Noah Millman

“Carol” Is Beautiful, But a Bit of a Drag

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol" - photo: The Weinstein Co.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol" - photo: The Weinstein Co.

The new film, “Carol,” from director Todd Haynes, is beautifully acted, beautifully costumed and designed, and beautifully shot. Fans of “Mad Men” should definitely go see it – it’s got the same languid pacing and the same meticulous attention to the details of mid-century style and manners. But there’s something that bothered me at the heart of the film, and I’m wondering whether anybody else felt the same way.

“Carol” tells the story of a love affair between two women in the early 1950s: a younger, mousy woman, Therese (Rooney Mara), who aspires to be a photographer, and an older, glamorous woman, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is a suburban matron. Both women are already entangled with men – Therese is dating a fellow who badly wants to be her fiancé, while Carol is married (albeit in the process of divorcing), and has a young daughter. They spot each other across the crowded floor of the department store where Therese works, and there is an instant mutual fascination. Carol engages in some high-Hollywood flirting, and then leaves her gloves behind, presumably strategically. Therese contacts her to return them – and we’re off to the races.

Well, actually, there’s a bit of a dance before things get racy, as Carol, despite her obvious attraction for Therese and her transparent efforts to reel her in, is a bit hesitant at crossing the line that would constitute an outright pass at the younger woman. But they can’t stay away from each other. And when her soon-to-be-ex-husband, the on-the-nose-named Harge (Kyle Chandler), discovers her new infatuation, he flies into a rage and uses Carol’s behavior to wrest custody of their daughter from her. This is when Carol throws caution to the wind, and invites Therese on a cross-country road trip to forget her troubles, which Therese accepts over the furious protests of her uncomprehending beau.

Notwithstanding the amount of time that passes before the two women express their mutual passion physically, though, this is a story of love at first sight. Their mutual attraction is not based on mutual knowledge; it’s there the instant they meet. Nor is it particularly fed by anything they share after that moment. It’s striking, actually, how little they speak to one another, how little they reveal; even so famous a believer in chance and chemistry as Sky Masterson, when he actually figures out which doll is for him, does quite a bit of singing.

But that’s not really what bugs me about their romance. What bugs me is . . . I can’t figure out who Therese has fallen in love with.

Mara gives a fully integrated, deeply felt and wholly persuasive performance as Therese, a woman raised to please who hasn’t figured out what pleases her, and who doesn’t quite know what to do with the feeling of being so powerfully drawn to Carol. But Blanchett’s performance is highly mannered, almost draggy in the degree to which, when she is with Mara, she is performing the role of glamorous femme fatale.

I am quite certain this is a deliberate choice, whether Blanchett’s or Haynes’s, both because I have seen Blanchett do so much varied work on both screen and stage that I know what kind of range she’s capable of, and also because, when she is away from Mara, her performance becomes much less mannered, much more direct and genuine. When she’s fighting with her husband, or chatting with her old friend and former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson), or going things over with her lawyer, she seems like a person. When she’s with Mara, though, she puts on this femme fatale act.

Which – again – is totally fine. People do that to attract people they are attracted to. They perform; they create a persona. It’s not even necessarily conscious. There’s something interesting to be explored about the way in which Carol finds herself boldly seducing Therese, and then pulling back from what her actions mean, and then moving forward again. That’s what attraction is like.

But is that enough to carry the story?

“Carol,” based on a somewhat autobiographical Patricia Highsmith novel, ends happily – atypically, to say the least, for a 1950s story of same-sex romance. After abruptly dropping Therese so as to fight for custody of her daughter, Carol realizes that she can’t live this way (and that the custody battle will itself do irreparable harm to her and Harge’s child), and so she gives Harge the custody he wants and asks only for regular visitation, and for him to let her go, and be herself. And then she reaches out to Therese  who, after briefly contemplating life without Carol, accepts her offer of a life together.

My wife was nonplussed by the ending, because she compared Carol’s situation to that of Diane Keaton’s character in “The Good Mother.” If she could ditch Liam Neeson so as to protect her relationship with her daughter, then couldn’t Carol ditch Therese? But that’s precisely what Carol tries to do, and only later does she realize that it won’t work – both because her husband won’t be mollified that way and because there’s a difference between turning away from someone you love and turning away from yourself, from who you are. She’ll be no good to her daughter if she does that, she says – and I believe her.

But I still don’t know how to read that purportedly happy ending, because I don’t think Therese knows who Carol is. She’s fallen in love with an image – of glamour, of sophistication, of wealth. But she doesn’t really know her – and, frankly, she’s just starting to know herself, and become herself, in the months after Carol drops her. And then, at the first opportunity, she goes back to her. Is this really where she should be?

Of course, we don’t know how long the arrangement lasts. It could be a beautiful love affair that lasts a year. Carol could find Therese a comfort; Therese could learn a great deal from Carol. And then they could move on, perhaps remaining friends. But that’s hardly what we want to imagine happens after the credits run. We want to imagine something far more enduring has been forged. And, I’m sorry, but that’s not what I saw happening, and so when the credits rolled my first thought was, “is that all there is?”

It’s a feeling which, to my mind, hangs over too much of the film, and unfortunately makes it, well – a bit of a drag.

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Besties

I suppose I should do one of these, since I failed to participate in our book symposium.

FILM: There are a bunch of 2015 films that I still haven’t seen, some of which I suspect I will really like. But of the ones I have seen (and recusing myself from the two films I had a part in producing), I’d single out “Room,” (hey, I actually wrote about that one) “Felix & Meira,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “White God” as having made particularly strong impressions. Of pre-2015 films that I saw for the first time in 2015 (and ignoring 2014 films that I saw in January, because that’d just be silly to talk about them), I’d single out “Talk to Her,” “Hunger,” “The Reader,” “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” as particular highlights.

THEATER: Well, I saw Hamilton at the Public, and again on Broadway. That show’s kind of in its own category. Other highlights in New York: Fun Home, which I had seen in 2013 at the Public and saw again on BroadwayHedwig and the Angry Inch with John Cameron Mitchell, which I was taken to by a friend who is a fanatical fan; The Iceman Cometh, which I had seen in Chicago and saw again at BAM; SkylightSpring AwakeningA View From the Bridge; and, perhaps surprisingly, Songbird, a country musical adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. And – although I should recuse myself as a member of the company’s board, I won’t – Red Bull Theater’s production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore. At Stratford, the highlight for me was a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles done as a Dickensian fable, which was sheer magic.

Next year I’ll try to be more consistent about writing up things I liked.

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I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Wrong

I wanted to follow my colleague Daniel Larison‘s admirable example in pointing out his own failures of punditry, so I just made my way through my last year of blog posts in search of seriously bad calls.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I didn’t write nearly as many posts about film, theater or books as in retrospect I ought to have. When I’m in the groove of writing these things, they go more quickly and I feel I learn more about the works in question by writing about them. So whether my few, dedicated readers actually like reading them, I should write more of them – for my own sake.
  • When I write posts that attempt to reason their way all around a question, they tend to be very long and convoluted. Heck, there’s stuff I wrote this past year that even I had to reread a couple of times to see what I was up to. I could benefit from working harder to make complex arguments more succinct or, if I can’t make them more succinct, to give them a more formal internal structure.
  • I have been paying a really stupid amount of attention to the GOP primaries. I mean, seriously – who really cares? Do I? I thought I was over politics-as-sport. Guess not.
  • I have not been wrong enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I have always been right. I’m saying that I haven’t been wrong enough. And, generally, that’s been because I haven’t been willing to prognosticate as a pundit ought.

Oh, I made some predictions that didn’t pan out. I thought, when he entered the race (which was technically still 2014), that Jeb Bush would become the dominant figure in the GOP primary contest. And, when Scott Walker entered the race, I thought he would give Bush the most serious run for his money. Obviously, both predictions were wildly off-base. But I don’t really fault myself for making what I think most people at the time would have considered smart-money bets. Sometimes, the shortest-odds horses lose. Indeed, they lose most of the time – otherwise there wouldn’t be horse races.

And it’s not that I never say what I think about this or that political development. Sometimes I did – I supported the Iran deal, for example – and I may well have been wrong, just not on a time scale that allows for proper scoring yet. But in general I have a habit of trying to understand, and elucidate, all sides of an argument that I flatter myself by thinking is a sign of depth and sophistication, when it may actually be a sign of something far less flattering.

Here is a good example of the kind of post that emerges from that habit. The Saudi war in Yemen is monstrous, and American support for that war is appalling. Back in April, I wrote a post that, in passing, acknowledges that the war is disastrous – not just in humanitarian terms but in strategic terms as well. But I then quickly move on to an explanation of why we are supporting it anyway. By the end of the post, I imagine most readers have sunk into a kind of depressed resignation: this is bad policy, but it’s the kind of policy you’d expect given our prior commitments and our current diplomatic situation, so what are you going to do?

Well, once you’ve sunk into a state of depressed resignation, not much, I imagine. And that’s not a stance that I particularly want to encourage.

I hold pretty firmly these days to the proposition that while pundits have tried to change the world in various ways, the point is to understand it. But there is understanding that leads to clearer thinking, and better decisions, and there is understanding that leads away from decision-making altogether. And I fear I have been promoting too much of the latter kind of understanding.

This is related, I believe, to a reluctance on my part to make the kind of predictions that inevitably lead pundits to find themselves with egg on their faces. The war in Libya went much worse than I thought it would. The war in Yemen has lasted longer and is proving much more catastrophic than I thought it would be. I opposed both wars – but I “understood” why they were happening. I rather suspect that that “understanding” got in the way of my fully appreciating how badly they could go.

So these are my blogging resolutions for the new year:

  • Write more about movies, theater and books.
  • Write shorter bits or, when the bits are long, work harder to structure them formally so that the whole argument is clearer.
  • Write a smaller proportion of posts about the Presidential election.
  • Be wrong more. Or, at least, take the risk of being wrong by taking the time to figure out what I really think, bottom line, about an issue, and then saying it.

We’ll see how well I do.

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I See A Ted Cruz Rising

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It’s Ted Cruz’s turn in the spotlight. Now let’s see how he handles it.

He’s running a smart, data-driven campaign. He’s been working overtime in the early states, plus he’s got a true national operation, plus he’s got (as of the last report) more cash on hand for his campaign proper than any non-self-financed opponent (and he has significant super-PAC support as well). As a strongly anti-abortion evangelical Christian, he’s reaped the most benefit of any campaign from the continuing collapse of the Ben Carson bubble. As a consequence, he’s now leading in three of the last four polls in Iowa and polling second in all of the last four national polls.

His weakest early state – New Hampshire – is also a do-or-die state for multiple opponents with weak national numbers: Christie, Kasich, Fiorina, Paul, and probably even Bush. Which means that there’s a good chance they will divide the non-Trump vote, making it less-likely that any of them will end up either winning New Hampshire or coming in a strong second, and thereby emerging as an establishment-friendly alternative to Trump. In particular, that divided field makes it harder for Rubio to emerge as a dominant figure after New Hampshire. Not that Rubio seems to be doing all that much so far to win a state he likely needs almost as badly as Christie or Kasich.

And after New Hampshire, the calendar is dominated by conservative southern and western states where he feels most at home: South Carolina on Feb 20; Nevada on Feb 23; Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia on March 1; Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Nebraska on March 5; Idaho and Mississippi on March 8th. There are some other states in that mix as well – Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Hawaii and Michigan. But that’s a thin skein of blue in what’s otherwise a field of red. And even then, on March 15th, when we get more moderate states like Florida, Illinois and Ohio, more conservative states like Missouri and North Carolina are also in the mix, with Arizona and Utah following hard upon. It isn’t until April that the blue wall comes into play.

A Ted Cruz path to the nomination depends on basically two things happening. First, Donald Trump has to continue to be the overwhelming leader in the polls in New Hampshire and nationally. Second, Cruz needs to put enough distance between himself and the rest of the non-Trump field in Iowa and South Carolina (preferably winning at least one of those states) to present as the most clearly viable alternative to Trump. And, so far, what he needs to happen has been happening. Which explains why commentators like Matt Yglesias are starting to ask whether it isn’t time for the GOP establishment to make its peace with Ted Cruz (while also musing about Democratic opposition research groups gearing up to go after him).

All of which means the stakes are higher for Cruz than for anybody else on stage tomorrow night, because the potential upside for him is larger than for anybody else. If that’s correct, and if the other campaigns see the world similarly, then tomorrow night should see a can of whoop-ass opened on Senator Cruz from his rivals.

But the risk is that if Cruz handles a wave of attacks effectively, they could help him rather than hurting him, both because whoever draws the most fire will be perceived as strongest and because most of those doing the firing will be perceived as being “establishment-friendly” – which is the kiss of death this season.

This being Ted Cruz we’re talking about, you’d think it wouldn’t be so hard for his rivals to get him to reveal just why nobody in Washington can stand him. Then again, they haven’t been able to dent Trump.

We’ll soon enough whether the spotlight is kind to Cruz, or whether he melts under its glare.

(P.S., speaking of Trump: one thing I imagine GOP bigs are game-theorying out right now is how an independent Trump run plays out with different GOP nominees, assuming they are able to nominate somebody other than Trump. I would imagine that a nominee like Bush would pretty much guarantee an independent Trump run, and that in that context Trump would draw far more votes from the GOP than from Clinton. I suspect, but am less certain, that a Rubio nomination would play out similarly. I think a Christie nomination is still pretty remote as a possibility, but my suspicion is that it would leave less room for an independent Trump run. Cruz, though, is the hardest for me to wrap my head around. There would clearly be room, in a Cruz-Clinton contest, for somebody to run as a centrist independent and get a significant number of votes. But Trump is not well-suited to that role – the real opening would be for a Michael Bloomberg type of candidate. Anyway, something to think about, and I assume people are thinking about it as I type.)

 

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Fascism, Style and Substance

You know, I really do get it.

Fascism is a variety of right-wing populism; so is “Trumpism” to the extent that such a thing exists. Trump appeals to the core demographic that animates fascist movements: the less-educated cohorts of the majority demographic group. And his appeal has a fundamental irrationalism to it. Trump plainly plays on and stokes xenophobia in his followers. He invokes a glorious past, blames our current difficulties on presumptively unpatriotic groups, and promises a return to glory if he’s elected. He encourages a cult of personality, fetishizes action, and displays little regard for democratic and liberal norms. So yeah, I get it.

On the other hand:

It was President Bush who instituted torture as a regular practice by America’s military and intelligence agencies, who routinized indefinite detention without trial, who launched an aggressive war explicitly to reshape another part of the world according to American dictates, and whose deputies argued that through sheer force of will the President could alter reality itself.

Other members of the Republican Party, including major Presidential contenders and candidates, have threatened war with nuclear-armed Russia, have called for the indiscriminate use of force against civilian populations, and have forcefully advocated a return to torture and an expansion of detention without trial.

The point being, the official leadership of the GOP has for some time been exceedingly militaristic and aggressive in its approach to foreign policy, and had little use for democratic or liberal norms when it comes to fighting terrorism. And militarism, reflexive aggression, and a contempt for liberal and democratic norms in the face of emergency are pretty central to the fascist ethos.

Nor is it just the GOP. It was President Obama who argued that the President has the right to order the execution of American citizens on his own recognizances, who routinized the use of deadly force on a global basis against “targets” determined largely on the basis of metadata, and who twice (against Libya and against ISIS) initiated substantial hostilities without even a hint of Congressional authorization.

One can defend all of this, of course. But why are these not more important hallmarks of an incipient American fascism than the fact that Trump regularly sounds like a more obnoxious and egotistical version of Archie Bunker? And why is saying “no Muslims should be allowed onto American soil until we’ve got a process for monitoring them” more outrageous than a threat to “find out if sand can glow in the dark” (Ted Cruz’s threat to nuke ISIS)? Why is threatening mass-murder less horrifying than threatening discrimination in immigration on the basis of religion?

I’m not saying that having a President – or even a major candidate – who spouts xenophobic rants is a good thing. It’s a bad thing. I’m just suggesting that we’ve long since gotten used to things that are much worse, and perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to that fact.

Nor am I saying that Trump’s most recent outrage – banning Muslims from setting foot on American soil until we “figure out what the heck is going on” – is a sensible proposal. It’s quite literally nonsense – there’s no actual proposal there that could be put into practice. But isn’t it a bit odd to suggest that the worst thing about this proposal is it’s discriminatory? Isn’t the right response that it’s foolishly and ineffectively discriminatory? I mean, the no fly list discriminates between people we think are a threat and people we think are not. Religion and country of origin are part of the profile – they just aren’t the whole deal. We’re a bit more . . . discriminating in our discrimination. (And perhaps, given the Kafkaesque absurdities that the no fly list has led to, we should be even more so.)

And by the way, multiple countries around the world – examples include Israel, China, Greece, RussiaGermany and Ireland – actively discriminate in favor of the nationally-dominant demographic group in immigration. I would argue that a policy of that sort would be inappropriate for America, for a variety of reasons. But fascist? Seriously?

Trump is an irresponsible demagogue who would make an exceptionally terrible President. He says stupid, inflammatory things all the time. But he’s not trying to mobilize society in service of a totalitarian state. He’s not organizing a paramilitary wing of his political party or movement. He isn’t even organizing a political party or movement! If he’s a fascist, then perhaps all those who have been talking about incipient fascism in America for years now had a point after all. (And you know, perhaps they did.)

In any event, it feels to me like, pragmatically, not only will this line of attack backfire, but it is kind of an evasion of the real question, which is why somebody like Trump is appealing to such a significant contingent. The “quarantine” strategy is the one that European parties executed over the course of about 20 years, and it has proved singularly ineffective in addressing either the growth of the far-right or the genuine problems that the far right exploits. So, basically, I think Ross Douthat is right:

[F]reaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the deep disaffection with the Republican Party’s economic policies among working-class conservatives, the reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration, the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.

If Republicans don’t want Trump the phenomenon to turn into an actual movement, if they don’t want the intimations of fascism in his appeal to cohere into something programmatically dangerous, then tarring his supporters with the brush of Mussolini and Der Führer right now seems like a shortsighted step — a way to repress the problem rather than dealing with it, to dismiss discontents and have them return, stronger and deadlier, further down the road.

Donald Trump is way, way more like Silvio Berlusconi than Benito Mussolini. That’s bad enough. And if it’s worse than that, then I think Trevor Noah has it about right in how it could be worse:

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A Diplomatic President Without a Diplomatic Strategy

The President’s speech about combatting terrorism and defeating ISIS is being judged largely as if it were a piece of performance – on whether the President showed enough emotion, whether he was sufficiently forceful. I prefer to judge it based on its substance. And in that regard, the key weakness in the speech comes in this paragraph:

Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL. A group that threatens us all.

I’ll believe that when I see it. More to the point, I’ll believe that our government’s top priority is to resolve the Syrian civil war, rather than to make sure the right sort of people win the Syrian civil war, when we start acting as if that is our goal.

But, as I argued not long ago, without some kind of regional coordination between mutually-antagonistic powers – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia chief among them – it’s very hard to see how the Syria civil war comes to a conclusion. And without a resolution of that conflict, even if we defeat ISIS we will at best buy a bit of time until the next head grows on the hydra.

It’s past time to hear some articulation of how to use whatever leverage we have to change the behavior of those regional powers. Muslim communities – most especially in the United States – have produced plenty of leaders who been exemplary in standing up to terrorist ideologues. The behavior of too many allied Muslim states – Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, Pakistan, Turkey – has been far less upstanding, to say the least. It would be great to hear a strategy for how we’re going to change that – from the current President or from anybody currently running for President.

In its absence, the rest of the President’s strategy amounts to playing defense. And his would-be successors’ alternatives, to the extent they have any, amount to variations on the theme of how to make ourselves feel better while making the problem worse.

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Is Religion Primarily Preaching Or Practice?

Damon Linker’s recent column for The Week hits one of my favorite topics: how do you define religion? He starts off by taking a whack at what sounds like a silly piece in The New York Times:

One of Leo Strauss’ most illuminating essays begins with a provocation: “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are. It is therefore not scientific.”

Something similar might be said about a religion columnist who finds it impossible to define religion.

I’m referring to The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer, who penned a remarkable “Beliefs” column that ran on Saturday. The subject of the column? Whether CrossFit — a trendy form of demanding physical exercise — might be a form of religion. Oppenheimer’s answer? Sure! Because “it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion.”

Is it really?

The fact that Oppenheimer found a woman who really, really likes CrossFit and thinks about it “as others might speak about a church or synagogue community” doesn’t prove that CrossFit really is her religion — any more than the fact that a couple of student researchers at Harvard Divinity School interviewed this same CrossFit fanatic for a study of “spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities” demonstrates that a CrossFit gym is actually a place of religious worship.

Unless, of course, we define “religion” to mean “stuff someone really, really likes.”

Which is pretty much how Oppenheimer defines religion.

Already, I feel like saying “yes, but.” Clearly “stuff someone really, really likes” is inadequate as a definition of religion, but is also not really a fair description of this particular fanatic. If I said “CrossFit is her religion” you’d know what I meant – and that I didn’t just mean “she really likes CrossFit.” I’d mean: she goes to CrossFit without fail; her consciousness is perpetually occupied by CrossFit; in her personal Maslow’s hierarchy CrossFit is up at the top with her basic identity not down at the bottom with physiological needs.

Nonetheless, Linker is right that if I said “CrossFit is her religion” I wouldn’t have meant it literally, but as an analogy. I would have meant that she’s treating CrossFit as if it were a religion. So what is this thing “religion” that I’d be analogizing her behavior to?

Here’s Linker’s stab at a more serious definition:

Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.

Many of these comprehensive ways of life posit the existence of one or more deities, but not all of them do — just as others teach that a life awaits us after death, while still others make no such claims. What matters is the comprehensiveness, not the content, of the way of life.

It is above all this comprehensiveness that precludes CrossFit from qualifying as a religion, even for those who take the fitness routine very seriously, because it is still just a form of physical exercise and not a sweeping statement of how a human being should live and understand his or her place in the universe. It makes no broader claims about the meaning or purpose of life, death, morality, love, and the origins, foundations, and ends of existence. The same holds for football, Star Trek, and dieting fads. Which is why those activities aren’t religions but Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Jainism, and Sikhism very clearly are.

Again, I want to say “yes, but” even though I think Linker’s definition has something going for it – in particular, the idea of “comprehensiveness” seems crucial to what makes a religion, and what keeps CrossFit out of the realm of reasonable candidates for the title. Still, I would phrase things a bit differently. I would say that religion is a comprehensive set of normative practices that reflect or imply a set of beliefs about the nature of life and the right way to live it. Those beliefs may or may not be conscious, and may or may not be articulated and taught, in the way that the practices are.

Why do I want to make that amendment? Because I am fundamentally suspicious of definitions of religion that take Christianity as normative, and I think there’s a pronounced tendency to do precisely that. Religion is far older than Christianity; Christianity is far from typical of human religious practice and experience in many ways; and even Christianity is often misdescribed by privileging theology and dogma over the experience of adherents.

The word “religion” itself comes from a pre-Christian Roman word, and there is ancient dispute about what its origins are, whether it comes from a root meaning “to read over” (which would imply a connection to the ritual reading or reciting of texts, something still central to the practice of a vast array of religions) or from a root meaning “to bind back” (which would imply a connection to lifestyle prohibitions and restrictions that accompany a great many religions as well). It is the latter sense that predominated as the word entered English in the middle ages, where it originally referred to membership in a monastic order – the “religious” were contrasted not with the irreligious or atheistic but with the laity, those who did not live under a rule. Regardless, it’s clear that etymologically “religion” seems to have more to do with what one does than with what one believes, more to do with practice than with preaching.

Moreover, it’s a peculiarly Christian (or, more broadly, Abrahamic) conceit to center religion on revelation, when it is manifest that religion predates the age of the great revelatory religions. The ancient world clearly understood the category of religion, but their religions emerged organically from the mists of pre-history. And it would probably be wrong to say that they encompassed a set of beliefs about the right or best way to live life. Rather, they were the most comprehensive expression of what living life is, and of how we – Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. – live it. That’s certainly how Herodotus would have understood it. Confucius, too, I suspect.

Some of the world’s existing religions became more systematized under pressure of contact with new religions that organized themselves more around a set of formal beliefs and authoritative teachings or revelations from a founder. Hinduism evolved this way after successive contact with Buddhism from within, Islam and Christianity from without. But that shouldn’t lead us to say that, before the advent of such religions, whatever humanity was up to wasn’t “really” or “fully” religious. Rather, it should make us question whether the features that distinguish religion for us – such as a founding revelation – aren’t really much less central to what makes something a religion qua religion than we think.

Linker goes on to contrast religion with philosophy, arguing that they both aim to be comprehensive but that they have different notions of truth. Philosophy, as Linker describes it, involves a quest for truth, whereas in religion truth is received (whether from revelation or tradition). I’m not convinced that the idea of talking about anything as a “rival” to religion is a particularly useful way of thinking. And I’m not sure that every philosophical system is quite as Socratic as Linker’s definition would imply.

So, for example: in the Western tradition, what are Stoicism or Epicureanism? They are philosophical systems that comprehensively address the right or best way of life, and I would question whether they are anchored in a relentless pursuit of the nature of truth. It seems to me these philosophies – unlike the endless Socratic quest – express answers more than they pursue questions. But they are philosophies, aren’t they? They aren’t religions, are they?

Or what about Pythagoreanism? The Pythagoreans plainly had views about religion – they had distinctive practices and ceremonies and so forth. But are they a distinctive religion? Or are the a particular philosophical approach to life that encompasses religion as it was understood within the Greek world? Kind of the way, say, Taoism is a philosophical approach to life that encompasses religion as it is understood within the Chinese world? But in that case, what’s left of the idea of philosophy as a rival to religion?

It seems to me that while Linker wants to make truth claims central to religion, and therefore to contrast religion with philosophy with regard to how they evaluate such claims, what’s really distinctive about religion is the centrality of the sacred as a category. It’s a category that is strikingly missing from Damon’s definition of religion – perhaps because it is not really accessible to philosophy.

So perhaps I would say that Linker’s definition of religion is one that suits the needs of philosophers who might understand themselves to be partisans of a rival approach to life.

That doesn’t mean it’s the best definition for understanding religion.

 

 

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Trump, Cruz and the “To Hell With ‘Em” Hawks

There’s been some buzz the last couple of days about Ted Cruz’s attacks on Marco Rubio on foreign policy (including by our own Daniel Larison). And, I think not-unrelatedly, it’s been widely noted that Donald Trump is the candidate most-trusted to handle terrorism, and the candidate who has most obviously benefitted from the reaction to the attacks in Paris and elsewhere. Given the details that have already come out regarding the senseless massacre perpetrated in California, and Trump’s recent declaration that the way to defeat ISIS is to kill their families, I would expect the observed political trend only to continue.

But what is that trend?

It’s not toward neoconservative-style hawkishness. That dispensation is being carried forward in an extreme form by Marco Rubio, a man generally described as having foreign policy expertise, but who is more accurately described as having a foreign policy ideology. Rubio is a kind of crusader for global Americanism, a believer that our foreign policy should consist of championing the right (as we see it) and opposing anyone who doesn’t line up behind us, and always doubling down on our commitments. The true insanity of this ideology in practice is manifest in his recent piece on how to defeat ISIS, which calls for first defeating ISIS’s strongest opponents, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, so that the deck can be cleared for America to battle ISIS without accidentally siding with anyone who hasn’t already won an American commitment to their defense.

I don’t get the sense that this particular approach to foreign policy is winning any significant number of adherents. And anyway, Hillary Clinton offers a less-extreme, more seasoned and more rational version of the same ideology, something I suspect the sorts of people most likely to be inclined to reward Rubio for his foreign policy are at least dimly aware of. Rather, I suspect Rubio’s main gains are coming from more centrist, establishment-minded Republicans starting to coalesce around the only establishment-acceptable figure getting any traction – and I suspect most of these are not really motivated by his specific foreign policy views, or are even aware of just how extreme his views on that subject are.

The rising dispensation, though, isn’t un-hawkish. It isn’t realist, it isn’t restrained, and it certainly isn’t dovish. But it is different from Rubio’s full-spectrum interventionism. What is it?

I think the right label, for both Cruz and Trump, is “To Hell With Them Hawk,” a coinage invented by John Derbyshire back in 2006. That’s a bit cumbersome as labels go, but we need one, and I think this one will do, because it expresses the degree to which the defining aspect of the rising hawkish dispensation is not really caring what happens as a result of American actions, provided those actions are plainly aimed at killing our opponents.

Trump wins applause for saying we should cheer Russia on for attacking ISIS rather than getting in their way or trying to take over. But he also wins applause for saying we should seize ISIS’s oil and kill their families. There are common threads between the more restrained and the extremely aggressive stances: in both cases, we’re talking about somebody attacking ISIS, and in neither case is there any real concern for a strategic endgame.

Cruz puts a bit more of a realist veneer on his views, but they aren’t so different. He is skeptical of democracy-promotion and nation-building. He thinks we should have left Qaddafi alone and continued to back Mubarak. But he also favors a very hard line on Iran, as well as a hard line on China and Russia. He’s skeptical of some interventions, but he’s also manifestly uninterested in diplomatic solutions to problems.

Rubio is interested in demonstrating that America can lead. The rising dispensation on the right is interesting in demonstrating that American can win – and that it doesn’t really care who else has to lose in the process.

 

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Ponnuru’s Commitments

Ramesh Ponnuru has compiled a list of eight commitments he thinks any GOP candidate should make to earn the support of “conservatives.” It’s a revealing list.

First of all, nearly half of the items – 3 of the 8 listed – relate to abortion. He wants a commitment to end Federal funding of organizations (like Planned Parenthood) that perform abortions, to let states cut off Medicaid funds to such organizations as well, and to end funding of research that depends on human embryos.

Then, yet another 3 items – more than half of the remaining list – relate to “culture war” matters. Candidates should, in his view, pledge to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which protects individuals from federal action being taken against them because of actions taken on the belief that marriage is lawfully only the union of a man and a woman. And they should pledge to withdraw guidance related to school discipline intended to reduce disparate impact on black and Hispanic students, and to withdraw guidance to universities on matters related to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

In other words, a full three-fourths of the items on conservative litmus test, as Ponnuru sees it, relate to culture war questions. (The other two items relate to immigration and to the question under what circumstances regulatory agencies can be sued.)

I’m not interested in debating the merits of the individual proposals on Ponnuru’s list. I just want to note how tiny and narrow they appear to me even in the context of the typical trivialities of a Presidential campaign. That fact is especially striking when you consider that Ponnuru breezily asserts at the top of his article that of course all conservatives agree on low taxes and a strong defense – as if there were no more that need be said about economics or foreign policy. It’s also striking how defensive the list reads, with many of the items related to reversing Obama-era policies that social conservatives fear threaten their ability to operate on an equal basis in American life.

You never know what will prove to be a symbolic rallying cry with resonance, so for all I know Ponnuru has identified items that really will resonate with large numbers of people. But I would have thought that that question would be one that the candidates’ campaigns were particularly interested in, rather than something that would come from a movement seeking to extract commitments from said candidates.

I’m in no sense a movement conservative, and I’m way to Ponnuru’s left, so maybe I’m a bad reader. But it sure doesn’t read like much of an agenda to me.

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Infinite Space, Bounded in a Nutshell

Jacob Tremblay in "Room"
Jacob Tremblay in "Room"

When I was younger, I experienced a pair of recurring dreams. I began having the dreams when I was around seven years old, and continued to have them, on and off, for years after.

In the first of these, I was lying in bed in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister (she was in her bed in the dream), and someone on the other side of the bedroom door was nailing the door shut – more precisely, nailing boards across the door to prevent it being opened. I knew this was happening – I could hear it – and I knew that my mother was on the other side, also aware that I was being nailed in. The dream recurred for years, but stopped recurring when I was still a child.

The other dream was both similar and thematically opposite, but it requires a bit of background to explain. So, in actual reality, when I was about six years old I and my three-year-old sister went exploring down a small hill behind our apartment building. A short distance down, we came to a path that went through a wooded area. We walked along the path for a bit, until we encountered a barking dog. The dog scared my sister, who began to cry, and I threw a stick in the dog’s direction, trying to distract it. That didn’t work, so we turned around and walked back along the path – but we couldn’t find our apartment building. We walked back and forth along the path, failing to find our way home, getting more and more anxious, until finally, in desperation, I led us off the path and straight up the hill. At the top of which we found our building, and my father, waiting on a park bench. I had forgotten that we had walked down the little hill to get to the path in the first place.

So: the dream. In the dream, I would wake up – and I would still be down on that path in the woods. I was still with my sister, still lost – but if I was sixteen when I had the dream, then I was also sixteen in the dream; time had passed just as it had in reality. And, in the dream, I would realize that it was my waking life – school, home, the works – that had been  a dream, while in reality for however many years had passed since that adventure when I was six, my sister and I had lived as feral children in the lonely dog-ridden woods. I had this second dream for far longer than the dream of being nailed in, recurring well into my teenage years and possibly into my twenties – I don’t recall precisely when it stopped. And it was so vivid that frequently I would wake from it to a deep disorientation about which was reality and which the dream.

All of which is preface to saying: the new movie, “Room,” knocked the frigging stuffing out of me.

“Room” – directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film, “Frank,” I also really liked; I’m clearly a fan) and based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, (who also wrote the script) – tells the story of the survival, escape and post-escape adjustment to mundane reality of a pair of captives. “Ma” (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, “Jack,” (an astonishing Jacob Tremblay) live in a 100-square foot garden shed they both call Room. This is their entire world – and the only world Jack has known. You see, Ma was kidnapped by a stranger (Sean Bridgers) seven years ago, and has been held captive by him in this room ever since. He keeps her alive, bringing her food and providing heat and electricity and other necessities, so that he can continue to rape her on a regular basis. Jack, her son by her rapist and captor, was born in Room. He has never been outside.

For the first half of the film, our world is Jack’s world, and while we are aware of the horror that his mother experiences, the camera doesn’t make much more sense of it than Jack does. As well, by the time we meet this little family, the horror of their situation has settled into routine. Jack’s childhood, though strange, is also strangely idyllic, because he has the rapt attention of his mother. She feeds him and exercises him, reads to him and teaches him to read; she makes snakes out of egg shells to be his companions; and she hides him in the bureau when her captor pays his nighttime calls. Her entire existence is oriented around protecting and nurturing him. He is her only joy, her only care, her only interest in the universe.

Or so Jack thinks. Not long after his fifth birthday, his mother tells him the truth. (And we begin to see, really for the first time, what it has cost Ma to be what she has been for Jack for the past five years.) He learns that his mother has a history; that there is an outside world; and that he has a crucial role to play in the escape that will take them out of Room, and into that world outside. In a sequence that is simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating, Jack – who, remember, is only five years old and not only has never been outside but does not really have a concept of “outside” – carries out his mother’s plan for their escape.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Ma is reunited with her own mother (Joan Allen), father (William H. Macy) and new stepfather (Tom McCamus) – her parents’ marriage did not survive the trauma of their daughter’s kidnapping. But, bereft of the purpose provided by her terrible predicament, she comes face to face with how much she suffered, and lost, and begins to break down, falling into a suicidal depression. Jack has to reckon not only with a confusing and unfamiliar world, the need to read new people and situations, experience vantages and enter spaces whose contours he knows not at all, but with the loss of his anchor of stability, his mother.

The escape forms a structural hinge in the middle of the film, similar to the hinge in the middle of “Captain Phillips” that I described in my review of that film, in that there are effectively two films here. But in this case, the second film is not a reversal of the first (the pursuer now pursued, the aggressor now the apparent victim), but rather a commentary on the first. The first movie is primarily about Jack’s experience of life in Room, though through him we can experience something of what his mother is going through. The second movie is still secondarily about the mother’s experience, which we still get primarily through Jack’s understanding of it – but it’s primarily about Jack’s adjustment as he begins to make sense of the idea of Room as just one place among a world of places, a world in which he is quite suddenly not the center. It’s a testament to Jack’s emotional resourcefulness, and to the calm strength of his grandmother and her husband, that he is able to make the adjustment as well as he does, and say goodbye to Room.

That goodbye is a perfect capsule of the movie, and hence a perfect (perhaps too perfect) ending. Jack asks to be allowed to visit Room one last time, and so they are escorted by the police back to the scene of the crime. The shed, which once encompassed an entire world, now appears almost unfathomably shrunken, to us as well as to Jack. Jack says goodbye, and Ma echoes him. In her voice, it’s a plea – that she, and Jack, will actually be able to say goodbye to this horrible place. But in Jack’s voice, it’s the same goodbye any child gives to his or her first home, to a beloved transitional object, or to the first dear friend or relative who dies.

“Room” doesn’t lean too hard on the obvious exile-from-Eden trope, which is why that trope works so powerfully. What Jack is going through – expulsion from an exclusive zone of maternal concern into a world of complexity and independence – is what every child goes through eventually, though not usually in such a sudden and violent way.

Or maybe that expulsion is getting more violent as it is more delayed. Perhaps there’s something especially resonant about this story in our age of helicopter parenting, when too many kids are so thoroughly supervised that “outside” is unfathomable, and when too many mothers feel trapped by a crushing obligation that is also their entire purpose for being.

In any event, it would make an excellent double feature with “The Babadook.”

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