So I’ve totally lost my mind and have spent the last 48 hours doing little other than hitting refresh on various websites on my computer — all of them related to Kentucky basketball.  We’ve been on Calipari watch, in case you missed the news.  Unconfirmed reports say church attendance was up 5% this past Sunday in Kentucky (I’m not making up that someone claims they read this; no faith in its accuracy).  I’ve also been on my “Coach Billy Gillispie Diet”: today, I’ve eaten a two slices of toast with Nutella, a blueberry muffin, and a bowl of macaroni.  (That’s probably only funny to Kentucky fans.  Hmm.)  But I’m briefly going to try to be relevant and sensible.

One thing that following this minute-by-minute and not actually doing any work I need to do (and have now put off for 6 months — I’m serious on that part) has demonstrated is the ineptness of many of the media outlets involved: Memphis, Lexington, and Louisville alike.  The various network affiliates and newspapers are relying on and mooching off of one another’s reporting — primarily the Memphis stations — rather than confirming things independently.  What this means is: the earlier banner on the Courier-Journal‘s website declaring Calipari hired is now gone, because a Memphis CBS affiliate backtracked on their story. 

Or, the Courier‘s sub-headline about a phone conversation between Calipari and former UK coach Joe B. Hall, in which Hall was (apparently) misquoted as saying that Calipari had told him he was coming.  USA Today picked it up, verbatim.  A Memphis station called to confirm with Hall, who made a point of saying Calipari said he had made no decision.  There is now no evidence at the Courier that this story ever happened.

Despite the ridiculous nature of Kentucky fans about the whole damn thing, the people who have had egg on and off their faces for most of the last half week are local news stations and papers, primarily those in Kentucky.  Memphis stations may look jumpy and premature, but the Louisville and Lexington stations look like they can’t do their own reporting, even (especially?) when there’s no new news to report.  All in all — and I don’t think you can quite figure it out unless you’ve wasted enough of the last two days as I have — I have a far greater understanding of the present failures of the media than I did even last weekend.

Right now, however, I’m waiting for a private jet from Lexington to land in Memphis in 20 minutes.  If he’s on it when it leaves, he’s in; if not, probably not.  Either way, I think I get an answer soon.

Yeah, I’m just going to take credit for it.  Anyway, I’m spending most of my time not preparing a paper for presentation this weekend but reading rumor blogs trying to figure out who my team’s next coach is (today’s favorite seems to be Memphis’ Calipari, but my brother told me on Friday that Billy Donovan was a “done deal” so I don’t believe anything until it happens anymore).  But a Memphis paper reports that Calipari met with his players today:

“While Calipari did not say explicitly what he planned to do, players left the meeting convinced that Calipari would take the job. According to the source, Calipari told the team that Kentucky was the Notre Dame of basketball.” [Emphasis mine — JLW]

Or so wonders Alan Jacobs after pointing out a wonderful little anecdote in the history of English letters: Eliot rejected Animal Farm.  But here’s the best part — someone did!  (Well, sort of.  And I apologize for the Wikipedia citation; but I’m fairly certain I’ve read this elsewhere, as well — oh, and my generally favorable opinion of Eliot as poet and thinker should be clear by now, and I’m generally willing to take Leonard Woolf’s word for it on the matter of Eliot and anti-Semitism.)

‘One of the first and most famous protests against Eliot on the subject of anti-Semitism came in the form of a poem from the Anglo-Jewish writer and poet Emanuel Litvinoff,[48] at an inaugural poetry reading for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951. Only a few years after the Holocaust, Eliot had republished lines originally written in the 1920s about ‘money in furs’ and the ‘protozoic slime’ of Bleistein’s ‘lustreless, protrusive eye’ in his Selected Poemsof 1948, angering Litvinoff. When the poet got up and announced his poem, entitled ‘To T. S. Eliot’, the event’s host, Sir Herbert Read, declared ‘Oh Good, Tom’s just come in’. Litvinoff proceeded in evoking to the packed but silent room his work, which ended with the lines “Let your words/tread lightly on this earth of Europe/lest my people’s bones protest”. Many members of the audience were outraged; Litvinoff said “hell broke loose” and that no one supported him. One listener, the poet Stephen Spender, claiming to be as Jewish as Litvinoff, stood and called the poem an undeserved attack on Eliot.[48]However, Litvinoff says that Eliot was heard to mutter, ‘It’s a good poem’.[49]

The real question, of course, is this: Did anyone ever tell Milton a joke and get him to laugh?  (I mean, come on, Johnny — “sage and serious Spenser”?  It’s a pun a line and sheer ridiculosity throughout!)

Two articles in today’s Courier-Journal about Wendell Berry that might interest people.  First, Actor’s Theatre in Louisville is set to beging performing a play, Wild Blessings, based on his work.  It’s apparently “composed of 36 poems” — and hopefully will work out better than that Billy Joel musical someone slapped together a few years back.  I don’t have much to say about it, though if I weren’t leaving for snowy Chicago today I wouldn’t mind going to see it.

The second article, “Poet will step off farm to hear works read on opening night,” is a brief profile of Berry which includes these entertaining sentences:

“In addition to poetry, Berry writes essays and novels by hand and his wife assists with the typing of them. He has made a slight concession to computers. His manuscripts are copied onto disks when it’s time to send them for publication by a main press.”

 That brings to mind a Berry-esque rant about handwriting in Bringhurst’s book that I read the other day (and was trying to figure out a way to make relevant to a posting):

“Many people now cannot form legible letterforms at all except by tapping on a keyboard.  For those people, writing and the alphabet have, quite literally, ceased to be human.  How do you expect to be able to cook good food or make good love when you write with prefabricated letters?  How do you expect to have good music if you live on a typographic diet of bad Helvetica and even worse Times New Roman — never mind the parodies of letters that flash across your cellphone screens and the parodies of numbers marching over the screens of your pocket calculators and cash-dispensing machines?  How can things so ill-formed have a meaning?” (“The Typographic Mind” in Everywhere Being Is Dancing pp.217-8)

My handwriting, as described by one classmate “is either the worst-best or the best-worst handwriting I’ve ever seen” and, in the words of another, “Looks really distinguished and pretty until you actually try to figure out what it says.”  (Or, as a teacher once put it, “It’s not illegible.  It’s just difficult.”)  So I’m not quite there yet — and I certainly don’t have the hand-stamina to do what Berry does.  I don’t know: I like to think that a little bit of one’s personality comes through in handwriting, which is part of why I don’t like reading handwriting that’s blandly sloppy — when it comes across like the person writing was irritated that they had to be bothered to take the time to write something out.

The idealized image of what handwriting should be, in my mind, will always be my grandfather’s (though it has suffered a little recently as he’s aged, but it’s still more elegant than mine, and probably than mine ever will be).  He’s a retired elementary school principal, and among the many laments he has about things that are no longer taught in schools is penmanship.  (And good posture.)

(N.B.: This post is primarily a thought experiment.  For the sake of that experiment, I occassionally take things for granted. — JLW, 4/6/09)

Scott Payne’s “Twenty-First Century Conservatism” is well worth a read, even if you wind up disagreeing with all of it. While I’m more prone to staying way up high in the ether and not really wanting to muddy my hands with how all this abstract stuff, you know, applies to politics, he goes there, or makes a start of it, which is helpful. Among his points:

Critically embrace tradition: a conservatism of the twenty-first century doesn’t need to cut is umbilical cord to tradition altogether, by my lights. In fact, conservatism’s connection to tradition is potentially one it’s strong points in a world increasingly loosened from any moorings. But conservatives need to find ways of embracing those traditions with a critical eye and be prepared to let go of traditions that no longer make any sense. This post by Will Wilson that keep going back to on engaging self-reflective traditions is the key here and I keep waiting for Will to pick that line of thought back up on move it forward a couple more yards, but it’s somewhere to start. This links in to some degree with my comments around culture and is, in many sense, a more full-bodied approach to reform in this regard, but I think there is a whole separate project and element to the ideology at work here that speaks to one of the core planks in conservative identity, so I’m loathe to mash the two together.”

There’s a danger in a self-conscious tradition, and a tradition in which it’s acceptable to toss off a limb for the sake of the whole — traditions, in addition to being billion-headed rabbis (not letting that analogy go, folks), are like starfish: limbs re-grow after time. (But a limbless tradition, like a limbless starfish, is less likely to survive: it’s probably more a danger with tradition than a starfish.)

The problem, on the other hand, with an ossified tradition is that it has ceased to live and lapsed into reflexive (more or less) dogma. An ossified tradition fails because the existence of a tradition within history inherently causes changes to the circumstances of that tradition — and that can necessitate changes to the tradition itself. To borrow (again) from Eliot’s imagery, the creation of a new work of art, by its existence, alters the relation of all previous works of art within the tradition to one another, even if imperceptibly.   Any tradition that is not dying or dead is a living tradition.

Or, to pull in Bringhurst (because I’ve been reading him):

“A myth is a theorem about the nature of reality, expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.”

and,

“Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops. . . . Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though evidently neither ever perfectly succeeds.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “The Meaning of Mythology” in Everywhere Being is Dancing)

Though not a perfect analogy, reading “myth” as “tradition” works to an extent. In a sense, the tradition is a theorem about the nature of reality, or how we should behave within reality, expressed through and on account of the acquired wisdom of prior generations. “Acquired wisdom”: it is human, not infallible. Burke was never a Tory, and that’s not irrelevant.

The danger lies in irresponsible revision of tradition to make it what we want, rather than understanding that for the tradition to be relevant and effective — for it to survive — it must speak to the moment. “Eipe kai hêmin” says the Odyssey’s narrator, invoking the Muse: “Speak to us in our time.”

The prime issue in matters of tradition and the critical re-thinking thereof is gay marriage. Scott links to this post of Conor’s, which lays out very nicely the Sullivan-esque “Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” I want to reframe that argument in terms of what I’ve been saying — to demonstrate how that argument is not a “revision of tradition to make it what we want” but a necessary political adaptation of the tradition to allow continued relevance.

It goes into matters of truth and form. (I don’t like the use of the word “truth” there — it’s misleading, in its way. The type of distinction I want to get at is better described as that of “poetry” as the essence of a poem, and “verse” as the form of it.) Marriage, as a political/societal tradition has at its core the truth that it is essential for society that family units be officially bonded and recognized, and that children, if at all possible, be brought up in families (death can be a circumstantial complication here, however). The form that the tradition stipulates is a man and a woman. Society, however, has moved away from that form, and – if divorce rates are to be allowed to speak their meaning – away from the idea of marriage in any form as much more than a legal contract. (My opinion of divorce is hardly Catholic, but when divorce rates are at 50%, it’s hard to make the case that marriage hasn’t been devalued somehow and that the stability of the nuclear family has been jeapordized.)

The move to make, such thinking would say, would be to alter the form to better preserve the underlying truth within society. That is to say, expand marriage to include same-sex couples, but make it clear in doing so that it is not because marriage and family mean whatever we want them to mean, but because of the importance of family in stable form to society.

And this all leads up to my objection to the idea of removing government from “marriage” altogether and calling everything a civil union. It defeats the purpose of expanding marriage to defend marriage and the nuclear family: in fact, it only devalues the idea of marriage by having the government declare that, for all political and society purposes, marriage is nothing more than a contract. Understanding marriage as something divorced from family (this should not be taken as saying that a valid marriage must produce children, or somesuch thing) is far more damaging to marriage, and certainly more against the tradition than altering the traditional form of marriage.

I used marriage as an example of how the logic of this understanding might work – disagreement with its appropriateness on this issue particularly shouldn’t be taken to mean that it is, generally, inapplicable.

Another caveat: I’m talking here purely about the tradition in political/societal terms. None of this applies to religious or religious/societal understanding of tradition, but the religious tradition and the political tradition oughtn’t be allowed to merge. The Pope need not compromise because of popular sentiment – there’s a strong case that he shouldn’t (but I’m not Catholic, so I’m staying away from actual Catholic issues; he just works as a nice example). One is about the relationship among humans, and the stability of society, and, because of this, is far more mutable; the other is about the relationship between man and G-d (and only after this the relationship among men) and because of this far more immutable.

But I’ll talk about it anyway.  By “it” I mean UK basketball, of course.  The whole vibe about the program and Gillispie around here was just eerie for the last week: dead man walking, like.  I’m not going to complain much about him being gone (though if he hadn’t insisted his job ended at the gym door, I might have been more on his side). 

Billy Donovan is NOT the next coach, in case you were wondering.

As far as Travis Ford, currently of Oklahoma State and formerly of the 1992 Unforgettables: I wouldn’t be so quick to include coaches in what I had to say about a connection between place and players at Kentucky, so he makes me nervous.

This might be of interest/amusing to any Notre Dame fans reading: the guy who cut my hair today told me, more or less, “This is going to be a real turning point for the program.  If they don’t get it right this time, we’re going to wind up like Notre Dame football has become.”  And on ESPN, the guy defending Kentucky said, more or less, “You’ve got to go easy on Kentucky fans.  It’s like Notre Dame, with the less-than-realistic expectations every year…”  I was so on top of those analogies during football season, but now no one’s going to believe that I was first.

“Skill Is Seductive”

March 26, 2009

Despite my differences with him on certain issues (religion, particularly) I think that Robert Bringhurst is one of the most fascinating writers and thinkers out there — his analysis of the meaning of mythology is, if you ask me, second to none.  And his voice is strident on the nature of art and artifice:

“[Robert McNamara’s] example has taught me, nonetheless, that positions of power must not be occupied by people who are happy to take refuge in the craft of administration or the skill of systems design, nor by people whose sense of respect for the physical world is subservient to their sense of political loyalty.  There must be some point too at which even typographers, meterologists, knifesmiths, philosophers, and shovelmakers raise their heads from the workbench and ask how what they make is being used.  There is no sane person to whom napalm or mustard gas is saintly.

[…]

“Morality is part of language itself, and language is part of morality.  Not all sentences are good to speak on all occasions even though the language can construct them.  And not all things the designer can design are desirable just because he can design them.  I think this truth applies, in its small way, even to Peter Schoffer’s title page — though in Schoffer’s case the witnesses are dead, the statute of limitations has long run out, and the page is inarguably beautiful.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “Boats is Saintlier than Captains” in Everywhere Being Is Dancing pp. 197-9)

Or, to see it framed differently, read the parable of “Father Smith’s Confession” and “Father Smith’s Footnote” in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome.  It doesn’t work for excerpting in this medium.  The point, of course, is that the beauty of the artifice alone isn’t enough to make something truly, nobly beautiful (for it to be kalos, let’s say).  Because,

“If we divorce truth from beauty, we’re engaging in a sophomorically lazy reading of Keats’ dictum, forgetting that beauty alone does not make something truth: we must have truth to have beauty.”

Without the truth that makes it kalos, the beauty of the artifice can be deceptive.  In the realm of art, it leads to debates over obscenity and appropriateness and eventually at least one side calls the other bourgeois; removed from that realm, however, the deception can become dangerous: elegance does not necessarily make something good.

________________________________________________________________________________________

(The title of the post is Bringhurst, from the same essay.)

Wrestling With The Is

March 24, 2009

I see now that I’m not the first person to point this out, but Washington Monthly has an interesting take up on the short-lived life of Culture11 (Rod gets the h/t because I saw it there first).  Before saying something myself, I want to point out two things.  First, from the article itself:

“What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.”

 And then this, from Rod’s discussion of the article:

“As Claes Ryn put it in a penetrating TAC essay, organized conservatism finds itself wrecked today because it abandoned the culture, and taught itself to see the culture only in political terms.What we’ve turned into is a slightly more sophisticated, somewhat more secular version of Joe Carter’s Christian “shit-counters.” And see, this goes back to yesterday’s discussion (which I tried to launch, but which, like every homosexuality-related thread on this blog, gets taken over by the grinds) about why churches and social conservatives have got to find some way to articulate the old verities, the permanent things, in a way that’s compelling to people in this culture. You can’t just stand there and yell, “No!” at whatever the liberals throw out there, and expect that to change minds and win hearts.” [emphasis mine — JLW]

Reminiscent of any famous conservative line from a famous conservative writer?  Pace William F. Buckley, standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” ought not be the underlying principle of any conservative politics.  It’s a good quip, and as such, I don’t think you can claim in good faith that it was meant, as phrased, as a philosophical principle, but still — standing athwart history yelling stop can’t work, and cannot work because we live within history.  While the man who sees his calling as yelling, “Stop!” may be filling a needed role, it can’t be more than a role, and he as well as others need to accept that he will always appear somewhat like Kubrick’s Major Kong in his final moments on camera in Dr. Strangelove.

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

I don’t pretend to do more now than come at a particular aspect of what it must do, but I see it as important: it must appreciate.  The teaching of others — and learning ourselves — of appreciation of culture, and tradition: of what-is, and what-was — though by doing so we vivify the what-was and it remains the what-is.  Cultural prizes, from Homer to Chartres to Keats to those of the present day, are not past so long as they are appreciated and understood and prized.  But the last cannot happen without at least the first, and an effort made toward the second.  The cultural tradition is a living tradition: so are the political, and moral, and religious traditions of our lives; but I can better talk about it in terms of culture.  All of those discussions, of course, are different, but not so much that they can’t be understood by analogy.

The repercussions of these reports from the Israeli army are, on a more universal perspective, fairly clear. It is, as Michael Weiss puts it, “demoralizing” to Israel’s supporters. So forgive me if I come at it from a much more particularly Jewish perspective.Let’s begin with this: there is no right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel. There are duties that Jews can perform best in Diaspora, duties that can only be performed in Israel, and duties that can only be performed by a Jewish state in Israel.  There is a need, for the fulfilment of earthly duties as a Jewish people, to exist at some point within a Jewish state in Israel.  But the Diaspora, or so the tradition goes, began because of failures on the part of the Jewish people within Israel. That is, we as Jews must be deserving – must live our lives in sufficiently holy ways so as to be deserving – of the chance to perform our duties and obligations as Jews leading a Jewish state in Israel.

This isn’t a call for perfection. Perfection isn’t a possibility within history. It is the simple statement that Jews – as Jews and especially as Jews in Israel – have an obligation to lead lives that strive toward holiness – which is demanded by the Covenant (which ought to merit a discussion itself, as the most terrifying part of Judaism).

Central to all this talk of “holiness” and “hallowing” (there is a reason for the preponderance of variations on the qof-dalet-shin root in prayer) is an understanding of the sanctity of a single human life. The world was created for no man individually but every man in particular. Not for the collective, but for the whole, individually. And that is why to save a life is as to save all Creation; to destroy a life as to destroy all Creation. And why the Sabbath may be broken to save a life, though the Sabbath is the holiest of days; its rules superceding the rules and rituals of all others.

Which is why, even without the reports out of Gaza, I would be concerned to see this opinion from the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army:

“He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.”

It demonstrates an obsessive, exclusionist misreading of the concept of “Chosenness”: his would have it that Jews only have true obligations to other Jews and to G-d. Which is, suffice it to say, ridiculous – and borderline racist. He forgets the purpose of the Covenant: not that Jews alone might be “saved” and have some sort of millennial/eternal party with the divine, but (as the Aleinu, a prayer I suppose he recites at least as often as I do) has it (and has had it for about a thousand years): that, in the end, when “the words of the prophet are fulfilled” all will be united in love and worship of, and service to, G-d.  And considering that, it is utterly irresponsible – and hardly Jewish – theology to assert that there is a difference in sanctity between a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one. Though the nature of how that life is lived may differ, the sacredness of all human life is equal. There can be no difference in the sanctity of a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one.

So when you can read reports like these, published in Israel’s major daily

” ‘And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way,’ he [an Israeli squad leader] said.

[…]

“[‘Another squad leader from the same brigade’] said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader’s soldiers complained that ‘we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.’

The squad leader said: ‘You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.'”

And then see that this is not treated as an essential crisis of purpose by the Israeli government – that Avigdor Lieberman and his backers may hold multiple and important cabinet portfolios – is more than merely demoralizing. It is utterly devastating in that respect.

The State of Israel is a human political entity distinct from Am Yisra’el – I get that. But it is a political entity run by Jews, for Jews, in Israel. It cannot escape the essential Jewishness of its character. When it transgresses, it transgresses not just as a political entity, but as a Jewish entity. And from a believing, religious perspective, the Covenant will always be more terrifying and aw(e)ful than the United Nations; breaking it more a transgression than violating any Security Council decree.

When we – Jews, anywhere – behave like this, it is a violation of the Covenant. There is a right to defense, yes. But there is not a right to toss aside the belief in the essential sanctity of all human life, to toss aside our duty to lead hallowed lives as Jews, because of threats to safety. (And I acknowledge that I say this sitting in a Southern city a Jewish mayor and Jewish Congressman: a place, that is, safe for Jews, far from violence. It’s harder in Israel, and failure is human. But deliberate transgression is a far different matter than accidental transgression when threatened.)

To behave like this is a violation of the Covenant. And there is no fundamental right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel.  Juxtaposed, the two are truly frightening.

Israel & Gaza

March 21, 2009

Commenting on this Ha’aretz report on the IDF, Michael Weiss makes an astute comment and nails my immediate reaction to them:

“[T]he responsible first response to them is one of demoralization.”

I’ll have more to say on it later — it’s been on my mind as of late — but I’m still not quite feeling up to full strength (made a deal with the devil about delaying geting sick until after I finished with final papers) and have a flight to catch soon.  Speaking of which: next time you feel like being irresponsible with your health, insist on finishing Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein rather than go to bed while your fever spikes to 103.  That way, you get to have your fever-dreams merge with scenes from Ravelstein’s illness and the narrator’s fever-dreams.  Hannah Arendt kept showing up, also — still trying to figure that one out.  I think my mind had married her to both Leo Strauss and Bellow… anyway…