Noah Millman

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

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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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