Monday, December 31, 2007

Burger Friday

My family has never really wanted for drama. Sometimes it's unwelcome and unpleasant, but sometimes it's the best thing ever.

The Friday before Christmas, I met my family for lunch. There's a really great and pretty fancy steakhouse in town, which is usually only open for dinners, but every Friday afternoon they open for lunch and only serve burgers. They call it "Burger Friday" and the burgers are DEEE-licious. I suspect that they secretly use Burger Friday as a way to get rid of their leftover meat before the weekend rush, but whatever they do, it makes for a tasty and inexpensive lunch. And it's kind of fun to sit in a fancy restaurant in your blue jeans and eat burgers. But I digress...

So, the Family Johnson met for Burger Friday at the height of the Christmas madness. My brother and sister and I arrived first (per usual) and waited for Mom and Dad to show up. We chatted about what gift-shopping we had left to do. We got a table. We joked about whether or not our parents would be on time to their own funerals. We got hungrier. Pretty standard, really. After about 15 minutes, my brother said he was going to go ahead and order because he had an appointment at 1pm and needed to get moving. Mom and Dad showed up shortly afterwards, and we all ate burgers.

During lunch, we decided that we would try to meet up later that afternoon for a post-Christmas-shopping movie and then have dinner together somewhere. Brother said he wasn't sure if he could make the movie, but he would definitely catch back up with us for dinner. [Skip ahead, skip ahead.] We called Brother just as we were going into the movie later that afternoon and he said he wasn't going to make it, but that he would meet us afterwards. Oh yeah, and that he was bringing Girlfriend to dinner.

So, when we got out of the movie, we walked over to our local Totally Average Mexican Restaurant and called Brother and Girlfriend to meet us there. They showed up. We ordered. We sat. We began eating. So far, so good.

Our family spends a lot of time ribbing each other. It's how we show love, or something like that. Anyway, my mother was joking about how, even after getting a PhD, I tend to call my parents' friends "Mr." or "Mrs." Whatever, even after they tell me I can call them by their first names. She, of course, wasn't really joking, as this practice is more like a Commandmant in my family and she is very proud that all her kids still do it. We're all laughing about the ridiculousness of this and Girlfriend says, "Wow, I didn't know that was such a big deal to y'all. Should I call you Mr. and Mrs. Johnson?" My mom shrugs it off and says no, of course not, we're fine with you calling us by our first names, et cetera, et cetera...

Then, Brother says: "I think you should just call them Mom and Dad."


Now, the rest of my family just kept eating, but I-- being the super-sensitive and perceptive sister that I am-- thought this was a little bit of an odd comment coming from my bro. Well, that and the fact that I noticed The Fear of God strike both Brother and Girlfriend at the same time as they sat there, frozen, sporkfull of refried beans hanging over their plates, seemingly waiting for a response...

"What's that supposed to mean?" I say. "Did you two get engaged?"

We had all been pretty much expecting an engagement announcement this holiday, but it wasn't Christmas yet, so the timing seemed a little off. My brother reaches across the table. His hand is shaking. And it has a ring on it.

"No, we're married."

I may be a super-sensitive and perceptive sister, but I am not the family member who you would describe as The One Who Says Exactly The Right Thing At The Right Time. I was thinking back to the fact that earlier, at lunch, Brother had ordered ahead of everyone else because he said he had a "1 o'clock appointment" and that he was ambivalent about whether or not he was going to meet us for the movie. I was trying to imagine how one might somehow fit an elopement into Brother's afternoon plans, but it wasn't working out in my not-marriage-inclined brain. So, I say:

"What? Is that something you figured you could just squeeze in between burgers and a movie?"

After some shock absorption and a lot of questions, The Fam finally got its collective head around what had just happened, and we gladly welcomed Girlfriend-now-Wife into our crazy brood. So, for Christmas I got a new sister-and-law and a new nephew. (New Nephew is 6 years old, just between my 8- and 4-year-old nieces.) And for Christmas I only got my brother a subscription to Men's Health, the movie Troy, and The Great American Bathroom Book, Volume I. But, hey, you know, Christmas is not a contest. Thank God.

Girlfriend-now-Wife was my brother's high school sweetheart. They've both been married and divorced and they both have kids, but they somehow found each other and their old love again and I just think that's about the greatest thing ever. My brother took his new wife back to a small bridge over a creek near an old house that we used to live in, the site of their first kiss, and on a Friday afternoon-- between burgers and burritos-- he married her. Nobody was there but them, two of their friends who served as witnesses, and the Minister-in-a-Minute. (No, I swear, I didn't make that one up. Apparently, there is a whole market for on-the-fly marriages.)

I love him and I am envious of his love. You go, bro. And I want to say for the New Year that I hope he continues to do it his way.

UPDATE 12/21/11: I'm happy to report that, four years later, the marriage is still going strong. Here's the happy couple, Ben and Angie Johnson. Love you both!

Just Ask

Today marks the end of my first full year of (relatively regular) blogging. So, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have helped to keep this blog alive and healthy by reading and commenting over the last year. (Especially Kyle, Petya, Chet, bernadette, Booga Face, melanie, kirsten, nazareth, Ideas Man and Brooke.) This space has been a tremendous help to me in many ways. Not only has it kept me in the regular practice of writing-- as Booga Face once said, "the more you write, the more you write"-- but it also has served as a very productive "filter" for a lot of my thoughts. And, thanks to all of you, I've actually learned quite a bit from the conversations here.

You all have helped me think more seriously about several things in 2007 ranging from the profound to the very, very mundane. Highlights include (but are not limited to): academic "fashion" , the nuances of "studenting" (here and here), sublimity, strategies for avoiding alien abduction, how to write a blurb about yourself, sad songs, whether or not racism is rational, and the mystery of our attachment to simulacra. And, of course, there were your absolutely hilarious contributions to the books-NOT-to-give-as-gifts list. To both my surprise and delight, conversations with several of you here on the blog have mirrored in many ways conversations with you in person. I am very grateful to those of you who have remained faithful to those conversations, despite our distance from one another in the "real" world. Thank you.

In the spirit of my series earlier this summer (called The Quotable South), I want to begin the new year with another themed series. I'm borrowing Petya's idea and announcing the start of the "Just Ask" Challenge, beginning in Janunary. It works like this: you ask me a question (in the comment section here) and I will post an entry-long answer to it. Your question doesn't actually have to be "challenging" per se, but I'm going to limit the range of possible-queries by requesting that they not be "personal" ones (like *my* favorite whatever). Instead, I prefer you ask things that might actually spark a conversation, however bizarre or idiosyncratic you may think your question is.

You might be thinking: "What is it that qualifies you, Doctor J, to act the guru here?"
And I say to you: "Why do you hate the people so?"

Or, in the words of Petya: "Sheesh, expertise is overrated!"

I never cease to be amazed at the power of technology to keep us in communication with each other. Here's to continuing the conversations in 2008. It's a small world after all.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Year of Surprises

Well, I guess the time has come again to write the retrospectives. This was such a crazy year for me, I almost shudder at the thought of thinking of it again all at once as a whole...

I'm going resist the temptation to list my top movies of the year (which would probably include Oceans Thirteen, Hairspray and Charlie Wilson's War) or albums of the year (though I highly recommend Kyle's list) or books of the year (since I was writing my dissertation for the first several months of 2007, I missed a lot of them). Instead, I'm going to list things that genuinely surprised me this past year.

The thing is, I had two MAJOR surprises this year, which I never saw coming and which have impacted my life in ways that I cant really quantify or describe. First, that I would end up (employed!) back in my hometown of Memphis. Second, that I would be single for the first time in almost 8 years. Those were the big ones. Yup, let's move on...

Here are the little surprises that 2007 gave me:

1. Let's start with the metaphysical. I was surprised to learn this year that good and evil actually do exist in the world. And those two forces are working in our universe in the form of the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. The Colts are good. The Pats are evil. And Bill Belichick is the devil. The way this season of the NFL is looking, the apocalypse is nigh.

2. I may have come late to this insight, so it may only be a "surprise" for me, but I also realized this year that the two greatest living actors of our time are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling. I didn't see Gosling's masterpiece Half Nelson until the beginning of this year, but it is one of the finest performances I've ever seen. And although I have seen Hoffman in a lot of great performances, I was floored by his turn in the recently released Charlie Wilson's War. He is the definition of a "scene-stealer." The thing about both Gosling and Hoffman is that they're so subtle that it almost hides their brilliance. Almost.

3. I am finally willing to concede that the cosmic draw of Justin Timberlake is both undeniable and deserved. Earlier this year I saw my fellow Memphian's HBO concert special. Then, I couldn't get his songs out of my head and bought the album. Of course, I hid this from everyone I knew... but I slowly came to realize that even my snooty-taste music friends liked him. The thing is, Timberlake may be the single best musical "performer" out there-- something that is no doubt attributable to his years in the Disney Machine and later in the massively popular boy band NSYNC. But he's also got a tremendous amount of talent, which is something he does not share with his fellow Disney clones or ex-boy-banders. And did I mention he's from Memphis?

4. On a more serious note, I have to say that I continued to be surprised in 2007 that we are still debating the morality of torture. The CIA actually had to compile a list earlier this year of interrogation do's and dont's in order to see if they are in accord with the Geneva Convention. And in a classic case of "where there's smoke, there's fire", we learned at the end of this year that the CIA had been destroying interrogation tapes. This particular issue has been surprising (and deeply troubling) me for a while now-- ever since I was shocked to discover in a straw poll I conducted in one of my ethics classes that only about 5% of my students would say "unequivocally" that torture was immoral.

5. Relatedly, I was surprised to learn from several Supreme Court cases this year that, well, habeus corpus ain't what it used to be. Everyone should make their first New Year's resolution a commitment to avoid being classified an "enemy combatant."

6. Finally, and this one came late in the year, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I do still love philosophy. The whole dissertation-writing and -defending, job-marketing, new-job-starting process can suck the life and joy out of anyone. I'm happy to find it didn't take all of mine.

Here's hoping that in 2008 I can be a good deconstructionista and remain open to the unforseeable. Venir, a venir!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Hear Monkeys...

The story about my niece yesterday reminded me of another "monkey" story that I had been meaning to post here. But first, you need some background information.

Rhodes College, where I teach, is in Midtown Memphis, which just so happens also to be the location of the world-famous Memphis Zoo. The college sits on one side of a four-lane road called North Parkway and the zoo is on the other side. It's a really beautiful part of town. Of course, the zoo has a fence all the way around it, but if you're driving down North Parkway and look in the direction of the zoo, you can see the inner parts of the zoo through the fence and the hedges. Incidentally, I've often thought that the fence that surrounds the zoo doesn't seem to be very formidable, considering the very dangerous animals that it is meant to keep inside. But, then again, our campus has a fence around it too, and maybe the zoo animals think the same thing about their neighbors across the street.

So, the point of all this detail is that there is about 200 yards (a guesstimate) between the southernmost buildings on our campus and the northemost edge of the zoo. Last semester, I just so happened to be teaching one of my courses in one of those southernmost buildings. And, since it is hot for most of the fall semesters here, we often had the windows open. You can see where this is going, I'm sure...

The first time I noticed that I could hear monkeys was during my lecture on Homer's Iliad. I had been hearing them for weeks already, but my brain hadn't processed the sound yet. I mean, "monkeys" is not something that immediately comes to mind when you're trying to place a strange sound. My class began at 1:00 pm, so I guessed that the reason the monkeys were so noisy around that time was because they were probably being fed. Anyway, I think I was the only one who noticed them--or at least the only one who noticed them as what they were--since most of my students were not native Memphians and, even if they heard it, probably also couldn't place the sound. For most of the semester, this was my little private amusement.

Of course, after a while, I stopped noticing it. Then, near the end of the semester, we were studying Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I was lecturing on the pleasure of contemplation, and we were in the middle of a really fantastic discussion in my seminar. It was one of those weird Memphis days when it is still 70 degrees in December, and we had the windows open. The monkeys were going crazy that day for some reason, but I had long since tuned them out at this point in the semester. Then, right in the middle of an especially well-formulated and insightful Aristotelian point I was making, one of my students interrupted me and said:

"Do you hear monkeys?"

Ugh. "Yes, I hear monkeys," I replied. But I might as well have said, "class is over now." It's not easy to recover from that kind of a curveball.

Kids Say the Damndest Things

Meet my nieces. They're 8 and 4 years old, and I am one of those aunts that really believes they are so great that they must hang the moon at night. I never, ever tell them "no" and I am sure that I am contributing to their future as juvenile delinquents. As a matter of fact, I tell them that when they grow up and decide they want to run away from home to be sure and come to my house. (My brother especially hates this.)

Anyway, I have tried to resist using this blog to regale you with stories of my nieces or my cat (as "girls like me" are wont to do), but this story is just classic. My nieces both attend church, and the older one (who I call "Monkey") was telling us a Bible story that she had learned in Sunday School while the younger one (who I call "Templeton," after the rat in Charlotte's Web) was patiently listening to her older sister's rather long recounting of the story. The story ended with something very kind and good that Jesus did for us, and the conversation went as follows:

MONKEY: ... so that's why we love Jesus!

TEMPLETON (thinking hard, looking puzzled): I don't.

MONKEY: You don't what?

TEMPLETON: I don't love Jesus. I love the Devil.

MONKEY (patiently, but obviously a little concerned): No, that's not right. Don't you remember the story we learned from Miss Sarah? Jesus did all of these good things for us and that's why we love Jesus.

TEMPLETON: Not me. I love the Devil.

So, that just goes to show you that "doing good things for people" is not enough to make them love you. Even my 4-year-old niece knows that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gift-Giving Gone Wrong

As much as I love this time of the year, and I genuinely do, I really hate shopping for gifts. I'm not a very enthusiastic or patient shopper, and the malls drive me crazy. Also, I always want to get people the perfect gift, but more often than not find that such gift is either nonexistent or way outside of my meager budget.

I also have a problem that (I imagine) many of you share as well. I love to give people books. I believe that giving someone the right book can be a really personal and thoughtful gift. But, alas, there are always unintended meanings that come along with gifted books. And no matter how much you try to avoid it, it is almost inevitable that whatever you meant when you chose a particular book for a gift will be supplanted by some other non-flattering (or offensive) interpretation. Gifted books are like Trojan Horses in that way... they hide something unexpected and dangerous inside. So, I've decided to do a public service here and give you a few examples of books that I would like to give as gifts, but don't because of the potential misunderstandings that they may provoke.

I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the following gifts first, followed by the "secret" meaning. Take heed! Do not attempt the gifting of the following books under any circumstances!

Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth
WHAT I MEANT: "I want to share with you one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, and I figured that I should start you off with one of his most famous and award-winning texts. Roth is a quintessentially "American" writer with an amazing ear for dialogue, and one of the few authors who can make me laugh out loud while reading. Enjoy!"

WHAT IT SAYS: "You are a pervert and you will soon go blind."

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
WHAT I MEANT: "This is one of the books that changed my life. It is a beautifully tragic existential drama that gives us a glimpse into the human soul in a way unrivalled by any other novel. There are very few people in the world that don't correspond in some significant way to one of the Karamazov brothers. I want you to read this and figure out which one you are."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I don't believe in God anymore."

It Came From Memphis, by Robert Gordon
WHAT I MEANT: "You know I love Memphis dearly, but I have a complicated relationship with it. I think this is one of those books that shows all the things that are lovable about Memphis without turning our beloved city into some whitewashed tourist destination. Gordon's book is also an interesting reflection on the intersection of politics, music and Southern culture. And he's a fantastic writer. The greatest thing about the book? Well, that would have to be the fact that if you didn't know it was true, you'd swear he made it up!"

WHAT IT SAYS: "You've been saying that you were going to come visit me for ages now. Well, forget it. Just stay home and read the book, you selfish ass."

On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, by Jacques Derrida
WHAT I MEANT: "I know sometimes that you must wonder what it is that I do at my job. Well, I work on a philosopher named Derrida. I think this is one of his most readable and compelling books, and I want to share with you this important part of my life."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I'm so much smarter than you."

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
WHAT I MEANT: "Especially at times like these--you know, the holiday season when everyone is stressed and family ties are being strained--it's nice to be able to step back and take a look at families even more dysfunctional than ours. Franzen's story is a sympathetic portrayal of a family of mostly unsympathetic characters, but he somehow captures what is worth holding on to in the idea of family, even in all the pain and madness."

WHAT IT SAYS: "Actually, our family IS this messed up."

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
WHAT I MEANT: "This is a classic. Its rarefied prose, its compelling symbolism, its hidden profundity... I bet you'll read it in one sitting! As much as I want to dismiss it, I keep coming back to Hemingway's old fisherman in his boat when I need a way to think about meaning and mortality in a single image."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I think your reading-skills level still hangs somewhere around 9th grade."

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton
WHAT I MEANT: "Very few of us will ever be able to finish Remembrance of Things Past, but this is such a great motivation to try. Also, Alain de Botton does a fantastic job here of showing what philosophy-and-literature in action looks like. I use this book as a constant reminder that literature can impact us in ways that we can scarcely imagine!"

WHAT IT SAYS (option 1): "Your life needs changing."

WHAT IT SAYS (option 2): "I know you love 'Little Miss Sunshine', but do you even know who Proust is?"

WHAT IT SAYS (option 3): "I am so, SO much smarter than you."

I am, of course, interested in your own stories of gift-books-gone-wrong. But you must provide the full account of meaning and (mis)interpretation!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Do We Love the Anti-Hero?

Remember Han Solo? That smarmy, proud, devil-may-care mercenary from the "Stars Wars" movies? As best I can remember, I think he's the first "anti-hero" I loved. After Han, I think the next one for me was the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground. Since then, I've been collecting them like some sort of neurotic hobbyist.

According to Wikipedia (god bless it), an anti-hero is a "protagonist who is lacking the traditional heroic attitudes and qualities, and instead possesses character traits that are antithetical to heroism." That's right... character traits that are antithetical to heroism. In the case of Han Solo, this mostly meant that he was self-interested, capitalistic, and--in a clever combination of both--only interested in the girl (who just so happened to be a princess). In the case of Notes From Underground, the narrator is generally despicable, even to himself, dyspeptic, bitterly resentful, though somehow thoughtful and reflective enough to seem, well, heroic... in that "anti-" kind of way.

I've noticed over the last several years that we are being saturated with antiheroes. My new favorite is Dexter (pictured left), from the Showtime series Dexter. He's a serial killer, working "undercover" as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami-Dade police department. Dexter only kills criminals who slipped through the system and escaped their rightful punishment by the state. Dexter follows a "code." He has a conscience. He also, incidentally, cuts his victims up into to pieces and dumps them in the ocean. Nobody's perfect.

My second favorite antihero, if you pinched off the I.V. supply that was feeding me my desperately needed pain medication and made me choose, would be Dr. Gregory House from the FOX television series House. Dr. House abuses his subordinates, disrespects his superiors, and has a bedside manner rivaled only by Nurse Ratchet. He's also a misogynist, a cripple, a drug addict and an atheist. But he's a brilliiant surgeon and medical problem-solver, and he is has an uncanny ability to intuit the vicissitudes of human health in a way that would make Plato proud.

There's also Tony Soprano, of course, who may not be with us anymore, but we'll never know that for sure, I suspect. Tony's got problems. But he likes to talk about them with his therapist and, hence, is in touch with his own "vulnerability." Tony runs a strip joint called the "Bada Bing"... oh yeah, and also a New Jersey crime family. He has some serious mommy issues.

People have told me that Jack Bauer of the series 24 is also an antihero, but I don't watch that program. I think I might be the only person in America who doesn't.

The point here is, we love our antiheroes. But why? Is this some reaction against all that is sacred and holy in our moral code? Are we embracing a side of ourselves that is fundamentally anti-Greek, anti-Christian? Do we even know what a "hero" looks like anynmore?

Oh yeah, and I forgot Batman. And Sam Malone (from Cheers).

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Most Photographed Barn in America

I read Don DeLillo's 1985 masterpiece White Noise as an undergraduate in an American Lit course at the University of Memphis about ten years ago now. I was still developing my postmodern muscles at the time, and I loved DeLillo's novel, despite its overly stylized and sometimes too-precious prose. In particular, I loved the very brief but powerful scene at "the most photographed barn in America," which you can read here. The point of the scene, as articulated by one of the novel's protagonists, is that "no one sees the barn... once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn." People who go to see the most photographed barn in America only see a "sign" of the barn, even as they are photographing it. By being "the most photographed barn in America," the barn ceased to exist in a way, and became a simulacrum. That is, it was a sign with a referent so distant and distorted that meaning of the sign as sign became more meaningful than the meaning of its original referent.

I was delighted to discover that there is, in fact, an actual "most photgraphed barn in America" -- according to Flixter, it is the one pictured above. It's the Moulton Barn, somewhere at the foot of the Rockies. (More pictures of it here.) It is, of course, fascinatingly ironic that these many years later Flixter has intensified the scene in DeLillo's novel to the nth degree. Now, we don't even have to physically visit the most photographed barn in America to (not) "see it"... lending the poor barn, such that it is, an even more hyperbolic irreality.

Several months ago on this blog, I bemoaned the fact that my students' ability to imagine the characters and context of the literature they were reading in my class was handicapped by the movies they had seen. (Achilles can only look like Brad Pitt, now.) Our imaginations have been colonized, in a way, and it seems like we can only imagine pre-fab "images," rather than actively creating signs for the real things to which our signs are meant to refer in a way that is meaningful. My good friend, Professor Grady, reminded me of this recently in a post on his blog entitled "Staging My Imagination." There, he posted a photograph of a street corner that he knew well, but at which he had never seen a "story" take place, and he asked his readers to fill in a story on that very stage. This street corner, pictured as it was, reminded me of DeLillo's barn as, in the context of Prof. Grady's experiment, it was being staged as a sign of a place where something meaningful should happen, at the same time that the specific meaning of that stage (and the reality of the stage itself) was becoming ancillary, secondary... or, in the parlance of deconstruction, supplemental.

I've always been fascinated by the idea, held by many cultures all over the world, that photographs somehow "take away the soul" of the subject photographed. This fascinates me in the same way as DeLillo's implicit claim that photographs take away the "reality" of the thing photographed. I often struggle with my implicit (pre-reflective?) attachment to the "reality" of things. I mean, I'm all for the free play of signs, and I am convinced that legitimately meaninful creations are produced by this play, but I also feel a strange sort of sadness whenever I read DeLillo's story of the barn again. I find myself in a wierd, almost Hemingway-esque, space where I long for some simple correspondence between signfier and signified.

But I guess good deconstructionists are always mourning such things...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

For those of you who don't know, I host a radio show on Sunday nights from 7-8 pm (Central time) on Rhodes Radio. My show is called "Americana the Beautiful" and is ostensibly devoted to American "roots" music (country, blues, jazz, rock n' roll), but I often just play whatever I like.

Anyway, we've now begun "podcasting," so if you aren't able to listen to the shows live, you can listen to and/or download them online at Americana the Beautiful. You can also subscribe to the show using iTunes, which (I think) means that iTunes will automatically download new episodes for you.

Isn't technology wonderful?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Trouble With Fossils

First, a caveat: The following post is NOT intended, primarily, to advocate or oppose any particular Presidential candidate.

A couple of days ago, NPR correspondent Robert Seigel interviewed Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (You can read the transcript of the interview here.) Initially, it seemed like the main focus of Seigel's questions was Romney's health care plans... but, then, Seigel questioned one of Romney's statements in the CNN/YouTube Republican debate. In that debate, an audience member had asked the candidates whether or not they believed in "every word of the Bible." Two of the candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee, said that although they do believe in the Bible, they recognized that some parts of it were allegorical and needed to be interpreted. Romney, on the other hand, included no such qualifications, saying instead that the Bible is "the word of God" and "well, I'll just stick with that."

So, Seigel asked the obvious follow-up question to Romeny's (apparent) literalist position on the Bible. The last part of the Seigel interview went as such:

Seigel: [That] left the impression — and I want to ask you — do you hold a literal belief, say, in the Genesis version of creation?

Romney: You know, I find it hard to believe that NPR is going to inquire on people's beliefs about various parts of the Bible in evaluating presidential candidates, and actually, I don't know that that's where America has come to — that you want to have us describing our particular beliefs with regards to Genesis and the Book of Revelations, so —

Seigel: I raise Genesis only because creationism is a national issue in a variety of ways, and —

Romney: Well, but then you could ask me a question and say, "Do you believe that we should teach creationism in our schools, in our science classes and so forth?" and I'm happy to give you an answer to that. But I don't know that going through books of the Bible and asking, "Well, do you believe this book? And do you believe these words?", that that's terribly productive. Particularly when we face global jihad, when we have 47 million people without health insurance, when we have runaway costs in our entitlements, to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn't part of the process which we should be using to select presidents.

My point is the Bible is the word of God, and I try and live by it. I don't accept some commandments and reject others. I accept the commandments of the Bible as being applicable and do my best to try and live by them, although frankly, there's a big gap here and there. There are a lot of things I need to improve.

I'm particular interested in Romney's claim that "to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn't part of the process which we should be using to select presidents." This seems to be to be a terrible misjudgment on the part of Romney. Now, I certainly believe in the separation of church and state, and I don't think that Romney ought to be excluded from consideration simply because he's a Mormon anymore than I think that JFK should have been excluded simply because he was Catholic. However, I am of the opinion that the "process we should be using to select presidents" includes evaluating the merits and demerits of the candidates as "statesmen" (and women), which must include above all evaluating their powers of judgment.

Adherence to a literalist reading of the Bible is, manifestly, a demonstration of bad judgment. I would question, on the same basis, any cadidate who claimed to believe in Santa Claus, or aliens, or in some essentialist rendering of sexual difference. The point is that such beliefs represent a commitment (or lack thereof) to all sorts of other criteria for making good judgments that are unsuitable, in my mind, for someone whose charge it is to care for the polis.

I understand--and am sympathetic with--Romney's obvious exasperation in this interview and his frustration with the more general obsession with his Mormonism. But he did not help his case at all, in my view, by claiming that such questions are "not a part of the process which we should be using to select presidents." How else are we to measure the candidates' potential suitability for governance except by reference to their actual judgments? Here, Romney only compounded his problem by laying a bad meta-judgment ("such questions are not a part of the process of determining good candidtes") on top of a bad particular-judgment ("I believe the Bible is the literal Word of God").


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Aristotle for Inspiration

We concluded the semester in my "Search for Values" class with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Specifically, we ended with the end of the Nic Ethics, Book X, in which Aristotle defends the life of contemplation as both the highest achievement for human beings and the "truly" happy and virtuous life. I always find that Book X provides an excellent opportunity for us (philosophy professors, in particular) to be the kind of inspirational pedagogues that we all try to be.

When we read the sections in which Aristotle describes the immense, almost "pure," pleasure that comes along with a life of study, I always ask my students whether or not that is also their experience of study/contemplation. Initially, many of them don't find much congruence between Aristotle's description and their own experience. (This is especially the case if you happen to be teaching the Nic Ethics at the very end of the semester, as I am, when students are stressed out about papers, exams, grades, etc.) But I always ask my students to consider that the reason they no longer find contemplation pleasurable is because they have been habituated to think that way. That is, the structure of the educational system as it is now de-habituates them from just the sort of virtue that Aristotle is describing because we make study/contemplation just a means to some other end, thus taking away both the pleasure and the virtue of it. Students are not really stressed about studying or contemplating, or so I tell them, but rather about the various so-called "ends" to which they believe that activity is directed. So, I ask them to reconsider whether or not contemplation would in fact be pleasurable to them if these conditions were removed.

My experience has been that, when given the opportunity to think about it this way, students actually do like to talk about their love of contemplation. This little thought-experiment also gives them the chance to consider Aristotle's claims at the very end of Book X (in preparation for his Politics) that in order for human beings to really live a happy and virtuous life, they must live in a polis that provides the kinds of structures that encourage its citizens to develop happy and virtuous habits. I ask them: Does the current education system provide that kind of environment? And if it doesn't, what can you do to "decontaminate," so to speak, the environment in which you think from all of those conditions that habituate you to think that contemplation is not pleasurable?

In reference to the conversation we had earlier in the semester regarding "studenting" vs. "learning" (which sparked a great conversation on this blog here and here), I think that Aristotle provides the best kind of interpretive frame. So, I left them with this:

Be a thinker, not a student. You'll be happier.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Oh, What A Tangled Web...

Many of you have probably read the now-famous text by historian James Loewen Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I find that many of my students, especially those who come from liberal or progressive backgrounds, read it in high school or in some other context before they reached college. (Then, subsequently, quickly forgot it.) It's a great text for the marginalized and suppressed historical details it brings to light, but also because of its "meta"-argument (that historical narratives are social constructions, that there are identifiable biases to the historical narratives we are taught, that we should be critical readers of both the seemingly unquestionable "facts" of history and the orthodox interpretations of them). I am particularly sympathetic to Loewen's project because I see it as congruous with at least one part of what I try to do in my classes. Specifically in my courses on philosophy and race or gender, I try to trace the genealogy of things like (theoretical or doctrinal) racism and patriarchy within the mainstream history of (Western) philosophy. The point of these genealogies is not to simply track down and identify the "racists" or "sexists" in the philosophical canon, of course, but rather to try and understand how these ideologies were constructed... and how they might be deconstructed.

Recently, I've noticed a widely held position among many of my students (and some of my colleagues) that arguably could qualify as a philosophical "lie my tacher taught me" of the same sort as the historical ones that Loewen targets in his text. It goes something like this: "The fundamental basis of racism is found in a person's pre-reflective, non- or irrational 'intuition' which figures 'others' (because of their otherness) as essentially different and, consequently, subhuman. Theoretical or doctrinal racism, then, develops simply as an ex post facto attempt to construct a facade of respectability over what is, in truth, a kind of non-theoretical and non-justifiable fear."

Here are my problems with this position. First, it appeals to what seems, in my mind, a highly suspect theory of "first contact." That is, the position assumes that human beings--in the state of nature, if you will--will automatically react with fear and violence to other human beings who appear different because of an innate inability to comrehend or synthesize that difference. My problem is not only that this theory of first contact is disproven by history--it certainly has not been the case, historically, that every first contact between physically and culturally different human beings resulted in the human/subhuman distinction--but also that it requires us to believe that human beings have some natural internal mechanism that distinguishes significant physical differences in other human beings (like skin color, presumably) from insignificant physical differences (like eye or hair color) pre-reflectively and absolutely. To those who appeal to this kind of explanation I ask: why, then, do we not react with the same sort of fear and violence to all people who are different than us in any way?

Second, it seems to me especially suspect to assume that what we call "pre-reflective" judgments are not shaped, to a significant degree, by certain reflections (even if they are not our own reflections). That is to say, it may be the case that "racist" beliefs are irrational, nonrational or pre-reflective, but they are only made possible as such in an environment that has shaped and prepared certain subjects for making those judgments pre-reflectively. I think of it this way: if it is the case that I (as a racist) "pre-reflectively" or "instinctually" determine that non-whites are subhuman and, consequently, not deserving of the same considerations and rights as those who look like me, then that means that I already live in a world in which such distinctions have been theoretically (i.e., reflectively) constructed as relevant and important ones. It means that I live in a world which, through the reflections of others (my family, my church, my politicians, my philosophers), my given is taken to be already-inflected with some (proto- or fully developed) notion of not only the "human" but also something like volk or race.

My point here is to say that I strongly object to the tendency to figure racism as "irrational" or "pre-reflective" simpliciter. That does not mean that I think that racism is always rational (which it never is) or reflective (which is sometimes is), but simply that considering it as the opposite of that commits one to a set of very dubious assumptions (perhaps, "lies") about what shapes human thinking, reflective or otherwise. This, I argue, entangles us in a web of positions from which I am not sure that we can extract ourselves... like, among other things, the position that racism is "natural."

This is, of course, a fast and loose rendering of what I meant to say, but such is the nature of the blog.

Monday, December 03, 2007

"Answer" Songs

This past Sunday, on my radio show "Americana the Beautiful" (which you can listen to Sundays from 7-8 Central Time on Rhodes Radio), I did a themed show featuring "answer" songs. Answer songs are, as the name suggests, songs written in response to a previously recorded song by another artist. They were popular in blues and R&B music from the 1930's through the 1950's, and in country music in the 1950's and 60's. Now, you pretty much only hear them in rap and hip-hop music, but the answer song is still alive and well in that genre.

While preparing for my radio show, I discovered all kinds of song-connections of which I was previously unaware. My favorite new discovery was the connection between Roberta Flak's "Killing Me Softly with His Song" and Don McLean's "Empty Chairs." I had always wondered who was killing Roberta softly with what song... and if you know McLean's tune "Empty Chairs," I'm sure you've been softly annihilated by it yourself. (If you haven't, you may want to check and see if you still have a pulse.) I also discovered the answer song to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog", which is an absolutely hilarious tune by Memphis' own Rufus Thomas called "Bear Cat." Another of my favorite pairings, which wasn't a new discovery but which I wanted to share nonetheless, was one between Elvis Presley and Meatloaf. As it turns out, the answer song to Elvis' "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" is Meatloaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad." It shouldn't take much to guess which were the two out of three.

Now, I already knew of enough "answer songs" to put together a show's worth of material, but these new discoveries were really serendipitous. So, if any of you know of others, I would love to hear of them, as this is proving to be a new fascination of mine.