Search This Blog

Sunday, December 30, 2012

And I Really Do Mean That

  I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.

  But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

 The  Senior Demon Screwtape, to his Nephew Wormwood
Transcribed by C.S. Lewis -  The Screwtape Letters

  I was thinking about hipsters recently (I promise, I am going somewhere with this) thanks to an article my friend Steven Leyva posted. Specifically, I was been thinking about their use of "irony". The article (by Christy Wampole) deals with the idea terrifically and I do not propose to pirate and reword her observations. What did strike me though, is the similarity between "irony" as a hipster byword (which at the end of the day seems a little more sarcastic than ironic) and Lewis's treatment of flippancy in The Screwtape Letters. Both are ways of hiding and, probably more importantly, both criticism without substance. If Ms. Wampole is correct, the Ironic Hipster is mocking sincerity and the past in precisely the same way that the flippant man is mocking virtue. The Hipster does not tell us what it is that makes mainstream music, media, fashion and culture ridiculous; he simply treats them as though they are.

  Not that there isn't plenty to criticize in practically any culture- there certainly is. But criticism needs to be grounded, I am free to dislike the music and media image of Madonna only as long as I can say why I dislike them. To treat them as "obviously ridiculous" and mock them by becoming ridiculous myself while facetiously wearing or playing them is simple meanness. It is the difference between discernment and bullying. 
  More serious though, is the relationship that the Ironic Hipster and the Flippant Man have to Joy. One aspect of Joy is that it is profoundly serious. A clever man may be able to make a Joke about virtue in general, it would be very hard indeed to make a good Joke about Joy (possibly something rooted in its use as a name but I'm not sure that even that would work out). But this difficulty does not arise from any intrinsic link between somberness or melancholy and Joy; indeed, Joy is often great fun, rather I am using "serious" to mean something closer to "weighty" or "significant". Joy really matters, and because it matters, it is out of reach for the flippant, insincere or ironic person. For the Flippant Man, sincerity is anathema - it explodes his facade of cleverness, an illusion built on the circular idea that the object of ridicule must be ridiculous because  it is being ridiculed and attended by the impression that the ridiculer is somehow above or better than that which he ridiculed. (If you don't think this is true, have you ever been ashamed of a song, book or movie only because someone else used it as a comparison to something they didn't like "whoa, that was worse than the country muisc"). I think it would be fun to go up to the next hipster I see wearing an Alf t-shirt and exclaim "You like Alf too? Awesome, so few people get how truly great that show was" I think they might be a little ashamed. 

  Maybe I am particularly worried because I am generally a rather sincere and occasionally insecure person. I was taken aback a few weeks ago to discover that my high school students think of me as a hipster. On investigation it turned out to have a lot to do with the way I look. I have shoulder length brown hair which I generally keep tied back, I wear large sideburns and a goatee and my usual work attire involves a corduroy cabby hat, a selection of cartoon and comic-book ties, a tweed vest and a pocket watch. I do not really blend in. That said, while I am aware that hipsters often accoutre themselves similarly, we do it for entirely different reasons. I genuinely like Captain America, Bugs Bunny and Dr. Suess (got a 1-fish, 2-fish, red fish, blue fish tie for Christmas), I am a hopeless anglophile and bibliophile and happen to think that people in the 1920's looked really cool. It turns out the hipsters are mocking my style, or at least, the styles I have adopted!

   I like sincerity as well. I write because I want to express something profound, I delight in books, music and movies which inspire me to sing, weep and cheer. I want to live an abundant risk-filled life, to drink deep and drain life to the dregs; I want to experience the laughter and sorrow the pain and the mind-shattering Joy. I want to see God and be undone.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables is No Lord of the Rings, I Can Tell You That Right Now

   Alright, I just got back from finally seeing Les Miserables and I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. For those of you who don't know, I absolutely love both the musical (Ash and I have seen the stage version 4 times so far) and the book. In fact, for quite a while now, the stage production has been my go to example of how it actually is possible for a book to successfully cross media formats without being diminished.
  Cameron Macintosh and crew managed the same feat in the transition from stage to screen and that is no mean feat. The movie manages to be a bonified movie musical where the temptation for die-hard stage enthusiasts may have been looking for a filmed stage production and the full bore movie people will probably be upset that it is a musical at all (look for words like "melodramatic" as an indication that the review just doesn't actually like musicals).
  What I am generally looking for when a story crosses media formats is the preservation of the stories essential themes and characters. While I love what Peter Jackson did with the visual aspect of Middle Earth, I have to fail him on these points for what he did to Faramir, Treebeard, Saruman, Merry and Pippin and for his utter rejection of Tolkien's understanding of the relative power of good and evil, of the importance of age and wisdom and of the potential beauty of hierarchy. Wether Jackson approved of those things or not, he had no business changing Tolkien's story, his proper business would have been to tell his own story or that of someone else with whom his agreed.
  Les Miserables certainly does make some edits and changes so if you are hoping to see everything you love from the stage production you will be a disappointed there, the Thenardiers get more airtime but less song time (beggar at the feast is dramatically reduced and somewhat reinterpreted while dogs eat the dogs is cut down to a single line),  and while most of the numbers get an appearance, most of them are also shy a verse or so.
  What the movie does is capitalize on its own form. A movie allows for a far lazier imagination than does a stage production (which in turn allows for a lazier imagination than a book) by putting the story in its full setting.  On the stage we get a few props and some great costumes and the rest is up to us when it comes to setting. On stage there are no close ups and we can't really see things like tears so the crew has to find other ways of conveying personality and emotion. In a movie all of these are possible and Les Miserables uses them to the fullest extent. I have read some complaints about extended close-ups on characters as they sing, but I thought these were all incredibly moving (Fantine, ValJean, Javert and Marius all get them). I am not an expert in either stage or film so I will stop there but I was certainly pleased with the use of the new medium.
  The great thing though, is the preservation of Victor Hugo's essential themes and I am reasonably sure that not all of them are popular today. I have always loved the novel's ability to insist that life really is both horrendously tragic and wretched and also painfully beautiful and noble. Where so many stories and philosophies fail by trying to balance the good and evil in life or to choose one over the other and being dominant in our existence, Les Miserables refuses to admit to a watered down compromise and instead sets all the horrors of early 19th century Europe against true sacrifice, repentance, loyalty and nobility (there's a virtue we don't run into much anymore). I wept for both pity and joy while reading it and each of the times I have watched it.
  The victory of mercy over Justice without condemnation is also still present in the movie and comes across quite powerfully. Russel Crowe's Javert, while not a great a singer (I miss the baritone) was certainly well acted. As by brother put it, "this Javert is a lot more sympathetic but no less the villain". Redemption, Grace and the hope of Joy were all present as well.
  I certainly recommend it and hope you all go see it. Then leave me a comment and let me know how you liked it and what I forgot to mention.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A father

I would raise a glass to the carpenter
of whom so little is said
the story was told all about him
whilst men spoke of horns on his head

He taught the saw and the hammer
pulled splinters, healed cuts with his spit
Was it he who taught you a living
who taught you to heal with the mud?

Yesterday's message got me thinking...
 It doesn't quite manage a form but I find myself fascinated by the thought.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Justice of Horton

Do you think that there is a way that things are supposed to be?  I don't mean a belief in the "best of all possible worlds" that Voltaire liked to make fun of, I mean a sort of basic sense that some things are just right and that sometimes a situation is just wrong?
This is an elephant on a tree

One of my favorite children's books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (one of my favorite children's authors). In Horton our hero, Horton the Elephant, agrees to "egg sit" for a lazy bird (Mayzie) who promptly takes off and vacations on the beach for several months leaving Horton on her nest. We see him suffer through increasingly unpleasant trials beginning with bad weather and going on to abandonment by his friends, abduction (along with the egg, nest, and tree) by hunters and finally abject humiliation. Throughout it all Horton says to himself "I meant what I said and I said what I meant; an elephant's faithful one hundred percent" and sticks to his commitment. Then, (spoiler alert) at the climax, Mayzie stumbles upon him and the egg hatches. Seeing that it is hatching, Mayzie tries to re-claim her egg but when it breaks open, out flies... you guessed it... an elephant-bird! And Horton get to go home with a child while Mayzie pouts in a corner and everyone exclaims that "It should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!" - A sentiment with which I heartily concur. It should be like that.

Hard work should be rewarded, bad people should get their comeuppance, children should outlive their parents, the good should thrive. And all of that and so much more; all of the should be like is what I mean by the word "justice".
I think that the idea of justice has been misunderstood for a while now, especially in American culture. It is not so much that we have gotten it completely wrong as that we have narrowed it too much. Most people I talk to want to use "justice" as a synonym for "fairness" or, if they see a distinction, they will treat justice as a more powerful or deeper version of fairness. Thus someone might say "It wasn't only fair, it was just". But while fairness is often a part of justice, it is by no means the whole of it. To be fair is merely to treat everyone equally, to be just is to treat each person and every thing the way that person or thing should be treated. And that treatment will only be fair (though technically "fair" has experienced its own unfortunate devolution over the last several hundred years) if it treats them all equally.
Totally didn't see this coming

Here is where the practical problem comes into play: it is only possible to be just if you have some idea of how thing ought to be. To be just is to say "this should be like that" and to then go about trying to make it so. Neither a determinist (who thinks that all things already are as they have to be), a modernist/non-supernaturalist (who has no grounds for claiming that there is any such thing as should be only what, in fact, is) nor a post-modernist (who doesn't think anyone has a right to talk about what should be for anyone else and besides how sure are they that there really is a this or a that  anyway) can be just.

Now please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that those folks can't be virtuous, kind, fair or egalitarian. They are often all of those things. In fact, they are often very just - I would point especially to the social gospel of the liberal Christian, modernist movement of the last century and the "social justice" movement so popular among contemporary post-moderns as wonderful and encouraging examples of people loving justice. What I am saying is that those worldviews give them no grounds for believing in or even really understanding justice. To the extent that they have it, they have it by tradition, by uncritical conscience or by divine Grace.
  But it takes a pre-modern (eastern or western) to get justice.

A little history: the basic concept of justice in the west seems to have originated with Socrates. Plato's most famous book The Republic is entirely concerned with the question "what is justice" (the Greek word was dikaiosune). After quickly demolishing arguments that justice is "the will of the strong over the weak" (a view that stayed pretty well dead until Nietzsche came along) and the slightly stronger claim that it is "doing right by friends and harm to enemies", Socrates spends most of the book defending the idea that to be just is to act and become in accordance with the way things are, or put another way, to love the good and conform to it. (He then has a lot of ideas about how that can be accomplished and a really unfortunate extended-analogy about the soul and the city-state which has given rise to some misconceptions about his political views; but I won't get into all that right now). But from then, right up until the enlightenment, the idea that justice was conforming to the way things should be was the dominant understanding of the west.

Over in the east, Lao Tzu seems to have independently come up with the same basic idea. He was able to speak much more simply about "life in conformity with the Tao". Confucius then watered it down a bit by trying to get really practical by providing elaborate descriptions of what different 'tao-conforming' lives would look like. In both cases, eastern and western pre-modernism seems to have independently agreed that justice requires first an understanding of how things should be and then an attempt to conform oneself to that understanding.

Lao Tzu
Finally, in the contemporary world, justice is most clearly talked about by natural law and virtue ethicist (who are mostly going back to the pre-modern thinkers). Most notable would be CS Lewis who showed, rather convincingly, in The Abolition of Man that belief in the natural law, the Tao, is necessary for humanity to remain human. The love of that Tao and the attempt to conform to it is justice.

But why is justice so important? Well, a sense of justice implies a vision of how things should be, and without that, I can't help but think that there will be a great deal of drifting about without any real direction. Quite practically, it is justice that tells me that I cannot do just anything to accomplish a good goal, for a world in which one problem is fixed and I have been corrupted by a terrible act (even in the service of a good goal) is not the way things should be. It is justice that tells me things can be better and it is justice that urges me to make them better. It is by justice that I recognize injustice. Justice is the eye of the conscience; what I do blindly by conscience is illuminated by justice.
Justice is  Badass 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In Defense of... Sadness?

 Yesterday I spoke at church about Good Friday. I had plenty to say about the day and the event it commemorates but one particular item seemed worth discussing on Heaven and Earth Questions. I am terrible at mourning. I am great at Easter. On Easter we celebrate God's victory over death. We celebrate the greatness of God and the ressurection of the God-Man. We celebrate the return of Jesus. Easter is wonderful and Easter is easy Easter is about celebration. But Good Friday is much more confused. On Good Friday there is some celebration; we celebrate being rescued from death in its many forms. But for Christians Good Friday is also a day for sadness. 
   We believe (yes I really do believe that the following is true) that that in order to rescue us from the death and brokenness of the world, God had to die. On Good Friday we remember the deicide that we necessitated. And as horrific as deicide (the killing of God) is, for most of the people in my community it is even more horrific. You see, being a Christian is about holding to certain propositions as true (check out Mere Christianity for the best listing, explanation and defense of these propositions I have ever run across). But I, and many people I know are interested in something else as well. We are invested in knowing the person who is Jesus. We are just nuts enough to think that we know Him in that tanimak sense. We each have a relationship with him. So for us, Good Friday is a day for remembering that our choices and actions brought about the horrific death of this person we love desperately. Good Friday is a day where we remember that sometime recently we as much as shouted "give us Barrabas" as we insisted on bringing a little more deaths or pain into this world - death and pain He died to heal. 

  Good Friday is about being loved but it isn't exactly fun. 

  Now I grew up in Turkey and over there they know how to mourn. They don't avoid it like the plague, like a mental illness. They embrace it when it's time comes. But we Americans, even those of us of a more pessimistic bent, seem fascinated by the positive. I certainly am. I know that I full on hate being sad and I don't think anybody wants to be depressed (including the Turks).
   The thing is, I don’t think that mourning and being depressed are at all the same thing. Depression is an emotional manifestation of despair (though the person suffering from it has not necessarily actually reached a despairing conclusion), more precisely, it is the proper emotional correlative of the cognitive state we call despair. To despair is to acknowledge that there is no hope, no meaning in a situation or, in its final sense, life.

Now sadness is the proper emotional correlative of the cognitive state of mourning. And to mourn is to acknowledge that something wrong has happened, that some part of life or even life as a whole is in a broken state. To mourn is to recognize injustice (just made a mental not to do a blog on justice). The distinction is vital because on the one hand, to despair is itself a great evil. To see the world as empty, meaningless and hopeless is to miss-see the cosmos and to devalue all other people. The old saw that ”so one as there is life, there is hope” is true on a cosmic scale. For a Christian despair is entirely absurd, it would mean giving up on God. So there is no proper context for despair and its correlative emotion: depression*. But there is a proper context for mourning. Injustice, the brokenness of the universe does happen, all is not healed yet and it is right for us see that, to acknowledge it. I’m still not going to go seeking the experience. I don't want to go find reasons to be sad. But when the time comes, as it does on Good Friday, to ”weep with those who weep” I hope that I will be able to. Maybe I will be better at it next year.
  *Please don’t read this as a slam on people who are suffering from depression, they are dealing with one of the injustices for which we are to mourn. The brokenness of the universe has caused them to feel inordinately, they have not made a bad choice but become subject to the weakness or our bodies and brain chemistry.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't Judge Me

 "Don't Judge Me", together with "I'm not Judging" is a phrase I am hearing more and more often, both in Christian and in secular circles. Now I think I get what people are trying to communitcate and I suspect (please correct me if I am wrong in your case) that mostly "don't judge me" means "don't think badly of me". Which is a perfectly legitimate sentiment though it does seem to suggest that the speaker already thinks poorly of his own actions or oppinions. What worries me is the fact that the two statements are being used interchangeably and I can't think of many reasons why that should be.
  There may be an assumption that all judgement is negative. Which is odd, but no more so than many of the unreflected ideas we carry around most of the time. Of course some judgement can positive; even in popular culture we see judges giving encouraging reviews in all sorts of competition. On this interpretation, the phrase would seem to mean something more like :"don't think badly of me for doing the thing that makes me think badly of myself". And that is an old if largely indefensible sentiment. If I think that I am a very bad person, that does not mean that I want anyone else to think of me as a very bad person but it does mean that I have no good reason to ask anyone to think of me as better than I believe myself to be.
  Alternately, I suppose someone could use "don't judge me" in a more precise way, they may really and impossibly, asking the world not to come to any conclusions about their actions. Maybe I used "impossibly" in haste, there may be some of you out there who can see a friend or aqcuaintance doing or saying the sort of thing for which they say "don't judge me" and not come to any conclusions about whether or not their actions are good or bad.
 I can't.
Fair warning to everyone I know: I judge you. I judge you all the time. Granted, I have judged most of you as being pretty cool folks but nonetheless, I am judging you all the time and I'm not likely to stop.
  And if that weren't enough, I happen to think that my proclivity for judging is a good thing. As a matter of fact I have a lot of trouble even imagining a world in which suff just happend and people just did things and I didn't have any opinion as to whether it was all good or bad. And I think that I'm in pretty good (and bad) company here.
  Regardless of it's quality, my company is certainly numerous. Sartre and Nietzche, even Hume all assumed that we are forever judging things, although they disagree with each other - and certainly with my own view - as to what judgements we ought to reach. Heck Nietzche, who called for a re-imagining of all values, still seemed to beleive (one is never on firm ground trying to insist that Nietzche definitely believed any particular thing) that the strong should judge (albeit according to their own systems of value); while Sartre lamented that we are doomed to invent standards of judgement for ouselves and then live our lives knowin that they were essentially arbitrary. On the other side of things, C.S. Lewis (you didn't think I could write my first post in months without mentioning him did you) certainly beleived that we are naturally prone to judge thoughts actions and speech. He believed that we judge the world by the tao, the basic way of all existence, that the Natural Law was real and that good and wise people judge their environments as either conforming to or diverging from it.
  And I think this draws out the important distiction between "don't judge me" and "don't think badly of me". Ignoring the possiblity of positive judgement and granting for a second that the judgement in question would be negative, the disastrous assumption people seem to be making is that judging someone's actions or words to be bad means loving them or valuing them less. But that does not follow at all. I am fully convinced that I think, say and do bad things all the time. Go ahead and judge me, it's fine, just don't love me any less, don't value me any less for it. No matter what you think, you probably won't think that I am half as bad a person as I know myself to be, and I still value myself alot.
  You see, I think we have forgotten (both Christians and seculars) that there is no contradiction in saying that people have infinite value and terrible moral character. The two are not interdependent. The problem is that when we conflate judgement and love we end up losing either the ability to acknowledge reality (it was very bad for Bob to gossip to me about Henry), or we end up hating and devaluing beings of infinite worth.
  So when people ask me not to judge them I have a bit of trouble. I guess you could say I'm judging you for asking me not to judge you. I just love you, that's all.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That's Me in the Mushy Moral Middle

In case there is someone out there who hasn't actually figured it out yet, I'm a Libertarian. As such, I was perusing (the big online libertarian magazine) the other day and I found an article which has helped me to understand some of the ambiguity I am still feeling towards the occupy movement (yes I know the movement seems to be practically dead thanks to all the reporters ignoring it to focus on the Republican primaries - and for crying out loud how wishy-washy can I possibly be to have not worked out my own position on it yet anyway). As a person of faith and sometimes teacher of ethics classes, I was struck by the ethical model this fellow, Jonathan Haidt, uses to analyze the moral appeals of various political cultures and find myself wondering how a holistic, pre-modern, philosophical Christian ought to think about these things.

For those of you who don't want to go read the article, Dr. Heidt's model sets up "six clusters of moral concerns": care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In the article, he uses a representative sampling of protest signage from Zucatti Park to determine which clusters are more valued by the occupy crowd (and presumably by those who are sympathetic to said crowd). He finds that the occupy movement - and I think it is important to distinguish the apparent values of a collective movement from the real values individuals within that movement might hold - seems to value fairness/cheating above all other clusters with care/harm coming in a strong second. After that, liberty/oppression came in a very distant third and the remaining three clusters were hardly evident at all (a few signs could be stretched to say something about a few of them but it was quite a stretch.

I found this interesting enough that I followed a couple of links over to Dr. Heidt's research website where I took an online survey and discovered that, so far as his research is concerned, I value harm/care the most, followed by loyalty then fairness, sanctity and authority which, as it turns out, I don't care very much for (apparently liberty/oppression is a new category which has not yet been added to the online-questionnaire but I am reasonably sure that I would have ranked high in that category). So my question for this post is: Is this scheme a healthy one? I certainly think that it goes a way towards explaining my ambivalence towards the occupy folks since we heavily share one value but then go on to differ as regards others; but are either of us right? Am I mistaken in valuing authority the way I do? According to Dr. Heidt, Republicans would say that I value it to little and Democrats would say I like it too much. In fact I am between the two major political persuasions in everything except fairness which I value less than anyone and loyalty which I value more than anyone.

Or would you say that it is a mistake to even rank these values (I wouldn't say it but try to convince me, it could be fun!). Is it valid to say "I'm the kind of person who values authority more than anything else and am therefore more basically moral than anyone else"? I tend to think that my ranking is a pretty good one, but then I would wouldn't I?

Well there you have it. More questions than answers or opinions in this post but I would really like to get some thoughts from y'all (even if you are reading this eight months after it goes up).