Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Message for the Goon Squad

[I know when one of my posts is less than great -- mainly because I hit "post." I know when one is far less, too. Also, just from the years, I know when I stumble across my nuts, blind squirrel that I am, and so I share this letter, occasioned by anger at hearing a rather indulgent interview on BBC World Service's "Strand" program.]

An open letter to the novelist of the recent Pulitzer prize win.

Dear Madam, I understand many things about your story, but one thing is missing.

It is true that love is like the thing that cures one of its diseases, mercury (who the Greeks called Hermes), in that it moves with speed, splits, rejoins, and cannot be touched directly. Also like mercury, love is poisonous if taken too deeply, and, like the element, love compounds readily.

We have no power over who loves us, cannot fling love like a brick or fire it like a dart or spitball at the objects we would desire, and our desires and loves are themselves frequently jarring with one another. Married couples of deep mind find that they cannot imagine a world without one another and cannot bear to think of a romantic touch from the other, while the febrile teen's desires overwhelm reason and wisdom alike, and would make him or her suffer any consequence for the chance to join sex. Love itself, though, flickers, jolts, smites, ebbs, flares, and generally frustrates, if it shows up at all.

I understand, quite well, why the fundamental injustice of humanity, a pain as great as our first sin – in fact a mirror of our sin so that we may feel what we have done to God's divine providence by that unrequiting sin – would make a person flee. Closing down the receptors to love is sensible. Cauterizing the wound is a normal reaction for the disaffected, although it rarely works. Diversion is another normal reaction, where we decide that, if we cannot command love that has full meaning, we will take the half love that is under command, whether it is from collecting dolls or imagination or payment.

What I do not understand, though, is why, with all of the possible reactions to being unable to make the desired love, you chose to fall in love with yourself!

Admiring the work of one's hands is a secret joy that any author should be allowed. There is a shame in gazing with dew in one's eyes at the marvel of one's own invention, but it is a shame possessed as a shared secret and each forgives the next without a word. The thing of art may be a joy, yes. Galatea is lovely indeed; Pygmalion is not.

In the fullness of time, I have seen pornography. The voyage of adolescence compelled it, and the liberty of adulthood made it possible. I noted that each item, every year, sought to be more shocking than the one before. Pornographers thereby chug into absurdity long before they peter out of imagination, and that is why pornography, as opposed to sex, is an assault and battery that only a very young man can endure. As time matured, I put away all such clownish efforts of the pornographers to make me feel dirty and sneaky and criminally triumphant.

However, when you go on interviews and explain that your novel was a mere onion skin's chuff of your genius, that it was your craft, that you worked without inspiration from any but approved, monumentalist, classic culture, that contemporary history meant nothing to you, that, most importantly, your novel was a way for you to uncover, to discover, to mine, to produce your own psyche, I have a real pornographic feeling.

Worse yet, I finally feel quite, quite dirty.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Frayed Knot

Over the past interval, I have nearly come to log in several times. I nearly wrote, for the first time, honestly, directly, and in my own voice about what was happening in my life -- which is to say that I almost did what blogs generally do -- but the long weekend has allowed me enough hours of self-delusion and numb that I believe I can pretend to be otherly wise for a moment. Besides, it's Easter.

John Arbuthnot pointed out, long ago, that "The law is a bottomless pit." When John Bull and Louis Baboon got into an endless lawsuit over the estate of the dead Lord Stutt, it went on and on and on, and the only ones who seemed to enjoy it and profit from it were the lawyers! Arbuthnot planted the idea that perhaps the lawyers had no interest in seeing the suit ended, so long as the two or three parties had money. Never mind that the "lawyers" did get wealthy and the "suit" proved intractable, there was always someone in the courtroom cheering for one more stratagem, one more push.

As a member of a church (an actual member, not just an attendee), I get e-mail from my local church. As a person who has bought things from the National Cathedral in Washington DC, I get e-mail from them. As a person who, before drinking coffee reads three or four news blogs and listens to the BBC World Service, I hear about the headline grabbers. This morning, two of the four agreed, one jarred enormously. The Dean of the National Cathedral's message was that on Easter we Christians awaken to a world where death has been vanquished, where He Is Risen, and yet our world today seems more like a Good Friday sort of world, where all is lost, and our hopes have died. He pointed out that the women who went to the tomb were expecting nothing and found the news, and then they found their risen Lord gradually. He urged us to know, not see, the risen Christ, to find the hope in our living rather than to wait for the world to change.

It was pretty good for being brief. My priest's message was to think of Mary Magdalene. The disciples, seeing the tomb empty, just up and left her there, and she was left crying by the open tomb. It was to her that the angels appeared and Jesus appeared first. He diverted his point from there to talk about all of us in the world overwhelmed with worldly concerns like the disciples, where I would have stopped to consider the value of the mourning and lamentation, of waiting, and the reward to the suffering exemplified in the mystery. The news folk had nothing much to say on the subject of religion this morning, although Kos had some good stuff prior from people of faith in the progressive movement about how integral faith is to the left's mission (not merely the usual, glaring truth -- that the right's mission is horrifically anti-Christian). The Pope's message to the world today was prayer, diplomacy, and comfort. Again, all is as it should be, in my view: those of us who are Christians are so because of this day. This is the meaning of our lives. The rising of Christ from the dead is both a blazing and glorious triumph and a quiet, secret thing found by the humble. It is always useless for us to impose our reason on God's movements.

The head of the Scottish Catholic Church, though, said that Christianity in the UK is under assault from "aggressive secularists." The BBC World Service then did their "Facebook question of the day" about it, inviting and reading aloud the comments of inane dribblers and scribblers and emotives. Such a thing! I don't want to telegraph my punches, but for a few months, now, BBC News Hour has had these "question of the day" follies. They try to get as many trolls and trite-o-bytes as possible on Facebook -- a medium conducive to both -- and then read samples aloud, the samples chosen to be "representative" of polar points of view.

So, Christianity under attack in the UK by "aggressive secularists." In the United States, Bill O'Reilley has gotten boffo ratings with his adaptation of the "War on Christmas," and Stephen Colbert parodied and satirized that with a spoof "war on Easter." Now, figuring that the two audiences share zero members, Fox's Sean Hannity has declared that there is a "War on Easter." It's in Australia. It's a fake. Of course the "war on Christmas" was back this year, just like last year and the year before and the year before. In Texas, the "discrimination" and "prejudice" against Christians in academia is so pronounced, obvious, and damaging that a legislator has bill to outlaw discrimination against religious academics (who teach Creationism in the Biology Department of a university). I know how Mother Jones responded to the bill, but I also know how others responded: "So, is there discrimination against Christians in academia? Here to discuss it is Nass T. Sneerz to explain that all religious people are deluded rapists and child molestors, and Winky Blinkyeye, to show how everyone is going to Hell who doesn't vote Republican."

Meanwhile, the right wing plays the religious like an over-wound autoharp. Every strike they make generates a heck of a lot of noise, but nothing anyone would call music. People speak of "the religious right," but there is no such thing.

From the German Peasant's War (Zwickau Prophets)

The "right" in religion are the churches resisting change, and those would be the Orthodox, the Catholic churches, and then, in descending order, the Reformation churches -- each of those state churches (- of England, - of Sweden, - of Denmark, etc.), and then Presbyterians, then Methodists, etc. The point is that the groups now called "religious right" are radical liberals, in religion. What they are is the right wing playing at religious.

There is no such thing in America as the "religious left," mainly because such a thing is a tautology. From the Methodists who worked at prison reform, the Crittentons who worked at prostitution prevention and helping women, the adoption services, the orphanages, the soup and aid shelters, the religious houses of Christianity have been providing charity and pushing for more charitable legal conditions. Who has pushed against the death penalty but the religious? Who has pushed for environmentalism? Who is still the first port of call for the indigent?

The point is that it is remarkable when someone to the far right can call on Christianity, much less claim to own it. What has happened to fray the knot between progressivism and religion?

It starts with the fact that the religious who have powered the social gospel of Christ in U.S. and U.K. politics have done so with a full embrace of free will. It may be simply chance, and it may not, but the ones who have done the most have been ones who have emphasized the free will of the poor to choose between sin and virtue, and therefore have felt the need to educate but not to compel. Thus, they've believed in being light handed with the religious message, in allowing choice. Even though now every single missionary is presumed to be a child molester or an amputating conquistador, missionaries by and large seem to be liked by the villages they've gone to, and they, by and large, go without guns, without power. It's true that they offer the riches of education, but cultural contact is cultural contact, and it is better in such a peaceful and persuasive way than the usual way (bulldozers, corporations spraying pesticides, etc.). However, the anecdotal evidence is shameful and damning, and progressives are the sorts to feel very bad about these things.

Secondly, of course, and mostly, we have a free market political world.

We have a "free press," in that the government does not overtly control it, but we have a free market press, meaning that it is for-pay. Since the mechanism of the free-market press is advertising, and advertisers will only pay if they believe their message is reaching many people, the news device must ensure high numbers of readers or viewers. Furthermore, the people must have a way of proving these numbers. On television, the infamous and malignant Nielsen group, while radio depends on the utterly bizarre Arbitron book that no one can read. Web sites and international radio have a stranger argument with their people. How many people are listening to the BBC World Service, for example? Since they can't advertise, it may not matter, but what if they can advertise on their website? What if they can, and their story directs listeners there? Oh, websites use sitemeter and other things, and cookies and other pestilences, none of which your news website wants to put there, mind you.

Eventually, the news service that is sober and serious decides that it will cheat the market. "No, heavens," they say, "we will never run Brangelina baby bump stories!" "However," they confess, "we might take one pop culture outrage an hour and then put something up on our web page so that we can generate traffic and know how many people we have." For a long time, network news fell into a race to put on the trashiest story at a particular spot to grab eyeballs. (Get the viewer at the start, and she will stay.) Once they started competing at all spots with cable, they began running trashy throughout the newscast. The cable companies started competing with each other, racing to who could have the most spurious drama.

The answer to that should be public radio. Public radio went to ground, afraid of conservative budget cuts, then more afraid, then getting cut anyway, then more afraid, and then getting cut anyway, so it was neutralized as soon as it got an audience.

The answer to that should be the Internet. No problem!
The problem, of course, is that all of us, here, like me, are like seeing the Running of the Bulls. The crowd could include Shakespeare, Bacon, and Mozart, but you'd never know: too many bodies, too much screaming. So we got some settling into blog sites and magazines. As soon as any of them developed an audience, though, it needed servers, and then it needed money, and then it found a miraculous buyer. (Look at the history of for an example. It got bought, then bought again. At first, it was alternative and serious. Then people like Tracy Flory began writing hyperventilated headlines and cute stories and ... junk ... but the new owners liked that. It got hits. Trick headlines get hits, and hits are numbers, and numbers sell.) Huffington Post began as a news aggregator and then was kept afloat by nip-slips and visible panty lines. These got clicks, and clicks got numbers, and numbers got money.

I'm not off topic. You see, the BBC World Service covered that crazy bishop's comments for the same reason he made them: they wanted attention. They wanted outrage, sensation, and alarm. The debate is null, of course, because it's rigged. No one knows his terms, has an honest approach, and all are affective and arguing from anecdote and impressions, but that's also why it's just a glorious thing to say. Pure emotion.

For decades, "Christian" has been whoever makes TV. TV has been seeking the loudest voice. If there is a protest outside of an abortion center or an execution, and three hold up a sign saying, "Pray. Find Another Way," while one is screaming, throwing things and explaining how murdering the murderers is God's will, which will be on TV? Thus, "Christian" is the craziest person in the room every time, and religious people who want also to be famous will be as provocative as possible, if only to get the pulpit.

Is there discrimination against Christianity in academia? You bet. It's petty, unfocused, and mean spirited -- mostly petulant. Is it job discrimination? I doubt it. Are there "aggressive secularists?" If there are, television and newspapers and magazines and websites will go looking for them. They will be given every possible opportunity to seem bigger than they are.

There is no war on Christmas, no war on Easter, no war on Christianity, except that we who keep harboring war metaphors instead of metaphors of love and life make it so.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Paradox day

Everyone's going to have a party!

April is the crowded month, breeding sinners from quick wombs, mixing memorials and desire. And so it's the month of birthdays and anniversaries for half the northern hemisphere. The rest have just gone or are planning for theirs. So it is that we with our flesh give our last piece of respect to the seasons of the earth.

Lord knows that tanning beds, bronzers, and plastic will allow summer to bow to our whims, spring to last to our convenience and with our hygienic standards. Winter will only show up as spasm of snow, freeze, and storm, as we unhinge the climate and worry that doing anything else might "cost jobs." And a Snooki is upset that there will be a tax on tanning beds. (No one should tan her snooki to start with.)

(Manasse Block Tannery in Berkely, CA, doing it the organic way)

On my participation in that great involuntary parade of reflection or ejection, I was morose. I know that's a big surprise -- me being morose, I mean, not that I would think of birthdays and anniversaries of all sorts as being a choice between dejected spirits or ejection of spirits -- but I was just numbly so. You see, I had gotten served by a deputy the day before. That's right: In America debts will not go away, it seems. In the past, I moved so often that the "hide and hope to die" strategy worked on both me and the creditor. On me, it helped confirm my self image. On them, it just worked, as they were eager to sell the debt to a collection agency anyway and keep the real economy going. (The real economy, despite what you may have heard, is not manufacturing. It's financing. The real economy of the U.S. is purely usury. There is nothing else at all. We do not make stuff. We make money. We make it up in the sense that everything is devised now for the interest rate and the default and the sale of debt. It employs armies and creates fictional fortunes.)

So, I was morose rather than surly. (My father gets surly.)

My funk was taking the form of a flummery. The distillate of regret, doom, and new fear were all tinctures strained through the mesh of old fear. This all made me sort of unresponsive in the main, and it lead to oddly reflective moments of paradox.

First, I was waiting for a meeting to begin, and I said, "I can't stand w..." and then realized that what I meant was, "I can't stand." It was not "waiting," but the standing.

See applicable copyright

Then I wanted to tell someone that I was, "Not feeling very happy" and corrected it to "Not feeling." This is, of course, a form of the joke that Tom Lehrer made, "Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I'm very happy to be." I, however, was looking at something else. I was realizing that the meaning was implied in less than the word.

Later on, that evening, as I went off to dream of someone giving me a rose (really! I know it means I'd died, but I hadn't, so up yours, Freud!), I said to myself, "I don't care how depressed I am."

Suddenly, I realized that I had stumbled on a brand new paradox. Really.

Remember (should I say "really" again, just to prove that I don't edit my posts? really, I don't) Bertrand "Stinky Pants" Russell's fit in his hubristic Summa Mathematica? I'm sure you do. It is "the set of all sets." If you want to be bored to the point that you dribble your own flummery, you can read about it here. See, the set of all sets must have, as a member, itself. If it does include itself, though, then it is not a set of all sets. It's a Klein bottle problem.

Copyright to original author

In a way, it's a reiteration of the liar's paradox, but with math. (If it's a lie, it's true, but if it's true, it's a lie.) The question hinges on a Boolean condition, like "living/dead" or "on/off" and "inside/outside." If I say, "I don't care how depressed I am," though, I am doing the same thing. First, I'm obviously lying. Second, any statement I make about my indifference must be a lie. If I were indifferent, I would not care that I cared. If I were indifferent, I would not note that I did not care. If I were indifferent, I would have no position on caring or not caring, no position on happiness or sadness at or of a situation.

Therefore, let no one say, "I don't care" anymore. Henceforth let all such clauses be banished. If they wish to communicate disinterest, they may do so by looking away, walking off, or starting a separate conversation.

Or do we manage, in conversation, to do what we cannot in physics? Do we manage to be outside and inside at the same time? Are binary oppositions false when it comes to the psyche?

I don't care. I just thought I'd share, in case you did.