Sunday, May 31, 2009


This blog is an attempt to think through the subject 'politics' to its conclusions, which may be variously labeled ontological, anthropological, hermeneutic, and theological. This means that at different times I will take politics to be about the orders and varieties of being, the cultural and evolutionary forms of human survival and flourishing, the interpretation and meaning of textual events, and the existential situation of human beings in relation to God.

My beliefs about politics stand in a perplexed and unresolved relationship to Catholic theology, but I would like to begin with the question of why I am fascinated by the political, and especially how this subject directly involves me in fantasies about power and my own feelings of powerlessness. In my daily experience, the persons who hold political power command a great deal of my attention. I read about them in online newspapers and listen to stories about them on the radio for several hours each day, and I talk about them constantly with friends and family. Their decisions matter to me a great deal, as do the explanations and justifications they give for those decisions. Choices about who has access to information, i.e., what is disclosed and to whom, bring figures from the media into play as equal objects of my interest. Most of the time I simply take this level of interest for granted and oblige the people around me to adjust to it.

In terms of my personal history, I was raised in a politically active culture in which being informed and expressing one's opinions on public affairs was a part of coming of age. My culture taught me to value political and intellectual independence, to hold unpopular beliefs in the face of opposition, and to use blunt sarcasm as a tool for gaining the floor and criticizing poor reasoning. Since I was raised in a very politically progressive culture, it was only natural that I rebelled against it during adolescence by becoming an outspoken libertarian. When I converted to Christianity in early adulthood, I renounced that position entirely and became a consistent advocate for a leftist approach to social justice issues. It is my firm belief that if Jesus' earthly ministry were to take place today, he would be rightly regarded as a threat to our socio-economic system, and so I can find no kinship with those who identify as Christians but give their support to the most extreme and brutal policies undertaken in the name of global capitalism.

I was a seminary student on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when terrorists used the airport less than seven miles from my house as a launching pad for murderous, sensational attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. The unmistakable intent of the terrorists was that the attacks be taken as a political event, not a criminal act, and that message made an indelible impression on me. In an enormously sensitive way, it made me acutely aware of my vulnerability as the subject of a particular political order, raising the twin questions in my adult consciousness of whether my government had provoked the attacks, and why God would have allowed them. This means that for me, what came under attack on 9/11 was the sanctity of reason itself, of a creation ordered for a purpose by a good God. I felt stripped of all comfort and dignity, painfully exposed to the fact of something deeply disordered in the fundamental form of my social, political, and economic life. My desire, then, was to understand it so that I could free myself from the pain and fear that I felt so strongly.

What I "learned" from the 9/11 attacks was a political message cast like a die into my emotional consciousness. It said that the world was under new management, that men of no conscience had assumed responsibility for its most personal and intimate details, and that I was powerless to challenge any of their decisions. From now on, they would decide all of the important questions, including power over life and death. My response was not to challenge this basic premise, but to join the resistance, as it were. I felt the painful loss of a metaphysical order - I intended to restore it. I felt marginalized and persecuted - I was determined to pronounce judgment against those whose passivity and complicity enabled the new regime. I felt demoralized - I would sacrifice myself as part of a secret plan to redeem the world from violence.

From this flowed all of the contradictions of my adult life. I became torn between irreconcilable desires, all driven by wild guesses about how to stop the pain: whether to restore the omnipotence of God or lead a revolt against it, whether to seek worldly success or lose myself in obscurity, whether to wed the secular and the sacred or divvy up their assets, whether to risk acknowledging my darkest emotions or dissolve them into the transcendence of a world-historical process beneath whose shadow I could remain safely formless and abstract. Perhaps most obvious to anyone who has listened closely during these past seven and a half years is that I cannot decide whether I am afraid that God is judging America or disappointed that she is not.

The seductive power of these contradictions is increasingly obvious to me. Thinking about politics feels like hoping for redemption. Imagining the miraculous restoration of a future order is like picturing a shortcut leading from the painful realities of the present to the fulfillment of my desires, without ever having to name them as such and so risk having to renounce them to the inexorable logic of internal self-criticism. In that metaphysical vision lie refurbished fantasies from my childhood: the public vindication of a prophet who was once a boy, the stunning ascent from prodigy to genius, the narcissistic gaze of the media illuminating at long last the manifold injustices to which I had been so cruelly subjected.

I have become so good at rehearsing my powerlessness that it's hard to remember I ever did anything else. This is especially ironic given my strong defense of publicly held values over private, and my criticism of religious and political cultures that base themselves on secrecy. The statements from pragmatists such as William James on the efficacy of true knowledge feel right to me, properly oriented towards the future and the common good, and I deeply want to believe in them. Yet it is unavoidably true that my fascination with the political betrays an erotic attachment to secret knowledge, one which exacts an enormous and painful cost. It is the lure of anonymity, the implied promise of a transaction in which my superiority to the ignorant masses is privately assured.

What I live with as the obverse of this is the continual anxiety that pervades everyone with something to hide: the fear of exposure, of losing what I've most sought to keep hidden, of public ridicule and humiliation, of having my prized possession used against myself by the same persons I hold in contempt. No secret society is safe enough for the recluse, the paranoiac nursing proofs of obscure grudges and triumphs, for the bizarre perfectionist waiting until the day that the impossible project is completed before unveiling it to the world. For that individual, appearances must be carefully manipulated in order to prevent the truth from being disclosed by the wrong person, at the wrong time. Living that life has become for me far too painful and costly, and the risk for the future is even greater.

My hope for this blog is that it may become one part of a larger project of reconnection and human interaction. I do not find anything inherently wrong with my belief that the political is one aspect of human life through which a loving God may be revealed, as long as there are many others.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pres. Obama Shows His Annoyance

President Obama's news conference earlier tonight seemed eerily reminiscent of some of the best of the old President, especially as he kept repeating lines like, "It's going to take time," and "If it were easy, it would have been done already," and "We're facing difficult challenges." I could picture citizen Bush sitting in front of his tv in Crawford, smirking and spouting, "Go on and say it, Mr. President! It's hard work, isn't it? Hard work? How do you like it now?" It was easy to see that realization dawning on President Obama, whose internal monologue must have sounded something like this:

I've got the redneck rump of the Republican party openly rooting for an economic collapse so they can hang me from a tree on the White House lawn, a know-nothing Democratic leadership that has absolutely no interest in governance or anything beyond protecting its own turf, and the worst financial crisis in 70 years threatening to wipe out the stock portfolios of all my best friends from Harvard. Now I have to find a way to shovel them enough cash so they don't jump ship and support the Republicans in the next election cycle, blame as much of the damage on Geithner and Summers as possible while still keeping them afloat, all while placating enough of the pitchfork crowd on the left and the right by pretending to keep my promise to run the most transparent administration in history. Oh, and I'm raising two daughters with a woman who would be a load for any man to handle even under normal circumstances but who just happens to have the biggest cheering section this side of the backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and the world's biggest media platform to make me look even more like a jug-eared square than ever. So you bet I'm angry. This job sucks and while all you reporters giggle like schoolgirls I'd like to see you try it.

just me and a couple of old friends

I'm not sure why exactly the theological attribute of omniscience holds so much fascination for me. Maybe it's that like so many of my countrymen, I can't resist puzzling over a paradox that seems to split everything right down the middle. Why does it matter if God knows everything in advance? Would it change who I love today? Would it make any difference in what I do tomorrow? Would it solve one single problem that matters to me (like getting my verbatim done, which I'm procrastinating right now.) Yet my mind always wanders back to this game, this score settling. Who was right about what, and when?

I haven't written anything about the financial crisis these past five months in part because I haven't needed to - the world, it seems, has finally caught up to where Plato was 2,400 years ago. For my money, the questions being debated today were already settled then by Plato's thought experiment called The Republic, which proved decisively that a pure economy of desire could not and would not suffice as the basis of a sustainable human civilization. Plato's critique of capitalism ultimately inspired Marx, and it is that reviled genius who has been most vindicated by recent events.

The truth of this extremely obvious statement has finally been revealed to the most deluded people in history: wealth only has meaning in relation to work, i.e., material production. A system designed to reward people for not working is an absurdity, and a system such as ours, in which the greatest rewards are reserved for people whose expertise lies in creating the illusion of productivity on a grand scale, richly deserves whatever fate it receives.

I do take exception to one apparently unquestioned truth about the financial collapse, which is that it was brought on by the greedy actions of a few. This is simply not true. On the contrary, without the greedy actions of these few, our social model would have collapsed a long time ago. We ran out of wealth in about the year I was born. At least the conjurers in charge managed to sustain the illusion of prosperity for another thirty years. Even with a desperately gullible audience, that's a pretty good trick.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

moving on

It's time for me to move on from thinking and writing about politics for awhile. There are many other things in the world that I love, and I plan to re-discover some of them. During the past three years, this blog was a great help to me in learning to face some of my own inner demons, ones I chose to give names such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But they are already fading away, and I intend to renounce them the same way I used to renounce my nightmares, letting their evil just dissipate into the air. I feel strangely sad about the end of this era. But it's the kind of sadness that's the leading edge of something new, like the knife-edge of a strong breeze blowing in from the Bay. I am not saying that I've yet found where, or to whom, I belong. But the need for a change is very real. Old nightmares really can fade away; fears that once seemed enormous and terrifying can take on the creased obscurity of an old photograph. And maybe after those first few moments of terror have passed, you also feel a little foolish. Things weren't quite as diabolically evil, nor events as tightly structured, as they seemed. There really were a lot of accidents, and plenty of bad luck, along the way. No one was in the tank for anyone. Everyone has something to regret. Even I can see that now. So that's my apology, for wasting my own time and energy with a lot of drama. There was a better way, one that would have required more patience with myself and a greater willingness to listen to others. I should not have passed such strong judgments on anyone. I'd like to think that during this past eight years, I knew as much about what was happening in my corner of the world as anyone, and that might actually be true. But it was an impoverished kind of knowledge, as selfish and secret as Gollum's hoarding of his precious ring. It took me farther away from my heart's true desire, splitting open a chasm between us that only kept getting wider and deeper. And the tighter I clung to what felt like my last defense, the worse it got. That's it somehow, I think. One of my supervisors at work keeps telling me, you know, you're actually kind of likable - why not let more people know that? And the way I've lived, only a very few people ever get to. There's something immeasurably small in that, a shrinking that says, look at me, wound into an invisible ball. How many people have ever read this blog? But becoming small also means being able to squeeze into tight places. There's a different kind of perspective that can open up from there, from the places most can't or wouldn't choose to go. Could it be true that even complete obscurity has its virtues, its blankness the empathy of a transcended self? Or as William Desmond might put it, could there be something even more obscure (and thus more transcendent) than nothingness, which is the good? What would voicelessness sound like, if it was put to the test? Maybe something stronger and more convincing than we think. But if voicelessness, if powerlessness could ever rise beyond (or go beneath) despair, it would have to be genuinely open. It would have to join in community with others, equally powerless and thus equal to itself. With the old nightmares fading away, that means the old metaphysics is disappearing too. There won't be a grandiloquent ontology anymore, a bad infinite mocking me with its falsehood. What might replace all that are relationships. The demons labeled Bushadministration and Dickcheney have wreaked the damage of ten Katrinas. But that wreckage has another name too: it's called a second chance.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fellow Chaplains Reflect on the War

Following up on where I left off my last post, here is a wonderful piece from the AP on military chaplains reflecting on the war. In my own work as a chaplain, I've only dealt with a few patients who have been directly affected by the war. These brave Christians are serving God in the middle of it.

Five Years Ago Continued - Keeping Faith in a Dark World

I've read quite a bit in the last few days from neo-cons wondering who first opposed the war and why. The thought process seems to be that since only dirty hippies oppose wars there must be some other explanation since they were right and the (apologies to Glenn Greenwald) Very Serious People who did their usual cheerleading act from the sidelines were wrong. I suppose it is logically possible that even hippies can be right sometimes in the same way that a broken clock is right twice a day, but there seems to be a genuine, almost anthropological curiosity from the Vanguards of Corporate America about the rest of us who proved on this occasion to be uncannily right. So, gosh, how did we get it so right back in 2003? I mean, was there a big secret or was it just one of those oracular hippie trips? In response to that I'd like to make the personal observation that staying sane in a society which is losing its mind is an extraordinarily painful experience. You don't know how much of your individual sense of well-being is invested in your perception of the rationality of others until that warm blanket is suddenly, violently wrenched away from you and you are left to contemplate the possibility that everyone around you may be going completely insane. Try waking up some morning and disbelieving everything you read in the newspaper, hear on the radio, or watch on television. And then tell me how that feels. Pretty bad, huh? That was what it felt like for the millions of us in the winter of 2002-2003 who could see in the most obvious and transparent way that the Bush administration was planning a war that no amount of factual evidence or diplomatic cooperation could possibly forestall. The most mind-bogglingly basic question of the lead-up to the war - if the Bush administration knew for a fact that there were WMD in Iraq, then where the hell were they? - was, amazingly, never asked by the media. After all, there were weapons inspectors on the ground, with unprecedented access to the whole country. All the Bush administration had to do was to call up Scott Ritter and let him know where the weapons were so the inspectors could finish their job. Yet it was stunningly obvious from the obscure scraps of innuendo peddled most infamously by Colin Powell at the U.N. that not only did the proof not exist - because if it did they surely would have used it rather than what they had - but that the "urgency" being blasted from on high through a thousand media outlets all at once was not a result of a threat (to anyone) being posed by Saddam, but the high likelihood that the inspectors would finish the job and prove once and for all that there were no WMD in Iraq. The complete and total obviousness of all of this made it impossible to believe any of the lies, even if I had wanted to. Actually, my favorite commentary at the time was in the Guardian (UK,) which perfectly expressed the insanity of the moment. It read something like, "Bush's claim that the U.S. needs to invade Iraq before the end of the month makes about as much sense as saying we must join with the Riders of Rohan in their battle against the dark forces of Lord Sauron." The case for war was fiction in the most literal sense of the word, as I've stated before. I don't know if that sufficiently answers the neo-cons questions or not. My experience of the war propaganda was one of intense, malicious psychic violation, something akin to being held hostage while everything you hold dear is ruthlessly, systematically destroyed. That may seem like an exaggeration, and I'm not saying it was the healthiest response, but in my defense I took for granted at the time that the war would last for years at enormous cost to each of us, so I got started on that grieving project early. Others may have experienced things differently. I'm in a much better place now, and I try not to take things so personally. This Lent, I even started praying again.

the iraq war goes to kindergarten

Five years ago my nephew Peter was born. He's a cute kid. He's funny, independent-minded, and talkative. A couple of years ago when he was still a toddler his favorite phrase to yell in a tantrum was "No way!" which was funny to everyone except my sister who had to hear it a hundred times a day. In a few months, he'll be headed off to kindergarten. Being five puts him in some interesting company. What else turns five this year? Let's see -- itunes...the Toyota Prius...and the Iraq War. That's right, if the war were my baby instead of George Bush's, it would be time to send it off into the world to fingerpaint, snack and nap the day away with other little mass slaughters and historic blunders. In five years, not only has much water passed under the bridge, but 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women have died, in addition to uncounted scores of U.S. contractors and, for a moment's pause, up to 1.2 million Iraqis. By almost any measure, the war is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe so far of this young century. The last eight years have witnessed enough bloodshed and depravity to forever haunt a generation that, like my nephew, isn't even old enough to remember anything different. And that is really the most unbearable thing about all of this. It is hard enough to read the dates on those tombstones and feel a chill as you realize these sweet children were in middle school when the tyrant who ordered their deaths first came to occupy his present office. How much worse to contemplate the possibility that the future milestones of this war - where are you now, numbers five, six, seven thousand? - are sitting somewhere in a junior high school classroom, or hanging out at the mall, or doing a little homework while watching TV? There are so many issues facing this country right now but the war is like a locked iron door between America and its future. Until we make a commitment to stop the bloodshed we will continue feeding our children into the maw of this madness.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mass Idiocy? Not At All

David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote that the financial crisis on Wall Street stemming from the sub-prime mortgage market meltdown is an example of "mass idiocy," justifying the intervention of the federal government in the form of a bailout. Setting aside the blinding contradiction from a fundamentalist such as Brooks that markets always work perfectly except when they don't, I respectfully disagree with his assessment. Those who profited handsomely from the subprime bubble were not idiots at all. They were capitalists. They were the economic heroes of the last seven years. Without their brave risk-management strategies and mind-boggling financial wizardry, we never would have recovered from the 2001 recession. It was their willingness to take on risk, to package it into ever new and exotic schemes, to invent for the 21st century a metaphysical language and style defying any effort by finite beings to comprehend, that we have all benefited from during this time. They were the ones that made it possible for the mighty American consumer to keep on trucking, even while wages remained stagnant and the government was hemorrhaging debt. It is understandable that a market fundamentalist such as Brooks would want to distance himself from the current fiasco by saying that what we are seeing is idiocy and not capitalism. But it's a lie, in the grand tradition of apologists for the Soviet Union who made fine distinctions between the supposed purity of socialism and its unfortunate manifestation in the form of the totalitarian state. What we are currently witnessing is none other than the most robust illustration of global capitalism at work. And this gets to my broader point. We often hear about incompetence, and now greed, wrecking what would otherwise be very fine plans, for instance, to expand wonderful economic opportunity to the rest of the world, or to liberate Iraq from itself, or whatever. I think this is mistaken. Just this week Vice-President Dick Cheney went to Iraq and declared it a success. His boss, President Bush, said the same. Why not take them at their word? Why assume the existence of incompetence when all evidence is to the contrary? Isn't it more likely that what's happening today, from Wall Street to Baghdad, was the plan all along?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Patriotic Grannies

For all of us who have opposed the war from the beginning, here's a little piece of good cheer. We've got some of the toughest Americans on our side, and they're not backing down. Check out this story to brighten your day...

Local Ferrets Endorse Obama

Local ferrets have decided to endorse Barack Obama, reports say. The turning point came recently when Obama proclaimed, "I'm skinny but I'm tough." In past presidential campaigns, ferrets have endorsed Zippy the Skunk, Harold the Happy Otter, and Abraham Lincoln.

Breaking News: Barack Obama Is Black

According to a breaking news report on CNN, Senator Barack Obama is a black man. Not only did Obama have a black father, but he attends a black church in Chicago. Also, Obama's wife is black. CNN is refusing to confirm reports that Obama's children are also black.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not Peak Oil Again? Do Shut Up

I'm sorry, I can't help it. I hear the words "peak oil" and I have to fight an urge to grab my shotgun and head for the hills. It's, like, something weird from my childhood, we don't have time to go into it right now. My point is, after reading this article in Salon on the recent International Energy Agency's report, my head is spinning again. There's a reason why most people do not want to know that bad news is coming before it actually comes, and that is because it is depressing. I don't want to live my life believing that forces beyond my control will soon irreversibly transform and partially destroy much of what I know and love, including, who knows, family, friends, cherished cultural institutions and traditions. That feeling, I have a hunch, is a small taste of a certain kind of dread, one all too familiar to many who have lived to see their worst fears realized. If possible, though, allow me to try and put my thoughts and feelings in order. To begin with, peak oil is only part of the problem, and so, by the way, is international terrorism. The real problems are much deeper - cultural, historical, ecological, spiritual. They are rooted in the origins of the modern free market as it emerged in 19th century England and even before that in the rise of European colonialism in the 16th century (for an excellent analysis of this, read John Gray's False Dawn.) What Gray shows unequivocally is that the "free market" was a political invention conceived in particularly conducive circumstances. The idea that this invention should or could be imposed universally as a global economic imperium is thus absurd. Gray compares this neo-liberal ideology to that of international Communism and predicts that its consequences will prove to be every bit as abortive and destructive. Certainly, international terrorism, economic instability, ecological crises, and hellishly genocidal civil wars are all among the consequences being reaped already. What globalization really signifies is just the opposite of what is claimed by the economic elite. We are told that globalization marks the final triumph of western ideology, the accession of bourgeois values in their most universal, indelible form. Everyone everywhere in the future will acknowledge the supremacy of market forces, privatization, and liberal democracy as the final and most advanced spiritual form of human life. This ideology is so pervasive and powerful that it has completely blinded us to the real story of our time, and this is the massive, unprecedented, and irreversible transfer of modern technology and knowledge from the western powers, where it has presided over a period of unrivalled hegemony, to the rest of the world - to everyone else. The leaders of the western powers do not seem to understand the situation. We are an elite minority which has ruled the world with staggering brutality for over five hundred years. For all of that time, we have exploited and hoarded the world's resources with little thought as to the vast suffering left in our wake. Now, not only is that excess on display for all of the world to see through the media, but the rest of the world is now arming itself with the tools to begin to fight back. This situation does not look good for us. We are vastly outnumbered. In my own lifetime, I have continually struggled with the question of how to interpret the images of global suffering which formed the backdrop to my own prosperous existence. My response to those images has swerved back and forth between left and right, between guilt-addled apology and defiant conspicuous consumption. Yet I think only now am I really beginning to understand them, and I do not know if it is too late. I always thought of my relationship to such suffering as a choice - after all, that was how it was always put to me in those television ads in which Sally Strothers would appear alongside starving Ethiopian orphans and implore that for the price of a cup of coffee I could save a human life. I could choose whether to help or not, yet whether I did so was entirely up to me and either way, my life would go on the same. I stood to gain or lose nothing except for the abstract knowledge that I had done a good deed. What I see now is that my generation has witnessed a colossal blunder - the squandering of one last opportunity to forge a lasting peace with the global South. Poverty was in the final analysis the defining issue of our time, not because as liberal consumers we needed to do something to alleviate our guilt, but because our survival as a people depended on it. The continuation of the old order was never an option. The only question was what the cost of the settlement was going to be. Even in the 2000's, if we had responded to the 9/11 attacks by embarking on a global effort to alleviate poverty (for instance, by investing the nearly $750 billion spent so far in the war on terror on bringing clean drinking water to the world) there might have been a chance to avert the catastrophe which is now almost upon us. Instead, we declared war on the world - a war we cannot win. The two great American disasters of this young century, 9/11 and Katrina, are the beginning of a painful process of awakening to our own precariousness and vulnerability, to the spiritual urgency of our situation. I am very much afraid that it may be too late.

Was I Ever Illusioned?

Regular readers of this blog will know that my political mood fluctuates wildly. I confess I'm somewhat bipolar when it comes to assessing the current state of affairs, and that whatever happens in Washington, I take it personally. So last fall I got a big high out of the Democrats' victory and I rode that as far it could go. It's been kind of a steady decline from that NPR-fueled rush ever since, as it's become apparent to me (uh, I'm not smart that way) that the present dysfunctionality of the government goes beyond whatever illegal actions Bush and Cheney (for prison!) engaged in today. Let me just offer a few words expressing my opinion on how the Democrats are doing so far. Frankly, I would like to make it exactly three words but this is a family blog, and being a Christian man, I just can't say it. Instead I'll just say that it appears to this observer that the Democrats have absolutely no intention of ending the war anytime soon. To a cynic (I was once called this) it would seem like the Democrats are almost enjoying the catastrophe which has engulfed the President and the Republican party - why would they do anything to bring it to an end, and risk assuming one iota of responsibility for the debacle? Instead, they are content to simply let the conflict burn out of control, all the while pandering to their base (that would be me, but I'm not buying it) with various non-binding resolutions that have no chance of becoming law or of having any meaningful effect. In a nutshell, it's the same pet abortion of a strategy the Democrats pursued to such great effect in 2002 when they voted to give the President the authority to wage the war in the first place. Then as now it was a political calculation the Democrats were pursuing, in complete disregard for the moral consequences of their actions. This is not only disappointing but disgusting, and it is just the kind of cowardice that many Americans have come to associate with the Democratic party. Frankly, I can hardly blame them.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

About the Ferret Posts

Although the occasional appearance of ferret-related posts might seem surprising on a blog dedicated to philosophical and theological concerns, anyone who knows me knows what an important role ferrets play in my life, and how liable they are to make their presence known at any given time. Ferrets have their own spirituality (quite irreverent, not conventionally religious, and frequently profane) and even their own intellectual contributions to make (see the work of Mme. Peaches, the 18th century Dutch ferret, on the topology of tubular spaces.) Think of the ferret posts as deconstructive pauses. With ferrets around it is impossible to take oneself too seriously.

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn Again

I enjoyed reading Gary Kamiya's recent article published in Salon, entitled "I'm Younger Than That Now," in which he struggles with the questions that life poses to him through the aging process. It's certainly instructive to compare today's "mid-life crisis" with Dante's "dark wood" or the "dark night of the soul" of St. John of the Cross, and to see how far we have come since then. Kamiya recognizes that there's a deep spiritual disconnect in today's culture around issues of aging which comes across in our endless affairs of vanity and denial (the immortality industry, etc.) but he can't quite put his finger on what's behind it. Why does our modern society lack understanding about the most basic truths of life and death? What gives us the illusion that we could have complete control over our passage through life, including its end date? Kamiya seeks consolation in the imaginative spirit of literature and religion, but can't quite bring himself to take the risk of accepting it. Instead he hesitates over whether religion is a "fairy tale" and a "childish consolation" or something that "restores the tragic sense of life" before dismissing religion for personal reasons he prefers not to speak of: "For many of us, God isn't an option." Yet without faith of any kind, it is exceedingly difficult to execute the turn which Kamiya recognizes, to his credit, as absolutely necessary. And this is the turn towards freedom. There is a kind of exhilaration in aging as old preoccupations fall away, leaving behind only the sheer satisfaction of life itself, of experience brought to its deepest fulfillment. Kamiya reaches towards this when he writes about the comedic nature of aging, the hilarity that ensues when one realizes there is nothing left to lose. Such joyful moments can also lead to a place of serenity and acceptance, which is the subject of Eliot's Ash Wednesday. Kamiya's failure to understand this poem (he writes of the "terrible line" that opens the poem) is suggestive of his deeper unwillingness to engage with matters of faith. What Eliot discovered through this poem was the liturgical structure of time, its ceaseless ebb and flow, its strange exceeding of limits, concepts, best-laid plans, and above all, its eternal return to origins, its endless flowing forth from eternity in the form of the primal spirit of nature. If religion and the arts are a cultivation of this wildness, then they can also lead us back towards it, can open up the way into it which is also our way forward in the world. I have a feeling that what Kamiya really is seeking isn't the contradiction of a hopefulness without hope but rather a way beyond the bureaucracy and marketing which consumes every inch of our lives and promises false hope for our own deepest fears. The real problem with aging and death in our society is our insistence on thinking of ourselves as agents of consumption, and the answer is to realize once again that we are agents of creativity, of life, and of love.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Evasion of Reality in a Post-Modern World

In a powerful address delivered to graduates of the UC-Berkeley Department of Rhetoric and published here, Mark Danner exposes the moral quicksand into which the Bush administration has plunged this nation. We have entered an age of epistemological crisis, in which facts have become malleable, reality has been elided, and the very notion of truth is considered old-fashioned. I am tempted to name this the fulfillment of George Orwell's dystopian prophecy of 1984, except for one crucial difference. Orwell remained wedded to the old model of centralized distribution, in which the message is distributed and maintained through rigid channels of communication. He never envisioned the rise of the new media and of popular culture. In fact, the run-up to the war in Iraq was an example of a new kind of propaganda, made possible by a new psychology which has become the bedrock of a new form of political organization, the media-state. As the spectacular success of the pre-war campaign demonstrates, such propaganda far exceeds in its capacity to deceive that of the classic campaigns of the 20th century. It is now possible using the organs of the media and of popular culture (for a cinematic example of this kind of fusion, watch Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog") to mass market political messages to a national audience in carefully orchestrated fashion, and in so doing, to completely control public opinion. This was how the Bush administration managed to achieve its revolutionary political objectives from the period of September 2001 to September 2005, right up until Hurricane Katrina blew up its fabricated image and restored the possibility of a legitimate opposition party. One need only recall the routine "terror alerts" in 2003-04 to see the effectiveness of this type of propaganda. So in an age of sophistry, truth has become an extremely precious commodity. To speak the truth in an age of deception is a powerful act of justice-making. The lies of official power deserve public scorn. The charlatans who speak them deserve disgrace. We must preserve the truth where we find it, and never cease to promote its cause at every opportunity.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Response to Christopher Hitchens

Recent years have seen a resurgence of works devoted to skeptical themes, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Daniel Dennet's "Breaking the Spell," and Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great." Given the modest contributions which atheism has made to society over the years, this counts as news, and the sight of these dogged intellectuals butting heads with fundamentalists in public debates has at least made for an entertaining spectacle. It also provides thinking Christians with an opportunity to talk about our faith in a meaningful way, as encompassing the full measure of the spiritual and intellectual life. Hitchens' argument can be summed up in his phrase, "Religion poisons everything." This means that everything religious, insofar as it is religious, is bad, and that everything which has been affected by religion would be better off without it. Now as a statement of fact this is simply wrong and almost anyone not blinded by ideology can see that. Yet the argument also fails on a deeper level and it is on this level that the argument is of interest to religious minds. What Hitchens is proposing is a fundamental separation between what faith holds to be true and what reason knows. Therefore, we ought to be able to see this separation at work in a history of cultural achievement. A survey of Renaissance painting, for instance, should clearly reveal an absolute distinction between the contents of faith and the achievements of reason, such that an atheist could clearly point to the difference and identify where the purity of rational achievement ends and the "poisoning" of religion begins. Hitchens himself claims to be a great lover of the arts and even cites the religious poetry of John Donne and George Herbert as among his favorites. Yet this is bizarrely inconsistent, to the point that I would actually question the mental competence of anyone who claims to believe it. To try and separate the "religious" from the "rational" elements in Herbert's poetry is akin to trying to surgically remove the soul from a living creature. There is a kind of suicidal impulse in Hitchens' argument which is by no means peripheral to the "new atheism" which he represents. Dawkins and others have speculated about what would be the best means of "curing" the so-called virus of religion, and all options are on the table. This is not the first time a plan to get rid of either a single religion or all of them has been proposed. I would simply say that whenever public intellectuals begin discussing plans to purify the culture of foreign or undesirable elements, this is cause for concern. It is certainly reason enough for Hitchens and others to reconsider their position.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ferrets Deny Stinking Allegations

Local ferrets on Thursday denied allegations that they stink. "My clients have been tested repeatedly in the past two years, and have never tested positive for anything," said a spokesman for the ferrets. "We are all tired of the rumors, innuendos, and outright lies. Please respect the privacy of my clients at this time." The ferrets proceeded to deny any knowledge of shoes which have recently turned up missing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Journey Towards Truth

When I first started this blog a couple of years back my hope was to create a kind of Christian conversation around political, cultural, and social issues, using in particular the resources of the so-called "theological turn" in French phenomenology and Anglican theology. I don't think that conversation ever really got off the ground at least in part because I was too preoccupied by the soap opera of Bush-era scandals to make my central thesis understandable, which is that the errors of modern political movements are the result of fundamental failures to reason clearly, and especially, to reason clearly about matters of faith. What I really meant to be writing about from the beginning was the way in which philosophic wisdom can work together with Christian faith to shed much needed light on the causes of evil and injustice in the modern world, and to provide an alternative to the dominant discourse of global capitalism. It has always been my conviction that politics is, like theology, an art of interpretation, which simply means that to exercise power is to express one's attitude towards truth. Behind every public policy and every political action is an epistemology, a theory of what constitutes valid judgments and beliefs, of what counts as evidence, of what can be proved and what must be taken on faith, of such fundamental concepts as recollection, anticipation, discovery, conjecture, proximity, testimony. All of these concepts are the unspoken content of what is reported in the news on a daily and hourly basis. Even more profoundly concealed from our sight is the relationship between politics and ontology, which means the relationship of visible icons of power to a perceived invisible order, which may be variously located in the cosmos, the intellect, the will, or in the categorial structures of a priori reason. Thus, it is my contention that the seemingly intractable shortcomings of our present political and cultural situation, which we are all aware of to some degree, can be traced back to their source, and once exposed, can be overcome. In that sense what I am trying to develop might be called a "journalistic philosophy," or to use the language of phenomenology, an eidetic analysis of political and cultural discourse. Yet this is only one half of the problem. We have only focused on the possibility of using phenomenology as a resource for placing political actions in their proper context. The other half of the project is to show how Christianity - both natural theology and revealed truth - may also provide such a resource. This will be the subject of the next post.

It's Not Going To Stop Till You Wise Up

That pithy line from Aimee Mann has always spoken to me of generational conflict, the way in which one generation hands to the next in almost ceremonial fashion its failures, burdens, unresolved traumas, addictions, superstitions, divisions, prejudices, and misunderstandings. It is a kind of inverse of education, a shrinking from responsibility, a failure of parenting. Such handings over can take place in small ways or large, in the intimacy of family life or on the overexposed surface of the world stage. Of all the painful rites of passage kept alive by human beings, surely the most grievous of them all is war. War is passed on like a curse from generation to generation, like a loathsome possession which clings to us despite our efforts to get rid of it. And it is part of the irony of war that it is so frequently propagated by those who fail to comprehend its uniquely awful burden, its plague-like symptoms, its sapping of human strength and possibility. These are the politicians with blood lust in their eyes, those who crave the trappings of credibility and moral purpose which accrue to public officials in a so-called "time of war." They seek nothing more than to enhance their own power by inflicting suffering and death on the innocent. Their appearance in positions of power marks the beginning of cultural and psychic decline, of a widespread failure of the ability to distinguish what is true and good from what is false and evil. This Memorial Day I am grieved by the thought that my brothers and sisters from the post-Vietnam generation, most of whom are younger than I am, are even as I write this being scarred by the psychic and physical wounds of war, inflicted upon them by a generation whose own moral failures continue to reap the most horrifying of consequences. It is the dates that mark the beginning and end of their truncated lives that startles me the most. These are children of the 1980's and 1990's, too young to remember the Reagan years, Iran-Contra, the Challenger explosion, Mikhail Gorbachev. They were raised on Bill and Hilary, on Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinksy's blue dress. Their graduation dates begin with "20." They arrived in this world barely two decades ago, and now they are already gone. Those that survive will live to bear the burden of their own damaged lives, to tell the story of the war they did not choose for themselves. I thought of this today while I was reading this article on the booming grave-stone industry in the Boston Globe. Read it and ponder what it means on this Memorial Day that these children are being sent to their deaths.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Obama Asked "How Long Have You Been a Black Senator"

Senator Barack Obama sighed and rolled his eyes recently in response to yet another awkwardly phrased question about his blackness. "Mr. Obama, how long have you been a black senator?" came the question from the front row at a recent press conference, igniting giggles from other reporters seated nearby. Senator Obama attempted to impart a modicum of dignity to the proceedings by explaining to the reporter that he has always been black. "You see, my father is from Africa. The people there are black. Hence, I am black." The discussion then turned to other momentous topics such as Hilary Clinton's hairstyle and whether Sen. Joe Biden is gay.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Political Fiction and Post-Modernism

In my last post I offered a psychological interpretation of how the United States ended up in its present bizarre situation of fighting to the death on behalf of our worst enemy. My conclusion was in effect that the Iraq war is the outcome of a fantasy, a projection of wishes, fears, and resentments onto a distant enemy. This is why at no point have the neo-cons made any kind of substantial contact with reality, and in fact all of the most intense and dramatic political conflicts of the past four years can be analyzed as failed communications between themselves and reality. This raises a rather interesting point about our current epistemological crisis. What we find in the present ascendancy of global bureaucratic capitalism is a curious merging of fact and fiction. It appears that as accounts of reality become more and more empirical, more devoid of the mediating role of symbol and metaphor, they also become more fictional, and even more fantastic. As Garrison Keillor wrote recently on Salon, what is really needed is not better journalism but "a good novelist." It's been a hunch of mine for a long time that fantasy is a medium for which the modern world is uniquely suited. Not only does fantasy drive the entertainment industry but it is really the engine of capitalism. A market must be imagined before it becomes a reality. In a strange way, a market becomes a reality as soon as it is imagined. So why should it come as a surprise that the major war of our time should come into being in the same way as, for instance, a new theme park? From the perspective of its creators, there really is no difference. A new war, a new product, a new religion. They all begin life as fantasies. That's their appeal, their unique defiance of reality. It brings something out in people, allows them to express something about themselves they otherwise wouldn't be able to. The neo-conservatives who brought us the Iraq war would have made marvelous novelists. It is our misfortune that they write public policy for a living instead.

Putting the Neo-Cons on the Couch

The war in Iraq has long been compared to the Vietnam war and it certainly bears some similarities to that ideologically-motivated conflict. I would like to argue, however, that the Iraq war is something ultimately quite different, which I will call a psychologically-motivated conflict. In Vietnam, although the main arguments for U.S. involvement turned out to be wrong (the domino theory, etc.) it was at least true that we entered the war to fight communist forces and that is who we ended up fighting. The Iraq war is different first of all because it has come as a complete surprise to everyone who was directly involved in its planning. Bush's neo-con brain trust thought that the war would end with the capitulation of the Saddamist state and its rapid conversion into a fully complicit U.S. ally in the region. Thus, it has only very recently become clear to these people that the war we are now engaged in is different than the war they initially envisioned. With this comes the dawning realization that our present alignment in the war is nearly arbitrary and that we may be fighting for the wrong side. In other words, very recently Dick Cheney might have woken up in the middle of the night and asked himself why after all the United States is waging a massive military effort to establish an Iranian-dominated Shiite state in the middle of Iraq. And indeed this is a question that all Americans should be asking ourselves as well. Presumably this is the rationale behind Thomas Friedman's recent call to "re-invade" Iraq, the more easily to switch sides in the conflict and attack the very Iraqi army we have labored so mightily to build. Before we all get a little too giddy at that prospect, however, it is worth taking a step back to look at how we ended up here. How did it come about that the Bush administration, alleged master manipulators of the world, made the Duck Soup-like blunder of invading the wrong country and doggedly fighting a war on behalf of its sworn enemy? To answer that question we have to get into the head of our neo-conservative overlords, which is not a pretty place to be. Moving gingerly past their Ted Haggard-like repressed fantasies and resentments, we at least reach the place where they conceptualize power. It was in 1991 that the neo-cons first became fixated on Saddam Hussein. By remaining in power after the Gulf War, Saddam became a mocking symbol to the neo-cons of the failure of the first Bush administration, whose epitaph would be its realist legacy. George H.W. Bush failed as a president because he ultimately could not reconcile himself to the projection of American power, and the neo-cons would forever remember the conclusion of his Gulf War as a cowardly truce, a moment of humiliation rather than triumph. Cue Bill Clinton. During the Clinton administration, the neo-conservative fixation with Saddam grew into an obsession with each year that the wily Saddam successfully evaded U.N. sanctions and weapons inspectors. As their hatred for Saddam increased, so did their hatred for Clinton until the two obsessions fused into one. To get rid of Saddam, the neo-cons first had to get rid of Clinton, and so they focused their rancor on the great project of crippling the Clinton administration and removing it from power. Which takes us to the neo-con anointing of George W. Bush as the heir who would right the wrongs done by his father, banish the usurping Clinton administration into exile, and dethrone the tyrant whose very existence was a blight on the noble kingdom of America. And so off to war the United States went, with the blessing of Iraqi exiles whispering sweet nothings about democracy and WMD, and with the expectation that the fall of Saddam would bring the immediate fulfillment of every neo-con fantasy that had been so lovingly nourished over twelve years of frustration and impotence. Which brings us to today. The Bush administration has only with great reluctance gradually given up its hold on this mythology and acknowledged, three years too late, that there is something more afoot in Iraq than its glorious triumph over Saddam. But when you live in your own private castle, unpleasant, unexpected events aren't supposed to happen, and convincing the Bush administration just to pay attention has taken the collective work of nearly the entire civilized world over the course of three years. So it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that one of the rumors coming out of the White House is that Cheney is leaning towards backing the Shiites. The fact that the United States would then be fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran is apparently not a problem for Cheney. The Iraq problem is and always will be for Cheney a Saddamist problem, a Sunni problem. Crush the Saddamist remnants, and Iraq will finally be ours. And Bush will truly be king.