W and Difference

George Bush heard my rant from the other day and hammered home my point with this speech.
“Not only will our country be better, but we will show the world that values — universal values — must be respected and must be adhered to” — or else, presumably, we’ll bomb the dickens out of anyone who doesn’t respect the universal values that W stipulates.
Now, if you have to threaten people in order to make them adhere to values that you’re claiming are universal, how does that work out? It sounds to me as though they’re not exactly universal values under those circumstances. “Universal values, except for the people we disagree violently with.” Now there’s some good clear thinking.

Religion and Difference

David Weinberger gets what jillions of folks can’t see: that it’s only to be expected that religious disagreements may go all the way to the roots, even when the disagreement seems to involve really nice and friendly people. I suspect the Dalai Lama is a snazzy guy, probably beats the dickens out of many of my bishops for sophistication and profondeur, but so far as it’s been given me to understand the world, Buddhists just have the deal wrong. Nicely wrong (when they’re not using government military power to coerce native peoples into submission), but they still miss an important boat.
It doesn’t bother me to say this because, as far as it’s given me to understand Buddhism, a good Buddhist has to think that I’ve misconstrued the nature of the universe. And rightly so.
Not that this means Buddhists and Christians can’t get along, can’t agree on things like “It’s better not to slaughter indigenous peoples to shore up the nation-state,” can’t play football (the world kind, not American football) (not that a Buddhist couldn’t play football, though I don’t understand why they’d want to). They will just disagree about lots of important things. And again, that should be okay. Especially when Christians (and here I’m picking on my sisters and brothers because they have a claim of accountability on me and I on them) remember that they’re supposed to turn the other cheek, endure suffering rather than inflict it, be wronged rather than wrong someone else, and so on.
Again, Weinberger wonders how the very idea of universal truths works: “Finding a universal ground for all religion reduces us to mouthing abstractions so vague as to be meaningless and ignores what is most distinctive and most important about each religion.” My way of putting this in an argument with a colleague who believed fervently in universal truths was, “I’ll agree that we believe in universal truths when the truths in question are so universal that you’ll let me tell you what they are.” Of course, Max wouldn’t let me define what the universal truths were; he wanted both universality and the whip hand in defining the universal truths. Does that smell fishy to anyone else? “You have to believe in universal truths, and let me tell you what they are.” This kind of arguing often comes from people who slag the writers who taught me a lot about thinking (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Irigaray, that bunch) for complicity with the forces of reaction and fascism— presumably because these theorists don’t subscribe to the dogmas of universal reason.
There! Got that off my chest. Still haven’t found a copy of “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime,” though.
By the way, David Weinberger ascribes the aphorism, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted” to Dostoevsky; a little Googling, though, would have suggested that this expression doesn’t appear in the most common translations of Dostoevsky’s works, though the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” appears in John Fowles’s The Magus and William S. Burroughs (“Apocalypse,” there assigned to Hassan i Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain), and, most memorably for me, Jim Carroll on his Catholic Boy album (“Nothing is True”) (I’ll bet you can find that on the Internet).

Sunday, January 27, 2002

   ( 3:27 PM )
It’s interesting to observe the tides with which particular artists wax and wane in popularity in the cyberworld of the Gnutella, Napster, and Hotline networks.
I happen to be very enthusiastic about the Pyschedelic Furs. I am both a fan and an advocate; I relish the listening/croaking-along experience, and I admire the music as compositions, arrangements, and performances. They’re a pretty well-known band, right? They’ve inspired some covers, their single “Pretty in Pink” was adopted as the title of a movie I never cared to watch, and they’ve reassembled recently to release a live album featuring a new single. But the P2P networks seem never to have heard of “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime),” though the number of tedious make-fun-of-Osama jingles and ‘N Sync blockbusters seems limitless. In a recent Gnutella search, only four Furs songs came up, three of them versions of “Love My Way.”
Now, lots of factors enter into how far the Gnutella system searches, how many hits it returns, but all the same it seems clear that the Psychedelic Furs occupy a lot less bandwidth than I would have thought.
   ( 5:12 PM )
I should add, in the name of honesty, that I also get pedantically vexed by people with tin ears and short attention spans, who can’t tell the Cure from the Furs, or the Pretenders from the Proclaimers, or They Might Be Giants from any other band with pretensions to being amusing. Likewise those who can’t spell “Psychedelic.”

[Early Ecclesiastical Rant]

I get weary of well-intentioned Christians using their air time to run down the church.
Yes, by all means, Christians have done and continue to do dopey, destructive things, too often in the name of their faith. That’s a true, significant problem, and no one better try to sweep it under the rug. Clear? Okay.
On the other hand, exactly what good do we accomplish by furiously parading our most grievous follies before people? It begins to seem as though part of the point of Christian faith is to talk at length about what a terrible historical force Christianity has been. Remember that I’m not talking about folks from outside the church here; their gripes have a different texture, and one would have to discuss the merits of their complaints differently. I’m talking about people who get up and preach (often) about bad stuff Christians have done.
Is there a way to communicate about the faith without either suppressing our failures or making it seem as though everything to this point has been a more-or-less grievous flop, but perhaps beginning tomorrow we’ll get it right?
Part of my point is my own general orientation toward encouraging people to learn and self-correct without getting hung up on having tried something that didn’t work out (here I’m thinking of my students, not about big terrible ideas like tolerating slavery or persecuting Jews); when I look beyond my classroom to the broader horizons of institutional practices, I still think that the only way forward from grievous error is a manifest commitment to doing better. Self-flagellation elicits titters from students who know how misguided that ascetical practice is, but numbers of them then go on and practice ecclesiastical self-flagellation in the name of candor about the church.
There’s a difference. It’s more complicated than the binary alternatives of belaboring sins or papering them over.
And I’m weary of folks behaving/speaking/preaching as though the only way to exorcise the demons of the past is to dwell on them–especially because no one (hardly anyone) ever did these beastly things in the full knowledge that they were wrong, but precisely because they were convinced that it was the right way forward for their faith, every bit as much as the earnest denunciators of today’s church are convinced that they now are in a position cavalierly to reprehend the guilt of past generations.
They may have understood more than we guess, and we may understand less than we guess, so let’s concentrate on what we can do, now, among the people with whom we live, and encourage one another to do better. And remember that if the church really believes what it teaches about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, that repeating conventional outcries against sins of the past itself may lock us to those sins, binding us up in Jacob-Marley-like chains of our own, forged in life link by link, and yard by yard.
Part of our recuperation from past sins is a willingness to acknowledge them, and to build lives that have been freed from those sins. And though we may never forget, we may well decide that there are more constructive things to highlight in the limited time that anyone’s paying attention to us.
Well, that’s off my chest.
[Early posts to this blog, in the halcyon days of Blogger, did not have topic headers or comments. I’m adding these posts retrospectively to my WordPress blog to tidy things up.]

[Early, Boring Entry]

So the Pippa is over at my office this afternoon, drawing pictures of palm trees and cocoanuts and waves and seagulls (because I only had brown and green and blue markers available) and a bathing suit and towel and washer and dryer (to remind me to do laundry before her swimming lesson tomorrow). She’s here helping me work because Margaret is on a field trip for her Church Architecture class, Nate is working at the Art Store, and Si is at his gym class. we’re having a jolly, if not very productive, time.
Notes to and from students and former students, ruminations about Magritte and biblical interpretation, a note to David P. asking about a presentation at Catholic Biblical Association this coming summer. And discussions with the Pip about her observations concerning my office, its size, the number of books therein, and when Si will come take her home.
[Early posts to this blog, in the halcyon days of Blogger, did not have topic headers or comments. I’m adding these posts retrospectively to my WordPress blog to tidy things up.]


Derrida eulogizing Pierre Bourdieu here in Le Monde; Jennifer had just given me The Work of Mourning for my last birthday. What a peculiar role for Derrida, chronicling the passing of the monumental generation of philosophico-cultural types among whom he has stood! And yet (complaints from the peanut gallery notwithstanding) he’s one of the contemporary writers whom I would most readily trust with a delicate topic. He writes with exquisite precision; indeed, the precision with which he writes constitutes one of the major impediments to reading him, since his finesse requires a concomitant close attention from the reader.
And with Bourdieu’s death, we lose yet another brilliant topographer of [post]modern culture.

(Pseudo-First Post)

Yet another public figure has had his reputation tarnished by plagiarism. The president of Hamilton College (Clinton, NY) has confessed that when greeting the incoming freshmen class, he used words first uttered by someone else. In this case, it was some phrases in a review of the book “Overnight Float.” The president apologized abjectly and then explained that in speeches he “only occasionally” uses the “systematic footnoting” required in scholarly works.
How absurd. As absurd as pillorying authors who didn’t alter phrases enough to meet some tastes but who cited the works in their footnotes.

I take it back. Asserting rights of possession over the wording of footnoted phrases — or of humiliating a college president because he didn’t put footnotes into a welcoming address — isn’t just absurd. It threatens to put up passport control points every ten feet in the landscape of ideas.

And doesn’t it seem obvious that this is being fueled by the rush to lock up intellectual property on the Net? We are able to exert such exquisite control over every phrase we utter digitally that the real world is looking intolerably sloppy. So we’re raising the stakes in the real world, and waving indignant fingers at people who demonstrably weren’t trying to get away with anything. If you want to see how the Internet is affecting expectations in the real world, look no further. Too bad in this case it’s the worst of the Net that’s having an effect.

[The above is part of a somewhat arcane joke. This post originally read only as this.]