Plumb Lines

March 31, 2009

Bertolt Brecht, Meet Tommy Wiseau

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:20 pm

Tommy Wiseau The Room You are tearing me apart Lisa

Last week I wrote about how Tommy Wiseau’s bizarrely bad film, The Room, is as an example of what I call “Loose String Theory,” the idea that unprofessional acting, writing, and directing can be illogical and, for that very reason, weirdly suggestive. Bertolt Brecht observed almost the exact opposite phenomenon in the unprofessional productions of his day:

We speak of simplicity when complicated problems are so mastered as to make them easier to deal with and less difficult to grasp. A great number of seemingly self-contradictory facts, a vast and discouraging tangle, is often set in order by science in such a way that a relatively simple truth emerges. This kind of simplicity does not involve poverty. Yet it is this that one finds in the playing of the best proletarian actors, whenever it is a question of portraying men’s social life together.

If anything, The Room only increases the tangle of “seemingly self-contradictory facts.” This may have something to do with the difference in outlook and condition of the American and European underclasses cited by Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites. While the European underclass of Brecht’s day understood itself as part of a volk, members of America’s underclass believe themselves to be singular individuals full of complications and possibilities.  For Brecht, this shows that true individuality has not been achieved:

So what about the great individual emotions, the variations in different personalities’ psychological make-up, the rich inner life? Yes, what about this rich inner life which for many intellectuals is merely a poor substitute for a rich outer life? The answer is that art can have nothing to do with it so long as it remains a substitute. The great individual emotions will appear in art simply as distorted unnatural speech and overheated, constricted temperament; variations in psychological make-up merely as unhealthy and exaggerated exceptions, so long as individuality remains the privilege of a minority which owns not only ‘personality’ but other, more material things.

As you can see, I’m starting to take The Room nearly as seriously as Wiseau does.

-Matthew Schmitz

Holiday in Guantánamo

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 12:14 pm

I guess the Dead Kennedys were wrong about Cambodia— there’s more fun to be had in tropical Gitmo than in the Killing Fields. (Especially if you ask Dick Cheney.) Andrew Sullivan over at The Daily Dish points out an interesting contradiction found in the pages of the Washington Post. It seems that waterboarding is torture when performed by the Khmer Rouge, but it’s just part of a “harsh interrogation” when conducted by agents of the United States government.

Torture is torture. It is illegal and immoral regardless of the torturer’s nationality, the location of his torture chamber, or even the cause for which he is torturing. If you are still not convinced that torture is evil, unconstitutional, and ineffective, I’d recommend the essay Of Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Bonesana, Marchese Beccaria.

-Michael E. van Landingham

I wasn’t really worried about the financial crisis until now

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:57 am

Megan McArdle, blog-championess par excellence of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, free trade and sundry Chicagoan ideas (at least in the blog circles I read in), writes “…perhaps it’s time to rethink a committment [sic] to global capital liberalization.”

-David Schaengold

Ex Exurbia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 7:55 am

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a noteworthy feature about the national decline in property values of exurban settlements since the property bubble burst. It focuses on a county 50 miles outside of Chicago, but rings true for almost every other region. The exurbs of Charlotte, NC had even started to encroach on my family’s ancestral Lancaster County, SC, far from the Queen City. The lure:

These outer-lying communities further popularized the “McMansion” and turned two-hour commutes into four. People didn’t necessarily prefer to move so far out, but they did so for the promise of a home, a yard and tax-deductible interest payments.

Too many of the low income families drawn to these communities were sold houses with no money down, though. So when property taxes inevitably ballooned with the developments, homeowners could no longer afford their monthly payments. Ditto for those laid off as a result of the slowing economy. Now the exurbs have become renters’ markets, lowering property values and slowing growth. The result, the article mentions, may be that the exurbs become new centers of low income housing. I believe this will be the case, especially as people increasingly return to city centers.

The article also brings up the need for more livable low income rental properties while putting less emphasis on an “ownership society.” Mortgages have tied down people who would otherwise simply break their leases, pick up, and move to a new job market in the event of being laid off. Like him or not, Massachusetts Democratic congressman Barney Frank is a champion of this issue. Such properties, if well planned, would provide enough area for recreation without the sprawl and risk.

-Michael E. van Landingham

March 30, 2009

Unachievable Urbanism

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:57 pm

I read E.D. Kain’s delightful anti-federalist, new urbanist, distributist, localist, Jeffersonianist post with great interest. Having too much to say, I  present  some scattered thoughts:

1. Nathan Origer’s point about the need for an uncoerced form of New Urbanism can’t be repeated often enough, though I’m not sure “uncoerced” is exactly the right word. The New Urbanists I’ve met who were original signers of the charter are all fans of Jane Jacobs, and I think most of the people who talk and write daily about New sisleyUrbanism believe that cities should be sites of unplanned contact and creative chaos. Most of the actual planners I’ve talked to, however, still believe that if only they were given more control, cities would be lovely and perfect. In part, this is the fault of their role in public policy. There probably should not be any person whose job it is to think about what a whole city should look like in advance, or even a whole district. The very idea seems bizarre and counter-productive. One of the manifold charms of cities is that no one knows what will happen in them — architecturally, politically, aesthetically, religiously. Sometimes you get the Symbolists in Paris, sometimes you get Savonarola in Florence, and sometimes you get the Sagrada Familia.

2. Both Kain and Origer see the link between the homogenization of the built environment and certain economic structures. New Urbanism, specifically, has actually been coopted by the forces of homogenization. Where once there was Aldi, now there is a Whole Foods. That Whole Foods is not quite as gigantic and corporate as other grocery stores is irrelevant in the long run. Either Whole Foods will become progressively more gigantic and bureaucratic, or a larger, more bureaucratic competitor will arrive, steal its market of would-be crunchies and put Whole Foods out of business.

3. It’s easy and appealing to visualize what a localist urbanism looks like. Communities govern their economies, cultures, and built environments along Jeffersonian ward-republican lines, with many decisions made by direct or nearly direct democracy. In the country these communities are villages; in the city they are neighborhoods. The food-production of these communities is sustainable (maybe), small businesses are vigorously protected, and due latitude is given to heteronomy of all sorts. What’s not easy is to imagine how to get there. auray1There are no elegant  and pragmatic Ryan-Avent-style policy solutions that will make our communities look like that. Rationalized, bureaucratic capitalism, which I take to be the fundamental nemesis of localism, has its own momentum. We localists can walk alongside  the libertarians and the progressive pro-market urbanists for a few steps, because our federal and state governments systematically subsidize sprawl and the destruction of whatever is local (viz. CPSIA, New Hampshire HB367, the war on raw milk, mindless road “improvements,” and on and on until we need a stiff drink), but the modern bureaucratic state isn’t the real culprit. The depredations of public bureaucracies are obvious because they are heavy-handed. The work of corporate bureaucracies is much subtler, and more powerful in shaping the character of the individual men and women who make communities. Despite the promising resurgence of local-spiritedness on the blogs, I’m afraid I can’t agree with Kain that “the answer to much of this lies in compromise.”

David Schaengold

Monday Movie-Still Blogging

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 1:00 am

IMHO, the best movie ever made, Jules et Jim:

Jules et Jim isn’t as compositionally perfect as Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc. The visual beauty of the film relies much more on motion, especially the motion of the characters. That motion is nonetheless communicated now and then in the still composition, as this example illustrates spectacularly. If you’re meant to look at a film like Jeanne d’Arc, you’re supposed to look into this one. The representation, even taking a still at random, can’t be unstitched from the aesthetic  locus.

That said, it’s still very charming considered as a painting or a photograph. Note that the camera is tilted a few degrees counter-clockwise of vertical and the actors get smaller from left to right. This makes the characters appear as if they’re riding a destabilized merry-go-round, which represents the plot more or less accurately.

Every lavish detail is stylized. These details are lost in the whir when the film is in motion, but their combined effect is central to its atmosphere. Even Jim’s hairstyle (he’s the one on the left) reminds me of the Maison St-Cyr.

-David Schaengold

March 26, 2009

Pope My Newt

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 5:17 pm

I couldn’t resist highlighting that Newt Gingrich, the architect of the Contract with America and the man who helped the GOP recapture the House in 1994 is converting to Catholicism on Easter. There’s a lot of haymaking over Newt’s thrice-married past, particularly by Christopher Buckley, but good for Gingrich. Let’s hope the Church provides him the strength to curtail that predilection.

It’s a good step for Catholics, too, in making more inroads among conservative American politicians. Time was, mixing Catholicism and politics was a Democrat’s game. The movement is not focused solely on conservatives, though. Tony Blair became a Catholic on Christmas of 2007, and more than a few have recommended poping myself out. As I see it, Catholics are doing a stellar job wooing intellectuals of all ages and political stripes. The push is sure to help to shore up the Roman Church’s foundations against the erosion of religious support amongst intellectuals, and to guard against the brain drain damaging other Christian denominations in America and Europe.

Me? I’m splitting the difference between the East and the West and staying Anglican. Our recruitment and retention game is admittedly weak, though.

-Michael E. van Landingham

RE: The Stability of the Middle Classes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 11:55 am

David says that Lukacs (for whom I’ve gained a lot of respect and affection) gives the bourgeois too much credit for creating a stable social order:

There is a distinction between experienced instability and actual instability, and another distinction between personal instability and structural instability. The bourgeois order doesn’t care much about experienced and personal instability, but it systematically minimizes actual and structural instability. People worry when they personally experience instability, which they do when they see their most basic cultural suppositions (that marriage is the union of complementary sexes, say) undermined and destroyed over the course of a decade, or even more quickly. Fortunately, defenders of the bourgeois order can rush to their rescue by posing as agents of reaction, promising to deliver them from the vertigo of personal instability by delivering our society more wholly up to the mercilessly stable, mercilessly disciplined economic system that created their personal instability in the first place.

What I’ve read of Lukacs suggests that he is very anti-liberal. He would probably agree that there is a lot of truth to David’s structural critiques. I don’t know how a naive “good old-fashioned” liberal could have the reverence for Wendell Berry Lukacs displays. But two crucial aspects of Lukacs’ thought are anti-reductionism and the determination to treat persons and ideas with a sympathetic regard for their complexity. I quote from one of the last paragraphs in Last Rites: “One last remark: The bourgeois: their hypocrisies, their materialism, their shallowness, the mental wasteland of the hollow men–all true, but altogether not true enough.”

That is, if you immerse yourself in the study of the lives and writings of so many of these people, like Orwell or the Pennsylvania Impressionists, you will often find a deeply attractive and honorable human ideal that one could not plausibly dismiss as mere rationalization of an economic order.

Elements of that ideal are worth preserving when we are deciding how to live our lives in the present mess. That a man should aim to settle down on his own house with a domestic, soft-spoken, but strong and intelligent woman and have many children and grandchildren; that he should be proud to be good at his job and kind and helpful to his neighbors; that he should make time to paint, pick up a new language, read some Livy, plant a vegetable garden, take tea at four, visit his parents in the country one Sunday a month; that at the end of the day he should recline with a pipe, a stiff drink, and the nightly news on the radio; that at the end of the week he should worship his God in his community using old, sonorous phrases; that at the end of his life he should be buried in his family plot, and that at the end of her life his wife should be buried next to him–perhaps many details of this distinctly bourgeois, English idyll are unthinkable without a capitalist order that undermines it in the long run, but one should give the ideal, and the people who held it, their due.

The stability of prevailing ideas of gender, family life, personal virtue, etc., was the taken-for-granted background of this vision of human flourishing. To attack these things was not, as many bourgeois (rightly or wrongly) saw it, to initiate a new stage in the inevitable development of their social order towards perfect rationalization, but to attack a prime pillar of their social order.

-Keith Staples

The Stability of the Middle Classes

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:47 am

There is much to say about Keith’s thorough post on John Lukacs, especially about his understanding of knowledge as ‘participant,’ but I’ll start by quibbling with a single line. Keith writes, summarizing Lukacs:

Bourgeois social and political order created stability, decency, and discipline, but allowed creativity.

There is a whole class of defenses of bourgeois order than runs along similar lines. And yet what precisely is this ‘stability’ that the bourgeoisie stands for? Perhaps for the rapid and permanent destruction of local custom? Simone Weil notes the casual death of “customs which maybe went back for several thousand years, the very memory of which would have been entirely lost had it not been for the hasty notes that [George Sand] took down concerning them.”

There is a distinction between experienced instability and actual instability, and another distinction between personal instability and structural instability. The bourgeois order doesn’t care much about experienced and personal instability, but it systematically minimizes actual and structural instability. People worry when they personally experience instability, which they do when they see their most basic cultural suppositions (that marriage is the union of complementary sexes, say) undermined and destroyed over the course of a decade, or even more quickly. Fortunately, defenders of the bourgeois order can rush to their rescue by posing as agents of reaction, promising to deliver them from the vertigo of personal instability by delivering our society more wholly up to the mercilessly stable, mercilessly disciplined economic system that created their personal instability in the first place.

-David Schaengold

March 25, 2009

RE: Democracy in Russia?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 6:40 pm

Keith ended his recent post with a question for me:

Effective self-rule has cultural prerequisites. Are contemporary Russians, generally speaking, free enough from the cynicism, cruelty, and selfishness encouraged by communism to avoid the temptation to corruption on a massive scale?

Russians have experienced less than twenty years living since the fall of the Soviet Union. The first eight were comparable to the Wild West. The last ten, 1999-2009,  were a little better. They have been marked by massive growth in the private sector and a turn towards some standards of accountability in government. Yet corruption is still rampant. At one briefing I attended, the expert in the room declared that corporations and the government, awash in oil revenues in 2008, were “making money faster than they could steal it.”

I generally have hope for Russia. As the Soviet-trained managers are rotated out of power by the business cycle, and the Kremlin replaces old politicians with fresh faces, I feel petty abuse of power will wane. The market economy with its demands of relatively honest shareholders’ reports precludes the Soviet practice of shantage, or lying about production. And the government has cracked down on the oligarchs, the ultra-rich businessmen who came about their fortunes through less-than-honest means.

One area of its anti-corruption campaign is palpable. The government is currently working on initiatives to make the varying branches of police more professional. When I was first here in 2005 we were routinely warned of policemen stopping you for a shake down. Not so anymore. If you even do get pulled aside they often give you a sheepish grin, apologize for bothering you, and hand your documents back, as if they were embarrassed to even trouble a foreigner. (They mostly concern themselves with looking for illegal immigrants by racially profiling men with darker features.)

What the Times article indicated to me today was more a form of Soviet nostalgia than a resurgence of local democracy. The druzhiniki were a method by which the  Soviet state incorporated citizens into its massive apparatus. Pensioners got to relive their days as soldiers or workers during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) again, while students  got to act like they were in the army without getting their hands dirty. The benefits available to druzhiniki–free public transportation, the right to collect compensation for being injured on patrol–smacks of the typical Soviet rewards for such types of incidental public labor.

Quite the opposite from a trustworthy police force, they turned some citizens into the police for other citizens. After all, regular citizens are not likely to stop a real crime.  Hooliganism, maybe, but “hooliganism” in Russian has a broader meaning than it does in English. In the Soviet era it could mean kids hanging out on a park bench. But no, I don’t fear them becoming a paramilitary force rotten with corruption. At best, the citizens will act as monitors to protect against bribe-taking by police. At worst, they will become an annoying type of civic morality police like they were during the Soviet Union, harassing kids with long hair and pedestrians for jay walking. I predict the movement will simply fizzle out quietly in the next few months or years though, as most initially promising political ideas are prone to do in Russia.

The real progress will come the day the Soviet Union ceases to have an influence on the institutions of the Russian Federation, whether that be through ideas or through people who were educated during it.

-Michael E. van Landingham

The Last Bourgeois

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 6:13 pm

The stale partisanship that marks the contemporary intellectual scene is deplorable, but at least it forces us to cherish our rare encounters with independent thinkers. John Lukacs’ new autobiography, Last Rites, treats the venturesome reader to just such an encounter—a bracing contest with a nimble mind.

Fearing Communist persecution, 22-year-old Lukacs fled his native Hungary in 1946 and settled in the US. Over the past five decades, he has taught history at universities in Hungary and the US and has written close to thirty books and countless articles. He has written on the Cold War, World War II, the modern age, historical consciousness, the decline of Europe, the decline of America, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, George Kennan, Budapest, Philadelphia, populism, Chestnut Hill College, and now, for the second time, he has written on himself. Of course, like all real intellectuals, Lukacs is inseparable from his thought. Last Rites is, therefore, largely a restatement of his eccentric opinions on the Cold War, World War II, the modern age, historical consciousness, etc.

Because his judgments do not come in convenient and familiar packages, reading him can be disorienting. While he is no liberal, for instance, it is misleading to call him merely a “conservative,” given that he routinely denounces most contemporary forms of conservatism. Yes, like most Hungarian émigrés he hated communism, but he also spent much of the Cold War attacking American anticommunism. The sense of disorientation is greatly increased by his rather rambling and ejaculatory prose, which is frequently interrupted by footnotes.

But there is nothing purely ad hoc about his judgments taken as a whole. His opinions form a coherent personal worldview, at the heart of which lies a duality (that is, a striking tension, not necessarily a contradiction), that Lukacs himself recognizes: On the one hand, his main project is a radical critique of the characteristic ideas of the modern age, but on the other hand he mourns its passing.

In the first chapter of Last Rites, he rehearses his main ideas about history and epistemology. Trained philosophers will find this exposition inadequate, but it provides a helpful sketch of his most stimulating theories.

Against the Enlightenment idea that knowledge is objective, Lukacs declares that it is “personal and participant.” Our ideas about the world are unavoidably intertwined with our personalities and histories, the categories of thought available to us within our language and culture, etc. They are also partly dependent on the dispositions and attitudes we freely choose while speculating or evaluating evidence. We can be lazy or stubborn, surrender to enthusiasm, antipathy, wishful thinking, group pressure, etc.; and this will affect our conclusions. This participant aspect of human knowing, Lukacs insists, explains why we can be held responsible for our ideas.

The major consequences of Lukacs’ epistemology are twofold.

First, it means that the historian is not a scientist searching for “laws,” but a person trying to understand other persons. He must not determine what “facts” led inexorably to certain “behavior,” but rather describe the complex mentalities and purposes that conditioned various events while retaining a lively sense of the contingency of the personal choices involved in these events. Always remembering the particularity of his own perspective he must not offer his attempt at understanding as definitive. His job is less to find the truth than to reduce untruth (by ruling out interpretations of history that could not be held in good faith after inspection of available evidence).

Second, it means that man is “at the center of the universe.” Since we cannot understand our world except through the changeable, historically conditioned categories we think with and the models we make, there is a sense in which we “invent” the world, and therefore transcend it. “For our universe,” says Lukacs, “is not more or less than our universe.” We ought not to be dominated (as we were during the modern age) by our own inventions. We should not make concepts like objectivity and mechanical causality, absolute, definitive, and universal, applicable even to the superior realm of the personal:

The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because at the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, study it, explore it.

Lukacs may be overhasty in classing the categories, methods, and results of the exact sciences with those of, say, the historical study of the French Revolution, but it is worth insisting that he is no mere subjectivist. He does not think of the world as our “invention” in some sense that would deprive it of all independent reality. Arguably, his epistemology compatible even with that of a quasi-rationalist like Aquinas. As Josef Pieper showed in The Silence of St. Thomas, Aquinas believed that human beings do not fully understand the essence of “a single fly.” Our understanding of being is never adequate to being itself. The Creator holds a monopoly on such infinite understanding, and we must make do with our human models.

To summarize: Reality exists independent of us, and it is appropriate and necessary to navigate and interact with it using our concepts and models—gifts of God that allow us to participate in being according to our rational nature. As Lukacs says in a footnote: “The world, and this earth were created by him for the existence and consciousness of human beings.” Some concepts and models can be eventually rejected, not because they do not help us dominate nature or bind our communities, (this is the position of the “pragmatist” of intellectual caricature) but because they are logically incoherent or inconsistent with experience—that is, because they fail the tests proposed by all great thinkers. But we are not permitted, as creatures, to absolutize even our best concepts and models.

To see that our knowledge is personal is to see that it is fallible. This should make us humble, and open us up to faith in God. It is because God is the logos that thought creation into existence that we can trust that the appearance of order is not merely a subjective (and possibly temporary) illusion and that our sincere efforts at understanding will always be rewarded.

It’s no surprise that a man this sensitive to context, history, nuance, and the primacy of the personal is disgusted by the contemporary world. We are living, he insists, at the end (or, more properly, just beyond the end) of a great historical age, and therefore suffer intellectual poverty characteristic of such periods. Modernity’s reductionistic and outdated abstractions dominate our scholarly and political discourse. Lukacs sees little to choose, for instance, between the American left and right’s particular ideologies of Progress, each supported by a propagandistic lexicon, iconography and simplistic mythos pretending to be history. The right trumpets a materialist vision of the triumph of Technology, Liberty, and the American Way, while the left clamors for its Gnostic vision of Science, Justice, and Global Civilization.

Lukacs thinks this loud simplemindedness is born of the pride that precludes true wisdom, understanding, and faith. Lukacs is drawn to “true conservatives” like Wendell Berry, who counter vulgar “neocon” materialism with a subtle understanding of individual and social health that emphasizes patient cultivation of particular relationships in particular places.

(Lukacs’ generalizations, though insightful, ignore important contemporary schools of American political thinking. It is especially unfortunate that he does not mention influential figures like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus. Their vision of a capitalist liberal democratic society justified in the language of Catholic personalism surely warrants the attention of a Catholic personalist like Lukacs.)

Although Lukacs recognizes that the dominant abstractions are modern abstractions, he has very few hard words about modernity as such. He was himself formed by the “bourgeois age,” admires its great figures and achievements, and urges his readers to study its exemplary civilizational ideal. Bourgeois social and political order created stability, decency, and discipline, but allowed creativity. Lukacs provides ample evidence for this claim in his in his elegiac discussion of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, painters who settled in eastern Bucks County early in the twentieth century. :

Most of them. . .were master woodworkers and carpenters. . . . After they lifted their nimble fingers from their brushes, their eyes moved from. . . their palettes and colors to the. . . precise fitting of grooves and planks and boards. . . . Edward Redfield wrote that ‘Bucks county was a place where an independent, self-sufficient man could make a living from the land, bring up a family and still have the freedom to paint as he saw fit.’ How admirable! How American! In once a country. At once a time.

. . .

[Theirs was] an American world that is now gone, a portion of a world with its provincialness and plenitude, including plenty of , modesty and goodness, of landscapes, God and man-made.
. . .

They were among the last incarnations of a civilization that had begun to sink in their lifetime. . . .They would be surprised to be called “bourgeois,” which was a curse word employed not only by revolutionaries but by intellectuals and artists during more than one hundred years; but they were bohemians not at all.

Their world was shattered by sensualism, radical individualism, and a commercial ethos. Lukacs’ complaints sometimes seem cranky, but one tends to sympathize with his portrait of the new barbarism.

In addition to living in a world he finds increasingly alien and disgusting, he is suffering the usual effects of old age:

I regret that I am old. I regret that I fear the future and, yes, I fear a sudden death. I regret that my appetite for life has been weakening. I regret that so has my curiosity, my reading, and, together with that, perhaps my very appetite for the past.

But there remain consolations. Lukacs has “inner resources” in abundance because he has always loved passionately. He has loved ideas and history, he has loved art, nature, his many friends, and his three wives (two of whom have died). He seems happy to enjoy loves present and gratefully remember loves past.

In short, in this last stage of his life, John Lukacs is tending his garden. But he is no Voltaire, smiling the sad smile of terminally chastened reason as the world whirls on in pointless frenzy. He is not merely making do, because believes in God, in the venture of faith, and in the Catholic Church, whence, he hopes, the wellsprings of true culture will keep flowing: “The Church must remain a single, lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love.”

-Keith Staples

Democracy in Russia?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 5:32 pm

Stefan McDaniel over at First Things approves of the civilian patrols that are making a comeback in Russia. He calls them examples of “old-fashioned democratic action that has nothing to do with ballot boxes or liberal rights.”

I’m prejudiced toward any argument that disparages liberalism, but after a thorough read-through of the Times article he links to I’m a little less sanguine than McDaniel is about this apparent victory for localism. McDaniel does not mention that the success of the druzhiniki has led to a movement to give them more power:

In Soviet days. . . they could detain people on misdemeanor charges and write traffic tickets, and they were compensated if injured while on patrol. For the most part, today’s druzhiniki get little outside of free public transportation and the red armband.

“We should be working on those issues that the police simply don’t have time for, like small street crimes and crime prevention,” Mr. Kharlamov said.

The new legislation, which will probably come up for hearings in Russia’s Parliament this spring, would institute the druzhiniki on a federal level and allow them to impose fines for failure to obey their orders and provide compensation for injuries suffered while on patrol. Legislators have even debated the possibility of allowing the volunteers to carry weapons like batons or stun guns.

Understandably enough, not everybody thinks this is a good idea:

Critics. . . worry that this emboldened civilian police force could easily succumb to the corruption that already pervades Russia’s law enforcement agencies.

“If today we already have problems controlling our police, what happens when we create a far less trained, less disciplined and less controlled structure?” said Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial. “What we will get is this obscure formation beyond the control of the police that will ultimately merge with criminal elements.”

This seems pretty plausible. Of course my view of Russian society represents a wholesale internalization of the Western caricature, so I must defer to Michael: Effective self-rule has cultural prerequisites. Are contemporary Russians, generally speaking, free enough from the cynicism, cruelty, and selfishness encouraged by communism to avoid the temptation to corruption on a massive scale?

-Keith Staples

Two Rival Versions of Compassion

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 4:42 pm

In a recent article remembering Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Robert George explains Neuhaus’ view that society owed pregnant women “love, moral and spiritual support, and practical assistance,” not the “ghoulish compassion of the abortionist’s knife.” “Ghoulish compassion” is a fine phrase that calls to mind these lines from Eliot’s “East Coker”:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

The imagery is similar, but the moral vision could not differ more. The ghoulish abortionist offers death as a panacea, but Christ (“the wounded surgeon”) desires our flourishing far too much to spare us pain. I think we could measure any society’s moral health by the number of people who think “sharp compassion” an unintelligible contradiction.

-Keith Staples

Honor Culture and Mass Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:45 am

This John McWhorter post on culture is very interesting, but what interests me most is his brief discussion of the “cool-pose” that young black men adopt towards service jobs like cashiering at McDonalds. From time to time, someone mentions this ‘pose’ as a problem to be overcome, if we want to integrate poor black communities in the United States into the mainstream economy. I wonder, though, if this pose isn’t the right reaction to such jobs, if this pose isn’t so much a social pathology as the expression of the properly human reaction to jobs where you’re required to gin up false enthusiasm. Service jobs don’t just instrumentalize the worker’s body, like factory jobs, but his whole person. As demeaning as all the options are, isn’t it less morally destructive, on the whole, just to take handouts where you can find them? Is the scariest feature of the honor culture in American ghettos that it’s a more fully human response to our culture and our economy than the mild-mannered breadwinning of the middle classes?

David Schaengold

March 24, 2009

A Bull Market for Abortion

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 7:02 pm

My personal resolution to leave posts about abortion to my colleagues has lasted all but one day. I am moved to write this by a shockingly disheartening article I just read about how the economic slowdown has led to an increase in abortions. At St. Louis, MO Planned Parenthood clinics, abortions were up 7% at the end of 2008 over the previous year’s figures, to quote the report. That is after a decline to the lowest number of abortions in years. While it is a commonly accepted fact that financial strain increases the likelihood of abortion, it was nevertheless painful to read the news story.

What made it so difficult was that couples who had been expecting a child they had planned for were seeking abortions because of recent layoffs, or for fear of being unable to make ends meet with a new arrival. For me, the article highlighted the urgent need to make health care more available, especially to expecting mothers. This is one area where pro-lifer and pro-choicer can agree, yet one side seems to be at odds with the other over providing cheap, accessible health care to America. Obviously there is no way to stop the number of abortions from rising during recessions, but the assurance that a couple won’t lose their health care along with their jobs might save some foeti who would otherwise be welcomed into the world.

On a related note, the article also confirms William Saletan’s conjecture that the  recent increase in condom sales is related to shrinking incomes and not surging libidos. Condoms are much cheaper than the Pill, so that is one way to cut back on spending. But prophylactics are also less reliable and result in more failures. Failures that can only lead to, you guessed it, more abortions. Here’s to getting the economy back on track, if only for the unborn.

-Michael E. van Landingham

Ray LaHood Has a Blog?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:33 am

raylahood1He does. And it’s very good. Many sustainable transportation enthusiasts thought that Ray LaHood’s appointment as Secretary of Transportation indicated that Obama wasn’t really serious about promoting livable cities and ending the federal government’s maniac sprawl subsidies. We underestimated LaHood. It didn’t become clear to me until I read his blog, however, how thoroughly wrong I was to be disappointed. His blog demonstrates a real understanding of how development and transportation are connected. Even more importantly, I think, he demonstrates a love for place, and for communities that are real places. I recommend this post on “livable communities.” Some quotes that make my enviro-urban-local-aesthete heart patter excitedly:

“I did, after all, serve my hometown Illinois district in the House of Representatives for 14 years. But, the truth is that Congress is not home; Peoria is. And communities like Peoria are the reason I’m going back to Congress today…

The way we design our communities has a huge impact on our citizens’ social, physical, and economic wellbeing. Yet many Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks or access to public transportation.

Therefore, one of my highest priorities is to work closely with Congress, other Federal departments, the nation’s governors, and local officials to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs…

…a joint effort to revitalize our downtowns, foster walkable neighborhoods, and bring people, employers, and housing closer together through public transportation.”

A more welcome change from Mary “bikes aren’t transportation” Peters could scarcely be imagined. Who knew that such a gruff and Republican-looking  congressman from Peoria could secretly be harboring a well developed philosophy of sustainable community supported by multi-modal transportation policies?

David Schaengold

March 23, 2009

Monday Movie-Still Blogging

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 8:34 pm

A still from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the most visually arresting film I’ve ever seen. Nearly any frame taken at random except for the frequent extreme close-ups looks like a well composed photograph in its own right.


David Schaengold

Loose String Theory

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 7:57 pm

Thanks to a recommendation from Peter Suderman, I recently watched The Room, a vanity project written, directed, produced and starred-in by the mysterious Tommy Wiseau. The film may be the worst movie I have ever seen, but we would be better off if all Hollywood films were a little more like it.

To see what I mean, take the following scene, which I have watched dozens of times. Its success through failure comes from equal parts bad acting, bad writing, and terrible direction:

The “dialogue” here is nothing more than a series of non-sequiturs. The appearance of the dog is sudden and unexplained. There are whole series of verbal and visual non-sequiturs that, with a bigger budget and more care, could have seemed plausible. We get more of these moments throughout the film. At one point a character launches into an extended complaint about the disputed possession of a home only, as if suddenly reminded, to conclude by mentioning that she has terminal breast cancer.

A friend of mine proposed that these moments, the unexplained exchanges and the acting that’s so bad it seems invested with the dark significance of hidden secrets, show that more serious productions would be more suggestive and more interesting if they had more loose strings. I tend to agree that mainstream films would be richer if they only had more of the unexplained glances, misdirected dialogue and dropped storylines that make The Room so engrossing.

-Matthew Schmitz

What is Populism?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:50 pm

The New York Times’s article on the populist reaction to the AIG debacle suggests that populism arises whenever a difference of opinion tracks class lines. So for example, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration are called ‘populist’ because elites tend to favor both while the rest of society opposes them:

In 2000, Al Gore’s charge that “powerful interests” blunted working-class aspirations could not win him the White House. George W. Bush prevailed in two elections while courting “values voters,” and in 2004 backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Populism, if it is to mean anything, must involve economic and social resntment of the lower classes toward the elites. It doesn’t simply exist whenever the elite takes a different view on a political issue than the rest of society, it arises only when the upper class becomes the political issue. This is generally not the case in the same-sex marriage debate, which is more motivated by religious and moral ideas than it is by an anxiety that a group of fat cats in enriching itself off the backs of the hard-working patrons of Broadway.

-Matthew Schmitz

A New Contributor!

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:56 am

As the de facto editor of this blog, I welcome Plumb Lines’ newest contributor, Michael E. van Landingham. He “knows about Rap” and “lives in Baltimore,” so he certainly adds important expertise to the blog. He’s gotten his tenure off to a great start with a post about cul-de-sacs.

UPDATE: It turns out Michael lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, not Baltimore. These cities are not easily confused with one another. Nonetheless he intends to live in Baltimore in the near future, so perhaps he will still be able to bring that unique Baltimorean perspective to the blog.

David Schaengold

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