Thursday, January 28, 2010

In the interests of breaking up monotony, a dash of substance

Michael Mann: Cinematic Visionary or Overrated Hack?

My rule of thumb is simple. Directors who make movies I love are awesome. Directors who make movies I hate are crap.

Which makes Michael Mann horribly difficult. To wit:
Public Enemies (Boring, characters unlikeable [How do you make Johnny Depp unlikeable!?!])

Miami Vice (Like, but only ironically; if Colin Farrel and Jamie Foxx weren't reinventing Don Johnson and Phil Michael Thomas' Crockett and Tubbs I wouldn't care)

Collateral (LOVE)

Ali (Hate, too long)

The Insider (Boring, predictable)

Heat (Hate, good action, awful dialogue, relies too much on Deniro and Pacino as icons, also too long)

The Last of the Mohicans (Like, saved by the soundtrack and DDL)

Manhunter (LOVE, saved by Peterson and Cox)

The Keep (Haven't seen)

Thief (Haven't seen, music by Tangerine Dream)
Mann has ONE film I love without qualification. One. Normally, that relegates him to the crap category with an even-a-broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day caveat.


He does Collateral so well. Shots are sparse, dark, and absolutely capture Los Angeles in a Blade Runner-esque dystopian vision using only location and natural lighting. Music perfectly suits every scene (I especially love the night club shootout). Colors are somehow muted while still conveying LA's neon gilt.

Granting a smidgen of hyperbole here, I would venture to say he's technically flawless in every single one of his movies.

And yet they all suck.

Mann has two irritating habits qua director: (1) Inability to kill darlings, and (2) Mind-boggling screenplay choice. Collateral is tight for a Mann film, clocking in at 2 hours. Did Ali, Insider, and Heat all really need to be 160+ minutes? Did we really need each one of those scenes exposing the characters to be...exactly what we already knew them to be? And the writing in Collateral is superb; it's hard to believe Mann liked the script. There's a serious clash of worldviews, existential angst, excurses about music (which always point back to the main ideological clash), a sympathetic main character and a charming villain (how novel!). In Collateral, Mann's technique serves a fantastic story. Most of his films feature an orgy of detail, technique for the sake of technique, and feel like a love letter to film-making rather than a conscious effort to entertain.

I am simply at a loss.

And for the record, every time David Fincher makes another movie, I feel him slipping into the Mann zone.

On Cynicism

The opposite of faith is not unbelief. It is not even doubt.

It is cynicism.

The subject of much fashionable derision from our intellectual elite, C.S. Lewis is a large target because he has such an incisive grasp of human beings. His Screwtape explains the benefits of cynicism to a young tempter:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it[.]
Lewis is most clever because he recognizes that cynicism is rarely socially acceptable unless it is humorous. Only the wholly deranged or the truly sycophantic willingly subject themselves to rancorous tirade after tirade. But wait. What if our interlocutor entertains? Well, then. All is forgiven; (s)he's so goshdarn funny.

In this way, cynicism obscures the mature happiness brought on by a serious search for the Good, the True, and the beautiful, replacing it with infantile giggles and meanness at the expense of...whom or whatever. A social pressure is brought to bear against the very idea of serious human living, and this pressure--in the form of a joke no less--releases those of us who laugh from the hard work of virtue because it is, after all, so silly.

Atheist-turned-Catholic(!) Jennifer Fulwiler recommends this as a step to finding God:
Commit to a period of time during which you'll fast from all sources of cynicism: give up watching TV shows and reading websites that make jokes at other people's expense (even if it's about celebrities or politicians); try to change the subject or say something positive if such conversations come up in person; avoid making cynical jokes or comments yourself. You might be surprised at how much this fast will transform your heart.
Mrs. Fulwiler assumes I might want my "heart transformed." How cute. And by cute I mean naive. If I wanted anything like that, why would I spend all my money rewarding stand-up comics and Hollywood writers and pop stars and talking heads for belittling it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why reform the prisons when they're working so well?

At Whitzerland, a discussion of privatized prisons based on a report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance:
The basic pros and cons of the argument are simple:

Pros Private Prisons: 1. provide construction as needed in order to reduce government debt. 2. produce facilities in half the time it takes the government. 3. provide economic devlopment. 4. create competition that lowers costs

Cons Private Prisons: 1. may become monopoly in the system through ingratiation, favortism. 2. have financial motivation that is opposite the end goal (i.e. production is the machine so they want to keep the parts working-inmates) 3. procurement is slow, inefficient and open to risk
That sounds like an argument for privatization to me, since all the cons (yes, even #2) are potential problems even in our current system.

Whatever. Whether privatizing prisons works or not, what I don't hear addressed in Whit's post is the question of purpose. So what if private prisons are slightly more efficient than public ones? The issue should be what private prisons are producing. Right now prison is really more like a criminal internship and/or rape-fest. That just doesn't seem to line up with my Christian vision of what internment should be about, namely, rehabilitation. Whit, what does that BJA have to say about that?

Please keep your compassion in a safe place where it can't hurt anyone

The first time Airbear and I went to Haiti, we were shocked by the strict standards for foreign adoption. The price was easy to understand: Haiti is ruled by corrupt politicians who are loathe to lose a major portion of their income by giving starving orphans families. That much made sense.

What didn't make sense was that the process was lengthened considerably by UNICEF's anti-adoption policy.
For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate alternative family environment should be sought in preference to institutional care which should be used only as a last resort and as a temporary measure. Inter-country adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution. In each case, the best interests of the individual child must be the guiding principle in making a decision regarding adoption.
Now, that statement just sounds great. Best interests! Individual child! But wait. Wheresoever thou shalt stumble upon kind sentiment, beware the shadowy caveat that liest beneath:
Over the past 30 years, the number of families from wealthy countries wanting to adopt children from other countries has grown substantially. At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes centre stage. Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and bribery.
What, you didn't know? You didn't hear about how the rash of dirty, profit-grubbing American dollars led to rampant sexual violence against kind little Haitian babies? Oh. Well neither did I. Neither did anybody. Because that never happened in Haiti, where a penchant for the macabre predated any spate of adoptions. Thankfully, the UN, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make the adoption process ridiculously difficult, because using that paragon of virtue that is the Haitian government to prolong and regulate the adoption process makes sure that any opportunistic greed-mongers will abandon their ventures in the private sector and...become bureaucrats! Yay! No more graft! Transparency!

Or, more accurately, policy that is literally insane:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Mmm. Guido is worried about child trafficking. White hippie girl wants to keep kids in-country until they're old enough to return to their "communities."

You know, that reminds me of Michelle, one of the children at our orphanage. Michelle is legally too old to remain in an orphanage--they're supposed to cast you back into you're loving neighborhood of origin when you turn 15. The day after she was released into the wild she and her mother were found wailing at the orphanage gate, begging Pierre to take her back inside. I guess the local gang that controls Michelle's birth home in Cite Soleil decided that Michelle would make a pretty decent prostitute. After all why not, right? Michelle is young, inexperienced, naive. Easy to control and totally without any other means of providing for herself. The gang threatened Michelle's birth mother, telling her that she would be denied access to food unless she put her daughter on the street. They also helpfully informed her that they were going to do it either way, so the only real question was whether or not the poor woman wanted to starve to death.

I for one share Guido's carefully thought out concerns about sex trafficking and child slavery. I am deeply sympathetic to UNICEF's heartfelt commitment to "the best interests of the individual child." But I have this crazy feeling that maybe, just maybe, the elite, highly educated policy-crafting gurus at the United Nations should reconsider the wisdom of their oligarchic master-planning, and take a good long look at the legions of God-fearing, do-gooding, would-be adoptive parents living in America's heartland.

And then just get the hell out of the way.

Notes: Mike is the sole voice of reason in the video. Donate to his non-profit here and check out the trailer to his documentary here. And thanks to Neil for snagging this NBC clip and posting it on Facebook.

Friday, January 22, 2010

So what's this dumb cow's life for anyway?

Jon asks:
1.) Is it ethical to eat animals? And if so, what kind of guidelines do we need to follow when hunting / farming animals?
2.) Is it ethical to "own" animals?
(See the link for a Petey Singer video; that guy is a trip)

Jon says his mind isn't made up yet, and he asked for opinions, so I thought I'd oblige him (it's tit-for-tat, people, figure it out).

Now, everybody knows God is pretty weird, but one of the weirder things he does is give human beings the task of cultivating creation. So, God made us farmers. Adam trimmed the hedges, birthed the goats, and apparently he was having a hard time of it, so God gave him Eve to help him out.

For those of us with any farm/ranch experience (however limited), the idea of cultivation is simple. Each thing has a natural capacity; it is the duty of the caretaker to nurture each thing until it reaches that end. So, in the vineyard, the caretaker does whatever is required to maximize the fruitfulness of the vine, to produce the tastiest, ripest grapes each season.

With animals, the same principle applies. Different species and even different breeds within species have different capacities--our job is to help them reach their ends. Retrievers are an easy example. It is in their nature to bond loyally to a few other beings and to go get things. So, in our human vocation as creation's caretakers, it is our job to help retrievers achieve this inborn capacity for fluffy love and catching frisbees (or perhaps dead ducks).

When we have done our part, animals with whom humans interact fulfill their role or maximize their potential. Most non-human animals do not possess the brain architecture to "fear death" (in the existential sense) and, so long as they do not suffer, experience no loss when they die (assuming that we have done our job cultivating them).

Genesis indicates Adam and Eve were vegetarians. It's not until long after they're gone that humans get in the business of raising animals as meat bags. Maybe the renewal of all things will mean we can finally stop slaying our furry little friends and feasting on their flesh, I don't know.

For now, it is enough to support humane treatment. Stuffing meatbirds in pens is not good. Cooping up hogs until we grind them into sausage sucks (that movie Babe actually kind of gets pigs right). At the same time, cows aren't particularly interested in much beyond eating and walking about 10 steps a day. It is criminal to prevent dogs from enjoying the servile freedom of a trained relationship with a human being.

Cultivation not hedonism; animals are not instruments in your pursuit of happiness.
Fiddle on.

(Thanks Whit; keep it up!)

On the echo's lonesome sounding


I write about sex, I am crushed by an avalanche of opinion. I beg for comments, the deafening silence is broken only by the former Ms. Skoog. Thank you, Missy, for your thoughtful response; I am considering it and thinking about what changes will benefit the Saints of Doubt series.

To everybody else: suck it.
Fiddle on.

(Via Dan)

No. Seriously. Let me go back to sleep.

The story of humanity told by atheists is one of “awakening.” As in, humans were more or less drifting along in a drunken slumber of silly superstition until the dawn of the Modern Age and the introduction of the scientific method. Science pulled up the shades and bathed us in light, shook us from sleep, and is now explaining all that can be explained.

Apres moi, le hangover.

(Atheism story via Jon in the comments)
Fiddle on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Saints of Doubt: Doug Pinnick

In what I hope will be an ongoing series, I will be highlighting the great doubters who have shaped my own spirituality. Some of these are ex-Christians, some were burned by the church, some just tortured souls; all have influenced me (and others, I presume) in profound ways. Many of them are artists who have remembered tragedy in the midst of a Church afraid to read the hard parts of her own Book. Many are theologians or philosophers who dared to look into infinite spaces even when these filled them with dread.  All have struggled with faith, not all have remained faithful.

I don’t know how well this will go over, so I will very much appreciate feedback (email if you don’t feel like commenting). I especially want to hear from those of you who don’t like it.

The Patron Saint of Gay Christians

King’s X is one of the coolest, dirtiest rock bands still playing.  15 albums and counting.  Doug is their lead singer.  Although they never branded themselves a “Christian” band, Christians were their base, and many of Doug’s early lyrics were evangelical to say the least. 

In 1998, Pinnick came out of the closet in a Christian magazine. 

On 2004’s Ear Candy, the second verse of “Looking for Love” features these lyrics:

A standard, a program/religion burned me at the stake./I questioned, I listened, I worshiped, how can I relate?/I worked so hard at it, oh Lord, the bruises and the burns/I just don’t—don’t get it—I guess I lost my faith/Looking for love.

Listen to it here.

In a 2002 interview, Pinnick had this to say about giving up on faith:

The greatest thing that happened to me was, when I stopped believing in God, I stopped believing in the Devil. When I stopped believing in the Devil, all my fear went away. I'm not afraid to die, I'm not afraid to walk down the street. I'm not looking over my shoulder thinking the Devil's going to get me, or 'God is watching me, so I'd better not do that,' when there's nothing wrong with what I've done. We used to preach when you come to Christ you're free, and you have peace and you have happiness. Well, for me, I got all that stuff when I stopped believing in God. I was in prison, I was unhappy. I felt like I didn't fit in-- And then people tell me that I didn't believe in God in the first place. Well, I totally did. I gave my whole life to it. I studied it. I learned it. I lived it. I really, really did.

Well, even on the other side of the fence he still hopes you’ll pray:

On second thought, let's just do satire

This from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle.

Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

Via Hit Dan Back

This being the post in which the “theologian” acts like one

In the last week, a lot of people have asked me what I think about Haiti and God, or what Pat Robertson said, or how I can believe in a good God when things like this happen, or something along these lines. It boils down to a simple question: How can we think about Haiti theologically? How should persons of faith encounter terrible tragedies?

It’s interesting to me that these questions didn’t really crop up the first or second time Airbear and I went to Haiti. When we came back and told stories about how horrible the conditions were, no one asked us how we could still believe in God, or questioned God’s goodness, or anything like that. I certainly asked those questions in-country. For someone who often struggles with doubt, seeing the devastation firsthand simply italicized my own questions, underlined them, and put them in bold.

And eventually, working there, being with the people, seeing the blessing that is La Maison Des Enfants De Dieu to those kids, eating gut-busting curries and lam-en-sauce, hearing the children praying before and after lunch, I just decided I was asking the wrong questions.

A lot of people assume the Bible is supposed to help us make sense of the world, supposed to explain things. If that’s the case, it’s a really crappy book, because for every story about God punishing sin with disaster and war, there’s a story about innocent suffering. For every story about God angered, frustrated, and vengeful, there’s a story about God moved, merciful, and relentlessly kind. For every prophecy of God turning his face from his people, there is an utterance about God’s gracious, unending, unyielding commitment.

The Bible doesn’t explain life and sort things into neat categories. It rather takes life seriously, in all its messy madness. It doesn’t dole out a prescription for fixing every illness; instead it invites us to live faithfully with our infirmity. If God wants to tell us why this earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, I’m sure God will raise up a prophet to speak to us. Maybe right now there is some Haitian Christian out there with a Word from the Lord we need to take seriously.

Maybe Pat Robertson is sort of right. Maybe vodou really is evil and God really doesn’t like child sacrifice, child prostitution, and child slavery and so he gave those tectonic plates a little nudge on the quantum level.

Or maybe being God is really hard. Maybe God is having a tough time balancing all the crazy going on down here while simultaneously trying to unleash the Spirit and move people into Kingdom life while keeping an eye on human evil and minimizing its effects and giving his natural creation the freedom to be itself. Maybe being God is a little bit like being asked to turn a jungle into a garden. Maybe that’s why he asked us to help.

Maybe this place is just nuts.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to ask these questions from time to time to spur us on in faith. We need to slam our heads against information that simply defies explanation until we, like Paul, are reduced to worship. When we are so exhausted by our inability to comprehend that we can’t help but pray in solidarity with those who suffer and solemnly commit ourselves to alleviating their pain in the name of one crucified. The world cannot understand this sort of incomprehension, though it tries to mimic the response.

Thinking theologically about Haiti means taking scripture seriously, taking God’s work in the world seriously, asking questions seriously, and then seriously shutting up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A tribute to Airbear

While I fritter away the days reading and writing, Airbear accomplishes things (read the scrolling update in the middle of the page).

Haiti Update

A couple of things.

First, Fox News has been broadcasting from our orphanage! I haven't seen any wide-angle coverage of the grounds, but for those of you who haven't been there and have no idea what it's like, you should check out this link and this one (via Jon Varela and Monica Grim).

The second link has the Bennett household's new favorite reporter. British accent plus hatred of "bureaucratic red tape" equals fabulous populist critique of the US State Department. Awesome how he repeats "legally adopted."

Next, for those of you who would like to do something to help, the most important thing you can do right now is contact your senators and house representative and ask that the State Department suspend all restrictions on evacuating orphans to the United States. It's fun and easy (really, we tried it and it was great) and it is making a difference: my wife got word that some kids are already being released.

A couple of clicks on the internet and a phone call and you will directly effect the life of a Haitian orphan. Seriously, making a lasting impact on the life of "one of the least of these" has never been easier.

Lastly, our Friends Mike and Cory are in Haiti doing damage assessment right now. You can support their mission via Paypal here. Also, check out the trailer to Mike's upcoming Haiti documentary (Mike went to the Chili Palmer school of executive production):

Mike asks the questions and Pastor Pierre (the Haitian director of our orphanage) translates. It's directed by our friend Alex Laflamme.

Coming up: a post on how to think about Haiti theologically. Stay tuned!

Digging in the Dirt: 1, Experts: 0

Via Libertas et Memoria, a story on biblical origins:
Scientists have discovered the earliest known Hebrew writing - an inscription dating from the 10th century B.C., during the period of King David's reign.

The breakthrough could mean that portions of the Bible were written centuries earlier than previously thought. (The Bible's Old Testament is thought to have been first written down in an ancient form of Hebrew.)

Until now, many scholars have held that the Hebrew Bible originated in the 6th century B.C., because Hebrew writing was thought to stretch back no further. But the newly deciphered Hebrew text is about four centuries older, scientists announced this month.
If lectures from John Goldingay have taught me anything, it's that history is complicated. The reigning biblical studies paradigm dates the finalized text of the Old Testament at somewhere in the 6th Century BCE. This corresponds historically to a little vignette in 2 Kings where King Josiah finds an old copy of what sounds like the Pentateuch. The idea is that 2 Kings 22 is more or less reliably reporting an event which marks the fixing of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch in this form survives the exile, a few new(er) histories and wisdom writings (e.g., Nehemiah, some Psalms, possibly Ecclesiastes) and finalized versions of the prophets (esp. 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, Jeremiah) are added, and, somewhere between 2nd and 1st Century BCE, a final form of Daniel is tacked on. Voila! the Old Testament.

Until now, it was conjectured that the form of the Pentateuch discovered in Josiah's court may have been written as late as the early 6th Century. So, basically, some priest writes a bunch of the Pentateuch, drops it in a closet, it gets lost for twenty or thirty years, is discovered, and is then hailed as the ancient text of Israel. Seriously. That's what they think.

On the conservative side of the debate, scholars will suggest that tightly controlled oral traditions preserve stories, poems, songs, and wisdom in original form from the 12th Century BCE until they are committed to ink at an indeterminate time, lost or forgotten during the reigns of naughty kings, and then rediscovered by Josiah's people and preserved through the exile.

Turns out, they're both wrong!

Until now, we had no evidence of biblical Hebrew being used before the 6th Century. That is, the language preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls was thought to have developed much later than the time of David. What's cool about the text discovered by archeologists is how it shows problems in the views of both camps. Clearly, Biblical-style Hebrew was in use at least as early as the 10th Century. And even cooler is that the recovered text is not biblical, but echoes prominent biblical texts (Ps. 72:3, Ex. 23:3, and Isa. 1:17). What's likely is that oral and written traditions were in effect (as conservatives assumed), but that they were probably looser than conservatives would have liked. What eventually gets fixed in the biblical record very much preserves the language and spirit, if not the precise grammatical constructions or internal logic, of original utterances.

To the archeologists: keep digging!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why won't God leave Haiti alone?

Update: A running Haiti news aggregate here.

For those of you who don't know, my wife and I are closely connected to an orphanage in Haiti. We have friends who have adopted there and who now work on the board of a non-profit which is dedicated to Haiti outreach. Mike is headed in-country on Friday to assess damage done to the orphanage and probably a local church we visited while we were there last time. You can do pay-pal donations at the links.

My wife is speaking with the headmaster of her school today to hopefully begin another relationship with the orphanage, we'll see how that pans out.

So far, it appears none of the children in the orphanage were hurt, praise God, but I worry the real tragedy is yet to come. Haiti is always on the edge; this might send it over.

The question is why. Of course there's always the Pat Robertson explanation. Intrepid journalist Russell Goldman comments:
When American televangelist Pat Robertson on Wednesday attributed the earthquake to the Haitian people's "pact to the devil," it shined a light on the hostility some foreign Christians have aimed at the country's religious traditions.
Ah the condescension we faithful must endure on the back of Pat Robertson.

There they go again. The backwoods retards and their sky fairy. Ha! How quaint--and normally tolerable. But, in the midst of this crisis how dare they look for cosmic significance in world events? Haven't they heard of science? Plate tectonics? I can't believe I live in the same country as these idiots.

Dear Russell Goldman, I have no idea what to make of Pat Robertson's comments. I don't know what God was doing or not doing with respect to this catastrophe. But I do know that it ain't "foreign Christians" who have spun this "pact with the devil" explanation from whole cloth--it's the Haitians. Yes, Russell, after grueling days of watching my friends build a classroom for Haitian orphans in 100+ degree heat, I was treated to theological diatribes--no, rants--not once, not twice, but three times detailing the hundred year pact with the devil and the misery that has resulted. This came not from the sonorous white missionary (who didn't exist), nor even from the humble Haitian pastor who looked after the children. No Russell, this came from the son of an ex-voodoo priestess who actively participated in periodic renewals of said agreement.

Mr. Goldman. Sir. I have no doubt that the mad religious delusions of Pat Robertson and his ilk send apoplectic shivers down your neural pathways, commanding your fingers to ravage the laptop in the digital equivalent of sackcloth and ashes. And I thank you for having the tremendous journalistic courage it takes to pile on to an outspoken televangelist amidst this oppressive culture of Christianism. But please, Sir, could you find it somewhere within your tolerance, your empathy, your unswerving liberal leanings to spare the poor Haitians? Surely they should be respected enough to have their own beliefs? Their own explanations? Shouldn't they?


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

All Your Virtue are Belong to Us!

Roger Lowenstein of the New York Times counsels those of you with a house that's underwater to walk away from your mortgage. Apparently experts are surprised you haven't bailed already:
And given that nearly a quarter of mortgages are underwater, and that 10 percent of mortgages are delinquent, White, of the University of Arizona, is surprised that more people haven’t walked. He thinks the desire to avoid shame is a factor, as are overblown fears of harm to credit ratings. Probably, homeowners also labor under a delusion that their homes will quickly return to value. White has argued that the government should stop perpetuating default “scare stories” and, indeed, should encourage borrowers to default when it’s in their economic interest. This would correct a prevailing imbalance: homeowners operate under a “powerful moral constraint” while lenders are busily trying to maximize profits.
You see, if a business is acting amorally, you should too. That you haven't already just means you're stupid.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Constancy

In a strange chapter in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre muses on that great virtue ethicist--wait for it--Jane Austen. He re-categorizes her fiction as the latest entry into the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of ethics. And if that strikes you as bizarre, it should.

My best guess is that Austen herself operated on a simple maxim: action reveals character. Human beings elevate deception to an art form—-especially with respect to who we really are. The nature is itself unchanging (so thinks Austen), but naughty folks have a vested interest in convincing their compatriots to believe them honest, loyal, courageous, etc. Austen supposes these tangled webs always unravel if one merely observes the actor for an extended period of time. A lout may bedazzle you with his tales, but pay attention and soon enough you’ll find him face down in the gutter or begging you for a bailout.

According to our experts, Austen was at least wrong about human nature. Not only is it not static, it is constantly being reinvented. Yes, the You of yesterday is long gone and only causally—not substantively—related to the You of today. Of course this should jam up our notions of criminality, rehabilitation and the like, but it doesn’t—we are a strange species—and instead guarantees our limitless freedom, our existential potential or some such. Don’t like yourself? No problem; buy this book and in ten easy steps you too can become Somebody Different! I find this a little unnerving, and the neuroscience seems to imply that this as much an American fairy tale as its Enlightenment predecessor, but the underlying point is apt: your nature can be sub- or con- verted and probably has been.

Which brings us back to MacIntyre. Given that you may become radically different, what Austen chronicles as a revelation of true nature is really another product of human cultivation. Constancy is a virtue. What I call constancy is what impels Darcy to act as Darcy always must act, even when (and especially when) it must cost the very things Darcy must want. Austen’s enlightenment anthropology prevents her from seeing what we cannot ignore: consistent day to day, week to week, year to year, decade to decade character is as practiced and as willed as the deceptions which falsely project it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The name of this blog sucks.

So help me come up with a better one.

Overfed, over-sexed, and over here!

Growing up, I was taught in church that pre- or extramarital sex was bad because it destroyed, or seriously damaged, the people engaging in it. This was, of course, based on the idea of an unchangeable nature, an intrinsic human good. To live a fully human, fully satisfied, fully happy life, it was argued, only sex within the confines of marriage would suffice.

Experience and observation indicate to me that this is not necessarily so. I know many men who, addicted, or at least strongly attracted to sex, really do appear to me to be happier living lives of wanton promiscuity. I know others who, in the name of caution, prefer to “move towards” marriage in steps: date, hook-up, cohabitate, etc. And it seems to me that they really are happier living this way than they would be if they were to abandon themselves to a new car without “kicking the tires first.”

I also know a couple who practice Natural Family Planning; they have been successful in avoiding pregnancy so far (they are both extraordinarily self-disciplined, so this is not much of a surprise). I was curious as to the theological rationale by which the Catholic Church condemned contraception. So I googled it. And I learned a lot.

Sex is to be both “unitive and procreative.” Contraception makes it merely unitive and, if I understand JP and Benedict rightly, encourages it to be not even that—really just another form of masturbation. The official doctrine is that it must be at least potentially procreative, so as long as there is no artificial contraception or Onanism (the pull-out method), intercourse is fully permissible. Maybe this all makes sense to informed Catholics and the theologians who make these kinds of pronouncements, but color me cynical. Natural Family Planning is no different than contraception or Onanism in that it is a way to avoid unwanted pregnancy. So while God might be happier with the method, the intent and result appear identical.

There is, however, one major difference. NFP demands both sexual discipline and marriage. “Demands” in the soft sense. Sure, I guess a woman could probably wait for the “right day” and then rush out to the bar and pick up some guy. Or an unmarried, cohabiting couple could practice NFP, but really, in the real world, the only people practicing NFP are people like my friends, faithful married Catholics. NFP is the church’s instrument for doctrinally instituting what has traditionally been a Christian virtue: sexual discipline. With the advent of contraception, it was feared that sex would first be practiced wantonly within the marriage, then outside of it, then before it, and then without it entirely. There would be sex everywhere! And Catholics, backwards morons that they are, thought this might be a bad thing!

Which brings me back to my theme: whether or not sex outside of marriage “damages” us. The answer is, “Of course not!” unless you subscribe to a certain idea about what humans ought to be. See, a first sexual encounter, the loss of virginity, is almost universally frightening and strange and exciting. The process of breaking up with a long-term sexual partner is almost universally painful and scarring. The life of random, anonymous hooking up has psychological fallout (positive and negative). And as a society, these sex choices are becoming a part of what it is to be a normal human person. As a “well-adjusted” person, I am supposed to have experienced horrible sexual loss and have bounced back from it. I am supposed to have left my “first sexual love” to go to a different college and to have incorporated that experience—however painful or freeing (let’s not be naïve here)—into who I am as a person. It is important for me to bring sexual prowess to a new relationship lest I be ashamed of myself for not “doing it well.” In short, it is now normal and good for humans to have a wide and varying range of sexual experiences.

And it is changing us. Of course it is. Theologians have been calling out the power and primacy of sexual forces for millennia. It used to be normal for a large swathe of the population to remain a virgin for life! Can you imagine? A life without sex! What, were they gay and ashamed? Or were human beings different? Perhaps their circumstances demanded more discipline, more focus on matters less carnal. And perhaps the result over time was people who were different. Stronger in some ways, more given to self-control. But also less adaptable, less able to cope with emotional trauma. Or maybe there was no difference at all.

But somehow I doubt it.