Wednesday, April 30, 2003

'Pffft, English. Who needs that. I'm never going to England.'

Everybody else's blogs filled with posts on education, so, considering I'm a full-time, debt-ridden postgraduate who aims to teach someday, I should throw my two-cents into the fray as well.

{crickets . . .}

I'll be quite honest -- I've no clue what the state of America's schools are. I escaped in the early '90s relatively unscathed, a good GPA, two or three friends I never saw after graduation, etc. Now that I think of it, I can't really remember much of it. The point is any opinion I might've had about the 'state of America's educational system' was never really framed around my experience, because I deemed it far too banal to matter to anybody but me. Instead, and this perhaps shows how stupid I can be, I believed what I was told. Namely, that America's schools are horrible -- that American students can't find Turkey on the map, and that they wouldn't know what to do with a quadratic equation were it to solve itself for them. (Or, more recently, that they can't write -- cf,. Ampersand for more on that.) I think I've asked this question before about something else, but . . . what if that myth wasn't exactly true?.

In an article I completely missed last week, Gerald W. Bracey not only asks this question, he knocks it off its pristine pedestal, leers at it menacingly, and then gets medieval. All in the name, it seems, to finally get in some parting shots on the 'No Child Left Behind' program, which incidentally I never hear anything about anymore:

Blaming public schools for social ills has a long and dishonorable history, of which the 1983 report is only one particularly egregious example. Yet in the international reading study released this month (and ignored by most media), American students finished ninth among 35 nations. White American students outscored top-ranked Sweden 565 to 561. Americans attending schools with less than 10 percent of the students in poverty (13 percent of all students) scored a whopping 589, and only those attending schools with more than 75 percent of the students in poverty (20 percent of all students) scored below the international average.

These statistics tell us how wealth and poverty affect achievement, and where we need to allocate resources. We don't need to spend billions to test every child every year in reading, math and science, as the No Child Left Behind legislation requires, to find out.

Bracey's point, obviously, isn't that America's educational system is problem-free. Rather, it's just that the myth of American teenagers being the dumbest on the planet misses the importance of the distinctly American socio-economic realities that affect the international education assessments that the American press use to bombastically scold and presidents use to win votes. A tidy dialectic, really. In effect, it's a handy way to not deal with the education hurdles faced by millions of impoverished minorities in America's urban schools. Lest you think you're going to get a solution here at Silentio, dream on. (As if any of you return to this blog for answers! HA!) I've not a clue what the solution is, or if there really is one that we might discover; though I'm pretty certain, maybe, kinda, that Scott Martens' suggestion is not the way to go. (But man oh man, I love the unmitigated cheek to propose it!! It's a long post, but, as is the case with most of his long stuff, worth it.)

Anyway, if you're at all interested in this type of thing, Gerald Bracey -- head of, by the way, the curiously named Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency [EDDRA] -- has written some more pretty interesting stuff that might be worth your while. Most notably, see here and here.

'Excuse me, Miss, would you please wear this target, too?'

Hey, all your anti-abortion nuts who like to make life a living (or, dying, as the case often is) hell for women who get abortions, good luck -- the great state of South Carolina is for you! Not only do South Carolinan lawmakers want to shield ye god-fearing folk from that nasty mistruth called 'evolution', the Supreme Court today blithely reminds us all that the same lawmakers are allowed to force abortion providers to copy or give up the medical records of their patients.

South Carolina wants abortion clinics to open all files, including patient medical records, if state investigators ask to see them. The clinic says there is no guarantee that the information will remain confidential once it is in the state's hands and no penalty to the state or its employees if the information is leaked.

Separately, the clinic says the regulation would allow public release of patient records, apparently including names and addresses, when a clinic or its staff is under investigation by state licensing authorities.

''Those proceedings are open to the press and any other interested persons, including those who participate in activism against abortion patients and providers,'' lawyers for the clinic wrote.

My friend over at Aquadoodiloop insists Columbia is a great town, and to be fair, it was quite lovely back when I visited a few years ago, but I just can't get an email reply I read recently in Mark Morford's Morning Fix:

To Marcus: Well of course my view of the great dust-choked state of TX is a little skewed. Rest assured, well do I know that your fair Austin and a few other hot pockets are bastions of funky alternative mildly progressive viewpoints and decent restaurants and low homophobia rates and lots of people who can actually see their toes. Thank the nearby universities for that. But mostly what I see and read and hear in the land where handguns are gleefully legal but dildos are a crime is noxious ultra-right wing anti-gay sexless ultraconservatism, with big hair and a bible and imminent obesity-related heart failure. But, you know, I could be wrong.

For the fine citizens of the Palmetto State, if you need help figuring out why I thought of this, let me know.


Just noticed that a higher being has linked to me, a mere mollusk. Welcome, all you Calpundit readers. Things have been kind of quiet around here lately, with only sporadic updates here and there. Hope you enjoy the glance around. We're kind folk here at Silentio -- a laid-back burg off the beaten path of the blogsophere. The observations I proffer from time to time may seem of the mouth-breathing variety, but thankfully I use Listerine on a daily basis. That in mind, I hope you come back soon.

To you regular readers . . . thanks for hanging around. I promise I'll update soon.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Wanted: A Leader

Yowzers, it had been a while since I'd checked out Matt Pfeffer's excellent blog, Provenance: Unknown, and it turns out I've missed some fabulous posts. Don't make my mistake, add his site to your bookmarks and check him out regularly. While you're at it, be sure to read his post about George Bush's un-leadership.. A nice op-ed piece -- send it off to a paper of your choice, Mr. Pfeffer! -- complimented by some interesting comments.

So Very Sad

Oh my, this report by John Cochran for ABC is sad not just because it's true, but because everybody who tried to say it was true months ago were accused of either being Chicken Little conspiracy theorists or pro-Sadaam America-haters. Here's a teaser:

To build its case for war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but some officials now privately acknowledge the White House had another reason for war — a global show of American power and democracy.

Officials inside government and advisers outside told ABCNEWS the administration emphasized the danger of Saddam's weapons to gain the legal justification for war from the United Nations and to stress the danger at home to Americans.

"We were not lying," said one official. "But it was just a matter of emphasis."

The whole thing is definitely worth reading, as the proverbial fog of war becomes just some more dust that we learn to ignore.

A Prediction

Speaking of Sen. Santorum, you think there's any chance this is his secret homepage? Hmmmm...

We At Silentio Love Anal Sex!!

Ahem... I just wanted to get that out in the open right away. I have never personally, or perhaps I should say 'intentionally' (thus leaving you wondering . . .), participated in that sort of sodomy; but, alas, neither have I been to Papua New Guinea either, and I've no problem with it or its people. Dare I say it -- that I love Papua New Guineans as much as I do anal sex and those cuddly little deviants who participate in it? Yay, I think so.

Indeed, I think this upcoming week should be "I Love Anal Sex" week -- create a button, a sticker, a rub-on tattoo, a permanent tattoo even. Where the hell is he going with this, you ask. Easy. Senator Santorum. It's been a crazy week, with my extracurricular activities ranging from air and train travel, lecturing, and vomiting, so I've not been able to post as often I'd like. In my absence, I never got a chance to say too much about the brouhaha brewing over said senator's homophobic remarks in a recent AP interview. Let's recap:

SANTORUM: I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts. As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual. I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual. If that's their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.

AP: OK, without being too gory or graphic, so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?

SANTORUM: We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold -- Griswold was the contraceptive case -- and abortion. And now we're just extending it out. And the further you extend it out, the more you -- this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong, healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality--

AP: I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about "man on dog" with a United States senator, it's sort of freaking me out.

SANTORUM: And that's sort of where we are in today's world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we're seeing it in our society.

I don't know about you, but Ricky is one US Senator I'd like to invite to my next dinner! (Note to self: clean hard drive and remove my sub-mattress reading, should Sen. Santorum be a nosey visitor.) So, basically, it seems anyway, the #3 Republican in the Senate equates the general right to consensual sex behind closed doors with a whole host of specific icky no-no's. Of course, so he reminds us repeatedly, he's not picking on homosexuals here. He thinks they're cute -- especially that one spastic one on Will & Grace, he's sooooo funny -- but the idea of hairy, grunty, sweaty man-on-man action is where he must draw the line, for the skae of the children. I think somewhere in the interview he broke into a stirring rendition of Whitney Houston's classic, 'I Believe That Children Are Our Future.' (Note: I sang that in junior-high chorus, too). The fact that he's not just picking on homosexuals here, though, should perhaps frighten all you unmarried folk out there doing the nasty -- and I do mean 'nasty' -- into changing your sinful ways, because sex, when you're not married, is wicked and destructive to the moral fabric of society. Again, think of the children!!! Oh, and don't think you married folk who like to do the nasty nastily are off the hook, either! (To the couple, both of whom are frequent visitors of Silentio, who enjoy a bit of gay porn prior to sex -- shhhhaaaaammmmmeee on you both, says the highly-regarded Senator who, incidentally, our gay-porn star lovin' President refuses to censure.)

I'm obviously very late on this story, so the rest of the way I'll let the links do the talking. Not everybody has been as quiet on this matter as our God-fearing President and Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. No no, there are at least a few Republicans upset about this (not to mention a few polygamists in Utah, and -- hmm -- Sen. Orrin Hatch). However, for the true tale of the GOP, Santorum, and gay sex, see everybody's favorite sex advice columnist, Dan Savage:

Gay groups are trying to turn Senator Rick Santorum into the next Trent Lott. It's not going to work. Mr. Lott lost his post as Senate majority leader because he said something he wasn't supposed to. Mr. Santorum, who holds the No. 3 position in the Senate leadership, was only repeating what many Republicans have already said.

Two additional comments of note: (a) those of the mighty Mark Morford, and (b) those of the Vermont governor cum Democratic presidentical candidate, Howard Dean.

And remember, my heterosexual friends (the homosexual ones can move to the next post), close the bedroom door tightly and cover the peephole the next time your significant other asks you to do that quirky thing, the one involving the seal suit, spare car keys, and the rubber ducky, s/he requests from time to time. You just never know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

A Guy Can Hope

Anybody else out there hoping that the Bush-handlers' latest round of patriotic hubris shoots them in the foot come November 2004? (For instance: *snicker*).

My favorite quote in the Times article is:

The current president, White House officials said, has already dispatched with his father's biggest problem, the perception that he was out of touch with the nation's economic woes, by pushing his economic program nearly every time he appears in public.

The fact that everybody laughs at him, only to be Vulcan-death-gripped back into fearful submission is, of course, ignored. Uh-oh -- I'm getting odd looks. Um, yeah yeah, I'm just kidding . . . cutting taxes and spending is a good thing. Sacrifice -- it's the American way. Well, unless it's fuel-consumption . . . or fast food . . or . . .

Up And Down ... You Can't Always Get What you Want (or some such cliche)

Been a roller coaster of a day. Left Brussels this morning for what I thought was going to be a week, but shall in fact prove to be three. Arrived in Glasgow to a mysteriously smelly flat and a disconnected phone. Signed two loan cheques that shall pretty much have me hustling cheap, alleyway sexual favours until, at least, I'm drawing Social Security. Spent too much money shipping said cheques back to the States, because changing them to sterling is too much of a headache. Battled with a printer that a friend bequeathed me when he left Glasgow last year. Ultimately won battle, thus eliminating the 5 pence per page at the university that I've been shelling out since last year. Added up the expenses of my Melville conference -- barely met the budget that I at one time thought was rather inflated. Checked out three CDs from my local library, discovered that, in contrast to the wonderful public library in Cincinnati, I have to pay 80 pence per CD -- had £2.50 in my pocket. On the promotional sticker of The Delgados' "The Great Eastern": 'The greatest songs in the history of recorded sound' (NME). Laughed at Katrien upon learning that, after eighteen months of unfettered, free travel aboard the Brussels Metro, she was today busted for travelling without a valid ticket. Won a £330 4-Day European Holiday off a scratch-off game from Katrien's copy of Company (a British knockoff of Cosmo).

So it goes . . .

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Going Dutch

Had an all-Dutch, all-the-time long, holiday weekend. I went from wandering around Eindhoven on a surprisingly chilly Saturday, in search for the Van Abbemuseum, to ambling around Maastricht on Monday with thunder clouds looming o'erhead.

I've mentioned it before, but if you're in the region, or plan on touring the region, you really should check out the Van Abbemuseum. It is, without hesitation, one of the best new modern art museums I've visited in quite some time. (Its collection may not compare to, say, the Tate Modern, but its a much more comfortable experience). Not only are there are some fabulous exhibition spaces that most artists, I imagine, would simply drool over (especially its unique tower), the museum boasts one of the finest collections of Russian constructivism in the world (especially that of El Lissitzky). You European readers out there, take notice -- there is finally a reason to visit Eindhoven.

While I'm on the topic of modern art, today's Times has a nice article about about a new Marc Chagall retrospective in Paris. I've long had a soft spot for Chagall, even if I didn't really know why -- nice to see him getting his due.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Good Friday

I didn't begin this month intending for the site to go to full-blown religious mode, but it just so happens that my abstract academic interests and the baggage of my previous life sometimes converge into the present reality of Silentio. Today, being Good Friday and all, is no exception. I had no intention of writing anything about it or Easter, as I don't really 'celebrate' either -- with the minor exception being that I sometimes lie around my ass a little more than normal. Credit Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, though, for sucking me back into the religious mix. His column in today's Guardian is well-worth reading, even if you're, say, a Sikh, a foxhole atheist, or a conservative, Republican-voting Christian -- the latter, admittedly, will undoubtedly encounter more cognitive dissonance than the others, but so it goes.

There are two ways of understanding the theology of Easter: one is structured around the notion of retribution; the other around the notion of forgiveness. As theological literacy becomes increasingly necessary to decode what many of our world leaders are really saying, this distinction is crucial. Easter has its hawks and its doves.

The Easter of the hawks insists that sin always has to be balanced, or paid for, with pain. It's the theological equivalent of the refusal to be "soft on crime". From this perspective, Easter is the story of Jesus paying off the debt of human sin with his own suffering and death. As the popular Easter hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away puts it: "There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin." Retribution is a moral necessity because through it the scales of justice are righted. Sin must be paid for with blood, just as crime must be paid for by punishment. On the cross Jesus is taking the punishment that is properly ours.

[. . .]

But the problem with the Easter of the hawks is much more than theological. The idea that human salvation is premised upon the torture and murder of an innocent life is one that has systematically weakened the capacity of European culture to set itself against cruelty. The glorification of pain and blood as the route to salvation has gone hand in hand with an obnoxious aesthetic of sadism. The "Christian" idea that pain and guilt must be in cosmic balance has led generations of Christians to support the death penalty and oppose prison reform.

It is no coincidence that places where this sort of theology has flourished - in 17th-century England and 21st-century America - are places where justice has been, and continues to be, expressed through the scaffold or the electric chair.

Now, if you, my theologically-inclined friends, are looking for theological justification for the good Reverand's coments, you're looking in the wrong column -- hell, with the Guardian you're looking in the wrong paper entirely! But I think he's hit on a very valid example of a point that too many conservatives try hard to either ignore or deny: that 'doctrines', be they theological or political, are imbedded in and have profound social and psychological implications. (An aside: For me, this network of implications is really what theology -- albeit, not necessarily religious belief or conviction -- is all about; or at least is what is most interesting about it.) His payoff paragraph is too good not to quote in its entirety:

Despite this alternative tradition, the punitive voice of Christianity continues to exert considerable influence on public policy, not least in the US. Here a retributive doctrine of the cross is the key link between fundamentalist Christianity and rightwing politics. It's a cultural context that makes possible the question of whether torture is a legitimate means of interrogating terrorists. It's a context that encourages the belief that the tragedy of 9/11 has to be paid for with the blood of another. It's not blood for oil, as the posters say. Worse than that -- it's blood for blood. This is the theology that underpins the moral convictions of the White House. And it's one Christ died opposing.

The last sentence is very much dependent upon one's perspective of the New Testament, but give me any day a liberal faith I don't necessarily believe over a fundamentalist one that I can't help but find frightening and threatening.

More About Me Than You Care to Know

Last night was a good night, even if it did get off to a shaky start. K. and I rented Casablanca, bought several Westmalles, a bag of paprika potato chips, and completely vegged out for the evening -- half watching the movie and half marvelling at how bright a full moon could be. Well, that's what the evening became anyway. It all got started with me cursing a blue streak -- this is becoming a theme -- when I couldn't get the DVD player on the laptop to switch to Pan 2 from Pan 1. We'd changed it by accident a week or so ago when we rented Feardotcom (note (1): it is as horrible as the title sounds // note (2): renting it wasn't my idea), but figured it would be smooth sailing to switch back. Ah, but we were wrong. If anybody needs any evidence of my failings as the 'classical' 1950s über-male, they need only watch me in action when (a) rowing a canoe [a long digression: A couple of days ago I'm in the park with Katrien, we see some row boats, and K. talks me into forking over the money for thirty minutes out on the little lake. K. is not one to make or expect me to do all the hard labour, so we split the rowing duties -- she on the right, I on the left. The first ten minutes were easy enough, with the wind and current pushing us to our desired destination much quicker than anticipated. Obviously, though, this same wind and current was not so kind when we attempted to venture back to shore. We rowed... and rowed... we rowed... we argued... we rowed... we argued... we argued... and still, we hardly moved. She finally suggested an alternative that I was fearing: "Why don't you try to get us there alone." The results, as anybody who knows me and my lack of coordination may expect, were not pretty -- mainly, a lot of cursing and a nearly lost oar. Needless to say, we did eventually make it back to shore, but it certainly wasn't because of my nautical abilities: the wind died down long enough for us, and our lame-duck-looking attempts at cooperative rowing, to sputter to the dock. The Aussies who were awaiting our boat were not impressed] and (b) my interactions with technology. Not that Katrien is much better, really, at least in regard to (b) -- her solution to most such problems is to be found in either doing the same thing repeatedly, so that we might break the inanimate object's will, or unplugging & then replugging the machine. Between my threats to hurl it against a wall and her scrambling for the cord, it was a wonder we got it to work at all. Happy ending.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

"Love is a many splendored thing"

(Via Matthew Yglesias) Ah, love -- the last bastion of acceptable mystery and paradox. The most turgid logician, the most reasonable theologian, the most empirical biologists, even they, should they be in love, cannot explain the ineffable course of their relationships. The mystery of love -- it's a truism, right? Ah not so, says Professor John Gottman, of the University of Washington. The key to understanding one's relationship: differential equations.

Scoff if you want, but if nothing else it certainly beats this.

Rested... now Restored

I've been battling Blog*Spot's permalinks for quite a while now, both on this site and those that I'd like to link to, but it wasn't until today that I figured out how to get them working again. Glory be!

I hope to post something later today, but I make no promises. I've a presentation to give next at the university next Thursday, so that's been keeping me occupied. The paper's written and ready; but, having confused two rooms of people with it in the past, I've decided to create a PowerPoint presentation to accompany it. Las Vegas and Blaise Pascal, my topics for the day, shall never be the same. For now, though, I'm off to get some lunch. I have a deep, inexplicable hunger for a cheap worstebroodje.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003


I'm finally rested after my sixteen hours aboard a cramped bus making stop-and-go progress across Belgium, the northwestern tip of France, and southeastern England; oh, and yes, my day in London. Good time had by all. A couple of notes:

1. Subway's new Chicken Tikka sub tastes better than it looks, but beware the indigestion.

2. The Georgian House Hotel is a lovely value -- a decent enough location, helpful staff, and, if you can get one of the student accommodations, about as cheap as a nice London hostel.

3. I throw my two cents into pile of anecdotal observations that London's congestion charge is a good thing.. In your eye, New Labour!

4. If the the White Stripes' UK tour is any indication of what they've got planned for the US, BUY A TICKET!! (By the way, the review I just linked to gets my prize for line of the weekend: "The new 'Ball and Biscuit' - Elephant's filthy blues heart - is also astonishing, with Jack White playing on his knees, his sexual promises punctuated by liquid guitar emissions. His tight trousers make some pretty clear claims, too." Oh my.) Katrien and I saw them play at the Brixton Academy on Saturday evening, and, after fleeing the moshing mess -- it would not have been so bad, really, had the two fat guys in front of us not seen the need to also whip their heads back in some kind of carefree orgasmic revelry, oblivious our faces being crushed toward the oncoming battering ram -- were treated to one of the best rock n' roll concerts either of us have ever seen. Took me back to the good ol' days of the Afghan Whigs, the best live act I've ever seen (those of you blessed to see one of their shows back in the '90s undoubtedly know the kind of energy I'm referring to here.) Don't make my mistake and be put off by the hype, the false promises of their being the saviors of rock, or their unseemly association with the Strokes or the Vines. Doesn't sound like they're going to be around for too much longer, so just enjoy them while you can.

5. I took the Eurotunnel across the channel twice this weekend. It's quick, sure; but for some reason I missed the seasickness I'd always get on the hovercraft between Oostende and Dover. Well, there was that, and then there was the pain-in-the-ass two hours security and passport control on our way to London, in which, mysteriously, a good one-quarter of our bus never returned. You asylum-seeking Silentio readers out there, beware the Eurotunnel.

Monday, April 14, 2003

What the Hell, I'll Post it Anyway

The close literary reading of Genesis 22 in my post on Friday suggests that what we're given here is a skeletal narrative where, generally speaking, detail is stripped down to the bare bones. The narrator says nothing about the characters and the characters say barely anything to each other -- i.e., hardly any words are spoken between Abraham and Isaac or between Abraham and God. This suggests to me that silence is as important as speech, and the white spaces between the words are as important as the black marks on the page. The point about the silence of this narrative was first made by a German Jewish scholar, Erich Auerbach, in a famous article written when he was living in exile from the Nazis in Istanbul during World War II. Auerbach was not a biblical scholar, but a professor of what we would now call comparative literature, and the essay ‘Odysseus’s Scar’ is a comparison of the style of Homer’s Odyssey and the style of Genesis 22. Basically what he says is that Homer knows no background, that he cannot resist telling us everything, that with Homer there is ‘never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths’. But Genesis 22, in contrast, is ‘fraught with background’: in Genesis everything is hidden, as though buried. Some of Auerbach's observations include:

The landscape, the serving men, the ass, ... do not even admit an adjective . . . they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects there were, they are, or will be, remains in darkness.

Isaac is not characterised apart from his relation to his father and apart from the story; he may be handsome or ugly, intelligent or stupid, we are not told.

We are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days . . . [it’s as if] the journey took place through a vacuum; it is as if, while he travelled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left . . .

The story does not seek to enchant us, to lure us in, like the narratives of Homer –- it is stark and uncompromising –- leaving us to accept it (or reject it).

Auerbach’s comments on Genesis 22 have been taken to describe the typical style of all biblical narrative (at least in the OT/Tanakh) but this is only true to an extent. Certainly it is true that biblical narratives are more terse than modern novels, that they tend to use very few adjectives or adverbs, to include only short conversations, and to give us very little glimpse of the character’s inner consciousness. But at the same time, since Hebrew literature spans 1,500 years we can hardly expect the authors to all conform to one typical virtual stylesheet and to use one typically biblical style. In fact there is a lot of difference between Genesis 22, and, say, the story of Esther, or the apocryphal stories of Tobit, Judith and Susanna, which are all much later and come from different (Persian and Hellenistic) cultural contexts. Even in Genesis, some narratives are far more longwinded than Genesis 22 -- eg., the 64 verse story of the meeting of Isaac and Rebekah at the well (Genesis 24).

The silences of Genesis 22 are not just an indication of typical biblical style, and in fact contribute to the specialness and the strangeness of this text. In fact I think it is the silence, together with the scandal of what Abraham is asked by God to do, that make this text so mesmerising and influential. Apart from the story of Eden this is the most famous story in the whole of the book of Genesis, not to mention a central story in the three monotheistic (or Abrahamic) religions –- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity, for instance, has traditionally read the story as anticipating the crucifixion; and in Judaism the story is read annually during the High Holy Days at the New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah. The story is known (after that part of the text where Abraham binds Isaac) as the binding -– the Akedah -– and is commemorated in the liturgy and the blowing of the ram’s horn, the shofar. In both religions, the meaning of the story is mercy, binding, obligation, and sacrificial love, and the mutual binding or love betwen God and his people; or, respectively, it is about a God who so loved the world that he gave his son and the father who so loved God that he gave his son to God.

Part of the power of the story is that it shows the absolute importance of God –- that a man is prepared to go to these lengths to obey his command, even to the extent that he is prepared to offer up the life of his son. If we actually think about this story, rather than receiving a children’s Bible version of it, it is both awful (frightening, perhaps even disgusting, in its implications) and awesome (the most striking testimony to belief in God that is possible). Arguing against what he saw as the lazy, easy interpretation of the story, the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that it should make Christians shudder and make them ‘sleepless’, and that this was certainly not a story that they could read easily, while ‘puffing at their pipels and stretching out his legs’. In his famous book Fear and Trembling (first published in 1841, and all about the Abraham and Isaac story) he wrote:

We speak in Abraham’s honour, by making what he does a commonplace: his greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best that he had’. This is very true, but ‘best’ is a vague word . . . What is left out of the Abraham story is the anguish, yet anguish is a dangerous affair for the squeamish, and so we interchange the words Isaac and best’ (S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling [trans. A Hannay; Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985] p. 58).

Kierkegaard argues here that it is simply a cop-out to turn Isaac from a son into a ‘thing ‘and to reduce this story to the simple lesson that we should always give God our best. The reason that the story is so awful and awe-inspiring, the reason that it makes us fear and tremble, is that Abraham is asked to give up his son –- a command to make any human being and any parent tremble. (I'm reminded, as I write this, of the Violent Femmes' classic song, 'Country Death Song'.) Isaac may or may not be a child –- if you take Genesis literally, he could be up to forty years old -- but to reduce him to just a case of Abraham's 'best thing' is to deny the special, unique status that the text gives to him, not to mention Abraham’s love. (There is no evidence that I know of that ancient people felt any less strongly about sons and daughters than we do).

Kierkegaard’s message to Christian preachers is be careful how you interpret and preach this story and how easily you endorse it, because what if someone foolish in the congregation goes out and gives his ‘best’ in the form of a son? This is a dangerous story if you take it literally, and in fact you can only preach it by saying ‘Don’t actually do what Abraham did!' (I.e., don’t try this at home). The example of Abraham is open to terrible misinterpretation: Mohammed Atta, pilot of American Airlines flight 11 left a note in which he saw himself as an ‘Isaac’ figure, being sacrificed, while on 6 January (Epiphany) 1990 a man in California took one of his daughters to a park, made her pray the Lord’s prayer, and took the knife to her and killed her because God had told him; he was tried and found ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.

Kierkegaard says, effectively ‘Let’s be honest, what preachers should really say is that if you follow the example of Abraham to the letter we will treat you as a criminal or lock you in a madhouse'. A modern society cannot tolerate the idea of a voice of God which goes against all other ethical demands. Immanuel Kant said –- and one would hope that all reasonable people would agree with him -– that the commands of God, as individuals understand them anyway, should always be tested against ethics. This means that if people hear God telling them to do something unethical, they should assume that they have misheard. The shocking, indeed downright revolting, thing about this story is that Abraham is told to do something, and agrees to do something, that goes against the one of the most fundamental ethical principles, namely that you must protect and not hurt your family and those you love.

What makes this story so disorienting and disturbing is that people usually expect religion and ethics to be the same, but here the command of God seems to contradict ethics. Strikingly, maybe even damningly, according to Kierkegaard, Abraham is doing an ethically terrible thing, but a religiously good thing: ‘The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, but in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can make one sleepless’. It is of course important that God stops the sacrifice at the very last moment, but Abraham is rewarded for being prepared to offer the sacrifice. The messenger tells him ‘Because you have done this, your descendants will be blessed.’ God doesn't say, as we might wish him to,’No Abraham, don’t be stupid, I got you to do this so that you could see that sacrifice is wrong’. Instead God says ‘Well done Abraham, I see from your offering of Isaac that you really love God’.

If all this makes you uncomfortable (as indeed Kierkegaard says it should), then maybe you'll take heart at some of the classic arguments that have been used to remove some of the text's sting.

1. Genesis 22 was written in the context of cultures that regularly offered children as sacrifice and was written to put and end to such abominable practices.

2. Abraham had faith that God would never let his son be killed and so did Isaac, and so they were insulated from anguish by faith.

I'd be one of the first who'd like these explanations to be right, and cannot but empathise with any attempt to close the gap between religion and ethics and make this text less dangerous. But the problem is that neither are all that convincing, for the following reasons:

a) There is no historical evidence for child-sacrifice in Israel or Canaan –- the existing evidence comes from Carthage in N. Africa, and from Phoenician deposits (the argument being that Israel and Canaan had trade and cultural contact with Phoenicia and may have been influenced by these practices). The biblical evidence itself is ambiguous -- sometimes clearly campaigning against child-sacrifice, sometimes seeming to endorse the idea that the firstborn should be given to God, sometimes suggesting that the sacrifice of the firstborn is effective.

There is also evidence that child sacrifice is not common practice in Genesis 22 itself. Why, if sacrifice is a common practice, does Abraham keeps the sacrifice from the two young men? And why does God reward the principle of sacrifice if it is his desire that sacrifice be eradicated. If this is anti-child sacrifice polemic, it is the worst anti-child sacrifice polemic that I have ever read. (Surely the angel should intervene and say something, with after-school special music playing in the background, along the lines of ‘No Abraham, don’t you see a loving God would never require such abominable practices’ . . .)

b) If Abraham knows that Isaac will not be killed and Isaac knows that Isaac will be not be killed then where is the test? If they know already that a loving and kind God could never allow something so terrible, then they must simply be going through the motions (imagine Abraham looking heavenwards and saying to God ‘I’m holding the knife now, I’m waiting for you to prevent this’ and you have a nicer, but very different story). I could be persuaded that Abraham believes that the command of God is right, and that God will do something to make it turn out in some way right –- that even if Isaac dies it will be in some way or sense made right again. But if you drain the text of its anguish it seems to become as meaningless as many non-religiously inclined people regard religion. Surely the whole point is that Abraham and Isaac suffer in offering up Isaac and this is crucial to the significance of the text.

Like many people I find that this text disturbing, but I can't help but return to it. As Kierkegaard says, there are more problems for biblical scholars than can be solved by ‘knowing Hebrew’, (would that the problems were linguistic or archaeological, and solvable!) and there is enough in (or maybe not in) this slim little narrative to keep preachers going ‘for several Sundays’. It is because the text is so ethically troubling –- and also so very silent –- that it has mesmerised readers, religious and irreligious alike, through the centuries.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Not Yet Ready for Primetime?

I'm far too tired to post anything significant right now. However, I'm awake enough to air my reservations about Friday's post about the biblical story. There are a whole host of reasons for these reservations, some more valid than others; but none interesting enough to talk about now at any length. Unless somebody wants me to conclude my thoughts, I think I'm going to forego posting part two. This is a spur-of-the-moment decision, fresh from an eight-hour bus ride back from London, so an evening's sleep could change my course. We'll see. We should be back to our regularly-scheduled program tomorrow.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Brothas and Sistahs, gather 'round -- it's time for some Bible-reading!! (Part I of 2)

Perhaps I'm taking an online quiz a little far, but I've been doing some thinking about the results I posted about a couple of days ago. I mentioned at the time that I felt my results slightly justified, to some extent anyway, due to the company I shared in 'biting the bullet' on account of agreeing that God, or anything worth calling God anyway, could conceivably be understood as requiring someone to do something horrific. I've done some writing and lecturing on precisely this topic, so perhaps you'll indulge me a bit here. The prototypical texts when dealing with this problematic issue are Genesis 22 (called the Akedah) and Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. I thought I'd offer a brief literary reading of the former, and then make my way, in Sunday or Monday's post, to the pretty scary implications of the latter. I warn you now, this could get a bit long. If none of this sounds like your cup o' tea, ignore the next two posts.

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The Genesis 22 narrative begins ‘After these things’ referring, presumably, to the things that have just happened in the last chapter -– chapter 21, where Abraham has been forced to banish his son Ishmael because of the shrewish rivalry between his wife Sarah and his concubine Hagar. It may just be an innocent connecting phrase, but ‘After these things’ has the effect of deliberately reminding us of what has just happened (or making us look up what has just happened, if we don’t already know, and bearing it in mind). Then the narrator tells us that God ‘tested’ (the Hebrew word can also be translated as ‘tempted’) Abraham, but only the narrator, the reader and God know this. We as readers share with the narrator a God’s-eye view of events, while Abraham himself knows nothing at all about this being a test. There are no reasons given for why God tests Abraham (compare the first chapter of the book of Job, where it is clear that Job suffers because of a heavenly competition between God and his adversary, in which God agrees to let the adversary –- ha-satan -– try Job’s worth.) We are also not given any context—we’re not told where Abraham is when God speaks (is he in his tent, out in the hills) –- nor are we told how he experiences the presence of God.

It seems that the text is not concerned to tell us these things, but is more concerned to get straight to the point. The conversation is crisp –- simply ‘Abraham’, and ‘Here I am’ (essentially ‘I’m here, Go ahead’). But God’s command, when it comes, is very full, with lots of sub-clauses describing Isaac: ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you’ (22.2). Referencing Isaac as ‘your only’ and ‘your beloved’ emphasizes the awfulness of the test. It is as if the narrator is making the test as difficult as possible –- or, as if God is ‘rubbing it in’.

Incidentally, ‘Your only son’ is a very strange phrase that may well raise a few questions. After all chapter 21, which the narrator has just directly recalled for us, makes it clear that Isaac is not Abraham's only son; he, in fact, has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Not only is Abraham being commanded to burn his promise-child, the child he has waited so long for, but the text emphasises (exaggerates?) his preciousness by making him, for the intents and purposes of this narrative, the only son. Note also that Abraham is not told where he is going, but is simply told to go to the land of Moriah –- which the Greek version of the Old Testament / Tanakh translates as the 'land of seeing', or the 'land of vision'. Abraham is to be led to the place of vision, or revelation, but for now he has to follow as one blind.

And stil Abraham says nothing. The gulf between verse 2 and 3 is yawning. We would expect some reaction on the part of Abraham, some cry or protest that the command is too difficult (after all figures as prominent as Moses and Jeremiah are described as resisting the call of God, even though they want to obey it). It's not as if Abraham hasn't reacted with emotion before. Genesis 23.11 reports that he responds to the expulsion of Ishmael by being ‘very distressed’; he has also bartered and pleaded with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Abraham's characterisation here is much more enigmatic; with this Abraham, we don’t know what he thinks or feels. Instead, we just get action and very meticulous preparation for the journey, which begins with Abraham rising early in the morning (22.3). This is a tantalising detail, since biblical authors always throw in details for a reason: i.e., we're compelled to wonder why it might be significant that Abraham gets up early. Is it to stress his obedience? his fervency to fulfil the command of God as urgently as possible? or to get the awful task over with as soon as he can?

The next part of the text is very pedantically practical. Abraham takes everything you need for a sacrifice, and you can almost see him with his checklist. Donkey? Check. Two young men? Check. Wood (which, of course, must first be chopped)? You betcha. Oh, and the beloved son. But even as it gives us these practical details, the narrative again omits the human details: what Abraham told Isaac to get him to go along with him; what Abraham said to Sarah (and if indeed Sarah knew anything about this). Again, everything is stripped down to a bare skeleton. Similarly, we get no information about the journey -- nothing, not the direction they went in, not the scenery they passed through. A narrative second is spent on the three days of the journey, a blink of an eye and he looks up and sees the place from afar (22.4).

Leaving behind the the young men at this point of the journey increases the story's tension, as father and soon go off alone up the mountain. It’s interesting, by the way, to ask why the narrator even includes the young men in the first place. There are a lot of journeys in the Bible, in Genesis even, that don't go out of their way to describe practical details like who it is that's carrying the bags. It seems to me that the narrator mentions them because leaving them behind is a way, as I just mentioned, of increasing and the tension; it also, though, requires that Abraham provide some kind of explanation about what it is he's doing. That is, maybe the narrator chooses to take them along so that Abraham must say something to them, and in doing so emphasize the unspeakability of what he is about to do. The fact that he says ‘I and the lad will go yonder, and sacrifice, and come back to you’ (22.5) suggests perhaps that this is something so awful that he cannot speak it directly (what would the young men do if they knew? – would they try to hold him back, reason with him? –- or, the horror, what if Isaac overheard?). However, Abraham’s enigmatic speech serves only to increase the mystery and leaves us with more ambiguity. Is this a necessary (or white) lie, or a statement of faith, or something simply practical (if he says what he is about to do won’t they try and pull him back)? Perhaps the fact that Abraham cannot tell anyone further emphasizes his loneliness -– the impossibility of him speaking and sharing the task.

As Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain, again there is an emphasis on tools. As if to stress the purpose of the journey, Abraham puts the wood on Isaac’s back, and Abraham carries the knife and the fire. The detail of the wood placed on the back of Isaac (22.6) is significant because it anticipates the reversal that is yet to come, when Isaac will be placed on the wood of the pyre. Then we get ‘so the two of them walked on together’; a line that is repeated again, for emphasis in verse 8. The repetition stresses the bond between father and son, but it also stresses the awfulness of the situation: father and son are one, they are together -- but one is to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered (and one knows this while the other does not). Then comes the conversation between Isaac and Abraham that begins ‘Father’ . . . ‘Here I am,’ which obviously echoes the conversation between Abraham and God at the beginning.

The parallel deliberately compares Abraham’s obligation to God and his obligation to his son, as he says ‘Here I am’ to both of them. The conversation that follows is ambiguous and euphemistic, just like Abraham’s conversation with the young men. Isaac says ‘Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb’; and Abraham answers ‘God himself will provide’. Again this can be read as a necessary evasion, a white lie, maybe even a statement from which Isaac is to infer the real meaning without his father having to say it directly. This raises the question: Does Isaac know, or doesn’t he know? If Abraham’s phrase is meant to keep the secret from isaac, does this once more emphasize the terribleness of what is going to happen? Can Abraham not tell Isaac for (related) pragmatic reasons because he might then resist or run away?

If we are familiar with the story already, most of us are through the Christian version, where Isaac is equated with Jesus, and vice versa, and where Isaac carrying the wood on his back becomes a sign of Jesus carrying his cross. Because Jesus is a willing sacrifice –- the lamb who willingly goes to the slaughter –- it is generally assumed that Isaac also willingly takes on the role of lamb. In reading the text this way, though, one conveniently forgets that the Isaac of Genesis is never explicitly told of his sacrificial role, only, enigmatically, that ‘God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice’. The verb ‘to provide’ in Hebrew sounds very like the verb ‘to see’ and so links into the theme of seeing and not seeing; it also anticipates verse 22.14, where Abraham says ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be seen’, or ‘On the mountain of the Lord God will provide’. (Note: In the version of the sacrifice in the Qur’an Abraham [or Ibrahim] does specifically ask his son’s opinion, and the son explicitly gives him permission to obey the will of God).

In verses 9-10, the story suddenly slows to slow-motion. Abraham builds the altar, lays the wood, binds his son Isaac, and lays him on the altar on top of the wood (where else?). The building up of detail seems laborious and is in total contrast to the instant spent on the three-day journey in 22.3. The purpose of the build up of detail may be to retard the action and increase the suspense; or perhaps to communicate, indirectly, Abraham’s reluctance. Note that Isaac, like his father, says nothing, and the absence of the speech of Isaac is even more haunting than the absence of the speech of Abraham between verses 2 and 3. Presumably, one would imagine anyway bound on the woodpile and with a knife set to strike him, Isaac has gathered that this is more than a father and son bonding day ou; and yet in our text he still says nothing. There are many ways of interpreting Isaac’s silence -- as a sign of obedience, as a sign that he is so shocked that he is struck dumb, or maybe as a sign that the narrator realizes that the text works better if Isaac does not speak. (If the narrator added ‘Isaac screamed and screamed’, or ‘Isaac said My father, I willingly go as a lamb to the sacrifice’, or ‘Father what are you doing?’ we would have a very different story). Maybe the narrator feels that silence is best, and that silence makes the text more haunting and mysterious.

Crucially it is at the very last moment, when Isaac’s life is literally hanging on a knife edge, that the messenger of God intervenes. The narrator takes us to the very last moment, when it is almost too late –- the Christian Reformation theologian Martin Luther rightly said that ‘if God had blinked, Isaac would be dead.’ The sacrifice of the son is suspended, but some kind of sacrifice of a living thing is still required, so a lamb tangled in a thicket is miraculously provided. God is clearly pleased by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice: verse 12 ends ‘for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son’, and in verse 16 ‘Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and give you descendants (or seed) as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore and your descendants will surely possess the gates of their enemies’. The promise of descendants has been given to Abraham before in Genesis but now it is given in emphatic form and amplified form.

* * * * * *
So, for those who've read it as well those of you who haven't, there's the story. You can probably see the direction I'm going to be heading with the implications that somebody like Kierkegaard draws from this, but stay tuned anyway.

Lately, I've become pretty interested in wine -- both the consumption and production. I didn't really even like wine too much until about three years ago, about 30,000+ feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, when I was in a very nervous, fidgety mood, and thus required a sublime sedative. Crappy airline wine to the rescue!

Since then, my suspicions have been confirmed that the wine connaisseur's world is an odd little enclave, quite often rife with infighting and controversy. Needless to say, due to my indiscriminate interests in insobriety and punch-drunk belligerence, I've been hooked on the subject ever since.

Nevertheless, I say all this to preface an article that has very little to do with besotted controversy. No, it just caught my my oenophile-eye, glazed as it might be, and merged with my more curious, analytical side -- the side that asks, 'Why does wine cost what it does?'.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

What Do We Want?? When Do We Want It??

There is a fabulous dialogue going on over at Kieran Healy's Weblog. The topic is the effectiveness of protesting; namely, as you might expect, anti-war protesting. The post itself is interesting, but the really good stuff emerges in the Comments section. Kieran's exchanges with another one of my blogging favorites, Timothy Burke, is not to be missed.

My own perspective on this issue is a bit ambiguous, even to myself. There is a part of me that really hates getting inconvenienced by protests in which I'm not participating. Case in point, the 10,000-strong protest in Brussels last month (Vaara tells the tale), many of whose participants inconvenienced my luggage-laden walk to the Gare du Midi. My criticism of their signs notwithstanding -- i.e., "Not In My Name" (Me to myself: 'It's not in your name, goddammit! It's in MINE!! *sob* *sob* MINE, I tell you!" Ahem.) -- I also realized, upon finally taking my seat in one of the remarkably comfortably new Belgian trains, that not only did I support their cause but also empathized with their motivation.

As Burke makes pretty clear, and I'm inclined to agree with him, mass protesting itself is not an effective tool for socio-political change. That said, I think he undersells the 'banality' of the institutionalization of contemporary protests. The processes of globalization -- and no, not all of them are bad -- have a tendency, it seems, to devaluate one's status as an individual agent of change, and thus also by extension, the efficacy even of one's relationships. Hyperbolic, 'narcissistic' displays of protest are obvious signs of frustration at the complex socio-political mechanization of western culture -- versus, that is, the more 'organic' sense that I and my relationships define my world as much as they are defined by it. The de-humanization that I find most disturbing about the former is not simply a bygone wish for simpler, stable times; rather, it is directed toward the, sometimes rather dystopian, consequences of not recognizing individual subjectivity. I think what we're seeing in some of the most recent protests, particularly those that are most 'radical' or 'inconvenient', is indeed very narcissistic. However, it is a narcissism bred by fear of being not only forgotten but erased.

This, of course, doesn't mitigate Burke's concerns and recommendations, but it does lend a suggestive point of empathy and understanding for those, like me, who sometimes find themselves grumbling as they wade through a sea of protesters whilst on their way to a train.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Don Tingle Would Be So Proud of Me

Not so long ago, I had a professor of religion and philosophy named Don Tingle. Don always saw a lot of potential in me, albeit most of that potential, so he said, was for deviant, malcontent activity that would lead me to jail or an early grave. Sorry, Don, I've yet to land in jail or a grave, but I did score well on an internet quiz about the rationality of my religion!!.

I made it through the quiz without any logical inconsistencies, which might surprise most who know me; however, I had to 'bite one bullet'.

A direct hit would have occurred had you answered in a way that implied a logical contradiction. The bitten bullet occurred because you responded in a way that required that you held a view that most people would have found strange, incredible or unpalatable. However, because you bit only one bullet and avoided direct hits completely you still qualify for our second highest award. A good achievement!

For what it's worth, I think I'm in good company when it comes to the bullet I had to bite. Sniper fire got me (and, so it seems, Scott Martens over at Pedantry [Permalinks on Blog*Spot are, typically, not working]) when it came to the consequences of questions 7 and 15:

7. It is justifiable to base one's beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, even in the absence of any external evidence for the truth of these convictions.* It is justifiable to base one's beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, even in the absence of any external evidence for the truth of these convictions.

15. The serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe had a firm, inner conviction that God wanted him to rape and murder prostitutes. He was, therefore, justified in believing that he was carrying out God's will in undertaking these actions.

Apparently, like Kierkegaard (appropriate, given the title of this blog), I believe that people might be justified in their belief that God could demand something terrible of them (eg., the sacrifice of one's own son in the Akedah story), and this places me outside the bounds of traditional, 'rational' religious discourse. Obviously, there's a good deal of nuance and explanation left undiscussed here -- namely, the play between, and implications of, subjectivity and ethics in that word I've italicized above, 'justified'. Suffice it to say for now, due to the face I'm on my way out the door to see a movie, the possible consequences of such a belief are quite dangerous socially; moreover, I think that contemporary western culture, being as oppressively homogenous as it is, is likely to see more manifestations of this belief than we might ordinarily expect. This explains in part, I suppose, why I keep studying religion, even though I am not in fact all that religious. I'll think about this a bit more, and maybe write something more coherent about in the morning.

One Shining Moment ... blah blah blah

Silentio's man-in-the-stands, or at least in front of his black & white television, is not happy. If you've been following his ongoing coverage of this year's NCAA men's basketball coverage, you probably already know that he was only begrudgingly watching this past weekend's Final Four. Fortunately for us, he's a slave to responsibility, and he actually sent me a a report I, quite honestly, was not expecting to receive. Yes, I know the report is a couple of days late; but, then again, if I remember correctly all of them have been. (Note to guest blogger: this is more my fault than that of our anonymous guest. He is a busy man, but I have no such excuse.) Those of you who read these reports, I realize, don't do so to find out who won; consequently, you each (I'm assuming a plurality, though this may overestimating my readership) read them with different motivations, emphases, etc. (N.t.g.b: you never knew you were so inherently postmodern, did you?) So, without further ado . . .

* * * * * * *

I hate Roy Williams. [ed. It's raw emotion throughout, folks. He has long had an irrational hatred for coaches who can't win the big one. Prepare yourself.] Honestly. [ed. Oh yeah, just like last time. Ooooo, me gusto -- la sexualidad salvaje --- una frase corta.] I mean you're facing the worst coach in college basketball -- Jim Boheim is the biggest choke artist in Div. I basketball, consistently allowing the ball to be in the wrong players hands --- and you still lose to him. Doubt me on this? [ed. What? That you hate Roy Williams? That Jim Boheim is the biggest artist in Div. I basketball? Or that Roy Williams lost to Jim Boehim?] Syracuse blew a 16 point lead, and down the stretch the best free throw shooter in the Big East conference doesn't touch the ball. And Kansas still can't win. Head to Chapel Hill if you want Roy, people will start to think Matt Dougherty was a great coach. [ed. Oh ho ho, you're a tricky one! Here I was trying to poke fun, and you responded to all three of my questions!!]

So Jim Boheim has finally given us the ultimate apologetic on whether evil exist or not. Only in a universe tainted by sin could he win a national title. Congratulations however, to the Duany family. Too bad they couldn't have won the national title with Duany Duany, when he played for a much better coach. Dick Bennett, at Wisconsin. Duany Duany, still love that name. Syracuse won, world did not end; but my desire for NCAA basketball may have died this night. Some of us are not so lucky to be studying abroad in these dark days. [ed. Studying? Ha. I was holed up in a Belgian cafe last night watching Manchester United get utterly outclassed by Real Madrid!]

Monday, April 07, 2003

Hermaphrodites Make For Good Reading

Kudos goes to Jeffrey Eugenides for his winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In the course of six or so months of visiting various bookstores, I've read the first one hundred pages of Middlesex. Now this obviously doesn't place me in a position to say too much about the book, but, all the same, I thought Eugenides' follow-up to The Virgin Suicides had all the marks of a book that, if I had the money, I'd like to buy and read without a moustached manager enquiring if he could help me find something. I doubt that anybody would've rushed out to buy the book based on that; so, it's quite fortunate that Jeffrey won today.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Play Ball!

In the midst of my travelling between Brussels and Glasgow, planning and executing a conference, and finding my sobriety after a nasty bout of late-night drinking with a couple of Irish friends -- I'm an international, jetset sort, I know, so cool! -- I completely failed to notice the beginning of the 2003/04 baseball season! The only problem is, at the moment I don't really have many thoughts on the subject. Good thing there's Christopher Monks' love affair with Mike Schmidt to bail me out of a blogging jam.

Hypocrisy, thy name is _______

In light of the 'patriotic' tizzy some conservatives went into over Sen. John Kerry's suggestion that the U.S. and Iraq were badly in need fo a regime change, you'd almost think they actually believed what they were saying about supporting the president during war. Ahem . . . Cue Atrios's collection of quotes to the contrary.

UPDATE: Just now realized that I forgot to link to the article relating to Kerry's comment. Problem resolved.

We all Need Heroes

I was very surprised, but oh so pleased, to see that yesterday's Guardian had a pretty lengthy profile of Zygmunt Bauman. It doesn't matter if you know of Bauman or not, this profile is well worth reading. He is a welcome reminder of the voice of dissent I keep harping on about here. Reading his classic Modernity and the Holocaust alongside Adorno & Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment would go a long way, I think, in refashioning a much-needed interrogation of contemporary Western culture.

A Few Things to Remember to Forget

Lest we forget that something other than a war is going on, and that war sometimes sporadically has effects that transcend the blood and trauma we as viewers try to forget and whimsically consider 'the cost of war' when either get too close for comfort, a couple of links.

One to a present economic reality, that jobs are even more scarse today than they were eleven months ago:

Initial jobless claims rose by a larger-than-expected 38,000 to 445,000 in the week ended March 29, the Labor Department said Thursday. That marked the highest number since April 13, 2002. The four-week average, which smoothes out weekly fluctuations, climbed by 2,500 to 426,250.

[. . .]

Nearly two million Americans have lost their jobs over the last two years after the economy sank into recession, and the war with Iraq has made businesses even more reluctant to hire workers, analysts say. In February, employers slashed 308,000 jobs, the largest number since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Economists think an additional round of cuts occurred in March. Some economists say the war with Iraq, which began two weeks ago, will have roughly the same effect on the world economy as the September 2001 terror attacks. The World Bank said Wednesday that economic output around the world could be reduced by about $75 billion to $100 billion this year. Most forecasters, however, don't expect the war to tip the U.S. economy into a new recession.

Another to an analysis of a nascent economic reality, anti-Americanism might not help you get a job in eleven months:

We are unlikely to see massive boycotts of American companies, although the possibility can’t be totally eliminated. But there could be a long, slow erosion of the position of U.S. multinationals. For example, in nations where governments still have a say in the awarding of big business contracts, such as China or Saudi Arabia, fewer could go to American companies. In Europe, the best and the brightest local talent might find a stigma attached to U.S. firms and seek employment elsewhere. The cost of physical security could become a competitive disadvantage for U.S. multinationals.

The most vulnerable American firms could be consumer-product companies. In December, a bombing at a McDonald’s in Indonesia killed three people, and brands like Nike and Coca-Cola could also be targets. There is a particular risk in industries where competition is brisk and the symbolism of being American is high—this risk applies to companies like Boeing, which have rivals such as Airbus, or General Motors, which vies with Toyota. The corporations that have least to fear may be financial firms like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, which so clearly dominate the global landscape.

If overseas American business is hurt, the U.S. economy won’t be immune. At the end of 2001, American multinationals had invested more than $2.3 trillion abroad, not counting stocks and bonds. Many have become dependent on overseas markets for more than 30 percent of their revenue. American businesses have become central to global supply chains that service the United States itself; more than 25 percent of the products America imports come from the foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms. We will never know the cost of American companies’ deciding not to invest abroad or not to expand because of a perceived hostile environment overseas.

And one more to a related but even more startling possibility, which, incidentally, ain't going to help you get a job anytime soon either, Asia might not bail America out of debt this time around:

For years now, foreigners have been willing to lend Americans all the money they could spend, allowing the richest nation on earth to live beyond its considerable means. The United States now borrows $500 billion a year from foreigners, who still, as a rule, believe America remains the most promising growth economy in the world. Japan is a mess, and Europe is sluggish. American consumers buying houses and cars are the only real engine for global growth. While Wall Street may be too risky, U.S. Treasury bonds look secure. The big question has been whether this lending train will come to a gradual halt, or crash, and why.

[. . .]

Over the past three years, total U.S. Treasury holdings have been shifting from Europe to Asia, as Japan’s share has risen from 26 to 31 percent, and China’s from 4 to 9 percent. The dollar has been falling, but would have fallen faster, says economist Paul Donovan of UBS Warburg, if Asian central banks weren’t buying dollars to keep their export prices competitive in cheaper yen and renminbi. In the fourth quarter last year, China edged ahead of Japan to become the largest net buyer of U.S. Treasury bonds.

[. . .]

And there are other conflicts looming along Washington’s Axis of Evil, one of which would affect both China and Japan directly—North Korea. It’s not inconceivable that the two countries might use their financial clout to push a reluctant Washington to cut a deal with Pyongyang. “Monetary nationalism is an obvious lever to play in the game of diplomacy,” says Princeton economic historian Harold James, recalling Charles de Gaulle’s steps to protest the Vietnam War by shifting French dollar reserves into gold between 1965 and 1968. “In military terms China is no match for the U.S., but there are many things they can do.” Threatening to convert reserves into euros would be a start. Most economists expect the U.S. deficit will surge to $600 billion by next year, heightening the risk to creditors. “There will be a really big crunch coming,” warns James. That means the end of easy money and the American spending spree that has sustained the global economy.

Oh, but don't worry about that big continent way on the other side of the world. They don't speak American, and they look a little funny. Go about your business, or lack thereof. Plug your ears, squint your eyes tight, shake your head whilst screaming 'la la la' or maybe 'There's no place like home', or maybe as you praise Jesus for his rescue of Private Jessica Lynch -- whatever you do, don't find fault, don't question. Remember to anesthetize yourself in work, in play, and in family; remember to vote Republican; remember to boycott the Dixie Chicks; remember that you are not a pretty person without buying new clothes (hopefully on credit), the less you need them the better; remember that using your car more, the fewer people in it the better, is actually good for America and thus should be encouraged; remember to keep your refrigerator door open from time to time; remember that homosexuality is an abomination, and that not only will homosexuals burn in hell they should, when possible, be legally prohibited from their despicable sexual acts. Yes, just remember that America is all that matters, that ignorance is bliss and holds the key to the New American Century; and, oh yes, that the International concourse at the airport is only for arrivals, not departures. Remember all this, and nothing I've posted today will ever matter at all.

Now, if you don't mind, please pass the Xanax.


*Long, deep, slow sighhhhhhhhh* At long last, the conference I've been planning has come and gone. With little fanfare and a humble turnout (possibly due to my last-second change of the venue), my Saturday was spent with five other English Lit. and Religion academics exploring, in wildly divergent ways, the interchange between Herman Melville and religion (well, they did that -- I just prattled on, perhaps a bit incoherently, about information theory, noise, and irony, and how I think it somehow not only relates to theology but to Melville's writing career). The discussion was, at times, lively. I am still very unsure to what degree Prof. Graham Ward, from the University of Manchester, disagreed with my insistence that irony is (a) neither 'infinitely negative', as Kierkegaard and sometimes even Nietzsche averred, or that (b) irony plays a vital role in theology, as I understand the latter term. (N.b., my understanding and articulation of theology, I've learned, is far from being all that clear, as I often seem to confusingly, yet consciously, conflate it with aesthetics.) I certainly didn't help matters by saying, in complete contradiction to what my brain was telling me to say, 'Yes, Graham, I guess I am talking mostly about 'Christian" theology.' The fact that I actually wasn't, but in fact something far more, let's say 'general', was not lost on me whilst talking; but it was so late in the day, I didn't care to correct myself. Oh well, so it goes, and went. And now it is gone, at least until I start exploring more fervently the possibility of getting the papers published in one form or another.

What's been happening in the world these days? I've been pretty out-of-touch the past week. What should I see upon my return to the real life world of truth and consequences:

Buoyed by success on the battlefield, most Americans now express support for an expansive U.S. role in the Middle East, with a clear majority backing the war in Iraq and half endorsing military action against Iran if it continues to develop nuclear weapons, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

[. . .]

More than three-fourths of Americans — including two-thirds of liberals and 70% of Democrats — now say they support the decision to go to war. And more than four-fifths of these war supporters say they still will back the military action even if allied forces don't find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

[. . .]

"I had my own reservations about [the war] ... but my feeling is at least I can trust that this president is trying to do the right thing for the country," said Christopher Hart, an author in Westport, Conn., who responded to the survey. "This man fully believes in what he does and I do not believe he is doing this for any reason other than that he is convinced it is in our best interest."

[. . .]

Americans are divided almost in half when asked whether the United States should take military action against Syria, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accused of providing Iraq with military supplies. Syria has denied the accusation. But 42% said the United States should take action if Syria, in fact, provides aid to Iraq, while 46% said no.

More Americans take a hard line on Iran, which recently disclosed an advanced program to develop the enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.

Exactly half said the United States should take military action against Iran if it continues to move toward nuclear-weapon development; 36% disagreed. Perhaps surprisingly, women are slightly more supportive of such action than men.

[. . .]

Almost three-quarters praised Bush's handling of the war, 56% said he has done a good or excellent job of explaining the rationale for it and 70% say the United States has the moral authority to have attacked Iraq.

[. . .]

Nearly eight in 10 Americans now accept the Bush administration's contention — disputed by some experts — that Hussein has "close ties" to Al Qaeda (even 70% of Democrats agree). And 60% of Americans say they believe Hussein bears at least some responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a charge even the administration hasn't levied against him.

You know, I used to think that if the majority of Americans were actually presented with the neo-conservative agenda for, among other things, the Middle East, its representatives (for a nice set of links on who they are, see Kevin Drum) would be run out of Washington as quickly as they stole the keys and entered. However, though I know and realize that a poll like this might just reflect American war-time solidarity, I'm growing increasingly scared shitless that the small percentage of the country who actually has the time or the inclination to actually care might actually agree with such an agenda, and perhaps even think it is, in fact, a little too pansy! I can only hope Neal Pollack's right that this war has driven everybody insane; otherwise . . . well, 'otherwise' is for a completely different post.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

The Madness Is Almost Over

Blogger was acting loopy all day yesterday, hence the blogging silence. Today's silence is a product of just being plain busy. In the midst of all this, I nearly forgot to post Silentio's NCAA update! Heaven forbid, I know! Thanks to Crak over at Aquadoodiloop for putting the heat on me to get this thing posted. Here goes, basketball fans

* * * * * * *

With the clamor that my absence made on this site, as soon as I got access back to the internet I realized that I must update the masses of what happened in college baskeball's crown jewel. [ed. To add a bit of contex to this, our beat reporter had some problems with money and automobiles over the weekend. Nothing to worry about, he tells me, but it explains in part why he didn't have internet access.] And the answer: Bob Knight is taking the Red Raiders [ed. Translation: The Red Raiders of Texas Tech University] to MSG [ed. Translation: Madison Square Garden.] to win the NIT. As for the NCAA tournament, well I worked through all four days. Technically Friday night I was arguing away from the house, but laborous it was. [ed. Oh yeah, I forgot, he also told me he had some some domestic troubles. Doesn't it suck when life makes diversions like sports take a back seat?] Sorry to say, all I got was postgame recaps, no real observations except for the one game I did see: Duke-Kansas.

Kansas won, because Duke lets a freshman continue to take horrible shots. That don't happen in Lubbock. [ed. Translation: Home of Texas Tech University.] Go Red Raiders! [ed. We do love our stream-of-conscious non sequiturs here, don't we?]

What else happens: the two teams I liked, UK and Oklahoma, both fall in the Elite 8. Disappointing. But Lute Olson crashed and burned. Excellent. Bill Walton's seed is finally gone. [ed. Ooooo, can you feel the oozing masculinity of his short, terse prose. I knew that one day Silentio's content would justify my categorizing it as 'Erotica' on Eatonweb -- try to Google 'Silentio' and 'Erotica' sometime if you don't believe me.] Reality #`1: a possibly very disappointing Final Four consisting of Marquette (Conference USA) facing Kansas (Big 12) and Texas (Big 12) vs. Syracuse (Big East). If Kansas faces Syracuse, I expect a national title game that goes on forever as neither Roy Williams or Jim Boheim have the ability to win the big game. [ed. Hee.] Reality #2: I will not be watching if it is Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk vs. "Brent, nobody stopped the Clock." [ed. A cultural reference that I guess refers to Syracuse. If anybody knows, clue me in.]

So my analysis of the Final Four. I join Pat in not caring. Marquette or Texas -- Jesus not likely to return. Syracuse or Kansas -- "It's the end of the world as we know it," only I won't feel fine. There'll be a recap from N'orleans if Brad sends me for on-site reports. Since that ain't happening, expect one only if I get really bored next week.