Constructing the choice regime

Choice, Part 2

tattered truth

The end is for choice to replace truth as the cultural standard.

To speak of “wise” choices is subversive of the choice regime. Talk of wisdom implies nature in the Aristotelian sense of an enduring reality that we discover rather than construct. The choice regime prefers to consider the ways that humans create themselves. The theory is most fully explicated in Lacan-influenced feminism. Sex is biological and must be replaced with gender, which is constructed.

The choice regime is a land of illusion, but well-funded illusion with lots of support from the authorities. The governing committees can proclaim that there is no biological basis for maintaining distinctions between the sexes, marriage can be redefined, and appeals to any authority beyond the experts who set the policies is derided as extreme. We desire no durable standard for choice other than what we want, and talk of what we ought to want is tasteless and deranged. If a little boy wants to be a little girl, those who would stand against him using the girls restroom and locker room are opposed to diversity and democracy.

The choice regime will weigh in on the side of the individual’s right to self-creation, and if this is a problem for others–say the little girls who do not want a boy in the restroom–they need to overcome their bigotry and evolve. Those who favor dissolving traditional morality with a regime founded on authenticity and choice may waver as each new frontier comes into view–and there will always be a frontier–but they will evolve just as they did on same-sex marriage, unwed mothers, no-fault divorce and the rest.

Guilt and shame must be dissolved. One can see the process readily in the Anthony Weiner drama. Ordinary common-sense–not to mention principle-based reason–suggests Weiner is something of a fool. His adolescent eagerness to will a contradiction–he wants to indulge his horniness whenever the impulse moves him and he wants to be taken seriously and be given grownup responsibilities. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon offers us help in thinking about this correctly. “Why does it matter?” she asks. “Of course, it probably matters to Huma Abedin, the mother of his child (that is, assuming that they have an agreement of monogamy, and that their definition of monogamy includes refraining from sexting with others)”–that is, if he and his wife have chosen to think that fidelity is important to a marriage. “But why should we care?”

The key to correct thinking is to get the focus off character:

We might tell ourselves that this reveals something relevant about Weiner’s character — his absurd ego or penchant for risk-taking, perhaps. But are these not also qualities that might make him a good politician? Have we not seen similar characteristics in Bill Clinton, John Edwards and so many other talented-but-philandering politicos? I can’t help but think that we are disturbed by his lack of sexual control not because it is relevant to his job but because it reminds us of the ways that we sometimes feel overpowered by sex.

Turn the attention away from Weiner and focus it back on whoever presumes to judge. Weiner did nothing wrong. Mention that John Edwards was “talented” but ignore the thought that he was dishonest, greedy, manipulative and cruel–somehow wasn’t his talent comprised of all his qualities? What are the motives of those who come to judgment, anyway? It’s okay to focus on talent and intelligence–the elite is elite for reasons–but not on character. People who bring up character are probably hypocrites: “We could act indignant about the fact that he hasn’t been forthcoming about aspects of his intimate life. But why not instead be angry that we live in a country that requires him to be dishonest about his struggles with monogamy in order to maintain his career?”

See? It’s not so much that he’s a fool as that he’s a victim–a victim of hypocrisy. And the real point is that if we don’t dissolve the old structures of guilt and shame, none us will escape suffering. Nonjudgmentalism (at least about sex) is a pact–it lets us all off the hook:

Well, let ye who is without embarrassing sexts cast the first stone. (Side-note: I read some of Weiner’s messages out loud to my partner, guffawing after each — until he jogged my memory about a few that I had sent to him in the early days of our relationship and I proceeded to shut the hell up forever on that topic.)

The old way to resolve guilt was through repentance and change. In the choice regime, it is the standard that is seen as the problem. It is forbidden to forbid. It’s a short step from this–dismissing old notions of goodness–to hating goodness itself. A good person restores the standard of judgment–and thus our guilt. People who attack people like Weiner, or Bill Clinton, are the problem. It is they who must be attacked.

To understand character as ordered desire–as the sort of wisdom that will, for example, abstain from a donut in order to preserve health–was not long ago the basis of our culture. The natural man is a tangled flux of disordered desires, living amid the perpetual crisis that surrounds the impulsive and improvident.

Those attracted to realms of truth–ordered desires amid enduring realities–are likely to repair the barn door before the storm, to plant the corn in season, to withdraw savings to handle emergencies, and to sit at peace under his fig tree watching the grandchildren play. It’s not possible for such people to reason with advocates for the choice regime. Their reason works by seeking truth–insights into enduring realities–but in the choice regime, desire is the main truth.

Language is taken as a self-referential performance circling the reality of desire. The discourse of cable talk shows is emblematic of the age. Guests rationalize and justify, frame and reframe, construct and reconstruct–but the goal is creation of a version that might justify a position. It is rarely communion.

Wendell Berry observed that the best way to judge intelligence might be the degree of order that surrounds one. Let’s turn to that insight next.

The Unwinding: an inner history of the new America by George Packer, review

George Packer, author of "The Unwinding"--a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

George Packer, author of “The Unwinding”–a study of ordinary Americans after the financial collapse of 2008.

The Unwinding by George Packer is a work of narrative journalism that is a lament that America resembles a “decadent kleptocracy” rather than a land of opportunity, its institutions and moral order in rapid decline. But it is also a call to action, though the call is embedded in the stories of its three main characters, each of whose world crumbles, and each of whom suffers loss and disillusionment, and each of whom finds a new place to stand, living out a stubborn refusal to be written off.

The stories of three ordinary Americans caught up in convulsive change are carefully reported. We get to know the hopes and dreams and failures of an Ohio factory worker, a political operative in the national arena and a Bible belt tobacco farmer. Their stories are interwoven with narrative portraits of larger players, such as Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Walmart founder Sam Walton, PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, and Colin Powell. The result is a complex and nuanced tapestry showing us a nation in decline–but one that has faced similar trouble in the past and found a new way forward.

From the Prologue:

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line o! history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around I960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

Free ebook on placemaking

Sauna Dam

Building a swimming hole

There’s something–quite a lot, actually–to be said about teaching and placemaking. Wendell Berry commented that the best meaning of work was to make the world a better place, and education broadly understood is a process of worldmaking. Thinking in such ways, I was delighted to find Jay Walljasper’s (former editor of Utne Reader) free ebook: How to Design Our World for Happiness: The commons guide to placemaking, public space, and enjoying a convivial life.

It’s the vision behind Teaching as a Craft of Place and the Heritage Project.

Here’s a sample:

26 Ways to Make Great Places
Have fun while building a better world

1 Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions

2 Notice how many of life’s pleasures exist outside the marketplace—gardening, fishing, conversing, playing music, playing ball, making love, enjoying nature, and more

3 Take time to enjoy what your corner of the world offers (As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.”)

4 Have some fun. The best reason for making great places is that it will enliven all of our lives

5 Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting—even in brief, spontaneous ways.

6 Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can It’s good for the environment, but also for you You make very few friends behind the wheel of your car

7 Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do) Pick up litter Keep an eye on the place Tidy things up Report problems or repair things yourself Initiate improvements

8 Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party Form a community choir, slow food club, Friday night poker game, seasonal festival, or any other excuse for socializing

9 Get out of the house and spend some time on the stoop, the front yard, the street—anywhere you can be a part of the river of life that flows past.

10 Create or designate a “town square” for your neighborhood where folks naturally want to gather—a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner

11 Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure

12 Take matters into your own hands and add a bench to your front yard or transform a vacant lot into a playground

13 Conduct an inventory of local commons. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for celebrating and improving these community assets

14 Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirits even more than crime itself

15 Remember streets belong to everyone, not just automobiles. Drive cautiously and push for traffic calming and other improvements that remind motorists they are not kings of the road

16 Buy from local, independent businesses whenever possible (For more information see American Independent Business Alliance and the Business Alliance for Local Living economies)

17 Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to childcare to vehicles

18 Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your computer.

19 Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.

20 Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call into talk radio, tell your friends

21 Learn from everywhere. What can Copenhagen teach us about bicycles? India about wellness?
Africa about community solidarity? Indigenous nations about the commons itself? What bright ideas could be borrowed from a nearby neighborhood or town?

22 Become a guerrilla gardener, planting flowers and vegetables on neglected land in your neighborhood.

23 Organize a community garden or local farmer’s market

24 Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, wetland, woods, or grasslands

25 Form a study group to explore what can be done to improve your community

26 Think of yourself as a local patriot and share your enthusiasm

Loyalty to family and place?–or to career and calling?

Choice, Part 1

choiceDSCN8976What is most important–to eat food or to fulfill one’s duties? It’s easy to imagine a situation where one is hungry but also obligated to some task that interferes with grabbing a bite to eat, but to pose the dilemma as a simple choice doesn’t help much. The attempt to make a choice more clear by reducing it to simple terms fails. Of course, to live we must eat. But will we die before we get the job done?

A similar sort of confusion through failed simplification often haunts the dilemma of localism versus careerism. Should one remain loyal to one’s family and community or should one pursue one’s personal development and calling? I’m delighted that more people–such as the Porchers–are seeing that such a choice is a real dilemma. Public schools can be quite obtuse in their assumption that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of higher test scores, attendance at better colleges, and success in higher-paying jobs with better benefits. Those who choose to make local loyalties a priority in their lives would do well not to make their case by arguing that education and career success have little value.

We have to judge. It’s our primary work as human beings. The structure of the human mind immersed in time compels us to it. We can only do one thing at a time. So if we decide, for example, to build a canoe, we cannot use the same time to weed a garden. Even more fundamental, we can only think one thought at a time, so while we are struggling to compose a sonnet we cannot use the same time to research a business plan. Since we can’t stop thinking and are free to think whatever we want, what occupies our minds moment by moment represents the most significant judgments we have made.

The progress of modern societies have brought more and more of life into the realm of choice. A person born into a traditional Crow culture in eighteenth century Montana no doubt faced hard choices. The council fires to decide when and where to hunt, how to respond to Blackfeet war parties, and what remedies to try for sickness were no less demanding or complex than today’s cabinet meetings. And then, as now, courage was valued but temptations toward cowardice were plentiful.

But for most Crows, there was only one world—the world of the tribe embedded in Creation. Although they made hard judgments within the story of who they were, they encountered few suggestions that that story was only a choice. It was given, and, for the most part, accepted without question. A Crow born today, like anyone else, will hear the story of Christianity, the story of traditional Crow religion, the story of Bhuddism, but also the story of rock and roll hedonism, the story of economic determinism, the story of humanistic psychology and dozens of others. I met a Crow teenager in Pryor, Montana, who had hung a cross from a chain around his neck under a t-shirt with a picture of the heavy metal band Metallica. Over this he wore a jacket beaded with the emblem of his clan. Quite postmodern–cultures from all times and places jostling together on a shrinking planet. The best definition of modernism might simply be “competing narratives.”

Because we have different versions of reality available, we are not only free to choose, we are forced to choose. Some people face this daunting task by pretending that it doesn’t matter. They reduce fundamental judgments to “lifestyles” as though they are only deciding among the season’s fashion in shoes. We can adopt the libertarian view that all choices are equal, in that they equally represent an individual’s choice. But we know it’s not true. There is something fundamentally better about a wealthy movie star who spends a fortune starting a school for third world children and one who buys and yacht and blows a fortune on cocaine. Drawing lines with precision is difficult, but seeing that there are significant differences is easy. Some cultures build hospitals but some build only cannons. Some create places dominated by terror, some are held in order by law, and a few manage to organize themselves according to the principles of love.

Note that I am now talking about principles. To clarify the choices we face, we need to understand the principles that are in conflict. Principles are ideals. They are the rules not of the world as it is but of a world as we want it to be. The rules of life as Machiavelli tried to derive them from history may suggest that lying and theft sometimes work, in the sense that people sometimes do profit from them. People may indeed choose lying and theft when they advance one’s self-interest. There are many places where such principles are widely adopted governing principles, and we can see quite vividly the sort of world that results. The principles we choose to live by become our vote for the sort of world that humanity is making.

Clarifying principles is vital, but it’s not the end of the work. As an educational matter, it’s the beginning. The hard choices are not between good and evil so often as they are between two goods. Good principles are often in conflict, and in the ongoing work of choice our thinking becomes more complex as as understanding increases. Duty or food? Family or career? The question are less either/or and more when, and to what degree.

The choice that God gave Adam and Eve was to remain in the garden forever, in a sort of innocent stasis, or to eat the fruit that led to knowledge of good and evil–making one more like God, the text says. Mortality and a thousand sorrows were part of the choice, but it was knowledge of good and evil that they chose, and we remain their heirs. It’s not a simple choice. In this world, good and evil are entangled and sometimes inseparable, like wheat and quack grass. It’s also true that evil events bring to pass good consequences–as the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship deepened our understanding of what is needed to realize freedom, brotherhood, and equality. Each of us must do for ourselves our part of that work that began long ago–gaining knowledge of good and evil. It’s a necessary knowledge to any who would be good, which is a stronger and more complex thing than to be innocent.

Irony and multiculturalists and a sense of place

I’m sometimes prone to a quixotic hope that knowing and loving a particular place might be an adequate antidote to modernity. Theories are always simpler than reality, and thus wrong. I’ve played with these thoughts before:

powwow-file0001606276919“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. It’s the Salish name for one’s mother’s mother. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.

How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?

Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–-story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.

One of the ironies of the multiculturalists is that whether one talks to someone advocating a Salish language class on a reservation Montana or activists resisting cultural domination of Islam by the Dutch in the Netherlands, one will encounter similar conceptual machinery leading to parallel categorizations of thought. Multiculturalists around the world share what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls a “clandestine ideology.” This unifying ideology, she says, is “ultimately the mandatory litmus test” that people of any culture must pass to avoid being marginalized.

To be acceptable among the right sort of people,

one must join the call for equal representation for both sexes in all spheres of power. One must consider delinquency to be a result of poverty caused by social injustice. Contemporary man must hate all moral order; he must equate the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, but never equate communism with its gulags. He must a priori be suspicious of profit and financial institutions; he must be suspicious of the virtuous, who invariably must be disguising hypocritical vices even more dangerous than the vices of the depraved. He must hate colonizers, unless they are former victims themselves. On the other hand, our contemporary must legitimize all behaviors and all ways of life. He must call for equality everywhere, and fight for ever greater freedom for ever younger individuals.

She predicts that most people who read the excerpt above “will immediately suspect the author of wanting to defend colonial powers or a strict moral order.” This, Delsol says, is precisely what

shows so clearly that a mandatory way of thinking really does exist, and that contemporary man is unable to distance himself from it. Whoever dares to question it, or to even express a doubt about the validity of this sacred discourse, doubtlessly belongs to the camp of the opponent.

There’s a moral certainty in the ideology of late modernity–an absolutism–that disguises itself in talk of openness and inclusion and tolerance. At bottom it flows from a metaphysical dream that first took its characteristic modern form in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris before the Revolution, amid an intoxicating mixture of philosophy, drugs, food and sex. Amid the feasts of foreign delicacies and the prostitutes, distinctions of rank were obliterated, and hedonistic liberty created an atmosphere of social equality that combined illusion with gratification, making total secular happiness seem within reach. Reality would be reconstructed by intellectuals. The old morality would be dissolved.

Living as we do on this side of the cascading sequence of horrors orchestrated by secular ideology, from the Reign of Terror to Auschwitz to the gulags, we tend to wince and retreat a little when people begin speaking too confidently about their truths.

So we now often encounter moral certainty without truth. Our institutions are staffed with many who know what is right but who are also averse to real argument. Their moral certainty is ofen expressed as derision for those who have the wrong thoughts, and the aversion to discussion of fundamental assumptions appears as a smug distaste for the contentions caused by those who persist in old certainties. Better to maintain the peace–a bland equality without strong positions. Except, of course, for the modernist orthodoxy on which that world is premised.

Most years, I read D’Arcy McNickle’s novel Wind from an Enemy Sky with high schoolers on the Flathead Reservation, where I have always lived. McNickle’s father was Scottish and his mother was Métis, and they arrived on the Reservation in time to be included in the tribal rolls, so McNickle was an enrolled member of a tribe in which he had no actual blood. He did share the cultural experiences of many Salish children, even attended a boarding school for natives. He spent his working life as a Ph.D.-bearing bureaucrat in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. He had a rich experience of cultural pluralism.

He crafted a novel about cultural misunderstandings, one that has no real villain, in the sense of someone intentionally causing harm–but that is nonetheless a tragedy. Those of us who grew up in the same place he grew up might find in its broad cast of characters the sort of dislocations and patterns of misunderstanding that are familiar.

My students and I encounter McNickle in the social context of public schools–in fact, the teaching of native literature is required by the state–that have taken much of their character from modern ideology, including texts such as this:

. . .if allegory is the attempt to move beyond beginnings, creating an abstracted colonial narrative, McNickle shows how this narrative continually fails, as the voice of the colonized continually erupts through it. Turning the colonizer into a corpse, McNickle ironically feeds off his displaced body. Through the ironic portrayal of the colonizers’ naivete, McNickle recontexualizes allegory, making a homeland for it, as well as turning it back as a weapon upon the enemy. It is in this sense that the figure of Washington is perpetually parodied for its ineffective allegories, turning its authority into yet another corpse–the emptied figurehead of colonial control.

I encounter no argument about whether colonial categories provide an adequate approach to this story–just an assumption that “colonilism” is the overarching structure within which we are to make our meanings. I do seem to encounter moral certainty, linked to clear categories. The categories support an enduring guilt–the presence that hovers over us all. The question the author angles up to is how should white people, such as myself, read native literature:

Let me then address the question outright: (how) should whites read indigenous texts? The “how” in this case is parenthetical because the sentence without it has never been adequately addressed. And yet the doubling of the discourse, along with the use of the English language, suggests that Euro-Americans are at least intended to be a partial audience. There is also the fact that native texts are being not only read, but taught, analyzed, and incorporated into an expanding English canon. So the question of “how” Euro-American culture should read these texts seems essential at this point, regardless of the intended audience.

She notes that when whites attempt to read texts written by indigenous writers, they often try to avoid their complicity by looking for native authenticity:

Possibly as a means of assuaging colonial guilt, indigenous literature is often treated with kid gloves–the “it’s not our place to say” mentality of colonial cultures who, while attempting to preserve some kind of native authenticity, simultaneously squat on their territory.

The author argues the Native American novel

serves to “interrogate” Euro-American discourse, rewriting European history in America through the “counter-discursive” practice of allegory. Through D’Arcy McNickle’s text, I have also attempted to reveal how Euro-Americans can read indigenous fiction for these counter-discursive practices. My hope has been that taking a seemingly postmodern trope (allegory) and reinvesting it with post-colonial interrogations might serve to define the genre of the Native American novel, which should be read differently than both the Euro-American novel and native oral tradition.

She cites revisionist historian Patricia Limerick, who said “the frontier only closed when the Indian was turned into an artifact.” In other words,

the representational system used to annex the receding frontier only became closed or complete when Indians were adequately accounted for as artifacts–unable to change or affect the new discourse. In a sense, this closing of the frontier is what has made natives appear safe, though inaccessible, for the first time. The closed nature of colonial discourse, which would turn natives into allegorical figures in a master discourse, or frame native literature in a precolonial moment, has had its day. It is time that the frontier was opened again.

That’s one way to think about what happened here and what McNickle is doing. It does seem, to me, to be a somewhat deadening discourse, hankering after fixed categories of oppressed and oppressor, white and indigenous–the categories with which intellectuals are wont to construe our world.

I’m not sure that those of us who live in such places as McNickle has in mind ever stopped experiencing race as a frontier–fluid and undergoing continuous redefinition and renegotiation. Time–as experienced and thought about for decades at particular places–is a dance within a constant flux of biology and culture–life. The ideological categories of oppressed and oppressor, Indian and white, fail to do justice.

The historian Elliott West once observed that in terms of what actually happened in the American West, the metaphor of marriage seems more useful than that of war and conquest. The rigid categories of war and enemy did arise, but they were less frequent and less sustainable than other modes of intercourse as groups of actual, living people found each other in the American West. The fur traders often took native wives and got on with the business of human commerce. Marriage has been a primary means of cultural survival and continuity.

James Hunter made a fascinating study of all that in Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family. He tells the story of a different Scottish family than McNickle’s–that of the MacDonald family–which today is one of the largest tribal families on the reservation. Members of that family are descended both from medieval warriors who battled for independence from England in the Scottish Highlands and from Nez Perce and Salish warriors who contested with the formidable Blackfeet of the northern plains over access to buffalo country. At the center of that story is the 1842 marriage between Hudson Bay fur trader Angus McDonald and his wife Catherine, a Nez Perce/Iroquois woman.

A friend of mine whose father who was fullblood Kootenai–a man of the twentieth century who made his living as a gypo logger–calls people who think about such things as emptied figureheads of colonial control “college Indians.” What they espouse they found at universities and not in traditional folkways.

A happier way of thinking about what happened here was offered to me by my friend Clarence Woodcock years ago. He was one of the local leaders in preserving and restoring Salish culture on the Flathead Reservation–including the creation of a Salish Culture Committee, to record, publish, teach and sustain traditional culture. Clarence was also a devout Catholic. The singing of Catholic hymns in Salish was a weekly feature of worship at the church in St. Ignatius, when he was alive. I asked him about that once–if he sometimes felt a conflict between his love and teaching of Salish culture and his Catholicism. He said he didn’t. “The cultures are much alike,” he said. “We didn’t know about Jesus, but the rest of it–knowing how to live in good ways–that was here.”

I’m neither Salish nor Catholic, but I think I understood.

The long, slow crisis of the humanities

. . . When God
answers it is not as God would answer if men could
make Him. He stands in the circle around the fire, takes
His turn, tells a story. It isn’t loud. No one
has to believe It.

(“Letter to Reeve from the lobby of the Grand Hyatt”)

lgreatbooksibraryBoth the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and now Harvard have issued reports finding decreases in the number of students choosing majors in the humanities. So now we have the sober discussions. The humanities professors suggest the problem isn’t really that people aren’t taking their classes–it’s that they get less pay, less status and less palatial digs than their colleagues in the sciences.

David Brooks, who makes his living by attracting an audience rather than by claiming a sinecure, speaks more to the point. He says people have turned away from the humanities because humanities professors are no longer very interesting. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he said. The focus is no longer on “truth, beauty, and goodness;” the emphasis is now on “race, class, and gender.” It takes a special sort of person to sign up for classes in political ideology taught by an English professor, and there don’t appear to be many such people.

I know that he’s right, in a general way, though I don’t know with much specificity what goes on in the hundreds of literature classes that are out there. I have hung around the profession of English teachers enough to know that there’s a ferocious sort of intellectualizing about literature, proof texting to support this or that theory, which is often quite political. Scholarly types are fond of the classifying and naming that lead to extensive jargon. They seem less comfortable with the language of communion, which I take to be the heartland of the greatest literature–Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare.

Lee Siegel thinks it will be a good thing when literature is no longer taught at the universities. Literature, he points out, is a relatively new discipline at the college level:

Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

It would be different if the study of literature really was used to cultivate “empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement,” he says, but the reality is quite otherwise. The real work of modernist literature and the professors who teach it is moral subversion. Even worse, he suggests, is the widespread poor teaching that turns the sublime into toil and drudgery.

Great literature remains vital, but it does not need to be taught in a classroom. “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read,” he says. I think he’s moving in the right direction when he turns to the sacred:

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Rosanna Warren acknowledges that the humanities are alive and well in places other than universities, but warns nonetheless that if we do not support the humanities in the universities, we face another dark age:

Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense. The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.

I wish I believed that–that something so important was happening at the academy. But honestly, this strikes me as begging the question. The question, for me, is precisely what it means to be “fully human” and whether the ideas that have come to dominate universities are true enough that that their passing would indeed be a crisis–at least for anyone but the professors. R. V. Young argues that what the various theories that are prevalent in English departments today usually have in common is nihilism. The secular ideologies that have been ascendent throughout my life have no place for modes of being that, by my lights, are central to being fully human. Human beings, I think, in postmodern universities are too often lost in meaninglessness, trying to construct identities out of the flotsam of intellectualized fragmentation. What I’m not sure about is how deep and pervasive those ideas are in actual classrooms.

A couple of months ago, the Bowdoin Report was released by the National Association of Scholars. It tried to compose a picture of what is actually being taught in the humanities.

According to Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield’s assessment of the report, what is actually taught–at least at Bowdoin–is, as Brooks suggested, mostly political correctness:

Topical courses are featured in programs called “Studies,” such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents. But also Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism—long after its demise one would think. The various Studies, but also regular departments, have stimulated other developments in the curriculum—the cross-listing of courses given by one department in another department and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary study. Both have the purpose of making specialty courses seem more general than they are, and both try to endow the idiosyncratic, parochial, even trivial subject-matter of topical courses with the universality of science. The report sums up the Bowdoin curriculum of equal courses as having a certain “flatness” and tending toward “entropy,” where faculty and students share the undemanding practice of self-expression, and the uninterest in teaching of the former joins with the uninterest in learning of the latter.

Political correctness, Mansfield suggests, “with its present-minded exactness, its not quite selfless objectivity, and its esoteric jargon is science for non-scientists.”

I went to the university on the G.I. Bill after Vietnam. I remember well the eros of learning, the hunger for insight that, I was sure, was in those great books. It was there, and what others loved I have loved, and they have taught me how. I would wish for young people today something of the communion that lay at the heart of my university education.

Such communion lies in the direction of the sacred. Northrop Frye characterized literature as “man’s revelation to man”–someone else described it as one person’s inside talking to another person’s inside. It has relatively little to do with the specialized jargon that has grown up around it at the universities–through precise words are useful if they don’t become the point and thus a distraction. To be fully human, as universities seem to understand it, is to be an intellect. Intellectualizing creates a distance that takes us out of the immanent. I hear much talk about critical thinking among English teachers–and while I’m all in favor of critical thinking, literature is about critical thinking in somewhat the way making love is about motor skills.

It’s possible to view and teach Priam’s speech to Achilles in his tent as an illustration of rhetorical technique. That’s quite different from knowing it as a moment of communion–between two souls but also between them both and an order coming into view in the cosmos, a formative power that is prior to and more fundamental than the gods. Priam in his sorrow has learned to see that order, and through the power of the word reveals that order to Achilles, who, thank heaven, is not a deconstructionist. Achilles stands with Priam before a right way to be. It follows that Achilles desires to bring his conduct into harmony with that right way, with things are they really are. Through literature, we can learn what they have learned. Is this what Rosanna Warren has in mind when she talks about learning to be fully human, which for my tribe is to be with others within the immanence of a divine order?

I suspect the university literature experience tends to feel right mainly for people who belong to the same tribe as the professors. How we construe things is something we learn. The Greeks somewhat reconstrued their cosmos in part through centuries of reading Homer, creating a context that made Socrates possible. It wasn’t long ago that many literature teachers viewed their work as part of that construal. Some still do. But for most, Darwin and Freud and Marx have had more influence–and the divine order has been replaced by a universe that has no meaning except what we construct. More recently, thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault have sowed skepticism about any real possibility of communion through the word.

I do think the postmodernists have seen something true about the cosmos, though as through a glass darkly. What we make of the world is shaped by the narrative environment in which our minds took form. The implications of this can lead us to real trouble–we can lose the ability to communicate and to form a world together. Our society can fragment into factions that neither see nor hear one another. James K. A. Smith explores this is some depth, from a Christian point of view, in Imagining the Kingdom.

If we are asked what to do about urban education, for example, a host of emotions drawn from the stories we have experienced will shape our opinion before we even get to thinking about it. We will understand the question, usually, as our tribe ‘s stories have contextualized it.

The situation as perceived already comes loaded (or not) with a call upon me. The call I feel in such a situation, even if it is experienced as “obvious,” can be radically different for someone who has had different affective “training.” So in the case of urban public schools, one person will immediately and “obviously” see the situation as calling for discipline—for policies that are meant to fight the laziness that characterizes the “culture of poverty” while exercising “stewardship” of public resources. Another person will “just see” the dynamics of disenfranchisement and the systemic oppression that generates such an oppression, feeling a call to take up the work of individual empowerment and systemic policy change. Any “facts” will already be seen in light of the affective background each brings to the situation.

Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.

That affective, emotional “background” is also part of the dispositions or tendencies that I bring to such a context. I’m not only primed to see the situation in a certain way, based on this emotional context; I’m also already inclined or disposed to act in a certain way—not as the result of a decision but as a sort of “natural” tendency given the inclinations that I’ve acquired, the habits that already prime me to “lean” in certain directions.

So generating good, just, virtuous action is not merely a matter of disseminating the relevant rules or principles; it is more fundamentally dependent upon training affect—training people to “see situations in the right way.” That, it turns out, requires training their emotions to be primed to take in and evaluate situations well. Our emotional perceptual apparatus (which I’m linking to “the imagination”) is significantly “trained” by narrative.

The crucial issue with teaching literature comes down to what the teachers make of literature. Whether or it matters to us whether literature remains in the schools will be strongly influenced by whether we think professors make of the world and of humans what we make of them. Also, we don’t really know the answer. The reports don’t have that sort of resolution.

The long, slow march of secular ideology through the humanities has coincided with my life of teaching and writing. The nation is more divided now than at any time in my life over fundamental questions. What is true, I think, is that how classrooms repeatedly construe literary texts will, for most students, become the meaning of literature. If, in classroom after classroom, literature is construed as expressions of one’s sex or race or social class or ethnic tribe, students might accurately be said to be on a quite different planet than students who learned in classrooms where literature is experienced as moments of communion between kindred souls amid shared creation.

Do I mean “on quite a different planet” literally or figuratively? No. I mean it holistically, the way I think Christ meant “this is my body.”

A lynch mob is an extreme form of gossip

Communications technologies magnify destructive as well as constructive information

As our power increases, we often need to develop better discipline if we want to avoid self-destructive patterns. As food became more plentiful, people needed to learn to discipline their eating habits better. Obesity replaced starvation as our big problem with food. Increased wealth and power always put greater demands on character.

Our age is notable for dramatic increases in the ease and power of communication, and this is accompanied by a great democratization of communication–by which I mean hierarchical constraints on communication have eroded. The gatekeepers are gone. It was seldom easy to get a story in a national publication, and normally doing so required persuading seasoned and somewhat dispassionate editors who were as concerned about maintaining credibility as about making a splash. Fact checking, adequate sourcing, maintaining a temperate voice, providing enough context and balance to lend perspective–some editors took such things very seriously.

These days, speed tends to matter more, and in any case it’s no longer necessary to get past the gatekeepers. The comments sections of lots of big websites appear unmoderated. They are stuffed with commentary that would never have been published in the print age.

Unfortunately, communication is not an unmitigated good, any more than calories are. Speech can be destructive as well as constructive. Lies and misinformation can make us stupider rather than more intelligent. Our religious traditions warn us to discipline our tongues. Gossip, slander, backbiting, lying and the like are not innocent little hobbies. They are powerfully destructive forces in most societies.

lynch-mobBetween 1889 and 1930, 3,724 people were lynched in the United States (more than 80 percent of them were black). In his study of this phenomena, Arthur R. Raper described the pattern that led to these violent acts: “As the crowd grows and discusses the case, the details inevitably are exaggerated. These exaggerated reports, in turn, further excite the excited people who exaggerated them. After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account. The milling process continues until an inflammatory speech, the hysterical cry of a woman, the repetition of a slogan, the accidental firing of a gun, the waving of a handkerchief, the racing of an automobile engine, the remarks of some bystander, or some other relatively trivial thing, throws the group into a frenzy and sets it on a career of arson, sadistic mutilations, and murder.”

It’s easy to see those same communications patterns in the Zimmerman case, as both men have been vilified by overexcited people eager to feel righteous. A lynch mob is an extreme form of gossip.

The lynchings were stopped, finally, by the imposition of a hierarchical system of justice that “disempowered” the local people, replacing pure democratic action with a system of authoritative constraints. Authorities constrained horizontal communications and forced communications to move vertically, and they customarily required messages to be associated with documentary evidence. We continue moving toward pure democracy, in which there is no law–only the will of the people as it changes from moment to moment, usually due to the persuasion of a charismatic leader.

Among the questions we face now the verdict is in is whether the judicial system was corrupted by mob fervor rather than operating as a constraint. The question we face moving forward is whether mob fervor will corrupt other institutions rather than being constrained by them.

Was the world more beautiful 100 years ago?

Was the world a better place 100 years ago? Glenn Reynolds links to the photographic evidence, but one of the things I enjoy about many films set in the early 20th Century is how beautiful that world seems to be. This includes movies as diverse as the Harry Potter films to the television productions of Downton Abby and Malick’s visually sublime Days of Heaven.

Differences between science and religion

Adam S. Miller follows Bruno Latour in arguing that the field of religion is immanence while the discipline of science is transcendence. According to Latour:

When the debate between science and religion is staged, adjectives are almost exactly reversed: it is of science that one should say that it reaches the invisible world of the beyond, that she is spiritual, miraculous, soul-lifting, uplifting. And it is religion that should be qualified as local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy.

20130715_-moment_2837edMiller says that “where science reveals transcendent objects by correcting for our myopia, religion reveals immanent objects by correcting for our hyperopia.” That’s often correct, in my experience.

I believe it was also Plato’s experience. As told by Plato, Socrates’ “Allegory of the Cave” has always made sense to me as an illustration of how the philosophic intellect works in science. Gravity is invisible to the senses, though its effects can be seen. One can pose experiments and collect data, reorganizing what is seen until gravity becomes visible not to the eye but to the intellect. One can turn one’s vision to the movement of celestial objects, seeing at last the transcendent force that orders the night sky.

But it is when Socrates speaks of his daimon that he is bringing up religion. Of that, he says little, because he cannot through reason make the intimate and immediate experience of his communion available to a public. He leaves little doubt, though, that his truest knowledge is of divine eros and that this knowledge is arrived at through intimate communion. In the Symposium Socrates tells us that he knows nothing but the things of eros. He expands this claim in the Theages, “I always say, you know, that I happen, so to speak, to know nothing except a certain small subject of learning, the things of eros. As regards this subject of learning, I claim to be more clever than any human beings living previously or now.”

A great mystery of Plato is that he is adamant in his Seventh Letter that he has never been explicit in writing about the things about which he is serious. “There is no writing of mine about these things, nor will there ever be,” he said. “For it is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons.” He adds that trying to write about the serious things wouild not be good for people “except for some few who are able to learn by themselves with a little guidance.”

This strange silence has led to great argument about what to make of the “serious things” and Plato’s claims of silence about them. James Rhodes summarizes the story in Eros, Wisdom, and Silence. Schleiermacher claimed that Plato wanted to lead his readers into the foothills of the truth, where they might glimpse the spiritual reality for themselves. Leo Strauss, most notoriously, revived the esoteric arguments that Plato intentionally deceived his readers and kept his profound secrets away from the many. Voegelin suggested that Socratic language respresented “experiences of transcendence” that language could refer to only symbolically. Paul Friedländer argued that the “ineffability of the highest Platonic vision” is symbolized by “the irony of Socratic ignorance.” He says he knows nothing.

The most vivid knowledge, in my experience, occurs through direct perception during periods of intense communion. We can talk about such experiences, but only people who recognize that they have had such experiences themselves take such conversation seriously. Religious practices try to renew such experiences. This is far removed from theology, which is a sort of philosophy–the sort of thing Plato and Socrates did talk about.

The limits of equality: hierarchy and order

In the film Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) speaks to the point: one can believe in equality under the law without believing in equality in all things:

The idea of equality is a toxic elixer for democracies. Envy has always been among the most potent forces operating in human societies, and the characteristic form that envy takes in democracies is an endless vendetta against all forms of inequality.

Louis Markos swims upstream, against an ideological current that has become strong enough to wash away once monumental institutions. Has anyone seen the King of France?

Imagine someone whose ruling ethic was that of egalitarian sameness trying to form a ballet troupe, an academic faculty, or a football team. I can’t say that many of us would be willing to pay to see such a troupe, to enroll in such a university, or to place a bet on such a team. Although the popularity of “reality TV,” the persistence of quota-driven affirmative action initiatives, and the lowering and/or mainstreaming of educational standards suggest, alarmingly, that many in our country would like to see the elimination of any kind of ranking, distinction, or hierarchy, the common-sense pragmatism of our citizenry has thus far prevented us from falling into the black hole of egalitarian mediocrity. We all recognize, in our best, noblest, and least envious moments, that just as we excel our neighbors in certain areas, they excel us in others.

He brings in Plato, a heavy-hitter from the distant past, quoting from Book VIII of The Republic:

Praise and honor in public and private go to rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers. . . .

. . . the father will acquire the habit of imitating his children; he will fear his sons. The sons, in turn, imitate the father, showing their parents neither deference nor fear; this kind of behavior persuades them they are free. Citizen and alien resident also consider each other equals, and with the foreign sojourner it is the same. . . .

. . . teachers fear and flatter their students; for their part, the students feel contempt for their masters and tutors. All in all, the young mimic their elders, competing with them in word and deed. The old respond by descending to the level of youth. Exuding charm and amiability, they mimic the young in turn so that they may not be looked upon as arbitrary or unpleasant. . . .

The outer limits of public liberty are reached . . . when the slaves who have been purchased, male and female, are as free as those who bought them. And I nearly forgot to mention the spirit of liberty and equal rights that governs the relations of the sexes.[2]

At his point, he feels obliged to state the obvious–that in respecting the importance of hierarchical structure Plato was not taking the side of oppression or tyranny. Is that distinction not so obvious it can be assumed? Of course not:

Plato, by pointing out the dangers inherent in any culture that collapses all hierarchical structures, no more advocates the oppression of children, students, foreigners, slaves, and women than does St. Paul when he calls for wives, children, and slaves to respect their husbands, parents, and masters (Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1). Plato’s concern is that once liberty- and equality-mad citizens have created such a radically permissive and distinction-less society that they will willingly and willfully elect strong men to ensure that it continues. These strong men, Plato warns, will make promises to extend the egalitarian holiday by canceling debts and redistributing land, but all the while they will be aggrandizing power for themselves and laying the groundwork for a tyranny.

The sort of equality yearned for by our contemporaries–that we will all have the same material abundance irrespectivie of talent or industry or history, and that none of us will need to submit to the authority of bosses–is a robust fantasy.

I hold with the older view, that when an individual cannot decide a question himself but must submit to a higher authority, he is embedded in a hierarchy. Whether that higher authority is a king or a democratically passed law or the whim of a mob may matter quite a lot for some purposes–social orders may be just or unjust, kind or cruel, wise or foolish–for the purpose of understanding hierarchical structure, it does not matter. A society cannot be nonhierarchical any more than a body cannot not be made up of cells, tissues and organs. If we are part of something larger than ourselves, we are embedded in a hierarchy. One cannot make a friendship, form a partnership, get married, have a baby or start a club without forming a new hierarchy.

So attacks on hierarchy end as attacks on order. They are normally a sucker’s games, if, as is usually the case, the instigator of such attacks intends to gain power or authority–that is, a place above others in a hierarchy–from the attack.

Tearing down a hierarchy leads toward chaos, and the experience of chaos cures most people of the hankering for anarchy since, in practice, social chaos is always a wild competition for enough power to establish a new hierarchy. The French Revolution is one of inexhaustibly interesting examples: a weak king was dethroned by mobs incited by various provocateurs vying for power. A period of instability and bloodshed ensues as various leaders plot against and kill one another until Napoleon accrues sufficent force to orchestrate events and establish himself as dicator.

At no point did French society pass through a truly nonhierarchical phase and at no point did anything an honest person would describe as equality arise, though it was true, as the revolutionaries noted, that the guillotine was marvelously egalitarian in the way it killed rich and poor, noble and peasant. No innocent sent to that institution would have mistaken his plight for the sort of equality the slogan seemed to promise: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

None of this, of course, constitutes a defense of the old French aristocracy. It is true that the Ancien Régime was destroyed, and it’s also true that new versions of privilege and power took form instantly in the carnage.

The American Revolution was imperfect but more successful, at least when liberty is the goal. This is partly because it wasn’t really a revolution so much as a war of independence. There was an established hierarchy before the war which maintained order after the war. The event was less an excercise in leveling a hierarchy than in shifting governing hierarchy’s source of legitimacy. Out with hereditary privilege, justified by a theory of divine right, and in with temporary power bestowed by the consent of the governed. The Americans were playing a better game than the Jacobins–striving not so much for a leveling of society as for a way to permanently bias the machinery of of government toward just principles.

For the Americans, equality was understood as equal dignity before the Lord and equal treatment under the law. The Founders did not expect or desire (though the more prescient did fear) that such equality would come to be understood as the idea that people of different abilities, desires, and conduct would fare the same in this world.