Plumb Lines

June 29, 2009

On Hiatus

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:44 am

As you may have noticed, we’re taking some time off. We might post periodically for the next few weeks, but no promises. Expect a grand reentry into the blogosphere either on Bastille Day or sometime in mid-August.

David Schaengold


June 19, 2009

Mousavi and the Dean Effect

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 10:31 am


Daniel Larison, among others, has been right to point out that however inspiring the Iran protests have been, Mousavi is no liberal lion:

Compared to the differences between Obama and Bush on foreign policy, which are few but real enough, Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are even closer together. Before the election, someone called Mousavi Iran’s Kerry, which was a bit of an insult to Kerry, because by 2004 even Kerry was farther away from Bush on foreign policy than Mousavi is from Ahmadinejad today.

[ . . . ]

If we focus on the individual leaders to find some indication of changes in policy, we are fooling ourselves. In the best-case scenario, Mousavi is a rallying point around and a vehicle through which an entirely different kind of political force can organize.

The analogous American situation is that of Howard Dean, who went from establishment to grassroots with surprising speed. A Yale graduate and governor of Vermont whose ancestors had close relationships to the Bushes, Dean was a political centrist who signed the Vermont bill legalizing civil unions behind closed doors because he eschewed confrontational politics. This cautious patrician–more G. H. W. Bush than Michael Moore–was transformed when the netroots rallied around him. A consummate insider and centrist became a symbol of the radical and disenfranchised.

When a politician sees a mass uprising misunderstand their positions, they are sometimes likely to actually change their positions to be more in line with what will please the crowd. When Dean experienced a surge in popular support, he really did move to the left. Obviously, the room for political movement in Iran is much narrower. But suppose that the people really did rise up en masse and demand constitutional change in the Iranian regime. Would Mousavi really refuse to adopt substantive reformist positions if those positions appeared to be his ticket to power instead of (as they now must seem) political suicide?

-Matthew Schmitz

June 18, 2009

A Good Book is Hard to Find

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:45 pm


Shopping for books, like shopping for other things, is not merely about quickly finding the thing that you want.  Store design has long been oriented towards making shopping an experience. FAO Schwartz tried to make shopping like a trip to the amusement park. Whole Foods made it a political statement. Even a visit to the grocery store can become a pilgrimage, so that when you find the milk hidden behind aisle 25 you are ready to bow down and thank the gods.

Chance and adventure may be the great advantages that bad books stores have over good ones. Last year, some 275,000 books were published in the United States. Most of those titles turn out to be familiar or uninteresting. Poring through all the books in a store to find something new and interesting is a game where the very improbability of success makes a good find all the more exciting. It’s the lotto scratch tickets of the educated class.

This is why I was so confused last week when I walked into St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York. I started walking around the store to try to find a treasure, but quickly became disoriented. Nearly every title seemed to have been carefully selected to appeal to someone of exactly my taste and interests. This meant that there were no hidden gems, just an incredible wealth hung out in the open and ready for the taking. At first I was excited to find so many good books. But I soon became bored. There was no fun or adventure. Through a detailed understanding of their typical customer, the store had created the perfect selection of books for me. But they had also taken the fun out of shopping. Where was the chance? The sense that I had “made a find?”

Though most American bookstores are likely to remain delightfully bad, shopping of all kinds is increasingly moving to the internet. There, detailed information can be collected on each person, enabling the careful tailoring of shopping experiences. The internet of the future, led by Google Ads and Amazon’s book suggestion service, is one where the purchase options we see are exactly what we want and nothing else. As these services are perfected, I suspect that there will be more and more of a desire to re-integrate randomness and adventure into online shopping.  If consumption is about the adventure of choice, what happens when we have programs that choose for consumers? Marketers may find that sales start to suffer as the means of selling become almost perfectly efficient. Without the dross, no one will believe that they have found gold. Mammon, it seems, demands mediocrity.

-Matthew Schmitz

June 16, 2009

Goodbye, Leningrad

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 11:34 am

Lenin on Moskovsky Prospekt, Petersburg

I’m leaving Saint Petersburg, Russia today, marking the end of a ten month stretch in the Northern Capital. All dispatches will now originate from Baltimore, MD. God bless the USA.

-Michael E. van Landingham

Obama re Iran not like Bush re Venezuala. Thank Goodness.

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:28 am

It seems to me that Obama is doing the right thing by not rushing to laud the guys in the street too publicly, too quickly. Too-early recognition of political changes in foreign countries can be embarrassing. Bush recognized the coup attempt against Chavez in Venezuela before the new regime had solidified power, and when Chavez ultimately emerged triumphant he scored a real victory against the United States in the court of international opinion.

Which is not to say that the United States shouldn’t be involved at some non-public level.

David Schaengold

June 15, 2009

No Two Things Are Alike: Hot in Herre

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 7:26 am

Cornell Haynes, Jr., commonly referred to as Nelly, released “Hot in Herre” in 2002 as the first single off of his semi-eponymous album Nellyville. No one could get enough of this song when it came out, and it remains a guilty pleasure of mine to this day. Before “Hot in Herre” the pop establishment regarded Nelly largely as a novelty rapper. He devoted the majority of his œuvre to popularizing Saint Louis, MO slang, a dialect based on drawling rhotics. One can see this trend in the title of today’s song. It isn’t hot in “here,” it’s hot in “herre.” Later the two-hit wonder Chingy would ride this trend to death with “Right Thurr.” After Nelly released the single it went straight to number one, and “Hot in Herre” is easily still one of the greatest club records of all time. It extols partying, dancing, and stripping. What more could one ask of a dance song for today’s youth?

I chose this song for a second reason beyond chronicaling the marginally laughable career of Nelly. “Hot in Herre” is the perfect exemplar of early 2000s rap because the Virginia Beach, VA producing duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, better known as the Neptunes, provided Nelly with their signature sound. The Neptunes revolutionized early aughts music, blurring the lines of pop and rap by infusing both with a version of austere, spacey funk. Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It 2 Me),” Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U,” and Mystikal’s “Shake It Fast,” benefit from  what is referred to as “the Neptunes sound.” (They also poplarized a degredation of orthographical norms, it seems.) Hugo and Pharrell took crude hip-hop beats to the next level. With a better understanding of melody and up-tempo drums  the dup produced more crossover hits than early rap could have dreamed. Pharrell also took the time to work with rappers’ lyrics and even act as a guest vocalist on tracks. Eventually Neptunes’ tracks developed sparser beats composed of less than five elements. (See: Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”)

Penthouse, rooftop birds he's feeding. Wait, what?

Penthouse, rooftop birds he's feeding. Wait, what?

The main hook of “Hot in Herre” comes from Chuck Brown’s 1979 song “Bustin’ Loose.” Nelly makes reference to this with the lyric, “‘Cause I feel like bustin’ loose/and I feel like touching you.” How nice. The Neptunes enmeshed the hook with their trademark sound through spaced-out synthesizers.

One can judge how effective a popular dance song is by how quickly it takes for the artist to yield to its chorus, and how engrossing said chorus is. While not quite “Turn My Swagg On,” “Hot in Herre” is all chorus. The introduction runs thirty seconds, Nelly spends about thirty seconds discussing his desire to dance, and then it’s straight to the chorus:

Mr. Haynes: It’s getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes

Anonymous Woman: I am getting too hot, I wanna take my clothes off

Here it is not clear whether Nelly is persuasive, or if he’s just arriving at a forgone conclusion given the heat of the club. After the chorus premieres, nothing Cornell, Jr. has to say is really important. He makes a few good points about the uselessness of being at a bar without bottle service, and of the purposelessness of fame when not instrumentalized for fornication with clothing models. Thus his exhortions run another thirty seconds until the next chorus. Followed by a nonsensical sketch about having a basement salon for ecdysiasts at his friend’s house, Nelly beats a path to the chorus to avoid people realizing how terrible of a rapper he actually is.

For a second time in a minute we are treated to an extended chorus containing details of what Nelly enjoys as expressed by heavy breathing. The song ends a sweaty three minutes after it began. It seems “Hot in Herre” is less a showcase of Nelly’s talents (save his humor) than it is for the Neptune’s skill in building a song around an artist. The production team transforms pop-rap inanity into danceability by hemming in the artist via an irresistible call-and-response chorus. This is why the Neptunes still have work and Nelly doesn’t.

-Michael E. van Landingham

June 12, 2009

Extremism Defined

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 1:01 pm

What with right-wing extremists running around killing abortion providers and attacking the Holocaust museum in D.C. (per the Department of Homeland Security’s prediction), and the subsequent attempt of some conservative talkers to call those maniacs liberal, I thought I’d offer a few definitions to help everyone out there. First things first: I am not talking about rank-and-file anyone here. That’s why I am using the term “extremists,” i.e. on the extreme, or periphery, of the political spectrum. Even unhelpful ideologues like Mark Levin on the right or Janeane Garafalo on the left don’t really fall into the “extremist” category. While I am sure they are one-percenters in some respects, they aren’t the tenth-of-a-percenters represented by anyone who would pick up a gun to murder a political opponent.

A right-wing extremist as obviated by the term is an extremist embracing right-wing ideology. Right-wing ideology at its logical extreme seeks to preserve a vision of a society endangered by current political trends or that is already lost to them. In the latter case the right-wing extremist seeks to overthrow the current order and reestablish a country’s former glory. A classic manifestation of this is a society threatened by immigration or growing ethnic minorities. For instance, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party became popular under the crushing weight of the Great Depression and humiliation brought about by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler’s goal was to recreate the Reich that had been lost, and win glory for the German people over all others. The current neo-Nazi and other ultra-nationalistic movements found in Russia are fed by the fear that migrant laborers will take over Holy Russia as its majority Great Russian ethnic group declines rapidly.

The Constitution and a strict interpretation of our founding document underpins a particularly American manifestation of right-wing extremism. These individuals believe the federal government to be illegitimate, income taxes to be illegal, and reject the monetary system. In particular these individuals fear any federal intervention in gun laws, a topic I wrote about earlier. This tends to lead to the creation of militias and the belief in conspiracy theories that a world government composed of the United Nations, Bildebergers, Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, etc. controls the United States. Some right-wing extremists influenced by rabid religiosity may also equate abortion laws to the Holocaust and feel strongly enough about them to justify murdering doctors who perform the procedure. Similar to Nazis, they would favor criminalizing homosexuality. (It should be noted here that homosexuality was also illegal in the Soviet Union, a decidedly left-wing state. In this instance, though it was ascribed to bourgeois sexual decadence.)

Thus American right-wing extremists usually want to return the United States to a pre-World War I style of governance including isolationism and a gold standard, favor removing all non-European ethnicities or at least stripping them of rights, and reject all forms of left-wing politics. This is why we see an uptick of right-wing terrorist activity during leftist administrations and economic downturns. The fact our current president is half black only fuels the right-wing extremists’ rage.

Left-wing extremists, on the other hand, draw most of their inspiration from Marxist theory and previous anti-government revolutions that have overthrown autocratic governments. They would like to see the demise of private enterprise, the dissolution of national boundaries and the family unit, and favor radical equality. Though the goal is the withering of the state, it usually becomes more powerful as the revolutionaries seek to carry out their agenda. In the United States these left-wing extremists manifest themselves as anti-war activists fighting the “imperial intentions” of the government, anarchists against globalization, or as ecological terrorists who would use violence to halt what they consider detrimental projects. The Weather Underground during Vietnam, the Seattle WTO riots, and the Environmental Liberation Front represent these groups respectively. Additionally, they have championed environmental causes more than the right and oppose Second Amendment rights. The right tends to look at these as causes capable of expanding government, something directly opposed to their ideology.

Lastly we have anti-Semitism. Both left and right can be anti-Semitic. Recently, the decidedly left-wing Jeremiah Wright accused the “Jews” and “Zionists” from AIPAC of keeping him from the President. Nowadays many left-wing extremists decry Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Palestinians, and often this takes a turn towards anti-Semitism. Disagreeing with Israeli domestic and foreign policy alone is not grounds to call someone an anti-Semite in and of itself, though. In their hatred of outside influence and powerful government coalitions, right-wing extremists embrace anti-Semitism as a tool to root out a group that could otherwise “pass” a superficial skin color test. They cite the relative number of Jews in society versus influential positions held by Jews as evidence of a conspiracy.

I should also point out that 9/11 Truthers, like anti-Semites, come in both left- and right-wing varieties. The left-wingers are anti-Bush and tend to believe his administration planned 9/11 to gain support for the war in Iraq. Right-wing Truthers most likely believe it some sort of neoconservative (a group with many prominent Jewish members) and/or Jewish plot to do something or other. I haven’t really read up on that part.

So while right- and left-wing extremists may hate the same groups (multinational corporations, Israel, etc.), they hate them for different reasons. In many respects it isn’t a question of who they hate, but why they hate, even if they end up in the same place.

-Michael E. van Landingham

June 11, 2009

Libertarianism’s Flawed Anthropology

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 5:34 pm

Michael van Landingham has praised libertarianism:

The libertarian ideal is fantastic, and I believe we should strive towards it. Yet in a pluralistic society composed of humans who are far from mental, financial, or racial peers, regulation is a necessity. Libertarianism may function in homogeneous societies where everyone has a similar background, education, and life experiences, but I cannot see a feasible method of implementation for a society as diverse as America.

Michael is right that libertarianism can’t work in America, but would libertarianism work better anywhere else? Homogeneous societies like, say, Sweden are able to guarantee “similar background, and life experiences” through expressly non-libertarian social welfare and educational guarantees. If they became libertarian, they would eventually lose the very characteristics that make them seem welcoming to libertarianism.

The larger reason that libertarianism can never work is that it is mistaken about the nature of human beings. We are not independent, rational actors but rather creatures living in various states of dependence on family, friends, and society at large. The insight expressed by Alasdair Macintyre in Dependent Rational Animals is the same that we see in Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel-winning psychology. Both point away from libertarianism’s anthropology.

As one would expect, the gap between libertarianism’s idea of the independent man and the reality of dependence bubbles up in all sorts of unpleasant ways. The existence of a human living in a state of dependence — like a fetus or a patient on a feeding tube–becomes a challenge to this ideology, which may be why, in many cases, it threatens their survival.

-Matthew Schmitz

Why Regulating Banks Is a Good Idea

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 4:36 pm

There are many laissez-faire economists out there, and I sympathize with them. It is a wonderful idea to believe that companies looking out solely for their bottom line can be countered by consumers looking our for number one. I was with this group until the economic crisis, when it became clear that when banks and other brokerage houses went unregulated the consumer would suffer. Many would argue that laissez-faire in this case didn’t work because it wasn’t truly deregulation, just as a lot of communist apologists argue the Soviet Union collapsed because it wasn’t committed enough to Marxist ideals. What shook me to the core the most was former Federal Reserve chairman and economic superman Alan Greenspan’s admission that his fundamental understanding of the capitalist system was flawed—he always believed companies would work in the best interest of their shareholders. Surprise! They don’t. With bonuses, golden parachutes, and economic shell games operated by Ivy League graduates with no qualification other than being Ivy League graduates, companies partook in the orgy of cash without making any concrete plans for the future.

The libertarian ideal is fantastic, and I believe we should strive towards it. Yet in a pluralistic society composed of humans who are far from mental, financial, or racial peers, regulation is a necessity. Libertarianism may function in homogeneous societies where everyone has a similar background, education, and life experiences, but I cannot see a feasible method of implementation for a society as diverse as America.

Case in point is the suit against Wells Fargo currently sitting in a federal court in Baltimore. The City of Baltimore is suing Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending practices, backed up by affidavits from two former loan officers. What does Charm City allege Wells Fargo did? Instead of giving qualified black applicants prime loans, they were switching them to subprime offers that garnered the company tens of thousands more in interest. These aren’t the unqualified buyers many blame for living beyond their means, but rather people who made more than the average American household income. People who would have received a prime loan if they were white. According to the loan officers Wells Fargo employees engaged in the following practices:

Loan officers employed other methods to steer clients into subprime loans, according to the affidavits. Some officers told the underwriting department that their clients, even those with good credit scores, had not wanted to provide income documentation.

Other times, she said, loan officers cut and pasted credit reports from one applicant onto the application of another customer.

“By doing this, the loan flipped from prime to subprime,” Ms. Jacobson said. “But there was no need for that; many of these clients had W2 forms.”

Such dishonesty also encouraged no small amount of racism towards the customers. It also goes without saying the bonuses Wells Fargo offered to employees for making subprime loans encouraged predatory lending.

The libertarian true believer could say that customers who took the cash deserved what they got because they didn’t shop around. What if every business engaged in these lending practices, though, and what if there was not reason behind the discrimination (which is illegal anyway)? The ideal free market is based on complete information, and customers in this case were not only deprived of information, but they were discriminated against with extreme prejudice. This isn’t a transaction in Galt’s Gulch between two self-made millionaires haggling over the cost of cobbler’s services; it is a lopsided transaction between a gigantic corporation and an individual buyer. The playing field will never be level, but regulation can help.

If Wells Fargo did commit the acts alleged, I hope Baltimore can recoup some losses. For me this affair, as well as the current crisis, underscore the need to regulate banks.

-Michael E. van Landingham

Thursday Movie Still: Summer Hours

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 12:20 pm

I don’t see many movies while they’re in distribution, but Summer Hours seemed like it would make a worthy exception. The film is about three siblings whose mother dies, leaving them to divide her estate, consisting of an old chateau and a number of works of art, including two paintings by Corot and two panels by Odilon Redon. It’s difficult to assess a film whose moral stance I understand and accept so whole-heartedly, but as a film it skirts perilously close to failure. Nonetheless, there are a few well composed shots, and one of real beauty when the protagonist has learned that his siblings want to sell off the estate and he retires to a bedroom, overcome by his disappointment. The shot is closed effectively by the film’s first fade-to-black, though they suddenly multiply near the film’s end, as if the director couldn’t figure out how to tie the final scenes together.

In this frame the film achieves some real visual beauty, even if it’s composed a bit academically:

summer-hours-l-heure-d-ete-3There are several indicators throughout the film that the director is aware of the imperative to avoid sentimentality in a film about a dying mother and selling off old and cherished objects. One of the siblings pointedly distinguishes the sentimental value and the “real” value — that is, the exchange value — of various artifacts. The sibling who wants to try to keep the estate intact seems unable to articulate why his desire isn’t mere sentiment, and this inarticulacy is the heart of the film.

Despite this admirable understanding, the director occasionally sabotages his own project by giving in to sentimentality. The early scenes of the film are colored by a moral sepia-tone, and even the innocence of the camera is compromised by close shots of  hands squeezed tight with love, long shots of the family at table, close-ups of affectionate sibling grimaces, and the whole nauseating Kodak mess. Even these early scenes don’t go entirely off the rails thanks to some understated acting and scrupulously realistic settings, and the film improves rapidly once it has painted this kitschy portrait of togetherness.

My chief complaint is that the score, though heard with blessed infrequency, is a mawkish jangle of strings and harp meant only to signify that the audience should be feeling appropriately wistful. It indicates a lack of confidence in the integrity of the scenes where it is heard. The film would be significantly improved by its complete elision.

Despite all these complaints, Summer Hours will certainly be one of the better reels to grace American screens this year, and it gestures towards themes and ideas relevant to anyone interested in the relation of personal value, exchange value, and beautiful objects.

David Schaengold

June 10, 2009

Cyclo-Flanerie, Blogged

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:12 am


I called for bicyclists to slow down, sit up straight, and take off their helmets. Now there is a blog, and a manifesto.

David Schaengold

June 9, 2009

Ethnicity vs. Nationality

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:53 am

Mark Thompson and Freddie trade posts on whether the identification of a state with an ethnic identity necessarily leads to atavistic polices. First Freddie, with his radically anti-communitarian liberalism:

Any notion that a state has a distinct religious, ethnic or racial character is corrosive to genuine democracy.

Then Mark, suggesting that ethnic or racial communities may play a role in founding democracies, but eventually should allow themselves to be dissolved into the pluralistic melting pot.

The conversation reads as bizarrely ahistorical to me. A nation is different from an ethnicity, and indeed the two are historically opposed. Nations are the products of states, and are stable at the order of centuries. A nation is a (largely invented!) unity of genome, language, land, and sometimes religion.  Ethnicities are the raw material fashioned by states into nations, and are usually unstable over centuries because they rarely represent more than one kind of unity — linguistic, geographic, genetic, religious, or social. (It’s important to bracket Anglo-American history, because it’s exceptional. The English “nation” was indeed invented, but like the English constitution largely by accident, because of the Black Plague and the defeat of the Plantagenet claim in the Hundred Years’ War. In contradistinction, the French nation was created at the expense of the Savoyards, the Breton language, the people of Berry, by a combination of deliberate violence, deliberate marginalization, and the economic disruption brought about by the Industrial Revolution.)

It’s also worth noting that the kind of  liberalism Freddie espouses, the rights he thinks (and most Americans think) universal, were first articulated as the rights of Englishmen. This is famously the irony of the 18th century, of course. Modern liberalism, with all its universalist aspirations, was invented in nation-states, the most explicitly anti-universal form of state organization yet conceived.

All of this to agree with Mark. Either polities that aspire to universality must have something other than the state to hold them together, or the state will hold them together by tyrannical suppression of local loyalties.

David Schaengold

June 8, 2009

Being Poor Is Not as Fun as Pretending to Be Poor

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 8:31 am

The author found in the extreme upper right expresses his distate for Brooklyn hipsters.

The author (upper right) averts his eyes from the horror that are Brooklyn hipsters.

The New York Times confirms a stereotype: hipsters’ parents pay their rent. I balked when I heard that many youthful residents of  Brooklyn are trust fund babies, thinking of the few people I’ve known with actual multimillion dollar trust funds. Instead of the super rich, though, most people use it to mean kids whose parents pay for their children’s expensive rent in a hot real estate market. Some hipsters actually do have investment income, and it is common for the average down and out Williamsburger never to have held a paying job:

Luis Illades, an owner of the Urban Rustic Market and Cafe on North 12th Street, said he had seen a steady number of applicants, in their late 20s, who had never held paid jobs: They were interns at a modeling agency, for example, or worked at a college radio station. In some cases, applicants have stormed out of the market after hearing the job requirements.

I always believed a crucial part of being jaded, hip, and starving is having a job you hate. It is a badge of honor to work the worst, dirtiest job possible but to maintain your dignity, creativity, and self-sufficiency. As a bonus you get some great stories to tell your friends over cheap beer, and the knowledge that cheap beer is all you can afford. This is why real hipsters live in Baltimore: housing is cheap, danger abounds, and National Bohemian flows like (and costs about as much as) water.

Being subsidized curtails real self-exploration and independence. If you do not have to agonize over choices like taking the subway or walking the two miles to save the fare, going to a concert or eating, then you can never lay any claim to proper adulthood and maturity. And you never yearn to move beyond the poverty of youth to some successful career. In other words, and quite obviously, you never learn to work.

It is one thing for parents to subsidize studying children. I consider that a gift capable parents are happy to offer their children. Such support should not preclude employment to earn money to help foot the bill, either. Using your parents money to “find” yourself after four years of “finding yourself” as an undergraduate is  downright shameless. But I suppose all the time it takes to discover new bands, shop for ironic clothing, engage in reckless behavior, and look for discontinued Polaroid film is a full time job.

-Michael E. van Landingham

June 5, 2009

Some Theology for Shabbat

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:55 pm

I’ve let a pair of posts that I meant to blog about lie a-mouldering for more than a month. They are (1.) a post by David Goldman about Jewish-Christian dialogue and (2.) James Poulos’ response. That this is a question of some special significance to me, as a Jew-by-blood having become Catholic, perhaps explains my hesitance in chiming in.

Goldman writes that the proper object of Jewish-Christian dialogue is not mere goodwill between historical enemies but an end to “the intolerable pain of the division of Israel.”

Poulos’ final line, which should be inscribed on the doorposts of every seminary in the world*, points to the eschatological nature of this reconciliation:

Christians looking for a way to fight back against the ‘purification’ of Christianity into a “celebration of an ethics of love” would be extremely well-served to reflect upon the inextricably and inescapably Jewish quality of their uncannily un-Jewish faith.

Properly incarnated Catholicism, in other words, is Jewish Catholicism. The less Schleiermacher, Hegel and Tillich we have in our Christendom, the more Jewish it will be. So, incarnation (unsurprisingly) brings about the eschatological unity of Israel and the Church.

This talk of “eschatological unity” has often and understandably been a source of anxiety for Jews. If all Jews converted as I did, after all, it would mean the end of the Jewish people as a people. A conversion of the Church towards the Jews is therefore as necessary as a conversion of the Jews towards Christ. The requisite conversion is away from every kind of generality — in our era, the generalized “ethic of love” — towards the incarnation of G-d in Jewish flesh, towards the particularity and thus the Jewishness of the faith, a Jewishness uncanny because it is underneath Christianity though not Christian, and furthermore neither diasporal nor  Zionist but a precise inversion of the diaspora and a perfection of Zionism: where the Jews were scattered among the peoples, now all the various peoples are gathered into Zion. As Zechariah wrote:

And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the L-RD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.

What this eschatological Sukkot will look like I don’t know – and I doubt anyone can know in advance – nor do I know how to bring it about. I do think that Poulos’ exhortation is a good place for Christians to start.

*[in now way competing with or adding to the words of the Torah, which should also be thereinscribed, of course]

David Schaengold

Obama Speech Reaction

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:58 am

We don’t do very much foreign policy on this blog, so let me point you to a really excellent article responding to Obama’s speech by Jennifer Bryson on Public Discourse. She points out that despite the billing, Obama’s speech wasn’t really addressed to “the Muslim World.”

David Schaengold

June 4, 2009

Marriage is Meaningless Without Plurality

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:48 pm

Schwenkler and Poulos on why marriage is political. Do read it all. What it means is that the argument about gay marriage really is about whether we think homosexual sexual unions as a class should be recognized as good. This is a question we are not competent to decide as a polity. For one thing, gay couples would be offended that we are talking about the worth of their relationships. For another, as MacIntyre would say, we don’t have the right set of concepts even to start talking about worthy or unworthy sexual relationships. So, given the thrust of public opinion, either we’ll get private marriage, or gay marriage. The latter seems much preferable, even to a reactionary like me. Gay marriage might lead to the destruction of the institution of marriage, but privatizing marriage would be the destruction of the institution.

David Schaengold

June 3, 2009

Proposal for Copyright Reform

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 1:48 pm

Yglesias and Megan McArdle offer a pair of interesting posts on copyright law. Perhaps because most Americans don’t think copyright law is something they should care about, copyright law is transparently written at the behest of large corporations. Yglesias points out that never-ending copyright extensions have the effect of “orphaning” the vast body of  work that does not anchor multi-billion dollar media corporations:

After all, most decades-old works aren’t valuable. And most aren’t owned by large ongoing business enterprises. But even though this vast back catalog consists of works with little monetary value, they could still each individually be of interest to some people and collectively they’re of enormous use. But right now, if you stumble across something old and forgotten, it’s often not clear how you would even go about getting the rights to it. Oftentimes a person may not even know that he or she is the heir to an obscure copyright owned by a great-uncle or some such.

Ideally, we’d write fair laws that served the public, Disney’s lobbyists notwithstanding. Since that isn’t an option, what if we allowed copyrights to expire with the author’s death by default, but provided an option to apply for an automatic extension of a few decades?  Those with an interest in continuing to monetize their right to a work, whether the Disney Corporation or J.K. Rowling’s heirs, would apply for the extension; those who don’t care, or whose rights are effectively worthless — the great majority of copyright-holders — wouldn’t. Such a system would protect the corporate interest currently controlling copyright legislation while also allowing forgotten work to be republished or made available on Project Gutenburg.

David Schaengold

Why Bother with Euphemism?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 8:46 am

The torture debate in America today is bifurcated into two groups, each of which has its own rhetoric on the issue. The first group, largely Democratic, couches waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, etc. as either independently torture, or as having the cumulative effect of torture when used in concert. The second group, largely Republican but also including the media, acknowledges that torture does exist, but that the above techniques are simply “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). Furthermore, the second group holds to the maxim that nothing the United States can do is torture, because a fundamental tenet of the United States is that we do not torture. Teleologically, then, the United States is incapable of torture. Former President George W. Bush went on record in 2005 saying something to this effect, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had this to say to The Economist:

As a British court noted, waterboarding is not torture. Waterboarding has been routinely used to train American pilots in the military to understand what interrogation techniques they might encounter. The reference to the Khmer Rouge is the kind of moral equivalence President Reagan warned against in his “Evil Empire” speech in 1983. The Khmer Rouge killed millions of people, annihilated the Cambodian intellectuals, and was among the worst inhumane movements in the last century. The United States has used specific enhanced interrogation techniques in specific circumstances against very high-level terrorists for the purpose of saving innocent civilian lives, not for taking them.

I cannot for the life of me understand why the advocates for torturous EITs do not just call a spade a spade and man up to what they are doing. Instead of engaging in the legal tap dance that Bush 43 detailed last Friday and in the past, why not just call it torture. That may not be popular, but everyone knows that is what waterboarding is, and what it has been classified as for hundreds of years since it was known as the “water cure.”

A new poll by the AP shows that a slight majority of Americans (52%) believe torture—no description given, just torture—”is at least sometimes justified to obtain information about terrorist activities from suspects, an increase from 38 percent in 2005 when the AP last asked the question.” In light of this increasing number of Americans who think good old torture is justified, why didn’t the Bush administration, or any of the supporters of EITs/torture for that matter, just make an honest argument to the American people? Nothing binds us to our treaties, and with enough pressure I’m sure the Bush White House could have gotten the authorization for the once Republican-controlled Congress to do whatever it wanted to anyone labeled a terrorist.

Yet only a few are willing to say with any sincerity, “Yes, let’s torture all of them.” I suppose this is the nature of politics, to be unwilling to tell the truth even when the truth is evident. If they really listened to what Americans want, though, they may find the strength to advocate torture in earnest. This would not give them the moral high ground, however, but is this debate not similar to so many other moral quandaries facing America? We allow plenty of amoral and immoral things, and use the convenience of distance to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

-Michael E. van Landingham

June 2, 2009

Believing Seriously in Grace

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:19 pm

One of Mark Shea’s readers writes in about grace and Dr. Tiller:

However we feel about him, whatever his status is now in the afterlife, Mr. Tiller is a brother in Christ, baptized into the name above all names and thus bound to our union of faith forever. I ask that prayers be made for his soul, and indulgences be offered to him. If he did manage to scrape through and join the blessed lambs on Christ’s right hand side–and I believe God is more merciful in these matters than we can ever begin to comprehend–it is my proposal that we should work to ensure his time in purgatory is very brief.

He knows the truth now. If the truth has indeed set him free, he will be a most powerful ally to us through his intercessions.

A moral-philosophical point: Tiller, though his crimes were objectively much graver than his murderer’s, may be more innocent. It seems entirely possible that he did not think the baby-shaped mammals he killed were people, and was therefore in some sense innocent of their blood. It is possible that he was a Christian of perfect sincerity — even that he was a saint.

David Schaengold

June 1, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Tokyo Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 5:29 pm

After a two-week hiatus, the Monday Movie Still is back, with Ozu’s Tokyo Story. The film’s visual composition is almost exhaustively allegorical. This frame is typical. Ozu is concerned with exits and entrances, into and out of cities, and into and out of life, and his scenes are almost exclusively established and closed by empty architectural space through which the actors will pass.


David Schaengold

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