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.

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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?

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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”

A plea for anti-anti-wokeness

The online debate about “wokeness” torments me, because it is so amazingly stupid and uninformative. But it also torments me because I am torn between two thoughts.

The first is that there has to be room to discuss the potential pitfalls of the various lingustic formulations that one used to group together as “political correctness” and now designates as “wokeness” (I can see literally no difference between the two categories). Those pitfalls might, in any particular case, include a tendency to alienate the very groups they’re meant to serve, an inaesthetic clunkiness, or even the simple fact that they periodically seem to arise suddenly from who knows where, like neoliberal “best practices” that become instant unconditional requirements.

The second is that no white male leftist who takes a blanket anti-PC or anti-woke stance — especially in mainstream media contexts — can expect to be trusted, because they are objectively treating their white male perspective as the point of neutrality from which they can hand down judgment of what activists and theorists of other groups should say and focus on.

How does one reconcile these two thoughts? The first step is to recognize that the second thought is more important, both ethically and strategically. Even if individual “woke” speech expectations are short-sighted or self-undermining, the blanket anti-woke screed objectively, performatively reinstates the power hierarchies that all leftists should be seeking to unravel. Especially given how often the anti-woke white male leftist has access to bigger platforms than the activists they’re critiquing, it is a clear example of punching down — when we presumably don’t want to punch our allies in any direction. Strategically speaking, it is more likely to give aid and comfort to our enemies than to somehow make leftist ideas more persuasive or leftist organizing more attractive.

It may well be the case that PC or woke language is holding back the left in this country, but I would humbly suggest that white men who want to be part of that strategic conversation should adopt the rule of first shutting the fuck up and listening. Learn to process your defensiveness and gut-level objections into sincere questions. If you get frustrated and need to vent, save it for the DMs. With time, you will realize that no one is mandating that you have to adapt your speech unconditionally to whatever the latest rando on Twitter demands. Doubtless we will all stumble as we seek to practice this spiritual discipline, but hopefully we will train ourselves to resist the urge to pitch op-eds to publications that are eager for anti-leftist content and would never consider publishing the perspectives of actual activists or organizers.

Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.