I'll be joining Diana Hsieh on "Philosophy in Action" on Wednesday to talk about the right to earn a living, occupational licensing, and other matters of constitutional and philosophical import. You can listen live at 6pm Pacific here, or download the podcast here.
With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear. And yet still observers avoid using the T-word or the M-word (murder) to describe what happened there, and instead attach all sorts of made-up, see-through political theories to this rampage, giving what was effectively a terror tantrum executed by morally unrestrained Islamists the respectability of being a political protest of some breed.
Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic. Consider the hundreds of suicide attacks that have taken place in Iraq in recent years, a great number of them against ordinary Iraqis, often children. Western apologists for this wave of weird violence, which they call “resistance”, claim it is about fighting against the Western forces which were occupying Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. If so, it’s the first “resistance” in history whose prime targets have been civilians rather than security forces, and which has failed to put forward any kind of political programme that its violence is allegedly designed to achieve. Even experts in counterinsurgency have found themselves perplexed by the numerous nameless suicide assaults on massive numbers of civilians in post-war Iraq, and the fact that these violent actors, unlike the vast majority of violent political actors in history, have “developed no alternative government or political wing and displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern”....
What motivates this perversity? What are its origins? Unwilling, or perhaps unable, to face up to the newness of this unrestrained, aim-free, civilian-targeting violence, Western observers do all sorts of moral contortions in an effort to present such violence as run-of-the-mill or even possibly a justifiable response to Western militarism. Some say, “Well, America kills women and children too, in its drone attacks”, wilfully overlooking the fact such people are not the targets of America’s military interventions – and I say that as someone who has opposed every American venture overseas of the past 20 years. If you cannot see the difference between a drone strike that goes wrong and kills an entire family and a man who crashes his car into the middle of a group of children accepting sweets from a US soldier and them blows himself and them up – as happened in Iraq in 2005 – then there is something wrong with you.
I went to see the Oklahoma City Bombing memorial last night, which was every bit as terrible as the pictures make it out to be. In my opinion, this memorial is the worst public monument in the United States--or was, until the New York City Sept. 11 Memorial was completed. It is a soulless, blank space of anonymity, not a place of reflection, or sorrow, or faith in ultimate victory. It has taken the language of minimalism--introduced in Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial and successful in only that instance--and ruthlessly scrubbed the awful episode of any human meaning, replacing it with...empty chair-things, one for each of the killed. These identical chairs reduce the victims literally to faceless statistics. Although each is inscribed with a name (of course), the names are unreadable. The result is to portray the victims not as individuals, but as automatons; machines; things only to be counted, not considered. Which happens to be what Timothy McVeigh thought of them.
The Vietnam Wall is a great work of art. It is a supremely effective monument. It expresses the senseless horror of that conflict as a black gash in the hillside--and the human cost of that war in the individual names, each one readable, and the highly polished, reflective surface in which viewers see their own faces. The Oklahoma City Memorial does the reverse. There is nothing here to make one think of people...except for the preserved graffiti left by one of the cleanup crews, which is the only meaningful part of the display, and the only part visitors stopped to look at.
Even as minimalism itself, this monument fails. It lacks the unity and simplicity of the Vietnam Wall. It is not a single entity; it jumbles together arches, names, lights, a sort of balcony thing... There is no real center to it. And that fits, because the viewer experiences only an unfocused sense of awkwardness.
Still, it's better than the New York Sept. 11 Memorial--which is almost literally a permanently bleeding wound in the ground; a memorial that goes no further than to weep, eternally, and to draw attention not to the heroism of the rescuers, not to the determination to overcome evil, not to the innocence of the victims, but only to the attack itself. It is a monument that (rather effectively) commemorates exactly the opposite of what it ought to commemorate. It is the closest any artist could hope to come to sculpting falling, when it ought to be a sculpture of rising. It is, in fact, a permanent Sense of Defeat, planted on the spot where Gratitude for Rescue, or Resolve to Triumph, or at the very least, Anger at Injustice, ought to be. Clay Risen said it very well ten years ago: "Beyond abstract references to absence and loss--such as the abyss-centered reflecting pools of 'Reflecting Absence,' according to polls the most popular scheme-there is no attempt to grapple with the meaning of Sept. 11, to mark the attack as an historical event."
That sense of absence and loss was appropriate to the Vietnam Wall. It is not appropriate in Oklahoma or New York. These were not grinding, technocratic wars that sent drafted men to their ultimately pointless doom. These were cruel and shabby crimes against the innocent, by petty thugs who wanted to draw attention to their own empty selves--who wanted only to announce a gospel of vacuity that the world's creators had already long ago outgrown. To create monuments that do nothing more than dwell upon grief, to make permanent a sense of suffering, seems to me in some sense to give the perpetrators what they wanted-- to accept guilt, or at the very least, to shrug at the defiance that is the proper reaction to such crimes. These monuments ought to speak to the survivors--but instead, the only thing they tell survivors is hopelessness. They ought to remember the victims, but all they do is identify them. These monuments ought to be about life--but in their unfocused sense of bleakness and their diffused, constant grieving, they are only about death. In fact, they seem to be death. Just as early modernists tried to capture the sense of rapid motion in their work--so post-Lin monumental architecture has, at best, managed to make permanent the moment of dying. That is what they express.
I suspect this is only partly the fault of artists who, as Risen says, lack vision. I suspect it is also due to the lack of shared values, or the perception thereof, among our intellectual elite. This lack of commitment to the values of our society--to liberty, to justice, to progress, to reason and science--is
mostly, but not totally, expressed in cultural relativism. It makes it impossible for the elite, and those who, like artists, are beholden to the elite, to say anything definite about something like Sept. 11, beyond vague cliches of loss and sorrow. A century ago, that wasn't the case. You may think Sargent's World War I paintings jingoistic--but at least they said something, and did it memorably and powerfully. Augustus St. Gaudens and Daniel Chester French could memorialize great men for specific virtues--or could even memorialize abstract values in specific and meaningful ways. They were great artists who said something they could be confident audiences would understand and appreciate. Today's artists don't have that confidence. And so they try to please everyone and no one, and say everything and nothing. They succeed only in this last.
I think they should have more confidence. As Prof. Michael Lewis said recently, the public hunger for meaningful monuments is obvious--it is expressed constantly in the roadside memorials and spontaneous flower-leaving that has become so popular over the past decades. If artists could only penetrate the commissions, committees, bureaus, clubs, and cliques responsible for these commissions, I believe we could see a renaissance of public monumental art in America. Until then, our best memorial art is likely to be found in churches, or in private art not noticed by critics.
I am not a shy person, and when I think I've written something of quality, I'm willing to say so. But I have never been able to bring myself, as some writers can, to asking, or pressuring, a person to write a favorable Amazon review of my books. I've always shied away from the temptation when it's arisen, which is rarely. It seems unfriendly to ask friends, and weird to ask strangers, to write a favorable review of a book on the strength of acquaintance and peer pressure. Others who lack my reticence round up friends and even family members to brag about their books--even people who haven't read those books--with the result that they have dozens of reviews, all 5 stars, often the day after the book is published, and even when the book isn't just a 4 or 3 star book, but downright lousy.
I don't know how much influence Amazon reviews have, but I often check them myself, so it can't be nothing. But I also know that often people don't review books they enjoy, just because they don't think of it.
This is therefore just a general reminder to anyone out there who has read my books and liked them and hasn't got around to posting a review. My new book, The Conscience of The Constitution, is coming out soon, and my others, Cornerstone of Liberty and The Right to Earn A Living, have been out for a few years now. If you liked these latter--or if you hated them--won't you drop a brief and honest review on the Amazon pages?
The Center for Inquiry and allied groups have filed an excellent amicus brief in the legislative prayer case, Greece v. Galloway and Stevens, now before the Supreme Court. The introduction explains very clearly why the whole idea of legislative prayers is silly, stupid bullying at which Christians as well as non-believers should be ashamed. The idea of opening a legislative session with a prayer is not religion in the first place, but old-fashioned superstition which finds no basis at all in the Bible. Jesus never asked to be mentioned at meetings of city councils and school boards and state legislatures. In fact, if I remember the sixth chapter of Matthew correctly, He distinctly asked to be left out of such things. If there is a clearer example of using His name in vain than a legislative invocation, I cannot imagine it.
The reason Jesus asked to be left out of such things, and why James Madison reiterated this when explaining why legislative prayers are unconstitutional, is because they knew that they aren’t about any real devotion or religion, anyway. They’re about showing off one’s credentials to one’s constituents and pacifying voters with professions of faith—and more, of making life uncomfortable for those who aren’t members of the same denomination. Legislative prayers are intended for the sole purpose of exclusion—of telling atheists and Hindus and Muslims (and, at one time, Catholics) that they aren’t welcome; that those who do join in the prayer have stars on their bellies, while we non-starred Sneetches are merely guests, who should thank our hosts for politely refraining from jailing us or taking away our children to be brought up in the True Church.
The religious right basically admits this fact when they refer to legislative prayers and Ten Commandments monuments and such things as “ceremonial deism,” which means, simply, religion with all the spirituality drained out of it, to be used as a scarecrow for keeping away people like myself—people who actually take such things as that seriously enough to be bothered by them, rather than simply nodding and smiling and quietly thinking “whatever” as your run-of-the-mill Christian does. He gets by the shibboleth easily enough. He does it every Sunday and twice at the in-laws’. It is only the sincere who choke.
The idea of “ceremonial deism” is something every true Christian ought to regard with disgust and contempt—it is the lukewarm water that Jesus Himself said he would vomit out of His mouth. But professional Christians today—Christians who are paid for being Christians, loudly in the public’s eye, and who sound a trumpet before them when they go to pray—happily latch onto the “ceremonial deism” excuse either to escape the Supreme Law of the Land in a dishonest and shabby way, or because they truly believe that religion without the religion in it—Diet Christianity, you might call it; Christianity Zero—is worthwhile. I regard this as disgusting, because it is a lie. But I would think that Christians who actually believe in the truth of the gospels would be even more disgusted at it because it is a betrayal of that truth in the style of Peter. No, not an ashamed betrayal as Peter’s was, or as private sin typically is, looking for some veil or door or bureaucracy to hide behind—but open, public, unabashed sin, eager to proclaim itself as such because of its allegedly ennobling qualities! Religion without the belief solely to prop up Caesar. Violating the First Commandment, to sanctify evading the First Amendment! The Pharisees would not have had such balls.
I know a lot of very good Christian people who would never think of vandalizing a Jewish person’s home in the dead of night in retribution for their objecting to a Christian legislative prayer. They would never call up a wiccan or an atheist with some anonymous death threat, and they would never sit at the table with a fellow Christian who did. These people would still love their country and take its democracy seriously without being expected to mouth some other person’s officially sanctioned, watered-down, aspartame prayer on Tuesday evenings at the PTA. And they would not lose their faith if all the mayors and county commissioners in their communities, whose names they probably don’t even know—or all the mayors in the world, for that matter—decided to focus on filling potholes instead of patching up our nation’s alleged godly foundations. And these people would be mortified at the idea that the Ten Commandments or a prayer to God is recited not for its religious content but out of a patriotic duty to the nation-state. Yet that is just the principle which our Christian Conservatives want established as Supreme Court precedent.
So it seems to me that the only people who favor a legislative prayer are of two sorts: the foolish bullies who make threatening midnight phone calls and damage the homes of Jews and atheists—and the demagogues who want the bullies’ votes and their power and are willing to say nasty things and preen their Tartuffery in public in order to get them.
Anyway, congratulations to CFI and its allies for an excellent brief, and here’s hoping the Supreme Court shows the backbone that for so long has been rusting and crumbling away in a hope-chest somewhere in the courthouse attic.
I'd forgotten that this week is Banned Books Week. Celebrate your freedom to read! Take time this week to remember your ancestors who were denied that liberty--who were persecuted and punished and harrassed and threatened for their curiosity and their desire to know--and remember those who found in books the key to free themselves from slavery, literal and metaphorical.
Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great losse; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the losse of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole Nations fare the worse.
"Humor must not professedly teach; it must not professedly preach. But it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years.... I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited, I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not." -Mark Twain
A gang of labourers on the piled wet timber That shines blood-red beside the railway siding Seem to be making out of the blue of the morning Something faery and fine, the shuttles sliding,
The red-gold spools of their hands and their faces swinging Hither and thither across the high crystalline frame Of day: trolls at the cave of ringing cerulean mining And laughing with labour, living their work like a game.