Noah Millman

A Busy SCOTUS Week

Anybody even remember King v Burwell? Probably not. But if you are one of the few who still care, my thoughts on the decision – which I very much agreed with – can be found over at The Week.

Most of the piece talks about how King v. Burwell was properly deferential, and why that matters. A couple of paragraphs stand out, though, for having broader applicability.

The difficulty with having the Supreme Court strike down legislation produced by a democratically elected majority cannot be answered by reference to the sanctity of the Constitution. (After all, all branches of government are guided by this document, which, by the way, does not enumerate among the court’s powers the right to strike down legislation.) Nor can it be answered by reference to some hermeneutical rule (originalism, or strict construction, or anything else) that places the court above suspicion — because suspicion is, itself, a social and political matter, not a matter of objective fact.

Rather, the counter-majoritarian difficulty can only be answered pragmatically, by reference to the proper functioning of the government. There are a variety of possible such defenses, some more conservative (e.g., Madison’s defense of the separation of powers) and some more liberal (such as John Hart Ely’s hermeneutic of democratic inclusion). But they all boil down to this: We want the government to work this way and that requires that we have a court that plays this role.

So what about today’s decision declaring that the Constitution requires all 50 states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Is there any answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty here?

I’m going to read the decision before opining.

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Southern Civilization and Slavery’s Taint

Family of slaves in Georgia, circa 1850. Wikimedia Commons.

I appreciate and largely agree with the sentiments Ross Douthat advances in this blog post, and that Rod Dreher concurs in here, but I can’t resist asking a few pointed, perhaps uncomfortable questions.

The argument for Southern civilization tends to see the North the way Alexander Hamilton saw it, as New York City writ large. I’m a proud New Yorker myself, but even here you can find passionate champions of the case against progress – champions who, I venture to suggest, have not been as much heeded in Dixieland as they have been up north. It’s worth remembering that Henry “American System” Clay wasn’t a Yankee; he was born in Virginia and represented Kentucky in the Senate. And when you think of the enormous impact the Army Corps of Engineers, the interstate highway system, the big box store, and so forth have had on the Southern landscape, I wonder whether it isn’t better to see the anti-progressive Southern tradition as oppositional rather than representative even within its own region.

But granting, for the sake of argument, that the distinctive American strain of thought that stands in opposition to progress as the ultimate good speaks most eloquently in a Southern accent. Why should that be? Why isn’t Vermont, or Iowa, just as good a place to find the virtues of the small, the local, the independent, the stubbornly unchanged? Why aren’t the accents of Marilynne Robinson and Robert Frost just as eloquent as those of Wendell Berry and Allen Tate?

I think the answer has something to do with the tragic sensibility of so much of the best in Southern culture. That sensibility is often linked to the status of being a conquered people, and hence to the “lost cause.” But I think it goes back earlier, to the slave system that cause aimed to defend – and expand.

The ideological defenders of slavery made two central arguments, the one suspiciously convenient to their interests, the other distinctly inconvenient for any American. The first was that Africans were an inferior species of people whose best destiny was bondage to a superior race. But the second was that all civilization depends on the capture and intelligent direction of labor power, and that genuine universal equality is therefore incompatible with civilization itself, the only open question being according to what social system that labor power is to be controlled, expropriated and directed. John C. Calhoun was called “the Marx of the master class” because many of his arguments found an echo in Marx’s own critique of capitalist relations, but without Marx’s utopian optimism about the promised land of egalitarian communism that lay on the other side of capitalist exploitation. And Calhoun could call on good classical authority for his contention that freedom depended on slavery because no man who had to live on his own labor could possibly be free. That’s certainly how Aristotle saw the matter.

That second proposition – that freedom can only be purchased through slavery, and that civilization itself is necessarily based on the expropriation of labor – lends a distinctly tragic view to society if it’s not tainted by the foolish presumption that any group, class, or individual actually deserves the title of master. And that latter presumption is what was, at least among the sensitive minority of southerners overrepresented in its literary ranks, shattered by 1865. Such a sensibility is a particularly powerful corrective to the more general American optimism about our national experiment; indeed, it makes that view look more cruel than uplifting. It’s what the likes of Eugene Genovese have tried to rescue from the Southern conservative tradition, and represents much of what both the Yankee Douthat and the southerner Dreher value about southernness from an intellectual and spiritual perspective.

It’s worth valuing, and rescuing. But it’s worth recognizing as well that what’s being rescued isn’t something that was tainted by slavery, but – like the music, and the food, and all of Louisiana, pretty much everything on Douthat’s list – the product of slavery’s taint.

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The Laudato Si Hijacking

I admit, I have been unable to finish reading the big papal encyclical on the environment and climate change. So if the tone or argument changes radically part-way through, forgive me for getting it wrong.

But it seems to me, from what reading I did, that Ross Douthat and Damon Linker have it about right. Indeed, I would go further than either in my criticism.

To my reading, the encyclical starts with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, human beings lived in relative harmony with the environment, because we understood our place within creation. But with the advent of modernity, we have lost sight of that place, both in terms of our proper humility and in terms of our proper responsibility for good stewardship. And the devastating consequences for humanity and the non-human world are all around us. Modernity cannot really be repaired from within; it must be re-founded on a proper moral basis, such that the fruits of the earth are properly shared and exploitation of both the human and non-human world is no longer the basis of our world economy.

I call this a fairy tale because there’s no evidence offered that the pre-modern history is at all true. That is to say, there’s no evidence that medieval Europeans, or the cultures of Africa or the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, avoided exploiting their environment to the best of their ability. And this is to say nothing of the cultures of Asia, from China to India to the Fertile Crescent, which were much more systematic and effective at maximizing their exploitation of the local environment, and which consequently lived closer to the Malthusian edge.

What changed, fundamentally, with modernity was the scope of human power. Human beings had previously only been able to exceed the carrying capacity of specific geographic areas, and when those areas were destroyed they could move on to new areas. That’s what human beings did in the first cradle of civilization – Mesopotamia – when long-irrigated areas grew too saline to support agriculture. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, though, human beings acquired the power to more and more fully exploit the resources of the entire planet – and the global human population exploded to take advantage of this new abundance. As a consequence, we are now arguably the largest single factor impacting the global ecosystem, responsible, by some measures, for the disposition of 25% to 40% of the entire terrestrial biomass.

Over that same period of time, we as a species have gotten better, not worse, at managing our relationship with the environment – more cognizant, not less, of the impact we are having on the planet. The environmental movement is now over a century old, and can claim some very substantial successes, and modern science remains the only actual tool we have for evaluating the impact of humanity’s activities on the ecosystem, a precondition to doing anything to alter that impact. The problem is that we are not getting better fast enough. The damage we are doing is escalating faster than our efforts to restrain that damage. It may in fact be escalating fast enough to usher in a global Malthusian catastrophe.

So there’s a good argument for what Douthat calls the “catastrophist” case – just as there is a good counter-argument for the “dynamist” position. But if there’s an ecological case for a reversion to pre-modern modes of production and distribution, that case needs to be made in ecological – and economic – terms, not in spiritual terms. After all, it could well be that such modes are more spiritually wholesome for human beings, and also more wholesome for the environment – but that they can only be implemented by killing off 85% of humanity, and then keeping the population suppressed by some means (presumably either through coercion or through the simple operation of scarcity). That, in fact, would be my own presumption before any evidence is presented, because the sevenfold expansion of the planetary human population over the past two centuries happened as a consequence of the adoption of modern modes of production and distribution, and I would assume – again, until evidence was presented to the contrary – that there was a causal relationship operative.

And even if that kind of radical restructuring is the goal, the only way to get from here to there – from an unsustainable economic system to a sustainable one – is through significant and conscious adjustments to human activity all around the world. How exactly are these to be implemented without recourse to some combination of technocratic direction or spontaneous response to the price mechanism? The encyclical pays lip-service to the importance of scientific and technical knowledge, but implicitly disdains politics as too infected with interest. The core assumption seems to be that if our hearts were changed, then all the organizational difficulties attendant on radically changing the way our civilization works would melt away. That may be – but should we bet the planet on it?

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is doing is hijacking ecological catastrophism for a pre-determined spiritual agenda. And that agenda isn’t even the one that makes the most intuitive sense as a purely spiritual response to said catastrophism. If I asked myself what religious system is most in tune with the challenges of radically reshaping the world economy to better protect the natural environment, Roman Catholic Christianity would not be the first one to come to mind. Indeed, my first impulse would be to say Buddhism, which preaches moderation, counsels non-attachment to things as the route to inner peace, has a strong tradition of vegetarianism (which, if universally adopted, would probably do more to stretch the carrying capacity of the planet than any other lifestyle change), and is considerably less-invested in fecundity than most religious traditions, Christianity included. If I were looking for specifically spiritual answers, that would seem to be the first place to turn. But the encyclical does not read like the product of a search for answers, because the answers were known in advance. The search was for an explanation of how these already-established answers just happen to be a perfect fit for humanity’s novel situation on the planet.

That effort might or might not pay off in terms of convincing people worried about the environment to take Catholicism seriously, or in terms of convincing Catholics to take environmentalism seriously. But qua reasoning, forgive me if I find it, well, Jesuitical. And I seriously question whether that kind of reasoning is the best way to respond to the concrete challenges of humanity’s burgeoning impact on the natural world.

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Father’s Day Musings

I spent this past Father’s Day at a soccer tournament up in Rockland County, alternating between cheering my son on and fearing he would drop of heat stroke. It is both exactly what I would have expected to be doing with a twelve-year-old son, and nothing I would have expected to be doing – exactly because that’s what twelve-year-old boys do, and nothing because I have essentially no interest in sports, and neither does my wife, so where did he come from?

Of course, kids are often wildly different from their parents in interests, abilities and personality. And they are often very similar. Genes can lie dormant for generations before popping up again unexpectedly – and nurture is funny, too, as often as not triggering reaction rather than replication.

But perhaps because I am an adoptive parent, I feel especially attuned to the patterns of similarity and difference. When my son and I share a familial joke, I’m especially delighted because there’s no reason to assume we’re both “made” to find the same things funny. And when he rejects something that I love, I wonder: did I introduce it to him in the wrong way? or are we just . . . made different? And perhaps because my son is approaching bar mitzvah, I’ve been doing a lot of accounting of my parenting in a period in my son’s life that is on the verge of formal completion.

A little more than a decade ago, I wrote a meditation on fatherhood that I still return to, over and over, partly because I’m incredibly vain about re-reading my work (or the small portion thereof that I think is any good) and partly because its themes really do recur over and over in my life, in different forms. Back then, I thought about fatherhood in precisely the terms Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus called unknown: as a matter of “conscious begetting.” Whether through nature or through nurture, my job was to bring a new being into being. How does one do that?

Well, I assumed – I can hardly bring a new being into being if I have not yet achieved “being” myself. I’d best get on that. And so I did, setting out – consciously – to make myself into the person who would be the proper father to this child.

From Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, conscious begetting is very much in the news these days – self-begetting, in their cases, but it’s always self-begetting, isn’t it; to say “I will mold this child” is to say, “I will make myself into the one who will mold this child.” And there’s something that’s been sticking in my craw about the chatter on both sides of these stories, and that is precisely the implicit conception of being that both sides share. Caitlyn Jenner either “is” a woman or she “is” a man deluding himself that he can be a woman. Rachel Dolezal either “is” a black woman or she “is” a white woman lying to people about being a black woman. And then we scream at each other about that “is,” and which “is” is true – and call each other names if we get it “wrong.”

But I do not experience life that way, as a core of being that is denied or accepted, repressed or revealed. Oh, I’ve had moments of that kind of experience, sure, moments of epiphany, or existential terror; moments when my life all seemed to make sense, or to be revealed as nonsense. But they are moments. And after each moment comes another moment.

Or, to quote Joyce:

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.

I have a self, and I keep meeting him – he can’t be avoided or denied, not forever. But he also can’t be pinned like a butterfly. We do not seek ourselves, find ourselves, and end the search; we walk through ourselves. That is the search.

I thought, when I wrote that piece about fatherhood, that I needed to figure “it” out – the big “it,” the big “is” – before I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. How else could I pass “it” on – how else could I nurture another being to the fullness of “is?” It seemed like too big a burden to take on personally, alone – too awesome and too awful. I needed to off-load some of that responsibility, in my case onto tradition.

The bad news is: that responsibility can’t be off-loaded. You get no breaks as a father for saying, to your spouse or your community or your kid’s school, or your kid – or your god – “I did everything right; whatever’s wrong must be your fault.”

The good news is: the responsibility isn’t as awesome, or as awful, as it seemed. Nobody has “it” figured out, because there is no end to the figuring. Fatherhood, at least for me, isn’t being a rock, a love that never changes – perhaps because I “am” not a rock. It’s falling in love, over and over, with a creature that is constantly changing, as you are also changing.

And even if you fail, you succeed, in that you have left an impression – an impression of love – in a heart that will never be erased.

We disappoint, we disappear, we die, but we don’t.

Happy belated father’s day.

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Beshrew My Very Heart

Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.
Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.

Chris Abraham may have come up with a critic-proof gimmick to open his latest production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Abraham’s production begins with an induction that, even more clearly than Shakespeare’s, lets us know that we are supposed to have an intellectually-distanced relationship with the material to come. The actors address the audience in their own names and voices, and begin to talk about the play in a somewhat academic manner (there’s a wedding dress on stage which they talk about as a signifier; that kind of thing) before being interrupted from the audience by Christopher Sly, a British-born Canadian theater blogger who is having trouble finding his seat.

Sly (played by Ben Carlson, who returns as Petruchio in the play proper) protests the director’s liberties with blog-characteristic belligerence, moving from the audience to the stage as stage management and then security try unsuccessfully to bring him under control. Finally, he’s knocked out cold – and when he comes to, the actors commence to play the trick from Shakespeare’s own induction on him, telling him he’s a lord, presenting him with a “wife” (a male actor in drag), and telling him they have a play for him to see.

Having been so comprehensively and preemptively mocked, I suppose I’m a fool for taking the bait and offering an opinion – on an actual blog, no less – about the production. But I feel compelled to, because while the opening delighted me, by the end I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable at a production of a Shakespeare play than I was after this Shrew.

Mind you: I’m not saying the production is a bad one. Nor am I even saying that I disliked it, much less that it was the worst production I’ve seen. (That honor belongs to Richard Maxwell’s staging of Henry IV part 1, which I saw over a decade ago, and walked out of after 20 minutes.) Indeed, I plan to see the production again later in the run, and I would urge anyone planning a trip to Stratford to engage with Abraham’s take by seeing it as well.

But it did feel like a production designed to make me dislike the play. And what made me uncomfortable was that it achieved that effect by just doing the play, faithfully to a fault, right down to the pumpkin pants.

Shrew is a complicated play, and announces its complexity from its first moments, with Shakespeare’s induction involving a drunken Christopher Sly whom a party of toffs decide to fool into believing he is a lord, who then gets to see a play – The Taming of the Shrew – that constitutes the rest of the text. We never return to Sly at the end, never find out whether he learns the truth of his deception, and that lack of closure invites us to wonder what our relationship to the play he watches is supposed to be, and our relationship to him as fellow spectators thereof. Are we, if we enjoyed the play, drunken fools, to?

But that play, to my mind, is itself more complex than it appears on the surface, a genuine and touching love story that Shakespeare deftly hides inside, and uses to explode, a genre – the “shrew play” – about a husband with a hectoring wife. I say explode because Kate is as atypical a shrew as Hamlet is a avatar of revenge. Just as Hamlet, far from cleverly plotting his vengeance (as in the original source material), instead comments obsessively on his inability to take it, Kate, far from hectoring, haranguing and trying to control her husband, is enraged by other men’s efforts to control her, and bitter about her inability to attract anything resembling affection from anyone in her life. This is not the story of a man getting out from under the thumb of a domineering woman, and turning the tables on her, but of a man choosing a difficult woman whom nobody else sees the virtue of.

And then, yes, schooling her in how to live with him. There is no way around the profound power differential implied by that schooling, and I can fully understand why that stings for many women, notwithstanding that Shakespeare also wrote plays (e.g., As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale) where a woman puts a man through schooling necessary for him to be a fit companion. My experience of most good productions of Shrew, though, is akin to my experience of “The Philadelphia Story” – that is to say, I’m aware of the power differential between the female lead and her male “tutor,” and aware that her schooling is painful, even cruel, and that all of this is problematic. But I’m also aware of a real, mutual love, and a sense that his love is for this woman, at her best and most authentic; that the story isn’t about breaking her spirit but freeing it from its self-imposed bonds; and that the point isn’t that she should become meek and subservient but – well, yar.

That is not the feeling that I got from director Chris Abraham’s Shrew.

Instead, by doing the play as if it were what it announces itself to be, a typical shrew play of the period, Abraham makes it impossible – I hope – for any sensitive viewer to fully go along with the story being told.

The discomfort builds slowly, as the early scenes of the play are simply comic – and there’s nobody I’d rather watch perform the comedy of Kate’s inchoate rage than the divine Deborah Hay. But even in these scenes, I had the sense that I was being asked to participate in a cruel spectacle, because laughter like mine had helped make Kate who she is. By the time Petruchio had abducted his new bride from her wedding, I felt something was badly off. This Petruchio felt less comically zany than genuinely furious – and this Kate looked authentically frightened of what might now befall her.

As well she might have been. The Petruchio we see at home is not merely violent with his servants but downright cruel with Kate. The physical violence is played cartoonishly by those on receiving end, but Carlson’s Petruchio seems to mean every punch and shove. Rather than feigningly mad in his assessment of the food, her new clothes, and so forth, he very nearly spits his lines in his wife’s face, and tears her cap with real hostility. His only unconvincing statement is that he does this all out of perfect love; his protestations of kinder purpose read more of weary determination than of affection.

And bit by bit, Kate’s spirit is broken. When they meet an old man traveling on their way back to Kate’s father’s house, and Petruchio calls him a young maiden, Kate goes along – but not in the madcap spirit in which I’ve usually seen this scene played. Instead, she is hoping against hope that perhaps perfect submission if not sweet music will soothe her savage beast. And then there’s the kiss in the street. Never before have I felt this affection to be coerced rather than coaxed; never have I been more chilled by Petruchio’s “Is this not well?”

The final scene, where Kate reveals herself to have become a new, and newly tractable wife, is always a tough one for directors aiming not to be horrible male chauvinists, and is frequently given a twist that undermines Kate’s speech about the need for female subservience – some suggestion of collusion between husband and wife to win the bet, or an exaggerated delivery that makes it clear this is a performance, or something. But Hay plays it straight. Her Kate has finally learned that a quiet marriage requires absolute obedience to her rightful lord. And Carlson’s Petruchio is authentically relieved that his plan worked at last, is ready to love her and be loved, and contemptuous of fools like Lucentio (Cyrus Lane) who think they can acquire a compliant wife, without investing the necessary personal effort. His beloved Bianca (Sara Afful) looks sure to be a shrew to him, not because he chose poorly but because he has not the stomach to tame her.

I want to be very clear: this is all played very well, and effectively. And it’s awful. In the past, I’ve found Shrew to be one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies. I could not laugh other than bitterly at the bulk of this Shrew – I had trouble even applauding at the end – and I suspect that was deliberate. Abraham’s production is too well-constructed and well-played for it not to be.

But I wonder to what end. Marriage is, among more pleasant things, an arena of conflict. And those Shakespearean comic couples who look like they might find marital happiness – Viola and Orsino, Beatrice and Benedick, Rosalind and Orlando – none of them seem like they will never fight. They just seem like they know each other, and that they love each other, and that will make a difference. Meanwhile, those who look like they likely won’t find happiness – Portia and Bassanio, say, or Hermia and Lysander, or Helena and Bertram – what’s missing is that knowledge. I have always in the past counted Kate and Petruchio among the former rather than the latter. Not this time.

If Petruchio’s plan of awful rule and right supremacy is a terrible route to peace, love and quiet life, even if they appear to work at first, then what is the answer to Petruchio’s challenge?

“He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak: ’tis charity to show.”

It cannot be “make a better choice of wife” because that is Lucentio’s mistake. It must be that there is something in what Petruchio is up to other than cruelty. That something is precisely what Abraham has deliberately undermined so that we may see the cruelty as cruelty. That something is comedy, is playfulness, is humor.

I venture there’s not a husband alive who has not said, “evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!” many a time in his married life, the only question being whether he is more inclined to mutter it or to shout. And, whether he says it with humor. Because that, ultimately, is the best test of health and happiness in that marriage – does he find it funny that he feels, and sounds, like Petruchio, or does he not. If he can laugh, then maybe so can she.

If he cannot, well, he may win a sullen obedience or he may not – or she may of him, or she may not. But love? I have my doubts.

The Taming of the Shrew will be performed on Stratford’s Festival Theater stage through October 10th.

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Home News: Infinitely Polar Bear in Theaters

Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Ashley Aufderheide in "Infinitely Polar Bear," written and directed by Maya Forbes.
Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Ashley Aufderheide in "Infinitely Polar Bear," written and directed by Maya Forbes.

Unabashed self-promotion time here. The first feature film I was involved in helping bring to fruition (in this case as an executive producer) is coming to theaters next week. The New York premier was this past Monday, and on June 19th, “Infinitely Polar Bear,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, opens in New York and Los Angeles, and should be coming to a theater near you very shortly thereafter.

Infinitely Polar Bear” tells the story of Cam Stuart, a man struggling with manic-depression who has to become primary caregiver to his two daughters and, through that responsibility, finds the purpose that keeps the darkest depths of his illness at bay. I’ve often described it as like “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “Housekeeping,” and I know I’m biased but I think it holds its own in that company.

The film is a love letter by writer-director Maya Forbes to her late father, who is the model for the father in the film. And it’s also a film that speaks to me very deeply as a father, particularly anchored as it is by Mark Ruffalo’s heartfelt performance. I’m not bi-polar (so far as I know), but recognize myself in Cam, both at my best and at my worst. That recognition is a big part of why I got involved in the film.

I appreciate the very limited but very real nature of the hope that the film’s story holds out. This is not a story of recovery, much less of cure. Cam Stuart is not going to “get better” – but he can be a little better, for today, for tomorrow, if he has something, someone, to be better for – in his case, his girls. And the film is honest as well about the burden that places on the girls, to know that they are the best thing keeping their father on this side of sanity.

And I also appreciate that, notwithstanding the seriousness of the material, the film is very funny. It’s not so much “the lighter side of mental illness” as a joyful look at life, inevitable trials notwithstanding.

You can see a trailer below, and get more information on the film here.

And very shortly, you can go to the theater and see it.

 

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Was Origen the Caitlyn Jenner of the Transabled?

Origen-e14108096296721

I’m afraid I’m going to re-enter the fray. Rod Dreher has a piece today wondering whether the next step in our cultural development (or decline) will be the normalization of trans-ablism – that is, the normalization of people who deliberately make themselves (or have themselves made) disabled. If, after all, people who suffer from gender dysphoria have the right to address that psychic hurt through gender-reassignment surgery – nay, should be applauded for having the courage to do so – then why shouldn’t people who suffer from a profound sense of alienation from one of their limbs have the right to lop it off?

It’s not at all a ridiculous question. It is indeed difficult, if you start from the (true) proposition that such people are suffering from great psychic distress, and proceed to the (more debatable) proposition that absent strong evidence to the contrary we should assume that people know what is best for themselves, to conclude that self-mutilation is self-evidently wrong in all cases.

The only thing I find strange is the assumption that there’s something profoundly un-Christian about self mutilation. After all:

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

That’s Matthew 5:29-30, in the King James version.

But of course, Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Nobody would ever have actually done such a foolish thing as to mutilate himself for the sake of salvation.

Oh:

1. At this time while Origen was conducting catechetical instruction at Alexandria, a deed was done by him which evidenced an immature and youthful mind, but at the same time gave the highest proof of faith and continence. For he took the words, There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,Matthew 19:12 in too literal and extreme a sense. And in order to fulfill the Saviour’s word, and at the same time to take away from the unbelievers all opportunity for scandal,— for, although young, he met for the study of divine things with women as well as men,— he carried out in action the word of the Saviour.

2. He thought that this would not be known by many of his acquaintances. But it was impossible for him, though desiring to do so, to keep such an action secret.

3. When Demetrius, who presided over that parish, at last learned of this, he admired greatly the daring nature of the act, and as he perceived his zeal and the genuineness of his faith, he immediately exhorted him to courage, and urged him the more to continue his work of catechetical instruction.

4. Such was he at that time. But soon afterward, seeing that he was prospering, and becoming great and distinguished among all men, the same Demetrius, overcome by human weakness, wrote of his deed as most foolish to the bishops throughout the world. But the bishops of Cesareaand Jerusalem, who were especially notable and distinguished among the bishops of Palestine, considering Origen worthy in the highest degree of the honor, ordained him a presbyter.

That’s from Eusebius, talking about Origen Adamantus, an important 3rd-century theologian. But of course, this was in the early days of the church, and Origen’s self-castration (and other errors) were subsequently rejected. Indeed, Origen was never canonized because of those errors. Now that those errors have been corrected, it’s impossible that anyone could see self-mutilation in a godly light.

Um:

‘Listen! Help me! I don’t know what is the matter with me. Oh!
Oh!’ She unfastened her dress, exposing her breast, and lifted
her arms, bare to the elbow. ‘Oh! Oh!’

All this time he stood on the other side of the partition and
prayed. Having finished all the evening prayers, he now stood
motionless, his eyes looking at the end of his nose, and mentally
repeated with all his soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have
mercy upon me!’

But he had heard everything. He had heard how the silk rustled
when she took off her dress, how she stepped with bare feet on
the floor, and had heard how she rubbed her feet with her hand.
He felt his own weakness, and that he might be lost at any
moment. That was why he prayed unceasingly. He felt rather as
the hero in the fairy-tale must have felt when he had to go on
and on without looking round. So Sergius heard and felt that
danger and destruction were there, hovering above and around him,
and that he could only save himself by not looking in that
direction for an instant. But suddenly the desire to look seized
him. At the same instant she said:

‘This is inhuman. I may die. . . .’

‘Yes, I will go to her, but like the Saint who laid one hand on
the adulteress and thrust his other into the brazier. But there
is no brazier here.’ He looked round. The lamp! He put his
finger over the flame and frowned, preparing himself to suffer.
And for a rather long time, as it seemed to him, there was no
sensation, but suddenly–he had not yet decided whether it was
painful enough–he writhed all over, jerked his hand away, and
waved it in the air. ‘No, I can’t stand that!’

‘For God’s sake come to me! I am dying! Oh!’

‘Well–shall I perish? No, not so!’

‘I will come to you directly,’ he said, and having opened his
door, he went without looking at her through the cell into the
porch where he used to chop wood. There he felt for the block
and for an axe which leant against the wall.

‘Immediately!’ he said, and taking up the axe with his right hand
he laid the forefinger of his left hand on the block, swung the
axe, and struck with it below the second joint. The finger flew
off more lightly than a stick of similar thickness, and bounding
up, turned over on the edge of the block and then fell to the
floor.

He heard it fall before he felt any pain, but before he had time
to be surprised he felt a burning pain and the warmth of flowing
blood. He hastily wrapped the stump in the skirt of his cassock,
and pressing it to his hip went back into the room, and standing
in front of the woman, lowered his eyes and asked in a low voice:
‘What do you want?’

She looked at his pale face and his quivering left cheek, and
suddenly felt ashamed. She jumped up, seized her fur cloak, and
throwing it round her shoulders, wrapped herself up in it.

‘I was in pain . . . I have caught cold . . . I . . . Father
Sergius . . . I . . .’

He let his eyes, shining with a quiet light of joy, rest upon
her, and said:

‘Dear sister, why did you wish to ruin your immortal soul?
Temptations must come into the world, but woe to him by whom
temptation comes. Pray that God may forgive us!’

She listened and looked at him. Suddenly she heard the sound of
something dripping. She looked down and saw that blood was
flowing from his hand and down his cassock.

‘What have you done to your hand?’ She remembered the sound she
had heard, and seizing the little lamp ran out into the porch.
There on the floor she saw the bloody finger. She returned with
her face paler than his and was about to speak to him, but he
silently passed into the back cell and fastened the door.

‘Forgive me!’ she said. ‘How can I atone for my sin?’

‘Go away.’

‘Let me tie up your hand.’

‘Go away from here.’

She dressed hurriedly and silently, and when ready sat waiting in
her furs. The sledge-bells were heard outside.

‘Father Sergius, forgive me!’

‘Go away. God will forgive.’

‘Father Sergius! I will change my life. Do not forsake me!’

‘Go away.’

‘Forgive me–and give me your blessing!’

‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Ghost!’–she heard his voice from behind the partition. ‘Go!’

She burst into sobs and left the cell. The lawyer came forward
to meet her.

‘Well, I see I have lost the bet. It can’t be helped. Where will
you sit?’

‘It is all the same to me.’

She took a seat in the sledge, and did not utter a word all the
way home.

A year later she entered a convent as a novice, and lived a
strict life under the direction of the hermit Arseny, who wrote
letters to her at long intervals.

That’s from Tolstoy’s haunting novella, Father Sergius, written in 1890.

Now, again, this isn’t the end of the story – Tolstoy ultimately leads us to the conclusion that Father Sergius was mistaken in thinking he could solve the problem of temptation by cutting off his finger in a moment of crisis. But that’s part of a larger argument Tolstoy is making that asceticism is just another form of self-involvement, while true Christianity consists in an achieved emptying out of self, leaving only a love of God expressed through a love of other people.

Which doesn’t undermine my fundamental point at all – it may strengthen it. It is perfectly possible within the context of a Christian worldview to conclude that self-castration and cutting off fingers – actions Dreher finds diabolical in a secular context – are reasonable ways to achieve harmony between soul and body – harmony between signifier and signified being the characteristic of “symbolic” relationships according to Dreher, in contrast to “diabolical” ones (and I note that such harmony is precisely the goal of those Dreher diabolizes). I wouldn’t expect many Christians to go there, of course. But I wouldn’t expect many secularists to castrate themselves or cut off their arms either!

Meanwhile, within the context of a modern secular worldview, it’s perfectly possible to conclude that self-mutilation is harmful, full-stop. All you need is some theory of mental health and the willingness to defend it in the face of individuals saying that they know what is best for themselves. Which we do all the time: addiction is a concept that secular people can understand; manic-depression and schizophrenia are concepts that secular people can understand; etc. It is entirely plausible to me that in a generation we’ll have a different view of gender dysphoria than we do today – or that we’ll have a very similar view. Predicting the fitful progress of science and medicine is a mug’s game. All I will say is that it’s hard for me to believe that the best way to advance science or medicine is to assert that you know what is best without listening to those you claim to want to understand, and help.

One may still ask why we would need to make culture heroes or villains out of people seeking to alleviate their own suffering. But that’s a different question. For myself, I think we should be skeptical of all such culture heroes – and villains. We should find our own heroes, our own villains, the ones that hold distinct meaning for ourselves. That’s true for those of us who are active participants in the general culture. It should be doubly true for those who proclaim the need to keep a distance from same.

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(Blogging)Heads In Vats

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Fredrik deBoer and I had a discussion last week about artificial intelligence, linguistics, big data, John Searle, Matthew Crawford and education reform.

In a nutshell: deBoer is skeptical that there will ever be a convergence between our current “big data” approach to artificial intelligence and anything that resembles the intelligence exhibited by conscious beings like humans. My own skepticism is qualified – not because I think our machines are likely to start resembling us, but because I suspect our own minds will change, and are already changing, as they adapt to an increasingly cybernetic cognitive environment.

If you want more than a nutshell, give a listen.

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What The Democrats Need

I’ve been absent from The Week for a couple of months, and what do I come back with on my return?

I’d particularly like to see a series of one-on-one debates between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Sen. James Webb of Virginia. . . . [W]hile they appear to hail from opposite ends of the party ideologically speaking, their critiques of the dominant neoliberal center have some elements in common. Both are deeply concerned about the rise of inequality and the alienation of working-class Americans from political life. Both have expressed skepticism of an overly corporate-focused approach to domestic policy and a foreign policy consensus that is overly belligerent. And both are implicitly critical of a party that makes a shibboleth of identity politics, while being far less full-throated in support of measures that would benefit a wide swathe of Americans, but would challenge powerful, entrenched interests. While I’d expect to see a lot of disagreement in any debate between them, it might be even more educational to see how often they turn out to agree.

Educational — and politically important. One major challenge the Democratic Party has today is how to satisfy an increasingly restive, educated liberal base, while also reaching out to recapture downscale white voters. From a cultural perspective, Sanders represents the former while Webb represents the latter. If they turn out to agree on some large questions of policy — and disagree with the party establishment on those same questions — might the establishment actually take notice? Might Hillary Clinton herself?

‘Cause that’s what Hillary definitely needs: men to explain to her what she should be running on. Also this.

Anyway, if you want to, head on over there and read the darned thing. Should be good for a laugh.

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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.

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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.

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Yemen, Stupid Speech and the Great Hipster Migration

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Gay Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy

Karin Hildebrand Lau / Shutterstock.com

I agree with the bulk of Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about the absurdity of defenestrating everyone who opposes gay marriage when this was the default position of even progressive leaders a few scant years ago. But of course, agreeing is boring – so let me focus on two points of disagreement.

The first: on whether the oft-made analogy between opposing gay marriage and opposing miscegenation is tendentious. Linker says that, while he finds the arguments against gay marriage to be wrong,

[T]heir arguments are not frivolous — and certainly not as frivolous as rationales that were once used to justify racial inequality. Arguments in favor of traditional marriage — rooted in claims about the natural sexual complementarity of men and women — are also far more deeply rooted in human civilization the world over, and Western civilization specifically, than arguments against miscegenation.

He goes on to quote Ryan Anderson, the topic of his column, saying that basically no great thinker on the subject of marriage, from any religious or non-religious tradition, talks about race, whereas all talk about the complementarity of the sexes.

For the contrary view, I’ll cite Numbers 25:6-13:

And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’

Now, I’m not going to pretend that this passage interprets itself. But when I read it in context, without bias, what I see is a straightforward condemnation of exogamy. The people of Israel want to intermarry with the Midianites, mingling their cultures and religions along with their blood. Members of a prominent Israelite and Midianite family boldly proclaim their union at the central institution of Israelite religion. A patriotic Israelite stabbed them to death (stabbing the woman through the belly, so as to symbolically cut off any possible issue as well). And God was pleased.

This is, of course, the foundational text of Western religion, and the importance of endogamy is not a trivial theme therein. And if we go outside of a Western context, endogamy is exceptionally important across Asia. All the major northeast Asian groups have a strong sense of consciousness of themselves as peoples, and strong taboos against marrying out, taboos which are only now being challenged in any serious way. Cousin marriage is a common norm across the Middle East. And Hindu India, with its caste system, raised endogamous preference to the level of art.

The Jim Crow South was indeed a very peculiar place with peculiar institutions – institutions we now anathematize for a reason. But we should not, as a consequence of our anathematization, delude ourselves that the peculiarity was the desire to preserve social separation from a less-favored group, including by prohibiting intermarriage. Because that desire is quite common, historically and still today.

Which brings me to my second point of disagreement with Linker. He says:

Versions of these traditionalist arguments were accepted by nearly every human being who’s ever lived until a couple of decades ago — and (supposedly) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until just a few years ago. Like them, I’ve come to reject those arguments. But saying they now seem wrong is one thing. Relegating them to the category of the foulest prejudice is something else entirely. It’s reckless to break so quickly with the past and jump so easily to moral condemnation.

Except . . . that’s precisely what we, as a society, did with respect to miscegenation. In a few years, objections to sexual relations between blacks and whites went from being an extremely commonly held opinion (and not just in the South), to one that was still extremely common but could not be admitted to in public without being deemed profoundly retrograde.

Think about the pace of change. Brown vs. Board was 1954. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was in 1971. In 17 years, we went from a society that promulgated racial separation and white supremacy from childhood onward, to a society committed to using the force of the law to undo and reverse what the earlier social and legal system had forcibly imposed, and to indoctrinate children in the opposite ideology. Loving v. Virginia was in 1967, a time when the defense of segregation was still active and violent. After Loving, how long was it respectable for a public figure to say that sexual relations between blacks and whites was wrong, and a threat to American civilization? Five years? Ten?

Considering the depth and longevity of official white supremacy in American history, we broke with the past with what one might call “all deliberate speed,” and moved quickly to moral condemnation even though huge numbers of people stubbornly refused to change their no-longer-respectable views.

Now, I’m not arguing that the analogy is a good one in all respects. In particular, the social and legal disabilities that gay people and black people suffered under in American history are wildly disparate in their operation and effects. I’m just saying that the end of legal and social support for miscegenation in America was radical. It didn’t radically redefine what marriage was – but it radically redefined what the United States was. It made it impossible to argue that the United States was a country by and for white people, and arguing that the United States was precisely such a country had a long, long history in America.

And, let me note that I am suspicious of claims that gay marriage radically redefines marriage as such. It seems to me instead that it’s a capstone achievement of the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” that treats marriage as rooted in love, and that sees its legal purpose as an institution for mutual aid and responsibility between individuals (particularly for child-rearing), rather than as a means of securing legitimacy for heirs and the continuity of extended family lines – and, not at all incidentally, of the feminist revolution that questions any distinction between “natural” male and female roles as likely to be a way of enforcing an inegalitarian distribution of power.

But gay marriage may, in fact, make it extremely difficult for traditional Christians to continue to think of the United States as a Christian country. Which, notwithstanding that equality for non-Christian citizens goes all the way back to the founding, we have a long, long history of thinking of this country as being. That, I think, is where the radicalism of gay marriage really lies, for America’s many conservative Christians. And if I’m right, then the potency of the analogy with miscegenation may not be so weak after all.

None of which means that we have to anathematize those who hold to the old dispensation. But then, maybe anathematization isn’t a liberal tool of persuasion at all, even when you are dealing with “rank bigotry” and “the foulest prejudice.”

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