29 June 2005 - Wednesday
In which Wilson and Wheeler annotate their lives by IM
Poor Wheeler. He has to take a class on the Cold War this summer. A class populated by people with ... interesting perspectives on international affairs.
In the following transcript, we begin by discussing the views of a particular class member, as expressed on an online message board specific to that course.
Yours truly: So ... Eisenhower could have prevented Indochina's independence from France by nuking it?
Wheeler: Yeah . . . kinda.
Yours truly: I'm sure the French would have liked that.
Wheeler: although I took this as more of a Johnson administration action, from other things he's said
Yours truly: Ah. So he's just being a moron again.
Wheeler: like, at that point, nuke them rather then send in more troops
Wheeler: Yeah. Again.
Wheeler: THIS post, by someone else, get's dumbest of the week . . . and it was posts like this (a couple dozen of them) that got me REALLY in the mood to start sniping:
Wheeler: "It may not sound like much, but we won a stalemate that maintained the freedom of the South. I checked some travel sites, it's fairly easy to visit there. They refer to Vietnam, not North or South. You can visit Ho Chi Mihn or Hanoi in the North as easily as Saigon and the Mekong Delta in the South. It's almost as if we won simply by ignoring them for twenty years."
Yours truly: *Giggles*
Yours truly: It's Asia; it's all the same thing.
Wheeler: *screams incoherently*
28 June 2005 - Tuesday
A press release
Justice Souter's vote in the "Kelo vs. City of New London" decision allows city governments to take land from one private owner and give it to another if the government will generate greater tax revenue or other economic benefits when the land is developed by the new owner.Supposedly, the proposal only needs the support of three selectmen to pass.
On Monday June 27, Logan Darrow Clements, faxed a request to Chip Meany the code enforcement officer of the Towne of Weare, New Hampshire seeking to start the application process to build a hotel on 34 Cilley Hill Road. This is the present location of Mr. Souter's home.
Clements, CEO of Freestar Media, LLC, points out that the City of Weare will certainly gain greater tax revenue and economic benefits with a hotel on 34 Cilley Hill Road than allowing Mr. Souter to own the land.
Via Liberty & Power.
27 June 2005 - Monday
I loathe group projects.
I have long suspected that group work is an attempt to distribute grades more evenly -- propping up the grades of the poorest students and even depressing the grades of the most accomplished students. It constitutes a sort of a curve, but one entirely unrelated to student performance. This impression was cemented in my mind when, in a class in which modest effort earned me a high A on every exam, I made a low C on a group project, having slaved away in order to compensate for total apathy and incompetence on the part of several group members. They got the same sad grade I did, but for all I know, it kept them from failing (which at least one of them should have done).
When I feel even less charitable, I view group work as a form of tutoring on the cheap -- or even as an implicit admission of professorial inadequacy. Perhaps this is because the professors who assign me the most group work seem to be, with a few exceptions, my least competent instructors. "Here," they say, "I don't seem to be making much sense. Let's see if you can figure this out by talking amongst yourselves. But I still get the paycheck."
Do some students learn well by working in groups? Of course. Sometimes I do myself. But I have never found it a very efficient method. Most of my group projects involve two or three times as much work as other methods would for the same grade and learning payoff. I admit that this will vary with the individual, but I have never heard anyone hail group work as efficient. In the very best of times, the amount of time and energy wasted in coordinating team members is ridiculous, and dedicated group members almost always have to compensate for slackers besides.
But this is preparation for the real world, I hear you say. When I grow up, I will have to work on group projects all the time.
Well, I think there are certain aspects of the "real world" that need reform -- including a pernicious managerial culture that encourages hypocrisy, mediocrity, freeloading, and empty gestures. In this artificial commercial reality we have constructed, pretty PowerPoint files and manufactured camraderie are worth more than ingenuity and meaningful communication. Let's conspire to resist it, and let's begin with a commitment to grades that mean something.
I am complaining because of a little group project I have to turn in tomorrow in my French class.
This assignment is as follows: For the oral portion of the final exam, we students were supposed to form groups of three. In these groups, we were to write dialogues in French. We were supposed to memorize these dialogues and recite them in class (that's what happens tomorrow).
Indulge me if I suggest that this scheme has certain flaws. First, it tests our ability to write and memorize, not our ability to form sentences on our feet, defeating the purpose of an oral exam. More to the point of this post, however, it forces us to memorize each other's work. As I discovered today, that means memorizing some impressive illiteracies -- just before I take my written final. In other words, thanks to this group project, I have to study bad French.
Perhaps I could have corrected my team members' work, you say, so that I would not have to memorize their errors. Ah, but that would only be possible if I had seen my team members' work before this afternoon. One team member missed at least three deadlines; I spent the weekend trying to track down a document that was supposed to be in my inbox on Thursday. (Furthermore, my correcting their work would tend to compromise the value of the exercise as a gauge of individual learning, would it not?)
Yes, I am procrastinating. I now have just 17 hours left before class.
26 June 2005 - Sunday
Godwinzilla wreaks havoc
For some reason, I just can't post enough political links this weekend. So why stop now?
Here's a post by Derek Catsam on double standards in conservative outrage over Sen. Durbin's "Nazi" comments:
There is also more than a hint of opportunism by the right on this matter. For most of the Clinton Presidency and beyond (more on this momentarily), Rush Limbaugh referred to feminists as “feminazis.” Consider this in all of its audacity: women who supported legislation providing for pregnancy leave, or who wanted a form of universal health care, or who simply sat on the Democratic side of the aisle were being compared to Nazi killers. This clever usage of the pun was part of the name Limbaugh had given them! Where were the critics on the right?And here's something I should have noticed a few days ago: If it is libelous to liken American actions to those of murderous foreign regimes, Caleb McDaniel wonders, can we at least compare American actions with American actions?
I wonder if Durbin's critics would have been nearly as vociferous if he had said, "Reading this FBI report, you might be excused for thinking you had stepped back onto a plantation in the antebellum South, or into a sweatshop in late-nineteenth-century New York, rather than into a twenty-first century military jail."
Perhaps some would have called for Durbin's apology for that too, on the grounds that Americans have moved beyond those sins of our past. But the fact that Americans have been capable of horrors in the past robs Durbin's critics of the right to say that the very word "American" does not belong in a sentence with the names of other countries with records of human rights abuses. We have a record of human rights abuses; we are not an unblemished exception to history.
Neither Jew nor Greek
At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker has posted an open letter to Billy Graham:
You didn't join those [civil rights] marches either. I wish you had. But what you did do was to insist that you would not preach to a segregated audience. I like to remember that you opened your crusade in Louisville in September 1956, when our public school systems opened for the first time on a desegregated basis. I can't prove a cause and effect relationship between these two things, but there was no rioting in the streets. There was, instead, the marching to your crusade.Update: The comment section on this post now has a fun little debate over anti-Semitic comments Graham made (in private, sort of) during the Nixon administration.
25 June 2005 - Saturday
When governments attack
At Easily Distracted, Tim Burke has been writing about Zimbabwe's tribulations and the African Union's refusal to condemn Mugabe's actions. According to his analysis, the AU is more concerned with symbolic assertions of independence from the West than with humanitarian principle. More specifically, the AU's refusal to condemn Mugabe involves nationalism, complicity in human-rights violations, fear of popular uprisings, and the suspicion that the West's interest in Zimbabwe is racially motivated. Burke also notes that Mugabe's policies are systematically ruining the economy of the nation as a whole, not just hurting particular classes.
Rendition gets interesting
For some reason, the Italians don't like kidnapping.
Judge Chiara Nobili of Milan signed the arrest warrants Thursday for 13 CIA agents suspected of capturing a radical imam named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, as he walked to his mosque for noon prayers on Feb. 17, 2003. His family claims that he has been tortured by his Egyptian captors.(That's sort of the idea, isn't it? Over here, our constitution makes us so delicate; it's a wonder the US has survived so long.)
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt -- as it very well might if truly free elections were held -- the US is going to have a problem on its hands comparable to the problems caused by the Iranian revolution. Our policies are neither pro-democracy nor pro-law; they are pro-West, and that's one of the things that started our problems in the first place.
24 June 2005 - Friday
Kelo v. New London
A lot of people I know are unhappy with the Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v. New London. That is what interests me; my conservative friends wanted judicial intervention, which is fairly uncommon for them. Of course, they also tend to be very fond of private property.
At issue is the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment: "... Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
In ruling that "public use" is up to the legislative authorities to define, the court does not seem to have been doing anything new. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court has defined "public use" as "public purpose" rather than strict use by the public. That leaves a lot to the discretion of the legislatures. "Subject to specific constitutional limitations," the court held in Berman v. Parker (1954),
when the legislature has spoken, the public interest has been declared in terms well-nigh conclusive. ... This principle admits of no exception merely because the power of eminent domain is involved. The role of the judiciary in determining whether that power is being exercised for a public purpose is an extremely narrow one.On the other hand, that does leave open the possibility of some judicial involvement, doesn't it?
23 June 2005 - Thursday
Randy sees the president
Randy, our very own DC intern, got to attend a Social-Security-reform rally today. "Strangely, I was a bit more excited to see Ben Stein than I was Bush," he told me. His reaction to the staginess of the event is here.
Scene: The other side of the classroom. Groups of students are working together on an assignment, but some have finished and are chatting quietly.
Orthodontized Chick: That class is so boring! I have this paper to write on the socioeconomic impact of slavery. I mean, it's an easy thing to write about, but it's frickin' eighteen pages! How do you write eighteen pages about anything?
Adolescent Dude: (Attentively) It's like your life story.
Orthodontized Chick: Hey, my life story is a page and a half.
Department of Elfin Studies
For kicks, I decided to run myself through the PoMo English Title Generator again.
Subjectivity and Peoples in The Elfin Ethicist: J. W. Wilson Constructing Resistant Labor
J. W. Wilson Encoding Breath: The Elfin Ethicist and the Gender of Patriarchy
Mapping Class: Problematic Autobiography in J. W. Wilson's The Elfin Ethicist
The Sexist Ventriloquizing The Privileged: J. W. Wilson, The Elfin Ethicist and Violence
Oral Dialectic and the Essentialism of Deaf Voices in J. W. Wilson's The Elfin Ethicist
22 June 2005 - Wednesday
So ... flag-burning
Yeah, I oppose the proposed amendment. If flag-burning is not political speech, then what's the problem with it? -- and if it is political speech, what right do we have to outlaw it?
Of course, if burning a US flag were incitement to some violent act, it could be a different story. But I don't think it is; even pacifists can get their point across by burning flags.
Prof. Volokh, however, has a more interesting way of putting it:
"Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States, and the flying of the Confederate flag."
OK, so that's not exactly how the proposed flag protection amendment reads — I've added the Confederate flag phrase. But this little thought experiment helps show that the flag protection amendment is a bad idea.
After all, burning the U.S. flag and flying the Confederate flag are similar in many ways. Some people argue that flagburning shouldn't be protected by the First Amendment because it isn't "speech." Well, burning one flag and waving another are pretty similar on that score. I think both are traditional terms in our political language, and should be constitutionally protected; but if I'm wrong, then both should be unprotected.
Danny Loss, "Which history?":
Here's the key point. There's simply no such thing as the story of American history. There are lots of American histories, asking different questions, examining different sources, and reaching different sorts of conclusions. And there's no obvious reason why these different histories have to gel with each other. Periodization that accurately describes presidential politics might very well be useless in describing gender relations.
21 June 2005 - Tuesday
Yellow Project gets shinier
This is another reason for all LETU people with blogs to list themselves at the Yellow Project, make sure their RSS feeds work, and perhaps get Gravatars while they're at it (I uploaded mine over the weekend).
20 June 2005 - Monday
Alpha Eta Mu
LeTourneau University's chapter of Sigma Tau Delta is Alpha Eta Mu. AHM now has its own blog. Unfortunately, we only have two active contributors so far -- but that is, after all, half of our current membership. (We're tiny, but we shall grow.)
If you are an LETU student with an interest in English, I encourage you to participate in AHM's activities this fall. Even if you are not currently eligible for full membership, you should feel free to get involved. We want to expand the cultural opportunities available to all students.
19 June 2005 - Sunday
Enlightenment and civilization
Spotted at RushLimbaugh.com:
NEW! NEW! The Club G'itmo T-Shirt - What Happens in G'itmo Stays in G'itmo
A MUST Have. Club G'itmo logo on front. "What Happens in G'itmo stays in G'itmo emblazoned on back." Available in Institutional Orange only in sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL, and now in XXXL & XXXXL!
The considerate judgment of mankind
Today is Juneteenth. 140 years ago, Union forces finally read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, freeing the first of Texas' 250,000 slaves. The proclamation had been issued two and a half years earlier.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the name of "military necessity" under Lincoln's authority as commander-in-chief of the military. As such, it applied only to confederate territory occupied by federal troops. It remained for the Thirteenth Amendment, which would be ratified six months after news of emancipation reached Texas, to abolish slavery throughout the United States.
18 June 2005 - Saturday
Paint them a picture
It occurs to me that I have not responded to Amnesty's "gulag of our time" comments (and similar remarks made recently by other Bush critics). My slowness results from an inability to communicate just how ludicrous the simile is; I wasn't sure what I could say to make the problem more obvious than it already would be to any informed observer.
At Obsidian Wings, however, Charles Bird found a way.
So that's what happened to Rome
Went to see Batman Begins today. Could do a lot worse, I think.
17 June 2005 - Friday
Two things I read earlier today
Here's one of them:
But here again we confront the very uncomfortable, very unwelcome, but very real dilemma that Islam presents to a Christian country that has always cherished religious pluralism. My own view is that even absent the irritant of Islam, religious pluralism would be a problem; indeed, it is one of the great problems of human politics, and anyone who says otherwise is a dangerous fool. But Islam exaggerates it. Whether we like it or not (and most of us do not), its emergence in America will cast us inevitably back into a quarrel between civilizations that is older than virtually anything else on earth. That our lovable secularists will never comprehend it makes it no less real; that our hidebound multiculturalists detest it makes it no less valid; that our ahistorical Christians have forgotten it makes it no less urgent; that our Liberals (including many who fancy themselves Conservatives) think it quite unreal makes it no less vexatious. A freshman at the school exhibits more wisdom than most Western commentators: “Muslims try to be American, but we don't know how. The cultures are so different."And here's the other:
The question we must face is whether we want to let this quarrel become an ever-larger part of our own character and destiny as a nation. If we continue to insouciantly let the world come to America, America will soon become the world; and for 1,400 years a conspicuous feature of the world has been the confrontation between Islam and Christendom.
Indeed, if we consider his origins and his type, he has been simply tactless; he did in the Army what he would have done in a bank or at a racetrack: he sold information to the competition. He has abused the confidence placed in him, but he has not committed any crime against the country. In order to betray his country, he had to have one, and a country is not acquired by means of an act of naturalization. One's country is the land of one's forefathers, the land of one's ancestors: Dreyfus's ancestors were not of our land; they were everywhere wanderers and nomads, and their sons had no notion of what a fatherland meant.The first quotation comes from Paul J. Cella at RedState.org, a Republican community blog. The entry refers to a Time photo-essay on an Islamic school in Illinois.
Barrès put it beautifully:
One understands by nation a group of men united by common legends, a tradition, customs formed in a common milieu during a more or less long series of ancestors. Naturalization is a legal fiction which allows for sharing in the advantage of a nation but which cannot give it character.
You have been criminal in relying on these strangers. To these itinerants, to those who in Rome are called peregrini, you divulge your most sacred secrets. You are ridiculous in judging those who have abused your idiotic lack of foresight in the name of an ideal, traditions, conceptions, which are not theirs.
The second quotation comes from Édouard Drumont, founder of the Anti-Semitic League in nineteenth-century France. It comes from a newspaper article, "The Soul of Dreyfus" (1894), in which Drumont explained his anti-Semitism. [Trans. by Leslie Derfler in The Dreyfus Affair (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002) 121-123.]
I just happened to read both articles today, that's all.
16 June 2005 - Thursday
Thinking historically about literature
The Little Professor is discussing the relationship between students' and teachers' understanding of history and their interpretation of literary texts:
But when we introduce "history" into our courses, how do we go about it? At a conference several years ago, a historian observed that historians like their literature to stay stable, whereas literary critics like their history to stay stable. In other words, it's very easy to slip into the habit of presenting historical background stripped of its own disciplinary signposts--especially when we don't actually know the debates surrounding our history of choice.
15 June 2005 - Wednesday
Lovely career for the allergic
History Carnival X
The tenth History Carnival is up at Spinning Clio. Here are a few of the entries worth reading:
Alterior discusses the role the Black Death played in allowing some medieval women to enter the business world (with nifty graphics). >>Lots more where those came from.
Melinama looks at the questionable validity of the memoir of Jean Lafitte, whose name I knew dimly as that of our local pirate when I was growing up near the Gulf Coast. >>
Tom Corrente, after grading AP exams in US history, objects to the saccharine version of early America reflected in student essays; he also thinks that the revolutionary generation was more willing to question its government than ours is. >>
Mark Grimsley connects Emmett Till, military history, and bullying ... and says they need to be connected. >>
Derek Charles Catsam reviews Cinderella Man. >>
The Cranky Professor has discovered why people use bad historical analogies, at least in the information age. >>
14 June 2005 - Tuesday
Glow-worm on a grassblade, V
John Witherspoon, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" (preached in Philadelphia in 1776):
He overrules all his creatures, and all their actions. Thus we are told, that "fire, hail, snow, vapor, and stormy wind, fulfill his word," in the course of nature; and even so the most impetuous and disorderly passions of men, that are under no restraint from themselves, are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah. They carry his commission, they obey his orders, they are limited and restrained by his authority, and they conspire with every thing else in promoting his glory. There is the greater need to take notice of this, that men are not generally sufficiently aware of the distinction between the law of God and his purpose; they are apt to suppose, that as the tempter of the sinner is contrary to the one, so the outrages of the sinner are able to defeat the other; than which nothing can be more false. The truth is plainly asserted, and nobly expressed by the psalmist in the text, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain."T. S. Eliot, "Choruses from The Rock" (1934):
We thank Thee for the lights we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but not whence it comes.
13 June 2005 - Monday
Glow-worm on a grassblade, IV
Humorlessness comes easily, I fear. History has so many implications in contemporary affairs that it must, indeed, be taken seriously, yet I regret that the field is so often politicized. We all find it difficult to avoid using the discipline as an ideological weapon, especially when there are so many horrible ideas based on flawed accounts of the past. What, should we refuse to respond to distortions? That would not solve the problem of politicization.
Rather, I think we must try to love the past for itself, not for what history can do for our causes. The reality of the past lies far beyond our descriptions of it; humility implies a certain amount of flexibility and congeniality. None of us will ever comprehend the past perfectly. This does not mean that we should excuse recognizable distortions, but I think it does mean that responsible scholarship begins at home.
Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History, and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 123-124:
The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. To try to make out the same vision for oneself in the midst of life is difficult, not to say discouraging. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion. Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primative pleasure in story, exercising thought and feeling, satisfying curiosity, and promoting the serenity of contemplation.Previous: Observation
If to the beholder the deeds soon become more interesting than the explanations, this influence of the primary realities does not mark a decline in intellect or seriousness. It means rather that the reader is confident about the historical effect. Like the accomplished lover of an art, he immerses himself in the material without scruple. In other words, history is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.
12 June 2005 - Sunday
Glow-worm on a grassblade, III
As an evangelical Christian studying history, I can think of no Christian doctrine easier to document than that of original sin. The feeling that there is something not quite right with the world -- that humanity itself is, as Kant put it, "crooked timber from which no straight thing was ever made" -- is difficult to shake off as I review the records of human activity.
This situation tends to frustrate attempts at writing providential history. Christianity has a highly developed consciousness of the past; our doctrine centers not on a free-floating ethical code but on a person and a set of events surrounding that person. Significantly, we believe this person represents "the Word made flesh" -- specific revelation from God. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection represent the reversal of this world's corruption; Christ lived the first perfect life, died the first undeserved death, and rose again to defy the natural order as we know it. In a key respect, this account illustrates the difficulty any historian will have in understanding what God is up to.
Without specific instruction, no evangelical historian would dare suggest that the death of the Son of God was a good thing. True, the death of Christ was overturned three days later, but even so, it would be unthinkable to say that the crucifixion itself was God's will. Yet that is precisely what the Christian doctrines surrounding atonement say; the crucifixion was part of God's plan for redemption. The very murder of God was the centerpiece of his work in human experience. In this case, at least, the only way to get providential history right is to have that history written by Providence.
Desire for certainty of providential workings in other areas of history can likewise lead us astray. Often our accounts of God's work (e.g., the view of the USA as a Christian city-on-a-hill in some American evangelical circles) become esoteric rather than universal. We pick easy explanations, emphasizing the successes because we cannot imagine that God would take the field without emerging the visible victor. We must have evidence, and apparent failure cannot possibly be evidence. Perhaps we forget that the New Testament itself promises adversity rather than prosperity.
When providential history becomes that insular, limited to the historical hothouses that allow visible triumphs, it loses its claim to authority altogether. Both from the perspective of the Bible and from the increasingly global perspective of modern humanity, it has very limited credibility.
In any case, I think we should remember that the divine revelation of God's purposes given in the Bible is important to us precisely because it is extraordinary. It is a very rare, precious certainty, the sort we corrupt humans simply don't get in our own narratives.
Georges Florovsky, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 438:
Even in the history of the Church "the hand of Providence" is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy—a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. He will insist on the comprehensiveness of our conception of man, as a prerequisite of our understanding of his existence, of his exploits, of his destiny, which is actually wrought in his history.Previous: Conversation
11 June 2005 - Saturday
Glow-worm on a grassblade, II
Peter Burke, "Overture: the New History, its Past and its Future," New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1992), 6:
Our minds do not reflect reality directly. We perceive the world only through a network of conventions, schemata and stereotypes, a network which varies from one culture to another. In this situation, our understanding of conflicts is surely enhanced by a presentation of opposite viewpoints, rather than by an attempt, like Acton's, to articulate a consensus. We have moved from the ideal of the Voice of History to that of heteroglossia, defined as "varied and opposing voices."
Georges Florovsky, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 413-414:
Indeed, historical cognition is a kind of conversation, a dialogue with those in the past whose life, thoughts, feelings, and decisions the historian endeavors to rediscover, through the documents by which they are witnessed to or signified. Accordingly, one can infer from certain facts, words or things, as from a sign to the meaning, only if and when these objective things can be lawfully treated as signs, that is, as bearers of meaning, only when and if we can reasonably assume that these things have a dimension of depth, a dimension of meaning. We do not assign meaning to them: we should detect meaning. Now, there is meaning in certain things, in our documents and sources, only in so far as behind them we are entitled to assume the existence of other intelligent beings.Previous: Humility
10 June 2005 - Friday
Glow-worm on a grassblade, I
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), 150:
The God before whom "the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances" is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.
Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity ... What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 121:
The spirit continues to use historical inquiry as a refining fire to purge from religious faith unwarranted assumptions and needless cultural accretions, to intensify ethical awareness, and to enrich the memory of revelation. Historical inquiry, even when shaped by bias or outright rejection of Christianity, may still be used providentially as an instrument by which the Spirit curbs inordinate assertiveness, leads to faith, and judges sin.Next: Conversation
After a few close calls earlier this week, I emerged from my bedroom late this morning to find our air conditioner dead. As the day wore on, indoor temperatures climbed into the 80s. We kept the lights off and the fans on most of the day. We ate a cold supper. Mom told war stories about her family's "evaporative cooler" in West Texas in the days before Freon became a household item.
We reached only one repair service by telephone. We were told that we would have to wait until Monday unless other clients canceled. Things looked grim. We consoled ourselves with ice cream and popsicles. We considered the old-time solution to a lack of home air conditioning -- taking refuge in a movie theater -- but didn't find any films we liked.
My father, however, came home with some theories about what might be the matter. I heard him thumping around in the attic for a while. Finally he came down and asked whether it felt cooler. It did. My extremities started turning opaque again. It's still stuffy in here, but I hope to find the situation much better in the morning.
9 June 2005 - Thursday
The right to speak
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
6 June 2005 - Monday
What is modern literature?
The most important characteristic of modern world literature may be its struggle with the failure of traditional sources of moral authority. Modern literature has inherited skepticism not only of revelation and traditional religious standards but also of reason and community consensus as sources of meaning.
The typical modern writer describes a state of disconnectedness in which the individual lacks real belonging, has no ultimate purpose, and is paralyzed or controlled rather than guided and fulfilled by external expectations. The globalization of modern literature, in expanding the number of competing authorities and exposing readers to a baffling array of alien perspectives, has reinforced the idea that no particular tradition can be accepted as definitive.
One of the earliest writers to be identified as modern was the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whose writing challenged conventional morality and described a state of individual alienation from society.
His prose poem "One o'Clock in the Morning" (1862) is written from the perspective of an individual who loathes "the tyranny of the human face" and who prays to those few people he cares about to "keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes [...]," fearing that otherwise he will not be able "to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men [...]" (Norton E 1395-1396). This speaker finds his community repugnant but, in his isolated state, finds himself just as undesirable as the people he hates.
Taking a slightly different approach, Baudelaire's "Anywhere out of the World" expresses an inability to find satisfaction in any known location: "It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am [...]" (1397). The latter poem hints at the relationship between modern writing's global perspective and its sense of disconnectedness. The more options available to the modern individual, the more difficult it is for him to embrace any one of them as a source of meaning.
In Indian literature, the writing of Mahasweta Devi (b. 1926) shows a similar loss of confidence in local traditions. Stories like "Breast-Giver" (1980) take place within Indian culture but betray an awareness of outside customs that call its values into question.
Mahasweta can satirize her own heritage:
Jashoda is fully an Indian woman, whose unreasonable, unreasoning, and unintelligent devotion to her husband and love for her children, whose unnatural renunciation and forgiveness have been kept alive in the popular consciousness by all Indian women from Sati-Savitri-Sita through Nirupa Roy and Chand Osmani. (Norton F 2830)This ability to criticize the values of an entire nation may be liberating, but it can also be highly disorienting. Mahasweta's writing follows the pattern set by many other modern writers in expressing disillusionment with the community, which should provide moral and spiritual guidance but instead must be attacked for its evils. When an Indian individual must reject some of the most prominent values in Indian culture, where can that individual look for an alternative authority? The writer feels abandoned, stripped of protection; she has become her own source of purpose and thus has lost any sense of common purpose with others. When Mahasweta depicts the universal abandonment of the character Jashoda in "Breast-Giver," she is mirroring what happens to all independent individuals: "Jashoda’s death was the death of God. When a mortal masquerades as God here below, she is forsaken by all and she must always die alone" (2845).
This conflict between the values of the individual and the values of society is also seen often in the work of Albert Camus (1913-1960), who advocated the assertion of individual moral will in the face of an absurd environment and hostility from the community.
Camus' story "The Guest" (1957) emphasizes the mental isolation of the individual by placing the protagonist, Daru, in a physical desert, far away from the government officials who try to control his life. This desert is a difficult place to live, Camus writes, "But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled" (Norton F 2575). This character, in other words, is used to living alone, without much imposition from others.
Perhaps this makes it easier for Daru to object to the orders given by the colonial rulers, orders that violate his moral sensibilities. It should be noted, however, that Daru's choice in the story puts him at odds not only with the government but also with friends of the man he tries to save. Thus, Camus declares that the modern individual is at odds with the will of his peers as well as the will of his superiors. The alienation is complete. "In this vast landscape he had loved so much," the story ends, "he was alone" (2582).
Some modern writers have reacted to the breakdown in community consensus not by embracing it but by challenging it. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), for example, is known for stories that recommend a return to traditional morality. Even these writers, however, are affected by the general disconnectedness. They must prove the legitimacy of any authority to which they wish to appeal; no authority may be taken for granted.
Solzhenitsyn cannot tell his readers to serve the needs of their neighbors without exploring the social difficulties this will involve. In "Matryona’s Home" (1963), for example, Solzhenitsyn portrays the altruistic title character as being very lonely; she too is alienated from her community, even though she treats it as a source of meaning.
Solzhenitsyn's argument is not that the community may be trusted, but that the individual has no choice but to live selflessly if life is to have any purpose at all. External authority is necessary even if it is not entirely satisfying, and selfless individuals are necessary if the community is to survive. Solzhenitsyn tells the reader that Matryona "was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand" (Norton F 2722).
Each of these authors shows the effects of modernity's skepticism of authority. In the selections mentioned here, Baudelaire and Mahasweta seem unable to identify any definitive source of purpose; Camus advocates individual sensibilities rather than external commands as the arbiter of value; and Solzhenitsyn recommends that the individual sacrifice his own desires for the good of others even if the community proves destructive to him. None of these authors seems to recommend that the individual trust the people around him. Each of these authors describes a condition of irreversible loneliness. This guardedness is a defining characteristic of modern literature.
Lawall, Sarah, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, second ed. Vols. E-F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
5 June 2005 - Sunday
Globalizing American history
Last night, Ralph Luker called for a Cliopatria "symposium" to discuss a NYT article on the globalization of US history. So far we have responses from Jonathan Dresner, KC Johnson, Ralph Luker, Rob MacDougall, and Caleb McDaniel, in one long hyperpost.
Ralph Luker, for example, proposes that post-9/11 US historians should learn from the example of the Annales School in France after World War I:
In the United States, it seems to me, the influence of the Annales historians has been largely limited to our European historians. R. R. Palmer certainly exemplified their breathtaking reach -- and pioneered in what Gewen calls "Atlantic history" -- in his great work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Their work has been known to and admired by the rest of us, but we have not followed their example.
2 June 2005 - Thursday
I am still investigating various history PhD programs, looking more and more closely at the work of their specific faculty members. Some of the schools I'm interested in have application deadlines as soon as December, so I am beginning to hurry things along. I am in the process of arranging to take the GRE early this fall.
But I have a hunch that in addition to this sort of thing, I need to make contact with the departments that interest me. Somebody probably needs to know that I exist. That's how most sectors of society work, anyway.
The trouble is that I don't know what to say. I can always request an application, I suppose, but that seems perfunctory -- especially given the fact that most applications are available online. Is there anything else I should be saying? Are there any questions I could be asking the DGS or individual faculty members?
1 June 2005 - Wednesday
History Carnival IX
The ninth History Carnival is up at Cliopatria under the auspices of Sharon Howard. I hesitate to link to any particular entries this time; every post looks superb. Just find a link and click on it. (I am also, in theory, studying for a French exam that is scheduled to begin in an hour, so I probably shouldn't invest much time in this notice.)