Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I went to a lousy sermon today, but it provided an occasion for rediscovering a sublime one. The bad one was the new film "Religulous" (officially opening at the end of the week; I was sent tickets to this free pre-screening, and brought along a bunch of students), in which comedian Bill Maher has silly conversations with variously silly and stupid religious people, as scenes from movies and popular culture are spliced in wittily; eventually, the fun wears off, and by the end we're getting an explosion of stock images of religious carnage and irrationality, and Maher's insistence that "religion must die if mankind is to live." It doesn't work, since what made the start funny - the raised eyebrows, the obviously cut dialogues and the splicing of variously ironic and tangential images, most of them from fiction - makes the finale seem no more than a trite self-indulgence, another stunt of clever editing but unfunny this time. The danger's real, but this isn't the medium for unironic messages. But what were we expecting "From Larry Charles, the director of 'Borat'"?

But I'm glad I went, because it was screening in a cinema on East 68th Street, and that's just a few blocks from the Frick Collection, which I haven't visited in years. (We had no classes today, because of the Jewish holiday.) Amazing collection, beautiful place! I was entranced again by Bellini's remarkable St Francis, by Holbein's Thomas More, by the Rembrandts and Constables, Veronese and Corot, and the Fragonard room... But what particularly moved me, with a quiet deep joy that could easily have expressed itself in tears, were three religious paintings: Duccio's Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (above; the angels at upper right were added later - the picture works better if you imagine them gone); a nearly surreal Pièta attributed to the circle of the Swiss painter Konrad Witz (right; how the Virgin's robes flow off endlessly at bottom like the infinity of her sorrow, what mute sadness in the figure shrouded in red at right, remarkable landscape...); and Claude Lorrain's nearly Poussinian Sermon on the Mount, which I can only describe as depicting and conveying a sublime peace through the uncharacteristic dark knobby center with its vision of harmony in the circle of Jesus with the disciples, telling them the strange good news that it is the poor who are blessed, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... (On the Frick website you can look closely at each of these: Duccio, Witz and Claude.)

Ludicrous religion may often be, and a menace, too, especially in ignorant contemporary American forms. But that's not the whole story.

Shana Tova!

I was going to apologize for missing the day - it's past midnight, and I only just got home - but when it comes to the Jewish holidays, midnight is of no interest; the day's only just begun! It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, until nightfall tomorrow. So: shana tova (a sweet new year) to you, much needed in a time of such bitter news.

My friends J and A invited a bunch of us over - family, friends, and their wonderful 85-year-old neighbor, though we all feel like family there - and we had all sorts of traditional foods: gefilte fish with beet-horseradish sauce, chopped liver, challah bread, chicken soup, braised brisket (cooked with 5 pounds of onions, we learned!), carrots and potatoes, a salad with a sweet (fig) dressing, and, to top it all off, slices of apple with honey (and, since J's family is Italian as well as Jewish, saba), and a scrumptious honey cake. It was a feast!

At one point, M, cousin of J and enjoying her first rosh hashanah meal, remarked that it was so moving to think of people all around the world gathering to eat these same foods. "I was thinking that too," said Neighbor, who was remembering, also, having these foods as a child in Romania in the 1930s, and who knows what else.

Taste goes deep. There's something at once wonderfully civilized and wonderfully human about celebrating religious holidays with shared food.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dark knight of the soul

Saw a very scary movie today, the summer blockbuster (indeed, the second best grossing film of all time) "The Dark Knight," the latest Batman movie. I avoided seeing it this summer because I heard it was grim and took casual violence to a new extreme. But in the last week it's started to seem like I ought to see it - many of my students have and loved it, and a devastating essay in last week's Times Week in Review by Jonathan Lethem argued that it was the film of this disgraced and hopeless moment in American history. Some critics saw the film as a defense of Bushian toughness on evil; Lethem argues rather that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content."

If you haven't seen fit to see the movie yet, don't. It's every bit as dark as people say, and to no purpose - it's morally confused and compromised and does everything in its power to make the viewer feel compromised too. But read Lethem, who articulates with incendiary precision that the moral compromisedness the film churns in is real, it's not just a summer fling at the cineplex but USA 2008:

In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he’s a fake — and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil. ...

The Joker’s paradox, of course, is the same as that of 9/11 and its long aftermath: audacious transgression ought to call out of us an equal and adamant passion for love of truth and freedom, yet the fear he inspires instead drives us deep into passivity and silence.

... our good faith with ourselves is broken, too, a cost of silencing or at best mumbling the most crucial truths. Among these, pre-eminently, is the fact that torture evaporates our every rational claim to justice, and will likely be the signature national crime of our generation — a matter in which we are, by the very definition of democracy, complicit.

There are some wan gestures toward hope in the movie - notably in a large-scale playing out of the most famous "prisoner's dilemma" - but they get lost in the darkness. Your moral instincts would be blunted by this film just as your eardrums will be brutalized into cowering submission by the deafening rhythms and grinding double base of its soundtrack. Don't see it. Don't seek yourself in it. We're better than this, we know we're capable of better.

Old friends

Went to the Met today to see the big Morandi show - the first such in America. (These pictures are all from the exhibition website.) It was full of old friends - not just paintings I've seen (at an exhibition in Paris in 2002, in books, in Bologna), but the objects he paints, which seem like members of your extended family whom you only get to see on special occasions - the old great aunts and uncles whom you always see as if for the last time, never knowing if they'll be around for the next family reunion. Whenever I happen on a Morandi in a museum, as most recently at the Princeton Art Museum, I'm filled with a surge of inexplicable but pure joy, a sense of coming home. I'd have to be far more articulate on the subject of art than I am to explain just why. But here's the last line of Peter Schjeldahl's review of the exhibition in the New Yorker, which gets something deeply right: The experience of his work is unsharable even, in a way, with oneself, like a word remembered but not remembered, on the tip of the tongue. (Sept 22, 2008, p93)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Worlds within worlds

Had an interesting experience at MoMA last night. My religion-and-film friend S and I went to see Carlos Reygadas' new film, "Silent Light." (Religion-and-film guru Jeff Stout was there too!) It's a film about Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites in northern Mexico - I'm sure I'm not the only person who never knew there were Mennonites in Chihuahua, let alone that they speak an old East Prussian version of low German (but updated to include words like spark plug, dentist and milking machine). So as the film opened in a gorgeous and amazingly slow pan across the stars of the night sky (to the songs of crickets and other night sounds) eventually leading into dawn, it seemed like our world - but really was another.

But this was also a familiar world because, as S whispered to me a bit farther into the film, Leygadas' use of sound, character development, and static camera/framing were like Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu, respectively - three of the stars of her course "Myth and Religion in Film." "Stellet Licht" (its title in Plautdietsch) evokes these great masters in many ways, including its ambition. So while in one way a profound exploration of a foreign form of human life, it was also very much planet cinéma (at one point, we see little blonde Mennonite kids enthralled by an old TV film of Jacques Brel, on show in an American's sinister black-windowed van), and it took me back to the year I spent in Paris going to the movies. This film is at once an extravagantly cinematic expression of a particular director's eye, and a consumately cosmopolitan product - Mexico/Netherlands/France/Germany - like much of what I saw there, and particularly like what I saw at the Cinémas d'Art et Essai, where two categories of films we rarely see around here are front and center: films d'auteur, and films about worlds you don't know. These categories often overlap, as they did last night - it need not be at the expense of ordinary people and their lives that the artist exemplifies the value of unique human experiences.

I'm not going to comment on the movie - it's not perfect, but many of its component parts are nearly so - but let me say that it reminded me of the civic contribution a culture of this kind of cinema achieves. In Paris a few years ago I happened on a booklet published by the Association Française des Cinémas d’Art et Essai in which a Patrick Brouiller explains the - dare I say world-historical - importance of this art form and the institutions which make it possible:

Un engagement fort des collectivités territoriales est indispensable pour défendre et développer un cinéma pluraliste de proximité, en maintenant un tissu vivant de salles indépendentes qui n’acceptent pas le seule loi du marché. Cette action doit perdurer car elle dépasse le seul aspect économique et festif, elle concourt à la formation citoyenne et démocratique des spectateurs. En leur proposant des oeuvres souvent venues d’ailleurs, le cinema reste “la fenêtre ouverte sur le monde” comme l’a dit le critique André Bazin.

What would that kind of "citizen education" do for this country! (You could take a step toward it by simply making Arte available here.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Change in the weather

Brrr - we seem to have jumped from August to October between yesterday morning and this morning. Until yesterday I was tempted to wear sandals. Today I was tempted to get out my wool sweaters!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Signs of life

Had an experience common among students today - I sat through a 90 minute discussion of a book I hadn't read. (At least I didn't participate in the discussion!) The class, you'll be relieved to hear, was the one I'm taking, not one of those I'm teaching, and I have since done the assigned reading. The book is Robert M. Hazen's Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins. It's sort of like what I reconstructed from the discussion...

Did you know that scientists' definitions of life range from "any population of entities which has the properties of multiplication, heredity and variation" to "an expected, collectively self-organized property of catalytic polymers," from "the ability to communicate" to "a flow of energy, matter and information"? NASA's definition, connected to its charge to seek extraterrestrial life, is "a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution." Our author's bemused by all the definitions, and is arguing instead that there are many steps along the way and what's interesting is that each is an example of emergence.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The most difficult topic

Was it a success? What would even count as success here?

I come from an event I helped plan, a discussion with a difference on the freighted topic of race in American elections, an event for the whole first year class and part of a series of events which are supposed to build a sense of community and shared progressive purpose. (The topic of "race and diversity" was a mandate from the dean.)

If it wasn't a success (I'm not sure it wasn't), it wasn't for lack of ambition. The topic of race in American elections was forced on us (I'm not complaining!) by the historic candidacy of Barack Obama, which I think we were right to think merited a public discussion. We were right, also, I think, to try to make the event participatory, and to keep it in-house, with a panel of faculty and students rather than an outside speaker. An outside speaker would have made it so much easier, but would have contributed little. We might all have gone home energized or outraged, but would never have learned what I think we learned tonight (at least I learned it) about the sentiments in our own community, and the value of expressing and exploring them together.

We tried very hard to design an unscripted, open-ended event. Pia Lindman, a New York-based Finnish political artist who was to teach for us this semester, led us in a Soapbox Event, with soap boxes borrowed from a fantastic show on this week in the Park Avenue Armory. (This picture from the Times shows the exhibit; soapboxes are in the middle.) Except that we were in our familiar somewhat outré auditorium (below), the place first year students last gathered as a group to hear the Orientation speech. Part of the challenge was to try to change the students' experience of that space from one where you sit passively and are talked at from the stage to one which you feel empowered to speak in and even reconfigure. So last night not the stage but the aisles between the seats were the platform for expression, and anyone could take a soapbox (Pia's specially designed some for this purpose), put it anywhere they wanted, step up on it, and say something - anything - for a minute. That's the soap box set up; the next person can stand on the same box, or pick up another and go somewhere else with it. One can also give one's minute (and one's box) to another.

My greatest fear was that nobody would come up to speak, but it was quickly dispelled, displaced by another - that students would take this as an occasion to rebel against being preached at. The first speaker rather angrily denounced all those who assume the position of victims. Others said they were sick of talking about race, there are other issues, more important. This of course provoked some students (not only students of color) to argue that we don't talk about race nearly enough, that while it's one of a series of issues for many white students, it's something they have to deal with every minute of their lives. And on and on. This was not going where I thought it would - the soapboxes, and the energy in the room (the students placed their soapboxes deep inside the audience part of the auditorium), were not leading to consensus or even the pretense at it. Instead, we were hearing what students were really thinking, more emphatically than in any other format (though most students said nothing, besides cheering most of the speakers). I was relieved when we transitioned to the second part of the evening, a panel discussion of faculty and students, though I know some present wish we'd canceled it and let the soapbox event play itself out.

What I learned from the centrifugal soapbox discussion was that we can't stop talking about race in America and the Obama campaign because we haven't even really started. We talk about the way the "race card" is played by the opponent, about closet racists who tell pollsters they're going to vote for Obama although their neighbors aren't. We talk about the "historic" and "symbolic" character of Obama's candidacy. But we can't really make much sense beyond that. We can't even agree on whether he's an African-American, black or biracial candidate, and what that means.

Here's what I would have said, had nobody stood up. (I lie: what I would have said would have been something safe, a reminiscence of my first presidential election - also my first year in college - 1984, how disappointed and alienated I felt by the American electorate, and how it wasn't until 1992 that I even believed political change was possible, and how 2004 returned me to 1984 and leaves me ready to give up in heartbroken anger on November 4th if America proves not to be "better than this." What follows is what I should have said, had I said something.)

I support Barack Obama because of what he is, and I worry (and have worried all along) that this is a racist thought. (I also support him because the alternative is terrifying.) I grew up in California, where the language of black and white doesn't really make sense. Native America and Mexico and Asia feel closer than the Old South or the Puritans or Africa. And yet "black and white" names America's greatest problem, its original and besetting sin. If "black and white" can be addressed, then anything can.

But is it what Obama says or what he is? I would be lying if I said it was just what he says, or what he says because of what he is, although I think that he is able to see true hope for America because of (not despite) his experiences as a black person in America, and that that experience gives him a deeper understanding of the promise and perils of democracy than I have (or need to have) as a white person. The audacious hope his candidacy raises, and the abject horror I feel at the possibility that fear and prejudice might prevent him from winning, have something to do with him as a black (or biracial) person. But as I'm saying he has a kind of world-historical significance, I feel I am dehumanizing him. It's not because of his ideas (though his ideas flow from this; I wouldn't support him if looked the same but shared the worldview of the Governor of Alaska) but because I can't imagine a merely human solution to this greatest American problem, or a solution by ideas alone. Racism is sin, not just error.

Just as women are bedeviled by the Janus-faced misogyny of "Madonna/whore," so African Americans are bedeviled by the Janus-faced racism of "saint/animal." Is the magical power I seek in Obama - not his ideas, his blood - not still tied up with all that? I need Obama to win to believe that I can overcome my own internalized racism.

Whew. I didn't have the nerve to say this before or at the Soapbox event, but at least the event got me to try to put it into words, however tortured. Perhaps it had that effect on others, too.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In praise of moderation

In the Secularism class today, I asked students what they think a "moderate" is. I was troubled by a batch of papers in which they had responded to the argument that most religious people are "religious moderates" rather than "extremists" (in Jeffrey Stout's presidential address at AAR last year, "The folly of secularism") by dismissing or ignoring it. As far as they're concerned (I generalize), there is no such thing as a religious moderate - religion is by nature extreme and uncompromising. Unless, a few conceded, it's people who abjure "organized religion" altogether and accept that everything is subjective anyway.

It was an interesting discussion. I started by asking who uses the term "moderates" - well, it turns out moderates do. "Extremists" don't, but then they don't call themselves "extremists" either. What do they call themselves, and the others? The class was stumped, so I proposed purist, fundamentalist, radical on the one hand, and wishy-washy, fence sitter, compromiser, sell-out and hypocrite on the other - and for certain religious types, prideful, taking into your hands what is God's. But really, I was a bit stumped by my own question! How disturbing (but revealing) to realize that we have no safe words for discussing all this.

Next I asked what made a moderate moderate: was it a virtue, a temperament, a political commitment, a way of holding beliefs? The answer I wanted was that it was a virtue (and I proceeded to tell them about Aristotle's idea of virtue as the mean between extremes), but the one I got was that moderates don't want to stand out, don't want to disagree with people, don't want to take sides, are undecided, don't really care. Is there anything positive we can say about a moderate, I asked, any way to describe it in positive terms? The best I got was open-minded, but when I asked what that meant and why one should be open-minded, blanks again.

It was time for a lesson in democracy! We'd talked about temporary coalitions last week, so we already had in play a picture in which people aren't fixed in one spot, but move back and forth in response to the call of their own community of conviction and the needs of the larger community. One student had asked how one could compromise in some cases (even if it is the only way to effect any of the changes one thinks important) without losing sight of one's principles: on what basis did one decide when and how far to move towards coalition? In some cases one's principles might furnish that basis, but not in most, so the compromising must be coming from somewhere else. Once again, the "extremist" position paradoxically came out looking principled and true, courageous and decisive.

With Aristotle's help I tried to argue (trying to convince myself as well) that the better model is of an ethical and political life in which one is always having to balance concerns, always seeking the mean between extremes, always acting in a particular complicated case which requires judgment. From that perspective, it is courageous and decisive to find the mean, and lazy and indecisive (and politically irresponsible) not to.

I could have invoked the cardinal virtues here - fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence - but we were running out of time. So I returned to the question of what makes moderates moderate. Why should they be open to work with those of other views? Is it only for reasons of political expediency? Or is it because of a sense of humility about one's own views - I may be wrong - or a commitment to recognizing the other as a member of the same moral community who cannot be ignored, whom one is not battling over power but pledged to find a way of living with?

I mentioned but didn't dwell on the possibility that many people might have religious reasons for these commitments - that one's religious principles might well push you to seek common ground, listen to the other, try to work for a more perfect union; but that's for another day. We all agreed that this didn't sound like American democracy today (though of course Obama sounds like this sometimes), and I think at least some in the class saw how sad that is, saw that it perhaps need not be that way.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The long term

An old saw suggests, “Education is what remains after you’ve forgotten the facts.” The definition is not profound, but it points to what our story needs to emphasize. For the truth, as all of us know, is that from education at small liberal arts colleges a great deal does remain after students have “forgotten the facts”...

Thus David H. Porter in a contribution to American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 59, Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities (2005), a volume I can easily recommend to you, because it's a free download. Some of the essays, especially Lucie Lapovsky's essay on the economic challenges for liberal arts colleges, are very rich and provocative. (The graph's from her article, illustrating the big difference between the advertised cost of most colleges and what nearly all their students actually pay. Eye-opening!)

Porter's fun too. As a classicist who's been the president of two colleges (Carleton and Skidmore), he has a unique perspective. Classics used to be the bread and butter of liberal arts colleges, but he doesn't mourn it. As a true liberal arts advocate, he doesn't understand his job as replicating himself as a classicist or even an academic, but as opening the minds of his students in various ways. Suppose we took that old saw to heart, he suggests, when we plan a course or a curriculum. Suppose we asked ourselves: what do we want (and what dare we expect) students to remember of it in 5, 10 or 25 years?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Periodic enlightenment

I'm starting - very slowly - to figure out why chemists (at least our chemist, who's teaching the Chemistry of Life course I'm sitting in on) love the Periodic Table of the Elements so. Since our program practices "discovery science" pedagogy, we're having to figure out such things as the significance of rows and columns for ourselves (guided of course by problems, etc.), and that's quite exciting. It does seem to necessitate periodic perplexity, though - necessitate, perhaps, because part of what we're learning is through what stages and incomplete theories chemists came to discover the physical and chemical properties that distinguish the elements: how could Mendeleev have discerned the table before anyone knew how any of the elements were constituted?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Falling in love again

September in New York, among other things, is time for Fall for Dance, one of my favorite festivals. Every night four or five very different dance companies, famous and new, local and international, each present a piece from their repertoire at City Center. It's an always mixed but always mind-expanding experience, introducing forms and traditions of dance you never knew existed... And it's just $10/seat (understandably, they sell out in a flash)! Last night, Shen Wei Dance Arts presented part of a deliciously fluid, by turns wiggly and elegant piece called "Maps"; Pichet Klunchun Dance Company performed a stately classical Thai dance with modern supplement, much of it in silent slow motion; Keigwin + Company had us all laughing our heads off at its irreverent but supremely dancerly moves to Handel, Chopin, Patsi Cline and hiphop; and then the men of the National Ballet of Canada performed Jiri Kilian's 1980 arrangement of Martinu's "Soldiers' Map," a bit heavy and heavy- handed after what came before. Not for everyone, every part of it, but something, one trusts, for everyone, and something new for all! And the audience - mostly amateur dancers and dance afficionados - is electric and electrified. Can't think of a better way of introducing someone to the world of dance.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Our new dean is a novelist, and today he told us he had come to the view that being a dean is like writing a novel. You know you've succeeded as a novelist when your characters stop doing what you tell them to, he said, and no novel whose end you know in advance is worth the writing. It's a humbling experience, and the finishing of a novel always leaves you a better person than you were at the outset.

I'm not sure how to take this. I think it was meant as a gesture of humility and an invitation to write the novel with him, but my first inclination was to recall Kierkegaard's "clerical error" in The Sickness Unto Death who refuses to be corrected rather than accept the author's (in Kierkegaard's case The Author's) plan for him. We're not characters in search of an author ... or are we?

I've never been a novelist, nor a dean, so for all I know they may be more like each other than I can imagine. On the other hand, I have been a character in someone's novel (novella actually - I'll tell you about it someday if the mood seems right), and that experience - while intended as a compliment - felt like a violation. No doubt our dean's the better writer, though!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

True hospitality

"Many immigrants come to New York hoping for hospitality, but end up working in the hospitality industry," where they encounter exploitation rather than welcome. Thus remarked Sekou Siby, the Côte d'Ivoirian co-director of the Restaurant Opportunity Center, an advocacy group for immigrants working in restaurants. "New York's taxis are sweatshops on wheels," said Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, and have become more dangerous for their predominantly South Asian drivers since 9/11. "Take a minute to think of six families I'll tell you about," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, founder and regional director of the New Sanctuary Movement and one-time program director at the Community Center for Tepeyac, describing families divided by deportations; "Memory is already a form of sanctuary."
These were some of the voices at a panel discussion I heard at Union Theological Seminary this evening called "Making Room at the Table: Hospitality and Immigration." The occasion was itself a celebration of hospitality, the Eighth Annual Ramadan Community Iftar & Interfaith Dialogue. An iftar is the traditional fast-breaking at the end of a day of Ramadan, marked by prayer and the eating of a date and followed by a joyous feasting. This is often done in community, and in communities of interreligious dialogue, interfaith iftars are not uncommon.
It was moving to see this celebration used as an occasion to consider the call to hospitality to strangers in so many of the world's faiths, and not just at some airy-fairy level but by bringing together organizers and advocates - many but not all also religously engaged - who work for some of the most vulnerable in our own New York community.

(The texts are apparently those one recites before
breaking the fast, and as one takes the first mouthful.)

Time for the truth

This is what I think Barack Obama should say:

America is suffering from the consequences of a culture of lies. The lies of the McCain campaign, while shocking in their brazenness (as I noted during the RNC, they work as lies - those applauding them know they are lies and are applauding the nerve of the liars), are themselves just more of the same, continuous with the culture of lying which has brought us not only into a war we should never have waged, but into the economic meltdown happening all around us.

I've been trying to understand, as have we all, how the subprime mortgage crisis was allowed to happen. Greed and regulatory neglect are only a part of it. The other part is a culture of lies set by the White House with its own refusal to come clean on fiscal questions (itself undergirded by a more general disdain for the publicly accepted meaning of words). If the nation lives flagrantly beyond its means, why can't/shouldn't the individual household? If the national debt goes up year after year, why should not individual household debt? If American greatness requires and can disregard such debt, why not the happiness of every individual? Greatness was never built on lying to yourself about your resources, or tricking your neighbors into forfeiting theirs.

We're better than this. We know that living beyond our means will eventually catch up with us. Further and more importantly, we know that living beyond our means means living at the expense of others. That is something we cannot morally afford, as individuals or as a nation. We're better than this.

We are living in a culture of lies. Only the truth can set us free.

It won't be easy. But it's what we need. And it's what our neighbors - in this land and around the globe - as well as our children and their children deserve from us.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Le bon David

Seems like I should say something about the widening financial crisis - one we're told is as bad as if not worse than the Great Depression, and yet nobody's using the word "Depression." Hope they know something I don't. While it is sad to see three of Wall Street's big investment banks fold, I suppose, I feel like the earliest mammals when the dinosaurs started to die off: whew. I know it's more complicated than that - predators are an indispensable part of the ecological niche of their prey, right? and investment banks help generate the wealth which, at least in NYC, trickles down occasionally to the rest of us - but it's the thousands and millions of others who will be affected by this meltdown I worry for.

Meanwhile, I have to tell you how much fun I had channeling David Hume, le bon David, in class today (the other class, Theorizing Religion). Students had read the first two-thirds of Hume's magnificent and subversive Natural History of Religion and had not, of course, any idea what he was up to. (How should they? That was 1757 and this is 2008; explaining it is what I'm there for.) It's been a while since I had a chance to hold forth on the early eighteenth century context - something I used to do a lot, back in the day - and it was fun to do it again. And Hume is always fun: he puts the fear of God in students, or do I mean the fear for God? It's the first time many of them have seen a thoroughly naturalistic account of religion, not to mention one which doesn't think religion is a force for good in any way. And what does one do with his tongue-in-cheek demonstrations that polytheists are more virtuous, more valiant, more rational than monotheists? I had a ball. We have one more Hume session, then I get to channel the gushy but inspiring early Romantic response to religion's "cultured despisers" of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Never forget

This evening I had a conversation with someone who just found out this year she's a Holocaust survivor. The 85-year-old neighbor of my friends J and A (with whom I have dinner every Sunday), E grew up in Romania, and survived the war by remarkable pluck and luck, fleeing with her mother from the approaching Germans towards the Ukraine, hiding out in an abandoned cottage, and then fleeing back, when the Germans were set back at Stalingrad. The whole sojourn was made possible by selling, piece by piece, the family silver she had thrown into a pillowcase when they fled - all that was left of the family's wealth when the Soviets invaded in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact. (They also took away her brother and father, who were never heard from again.) The most amazing part of her story was how she got across the border back to Romania with papers she had earlier demanded from a German officer, telling him in unaccented German that she and her mother had been chased from Romania by the Soviets; the paper she got in fact said Kein Grenzübertritt (no border crossing); the Romanian guard at the border could read no German but saw the stamp of the Reich and let them through. They laid low and survived the war - not many other family members did - and eventually made it to Italy and ultimately to the US, where she found a job within a week and worked without interruption for the next 26 years (in her sixth or seventh language). It wasn't until half a year ago, when a volunteer from an organization which visits old Jewish people in the city came by, that she learned she's technically a Holocaust survivor, eligible for various sorts of care.

"Who decided where you would go and when?" my friend A asked about the terrifying overland journeys to Ukraine and back, by road and rail, back and forth and always ready to vanish from sight, always aware they might not survive to the morrow. "Someone," she said, pointing upward - though she's been asking herself why he picked her to survive.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Prayer needed

When Sarah Palin was asked if she'd be John McCain's running mate, I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.

Whatever that means, shouldn't her answer have been: I prayed on it?

If she didn't, we'd better.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Up in the air

Went with my mathematician friend J to see the fascinating exhibition on Buckminster Fuller "Starting with the Universe" at the Whitney. Fascinating stuff, starting with his 3-wheeled car which, already in the 1920s, seated 11 and got 22 miles/gallon, and was more maneuverable than any 4-wheel car... continuing to his ideas in the 1930s for houses built from the top down, everything suspended from a central pole, working with gravity rather than against it... his remarkable map of the world, minimizing distortion and avoiding cutting up any continents... and on and on, through the famous geodesic domes to weird ideas for floating cities - floating on water and Cloud Nine (above), Project for Floating Clouds which are really cities, apparently buoyed just by the heat of the sun warming the air inside. Perhaps because this exhibition was put together in 2008, we were struck by how early Fuller was concerned with sustainable design, minimizing ecological footprint, as well as global interconnections...

Our discussions were interrupted, alas, by a call informing me that our building has been sold (boo hoo!). We have a few months to move (assuming the new owners will want us to move at all) and all sorts of questions arise: Brooklyn again or back to Manhattan? housemate or solo? But coming out of this exhibition my reaction was just to try to find a space where I could build myself one of those neat geodesic houses "Bucky" designed after WW2 for returning servicement and using materials no longer needed for airplanes, no piece weighing 10lbs and the whole building erectable by a single person. Those castles in the air don't really appeal... Anyone know of anything closer to the ground coming available in the next few months?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


In Secularism today we discussed the last chapter of Sam Harris' The End of Faith, where, after 200 pages of arguing that everything based on religious faith is anathema and poison, he suddenly asserts that there is a place for spirituality or mysticism after all - in the Buddhist mode of meditation and analysis of consciousness. Mysticism is a rational enterprise, he argues. Religion is not.

The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. ... Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. ...
While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest concerns. It would also be the end of faith. (221)

Atheists regret this chapter - Harris seems to them to have sold out. One wonders why he insisted on using words like 'spiritual' and 'mystical' or mentioned 'Eastern religions' at all. Why not do what many Buddhist proselytizers of the last century did and argue that Buddhism is the answer because it's not 'religion' or 'spirituality' or 'mysticism' but 'science' and 'rationality'? I guess he wanted to shake up the smug atheists, too, and decided he wouldn't succeed if he merely accused them of being unscientific in their ignorance of non-theistic traditions. He knows them better than I, but my sense is he merely pissed them off without provoking any epiphanies.

Our discussion wound up being about what faith is, and I found myself making a pragmatist sort of suggestion. What is religious faith faith in? Is it faith in beliefs (rational or irrational)? Or is it faith in a person (e.g. credo in deo)? Or is it faith in a method? There's something to be gained from thinking through each of these, but the last is the new one, and adds something interesting to the mix...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A complicated train of thought

In a speech to students, one of my colleagues recently made a rather perplexing observation about the students who wrote the Port Huron Statement (the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS), and participated in the Columbia University takeover of 1968:

the revolutionary idealism of the 60s was made possible, for these young people, by the fact that they had all received classical educations in the 50s; ... in a fascinating way - even though they were about to destroy many of the fundamental institutions and values of their childhood, it was the most conservative and traditional educational values of the 50s that had created such literate, aware, and courageous young people, unafraid of change, disgusted by injustice, who were going to be so successful in destroying the system that created them.

My colleague described this as "a complicated train of thought," which sounds about right. I think he means to commend both radicalism and traditional educational rigor as a means to it, but the language of creating and destroying seems to point in another direction, though I can't say I quite understand what it is.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


In Secularism today we had a vigorous but friendly discussion - not easy, especially when you've been reading texts (by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins et al) intended to provoke extreme reactions. Of course, when students were too quick to criticise the authors for being unnecessarily incendiary it was my job (and pleasure) to make the case for militant atheism. I had the most fun when I was able to show Richard Dawkins' response to a critique I'd had them read by Terry Eagleton. Here's Eagleton on The God Delusion:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. ... What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

Dawkins' response in the paperback edition of The God Delusion is predictable - none of the theologians are open to the possibility that there is no God, and so their elaborations on what Dawkins thinks a demonstrable falsehood are irrelevant. In fact, Eagleton had suggested that the question of the existence of God is not the only or best one here and Dawkins doesn't even hear him, but let him have his fun, especially as it comes in a parody of Eagleton posted by a friend of science who calls himself Pharyngula:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion . . . Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity . . . Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

I'm a fan of Aquinas myself, but it was useful to be reminded that to most people (including many of my students, and most American Christians) the history of Christian thought is obscure and, indeed, irrelevant! The issues raised by Eagleton vs. Dawkins are actually deeply fascinating...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Sans papier

Sent off my passport today to get a new one - the old one expires in four weeks - and feel strangely vulnerable without it. Not that I was planning on going abroad in the next month, but the sense that I couldn't if I wanted is unnerving. Though not as unnerving, or not in the same way, as the new passport will be, which will (God willing) be my trusty travel companion until I'm - yoicks - can't say it - have as many years behind me as there are cards in a standard deck.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


In church today we sang one of my favorite hymns, Dickinson College. I'd always assumed it was the beautiful (if somewhat masochistic) words of St. Francis [but see here] that made it so moving, but there's another thing. I found this out two years ago when a colleague teaching a course called Politics of Music asked me to do a guest lecture on religious music. I told her I'd talk about hymns if that was OK with her (it was), and gave a three-part presentation starting with the importance of hymnals to the Reformation and ending with Evangelical controversies over love-song-to-Jesus like Praise & Worship music, by way of Bach's use of harmony in "Ein feste Burg" and his recycling of secular as sacred music and vice versa. But I also brought students copies of three hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal, including this one. "It's in 5:4," remarked my friend. It is indeed - 5:4, a great rarity in Western music, and unsettling or mysterious because so unfamiliar. In Dave Bruckeck's "Take 5," it's wonky. Here it gives such a sense of the interpenetration of movement and rest, of intimacy, of care, of overflowing feeling...

Smaller than soundbites

Pretty, huh: the conventions ground up to powder and sifted. But does this tell us anything interesting or important? Forget about whole speeches or arguments! Forget even about slogans and one-liners! No need to listen, just send your index-function robot to plough through the texts. Every reference to God is for all intents and purposes the same, or to energy, or to change, or to war? Nonsense. This is one factoid too many.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


Happened on a new word today, new at least to me, and in the latest New Yorker no less:

John McCain needed a deus ex machina. The deus—or rather, in this case, the dea—he found, sprung fully formed from the brow of Rush Limbaugh, is the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. The machina is “the base,” the Christianist conservatives who have come to dominate the Republican Party.

A cursory internet search (I'm not sure how any internet search can fail to be cursory but that's a topic for another day) suggests the word Christianist has been around for a few years, and seems to be constructed on analogy with Islamist, another neologism. If that's right, it means something like "theocratic types who turn Christianity into a dangerous fundamentalist ideology," and is designed to let presumably non-dangerous devotés of the religion distinguish themselves from those they think are perverting their presumably undangerous faith. The term may have been coined to designate Dominionists, but I don't think that's what Hendrik Hertzberg (author of the New Yorker column) has in mind...

I declare

One of my students introduced me to this:


We are deeply concerned about the ability of the United States to confront the many challenges it faces, both at home and abroad. Our concern has been compounded by the failure exhibited by far too many Americans, including influential decision-makers, to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and the integrity of empirical research. This disdain for science is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies.

We are concerned with the resurgence of fundamentalist religions across the nation, and their alliance with political-ideological movements to block science. We are troubled by the persistence of paranormal and occult beliefs, and by the denial of the findings of scientific research. This retreat into mysticism is reinforced by the emergence in universities of “post-modernism,” which undermines the objectivity of science.

These disturbing trends can be illustrated by the push for intelligent design (a new name for creationism) and the insistence that it be taught along with evolution. Some 37 states have considered legislation to mandate this. This is both troubling and puzzling since the hypotheses and theories of evolution are central to modern science. The recent federal court decision in the Dover, Pa., case has set back, but not defeated, these efforts. Moreover, the resilience of anti-evolution movements is supported not only by religious dogmatism but also by the abysmal public ignorance of basic scientific principles. Consider these facts:

  • A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that 64% of Americans are open to the idea of teaching intelligent design or creationism in public schools.
  • Some 42% totally reject evolution or believe that present forms of life existed since the beginning of time.
  • 38% would teach only creationism instead of evolutionary theory.
  • Only 26% agree with the predominant scientific view that life evolved by processes of natural selection without the need for divine intervention.
  • The percentage of individuals who accept the theory of evolution is lower in the United States than in any other developed country, with the exception of Turkey.

Recent polls have illustrated other instances of scientific illiteracy:

  • 20% of Americans think that the Sun revolves about the Earth
  • Only 10% know what radiation is
  • Less than one-third can identify DNA as a key to heredity
  • In the U.S., twelfth grade students scored lower than the average of students in 21 other countries in science and math.

We think that these dismal facts portend a clear and present danger to the role of science in the U.S. In our view it is not enough to teach specific technical subjects—important as that is—but to convey to the public a general understanding of how science works. This requires both some comprehension of the methods of scientific inquiry and an understanding of the scientific outlook. The cultivation of critical thinking is essential not only for science but also for an educated citizenry—especially if democracy is to flourish

Unfortunately, not only do too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books—such as the Bible and the Koran—rather than scientific inquiry, but politicians of all parties encourage and abet this scientific ignorance. It is vital that the public be exposed to the scientific perspective, and this presupposes the separation of church and state and public policies that are based on secular principles, not religious doctrine. Yet government legislators and executives permit religion, instead of empirical, scientifically supported evidence, to shape public policy. Consider:

  • Embryonic stem cell research, which promises to deliver revolutionary therapies, has been needlessly impeded by the misguided claim that the embryo and/or the first division of cells in a petri dish (blastocyst) is the equivalent of a human person. This is rooted in a moral-theological doctrine that has no basis in science.
  • The nation spends hundreds of millions of dollars on faith-based programs of unproven efficacy, including ill-advised abstinence-only programs in such areas as drug abuse prevention and sex education, which are more successful at promoting misinformation than abstinence.
  • Abstinence policies are advocated abroad and promotion of condom use rejected, heedless of the danger of AIDS and of the need for wise policies aimed to restrain rapid population growth.
  • Scientific evidence of global warming is dismissed and the destruction of other species on the planet is ignored, driven by the misguided view that the Earth has been given to the human species as its dominion.

We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home; we cannot hope to convince others that it is wrong to compel women to veil themselves when we deliberately draw a veil over scientific knowledge; we cannot hope to convince others of the follies of sectarianism when we give preferential treatment to religious institutions and practices. A mindset fixed in the Middle Ages cannot possibly hope to meet the challenges of our times.

Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy. This is not an anti-religious viewpoint; it is a scientific viewpoint. To find common ground, we must reason together, and we can do so only if we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy.

For these reasons, we call upon political leaders of all parties:

  • to protect and promote scientific inquiry
  • to base public policy insofar as possible on empirical evidence instead of religious faith
  • to provide an impartial and reliable source of scientific analysis to assist Congress, for example, by reviving the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
  • to maintain a strict separation between church and state and, in particular, not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.

Science and secularism are inextricably linked and both are indispensable if we are to have sound public policies that will promote the common good, not only of Americans but of the global community.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Down to earth

Here's another picture from yesterday's Chemistry of Life class. I'm not sure what the white center is for, or why you'd want to make it seem that the earth had somehow come full circle with the arrival of us - Doomsday clock, anyone? - but I'm confusing messenger and message. The relevant point is that there has been life of some kind - the skinny purple arc - for about most of the history of the planet.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

One second in

Have I mentioned that I'm taking a chemistry class this semester? Better late than never. (I never had chemistry in high school or college.) So I'm sitting in on my colleague and friend B's course "Chemistry of Life," an intro to chemistry for liberal arts students. Very exciting. Today we got an overview of the players in the emergence of life on earth, starting at the very beginning, with lots of pretty powerpoint slides and websites. Here's a picture from a NOVA website, "1 second after the big bang."
Technically today was the second class, but the first was taken up with surveys - three! - which B had students fill in so she could determine where we were at, as well as our general knowledge and attitude regarding science. (It can't be an easy job teaching chemistry at a liberal arts college!) I imagine I was the first person to answer the question Why are you interested in chemistry? this way: "Because physics seems to me like philosophy and biology like history, and my own work tries to bridge philosophy and history." Bet she had a good laugh!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

More of the same

Maybe we'd all be better off if the political conventions weren't televised. I watched Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin at the RNC tonight and it just made me sick to my stomach. You can't complain that they were meanspirited and misleading (though I suppose one could object to known and knowing falsehoods), because their purpose is simply to rally the crowd, to demonize their opponent and to glorify their candidate. Perhaps sports teams prepare for a match by swapping slanderous and obviously trumped-up stories about the opposing team, but I'd rather not hear them do it. The conventions with their faceless mobs of delegates cheering at every other word, roaring like drunkards and chanting like hooligans seem like a knowing parody of true political exchange, where discussion is open and applause must be earned not by wit or the repetition of the same old slogans or names but by argument. Nothing is exchanged here. Nobody's listening critically - that's not the point.

Now it's true I was inspired by some of the DNC speeches I heard (not Barack's, which didn't soar). But I'm aware, especially as I try to wipe off the grime of Giuliani's snideness and Palin's knowing distortions, that part of what got to me was the political performance, the implied sense that these speeches deserved to be interrupted by applause and delirious chanting. For the DNC I was willing to be taken in, taken in by the collective élan and the illusion of a world in which questions have clear answers and everyone who matters agrees - and there's the problem. I wanted to be a face in that crowd, wanted to let the speakers (some of them) put their words in my mouth.

In place of thought: slogans. In place of actually making up your mind and taking responsibility for a view: chants as at a sports game. Yes we can, drill baby drill, o-ba-ma o-ba-ma, yooessay, sa-rah sa-rah. If this is necessary to gear people up for the months ahead, so be it. But don't let anyone else see it, and don't pretend it's democracy in action!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Good morning blue, blue how do you do?

Ah, life at an underfunded institution. Imagine: your class's first meeting is in a room without windows. And the lights don't work! So your only source of light, besides what comes in from propping the door open, is the blue screen of the (malfunctioning) media system.

Not the most auspicious setting for starting a class, you might think! But the sheer absurdity of it gives me hope. If the lights are fixed by Thursday (or even if not: I'm bringing candles just in case!), it'll be fun to look back on as a class: We started in the wild blue yonder!

Monday, September 01, 2008


Labor Day in New York, especially in Brooklyn, is the West Indian American Day Parade, the city's biggest. It's certainly got the biggest one-person floats you'll ever see!

The trouble she's seen

As Hurricane Gustav threatens to bring a repeat of the horror of Katrina almost exactly three years ago, I went to see the newly released documentary "Trouble the Water" with my friend L. Powerful stuff. Two film-makers in New Orleans making a documentary on the Louisiana National Guard were approached by Kimberly Roberts, a woman who had filmed Hurricane Katrina with a camcorder from her house in the flooded Ninth Ward: would they like to see the footage? Kim Roberts and her husband Scott are fascinating people, and the film weaves her footage into a larger documentary on their experiences of disaster and abandonment and survival as they leave the city (they couldn't afford to evacuate before the storm hit) and eventually return (they couldn't afford to start a new life in Memphis).

I wasn't sure what to say about the film beyond that it's very powerful until L and I paused to read Manohla Dargis' review from the New York Times which was displayed on an easel in front of the IFC. What Dargis said was entirely wrong - commenting on Kim's being "larger than life" and eventually concluding that she's an artiste on the make. She is full of life, and an artist, yes, but the film isn't (nor was her own documentary work) about her, let alone about her as an exceptional person. We see what she filmed, but it was of her and her husband helping various neighbors and family, being helped by others, surviving with grace and a lot of faith - and nothing in the film implies that the same thing wasn't going on all over the Lower Ninth Ward.

Here's the other thing Dargis got wrong. She observes: "Ms. Roberts ... often puts her faith in God but tends to take matters into her own capable hands." As if these two things are distinct and indeed constrast! "Putting her faith in God, Ms. Roberts takes matters into her own capable hands" would be closer to true, and the film is worth seeing already as a remarkable picture of how that plays out. As one of my regular web haunts puts it, Dargis doesn't "get religion," part of the whole culture of care (however otherwise devastated by poverty) of the poor New Orleans neighborhoods decimated by Katrina overlooked in a review that's interested in exceptional individuals.

Now 2 million have evacuated as Gustav approaches. (This time the city has provided assistance for those who don't have cars.) Let's pray that it does little damage.