Noah Millman

Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option

ZvonimirAtletic / Shutterstock.com

I have great respect and affection for my colleague, Rod Dreher. But I have to admit, I am very frustrated by his latest obsession, because I don’t understand what it means.

I’m talking about the so-called “Benedict Option.” I know where the phrase comes from. It’s a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, which I read with interest several years ago. I don’t remember the book well enough to give a fully accurate summary, but the heart of it was a critique of the modern condition from an Aristotelian (filtered a bit through Hegelian historicism) perspective.

In his view, modernity denies its denizens the spiritual embeddedness, the sense of moral place that pre-modern societies had, because pre-modern societies had, and embodied or expressed, particular ethos - and an ethos can only be expressed socially. One way of putting this is that any given society before modernity had a social conception of virtue, whereas modernity is limited to rights-based rule-making because we have disclaimed any social consensus on virtue or the good. (MacIntyre also discusses pre-modern turns away from a social understanding of virtue toward something more individualist; Stoicism and Epicureanism are examples he highlights.)

I actually kind of agree with this critique of modern liberalism, but I also have no illusions about the social or political consequences of the predominant alternatives to that liberalism that the yearning for some kind of “integrated” or “meaningful” mode of life have inspired in modern times (both romantic nationalism and Marxism come immediately to mind). Which is why I’ve argued (in this space and elsewhere) that we need a language of “liberal virtue” that would marry Aristotle to Mill, so we could see that those virtues are also socially embedded and require cultivation.

Be that as it may, my understanding of what MacIntyre was talking about when he looked forward to a “very different St. Benedict” somewhere in the future was the emergence of ethical communities – that is, communities that embodied an ethos with concomitant understandings of virtue. Presumably, their size and influence would spread over time, until eventually they became the dominant culture (though I don’t know that MacIntyre was particularly interested in prophecy of that sort). The point is, it seems to me that any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.

I’m told that a key inspiration for the Benedict Option is early medieval monasticism. Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”

These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the concept is being pitched non-denominationally. Dreher is a big-O Orthodox Christian, but he’s writing to an audience that is mostly not – mostly, I suspect, Catholic and to some extent Protestant. But I still think there’s lots of room to be more concrete about what kinds of things he might be advocating.

Let me give a few examples of the sorts of things I might expect a Benedict Option Christian to do, or not to do, that I would not necessarily expect of someone of similar conservative religious views and orthodox beliefs who had not embraced this view. I will try to be as specific as possible, with the understanding that I’m not trying to tell Dreher or anybody else what he’s about, but that I am trying to say: this is the level of specificity I expect.

  • Take your kids out of public school. This is maybe too obvious, but I’m not sure I’ve heard it articulated as bluntly as that. If you believe that the most important task facing Christian communities is to raise the next generation protected from the threat of the larger culture, then the most obvious thing to do is to take the kids out of public school and either educate them yourselves or in schools organized by your religion’s authorities. That choice should – again, according to the logic of the Benedict Option as I understand it – become more than a choice; it should become a social expectation. It is that aspect, the notion that you would be expected to educate your children parochially, that would mark a break from the way even conservative Christians have historically thought about schooling in America (at least since the advent of public education), and more in line with how Orthodox Jews today approach the subject.
  • Create wealthy, independent institutions from communal property. Not all property, obviously – but I would expect a conscious effort to create communal institutions that have some real economic heft and that are constituted to serve the interests of the Benedict Option community. A quasi-monastic community that depended on contributions for its annual budget wouldn’t have the independence of the medieval monasteries. Nor would a quasi-monastic community that depended on outright hucksterism to keep itself afloat. It takes wealth and industry to build the kind of institutional independence I’m talking about. The Mormons are probably the world-beating models to look to for this.
  • Adopt distinctive emblems or dress to identity co-adherents. One of the distinctive things, to me, about modern Christianity – and not just Protestantism – is its aversion to these kinds of rules. But they are ubiquitous in the religious world generally. Sikh men grow their hair and cover it with a turban, carry a dagger, and wear a metal ring around the arm. Mormon men wear temple garments under their regular clothes. Orthodox Jewish men wear a four-cornered garment with fringes and cover their heads. The signifiers can get extremely elaborate: in the Hasidic Jewish world, the precise way a man ties his gartel can tell you what sub-sect he belongs to. The point is that these signifiers have social significance. They are not individual, personal expressions of belief – they are individual, personal expressions of affiliation, which tell other individuals that this individual is one of them.
  • Refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The pledge of allegiance is an oath – of fealty – to an emblem of a secular state and nation – asserting that nation to be under divine auspices and to be indivisible. The Benedict Option, if it means anything, seems to me to command rejection of every part of that: to refuse to swear fealty to any secular entity, and to refuse to sacralize the United States of America, or proclaim its indivisibility. Refusing to swear allegiance does not mean refusing to be good citizens, refusing to vote or to fight or in any way to withdraw from participation in the life of the community. It’s just that: refusing to swear allegiance. It’s a formal declaration of what it seems to me the Benedict Option is all about, in terms of what it recognizes about the nature of the United States of America and about the primacy of the allegiance to the Christian God. Formalities like these are precisely the kind of thing I’d expect someone serious about the Benedict Option to care about, deeply.

You get the idea. If you have given up on the idea that this is a fundamentally Christian society, but you want to live in such a society, you have to actually build it, and build it separately from the larger society. You need institutions. You need rules. You need social expectations.

One problem I see is that the thrust of Jesus of Nazareth’s message cuts against all of the above. It’s very a Pharisaical approach to the world, in fact, not a withdrawal from or a rejection of the world but a conscious and scrupulous separation in certain specific ways so that you don’t forget who you are – and that you are not like others. And much of Jesus’s most-pointed preaching is about how you’re never going to get into heaven that way.

That’s why I want to hear, from someone who is a Christian (not a Jew, like me), what the Benedict Option actually means. If there’s a distinctively small-o orthodox Christian approach to this problem that differs from the approach taken by numerous religious groups in the past – because this is emphatically not a new problem – then I’d like to know what that distinctive approach is.

But one thing I am sure of: whatever the Benedict Option is, if it’s inspired by MacIntyre’s book, then it must be expressed socially. It cannot be a matter of simply changing hearts; it cannot be a purely abstract theological project. Because one of MacIntyre’s central points is that what modernity is missing is the ethical dimension of community, and the ethos of a community can only be expressed socially.

 Tagged , , , . 46 comments

Debate 2016: A Modest Proposal

matthew393 / cc

GOP bigs are reportedly anxious about the size of their Presidential field – both the possibility that not all the contenders will fit on the stage, and the possibility that a great many of these contenders lack basic plausibility. I mean, just take a look at the list of announced or likely candidates: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Scott Walker. And then we may yet hear from Bob Ehrlich, Jim Gilmore, Peter King, Herman Cain, Mike Pence, Rick Scott, Allen West, John Bolton, Sarah Palin, Joe Scarborough, Steve King, Nikki Haley and I don’t know who all else who’s been speculated about here or there at one time or another.

In a normal political party, said bigs would simply pull the less-plausible candidates aside and let them know that this isn’t their year, and said candidates would quietly fold up their tents – perhaps with the exception of one or two gadflies who ran anyway to represent a particular faction or tendency. But of course, the GOP isn’t a normal party, and nothing would draw more popular support for a candidate from the reverse-snobbery caucus than knowledge that that candidate had been excluded by the “establishment” from the mere opportunity to make his or her case.

So: what to do when your party becomes a reality show?

Clearly: run it like a reality show.

My modest proposal: instead of having one set of debates with the whole clown car on stage, you have two sets of debates. One is for the top-tier, the “inner circle” of candidates who are actually interested in running for and have a shot at becoming President. The second set of debates is for, well, the rest of the field.

For the first debate, let’s say the two groups are determined exclusively by poll numbers – you’d need some objective metric, and that’s as good a metric as any, particularly since we’re not actually excluding anybody from debates altogether. Let’s say we put the top eight polling candidates in the first tier and the rest in the second tier. Then we have our first debate for each group.

And then we enter “survivor” mode.

Each group of candidates – inner circle and outer circle – votes for which candidate from their number should move from their current group to the other group (with voting for yourself being inadmissible). Whichever candidate gets voted out of the inner circle gets dumped down to the clown car for the next debate. But a replacement candidate gets promoted up from the clown car to the big leagues. Rinse and repeat.

The interesting thing, to me, about this is that both groups would start out with some “real” candidates and some jokes. Based on the average of recent polls the top tier would be Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, Cruz, Carson and Christie. There’s ample representation for the fringes in that group. And the second-tier debates would include veteran politicians like John Kasich and Rick Perry along with the likes of Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. So the “top-tier” candidates couldn’t ignore the kooks, and the “also-ran” candidates would have a real shot to stand out and earn promotion, without any individual stage being too crowded.

Or would demotion and promotion work based on “merit” like that? The incentives in this game could be very interesting. At the end of the first “top tier” debate, who would the various candidates most want to send back to the minor leagues? Maybe Christie gets better traction with a live audience than people expected – so Bush, Walker and Rubio all vote him off the island to remove him as a threat. On the other hand, maybe Bush and Cruz are both strategically more worried about Rubio than they are about anybody else, so they make an agreement to vote him off. Or maybe Huckabee, Cruz, Christie and Rubio all agree to vote off Bush in a symbolic de-throning that makes a mockery of the whole “top-tier/second-tier” concept.

It seems likely that the top-tier candidates would collude to vote off whoever they perceive to be the biggest threat. But that candidate wouldn’t actually be gone – he’d just be speaking in a different time slot. Perhaps he’d dominate there, and get only more popular where it counts – with voters? And what about the second-tier candidates? Who would they vote to promote to the inner circle? Well, it really depends on what they are playing for. If Huckabee gets sent down, they might collude to send him back – lest he play the Fox host game better than they can. But if Bush gets sent down, they might never send him back to the big leagues – better to spend the rest of the debate season beating up on this year’s embodiment of the supposed establishment.

I suppose you could play the game such that instead of the candidates voting on who to dump or promote, a poll of the viewing audience determines it. That would perhaps be less ruthless – but might still make for interesting dynamics, because you’d expect there to be a somewhat different audience for the “real” debates and the “clown car” debates. Would the “clown” audience vote to promote their tribune – even if that turns out to be Donald Trump? Or would they vote to promote whoever they didn’t want to watch anymore – even if that turns out to be Bobby Jindal?

At some point, you’d have to winnow down the top tier even further – certainly by the time there is actual voting going on. But here’s the thing: you’d never have to winnow down the clown car. Even candidates who stopped campaigning in the actual Presidential race could stay in on some nominal basis so as to be able to continue to participate in the “people’s debates” – and continue to represent their issues, criticize the actual serious candidates, and audition for the talk show they no doubt prefer to host to being President. In fact, there would be no reason to ever stop the “people’s debates” – you could run them all year, every year, and only start promoting when an election is impending.

Splitting the field in this way would allow the GOP to have its ratings and eat them too, populism-wise. The “elite” candidates would undoubtedly deny that there was any qualitative difference between the two pools, claiming that the division was entirely an artifact of practical concerns – size of the stage, giving everyone enough time to speak, etc. Meanwhile, the “clown car” candidates could loudly proclaim their lack of interest in being “chosen” for some “establishment” clique, that indeed they are proud to remain where the candidates are real Americans. And hey: it’s not like anyone would have to get less air time than anybody else. Heck, the clown car might even get bigger audience. And if they didn’t – if the Fox audience tuned out the “non-serious” debates, wouldn’t that be salutary, a minor way of de-fanging the tiger of tele-populist rage?

The GOP wants to be a big tent. It worries it’s turning into a three-ring circus. But maybe, multiple rings are exactly what this circus needs.

 Tagged , , , , , . 10 comments

Yemen, Stupid Speech and the Great Hipster Migration

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.04.19 AM

Earlier this week I posted the first half of my dialogue with Conor Friedersdorf, which was about police brutality and the conservative response thereto. In the second half we covered a bunch of topics, including:

  • Why are the hawks once again driving the foreign policy debate? And what, if anything, can we do about that?
  • Can we defend free speech while still also denouncing stupid speech – and can we defend offensive speech on the grounds that (in some instances) it’s also intelligent?
  • Are Angelenos really as shallow and phony as New Yorkers think? And if so, what does it say about New Yorkers if the Times is right that we all want to move there?

Check it all out there. Or here:

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 2 comments

Love’s Triumph, Love’s Tragedy

Amelia Pedlow as Annabella and Matthew Amendt as Giovanni in Red Bull Theater's production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, at the Duke Theater in New York through May 16th
Amelia Pedlow as Annabella and Matthew Amendt as Giovanni in Red Bull Theater's production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, at the Duke Theater in New York through May 16th

Q. How do you make an obscure 400-year-old play relevant to today?

A. Put it on stage.

That’s my feeling after seeing Red Bull Theater‘s production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s 17th-century masterpiece. [Full disclosure: I am a board member of Red Bull Theater, and consequently have a considerable emotional interest in the production. No pecuniary interest, though; it's a not-for-profit theater.]

Actually, the play is especially relevant for some TAC writers and friends. In particular, I would love to go back and see the show again with Rod Dreher and Damon Linker in tow. Because the play dramatizes a scenario close to the heart of both of their perennial concerns. And I’d be curious to see how they respond to a dramatic, as opposed to expository, exploration thereof.

The premise of the play, revealed in the very first scene: Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) is in love with his full-blood sister, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow). Like Romeo, he’s got a friendly neighborhood friar (a sober and solid-minded Christopher Innvar) to whom he confesses his love, and said friar has prescribed prayers and fasts and the like to rid him of this forbidden passion, but these regimens are unavailing. As Giovanni tells us in soliloquy:

The more I strive, I love; the more I love,
The less I hope: I see my ruin certain.
What judgment or endeavours could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain.
O, that it were not in religion sin
To make our love a god, and worship it!
I have even wearied heaven with pray’rs, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starv’d
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or art
Could counsel, I have practised; but, alas!
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales,
To fright unsteady youth; I am still the same:
Or I must speak, or burst. Tis not, I know,
My lust, but ’tis my fate, that leads me on.
Keep fear and low faint-hearted shame with slaves!
I’ll tell her that I love her, though my heart
Were rated at the price of that attempt.

Well, he does, and it turns out that she shares his incestuous passion, even declares that hers exceeds his. Before too long, they have consummated their love – and thence proceed the inevitable complications. Annabella has suitors, of course, who she can only put off for so long without arousing suspicion. Her father is far more understanding, and concerned for her happiness, than is Juliet’s – but even he has limits. And then there are the complications of the other subplots – all of which turn on the dark point of love, at the intersection of romance and revenge.

The play reads very luridly, and one could approach it in the spirit of pure camp and have a great deal of fun. But director Jesse Berger has tried for a more complicated effect. He has Amendt and Pedlow play the leads with total sincerity, as if they were playing Romeo and Juliet – and these two beautiful and talented young people have such chemistry that I found their love entirely plausible. Meanwhile, most of the other players are encouraged to lend a camp edge to their performances – in some cases, as with Marc Vietor’s scheming Richardetto or Rocco Sisto’s sinister Cardinal, a bit more than an edge.

The result is to create a fruitful division in the perceptions of the audience, or at least that’s what I felt. Many of the characters – Clifton Duncan’s and Kelley Curran’s estranged former lovers, Soranzo (who seeks Annabella’s hand) and Hippolita (whom Soranzo had previously seduced from her husband, but now has abandoned, and who plots her revenge) for example – are overtly calculating in how they present themselves. Others, like Philip Goodwin’s Florio, father to Annabella and Giovanni, or Everett Quinton’s Donaldo, father to one of Annabella’s less-plausible suitors (Ryan Garbayo’s foppish and sweetly imbecilic Bergetto), are fundamentally tender and good-hearted but have the civilized-person’s appreciation for the necessity of polite deception. Derek Smith’s delicious Vasquez is the purest exponent of this world’s values, inasmuch as his total loyalty and his total deceptiveness are both consequences of his own determination not to be deceived, nor moved, by anyone – possibly rivaled by Franchelle Stuart Dorn’s perfectly named Putana, the nurse, who, like Juliet’s, is an unshockable confidante, disturbed not at all by Annabella’s carnal desire for her brother, nor particularly disapproving of her acting on it, but blind to the possibility that it could be motivated by more than desire – by love.

Because only Annabella and Giovanni are themselves in themselves; only they are fundamentally capable of feeling the kind of love they feel, and are therefore incapable of deceiving themselves about it, or of hiding the love that comes to define them. (Indeed, the only reason their secret is not exposed much sooner is that nobody who isn’t already in on it ever considers the possibility.) Of course, their love is tragic, ending in slaughter – but the juxtaposition of their tragedy with their quality as the only fully genuine people onstage ties those qualities together in our minds.

In this sense, the play goes beyond Romeo and Juliet. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, the audience can console itself in the same limited terms that the Prince and the two patriarchs, Capulet and Montague, do, and blame the tragedy entirely on the feud. These lovers were not truly star-crossed, it’s just the crossed nature of their parents that ushered in tragedy. That’s certainly what Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents did with Shakespeare’s material – they made it a story of the struggle for supremacy between hate and love. And if that’s the contest, then of course we stand for love – and calls ring out to tear down the hateful barriers that stand in its way.

But love is a jealous emotion; it stands not only against its opposite, but against all other ties, against the world and life itself. ‘Tis Pity gives the audience a pure expression of this jealous power, because it gives us a pair of sympathetic lovers for whom one can neither say, “if only the hateful world would end its disapproval, there would be no tragedy,” nor “this isn’t really love, but some kind of warped mockery thereof.” Because it is true love, but a true love that cannot be accommodated. It cannot be accommodated – and yet, we are loathe to banish it from our republic, for fear of banishing what is best in all of us, what is better than many of us will prove capable of feeling. It’s a tragedy in the classic sense, because it admits of no escape – and tragedy of that sort is as anathema to the Christian view of our common nature as it is to the modern progressive view.

On the other hand, you don’t have to take the proceedings as seriously as I do above to be moved and exhilarated by the play. The cast is phenomenal from end to end. The set and costumes (designed by David M. Barber and Sara Jean Tosetti respectively) do a perfect job of bridging the 17th and 21st centuries, and look gorgeous doing it. There’s not a moment that goes by without soaring passion, low humor, or the pathos of mere humanity – or all three at once. Even if you are not inclined to meditate on what the play is saying, it’s a great evening of theater.

So in spite of my previously-disclosed conflict of interest, I am not at all conflicted about saying – go see it, while you still can.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore runs at the Duke Theater in New York through May 16th.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . One comment

A Friedersdorf-Millman Dialogue on the Conservative Response to Police Brutality

Conor Friedersdorf and I got together to do a bloggingheads – and I talked way too much. As a consequence, they split the discussion into two parts. In the first part, we talked primarily about the conservative response to recent revelations about police abuse from a variety of jurisdictions.

Friedersdorf has been writing about the subject for a while, so if he still counts as a “conservative” then he’s an exception to his own generalization that the institutional conservative response has been unimpressive. The subject isn’t one that I’m personally as well-versed in as he is, but TAC has published a number of worthy pieces on the subject, including two recent pieces by Matthew Loftus, so I think we should count as another exception.

In any event, here‘s the dialogue:

 Tagged , , , , , , . 8 comments

A Tale Of Two Countries, And Of One Union

more_snp_seats

I love looking below the lid once the election results are in. Take the recent UK election. What does it tell us about the change in the “will” of the British electorate, if anything? And what does it portend for the future?

In terms of seats, what happened is:

  • The Tories gained 24 net, enough to form a majority without the support of any minority party
  • Labour lost 26 net
  • The centrist Liberal Democrats lost 49, nearly wiping out the party
  • The Scottish National Party gained 50

In terms of vote share, though, what happened is:

  • The Tories gained a negligible 0.8%
  • Labour gained 1.4% – still pretty unimpressive, but a bigger gain than the Tories, and yet they lost seats
  • The Liberal Democrats lost 15.2%
  • The Scottish National Party gained 3.1%

You may note that the above numbers don’t add up. Where’d those missing votes go?

  • The UK Independence Party gained 9.8%
  • The Green Party gained 2.8%

(Now the total vote is more than 100%, but that’s accounted for by losses across a variety of smaller parties, the most prominent being the British National Party, which was wiped out after losing 1.9% of the vote share.)

The SNP garnered 4.8% of the UK national vote and earned 56 seats, 8.6% of the total. UKIP garnered 12.7% of the vote and earned . . . 1 seat. UKIP earned half as many seats seats as the Ulster Unionist party, which only got 115,000 votes to UKIP’s nearly 3.8 million.

UKIP illustrates the reason why third parties aren’t supposed to exist in first-past-the-post systems: it’s supposed to be obvious that these votes are wasted – or, worse, would be strategically mis-placed, throwing a seat to the voter’s third-choice candidate rather than the voter’s second choice. It’s a rule of political science that’s been broken for decades in the UK, though – the LDP has long been in a position somewhat analogous to UKIP today, earning far more votes than seats.

But there’s an exception to that rule, and that is when there is a geographic “logic” to a party’s support. Such as is the case with the SNP today.

The SNP won an outright majority of Scottish votes. They also won majorities in many constituencies, and substantial pluralities in nearly all the constituencies where they failed to earn a majority. That’s why they have 56 seats, and UKIP has only 1.

Is that “fair”? Well, on one level of course it is – everybody knew the rules before the game was played, and the game itself was played by the rules, so by definition they have to accept the fairness of the result. But on another level, the real question is what the system is intended to achieve.

In a pure proportional-representation system, such as exists in Israel, for example, the Tories would have been the clear plurality victors in this election, but would have seen their seat count increase not at all. Labour wouldn’t have budged much either. Instead, all the movement would have been from the LDP to UKIP, the SNP and the Greens – because that’s what happened with the vote. And the new government would likely be a right-wing coalition of the Tories and UKIP – or, if that were politically unacceptable, either a government of national unity or a hodge-podge coalition of the Tories, LDP and SNP. (Such heterogeneous coalitions are far from unknown in proportional-rep systems.)

Of course, we don’t know what UKIP’s vote might have been in that scenario. If most UKIP votes in this election came from safe Tory or safe Labour districts, and the expectation was for a close election prior to the vote (as it was), then under a proportional-rep system those voters might have preferred to vote for their second-choice party rather than UKIP, rather than risk throwing the election to the third-choice party. This is precisely what happened in the recent Israeli election – Likud got a late surge from voters who might otherwise have voted for one of the smaller right-wing parties. (The same might have happened in this election, if voters were debating between, say, the LDP and the Tories voted Tory to prevent a Labour-LDP-SNP coalition government.)

But the question I wonder about is: under a proportional rep system, what would be the mood today in Scotland? The Westminster system under-weights the votes of geographically diffuse minority views. By the same token, it overweights the votes of geographically concentrated minority views. Which is more optimal for a given country depends very much on who you are trying to placate, who you are trying to convince to “buy in” to the political system.

If the essential question in British politics today is the constitutional status of the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, then the Westminster system makes it relatively easier for Scotland to demand that the question be taken up on terms that it dictates. If you look at the two-party vote in England, you will see how difficult it will be for Labour to form a parliamentary majority from English votes. But assuming the SNP doesn’t fade quickly, it’s not at all hard to imagine a future election in which no party forms a majority, and the only coalition partner for either Labour or the Tories have is either the SNP or each other.

Moreover, precisely because of the disparity in size, it is very difficult to imagine that the “Scottish question” could ever be as central to English politics as it is to Scottish. Which means that even if an English-nationalist or anti-federalist tendency takes hold south of Hadrian’s Wall, it’ll be a diffuse minority tendency, and likely be as efficacious as UKIP has been at turning votes into seats.

Does that mean commentators like our own Daniel Larison are right that this result points to the inevitability of Scottish independence, and that the UK is “living on borrowed time?” Maybe. But the history of the Bloc Québécois in Canada should give anyone making such predictions pause. In particular, I would argue that, if a plausible federalist solution exists, then a vote such as we’ve just seen is likely the necessary political predicate to achieving it. While it is true that anyone who voted “yes” on the referendum should logically vote SNP, the opposite is not the case – the mere existence of the SNP as a large bloc in Parliament gives substance to the notion that Scotland could get the best deal for itself by negotiating a high price for remaining in the union. And if that’s the case, then the peculiarities of the Westminster system that give an independent-minded Scotland an outsized share of seats are precisely the peculiarities that make it possible to hold the system together.

If the goal is to give a minority region like Scotland the maximum leverage to negotiate its terms of staying in the union, the Westminster system is pretty well-designed. Somewhere, John C. Calhoun is probably smiling.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 10 comments

Tell Him, Tell Him, Tell Him, Tell Him Right Now

exciters

I’ve been trying to avoid reading Jordana Narin’s Modern-Love-contest-winning-essay because I thought I knew what it said already from so many people commenting on it. But I finally broke down after Damon Linker’s latest entry in the sweepstakes and read the blasted thing. And it isn’t at all what I thought.

I thought it would be an article lamenting how hard it is to get guys to commit these days – or about how women themselves are now afraid of commitment, perpetually leaving their options open for something better that might come along, and ending up lonely and dissatisfied. But it isn’t that at all. It’s about a woman who is so terrified of losing what little she has, romantically-speaking, that she dare not tell the truth about her feelings.

Listen to Jordana:

I was eager to move on from high school, and talking to Jeremy was an escape, a peek into an alternative universe where shy boys with moppy brown hair and clever minds seemed to care about more than their next hookups. When I published an article about my struggle with Crohn’s disease in an obscure online magazine, he wrote with praise and to tell me it moved him, lessening the shame I felt.

Every time his name popped up on my phone, my heart raced.

Sounds like a pretty special guy. Nonetheless:

I decided to leave him behind when I left for college.

But he wouldn’t let me. Whenever I believed he was out of my life, I’d get a text or Facebook comment that would reel me back in.

And I wouldn’t let me, either. His affection, however sporadic, always loomed like a promise. So I accepted his invitation, asking myself what I had to lose.

I lost a lot that weekend: A bet on the football game. Four pounds (from nerve-driven appetite loss). A pair of underwear. My innocence, apparently.

Naïvely, I had expected to gain clarity, to finally admit my feelings and ask if he felt the same. But I couldn’t confess, couldn’t probe.

And so:

[M]ore than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.

There’s a word for this feeling. The word is LOVE. Jordana is in love with Jeremy.

Her friend, Shosh, can see it – that’s why she tries to talk her out of it:

My friend Shosh insists that I don’t actually have feelings for Jeremy.

“You don’t know him anymore,” she says. “I think maybe you’re addicted to the memories, in love with a person you’ve idealized who probably isn’t real.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe my emotions are steeped in a past that never presented itself. Still, he envelops my thoughts. And anyway, Shosh has a Jeremy of her own, another guy at another school she holds both close and far away.

Right: Shosh has what used to be called a friend-with-benefits, someone she is emotionally close to but not in love with, who she sleeps with periodically. And she’s fine with that arrangement. She thinks Jordana’s Jeremy is in the same place as her Jeremy – fine with this arrangement as is. She wants Jordana to conform to that model – which means convincing herself that she is not in love with Jeremy – so that she’ll be happier. And it’s true – it’s a lot easier to be happy in a shallow kind of way without love. Particularly unrequited love.

This is not new. People have been trying to convince themselves that they are or are not in love with someone that they should or should not be in love with since the invention of love. They are still doing it – single people, married people, divorced people; love can be an awkward intrusion or a present absence for anybody. More often than not, the effort to convince is not very convincing.

But that’s not Jordana’s problem. Here’s her problem:

I’ve brooded over the same person for the last four years. Can I honestly call myself empowered if I’m unable to share my feelings with him? Could my options be more closed? Could I be less in control?

My father can’t understand why I won’t tell Jeremy how I feel. To me, it’s simple. As involved as we’ve been for what amounts to, at this point, nearly a quarter of my life, Jeremy and I are technically nothing, at least as far as labels are concerned.

So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them.

Her father asks her why she doesn’t just tell him how she feels, and she says she can’t because . . . nobody else has made a formal declaration of what their relationship is. But who could that “somebody else” possibly be?

Jordana’s problem is that she is waiting for Jeremy’s permission to say how she feels and to ask for what she wants. She wants him to say “I love you,” and he hasn’t done it. And she is terrified that if she says it first, if she explicitly or implicitly makes any demands, that he will refuse those demands, refuse to reciprocate.

She is, in other words, letting a man take advantage of her feelings for him, and hurt her, because she is afraid of losing him.

This. Is. Not. New.

And it’s not Jeremy’s fault – not at this point. It’s Jordana’s. It is entirely her responsibility to decide when it’s time to speak her mind, and then to do so. If he turns her down because he’s afraid of commitment, and misses out on what might be the love of his life, that’s his fault – not hers for speaking. But she can’t wait for “permission” from a label that he alone has the power to apply. She has to apply the label. Herself. She has to say how she feels. And then face the consequences of that truth.

This is just part of growing up, part of what everybody has to go through and has always had to go through since the moment we started letting young people find mates for themselves instead of being forced into marriage with whoever their parents preferred. This is the way love works. You have to take emotional risks to get it – and those risks might not pay off. You have to weigh your self-respect against your desires – and you can’t let either be an absolute trump card.

If her friends won’t give her that advice, maybe it’s because they’ve never experienced love. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to experience love. Is that about wanting to preserve romantic choice, sexual autonomy? I somehow doubt it. I suspect it’s more about wanting to preserve choice outside the realm of sex, to preserve autonomy from romance. It’s about, as Jordana says at one point, wanting to avoid drama.

But that’s the thing about love: it’s not something you choose. It’s something that chooses you. And when you think about it, avoiding drama is a pretty lame approach to life, isn’t it?

If I were giving Jordana advice, that advice would be:

  • Read Chekhov, all the major plays. Start with The Seagull and The Three Sisters to learn something about unrequited or imperfectly requited love. Dive into the depths of Masha and Vershinin’s affair, or Nina and Trigorin’s – but also listen to Konstantin’s longing for Nina and Masha’s for Konstantin; Kulygin’s for Masha and Olga’s for Kulygin – and of course Tuzenbach’s for Irina. And then read Uncle Vanya to fully appreciate the futility of a life spent avoiding drama. Learn that what you are struggling with is not new, that your feelings have sufficient dignity and scope to have inspired great art. That should make you feel a bit better, I think.
  • Then, take a step back, and a deep breath, and ask yourself: do you really believe that there is only one Jeremy in the whole world? That you will never – could never – feel love for anybody else? That no one will ever remind you of him, or that you’d have to blot out the memory of him entirely to ever feel a deep longing for someone else? Do you really believe that if he doesn’t feel the same way about you, that this is the best you can hope for in life – clinging to the sleeve of someone who doesn’t love you the way you love him? Do you want to be a character in a Chekhov play?
  • If, with your cold rational mind, you know the answer to all of those questions is “no,” then tell him how you feel. Tell him you are in love with him, and that you’ve been in love with him for a long time, and that you need to know if he feels the same way; that he has to be an adult and tell you the truth. He might surprise you by saying he loves you, too, and that he wouldn’t want to lose you. Or he might say that he doesn’t want to change the way things are – that you’re a very special friend and he doesn’t see why that should preclude having sex now and again. Or he might not be an adult, and fail to answer the question in any coherent way. Whatever he says, you’ll know the answer to the question that is causing you so much pain.

And whatever he says, this phase – the phase of painful, unspoken, possibly unrequited love, which is not some modern invention but has existed forever - this phase will be over. You’ll be in a new phase, and you’ll learn what that’s like. You’ll have done a bit of growing up.

There’s no substitute for that process, and no shortcut. Nor has there ever been.

 Tagged , , , . 9 comments

Africa Matters

Well, I’m out out of sync again. Back in 2012, just before the Economist was hyping the new African miracle, I wrote a very pessimistic post about the future of Africa, basically predicting a Camp of the Saints scenario.

Now, when more skepticism is being voiced about that miracle, and ships filled with African refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean, I decided to write a relatively more upbeat piece about the continent’s future. But the core reason for writing it are basically the same: numbers matter. And whether Africa becomes an economic colossus or a Malthusian tragedy, African is going to matter – because it is getting really, really huge:

Africa is the largest place on earth that it is possible, most of the time, to ignore. It won’t be forever. The journalistic cliché is that, as the 20th was the American century, the 21st will be the Chinese. But there is a plausible case to be made that, within a few short decades, we’ll be talking instead about the African century.

The reason is simple arithmetic. Demographically, Africa is expanding at a rate unmatched by any other remotely comparable region. Of the 25 countries with the highest total fertility rates, all but two (Afghanistan and East Timor) are African—and included in that list are some of Africa’s largest and most populous countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the UN’s population projections, Africa’s population will triple between 2000 and 2050, going from roughly 800 million to roughly 2.4 billion. It will then nearly double between 2050 and 2100, to 4.2 billion. At the end of the century, Africa is projected to have nearly as many people as all of Asia, and roughly as many as the entire world did in 1980. Nearly two out of every five people on earth in 2100 will be African.

You can read the whole thing on Politico’s website here.

 Tagged , , , , . 9 comments

An Anthropological Approach to Gay Marriage

Apropos of the debate before the Supreme Court about gay marriage, this article has been making the rounds. It’s part of an attempt to refute the Justice Alito’s actual assertion that marriage has been solely about joining men and women for “millennia,” only to be reconceived in the late-20th century. Not so, sayeth the BBC:

Homosexual acts may be outlawed in Kenya but there is a long tradition among some communities of women marrying each other.

This is hard to fathom in a country where religious leaders condemn gay unions as “un-African” – and those who dare to declare their partnerships openly often receive a hostile public reaction.

But these cases involving women are not regarded in the same light.

If a woman has never had any children, she takes on what is regarded as the male role in a marriage, providing a home for the younger woman, who is then encouraged to take a male sexual partner from her partner’s clan to become pregnant.

Her offspring will be regarded as the fruit of the marriage.

The article goes on to point out ways in which this traditional practice differs from same-sex marriage as we conceive it. For one thing, there is nothing particularly romantic about the partnership. The female “husband” must be post-menopausal, and the assumption of this tribal society (and of the female “husband” interviewed) is that women of such an age no longer experience sexual desire – an assumption which is refuted every day in the modern west and, I suspect, in Kenya as well, but be that as it may. Nonetheless, it’s cited as a possible precedent to justify alternatives to “traditional” marriages between men and women.

But what I take from the example is further evidence that the contemporary conservative notion of what “traditional” marriage is bears little resemblance to the reality, either in terms of structure or in terms of purpose. The unions described in the article exist for the purpose of providing continuity for the post-menopausal woman within a tribal system – by providing her with children who can inherit her property and thereby carry on her legacy. Without a marriage, there would be no way for her to have legitimate children who could serve that function. And the reason the story is in the news is that the woman’s blood relatives are suing, claiming that the woman’s son – who, obviously, is not a blood relative – has no legitimate right to her property, which would otherwise go to them.

This is what marriage is fundamentally about, in a traditional world. It’s about property, and it’s about dignity because it’s about property. This two-woman marriage is an exception to the normal rule about how marriage works because without such an exception this woman’s line would end – and it would end because her property would not pass to her heirs, but to some other relative. It is analogous to the biblical institution of levirate marriage, requiring the brother of a dead man to marry his brother’s widow – the purpose of which was not to provide her with shelter and protection but to give his dead brother heirs. It is analogous to the amendment to the law of inheritance instituted by Moses (with God’s blessing) when confronted by the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no brother to inherit their father’s clan portion. It is analogous to the use of concubines by the biblical matriarchs – Sarah deploys Hagar, Rachel deploys Bilhah – to provide their husbands with heirs when they are unable to conceive themselves. All of these are explicitly biblically-sanctioned exceptions to the normal course of marital business and the normal rules of inheritance, and their purpose is to provide for a legitimate line of inheritance for individuals for whom the normal rules have not worked out, because without such a legitimate line their “names” will die out, and their property will be disbursed to other relatives.

This is not the way most modern Westerners think about marriage, because we do not live in a tribal society – it’s not just our relationship to extended family that has changed radically, but also our relationship to property. But it was a huge component of what marriage meant for most of its history, and still is important in large swathes of the world.

More to the point, though, it isn’t how Thomas Aquinas thought about marriage. When I read Aquinas, or his natural-law descendants, writing on the subject, I don’t hear a descriptive anthropology (which is what the words “natural law” would lead one naively to expect). Instead, I hear a prescriptive argument, an argument not about what marriage is but about what marriage should be based on certain premises about both human and divine nature. And that particular line of argument leads to a place with no place for calling what those two Kenyan women have a “marriage.”

You can come to the question of gay marriage from the liberal side with a similarly prescriptive approach, starting with a definition of marriage derived from first principles, whatever they may be. The Supreme Court is probably going to have to do that, because that’s the mode of discourse that a court is most comfortable with – which is one good reason to try to handle the question legislatively if possible. But I’ve never been as comfortable with those kinds of arguments as I am with an empirical, even anthropological approach, one that simply looks at what people actually are doing, how they are actually living their lives. In our actual world, gay couples are living together, supporting each other in sickness and health, and raising children together. That’s what marriage seems to be about to us, as we actually live our lives, in the society we actually live in. And there are enough gay couples living this way, and for long enough, that it’s time the law recognized that fact.

Why should the law recognize it? Well, inasmuch as the state has any legitimate interest in what anybody does in matters of personal status, it’s because the state has an interest in keeping track of the disposition of property and the duties of care for dependent children. That is to say: the state still cares who might have a legitimate claim on your property, and who is responsible for a given child, because confusion on these matters raises the potential for conflict. Marriage already answers a whole host of questions about status that the state cares about. So it’s the right word to use.

I understand where the arguments from so-called “natural law” are coming from. When they say marriage “is” a union of one man and one woman, my objection isn’t really that they don’t understand marriage rightly. We just don’t agree on the what the meaning of the word “is” is.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , . 47 comments

Exit Ghost

Lesley Manville (right) as Helene and Billy Howle as her son, Oswald, in Ibsen's Ghosts, at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.
Lesley Manville (right) as Helene and Billy Howle as her son, Oswald, in Ibsen's Ghosts, at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.

Sometimes when you muck about with a well-known classic, you get into trouble by changing something that proved to be essential. Other times, though, you can get into trouble by the opposite – clinging to something that, in this new vision, was actually inessential. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the problem.

The current production of Hamlet at Classic Stage Co. in New York, directed by Austin Pendleton and starring Peter Sarsgaard, for both of whom I have a great deal of respect and affection, has a host of problems, from a speaking style that obscures the verse in an effort to make the language seem naturalistic, to a too-static set, to a generally lugubrious and mopey tone, to some downright peculiar casting decisions. But the “big idea” of this production is one area where I suspect Pendleton just didn’t push far enough.

That idea was to cut the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Now, given that the entire play revolves around Hamlet’s response to the ghost’s information and the ghost’s command, this would seem to be a pretty risky choice. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the promise in it, as a way of simplifying and psychologizing a play that can wander off into the philosophical and theological weeds. Not that those weeds aren’t really interesting – they most certainly are – but I find them more interesting to study than they are practical to explore on stage.

If we never see or hear the ghost, and neither do the other characters, then we don’t know whether it is even real, or a figment of Hamlet’s imagination – or even Hamlet’s excuse for his increasingly wild behavior, a part of his “antic disposition” act (if it is an act). From being a meditation on the inability to act, the play would become a story about the kinds of stories we have to tell ourselves in order to overcome our scruples about revenge. Indeed, Claudius, in such a reading of the play, might not be guilty at all – at least not of murder – and Hamlet’s wildness may in fact make a mortal enemy of a man who was entirely sincere in wanting to be a surrogate father. The result might be less Shakespearean – but it might be more, well, Scandinavian.

But if you wanted to stage that play, you’d have to cut a lot more than the part of the ghost. You’d have to cut the ghost’s earlier appearance on the battlements – which establishes its reality outside of Hamlet’s head. You’d have the option to cut Claudius’s confession – though you might keep “Now I might do it pat,” which would play very differently in the altered context. Or you could keep Claudius’s confession, and his guilt would be much more of a revelation if we hadn’t already heard the ghost’s accusation.

The point is: you’d have to do a thorough exorcism.

In this production, though, the ghost remains real – Horatio sees it before he meets Hamlet, just as in the canonical text. And the ghost speaks the truth – we learn Claudius’s guilt from his own mouth, again as in the canonical text. So this is still a play about the interplay between epistemology and ethics, about what Hamlet does or does not really know, and how that uncertainty “puzzles the will.” Except we, in the audience, are at a disadvantage relative to the Danes, in that we don’t see or hear the ghost.

Or, rather, we don’t see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Other ghosts pop up unbidden and unconnected to the text. Polonius’s ghost walks solemnly off the stage after his murder, leaving no body for Hamlet to drag behind the stairs. Ophelia’s ghost starts eavesdropping on conversations she has no business hearing before she is even dead, and haunts her own funeral. These ghosts are there for us to see – but not for Hamlet.

I’m really not sure what Pendleton was after with these contradictory approaches to the seen and unseen. I wish I did, and I wish I could ask him. Because he could have been onto something interesting, and I’d still like to see that possibility staged, rather than have this production be the end of that particular line of inquiry.

*     *     *

In Brooklyn, meanwhile, you can see a Scandinavian play explicitly haunted in the manner of my hypothetical exorcized Hamlet: Ibsen’s Ghosts, adapted and streamlined to a mere 90 minute run time by director Richard Eyre. But this production, too, has been purged a bit of the qualities that should make it so haunting, I fear as a consequence of the effort to make the play move at a pace more congenial to contemporary audiences.

Ghosts appears at first to be a story revealing the hidden corruption in an apparently staid and upright Norwegian town. Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) has been a dutiful wife to her late husband, and now that he is gone she’s built an orphanage in his memory that will be managed by the local pastor (Will Keen). Very quickly, though, we learn that things are not as wholesome they seem. Helene, as a young bride, fled her brutal, drunken, whorechasing husband, into the pastor’s arms, which she had reason to hope would be loving. He convinced her to return to her duty, and to all outward appearances the husband reformed. But, Helene reveals, that was a sham she maintained to protect the family’s reputation. In fact, Mr. Alving changed not a whit his whole life long, and she suffered in silence, devoting herself to work that her husband got the credit for, and sending her beloved son, Oswald (Billy Howle) away from her not because she was uninterested in mothering him but to protect him from learning what his father was really like.

Well, now Oswald is home with his own plans and his own pains, all of which recall the ghost of his father in unwelcome ways. He’s fallen in love with Regina (Charlene McKenna), a servant girl in the house, not realizing that she’s his half sister; he appears to his mother (the only one who knows the girl’s true parentage) to be repeating the pattern of his father’s seduction of the girl’s mother. But he wants her not so much for romantic reasons as for need of her tender care. The big revelation of the last act of the play is that his inheritance from his father includes congenital syphilis, which has been rotting his brain and will soon incapacitate him. He had hoped to spare his mother the pain of seeing him deteriorate, and the worse pain of having to help him kill himself rather than go through the last stages of decline, but since she foiled his plans to marry Regina, she’ll have to do the job.

I say it appears to be this story – a story of hidden corruption coming to light. But the central story is not about the compact of mutual deception that allows such corruption to fester, but about the self-deception of poor Helene. She believes that she is the victim, but that she has risen above her parents’ crime in marrying her off for money, and done what was right and best under almost unbearable circumstances. She has survived, and thrived, and now she will put her ghosts to rest. But the play reveals, painfully, that this is largely untrue. She is as corrupt as the rest of the town, though she doesn’t know it because she believes she acted out of noble motives.

The key revelation is that she never told Regina her true parentage, and kept her as a servant (her mother’s station) rather than acknowledging her as family (her inheritance from her father). She never considered Regina’s position in her calculations, just as she never considered how her son would feel about her after being sent away. Her fault was not really that she didn’t consider the consequences of her actions, but that she acted in a silent vacuum, and therefore could only understand her actions from the limited perspective of her own awful predicament.

This production does many things extremely well. Lesley Manville is a powerful and thoroughly real Helene, persuasive in her thwarted affection for her son, Oswald; in her sense of newfound liberty now that her hated husband has died; even in love for Pastor Manders, though as played by Keen I could see little reason for her to harbor any such feelings. There’s fine work as well from Billy Howle, and from Brian McCardie as Jacob Engstrand, as Regina’s cynical and corrupt father. Tim Hatley’s set is positively luminescent, bringing the title of the play hauntingly to life in the images of actors passing behind panes of frosted glass.

But I fear that the text has been streamlined too much for the revelations of the play to land with the force they need to. Helene’s arc felt to me foreshortened, as did Regina’s. I didn’t get to know these people as well as I needed to before I was hurried on to the next turn of the screw. Ibsen had a lusty enthusiasm for melodrama, which he bent to his deeper purpose, but as is more often the case with stage adaptations of novels, the severe cuts left the bones of the melodrama insufficiently fleshed for me to feel their true weight of the living.

Nonetheless, if the final view of Oswald, writhing and twitching in the bloody dawn light, doesn’t haunt you as you leave the theater, I don’t know what will.

Hamlet runs at the Classic Stage Company in New York through May 10th. Ghosts runs at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn through May 3rd.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Post a comment
← Older posts