Thursday, May 31, 2007
I finished Godel Escher Bach last evening while watching the latest installment of the Soprano series on A & E.
I found that I didn't have patience for the endless simple math problems he poses, so what I did is skip over 600 pages looking for straight prose. I also couldn't stand the poor quality of his dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise (almost zero beauty, frankly). I'm used to reading Shakespeare or at the very least Edward Lear. Hofstadter can't write beautifully. The last paragraph in each chapter is better than the rest and could be read to get the gist.
Hofstadter can think but I don't think he thinks deeply. What I liked came at the very end of the book when he is talking about something called Bongard problems. I stopped and read every line carefully. Unfortunately there were only 16 pages about Bongard's problems. You can read a tiny account here:
I liked the simple elegance of the problems. I confess I don't have a lot of patience for this kind of problem. On IQ tests when they have verbal questions I fly through them and get them all right. This kind of picture can be figured out but I resent the notion that they are culturally-unbound and totally objective. Once you get a sense of the patterns they are a lot easier. If you are used to thinking about what is convex and what is concave, for instance, you get some of them more quickly. They require a very high visual-mathematics vocabulary and if you are caught up in that area, you can get the pattern recognition ballgame going pellmell. Once you get used to thinking like this, the answers come bing bang bong. But I don't have the patience to try out all kinds of different visual paradigms. I don't know why, but I don't. It's partially because if I get them right it's not aesthetically satisfying to me, and if I get them wrong, I'm frustrated. So there is no pay-off either way. It doesn't seem to be me you learn anything about the world through the Bongard problems. You just learn what a bunch of jerks scientists are to not understand that one can acquire tremendous speed if you do anything a lot.
I much prefer the verbal world where there is the possibility of aesthetic payoff, and where there is the possibility of learning history, psychology, humor, and the other aspects of the humanities.
What is odd in the book is that so little of it is about humanity. He does talk about the problem of computer chess. He says (this was published in 1979) that over the previous period of ten years many had thought that chess computers were going to start to destroy their human competitors on account of their speed of intellect. Deeper Blue could study 200,000,000 positions in a second in the mid-1990s. But something deeper than blue is going on in chess which has to do with ability to rapidly change paradigms. Humans and even animals are better at this than computers. A deer that's running from a leopard can suddenly veer right and throw the leopard off. For some reason computers can only do what you tell them to do, and it's really hard for them to suddenly switch tracks. Deeper Blue was designed solely to play Kasparov and the designers had studied hundreds of his games, but Kasparov was not permitted to study Deeper Blue's games. Hofstadter argues that this is what makes natural intelligence different from artificial intelligence. There are some computers who can beat chess masters in one or two games, but then the master will adjust and destroy the computer program. So even at highly rational games humans still win so long as they are permitted to study the games of the computer program. I am a chess amateur but can throttle my chess computer at home after discovering its vulnerability to queen traps.
Hofstadter's observation: computers don't have emotions. That's true. I can gloat over my win at the chess computer but it's useless. And this is striking. On p. 675 there's a vignette about a little girl named Margie whose balloon has broken. Hofstadter argues that it would be almost impossible for a computer to cry over such a thing the way Margie does, but that eventually this will be possible to achieve.
Hofstadter writes, "Balloons can break on contact with any sharp point. Once they are broken, they are gone forever. Little children love balloons and can be bitterly disappointed when they break. Margie saw that her balloon was broken. Children cry when they are sad. 'To cry and cry' is to cry very long and hard. Margie cried and cried because of her sadness at her balloon's breaking" (675).
This was virtually the only emotion in the volume. It's a simple emotion. But it's also complex. Kids cry over broken balloons. I can't stand the loudness of it, or the lack of rationality. And so I try to argue my own tots out of it, and am sometimes furious. But when I read this simple vignette I thought about what an ogre I am not to see balloons from their perspective which Hofstadter takes with a kind of affecting simplicity.
Hofstadter argues that when computers get around to crying over broken balloons then we will have created life. I wouldn't dance the watusi quite yet.
When Tony Soprano at Christmas is depressed because he is constantly reminded of his friend Pussy it's a completely useless emotion. And yet he can't shake it. He loved Pussy. And when you love someone, even as a friend, and then you shoot them for turning into an FBI informant, as Tony did, one can feel complex if useless emotions.
We aren't computers. We have useless emotions, and they are beautiful. It's something God gave us as he wrote a moral code on our hearts, and heart is something that I don't think we can give to computers. Computers will never be able to celebrate holidays like Christmas.
Will a computer ever write rich music, or paint a beautiful picture, or be able to cry at a funeral? Hofstadter thinks so. Can a computer feel guilt? Hofstadter thinks yes, eventually.
He thinks that underlying the most complex behavior are rigid rules and laws. That's what his book sets out to promote. His book is very similar to Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained, in which Dennett argues that we are very complex algorhythms that have evolved out of algae. The secular left gobbles these books up so that they can laugh at Christians.
I see them as a babbling tower of hubris.
God exists, even if He doesn't compute.
That's how Christians return the volley of laughter.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Sunday, May 27, 2007
1. Poetry is risked and fevered thinking -- Gregory Corso.
That's the only poetry quote that I know or that comes to mind. I'll try to add a few more general observations.
In surrealism poetry is an admixture of the unusual and the usual.
It seems to depend on category mistakes.
The morning star is also the evening star. This is noted by Gottlob Frege. To me at least it's poetic to notice this.
Whereas science aims at exact knowledge poetry is interested in the ambiguous, the undecidable, and always has set up its shop there. Recently philosophy and mathematics have given up on exact knowledge and have opened the door to poetry and art, and so have become more poetic. Meanwhile some artists have moved toward bizarre aspects of mathematics so the fields are coming together.
The hot fudge sundae was originally a poetic dessert. Hotness and coldness together. It's now of course a commonplace. But the point of poetry is to find odd new combinations that no one would think would work, and to make them compute deliciously.
Unlike most poets I don't know a lot of other poets. I read stories of them in congregations talking to one another while smoking cigarettes and drinking cylinders that contain a beverage with a high alcohol content while making porn films.
I rarely talk to anyone besides myself, and even then I try to keep it down. So I am not even sure that I am a poet, and my shoe size is 7 and a half.
I tag all five of my readers.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Here's a few books I intend to devour over the next month.
Godel Escher Bach, by Hofstadter.
Bachofen's Mother Right (in French).
Classical Mythology, ed. Stephen Harris (4th Edition).
The second two are for my myth class that opens online in about six weeks. First, Hofstadter. While reading the first chapter of Hoftstadter's book he opened the notion of the slippery logic of Bach's overtures and how they go along with Escher's drawings and form what he calls a Strange Loop.
And it occurred to me that the communist-capitalist debate was a snake swallowing its own tail, or in plain English, a
Capitalism at its worst (19th century industrial capitalism) creates the idea of socialism.
Socialism at its worst (20th century communism under Pol Pot or under Joe Stalin) creates the return of the idea of pure capitalism.
On a lesser scale the Democrats try to push socialism, and for a few years it seems to be working until we reach the law of diminishing returns, and then it's the Republicans' turn.
The Republicans then push the hard line of unbridled capitalism until we reach the law of diminishing returns, and then it's the Democrats' turn.
Our economy thus regulates itself between pure competition and pure altruism, neither of which is quite human. The yingyangs of Pyongyang end up with a fascist communism: a Moebius striptease in which all the vestments of the economy disappear as the nation suffers famine and finally collapses in a scorched earth policy.
Fascism on the other hand creates an underground economy of mutual aid so that there is a de facto underground socialism in operation (the Christians under Nero), but it too must ultimately collapse in favor of something more natural. Liberal democracy is natural, as natural as the strange loops of Hofstadter.
Democrat/Republican is thus a self-regulating Strange Loop. As long as the voting is fair, I think the party balance will regulate itself according to what needs to be in order for there to be a fair and balanced polity.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
What communists and fascists seem to share is that competition should be closed. Communists want to control the economy. So, if you want toilet paper there is only one place to go for it. The communist toilet paper factory. I was told by many former Eastern European friends that the quality of communist toilet paper was invariably waxy and rough as brown lunch paper and that no one would have ever bought it if there had been any competition whatsoever.
Fascist toilet paper is probably just as bad. Is there any difference? Where you don't have competition you get lousy service, which for LS will be symbolized by bad toilet paper.
The major notion of all those who don't like competition seems to be that a closed number of people are divinely anointed to rule whether this is by birth (monarchy) or by virtue of their political sainthood (communism) or through some notion that they are among the elect (Calvinism) or just the toughest sons of bitches around (fascism).
I like an elective representation where everyone can run for office and where everyone can freely compete and we choose the best. Democrats now take me for granted since I voted for them for three decades. However, I've recently decided that they may not be the best for me, and for my particular butt.
I like toilet paper factories to compete in price and softness and toughness for my American butt.
I like in sports when everybody gets to run from the starting line and may the best man win: whether it's Jesse Owens or whoever the Nazis were trumpeting at that particular Olympics.
An NBA where everyone is "handicapped" according to size and speed and skill makes no sense to me.
I want the best team to win.
Western society is best equipped at present to present its citizens with the finest goods at the best prices. We have the best universities, the best factories, the best way of life, all because competition is more or less guaranteed.
Competition is a good. This is one of the main things that sets us off from all our competitors.
I want a president who understands this. I don't want a president who says that we can't compete, or that we ought to close shop, or that we aren't fit to compete. I want a president, like I want a boss, like I want students, who have some drive and some pride to do their best.
This world is Darwinian. There is no way around that. Companies that don't function on that basis should fold. Communities that don't function should fold. Artists whose work nobody wants should fold. Students who don't want to do the work should do something else. There should be no giveaways.
There has to be a few caveats: retarded people and children and utter lunatics should not have to compete with fully grown adults. I'm talking fairness here. Anyone who really can't compete or is somehow hors de concours (out of the running) deserves to avoid the whistle.
There is still room for love (unconditional). Anyone who has been blown up in a mine explosion should have a couple weeks to recover before they're back in the mines. A smart kid of a miner should have an equal chance to attend Harvard and become a screechy little lawyer or a bad-tempered president with a Bushy moustache.
I'm not sure what the best way to assure this would be: but put me down on the side of the meritocracy. I want the best art, the best automobile mechanic, and most importantly, the best toilet paper. I want the notion of the best to bring out the best in all of us. I'm saying this entirely so as to protect my own butt.
And underneath it, in the shadows and the cracks of our lives of merciless competition, let us love our children and teach them every trick in our books to help them survive when it comes their turn to run their leg of the race for survival. It's Darwinian. It's programmed into us. Let's enjoy it, folks.
And let's never turn our butts over to the communists. They promise us a rosy toilet paper that is utopian in its scent and softness. But they give us a rough world where nothing works: the waxy build-up clogs the toilets and the whole world stinks and it's a literal pain in the ass.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
I associate the term with Mussolini. It seems very far from American reality. I looked it up at Wikipedia and there was a long rambling article that seemed to provide a point only to take it back in the next paragraph. Does this definition from Wikipedia suffice:
- "1. a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions; 2. belief one’s group is the victim, justifying any action without legal or moral limits; 3. need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts; 4. right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint; 5. fear of foreign `contamination."
Aside from a cult or two such as that of Jonestown, or the Branch Davidians in Waco, I don't see any American Christian group that is remotely similar to that description.
I wonder how much the notion that the Christian right is fascist is a kind of scapegoating. The French scholar Rene Girard talked in his many books about how scapegoating is the very basis of a society. That in a sense society stands on those it abhors -- so thus feminism exists as a group only insofar as they scapegoat men, Marxists exist as a group only insofar as they vilify the rich, anarchists stand as a group only insofar as they demonize the state and its bureaucrats.
The right would work in a similar way demonizing those who riot, those who live outside of marriage, those who practice homosexual acts in the bathrooms of filthy bars, etc.
The politics of the American south under Jim Crow would stand only insofar as they could demonize blacks, and in doing so justify withholding voting and other civil rights.
Each group looks for damning examples among the group they intend to vilify in order to deny them Civil Rights.
Nazism would find certain Jews or Jewish practices and vilify them.
Against this very odd notion that society works on scapegoating (I think certain subgroups do work on this basis) James Madison posited the notion that everyone is evil, and self-centered (scapegoating only acknowledges that the Other is evil). Madison's notion is that evil balances evil, and faction balances faction, and that this would create a stronger polity than allowing one faction of supposed do-gooders and perfect people to run the polity. Madison's right. And Madison is the basis of American politics. He framed the Bill of Rights such that there would never be one party, or one church, that got the upper hand and became the Established Party, or the Established Church.
As long as the Bill of Rights holds, I think we're in pretty good shape. If everyone was only willing to see that they never speak in the name of the good, but only in terms of their own selfish interests, I think we'd all be a little better off. As soon as one group appropriates the moral high ground and demonizes others all the rest of us can do is laugh. However, if that group gets political power (as too often happened in Marxist countries) then the killing fields begins.
One of the funniest aspects to this is that the left is often filled with idealistic people who actually are good people. They are a little soft in the head, but they are good people. Somehow, they don't understand that if they take over the government, then the unscrupulous step in and use the abrogation of law to their benefit.
Fascism is the case when any group who thinks they are good arrogate all power to themselves.
The solution: Federalist Letter #10 by James Madison.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I finished the book on Canarsie last evening. I enjoyed the description but the prescription?
First, the author seems to more or less admit that firebombs, racial invective hurled at school children, threats of violence, and boycotts accomplished what going through the legal channels and bureaucratic process could not. He even implies that the mafia finished what no amount of overt protest could finish.
Bussing was slowed to a trickle, and Canarsie children were more or less entitled not to be bussed into neighborhoods where they would be harassed or in some cases killed.
All because something called The Italian League stepped into the fray.
"True to its southern Italian heritage, the league excelled in clandestine maneuvering behind the scenes, skirting bureaucratic rules in favor of personal forms of intercession."
This sounds like Tony Soprano and his boys.
"Breaking up fights, containing intemperate residents, and maintaining order, the league provided a paramilitary force to secure peace" (220).
The book ends with a mysterious gushing of air as from a tire gone flat. The residents of Canarsie came to distrust the Democratic party and its institutions and took a hard right turn. They voted overwhelmingly for Reagan in the 1980 election. Jonathan Rieder argues that it needn't have been so, but the Democrats saw only one side in the bussing issues of the day, and they ignored and laughed at concerns by the white lower middle-class -- making them out to be Archie Bunkers.
"For a variety of reasons, liberals did not sympathize with the suffering of people like those who live in Canarsie: white discontent was morally less compelling than the black plight; a significant portion of white resistance stemmed from ugly racism; and some liberals held stereotypes that denied the progressive strains in Middle America. As a result, left-liberals, and to an important extent the Democratic party, yielded up the center of the political spectrum and the social pyramid. Brooklyn Jews and Italians did not simply bolt from the Democratic party, they were also driven out of it" (262).
The author concludes that the propensity toward generosity or toward selfishness in any community is something that can move back and forth from a warlike attitude to a more peaceful and harmony-seeking attitude.
"Canarsians rallied to conservatives and Republicans in part because liberals and Democrats did not address their immediate practical and spiritual concerns... Instead, left-liberalism hardened into an orthodoxy of the privileged classes" (262).
To some extent the Democrats are still in that posture. The extremely wealthy of the blue states (who identify with bluebloods like John Kerry with 26 mansions under his belt and yet who talk about the pu-or between bites of caviar or the likes of John Edwards who can afford a 400 dollar haircut) as they ride roughshod in their limousines over the skulls of the lower middle class.
What comes to the fore is that when your neighborhood is under attack by limousine liberals who control the levers of government and who want to relocate the pu-or in your neighborhood and ship your kids into dangerous neighborhoods (while their own kids attend private schools), you need an organization.
Against the notion that socialist bureaucrats can fix a given situation, there is also the notion that the market will sort a situation out. Since Canarsie retained its safe neighborhoods and nice housing (a typical two-bedroom in Canarsie goes for half a million today), only those of some wealth can afford to live there. And class is more important than race the author implicitly argues. If everyone living in a neighborhood is fairly well-off, there is little or no crime. Race has no meaning whatsoever next to class. However, if the limousine liberals plunk a project with 4000 residents in the midst of a good neighborhood, there goes the neighborhood. Shortly the neighbors to the projects move to the suburbs. Middle-class blacks who lived in Canarsie didn't want their kids bussed, or projects built next to their homes either. But the city planners did it anyway, trying to take blight out of the ghetto by moving it to functioning neighborhoods. But in the process they only killed the functioning neighborhoods.
Most of the residents of Canarsie wanted the best for their African American neighbors, and they felt that everyone should have the right to a good school, and a decent home, but they didn't want to give up the only one they had. Nevertheless, few Canarsians could bring themselves to vote for George Wallace, and many saw that most of their African American neighbors were good people who wanted the same things as they did.
So what exactly is the problem? Why are there still so many in the ghettos of Brownsville, while a few rise in (the few remaining) areas of Brooklyn where the middle-classes have managed to keep out the projects and forestall bussing?
Is it family? As the Italians argue. Is it religion? As the Jews argue? Is it the legacy of racism, as the blacks argue?
What is the leaven that allows some neighborhoods to thrive, and others to turn rancid and fall flat?
Here's the Canarsie answer:
It's the mob in the short term.
And it's the Republican party in the long term.
Having finished the book, there are mop-up questions: what happened to bussing? I was bussed in Virginia in the early 70s. There was an elementary school on the corner that I could walk to but I wasn't allowed to go there. I had to take an hour and a half bus trip to a school where militant factions patrolled the hallways. I was scared to go to the bathroom. A friend of mine had gone in there and was knifed. Who killed him? The puzzle was never solved. He was a quiet middle-class black kid from the north who sat next to me all day. We read books. I waited for each day to end, nervous, holding my bladder. The few white northerners were hated by the white southerners, and by the black southerners, and all three groups had battles with chains and knives after school. I ran to my class from the bus in the morning and ran back to my bus after school was closed, waiting to empty my bladder after the hour and a half ride home. I didn't want to fight. I didn't understand anything that was going down or why it was this way.
After a year in Virginia we moved to a rural town where I could walk to school and could walk home from school in the middle of the day and have lunch with my mom. Every day: tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich with a dilled pickle on the side.
It would be nice if there were some solution where we could all live together, but I think that will happen in the next world. Thy father's house hath many mansions!
In this world you just try to survive. And you can't blame any one on any side for trying to achieve that. It's hard enough. What I fear most: the utopian schemes of those who are above the fray, playing with us like the gods of ancient Greece.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Today the area of Canarsie has about 96,000 residents of whom about half are Italian American, and another large number are from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica (Wikipedia).
I'm now on p. 204 of the 270 page book. The description of the problem that the people of Canarsie faced (they were being encroached upon and swallowed up by outsiders) was met with a very simple prescription. They began to firebomb houses that had been sold to outsiders, as well as to place ads for houses to be sold in small-circulation journals in Chinatown (in Chinese) and in Yiddish newspapers, thus blocking the African-American middle-class from entering Canarsie, and encouraging Asians and Jews to move in.
Firebombing, as well as random beatings of blacks, ended in a rapidly mounting escalation of violence on both sides.
Our author inveighs against anarchism as a solution to anything. I would have to agree. All solutions have to be made from within the law. Once the law disappears there is nothing else for anyone to turn toward in terms of framing a just peace.
"Vigilance and fire-bombing lay midway between communal fight and the private surrender of flight. Each of those answers to threat had unique drawbacks, but the larger problem was that Canarsians were asking the wrong questions. ... Their cure demanded systematic kinds of intercession that were the province of higher levels of organization and interpretation" (203).
The rather simplistic cure of firebombing any house that had been sold to an African American resulted in running battles even inside of the high schools where stabbings and beatings became more common. Only a few chose to firebomb, but the police apparently looked the other way, which made extra-legal solutions seem like the only answer.
What exactly is the author's prescription to this isolated area of Brooklyn and its refusal to desegregate? According to the Wikipedia site La Cosa Nostra was headquartered in Canarsie, and yet in this book the word "mafia" doesn't appear at all. Where is the mob in all of this? What was their prescription? Were they the ones behind the firebombings? Who exactly was doing this? The author is very vague on this point.
Also, the African American viewpoint on Canarsie is almost entirely eclipsed in this book thus far. Why do they want to live in this violent neighborhood? Somehow the pressure from inside that population must have a story too, but so far I haven't read it.
Monday, May 14, 2007
1. "[William Jennings] Bryan came to New York City to reassure the 1896 Democratic convention that his intentions were not subversive. Like 1968, 1896 was a time of social upheaval, when the old faiths no longer seemed apt and partisan loyalties had gone slack. 'Our campaign has not for its object the reconstruction of society,' the Great Redeemer told the convention. 'We cannot insure to the vicious the fruits of a virtuous life; we would not invade the home of the provident in order to supply the wants of the spendthrift; we do not propose to transfer the rewards of industry to the laps of indolence.'
The speech would have been well received in Canarsie three-quarters of a century later" (95).
2. "'Hyperactivity,' claimed one Jewish law and order civic leader, 'is just a fancy term for a bad kid'" (146).
3. "In the early 1970s 48 percent of Jews nationwide fell into the dovish category on the question of withdrawal from Vietnam -- 22 percent higher than the percentage of dovish Catholic Americans of southern European descent. Italian Americans continually ranked extremely high in hostility to antiwar demonstrators" (155).
4. "When Canarsians railed against the victory of instinct over obligation, they were in the same corner as many luminaries of high culture who have proclaimed the decadence of contemporary American culture. About one extreme form of modernism, Lionel Trilling wrote, 'The inculpation of society has become with us virtually a category of thought. We understand a priori that the prescriptions of society pervert human existence and destroy its authenticity.' In their quest for sexual, moral, and aesthetic law and order, many Canarsians would have turned Trilling's statement upside down: affirming the need for social norms, not questioning their validity, was a category of thought with them. They understood that the prescriptions of society PERMIT human existence and CREATE authenticity" (167).
5. "A Jewish elected official in the Jefferson Democratic Club said, 'I'm not smart enough to figure out how you solve the problem, but it's really one of socialization. You have sociological problems that are vast. Take the blacks and Hispanics and counterculture them. Create a kibbutz to break up their matriarchal society. You can't start integration with blacks when they don't have the family structure. In order for whites to live with blacks, you have to change their sociology" (65-66)... [Using the term] "Matriarchy" did not change the reality covered by claims that blacks 'ain't got no family'; it merely translated it into a more respectable idiom. Regardless of any differences in their levels of racism or precariousness of status, the educated had resources of theory and discourse available to them which the provincial could not claim..." (66).
Reading this book is a strange delight. I recognize some of the thoughts of the Italians and Jews of Canarsie of the early 1980s as similar to those of Lutheran Surrealism. We believe too in the primacy of the family and in the primacy of rules and are somewhat aversive to a welfare state that would allow people without any work ethic to participate in the fruits of a work ethic. We are also for patriarchy (universal rules and prescriptions such as the Ten Commandments) against the notion of matriarchy (do whatever the f. you want). But we also feel close to the liberal author of the book, Jonathan Rieder, and believe that his parenthetical remarks are sensible and restrained, urging us to see a broader view of how history has smashed certain groups and that their reconstruction is going to require us to see past our own narrow enclave and to see that healing this country is going to require a lot of give and take between all the various factions.
Liberalism isn't merely masochism. It can also be long-term self-interest. It's true just the same that there is a contempt for authority and rules and regulations in many groups and that the sixties brought many of these groups to the fore and that conservatism has certain viewpoints that are therefore better in some respects. The Beatniks were riotous in this respect of contempt for authority and tradition. Their almost total relaxation of discipline in every possible arena of life led to a societal breakdown that LS feels must change. That the hippy generation did whatever they wanted to do also seemed inappropriate to the patriarchal clans of Italians that populated Canarsie. I'm reading about them partially in order to adjudicate my own vocabulary and to see where I stand. The Italians felt their duty was to their family and to their nation, not to themselves and their own individual desires. I respect that, but I can't say it so bluntly.
I'm more aligned with the Jewish conservatives on this issue. As for the Italians,
"They did not so often apologize for seeming mean or unenlightened. ...For Jews it could not be so simple. They were wrestling with a buried part of their past that seemed to have turned against them, or with the live pressures of parents and rich relatives on the West Side of Manhattan... A simple coding of responses misses the little caveats, the little hesitations, the tortuous reasoning in the Jewish search for an appropriate political idiom. The fine shadings, the timbre of voice, the intricacy of the apologetic -- all these things point to a world of critical differences in the meaning of liberal betrayal" (131).
And Lutherans -- like Jews -- have to contend with a past in which the law of helping others coincides with some difficulty with the law of survival for one's self. The problem of Putting one's own Shoulder to the Wheel shouldn't be left to others. It's difficult to get these two laws to reconcile, or to find an appropriate balance between them. Finding that language is part of the task. I have been finding it partially in the Lutheran logic of Two Kingdoms, but I still don't feel that it's sufficient, although it is definitely necessary.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
I'm reading a book called Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, by Jonathan Rieder. It was published in 1985 by Harvard UP. It's very much a period piece about a small section of eastern Brooklyn that constituted a Jewish and Italian area that was surrounded by Flatbush, East Flatbush and Brownsville which were African American.
I'm now getting to know Brooklyn a bit since moving back to the East Coast 7 years ago.
I'm fascinated by the enclaves of New York City and how certain groups of people have segregated off. There is Spanish Harlem, there are Jewish areas of Brooklyn such as Williamsburg. There is even the survial of a kind of Finnish and Swedish and Norwegian neighborhood in Brooklyn. It's called Bay Ridge. I haven't had a lot of time to explore but have managed to drive through these areas and to see their changing character. Flatbush Ave. looks Jamaican from the south bay until Prospect Park with lots of yellow and green (super-bright) paint on the buildings. Some other neighborhoods look more subdued with brick archways and many trees.
Against the melting pot mentality was another mentality which tried to preserve the culture brought from elsewhere against mixing. But I don't have a good understanding of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. I was warned against wandering into Brownsville last summer when I spent a week inspecting the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Originally I wanted to understand Brooklyn as Marianne Moore aged. She had to move out of her Fort Greene neighborhood in north central Brooklyn into lower Manhattan because with the drug epidemic in the 1960s came a wave of crime that was particularly hard on elderly women.
But now that I'm reading Canarsie I'm interested in how the Italians of Canarsie saw themselves and how they tried to hold out against bussing, and having projects placed in their midst. But what really interests me as much as anything else is the way in which aesthetics are discussed.
"Arbiters of chic might look down on the decor of many Canarsie living rooms, with crimson velour flock on the walls, lush avocado rugs, and vinyl-covered sofas, as the clutter of kitsch. The ornate chandeliers and gilded mirrors of Italian catering halls could be seen as pretentions of the parvenu" (30).
When I think back about Italian-Americans in the northeastern Pennsylvania resort town in which I was raised I do remember that they had a different aesthetic which might have in some cases included black velvet painting, and vinyl-covered couches. Mostly, I remember that the Italians had strange dogs like Doberman Pinschers, while the Jewish people had cats.
And now when I flash forward and watch the Sopranos what is most surprising is the lovely interior of Tony Soprano's house. It's spacious and light and almost entirely picked up and uncluttered. Of course, they do have a Polish maid. But what's surprising about the house is that there is no kitsch in the home and yet Tony Soprano seems to be surprisingly comfortable. Also, there's no Doberman Pinscher in their home.
And yet when they go to the Bad A Bing, the strip joint that they own, it's a kind of heavy ickiness everywhere.
Their food is recognizably Italian. They're always talking about eating something called Zitti, or spaghetti. But the interior design is shockingly modern. This is part of the discrepancy I feel when Tony comes home from having slaughtered an informant, or having broken someone's leg for nonpayment. The impression of kitsch and clutter disappears, and a sort of spacious, clean, almost Lutheran aesthetic takes the place of the sordid interiors we've just witnessed.
It's like going from some bargain basement with talking fish, and other kitsch items, to a kind of upperclass IKEA.
Canarsie is well-written and the author Jonathan Rieder is trying to be fair. The fascination with urban mindscapes that the surrealists started is here changed into a kind of anthropology based on the problems of bussing, race, politics, and solidarity. I witnessed these things as a kid but never understood them, nor have I ever really understood the lower middle class Italian Americans that have been the staple of so many films and who still seem to make up a sub-strata of Brooklyn as I walked around last summer. Also of course mixed into the traditional neighborhoods were huge segments of WASPs spending a few years of their youth in the city while dreaming of artistic attainment. Mixed in with the traditional restaurants were vegetarian outposts and little Bohemias, and smart bookstores where you could see Paul Auster's books, and then you walk on and see Thai and Indian restaurants mixed in with more traditional sandwich shoppes where you could still buy an egg cream (whatever that is).
Gregory Corso was part of the older Brooklyn. His poems touch upon it. It's a different and for some reason fascinating world. I'll never understand it but as summer opens and I begin my reading this will be the first book I finish. I'm hoping it opens new avenues, or should I say, new Corsos.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
To my daughters, my mother and my friends: Happy Mother's Day.
History: Mother's Day in the United States, the second Sunday of May, was
first proclaimed around 1870 by Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation,
and Howe called for it to be observed each year nationally in 1872. As
originally envisioned, Howe's "Mother's Day" was a call for pacifism and
disarmament by women. The original Mother's Day Proclamation was as follows
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
I've misplaced the left, or find that in my viewfinder they now form a Moebius strip-tease with the right, in which they can no longer be seen as separate or opposite.
The leftist aims at the creation of chaos. The leftist for instance is most likely to be the one to drop a bowling ball over a highway overpass at rush hour. Inspect the voting record:
It's most likely that that's a leftist who's out of power.
The leftist who's in power on the other "hand" wants total order. The Khmer Rouge for instance insisted that prisoners in reeducation camps had to ask for permission before rolling over in their sleep. The crime of doing this without permission was called INDIVIDUALISM. The punishment was 100 lashes. Is that right?
The right begins, too, with a viewpoint of wishing to create chaos. Kristalnacht was such kaos. Then, once having gotten power, the Nazis attempted to remake the entire world in their own image slaughtering everyone who wasn't a Nazi and putting science to work in creating elaborate mechanisms of kontrol (the kamps) in order to extinguish unruly elements.
But Nazis are leftists not rightists, you scream. It isn't just that they called themselves socialists you argue. It's that they were sinister. Goebbels' novel Michael is straight out of the social realist canon with the exception that there is an extra emphasis placed upon race in addition to class. How sinister!
Leftists are invariably sinister (adj. of or relating to the left side of things). Conversely, anything sinister is invariably leftist. Thus, Nazis are leftists!
How did it happen? The world is slowly being replaced by phantom aliens. These aliens take over the bodies of ordinary citizens. Some of these citizens are friends and in some cases even family members. Having taken them over, they make them spout phrases such as "if you're not with us, you're against us." And they begin to talk about centralized economies. The only other difference you can detect is that sometimes the socks they are wearing do not really fit as they once did. What is the ultimate agenda?
Someone wearing plaid socks is trying to create chaos and this is so sinister!
Checkered pants is actually a reference to a checkered past and is ultimately sinister!
Someone appears to call themselves Jello (a first name) and then to drink so much lemonade that the very thought gives you a headache and makes you think of neglected chess moves as you wonder about the concert for Bangladesh and its place in "history."
Finally, Marxism is pushed as an answer, or perhaps Calvinism (they are both sinister and thus both to the left, from a certain PARALLAX view). In extreme cases you begin to hear pods talking of the Eastern Orthodoxy, or living for poetry, as they flit from one ideology to another, lashing out with perverse fashions in a quiet geometrical way that has nothing to do with Lutheran aesthetics and everything to do with being sinister.
Once the Moebius strip is in place and everyone is a leftist depending on the angle of the high-kick, everything starts to seem right, but it is only an indication of how far along the revolution has gone when chaos and order seem to be the same. Order & chaos become one only when the end-time is approaching and Satan is riding his bicycle over the bones of the dead, and a kind of equilibrium is established that has nothing to do with stability that is adequate to the proper functioning of the liberal democratic economy and it all seems as fallen as a bad Pound cake. Soon on the national news there are commemorations of neglected assailants. John Wilkes Booth is ballyhooed on one channel, and on another the Confederate flag is now the new logo for a perfume called Swamp Rat. The police at the massacre site are seen chewing strands of black licorice.
They appear to be suspiciously fat and small, too, and when they speak, they use words out of the mainstream since Shakespeare (incarnadine I heard one say), indicating that it took many light years for them to arrive to begin their dark unravelling (deconstruction) of the Lutheran Surrealism that it has taken us over five hundred years to build up into the tower of babble that it is today, tomorrow, and forever.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
The left appears to wish to use their own interior criteria for decisions and to erase the standards that have been built from time immemorial. The religious and legal dimensions disappear in favor of personal feeling. My fear is that this leaves the left open to a tyrant who will step into this open-ended situation and exploit it to their own ends. Thus, Stalin steps into the chaos of the left situation and heads roll. Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceausescu, Andrea Dworkin: all were ready to use the situation to develop a strongman regime.
The right appears to use exterior criteria for decisions calling upon legal precedent, or religious precedent, in order to keep things pretty much the same. This is the basis of conservatism. We want to keep legal boundaries between US and Mexico, to keep boundaries regarding who can kill whom (abortion nixed), to maintain the boundaries regarding marriage (the left is willing to allow a grandfather to marry a grandson as long as there is love). Love being a feeling, and feeling being the basis of the left.
Lutheran Surrealism feels very drawn to the left, but not drawn to chaos. That is, we don't want to be sucked into the black hole of collapsing distinctions willy-nilly.
But we are drawn nevertheless to kindness. We like vegetarianism. We enjoy the whole notion of tofu (except are dubious about its tastelessness). We are equally dubious about eating a Texas steak for dinner (haven't done it in years) but remember its taste with much more pleasure than we've ever felt toward tofu.
The right says, Let them eat steak.
The left would outlaw this.
The left wants the lion to lie down with the lamb, and argues therefore that meat-eating should stop. The right however argues that meat-eating is our condition.
These are general trends. I like some aspects of each. I worry about mad cow disease so I don't eat red meat, even though the statistical probability is infinitesimal of getting mad cow. I do know a leftist lesbian who eats steak every night of the week, and argues for this on the grounds of taste.
Anomalies where people fall out of the traditional categories are where I think humanity on every side can be seen and enjoyed. There's nothing more nightmarish than people who actually fit their stereotypes. But the closer you actually look at anyone, the less they fit into any stereotype. Stereotypes are based on truth, but close perception will reveal individuality takes precedence over the norms established by the left-right distinction. What I see instead is that most of us fall into the muddled middle, while the left and right like the cliffs that once threatened Jason and the Argonauts, attempt to pulverize us into conformity.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
If "Do unto others" is the Golden Rule, then it can be seen that the Sopranos are following some other more primeval rule. Exactly how to put it in words?
I think they basically see themselves and others as "bloodsuckers." This is the phrase that continually pops out of the gangsters' mouths when they are in a jam. It's how they see the world.
The top-down Catholic world of the Pope and his minions creates a giant bloodsucking device. Each hierarchical layer asked for money from those below. The Mafia in the Sopranos has the same pyramid scheme where soldiers kick money to bosses who kick money to top bosses who kick money to even bigger bosses. Luther rebelled against this pyramid scheme, and northern Europe got free of it.
Southern Europe remained in its octopus-like grip. Italy, France, Spain, and by extension their colonies remained in a pre-Reformation mentality in which a hierarchical order sucked the blood out of millions. The former Spanish colonies are still hemorrhaging from this order. Mexico has a dreadful system from which millions seek to leave. Italy's lower classes moved to America, but they brought this blood-sucking mentality with them. They saw everyone as a bloodsucker.
The almost impossible level of corruption that we see in the Sopranos represents a moral universe. Last night a thug beat his girlfriend to death in the parking lot of the Badabing for standing up to him. Her job was apparently simply to put out and shut up. Ralphie is going to face retribution for sure, but only because he disrespected the Badabing by killing one of the strippers on the premises and thus inviting police attention.
I watch the show in horror at how low people can get, and am glad for the Reformation. Thank you, Martin!
Why is it that there is no Finnish or Swedish or Icelandic mafia? I can't put it into words. I know that it's dependent on Lutheranism, but exactly why it is I can't articulate except to say that it's against this kind of bloodsucking.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
When Christ was asked whether we should pay taxes to the emperor in Rome he said that we should Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's.
This is the nub of two kingdom's philosophy. That there is a differentiation between our world and that of God.
Our realm is based on the law of the land and we are encouraged to follow it.
However, Kierkegaard wipes out that law in his infamous "teleological suspension of the ethical," which uses Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac (his arm with knife in hand is in motion when an angel stops him from going further) as an illustration for how each person should listen to God on an individual basis. This makes me completely sick.
Zizek uses Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac to explain how the Bolsheviks had divine authorization to slaughter the Mensheviks. Dubious in this case especially since a. God didn't command them to do it, and b. no angel held them back.
How do we know when it's reason, God, or the devil who's providing us with an injunction?
At the risk of relying solely on reason, I think that the law of the land is our best guide. Where do we get it from? Perhaps it's partially based on the Ten Commandments, as Dershowitz and others have argued. Perhaps it's partially based on what God tells each individual to do. But as individuals we cannot override the community's laws as Kierkegaard argues that we ought to do.
Kierkegaard often strikes me as a punk who is in rebellion against the church and using God as his authorization to do so. He seems to feel that he is an exception to all of our laws and ethics. Even his leaving Regina at the altar is the act of a cad. I am sometimes swayed by him nevertheless.... But I believe his total emphasis on the individual is an aberration. We must rely on the community for indications of how to run our personal lives. Just because God tells me I can speed at 95 mph is not enough of a reason for me to do so if the sign says 15 mph (school zone). Speed limits and other laws and customs were designed by the community's leaders and we ought to place a high regard on those laws and customs.
Kierkegaard says we must listen only to God. I don't think that we can reliably achieve this. To listen only to reason is perhaps also a slippery slope. We must try to do what is good based on the ten commandments, but if we get some kind of hallucinatory message asking us to go beyond and abrogate the law entirely, or to take the law into our own hands, I can only say, God help us. We must try to get reason and faith to walk hand and hand.
No leaps for me, or if they are, they are only in that area that Kierkegaard despised: in the aesthetic realm.