Plumb Lines

April 30, 2009

Boys Can Eat. Girls Can Cook.

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 6:24 pm

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Via Feministing, an amazing and useful guide to the activities and pursuits characteristic of each sex. This text will certainly find a place in the reactionary queer theory canon.

The style is immediately familiar because the author and illustrator is Whitney Darrow, Princeton ’31, who published voluminously in the New Yorker. Darrow had a clever and wicked eye for all things gendered.

David Schaengold

Hunkerin’

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:01 am

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Fifty years ago, a group of fraternity brothers at the University of Arkansas protested the lack of chairs on campus by crouching on the balls of the feet. Thus was born the fad of hunkerin’, which puts the fads of my generation to shame. Wikipedia explains hunkerin’ to those who aren’t hip:

Hunkerin’ (also known as “Hunkering”) had been in use in different cultures, particularly in Asia, for centuries when it suddenly became a fad in the United States in 1959. Time reported that the craze started at the University of Arkansas when a shortage of chairs at a fraternity house led students to imitate their Ozark forefathers, who hunkered regularly.

Before long, hunkerin’ had spread, firstly to Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma, thence across the rest of the country. While males were the predominant hunkers, it was reported that females hunkerers were welcomed. Within months, regional hunkerin’ competitions were being held to discover champion hunkerers.

Considered by authorities as much preferable to the craze of the previous year, phonebooth stuffing, people hunkered for hours at a time on car roofs, in phone booths and wherever people gathered. Life referred to it as “sociable squatting”. Different styles of hunkerin’ were reported as “sophisticates” tended to hunker flatfooted while other hunkered with their elbows inside the knees.

Matthew Schmitz

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McGonagall Thursday!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 10:06 am

David has his Monday movie-stills and Michael has his learned disquisitions on contemporary urban poesy, so, what with the mysterium iniquitatis, I coveted my own regular feature.

Every Thursday I will post a few choice lines from William McGonagall, the most earth-shattering genius of anti-poetry in this or any other language. This week I present you with the closing stanza of “Captain Teach, Alias ‘Black Beard'”

Black Beard derived his name from his long black beard,
Which terrified America more than any comet that had ever appeared;
But, thanks be to God, in this age we need not be afeared,
Of any such pirates as the inhuman Black Beard.

-Keith Staples

A Few Good Christianists

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:36 am

I still periodically hear comments from conservatives to the effect that Liberals (or Europeans, or those opposed to torture) are “unwilling to defend our civilization.” What follows these comments is typically a diagnosis of how Western civilization got to be so sick, or lost its self-confidence, or nerve. This narrative is surely not unrelated to the insistence, often heard from the Right during the Bush years, that we must above all “not appear weak” in the eyes of would-be terrorists. Nor is it unrelated, surely, to the rhetorical stance adopted by many defenders of torture — that they, only they, are hard-boiled enough to face the facts, do what needs doing, etc. Peter Suderman asks if these people have forgotten who the bad guy was in A Few Good Men.

I am hoping for though, not expecting, alas, the end of reflexive psychologization, so I will avoid characterizing this trope in psychological terms, tempting as that might be. I’d rather talk about how all of these utterances are related aesthetically. Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that Fascists aestheticise Politics while Communists politicize Art actually holds true, remarkably, for the American Right and the American Left, despite their univocal support for the administered Capitalist welfare state that is so clearly our future. This is true even for the explicitly Christian element of the American Right.

What’s particularly ironic about this critique of weakness is that it’s Nietzschean, or at least related to the pop Nietzsche who has come down to us through Walter Kaufmann. The secular left has out-Christianed the Christians just as the Christians out-Jewed the Jews, and American Evangelicals have suddenly discovered the immense personal self-satisfaction of pretending you’re Jack Bauer.

David Schaengold

April 29, 2009

Detroit: the First Art Deco Ruin

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 12:28 pm

Detroit is one of the most beautiful American cities. It is also the world’s first Beaux Arts and Deco ruin, and its beauty as it falls to pieces testifies to the enduring excellence of these two styles. The idea that a style of building should be judged by the beauty of the ruins it leaves behind has a dubious history, to say the least, but the Nazis also liked organic vegetables, Jonah Goldberg tells us, so perhaps their architectural ideas weren’t all bad either.

Since the blogosphere seems to have a low-grade, persistent interest in Detroit as a city, a roundup of ruins-of-Detroit links:

-A stunning tour of the abandoned Michigan Central Station’s main facade (via Infrastructurist)

-A site dedicated to “Forgotten Detroit”

A nearly exhaustive tour of the city’s abandoned buildings

A photo essay from photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

-Another photo essay, from Time

-David Schaengold

Obama Wants “People to Live In Communities Where They Don’t Always Have to Be in an Automobile”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 9:36 am

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Here are some encouraging words from Ray LaHood:

I think also the President wants to create opportunities for people to live in communities where they don’t always have to be in an automobile to get where they’re going, that perhaps there’s a bus, perhaps there’s light rail, perhaps there’s a bicycle path, perhaps there’s a walking path.

MS. ROMANO: This is the livability concept?

SECRETARY LaHOOD: Yeah, the livable communities idea, and I’m working with the Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan. He and I are going to work together on creating the opportunities for people to get out of their cars, to get out of congestion, get out of the smog, and hopefully create opportunities for people to have lots of alternative modes of transportation other than just the automobile.

The other remarkable part of the interview concerned Obama’s selection criteria for a Transportation Secretary:

MS. ROMANO: What did the President tell you he wanted you to do when he offered you this job? What was–what were his priorities?

SECRETARY LaHOOD: He was looking for a Republican. So I met that criteria . . .

Considering how the search was conducted, it’s a miracle we ended up with someone this good.

(via Infrastructurist)

Matthew Schmitz

Congratulations to the Center for Neighborhood Technology

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:14 am

My old employer has won a prestigious award from the MacArthur foundation. It’s well deserved. CNT pioneered what they call “H+T” thinking: understanding how housing and transportation costs are two parts of a single expense. Housing and transportation are the two biggest household costs for most Americans, and in many regions they are inversely correlated. The Housing+Transportation Affordability Index is a fascinating tool for seeing what this looks like in particular metropolitan areas.

David Schaengold

Money Is Green

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 8:48 am

To quote Wu-Tang, “Cash rules everything around me (C.R.E.A.M.!) get the money, dolla dolla bill, y’all.” Having attended boarding school as part of the minority of students on full financial aid, I was accustomed to having much less money than the people around me. So being able to hold down a few college jobs gave me a way to fill my time and my pockets. While I haven’t gotten around to investing yet, I enjoy saving. Being in control of my finances, which were out of my hands for much of my life, is a fine feeling.

I think many conservatives and libertarians sympathize. As far as I can tell they typically don’t like people taking their money, and they further dislike people telling them what they should and shouldn’t do with it. They like to exercise control of their homes, their families, and their futures in part by controlling their cash flow. More and more people are realizing the benefits of thrift during our current recession. Without the font of cash and credit they once enjoyed, Americans are trying to simplify their lives by cutting out wasteful spending and reasserting control of their debts.

The other good thing about money is that it is green. Yes, that kind of green. Saving money is environmentally sound. Conservatives rightfully complain that the environmental movement could be used as an excuse to dictate what sort of car you drive, how much energy you use, and even how many children you can have. Old fashioned conservatives at least want to limit the amount of government in their lives, and imposing new regulations runs counter to that philosophy. While religious arguments can be made to save the Earth, among them that we are stewards of it (not its owners) and that “God so loved the world,” they are not enough to convince people to conserve as religion fades as a source of  personal guidance.

So those concerned with selling the “green” movement to conservatives, libertarians, and apathetic people should be talking about the other kind of green. Particularly since the threat of climate change does not seem to affect Americans on a personal level. Too often proponents couch the environmental movement in terms abstract to Americans, like saving Bangladesh (East Pakistan). Worse, wealthy celebrities usually make the case, advocating expensive things like organic foods with no proven health benefits and driving pricey hybrids. “Green” is currently synonymous with “élite.”  That does not have to be the case, however. We can and must personalize the choices people make to show them that choosing conservation is empowering.

Americans will never be so altruistic as to favor the (currently) inferior light of CFLs to incandescent bulbs, but they will switch to save money. Parents prefer the convenience of disposable diapers, but this economic crisis has bolstered demand for the arguably more environmentally sound cloth variety. No freedom-loving American wants to give up her SUV for dinky public transport, but after all of the money saved on insurance, gas, repairs and productivity gained from being chauffeured there is a conservative argument to be made for catching the train. Finally, no one wants to sacrifice his steak-a-day diet, but highlighting the cost-benefit analysis of a constant carnivorous diet may cause to take notice.

Get money, go green.

Get money, go green.

This concept is not foreign to our grandparents. In the Depression people were used to never throwing anything away, and if it wore out they would fix it. Russians use and reuse plastic bags dozens of times because stores charge for them. They are sturdier than American plastic bags, too, since you pay for them. (We’ve been using some of our bags for 7 months without significant breakage.)

In our culture of upgrade we have lost sight of the thriftiness that made our grandparents conservationists. I am not saying we should not spend money on nice houses, cars, clothes, and the like. Rather, we should judge whether we need such items on a financial basis, and evaluate if having them will make a difference other than lightening our wallet. Such sober thinking will lead to less waste. I’m not sure what people should do with the extra cash, though. As always, that choice is up to them.

-Michael E. van Landingham

April 28, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 5:41 pm

I had intended my debut post for this blog to be about the “Birther” movement. The term collectively refers to individuals sincerely concerned President Obama is actually named Barry Soetoro and is a citizen of Indonesia. After reading the website of their de facto leader Orly Taitz, a dentist with a correspondence school law degree, I figured I could let the issue go. Why? Because Orly Taitz is utterly insane, or at least profoundly confused. (And she likes to refer to herself as Dr. Orly Taitz, Esq., which we all know is a complete breach of Postian etiquette.)

Checking in on her blog now and again is enthralling. Her posts parallel the structure of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, a novella in which the protagonist’s entries start out reasonable, but end proclaiming him the King of Spain. Today has yielded the best post yet:

We need each and every citizen enrolled in legal citizen’s militia and oath keepers movement  to protect all of us from the Brown Shirts and from the oppressive and corrupt establishment of the Foreign National, Citizen of Indonesia Barry Soetoro aka Barack Hussein Obama and his American SS sidekicks Napolitano and Pelosi. If they use the swine flu or any other excuse to infringe on civil liberties and constitutional rights of American citizens and try to use American or UN or any other troops on American soil in violation of Posse Comitatus, we will be able to rely on the citizens militia and the state governments and State National Guards to protect the lives and property of the American citizens and secede, if needed.

Be still my beating heart! It always goes aflutter at the mention of posse comitatus. I encourage you all to familiarize yourself with the movement, if only for a lark. Should you desire to read a site devoted to bursting the Birthers’ stealth dirigible bubble, the best can be found here.

-Michael E. van Landingham

Tyson

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:36 pm

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Imagine seeing an actress on TV who you think is attractive, calling a friend who you are sure can arrange a meeting, and then sitting down with her to dinner. Months later, imagine that she has become your wife and you are sitting next to her in bed while the late-night news reports on your public spat from earlier that evening. Then imagine sitting next to her in stunned silence as she tells Barbara Walters, and millions of television viewers, how you are an abusive, manic monster who has dragged her into hell.

This is the world that we see in Tyson, a newly released documentary. Mike Tyson is one of our strangest celebrities. He has an unusual talent for lurid, latinate quips. For Tyson, the f-word is “fornicate.” Listening to him is proof that colorful, vulgar speech need not rely on the old four-letter Anglo-Saxon chestnuts.

At times, Tyson seems to be the American double of Franz Biberkopf, the childlike, brutish anti-hero of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The boxer’s life, his many crimes and few redemptions, have been marked by wounded, violent tenderness. At one point in the film Tyson cries over the death of his first coach, Cuz D’Amato. We see the softness of a man who, as a child, nearly killed a garbage man who tried to throw out his bird cage:

One morning I woke up and found my favorite pigeon, Julius, had died. I was devastated and was gonna use his crate as my stickball bat to honor him. I left the crate on my stoop and went in to get something and I returned to see the sanitation man put the crate into the crusher. I rushed him and caught him flush on the temple with a titanic right hand. He was out cold, convulsing on the floor like a infantile retard.

Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist who has inflicted immense, seemingly unforgivable suffering on almost everyone he’s known. What Tyson allows us to do is step back from judging a man whose crimes have been weighed and numbered. By avoiding Law and Order-style moral sensationalism, the documentary reveals a man whose voice is surprisingly analytical and measured. Go see this film.

-Matthew Schmitz

Pakistani Army Shakes Off Dull Sloth

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:33 pm

2009 may turn out to be 1919 and 1929 wrapped into one, but at least there’s some good news from the Indus valley, indicating that 1939 will pass us by:

Pakistan is sending in troops against hundreds of militants who overran the district of Buner last week, the government announced Tuesday afternoon, saying that the Taliban would not be allowed to expand their territory.

David Schaengold

Torture and the Lies We Tell

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:06 am

Writing in Public Discourse (of which I am managing editor) Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, says that our nation’s decision to torture may have come in part from to a false and narrow idea of what health is:

Effectively, we have here entered the realm of the larger sense of health: the subject’s health in the larger sense sometimes designated “personal integrity”—a coordinated functioning of the various capacities and psychic subconditions necessary for person’s integrity in the moral sense—would have been so compromised that he is no longer fully, and in some cases even partly, in control of his actions. At this point, he might feel compelled to say what he knows, not because he desires to avoid further damage, but precisely because he is already so damaged.

This kind of damage to health, broadly construed, might well be incurred without significant, or noticeable, physical damage. And it might be compatible with an eventual return to more or less full psycho-somatic functioning in the future (as are many other forms of damage to health). So the moral wrongness of either form of action—intending to damage the integrity of another so as to provide a motive for confession, or so as to break down that subject and induce confession—might be obscured, especially if an overly physical or bodily conception of health were governing our considerations.

I have been encouraged to see a strong chorus including  John Schwenkler, E.D. Kain, David, MEvL, and now First Things express the truth that torture is wrong. One thing that we need to avoid at this point is imputing bad motives to torture advocates; when we do so we cease to do the important work of figuring out how so many well-intentioned people ended up supporting an abominable practice. As recent debates have shown, torture advocates used the ends to justify the means. But this justification was only part of the story, because the advocates never full acknowledged the moral reality, the evil, of what they were doing. They didn’t say, “I will do a profoundly evil thing to avert a massive loss of life.” They still felt the need to find a difference between what they were doing and torture. They said, “This isn’t torture, it’s just advanced interrogation.” Had they been unable to falsely describe what they were doing, the argument would have fallen apart.

Matthew Schmitz

April 27, 2009

Why Torture is Wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:40 pm

Jim Manzi, who has written a very good utilitarian case against torture, asks: why is torture wrong?

The central moral evil in interrogating someone by means of torture is that it overrides the victim’s moral agency. That is, the whole point of the exercise is to render the victim incapable of moral self-governance, so that your will, the will of the torturer, becomes entirely sovereign. This is intrinsically wrong both in Aristotelian/Thomist thought and the various moral philosophies derived from Kant. Since, in classical moral philosophy (and indeed in the moral reasoning we use in everyday life) you can’t perform an action that is intrinsically evil in order than good may come about, you can’t torture someone to get information out of him even if that information would save many lives.

There are more factors at play, including what kinds of violence are morally permissible in wartime, but respecting everyone’s moral agency is the most basic moral principle at stake.

As a side note, you would think that this would all be clear to the good people at First Things, who’ve read their Aquinas and their dogmatic constitutions. I know First Things is against torture. I hope we hear some clarification from them soon.

David Schaengold

Which Modern Are You Post?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 12:59 pm

It is not a carpenter or a joiner that I thus rank with with the greatest masters in other sciences; the manual operator being no more than an instrument to the architect — Alberti

I’ve been challenged to say more completely what I mean by Pomocon Urbanism. In particular, what makes it Postmodern? What I mean by “Postmodern” is what’s meant when contemporary architects like Jean Nouvel or Zaha Hadid are called Postmodern. The modern they are post is the mid-century modern of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and the rest, not the modern of Descartes, Westphalia, cuius regno eius religio, Bacon, Absolutism, the New Monarchs and the New World, which is the modern that some sillies claim “postmodern thinkers” are post. No one is yet post that kind of modernism, so pomocon urbanism can’t be, either.

Just because we’re not post that modern doesn’t mean we can’t practice some kind of resistance to it, however. As regards the built environment, we ought to resist one particular feature of modernism, namely the the auteur theory of building, successfully championed by Alberti, the grand-daddy of modern architectural theory. Neither the materials that constitute a finished building nor the workmen, skilled or unskilled, who fashion it, should be thought of as merely instruments in the hand of the architect-brain. Christopher Alexander has taken a famous first step in this direction, but there’s much more to be done.

David Schaengold

Why I Am Not Getting a Ph.D.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 12:24 pm

An op/ed from the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University discusses the untenable situation of academia. The thesis:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

I observed most of this firsthand as an undergraduate, and chose for my own sanity to avoid graduate studies beyond a Master’s. There is not much of a future in the humanities for all those newly minted doctors of philosophy. (Especially in Russian literature or history.) Tenure track jobs are few and far between, and forced retirement is now illegal. Who wants to read a monograph about Gogol’s humor anyway?

(via Ivy Gate)

-Michael E. van Landingham

Meditation for the Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 5:49 am

Why is Larry King still on the air?

-Michael E. van Landingham

Zounds! Atheists at the Southern Gates

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 4:44 am

Today’s New York Times has a story about a growing atheist acceptance movement in my beautiful hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. They are co-opting the gay pride movement’s rhetoric of “the closet” and a recent Charleston campaign of the “virtually normal” variety to erect billboards, those despoilers of the urban environment, that read “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” I find the wording sort of ironic, since it features the same phrase many Christians use to emphasize the omnipresence of God. They also capitalize “God,” the very Being their beliefs negate. Then again Charleston is quite a genteel city, and it would be rude to deny God His majuscule even if He doesn’t exist.

There may be some libertines in Charleston, but it is certainly not a liberal city. South Carolina was the first state to succeed secede, and the opening shots of the War of Northern Aggression were fired here. Tradition reigns supreme, and recent arrivals are regarded as aliens (they are). So the climate can be a bit stifling. Anyone with the slightest of liberal inclinations is liable to turn into an anarchist after living in Charleston. Religion is dear to the city—one of its monikers is the “Holy City.” But so is religious freedom: it was a central tenet of the colony’s charter. Many are surprised that the Reform Jewish movement started in Charleston, as unlikely as that may seem.

The evangelical movement with its adolescent reasoning and juvenile philosophy has taken root in South Carolina, though. Now even old-time religions have become evangelicized. Have you ever seen evangelical Episcopalians? Simply terrifying. I believe such anti-intellectual approaches to religion have driven more people to atheism, instead of encouraging them to seek the truth in the nurturing framework dogmatic churches provide. But in the absence of the atheists getting religion, I at least hope they provide a suitable counterweight to the evangelicals while not resorting to plastering buses with signs proclaiming “there probably is no god.”

-Michael E. van Landingham

Church Shopping

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:32 am

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Rem Koolhaas said in his Guide to Shopping that shopping has a tendency to “melt into everything” and everything has a way of “melting into shopping.” Well, now First Things has done the unthinkable and launched a shopping blog called Icons and Curiosities. Has the venerable magaine sold its soul to advertisers that want content to feature the very items int he magazine’s ads? Not likely. Commerce and religion are deeply and kitschily bound in this country, and I look forward to watching Jody Bottum and Sally Thomas attempt a little unraveling.

-Matthew Schmitz

A Sensible Food Policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:21 am

Rod Dreher has an interesting interview with James McWilliams about what food choices promote both high yields and a high level of sustainability:

The only way I see this happening is if we stop polarizing our discussions of food into big industrial and small organic, and start seeking common ground over compromises that split differences. We’ll have to eat much less meat, many more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes; tolerate the judicious use of chemicals in the production of our food; keep an open mind to the potential benefits of biotechnology; and worry less about the distance our food traveled than the overall energy it took to produce it.

-Matthew Schmitz

April 26, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Harold and Maude

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:36 pm

One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Like John Lennon’s Imagine turned into a Rock Opera, only less disarmingly sincere. All the same, a visual inspiration for Wes Anderson, so worth blogging about. This still serves as well as any to demonstrate the hard-to-miss influence:

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David Schaengold

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