Monday, September 2, 2013

A Good War is Hard to Find: A Brief Review

At the Green Valley Book Fair this past weekend with my parents, a book in the “politics” section caught my eye.  It was a small book with a black cover; the title, author, and the outline of an Abu Ghraib prisoner, shrouded, hooded, standing on a box with wires attached to each hand were displayed in solid white.  The book is David Griffith’s “AGood War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America” and I have been trying to figure out what to make of it.  It was a welcome break from comps reading, but, once I started reading I didn’t stop (save for a 6-ish hour sleep break).  It was certainly well-written (Griffith is a local professor of creative writing) but I struggled to figure out exactly what I was reading – the work consists of eight essays addressing the theme of violence; the book sings the praises of Flannery O’Connor and frequently detours into international politics, cultural theory, and Christian theology - a wide range of topics united by the personal experience/s of the author.  It came off disjointed at times, I would have liked some theories to have been more finely tuned and fleshed out, there were some theological points made explicitly while others were merely implied (always wary of these) but, as I said, I read the book straight through and think I’ve figured out why it was so compelling.

The book is an extended reflection on the process of dealing with moments that, in Griffith's words, “have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day, and those leading up to it” – especially when these moments are recorded and publicly circulated.  While this idea can likely be applied to all kinds of moments thought of as milestones, Griffith is dealing with violence and a seemingly widespread propensity towards isolating violent acts from their social contexts and conceiving of them as an unfortunate aberrance to an otherwise well-functioning society.  That is to say if violence is the product of some bad moments or some bad people or happens somewhere else, then the buck stops there – there is no sense of collective responsibility or complicity when it comes to a few bad apples or some distant, “backwards, unenlightened” society. 

Griffith offers example after example of violence being separated from everyday experience – from watching violent movies in a dark basement to internet offers to view torture scenes from the comfort of one’s own laptop; the juxtaposition of a high-school-aged Griffith’s notion that televised  violence “over there in Iraq” was "humane and just" with his feelings of disgust and regret while watching/seeing various depictions of violence: footage of bombs, bombers, and destruction while his marching band plays Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No.1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945); a photograph of butchered pigs’ heads on stakes on Christmas day; and scenes from A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction, and Deliverance and various audience responses just to name a fewGriffith, however, kept returning to his continued disgust at the Abu Ghraib photos set against governmental lament that the photos saw the light of day as well as various ways of avoiding thinking of this as an American event in order to view it as out-of-the ordinary or as somehow justified.  This was, ultimately, in an effort to make sense of events that occurred at a costume party where Griffith runs into an old friend who is dressed as army specialist Charles Graner (one of the soldiers pictured in the Abu Ghraib photos). 

His friend offers to snap a picture of the two of them standing in front of a third party mimicking the hooded prisoner whose outline adorns the book’s cover.  The author obliges.  Griffith states “I want to be upset, but I can’t make myself see that kid dressed as Graner as the sick, disrespectful one.  What’s wrong with me? one at the party batted an eye, no one else seemed to notice him.  He was ignored.  Was I the only person who recognized him?  Then it got scarier.  I thought, wait, there’s another wrinkle.  Not only was he acting it out, and calling me to act, but he documented it, gave me a memento that proves I was there: and not only did I do nothing to stop it, I participated in it.”

                Griffith’s stubborn and continued refusal to allow moments to be separated from society in order to assuage his own guilt drives the book and kept me from putting it down.  It’s an excellently-written reflection of the circumstances leading to the simultaneous condemnation and consumption of violence alongside some theorizing about the assumptions and social mood that makes these acts and their recording possible – perhaps inevitable.  Griffith is able to capture the dilemma of being disgusted by certain things in society while realizing that one is both a product and producer of the social phenomena being observed – and there is little he can do about it.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Comparative Religious Ethics: Preliminary Problematics (Part one of several)

Warning: this entry is not particularly funny.  It also uses several annoyingly big words.

This year I will be taking comprehensive exams as another step in my process of academic consecration.  We all have the processes by which we are certified to get paid to do stuff, so I’m not here to complain about that.  Rather, I’m gathering thoughts and decided that I should submit these ramblings to whatever public scrutiny this blog may attract in order to gain some outside perspective while I write.  All this being said, I study comparative religious ethics but am uncomfortable with the term "comparative"...and "religious"...and "ethics.”  Here is a brief outline of what makes me uncomfortable with each term and its application in the academic subfield of comparative religious ethics.

Comparative: When one endeavors to study a person or group of people they are implicitly engaged in an act of comparison (comparing their data to some kind of ideal type or mode of categorization, or past experience, etc.).  In this sense, then, all studies are comparative, this field simply attemps to make the comparisons explicit. In order to engage in explicitly comparative work, then, one must make a conscious and continual effort to maintain a certain amount of differences between social groups/works/people being studied in order for the “C” to remain…however, one must simultaneously produce enough similarities to warrant a comparison (develop an overarching category (see: Religion, below).  This tiered act of taxonomic ordering carries with it the same problems of all social orderings (yes, “all.”  There are problems with universal/absolute/general declarations, yadda yadda, sorrynotsorry), namely the valuation of objects ordered (some things, voices, works, people are given more value than others).  Further, only those endowed with certain amount of recognized power are able to successfully implement their orderings…which makes one wonder: from what position does the scholar of CRE speak?  Certainly a question to be asked of all scholars, but comparativists seem especially prone to embrace the ever-comfortable-even-if-highly-problematic position of “neutral scholarly distance.”  This brings me to

Religious: Declaring something “religious” and something else “not religious” or “secular” is a tactic used by some social groups to disregard/discredit the claims made by other communities or dissenters within their own.  It also tends to imply that some experiences are above/beyond the social sphere.  When a scholar takes the distinction between religious and secular as her or his starting point – taking the distinction as a given or natural – she or he runs the risk of re-producing the various social mechanisms that are used to maintain this distinction (voices silenced alongside unexamined ideas of the proper mode of collective life).  In other words, one chooses sides in a social argument without explicitly choosing sides (thereby concealing/ignoring that the analyst is a social actor her/himself with a dog in this fight).  Further, when one assumes that there is some kind of otherworldly, extra-social realm that can not be subjected to critical scrutiny, she or he provides justification for the very social consequences of those claims – certain ideas and social orderings (as well as their consequences) are “off limits.” With regard to CRE, when one explicitly compares one or more “religious” person/group/work, is she/he merely multiplying these difficulties?  Finally, there is the tricky concept of

Ethics:  A study of ethics or morality is typically couched in terms of reflection on the good or best individual life or mode of collective living.  I can’t do this.  I can’t suspend the power question (as one might have guessed) long enough to reflect on what it means to live a good life (perhaps there’s more examining to do here on what my actions/scholarship imply about the life worth living).  Collective existence depends on inequality.  Reflections on the good life ignore this fact or attempt to find a way around it.  Further, when the inequality becomes deeply entrenched in a state bureaucracy (or any highly organized social grouping; see: Weber) the ability of enforcement mechanisms to silence critique grows exponentially.  Those charged with maintaining the status quo and those giving inequality a prettier fa├žade create a situation where the critic is forced to join the game or suffer the consequences.  Ethical norms are conventions used to maintain certain social arrangements and to ignore these arrangements in the pursuit of reflecting on the good life is highly problematic (This critique can be made on a macro level, as I just have, or on a micro level when examining various smaller social groups – for instance, the ethical norms and values that make one a good scholar (originality, lack of plagiarism, scholarly respect, etc.) are conventions that allow for easy replication of a community of scholars).

My goal in this blog series is to examine these preliminary (though informed) theoretical difficulties in my field of study (and the practice of scholarship more generally).  I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but it will be at least three more – at least one each that more fully examines my misgivings with the scholarly act of explicit comparison, the academic study of religion, and the academic study of ethics (probably in that order).  Several more may crop up over the course of these musings (I have a feeling that once I start thinking about it, I’ll see that I’m making a lot of assumptions about what counts as scholarship and that the universal declarations above may not entirely hold up).  I also hope that anyone who reads this will raise issues and point me towards other areas that I overlook or have not completely thought through.

On the other hand, I might see something funny and get distracted.

Please feel free to comment here, facebook, tweet, or e-mail me re:this series of posts - will only share your insights by name if you do so in a public forum or permit me to in private correspondence.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fantasy Football Sleepers

Fantasy Football Season is back and most Fantasy Leagues are drafting in the next week or so.  In common Fantasy Football parlance, a "sleeper" is a player that not a lot of people know about who may end up having a big season and scoring lots of imaginary points for the owners of their imaginary teams.

Because there are few things in life more enjoyable than reappropriating terms that are important to some groups in order to mock/belittle/subvert their goals/intentions/beliefs, I would like to propose the following re-definition of Fantasy Football Sleeper.

Fantasy Football Sleeper (n): One who is wildly bored and gives less than a single damn about Fantasy Football.  This person does not want to read/hear/watch anything Fantasy Football related.  Fantasy Football makes the Fantasy Football Sleeper desire to club him or herself over the head with a smartphone opened to a twitterfeed full of Fantasy Football talk until he or she falls asleep.

Are you a Fantasy Football Sleeper?  Do you not give one back up RB about how many extra points the Detroit Lions' kicker missed?  Declare it loud and proud #FantasyFootballSleeper.

Some #FantasyFootballSleepers even get roped into co-owning a team with their spouse (sorry, Abbey).

Thanks for reading

Friday, August 16, 2013 my wedding ring

I have been tempted to blog several times over the span of my most recent hiatus but have decided to faithfully abide by the motto: “If you can’t blog anything nice, don’t blog anything at all.  Unless it’s about the Miami Heat then, by all means, blog away.”

(That being said, if you wish to hear my opinion on the humanities in general, the Edward Snowden leaks, The Manning verdict, Reza Aslan’s interview on Fox/his book that I haven't and likely won't read/the academic study of religion, or anything related to the coup in Egypt, let me know if you find yourself in my neck of the woods and we can have a beverage or seven and a likely colorful, certainly off-the-record chat.)

This blog post, however, hits closer to home.  Last week, I lost my wedding ring.   The conversation went something like this:

Abbey: Where is your wedding ring?
Tommy: No clue.
Abbey: When did you last see it?
Tommy: A couple days ago.
Tommy’s thoughts: This happens all the time, usually I take it off when I’m eating a sandwich somewhere weird – it will turn up, it always does.
Abbey: Where did you see it last?
Tommy: Ummm, wherever the last place I took it off was.
Abbey: …
Tommy’s thoughts: It will turn up, always does, even if I don’t spend all day looking, but since this time you found out that I misplaced it,
Tommy: I’ll look for it.

After checking all of the normal places I typically remove my ring, I started trying to recall various places I may have taken it off – as we are in a new house with new counters we have yet to really develop an organizational system for most of our things (my wedding ring included) nor do I have a constant place where I eat sandwiches.  After looking everywhere (in coffee mugs and under gnomes, behind/in/around books, in the car, in every pocket of every article of clothing I had unpacked, etc.) I gave up for the day and continued unpacking.  Abbey was still rattled that evening.

Tommy: It will show up.
Abbey: I just need to come to terms with the fact that it’s gone and we’ll probably find it in a random box in 20 years.  We’ve thrown away so much paper from so many boxes, it might even be gone forever.  I’m sad now, but I’ll get over it.
Tommy’s thoughts: Damn it.

The next morning, I continue looking for the ring.  No dice.  I’ve literally [on a side note, the dictionary definition of “literally” has changed and it literally can be used just – literally – for emphasis instead of its former, more literal meaning…literally] looked everywhere that I could.  Abbey was upstairs with Vivian and I picked up a pile of clothes from the middle of the entranceway.  The ring was there.  THE RING WAS ON THE GROUND!!!!  I AM THE GREATEST HUSBAND EVER I FOUND IT!!!! (It is entirely peripheral to the point that I was the one that lost it in the first place, shut up).

I march upstairs with the ring held high.

Abbey: You found it?!
Tommy: I found it.
Abbey: Where was it?!
Tommy: Remember that pile of clothes I said I’d move two days ago?
Abbey: …
Tommy: It was under that.
Abbey: …
Tommy: least I found it...
Abbey: You need to find a permanent place to put your ring from now on or never take it off – I don’t care if you are eating a sandwich in the laundry room.
Tommy’s thoughts: I bet I can find something super tacky on Amazon for really cheap.
Tommy: I promise I will find a place to always leave my ring whenever I take it off.

I have named her Kiaya after Kiaya Ufgood (imdb says I spelled the name right, the youtube clip does not), Willow’s wife in the movie Willow - aka the greatest cultural object of the 1980s.  She is now a permanent fixture on our counter and faithful guardian of my ring.  Thanks Amazon!!

Thanks for reading

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why I Cheer Against Lebron James

                As facebook friends, twitter followers, office mates, and anyone unfortunate enough to end up watching a Miami Heat game with me is aware: I hope the Miami Heat do not win this year’s championship.  This isn’t a secret, but I’ve been trying to think through my rationale for accepting what the kids call my status as “a hater.”  It isn’t that I personally dislike Lebron James, his friends Chris and Dwyane, or anyone from Miami in particular.  It also has nothing to do with the franchise – I didn’t mind at all when they won in 2006, I was a big Alonzo Mourning fan since his days at G’town.  Contrary to popular opinion, it certainly isn't how the big 3 worked the system (that’s what you’re supposed to do with systems!).  If memory serves, I believe that I posted a facebook status in 2009 or 10 (ask the NSA for specifics) to the effect that I hoped Bosh and James would go to the Heat in free agency because I thought it would be fun to watch another superteam formed by free agent friends agreeing to be on the same team (see: 2007 Celtics).  What I was not prepared for was how much fun it would be – not to watch good basketball – but to watch Lebron James lose.

                Lebron James losing is, objectively, the funniest/most depressing thing in sports (the depression merely adds to the humor).  It isn’t fun to watch Kobe lose because he just gets angry.  I can watch people get angry on Springer (same went  for Jordan).  Lately, when most teams lose, players temporarily sulk in the postgame press conferences, but then make cheerful TV appearances shortly thereafter (Mike Conley, Jr., Roy Hibbert, etc).  Lebron James, however, gets this look like life has no meaning.  There’s sulking after a loss and then there’s capital ‘S’ Sulking – wandering, lost, unable to figure out why we’re all here, why expend all the effort to be great, why hope? – that characterizes Lebron when he fails to win a title.  In game 3, when the Heat were down by about 25 (which was hilarious) Lebron had a confused, distraught, upset look on his face akin to the look of a 6 year old wondering when goldie the fish he won at the fair learned to swim upside down.  Stephen A. Smith characterized this look as “what the hell am I doing here.”  I characterize it as depressing in its hilarity.

                There are many aspects of Lebron’s life that would be nice – money, being able to dunk…that’s about all I’d care for, but I bet there are other good things about being Lebron.  However, since he was 16 he was force-fed the narrative: “be the best in NBA history or bust.”  Even crappier: throughout his whole career, what constitutes “the best” (and who defines it) has shifted more often and more extremely than the left’s opinion of Obama.  That part of his life is unenviable due to the fact that the narrative constantly spewed is “Greatest Of All Time or goat.”  Thinking that he’s bought into his own hype is the only way I can explain the [hilarious/depressing] “my life has no meaning” look on his face each time he fails to live up to the ever-changing definition of what it means for his career to mean anything other than “not the best, so didn’t live up to potential.”  This whole cycle is depressing, and yet, it is hilarious to watch all parties involved deny/spin this cycle all while buying into it…and then depressing because I’ve bought into it.   And then hilarious again.  And depressing again.

Go Spurs.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What I Learned from Anonymous Teaching Evaluations

At the end of each semester, instructors at my institution are granted a wonderful opportunity to receive anonymous feedback from students regarding our performance and the students’ overall experience of the course.  If the internet has proven anything, it is that the ability to evaluate others and comment on their work anonymously is always a helpful and productive enterprise that produces a clear and accurate picture of…something, I guess.  While my evaluations were, by and large, quite positive this semester (“toot toot” goes my own horn), I thought it might be helpful to fellow instructors if I shared the valuable insights that I gained from this round of anonymous commentary:

I “was very through (sic) with my lectures” and one student “enjoyed his [my] use of modern news stories to relate to the current lecture material.”  I was “very enthusiastic when talking about the different topics,” “a bit unexciting,” “kind of boring,” and “made my lectures interesting and entertaining,” though there should be “less lectures.”

A student was “often surprised at how much work you [I] put into it [the class].”  Another noted that “each activity was relevant to the course,” while a colleague of theirs listed their “likes” as “activities, groupwork, and instructor’s respect for students.”  Others were left desiring “more discussion and hands-on activities in class,” another to “delve deeper into religious ethics on sexuality, premarital sex, and economics” and one lamenting that I failed to “bring in more of the religious perspective.” 

One particular evaluation stands out: a student appreciated “history and view on [sic] different religions Buddhism and Islam” while noting that the course “focused on western religions” and there was “nothing on Buddhist or other Eastern religions way to salvation.”  It appears that the history and views I taught about Buddhism were a pro while my treatment of Buddhist soteriology was lacking?

I gave “easy tests and quizzes,” “paper feedback” was listed as a positive aspect of the course, and I was “really nice, told us [the students] what I expected, [and was] very understanding,” although another stated that “I feel like he should lighten up on the grading of papers.”

One final student lamented that I neglected to “encourage application/personal opinions on the subject matter"...but I guess that’s what anonymous evaluations are for.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reflections on a Violent State

Last Friday morning, as I was preparing to lecture on suicide bombing and terrorism (by way of Talal Asad’s 2007 book Suicide Bombing), the city of Boston was on lockdown as tanks and armed forces canvassed the city in search of Dhokar Tsarnaev – one of two brothers accused of setting off explosive devices at the Boston Marathon.  (See my reflections from that morning < here > )  

This week, I end another semester of teaching religious ethics by leading a further discussion of state power, using Tom Junod’s excellent piece in last July's Esquire Magazine: “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama” as the central text.*

I am on board with Asad’s assertion that there is a fundamental tension – contradiction – at the heart of what he calls “the liberal West’s culture of war.”  This tension is, on the one hand, the state’s need to legitimize organized violence against a collective enemy and, on the other, the humanitarian desire to save lives.  This requires that some violence be legitimated and other violence to be delegitimated.  This legitimizing process, however, seems to rest on the idea that there are distinct groups who can be labeled as good and bad AND that this designation is somehow ultimate or transhistorical or – at the very least – reliant on something other than contingent social arrangements.

It’s only within the parameters of these arrangements that some are in a position to effectively declare themselves just/right/good and others unjust/wrong/evil.  Rather than establish who is right and wrong, I have used Asad in the classroom to draw the students attention to the “space of violence” described by Asad – within this sphere, the state is able to extend its presence by producing the legitimate violence upon which constitutional states rest (while stigmatizing the violence that challenges this sovereignty).  That the state is foundationally dependent on violence is often kept out of the public eye (or described using broad, abstract ideals such as labeling violence as perpetrated by those fighting for or by enemies of justice, freedom, our way of life, etc.)

While today I’ll lecture on what Junod has referred to as “the deep fog of the lethal presidency” – the secrecy and uncertainty regarding the President’s decision to place one or another person on a list of enemy combatants to be targeted for killing – I am still struck by the space of violence I watched unfolding last week.

One of America’s major cities was rendered populationless – or, at least, the entire population was hidden from view as a swarm of news cameras descended upon the city.  The troops then entered the empty streets – hundreds and hundreds of heavily armored soldiers and vehicles carrying and equipped with heavy artillery on a manhunt.  

Judging by twitter, facebook, and television news, there seemed to be a lot of fear and uncertainty surrounding the entire endeavor.  Who were they hunting?  What was going to happen?  Is anyone safe?  

The constant coverage and transformation of Boston into a temporary police state heightened these questions to the point that when Dhokar was found bleeding in a stranger’s boat, the entire nation (at least those I was observing) breathed a sigh of relief before rejoicing and celebrating the triumph of America – once again – over the forces of evil.

I’m not saying that this relief is unwarranted, that the fear wasn’t “real,” or – by any means – trying to belittle or ignore the victims of violence in Boston last week.

I am, however, noting that – for a brief span of time – state power and violence was on full display.  A nation believed it was, once again, under attack.  The leadership responded by an absolutely stunning display of force alongside actual and potential violence.  While certainly the folks in Boston mourning loved ones and those afraid to walk the streets rightfully expressed relief at the culmination of these events, we must keep in mind that we are a society much more dependent upon violence than we may realize.

It’s a fact that’s a bit easier to ignore – or at least to refrain from questioning – when attacks are carried out abroad without widespread public knowledge, as is the case with many targeted strikes.

That this fact was, by and large, ignored – or at least not be questioned – when it became the constant focus of 30+ hours of news, however, is somewhat more alarming.

Some will ask “what’s the point of drawing attention to our state being dependent on violence - what should one do with this information?”

Good question.

Thanks for reading. 

*Other pieces of Junod's writing on the topic have helped me think through a lot of the issues at stake in the discussion of targeted killing generally and drone strikes in particular.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Defense of Critique

I teach Religious Ethics.  This week, we are discussing terrorism - a topic that my father noted is, among other things, timely.  Today, specifically, we are reading a section of Talal Asad's Suicide Bombing.  As this book is highly critical of state power and socio-political distinctions, I felt the need to preface our classroom discussion with a defense of the practice of social criticism while many are relying on state power for personal safety.  Here is a portion of what I'll share with the class:

It’s days like these where critics get themselves in trouble because criticism of state power is often seen – or, better, portrayed – as treasonous, overly/unduly suspicious, unhelpful, and possibly dangerous.  These are charges meant to silence critique.

At times when we are told that our security – or at least the security of those who we are somehow identified with – is threatened, a corresponding idea that order and safety needs to be restored tends to occupy a prominent discursive space.  Before moving to Asad’s critique of terrorism and motives, it is worth noting what he states at the very beginning of his book:

“A brief warning against a possible misreading of this book: I do not plead that terrorist atrocities may sometimes be morally justified.  I am simply impressed by the fact that modern states are able to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability.  I am also struck by the ingenuity with which so many politicians, public intellectuals, and journalists provide moral justifications for killing and demeaning other human beings.” Talal Asad Suicide Bombing page 4

What Asad offers is not to be read as a treasonous apologetic for terrorism – it is a shift of emphasis, a re-focusing of the discourse from “who’s right and who’s wrong and how can those who are right stop those who are wrong” to “who gets to make these decisions and how? What structures are in place that divvy up the space of violence to justify some while demonizing others?  How is this done?”

Before we get to Asad’s analysis of Walzer’s “emergency ethics” I’ll briefly note two things I watched on the news this morning that deserve a different line of questioning: first, I watched appeals to the internal states of the bomber motive, states of mind, and radicalization (described as “self-radicalization,” “internal radicalization now being externally manifested,” “older brother controlling the mind of younger brother,” “religious ideas motivating action,” and “state-sponsored ideological training” – if not verbatim, all this came from CNN’s coverage).  Second, I watched what I can only describe as a small army of armored tanks, trucks, and soldiers carrying large guns.  These men were all in search of the violent perpetrator of violence.  Pause.

This is a distinction being drawn within what Asad refers to as a “sphere of violence.”  There is good violence.  There is bad violence.  The difference, however, tends to rely on appeals to the internal state of individuals.  We therefore have a vaguely defined social space where violence is occurring and an undefinable internal status that determines who is in the right and who is in the wrong.  The trick is that someone has to be in a very specific socio-political position of power to make these declarations – a position which denies such position to others.  I don’t like to analyze events as they are going on – too much is unknown, there is chaos, and there is an overreliance on speculation so I’m not going to specifically address what’s going on…now in Boston.

I will note that the definition of terrorism implies an altruistic non-terrorist.  Terrorism, however, is a very, very shifty term and yet its boundaries are tightly maintained.  I’m not interested in figuring out guilty and not-guilty or assigning blame.  I’m interested in the ideological work being done when indefinable spaces are somehow defined and loosely defined terms are rigidly fixed.  The social world – of which we are students – doesn’t have some kind of innate, inherent order.  I’m interested in the process by which this disorder is presented as order.  This isn’t treason.  It’s critique.

Thoughts are with all those within various spheres of violence.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Hitchens and Harris Worth Keeping

The other day, in the religion dept. computer lab, I had a powerpoint slide open that asked “Is there a Hitchens and a Harris worth keeping?”  (This is a nice rhetorical device used by academics to say “many people believe that this reading is, by and large, full of excrement, but I’m assigning it anyway and here’s why.”)  A colleague looked at my computer screen, shook his head and answered “No.”   This is a response similar to others that I have gotten from other students when I tell them that I have my undergraduates read portions of God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The End of Faith by Sam Harris in the “Religion and Morality” section of religious ethics (alongside John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, among other authors).  There are many folks who believe that the question I posed warrants a no, a pithy dismissal, or simply to be ignored altogether.  I, however, think that – in addition to being accessible, popular, and good conversation starters – these two authors provide some key  points that should be made over and over again in a religious studies classroom (despite some major shortcomings in the works as well).

The section of the course wherein these readings fall is titled “Must one be religious to be moral?” examining the link between religious belief and ethical conduct.  Alongside this question,  I pose several others for the students to be asking as they read the variety of responses: first: What differentiates a “religious ethic” from an “ethic”? (carrying on a conversation from the beginning of the semester regarding what exactly constitutes religion)  Second: “if not ‘religious’, what must one be to be ethical?”  The second question draws the students’ attention to the naturalization of certain modes of ordering the world as prerequisites for establishing an ethical system as well as who is doing the ordering and, possibly, why?  In answering the primary question with an emphatic “No! One must not be religious if one wishes to be ethical,” both Hitchens and Harris helpfully point towards my additional two questions.  Further, their calls to abandon religion can be rephrased as rather poignant critiques (or, at least, point towards helpful areas of inquiry).

For Hitchens, the religious monopoly on explanation has been broken and religious notions are no longer needed to make sense of how the world works.  They should, therefore, fall by the wayside in favor of science and rationality.  Harris, likewise, argues for the triumph of science and rationality but in a different manner – critically engaging peaceful religious folk/what he terms “religious moderates.”  For Harris, those religious folks who are non-violent are simply ignoring part of their texts (he seems to equate religion with scriptural literalism – I tweeted him about this, but he has yet to get back to me).  His point is that the act of privileging a text enables violent appeals to that texts authority: even appeals to the peaceful portions of sacred texts are problematic because parts of them are not so peaceful.  For Harris, non-violent religious people can’t have their cake and eat it too – if the text is deemed “holy” and authoritative, get ready to see some people to use all of it as such.

By saying that one must never be religious to be moral, these two authors appeal to science and rationality, however, their appeals to ground morality in science and/or rationality sound quite similar to the dalai lama’s appeal to common spirituality as the grounding of morality or the pope’s stating that all of humanity asks the same question (“what must I do to inherit human life?”).  Once I draw the rhetorical parallels, between these arguments, I’m able to talk about how in all of them, some contingent mode of thinking is naturalized and modes of ethical conduct are then introduced to those who accept the naturalization.  Herein lies the Hitchens and Harris worth keeping.

Both note that philosophical views, widespread opinions of the day, and one’s upbringing (among many other factors) impact what makes a person label certain behavior as morally good or bad – religion can’t be seen as the sole factor in determining one’s outlook on what constitutes acceptable behavior.  However, if, to borrow Hitchens’ language, religion’s monopoly on explanation has been broken, why should that monopoly be re-applied to science and reason?  Or for that matter politics and economics (topics for the second portion of the course).  By refusing to accept grand, universal narratives – religious or otherwise – one becomes free to ask “who is speaking here?”  “what systems are in place that are allowing them to speak?” “what authority do they have and where does it come from?” Hitchens cautions readers to be wary of monopolies on thought and Harris cautions readers to be careful with and skeptical of modes of thought they take as authoritative.  By drawing attention to the many factors that shape an ethic alongside unwavering skepticism of naturalization, both Hitchens and Harris provide the grounds for a critique of their own work.  They do so, however, in a manner accessible and understandable in the college classroom and provocatively enough to to start discussion – something truly worth keeping, at least on my syllabus.

Thanks for reading

Monday, March 4, 2013

Politics of history: A brief example

While providing background information on the course readings, my students and I ended up getting a tad sidetracked (people getting sidetracked?  in MY classroom?  shenanigans!) with a discussion of the politics of telling history.  We then added history to a list of value-laden areas of inquiry that are often portrayed as neutral or objective (so far we have knowledge, truth, science, and, now, history).  I used these three excerpts re:Tibet/China to illustrate the idea the politics of recording/transmitting historical "fact."

"The global expansion of Tibetan Buddhism that we are witnessing today did not begin in earnestness until 1959. As is by now well known, after a decade of Chinese military expansion into Tibet, Chinese troops had reached Lha sa. In 1959, a Tibetan uprising against the Chinese authorities led to the flight of the Dalai Lama, who, together with approximately 100,000 Tibetans, sought political asylum in India. The Chinese, with their overwhelming military superiority, established control over the entire country in short order, and began to implement a colonialist policy that has had devastating consequences for Tibetan religion and culture in Tibet" 
Oxford Dictionary of Global Religions, “Tibetan Buddhist Society” by Jose Ignacio Cabezon

“At sixteen, I lost my freedom when Tibet was occupied.  At twenty-four, I lost my country itself when I came into exile.  For forty years now I have lived as a refugee in a foreign country, albeit the one that is my spiritual home.  Throughout this time I have been trying to serve my fellow refugees and, to the extent possible, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet.  Meanwhile, our homeland has known immeasurable destruction and suffering…those eighty-thousand Tibetans who, during the months following my escape into exile left Tibet for the sanctuary offered them by the Indian government.  The conditions they faced were hard in the extreme.  There was little food available and even less medicine.  The refugee camps could offer no better accommodation than canvas tents.  Most people had few possessions beyond the clothes they had left home in.  They wore heavy chubas (the traditional Tibetan dress) appropriate to our harsh winters, when what they really needed in India was the lightest cotton.  And there was terrible sickness from diseases unknown in Tibet.”
14th Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium pages 54-55

"The Dalai Lama was the overall leader of the Tibetan serf system in 1959 and, when the Chinese government abolished that system, it marked a tremendous step forward for the cause of human rights," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Sunday.
"In the same way, president Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States."

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 1, 2013

I disagreed with Stephen A. Smith today.

Last night UVA beat Duke.  Wahoo fans then stormed the court waving their ascots and bowties in the air in a scene straight out of a Land’s End catalogue.  Apparently someone said something mean to Mike Krzrzrrzskie (though it was likely something so classy that Jefferson himself would be proud) and the weasel-faced coaching guru used his postgame interview to lament the danger facing the away team when the home fans rush onto the court after a game, all hopped up on mountain dew, to celebrate their team’s win.   He demanded that the unpaid breadwinners of his university’s athletic program…I mean the Duke student-athletes…should have been protected and escorted off of the court before the unruly Wahoos thrust their pointer fingers in the air to let the world/cameras know that on this night, this team was number one...out of two.

This story was picked up on ESPN’s “First Take” this morning (the show that made famous the phrase “cornball brother” or “faux-frere” as it was translated in French media).  Host Skip Bayless suggested that the tradition of storming the court should be banned.  Host Stephen A. Smith took exception to this suggestion.  He stated “this is what makes it [college basketball] special.  leave it alone.”  He then went on to discuss this phenomenon as an overflow from the purity of the sport – stating that this was sports “at its purest” since these athletes aren’t “professionals making exorbitant amounts of money,” but are rather college kids playing for love of the game.  What is needed, on Stephen A. Smith’s account, is more security or, perhaps, better armed guards.

Damn it, Stephen.

Those who read this blog during the NBA Finals last year know that I thoroughly enjoy sports but, from time to time, sort of hate myself for it.  That’s because I want to throw a puppy every time someone mentions the purity of the game, the fact that it’s special, or the fact that its rituals and customs should be not only “left alone” but enforced AND that this enforcing should just be seen as part of the maintenance of a pure, pristine, dare I say holy competition. 

Damn it, Stephen.

This type of naturalization – of declaring something SO pure that it should just be left alone – is, in my humblest opinion, a load of crap.  This purity/sanctity of the sport and its watching is something produced and maintained by people with interests and is produced AS pure in order to secure and maintain those interests.  Don’t feel bad about the exploitative practices of the NCAA, don’t worry about the safety of players and fans (when more security personnel can take care of that!), and don’t worry about the hierarchies being built and reinforced on campus (along with all the benefits that come along with being at the top of the totem pole!).  Why bother even noticing your complicity in such systems when you can sit back and enjoy the purity of sport?!

Thanks for reading.