Sunday, July 25, 2010

care less

I could care less about Shirley Sherrod.

-- Andrew Breitbart, blogger*

I should have taken time to listen and to learn.

-- Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

We’re forced in this business to make quick judgments.

-- Benjamin Jealous, President, NAACP*

No Mr. Jealous, no Mr. Vilsack, you were not forced to throw a good woman under the bus. You were not forced to do the bidding of a self-confessed liar. You were not forced to ignore decency and fairness. You were not forced to betray the code of liberal (okay, call them “progressive” if you want) values. You were not forced to endorse the power of falsifiers and fabricators. These were your own decisions. These were your choices. We hold you responsible. We’re allowed to do that. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.

I’m glad you apologized and are trying to clean up the mess you made. But what will you do next time?

Both of you presumably went to college. You got what we used to call a “liberal education.” My liberal religion is not value-free; it proclaims as a principle the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Scholarship – the pursuit of knowledge – came of age in the Enlightenment, and free speech is its modus vivendi because, as Jefferson said (with a little help from the committee), “all men are created equal.” That is to say, you don’t get to win the argument because you’re a king. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re a bishop. You don’t get to win the argument because you thump the Bible. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re holding a gun. You don’t get to win the argument because you shout the loudest. You don’t get to win the argument because you use the most insulting language. You don’t get to ignore the facts, or lie about them, without public judgment and private penalty.

The table of discourse has standards. It denies a chair to those who will not live by facts, logic and evidence. Its clear space is a temple passionately committed to reason – that is to say, sacred to the whole power of human perception, and dedicated to the proposition that together we can rise above our lusts, greeds and fears to share the world.

So the rules of discourse are not the rules of a party game, like conventions of bidding in bridge. They are not the ceremonial of a narrow class, like rituals of a debutante cotillion. The rules of discourse are moral laws, rules of what some have called the Divine Domain. They are an instantiation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. They are a necessary means of the Golden Rule. They are the nearest thing human beings have created to justice. Without rules of discourse, revolutions are just chapters in the endless cycle of revenge.

When prominent officials who know better, prompted by a suspect source, rush to judgment and fall over each other to do the bidding of the wicked, it is a Day of Discouragement and also of Revelation, exposing the cowardice of liberal culture, its forgetfulness of principle, laziness before the work of decency, shamefastness for virtues rather than for sins. Justice begins in meticulous search for truth. That’s why tyrants and ruffians fear and persecute the honest, and that’s why liberal officials of public or private agencies are supposed to defend the innocent from those assaults.

“Integrity” is an old-fashioned word meaning wholeness. Those who have it know that compartmentalization ultimately fails, whether at the pearly gates or at the door of conscience. There is, or used to be, a price to be paid for bad character. Mr. Breitbart has told us that he is a person of bad character, a person without regard for truth, a person willing to destroy the innocent in pursuit of his plans – the kind of person from whom you would shield your family if he lived next door. No statement from such a source should prompt any action of government, or appear in any venue of journalism.

The Attorney General wants us to talk about race, and Ms. Sherrod’s story is of a kind that, if it were more widely known, could help to heal our racial wounds. She has overcome profound grief and injury, and taught herself to address the suffering of those made to suffer unfairly, no matter what their social location. She is the living refutation of Breitbart’s lie. When our leaders threw her to the wolves, they were engaging in a kind of behavior that enables witch-hunts, red scares, blacklists and pogroms.

Kipling the colonialist said that “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, . . . You’ll be a man, my son!” We’ve learned during the death of empires that both women and men participate in Menschheit, so I could say to my daughters that I hope you’ll be a Mensch, my child. And in times of moral peril when the mediocre lose their courage, we need Menschen to lead us, people who will stand for truth in a storm of entitled idiocy, naming the lie and the liar for what they are and denying them influence. It’s what we expect of our leaders.

Mr. Jealous, Mr. Vilsack, I hope that in your future careers you’ll redeem yourselves from this week’s betrayal of America’s values. But as for now, if you were in my employ, I would fire you both.

*Both quotes from “On the Media,” National Public Radio, July 25, 2010

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

this hour

Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

-- William Wordsworth, “Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty”

Who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

-- John Milton, Areopagitica

I have. Over and over again I have known truth put to the worse, when there is too much freedom, where there are no rules. And who am I to declare the rules? Nobody in particular. But I know that where there are no rules, lies prevail. The biggest fist then rules, and might makes right.

“Your right to swing your arm stops at my nose.” I heard this motto spoken at a small-town meeting on residential zoning. A developer had bought two of the town’s modest frame houses and torn them down to build mcmansions in their place. These intruders bullied the neighborhood, and towered over it. A woman broke into tears as she told how she no longer had sunlight in her kitchen window.

The town discovered that it had no rules against this kind of thing. Many were afraid it was a sign of things to come, that it was the end of “our town as we know it;” or that, as a realtor might say, the “special character” of the place was about to be demolished. So they wanted to make what the developer had done illegal.

The speaker, who so zealously guarded the prerogatives of his nose, was the developer. How dare you pass laws, he said, that limit my property rights? You can swing your arms, of course, provided that the arc never crosses my path – or any potential path that I might choose. Pass all the ordinances you want, as long as they have no impact on me.

But it wasn’t the developer who should have spoken these words. The words properly belonged to the woman who no longer had sunlight in her kitchen. Her nose had been smashed by his fist. She had done nothing, and the swinging of his arm had materially curtailed enjoyment of her property.

The developer was misrepresenting himself. What he said was true – none of us has a right to smack another in the face – but his utterance of it was false. When the smacker masquerades as smackee, the resulting speech acts are duplicitous. We have a right to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. When aggressors claim to be victims, they deserve no place in the discussion circle.

Those who deny the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, for instance, contradict the facts in order to continue the persecution of Jews. Because a few seconds of research demolishes their position, they create phony institutions of research, and publish ragtag “journals” in which the persecutors can quote each other, thus generating footnotes – those ensigns of scholarship that fool an ill-informed reader into thinking the author owns a place in the intellectual tradition.

Some Christians in America claim that Christians are persecuted in America – proving only that they do not know what the meaning of the word “persecution” is: disagreement is not the same thing as persecution. Christians have at times and places been persecuted for their faith (more often than not by other Christians), but not these Christians here and now. Conservative Christians have the right to offer their views, but not to be protected from exposure in delusion or dishonesty.

When I went to school in the still segregated south, family members and their friends told me (the Yankee kid) that the “Niggruhs” had their own schools, just as good, no, “even better than ours,” and they would show me some time. But they never did show me, because there weren’t any such places. The kids who a year or two later sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter had stopped talking; this matter wasn’t going to be resolved at a discussion circle. Discussion in that time and place had become too corrupt for that. We’re lucky that the ones who stopped talking weren’t carrying guns.

Some who sought power recently have said that the new health care laws include “death panels,” by which government bureaucrats will decide who lives and who dies. There are in fact bureaucrats who get to decide who of us will be treated and who will not: they work for health insurance companies. The death panel hoax was a scheme to smear government with sins of private enterprise. It worked, because those with higher ethical standards were too polite. I am a worker in palliative care. This lie is about me. I take it personally. No one will tell it in my presence without being called on it.

We didn’t call the liars out. We didn’t confront them with their professional and personal corruption. They should have been red-carded and sent off the field, but we tried to debate with them. They do not deserve debate. They deserve – depending on your philosophy of child-rearing – either a long time-out or a public spanking.

If Milton were alive today, he would know that truth can be put to the worse when the rules of discourse are violated and no one calls the fouls. Free speech isn’t utterly free. You don’t get to win by shouting louder. You don’t get to prove your lies by repeating them. You don’t get to quote movies as if they were history. You don’t get to ignore the facts. You don’t get to dispute the facts except on the basis of other facts. Above all, you don’t get to call yourself the lamb when you are the lion.

Radical theologians and philosophers have said in recent times that the rules of discourse are elitist. I do not think they are right; but if they are right, then justice requires that elites should rule the world. We don’t always have to listen to everybody. Though all are born with a place in the circle, some have disqualified themselves.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

and then

The best way of tinkering with ourselves is to tinker with something else – a mechanist way of saying that only he who loses his soul will save it.

-- Richard Rorty, “Freud and Moral Reflection”*

After decades of experiment, I learn that I can’t make myself any better than I should be. I have some choice about details: I should remember to bring the milk up from its box before it spoils in the summer heat, and I mostly do so, after having tasted the consequences of delinquency. But to set myself at odds with the broad outlines of my character – with my susceptibilities and insensitivities, lusts and aversions, bursts of enthusiasm and doldrums of despondency – would be like trying to give myself an appendectomy. No surgeon would try the latter, and I should not attempt the former.

Mostly your task is to learn what you are, where your nature locates you, and what investments you were born with. As you learn this, you gain a perspective on how the world might treat you, who might see you as savior and who as mortal enemy before you even meet them, just as you come in the door bearing gifts. A colleague said “My presence precedes me,” which means she will find herself pre-cast in a drama she would not write, in a role for which she did not audition, responsible for motives she does not know as her own.

The moving finger writes, says the sage, and then moves on. The world did not begin at my birth, has scored its history on my first page, and when the last page has been turned will graft its own sequel onto my scratching.. I don’t get to say
Once Upon a Time. I only get to say And Then . . .

That’s history for you, and you’re in it. “One damned thing after another.”** If you don’t know you’re in history, that’s because your back-channel, your particular tributary or delta, is far from that main stream that feeds or is fed by it and is so well covered by the media. You are swimming, or kayaking, or sailing in a current and a breeze of personal history, which we all know is also a political history,*** and yet is for the most part only personally political.

And so you swim for your life. You have to learn what the currents are. You have to know your strokes, your limits both of talent and endurance, what movements you can sustain and with what effect and for how long without drowning yourself out of sheer idealism.

The Spiritual Quest is the project of a Department of Reality. We can only recover the soul from its true location.

Heidegger said that we are
geworfen, “thrown” into the world like dice. Alea iacta est. We don’t get to choose the ground on which the die stops rolling, or which side of our nature comes up first. And the kingdoms of this world, be they households or councils or empires, have little interest in teaching us that information. The powerful would just as soon we didn’t know. If we discover it, they’d like us, very politely, to keep it to ourselves. Why make the natives restless?

As you learn your terrain, those scars of landscape that are the marks of history, and as you learn your talents, then and only then do you come to know what your next act can be. The truth about your limits makes you free.
And then . . .

So how do we, in fact, work on ourselves? Unitarian Universalists like to do this for whole weekends, retreating from the world to enumerate our sins and to shame the sources of our love for justice, naming our very principles offensive to God. For those of means and education, the therapeutic enterprise holds promise of enlightenment and cure. For some of the devout, confession provides an opportunity to learn the boundaries of mortality. For those of us blessed with extreme introversion, self-examination will always be alpha and omega.

And yet -- the self is an elusive thing, and a dubious prize. I find it to be a dark place, lacking illumination of its own. By ourselves or in good company, we can find in the fabled interior as much doubt, and grief, and shame as we desire. Just call on it and it’s there.

Where is the light? And where is the air? They are on the outside, in our re-commitment to the place and the time, to the living creatures whose eyes we meet, with the urges and instincts, foibles and sublimities that were given us, for those purposes that only now become apparent. Introspection, therapy, confession and the weekend workshop are not ends in themselves; expecting salvation from them is a narcissistic idolatry. The proof of these disciplines is how we live in the world. Get out of yourself. Go back to your life and save it. Love kindness, do justice, walk humbly. Speak truth. Bless what is holy. Relieve someone’s pain. Honor someone’s sacrifice. Give a name to what is nameless. Salvation isn’t feeling good but doing good at something. And we won’t feel better until we do better.
And then . . .

Essays on Heidegger and Others

**Attributed to Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915)

***”The personal is the political,” a phrase commonly attributed to Carol Hanisch

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