Coalition Democracy

There is a lesson  that should be learned by American politics from what happened during the Arab Spring. It will be remembered that the people who went out into the Square to bring down the Mubarak government were what we would call liberals or modernizers. They were students and techies and women. They were backed by the Army, which got them the first and only fair election in Egyptian history. But look what happened then. They could not come together around a single candidate to represent their interests, neither one of the young people, like the IBM executive who got the international media spotlight for a few days, nor Barudi, the distinguished international civil servant who had lived outside the country for many years, nor some indigenous political figure. The result was that the Arab Brotherhood, not expecting to gain power, won the election and its head, much praised by the international community as a potential enlightened figure, and given credit for having put down some unrest among the Bedouin living in the Sinai, nonetheless proved too sympathetic to Islamist forces and so was dispatched by the army who got their own leader elected president without much resistance by the international community, which had given up much hope that the Arab Spring was a democratic reform movement. And now to America.

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10/23- The Rape of Dinah

There is another way of appreciating the stories of women in the patriarchal setting if one casts aside a preoccupation with the oppression of women. The stories are legend like tellings of the origins of civilized familial relations, or at least what would seem required to make family relations recognizably current in the court of an oriental despotism such as the Persia of the Exile. How, the redactoress might have imagined, could this primitive people have moved themselves beyond being primitive in those sphere of activities recognized as being under the influence of women?  The redactoress is remarkably insightful about what makes families workable as distinctive units caught up in the larger social structure.

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My Uncle Jack

My Uncle Jack was a ne’er do well, which meant, in his case, that it took him a long  time to settle into a career and into family life. He was drafted in the last days of World War II and never saw combat and reenlisted even though, as far as I could gather, he spent his time in the military losing his corporal’s stripes and residing in the stockade. When he left the Army, he used his G. I. Bill of Rights to study hairdressing, again for reasons I never understood, but he dropped that because, he said, it had too many fags in it, which even my early adolescent knowledge of the world told me he should have known going in. He took a job as a security guard at J. C. Penny and carried around with him a picture of the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton so that he might get a reward for identifying him if he ran across him in the street. Shortly afterwards, Sutton was indeed identified by Arnold Schuster, who was very proud of what he had accomplished and gave newspaper interviews about it, and Frank Costello, the mobster, thought Schuster was too proud of himself and had him murdered. Jack did not see the irony of this but my mother thought that it showed the wisdom of not wishing for something you might get.

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Border Cruelty

It is time for a screed about what is happening at America’s southern border.  There has been a long term decrease in illegal border crossings from Mexico, but there has been in the last year or two an increase in the number of families, mothers and children, who have made that crossing, presumably to avoid the violence and lack of income opportunities that plague their home countries, which are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. So how are these refugees greeted? Children are separated from their parents and the mothers deported without their children even though they had surrendered at the American border to American Border Police so that they might apply for political asylum, which is their right under international and American law. But the President has said that he doesn’t think it right to allow them that loophole and, in fact, has made it harder for immigrants to ask for asylum and forced many of them to remain in Mexico without food and shelter until it is their turn to apply for asylum which, some reports say, means that one family a day will be processed.

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9/23- Lot and His Daughters

Feminists portray the patriarchal world of the early parts of “Genesis” as one which engaged in the oppression of women. That view makes the elementary mistake of confusing setting with plot. Women do hold subservient positions in the social structures; that is taken for granted by the texts. The important point, however, is that the social arrangements of tribal and nomadic life are described rather than advocated, for to advocate suggests that the arrangements are problematical, which they were not, while, on the other hand, the moral qualities of the people observed are problematical, and are therefore to be judged. That distinction made, the literature from patriarchal times has some very pointed things to say about how men and women get on with one another. Indeed, what George Bernard Shaw said was happening with the post-Victorian “New Woman”, that she was becoming opinionated and feisty and independent and fully able to handle her own intellectual and emotional needs, seems to have been largely accepted by those in Exilic Persia who edited the Old Testament, which gives some additional credence to Harold Bloom’s claim that the primary editor might well have been a woman, and certainly gives credence to the idea that there is something very secular about family relations in patriarchal times. Secularism presumes independence for women in that they are part of the workforce, make their own decisions about marriage, rather than leave that to their families, and have all the weaknesses and strengths of the other sex. Indeed, the absence of human rights or an adequate place in the workforce remains a cardinal indicator of whether, as in Saudi Arabia, a country has not yet emerged into secularism. A world of suppressed women is just what the secular world overcomes, testament to which are all the popular songs of the Twenties and Thirties that made love and marriage freely chosen rather than arranged and so the tangible meaning of a child of an immigrant generation taking his or her place among the modern people of America.

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Modern Portraiture

Modern portraiture can be defined as what happens when portraiture as an art form abandons what had preoccupied it ever since it arose out of Christian art, which was  the representation of people to show off how the subjects were powerful, or had something of interest in their faces, or were somehow beautiful. The something else that portraiture came to be about was that it was the occasion for the artist’s musings about human consciousness or the state of the world or anything else that caught his attention, Van Gogh making his portraits just as strange and luminescent as he did his presentations of chairs and beds, and so portraits no different, in that sense, from what landscapes or cityscapes were supposed to accomplish, which was to provide the artist’s point of view, as when Julian Freund provides not just a portrait of how unpleasant can be the sight of a realistically painted human body, warts and all, but his sense of the human condition as grossly biological and filled with sloth and gluttony, a perception that would have appealed to Dante.

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Can Free Speech Be Excessive?

The classicist David Konstan wrote an article entitled “Parrhesia”, which is the concept of free speech as that was practiced in Athens when that was a Fifth Century B. C. democracy.  That meant a person, as a citizen, could speak candidly, as if he were among friends, when he spoke his mind, though that did not mean he should engage in flattery, on the one hand, or insolence, on the other. As that idea is elaborated in the Fourth Century B.C., when Greece has become a series of states, some more despotic than others, that means one must curb one’s thoughts unless being outspoken is taken to mean that you have said things that ought not to be said, and so the person who pushes this limit is being courageous even if foolhardy because such people will be censored for their outbursts. Konstan sums up his point this way: “The term is located at that inevitable ideological juncture where debate rages and where what some believe must be brought into the open is just what offends others.” I think that this distinction between candid speech and obnoxious speech is very applicable to the current controversy in the House of Representatives about whether Ilhan Omar went too far when she used anti-Semitic tropes in referring to AIPAC money and the divided loyalty of Jews. She believed it and said it. Did that go too far? Nancy Pelosi thought so but a considerable number of Democrats did not. I want to address that question.

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8/23- A Moral God

The remainder of the tale of Abraham and his immediate family concerns why Abraham is the father of the monotheistic religions. It is because he rejects the last residues of the pagan tradition, as that is represented by the survival of angels as supernatural creatures, connections between this world and the next, or else to the mysterious world that exists in our dreams and fantasies, and replaces it with the awesomeness of a single God who is primarily the embodiment of morality, even as morality is a two edged sword: a claim that even people can make on God and so transcending God as well as being the same thing as God, God also the personage who can demand absolute and yet voluntary obedience, which might seem to be the opposite of morality in that morality is something to which both God and mankind are bound. This sublime and awesome recognition, something beyond the mere holiness of a god, has been made vivid ever since by the story of Sodom and the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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This Political Moment

The United States is at a very weird moment and that is not because the President of the United States is weird, what with all his lies, rants, meanness and ignorance, a collection of vile qualities we have never before seen in a President, some of his predecessors, like Nixon, suffering from one or another fatal flaw, but not from such a collection as this one which makes Trump unfit to don the cape of tragic hero, as was true of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy for his risk taking, Nixon for his conniving. Trump is merely contemptible and many of his followers see him that way, as a figure useful for upsetting the applecart rather than one who is very good at keeping it on a straight course.

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Johnson's "Stoicism"

Samuel Johnson was an essayist rather than a philosopher, but he was given to the contemplation of moral issues, and so perhaps thought that essays on morality were akin to what he said about pastoral poetry, which was that such poetry was the most primitive and natural because it was the result of rural people reflecting on their surroundings, and so moral essays might be considered the natural outlet for people concerned about how to live their lives and so not like what is produced by philosophers, who are concerned about the status of moral language rather than the fruits of moral speculation. Let us consider the short essay “Stoicism”, from his early periodical work in the Rambler series, in that light, while setting aside questions concerning how such taut and terse arguments would have found favor with the reading public. I don’t think the Atlantic or Harper’s would publish them today, so demanding are they of the reader.

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7/23- The Nature of Angels

Angels can be regarded as an essential part of the religious experience rather than just as some pleasing but fey images used to spell out religious experience. That is because angels can be regarded as part of the lively and continuing interchange between the supernatural and the natural, and so are on a par with the idea of the Mass or the revelations still made every once in a while to the leaders of the Mormon Church. If there are angels, then the age of miracles and miraculous creatures is not dead. Angels are just one of the ways God intervenes in the world. God sends particular supernal beings to intervene in individual lives, just as was the case in pagan myths.

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Radical Politics

Two weeks ago, I might have thought I would have to say I was wrong about what I had said two weeks earlier, which is that there was not much difference between the various candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, that they were all New Deal Democrats, and so we would make a choice on the basis of personality, which is a good or a bad thing depending on whether you think that people of real character will shine through, the alternative being that we will chose a charlatan or simply someone who has a tic or an expression that we find charming. What had gone wrong was that so many of the Progressive Democrats seemed committed to outlandish “Socialist” proposals and so there was a real division between the progressives such as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, on the one hand, and the mainstream Democrats, such as Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, the others not yet having chosen sides. What a difference a few weeks make.

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The Structural Underpinnings of Free Speech

Free speech is the experience of knowing that you can say anything you please without fear of governmental or other institutional authorities. You have free speech when you sound off in a high school class about politics because you know that school is a protected space where a variety of opinions are allowed even if some people may disapprove of what you say or even criticize you for those opinions but must, nonetheless and however grudgingly, admit your right to hold them. Free speech does not mean you are free to insult people, because that violates basic rules of courtesy, but it does mean that contrarian opinions or even fresh and unfamiliar points of view get a hearing, the only control being the informal ones that have to do with customs which can be so rigorous, as in a religious community, that saying unholy things can lead to ostracism or perhaps merely severe rebukes, these enough to make such a community not to be one that allows free speech. Free speech, as an experience, then, has about it the sense of liberation, individuality and democracy. Free speech is also a term that refers to the institutions which, like that high school, protect and further the activity of free speech, and this post is concerned with what are those institutions that led to the establishment of free speech as a characteristic feature of democratic regimes.

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6/23-Longevity

Let us turn to the other major source of information about primitive times that is found in “Genesis”: the connective tissue of genealogy. There is, first of all, a very brief story associated with the name “Lemach”. The story acts as a commentary on the Cain story, showing that the message of God’s forbearance with the first murderer will be lost on generations of people more intent on revenge than on anything else, and so the Cain story is also a false start, because its message does not become part of human consciousness, only a message within the “consciousness” of “Genesis”, as that can be misread by the countless people who will read “Genesis” and claim to take it seriously.

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Johnson's Dictionary

The importance of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is not that it was one of the first or that he had some piquant definitions but that it took a very different approach to language than is generally taken by philosophers. Samuel Johnson does something very radical in his dictionary. He posits the idea that for any word, whether simple or complex, everyday or esoteric, there is another word or string of words that can be generated in English that is its equivalent in meaning. Johnson provides some forty thousand examples as proof of his proposition. That is a remarkable thing to claim about language. However much it expands, whatever new words are added to its vocabulary, there is some other set of words it can be mapped to. Why this is the case, Johnson does not explain. He was not that kind of thinker. But he was a student of language and so could invent or find, take your pick, these equivalences which made language not a closed system in that words could only refer to other words, but an open system, in that new words could always be meaningful because they could be referred to old words. This is a characteristic of language in general, that it expands in this way, and it is not a characteristic which holds for other systems of thought.

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The Moral Lessons of "Now, Voyager"

The poor quality of the movies up for this year’s Academy Award for best motion picture reminds me of the time when movies were indeed better than ever, which was the period of the late Thirties and the early Forties, which produced not only “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach” (I am still leary of “Gone With the Wind”, another 1939 blockbuster) but also, in the early war years, such movies as “Random Harvest” and “Now, Voyager”, both from 1942, and both heavily melodramatic in that people were given psychological excuses for being out of touch with their own lives and so needed to find ways to integrate themselves back into a social life somewhat abbreviated from a normal life, all the while the characters managing to retain their self respect and not give in to feeling sorry for themselves, which is the constant risk in melodrama. In “Random Harvest” that meant Greer Garson had to settle for a sexless marriage to the man she had known as her husband before he fell into amnesia and in “Now, Voyager” that meant Bette Davis settling for a long term affair with Paul Henreid because circumstances, including themselves, stand in the way of marriage.

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5/23- Primitive Times

In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.

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What's Wrong With Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a contemporary Slovenian social thinker who is well versed in Hegelian Idealism, Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and film theory and, I am told, is very well thought of among young people. It is easy enough to see why he is appealing: his broad range of references, his graceful writing style, his willingness to bring in what would not seem apposite subject matters, but even there you have the beginning of a sense of why he is unreliable. He mentions “Gangnam style” which was a South Korean video and dance that made it into popular culture for a little while, but doesn’t have enough weight, less important than hoola hoops, for saying something about society. He reflects on the relation of North to South Korea, possibly because he had lectured in Seoul, when it would be more important to evaluate the meaning of capitalism in the United States, still its center, and so I am pressed to ask this question of his “Trouble in Paradise”, the title itself a reference to an Ernst Lubitsch film: what does he mean, really, by capitalism, other than it is the opposite of what is not yet, which is true socialism? That Hegelian opposition will not do, and so let us tease out his definition by bypassing his fascination with the Hegelian trick of turning everything into a negation or a negation of a negation, which is a philosophical parlor trick that doesn’t mean anything at all. Zizek says, with glee, that capitalism is a system which has two negatives: those in the surplus labor pool, who can’t get jobs, and those in the pool of educated persons who do not think they need jobs, and so capitalism includes both those it needs to keep the price of labor down, and those who it creates who seem surplus to the economy as a whole. All Zizek is saying in this formulation is that everything that happens in capitalism is a product of capitalism and so part of what is a combined mind set and social structure which does not have mechanisms which are either more or less essential. That holistic approach does not do justice to the complexity of what we know to be capitalism, where levels of taxation and central planning differ in, let us say, the United States and Sweden.

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Sargent's Story Pictures

John Singer Sargent is best known, of course, for his portraits of pretty society women in fancy gowns. Sargent does not use any symbolism in his painting. That would mean one image stands in place of another image or idea as when a dove represents The Holy Ghost. But, for Sargent, an orange sash is only an orange sash. So how does Sargent catch the intellectual interest of his audience without symbols? He does so by turning these hired portraits into story paintings, which means that his audience is invited to tell stories about them, a story being a narrative that gets from one place to another and has some suspense about what will come next. These stories are there in the pictures but waiting to be found, the viewer the one that has to conjure them up, though the clues for doing so have been supplied by the artist in the way he poses or dresses his subjects.

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4/23- Noah the Technologist

Noah was a good enough engineer, whether he got the plans from God or dreamed them up himself under the inspiration of God, to correctly execute these very ambitious plans. The plans are spelled out in detail. The ark is to have three levels. It is to be caulked both inside and outside. It is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. The dimensions of the ark are given so distinctly that they serve the literary purpose, of course, of concretizing the description and so make it as if it happened. But this is an interesting set of descriptors. “Genesis” could have said large or very large or as tall as a cedar of Lebanon or some other metaphor for size. “Genesis” does tend to exaggerate when it gives particular numbers, as when it gives the ages of the generations between Adam and Noah. That makes the story legendary: an exaggeration of what might have happened in the past rather than treating the past as having a very different set of processes than does the present, which is what happens when a mythology is created. There seems to be a different reason for concretizing here in the Noah story.

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