b l o g b a n d i t Wretch, Redemption's son

20Jan/122

Final Thoughts on That White Bronco

'Tebow Dribble' by David SizemoreThe following are a few musings on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow & why I did not cheer for him, why I'm glad the Patriots crushed him, and why I'm pleased he's temporarily semi-removed from the public consciousness.

Note: this post uses "Tim Tebow" as shorthand for "the phenomenon of 'Tim Tebow' that is very likely pretty divorced from the 'real' Tim Tebow." Very few people know Tim Tebow the Person, and millions know Tim Tebow the Brand. I'll be mostly ruminating on the latter.

  1. It was probably not very kind of me to hope that "the Patriots break all Tebow's bones" nor that all future Tebows be "destined to careers as bridge trolls."
  2. Tebow is an underdog in the same way that the USA was an underdog in Vietnam circa mid-1960s to mid-70s.
  3. Football is a base pleasure, and I resist any effort to elevate it to much more.
  4. Tebow reminds me of every meathead I've ever known.
  5. As I tweeted earlier, Tebow only makes sense to American Christians because they erroneously regard themselves as a persecuted underclass. They feel 'inspired' that one of their own happened to make it big.
  6. Pretty much any effort to market & brand Christianity, e.g. by anointing a spokesperson, should probably be dismissed outright.
  7. Someone once warned us not to throw our pearls before swine. I think this is wholly applicable to Mr. Tebow.
  8. Despite my antipathy toward the kid, I'm not trying to 'persuade' anyone to dislike Tebow. Life is so bleak, and far be it from me to rob you of a 250lb symbol that brings meaning into your life.
  9. "Look at the attention I get. It's because I throw a football. But that's what society values. That's not what God values. He didn't invent the game. We did. I have some eye-hand coordination, and I can throw the ball. I don't think that matters to God." -- Tom Brady
  10. It's moronic to accuse me of 'cherrypicking' because I find Romans 1 difficult (viz. homosex), yet simultaneously wholly ignore Matthew 6 (viz. Tebow). We all cherrypick -- get over it.
  11. I feel like Bob Dylan already adequately explained the stupidity in claiming God's on your side.
  12. It's nice that Tebow builds hospitals & takes sick kids to football games. The Philippians 1:18 Principle -- a principle I made up via questionable re-appropriation -- means I earnestly support Tebow's efforts in these areas.
  13. It's hard to avoid the feeling that too many people 'respect' or 'admire' Tebow because he validates their choice of religion. "Well, if a guy like that believes..."
  14. I'm pretty opposed to any effort to situate Tim Tebow into a larger context, e.g. that of 'culture wars' in this nation.
  15. When you say, "I just think Tim is the best manifestation of what a Christian ought to be," I can't help but react as if you just declared, "I just think apple is the light bulb of what oatmeal ought to phone."
  16. I wish we could just agree that Tebow is among the top 50 quarterbacks in the world & probably a decent kid overall without investing all our hopes & dreams in him.

Finally, please also note that the very nice Tebow illustration seen above is by David Sizemore. You should check out his Dribble and davidsizemoredesign.com. David likely does not regret his graphic nearly as much as I'm about to regret this post.

18Oct/110

Thirteen Observations by Lemony Snicket

This moved me enough to break my blog hiatus. Mr Snicket has artfully articulated what I could not:

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree.

[source]

11Dec/103

Devotional Thoughts With Rev. Zizek

Cynical distance is just one way ... to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. - The Sublime Object of Ideology

Today's devotional is brought to you by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The following reading comes from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the "richness of my inner life": this is what I "really am," in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this "richness of inner life" is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practise the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the "inner life" and its "sincere" emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie -- the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. ... "Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts.

Amen.

Be well.

14Nov/105

To Vote or Not to Vote (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I sketched the outlines of the argument against Christians voting. The goal was to give a defense of principled non-participation, and should not be confused as advocating apathy and/or laziness. Likewise, in this post I won't address silly, specious arguments for voting, such as ones from civic duty or obligation.

To kick things off, I want to quote Ran Prieur:

A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That's like not watching any commercials because then you won't be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don't think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

Prieur hits on two things I want to highlight. The first is this idea of "healthy mental distance" and "cold tactical decision." All throughout this essay I am going to continue assuming that politics is corrupt(ing), that power plays are unChristian, that our electoral process is beyond embarrassing. So everything henceforth operates under the assumption that if (big if) we vote, we vote with terrible fear & trembling. We'd be voting with acute self-awareness, reflexivity, humility, and perhaps even with a prayer of forgiveness.

The second idea in Prieur's paragraph is this idea of purity, in which non-contamination becomes an idol for the leftist Christian (Note: Prieur is not one, just FYI). This is the same problem the fundamentalists have: if I don't hang out with thieves & prostitutes & rock 'n rollers, I won't be tainted by their sin. The principled non-voter is saying something similar: if I don't participate in xyz, I won't be complicit in the system. Now I have, over the years, shifted to more institutional notions of sin & depravity, so I certainly think there's something to "opting out" as much as possible. The confusion is in thinking it is a) wholly possible, and b) a sort of salvation in its own right. Right now, as I write this, wars are being fought in my name and, worse, in the name of my God. Hear this: not voting does not change this fact. My complicity in that violence is not entirely contingent on whether or not I punched a ballot. Furthermore -- and I here I love Prieur's line about the "precious flower" -- the fact that those we vote for are fallen is not itself a reason to abstain. There has to be something more here (and in aggregate, perhaps the arguments in Part One do add up convincingly). In my "anti" arguments I appealed to "symbolic weight" as a reason for abstention. Yet I think it could certainly be argued that I attributed much too much weight to that symbol. Is it really the case that I am now "defiled" for casting a vote, yet reliance on the state in hundreds of other ways is less defiling? On one hand, because I want us to live more attentive, more attuned lives I think we ought to weight more decisions more heavily, avoiding the flippant, thoughtless consumer culture around us. Yet we have to avoid over-burdening things -- avoid "false equivalency" -- where anything less than total, absolute (I'd argue, impossible) purity is seen as the only option.

9Nov/103

To Vote or Not to Vote (Part One)

"I think Jesus would have a really hard time voting in America today." -- Anonymous [still voted anyway]

Though elections were a week ago, I still want to discuss something I've thought about on-and-off for the last 25-30 months. In a way, discussing whether Christians should vote seems pretty anachronistic in this day and age. 50 or 60 years ago, suggesting Christians stay out of politics would probably not have been a very controversial position. Today, post- Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, this seems a little less popular. I still haven't made my mind up on this issue either: like the anonymous friend quoted above, I have in the past been loathe to vote and yet done it anyway (Obama, Nov. '08). This time around I'm not going to tell you whether I did or didn't, and let you figure it out from reading my pro/con arguments below.

Certain presuppositions: I'm starting from the viewpoint of Christian anarchism, or "Christarchy" if you're Greg Boyd, and I'm not willing to defend this at the moment. What this means, in this particular context, is roughly this: given that Christianity is about non-power, about solidarity with the marginalized, about opposing the principalities of this world; given that the state is impositional, hierarchical, primarily concerned with consolidating power, and is itself one of the chief principalities of this world; therefore, there can be no relation between Christian & state than that, fundamentally, of conflict. So the "standard" anarchist position, whether confrontational (e.g. Ellul) or quietist (e.g. Eller), almost always recommends not voting. Let's consider this first.

The most generalized argument against voting is that doing so gives credence to a corrupt, ridiculous game that we play out every few years. Elections -- and the ever-lengthening electoral process -- are both fetishized & ritualized in ways I want no part in; this I wouldn't dispute even if I did ultimately vote. I am unsure how any Christian can justify the lying, slandering, gossiping, backstabbing, and greedyass money-grubbing that are part and parcel of all elections. Opting out of this mudpit is simply conceding defeat, plain and simple (see: Russ Feingold). The thing is, virtually everyone admits to all this. The baffling thing is that believers see all this and still decide to participate (a similar paradox attends capitalism itself). It's not just the process; the outcome, regardless, offers even bleaker options. It is absolutely guaranteed that whatever politicos gain/hold power, violence will be a key, if unspoken, plank in the party platform. It's true that our present options in America are especially bleak, but our sordid past provides all sorts of examples of warmongers & imperialists from every party and affiliation.

Secondly, non-participation holds enormous symbolic weight. This, in two key ways: politically and theologically. In the former, abstention is a public, visible gesture of the church's separation from the worldly powers -- a distinct people set apart. It's part of the rejection of nationalism and patriotism ("In Christ there is neither..."); we are not a) citizens of this world, let alone b) of this particular country. As aliens in this land, not voting is a key reminder that this world is not our home -- don't get too attached: to its possession, to its games of power, to its leaders, to its ways of relating to each other. Our approach (and this is just a teaser for another whole essay) ought to be that of missionaries: global missions as paradigm for modes of anarchist being. The error is in thinking that because some government has granted us the legal ability to vote that we then should exercise that option (is/ought fallacy). I mentioned the theological symbolism too. The idea, and I take this to be Eller's chief reason for not voting, is that it's akin to a spiritual discipline in which we remind ourselves, as a body, that what the world does is really of no concern to us. Ignore them. "Render unto Caesar" is not simply about taxes: render emotionally and intellectually what is Caesar's. Stop pretending that true religion is in any way whatsoever dependant on who's in the White House. It simply does not affect our mission: do good, love mercy, walk humbly with our God; care for the widows, outcasts, poor, downtrodden, the least among us. Your focus is all wrong if you think a 35% tax rate will hinder your chances to live out your faith more than a 25% tax rate will.

[Part Two forthcoming]

28Jul/102

Das Kapital

Watch this:

I've given myself some homework; maybe some of you want to join in. The goal is to finish Marx's Capital Volume I (a mere 1k pages) by Christmas, supplementing my effort with a concurrent reading of David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital. This blog may or may not turn into a Marxist free-for-all as I attempt to make sense of this difficult book. If you would like to join in, note that Harvey and I are both using the Ben Fowkes translation published by Penguin Classics. I got both books off Amazon for ~$25, which qualifies you for free shipping -- although if you have an *.edu e-mail address, you can currently sign up for a free year of Amazon Prime and get shipped costs waived on everything anyway. Also, note that Harvey has been kind enough to put his entire class on Marx up on the Web as video lectures, but I'm basically ignoring them since his Companion is roughly those lectures in book form. I think I'd definitely like some study partners, so e-mail me if you'd like in on this party.

30Jun/103

Fiddler in the Subway

Michael Mechanic has an interesting interview up today on Mother Jones with Gene Weingarten: "Secrets of a Two-Time Pulitzer Winner." Weingarten has a book coming out entitled Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of essays he wrote for The Washington Post and the WaPo magazine. After you read Mechanic's piece, come back here to read the four Weingarten pieces, all of them excellent:

The aforementioned fiddler/violinist is Joshua Bell, whose concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo is worth watching/hearing in full (part 1 of 5 is linked). For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

Are you still hard up for reading material? I'm doing my best here. Last week was great because the NYT treated us to five days of Errol Morris' fascinating series "The Anosognosic's Dilemma." I've linked to part one, where we're introduced to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

"...If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent... When you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."

The analogy is to anosognosia, or the disorder where a paralytic can't/won't recognize that they're paralyzed. As if I weren't already depressed about man's mental faculties (pace Descartes), we also get this gem from Newsweek's Sharon Begley:

One of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, “No, we were wrong about X,” most people still believe X.

God help us; it's a wonder we can tie our shoes in the morning. By the way, if you're interested in more of Errol Morris-esque inquiries into "unknown unknowns" (Rumsfeld), I'd highly recommend the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- it is, unlike the faux-revelations of Malcolm Gladwell, a true paradigm-shifting (I use that word deliberately) work. Plus, Taleb will spare you years of agony having to learn the same things via the poker table... trust me, reading is quite preferable to bad beats in Texas hold 'em.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/05/AR2005120501092_pf.htmlT
13May/100

The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, "What If the Tea Party Were Black?" I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, "The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality." The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I've done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, "Glenn Beck, America's Historian Laureate" pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe "too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people." For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively -- pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words -- where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see "The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History" (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and "Glenn Beck's Partisan Historians" (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, "Victims have long memories... But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting." I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the "politics of forgetting," which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold's Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles -- even "one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!" Hochschild's details Belgium's King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this "forgotten holocaust," save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold's mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. "The horror! The horror!" Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold's Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I've excerpted Hochschild's passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it's highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It's also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold's Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about "prophets and rebels" in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold's Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard -- and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.

28Apr/102

Keep Each Other Here

I want to share a song with you that I have really liked ever since first hearing it six weeks ago on The Bob Edwards Show. Edwards was interviewing Boston musician-poet (and former subway busker) Meg Hutchinson about her song "Gatekeeper." It's inspired by a man named Kevin Briggs, whom Hutchinson had read about in a 2003 New Yorker article called "Jumpers: the Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge" (cf. The Bridge). The full interview is available for downloading, but here's the transcript of the relevant portion:

So, I've never met Kevin. I read a New Yorker article maybe five years ago about suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. And he was featured in the article -- he's been a patrolman there for many years; I don't know if he still works on the Golden Gate bridge. But it was his job to ride up and down and look for jumpers, and figure out who was at risk and have a conversation that would save them. I thought, you know, he must do something very dramatic in order to keep people from jumping at that moment when there's nothing left for them. And I was so struck in the article by the fact that he very humbly said, "I just ask them two questions. I ask them, 'how are you feeling,' and 'what are your plans for tomorrow?'" And that seems so bold, because we know the answer -- we know that people are standing there with no plan, and feeling terrible, or not feeling at all. Maybe so low that they're not even feeling. But it seemed to me that if he's willing to ask that ordinary question, rather than high emotion -- which might frighten people even more -- to just approach them like it's a normal day... that that's the thing that saves people. And in 200 interventions he had never lost anyone.

So I called the song "Gatekeeper" and I think of him as this gatekeeper to this other world, you know, where we might have lost many people. So I would really like to meet this man. I don't know how to find him, but if anyone does, I would love to meet him. I was very struck by the work he does.

And I think every seventeen minutes someone in this country kills themselves. And if anything else, we're destroying people of that demographic especially -- affluent, educated people -- if anything else was taking them down, there would be such alarm. That would be headline news. I mean, we even think about the death toll from the Swine Flu, and how much fuss there's been about that. Now, you know, the numbers are very similar. And how can we not still talk about that? Or if we talk about it, why is it such an abstract concept still to us? And military deaths... we talk about casualties from the actual war, but the casualties when soldiers come home are devastating, and that's still something that we shy away from. So to think of this man who's doing this work, even in this very small way in his life, that story is something that I think about often and think, how can we do more of that? How can we all be gatekeepers even in the way that we ask questions of each other and can we not be so busy.

Meg Hutchinson - "Gatekeeper" - from The Living Side (2010)

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For B.W.

5Apr/100

Obamapocalypse

When the passage of H.R.3590 kicked up a shitstorm two weeks ago, I thought of Jorge Luis Borges' short story entitled "The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro." This 1911 piece tells of Arthur Orton, a ne'er-do-well operating under the alias of "Tom Castro." When he meets fellow conman Ebenezer Bogle, the two men hatch a plan to scam Lady Tichborne, a grieving mother who is unable to accept the fact of her son's death at sea. Hoping to squeeze some buckeroos from this rich old biddy, Bogle decides that Orton/Castro should travel to England to impersonate the late Roger Charles Tichborne even though Castro looks nothing like young Mr. Tichborne at all.

Tichborne had been a slim, genteel young man with a reserved and somewhat self-absorbed air. He had sharp features, straight black hair, tawny skin, sparkling eyes, and an irritatingly precise way of speaking. Orton was an irrepressible rustic, a "yokel," with a vast belly, features of infinite vagueness, fair and freckled skin, wavy light-brown hair, sleepy eyes, and no, or irrelevant, conversation.

...The plan had an irrational genius to it... Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily convinced (emphasis mine).

So here's the Tom Castro Strategy: when an approximation of truth would too easily reveal yourself as fraudulent, shoot for the moon and become as absurdly outlandish as possible.

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