Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What Jesus Said

I want to give kudos to a friend of mine, Alex Stehn, for being such a fantastic teacher. He was telling me the other day about his desire to teach a class on Christianity and Marxism--a really fantastic proposition in my view--and it got us talking about the way many of our students think about the "fundamental tenets" of Christianity. As anyone who teaches college ethics these days (or, for that matter, as anyone who doesn't have his or her head buried in the sand) knows, many conservatives view the primary moral and political issues bearing upon Christians to be things like (1) reproductive rights, (2) homosexuality, and (3) whether the greeters at WalMart say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas." Of course, Jesus never said anything about any of these. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I read the Book. It's not in there.

Very, very few young Christians in my classes prioritize their own political agendas according to what Christ actually said. That is, very few believe that the obligation of Christians to oppose social, economic, or environmental injustice is far more "fundamental" than their opposition of abortion or gay marriage. Alex (quite smartly) asked his students to compare the number of verses in the Bible that mentioned homosexuality to the number of verses in the Bible that mentioned poverty. Remember that thing Jesus said about a camel passing through the eye of a needle? Despite the fact that this is one of the very few verses in which Jesus lays out explicitly how not to get into Heaven (i.e., by being rich), it somehow doesn't carry the same gravitas as Paul's condemnation of homosexuals... who are condemned, by the way, right alongside gossips and drunkards.

Blessed are those who read.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


On my weekly drive to State College, I find that there is about a 100 mile stretch (through central PA) where I can't find anything interesting on the radio except conservative talk-show programs. Now, I must admit, I actually love listening in to the likes of Rush Linbaugh and Sean Hannity, despite my total disgust at the content of those shows and the rhetoric deployed in them. I justify this to myself by saying that one ought to keep abreast of what the enemy is thinking... but the truth is, sometimes it's just so ridiculous that it's hilarious.

A couple of days ago, Sean Hannity was discussing on his program the recent Micheal Richards (Kramer) racial tirade at the Laugh Factory. Hannity had the African-American target of Richards' rant and his lawyer as guests on the show. In classic Hannity fashion, he spent most of the interview chastising his guest for responding to Richards by calling him a "stupid [expletive] cracker." According to Hannity, "cracker" and "nigger" are equally reproachable racial slurs. Ergo, Richards is entitled to an apology as much as his audience members were.


Now, I went to Wikipedia and looked up the term "cracker." As I suspected, it's a term largely used to refer to poor "white trash" in the southeastern United States. That's where I'm from, and I would be lying if I didn't say that I've heard this term as often in my life as it's counterpart. But never.... NEVER... has it occurred to me that this term is equal to the N-word. Nobody uses the term "cracker" in reference to a history of lynching, like Richards' did with the N-bomb, nor does anyone claim that they can get someone arrested (again, as Richards did)solely on the basis of bring a "cracker." Hannity's contention was that if the African-American's in the audience felt threatened (or, in legal parlance, "assaulted") by Richards' tirade, then Richards could reasonbly assume that he was in equal danger when he was called a "cracker."

Okay, Hannity's an idiot. But I hear this kind of argument a lot. It's usually couched in some version of a "reverse racism" claim. So, I want to call out the utter inanity of this argument. And, for that matter, the utter inanity of all the crackers who keep putting it forth.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Work of Mourning

I was recently at a conference for one of the professional philosophical organizations in the U.S., the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). As a part of the business meeting, SPEP regularly honors its members who have died in the last year. This year, there were four eulogies given at the business meeting, which were delivered by SPEP members who were friends or colleagues of the deceased. On the whole, they were beautifully delivered, touching and sensitive accounts that both summarized the academic careers and achievements of their honorees and offered tender and personal anecdotes which, for those of us who didn't otherwise know of the departed, humanized them and painted a richer picture of the lives of people who generally are reduced to their teaching appointments and publications.

After the business meeting, I heard several people complain that the eulogies took up the greatest segment of time in the business meeting. First, let me say that most of the items on the agenda of these business meetings are pro forma. That is to say, it is not as if the eulogies displaced some other crucial piece of "business." But, more importantly, I'm worried about this complaint on a deeper level. SPEP is an organization that, in my view, is fortunate to still be small enough to recognize its members' passings every year. (Outside of a church congregation, I can't think of many other small communities that are able to honor the loss of their members in such a way.) And I think that the work of mourning is underdeveloped and underappreciated in our society. My deep concern is that we don't know how to mourn our dead, and the complaints that I heard only confirmed my suspicion.

Why is it that the current administration is so passionately invested in prohibiting images of war casualties? Why is it that "Ground Zero" is still not much more than a hole in the ground? We have a seriously stunted ability to mourn, and my impression has been that Americans are far more invested in burying the past than reckoning with it. I was tremendously impressed with the SPEP eulogies (especially Linda Martin Alcoff's eulogy of Iris Marion Young) and I am troubled by the fact that some would prefer that less time is provided for this work instead of more time. The work of mourning is hard work, but it is fundamentally and essentially human work... it's part of the work of being human, of being a part of a human community, of dealing with the finitude and precariousness of human existence. One would think, in an organization calling itself the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, that the work of mourning would warrant more reverence.

On only one occasion have I been afforded the opportunity to deliver a eulogy. It is a monumentally difficult task. A task, I suspect, that many fear, if not actively avoid at all cost. We are poorer for it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tangled Up In Clues

In a recent (excellently written) article byScott Warmuth, the issue of Dylan's alleged penchant for plaigarism has again risen its ugly head. (You can read the article here.) The most recent accusation is that many of the lyrics from Dylan's new album Modern Times were lifted from Henry Timrod, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Confederacy. The previous accusation was that Dylan's Love and Theft borrowed heavily from a novel by Junichi Saga titled Confessions of a Yakuza. If you take a look at the evidence compiled against Dylan, the similarities are clear. If poor Bob were a student in one of my classes, no doubt I would have taken him down for attempting to pass off another's work as his own.

But (and this is the point that Warmuth makes so eloquently in his essay), is catching Dylan in some Theify McThiefery really the point of his music? Do we really expect from songwriters the same strict sense of original expression that we expect from other writers? Isn't one of the great things about great songs the fact that they hit something strangely familiar? Or, even better, that they make something familiar suddenly, strangely, unfamiliar or new? I think one would be hard-pressed to prove that Dylan has ever been a radically "original" songwriter-- something that can doubtlessly be said about any American-influenced musician. Isn't it true that what is great about American music the fact that it all somehow derives from blues, country, gospel, or folk? And aren't all those musical forms just combination and re-combinations of the same 3 or 4 chords? the same 5 or 6 themes? the same handful of human emotions?

In my view, what has always been truly great about Dylan's music is its cryptic, compelling, fascinating, and maddening references. How many of us went and looked up "John Wesley Harding" after that album came out, or "Rubin Carter" after hearing Dylan's "Hurricane"? Or followed any other countless number of clues that Dylan so brilliantly embeds in his songs? Why do you think Dylan fans--and I mean the truely hard-core Dylan fans-- pride themselves on an almost encyclopedic and purist knowledge of his work? Dylan's music opens up the world in ways that few great songs are able... I, for one, will no doubt find myself embarking on yet another sleuthing trip after discovering this new Dylan reference to the poet Timrod. And I won't mind a bit that Dylan picked another intellectual pocket to send me there....

Bringing sexy back to Memphis....

In lieu of another blog on the recent controversy surrounding Harld Ford, Jr.'s campaign (which I just can't bring myself to write about, it's so awful)... I've decided instead to bring some good news from Memphis. I was recently informed by a good friend of mine "inside" the entertainment industry, that Justin Timberlake is re-opening Stax! If you aren't familiar with the Stax label, it was one of the greatest sources of rhythm and soul music ever. Memphis, in a complete lapse of historical consciousness, tore down the Stax studios about ten years ago... but then rebuilt them in the course of an urban renewal project. There are a lot of old Stax musicians still around in Memphis--mostly session players to whom life has never paid their proper due--so the idea that someone (even Justin) is re-opening it is probably the best thing that has happened to the music industry since No Depression.

Unlike many, I am not skeptical of Timeberlake's musical influences. He may have been an Disney/Orlando product at first, but he's a Memphis boy. And Memphis people have good music in their blood, in their hearts, in their churches and homes and cars and waiting rooms and elevators and anywhere else that you can wire up a couple of tweeters and a bass speaker.

For those of you who are familiar with Stax, let me know your favorites. I have my own list, but there is an archive of Stax tunes so large that not many people can't find something new in it.

Long Live Memphis Rock and Soul!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Say it ain't so, Junior

Well, I've been prompted by my good friend Kyle to comment on the local politics of my hometown, Memphis. What a mess.

Unless you've had your head stuck in a hole, you no doubt recognize the young Senate-candidate from Tennessee to the right, Harold Ford, Jr. He is one of the up-and-coming stars of the Democratic Party... smart, moderate, politcally savvy and, perhaps most importantly, African-American. As has been repeated ad nauseum in the last few weeks, if Harld Ford Jr. gets elected to the Senate, he will be the first black U.S. Senator from the South since Reconstruction. And he will be one from a state that elected Bush over their own hometown boy, Gore, in the last election. And he will be from Memphis, one of the few majority-African-American metropolitan cities of the South. In sum, this is a big deal.

Ford, Jr.'s Republican opponent, Bob Corker, recently ran a commercial that featured not-so-subtle allusions to Ford, Jr.'s attendance at a "Playboy Party" during the Superbowl in Tampa last year. (Ford, Jr. is single, good-looking and has responded to most of the mudslinging about this incident with the comment "I like football and I like girls." Hey, who can argue with that?!) The catch is that Corker's ad also featured a blonde, floosy-ish, white woman feigning a phone call and saying (in a breathy, sultry voice) "Harold, call me." And that's where things get messy.

The Democrats have (in my view, rightly) protested that Corker's ad exploits deep-seeded white Southern fear of miscegenation. Ford is a black man, the floosy in the commercial is a white woman, and white Tennesseans who see it will inevitably succumb to their unconscious revulsion at the prospect of a black man "knowing" a white woman, in the Biblical sense. I don't know if I can add anything to this basic critique of the ad... it seems like an obvious attempt to revive an age-old practice of demonizing black males by sexualizing them.

I do have this bit of local knowledge to contribute: Memphis politics is, and has always been, racially charged. A few little-known-outside-of-Tennessee facts: (1) metropolitan Memphis is actually divided into two political domains: Memphis "city" politics (which is primarily African-American) and Shelby County politics (which is almost exclusively white) (2) the state of Tennessee, for the most part, would happily cut off Memphis from its custody and hand it over to Mississippi or Arkansas, largely as a result of the widespread opinion within Tennessee that Memphis is the only "black" area of the state. (3) the Ford family is itself a legend, and by "legend" I don't necessary mean famous, but infamous.

Poor, poor, Junior. He's always been fighting an uphill battle. And despite the fact that I am turned off by much of his social conservatism, I actually like the guy. I lived in his Congressional district while I was in Memphis, served him coffee at the small neighborhood cafe where I worked 4 or 5 times a week, spoke with him in an informal setting often, saw him at bars and concerts in Midtown more often, and found him to be a generally accessible, responsible, extremely smart and generally likable representative. But it is just a fact that, in Memphis, the very mention of the family "Ford" causes many people (especially those of the white, suburban persuasion) to revert to their basest sentiments. (Google the Memphis Fords... much of it is not a pretty story.) Junior has risen to power in spite of his family in many ways, though it is certainly true that he never would have gained his current prominence without the family name (and political power) behind him.

I think it is true that the Corker campaign ad is exploiting a regoinal/cultural weakness in Tennessee, and that should be criticized. But what makes it more complicated is the way in which it is also exploiting a very local form of prejudice, one that NPR and CNN don't seem to have the time or energy to expose, but which would be far more illuminating (in my view) about Southern politics. These still-latent prejudices are what Junior will really be battling in the next election, which are the sorts of things that might sway otherwise "liberal" whites to vote against him.

Ahhhhh, the Delta. It ain't easy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Please, History, Don't Repeat Yourself...

I recently viewed the excellent documentary "The Fall of Fujimori" about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori was elected President in 1992 on a populist platform, during a time when Peru was being sacked by both radical insurgent groups and abject poverty. As you can probably see from the photo (left), Fujimori's win was surprising, as he championed himself the "President of the People" while, literally, looking nothing like them. (During his administration, Peruvians often chanted "Viva El Chino!" and hailed him as "Our President the Chinaman.")

After being sworn into office, Fujimori declared an unremitting "war on terror" against two insurgent groups: The Shining Path (led by philosophy professor and communist revolutionary Abimael Guzman) and the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement). Without recounting in detail a whole decade of Peruvian history, let me just say that Fujimori's "war on terror" quickly devolved into a terrorist regime of its own. The National Intelligence Service formed death squads to eliminate (what we would now call) "enemy combatants," bribed and puppeteered most of the Congress, effectivly eliminated civil rights and shut down most of Peru's free press. Fujimori even pronounced a "self-coup" at one point, rescinding the Constitution and "suspending" democracy until he could get the country under control.

I highly recommend the film, which really needs to be seen in full to appreciate the comparison that I want to make. But, let it suffice to say that the resonances between Fujimori's administration and our current U.S. administration are more than a bit disturbing. Recently, I've been writing on Derrida's claim (in Rogues) that we must always remember that "the alternative to democracy can always present itself as a democratic alternative." Derrida was, of course, referring to the "suspension" of democracy in Algeria, but the insight here is hardly limited to Algeria (or Peru). Deferrals of democracy or basic democratic practices, in the name of protecting democracy, ought to worry us.

The recent decision to limit the rights of habeas corpus (overturning the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision) is scary. Especially given the fact that we still do not know the necessary conditions for being declared an "enemy combatant." Maybe it's too late to plead that history not repeat itself...

[PS- If anyone has ever read the book Bel Canto, I think the hostage situation in an embassy that serves as the central plotline of that story is taken from a similar event during Fujimori's administration. Watch the film and you can't miss the similarities.]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


[NOTE: I know all of my Greek-y friends are going to want to respond to this post with some elaborate explanation of logos. Please refrain. Please.]

About a month ago, my housemate began making fun of my various pretensions of expertise by attaching the suffix "-ologist" to whatever it was that I was talking about. For example, when I make suggestions on how to cook dinner, she says "Oh, I didn't realize you were a porkchopologist" or when I speculate on why she should change lanes during a drive, she says "I'm sorry, I forgot you were a highwayologist", etc., etc., ad nauseum. I thought this was just a quaint little joke that we had established in our relationship as a nice way of saying "stop acting like you know everything and let me handle this." But in the last couple of weeks, I have been literally bombarded with the "-ologist" formulation!

On "America's Next Top Model" last week, they had a photo shoot that involved stylists from the famed inner-city "hair-wars." These are men and women who hold fashion shows with the most elaborate hairstyles possible, sometimes involving three or more feet of style, fabricated models of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, sometimes even moving parts to the hair-design. But, the point is, when they introduced the hair stylists to the America's next-top-models, they introduced them as "weaveologists." (I'm not making this up.) Today, again, I was listening to an NPR story on the recent school shooting in an Amish community in central PA, and as they were discussing the motivations and pathologies of the shooter, who shot himself at the end of his attack, they referred to someone called a "suicideologist." There are other examples, but these are representative of the sort of stuff I've been hearing. Now, I know that sometimes we become attuned to certain things and start to hear/see/experience them everywhere simply because they have been raised to the level of conscious attention. But, really, when did everyone become an "-ologist"?

So, I've been wondering: what are the necessary conditions for claiming such a status? Is it the case that you can attach the "-ologist" suffix to anything that can be formulated as a noun? Are there any restrictions here?

Can you be an "ology-ologist"?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Death By Red Tape

I know that we all have our own horror stories of bureaucratic asphyxiation...but recently in my life, I have found myself increasingly strangled by red tape. I suspect that it may be a particularly pronounced struggle in academia--maybe politics is as bad, but it can't be much worse--and I've found my patience (and diplomacy) wearing very, VERY thin. Is it my imagination, or is it actually the case, that the more simple a task or decision is, the more maddeningly complicated it becomes when peppered with a little paperwork? I have found otherwise intelligent and humane people completely transform into automatons when they have to traverse the maze of bureaucracy. And it doesn't even require some huge monstrosity of an institution to effect this, which brings me to the following story...

A few years ago, when I was still living in Memphis, I drove through McDonald's one day to grab some lunch on a break and had one of the most absurd conversations of my life with the disembodied drive-thru voicebox. Here is a more-or-less accurate transcript:

VOICEBOX: "Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order?"
ME: "I'd like a number 2 meal, supersized please."
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Excuse me?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Uh... okay...well, can I get a number 2 meal with a large coke and a large fries?"
VB: "Okay. Anything else?"

[NOTE: You may remember that, when McD's still had the "supersize" option, that all it meant was that you were getting a large drink and fries with your meal instead of medium size. At this point in the conversation, I was, naturally, perplexed... and made the mistake of trying to clarify]

ME: "So you got that order? A number 2 with a large drink and fries?"
VB: "Yeah. Pull around."
ME: "So why can't I get it supersized?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "But why not?"
VB: "Because we don't have any large lids."
ME: "But that's okay, I don't need a lid."
VB: "Well you didn't say you wanted it supersized without the lid."


My first thought was: yes, of course, she's right. I *didn't* say I wanted it supersized-without-the-lid. Nevermind that it never would have occurred to me that such an option was available, or that one should avail oneself of this option when confronted with the problem of there-being-no-supersizing-tonight. And nevermind that this didn't even begin to explain why it was that the voicebox had no problem at all with serving me a large drink (not ordered without-the-lid) on its own. No, in my mind, I realized that I had clearly made the mistake. The voicebox was right. There was an impeccable logic to it and I was defenseless, hungry, and wrong.

Maybe this is not a perfect example of bureaucracy or red tape... but the point is that every time I run into red tape, this is the conversation that I remember. It seems so eminently illustrative of the kind of logic one has to battle, the kind of frustration that is engendered by it, and the manner in which--no matter how much you may protest to the contrary--you will ALWAYS be wrong.

Thank you, and please drive around to the first window.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Whatever Happened To Righteous Indignation?

so i heard (again) on NPR today a debate about the morailty of torture. and this is what i have to say about these debates in general, which i am hearing all-too-frequently thse days: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? IS THIS REALLY AN ETHICALLY "GRAY" AREA? WHEN DID IT BECOME DIFFICULT FOR US TO SAY-- WITHOUT RESERVATION-- THAT "TORUTURE IS BAD/WRONG/MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE"?

for real, am i being a prude here? there is part of me that wants to attribute the fact that this even rises to the level of something seriously "debatable" to the genius of the Bush/Rove/Republican-media-machine... but, come on, have we drunk that much kool-aid already? i am really shocked by the fact that more people don't write their newspapers or call their local radio stations and say, "what the hell are you debating here?!!"

last semester, when i was teaching Mahmood Mamdani's Good Muslin, Bad Muslim: Amreican, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror I was surprised to discover that many of my students simply did not consider it within the realm of possibility that American military troops might practice torture (despite the almost ubiquitous news coverage of GitMo and Abu Graib at the time). So, i brought in the Newsweek article on American interrogation/torture practices approved by the Dept. of State and read the list to my class (without telling them the source) to see which of those practices the students would find morally permissable. Needless to say, they were shocked to find out that many of the more reprehensible practices were adopted by our own military forces. And I mean they were LITERALLY shocked...

i am completely baffled by any argument that begins "the Geneva Convention doesn't apply in situations of....(fill in the blank)". Am i alone here? Can i get a witness?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

argh.... blogging.

so here's the brief history of my attempts to keep any sort of diary. I start on some day in the first week of january, write for a max of four days atraight, revist the diary at some point in may and then discard the whole thing. basically, pathetic.

however, since i am sitting at my computer basically non-stop these days, trying to finish a dissertation, i'm going to try blogging.

here goes....