20 November 2009

Irony, tragedy and progress

I had the very good fortune of going up to Boston to hear Andrew Bacevich talk about his book, The Limits of Power, about a week or so ago. Though I disagreed with him on a number of points, I felt that his arguments had merit (in the interests of not repeating myself, I will simply link to my previous post in which I outline some of his arguments). To be succinct, I agree with him that the current trajectory of American foreign policy, defence spending and conspicuous consumerism is unsustainable. Where we disagree is in whether anything can be done about it and what. Bacevich takes the view that the most we can hope to achieve at this point is to cut our losses and put the nation back on a humbler, more realistic path foreign-policy wise, but that ultimately the arc of our history is a tragic one – he quotes Niebuhr to the effect that ‘[t]o the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible’, and he views the American project as no exception.

I take a view which interprets the history differently. The American project as it stands now may be doomed to self-destruction as we take on increasingly astronomical debts and continue to abuse our military might to act as world policeman in the name of ‘security’, but the American project also has an interesting gift for reinvention as it is tried against the limits of various economic and political paradigms. An economy that was built upon an unsustainable ideological contradiction (that of slavery) was consumed in the blazes of civil war, and America under Lincoln began its long climb upward from its tragic legacy of institutionalised racial injustice. We are coming up against the limits of a number of ideological contradictions, on the question of national security, on the question of the consumer/debtor-state and on the question of environmental protection, and it is growing increasingly likely that we will be harrowed by history in a similar way. But I am optimistic that the American project will find a way to reinvent itself, to progress – perhaps in a way which conceives its place in history with greater compassion, modesty and frugality.

Which is why I found myself laughing aloud while reading David Brooks’ Tuesday column. Brooks laments what he views as a ‘crisis of faith’ in America’s ability to be an innovative leader, which has manifested itself as a loss of optimism in the wake of the economic crisis. He goes on to compare our current social psychology with that of China, noting that the Chinese are more optimistic than we are about their own nation’s ability to be a technological and entrepreneurial leader, and pines for a leader who can ‘induce the country to salivate for the future again’ by creating a coherent economic strategy to keep us competitive with rivals like China.

The humour I derived from reading Brooks’ column is that his professed goal of seeing an optimistic, future-oriented nation (a goal with which I heartily sympathise) is riddled with irony and contradiction from the beginning. He begins by describing a decidedly retrograde colonial psychology based on an assumption of unlimited resources, and proceeds by describing strategies which sound inescapably quaint in a world where we are becoming increasingly aware of the scarcity of resources and the limits of the world ecology’s tolerance for our industrial activities. And the optimism he finds lacking in the nation is thwarted by the pessimism he betrays in describing the American social psychology as lacking discipline and fixated on the promise of material gratification. It may be possible that we need to bring back Thomas Malthus as our economic tutor. This may seem pessimistic to some, but it strikes me as the pinnacle of pessimism that we cannot bring the same manic energy that we once invested in altering our environment to bear upon ourselves, or that it would be misguided to invest more heavily in a communitarian, environmentalist, scale-free and scarcity-conscious economic programme. Such a project of reinvention might damage our competitiveness in the short term, but which will allow our economy to better endure the coming trials of history and withstand the tragedies our present-day Jeremiahs have prophesied.

17 November 2009

In which I go over to the Dark Side of the Force

There comes a time in every person’s life when he must make a choice that determines his destiny and defines his very existence. Good or evil? Jedi or Sith? Stephen or Maud? Red Sox or Yankees? Windows or Mac? And now, as a fan of Nightwish, my time has come to make the choice that has torn apart Nightwish fandom and plunged it into civil war: Tarja Turunen or Anette Olzon?

I imagine that I will probably be in a very small minority when I (with some reservation) claim that Anette is my preferred lead singer. Now, before I am dismissed as a perverse, stubborn contrarian (which it may be claimed with some justice that I am) for saying so, allow me to explain myself a little.

My first impression was that comparing the two singers and the bands supporting them was like comparing apples to oranges. Ms Olzon and Ms Turunen have very different singing voices and employ them in different ways even when singing similar songs. Tarja’s voice is full, powerful, precise and operatic, very well-suited to symphonic metal. Anette’s voice can also be precise, but it tends to drift into pop warbling, and it seems like she sings from higher up in her respiratory system than Tarja did – but at the same time, her voice is also more flexible. ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ from Dark Passion Play is still among my favourite Nightwish songs in part because in it Anette gets free rein to exercise this versatility in a truly, unabashedly operatic piece. But ultimately, they’re singing with the same band, and it really does come down to which sound for Nightwish one prefers.

Even so, I’d really love to hear Anette sing ‘Sacrament of Wilderness’ or ‘Walking in the Air’ or some other Nightwish song that really demands sheer singing power. As it is, there is a video (kind of low-quality, YouTube being what it is) in which she sings ‘Wish I Had an Angel’:

(And Tarja's version for comparison)

And yes, she warbles something fierce. It’s a very interesting effect, but it doesn’t carry the same raw energy Tarja’s voice did. There is something to be said, though, for the way Anette actively sings with her instrumental accompaniment (as in particularly ‘Amaranth’, ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ and ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ and even occasionally in this version of ‘Wish I Had an Angel’) rather than over it, which Tarja seemed tempted to do particularly toward the end of her era. They are both amazing singers, and naturally what Tarja brought will be missed, but I think the Tarja fanboys (and ‘girls) are dead wrong when they claim that Tarja’s leaving was the death of Nightwish or some other such nonsense.


Anette is a highly capable singer, and I think that as she and the other members of Nightwish have the opportunity to get used to each other, she might yet outclass Tarja as a lead singer.

14 November 2009

I really need to go to the theatre more often - a review of UP

I have a bad habit of waiting for movies to come out on DVD before I go see them. Well, it's probably not that bad of a habit, all things considered; saves money that way. But in this case I really am sorry I didn't get to see it sooner - UP is a definite Pixar classic, even if it is perhaps the most deliberately melancholy of the studio's full-length animated films yet. If you haven't seen UP yet, please read no further, since there are bound to be spoilers.

To my mind, Pixar is at its best when telling stories which subvert the audience's expectations. To a society which expects them to sell toys and embrace an ethic of instant gratification and conspicuous consumerism, Pixar introduces WALL-E, a love-struck prophet-jester with the body of a rusty Rubik's Cube and the soul of Charlie Chaplin, bearing a message of community, social responsibility and environmental conservation. To a society which over-glamourises Adonic youths and gives them so many of its leading roles, Pixar gives Carl Fredericksen - a curmudgeonly old man with a cane whose grand unfulfilled dreams of adventure with his departed wife continue to drive him forward.

The first twenty minutes of the film describing the backstory of Carl Fredericksen (the main character voice-acted by Ed Asner) were heartwrenching; in loving detail, the film presents Carl's childhood dreams of adventure which he shares with his friend (and later, wife) Ellie - and proceeds in a montage of showing how those dreams are battered and pushed aside by life's bitter realities, culminating in Ellie's death. We see Carl's life afterward as he is left behind with his memories, protecting his and Ellie's home from the assaults of an uncaring capitalist modernity. The movie then takes off suddenly in a shamelessly Vernesque way. Even as the forces of modernity have seemingly triumphed and are about to put Carl away in a nursing home and tear down his house for new development, Carl decides to bid farewell and take off for South America in his house, to which he has attached an enormous regiment of helium balloons and a couple of bed-linens for steering.

This movie is about adventure, after all, and boy does Carl end up taking it - along with Russell (a young, ingenuous and overly-helpful 'Wilderness Explorer' who needs one last badge for 'Assisting the Elderly'), Dug (a dog who suspiciously channels the character of Caboose from Red vs. Blue) and Kevin (an ineptly-named rare flightless bird who is trying to get back to her chicks, and whose last name is probably MacGuffin) - who encounter an unlikely villain who is one part Eugène Dubois and two parts Charles Lindbergh with generous dashes of Cecil Rhodes and Laurence Olivier thrown in (and voice-acted, with appropriate malicious flair, by Christopher Plummer). There are also some fun visual gags that tickled my fanboy-bone: a secret lair and a chase scene which were obvious hat-tips to the Indiana Jones movies, an aerial scene which is unabashedly recalls the X-Wing assault on the first Death Star in A New Hope, and an escape which is slighly reminiscent of the Blackbird chapter in CHRONO TRIGGER but doesn't end up quite the same way.

It is an incredibly satisfying movie in its own right, however, allowing us to empathise easily with the hero's eccentricities and flaws. It allows us to grieve when he grieves, sigh with relief when he makes his peace with his wife's death and cheer when he swoops in to save the day in his floating house. I heartily recommend UP, though with the definite and apologetic admission that this recommendation comes only for those later in the day than I am.

I hope my next movie review comes in a more timely fashion, but I make no promises.

13 November 2009

Where is the love? Or, the rantings of a defiant progressive

My reading has taken me in some very interesting directions as of late, some of them fairly introspective. Notable among them was an opinion article by Newsweek’s Lisa Miller, entitled ‘Sexual revolution, part II’ – an article which brought to mind some old issues that seem to keep cropping up for me.

I used to consider myself ‘liberal’; now I prefer ‘progressive’, ‘socialist’ or ‘communitarian’, as I have drifted leftward in my economic views and toward the radical middle in my social ones. It is a common assertion by cynics that ‘progressive’ is just a different way for liberals to call themselves by spinning it in a different way, but I think there is a true difference in the way the word is shaded that alters its meaning. Much as I hate automotive analogies, I think one is appropriate here: where progressives are seeking to get into first gear, I think liberalism is content to be stuck in neutral, while conservatives eagerly seek to try ever-higher reverse gears. The attitudes toward sex highlighted by Lisa Miller’s article illustrate this wonderfully: a conservative group (True Love Revolution) at Harvard is, in ways which are probably best understood as sexist and heterocentric, seeking a throwback to a mythical time in which sexual relationships were simpler and people waited to get married before losing their virginity. And the responses Miller quotes from their liberal political opposition on-campus are merely the tired old lines (as she says) from the 1970’s: what matters is that sexual acts are consensual and that they are safe and STD-free and that women get greater control. It brings to mind the old debates we used to have in the opinion columns of the Mayhem’s Murmurs at Kalamazoo College.

I’m not saying what liberals want isn’t important. People deserve to be physically healthy, safe and respected. But Miller is right about one thing – TLR is close to bringing about an antithesis to liberal thinking which deserves to be considered seriously. You can talk about all of the clinical aspects of sex till you’re blue in the face; you can pass out all the condoms you please and give all the condemnatory speeches you wish about the homophobia and sexism of conservative Christianity, but it’s all incredibly weak tea, impotent when it comes to the central question of why a college student – or anyone – seeks out sex, really. Same reason people turn to religion (one hopes) – and Miller catches onto this well.

I was not a happy person during college. The psychological pressure to be sexually active got to be overwhelming to the point where I was feeling depressed, lonely and combative. I made some incredibly bad decisions and escaped into an ill-considered and ill-fated sexual relationship, with the fallout from which I’m still living to some extent. I cannot speak for my close friend and senior-year roommate, but I got the sense that he wasn’t a particularly happy person either – his troubled relationship to liberalism often boiled closer to the surface than mine did, to the point where he would write rants against the college feminists in the Mayhem’s Murmurs, or take refuge (from my perspective inexplicably) in an increasingly nihilistic philosophy of self-denial.

Of course, I took a similar route. My studies of and fascination with Confucianism, Daoism, German idealism, existentialism and now Quakerism were practically the mirror image of my roommate’s readings of Watts, Tolle and various Chan Buddhist authors. They led me to the conclusion that what college students look for when they are subsumed in this hookup culture, what the college feminists are looking for when they rail against the male portion of the student body in the abstract, what the conservative Christians and TLR are looking for now when they champion their reactionary agenda, is not from a physical desire that can be gratified with one or many one-night stands, or a moral desire that can be gratified with some political achievement, but a deeper desire for self-definition and self-narration that can be gratified only freely by some kind of recognition from society.

Yet, how weak even this neo-Hegelian language sounds! How much more poignant it is when expressed by a master poet and story-teller, whose unfinished tales from an age more civilised than this one, of knights in the service of impossible causes and kings giving up their thrones and toiling in the fields in pursuit of answers from the peasant women with whom they have fallen in love, still have the power to leave us questioning! The severe, troubled young Dane gives us leave to laugh at the frogs who croak in their ponds about how we should have the same attitudes toward sex as we do to food, yet who themselves are content to feast on whatever flies their long, despairing tongues can snare – but only for a short while before he turns his pen on us for our own hypocrisies.

Even Miller stops just short of asking the tough questions. Are we not allowed to look at our present age and ask the same question the Black-Eyed Peas ask: ‘where is the love’? Might not we take issue with the self-flagellation that sublimates itself into hatred of gays and lesbians, just as much as we might take issue with the people perpetuating the ‘hookup culture’ which confuses consent with respect and condoms with intimacy? Much as I may attract the derision of the cynics for using such language as ‘hope’ and ‘progress’, dare we actually hope for true progress in this discussion, or are we doomed to return forever to these tired rearguard culture-war trenches which claim the lives and sanities of so many college students (and others in our society)?

08 November 2009

A realist challenge, a pacifist response (or the beginnings thereof)

I am almost finished reading a book by Andrew J Bacevich (a professor of international relations at Boston University), The Limits of Power – being near the end of it, I think I can now safely recommend it. In it, Bacevich expresses some profound and sweeping concerns with the way foreign policy is now conducted in the United States. Though the Bush (43) Administration’s policies of hard power projection, an open state of global war and preemptive military action are the central target of the book’s criticism, Bacevich is careful to place the policy in its appropriate political and historical context. The mindset informing an alarmist view of threats to American security abroad, the author traces back to Truman’s Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and to Paul Nitze, who drastically exaggerated the military capacity of the Soviet Union (as a ‘permanent and continuous threat’) in order to create a country on a permanent war budget; this mindset he links to a notion of American exceptionalism which characterises the United States as the primary symbol of democracy, capitalism and liberal values in a benighted world. Further, he notes prophetically that this power projection abroad corresponds to a growing domestic attitude of consumeristic entitlement and profligacy, satiable only by a growing, unsustainable dependence on cheap foreign credit and cheap foreign petroleum. As a nation, he shouts from the wilderness, we are on a self-contradictory – even self-destructive – course.

For a 200-page book, Bacevich is tackling a lot. The book reads like a searing, if scattershot, broadside against American foreign policy going back at least to Reagan if not to Truman (Reverend Robert Hill of Marsh Chapel – the venue in which Bacevich has been discussing his book over the past two weeks – gave the book the apt epithet of ‘jeremiad’). He is questioning many of the basic presuppositions that Americans (whether or not they hold public office, and regardless of their party affiliation) tend to hold nowadays about their country that might have sounded ridiculous a few short decades ago. He questions the authority and importance which is now vested in an ‘imperial presidency’ at the expense of an increasingly narcissistic and emasculated legislature. He questions the way in which military force is now casually touted as an ‘option on the table’ in dealing with uncooperative regimes. He questions the ‘ideology of national security’ which perpetuates an all-around dysfunctional relationship between the government’s elected leaders, their advisers, civilian agencies and the military. He questions the strategic competence of the generalship which botched the Iraqi and Afghan adventures (for which the goals were surgical action meant to produce quick returns and from which exit was supposed to be easy). He questions the utility and accountability of ‘all-volunteer’ armed forces. Most of all, he questions an American body politic which contents itself with a self-defeating state of perpetual war and hard power projection abroad, from which they derive material consumer benefits without being called to make any material or moral sacrifice whatsoever, noting that Bush 43 in particular lowered taxes and encouraged consumer spending even as two simultaneous open-ended wars of choice were being waged!

Startlingly, he does all of this in the short space he has allotted himself, while still managing to acquit himself admirably in terms of deliberate research, analysis and reasoning. Each of Bacevich’s criticisms, sundry though they are as a lot, is made more forceful by the careful, coherent historical narrative in which he places them. He groups his criticisms into three broad strokes, giving us a sketch of a ‘crisis of profligacy’, a ‘political crisis’ and a ‘military crisis’, but he takes care to provide the reader with the historical background necessary to understand the breadth and shape of each. It is not so much a detailed representation that emerges so much as an impressionist painting, but it is still clear enough to allow the reader to appreciate the scope of the crises being presented.

But this author is no idealistic left-winger. He’s a former military man, a hard-nosed Niebuhrite (he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr a great deal in this book), a conservative in his approach to fiscal matters and at times startlingly palaeo-conservative in his pessimistic attitude toward the capacities of government in general. As such, there are certainly economic policy points on which we doubtless would disagree – he takes the attitude in the book that all debt is bad debt, whereas I would argue that certain domestic social goods are well-worth going into debt over (like health-care and education, provided they are of benefit to the entire society and can theoretically pay themselves back). As a committed pacifist, also, I have some very strong reservations about Niebuhr’s theology, but Bacevich’s Niebuhr-inspired call for modesty and realism in foreign policy is one with which I can very readily sympathise at this point in history. Ours is a society which has been – in an ironic, Hegelian-style self-negation – simultaneously insulated from global affairs and made comfortable with its government’s role of global constable and informal imperial hegemon; this development should be as troubling (if not more!) to serious Christian pacifists in America as it clearly is to conservative realists like Andrew Bacevich.

Though Bacevich is concerned primarily with the exaggeration of the utility of hard power by idealists of a more interventionist bent, he does try to take after Niebuhr in some areas by warning people off of idealism in general. In his view, it is a dangerous road one starts down once one considers his own motives and the motives of the society that produced him to be benign and altruistic; he sees this as a key component in the ideological exceptionalism to which he takes exception. In a way, we pacifists can be as guilty of this kind of exceptionalism as many of our fellow countrymen can, though it isn’t as much of an issue for us since we have for a long time been relegated to the margins of the foreign-policy discussion. We sympathise with an idealised self-image Bacevich begins to imply (as Niebuhr had done before him) is unhealthy and emasculating.

Niebuhr had his problems; one of which being a perennial straw-man argument against non-violence. In his rebuke of non-violence as a popular political strategy, he failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the success of Gandhi against the government of colonial India, and his insistence that non-violence only works inside a framework within which liberal and democratic values are shared and respected is, sadly for his own argument, speculative at best. (Non-violent methods and civil resistance did work against the Nazis, for example, to the very limited extent that they were actually put into practice – for example by Wallenberg, Schindler, the Trocmes and the Bulgarian and Danish governments.) However, his point should be very well-taken that pacifists ought to take a far more serious and critical approach to problems of human evil, and pay closer attention to how easily the best of human intentions can stagnate or be corrupted, without a hard-nosed and pragmatic strategy behind them.

In that sense, Bacevich’s work, which draws so heavily upon a Niebuhrite theology, does have some useful correctives to offer. In my opinion, it is well worth a careful reading and a thoughtful discussion.

03 November 2009

A Friendly persuasion

One of the odd things about coming back is that you tend to search things out to fill the void, sometimes bringing with you priorities you never thought you might have. I’ve been interested in my family history for awhile, but my interest was shown for mere dilettantism when I was in Qazaqstan. I was told it was common for Qazaq boys to be able to recite their lineage on their father’s side back six generations; indeed, when I was there everyone seemed to know everyone else’s ancestry, and a common question was what tribe you are from (‘Еліңіз не?’). Hence, my curiosity about where my family (the Coopers) came from.

As it turns out, the Coopers have been in what are now the United States for a long time – since 1699, when William Cooper (or Cowper, my great- x8 grandfather) of Low Ellington, Yorkshire came to the United States with his family on the disease-ridden passenger ship Britannia to escape religious persecution. He was born into the Church of England but became an English Dissenter, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers). The Act of Toleration had been signed ten years previous after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but the rights it accorded to English Dissenters were very limited – though according to The British Epic by Ricker et al., some Dissenters were given the right to worship and the right to vote (rights which Catholics would not yet have for some while in England), they were still barred from holding public office (Quakers were excluded from the Act probably because of their stance against oath-taking as per the Testimony of Integrity). After disembarking from the Britannia, William Cooper settled in Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania (a colony founded by a fellow Friend, William Penn), where they stayed for two generations or so before moving to South Carolina just before the War of American Independence – my direct ancestors were poor white sharecroppers there.

This led to a renewed interest for me in the doctrines and the beliefs of the Friends. Like the Anabaptists, they are an historic Peace Church, and many practise non-violence, following the Testimony of Peace (though not all Friends are absolute pacifists). They also espouse a Testimony of Equality (which led them historically to be early advocates for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery), a Testimony of Simplicity and a Testimony of Integrity. Most attractive to me is the Friends’ belief that Christ is the Word of God, and that all people are drawn to Christ by the Light Within (essentially what in other Christian traditions would be referred to as the Holy Spirit). George Fox himself posited that God ‘did not dwell in temples made with hands, not even in that which He had once commanded to be built, since He put an end to it; but that His people were His temple, and He dwelt in them’; and they practise this idea by using their worship services to listen to one another, keeping silence and speaking only as their inward Light moves them. It is a completion of the egalitarian ideal; each person has an opportunity to speak, to be heard, to be considered. This, to me, is the most attractive and most important aspect of my own Protestantism – the idea put into practice that the God represented to us in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is close to us, and that God is within and among us. This goes back to the kinship and equality values within Germanic Christendom which I explored in my series on the existential roots of Protestantism (parts I, II and III) earlier this year – what the Germans and the English got essentially right was that God is not set apart from us by a priestly hierarchy or by a temple that is off-limits to certain people.

This past Sunday, I visited Providence Friends Meeting for worship (and afterward for lunch). It was an interesting experience – though like most churches in Providence, most of the worshippers there were significantly older than me. I spoke with them until they began to leave; mostly they were curious about what I was doing and where I came from, and some shared their own experiences with the Friends with me. I am not sure yet whether I will stay, but it is worth going a couple more weeks, to see if I can fit there. History works in strange ways; or rather, it seems to be the human will in history that makes it strange.