The Battle of the Acilian Chuckle

Victor Mair is one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese language and literature in the United States.  Among his many services to the enlightenment of his countrymen are Professor Mair’s frequent contributions to Language Log.

I mention Professor Mair’s great eminence because he and I recently engaged in a remarkably absurd conflict.  (more…)

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The Nation, 17 September 2012

The current issue of The Nation carries a piece in which JoAnn Wypijewski remarks on the low probability that the rape charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be investigated in a proper fashion.  Ms Wypijewski points out that Mr Assange’s status as an enemy of the US national security state renders any criminal action taken against him suspect:

This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state.

Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those [early twentieth century] rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy that placed the Black Man in a separate category of human being, without common rights and expectations. A lawyer might take a case if it hadn’t been settled by the mob, but the warped conscience of white America could do nothing but warp the law and make of its rituals a sham. The Scottsboro Boys might have been innocent or they might have been guilty; it didn’t matter, because either way the result would be the same.

With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale. The sex-crime allegations against Assange emerged in Sweden on August 20, 2010, approximately four and a half months after WikiLeaks blazed into the public sphere by releasing a classified video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew slaughtering more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists, in a Baghdad suburb. By that August, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the reputed source of the video and about 750,000 other leaked government documents, was being held without charge in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, subjected to what his attorney, David Coombs, describes in harrowing detail in a recent motion as “unlawful pretrial punishment.” In plain terms, Manning was tortured. He faces court-martial for aiding the enemy and has been denounced as a traitor by members of Congress.

I am not at all convinced that the charges against Mr Assange cannot be investigated and prosecuted fairly.  Ms Wypijewski acknowledges several times that the comparison with the Scottsboro Boys is inexact; in view of the level of support Mr Assange enjoys and the conditions of the criminal justice system in Sweden, it strikes me as, well, silly.  I do lament the fact that so many people seem to think that we must choose between support for Mr Assange’s anti-imperialist activities and support for the investigation of the charges that have been brought against him.  Not so very long ago, Western publics would have responded to the sequence of events Ms Wypijewski describes above with deep suspicion of the national security state, even as the case worked its way through the courts.  So, when in 2003 it was made public that Major Scott Ritter, then an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, had been arrested on suspicion of soliciting sex from an underaged girl, the news proved more embarrassing to the Bush-Cheney administration than to Major Ritter himself.  Some years later, the major was proven guilty of similar charges, and sent to prison.  In the Ritter case, I see a model for a healthy public reaction to the Assange case.  By all means one should be suspicious; if the American people were still as jealous of their liberties as they were in 2003, the Obama administration would be experiencing a public relations nightmare as long as the case is pending.  But the case should nonetheless be handled in the best manner available to the criminal justice system, and if Mr Assange is guilty of the charges against him, it would be no injustice to punish him as Major Ritter has been punished.

The best manner available to the criminal justice system in this case may be far short of what we would hope, but, as Lissa Harris points out in an unforgettable piece on The Nation‘s website, that is so for virtually every rape case.  At the age of five, Ms Harris was raped on several occasions by a sadistic teenaged boy.  Apparently the facts became known to the authorities, but no charges were ever brought.  Over the years, Ms Harris has been presented with many explanations as to why they did not act.  What she considers most noteworthy is that while she knows many women and girls who have been raped, but cannot think of one whose assailant was sent to prison for the rape.  Not one.  So, while she is horrified by the prospect that the laws against rape will be rewritten by men like Congressman Todd Akin, who recently proclaimed that “legitimate rape” rarely produces pregnancy, Ms Harris admits that she cannot see how much damage men like Mr Akin can do to the criminal justice system when the system simply does not function most of the time.  She argues that ideologies thrive on both left and right that allow us to turn a blind eye to rape, to minimize rape, to accept as normal a status quo in which the rapist faces little risk of punishment and the women and girls he has attacked can expect little support and less  respect.

In the same issue, a cartoon pokes fun at novelist-cum-ideologist Ayn Rand.  Rand did make a couple of contributions that I find valuable; I’m fond of the expression “anti-concept,” a term she introduced and defined as “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.”  Mr Akin’s immortal phrase “legitimate rape” comes to mind under this heading; unnecessary and rationally unusable, it may well enable a person indoctrinated in one of the rape-minimizing ideologies Ms Harris calls out to replace and obliterate a realistic understanding of rape with some vague approximation that makes it impossible to imagine useful action against it.

One of the examples Rand gave of an anti-concept was the term “isolationist.”  This term, never a self-description adopted by any political movement, was used in the late 1930s and early 1940s by advocates of US intervention in the Second World War to label their opponents.  Since the interventionists eventually had their way and, by most people’s lights, it is just as well that they did, the term has continued to be useful in the decades since as a means of smearing and belittling all anti-war and anti-imperial voices, especially those that emanate from right of center.  I bring this up because the issue carries Jackson Lears’ review of Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age.  On its face, the term “isolationist” is absurd.  Nothing could be more isolating than a habit of bombing, invading, and occupying countries; the neighborhood bully is always the most isolated of figures.  Mr Nichols writes a history of American anti-imperialism starting with those who opposed war with Spain in 1898 and leading to those who tried to prevent the rise of a permanent war economy after the First World War.  Mr Lears focuses on the book’s depictions of William James, Randolph Bourne, and Senator William Borah.

Things I’ve been saying

Recently I’ve posted comments on several blogs and forums.  In response to a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip, I mused about James P. Carse’s theories of religion and Michael Oakeshott’s political theory.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, I proposed that political scientists might be able to make use of work done by economists to strengthen the concept of “legitimacy” to which they often appeal.   At The Monkey Cage, I suggested that a survey which appears to show that Americans who support the Republican Party are somewhat likelier than their Democratic compatriots to harbor anti-African American sentiments might, if interpreted more carefully, show that the difference is actually much more dramatic than the raw data shows.  And at Secular Right, I expressed reservations about the idea of awarding $100,000,000 to every woman who carries to term a pregnancy begun in rape.

Phil Doleman takes over the Classical Ukulele blog

Yesterday morning I thought of Classical Ukulele, a blog I started in February 2010 and proceeded to do nothing with.  It struck me that it was a shame to waste such a good url, and I wished I could hand it off to someone who would make proper use of it.  Then I opened my email, and saw that WordPress had a message for me.  Someone had started following Classical Ukulele.  It turned out to be Phil Doleman of the Re-Entrants.  When I saw that Phil had started a blog called The Classical Ukulele, I contacted him and offered to give him the url for Classical Ukulele.  He accepted.  So, if you are interested in the ukulele as an instrument of the classical repertoire, Phil’s your man now.

Mansplanations

The other day, Rebecca Solnit (a.k.a. America’s National Treasure) wrote a column for TomDispatch that The Nation‘s website picked up.  The title is “Men Still Explain Things to Me.”  Ms Solnit tells a little story about a strange man who responded to some comment she’d made about photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge by chastising her for not having read a new book about Muybridge that had come out earlier that year.  It turned out that the book he had in mind was River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by- Rebecca Solnit.   Ms Solnit’s friends repeatedly tried to tell the man that the woman he was scolding for not knowing the book was in fact its author; that didn’t slow him down a bit.  Ms Solnit gives other examples of men shutting women down by loudly and persistently “explaining” to them.  Acknowledging that not all men use this passive-aggressive technique and that those who do use it  sometimes use it against other men, Ms Solnit mentions that young women nowadays call the technique “mansplaining.”

Ms Solnit posted this piece shortly before a truly spectacular example of mansplaining burst into public view and briefly dominated the US political news cycle.  US Congressman Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, is his party’s nominee for the US Senate from that state in this year’s election.  In response to a question from a television interviewer, Mr Akin said that he did not believe that abortion should be legal.  Asked about women who become pregnant as the result of rape, he said that he would not make an exception for them, in part because he believes that such a scenario is rare.  “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” he said, launching into an explanation of physiological processes that, according to him, prevent women who are the victims of what the congressman called “legitimate rape” from becoming pregnant.

In the aftermath of Mr Akin’s remarks, several prominent Republicans, including presidential nominee Willard “Mitt” Romney, criticized him harshly.  At this writing, it is unclear whether Mr Akin will remain a candidate.  A Google search estimates over 900,000 results for “Akin vows to stay in race”; usually candidates vow to stay in a race shortly before they announce their withdrawals.

A couple of interesting pieces have appeared in response to this matter.  On The Nation‘s website, health columnist Dana Goldstein contributes a handy guide to “How the Body Reacts to Sexual Assault” (spoiler: not by spontaneously producing contraceptives.) Ms Goldstein explains that ideas about sexual response that are not informed by biology lead many people, victims of rape among them, to draw distinctions between women who are more worthy or less worthy of support and respect after sexual assault.  These distinctions, Ms Goldstein argues, turn rape exceptions to abortion bans into a means by which other people can exercise unwanted control over a woman’s body.  As such, they reenact the original offense.

And at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner writes a fascinating analysis of “The Theological Roots of Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment.”  Mr Akin is an outspoken member of the Presbyterian Church in America (or PCA,) the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA.  Unlike the larger and quite liberal Presbyterian Church USA, the PCA is fiercely traditional both in its general theology and in its views of relations between the sexes.  Posner cites a series of PCA position papers on abortion which mirror Mr Akin’s remarks very closely.  They even go into detail about the unlikelihood of pregnancy resulting from rape, details unsupported by documentation.  Ms Posner links to a column by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic; Ms Franke-Ruta describes some of the political infrastructure that has been developed to popularize the idea that rape rarely causes conception, including a group called “Physicians for Life” which seems to consist of physicians who trained and practice in some parallel universe.   A parallel universe which sends representatives to the US Congress, for some reason.

It’s better to be good than to be perfect

This weekend I noticed two outstanding pieces of writing.  Theologian Ben Myers’ As I Sit Dying is a spellbinding little narrative, quite funny in bits (for example, when he reveals that if he keeps up the way he’s been going, he probably won’t live more than another 50 years.)  Here’s a snippet:

No, death and dying notwithstanding, I guess all I’d really like to say is that I’m glad to have been alive. That alive is a very good thing to be, and I have not a single word to say against it. That I have loved songs and food and drink and night time and the way friends’ voices sound around a campfire in the dead of night. That I have loved animals, especially dogs and cats, and if I had ever got to know horses properly I would have loved them too. That I have seen whales, have witnessed their rolling bigness, and have loved them very much. That I have loved books and reading, have loved re-reading certain books and remembering what it was like to read them for the first time. That I have loved the faces of my friends (I hope somebody will remember those faces after I’m gone). That I have loved strangers’ faces too, old men and old women and beautiful women whose faces I fell in love with and never forgot even though I only saw them once, across a crowded room or in a train or on a bridge as I walked by. That I have loved my wife’s face and my wife’s words and my wife’s skin and the way my wife thinks when she is happy or when she is sad or when she is tired or first wakes up, wide awake and already hatching plans while I am still trying to dream. That I have loved my –
My children.
As I sit here now, as I sit dying, my heart slowly wearing out inside me, that is all I really want to tell you. I have loved all of it and I don’t have a word to say against it. To tell you the truth, I even love the things that I have hated. Doing wrong, being wronged, this whole miserable business of hurt and misunderstanding and mistakes. I have loved all that because I have loved forgiving and being forgiven. Yes, that’s what I have loved most of all. If I could do it all over again I would make all the same mistakes and let all the same mistakes happen to me too, if it only meant that I could have the chance, just once, to forgive, to be forgiven.
Life is very wonderful, and the meaning of it all is the forgiveness of sins, that’s what I’d like to tell you. I am glad to have learned that. I am glad to have been alive and to have made so many mistakes and to have borne the brunt of so many too. It is wonderful, all of it.

Heather McHugh‘s poem “In Praise of Pain” turns the old maxim “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” inside out.  Professor McHugh suggests that the perfect might not be particularly good, certainly not good for us.  Here’s the second of its three short stanzas:

For beauty’s sake, assault and drive and burn
the devil from the simply perfect sun.
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,
the moon pocked to distribute more or less
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine
by nip and tuck, by chance’s dance of laws.

The old man loves his old woman, as Erasmus liked to say; he loves her not in spite of the marks of age and approaching mortality that set her apart from her younger self, but because of them, because without them she would not be herself, any more than the girl she used to be would have been herself without the follies and other infirmities of youth.

Do fundamentalist students make life harder for biology teachers than for history teachers?

The comment thread on this recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal closed down before I got around to posting a comment, so I’ll make my remarks on it here:


My first reaction to the punchline was this, which I posted on our Tumblr site: “The punchline to this comic strip doesn’t really work.  There are many parts of the world where history teachers attempting to introduce the Holocaust meet with exactly this kind of resistance, and then some.”

I thought a bit more about it, and decided that comment was a false start.  It would be more interesting to take the comic on its own terms and ask what happens when history teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students, as opposed to what happens when biology teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students.

In most school districts in the USA, every time evolution comes up in biology class the teachers have to brace themselves for a vocal onslaught from students who have been extensively briefed in denialist talking points by highly organized groups.  That’s a challenge history teachers don’t usually face in the USA.  Sometimes a history teacher might have to talk about some topic the students find distressing, and they may respond with anger.  But it is quite rare for those angry students to present their views in a form worked out by the kind of ideological apparatus that Creationists have set up for themselves.  There are countries in the world where other forms of denialism are supported by prestigious institutions that drill a mass audience in their talking points, as acquaintances of mine who have tried to teach 20th century European history in the Gulf states can attest.  In the USA, there are political interest groups that would like to establish a presence as widespread as that of the Creationists; for example, a couple of years ago the corn lobby had some success with efforts to punish academics for saying that cows eat grass.  But those efforts have not (yet!) become a routine factor in classrooms.  So, it is fair to say that in the USA, Creationism stands alone among denialist ideologies as a systematic challenge to classroom teachers.

Still, I would say that it is going too far to claim that “Teaching Intro Biology is harder than teaching Intro History,” even in regard to the narrow question of the challenges fundamentalist students present to their teachers.  Fundamentalist students may not come to history class ready to spout ideological boilerplate every time the teacher gets to something interesting, and so they are not as immediately obnoxious a presence there as they are in biology, geology, or astronomy class.  Indeed, I’ve taught many classes on history, and every class has included several fundamentalists.  I can say that fundamentalists are usually very quiet through such classes.

So when it comes to keeping good order and discipline in the classroom and getting through material, fundamentalist students do not represent a special challenge to history teachers.  But if you actually want to engage them in the subject, that’s a different story.  I’m a classical scholar, so when I teach history it is the history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Many times, I’ve put this question on a test: “How did the religious life of Rome change in the second century BC?”  A significant percentage of the students in every class has responded that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  After I’ve graded the tests, I read the question aloud to them, then mention that many of the students said that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  It usually takes half a minute or so before everyone realizes what “BC” stands for and starts laughing.  That’s an example of a widespread problem.  Students from fundamentalist backgrounds simply cannot imagine a world in which Christianity is not the only religion worth mentioning, or even a form of Christianity other than the one within which they were raised.

That problem, in turn, is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.  Fundamentalists realize that science is powerful and important; that’s why they package Creationism as “Creation Science.”  They do not have any reason to believe that history is important, however.  Fundamentalists hold that the Bible or Qu’ran or whatever text is sacred to their religion represents an unchanging truth, complete and identical from one age to the next, and that this is the only truth that ultimately matters.  Not only does the text not have a history, but the interpretation of that text does not have a history.  There is only one right way to read the text,  that is the only way that has ever been or will ever be right, and the right way exhausts the meaning of the text completely.  If you believe that, then the record of history is not part of the ongoing engagement between humanity and the world through which communities are formed and humans  come to understanding; understanding has already come to us, complete and error-free, deposited in your hotel room free of charge by the Gideons International, and community is the byproduct of that understanding.  For people who look at it that way, history  is just one damn thing after another, at best an amusing diversion from the serious business of life.

And of course it gets worse.  Demonstrate that the modern age is an extremely peculiar time, that the ideas which fundamentalists take for granted are possible only in an age of mass-produced books, the nation-state, and rationalized bureaucracy, bring home to them the fact that none of these things existed in the first millennium and a half of Christianity, and they go into an intellectual tailspin.  Some of them do become highly defensive; though they are not armed with the prefabricated circular reasoning of the Creationists, they can make a nuisance of themselves in the classroom.

That, of course, is to say nothing of their written work.  When fundamentalists try to stuff their ideology into a scientific report, the result is simply wrong.  A teacher can respond with a low grade and a reference to the standards of scientific writing.  In the humanities, we have to take a wider variety of writing seriously.  That isn’t to deny that there are standards, or that it is possible to structure an assignment so that you avoid wasting a great deal of time following the deadest of ideological dead ends.  Still, you can’t keep a humanistic discussion alive if you set the bounds as narrow as those in scientific writing.

The humanities, like the sciences,  are possible only where people are prepared, not only to challenge each others’ preconceptions, but also to challenge their own preconceptions.  In science, writing is usually the record of observations, experiments,  and analyses that presented the researcher with such challenges.  In the humanities, writing is not the record of these challenges, it is itself the process by which they are presented.  So, if you make it impossible for fundamentalist students to write fundamentalist essays, you make it impossible for them to profit from an exposure to history, literary studies, or any other branch of the humanities.

King Kong falling off the Empire State Building

This animated gif appeared in Slate some time ago, I love it:

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Way back in the 4 June issue of The Nation, William Deresiewicz published a review essay about Kurt Vonnegut.  As I read Mr Deresiewicz’ piece, it dawned on me that I had never read Slaughterhouse-Five.  I’d read several of Vonnegut’s novels and miscellaneous writings, but had missed the most famous one.  Embarrassingly enough, I had talked about Slaughterhouse-Five with a number of people over the years, conversations in the course of which I sincerely, if somewhat vaguely, believed that I had read the book at some point.   Once, while still in high school, I even suggested to a friend that we co-author a tribute to Slaughterhouse-Five in comic book form.  If he’d taken me up on that, I suppose it would have become clear to both of us quickly enough that I hadn’t read it, but we settled on a tribute to Froissart’s Chronicles  instead.

So, not long after I read that issue, I reported to the library and checked out a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.  It was well worth reading.  Mr Deresiewicz says that the novel’s real subject is not the firebombing of Dresden, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that the firebombing bequeathed to Vonnegut and other survivors.  Mr Deresiewicz quotes a remark from the beginning of the novel, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”  The novel is great, he argues, because Vonnegut doesn’t try to offer answers or find meanings.  He looks directly at an unintelligible world, a world in which human beings by the thousand can be incinerated in their homes, and does not flinch by looking away to something else, something reassuring in its logic.  Instead, the novel’s Billy Pilgrim, like Vonnegut in his own authorial voice, says simply, “I was there.”  Mr Deresiewicz writes:

“I was there,” he says. And he adds, “So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” The moment prefigures the novel’s moral climax a few pages before the end. Billy’s in a hospital in 1968, after the plane crash. His roommate is a former Air Force general who is working on a history of the Army Air Corps in World War II. He is wealthy, healthy, masterful, accomplished (his name is Rumfoord, by the way), and he dismisses Billy, in his quasi-comatose state, as so much human refuse. He is telling someone that the raid on Dresden had been kept a secret for so long

“For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.”
It was now that Billy Pilgrim spoke up intelligently. “I was there,” he said.

“I was there.” Meaning not, I suffered, but simply: It happened. It doesn’t fit the story that we tell ourselves about the war, but it happened. And I alone escaped to tell the tale. But not completely alone: my old war buddy was there as well, which means you can’t dismiss me as a lunatic. I was there. Or as the novel’s famous invocation, thrice repeated, puts it: Listen.

“I was there”—not, “The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed.” The sentence comes from a short, unpublished manuscript, included in the Library of America edition, that Vonnegut had worked on in the years immediately following the war. Before he could write the novel, I believe, he needed to surrender that sense of judgment. “It had to be done,” Rumfoord finally says to Billy. “I know,” Billy replies, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.”

Elsewhere in the novel, Vonnegut explicitly disavows judgment of the pilots who carried out the raid.  He never did blame them, he says; he has known bombers and admired them.  He describes the bombs as if they acted on their own, unassisted by human agency.  In the novel, that description figures not as a psychological evasion,  but as the facing of a supreme horror.  A world dominated by malevolence and permeated by guilt would have a structure, and so would be intelligible.  As such, even a realm of villainy would be easier to bear than the realm of sheer absurdity into which the massacre introduced its survivors.

In a bit of the novel that Mr Deresiewicz does not quote, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners are herded into Dresden.  The crowd gives Billy dirty looks; one man confronts him and demands to know if he “thought we would laugh”?  Billy is confused, then realizes that the miscellaneous items of clothing he has scavenged to cover his nakedness in his weeks as a prisoner adds up to a clown’s costume.  Here, Billy parallels his creator.  Cobbling together a way to tell his story, Vonnegut has gathered up bits of wartime memoir, of science fiction, of midlife-crisis narrative, of soft-core porn, of half a dozen other genres,  and pasted them together.  The result is a very odd book, at first glance an aggregation as clownish as Billy’s costume.   It is precisely because Vonnegut is entirely willing to play the fool, to make himself as much a stranger to smart rhetoric as the war has made Billy a stranger to smart attire, that Slaughterhouse-Five is a possession for the ages.

As the Periodicals Notes section of this website attests, I read a lot of magazines.  After the attacks of 11 September 2001, I dropped several titles from my list of regular reads.  These included The New Statesman, The National Review, The London Review of Books, and The American Spectator.  Each of these magazines carried a number of piece about that series of massacres.  There were many things to find objectionable about those pieces; certainly the right-wing publications did not cover themselves in glory by arguing that the appropriate response was to adopt policies that would punish all Muslims everywhere, and the others did their reputations no favors when they published remarks such as “the United States had it coming.”  What I found most rebarbative about all of them was something I couldn’t put into words at the time, but Vonnegut crystallizes it perfectly.  Each of those commentators, left and right, treated the massacres and their aftermath as a continuation of their lifelong quest to display their own brainpower to the utmost possible advantage.  Because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, the result of this contest to be the smartest one was an exhibition of moral idiocy on a spectacular scale.

If we don’t endeavor to make intelligent remarks about a massacre, how do we honor the dead it leaves behind?  This is typically a religious question, so let’s see what we can say about Vonnegut and religion.

As Mr Deresiewicz documents, Vonnegut was raised to be skeptical of conventional religion*:

Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility. He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control. Or as he puts it in The Sirens of Titan, “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters. Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L. Ron Hubbard, a man who started writing science fiction but decided he was writing Scripture.

If we reject the belief systems and hierarchies of traditional religions and the rites that go with them, how do we go about honoring the dead?  I think I detect a kindred spirit in the Vonnegut/ Deresiewicz emphasis on “I was there, and so was Bernard V. O’Hare.”  We honor the dead by remembering them.  To do this we must turn our attention from ourselves and focus it on them, on them as they were individually and as they interacted with each other in groups.  To sustain this focus we must resist the temptation to retreat into distractions, whether those distractions take the form of ideologies that make our losses bearable or of activities in which we ourselves become again the center of attention.  We must give the dead our undivided attention, if only for a moment, if we are to honor them.

Religions can certainly be fruitful source of excuses for keeping the focus off the dead.  Many funerary rites focus attention on clergy or other performers; many include invitations to dwell on recondite theological doctrines about the relationship between life and death.  So I sympathize with opponents of religion like T. H. Huxley who say that respect for the dead requires us to renounce the conventional forms of religion.  On the other hand, for many mourners these things quiet their minds and take them outside of themselves, enabling them to maintain a clear, unwavering focus on the dead.  And there’s nothing to say that persons who find the ritual elements a distraction can’t learn to respond to them in the desired way.  After all, the others learned it; no religious practice comes instinctively to anyone, even if there is an instinct for something called religion in general.  So even proceeding from my idea that mourning should be a matter of focusing our attention on the dead, we don’t find an argument against funerary rites.

Of course, funerary rites do something else as well.  They reassure the mourners that the remembrance of the dead is not a burden they will carry alone, but a bond they share with their community.  Funerary rites aren’t the only social practices that give that assurance; one of the reasons we want medical professionals to make heroic efforts to save our loved ones is that we want to know that those professionals will remember them, at least as an interesting case.  When someone is to blame for the death of a loved one, we want the same attention from the criminal justice system, in part for the same reason.  That’s probably why murder mysteries are so popular.  Some time ago, I saw an episode of Columbo on some cable TV channel that specializes in nostalgia.  Lieutenant Columbo had caught the murderer hiding the victim’s body.  In his bizarrely friendly way,  Lieutenant Columbo was trying to keep the murderer from feeling too bad about himself, telling him, “Dead bodies have a way of turning up.”  In reality, of course, they don’t.  The only thing dead bodies actually have a way of doing is decomposing.   Given enough time, it will be as if the dead had never lived.  That may well be the world’s most unbearable fact.  Many years ago, my wife lost her closest friend to an act of violence that was never investigated; with each passing year, fewer people remember her, and her family’s burden grows more obvious.

Medicine and the criminal justice system, whatever their virtues, are never entirely satisfactory substitutes for funerary rites.  A course of medical treatment is an exercise in technology and finance that revolves around the person of a patient, but is never simply a tribute to that patient; a criminal proceeding is an exercise in institutionalized conflict in the course of which a person who is unavailable to participate actively is likely to vanish from view altogether.

Many people recommend political action as a way to honor the dead.  I’m all for democracy, and I understand the power of martyrs to arouse a citizenry to action.  So I’m not opposed to the idea of waging a campaign for reform in the name of some dead person.  But consider.  Every political dispute is complex; every political issue shades into other, related issues, and every person who takes part in a political disagreement is pursuing several objectives at once.  To turn a person into a political symbol, therefore, is likely to make it virtually impossible to focus our undivided attention on that person.  Again, not everyone sees that focus as the essence of honoring the dead; some may define honoring the dead in a way that begins and ends with the political utility of martyrdom, or in other ways that put a low priority on memory of them as they were.  But for me, and perhaps for Vonnegut, the key thing is to meet the dead on their own terms, not to impose our preconceived notions on them or to lose sight of them in the midst of some other activity.

If we say that our ways of honoring the dead are part of our religion, whether we belong to any recognized religious tradition or not, then Vonnegut and I may share a religion.  Moreover, at least in my version of that unnamed religion, politics is not part of the funerary rites by which we honor the dead.  The rites of the various religious traditions that do have names and belief systems and hierarchies aren’t really part of it either, though they can serve the same purpose.  What is a part of it?  How do we go about focusing our attention simply on a person, not on desires and ideas of our own that we may associate with that person?

In a post a few years ago, I quoted a man who had said that his way of praying for a person was to hold an image in his mind of that person against a plain white background.  This meditative exercise does not involve any words; that way he isn’t tempted to wish things on the person, or to try to recruit God as an ally in an effort to make the person do what he thinks is right.  Instead, it enables him to see the person clearly, to listen to what the person is actually saying, to accept the person as s/he is, and to respect his or her journey in life.  I’ve tried this exercise myself on many occasions, and can recommend it highly.

So that exercise is part of my religion, if you call it that.  Science is part of it, too.  Richard Feynman said in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech that in science, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.”  My favorite living philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, argues that healthy religious traditions represent lines of inquiry that guide their followers away from particular forms of self-deception.  I don’t really understand how that is supposed to work; MacIntyre’s own religious tradition, as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church, seems to me to be an ever-flowing fountain from which self-deception springs in forms unimagined anywhere else.  Be that as it may, science offers its practitioners tools unmatched in any other avenue of human pursuit for disabusing oneself of one’s pet ideas.  Thomas à Kempis said that the highest reward of the contemplative life was that it had enabled him to free himself of a multitude of opinions; to the extent that Thomas’s words apply to religious practice in general, scientific inquiry is the most efficient of all forms of worship.

*To be precise about it, the Vonneguts were members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana when the novelist was growing up.  At that time, the congregation met in a building designed by architect Kurt Vonnegut, Senior.  In his maturity, Kurt Vonnegut, Junior did not identify even with the creedless religion of the Unitarians, or the Unitarian-Universalists as they became in 1961.

In an extract from a forthcoming book, Kenan Malik summarizes some of Alasdair MacIntyre’s views.

Pandaemonium

In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument.  This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)


A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power…

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