Monday, December 15, 2008

Ideas Man and the Mormons Act V Scenes i and ii

I am supposed to be grading but choose to recount the following drama instead.

Scene i

As my hordes of loyal readers know, I am a wildly partisan Democrat and was particularly geeked about Barack Obama as was the whole Ideas clan, so November 4 was a pretty great day at Ideas HQ. I went out with the Students for Barack Obama at the university I teach at and had a great time doing that and seeing all the energy that the kids were bringing. I didn't get to watch the election returns with Ideas Woman, Esq. because she was stationed on the front lines of democracy, working as a precinct judge and keeping (let's be frank) somewhat incompotent pollworkers from inadvertantly disenfranchising people and she ended up having to help 3 other precincts do likewise so she didn't get home much before 11 EST (so at least she was home when they called the election, but we had known that it was a done deal ever since they had called OH an hour and a half earlier). The Ideas Kids were obviously in bed by the time returns started coming in earnest (I did let Ideas Girl, who is one of the younger members of the Obama Nation stay up and do a States puzzle with me while we watched some of the returns). But my little brother, Ideas Brother IV was there and we were having a grand old time. I was loading the laundry in the basement when Ideas Brother IV yelled from upstairs "The called OH for Obama") and I started doing an involuntary circular jump dance (words cannot describe the dance so you'll have to visualise it.  But suffice it to say it involved all of the many moves that I can bust).

Ideas Woman (especially Ideas Woman) and I were tired so we went to bed early, after champagne and Obama's Victory speech. Things were grand.

In the morning, I didn't have time to go and start looking at in-depth county by county maps of my favorite races like I wanted to, but I did manage to ask Ideas Brother IV what happened with the remaining Senate seats and with Proposition 8. And these things did take the wind out of my sails a bit. At this point, we didn't yet know that Merkel would beat Smith, Begich Stevens and (hopefully) Franken Coleman. So I had been hoping for 59 or 60 seats, and it looked like the number would be more like 56 or 57.

But it was really Proposition 8 that was devastating, especially when it became clear what a large role the Mormon Church had played in passing it (for real and as opposed to the fictional notion that blacks' record turnout for Obama had actual been responsible for the passage of Proposition 8).

Again, my avid readers will know a little about my Auseinandersetzung with my former religion, but for now I'll just say that although I haven't been a practicing Mormon for 9 years and have had a problematic relationship my whole life, I grew up in the Mormon church and remain closely tied to it through family and friends.

I am both a little narcissistic (and only a little...) and massively prone to guilt, so it became difficult for me to shake off a personal feeling of responsibility, if in no other way than as one part of the faceless mass that the Church invoked to give popular weight to their financial. But over and beyond that, I do think, philosophically, that we bear some responsibility for groups we are a part of even if we are not "on board" with all of their decisions (don't even get me started on my guilt over everything America's done during the Bush years). And over and beyond even that, and apart from any guilt, I felt angry: angry at the hordes of my erstwhile co-religionists who had poured money and labor into a bigoted cause, and one that didn't concern them, angry at the self-satisifed old men who run the church, who know full well their moral and intellectual bankrupcy but who distract themselves and their followers by indulging in the occasional pogrom, angry at a media that gave them a free pass in the name of freedom of religion while ignoring their own obligation to free speech, angry at various facebook psuedo-friends whose statuses had made clear that they were actively working for a hateful cause, angry at the facebook for reconnecting me with these folks, angry at my parents for giving me an easily recognizable name so that these folks could find me on the facebook, and angry at myself for having wanted to cut the Church some slack just a few months earlier.  I'm pretty sure I was angry at lots of other people for similar reasons, but you get my point.  Oh, and I was angry that all those aforementioned jackasses (myself included) were being such killjoys in what should have been a week of unalloyed joy.

Scene ii

Beneath the anger was, I suppose, a certain dis-ease with myself.  When I was younger, I had imagined a certain kind of struggle with Mormonism as central to my identify (this was confirmed for me by the perceptions of other facebook friends from my earlier life who I have been much happier to reconnect with --- see, the facebook isn't all bad...)  Explaining why this was or what this meant would take us much further into earlier acts and I'm supposed to be grading, so we don't have the time to go there.)  But the less I believed in the Mormon religion at all and the further I got from day to day involvement with it, the easier it was to simply drop that whole Sturm und Dranglich scene.  So that's pretty much what I did; this made life much easier for me and allowed me to maintain a certain detached familiarity with the inner life of the religion that made interacting with my still largely religious extended family and with my (actual, as opposed to psuedo) Mormon friends much easier.

The dis-ease was, I think, motivated by the realization that this compromise of indifference was, at least to a certain extent, a pose, and one that allowed me a certain comfort which might have been unwarranted.  And after the anger subsided, the dis-ease remained.  A few days later (when I probably should have been grading, just like right now,) I wrote the following letter to the Mormon church, asking that my name be removed from the Church Records.

Dear President Monson,

I am writing to ask that my name be removed from the membership lists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Although I am a lifelong member of the Church, I cannot in good conscience continue my association with the Church after the damage it has done by working to pass Proposition Eight in California.

I request this with a heavy heart.  Although it has been nine years since I have had any active involvement with the Church, I have always considered my Mormonism to be one of the core elements of my identity.  It has been hard to convey this sense of identity to my non-Mormon friends.  Less than an ethnicity, my Mormonism is nonetheless more than just how I was raised or the beliefs that I grew up with.  In some ways, it is more than an ethnicity, more intimate, more familial.  My family’s history is deeply steeped in the history of the Church.  My ancestors were with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.  They were his advisors and bodyguards.  They were the farmers who settled Utah and Arizona and the immigrants who came from England and Scandinavia in search of Zion.  My grandfather’s grandmother was the third wife of my great-great-grandfather.  When Mormonism agreed to end the practice of polygamy as the price for becoming a state, my family experienced the tragedy of loving families being forced apart for political reasons.  Ancestry is important to us Mormons, and these experiences have shaped my family’s sense of itself. 

More recently, my family has lived through the trauma of Mormonism’s move towards the mainstream of conservative religions.  My mother, my aunt and my uncle saw themselves as part of a tradition of intellectual inquiry and dissent that used to be important to Mormonism’s sense of itself.  They saw themselves as Mormons, but found themselves marginalized when that tradition vanished, a casualty of Mormonism’s move to the mainstream.  When they were excommunicated, they lost this sense of belonging.  As you know full well, this sense of belonging is fundamentally linked to the Mormon sense of family.  My mother who, despite her heterodox beliefs, is deeply devout did not take this loss well.  All of my family members have had to deal with the transition from the large traditional Mormon family we were born into to the more fragmented family that we have had to become.

The truth, though, is that I would have never left the Church over that.  My reasons for not believing in the Church are my own and only relate to tangentially to this family drama.  The truth is that these events have shaped my sense of myself as a Mormon; if anything, they form one of the main reasons I did not think I could fully shake Mormonism from the core of my identity.

But I hope that you will appreciate why I am nonetheless telling you about these things.  These are stories of families that have been damaged and torn apart for outside political reasons.  My sense of my Mormonism depends deeply on my sense of family values, on the belief that we are shaped by the families that we are given.  My sense of my Mormonism depends on the belief that families can persist despite the forces that the outside world brings to bear on them and against them.  It breaks my heart to see the Church being that outside force.  I was able to bear the difficulties my own family went through with the Church without it shaking my sense of belonging because of the knowledge that our difficulties were part of the meaning of Mormonism.  But you know full well that this is not the case with the difficulties the Mormon Church has worked to impose on millions of California families, gay and straight, who are not part of the Mormon Church.  You know full well that the legality of gay marriage as a civilly recognized institution does not threaten the Church’s own definition of marriage.  And yet you have used this shameful excuse to justify intruding in and trying to break apart perfectly good and loving non-Mormon families.

Although it breaks my heart to see the Church doing this, I know better than to be too surprised.  I expected as much.   But even so I was still shocked.  I suppose I hoped that the Church would show more wisdom.  I don’t need to tell you that the Church’s history of persecution is deeply important to our sense of who we are.  Because I had only personally experienced the other side of this persecution (the satisfied Mormon Church persecuting its own members in its move to respectability), I had come to discount this persecution.  Although I did not support Mitt Romney in his run for the presidency, what I regarded as the media’s unfair treatment of him and misunderstanding of his Mormonism made me far more understanding of and sympathetic to the Mormon Church’s sense of its own persecution than I had been in some time.  I think that’s why I am so shocked by the Church’s willingness to behave so callously towards others just a few short months later.

There are two things that I had always been taught were important lessons to be drawn from our history of persecution.  The first is the lesson of tolerance.  In the 19th century, our sexual practices lay far more outside of the mainstream than homosexuality does today.  And not just our sexual practices:  our economic practices and our spiritual practices, in short, our communal practices.  I had been taught that it was wrong for others to interfere in our honest and sincere attempts to live righteously simply because we were a “peculiar people,” as we used to call ourselves.  And yet that is precisely what the Mormon Church is doing.  You ought to know full well the forces of hatred and bigotry that American fundamentalism can harness against those who it deems its enemies.  And yet you chose to ally us with them.

This brings me to the second lesson that I had been taught, and that was the importance of American constitutional freedoms.  Despite the persecution to which we were subject in American in the 19th century, I had been taught that we regarded the shape of American history as being shaped by God and that we saw the Constitution as divinely inspired.  I learned that the successful history of the Church depended upon these freedoms.  Whatever suffering we endured, our history would have been impossible without the history of freedoms and civil rights that was engendered by our Constitution.  And yet, by forcing the California Constitution to be rewritten to ban gay marriage, the Church has succeeded, for the first time in American history, in using a constitution to restrict a civil right that had already been legally recognized.

I cannot help but feel that with this final injustice, the Mormon Church has irrevocably severed itself from what is good in its own tradition.  And I cannot help but feel that by severing itself from its own history, it has done fatal violence to itself.  Despite no longer believing in the doctrines of the Church, there are many things that I treasure about my heritage.  Because of this heritage, I have up to now chosen to remain at least nominally Mormon.  Because of this heritage, I feel that I now must choose to sever that final connection.  I could not continue to affirm what I value in the Mormon tradition if I continued to stand with the Church instead of with my gay brothers and sisters.  I could not share my heritage with my own children if I told them that, when the Church began to persecute the families of homosexuals in the same way that earlier religious bigots had persecuted them, I stood idly by.

It is for this reason that I ask you to remove my name from the records of the Church.


Ideas Man, Ph.D

(Coming up in scene iii:  A Knock on the Front Door of Ideas HQ)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ideas Girl Learns About the Crucifixion

Those of you who know me may know that it's been a long standing goal of mine to raise my children to genuinely believe in the Greek gods. (I'm 50% -- ok 5% joking). This goal actually predates having any children and I didn't think it would survive it, particularly since Ideas Woman, Esq. has made it clear that it will be hard enough for secular/intellectual kids to fit in without their actual believing in the Greek gods (also, I'm pretty sure she regards it as a club she's not a member of... even though I've offered to sponsor her...)

Now, in my line of work there are a lot of silly folks who go a little overboard on the greatness of the Greeks, and I am no doubt one of them. But I try to defend myself by pointing out that my interest in Greek mythology predates my interest in philosophy or classical civilization or just about anything I can remember. The first book that I can really remember loving is D'Aulaire's illustrated book of Greek myths and I've been obsessed with Greek mythology for as long as my memory goes back.

Because I come from a family of religious zealots, it should come as no surprise that these stories inevitably presented themselves in their conflict with Christian (and Mormon) stories (I feel an intuitive sense of what Hoelderlin means in "Der Einzige" [The Only One] when he asks how he can love both Heracles and Jesus, and when he implies he'd choose Heracles if he hadn't been so tyrannized by a jealous religion. But I have no intent of living the last 30 years of my life in a joiner's tower... On a somewhat related note, I think the fact of my having grown up in a repressive sexual culture and having learned about sex from the classics also means that I am one of the last people to have an intuitive sense for the sexual hangups of Victorians, but that's a different story....

So even though the Bible is every bit as full of great stories as those you'll find in Greek mythology (although no stories in the Bible approach the greatness of Ovid), I've never been able to be an equal partisan of both. I really would like to. But it just isn't in the cards for me.

I would, however, like my beloved secular children to have a little healthier of an attitude to their heritages* than I do.

Recently, Ideas Girl started getting into Greek mythology. I am sure it is partially because it delights me so much and that makes her happy, but I swear that this isn't the main motive and I've tried to keep my elation on the DL. I don't remember how it started --- I think she insisted on hearing a story and for whatever reason I told her the story of the birth of Athena. Then she started insisting on hearing more and more Zeus stories. At first I was circumspect, but she didn't seem to mind the darkness of the stories at all --- Now she'll say things like "I just love Zeus daddy, don't you?"** --- and her favorite stories are Daphne, Arachne and Persephone (she loves Hades). And she is a total fraidy cat --- I guess this just goes to show that children can handle ambiguity much better than we give them credit for ----

Well, maybe. Certain dark stories are apparently always traumatic.

The same day that she started getting into Greek stories, we went to the Toledo Museum of Art
which was surprisingly awesome (I'm not intentionally dissing my new home, I just wouldn't have suspected such a great art museum in a place I had hitherto known as the home of Maxwell Klinger.) Oh, also it was free which makes it extra awesome.

Anyway, they have an excellent kids area where kids can do hands on art and various activities related to art and so we spent quite some time there. But we eventually got Ideas Girl to leave there (Ideas Boy, B.A.B.Y. still has no choice in such matters...) and we started to see the collection.

Now, lately Elena had been really into "I spy" and so we played that for a while and she got pretty into that, but it quickly turned out to be the case that she was far more interested in hearing the stories behind the paintings. Since we were in the pre 1850 European art area they were of course largely drawn from classical mythology and the Bible.

And there were, of course, tons of Madonna and Childs. So this seemed the perfect time for me to try out my magnanimity. Who doesn't like the baby Jesus, after all? And in fact, the Baby Jesus is about all Ideas Girl knows about Christianity. Whenever I think about the Nietzschean claim that God is dead, I think about talking to Ideas Girl when she was almost a year and we were at a wedding, telling her all about the things she was seeing and then announcing very seriously and without irony "And this is a church," only realizing how funny it was later that not only had she never been in a church before that, but also the whole world-view in which church's figure simply hadn't ever come up. And until very recently, she thought that people were saying "oh my gone," having never encountered the word "God..." But the Baby Jesus does figure in our Christmas since we have a Christmas tree, advent calendar, nativity scene and sing the songs. (We might as well do the parts of our heritage that we like). So she likes the Baby Jesus, although perhaps not as much as Ricky Bobby does.

Ideas Girl especially liked the revelation that Mary wore red and blue and that you could identify her in the pictures by it. Soon she was yelling out, "There's another one of Mary and the Baby Jesus" from across the room. So things were going swimmingly, and then...

We were in a room of medieval art built in a reconstructed cloister and I failed to notice a tapestry on the wall. Ideas Girl did, however:

"There's another blue and red. It's Mary! But where's the Baby Jesus?"

"Oh that's from when Jesus was grown up."

"Is he that man?"

"Um, yes."

"What happened to him?"

Suffice it to say, we left that room in tears. And that was the end of our trip to the Toledo Art Museum.

* To all my po-mo friends: I do not mean to imply that Athens and Jerusalem are the only legitimate sources of their heritage. But I'm tired and don't have the time to couch this claim in requisite circumspection.

** The funniest thing she ever said though --- when Zeus had turned into a bull to adbuct Europa --- "There are a lot of turn into's in these stories, aren't there?

Monday, November 03, 2008

This doesn't count against my post on Ideas Girl learning about the Crucifixion that I promised next.  The blog below was pretty fucking hilarious and I wanted to share it with my vast readership.

My next real blog post will still be about 4 year old secularists learning about the Crucifixion.  Don't worry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ideas Man Needs Your Help

Ok, folks.  I am becoming more and more confident McCain cannot win, but I am incapable of thinking that the Democrats will have a blow out.  Plus, I'm pretty sure that if I don't keep my anxiety levels high enough, Obama will lose (this is why Kerry lost --- I got distracted in my worrying).  So I need my readership to remind me why Obama's victory is uncertain so I can keep my worry levels high enough.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Ideas Man: Now under a NEW ROOF!

Ideas man has been absent because he has decamped to Northwest Ohio for a new position.  Much work has ensued (ensuen?)

Ideas man will post later.

But now he is busy watching John McCain be a lying jackass.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

More joys with the Internets

I promised that my next few posts would involve my Auseindersetzung with the world of philosophy and the last one sort of did. This one will too. But more to the point it will pose an important question:

Why in the hell do I let myself get sucked into stupid arguments?

This post over here at the Chronicle argued that deconstructionism never really fit into the "leftist" mold that right-wing conservatives were so critical of post-modernism for.

The article was well-written and although this complaint (a rather old one in fact) is wrong, I thought it was well-laid out. The subsequent discussion quickly degenerated into the usual snipes and gripes about continental philosophy by the very lamest category of analytics.

Now, the complaint about the bad political credentials of deconstruction (even if it were true, would this amount to an a priori reason for rejecting it) and about its supposed empirical unverifiability or sheer non-sense are among the two most tiresome complaints against it.

Sadly, naive Ideas Man thinks that when people make tiresome points they might actually be interested in hearing why they don't speak to the matter at hand. You'd think that I'd have been in academia long enough to know that the reason why people make the same tired points is because they like to have something to say and they like to turn any discussion in the chance to rehearse what they already know, and make sure that everybody knows it.

And when Ideas Man's idealist conception of the human race is shattered, he turns snarky.

There are enough things in life worth being occupied with (and more than enough pressing matters to be stressed about) to justify not getting involved in tiresome debates that one doesn't need to get involved in.

Sadly, there are some tiresome debates that I do occasionaly need to get involved in: for example, listening to Levinasians and Adornskis make the same tired points over and over again, since they pertain directly to issues that I am interested in and represent important (even if wrong) sets of voices in the debate.

Then there are those discussions that I'm not particularly interested in, but that I can listen to with an open mind --- debates in other words which I can enjoy following along without having a stake in --- (the Deleuzers and Badiouians, and about 90% of 20th century analytic philosophers, as long as they are talking about their own discipline and not making forays into ).

So why do I bother myself with the haters?

No more, no more. From now on, I'm unsubscribing to about 2/3s of the blogs I subscribe to and reading only those things that give me genuine pleasure (this second list of blogs that I will still read includes all those of my friends, i.e. anyone who happens to read this). And if I'm tempted to foray into blogs with a wider readership, I'm reminding myself that the point of discourse in public forums is to score debaters points and not to advance actual inquiry. We'll see if it works.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

If I Ran the Ivory Tower

Over on her blog, my friend Dr. J took up the challenge of the National Association of Scholars to come up with Seussian style suggestions for the academy, a la Seuss's if I ran the circus. I had more fun with this challenge then I've had in academia in quite some time. So here's the result:

If I Ran the Ivory Tower

Let's start with students.
They're just too many
Of 'em lurking around.
How can any
work get done, 'midst the lecturing and grading,
The office hours and re-writes
flirting and dating?
And some things there are that have to get done.
The work that we do is not just for fun.
like the work of Doctor Agatha McDoozledorts
Our Chief Deconstructor of weather reports.

Not to mention the work of J.G. Pont-Santinita
Who writes on the word "the" in the novel Lolita.
Such work really matters!
It matters a lot!
And that's why some of our kids have just got
to leave the Ivory Tower, to the Real World bound!
They won't hardly miss us,
And we'll soon have found
That with so much more time on our hands for our thinking,
we can get our thinking done and have time left for drinking.
We’ll drink all we can at Van Blunderbuss Tavern,
prized for fabulous floorspace, a real spacious cavern
With space for professors and students, many now ex.
And the rules are much laxer on ex-student sex.

But how to decide which kids have got to go?
It isn't that hard.
As you and I both know
The grade curve is up!
A veritable bubble.
In a bubble such as this there shouldn't be trouble
in keeping a 4.0. If you can't then goodbye.
We're sorry if you object.
But please tell us why
We should give a second-chance to a kid like Scott Zenny,
For whom a second chance is two chances too many.

Now, on to titles.
We think that they’re great.
But the titles we have are at best second rate.
Assistants, Associates, at Oxford the Dons.
You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I suppress yawns.
Why not Duchesses of Physics? Sultans of Math?
Most Humane of the Humanists Horton McGrath?
Why, I know a certain Sasha O’Shale,
She has written three books on the psyches of snails
And been rewarded for these efforts with an endowed chair.
But I think we can say that she doesn’t really care
For her mollusky subjects like she used to
And I think what she needs is a rank that is new.
Her work is top-notch!
Don’t get me wrong.
But I fear that we might have heard her swan-song
Unless books four and five could give her the hopes
Of being named Supreme Pontificator of All That is Gross!

As health-care pushes the age of profs higher
We’ll have to rethink what we call the retired.
Right now “emeritus” covers too much terrain;
It’s fine for seventy, but it seems rather plain
When applied to some of our most ancient codgers
Who’ve become campus dining rooms permanent lodgers.
At ninety years old they should be declared
“Emerituser” –-
But the best name of all should be spared:
“Emeritustest” is what we’ll call the hundred plus geezers,
the aged, decrepit, the final breath wheezers.
(One such old gent hasn’t missed a meeting in 35 years.
The key to this fabulous feat is –- the chap barely hears.)

The emeritustest of all emeriti
suggested this improvement –-not I.
His name is Vaclav Meciarvert,
the very first Slav that they let into Harvard.
He was also first to prove beyond doubt
That Euclid’s robe was worn inside out
And geometry was Euclid’s final attempt
To figure out which way his arms and legs went.

So that covers the high ranks.
Now for the lows.
Neither Lecturer nor Instructor really quite shows
Just how far below the tenure-track elite
Are the adjuncts and one-years we pick off the street.
In one early post they got close with “Lecturer B”
But we won’t have gone low enough ‘til the letter Z.
There’s also the matter of those spousal hires
Like the poor dumb husband of Gertrude P. Griers,
The world’s most distinguished decliner of pig-Latin nouns.
He writes utter drivel on rodeo clowns
And their sex lives. But he gets called the same
As you and I do, though his work is quite lame.
But now, on the cocktail circle, he’ll have to resort
To his brand new moniker: Professor-Consort.

Last, there’s the matter of those research grants.
We think lots of worthy projects don’t get the chance
To do important work just because it is unique.
Unique work can’t be repeated; it doesn’t make you a freak.
But right now we require someone else to be
Able to duplicate the results that you’ve seen.
Take the work of non-freakish Smarty le Shope.
Inventor of the world’s only Micro-Macro-Ma-scope.
Le Shope has seen much much more than just simple quarks:
He’s seen antiptons, claptoms and scarks.
But most amazing of all is the Mini Casound.
Which is the tiniest life-form that we’ve ever found
With the very odd habit of flying into rage
Whenever it hears the songs of that rascal John Cage.
Smarty would be happy to show all funders how
To see these things.
But his machine is broken right now.
He’d love to fix it, and with enough cash could recover.
Who knows what other things Smarty alone can discover?

With these simple steps, oh the rewards that you’ll reap!
And just so you know my consulting fees are quite cheap.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The joys of the internets


Two days ago, I sent an email to the author of a widely-read philosophy blog regarding a post of his which I had thought a little too provocative and counter-productive to certain disiderata within the world of philosophy (I won't bore my readership with the overblown analytic-continental distinction). I like to think my email to him was polite and respectful: my intention was certainly constructive. Apparently, I wasn't the only person who brought this to his attention, and he graciously changed the wording of the post.

Yesterday morning, there was a much longer post criticizing peeps who had taken the author to task for an entirely different blog entry about rising stars in philosophy. Now, not 20 minutes before this I had gotten a weird email from some website called claiming that someone had been searching for me. Now, I don't know about you guys, but I regularly google myself, and think you should do the same too (google yourself, not me). Well, whozat is way better than this: it quickly uncovered so many things about me that it freaked me out. (Fortunately, I am squeaky clean).

For some reason, this confluence of events led my paranoid mind to think that I was one of the targets of the smack-down that I had earlier alluded to. Why? Well, as it happens, I had engaged in a brief discussion with my good friend Dr. J on the original post that had started this brouhaha. Now, I try to comment on the world of philosophy as little as possible, as readers of my blog will know. . . So it is quite coincidental that my two forays into the public philo-blogo-sphere should both come to a head at the same day.

As you'll notice, Dr. J. and I are both pretty mild in our criticisms. Actually, Dr. J doesn't even criticize; she raises some (legitimate) questions of the value and methodology of ranking and then asks the (as she points out genuine) question about how people know what offers other people got. I do use language like "douche-bag" and "asshole," but it's clearly in the spirit of good fun, and I go on to make fun of myself, also (more on this later).

So when, in my paranoid mind, I thought that we were being called out publicly, I thought that it was quite uncalled for. I was going to blog in more length about this, but then learned that there were truly bitter posts out there: here and, most graphically, here. Some of the comments here are in fact mean and unwarranted, so that made me decide that the author of said widely read philosophy blog was in fact perhaps warranted in the harshness of his response.

But I do want to spend some time talking about a few issues that arise from this kerfuffle. I'll have some tangentially related blogs over the next few weeks, assuming I have time (the duo of the Ideas Kids is getting ever more dynamic and Ideas Woman returns to work next week leaving me to hold the Ideas Fort down solo), but I do want to talk about what I meant by the following comment on Dr. J.'s blog:

"Sometimes I think that the primary purpose of the Leiter Reports is to tempt me towards ressentiment, to refer to something we talked about in a previous post ..."

Now, clearly I am being a little silly here (I am fully aware that this is a tertiary or quaternary purpose at most.) But, the previous post that I was referring to pertained to a number of posts on human rights that culminated here. Now, here ressentiment was used in its Nietzschean sense to refer to a form of morality that is based in feelings of vengefulness or hatred. . .

And, as much as I was kidding, I was also entirely serious (I was "kidding on the square.")

Here's the thing. Although I don't consider myself to be a Type A personality (Type A personalities don't have houses that look like mine), I care deeply and am very serious about my work, such as it is. Although I consider myself to be a slacker, I've managed to cram a lot into the last decade (did I mention that I recently turned thirty, and am trying to put my quarter-life crisis behind me so that I can move into my third-life crisis?) and of done a lot of things "young" (started taking college classes when I was 11, got married when I was 20 --- although, in my defense, I had finished college, and finished my dissertation by 25). Now, I don't say these things (particularly not the married one --- if Ideas Girl or Boy tried that crap, there would be serious trouble) to brag (Ok, I'm bragging a bit on the other two; but isn't an unemployed over the hill bloke allowed the occasional brag?) but to properly frame the ressentiment of which I will soon enough be seeing. But one of the reasons why I could accomplish these things is because I really didn't consider them to be work. I worked hard, but I also enjoyed myself (writing the diss in particular was both a good in itself and maybe for something else also --- we'll see.)

So I don't mind working hard for things that matter to me: like the Ideas Family and my writing and reading and my students and art (not mine, but others), but also So You Think You can Dance and TV in general and my new Wii and this blog. There aren't anywhere near enough hours in the day to accomplish half of what I'd want to on any of these things (I've only just got caught up on So You Think You Can Dance, for example), but I like to think that I'm approximating something like a healthy balance, to the extent that such a thing is possible.

Now a big portion of that of my two biggest concerns (my family and the life of the mind) involves finding myself a good job: a job where I'm comfortable and intellectually stimulated and doing work that I care about and is valued. Given that I haven't succeeded in finding this job on a permanent basis this occupies me a lot. In my sane moments, the search for this mythical great job occupies me to the extent that it fits into my life values.

But when I get too deep into the "philosophy zone" all that goes by the wayside. All that seems to matter in the job cycle is how many job offers, or interviews or papers one has gotten published and with whom. Those of you haven't gone to the APA don't know the joy of seeing rank and mass paranoia mixing with the sheer and naked joy that the weak can take in their few brief moments of power (I rarely quote Kissinger, but he was right when he said that the reason why academic politics are so vicious is because so little is really at stake). It's a truly terrible, soul-draining place. It's hard not to get sucked into the hysterical vortex and believe you actually care about how many interviews you get and with who and who you did or didn't talk to at the "smoker..." There are certain colleagues that I have to avoid for the whole job search cycle (October-April --- half the year for those of you who can count) because all they can ask about is the minutiae of the market and academic politics.

As it happens, I've had some really great "interviews" as we put it in the business, but it really doesn't matter. . . It certainly doesn't justify: job seekers coming up to me and grabbing my name-tag when I was sitting at my alma mater's table at the "smoker" and asking me what my affiliation with the school was (deciding whether or not they needed to suck up to me --- they didn't, as they quickly surmised...). My favorite APA experience was when I went up with Ideas Woman and newborn Ideas Girl in Boston. While I was there, I tried my hardest not to act like an insane job seeker. To that end, I didn't wear a suit or name-tag unless I was actually interviewing. The rest of the time I kept it low key and kicked it with the Ideases at the connected mall. Anyway, we were in an elevator filled with a bunch of nervous job candidates whilst I was in my civvies, and Ideas Woman said to me, "You'd better get changed for your interview." All the people in the elevator, who didn't seem to notice we existed before that turned around and checked me out --- gave me the full up and down with absolute no attempt to conceal it. . .

That's the APA for you.

Now, when I get in "job search" mode, I feel tempted to get sucked into this mindset. And this clearly is a mindset based on ressentiment, whether or not one succeeds (that's why it's not the same as resentment). It involved publishing and teaching and advising students not for love of doing those things or even to have a stable career, but for the sake of a competition where ascetic excess is rewarded and where virtue is judged in moralistic terms.

Now, I don't deny that there is a connection between things like getting a lot of great offers (or great interviews or articles accepted for publication at great journals) and skill at doing the activity of being a philosopher. And I'm not the sort of person who thinks that an "obscure" job is necessarily better than a "prestigious" job. Earlier on in my career, I probably thought that I wanted to be a hot-shit star myself and I unconcsiously assumed that since what I did was inherently interesting doing it and doing it well would make me a success. I still probably would prefer a "research" job to a "teaching" job but now that's mostly because I prefer research to teaching (any hirers who happen to have found this board should note that I love both --- but my love of research goes to 11, to paraphrase Spinal Tap). I've taught at 4 universities, 2 of which have PhD programs very well regarded in their field (as a non tenure-track peon I obviously wasn't teaching in these PhD programs...) and 2 of which were more obscure teaching colleges. Based on these experiences and the experiences of my friends and colleagues, I am pretty confident claiming that there is no correlation, positive or negative, between prestige of a department and healthiness of department environment.

And yet, when the JFP comes out, or I read about "rising stars" or hear who is interviewing with whom where, I find myself slipping --- and I see lots of my colleagues already down there. Now, let me be clear, I'm not asserting that any other particular people (such as the people on the rising stars list) are themselves only succeeding by playing the game of professional philosophical ressentiment. I've learned enough about myself to know that it's a game that tempts me personally. And I know that this is a temptation shared by lots of philosophers across the spectrum.

That's what I mean by ressentiment.

Now, in good Nietzschean fashion, I plan on writing in the next few posts about why I do love philosophy, or something that slightly resembles what passes for philosophy.

More on that to come.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) and the Oedipal Complex

I remember that when Elena was about, let's say half a year old, she went through a phase of being romantically in love with Heather; Jasper, at four months is already starting to go through that in a major way. A few days ago he started screaming while I was holding him and when Heather came in the room and took him (without doing anything else) he started cooing. He wasn't hungry; he just felt like things would be better with his mama than his papa.

I don't know if there's some sort of gender or sexual difference involved (the nice thing about having only one of each is that you can chalk up all differences to innate gender differences . .. . and believe me, parents do when they are giving us "advice.") For the record, I'm pretty sure that Elena is "straight" (to the extent that a three year old can be) --- this first became obvious when we were in Italy and she was about 19 months old, in a way that was hilarious and deserves its own post some other time. But the only important thing for our purposes here is that Jasper has started wooing Heather much earlier than Elena did.

So, today, our housekeepers* were late in coming, so we were unable to cook dinner at home. We gave Elena the choice of where to go (from a limited selection) and she chose the California Pizza Kitchen. This made me happy because this is just about the most upscale sort of place we can go with the kids (actually we were recently in West Virginia and ate at a great restaurant. . . but that was a unique exception in many ways and would probably also merit its own blog entry or two; also, one of the things I loved about our trip to Italy with Elena was that we could eat pretty much anywhere with her and no one would look at us askance)...

Fortunately, our kids are pretty good when we go out to eat and everything was going swimmingly. Elena was eating her cheese pizza (which she's a pro at ordering but has only recently started eating --- for a while we were going around the Main Line collecting kids' pizzas to put in our fridge) and Jasper was kickin' it old school in his car seat. We were at a square table; the kids were facing one another as were Heather and I.

Jasper started to get a little fussy and so I took him out. Assuming he was sleepy, I held him in cradle position and started rocking him while he was eating. He was having none of it and started lifting up his head. This wasn't good enough, so he started lifting up his whole chest, which is no small feat for a little four month old. He had almost managed to sit himself up, so I decided I'd help him and turned him around so that he was sitting on my lap.

At that point, all tiredness left his eyes. He started staring at his mom, cooing and talking up a storm. And that's when it hit me:

There he was, in what was to his unsophisticated mind surely quite an upscale and intimate place . . . looking over (my) wine glass (but he was willing to ignore that fact) into Heather's beautiful amber eyes.

And me? Well, I was there, but he had maneuvered himself so that he couldn't see me. He had literally taken my place.

As soon as we got home, I went ahead and moved the hiding location of my symbolic phallus. I usually keep it somewhere in the entry-way closet in case I need to exercise my patriarchal authority. But I hid it in the attic, because I can lock that. . .

Hopefully Jasper won't start reading Lacan anytime soon.

*no one is allowed to judge us for having a housekeeper unless they have two or more children and they and their co-parent are both trying to hold down a full time job**...

**for the purposes of my moralism, I ask the reader to forget that one of those co-parents is currently on maternity leave, and the other is on a summer break that looks like it'll be extending into unemployment.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ideas Man First Annual Discussion Forum (Part Two)

Ok, so I recognize that my last post was a little abstract and might have suggested a discussion that only appealed to me.


Here's a different topic.

Assuming, Obama clinches the nomination later this week, who should he name as Veep? (In the interest of full disclosure, I'd be delighted, but I'm 6 --- soon to be 5 --- years too young; so no currying points with Ideas Man, something that I know is a goal for all of you).

To get started, here are some of the "talking points" along with my 2 cents (adjusted for inflation).

First, let's dispense with:

Hillary Rodham Clinton. I've made no bones about my dislike for HRC. But the nomination has been incredibly close and, at times bitter, so this is the obvious way to "heal" that split. Now, leaving aside my personal feelings for HRC, I still think it's a bad idea insofar as their styles and messages don't just not mesh but are opposed (each would pretty clearly dilute the "brand" of the other). Plus would they really be able to conceal their hatred long enough to present themselves as a "unity" ticket? Plus, I really think in their hearts of hearts they both know it's a terrible idea.

So let's move into the first category of candidates, who seem to obviate the problem of personal rancor while attempting to "heal the rift." Clinton supporters:

Ted Strickland. A popular governor from an important swing state (Ohio) brings in executive experience (well 2 years of it ...). From what I know about him, he seems likeable enough and appeals to that all important consituency of blue collar whites, who are apparently the only real Americans (I am proud of my elitism).

I haven't heard of Ed Rendell being talked about (he has a little more experience and is a former DNC and perhaps the paradigmatic Clinton hack). It seems to me that he'd be good for the same reasons as Strickland, but I'm glad that he's not on the list, because I really dislike him, even though I voted for him twice (the alternative was always way worse). He did a goodish job as mayor of Philly when I first moved here, but his two big causes as governor have been: expanding legalized gambling and property tax reform. Really? These are Democratic issues (when they both involve transfers of money to the rich from the poor).

Then there's the ex-Clinton supporter (Judas) if you will: Bill Richardson. Great executive experience and Hispanic (his name is pronounced Beeel Reechardson --- just ask Al Gore); and Hispanics have been trending almost as much to Clinton as blue-collar whites but they apparently don't matter as much. Now, you might say that this is racism --- I won't, although I'll think it --- demographically, the more interesting thing is that it shows that Democrats still can't buy onto the notion that if they sweep the West they can lose the South... I like him, and he really fills the "experience gap" the best of three I've mentioned. Plus, I was favorably impressed by his early-ish endorsement of Obama when I had written him off as a Clinton hack (Beeel Reechardson Super Star ....)

Now let's move into earlier supporters of Obama.

Here, we include. Janet Napolitano, the popular governor of Arizona. I'll follow the news media in pointing to the two most salient facts about her: she is a woman (would this heal the "rift" without including a Clinton supporter? Certainly partially, but I doubt fully b/c I think that the rift is as much about the internal divisions of Democratic politics as gender. But I've been taking to task for this elsewhere so I won't push it). Don't know much about her except that she's done well in a conservative place without becoming a "blue dog Democrat" but I don't think I need to research much more b/c now that McCain is the Republican nominee she is a remote pick.

What about Jim Webb? Obama's representative among angry white Appalachian men. As a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat again, good cross-over appeal (might do better among some Southerners than McCain --- depending on who he nominates for Veep and how much Veep actually matters). Great integrity and smart enough, but a little too conservative for my taste. Despite being part of the post-90s democratic party, he has good experience; but I"m not sure he breaks enough with the demographics that have scarred our party. And lets not forget that he was vocally against women in the military when he was Undersecretary of the Navy, and although he's been open about the fact that he's mistaken, that wouldn't do great things for the gender issues that have plagued the party ...

Ok, so what about the uncategorizable candidates?

Here, first we have John Edwards who might parlay his third place into the veep slot. I like Edwards a lot and probably think of my own politics as the closest of anyone I've listed. Of course, there's the "been there/done that" thing and he claims he doesn't want the vice-presidency (inside money says he wants to be A.G. which I think he'd be great at and would hopefully use to start more vigorously enforcing labor laws and business regulations).

Then there's Michael Bloomberg. I have to admit he's my favorite choice, assuming he wants the job. Unlike Rudy Guiliani, he's actually done a great job as mayor of NYC; he's been a technocrat in the best sense of the term: someone who tries to use the tools of government to solve problems in a non-partisan way. Even so, I'm not sure that I'd want a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent for President but I think that both in terms of what he brings politically to the ticket and as a future shaper of policy, he'd make a great vice-president.

Granted neither Edwards nor Bloomberg will get rid of the "elitist" charge, but it's a bogus charge in the first place. . .

Finally, there

Joe Lieberman. Of course, there's the been-there, done-that phenomenon. AND THE FACT THAT HE SUCKS. Fortunately he is not really in the running (too busy kissing McCain's ass and stirring up controversies over non-issues like whether or not to talk to Iran).

Any favorites on this list? Anyone I'm leaving out?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ideas Man's First Annual Open Discussion Forum

Something over on Dr. J.'s blog recently got me thinking once again about one of my favorite philosophical questions: the meaning and value of the future (those are, of course, two different questions, even if they are often confused).

As I said there, I agree with Dr. J. that the issue of celebrity adoptions is a troubling one and one which ought to stir up ambivalent feelings in anyone concerned about (understanding or ameliorating) relations between the first and third worlds. And I also agree with the comments that followed. But while accepting the substance of these claims, I nonetheless found myself a little disconcerted. Now, maybe that's just because I'm a melancholy person. But if it is, it's a melancholia that often unsettles me when I engage in discussions with people who share my progressive politics: faith that we can properly understand the way in which our actions are oriented towards the future (readers of this blog familiar with contemporary continental philosophy will note that what I'm voicing here is a suspicion of any form of messianism --- weak or strong). Bentham addresses this problem by making the certainty of a pleasure as well as its proximity to the present elements in his hedonistic calculus. That's all well and good assuming that we can quantify certainty and proximity; and sometimes we really can. Global warming is a good example; another is disease prevention. But note that both of these are primarily scientific problems where social conditions present an impediment to their solution. Genuinely social problems pose a much thornier problem. Because when it comes to the future, such quantifiability is just the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg. And when Mill suggests a qualitative corrective to Bentham's utilitarianism, it utterly leaves out the uncertainty of the future.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milan Kundera:
"Once upon a time, I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions. Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgment on us, of course. And without any competence."

In an article that I wrote about him, I argued that a good deal of his work can be understood as responding to the trauma that the future delivers to us (I might call my earlier melancholia anticipatory melancholia). Elsewhere, I argued that there are in fact two forms of futurity that philosophers often conflate: the futurity of our anticipation (an extension of what Husserl call's protention; or in a Heideggerian vein, the future of our projects) and the futurity that we cannot anticipate but that will nonetheless happen (my extreme nominalism is entirely compatible with this realist claim ....) It's a conflation that is, I think, politically dangerous, and it's a conflation to which progressives are just as prone as reactionaries. It's also one of the reasons that I am much more sympathetic to ameliorative politics than to revolutionary politics.

But to keep things friendly, I'll give an example that we all can agree on (it's a very far-fetched example).

Let's say that there emerges a leader in Iraq who is genuinely capable of bringing peace and stability to the country and (let's be really imaginative here) of reconciling the different ethnicities and factions within the country. And let's say that a future U.S. president isn't so dumb as to get in the way of this leader bringing about this reconciliation. Democracy blooms in the Middle East and the wet dream of the neo-cons comes true...

Let's say that if S. Hussein were still in power he would have been able to keep this leader from emerging.

In this outside possibility, would the neo-cons original rationale for invasion be justified? (We might pose this question to the decidedly liberal George Packer, who supported the invasion on humanitarian grounds but later said he was wrong --- essentially because of the results of how things unfolded).

We all know that the answer to this question is no, but the only way that we can justify this answer is by asserting that the present (even a bad present, an untenable present) has some claim on any possible future no matter how wonderful that future would be.

To come back to reality, although we all know that things are going terribly in Iraq and are not going to get any better, we also hope that things will get better. If things get better before November, John McCain will probably win the election because the very same majority of people who claim that the war is a mistake will revert to their initial position of supporting the war and McCain will say he was right all along.

Those of us who know this is a fallacy will insist that even if things are going better now it doesn't justify the horrors and atrocities that we've (Americans and Iraqis) already committed and endured. But we will lose that argument.

I have lots more to say about this subject, but Ideas Girl wants me to play with her now. So back to the original purpose of this post:

In my First Annual Open Discussion Forum, I invite the tens of readers of this blog to respond to the following question:

"How can we have a progressive politics without presuming that we know the future and without ignoring the value of (even a shitty) present?"

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y)

This and the previous post both pertain to the birth of Ideas Boy, B.A. (BY), a.k.a Jasper Dean Allred, born February 1 at 2:10 in the afternoon. He was 5 weeks early and had to spend the first nine days of his life in the NICU, but we were happy he wasn't earlier.

Heather started having complications on Christmas Eve. Our Christmas present was a trip to the hospital, where Heather had to stay from the 24th to the 28th. They were worried that she was going to go into preterm labor, but once she got to 34 weeks, they took her off bedrest --- and within a few days Jasper was born!

Well, at that point something like 2/3 of babies are born without complications and Jasper had had some steroids to help him grow (he'll be testifying about this so-called APGAR inflation to Congress in a few weeks). And at first everything seemed fine but then he stopped breathing... and later developed jaundice. Boys have breathing problems more often than girls and whites get jaundice disproportionately. It's because of these kind of disadvantages that we white men need the affirmative action program called centuries of political and economic oppression....

Despite this rocky start, Jasper has been thriving. He's been growing like a trooper (he's almost to 10 pounds already --- which puts him in the 50th percentile adjusted for his prematurity. We didn't know there was such a thing as the 50th percentile). If he keeps growing this quickly, he'll be bigger than his big sister within a couple of years.

He's just started giving lots of smiles and has huge dimples. I'll post one when we can get one on camera. He has also started working on his coo's and gurgles. Before that he'd try to communicate by staring at you and opening his mouth.

He is very even tempered and a real joy to be around. He and his big sister get along great and we've had no instances of "the big sister" (as Ideas Girl calls herself) getting jealous. She loves him so much and is so sweet with him. The only problem we have is that she wants to help too much. He, for his part, is fascinated by her. He loves his mommy and daddy holding him, but his favorite person to watch is Elena.

Getting weighed at birth.

Ideas Boy in the "Idea Cave" at the NICU

Ideas Man feeding Ideas boy a bottle (at the NICU)

The happy Ideas Clan
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Ideas Boy, B.A. (BY) II

Ideas Boy and Ideas Man wearing their matching "HBR" shirts, named in honor of Hank Boyd Rite, the 60s era architect who designed our house.

Ideas Boy and Ideas Girl lounging in their respective easy chairs.

Easter Sunday

Ideas Boy likes to sleep. We find this shocking because of the sleep habits of Ideas Girl, both as a baby and presently.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Apropos of the Michigan Primary

N.B. Since I started writing this post, the Michigan primary has come and gone, and as you'll see my punditry-skills suck. Nonetheless, I leave the post intact.


I had been planning on writing a post on memorizing poetry while commuting between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, but since this was apropos of Dr. J.'s comments on trucking, I figured the only "manly" thing to do (and apparently I only do manly things) would be to write something different.

So instead I've decided to write about one of my overriding obsessions --- primary politics. Now, thankfully, I haven't had the time to get as obsessed about the primaries as I was about the 2006 elections. I followed these the way that I believe that some people follow sports. Despite my generally high testosterone levels I don't follow any sport although I did get pretty into the last hour of the 2006 World Cup whilst watching it in lovely Citta Di Castello and I do reserve the right to become jingoistic during the Olympics. I started following the 2006 elections because I really wanted the Democrats to take back both houses of Congress but at a certain point following the minutiae of the goddamn race became rewarding in and of itself. Thus, for example, on election night I'd excitedly shout out things like "Schuler is up by 2 points over Taylor" or "I don't think Madrid is going to be able to pull it off" and Ideas Woman, Esq. would look at me like I was insane. Although I've been following it pretty closely, this year, there are two factor's getting in the way of my pure joy of the race: 1) the fact that Obama is the only politician in my life that I think has actually inspired me, which keeps me from taking any pleasure in the ups of Clinton's campaign (naturally I take pleasure in the downs --- especially since I firmly believe that the "Third Way" strategy is ultimately self-defeating) and 2) the painful issue of Mitt's Mormonism.

Given that Michigan doesn't matter even in any symbolic way for the Democrats, we'll give them a rest tonight and focus on the Republican primary. I haven't seen any exit poll returns yet, but I imagine that the lack of any real competition on the democratic side will mean that most independents will vote in the Republican primary and that consequently McCain will win what would otherwise be a very close race. I don't think though, that this will spell the end of the Romney run. He is rich enough, and doing well okay enough everywhere to be able to hold on, pile up enough second places, and clinch the nomination on a technicality. I am ambivalent about how I feel about this. I do think that McCain is the most palatable of the top-tier Republicans. The fact that I say this even after his shameful sell-out to Bush in 2004 is a reflection of just how dismal the Republicans are, but so be it. But I also think that he is the most electable of the Republicans --- I realize that a lot of people will say Giuliani is, but, 2004 notwithstanding, I like to think Americans are smart enough not to elect another bona fide fascist. And as much as I'd like to see the ironic spectacle of Giuliani swift-boated on 9/11 (with the caveat that the charges will in this case be true), the divisiveness of that spectacle would be really bad for America. Conversely, I (like just about everyone else) think Romney is the least electable of the top-tier Republicans and I think he's the second-most palatable for me (I have no problem with wishy-washiness and since I don't consider Ron Paul a viable candidate I don't have to decide whether or not the wackiness of a libertarian presidency would be a comedically justifiable argument for preferring it to another conservative presidency). So should I hope for a McCain win on the grounds that he caters the least to the hateful elements of the Republican party or a Romney win on the grounds that the hateful elements of the Republican party reject his best attempts to pander to them?

I think that I hope for a McCain win merely because it will spare me the pain of watching Romney flounder again and again in public (even though this really would be best for the country since it would all but insure a democratic victory. My biggest fear is a Clinton-Huckabee matchup, because I think Huckabee would win.) I should be happy that a huge number of social conservatives would stay home on election night in the event of a Romney candidacy, but I have found myself strangely bothered, and even angered by it.

There are, as lots of intelligent people have pointed out, lots of good reasons to be worried about voting for a Mormon. But I have yet to hear any of them from even the intelligent voices in the "mainstream media." Social conservatives point to the wackiness of some Mormon beliefs and the controversy over whether or not Mormons are "really Christian" and liberals --- well --- they also point to the wackiness of some Mormon beliefs and, if they are really sophisticated and need a good reason to justify what I suspect is more often than not a latent prejudice they might point to some shameful truths about Mormon history --- the fact, for example that black men in the Mormon church couldn't "receive the priesthood" --- something non-pederastic that happens to all Mormon boys at the age of 12 --- until 1978. Or else they invoke the bugaboo of Mormons social conservatism --- in this case a true description of most mainstream Mormon's self-identification and voting patterns but both inconsistent with the social realities of the larger conservative movement in America and at odds with the other elements of their reasons for finding a Mormon president unpalatable. But all of these things really miss the point.

The comment by Hendrik Hertzberg that I mentioned in my last post is really typical of the liberal response to Romney's Mormonism. In particular, I take issue with his criticism of Mitt for not speaking out against the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. Is it a sign of poor character? Yes? That he is an unfeeling person, not inclined to internally reflect on his beliefs. Certainly. Does it show a lack of compassion? Absolutely. But we already all knew these things about Mitt Romney without having to go back 30 years in history; and these poor qualities have very little to do with his Mormonism, which is what Hertzberg insinuates with his comments.

The truth of the matter is that the ban on blacks holding the priesthood says very little about Mormonism's place in American politics today. It would take lots more posts to cash this claim out so I'll leave it as a bare assertion. It ought to be a source of shame for the church, and both the ban and the removal of the ban say a lot about the growth of Mormonism as a global religion. The church's growth in the 70s in Brazil and Africa necessitated homegrown leaders. But this wasn't as pressing an issue in the United States because there are only slightly more black Mormons in the United States than homosexuals in Iran.

There are, however, plenty of homosexuals and women for that matter in the Mormon church, and the Mormon church's track record here is much more pertinent to understanding American politics. The church played an active role in helping to defeat the E.R.A. in the 1970s; and I was disheartened and a little surprised by the openness of their opposition to gay-marriage over the last few years (of course I knew that they would be against it, but the formal church hierarchy tends to stay out of the way of open political confrontation --- this is their general policy, for example, on abortion). Now, given that Romney ran as for both senator and governor as a pro gay-rights Republican but then immediately started backtracking once he set his sights on the White House, he can't claim religion is irrelevant here. Nor can he about women's issues, but the story here is a little more complex:

The irony of the polygamy bruhaha that arises whenever Mormon's come up in the mass media is that although active Mormons hate the fact that it comes up (and to be honest, it still really annoys me years after I've had anything to do with the Mormon church), it's a P.R. stroke of brilliance. Whenever the issue comes up, any respectable news-source will go out of its way to say that it's been banned for generations. I think that this has the effect of immunizing the Mormon church from more important questions into its patriarchal structure. Because the way the early church practiced polygamy was such an obvious manifestation of this patriarchal structure, any question about contemporary manifestations of that same patriarchal structure end up getting avoided out of respect to avoid the polygamy non-issue. But it is the distinctiveness of Mormon patriarchy that I think is pertinent to Romney's campaign, and that I haven't seen addressed.

This gets me back to my earlier claim that although most Mormons behave like social conservatives, they aren't really social conservatives in the a way that's meaningful to contemporary American politics. I don't claim to get the conservative movement, but I take it that, for the mainstream conservative movement the fundamental issue with homosexuality, abortion, and "secular" culture generally is moral. These things are immoral and it is therefore necessary for the government, acting in loco parentis to police them. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God: The Bible, or the parts of the Bible they choose to read, promulgates a certain morality, therefore social authority ought to be mustered to back up the word of God.

Mormons, importantly, aren't fundamentalists. One of the Mormon Articles of Faith (the closest thing Mormonism has to a creed is "We believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God. We also believe the Bible to be the word of God, so far as it is translated correctly." In practice, what this means is that a literal interpretation of the Bible is less important than an authoritative interpretation of the word of God, and there is a clear line of hierarchy that explains where that authority comes (see my inappropriate sex joke about receiving the priesthood above). The ultimate word comes from the current Mormon president or his two counselors or the twelve apostles. Since they all agree with one another in public anyway, it's one and the same. There are strict lines of hierarchy that extend from Salt Lake to local stake presidents and bishops (a far less exalted position in Mormonism than Catholicism --- more like a pastor, the head of one congregation --- more on this later). From bishops (who like all local Mormon leaders are lay people who do their "calling" as unpaid work), it extends throughout the ward (equivalent of a parish) to every male head of household. This line of authority is far more relevant than any style of interpretation, fundamentalist or otherwise.

This flips the rationale for social conservatism on its head. Even if the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and implies that the morning after pill is Satan's medicine, this is less relevant than the why: the why is that God commands it. In other words, family values are values because the head of the family has decreed them as such. The authority has decreed that they must be policed; therefore they are immoral. In practice, the difference is minor, but in rhetorical style it's enormous. This is why the Mormon hierarchy can present their policy towards abortion and gay rights much less dogmatically than fundamentalists but, when the cards are on the table, expect the same results.

I'd like to see the media look more at this aspect of Romney's persona. But I don't think they'd know how to. I've already suggested that a commentator who I generally really like really flubbed his approach to Romney because he emphasized the wrong beliefs and assumed the wrong style of social conservatism. I think this is because he didn't have a better model to go on --- he has to write a lot of columns and needs stories that fit a certain format. Anna Quindlen, maybe my least favorite "liberal" commentator (unless we count Colmes, but who does?) seemed to make the same mistake when she was weeping and wailing (rightfully) about the 2002 elections and wondered how a conservative from Utah could have one the governorship of Massachussets. I was surprised because the person I had heard win was a fellow whose background was from Michigan and Massachussets (he was around to lose a senatorial election to Kennedy in the 90s) and wasn't, at the time, presenting himself as particularly conservative. But Quindlen most have know better from me. All Mormons are fundamentalists from Utah. None of them are businessmen from tremendous privileged "East Coast Elite" backgrounds (I'm reminded of an employer of Heather's who wondered if my father --- a physics professor --- was a farmer --- what else do people in the farming powerhouse of Utah do? When he found out my uncle --- an engineer for Dupont, lived in Kennett Square, PA he assumed he was a mushroom farmer. Kennett Square proper is the mushroom capital of the United States; the surrounding area is a posh exurb of Wilmington, DE.)

One of the better articles that I've read on how Romney was also in the New Yorker, and it talked about his background as a management consultant and businessman. The main thesis of the article was that this background was more relevant to what kind of president he'd be than his background as a Mormon. At one point, the article did acknowledge that all Mormon males are essentially trained to be managers and businessmen but didn't really follow through with this to get to the point that to the extent that Romney's Mormon background is relevant, it's because it is identical with the particular business background that he has. The question I'd like to see someone ask is how Romney's considerable skill as a businessman (no one disputes, for example, that he did a very good job running the 2002 Olympics) mesh with the patriarchy of his religion. I'd also like them to stop and ask why they feel justified asking these questions of Romney and not, for example of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is also a practicing Mormon. They are right not to, but I don't think they understand why.

I've gotten way off track. Why does it bother me so much that people are concerned about Romney's Mormonism when I am also? I don't think it's just that I'm annoyed that they're concerned about the wrong things, that they can suppose that they can trot out tired old prejudices which lead them off on a wild goose chase even though it leads them to the right general conclusion. I think it's that by being annoyed, I've started to remember what it's like to see the world from inside Mormonism.

What do I mean by this?

Until I was nine, my family lived in Troy, which was a suburb of Detroit. Our identity out there pretty much centered around the Mormon church. Although we lived in Troy, we were in the Bloomfield Hills ward and the Bloomfield Hills . Bloomfield Hills was across the street from where we lived is a very well-to-do suburb, one that many prominent Michiganders call home. For example, it's where ex-governor George Romney lived.

I remember when I was a kid that my parents pointed out the bishop's father and told us that that man was almost President of the United States. When you're a little kid, this seems like a perfectly reasonable possibility. When I thought about that claim as a teenager, it became another moment in my growing realization of how provincial my parents world was. I mean, where did they come up with this stuff. And then I learned that it actually wasn't that far from the truth (it doesn't follow, however, that my parent's worldview wasn't provincial).

When we lived in Michigan, my identity as a Mormon was pretty secure, and I didn't feel any tension in my parent's identification as Mormons, although that tension had to be there on some level. Like pretty much every school in America, status at my elementary school was rigorously prescribed by wealth and sports ability, so I was a guaranteed outcast. The less said about my athleticism, the better. And growing up, I always thought we were poor. Only as an adult did I realize that my parents were too schooled in their parent's Depression values to take advantage of the perks of being safely in the upper-middle class.

But things were different in our ward where I felt welcome even though I didn't fit in any better. When my mom had to have brain surgery to have tumors removed we were farmed out to different families in the ward. I remember it being more fun than scary. For one thing, lots of those families had really cool gadgets to play with and really big houses to play in. But whereas not having those things made me different at school, it didn't really seem to matter at church. I didn't see much of a difference between the auto-exec families, or the doctor families, or even the ex-governor than the families of the professors or even the carpet cleaners. Of course, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was a kid --- otherwise I would have noticed how the prominent church members came more from the doctors and execs and less from the carpet cleaners and blue collar workers.

When we moved to Utah, I was excited to go to a place where everyone would be Mormon. . . but I'm sure you can see where this is going. Of course, the social divisions at school were the exact same. And now those exact same people went to my church too! Without an outside to persecute us, we turned on one another. I often wonder if I would have remained Mormon if we hadn't moved to Utah. Certainly my oldest sister, who was 16 when we moved, is the only practicing Mormon among my siblings (except my 15 year old brother --- I think --- but give him time). And I know it would have made a huge difference for my parents, particularly my mother, who found herself at odds with a monolithic community and didn't know how to do anything but fight it (they were, of course, more than happy to take up the fight). I've decided it probably wouldn't have mattered for me though. In the end, my reasons for leaving had less to do how I perceived my "fit" than it did with the realization that I simply didn't believe it. My parents are liberals who have struggled to fit their values into their church's values. At a certain point, I realized that I had no idea to go through that same struggle.

But if we had stayed in Michigan, I think I would have left the church in a more peaceful way. I probably could have accepted the positive aspects that it had played in my life and decided it wasn't for me. I'm not sure I would, for example, have clearly seen the underbelly of its patriarchy as clearly as I had to in Utah.

In "the mission field" as Mormons call anything outside of Utah, the intermountain West and maybe certain parts of the West Coast, there is a shortage of able-bodied and minded men to run the organizations. A weird kid like me who wasn't particularly macho and had terrible organizational skills probably could have found a way to fit in to the local ward hierarchy (which starts prepping its boys for leadership roles at the age of 12). But in Utah, there are enough to go around, so there was room to have a few outcasts --- Now I don't mean outcasts among one's peers but among the grown men who run the youth organizations: The Boy Scouts, the Deacon's Quorums, etc. I don't exactly mean that they were unfriendly to me. It actually had to do more with the fact that I fit in better with them then with the other "young men." The nicer ones would treat me a bit as their peers; the meaner ones saw me as a smart-ass whose will had to be broken. But in either case this meant that I didn't engage them as mentors and tutors, which is what I was supposed to do. So the lessons in leadership, in organization --- in "manhood" weren't for me. I was, as my grandparents will be happy to tell you, the first Allred since the inception of scouting 100 years ago not to get become an Eagle Scout (I am proud to report that some of my little brothers have followed in my footsteps). When I decided not to go on a Mission, it pretty much clinched the fact that I was a lost cause. I tried to fit in with the Mormon church for a little while even after we moved out to Pennsylvania, but it was just too late.

If you want to understand how any Mormon male perceives his role in society, you need to understand the pervasive importance of this acculturation process. I went through it badly; Mitt went through it well --- this is why, even though he went through a "wild" period as a teen and I never did he was always a better Mormon than me. Harry Reid didn't go through it at all. He's an adult convert to the Mormon church. It's also why his Mormonism is irrelevant.

Notice how little I said about women in this conversation (and notice how in a discussion of the Boy Scouts, homosexuality didn't come up.) Women were, of course, irrelevant to this story (thus, for example, Ideas Woman, Esq. who is much more compotent than me had the obverse experience of Mormon patriarchy); and homosexuality is a choice (I could tell another "great" story about a relative of a different prominent Mormon family whose uncle was gay and who was himself in all likelihood gay, but who's parents nipped that in the bud by making sure that he masturbated to Playboy --- you can bet that this had no deleterious consequences on him --- but that's a different story. It's also not the story of a footballer who we'll call Shmeve Smyoung, another Mormon long rumored to be gay from a prominent Mormon background who we could tell a few stories about).

As I write, I've reminded myself of my great reasons for hating the Mormon church, even if I happen to love a lot of devout Mormons. But here's why that doesn't make me feel less ambivalent about the spectacle of Mitt Romney: I'm irritated that the press focuses on all the wrong things. The wackiness is irrelevant --- it's a fun barroom conversation but it tells you next to nothing about the religion, which can only be approached sociologically (I have an idea for a murder mystery where someone reveals the "secret" temple mysteries and is gruesomly killed. Everyone --- Mormons and non-Mormons alike --- thinks that it is because he revealed the temple mysteries, which used to have instructions for the ritual suicide of anyone who revealed them. But no one --- Mormon or otherwise --- would really kill for such a retarded reason, at least no one in America, certainly not the respectable businessmen who run the Mormon church. The true secret to Mormon's wackiness, to paraphrase Jacques Derrida, is that there is no secret.

But I digressed again. I'm irritated that the press focuses on a non-existent wackiness that seems to differentiate Mormons from other social conservatives and then proceeds to equate them when it comes to the important question as to why their beliefs are so compatible. I'm irritated that social conservatives are so hung up on the non-existent wackiness that they fail to recognize what a good friend they have in the Mormons, especially a decent-looking guy like Mitt who could bridge the country-club / social conservative divide better than any Republican. And even though I'm glad that Mitt hasn't actually done that, I'm irritated that he's such a douche-bag that he doesn't understand how to. It's painful to see him in public flubbing around, alternately defending Mormonism and distancing himself from Mormonism, but at precisely the wrong times.

Everybody misses the point. I think it's buried somewhere in here, but I've forgotten what it was and I'm tired.

Hopefully I've included a little something to offend everyone.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Nominalist Eating in Florida

This is a response of sorts to a post of Dr. J's blog.

First of all, let me say that any day that includes both eating burgers at a gourmet restaurant and a surprise wedding (as long as it's not of the shotgun variety) sounds pretty awesome.

However, Leigh's theory that this particular steakhouse "use[s] Burger Friday as a way to get rid of their leftover meat before their weekend rush" needs further elaboration.

Now, central to my non-vegetarianism is an utter denial about where meat comes from, so it seems very odd to me that steak can magically be transformed into hamburger (Mormons don't believe in transubstantiation --- see Hendrik "Hertzburger Friday" Hertzberg's otherwise good but offensive even to a no longer practicing or believing Mormon comment in the most recent New Yorker --- so I'm not being inconsistent here). So my question to Leigh (as part of her Ask Me? series --- assuming that's what it's called, I'm too lazy to go and look it up) is "how does serving hamburgers help this restaurant get rid of steaks?"

There's a little more background here, which needs to be explained. When Ms. Ideas Woman, Esq. was pregnant with Ideas Girl we visited her sister in Florida (Despite what my grammar implies, I mean Ideas Woman's sister and not Ideas Girl's sister, which would refer to a --- hopefully always --- empty set). Erica was in Florida as part of Disneyworld's Slavelabor for College Credit Program. (I think the credits she got were in business but they really should have been in Applied Marxist Theory or perhaps Sociology --- "Theories of Racial, Ethnic and Sexual Stereotyping in Job-Assignment at Amusement Parks." But I digress.

Now, as near as I can tell, Orlando has the worst food in America, if not the world. My dissertation advisor, who fancies himself a gourmet assures me that I am wrong and that there are in fact fine restaurants in Central Florida but we were unable to find them (We did find one excellent Northern Italian restaurant at Coco Beach, which was otherwise the nastiest beach town I've ever been to). We did find lots of Denim World's, Houses of Denim and other Denim-related outlets. And we found lots of chains serving greasy food.

Now, I am not one of those foodies who is above fast food. Just as when one rates wine, one ought to pay attention to the extent to which it fulfills it's varietal characteristics, I find nothing odd about holding certain fast food meals in high regard as exemplary of what fast food's potentials are. There was a great NYT article on this subject by one of their food writers who toured the country on a fast-food road trip, but it was a while ago and I am too lazy to look up the link to it. So, for example, I am generally fodnd of Quizno's. For this reason, we went to Quizno's a couple of times down in Florida. Like everything we ate there except for Krispy Kreme donuts (which exhibit the "characteristics" of "donut" admirably., Heather developed a food aversion to Quizno's that lasted the rest of her preganancy. I find it odd that with this current pregnancy all of her food aversions returned. So, for example, even though we've been to Quizno's a few times in the the three years between pregnancies she is now nauseous at the very idea, even though we haven't gone to Quizno's post-pregnancy.

One place that we went to down there was called "Steak - N - Shake" which I take it is some manner of Southern Fast-Food chain. If it had in fact been categorized under the variety "fast food" I think that the hamburgers there would have been fine. Quite greasy (I could feel my face returning to adolescent levels of acne whilst eating) but edible and flavorful enough. The problem was that they had pretentions of falling under the category of "greasy spoon" or "diner" or somesuch slightly more elevated category. And in this regard they failed woefully.

Why do I bring up this long and, let's be honest, rather boring story?

Well, on the back of their menus, they had the following blurb. "Why do we call our hamburgers Steakburgers? [this is in fact what they were listed on as the menus] Because we can."

Such a bald assertion of branding should have warmed my nominalist heart. But it left me irritated. If they were going to call it a "Steakburger" (registered trademark) than it ought to be made with a higher grade meat than, for example, Wendy's uses. I was similarly irritated when I ate at the Cafeteria of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and bought a "multi-grain bagel with crisp Romaine, lox and capers" and got a white-bread bagel with iceberg, some orange cream cheese and onions. If the HM wants to spend its limited resources on something more important than a quality cafeteria, more power to them. But don't advertise your food as something it isn't. Whenever I tell this story to people they imply that I am being petty or that it is inappropriate to criticize any aspect of the Holocaust Museum. I simply insist that one can seperate the cafeteria from the rest of the museum conceptually, and hope my detractors can do likewise.

All of this leads back to Leigh's post. Presumably there is something more than simply branding which makes the steakhouse's burgers both good and appropriate for a steakhouse to serve. What, pray tell, is it?