Monday, November 27, 2006

The Dog and the Mangers

The following post will cover a few subjects, but it was inspired by driving to lunch and seeing that a particular town is going to have a "Christmas Pride Parade." The county seat has a sled and Santa already up, in lights, and I fully expect a nativity scene soon. It's that kind of town. Christmas Pride, presumably, is the antithesis of the "War on Christmas." Either that, or it is an artillery shell fired at the enemies of Christmas, whoever they are supposed to be. No doubt they are the "liberal secularists," as O'Reilly has them, who oppose big displays of the Ten Commandments. (Note: I am a "card carrying member" of the ACLU.)

The thing is, Christmas, like the Ten Commandments, is an invention. I'm not talking about the concepts behind these things. The Nativity is real, but we haven't the foggiest idea when it occurred. (The shepherds were up in the hills with their flocks, so winter doesn't make a lot of sense.) The Star of Bethlehem would have been visible for a while, if not over a wide area. However, the Nativity is most emphatically not Christmas, and no one has said so. In fact, Christmas is the Christ Mass -- the church service dedicated to the birth of Jesus. Given that no one by the third century knew when Jesus was born, exactly, Roman Christians set the feast of Jesus at the same time as the Saturnalia. That allowed syncretism that could keep Christians from the executioner, on the one hand, and damnation for idolatry, on the other. Christmas is a church service, not a date, not the nativity. I hope I'm not the first person to point out to you that, when the Protestant Reformation occurred, many of the more radical protestants rejected Christmas. The first two generations of protestants were Bible scholars, knew that the nativity's date was uncertain, and wanted nothing to do with the idea that Jesus would be celebrated for a birth date coinciding with pagan rituals. The Puritans made Christmas celebrations illegal in England. (A good article on the ban is here.)

Charles Dickens recreated Christmas with that book of a man forging chains in life and blessing a crippled boy. That was a bold bit of public relations. After that, America began making a visual Christmas, a Christmas of a particular sort. Just as with Thanksgiving's Puritan holiday getting foisted on the rest of the nation (founded earlier by different folks), a particularly northeastern form of Christmas...with snow and sleds and candy canes -- all products of New England -- became the universal and unequivocal Christmas. German immigrants bring their fader Christmas and Santa with Black Peter (who gets dropped as not fit for marketing). That gets sold on television and in film, so all of us wish for a "White Christmas," even in Arizona.

Christmas, in the form of a sled full of presents, is purely a merchandizing invention, a marketing construct. I am not saying that it is corporate America tricking us into celebrating Talk Like A Pirate Day. No. It's just that this Christmas is an accidental agglutination of commercially successful details -- each having been chosen by the marketplace, each being top seller. When a southern city defiantly puts up a sled, fake snow, elves, and the like, it is defying secular liberals on behalf of a commercial image, not the Christ Mass, and not the Nativity. They claim to be defending "Christmas," but that Christmas is not the christological moment of the Incarnation of God as man.

Surely, surely, surely everyone knows that the "washing machine sized" monument of the decalogue that Judge Roy Moore was fighting for was not chiselled by Moses or the finger of God. In fact, it came from Hollywood. No joke. The "Ten Commandments" came from the marketing of The Ten Commandments via the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The FOE put these things up around the country, and one of them fell into the clutches of a fundamentalist judge. From there, all wrath broke out. Those who mobilized for the display of the Ten Commandments were, in fact, rallying around a marketing freebie.

What's interesting about these two causes is that they are both fights about wrappers rather than contents. The box, rather than the gift, is what is important. It isn't the celebration of the incarnation of Christ that we're fighting over, but whether or not someone says "Merry Christmas" (and how often does "merry" come up in other phrases in contemporary American?) or "Happy holidays." In other words, they are about outward display of washing machine blocks of granite and greetings, not about Christianity and adherence to the rules of Mosaic law.

I'm tempted to agree with Umberto Eco, whose Travels in Hyper Reality suggested that Americans like the recreation more than they do the real thing, that the replica of Graceland is better than Graceland because it has been edited and had its reality heightened and tweaked. However, there is a more philosophical and religious crisis at stake here. Our preference for simulacra might pump money into the Hard Rock Cafe, but it won't get us screaming at one another on the nightly news.

Instead, I think that the Protestant Reformation, the thing that made us most at war with Christmas, has made us most desperate for "Merry Christmas" and mangers and Christmas Pride. Protestantism's emphasis on the individual's role in interpreting scripture and choosing one's denomination, and the congregational churches' emphasis on lack of authority in structure, has led Christians into greater isolation from one another and no visible mark of their faith. Jesus said that we need no external marks, that we should concentrate on the cleanliness of the soul, not the washing of the hands. However, that leaves people nervous for some reason.

The ichthus display on car trunks is a sign (the "fish symbol"). It says, "I am a Christian." Why? It is the same reason as the Christmas Pride and the decalogue-as-rock: it is a way of shouting out one's Christianity, of screaming one's identity, or one aspect of one's identity, at the top of one's lungs. I do not know why, but it's clear that the people involved feel like their identities are threatened, feel like they are sliding into oblivion and irrelevance, and they are striking back with poor aim and no introspection.

My feeling is that people telling the world so loudly that they are Christian do not mean that they are Christian. After all, the people they are shouting at are Christians as well. The people they are shouting at are not enemies or ashamed of the incarnation of Christ, either. Instead, they are following the dancing shells of ideology and guessing that the pea (the self) is under this particular walnut half. I'm afraid that they're wrong, but I'm also afraid that we cannot convince them of that. Instead, we can try to reassure them and hope to help them discover what it is that is truly making them afraid.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Why We Fight

"And if I fight with a loved one, Lord,
Won't you please make me the winner?" -- Loudon Wainwright III, "Thanksgiving."

Each holiday has its cliches, and each has remora comedians and commentators pointing them out for the younger and less observant of us. Some of the time, they crack wise, sometimes wisely, sometimes morosely. However, the winks and grins come from pain deep enough for trauma. The people out there in the audience have had some pretty bad times at the holidays. What is it about Thanksgiving and family fights, though? Every year, those people called family come together to eat and fight. One of them mentions a past grievance or a present political preference or notice an article of clothing, and suddenly the grown-ups table becomes more emotional and louder than the children's table. Boom, boom, shriek, glower/ We will not stay another hour.

So, how do we get there? We get there by becoming adults. The kinds of fights we have can not take place when we're young. We have arguments of unknown etiology and pessimistic prognosis solely because we have gotten over those old competitions and resentments of youth. Furthermore, we fight inerrantly about the bones of our maturity. This is not as much of a paradox as it seems.

Suppose you grew up bitter at the taste of the bridle. You would go on to assert independence and figure out how to tolerate authority by becoming the authority or by dropping out of the power structure. It would be one of the keys to becoming an adult, for you, to be your own person. Suppose instead that you grew up aggravated and depressed by distant parents. If that were the case, you would survive the burden by becoming self-sufficient or the center of jollity. Sibling rivalry is too various to discuss -- the sisters' vanity battle, the brothers' pounding on each other or tricking each other into trouble -- whatever it is, it will throw one of the biggest obstacles to life at you, and you will have to handle it and neutralize it as you become an adult. You can, as ever, win by fighting or by swallowing the opposition. Whatever your strategy, it will have been crafted very specifically to meet very specific needs.

At the feast, our strategies, all developed like receptors to the antigens of our family, are at the fore, on the skin, in the stare, quavering in the voice, firing the nostrils. We have allergies to our family. Additionally, Thanksgiving is a collection of adults who are not in charge. Being in charge is not merely a long-sought privilege of maturity, but is also the licensing condition for coping with the past. The most placid family get togethers are the ones where each adult is given a task. The delegation of authority leaves each member of the family Executive Vice President of this or that, and that is why the best pacifier to the family fight is having children. When you have kids to manage and control access to, you are guaranteed maturity, guaranteed to be in charge. If, however, you have not or not yet swum upstream, spawned, and survived, or if the children are with the ex-, or just absent, then you are not in charge. You are idle and dependent, and only your personality stands between you and the others.


So, there you are, faced with those burdens and your compensations. If any, and I mean ane ne, of your strategies were anti- the parent/sibling, then very soon you will prove your personal growth by demonstrating how little you care about what that person did. You will attack, in other words, without knowing about it. That's why it will be impossible not to mention how your parents paid her way as an "artist," and why his snort of derision at The Nutcracker at the local theater is surely meant to be an insult to your years as an artist.

Call upon the divine for a victory, because to win the fight to prove to yourself that you closed the holes those people called family made in you is to win an all important battle. Winning means autonomy. It means being whole. It is a fight for a self that you are having, and the fight proves that you have already lost, that some part of you, even if that is the memory of wrongs long done, is owned by someone else.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Don't Blame Me: I Voted on a Diebold Machine

That's one of my new bumpersticker ideas. I have others. My favorite other one, in terms of million dollar ideas, is "Said Yes to Drugs." I figure that it might be funny to slap that on dad's car, except that they might get confused and think that it was Rush Limbaugh at the wheel. My personal favorite, not in terms of the millions I could have made, is "I'd Rather Be Sleeping."

At any rate, the slogan is true enough, above. We have a number of I'm an X and I Vote ("I Hear Voices, and I Vote"), per a previous blog post, but we also have a cliche of "Don't Blame Me, I Voted Budweiser Frogs" and others of that ilk. It began as a demonstration of dissent, but it then got to be a joke in its own right -- first a rueful one and then a forgetful one.

"Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants and deserves to get it good and hard." -- H. L. Mencken

See, the problem these days is that we didn't vote Kodos, didn't vote Kerry, surely didn't vote Gore. Nor did we vote Bush, of course. What we voted was Diebold. We all know that Diebold machines can be hacked, if we've been paying any attention to computers or the news. From Finnish hackers to Princeton professors, anyone can hack a Diebold. HBO showed a documentary about BlackBox Voting called "Hacking Democracy" the night of the election rather than the night before. Ok, so clever computer scientists like the chimpanzee can hack the voting machines, but so what? Can't corrupt county bosses do the same with paper ballots and manual machines? Well, yes, but there is a much greater insecurity now than there used to be when Sheriff Cletus had his hand on your hand on the lever: Diebold machines are centrally produced, distributed, and collected up, and all the data must go upstream to a single point.

In other words, it's hard to manipulate a vote to change a state wide election, when it's paper or mechanical. It's hard to manipulate a vote to change the county commissioner, when it's centrally controlled. Given the fact that Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold, raised more than $100,000.00 for George W. Bush, that he vowed to "do anything (he) could" to give Bush Ohio in 2004, and the fact that all the votes have to go upstream to a counting system (which can be hacked) from memory cards that each have executable files on them (which can be hacked) and that altering either program shows no intruders, we have a pretty dark horizon out there.

But The Geogre, you say, the Democrats won! Why are you bitching? I'm bitching because we may have won in spite of the voting machines. I'm bitching because, so far, every time there has been a recount where receipts are measured against recorded totals, Democrats have gained votes. I'm bitching because George Allen quit before a recount, when it's possible that the recount would not have made him look very good. I'm bitching because the vote is centralized in the hands of commercial vendors, and it's possible for a single corrupt person to swing a nation or a state wherever he wishes. I don't mean O'Dell, either. I mean an "unaffiliated group" somewhere, like the people who "served with John Kerry in Vietnam" (meaning that they served in Vietnam, not that they were in the Navy, that they were on the lines, or that they were on the boat with him) who just knew that he didn't deserve his medals.

When Sheriff Cletus coerces me, I know who it is. When a faceless freak with a Palm Pilot can knock me out of the booth and waft his employer into office, I get upset. The strong arm on my hand is bad, but the thumb on the scale is worse. I'm free to vote on the Diebold, but I'm not free to have the vote go through. It's rather like a videogame vote: it makes me feel happy, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. You can play Halo all you want, but you're not Jack Bauer, and you can go vote with your Diebold all you want, but you're not participating in democracy, not unless we decentralize the process.

Anarchy in voting is bad, but it's better than a commercial vendor. For profit voting? Think about what we have invisibly and silently chosen: turning voting over to competition for profit. Should anyone be encouraged to go cheaper, faster, and with the highest margins when we're talking about voting? Why, exactly, can the government not manufacture voting machines? Why, exactly, can we not have non-profits make them? What is it about voting that makes the most profitable (and therefore those with the greatest ability to advertise, to organize junkets, to sweet talk, to man the phone banks) the BEST for us? What is it about intellectual property rights that makes you think, "Yeah, I want someone to own the methods of my voting, the display and storage of the data, and the access point to it?"

This is insane.

Republicans should be as outraged as Democrats. Everyone should be stopping well short of merely wondering if O'Dell is cheating and ask whether free market profits are proper, whether proprietary encoding is proper, and whether or not we need to have a Democracy Incorporated deciding how many votes to count, if not where they go.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's Wrong with This Picture?

"You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
Knock as you please, there's nobody at home." -- Alexander Pope
No, not that picture, but the picture we get when we look into the prophetic pool of the academy. It's a prophetic pool because it certainly isn't a mirror. Instead, we look into academe to find out what will be, in two senses. First, the fads and foolery of the colleges will soon enough be on satirical television shows and then the streets of America. Second, the theoretical and research results there will get into the heads of millions of people and then shape the actual practice of the knowledge implicated industries (which is most of them now). At the same time, everyone thinks that the pool lies, that it's wrong. So, what is wrong with academia, other than me, I mean?

The first problem is the one that anyone who thinks for a moment will realize: it is a fortune-telling mirror, and so it shows what is not but what will be. Therefore, it is always false. It is always not what "we" think. Therefore, whether it says "God Is Dead" in 1965 (yes, that's the link to the original that got everyone from the Southern Baptist Convention to Bernie Taupin talking) or "The margin is the center" (no link, but it's Jacques Lacan or Shaka Khan or the Wrath of Madeline Kahn), it's altogether nonsensical, outrageous, and a waste of tax payer dollars. Needless to say, people will soon enough find these suggestions and researches shaping their public discourses, both in positive and negative incarnations.

The related problem to that is that these things seem to be a danger to the youth of Athens. Let's brew up that hemlock tea, because our nice, clean cut freshmen are coming home as promiscuous whores and liberals! The fact is, of course, that universities don't make children liberal, or whores. College simply exposes people to other ideas, ideas not found at the dinner table, and that's something that shows them that father might not have known best. What they do then is anyone's guess. The more tightly repressed they had been at home, the more kinetic energy they have built up and the more they will bound out of the box in a different direction. Lost virginity and no thunderbolt of pregnancy? Hey, this is fun! Neighbor on the hall smokes dope and doesn't rob liquor stores? Kewel! We all know this dynamic, and it includes ideas and ideology. Novelty is dangerous.

Where did this come from? Well, the biggest villain in this blog essay is going to be publish or perish and its devouring effect on knowledge. The hero is going to be curiosity and patience. Ok, the heroes are going to be curiosity and patience.
  1. When you have to publish on anything and everything, you have to be new. In science, this leads to an article on every result in your huge experiment. You want to find out if insulin-like growth factor-I and insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 administered concommitantly will reduce insulin resistance in patience with metabolic syndrome. That's going to take years. At each step (in vitro results, in vivo results, phase I-III trials), you publish a paper. Instead of a coherent result, you deliver a dozen results. Sure, someone might take a piece of your research and work from it, but they know that you're on a big mission. In humanities, though, and in social sciences, you have to be different damn it. You have to avoid the competition, because everyone has the same laboratory you do (they all have brains and grad students and libraries), so you'd better go off, man. You'd better not write on Shakespeare and the meaning of the plays, on in-groups and how they police themselves, the Battle of Midway and why it succeeded for the US. Those are so done, and the journals aren't interested in repeating old truths in new ways or putting old wine in a new skin.
  2. When you work with patience and curiosity, you may come up with some really wild stuff that will take an age to find application. Sure, Gregor Mendel was ignored, but so was Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Here's the deal, though, what does novelty do to us? What, in the humanities, is going to be the problem?

The chief problem is that flight into a private garden. When you have to be alone, when you have to own the field, when you have to eliminate competition by eliminating intercourse, you will not only avoid the basic stuff that readers and students want ("whatzit mean, prof?"), but, curiously, that we push meaning off to our garden and pretend to answer the central needs by making them our own.
"No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself." -- Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ *, 3, iii.
Look, it was always the case that people avoided competing with the greats of their fields. We can all sing "Shine on/ Shine on, Harold Bloom/ Up there at Yale" for his The Anxiety of Influence and its confession. Sure, you have to say that T. S. Eliot was emotionally constipated, if you want to write poetry after him. You have to say that Wayne C. Booth is gullible about the determinacy of texts, if you want to write in the next generation of critics. We all know that. I'm not going to waste your time pointing it out (except that I did... I'm sooooo po-mo). No, rather, it's that we have changed our priority.

In literature and history, and in art-history and even law, people have been infected with the fever of "theory." Theory is unavoidable, etc. We all have a theory, etc. We are all practitioners of ideology, etc. You bet. Who would argue from that old trench? Feminism to lesbian feminism to body feminism to brain science feminism to psychoanalytic feminism to third wave, to fourth wave, etc. Marxism goes to a sort of mass psychology, cultural history (sort of), Foucault's psychological Marixm, post-Hegelian Marxisms, etc. That's all ok with me. Linguistics primers falling into the wrong hands leads to post-structuralism of a sort. Cultural anthropology leads to structuralism leads to an aesthetic structuralism, which leads to anti-structuralist reading "against" the structure, which can go into more of that post-structuralism thing or reader response or cultural aesthetics and reception aesthetics, etc. Let's all give a shout out to our peeps in the theorizing room. They're all groovy to me. I love them all and extend my blessing upon the whole gibbering crowd.

What gets me, and what ties me back to the subject, tangentially, is that the way we are getting to feed the furnace of publication. Instead of the old game of writing about Richard O. Cambridge instead of Alexander Pope and Scribleriad rather than Dunciad, but that's old news and respectable as it adds to the world of knowledge. It used to be that we would select a subject and then seek out an approach that would be useful for it. What's happening now is that we are starting with a theory and looking for a text that it works with. We start off as a post-feminist post-structuralist modernist and then try to find a poet(ess) that will make the theory work. The result of that is that we get articles on the most minor, the most alien, works possible.


"...the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions...." --A Tale of a Tub

when you first find your dry cleaner poet because he fits your post-Hegelian paradigm, you cut out one of the most important tests of a theory. Each theory proposes a conclusion inductively or deductively about a set, and it can be validated only by reference to an outside theory (bad article on the subject, but I'm lazy). You have to take any closed system of propositions and compare it to a different closed system to verify it. If you start with a conjecture ("people from Lyon are liars") and then go find a person to fit it, you haven't demonstrated anything about the conjecture.

You see the importance? I hope so.

If we are verifying our own theories by seeking confirming examples, then we are expressing no form of curiosity at all. We are beginning from a position of knowledge and faith, not inquiry. We were interested only so long as we were reading the theory. Once convinced of it, we are ready to go on and prove it. Furthermore, the fact that we go find the subject that proves our theory shows no patience, either. We are guaranteed results.

So, if this is true, we are no longer going to be producing a controversy that will permeate culture, because the ideas won't be able to multiply or sink in. After all, they were only energized by being bulked from within their own claims. We are left, then, with the troubling image in the still waters of the academic pool, but the ugly picture is not any longer the future. The widening of minds is no longer explosive and destabilizing curiosity that will send students home with a wide view, but rather the image of competition, of blind proof, of stating one's faith and demanding that only the confirming examples exist. Even George Bush could publish in a world like that.