Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back in business

From this morning's first official session of Religion in Dialogue.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Elevated discussion

Thinking about images I might use for my "Religion in Dialogue" syllabus, I remembered the galleries of commentators and discussants atop the remarkable winged altar (c. 1465) in the Reglerkirche in Erfurt; the fact that the altar may have been commissioned by Nicholas of Cusa only made it better. But finding images isn't always that easy. The two above are from a booklet I bought there, but lose the vividness of the colors and, especially, the gilt background. This picture, which I took on a grey day in June of 2005, gives a better sense of the colors. 24 figuresdiscuss the Passion and Pentecost scenes behind an elegant architectural curtain below them, above them 16 angels! (And this is only one layer of the altar. In ordinary time the wings shut, leaving paintings of a dozen saints. The festal center contains carved and gilded scenes from the life of Mary - who stands above the alter, too - and St. Catherine.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Instead of commenting on Glenn Beck's wicked antics at the Lincoln Memorial today, let me tell you about a gigantic zucchini I found in my garden plot. It's so big I didn't see it at first - weighed in at 2.5 lbs! It's as big as a bottle of wine, and a beautiful dark green. Or was, until half of it got sliced into paper-thin disks and sautéd (delicious with lemon juice and pepper) and the other half was rendered into zucchini bread.

Friday, August 27, 2010


We're getting a new university president, David E. Van Zandt! This perhaps unwittingly sly picture attends the Times article on it. Does he know what's coming crashing down on him, come January 1st? (Us!!!)

How to respond to reaction

The storm over the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan - misdescribed as the "Ground Zero Mosque" as it's neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque - grows and grows. Cynically whipped up for political reasons (when originally proposed the center was welcomed, even on Fox), the hysteria plays on people's traumas, fears and ignorance. Responses decrying Islamophobia play into the hands of reaction. It's horrifying to watch, and to imagine the rest of the world, especially the Islamic world, watching. It has already produced violence. But how should one react?

Last Sunday, opponents of Park 51 opponents gathered and got into shouting matches with a smaller group of supporters. The better organized opponents get all the press. So how about a countermarch, supported by religious and human rights organizations from around the city, who walk to houses of worship of all kinds in that neighborhood en route to Park 51, carrying only American flags?

This is really happening, the Liberty Walk: Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom. I plan to be part of it. But it's been interesting to see the discussion at my church about whether we should join the long list of official sponsors. Definitely, say some. -- The project is going ahead anyway, says another, so wouldn't we be better off hoping the controversy fades away? -- Silence feeds violence, retorts someone. -- Wouldn't joining a shouting match make it more likely to get out of control? -- Out of control has already happened: the taxi attack. --

In the end, I think we're letting our Social and Economic Justice Committee represent the parish, but it's been interesting to see how hard it is to have a measured discussion. The discussion has already been made ugly by politicization. But part of it is also that a bunch of quite different issues, all of them difficult, are bundled together here, from issues of religious freedom to American views of Islam to the legacy of 9/11 to New York City's complicated relationship with the rest of the country. Let me try to look at them one by one.

The religious freedom issue seems the easiest to understand, and is a value everyone at least professes to support. Even Evangelicals understand religious liberty to be central to what America is about. But some - notably the despicably opportunistic Newt - are spreading the idea that Islam is incompatible with American values tout court, that it's a clash of civilizations. It's us (US!) vs. them, and since they don't play nice...

In the background are ideas of America as a Christian (or "Judeo-Christian") country to which Islam is by definition foreign. The "by definition" stuff is of course bunk. Definitions (as I often tell students) are ways of trying to shut discussion down; human values and institutions are made and remade all the time, they aren't and can't be as fixed as "definitions" demand. Islam hasn't been a recognized part of American culture for very long - but then, it took until at least World War 2 for Judaism to be recognized in this way, and possibly as late as the election of John F. Kennedy for Catholicism to be. We've always been a more religiously plural place than we quite realize. Even now, interfaith and ecumenical ideas (like those behind our rally), commendable though they are, don't really plumb the depths of religious difference. Most of us probably buy into some version of Karen Armstrong's wishful idea that at root all religions are about the same thing, compassion.

In any case, most Americans don't know how to think about Islam. Why should they? We don't teach anything about religion in our public schools, and the media are an echo chamber for opinions which sell advertising. And our politicians?! A big part of what's going on is simple ignorance. Calling it "Islamophobia" is reckless and imprecise. On the other hand - and this is a touchy subject - there is surely Christian suspicion of Islam out there. Buddhism is easier for Christians to welcome, since it seems different enough from Christianity that it doesn't really seem like a real rival.

Islam relativizes Christianity. It coopts and claims to complete Christianity in something like the way Christianity has coopted and claimed to complete Judaism. The rivalry is a big part of the history of the tradition. I'm not making any "by definition" claims here. But it should be recognized that it's a lot harder for monotheisms to just be friends - not because monotheisms are inherently intolerant (though that might be true, too) but because the Abrahamic faiths are kin. It's wonderful when siblings become friends, but it's certainly not automatic. Not just political but theological work is required if these siblings are to get along. It's worthwhile work, but tough. America seems like a promising place for it. But even here, the work has barely begun.

Well, more work has been done in New York City than in much of the rest of the country. We live with religious diversity. We also live with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. We know that people of all nationalities and religions were killed in the WTC, and those who were here on that terrible day (I wasn't) experienced a sense of profound solidarity with fellow New Yorkers which relativized all differences, and strengthened our more cosmopolitan patriotism. We also know that an unjust war was opportunistically started because of 9/11, which has led to the deaths of untold thousands of Muslims.

Perhaps as importantly (and less glamorously) we know that the WTC site is a big hole, its ruins moved to Fresh Kills and much of its iron sold as scrap to China. It continues to be a site of tedious bickering, various plans for rebuilding and memorialization butting heads in ever new constellations. Whatever one's hopes for the site, I'm sure everyone wishes we'd just get on with it.

For much of the rest of America, the situation is clearly different. The site still looks as it does in this cartoon by Glenn McCoy, the token conservative political cartoonist featured on the cartoon page of the New York Times. The man speaking is Rauf, the founder of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center, but you'll notice he doesn't speak with an accent - unless it's a New York one. McCoy's cartoon shows that for much of the rest of the country, nothing's changed at Ground Zero. The nightmare landscape of twisted metal is still there. It's a moment suspended outside time.

This is worth taking seriously. I've noticed that many of the objections to the proposed center are couched in religious terms. Not Christian terms but more broadly religious ones: the World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground," we hear. It is "sacred." What can this mean? The first thing to say is that many religious traditions congregate around places that are made "sacred" by extraordinary, often traumatic events. Many religious centers are located where the often dismembered bodies of saints and martyrs lie. Every Catholic church has a relic of a saint, for instance. Most of the sites sacred to the Sufism professed by Imam Rauf are tombs. From a History of Religions perspective, Ground Zero has the potential to be a religious site.

But there's more. New York City has to some extent been able to assimilate the 9/11 attacks into our understanding of history and geography and politics. But not so much of the rest of the nation. And that has to do with things like the unprecedentedness and the scale of the even - and its abstractness. I forget who wrote about this, but most Americans encountered death in its most abstract form at 9/11. The dimensions of the attack boggled the mind, entirely transcending the scale of the human body. And there were no bodies. (The closest one could come, the images of people jumping, were quickly suppressed. For those who saw the jumpers, the bodies are still in the air. For everyone else, the bodies are everywhere and nowhere.) There has been no ritual closure, no healing.

All of these things are coming together around the Park51 project. It's hard to believe they will be patiently parsed, that differences won't be construed as "insensitivity" and "prejudice," and that pundits won't (in the words of Jon Stewart) see in "insensitivity" an "incensitunity." What can the rest of us do? There's lots of work to be done, in understanding the different positions on religion, Islam in America, 9/11. Let's begin.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

First personal

Just finished William Dalrymple's Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. It was on my pile of new books but made its way to the top when he wrote that editorial about endangered Sufism. I was a bit snarky about the editorial, valuable though it is, because my past experience with Dalrymple - a number of friends recommended his City of Djinns when I went to Delhi - was of a well-researched and gifted writer occasionally given to superciliousness. On several occasions in Djinns, I thought he was unkind to the people he described, presenting them as figures of fun, describing conversations which didn't sound believable at all. My first reaction to Nine Lives was similar - the first-person accounts he quotes of the lives of a Jain nun, a Dalit who dances possessed by gods for a few months each year, etc. just didn't sound like what these people (or anyone) would tell. But then it didn't matter. I found I trusted Dalrymple, and was grateful to him for letting these people speak. There's no question that Dalrymple's an expert teller of stories, and that his nine profiles add up to a rich and complicated whole. (By the end you have a sense of the whoe subcontinent.) But he also really does let these people speak for themselves. An example at right, from the profile of a Chola bronze idol maker. Does he feel pride when he sees one of his statues being worshipped? Reea on! Dalrymple's found a way of acknow- ledging and even honoring the messiness of the religious reality of India. It makes for a splendid book for under- standing India - and for under- standing religion, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why this here?

Had a first meeting with my first year advisees this morning. I decided to follow up on the orientation speech they heard Monday, which put Lang in the context of the long and colorful history of higher education in the US. The speaker emphasized how the content, mission and constituencies of colleges have changed over time, and how Lang brings together many of the most valuable. My questions, bringing it home (and introducing my inconvenient-facts pedagogy!) were buttressed by devil's advocate arguments for more conventional schools:

Why go to college, why liberal arts? Is it to better lead society well - our speaker told us that Thomas Jefferson intended his University of Virginia to cultivate a "natural aristocracy" - or to develop yourself, in a career, as a citizen, as an individual?

Why go to college in a city? We'd learned that most institutions of higher learning are quite deliberately located far from the corruptions and distractions of cities, and there's something to that. Shouldn't college be a step out of the hurly burly of everyday life, allowing for more sustained and disinterested reflection? On the other hand, perhaps the reality-checks of a city can give you better and longer-lasting academic insights and commitments.

Why go to a seminar college? Lectures convey more information, and give students a more secure connection to expert knowledge. Seminars offer something else, and demand a more engaged learning, but still: most of the voices you hear will know little more than you do. Why is this worth while? I made the radical democratic assumptions of it clear in as bald a way as I could...

...and look forward to continuing the discussion as we explore the delights, disappointments and discipline of dialogue.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Small worlds

One of my colleagues, on hearing that I'd been to Disneyland and enjoyed it, suggested I read the chapter on Disneyland in John M. Findlay's Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940 (University of California, 1992). It's fascinating! Disneyland, now widely understood to be a Midwest-inspired response to the sprawl of Los Angeles, was originally intended as a Western response to urban malaise associated with Northeastern cities, the anti-Coney Island. (Anaheim was just orange orchards when Disneyland arrived in 1954.) It was indeed to be an uplifting experience, reconnecting weary cynical modern people with their better natures - not an escape from reality but a ticket to a truer reality, the realities of forms of human happiness obscured by the present. It was a great a success from the get-go:
How did they produce this "Disney Realism"? Findlay argues it could only have happened in Southern California, building on Hollywood. Originally conceived as a park for employees next to Disney films' studio in Burbank, Disneyland was a three-dimensional film experience, which guests moved through like a movie:

One technique they used was that of scaling down the size of the park and its various features. Disneyland seemed a cozy and friendly place, particularly to children, because it was somewhat less than life-size. The trains running around the park on narrow-gauge track, the horseless carriages on Main Street, and the Mark Twain paddle-wheel steamboat were all built at approximately five-eighths scale. Designers also used the technique of forced perspective… Stores and offices along Main Street U. S. A. were scaled at about 90 percent of full size on the first floor, 80 percent on the second floor, and 60 to 70 percent on the third floor. The overall effect of the built environment was impressive but not intimidating. (68-69; quote above, 90; pics, 90 and 72.)

I was struck, reading all this, by how close our experience even in 2010 was to the original hopes for the place - they do what they do so well, and part of the pleasure is noticing this! But it gave me a little thrill to learn that It's A Small World originated on the East Coast - developed by Disney, yes, but for Pepsi for the New York World's Fair in 1964-65 (109).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brief window

The streetscape of New York is never static. And as one building gives way to another, it opens a brief window where you can see across space once and in future again filled. One such window - that where the Catholic Center at NYU used to be - has started to close after more than a year. Catch it while you can - here viewed from Fifth Avenue above the Park. (Actually, much of what you see around it is new, from the new fountain in Washington Square Park to the new building, one of the new World Trade Center towers, behind it.)

The new students have arrived!

It's the end of summer: 25 lbs of roma tomatoes from the farmer's market. Now what do I do with them? How much sauce can one make?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't ask don't tell?

As part of a diversity awareness session during Friday's seminar fellow training, we were shown some clips from CNN's recent repetition of the Kenneth and Mamie Clark's famous "doll test." The Clarks had shown black and white dolls to black and white children, and asked which was the good child, the smart child, the beautiful child, etc. Black as well as white children picked the white doll for the positives, the black doll for negative things. (The study played a significant part in the arguments leading to the Supreme Court's overturning of school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.) How far have we come since 1955?

Not far, if the CNN study is to be believed. Children from two age groups were presented with an array of cartoon children, and asked the same sorts of questions. Consistently, little white hands pointed to the darkest children when asked "which one is the bad child?" "which one is the mean child?" and to the lighter ones when asked for the "good child," "nice child" and "pretty child." It's painful to watch.

But is the CNN study to be believed? Some of the Seminar Fellows raised questions about the methodology of the study. Isn't the very way the questions are framed forcing kids to make connections of a kind they might never have made before? Isn't it likely in any case that they are just pointing where they think the grown-up questioner wants them to point? (One of the questions, significantly, is "What kind of child do grown-ups like best?") Well yes, surely. And yet that can't account for the consistency of responses. In different kinds of households and across the country, children are still getting the same message that white is better, more attractive, smarter, nicer than black from somewhere.

The films of the children's responses were shown to their parents, who were horrified. (Why would anyone let their children, or their own reactions, be broadcast on national television?) I was horrified too, though not as surprised as at least some of the Seminar Fellows. I agree that asking kids to line up contraries (nice:mean as white:black or black:white?) forces them to essentialize where they might not otherwise have. But as long as our society thinks of race in essentialist terms - as a contrary of black and white - it's available for alignment with other contraries. And as feminist historians have shown it's naive to suppose that all common contraries don't end up aligned, and in consistent ways.

Now the CNN study didn't just present a white baby doll and a black baby doll, but a veritable color scale of cartoon children. And children didn't always choose the cartoon children on the ends. "Bad" tended to be the fifth one but "mean" the fourth; the second child seemed to be picked as often as the first for various positive things. One older girl pointed to all of the children when asked who was prettiest. And one child picked the middle cartoon child for "good." Significant? The actual results - not just the scenes included in the TV report - give a rather more complex picture.

I wondered if children would have answered differently if the cartoon children had not been lined up on a color scale (a grid of four might be different, no?), and was annoyed that the fast pacing of the CNN report suggested that none of the children hesitated in answering. Not that I think the results would have been that different, as some of the Seminar Fellows seemed to: posing the questions differently ("is one of these the nice one?" rather than "which one is the nice one?") might have generated different responses, one said. What does it really prove if impressionable children, prompted to make racist statements, make racist statements? Wouldn't it be better not to ask self-fulfilling questions in the first place?

The issues raised - both about persistent bias in the larger culture, and about the methods and results of different ways of approaching it - are important ones for our group. Some of the students objected to an approach to diversity fixed on race and class, and we'll work out ways to bring in more (including one relatively new to me: cis/transsexual). But I suspect the culturally ingrained dichotomies remain structural, even where the image of "diversity" is a happy mosaic, not a race lineup.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Giving way

There's an interesting little essay by Judith Warner about what she calls the "charitable-giving divide" in this weekend's Times Magazine. In case you didn't know, the poor are more generous than the rich:

In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent.

The context for Warner's essay is the question of renewing the Bush era tax cuts (which largely favored the wealthy), ongoing discussion about the inheritance tax, and the publicity boost for philanthropy produced by the Buffett-Gates billionaires' club. But there's nothing new about the giving divide; we've known about it for a while. Little surprise, too, to learn that wealthy giving tends to be itemized for maximum tax write-off, and is more likely to go to cultural and educational institutions which add to the donors' status among their peers.

Warner surveys some proffered explanations - wealth seems to reduce empathy, while people of more limited means are more likely to feel "there but for the grace of God go I." Yet it's a complex and cultural thing, involving perception as much as reality:

[Researcher Paul K.] Piff found that if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared. And fascinatingly, the inverse was true as well: when lower-income people were led to think of themselves as upper class, they actually became less altruistic.

I'm tempted to speculate that part of what's at work here is that wealth is a fantasy of autonomy - a fantasy because, of course, the wealthy are dependent on social and political arrangements, too. It makes sense for people to want to be autonomous - dependent on noone - especially in the uncertainty of contemporary America. Yet the reality surely is that such autonomy must inevitably be impossible and illusory for the vast majority of people in any society, and is thus a socially corrosive ideal.

Warner doesn't mention the role that religion and politics play in all this. As it happens, religiously observant people and Republicans are more charitable than skeptics and Democrats - one of those "inconvenient facts" it delights a Weberian pedagogue's heart to share. This was described in Arthur C. Brooks' 2006 book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books), a book which seems not to have been reviewed in the Times. (I learned about it from Books & Culture.) Of course poor religious folk still give more than rich ones, and religious Democrats give as much as religious Republicans. And Democrats give in other ways - they're more willing to pay higher taxes to provide social services for the needy, for one thing. But still: it changes things to know who actually walks the walk, and why.

A better understanding of giving would have to take into account culture, religion and politics as well as wealth. But if your concern is that social needs be met, it may be looking at the wrong end of things to focus on giving, let alone to pin your hope on it. It seems pretty clear that you'll need progressive taxation. (Notice that the generous billionaires aren't giving their money to the public sphere.) As long as ours is a society which values fantasies of autonomy, private giving cannot be relied on to support the needy.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Do you ever find yourself saying
"I love what I do"?

I did, this afternoon, as I walked from the Seminar Fellows training (what a great group of students!) back to my office, passing wide-eyed new students and their quietly hysterical parents, and felt the university pulling itself together for a new academic year, all on a beautiful late summer afternoon in Greenwich Village...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Early birds

It felt über-virtuous to be sitting in a conference room all day today facilitating the training of this year's Seminar Fellows, the peer advisers who conduct our First Year Workshops. The new academic year doesn't begin until August 30th (itself oddly early - usually we don't start until the day after Labor Day)! Yet here we were, not just a week early - Orientation is next week, though only new students, staff and a few faculty are there for it - but almost a week before that. But there's not really any other reasonable time the training could take place; at least I've compressed what used to be a 4-5 day process into 2. It's overwhelming but in its way exciting, just far enough outside the academic year for the Seminar Fellows to get a sense of the university as a whole, and their privileged place as mentors and guides charged with showing new students how to navigate this strange new world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New York has sunsets too...

Beyond religious monoliths

Interesting Op-Ed piece in today's Times by William Dalrymple, historian of India, on Sufism - the mystical, ecumenical form of Islam of the would-be developer of Cordoba House. Sufism, Dalrymple argues, is the West's best ally in the fight against Islamic radicalism - or would be, if we were able to stop seeing the Muslim world monolithically.

Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

I hope it gains a wide reading (and not just because we're putting on a course on Sufism and its Critics next Spring, taught by a scholar forced to flee Iran because Sufism is non grata there). We need to learn to see beyond Sunni/Shia, just as we need to learn to see the majority of the Muslim world that isn't in the Middle East but in South Asia (where Sufism thrives) and Southeast Asia. But the essay is also an object lesson in the difficulty of avoiding religious stereotypes, even among the best intentioned. See how this paragraph soars above religious ideologies only to come crashing down into one of the most insidious:

The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque, church, synagogue or temple, but the striving to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart: that we all can find paradise within us, if we know where to look. In some ways Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to the city

These spaghetti rigati from tonight's dinner remind me of the Manhattan skyline. Well, sort of - indirectly by way of these cacti you might remember from 2 months ago...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Uncle's legocy

I've started making a book of images of things we've been doing with my nephews - rendered in our 30-year-old Lego and inspired by the Brick Testament and Christoph Niemann. Just so you know, the story is narrated by Tim the Panda. His special friends are Duck and Stop the Dog - you'll know him when you see him. Also in evidence are the animal familiars of my nephews: Sleek - a panther who wears a striped body suit - and Manatee (a manatee). All but Stop and Duck are modeled from life. Some highlights:

We didn't actually go to Duck's farm, but we did go to the Del Mar Farmer's Market, where we got yummy oranges, strawberries, raspberries, almonds, kyoho grapes and flowers - and some delicious fresh corn.

We really did go to the amazingly extensive San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park, which was a big hit all around. I was really taken with the idea of making a model of a model...

Speaking of imitating imitations, the whole crew also went to Disneyland - here they are in the Astro Orbiter rockets. I was also possessed (doubtless by one of the cute domesticated gods of the swingin' "Hawaiian War Chant") to attempt a recreation of the Enchanted Tiki Room (available on request).

And this one's largely true. Monopoly - actually a spin-off called San Diegopoly - was played (if not officially by animals) and the boys did take their bath together.

Oh, and the scene at the top? Tim didn't really take my nephew T's plane for a spin, despite not knowing how to fly, but we did admire a red sun going down over the Pacific...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fun with the boys. (Lego meets Calder.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sisterly song

From the Japanese-American Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. San Diego's sister city in Japan is Yokohama.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cordoba Center

This is the vision behind the 92nd Street Y-inspired Cordoba Center (or Park51), which Newt Gingrich and others seem to think will be a sleeper madrassa for anti-modern, anti-democratic Islamists. Who's anti-modern and anti-democratic here? The phrase conversations across our identities is a good one, even better than between or even among. The across part is what democracy's all about - America too, if you ask me. But it's the very thing the nativist chauvinists can't abide (akin, in a way, to their suspicions of "empathy"). And notice that identities allows that we might each already be a crossing, a conversation. A dangerous idea?

I'm teaching a first year seminar this Fall (starting end of this month!) called Religion in Dialogue. It might be interesting to follow discussion about the Cordoba Center as we explore dialogue within and between religions - and the religious significance of dialogue itself.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where the flowers croon

Went with my sister and her sons to Disneyland yesterday, the boys' first time and the first time I've been back in decades. (We used to go a lot, living just an hour south of it and having lots of family visitors.) In nigh on twelve hours of uninterrupted activity we took in two dozen rides and things and... had a grand time. Why am I reluctant to admit this? I really want to say that it's good clean fun, without any irony at all.

Growing up in the neighborhood of the original theme park, it's probably not that surprising that I admired Walt Disney as a child, and even briefly convinced myself once that I might be his reincarnation - he died a year before I was born, though not, it turned out, nine months before. And perhaps my being an internationally oriented kid without the usual aversion to dolls makes it understandable that I liked "It's a Small World"? It was in any case a simpler time, when the "anima- tronic" Abraham Lincoln and the robot swans in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle (no longer there, incidentally) and the inspired lunacy of the Enchanted Tiki Room were unlike anything you'd see anywhere. (The Tiki Room remains unlike anything you'll see anywhere.) Where else can you climb a huge tree (originally the Swiss Family Robinson's, now Tarzan's and Jane's) so lovingly rendered you don't mind at all that it's concrete and plastic? (Inspect below.) Even now, the mix of Saturday Evening Post America, national park and cold war internationalism (swinging to a Luau rhythm) has a powerful charm. The fact that the tour guides on the Jungle Cruise, etc., are punning non-stop just adds to one's pleasure at the friendly fantasy of it all. Would you have preferred real piranhas? Canoes reliant on your paddling efforts? Besides, this New Orleans is untouched by hurricanes or uncomfortable histories. The monorail is the real thing - the Western Hemisphere's first! And the Indian Chief on his horse, who waves sagely at passing paddle steamers, canoes and railroads is perfect in his eternal animatronic form. I'm not really joking here. Sure, it's appalling in all sorts of ways, but I didn't notice at the time. I was enchanted by how well done it all was, the coherence of the illusion, the innocence of it. It made me - dare I admit this? - proud of America.

I know, I know. The innocence Disneyland offers is a fantasy too, and the desire to lose oneself in it is something generations of semioticians and Ideologiekritiker have called in question. Opiate of the masses! We should "give up a condition that requires illusions" (as Marx says about religion)! Banksy's placement of a black-hooded mannequin in orange Guantanamo attire within the grounds of Disneyland seemed gratuitous - a cheap anti-American gag - when I heard about it in the excellent "Exit Through the Gift Shop"; now, the Magic Kingdom fresh in my memory, it seems transgressive in the extreme. How do I know? It's painful to think of. And to recall that when my younger nephew said, half-way through "It's a small world," "why can't they sing another song?" I found myself thinking of Guantanamo - that it was unnecessary: "just put people on an endless loop of this and they'll talk." Was I really joking? With whom? Or was that reality peeking through: a recognition that the power of illusion is satisfying in there to the degree that we want to believe that power is an illusion out here. It was an intoxicating fantasy in any case, and good to experience its power.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Imperial Beach Sandcastle Competition again, with 400,000 San Diegans.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


Diplomatic representatives of the US, Britain and France - as well as the Secretary-General of the UN, a South Korean - attended the ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima yesterday. It's about time.

I was at the 50th anniversary in 1995. I'm not sure what I thought I was doing there - some kind of gesture of penance - but I was in Japan at the time and felt I couldn't not go. People weren't displeased I was there (though some of the other men in the capsule hotel where I stayed seemed a bit weirded out by it), but it was a pretty much all-Japanese, indeed an all-Hiroshima event. I recall sitting near the back of some viewing stands, and that boring speeches were given - I know they were boring because the Japanese in the audience weren't listening either - as the sticky heat of an August day rose. I remember the suspended stillness of the moment of silence at 8:15 - a silence in which one could almost imagine that other morning.

I think I went to the Peace Memorial Museum later that day, with its pieces of wall with burnt human shadows, frozen clocks, melted metal, and nightmarish dioramas of people with skin hanging off them like bark off a gum tree. The exhibit had just been expanded in 1994 to include, for the first time, information about Hiroshima's place in the Japanese war effort - the earlier exhibit (which I'd seen a few years before) presented the A-bomb as coming literally from out of the blue. No context at all: had you not known Japan had been at war - had provoked war - with the country of the Enola Gay, nothing in the museum would have told you otherwise... though I recall no demonizing of the US, either, at least not explicitly. The bombing was a metaphysical event, not an historical one, and the appropriate responses were horror and sadness and a millenarian resolve to end all wars.

Still, why was I there? I think it had less to do with my being American than being German. The German side's been through the whole Vergangenheitsbewältigung thing, and couldn't help noticing that as good as nothing of the sort was happening on the other side.

The point at which I most fully felt the sorrow and patriotic confusions of WW2 came a few years later when I went with my good Japanese friend O - one of my few close friends who are the same age as I am - to Yasukuni Jinja, the controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo where Japan's war dead are ... venerated. (Folks were less happy to see me there; O enjoyed the disapproving looks he was getting for having brought me.) Its museum has been enlarged recently too, into something slick and sinister; O and I went to see the new one together a few years ago, topping the day off with the neo-nationalist movie "Yamato." But the aha moment came when we went to the original exhibit several years before that, and found ourselves in the gallery dedicated to the kamikaze, with heart-rending diaries and last letters. No effort was made to conceal the fact that many had not wished to die this way.

As we walked through it, the only people in the gallery, O and I both had the same thought. Had we both been born not in 1966 but in 1926, he might well have been in one of those planes, and I in one of those ships. We'd have tried to kill each other, might have succeeded. We shared this awareness, for an unsettling moment suspended between our imaginary past selves and our present friendship. We walked out of the gallery better but also more sober friends.

Part of the unsettling knowledge we shared (building hypotheticals on hypotheticals) was the sense that, even if O '26 and M '26 had known of the friendship of O '66 and M '66, they would probably still have done what they thought they had to do. Our friendship deepened, but our sense of the power of war to make enemies grew too.

Pray for peace, and the victims of all wars.

(Hiroshima 千羽鶴 senbazuru - 100 cranes - picture from here.)

Friday, August 06, 2010

Nice going

Have you heard of Neil Simon's Job play, God's Favorite (1974)? There's probably a reason for that. Job as a Long Island sitcom? And yet, reviews weren't bad.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Sister and nephews from down under on their way up and over!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Just the facts, ma'am

"The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The exclusion [of gays from marriage] exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed." Bravo.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Possible worlds

I'm usually the person who notices anniversaries when nobody else does. Long before New School at Ninety and Lang @ 25 I embarrassed the folks at the Ethics Department of Tokyo University by showing up there in 1992 saying, "I'm so excited to be here during your centenary year!" (They weren't really all that keen to remember the first half of that history.) So it's interesting when I forget an anniversary. The bicentenary of Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone passed me by entirely in 1993-4, which was sort of a relief. It's a little more awkward to realize that I've not noticed that this year is the tercentenary of Leibniz' Essais de Théodicée, the book on which I wrote my dissertation! Turns out the sneaky Templeton Foundation is making a big deal of it, sponsoring several conferences (here's one), and a new translation - I learned about it when one of the translators came to see me in New York last month, telling me he'd found my work valuable. My work on Leibniz? I could hardly remember it! Indeed, I can't imagine what would make all these people interested in Theodicy in 2010. I've lost the philosophical habit - though not so much of Leibniz that I can't concede there's a possible world in which I'd be all over this anniversary, but still be sure it would not have been as good a world as this one, in which I've moved on.

Monday, August 02, 2010

San Diego's many mansions

Since last I checked, someone at the San Diego Reader realized that religions advertise, so now there's a 4-page spread, mostly of $15 boxes with a common layout, offering goodies like The Judaism Jesus Believed and Practiced, Beach Shabbat, Slinky Service (so special I've enlarged it for you), Murder in the Torah, Race for the Chaste, Creating Prosperity in Today's Changing World, Introduction to Islam, Surf Fellowship and the Low Rider Gospel Fest. Check 'em out! Something for everyone!
Summer of Love, Icon Writing, Barn Dance & BBQ, Havdalah Singalong!
Jim Caviezel, Duns Scotus, Youth Explosion, Pro-Life Rosary, Silence!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Breaking through

The first sunset in a while. (The disc of the sun was actually red.)Apparently there were only four clear days in San Diego in the whole month of July, which was also the coldest since 1933. This really is a summer of extremes all around the world - besides New York's (second-)hottest month on record, near-record cools in the Midwest, and the record rainfalls, floods and landslides in Brazil, Poland and China, we read now of wildfires in Russia and lethal monsoon deluges in Pakistan - two of the fourteen countries or territories which have broken heat records since May. (The others: Finland, Qatar, Sudan, Niger, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Iraq, Myanmar, Ascension Island, Solomon Islands and Colombia; source.) Gorey. In case you haven't been keeping track...

12/8: Make that seventeen countries.