When I was 11 or 12 I came up with a teleological theory of history: tired of the warmed-over and Americanized Christian discourse with which my Mormon coreligionists went after my beloved Romans for persecuting early Christians, I proposed the antithesis: the Roman imperium was necessary for Christianity to flourish and to expand beyond its Hebrew confines.
With all the seriousness that only makes sense in child's play, I became convinced that my life's purpose was to prove this very bold thesis and, like any good equal parts entitled and precocious kid, wasn't about to let my lack of any real knowledge about ancient near-Eastern religion or even more than a highly amateur in the most literal sense of the term knowledge of Roman history and culture stop me from being right. Nor was I aware that I was simply pushing a caricature of the worst possible reading of Hegel.
Of course, I didn't have to worry about being shown up, since my adult religious leaders lacked even that level of amateur knowledge or, let it be said, any desire to show me up when they could just push me around.
I also had access to a major university's research library, and so I threw myself into the task of acquitting my beloved Romans as quickly as possible. Soon stacks of books filled up my room whilst the overdue fines piled up. I'm not sure what I got out of any of this, but it sure did make me feel like a real scholar the virtues of being which I had not yet realized were overrated.
I'm reminded of this as my equal parts entitled and precocious daughter hits this same age.
Of course, even so none of this would be worth remembering now, were it not also for the fact that this was also how I discovered Lucretius, who put an end to the whole silly exercise and also made it all worthwhile.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
I've worked with several of my good friends and colleagues on drafting a "November Statement" articulating shared objections and principles in the wake of the disastrous U.S. election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I've heard from a few people essentially asking "what's the point of just another online statement?," so let me talk a little about why I helped to write this statement, and why I urge all my friends and colleagues in the academy to sign it. Let me be upfront: Although I helped to write the statement I'm asking you to sign, what I'm writing below are simply my own reflections. I think that irrespective of what happens in the next weeks and months, that the stability of our democracy is in serious jeopardy and I think that many of the institutions whose job it is to protect that stability are themselves compromised. I know that we like to decide just how scared we should be by asking who we should compare Trump to. Is he a Hitler or just a Berlusconi? I think in asking these questions, we're partially jumping the gun. I'm inclined to agree with Plato and suspect that most tyrants are undisciplined thieves, ruled by their own desires and fears. The extent to which they become totalitarians and the extent to which they just remain kleptocrats depends as much on how the institutions that they interact with respond to them and how other polities do as it does on any of their own machinations. This is why I think it behooves all of us to bring whatever force is at our disposal to bear against Trump from the beginning so that the lazy, cowardly man's easiest course of action will be to acquiesce to those democratic institutions who stand up to his current threats and who insist upon protecting those vulnerable groups who he is going after. Of course, the institutions we'd like to rely on first and foremost are those constitutional checks and balances which should reign in the executive. But we also already know that those are broken. That's why I think that those of us involved institutions such as the press and the academy need to commit ourselves in advance to serving as the democratic bulwark that we at our best are. That's going to require collective action, absolutely. But the first step in collective action is identifying a shared position and asserting that we in fact occupy that position. The sense of collective identity of institutions like the academy has already been thoroughly shaken: by decades of managerialism and by the erosion of labor through the precaritization of the profession. So I think it's critically important to begin the Trump presidency by re-asserting that there is in fact such an identity, fundamentally committed to a democratic polity. Speaking of precaritization, it's been my experience that the younger folks who have been more shaken by it get this point much more readily than other folks. I've also heard from a few people who have agreed with the statement below in principle but who are afraid for their own position. If you're in a precarious position, this makes complete sense. It also indicts those of us whose positions are less precarious though. What makes their position so precarious is a lack of solidarity, the willingness of those of us who are more safely protected by what remains of the academy to commit our voices to anything at all. It seems to me, then, that the objection "what does this do?" and the objection "won't I be making myself a target?" cancel themselves out. So that's why I'm sharing this. I respect those of you who can't sign it because of the precarity of your position. And I respectfully disagree with those of you who can, but think that committing yourself publicly doesn't amount to anything. And the reason why I helped to write it, and the reason why I sign it is to commit myself and to hold myself, and other signatories to the promise of action in the future. Because if we fail to bring the force of our institutions to bear against fascism, then we will also be called upon (and I am committed) to bringing the much weaker but also final and most desperate, force of our own bodies.