Thinking over yesterday’s reasoned argument ranty screed about America’s masculine sensibilities and our notions of the heroic, I was reminded of an excellent Foreign Policy article by Riehan Salam about the very particular place men play in this recession, both as its cause and its victims.  He makes an interesting argument, though I hesitate to draw quite the conclusions as he does… Big historical events are always more complex than the quantities of testosterone could reveal.  And yet:

For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.

Its worth your time to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.  It was pointed out in the comments section to yesterday’s post that there’s a world of difference between stock brokers and pilots, which I think goes without saying.   Excepting Glenn Beck-inspired lynch mobs, the level of danger in securities trading is quite low.  Yet to hear it told, many in the financial world were under the belief that their work should have carried a comparable level of cachet… Or, at a bare minimum, that the levels of ballsiness required to do investment banking elevated it above the tedium that that profession is legendary for. Think about Paulson, or Cassano, or Cohen, or any of the iconic figures to emerge from the financial crisis: the thing that is striking about all of them is (a) just how heroic/cutthroat/testosterific they saw their work and (b) how their taste for “innovative” financial products amplified that self-image well beyond its proper constraints.  While the traits singled out in (a) are going to be operative at the top of any field as a matter of necessity, they rarely acquire the heroic undertones they did in the run-up to the collapse, and its that bubble-born mentality Domenach is praising that, at least so far as it relates to business, should probably be confined to the ash-heap. (And, if Salam is right, already has been.)

I apologize for the light posting over the last couple days… Job search stuff occasionally winds up being amazingly time consuming, especially when it seems to be productive. Unfortunately it looks like this most recent glimmer of opportunity was for nought and so I’m back to hoop jumping for at least a few more weeks.  And of course, dear readers, to blogging.

Which brings me to this essay, which Peter Lawler recommends and I am puzzled by.  So far as I can tell, its central argument is that America is aging and finding less space for the kind of expansive, manly excess that characterized the world of The Right Stuff. Instead we are getting older, finding that government dependency is easy, and sopping at the consumer trough.  All of this with nary a mention of women’s exclusion, the rampant alcoholism, the miserable children, the suicidal closeted homosexuals. (Or heaven forbid, the south.) What really mattered about that era was that a miniscule portion of the population went really fucking fast and could have killed themselves doing so, and they were real men for doing so.

But setting aside the historical blindness necessary to write this kind of essay, maybe the most bizarre part of Domenach’s thinking is the fact that the world he mourns did exist less than two years ago, on Wall Street, among bankers whose belief in their testicular infallibility drove the economy off a cliff. And its their failed heroics now forcing the rest of us, unwillingly I might add, to rediscover the values of dependence, whose gifts include such unmanly traits as gratitude and humility.  But this could only be a signal of decline, goes Domenech’s thinking, because we weren’t being manly anymore, and dammit, manliness built ‘merica.

There’s a metaphor involving heroin withdrawl here but somehow I think my point has been made. Good riddance in any case.

*Cease rant.*

Edit: As if on cue, Will finds the best Craigslist ad ever.

John Schwenkler proposes an excellent idea which may appeal to some of this blog’s readers:

So … anyone out there interested in reading the new encyclical together, a chapter or two at a time? I should acknowledge right away that I’m no expert on Catholic social teaching (though I did once research and write a long but unsigned encyclopedia article on the topic, and came away with very few sympathies for the standard Novak-Weigel-Neuhaus line), and of course I do have my own biases that I should be better about allowing documents like this one to challenge, but then again remedying such defects would be very much the purpose of the exercise.

What I’d do is post some very general talking points – perhaps on Sunday afternoons? – and then let the discussion unfold in the comments from there. I see six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which would mean about two months to get through the whole thing if we really took our time. Leave a note in the comments if you’re interested; if enough people are, we can get started on the introduction for this coming weekend.

I’ve been puzzling over where to begin in writing over this thing, so fingers crossed this’ll provide adequate impetus…

For today’s dose of apocalyptic rhetoric, we turn to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, explaining to the Pro-Consul Demetrianus why Christian disdain for the pagan gods isn’t to blame for the empire’s decline:

You have said that to us should be attributed the calamities by which the world is now shaken and distressed, because your gods are not now worshipped by us. Now, since you are ignorant of divine knowledge, and a stranger to truth, you must in the first place realize this, that the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood.  This we would know , even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals… This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has had a beginning shall hav an end, that everything which as flourished shall fall, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.

-Excerpted from Rebecca West’s Augustine.

Stray thought: One of the more interesting points Popper raised in The Open Society and its Enemies was how Platonism, despite its emphasis on the eternal and undying forms, contained in itself the grains of a historicist outlook in its insistence on the inevitable decline of the material world.  Popper claimed this put it at the beginning of the line of thought that eventually led to Marxism, though he did relatively little exploration of the very complex role those kinds of views played in the early Middle Ages. Though I’m not really convinced Popper’s take is really a fair read of Plato, its still interesting to see how that kind of pessimism showing up in the mindset of the Early Christians, and how they employed it against the powers of the day… And what an intriguing contrast it’s emphasis on physical decay makes to the moral reversals of the Sermon on the Mount…

Nerdery Ctd.

July 6, 2009

Now that I’ve wasted a good 200 words qualifying myself, this online version of the Codex Sinaiticus is quite neat. From the CNN article:

Discovered in a monastery in the Sinai desert in Egypt more than 160 years ago, the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus includes two books that are not part of the official New Testament and at least seven books that are not in the Old Testament.

The New Testament books are in a different order, and include numerous handwritten corrections — some made as much as 800 years after the texts were written, according to scholars who worked on the project of putting the Bible online. The changes range from the alteration of a single letter to the insertion of whole sentences.

Darwin Catholic on the threat of nerdery overwhelming faith:

And yet for those of us who make reading, talking and writing about the Catholic Church a hobby of sorts, this presents a serious danger. Those of us who are “Catholic geeks” need always to recall that however much the more abstruse corners of Catholic history or theology may fascinate us, that Catholicism is not a hobby or field of study — the exclusive territory of those with sufficient levels of detailed knowledge and experience. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and the source of the sacraments which are channels of grace to those of us in the Church Militant.

The Church is no stranger to intellectualism and knowledge, and there is much benefit to knowing the Church’s teachings and history in detail. And yet, knowledge itself is not our end as Catholics. In the simple yet powerful words I was made to learn as a child, “God made us to know, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” The rest is all details. Important details, to be sure, to the extent that they help us to love and follow our faith. I’m sure that all of us know many people (often members of our own family) who were easily lead away from the Church because they never really knew and understood it.

This is something I’ve often had to remind myself as I wander around the edges of Catholicism, intellectual and otherwise.  Mistaking the accidents of faith with its substance is a error that is shared just as much by those outside the faith as inside it, and to my mind its a particularly easy error in Catholicism’s case, thanks to its extremely rich history and practice.  It would be untrue to say that there’s nothing to be gained from appreciating the vibrancy of the tradition, the beauty of the rituals, or the intellectual acomplishments of the Church’s founders. Clearly, there’s a great deal to be had by it, and indeed, that richness is much of what makes Catholicism preferable to, say, puritanism.  But as inspiring as its depth may be, appreciation of Catholicism’s surface can’t be a substitute for faith in its depths.  Good aesthetics does not salvation make.

And yet I keep showing up, doubts and all.  I continue to find those images and songs inspiring, despite knowing them to be empty.  I still get a huge kick out of Augustine and Chesterton, even though their arguments are so unsatisfying. And occasionally in all this exploration, I feel something I imagine approximates faith;  that sense of being grasped, or being in the presence of the greater, or of being mortal in all the complexity that entails.  But to think that the feeling is enough, I’d hazzard, would be just too modern.  It would put Christianity’s existential burden on par with rock and roll or generalized anxiety disorder, a move at least as dumb as scientizing the Bible’s mythology or building creation science museums.  Faith requires more, though exactly what I’m not really sure.

I recognize this is all rather self-indulgent. Apologies. It’s monday, Arvo Part is up in iTunes, and I’ve already mocked Sarah Palin. (And really, what else is there worth talking about?)

Oooh man, the New York Times is pondering Minnesota’s electoral politics… Good f-in luck, my friend:

Minnesota was settled by agrarian, church-going folks — Norwegians and Swedes, with many Germans as well, whose subsequent generations continue to take a dim view of political corruption and vote accordingly. The habits of civic life are baked in at early age, with churches and unions — historically strong in Minnesota — reminding members that voting is both an obligation and an opportunity. The presence of distinct regions with separate needs and political agendas — the average union member from the Iron Range has very different expectations from government than a mother from the populous suburbs that ring the Twin Cities — means that each regional constituency shows up at the polling place to make sure its interests are seen to.

Later on, Lambert throws in his bit:

“Because we think we’re such shrewd judges of human nature we’re intensely skeptical of everyone who looks and sounds like us and because we’re so proud of our broad-mindedness, we make a big show of embracing everyone who doesn’t seem like us,” said Brian Lambert, a radio personality and former media critic at The St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I’m inclined to say that the state’s electoral funkiness has more to do with the form of ethnic and religious allegiance than it does with being broad-minded or skeptical.  The relative homogeniety of the state means that its constituent identities are only rarely defined against those of outsiders… This was a big part of why the state was able to lead during the Civil Rights era, and also why Jewish canidates have been so successful; ethnic or religious outsiders are perceived as oddities rather than competitors. (Though that doesn’t mean the state’s flawless by any means. The largest lynching in U.S. history, for example, happened here.)

Art, Gods, Respect

June 29, 2009

Goya Saturn Devouring His Children (1)Spengler is feeling the horror:

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief.He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic,he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain whyone should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

Later on:

Another son, Cronos , “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,…of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Setting aside the other issues I have with this post, the operative claim here seems to be this: the kind of account of the world offered by Greek mythology is horrendous, frightening, and expresses the most base parts of human nature.  As such, it represents (a) the truth and (b) a threat.  Therefore, the correct response to art/myth is fear.

To begin with, I think Goldman’s underlying characterization of Plato’s take on mythology (and hence cultural conservatism that values myth) really doesn’t do justice to the complexities of what Plato’s take on myth drives at. As often as his later work emphasized the necessity of hiding myth, the Socratic dialogues exhibit more or less the opposite attitude, and provide just such a method (dialectic) to explore the dilemmas posed to us by a mythological worldview and to reach the universal by that process. (Which isn’t even to mention how essential struggling with Hesiod was for the Pre-Socratics… I could go on.) The fact that Plato later turned on this view shouldn’t make us follow him there, provided the arguments aren’t compelling.

That said, a full understanding of the danger posed by our mythological and artistic traditions is merited, but the correct response to that danger should not be fear but respect. Spengler’s preference for obscuring the gods denies what there is to learn from them, firstly concerning ourselves, as JL has astutely argued, but also about forces wildly outside of ourselves;  almost all mythology plays in the space between anthropocentrism’s necessity and it’s futility, personifying forces so impersonal that even putting a name to them borders on blasphemy, but that nonetheless allows us to discuss them in a way that, oddly enough, winds up being completely human.   Consider these stories about the incestuous, multi-sexual, violent pre-Olympians; are they human? No, though they’re moody, they ain’t moody like us, not even remotely. They do things beyond the pale, because, like it or not, nature is often just as foreign, and showing them up as humans lets us grapple with their pre-social nature in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But the only way that that understanding (which incidentally lies at the origin of both law and science) can move forward is if it’s allowed a space to exist, either as art, or sacrifice, or myth.

Article on Slate today about McDonald’s conquest of the French market… Very interesting case of corporate co-option of local customs without actually changing the substance of the product:

What especially cheesed off Daguin and other chefs was that McDonald’s was being taxed as a carryout establishment even though the overwhelming majority of its customers actually chose to dine chez McDo. French diners tended to treat McDonald’s as if it were no different than the bistro around the corner: They came, they ate, and they lingered. As Gravier artfully put it, “The French population uses McDonald’s in a very French way; it is fast food, but not that fast.” The data the company collected bore this out. Americans visited McDonald’s more often than the French, at all hours of the day, frequently alone, and opted for takeout 70 percent of the time. The French spent more money per visit, came in groups more often than Americans, and did 70 percent of their eating during regular lunch and dinner hours. “We have a food culture in France; eating is not a feeding moment, it is a social moment,” Gravier said.

Though I’ve often found myself intrigued by Scott Payne’s many posts on the subject of glocalism, part of me wonders if McDo won’t wind up being the end outcome of a globalization-friendly, “unity-without-violence-to-particulars” agenda, unity here being represented by global brands aggressively adapting themselves to local cultures with very little modification to their actual products.  Certainly there are echoes here of the daily, face-to-face contact advocated by the localists, even semi-local (okay, just domestic) ingredients, but it seems that the absence of genuine difference at the level of food should be troubling… It may be localized monoculture, but its still monoculture, with many of the attendant problems that come with that.

I’m hostile to Calvin. Always have been. Always will be. This isn’t to deny the man has his charms: I still remember how struck I was by Institutes of Christian Religion the first time I sat down with it… His argumentative style sticks with you, both because of its lucidity and its lawyerly precision.  Nonetheless, that style and the outlook that underpins it is ultimately what damns him for me: thinking about the Bible as a legal document isn’t just epistemologically unsound, it ultimately leads to a very deeply poisonous mode of being in the world, one which inevitably extends the legalization of the Word into a legalization of the World, and a reconceptualization of our place in the world as a stipulation of the cosmic-judicial order than as an act (even a gift) of love.  And though I hesitate to draw a straight line from that mode of thought to capitalism or to our distaste for cultural and environmental givens, it’s impossible not to see echoes between the current order and that of, say, Puritan New England, or Geneva under Calvin’s thumb.  Both our world and his require a universe where mystery is dispersed, either through an unseen transcendent order or by a technological solipsism… And both deny the world as an ongoing site for revelation, whatever that might mean.

None of this, I recognize, is new.  Still, I was really struck by it after reading this great post about Puritan graveyards out east. Take a looksie:

The primary ethos of their community were piety, hard work, education, and a morally upright, ascetic lifestyle, with harsh punishments for trespassers. Their religious views included bans on anything considered extravagant or “popish”, including ‘graven images’ or religious symbols. They also had strict views on who might qualify to enter to heaven, with most people doomed to merely rot. What followed was some creative solutions in tombstone design.

Carved in slate, greenstone, or occasionally marble, the most common motif in the early headstones is the winged death-head, and simple inscriptions: either just the name with birth and death dates, or the simple phrase “here lies the body of. . . ” Later, more festive arrangements of skeletons and Father Time disporting themselves, winged hourglasses, and winged cherub heads appeared. There is a lot of variation in the design details, as if each carver put his own spin on the theme. Some of the more elaborate stones have intricate carvings and rhyming poetry, usually about the inevitability of death, designed to scare visitors into piety.

I’m unable to find it at the moment but there was a great First Things article about graveyards a few years back…  It’s core argument, if memory serves, was that the degree of importance funerals and graveyards carry for the culture is indicative of how seriously life/the past is taken, and that the slow removal of those rituals/places/meanings from the center of our culture indicates a severing of our commitments to the past.  Viewed through that lens, the Puritan insistence on death’s sole relevance for instruction, and the concurrent belief in life as a predetermined stage for the already-damned and the already-saved  can be seen as a predecessor (though perhaps not as direct ancestor) for our current denial of mortality (and hence the past) as a regular feature of life: requiring death be articulated outside the sacred order and that the bodies of the dead be treated as essentially meaningless both have parallels under scientific consumerism, albeit from quite different premises and to an ultimately different conclusion. One demands obedience and sees death solely as an aid to that end, the other demands consumption and never brings up the subject. But both, for all their differences, see death unmoored from memory and mystery, and on that point they form a continuum, however distant their other commitments may be.

Edit: Here’s that article. Gracias to Nathan for the link!