O the dragons are gonna fly tonight

17 07 2014

I.

I understand the difference between unintentionally and intentionally killing someone, I do.

I understand that Hamas fires off rockets with the intention of killing Israelis, military & civilian alike, and I understand that the Israeli Defense Force fires missiles into Gaza with the intention of killing Hamas fighters, and in so doing, unintentionally kills civilians.

I get it: the purposes are not the same.

But.

When you are aware that your intentional actions will lead to large numbers of unintentional deaths, well, then it’s hard to see how much that lack of intention matters to the unintentionally dead, or to the families of the unintentionally dead.

Or to those of us witnessing the bodies of the unintentionally dead.

II.

If the Malaysian airliner was shot down unintentionally, accidentally, does that make it okay?

III.

I understand, really I do, the thinking behind the statement that Hamas are responsible for the civilian dead in Gaza: were they not to insist upon firing rockets into Israel, it would not be necessary for Israel to fire missiles into Gaza.

But the fact remains: Israel fires missiles into Gaza.

The fact remains: Israelis missiles killed those boys on the beach.

IV.

You may argue, if you wish, both that Israel is morally responsible in its attempts to limit civilian casualties and that Hamas is completely responsible for civilian casualties.

You may argue that, if you wish.

But if Israel is not responsible, then how is it responsible?

V.

I don’t know what I would do, how I would think, if I lived in Tel Aviv, Gaza, Hebron, or Jerusalem, if it were me, transplanted from my junior one-bedroom in Brooklyn to an apartment in Israel or the Occupied Territories.

If it were me, would I call those territories occupied, which they are, or would I call them Palestine, which is what some want them to become?

(Judea & Samaria? No: it is still me.)

How would I understand Israelis, Palestinians? the soldiers, the militants, the terrorists? the politicians? the underpaid academics, the cafe-goers and olive farmers and scientists and tour guides and those for whom the land is their home, their everything?

The kids, the families, anyone at a beach in July: that I understand.

VI.

From where I sit, in my junior one-bedroom in Brooklyn, it is clear: this must stop!

But of course. How obvious is that observation. How useless it is.

How many people disagree, by agreeing to its extremes; who seek for it to continue, without end, until it all can be finally ended.

Who don’t care what it takes to get to that final end, how much and how many will be destroyed.





Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

18 03 2013

Oh that Rand Paul, champion of liberty! Look how he’s standing up for freedom now:

“The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward,” Paul said in a statement. “ The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.”

Ahh, conceptional personhood: An idea utterly lacking in biological sense.

Charlie Pierce has the right idea regarding the Paul family: His Five Minute Rule  states that, for five minutes, both the son and the father, Crazy Uncle Liberty (!), make perfect sense on many issues. At the 5:00:01 mark, however, the trolley inevitably departs the tracks.

As Pierce notes, with this we are at the 5:00: 07 mark: The trolley has jumped the tracks, tipped over on its side, and is skidding down the boulevard.

I believe I have covered this before, but let’s go over this again, shall we?

There is no such thing as the “moment of conception”.

As Moore and Persaud note in the 6th edition of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology:

Fertilization is a complex series of “coordinated molecular events (see Acosta, 1994 for details) that begins with the contact between the sperm and a oocyte and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote, a unicellular embryo. Defects at any stage in the sequence of these events might cause the zygote to die (Asch et al, 1995). . . . The fertilization process takes about 24 hours. [p. 34, emph added]

“Process”, Senator Paul, not “moment”. Shall we break it down even further?

  • Passage of sperm through corona radiata surrounding the the zona pellucida of an oocyte.
  • Penetration of the zona pellucida surrounding the oocyte
  • Fusion of plasma membranes of the oocyte and sperm
  • Completion of the second meiotic division of oocyte and formation of female pronucleus
  • Formation of male pronucleus
  • Membranes of pronuclei break down, the chromosomes condense and become arranged for a mitotic cell division—the first cleavage division [pp. 34-36]

There are many more details involved in those stages, but the highlights ought to be enough.

At this point, the zygote is still in the ampulla [middle portion] of the fallopian tube, ambling its way toward the uterus. Beginning around 30 hours post-fertilization, it undergoes a series of mitotic or cleavage divisions, in which the internal cells (blastomeres) divide and become successively smaller. “After the nine-cell stage, the blastomeres change their shape and tightly align themselves against each other to form a compact ball of cells. . . . When there are 12 to 14 blastomeres, the developing human is called a morula (L. morus, mulberry).”  The morula forms about 3 days post-fert, and enters the uterus 3-4 days post-fert. [p. 41]

Okay, 4 days in and the mulberry is still wandering around, unattached, developing away. A fluid filled space called the blastocyst cavity or blastocoel forms, which separates the blastomeres into two parts:

  • a thin outer cell layer called the trophoblast, which gives rise to the embryonic part of the placenta
  • a group of centrally located blastomeres known as the inner cell mass, which gives rise to the embryo [p. 41]

At this point the berry becomes a blastocyst. (FYI: If you are an embryonic stem cell researcher, this is when you’d harvest the inner cell mass in order to cultivate stem cell lines. The blastocyst would, of course, be destroyed in the process.)

The blastocyst continues to float around in “uterine secretions” for a couple of days as “the zona pellucida gradually degenerates and disappears”. [p. 41] With the dissolution of the zona pellucida, the blastocyst is free to bulk up on those tasty secretions, until around day 6 post-fert, when it attaches itself to the endometrial epithelium.

All hell breaks loose now, as the trohoblast differentiates itself and its outer layer, the syncytiotrophoblast, insinuates itself into the endometrial epithelium and into the connective tissue, or stroma. “The highly invasive syncytiotrophoblast expands quickly adjacent to the inner cell mass, the area known as the embryonic pole. The syncytiotrophoblast produces enzymes that erode the maternal tissues, enabling the blastocyst to burrow into the endometrium.” [p. 42]

Although it takes another week for the embryo to implant itself fully into the endometrium and stroma—which further details I will spare you—this is the stage at which one could say a pregnancy begins.

Got it? One day for the process of fertilization, 6 days for sufficient development to begin a pregnancy, for a grand total of 7 days or one week.

Oh, and one more thing: Of all the zygote-morula-blastocysts formed, 25 percent wash out before implantation, and another 35-55 percent miscarry before birth. Only 20-40 percent of those berries results in a baby.

Anyway, if I wanted to be kind to the momentary conceptional folks, I could say that “conception” is achieved after 24 hours; if I wanted to be strict, I could say 7 days, and if I wanted to be a real bitch, I could argue that not until 14 days has the embryo done anything worth considering a “conception”. Even granting a kindness, it’s clear that the moment is, at its shortest, a day.

Why does this matter? After all, for many people who are pro-life, the issue is less the biology than the morality; that the conceptus takes awhile to get itself together does not obviate the fact that the process begins—that human life begins—when the sperm drills itself into the egg. The biology matters only because it is a trigger for something more, not in and of itself.

This, of course, is how you get bullshit proposals like personhood bills and amendments: by treating biology as a chit in the culture war rather than a reality on its own terms.

Human development is an amazing, complicated, and fraught process, one which does not comport itself easily to our moral preconceptions (sorry) about it. By all means, make a moral argument, but don’t pretend that biology tucks up neatly into it.

Senator Paul is free to believe all he wants “that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward”, but I am also free to point out it is a belief untethered to biological reality.

That trolley done run into nonsense.





Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Stop me oh ho ho stop me

27 09 2012

Brutal:

I almost feel bad for him by the end.

Almost.

~~~~~

There’s a discussion over at Crooked Timber on the morality of leftists voting for Obama (here, here, and here), both in terms of the specific policies of Obama and the general policy approach of the Democrats.

I don’t necessarily disagree with either Henry or Daniel on the consequences of lesser-evilism, but it seems to me that you can’t just compare the lesser-evil to the not-evil, but to the greater-evil as well. They both get that, even if they do, ultimately reject it—largely by erasing the distinction between the greater and lesser evils, and leaving only that between evil and not-evil.

Which leads to one of my peeves regarding this debate: What the hell does morality have to do with politics, anyway?

It’s too late to get into a real discussion of the issue—and I have softened somewhat to the point that I allow the possibility that there just maybe might be some sort of connection—but I can at least ask: What role does one’s own moral stance have to play in voting? Are you meant somehow to be cleansed by voting? Not dirtied?

Shit, I got distracted by a misbehaving cat (Jasper!) and don’t have time properly to set up the issue, but is voting primarily about you, the voter—your complicity or contribution or whatever—or something else?

My gut reaction to all of this is a kind of contempt, but then again, I think guts are stupid. In other words, the issue of the morality of voting for a lesser evil isn’t something I should dismiss out of hand, even if I think that framing the issue as such is wrong.

Dammit, shoulda dealt with this earlier in the evening. . . .





Voices carry

23 08 2012

It’s a joke, but it’s not really a joke.

The whole Abortion Rights Militantthing, I mean. Yes, the capitalization and the ™  are completely unsubtle winks at my sardonic (re)appropriation of what is meant as a slur, but I ain’t jokin’ in my damn-near-absolutism on matters of law.

This absolutism, however, extends only as far as the law; the morality, the sentiment regarding abortion is another matter. I might recognize the decision to terminate a pregnancy as morally licit, but that doesn’t make it easy.

(In fact, the complications of the decision are precisely why legally it is best left to the woman—but I don’t want to sidetrack myself like I did last night, so I’ll just leave it there. Nor will I stray into a discourse on the evolving status of the blastocyst-embryo-fetus. . . .)

Nope, let me give this one over to sympathy for the beliefs of those who think abortion is always or almost always morally wrong, that the termination of a pregnancy means the killing of a child.

I don’t share that view, but it’s not wholly alien to me, either. No, I can’t get too worked up about embryos, but a fetus, the fetus is something else, and the further along the fetus, the more baby-like the fetus appears.

By the second trimester it’s not yet a human being, but it’s so clearly on the way to becoming one that I understand—I feel—a certain sympathy toward this small creature. It’s not one of us, not yet, but it could be, it could be.

If given a chance, she could become a human being; how could I not be moved by that possibility?

In teaching my bioethics course on assisted reproductive technologies, I cover selective reduction of multi-fetal pregnancies. These aren’t technically abortions—the idea is to kill some of the fetuses in order to save the rest, as opposed to ending the pregnancy entirely—but this procedure, generally performed at the end of the first trimester, seems to me essentially tragic. The woman (and her partner) want children, but their best chance of preserving the possibility of having some of those children is to destroy the possibility of some of those children. Again, how could I not be moved by the intertwined possibilities of beginning and end?

And I guess that’s where I both sympathize and part ways with those who are pro-life. I look at a fetus and see possibility; they look at a fetus and see a child, already here. I wonder at what could be; they wonder at what is.

Sometimes I can glimpse what they see right in front of them, sometimes I can imagine that the fetus is a child reacting in terror and pain to the ending of her life, and I can understand why those who are pro-life see abortion as murder, and its legality as a kind of sanctioned genocide. How horrible to think that we in the US allow over a million babies to be murdered every year.

But then I blink and what I see is not a child but the possibility of a child—and the actuality of the woman. And I think how horrible for the state to take away the control of her life, how horrible for the state to treat women as if they don’t exist.

Thus the final sympathy with those on the other side of the issue: we are each genuinely horrified by the state-sanctioned disappearance of human beings. We just don’t agree on which human beings.





People who need people

23 08 2012

No no no no no no no.

Just in case it wasn’t clear from my last post, I am against any and all laws seeking to limit access to abortion: Waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, parental notification, time limits—all of them, every damn one of them.

I come by the label Abortion Rights Militanthonestly.

I have also argued for the morality of abortion, that is, that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is, by default, a moral one, albeit of the ontological sort. In other words, because the woman is a moral actor in making decisions about her life, then the decision of whether or not to gestate a fetus into human being is inherently a moral decision.

On a practical level, however, it’s not necessarily a moral decision. If, for example, the woman feels that continuing with the pregnancy is so unfathomable that there seems no choice but to terminate, that there is no deliberation because there is nothing to deliberate, then it might be said the decision to terminate is amoral or beyond morality. It might even be immoral if, say, a woman chose to terminate in order to punish someone else, but, again, the mere fact of ending a pregnancy, of killing an embryo or fetus, is not, to me, inherently immoral.

Which brings me to Shauna Prewitt.

Huh? you say.

Shauna Prewitt got pregnant as a result of rape and decided to continue the pregnancy and raise the child (now a seven-year-old girl). She wrote An Open Letter to Rep. Akin describing that, yes, pregnancy after rape is possible, and that the belief that it is not may underlie some state laws which allow—unfuckingbelievably—the rapist custody and visitation rights to the child.

Prewitt deserves all kinds of praise for her willingness to rely on her own fraught experience in calling out morons like Akin (and a certain blue-eyed cheddarhead. . .) and for her efforts to change those unfuckingbelievable laws.

But does she deserve praise for carrying the pregnancy to term? I don’t know.

Clearly, if the choice to end a terminate can be a moral one, then the choice to continue a pregnancy can be moral.

That sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? As if it should be so obvious that continuing a pregnancy is moral that to ‘concede’ the point seems a kind of backwards-day game? But hang with me: Prewitt continued her pregnancy because she felt attached to the fetus:

You see, to my surprise, I did not altogether hate the life growing inside of me. Instead, I felt a sort of kinship, a partnership — perhaps the kind that only develops between those who have suffered together — but, nevertheless, I felt a bond.

She goes on to note that the decision to continue the pregnancy and raise her daughter wasn’t easy, but it was the right one for her. Ontologically, she made a moral decision.

Is it a moral decision in a more day-to-day sense? Sure. Yeah, things are fucked up on this earth, but when have they not been? And while we humans may have played no small part in that fucking up, we’re not all bad; bringing in new people beats the alternative.

Anyway, note as well the role that desire played in her decision: Prewitt decided to gestate the fetus which became her daughter because she felt a bond, because she felt “enlivened” by the life inside of her. She had the baby because she wanted to.

Does action in accordance with the fulfillment of desire nullify the morality of that action? Well, the argument that passion drives reason has a long history in philosophy, but that we act on our desires, because we do what we want does not mean those doings are morally tainted. If that were the case, then morality would have no place for humans, and we would have no place for morality.

So how do we adjudge the morality of decisions shot through with desire and need and fear and hope and confusion? How do we say that this decision to do what we want is moral and that decision to do what we want is not?

I’m not  sure. This blog post has gotten way away from me—I was going to write about my sympathy for the position of those who think abortion is murder and admit of my own ambivalences—so at this point I just want (!) to bring this to a close and go to bed.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even have a way to the answers, beyond that of saying that, perhaps, the place to begin is by paying attention to what people have to say about their own lives, and how they come to live with themselves.

~~~

ETA: It’s now Thursday morning and even though I haven’t had nearly enough coffee, I’m awake enough to observe that I do, in fact, have a way to the answers (or, at least, a way to the way): that’s kinda what the whole “we might as well try” series is about.





We might as well try: what’s life?

22 07 2012

Is life good?

Is it something to be desired, a good in and of itself, something to be drawn out as long as possible?

I don’t know.

Yes, yesterday I noted that every killing lead to a smaller world, which, given my world-centric views, could reasonably be taken to be a bad thing. And it is. But I don’t think death itself is a bad thing, and if death itself isn’t a bad thing, then life itself may not be a good thing.

Not that life is a bad thing; it’s simply life and death are neither good nor bad, but part of the necessary conditions (biology, mortality) of our existence—conditions which themselves are, well, to repurpose a quote from a mad German, beyond good and evil. We enter the world through birth and exit through death, and neither the entrance nor the exit is a moral issue. We have no say in our births and that we die is inevitable; it is difficult to argue the morality of matters utterly beyond one’s control.

I didn’t always think this way; I once thought that my life was bad, and my ongoing existence both a symbol of my moral failure to and proof of the need to end it. I purchased days against weeks, weeks against months, months against years—until the years piled up and the credit ran out and spent from the running and loathing I lay myself out and whispered, finally, enough.

Funnily enough, the ending wasn’t the end. I claim no mastery over the moment; it was, simply, a moment, a leaf blown this way rather than that, life, not death. I picked the leaf up, that’s all; I would have picked that leaf up, regardless.

Did I “choose” life? No. I recognized it, recognized it as mine, and said, Well then. Enough.

Would killing myself have been a lessening? I didn’t see it that way, then, but, yes, I guess it would have been—not for me, but for those around me, who cared about me. My world prior to the turning had already been lessened; my suicide would simply have capped off the decades-long hollowing out of my world.

So now I live. I don’t think it’s good that I live or bad that I would have died, but I also don’t think that it’s bad that I live or good that I would have died. I take my life as a given—not a gift, but something simply there—and recognizing it as such, try to do something more with it.





What are words for?

6 08 2011

A few words about words:

Privilege. I have used this word, and will continue to do so in the context of “privileges and liberties” and “privileges and/versus rights” and “privileged information”.

I have also used in terms of “skin privilege”, as in I, as a white chick, have skin privilege: I don’t have to think about skin color/race because, through no effort of my own, I have, in this country, the default skin color.  There are things I don’t have to worry about because I’m white.

The term, in other words, can do some real work; unfortunately, it can also do some real damage.

What was meant at one point to lead to greater understanding now gets in the way of that understanding. It has become a term of opprobrium, an insult to be hurled at anyone who hasn’t had the worst of everything and therefore can contribute nothing to understanding anything.

It shuts people down, and, as a general matter, I don’t see the point of that.

I do see the point of trying to prod folk into critical (self-)reflection, to encourage people to be mind-ful of what in their lives was unearned and, perhaps, to then gain some perspective on what was earned. It’s not about individuals versus structures, but about individuals within structures, how individuals move structures and structures move individuals and the multivarious ontological and practical implications.

Good times.

Wielders of the privilege weapon, however, too often try to guilt the individual for the existence of the structure itself, that someone who’s rich is responsible for the class system, that the individual man is responsible for patriarchy or each straight person wholly owns heteronormativity (yet another word which should be confined to the academy), or that ablism is the fault of every person who’s able-bodied and ageism, each and every young whippersnapper out there.

How is this helpful to anyone? What role does such shaming have in creating a more thoughtful people or a more equal society?

The ends may not justify the means, but they should inform them.

Triggered/trigger-warning: This is not a term I’ve used, although I have some sympathy for those who do.

There are some topics which are known to set off intense reactions in those who read or hear them; knowing this, some people choose to offer a warning before diving into those topics. That’s a decent thing to do.

Now, perhaps I don’t do this because I’m not decent—entirely possible—or maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s going to set people off. And because I don’t know where to set the line I prefer not to set one at all.

I’m going to write what I write, and while (with some notable exceptions) I don’t intend to offend, I know I’m going to, regardless. If I worry too much about that offense, I may end up not writing, and I’d rather write and offend (and apologize, if necessary) than not-write so as to not-offend.

I don’t know if that’s better or worse than those who append a TW before a topic; it’s a choice and a preference, nothing more.

Swearing: You may have noticed I do not restrain myself in this area.

The best argument I’ve heard against swearing (thank you, Ms. G, my high school English teacher) was that it wasn’t creative (although, with all respect to Ms. G, I have heard some mighty creative curse constructions). Even that, however, was not and has not been enough to stop me from littering my blog and speech with blue words.

Now, if I give a formal presentation, I don’t swear. If I prepare an article for publication, I don’t swear. Professional situations? Ixnay on the ursecay.  I try very hard not to swear around little kids (let ‘em learn these words from the older kids, the way I did), or, for that matter, around people who I know are offended by swearing—especially if I’m a guest.

But this blog ain’t a formal presentation: it’s a cyber-conversation, and in conversation, I tend to lay down the low language.

I’m not proud of this, and I periodically try to clean it up—but more for aesthetics than morality.

Goddess forbid I’d let morality get in the way of my rampages. . . .





I didn’t want to do it

7 06 2011

I do not fucking want to write about Anthony Weiner—but here I am, writing about Anthony fucking Weiner.

He’s an idiot, and by this I mean: he’s an idiot.

Not a criminal, not a pedophile, not a man so vile he must be hounded out of Congress.

No, he’s a horny guy with poor horny-impulse control who as a high-profile warrior in our current political wars had to have known that taking him out (temporarily or permanently) would be a sweet, sweet success to combatants on the other side.

I do feel bad for his wife, but as I am not his wife, how his wife responds to him is really up to her. Not to me, not to anyone else.

I am not one of the recipients of his tweet-pics, and in no way have had any sort of relationship with him; how those women or the people who do have some sort of relationship with him is up to those women and others.

I am not (currently) one of his constituents, but if I were, I wouldn’t be demanding his resignation and, come the next election, if I thought he were the strongest candidate, I would vote for him.

And I think, really, his political future is up to him and his constituents, and whether they think his legal-but-idiotic actions indicate something political significant about his character or not may be one of the factors they consider in deciding whether or not to vote for him. That’s how it should be.

I may have mentioned once or twice or thirty times before that I care about policy. Policy policy policy. Shitty husband? Don’t care. Shitty mother? Don’t care. Asshole to your staff, kinda care, but I’ll take the asshole with the right (which is to say, left) legislative agenda over the sweetie with an authoritarian agenda. I might prefer that sweetie as a friend or neighbor, but as representative? No.

Nor would I in any way be shocked by a right-wing counterpart who cut her voting cards in a way exactly as I do. I’m irritated by do-as-I-legislate-not-as-I-do politicians, but I completely understand why a conservative voter might hold her nose and vote for the cheater/closet-case/hypocrite to prevent a non-conservative from winning.

I don’t have a whole lot of patience for those who excuse their side for engaging in the same behavior that they criticize in the other side, but even there, I get the rationale: My team is always right. (It’s a principle, I guess, albeit one rather absent of, er, principle, but tribalism has its role in both politics and sports.)

I’ve not-written an essay beginning with the phrase “Morality is ruining politics” for over a decade, but I actually do have a highly moral approach to politics: it is a morality based in the purpose of politics itself, which is to say, one rooted in the notion of the public good.

No, I won’t try to write that essay, here; instead, I’ll simply note that I take a compartmentalized as opposed to holistic approach to political character, that is, that I assign different moralities to different spheres of life. Yeah, this can lead to behavior at, say, work, which might appall one’s friends—compartmentalization my increase complication—and one line that could connect these different spheres is to strive, pace Aristotle, for excellence in each field, with the recognition that such excellence varies across those fields.

Virtue ethics folk tend toward holism: if you’re a wretch at home there’s likely spillover in other areas of life, perhaps to the point where moral failing in one sphere might disqualify you from participation in other spheres.

The problem with this approach is twofold: one, the evidence doesn’t support this (i.e., there’s plenty of evidence that bad people can do good things) and two, this assertion of one’s goodness can lead one to justify one’s actions on the basis of that goodness (or, good people can do bad things and excuse the badness of the act on the basis of the goodness of the person—a variation of the Euthyphro dilemma).

The virtue approach is particularly dangerous when comingled with power, to the point that one may rationalize truly horrific actions (see the history of abusive medical experimentation in the US, for example): Because we’re good what we do couldn’t possible be bad.

The compartmentalization approach isn’t perfect, either, and can lead to Gingrinchian rationalizations along the lines of I cheated on my wife because I loved America so much—although, on reflection, he’s actually engaging in a kind of reverse political-virtue ethics, to wit, I’m so good in politics you must forgive me for my private life.

Anyway, you can cover for political misdeeds using compartmentalized political language (my political convictions made me do it), but I also believe, in a way that I can’t quite articulate here, that the risks of unchecked abuse are lower with a narrow political morality than a wider all-encompassing morality.

In any case, I also think that the compartmentalized political morality approach works far better in a pluralistic society than in a more unitary one. We, the American people, do not share one comprehensive view of morality: we disagree not only on approach (comprehensive vs. compartmentalized—or, as I put in a long-ago post, the Legos-vs-coins approach) but on substance.  In short, the more points on which we demand agreement before we can work with one another, the less likely we’ll actually be able to work together.

And I think politics is a sphere for getting work done.

So if I ever move to Anthony Weiner’s district, my question to him will be: Are you getting work done?

If he is, and if I like the work, then what he does after work is really not my concern.





Break like the wind

19 05 2011

Not a fan of Lars von Trier.

I should say up front that I haven’t actually seen a von Trier film in its entirety: I’ve seen chunks of Dancer in the Dark and bits of Breaking the Waves but, for the most part, I have been quite content to let his Dogma pass me by.

I’m not quite sure why, oh, hell, I know exactly why—because I don’t care to spend 90 or 120 or 150 minutes watching women get the shit beaten out of them physically, sexually, emotionally, and/or intellectually. I know, he’s supposed to very artistic in his assaults, and perhaps he’s even making some kind of point about the status of women, but point or not, I don’t want to watch it.

(I consider this a bit of a failing on my part, actually, that I am unwilling to sit through movies which make me uncomfortable or set me off, but, well, let me hold off on why I think so.)

Still, as a non-connoisseur of his works, I admit that I may be missing something wonderful and sly, and that people who love his work might have terrific reasons for doing so. I even have a bit of admiration for that whole Dogma thing—not because I sign on to worth of its strictures, but because the attempt to place limits on oneself in service to art is a worthy practice.

Calling oneself a Nazi in service to art is, however, puzzling.

I’m with The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody when he argues that

it should not be troubling to anyone that he claims to understand Hitler; it’s the job of artists to attempt to understand and enter into imaginative sympathy even with monsters; what makes artists artists is their ability to illuminate the darkest regions of the soul.

I don’t think you have to be a Nietzschean (although it might help) to see that art has its own morality, one which does not and perhaps even should not have much to do with ethical or political norms.
Still, it is perhaps unsurprising that when a man-of-the-movies opines at a film festival press conference on sympathies which, um, heavily intersect with history and politics, that there might be some complications:

But, anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I’m really a Nazi, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some kind of pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.

He continues the ramble (you can read it at the link, above) with asides about Israel (“a pain in the ass”) and  Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and a thumbs-up for Albert Speer, only to have it all end (more or less) with him saying “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”

The Cannes Film Festival booted von Trier, although his film Melancholia remains. That seems about right.

Yes, even with my the-artists-must-be-free schtick (and even as I accept that von Trier might be less artist than huckster—but that’s another conversation), that they ought to have the freedom to create even the most outrageous art, that doesn’t mean they get a free (ahem) pass to say whatever they want wherever they want without consequence. Slap, and be slapped in turn.

And given the Cannes Film Festival’s own history—it was created as an explicit counterpoint to the fascist-overrun Venice Film Festival—it is unsurprising that organizers would take a dim view of anyone claiming sympathy with Nazis, even if done so (half?)-jokingly and without any apparent forethought.

Maybe he thought he was being clever and provocative, maybe he panicked as a stray thought managed to find its way into words and he had no way of reining it back in. Maybe he did mean it. Maybe he’s just a prick.

I tend to go with a combination of clever/provocative and panicked. He did apologize, which suggests either cravenness and/or abashedness; again, I go with the combo option.

I also think the fest organizers’ actions ought to be the end of it. Certainly, some moviegoers might want to avoid his films as a result or some actors might not take a call from him—if you can’t get past the man to experience the work—but there’s no ipso facto reason to avoid his films.

None of this is to excuse von Trier, bumbling offender though he may be, nor is it an excuse for Woody Allen or Mel Gibson or Roman Polanski. Again, if you can’t get past the man—I can’t, really, with Gibson—then it makes sense to avoid the work, but I don’t know that this is so much a moral position as an aesthetic one.

And that you like the work of  von Trier, Gibson, Allen, or Polanski doesn’t make you a Nazi, a violent and anti-Semitic misogynist, a schmuck, or a rapist, nor does appreciation for their work signal acceptance of their behavior. And please, if you do love the work of people who’ve done or said wretched things, don’t feel like you have to minimize said wretchedness (“it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape”) in order to justify that love.

Have the courage of your artistic convictions.





I am iron man

17 02 2010

Or straw man—the same thing, really.

This post’s edition of hay*-covered solemnities concerns that which threatens to bring down/is significantly degrading/has already brought down Western Civilization, aka, all that is Good and Holy in the world: Relativism.

Mind you, the crusade against relativism isn’t confined to the autocratic right; Good Liberals are also apt to say, before observing that what’s okey-dokey in one society might not fly in another, that of course they’re not advocating relativism, but. . . .

I’m not a particularly Good Liberal, tho’ I don’t have anything against them. In fact, the imaginary Good Liberal brings forth exactly the point that needs to be made about relativism: that there is a difference between recognition and advocacy.

I am one of those who merely recognizes relativism (as well as its aliases-slash-cousins social constructivism, anti-foundationalism, and epistemological nihilism), as opposed to those who advocate on its behalf. (I don’t know many people outside of  first-year grad students who are advocates, but I’ll get to that in moment.)

First, recognition. I mean this plainly, which is to say, I relativism as a condition of our (post)modern existence. There is no singular rule, no singular god, no singular absolute standard against which to measure ourselves. There is no transcendent rule, no natural law, no universal order of human life.

There is no inherent meaning. There is no essential good and bad.

But this does not mean that no rule is possible, no standards may exist, and no judgments of good and bad are allowed. It simply means that any questions of judgment cannot be thrown back to an absolute or transcendent marker.

It simply means that questions of meaning have no necessary relationship to capital-T-Truth.

It simply means that capital-T-Truth may not much matter.

To recognize all of this is not to say this is good or bad. As the saying goes, It is what it is.

Those who think this is bad tend to mourn the loss in culture of an overarching purpose/underlying order; some try to figure out how to live with this, some blame those of us who point out the fractures for causing them, some deny any fractures exist, likening them to surface cracks distracting us from a deeper unity.

Perhaps they’re right, the denialists. I have no way of knowing.

And I’m fine with that.

Some might think this makes me an advocate of relativism, but it simply means that I refuse to take epistemological sides. I look through time and space and see so many ways of living, so many ways of being, and instead of choosing one over the other, shrug and note that outside of a way of being, I can’t say that one is absolutely or transcendentally better than the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own preferences or that I can’t judge. It does mean that I have to lay out the terms of that judgment, terms which have no final grounding in any sort of metaphysic. Terms which can be rejected, in other words.

It’s not as if I’m completely at sea. I live in a particular time and place, and can call upon the values and concepts of this time and place—this way of being—in order to make my arguments and interrogations. But I have no ultimate trump card, nothing to throw on the table to say, absolutely and finally, Ha! I win. Instead, any wins are provisional, subject to override and undertow, and thus in need of constant defense and elaboration.

Nothing can be taken for granted.

That’s my starting point—nothing can be taken for granted—and while I understand that life might be easier if I could, epistemologically, take a few things for granted, that’s not something I choose. Instead, I choose the nothing.

But this doesn’t make me an advocate for nothing and, to be fair, I don’t think most advocates for relativism choose nothing, either. Even Nietzsche, who’s sometimes held up as the grandee of nothing, recognizes rather than advocates nothing. His great challenge is, Precisely what will we do with all this nothing? Now that God is dead, what?

What he did advocate, an embrace of the life of the Overman, repelled many, but the advocacy for the Uber-life is but one response to the condition of nothingness, not its apotheosis.

Anyway, I snarked earlier that only the eager young joyfully embrace relativism (and no, I’m not just talking about an earlier version of me), but this isn’t quite right, either. Rather, there are those who, in the name of its corporate-friendly version, diversity, admonish that it’s not acceptable to judge those from other cultures or with other ways.

If this is what people choose, well, it must be okay.

No.

Not that one might can’t say ‘Whatever’ to the choices of others, but that one must say this. In a sense, this type of advocate implicitly accepts the charge from the absolutists, et. al.: absent something eternal and outside of ourselves, we can make no judgments.

Again, the crucial point is not that no standards may exist, but that no standard must exist.

There is another dimension, of course, which adds some urgency to these issues, which is the consideration of power. It’s too late (cursed that 9-5 job!) for me even to finish the exegesis on relativism, much less sketch out the implications of power, so allow me the upshot when I say that such a consideration argues in favor of setting standards.

But that’s another post.

*I know hay isn’t the same thing as straw, but gimme a break: I’m not in Wisconsin anymore, and my audience is muuuuuch more sophisticated than those persnickety rural types who insist upon dunning us sophisticates with their petty knowledge of, oh, farming and plants and nature and everything. Honestly.








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