The Assassination Gap

[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]

We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.

One symptom of that deeper conflict was the prevalence of assassination as a political tool. Continue reading “The Assassination Gap”

The Political Theology of Watchmen

The publication of The 1619 Project in an expanded book form may be the appropriate time to revisit another attempt to rewrite a popular story to center racial oppression. I am speaking, of course, of HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, a sequel and adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name. By happenstance, I have been rereading the comic this week, as a colleague who had borrowed my copy prior to the pandemic finally returned it. Returning to the original text with the HBO series in mind reaffirms to me that Lindelof and his team of writers have achieved an absolute masterpiece of adaptation and reappropriation. The HBO series shows that our contmporary culture of endless remakes, prequels, and sequels does not have to be creatively barren — that the act of taking up a beloved source can actually inspire greater artistic feats and add a layer of enjoyment unavailable from a more original story.

(Since it has been two years, perhaps we are past the statute of limitations for spoilers, but I will do everyone the courtesy of putting plot details “below the fold.”) Continue reading “The Political Theology of Watchmen

The Hezekiah Option

My Esteemed Partner and I both grew up in the Midwest and have lived here our entire lives. As we were enjoying our morning coffee amid the din of harsh winds and sirens, I turned to her to confirm an intuition: “Tornadoes are supposed to happen in the summer, right? Not in the opposite of summer, which it is right now?” She agreed with me, and yet here we are, waking up to find that tornadoes have ripped through multiple Midwestern states, killing dozens — in December.

Continue reading “The Hezekiah Option”

Choose life

It’s a small mercy that I at least never attended an anti-abortion protest. That was a little too tacky, too “political” for my upwardly mobile family at our upwardly mobile church. God sent his Son to die on the cross so we could clean up and move to the suburbs, and his perfect will for our life obviously didn’t include yelling and screaming and getting arrested. Nonetheless, the pro-life movement is driven by “my people,” the evangelicals, who are now on the cusp of victory in a generation-long battle that has deployed all available tactics, from the long march through the institutions to harassment, terrorism, and assassination. They wanted it bad, and now they’re getting it. We’re all getting it.

Recently I was talking to a friend from a similar background to mine. Though he was a little younger, we both shared the experience of living through the Bush years in a conservative Christian college milieu, and both of us found it profoundly disillusioning. He put it well when he said that both the Christian college community and the Bush administration represented a world in with “our people” had won, and both were unlivable. I can’t help but notice that the same pattern held when the evangelicals won by catapulting a man who exuded the sleazy menace of a televangelist — preaching the prosperity gospel without the tedious “gospel” part — into the White House against our will. And it will continue to hold when Roe is overturned, as the result will be a moral, social, and political disaster that will make Prohibition look like a well-considered public policy intervention.

Continue reading “Choose life”

For the love of God, please bring back episodic drama

In the Poetics, Aristotle identifies two basic forms of storytelling — tight and focused (tragedy) and loose and episodic (epic) — and I always tell my students that it broadly maps onto film vs. television. And in that context, I suggest that his assessment that tragedy is “better” doesn’t make much sense. Which is better, I ask, The Sopranos or The Godfather? They’re just different genres.

The problem with contemporary storytelling is that every epic (TV show) thinks it’s a tragedy (a fourteen-hour movie), and every tragedy (film) thinks it’s part of an epic (franchise universes). Neither really works or makes sense. Continue reading “For the love of God, please bring back episodic drama”

Ritually Atoning for America’s Original Sin

[Originally published at Truthout.]

We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. In most cases, it seems like little more than a way of gesturing at the unique gravity of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word – that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright theological – it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.

Continue reading “Ritually Atoning for America’s Original Sin”

Accessible English text of Vaiśeṣika Sūtra

As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.

This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.

Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.

Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law

[A blogpost version of a Twitter thread from earlier this morning.]

I grew up as a conservative evangelical and understand why the appeal to the life of the fetus has proven such a powerful argument. But forced childbirth is ghoulish and dystopian and it concerns a 100% definite human being we can see and talk to right now.

Continue reading “Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law”

What is the chief end of man?

A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:

There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.

Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?

I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?

Continue reading “What is the chief end of man?”

A Sabbath Rest

I am tired. I recognize that I’m privileged, that I don’t have kids, that we were able to keep our jobs, etc., etc. But I’m still tired. I lived through a pandemic, I lived through completely retooling my teaching for a format it was never meant to be in, and on top of that I bought a new apartment. Originally this summer, I was planning on starting a book project — a fun one, even — but I kept… not starting. It would have been my third book in three years. I couldn’t.

I deferred that project and since then have been doing this thing called “relaxing.” I’m working slowly and steadily toward things that I eventually need to get done — class prep mainly, but also a small handful of shorter writing commitments — but the majority of my days are free-form. Some days I read comic books, other days I dip into scholarly works I’m curious about. I play my NES Classic Edition and play piano. I sit around and argue with people on social media, or stare out the window, or do one of the hundred minor chores available to a new homeowner. In other words, I do some things that could be classified as “work,” but not Work in the strong sense that has dominated my life since college and maybe even before.

Looking back, my life has been dominated by a sense that the life of the mind I was enjoying was a temporary fluke and I must get the most out of it while I can. Continue reading “A Sabbath Rest”