Saturday, November 29, 2008

Delighting in Beauty

When trying to make sense of the soul-less lives I see around me, I realized how few people take delight in beauty.

I think - I could be wrong about this - that the reason is that most people are atheists and egotists. Not in the sense that they would philosophically deny the existence of God or that they are haughty and pompous. But in their world there is no God and even the people around them are fairly uninteresting, unengaging. The cosmos is, for them, dead. If there is to be anything interesting in their lives, they have to generate it. (I am reminded, in stark contrast, of the scene near the end of That Hideous Strength where the pantheon of gods appears. The vibrancy of life they share with our human characters is just stunning.) For such atheists and egotists, it is hard to notice the beauty of a sunset, and even harder to see it as a love letter from a pursuing God. The very act of taking delight in something is to admit that we are not alone, that a world exists beyond ourselves.

For some of us, that is a great pleasure. But for many, that is hard to fathom. So my new goal is to share with others my delight in the world that is not me.

PS One of my favorite columnists, Susie Boyt, recently mentioned a collection of essays about the poetry of Keats, titled The Power of Delight, by John Bayley. Perhaps I shall pick it up some day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Admiral - Trailer

My friend Chris Fulford over at Информация Informatsiya brought this trailer to my attention. Could be good.

Admiral (Адмиралъ) follows the story of Aleksandr Kolchak, played by Konstantin Khabensky.
From an article in the Washington Times:

To the Communists, he was an archvillain: a defender of the oppressors, a class enemy. And for decades, that's the way films and textbooks portrayed Adm. Kolchak, a leader of the fight to roll back the 1917 Russian Revolution, which gave birth to the Soviet Union. Now comes a $20 million state-supported movie epic that glorifies Kolchak as a failed savior of Russia. Such a reversal might seem odd, coming less than four years after Vladimir Putin was decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

As it turns out, I've been reading a bit about about the North Russian Expedition sent by the West to aid Kolchak and like-minded figures. If you're bored, see J. F. N. Bradley’s Allied Intervention in Russia, John Sliverlight’s The Victor’s Dilemma, Robert Jackson’s At War with the Bolsheviks, Clifford Kinvig’s Churchill’s Crusade or Andrew Soutar's With Ironside in North Russia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fount of True Fellowship

With the 'holiday season' fast upon us, there will be much talk about what we celebrate. In spite of the general commercialization and secularization of our holidays, there is still a strong desire for the more meaningful things in life.

You will often hear people say that Christmas is about family, a time to be with those you love. This is true so far as it goes, but I would like to propose something a little different. You see, I think our notion of fellowship is deeply impoverished. The typical approach is to bring everyone together, pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps and have quality 'family time.' Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. (Have you ever wondered why the bickering family at holidays is such a common image in films and other media?) Even at its best, this model can only do so much.

While living at the Quincy House, I saw very clearly that there is another form of holiday fellowship. Triduum and the Easter Octave were a marathon of liturgies and celebrations, leaving participants joyfully exhausted at the end of it all. Dear friends and good food and drink abounded, and ringing in our ears was John Chrysostom's declaration, "You, O death, are annihilated!" The greeting of choice, repeated time and again, was "Christ is risen!" To which the reply could be heard with gusto, "Indeed! He is risen!" This, I would suggest, was the true fount of our overflowing fellowship. We stood before the mystery and glory of the Resurrection and received a grace which we could not but share.

At the end of a nail-biting championship sporting event, you will often see fans of the winning side embracing one another, sometimes embracing total strangers around them. (I have been the recipient of the same sort of behavior when delivering the official word that school is closed for a snow day.) Why? Because their joy overflows and must necessarily be shared. If this is the instinctive response to winning a game (or getting a single day off from school), what must be the response to Christ conquering sin and death, or the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us?

So this Christmas, I would encourage you to keep that in mind. I am not suggesting that you call off your family dinner or forgo time with friends. But try spending a little more time in the overwhelming light of the mystery, and let your fellowship flow from that shared experience. It might just change your life.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crafting New Positions for the GOP

Having mulled it over the last few days as I bike to and from school, I have decided that I quite agree with Lexington’s recent column in The Economist, “Ship of Fools” (13 November 2008): the future of the Republican Party and conservative politics cannot rest on ignorance and prejudice. If they are to have a future, it will be found in The Wall Street Journal and the Claremont Review of Books, not on Fox News. With the number of college graduates rising, the GOP cannot afford a declining percentage of this section of the electorate. Moreover, it is generally far easier to turn a complex policy position into a handy slogan, than to work the process the other way, teasing policy details out of mindless bumper sticker.

Some people, of course, might be happy to watch the Republican Party die. Let me suggest that a healthy two-party system is better for all Americans, on the left and on the right. The competition forces parties to make compelling arguments and win people over, rather than taking votes for granted.

So following Lexington’s lead, what kind of positions should the GOP begin articulating? Here are a few ideas:

On stem cell research: The Republican Party should fully support, and even happily fund, stem cell research. Just do it with adult stem cells; is that too much to ask?

On energy: The Republican Party should support diversification and fiscal environmentalism. Yes, we should drill in certain domestic locations. Yes, we should allow for the construction of new nuclear facilities (something that has been held up for decades for more political than regulatory reasons). And, yes, we should support low energy use and sustainability. Why? Because it is not only good for the environment, but it is also good business. Walmart is building some of the most energy efficient stores right now, for that very reason. Energy efficiency is not a bad thing.

On global warming: The Republican Party, following Bjørn Lomborg, should argue that trying to fix global warming is a sink hole for money; there are better ways to spend our funds. This does not mean global warming is - or is not - caused by human beings nor that it will – or will not – continue. The real question is what do we do with our scarce resources? Providing micronutrients to the Third World, liberalizing trade and fighting malaria are all likely to yield more gains than fighting global warming. If we undertake carbon emission reductions, it should be tied to business incentives, like the energy efficiency mentioned above.

On torture: The US should not torture. Period. It is contrary to human dignity and generally yields poor results anyway. Some will want to define what is, or is not, torture, and there is a real discussion to be had here. But the GOP should unmistakably underline that it opposes torture. There is nothing conservative about it. Dictatorship torture; the US does not.

On immigration: The multi-pronged approach that John McCain advocated – and then generally ignored or failed to articulate – is generally popular with the American people and is quite sensible. We need to be able to control our borders, know who comes and goes, and have some sort of minimum standards for people coming to work or study here (much less become citizens). But the process for coming here legally is a nightmare and surely needs to be reformed and speeded up. And we cannot kick out the 10 or 12 million illegal immigrants here, even if we wanted to; shy of having a police state, it is just not possible. Some sort of normalization process for them is in order.

On race: The Republican party opposed the Democrats on the question of slavery and fought a war to end it. There should be no room in the GOP for racial prejudice, explicit or implicit. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a man should be judged on the content of his character, not the color of his skin. On those ground, no form of racial discrimination, whatever its purpose, should be sanctioned by the government, including affirmative action.

On homosexuality: This is a tricky question for conservatives, and divides the movement’s libertarian wing from its traditionalist social conservative wing. Indeed, I sometimes find myself torn on what we ought to do politically with homosexuality. (The moral issues are fairly clear in my mind. Just pick up your copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) Should gay marriage be legal? It seems to me the word “marriage” itself is what traditionalists are most eager to defend, that is, some notion of the sacrament in question. While there are gay activists on the far left who will not rest until they too can be legally married, it is my impression that most gay couples are more interested in matters of benefits, visitation rights and other legal issues. If they want the imprimatur of some person in authority administering vows, let them find a minister of their liking who will do the deed. But if the state is delivering equal legal benefits, I see no reason it has to recognize those vows. A tricky compromise, perhaps, but I have not yet seen a better suggestion.

With regards to the particular question of gay adoption, it seems to me that, so long as we allow single-parent adoption, adoption by gay couples must also logically follow. (What do they lack that a single parent has?) Thus, we should give priority to - if not outright require - adopting couples composed of both a man and a woman. From a legalistic perspective, this is not a matter of sexual orientation, per se; instead, it is an effort to secure the well-rounded development of children, who need both a father and a mother.

On evolution: Frankly, I have been disappointed by the discussion – or lack there of – on this point. There are generally two schools of thought: either Genesis is literal and, if it comes down to it, science be damned; or evolution occurred over billions of years and you can keep your Genesis account as a metaphor (which is a polite way of saying “irrelevancy”) but that is all. Some of this has to do with the breakdown of our ability to really think about myths and their meanings. I feel like there is a conversation that needs to happen here before we can have a sensible, conservative position we can pitch to the American people.

Coupled with a few cornerstones of contemporary conservative politics - low taxes, free trade, right to work (open shops), opposition to abortion, local control of education and strong national defense - I think the positions outlined above might not only be able to create an electoral majority, but might even produce some good policy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The Anglo-Indian film Slumdog Millionaire has been receiving positive press from National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal and others. Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire stars newcomers Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, with music by A. R. Rahman.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I, for one, am looking forward to this. Perhaps it has something to do with my fondness for William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons.

Special thanks to Nick over at The Trifector for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part II

Continued from Part I.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, contends that “since the objective of rhetoric is judgment… we must have regard not only to the speech’s being demonstrative and persuasive, but also to… bringing the giver of judgment [i.e. the audience] into a certain condition” (2.1). This requires an understanding of the audience and the sorts of things to which they are attentive; thus, Aristotle spends all of Section 7 discussing the possible characters of men who may hear a speech. The rhetors of the Old Testament understood that their audience valued history and historical continuity; thus, they made a point of framing their message in these terms, often invoking the prophecies of old.

This approach to appropriating tradition for propagandistic purposes was not unique to the Greeks or Hebrews, but can be found all over the ancient world. Philip M. Taylor contends that “Rome lacked the rich mythological sources available to Greek propagandists, so it created a mythology of its own” (35) This is, in fact, a sloppy simplification of a far more interesting process: Virgil’s Aeneid did not so much create a mythology as weave together several pre-existing stories of Rome’s founding – one by Aeneas and the Trojan survivors, another by the twins Romulus and Remus – in a way that supported the imperial government. Put another way, he appropriated a tradition, drawing upon its elements and then going beyond it to cover new ground.

Kautilya, an ancient Indian thinker, was a contemporary of Aristotle’s, though 3,000 miles away. He too understood the importance of appropriating tradition and discussed it in his Arthashastra, a handbook of statecraft. He explains that a king who has recently conquered new territory should “adopt the way of life, dress, language and customs of the people, show the same devotion to the gods of the territory [as to his own gods] and participate in the people’s festivals” (13.5.8; Rangarajan’s 741). Note that Kautilya is not interested in any particular quality of local customs, except that they are local and most likely beloved by the people. Though it is highly unlikely that Kautilya ever heard of Aristotle or his work, both demonstrated the same finesse for understanding an audience and the things that will favorably dispose it.

Modern-day practitioners of propaganda and political warfare would do well to learn from the ancients this lesson of appropriation. Americans, in particular, living in a relatively young nation that is more oriented toward the future than the past, tend to undertake their efforts without first asking themselves if there is already a pre-existing tradition whose terms and concepts they might adopt in order to lend their arguments new credibility. This, of course, requires the effort of first learning about foreign traditions and schools of thought, but the price is well worth it.

One of the uncomfortable qualities of Mason’s work is that it raises a difficult problem: what are we to make of an Old Testament that often bears a striking resemblance to propaganda, but which is claimed to in fact be the Word of God? An understanding of the appropriation of tradition helps us resolve some of this dilemma. A God Who acts in human history, Who stoops to make Himself known to mankind, can be expected to reveal Himself in a way that is conducive to the human mind. This is not so much God acting like a man, as it is God speaking to men; the Divine Rhetor understands His audience quite well and tailors His message accordingly. The point may be illustrated in regards to the earlier example of the lands promised to Abraham. God, in drawing a spiritual parallel between Abraham and Solomon, also draws a geographic one, not because the geography is or is not historically correct, but because the human mind appreciates and naturally grasps this sort of physical parallelism. Aristotle and Kautilya would understand the technique; there is no reason we should not.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part I

In his work Propaganda and Subversion in the Old Testament, Rex Mason makes regular reference to ‘prophecies after the event,’ (vaticinia ex eventu). Mason’s reading of these accounts is rather straightforward: such prophecies were written after the events they predicted and function as legitimizing propaganda, either for a status quo power or for forces of change.* While this may be the case with some prophecies, particularly those whose level of detail cannot otherwise be explained (at least by human factors), there are a variety of other prophetic occasions which allow for a far more nuanced understanding of political warfare as waged in the Old Testament. The appropriation of a pre-existing tradition, rather than the creation of one out of whole cloth, not only provides valuable insights for modern-day political warfare practitioners, but also begins to resolve some of the tension between the human and divine elements of the Old Testament narrative.

In Genesis 15, Abraham is promised the “land from the river of Egypt as far as the great river Euphrates,” including the land of the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites and Canaanites.” Mason points out that “these are the very borders ascribed to Solomon’s rule at the height of his fortunes: ‘Solomon exercised rule over all the kingdoms from the River [i.e. the Euphrates], to the land of the Philistines, that is, as far as the border of Egypt’” (33-4; internal quotation from 1 Kings 4:21). Mason comments that “the parallel between the ideal boundary claimed in royal propaganda for Solomon and the extent of land promised to Abraham in the ‘prophecy’ cannot be coincidental,” and concludes that “the stories of Abraham have an element of royal ideology in them” (34). However, an alternative reading of this parallelism is plausible.

It is quite possible that the story of the land promised to Abraham predated the Davidic monarchy; even if some editing has occurred between the Davidic-era version and the one that has come down to us, the essential details – including the borders of the lands promised to Abraham – may have already been set down. In such a case, Solomon would not have created the account of earlier events to match his kingdom, but shaped the perception of his kingdom to imply continuity with the past. Without realizing, Mason himself seems to have considered this possibility when he notes that the boundaries claimed by Solomon were “very largely fancy, for Solomon’s ‘empire’ (if such it may be called) certainly did not extend as far nor did he receive tribute from as many nations,” as named in the Abrahamic prophecy (34).**

A host of similar cases can be found in Mason’s work. He contends, for example, that the accounts of the Israelite tabernacle are “clearly influenced by the later Jerusalem temple,” in an attempt by priestly editors to write the central role of the temple into earlier history (57). While this interpretation is possible, Mason’s chronological gymnastics are hardly necessary to understand the parallelism between the tabernacle and the temple. Just as likely, priestly or royal personnel involved in the construction of the temple reached into Israelite history and consciously drew upon the example of the tabernacle, in order to imply continuity with the past, even if the temple in fact marked a shift in Israelite spirituality, as Mason argues.

Coming soon: Part II.

* I employ the term ‘propaganda’ throughout in the same way Mason does, to indicate ‘the presentation of material so as to express a particular belief or set of beliefs in such a way as to command assent to it from those to whom it is addressed’ (170). Thus, ‘propaganda’ is a neutral term referring to a method, not to the truth or falsehood, justice or injustice of the cause being promoted.

** To be fair, Mason does not explicitly advocate the position that these prophecies were completely fabricated after the fact; rather, he leaves the issue of their original material largely untouched, and appears not to have thought about this question in a systematic way. Thus, we find him at one point claiming that “the priests were creating a social order” (63) and then turning around and writing that the priests “skillfully preserved continuity with what had gone before” (64, emphasis added).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Work, Prayer and Leisure

The other day I was kneeling in my pew before the start of mass. Having said all I had to say to God, I sat down to await the entrance of the priest. And that is when I realized that I had just spent the last five minutes telling the Lord about the two different approaches to my research status report and why a lot of footnotes would really make sense in this particular case.

Now perhaps this was simply an example of me being too tired and too caught up in my studies to focus on my prayer. In fact, I am rather certain that explains at least part of my strange conversation with the Almighty. But I would like to suggest that there may have been something else at work as well.

Some years ago I was creating a folder on my computer for all of my school papers and things. Following the example of "My Documents" I named this one "My Work." But after a time I came to see my studies as far more than monotonous labor, or even passably interesting labor. I came to see it as a calling, and I renamed the folder "My Prayer." You see, for me, studying is not simply something I do; it is existentially part of who I am. Thus, when, on my good days, I offer my studies to the Lord, I am giving Him myself. Not all of us are called to be academics, but all of us have a calling, a vocation, and not just in the sense of married life or religious life. We all have passions, talents, things we love to do; many of us will find ourselves making a career out of them. Offered to God, this can be more than work; it can be prayer.

Related to, but separate from, this line of thought, I would like to propose another. Studying is, for me, not really work at all, but leisure. Oh, of course, there are those days when I am not keen on reading yet another article on the gendering of intercolonial trade in 18th century Burmudan literature, but on the whole, study is a kind of leisure. It is not just a matter of numbers - that a majority of the time I enjoy rather than loath my studies, and therefore they must be leisure - but something more fundamental.

Josef Pieper defines leisure as "an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world." I have neither the time nor the desire to flesh out his whole argument here, so I suggest you pick up a copy of Leisure, the Basis of Culture, one of the great works of the 20th century. In it he contends that religion can only be born of leisure, wherein man finds the time to contemplate Nature and the Divine.

Now, admittedly, the mechanics of footnotes is not quite the same thing as contemplation of the Divine. Still, study is - or at least ought to be - oriented to a right perception of the reality of the world. And who better to tell about my halting attempts to understand the world than its Maker?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why I Love Puddleglum

I was recently reminded of a scene from The Silver Chair, after having a rather depressing conversation with several colleagues who were happily convinced that their soulless lives of drink and loose women were as good as it gets.

Do you remember the scene in the underworld where the witch is trying to cast a spell upon our heroes, trying to convince them that they have simply imagined the real world above? She tries to tell them that they have looked at a lamp and imagined a larger one, and called it "the sun"; they have seen her cat and imagined a greater one, and called him "Aslan." She has just about got them convinced when Puddleglum stamps out her magical fire with his webby foot and proceeds to give one of the greatest speeches in all literature:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only real world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

~Puddleglum, The Silver Chair, Chapter XII: The Queen of the Underworld