainly a different world in many respects, though most of the challenges I faced as a first-generation college student are still faced by first-generation college students today. Which is why my heart is always with them. Anyway, please just keep all that in mind, because that early experience is central to my understanding of the university today.
Now to the substance of the talk.
I sometimes feel that this is John Stuart Mill’s world, and we’re all just trying, with varying degrees of success, to learn how to live in it. Mill gets plenty of credit as the philosopher of the liberal social order, but I am not sure he gets enough. And tonight I want to set two brief quotations from Mill next to each other and see how they interact. Both quotations, not at all incidentally, are from Mill’s book On Liberty.
The first is a passage that has been much quoted in the last couple of years by people who believe that this nation’s universities are becoming ideologically uniform and hostile to genuine debate. It goes like this:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.
And here’s the other one, Mill’s concise articulation of what has come to be known as the Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill had a quite carefully restricted definition of “harm,” but the Harm Principle as understood today has been extended to a wide variety of experiences, often, if not always, in ways that make perfect sense.)
I think we in the American academy are living through a moment in which these two statements seem to be in serious tension with each other. For what happens if, in my view, the opposite side of the case simply through its public presence does harm to me or to others?
There are many ways of talking about this general problem. I could speak of what the United States Supreme Court, in the notorious Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision of 1942, called “fighting words.” I could look at the long history of debates about the limits of free speech. That would be to put the debate in a legal context, and indeed there are always legal dimensions to these issues — especially for public universities, like UNC down the road, but often for private ones as well. Nevertheless, I’m going to set law aside for this talk, and turn my attention instead to the ways disagreement, even painful disagreement, works in a community of learning — and how it might work better.
I’m going to start by describing a phenomenon identified by the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding. As a graduate student, she decided that she wanted to do ethnographic work on a curious social group: fundamentalist Christians. She felt she had hit upon a useful project, focusing on an understudied group — and therefore was surprised and dismayed when her professors displayed considerable skepticism about the plan. In an essay she wrote some years later about the experience, she says that she gradually realized that they were all, in effect if not in so many words, asking her, “Are you now or have you ever been a fundamentalist Christian?” (An echo of the standard question of the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s: “Are you now or have you ever ben a Communist?”)
As Harding reflected on this unexpected and uncomfortable experience, she came to understand that fundamentalist Christians, in the mental world of her anthropological colleagues played a distinctive role which she came to call the Repugnant Cultural Other (henceforth abbreviated RCO). Of course, the sorts of peoples that one imagines anthropologists studying — Bedouins, or tiny communities in the Amazon basin or the highlands of Papua New Guinea — are certainly quite other to American academics, but they aren’t nearly as repugnant, for an obvious reason: they don’t impinge on the lives of those academics any more than the academics want. When an anthropologist flies back to Boston from Sudan, the Bedouins don’t come along. But fundamentalist Christians shop at the same grocery stores that you do — and worse yet, vote in the same elections. And attend the same universities.
The psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander puts the distinction this way: You have an Ingroup, an Outgroup, and a Fargroup. Members of the Fargroup will probably be considerably more different from you than members of the Outgroup, will very likely take moral and political stances that you find abominable, but they do not arouse the same repugnance as the Outgroup — simply because they are Far. Only those who share the same daily world with you are likely to become for you the true Outgroup, the true RCO.
This is why I tend to smile when I see many academic arguments for accepting otherness. An extreme example, perhaps, is Donna Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble, in which she celebrates all sorts of connections with “oddkin,” multifarious forms of the nonhuman. When Haraway asks me to envision “a symbiogenetic join of a human child and monarch butterﬂies” I think, well, that’s cool, I guess, but what kinship do you have with that dude sharing the coffee-shop line with you in his Make America Great Again cap? Now we’re really talking oddkin.
Let me pause here to remind you of one of the things that I promised not to say, or promised to try not to say: Why can’t we all just get along? I am not going to suggest that maybe that guy in the MAGA cap is actually a decent fellow — just so, so misunderstood — and if Donna Haraway would simply take the time to get to know him she might discover that they share some interests, and then the next time they’re in the coffee shop — she sipping her organic soy cortado, he dumping three packets of sugar into his drip coffee — they could bond over a mutual love of origami, or NASCAR. I sometimes read newspaper stories about this kind of meeting of minds, and while those invariably are heartwarming, I don’t think we can assume them to be common or likely.
Let’s go, rather, with something close to the opposite assumption: that your RCO really is kinda repugnant, or at least many of his views are. What now? And — to bring this discussion back around to the academic context, where it belongs — what if you share a dorm floor, or an apartment building, or a seminar class, with him? How are you going to manage that? Can you somehow make kin with someone that odd? And if not, what do you do instead?
I think the first step should be getting a strong grip on the kind of environment you’re actually in. A couple of years ago, when there was a massive controversy that many of you will remember at Yale’s Silliman College, one of the charges brought against the leadership of the college was that they had allowed damage to the students’ home. (I wrote about this situation in more detail in this essay, and borrow from that in some of what follows.) One student wrote, “I feel that my home is being threatened.” The associate master of Silliman “did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.” I don’t blame the student for saying that, because many colleges and universities — most of them? darn near all of them? — promise or at least express the hope that students will find that place a real home. What do we call that one weekend each fall when graduates return to what some of them still refer to as “alma mater”? Homecoming. “Hi mom, I’m home!” As though alums are all Telemachus returning to Ithaca, to Penelope, after a perilous journey to Pylos and Sparta.
And this is not a contemptible conceit. Kenneth Tynan, the great English theatrical impresario and writer, wanted his ashes to be scattered at his Oxford college, Magdalen, because it was the only place he had ever felt he truly belonged; and was heartbroken when told that it couldn’t happen. I’ve talked to former students of mine who feel much the same about their own college years. And when that happens it’s a kind of victory for those of us who teach — but not an unalloyed one. Because no college or university is supposed to be any student’s home. It is, at Duke anyway and in places where I have taught, a largely residential academy where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together for about 30 weeks a year for about four years, before moving on to the rest of their lives. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship, and it is meant to be temporary. We may call that common autumn event Homecoming but after a long weekend at most the children all scatter and dear alma mater is left with her most recent brood of hatchlings. Magdalen College was not Kenneth Tynan’s home, and could not have been, because there were other people there who didn’t even know him, or who knew him but didn’t like him, or whose preferences were radically different than his, and who had no long-term bond with him to force them to come to some mutually agreeable terms beyond basic tolerance for (in his case) three years. The notion of college-as-home is not a contemptible conceit, but it is a conceit, and if we set it aside we may be able to accomplish two things: first, to lower the temperature of the disputes, and second, to understand better how students are situated.
There’s a fairly comical story to be told about my attempts, as I was thinking about this talk, to come up with the right metaphor for what I believe the college years are supposed to be, at least in relation to the problems I’m trying to address tonight. I don’t know whether any of you have seen Whit Stillman’s movie Barcelona, but it features a couple of very funny scenes in which someone tries to describe U.S. foreign policy in Latin America in terms of rival species of ant. A cautionary tale, let me tell you. For quite a while I was enamored of an elaborate set of images built around how motorcycle stunt jumpers practice their stunts without getting killed, and when I abandoned that I toyed for a while with a detailed comparison to a demolition derby — you can ask me about that in the Q&A if you want. Eventually I discarded all those images, and some others I prefer not to talk about, but not before it occurred to me that what they all had in common, what I was trying to get at, however ineptly, was the collection of ideas that cluster around our practices of play.
Please don’t bolt for the door at this point. When I speak of play I do not refer to anything frivolous or trivial. Play is a highly structured form of experience that is essential to the intellectual and social development and health of humans, and of many other creatures. We do well to reflect on how it works and the functions it can fulfill. So bear with me.
In Homo Ludens, the single greatest study of “the play element of culture,” Johan Huizinga identifies several characteristic of play, all of which are relevant, I believe, to understanding how college life should work for students. For Huizinga, “the first main characteristic of play [is] that it is free, is in fact freedom.“ Like many teachers, I often point out to my students that the word “school” derives from scholia, leisure, and though they typically respond to this by rolling their eyes so dramatically I fear that they’ll do themselves an ocular injury, the point is nevertheless true and salutary. Students’ parents, or some generous donor, or some government agency, or their future selves, have paid to liberate them from some or all work obligations so that they might have the leisure to study and think. It is precious freedom, bought for a price, often a heavy price. I am perhaps more aware of this than sime because I had the privilege, though it then seemed a heavy burden, of paying that price myself, quite directly. “Pay to play” is a phrase that has special meaning for me. Going to class felt like a magnificent luxury.
So: play is freedom. Huizinga continues: “A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Moreover, “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning…. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over.’” You see the relation between this point and my earlier claim that the university is not anybody’s home, but rather a temporary and spatially specific place of learning and development.
One more point from Huizinga: “Play … creates order, is order…. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play … seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful.” And that is one of the reasons why people love it. At its best, the university experience, with its order and structure and room for artful creativity within that order, is really, really beautiful.
None of this is to say that the boundaries between play and the rest of life are fixed and uncrossable. They are, rather, quite porous, and need to be: we easily see how the play of animals relates the skills they need for survival. We also see, in big-time college sports, the way that the elements of actual play are can be stripped away altogether from what are supposed to be games. But the boundaries are nevertheless actual boundaries, and useful.
But essential to all game-playing is some measure of resistance, of conflict — and even of pain. People get hurt in games: sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally. In the game we call undergraduate education, physical harm is rare, and excluded whenever possible … but some level of mental and emotional pain is part and parcel of the game. And that is not always and inevitably bad. When my son was quite young, I took him to our family doctor for a regular checkup, and during the examination the doctor said ”Now I need to look for bruises.“ I was instantly offended and alarmed: I don’t hurt my child! ”No, no,“ he said, ”I want to see bruises. Because if he doesn’t have a few bruises, that means that he’s not taking the physical risks that he needs to take to develop as he should.“ If playing too recklessly can lead a child into trouble, timidity can create its own, very different, troubles.
I have often reflected on what Dr. Judge said that day, and even now I apply it to myself — not in terms of physical risk, physical development (that ship has sailed, for me), but in terms of intellectual risk-taking. I see too many people my age, indeed younger than me, who have ceased to take any chances, who have settled into complacency, whose outlook on the world can never receive any bruises because it is never risked on the playing field. I don’t want to be like that, not now and not ever.
And here we’re getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it: I want to argue — with considerable trepidation, I admit — that the task of the undergraduate student is to embrace this kind of bruising, such pain, and the task of teachers and administrators is, if they can, to structure the game in such a way that that pain doesn’t escalate into harm. And if we can manage that, then it’s good for students, good for the university, and good for the society at large. So now I’m going to unpack this argument.
My attempt to reconcile those two statements of Mill’s that I quoted at the outset is based on the distinction between pain and harm. It does not follow — and in many of life’s venues we understand this perfectly well, it is an uncontroversial point — it does not follow that all pain is harmful. But it is still pain. Yet our current conversation about the culture of the academy too often collapses into hostilities between those who think that if there is pain there must be harm and those who think that if there is no harm there can be no pain.
Note this well: I do not claim to have the resources to judge for anyone else the intensity of their pain or the degree of harm it inflicts. Do any of you know the podcast Song Exploder? One of my favorites. A recent guest on the podcast was Questlove of The Roots, who described the making of the gut-wrenching song “It Ain’t Fair,” which appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit. At one point during the interview Questlove made a comment that has really been haunting me: he said that, though he appreciates what Detroit does, he does not think that Hollywood is ready to open the Pandora’s Box of black pain. That’s a very powerful phrase: the Pandora’s box of black pain. It suggests not just intensity of pain but a great variety of manifestations of pain. And it is not for me to assess the depths of that pain, or the profound harm that accompanies it.
But what is for me to do, as a teacher, and for all of us to to who work in the university, is to be aware of the potential for our educational and social environments to create pain, and therefore perhaps harm. As many of you know, I am a Christian, and while I am not nearly as prayerful as Christians are supposed to me, I get pretty prayerful twice a year: when I’m ordering books for my classes. I am very aware through long experience of the damage that books and ideas can do to young people (older people too, sometimes), and I don’t want to inflict any more of that damage than I have to.
Not long ago I saw a tweet from a professor who quoted from his teaching evaluations a student who said that after taking that professor’s class she, or he, no longer knew what to think about anything. And the professor commented, with evident self-satisfaction, “My work here is done.” No, dude, your work, if you understood it properly, is just beginning. Because most of us who have been around the academy’s rhetorical block a few dozen times know how to knock beliefs down. And some beliefs need to be knocked down, if only because of the unhealthy and unhelpful ways in which they are held and deployed; but if you’re not helping to provide the tools by which something better might be built in place of what lies in ruins, then you haven’t done your job at all. And that is a very difficult job.
This is why I pray when I’m ordering books, and while I can’t expect everyone to join me in that, I think it’s fair to ask all of us involved in education to consider the pain that inevitably accompanies deep learning. And I do mean inevitably. I taught for many years at a Christian liberal-arts college, and sometimes parents of prospective students would visit, or write, and ask me to assure them that their children would emerge from their four years of college with a strong Christian faith. And I would always say: I cannot promise you that. Liberal education is inherently risky. College students are exposed to powerful ideas and curious people that can shake the very foundations of their self-understanding. And they can’t control that exposure in the same way that they can control who they interact with on Snapchat or Instagram. Plus, you know, everybody changes, often quite dramatically, between the ages of 18 and 22!
There will be blood, you might say. But I don’t want to spill any more of it than I have to. The task, then, for people who work in universities and especially for teachers, is, as best we can, to understand some of the pain that accompanies learning, and to try to prevent the accretion of harm, and to steer those who experience that pain towards finding some benefit in it. And I mean that in small ways as well as large. When I was an undergrad — as, again, a first-generation college student who knew nothing about the rules by which the game of college education was played — I failed two classes because I had not been introduced to the concept of “dropping a class.” I thought you just stopped going and that was the end of it. It would have been nice if someone had cared about my flourishing enough to give me some information on that point.
In any case, it is in the hope of more caring surroundings for students today that that I make the recommendation to them that’s embedded in the title of this talk: Embrace the pain. Because that is not counsel that any reasonably person would take unless she is persuaded that we teachers and administrators mean her well — that we wish her to flourish. In today’s university, where administrative and legal structures tend to imprison us all in what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of rationalization and to render us all mere executors of functions, trust is more to be prized than rubies. All honor, then, I say, to those who seek it. And maybe even greater honor to the university leaders who ask: What can we do, collectively, institutionally, to nourish our students’ trust in us?
So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.
In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.
Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.
I suggested at the outset of this talk that embracing the pain, that learning to live with the RCO, has personal but also larger social benefits. In other to explain how that works, I am going to go back a couple of centuries to a fascinating little document, a series of letters by the German playwright and social reformer Friedrich Schiller on what he called “aesthetic education.” Some of Schiller’s argument I am going to take straight, some I am going to steal and shamelessly adapt for our purposes, so what follows will not be reputable scholarship — but I hope it will be enlightening.
Like many German Romantics, Schiller believed that the society of Athens in the period between Socrates and Aristotle was the greatest in human history, and what made it great was that it achieved the highest possible level of cultural richness and complexity that is graspable by the individual person. That is, the whole genius of the culture could, in theory, be held in each citizen’s mind. From this point, Schiller believed, there could only be decline of one kind or another. The society could lose some of its complexity and retreat into a less highly developed condition — or, conversely, it could continue along the path of increasing complexity and quickly reach the point at which a general comprehension of the lifeworld was impossible and people would have to become specialists in particular bodies of knowledge and practice — and therefore lose their unity with one another.
Germany in the eighteenth century, Schiller believed, suffered from this overcomplication, which led to differentiation and specialization, which in turn led to a lack of social cohesion. (I think we can recognize these conditions in our own society, can we not?) And he believes that what he calls “aesthetic education” can help address this unfortunate situation.
Schiller argues that all these specializations of knowledge and practice can be understood through the identification of two major human impulses: the material impulse and the formal impulse. It’s easy to oversimplify these concepts, and I always like doing what’s easy, so: the material impulse seeks immersion in the chaotic and manifold world of the senses; the formal impulse seeks to find, or if necessary impose, intellectual order on all that chaos. The material impulse is therefore the RCO, as it were, of the formal; and vice-versa. Here’s Schiller’ summary of the opposition:
Expressed as a general concept, the object of the material impulse is called life, in its widest meaning: a concept signifying all material being, everything directly present to the senses. The object of the formal impulse, expressed again as a general concept, is called form, both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word: a concept that includes all the formal properties of things, and all of their relations to the powers of thought.
But what if these principles can be brought into constructive relation with one another? — which is to ask, What if people who gravitate towards the one can be brought into constructive relation with people who gravitate towards the other? The result, Schiller says — and this may be surprising — is play. The union of the material impulse and the formal impulse is the playful impulse. Remember what Huizinga says about the relationship between play and beauty? Well, Schiller contends that, if the material impulse is about life and the formal impulse about form, then “the object of the playful impulse, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty.” And the centrality to Schiller’s vision of this creation and appreciation of beauty is why his little book is about “aesthetic education.”
But here’s the most important point of all: Schiller wrote these letters in more-or-less direct response to the collapse of the French Revolution into tyranny, and as an implicit accounting of what, in his view, went wrong. The kind of playful engagement — again, with the understanding that play is a particular structure of experience rather than something frivolous — with the RCO that can produce something beautiful was altogether absent from the characters of France’s revolutionaries. Schiller is therefore presenting a model of aesthetic education as necessary to political progress.
If we translate Schiller’s proposed union of divergent impulses into the terms of today’s American university, which is what in my unscholarly way I am hoping to do, then we might draw certain useful conclusions. Chief among them, I think, is that we might see the possibility of bringing Repugnant Cultural Others together in a structured, game-like social environment guided by trustworthy people as an opportunity for genuine play, genuine beauty, genuinely creativity. And we might then see that such an environment could be good for the flourishing not only of the people directly involved, but also for the good of society as a whole. Because there is nothing, except mutual charity, that our social order needs more right now than political creativity. We have been locked for far too long into the same reductive set of simplistic oppositions. If at university students can “play” in ways that take them beyond those oppositions, into a new social imaginary), then we would all benefit. And such a possibility is worth staking our universities’ future on, or so I believe.
I want to take a moment here to remember and honor Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the very greatest writers of our time and one who has meant the world to me personally, who died last week at the age of 88. In 1983, at Mills College in Oakland, California, she gave what she called a “Left-Handed Commencement Address,” and rather than conclude with my words I think I would do better to conclude with hers.
I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country…. What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
- Some company creates a new “killer app” for Academic Task X that is supposed to make the machinery of academic life run more smoothly but is basically a database with a hideous UI;
- Some administrator or committee at your university decides that this is just the thing we need to pay $$$$ for because it’s The Future of the University;
- Use of the app is imposed on faculty who despise it, because it is manifestly inferior to what they were doing before but far more cumbersome to use;
- Administrators, faced with serious faculty pushback, back off on their demands for making the app central to the whole academic enterprise, but only to some degree, because they paid $$$$ for this piece-of-crap-code and feel that they can’t back out now;
- The result: the app is forcibly implemented, but only partially, with the result that faculty are still unhappy with having to use the crappy app but have to use it *less*, which means that the task that was performed adequately with previous technologies/means is now performed less effectively and completely. Everyone loses except the people who made the sorry-ass app.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done… The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be tied around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds… The Bible you carry speaks of a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
I get tired just thinking about what David French does here, which is to walk his way patiently through the cataract of vile twaddle that pours from the mouth of Jerry Falwell, Jr. But let me overcome my lethargy long enough to make two points and consider their implications.
Point the first: Jerry Falwell, Jr., though not a pastor and holding no advanced degrees in Bible or theology, graduated from two institutions founded by his pastor father for the express purpose of offering seriously Christian education: Liberty Christian Academy and then Liberty University. (JF Jr.’s college major was Religious Studies.)
Point the second: As is evident from the statements that French discusses in his post, Jerry Falwell, Jr. shows no evidence of having even the most elementary understanding of what the Bible says and what the Christian Gospel is.
The problem, as discerning readers will already have noted, is how to reconcile these two points. How could someone raised as Jerry Falwell, Jr. was raised, educated as he was educated, living as he now lives, say that Jesus “did not forgive the establishment elites”? Could he really not know that Jesus said of those establishment elites who killed him, “Father, forgive them”? And this is not an isolated incident. Quite often in recent months JF Jr. (like a number of other evangelical leaders) has made statements that clearly contradict some of the best-known passages in the Bible.
There are several possible explanations of this curious state of affairs:
- The elder Falwell was so interested in building political power through his Moral Majority empire that he, and consequently those who worked for him, either ignored or dramatically de-emphasized all elements of the Christian Gospel that didn’t fit the political program, and JF Jr. is simply the heir of those priorities.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but never really paid that much attention because he was interested in other things, so now he just goes with the political flow In his subculture.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true in order to grasp some rag or tatter of political influence.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true because he believes that this will serve the Greater Good.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has somehow contrived to forget it because, deep down inside, he knows that if he remembers it he cannot be invited to the White House or be praised by members of the current administration.
There may be others, but these are the ones that occur to me now. Also, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In any event, it is, again, a curious state of affairs and one I wish we could understand, because if we grasped what really goes through the mind of someone like JF Jr. (or Franklin Graham) we would be better positioned to know how to address the manifest moral collapse of much of American evangelicalism.
white evangelical Protestants may be neglecting their future. As a group, they’re drifting further away — politically and culturally — from the American mainstream…. Samuel D. James, writing in the journal First Things, argued, “You cannot boil down Christianity to the parts that you are unashamed to speak about in the presence of your intelligent gay neighbor or your prayerful lesbian church member.” James’s instinct to hold the line against prevailing winds may resonate with many, but if white evangelical Protestants want to continue to be a home for younger Americans, they may have to reconsider what parts of Christianity are non-negotiable.
This is what happens when a politics site writes about religion: it makes religion just one of the form of politics, in which you worry about voter share and expanding your base. That Christians might determine what to preach and teach, not by seeking conformity to “the American mainstream,” but rather by what they believe to be true, seems not to have occurred to Cox. But maybe it’s a possibility to factor in to one’s analysis. Just saying.
A lot of talk about this among my online friends lately. As a semi-private pseudo-intellectual who writes about public intellectuals, here are my candidates for the most influential American public intellectuals of this millennium so far (in no particular order):
- Richard John Neuhaus
- Cass Sunstein
- Samantha Power (got that one from Ross Douthat)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Clayton Christensen
When Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University, discusses abortion with her colleagues, she says, “it’s kind of like the emperor is not wearing any clothes.” Medical teams spend enormous effort, time, and money to deliver babies safely and nurse premature infants back to health. Yet physicians often support abortion, even late into fetal development.
As medical techniques have become increasingly sophisticated, Malloy said, she has felt this tension acutely: A handful of medical centers in major cities can now perform surgeries on genetically abnormal fetuses while they’re still in the womb. Many are the same age as the small number of fetuses aborted in the second or third trimesters of a mother’s pregnancy. “The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form,” Malloy said. “It just became so obvious that these were just developing humans.”
Missionary work indeed in heathen countries was being carried on with some energy, but Theobald did not feel any call to be a missionary. Christina suggested this to him more than once, and assured him of the unspeakable happiness it would be to her to be the wife of a missionary, and to share his dangers; she and Theobald might even be martyred; of course they would be martyred simultaneously, and martyrdom many years hence as regarded from the arbour in the Rectory garden was not painful, it would ensure them a glorious future in the next world, and at any rate posthumous renown in this—even if they were not miraculously restored to life again—and such things had happened ere now in the case of martyrs. Theobald, however, had not been kindled by Christina’s enthusiasm, so she fell back upon the Church of Rome—an enemy more dangerous, if possible, than paganism itself. A combat with Romanism might even yet win for her and Theobald the crown of martyrdom. True, the Church of Rome was tolerably quiet just then, but it was the calm before the storm, of this she was assured, with a conviction deeper than she could have attained by any argument founded upon mere reason.
“We, dearest Theobald,” she exclaimed, “will be ever faithful. We will stand firm and support one another even in the hour of death itself. God in his mercy may spare us from being burnt alive. He may or may not do so. Oh Lord” (and she turned her eyes prayerfully to Heaven), “spare my Theobald, or grant that he may be beheaded.”
— Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh