Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lilla on Libertarians, Left & Right

Mark Lilla's essay, "The Tea Party Jacobins," might have started with a nod to "The Charge of the Light Brigade":
Libertarians to right of them,
Libertarians to left of them,
Libertarians behind them...
Lilla rightly diagnoses the extent to which the so-called conservatives of Tea Party inanity are just as much a product of the 1960s as Hillary Clinton and N.O.W. They're simply different ends of an American spectrum that is genetically libertarian. As he puts it,
A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

Commenting on Bill Bishop's The Big Sort (which Mulder & I discuss here), Lilla observes that our real estate choices are both symptom and cause of this.
As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals. The simplest way to do that is to move. As the journalist Bill Bishop shows in his eye-opening demographic study The Big Sort, for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes. These are places where elective affinities are supplanting electoral politics. People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them. As Bishop points out, it is significant that at the county level American elections are increasingly being decided by landslides for either Democratic or Republican candidates.

Churches reflect the same ghettoization of ideologies, constructed of silos and echo chambers.

But I wonder if Lilla really appreciates that such libertarian prizing of autonomy does not just characterize the extremes and fringes: it's woven into the warp & woof of his genteel liberalism, too. This is a difference of degree, not kind. And it's precisely the problems with liberty so construed that also makes some of us less sanguine about democracy per se. That doesn't thereby mean we're tempted by fascism, but it does perhaps explain a certain aloofness about the project of liberal democracy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Somebody's not tithing...

The Guardian notes some of the numbers on the Obamas' tax return this year:
  • assets of $7.7 million,
  • income of $5.5 million (largely from royalties),
  • and charitable donations of...$329,000?
Seriously? That's it?

More disheartening evidence that Arthur Brooks is right.

Interview: On Christian Scholarship (and Teaching)

One of my students, Jasmine Wilson, is a program assistant for our "Honors Floor" here at Calvin College--a "living-learning" community in one of the dorms. I've known Jasmine since before she arrived at Calvin: we corresponded when she was a student at a classical high school in Oregon and was already reading my work and stuff by Stanley Hauerwas and others. So it was a treat to have Jasmine come to Calvin and to watch her develop. (She blogs a bit over at The Other Journal.)

As part of one of her courses on Christian scholarship, Jasmine interviewed me about the vocation of being a Christian scholar, which also morphed into a conversation about the overlap between scholarship and teaching. Some might be interested to read the interview.

Here's a snippet:
JW: Because you are so interdisciplinary in some ways, the big thing at the January Series was that your work is, “at the borderlands between philosophy and theology, ethics, aesthetics, science, and politics.”

Jamie Smith: Which, by the way, just kind of means I’m a dilettante. (laugh)

JW: So how do you think that affects your work? Do you see that as beneficial to be in so many different ponds in a way? [If I were to re-ask this question I don’t think I would use the term “beneficial”].

Jamie Smith: I think it’s necessary for somebody to be doing that. Whether it’s beneficial… well I am grateful that my scholarly formation was in a discipline. And it’s really in philosophy, although I think I could hang with about anybody who had a theology PhD as well to some degree. And actually my PhD program, I was able to do a little bit of cross disciplinary work, so I was able to take courses in the theology department and I had theologians on my dissertation committee. So I’m grateful that I did learn to dot my I’s and cross my T’s within a philosophical discipline.

And that it was philosophy is exactly what enabled me to be able to lean out and start to absorb what’s going on in other discourses. That will sound really snobby, but to be honest, I think because philosophers ask the most foundational questions they’re also able to discern the sort of foundational issues in other disciplines. I don’t think that necessarily works for other disciplines.

The problem with the multi-disciplinary stuff is there aren’t clear lines of accountability for your work anymore. So in philosophy you submit to peer review in the discipline. For this kind of work, who would be the peers that you would be reviewed by? So increasingly what happens is the arena of evaluation is how it’s received. And that makes me nervous a little bit. I think it especially makes specialists nervous. I view interdisciplinary work as a kind of necessary evil (chuckle). I think the nature of the sort of things we’re grappling with requires us to do that.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Well, You Knew This Was Coming

As expected, Brian Leiter is apoplectic that the New York Times would select a "hack" like Simon Critchley to coordinate it's new philosophy blog, "The Stone." Of course if the Times had any sense, the implication goes, they would have chosen...well, Brian Leiter.

I'm a bit torn here: on the one hand, I'm sympathetic to Leiter's critique of Critchley as a bit of a poser. As I've suggested before, I think he gets a lot of opportunities simply by being in Manhattan and running in certain circles of literary friends. On the other hand, what does Leiter want: a NYT online column written by analytic logic-choppers who specialize in talking to the six other people who care about their little fiefdom of specialization?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Notes for a Book I'll Never Write

A couple of years ago a publisher invited me to enter the fray of the "new atheism" debates. I was tempted for a very brief moment, largely because I would have enjoyed reading Hitchens against himself--reading Hitchens the earlier literary critic & independent political commentator against the later Hitchens as secular fundamentalist whose critiques of religion are about as nuanced and studied as Sarah Palin's foreign policy. But in the end I'm glad I passed.

Since then, of course, we've seen a spate of such Christian responses, ranging from sharp and brilliant (esp. those by Terry Eagleton and David Bentley Hart) to a larger subset that fail before they even begin, largely because they play the games according to the new atheists' rules. And since that's a loaded game, the house always wins. It's very hard to play evidentialist tit-for-tat with scientism and come out looking like a winner.

If I were to ever pen a volume in the ballpark of these debates (which I won't), I'd want to call into question the terms of the debate itself. That is, I'd want to try to put the secular fundamentalist (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens) back on his heels by trying to show the extent of his own religion, the extent of his own deep faith commitments, his fundamental trust in a story about the world (whether that story be liberalism or naturalism or what have you). In short, the move would be to first call into question the very suggestion that there's a distinction between the religious and "the secular." The goal would be to push the secularist to the point of that Wittgensteinian bedrock at which his spade is turned and he has to confess, "This is simply what I do." Here we'd hit upon the secularist's prayer and confession: this is what I trust, this is what I believe--this is my confession, my religion.

Then the playing field is leveled: it's no longer a matter of the "rational," secular scientist pointing up the irrationalism of the "religious" believer. Rather, it's always already an inter-religious dialogue. The secular is religious.

That's not the end of it, of course: there's still much to be discussed once we've framed it in these terms. And there's nothing to say that his guarantees a "win" for the Christian. But we would have succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate by shifting the burden of proof and undercutting the supposed "upper hand" of the secularist. Then we'd be in a place for dueling stories.

Friday, May 14, 2010

More of the Same? Obama's CIA

It was the surreal Orwellian episodes of the Bush II administration that finally prompted me to launch Fors Clavigera. But over the years, I have also been (I hope) an equal-opportunity offender, also criticizing the left, including early criticisms of (then Senator) Barack Obama. But from 2006-2008, it was pretty hard to not seem like part of the wider liberal choir that found in the Bush administration much fodder for screeds and jeremiads.

I wonder if that same circle of bloggers will pick up on the news that the Obama administration has authorized the CIA to assassinate an American citizen. I can easily imagine the fomenting blogosphere if this was authorized by George W. Bush. Where's the discussion today?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Reformed Spirit: Cognac

My friend, Mark, blessed me with a wonderful coffee table book that celebrates one of my passions (and guilty pleasures): cognac. Cognac: A Liquid History is a lush, glossy work by a collector and connoisseur, recounting the history of the spirit and providing an overview of 30 houses, along with vintage notes.

But it made my Reformed heart sing when I learned of the good Calvinist heritage of this, my favorite spirit. The trade, Calabrese notes,
was expanded by the Huguenots, supported by their Protestant contacts in Amsterdam, London, and even the cities of Copenhagen and Hamburg. The Edict of Nantes, in effect, helped to secure these deals. The main towns in the region, including Cognac, Jarnac, Segonzac and, nearer the coast, La Rochelle, were Calvinist strongholds, as were many of the families who developed the burgeoning trade, such as the Delamains and Hines of Jarnac, the Augiers and Martells of Cognac (p. 46).
Given that Scots Presbyterians also blessed us with single malt scotch, you might wonder whether there's something in Calvinism that drives one to drink!

Society of Vineyard Scholars

One of my speaking engagements that I'm particularly anticipating for next year is the 2nd annual meeting of the Society of Vineyard Scholars, February 3-5, 2011 in Seattle. The SVS is an exciting new development in a stream of charismatic Christianity that is seeking to encourage faithful, critical reflection for the sake of the kingdom. The folks I know associated with SVS are an emerging crew of young scholars engaged in unabashed theoretical reflection, but coupled with a deep passion for faithful discipleship and witness. So this conference will bring together my interests in philosophical reflection and charismatic spirituality (as embodied, I hope, in my new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to a Christian Philosophy).

And while I expect the conference will be a time of rich academic discussion, I'll be perfectly honest: I'm also looking forward to it as a time of renewal and restoration. It's the one engagement on my calendar that I'm anticipating as also being a time of retreat.

They're a generous, open group, so I encourage folks outside the Vineyard to also consider attending. The theme for 2011 is "By the Renewal of Your Mind: Imagining, Describing, and Enacting the Kingdom of God," and they've just issued a Call for Papers. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Absence as a Window: On Franz Wright

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Franz Wright in passing, whose poetry has had a significant impact on me. A couple of years ago I published an essay ("Absence as a Window: On the Poetry of Franz Wright") in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin and was always a little disappointed that they never reproduced it online. The essay was republished, however, as chapter 23 in The Devil Reads Derrida--and this turns out to be one of the chapters available for preview in the Google Books preview.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Formation as the Mission of Public Schools

While E.D. Hirsch can sometimes come across as simply a curmudgeonly defender of a sort of Chicago "Great Books" tradition of cultural literacy, that doesn't mean he's not often right. I would commend his recent essay in the New York Review of Books ("How to Save the Schools") as important reading for educators at any level--or for anyone with children. Riffing on Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Hirsch has abundant opportunities to make his case for a nationalized, core curriculum of shared content, rather than the national bureaucracies of testing that are largely concerned only with strategy and "how-to" skills. Ravitch also gives him a chance to trot out his declension narrative, claiming that
by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth—a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience.
While it's unfortunate that Hirsch seems to pit these as mutually exclusive competitors, I'm sympathetic to his concerns.

But perhaps most intriguing is his account of the mission of public education as envisioned in the early American republic:
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration, thought American schools should offer a common curriculum designed to create “republican machines.” His sentiments were similar to the educational views of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the most important early schoolmaster of all, Noah Webster. The schools were to be institutions for inculcating democracy, designed to develop critical thinkers and able citizens in a setting of loyalty to the national common good. Early schoolbook authors began a long tradition of texts that aimed, in the words of one author,

to exhibit, in a strong light, the principles of political and religious freedom which our forefathers professed, and…to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage, and patriotism, which have rendered them illustrious.

The reasons for this communitarian emphasis were obvious to American leaders in the nineteenth century. Loyalty to the Republic had to be developed, as well as adherence to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and toleration. For without universal indoctrination by the schools in such civic virtues, the United States might dissolve, as had all prior large republics of history, through internal dissension.

The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans.
While "the great American school system" (in Ravitsch's words) has perhaps become "Romantically" child-centered, it's hard to argue that it's neglected this formative mission of Americanization. How sad, then, when so many of even our so-called "Christian" schools offer the same formation.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

More Public, Less Intellectual?

I'm still decompressing from the work of organizing the Midwest Regional Conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers here at Calvin College. It was a small, intimate conference that featured a range of scholars, from up-and-coming graduate students to seasoned scholars like William Hasker.

With the goal of breaking out of our focus (myopia?) on issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion, I selected a theme meant to press a consideration of philosophy as a way of life: "Thinking in Public: Christian Philosophers as Public Intellectuals." We had some sessions that did a nice job of engaging this theme, but it was especially the focus of the plenary sessions which featured two keynotes by Jean Bethke Elshtain (doing double-duty as this year's Jellema Lecturer), and one by my colleague Matt Halteman who spoke about his work at the intersection of Christian philosophy and "compassionate eating" (as seen in his booklet for the Humane Society, "Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation" [pdf]).

One of Elshtain's comments particularly stuck with me: while emphasizing the importance of "public" intellectual work--using scholarly resources to analyze situations of common concern, speaking to audiences beyond the academy--she also emphasized the importance of maintaining a rigorous scholarly agenda. Otherwise, she cautioned, the public intellectual ends up "more public than intellectual," flitting from speaking engagement to speaking engagement without continuing to dig new wells of scholarly knowledge and discovery. Wise words.