Better not look down

31 03 2014

It is apparently only okay to talk about how bad things used to be if you contrast it with how great things are now.

Things used to be overwhelmingly terrible and are now just ordinarily terrible! Progress!

And if it’s progress, then maybe it’s not so terrible, hmmm? So maybe you should just turn that frown upside down, Mr. Coates and go back to talking about stuff that makes us feel good.





Tradition!

19 02 2014

Why is it those who yell loudest about hewing to tradition care the least about history?

I know, I know. . . .





For together we cannot fail

2 09 2013

This is history, not abstraction.

This is life, today, all around the world.





Springtime for Hitler

28 07 2013

Austria kinda creeps me out.

Rest assured, I have no reason to be so out-creeped—it is not my area of study, I’ve never visited, I used to enjoy this bar/restaurant in Minneapolis that served Austrian food, and I have fond memories of my time in The Sound of Music—but somethin’ about the place sets me off.

Hitler! You might say: It’s Hitler!

Ehhhh, maaaaybeee—except I’m not creeped out by Germany. Yes, der Futur Führer was born and grew up in what is now Austria, but he was just a whiny loser as he mooned about Vienna: he did his real damage while based in the country to his north.

Still, there may be something about German efforts to come to terms with its past which contrasts favorably to Austria, which, famously, has not.

Ah: the creep may come from a sense of all kinds of nasty shit fermenting away below the surface.

Remember that guy who kidnapped and raped his own daughter and kept her and her kids in his basement? Not surprised that this happened in Austria.

Now, I repeat: this is completely unfair to Austria, especially given the recent escape by three women from years-long imprisonment from a house in Cleveland. There are psychopaths and serial criminals—not to mention unmentioned crimes of the state—in every country, so it’s unfair to single out Austria.

But I’m still singling out Austria.

All of this is a very long way to a very short point: the recent “discovery” of a village bell dedicated to Adolph Hitler is yet another crack in  the Austrian-victim-of-Anschluss excuse for history, and as such, ought to be celebrated.

I get the point of Raimund Fastenbauer that the bell could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and thus should be “disappeared”, but given how much mid-century Austrian history has been disappeared, I think getting rid of the bell is the exact wrong approach.

Let it ring out, literally and metaphorically. Let it be seen, and heard. Let it be talked about.

After 80 years, let it finally be talked about.





Whoo-oop, just a little bit

1 07 2013

dmf is right: I gotta lay off the blogs that are leading me to screw myself into the ground.

Y’know, Sullivan with his Baldwin-proves-liberals-suck rampage (and before that, Clinton, and Palin, . . .). I don’t disagree with him (that Baldwin’s an asshole, and his Tweet, hateful), but jeez, make the point, and move on.

I mean, Alec Baldwin is an actor. An actor. That’s it. So you don’t like the people who like him, which gives you a chance to get all tribal and everything. Fine. We all get tribal some times. Just. . . own the tribalism, man, and stifle the it’s-the-principle! nonsense.

And Dreher, oy, reading him of late (Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, liberals always and everywhere) is plucking my last nerves. The meanness, the double-treble-quadruple standards, the pissiness at pushback. . . .

Oy doesn’t begin to cover it.

~~~

Oh, and then there’s this.

Makes me so proud I work for CUNY.

~~~

There’s a difference between motive and intention, isn’t there? It seems that there’s a difference.

Motive is where something starts, and intention is where it leads, right?

Yeah, I think that’s right.

~~~

So I’ve been turning over this thought in my head about the whiteness of the GOP and arguments (click here for a Crooked Timber post that has the various relevant links) that Republicans don’t have to worry about being the party of the pasty.

I think they do.

I don’t have this all worked out, but it seems that in order for the GOP to be the White Party they’re going to have to entice voters based on their whiteness, and I don’t know how many folks think of themselves primarily as white.

This is the crumbling underside of the default standard of white: regular [i.e., non-academic, non-race-politicized] white folks haven’t had to think about their whiteness. To bring them to you, you first have to bring them to their whiteness, convince them that their whiteness ought to be their primary concern, then further convince them that their candidates will do the most to preserve their white privilege.

Yes, whitey-first appeals have worked and will continue to work in a number of districts, but I don’t see how this appeal can be expanded, largely because I don’t know how much white folks who aren’t already racialists really want to be racialists. I think white-first appeals would turn them off, maybe make them less likely to vote Republican.

Most Americans don’t want to think of themselves as racists—even the racists don’t want to be seen as racists—and aren’t in a hurry to separate themselves (in their imaginations, at least, if not always in practice) from their fellow Americans. We’re not always large, but an awful lot of us aspire to be.

I don’t know, I’m probably talking out of my nose. It just seems like  focus-on-the-whites is a losing proposition with many of those very same whites.

~~~

Okay, back to Dreher—but to one of those posts that make me go Hmm rather than AAAAAAARGHHH! Namely,  on the problem with ‘the right side of history’ arguments.

Someone as non-whiggish as me casts a similarly skeptical eye on those claims, but skeptic that I am, I go even further: If there is no right side to history (which there isn’t), why the fealty to moralities anchored deep within that history, i.e., traditions?

I mean, isn’t the advocacy of tradition based on a notion of the judgment of history (properly threshed, of course)?

More talking out of my nose, I suppose, and maybe these are really two separate things.

But I kinda think not.





Modern thought(less): time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

10 10 2012

Been awhile, hasn’t it?

No, I haven’t given up on my attempt to make sense of the outer reaches of modernity by looking at the [European] origins of modernity, but I haven’t made much headway, either.

Oh, I been readin’, oh yeah, but have I done anything with all that reading? Not really. Beyond the most basic fact that modernity and secularism two-stepped across the centuries, as well as the sense that medievalism lasted into the 20th century, I have information, history, ideas—but no theory.

Peter Gay’s two-volume essay on the Enlightenment (called, handily enough, The Enlightenment) has been helpful in understanding how the ideas of the early modern period were cemented in intellectual thought, but precisely because these men were already modern, they are of less help in understanding those who became modern, or who were medieval-moderns.

Newton, for example, was a kind of medieval-modern. His work in physics, optics, and calculus encompass a large portion of the foundation of modern science, but he also conducted experiments in alchemy; the founding of a new kind of knowledge had not yet erased the old.

Other, scattered thoughts: The Crusades were crucial in re-introducing into Europe the ideas of the ancient Greeks. . . although, even here, al-Andalus also provided an entree for Muslim knowledge of and elaboration on Levantine thought into a Christian worldview. Also, I haven’t read much on the impact of westward exploration and colonization on European thought. Hm.

Evolution in war strategy and armaments—I’m thinking here of the recruitment and consolidation of armies—undoubtedly played a role, as did consequences of those wars, especially the Thirty Years War. (The Treaty of Westphalia is commonly considered an origin in the development of the concept of state sovereignty. Which reminds me: Foucault.)

What else. I haven’t read much in terms of everyday life during this period, although I do have Braudel and Natalie Zemon Davis on my reading lists. I’m still not sure where to put the on-the-ground stuff, interested as I am in intellectual history. Still, a concentration on thoughts untethered from practice yields shallow history.

I have developed an abiding hatred for the Spanish Empire. This may be unfair to the Spaniards, but they turn up again and again as the bad guys. (How’s that for subtle interpretation?) I’ve got a big-ass book on the history of the Dutch Republic that I’m looking forward to, not least because of the central role of the Dutch in the development of capitalism.

Capitalism, yeah, haven’t talked much about that, either. Can’t talk about modernity without talkin’ bout capitalism.

Still, I really want to try to nail down the emergence of the individual as a political subject: there is no modernity without this emergence. The Reformation and the wars of religion are crucial, of course, but I want to understand precisely how the connection was made between the individual and his relationship to God and the emergence of the concept of the individual citizen’s relationship to the state. (I say concept because it took awhile for the walk to catch up to the talk.)

I have no plans to abandon this project, but if I can’t get it together, I may have to abandon my hopes for this project.

Maybe I should do that sooner rather than later: I’m always better after I’ve left hope behind.





Onward, Christian soldiers

27 06 2012

Done with Calvin and on to the Thirty Years War.

Yes, the project on modernity rumbles on, as I dart back and forth between the 16th and 20th centuries (with occasional forays into the 15th and 14th centuries), jumbling up the wars of religion and emperors and kings and popes and princes and reformers and Reformers and . . . everything everything everything.

May I pause just to note what pleasure, what pure pleasure it gives me to see shapes and movement arise from what had once been a white, blank field of the past?

Consider this line from CV Wedgewood: “Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has remarked on the beauty of her Wedgewood—and yes, she has a way with words—but her facility with the language reveals a nimbleness of thought, and this one, elegantly expressed, conveys the tragic risk of greatness: Go big and you lose the small, and in losing the small, you lose it all.

Only Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one in its specificity is far more breathtaking and heartbreaking than my pallid generalization.

And it is the specificity itself which provides that pleasure: there was nothing, and now there is something.

Now, before I repeat that last line to end the post, I do want to interject with one observation about Calvin’s Reformed thought, specifically, his doctrine of double predestination (God elects both who goes to heaven and who goes to hell): why would anyone believe this?

Calvin argued that only a few of the professing Christians would be saved and most lost, that there was absolutely nothing the individual (an utterly depraved being) could do to save herself—so why would anyone cleave to a belief system which gave you rotten odds and no way to change them?

One possibility is that most Reformers didn’t believe in predestination, double or otherwise; another is that Reformers did believe in double predestination, but also believed that they were the elect. So, yeah, sucks to be you, o depraved man, but I am so filled with the spirit that there is no way God hasn’t picked me for His team.

There is no rational reason* to believe this; since people believed nonetheless, then it is clear that something other than reason is required to explain the spread of the Reformed faith.

(*Reason in terms of: why pick this religion over that one, not: why pick any religion at all. Context, people, context.)

Anyway, Calvin was much more impressed with himself than I was with him—although it must be noted he had a few more followers than the 19 who follow me (in this blog, anyway).

Oh, man, it’s getting late and I’m getting frantic for sleep so yes, let’s return to pleasure and knowledge and movement where before there was stillness and lines where before there was blankness and etchings across the smooth surface  and something, something rather than nothing.





Perspective

3 01 2012

 

Coudal Partners, “History of the Earth in 24 Hours”, via The Daily Dish





Where was I?

29 12 2011

No work, not enough work, too much work, work.

That’s been the last six months. Nowhere near enough money, even with too much work (really blew it on this last freelance job—shoulda charged double), but now things to be evening out: three courses for the spring, half-time admin work for a local-international organization.

I have some idea of what I’ll be doing with the teaching, no clue on what exactly I need to do with the admin work, but hey, I’ve gone from clueless to clue-full before.

~~~

Hey, I’ve got some a few new readers! HI!

Thanks for poking your head through my window! I’ll try not to slam it down on your noggin’. . . .

(And yes, I’ll return the favor and check out your blogs as well, now that I have the time to do so.)

~~~

I really hate not knowing things.

The problem, of course, is that the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Frustrating, that.

And embarrassing. Before I embarked on my jaunt through the European medieval period, I knew nothing about this history. Nothing.

Oh, something about the break with the Eastern Church in the 11th century, and Luther in the 1500s, but I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, or between the various emperors and the pope.

Yeah, it was bad.

So now I’m learning stuff (yay!), but I’m running up against the parameters that I had initially set for this project. It was conceived as an investigation of intellectual history, with not much room for social (writ large) history, but I’m too much of a materialist to dismiss the conditions (see below) under which these ideas were generated and spread.

This is a very long way of thanking petefrombaltimore for his suggestions in reading.

Yes, a project like this can sprawl out over any boundaries set—hence my initial attempts at capturing only intellectual history—but sometimes the most interesting bits are discovered in the spillage.

Anyway, I just finished Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment and am now on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation; I may then mix in some close-up histories, as well as tackling some of the primary sources.

Can’t say I’ve yet gotten anything solid on the late-margins of modernity by poking around in the early margins, but I am still poking along.

~~~

Got my first round of applause for teaching in. . . ever?

It was for my bioethics course, a class which was terrible the first time I taught it (at another university), pretty good the first time I taught it here, and now, well, good. I’ll continue to tweak it as I go along, but I’ve got a solid set-up which should hold for at least another few semesters.

It’s much easier to keep teaching the same thing over and over—all that prep work is already done—but I get antsy. I don’t think there’s a perfect syllabus or course (see: not a Platonist), so after a certain number of repetitions I overhaul the course to try to capture something missing from the previous go-around.

It’s not always better, and almost always requires adjustment, but it keeps me thinking.

Anyway, the applause.

It was common at UW-Madison to applaud professors at the end of the semester. Most of my classes were large lectures, so the performative aspect of teaching was more apparent than in seminars, but classes were similarly large at Minnesota, and I don’t recall the students applauding professors there.

It’s nice, both to applaud and be applauded. I liked that I could show my appreciation for a good professor (or lack thereof with tepid clapping); it seemed to signal that there was something more going on in that lecture hall than a contractual transmission of information from instructor to user.

The best professors gave us knowledge far and beyond that necessary for a good grade: they gave us an appreciation for the wonder of knowing.

I don’t know if that’s what my students were applauding. I work hard to tamp down my urge to overwhelm them with my words—as the person who constructs the syllabus and leads the discussions, I already have great, if indirect, influence on how they approach the subject—but on this last day of class I gave them a concentrated shot of my approach to bioethics.

I started with a truncated version of the epistemology/ontology/practical lecture, zeroing in on the significance of being (or Being, if you please) in one’s understanding of practical ethics. I then moved on to Hannah Arendt’s distinction between human nature and the human condition, namely, that while we cannot with any certainty know our nature, we can approach our condition.

And the most basic of our conditions are that we are biological beings, we are social beings, and we are mortal beings. We may be more than this, I noted (spiritual, philosophical, etc.), but we are damned-near-incontestably conditioned by our biology, our relationships to others, and the fact that we are born and will some day die.

This matters to bioethics, I argued, because any ethics which does not take account of these conditions cannot be of any practical worth.

(You might think that this would be so obvious as to be banal, but it is not.)

I can’t tell you that consequentialism or deontological ethics or casuistry or any other way is the correct approach, I said. We need standards to keep us from justification-by-convenience, to force a critical appraisal of our actions, but, pace our conditions, we have to allow deviation from those standards: the rules are to serve the human, not the human, the rules.

Finally, I said, circling back around, this is where I center my ethics, on the matter of  human being. What makes us who we are, and what we could become? It’s not that our abilities have to be unique among species, but we should think about ourselves, as humans, in how we approach one another.

We don’t have to be heroes, I observed. It’s not about pulling someone out of a burning car or tackling the bad guy or dodging bullets; it’s about recognizing one another as humans.

And then I told the story of a group of people in a small town in Wisconsin who decided to hold a funeral for an unknown woman who had been found, murdered, in their town. She wasn’t one of their own, and would never know what had been done for her, but through the donations of the funeral home and money raised for a plot and marker, and in the service at the cemetery, these people did in fact claim her as one of their own.

There was nothing heroic in this ordinary act of burying the dead, but by taking care of this dead woman’s body, they recognized her as one of them; they demonstrated their humanity in their recognition of her humanity.

We can take care of one another, I said. Our ethics ought to be centered on how we take care of one another.

They seemed to like that. I didn’t expect the applause—I thought I had gone too far—but even if I had, they didn’t seem to mind.

It was nice.

~~~

As a coda, I’ve consolidated my earwig approach to teaching (“I want this stuff to bother you for the rest of your lives”) into a line stolen and adapted from Serenity:

I aim to trouble you.

It’s not me, really, who can do this, but I can bring the trouble of politics and theory and ethics to my students, and hope that it disturbs them a good long time.





The politics of contempt

7 09 2011

Can I steal from myself? ‘Cause I’m gonna steal from myself.

I’ve been yelping and hectoring and despairing and whatevering for the past year on the battlefield that is American politics, on the Republicans’ scorched-earth tactics, and on President Obama’s unwillingness to open the hose on these arsonists.

There is more to be said on this.

My attention is wavering, however, so I’ll let James Fallows (here, here, here, and here) and TNC run a few legs of this race, and, for now, simply steal the comment I posted at TNC’s joint:

I think this [destructiveness] goes back even further—at least to FDR—but it took a different form then than it does now.

My hypothesis: that the sense of the illegitimacy of any kind of left (center-left on outwards) government used to be on the fringes of the polity, but has since edged into some of the main streams of the Republican party.

There were certainly (loud) mutterings that Roosevelt was a communist, but I don’t know that these came from the Republican leadership. The Eisenhower administration was, of course, attacked by McCarthy, and Kennedy was hardly universally mourned; still, even if the GOP leadership thought that all liberals and Democrats (a phrase that only in the late 80s became redundant) were axiomatically illegitimate, they didn’t say so in public.

The attack on the legitimacy of the government emerged as an open campaign theme in the 1980s; the attack on the legitimacy of Democrats to lead government blew open in the 1990s, culminating, of course, with the impeachment of Clinton. These lines crossed and fused in the 2000s, apparent in the various campaigns, and then going nuclear—with the eventual blessing of the GOP leadership—with the election of Obama.

Again, this is just an hypothesis, and I’d guess that a full exploration of this hunch would reveal all sorts of exceptions and wrinkles and significant subdynamics (such as the movement of white southern Democrats into the GOP); I’d also caution that I think this phenomenon has until recently been confined to the national level.

I’ll let this be for awhile—other things on my mind—but the full flowering of this discourse of delegitimization is nothing less than an expression of contempt for democracy itself.

That bears watching.








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