Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I just finished reading Mercury, by Margot Livesey, reviewed here in the New York Times, having read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth last semester, reviewed here in the Times, and while it is more intricate a novel, it seems to me that together these stories show unhappy families to be exactly alike. People hold secrets. People stop listening to one another. People don’t see the needs of those closest to them. People resent one another. This is what makes an unhappy family.
The mystery is what makes a happy family. Read more
In the wake of the election in the fall there was a spike in anti-Semitic attacks. A spate of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers at the end of January suggest that the threat of violence has not let up. Until last year with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” I thought of anti-Semitism as something that was largely over. I realize the naiveté of that position now. Reading Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, I’m struck by his case for how prevalent a low-level (sometimes not even very low-level) anti-Semitism is in Protestant Christianity. Read more
I started school when I was four. At the time, my mom had four kids and I was a particularly active little kid so my mom wanted to get me out of the house. I sound bitter but I’m not upset. This meant that I was a year younger than everyone I went to school with. There were good times. I was married off to other students at recess all through first grade. But as we got older, the difference between being our ages and the meanness of kids just came out. It was a private Christian school, but the kids weren’t nice. By fifth grade I felt left out. Kids refused to speak to me. They made fun of me. I didn’t know what it meant or how to handle any of it. I didn’t know that these were things you talked to a teacher about. It was hard. Still the highlight was the ride back and forth from Olney to West Philly during which the principal who drove us taught us the Hebrew alphabet, which I can still recite.
In the middle of the year, my mother began talking about moving us to public school. I liked the idea of doing something new. My mother talked to my first grade teacher who suggested that she hold me back a year if we switched schools so that I could catch up socially. So she did. I transferred to my local public school. I was in a class that was split 5th and 6th grades. Once I had my mother write a note saying I felt like the 5th graders were being ignored. I was like that. I made friends. Sort of. I was nervous. I didn’t know if people who didn’t go to church with me could be trusted. But mostly the students were kind. Read more
Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
In November, right before the election, I wrote about how the rule of law depends on believing in the rule of law. The belief in the rule of law can also be extended to belief in customs and practices. I remember when I was a teenager and I first called into question the way people did things. I was on a date and this guy tried to kiss me at the end of the night and I felt like he was just doing that because that was what you were supposed to do at the end of the date, and I did the back-off duck and didn’t let him kiss me. I explained this to my dad by saying, I don’t like to do things just because people expect you to do them. I believe my dad told me a little kissing never hurt anyone. I may have explained herpes to him. Read more
I keep finding myself saying, surely someone with real power is going to do something to stop this. The most recent ‘this’ has been customs agents failure to abide by a court injunction preventing the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. My expectation that surely someone who can make a difference will is a combination of my own sense of helplessness and my genuine if misguided view that people in positions of power are invested in the success of governmental institutions and processes. Read more
Today I saw the retrospective of Vik Muniz‘s work at the IU art gallery. This in between reports about refugees being turned away from airports around the country and people gathering at these airports to resist the executive order that led to this turn of events. Muniz’s art is appropriate for this moment. It seems appropriate to begin with a recreation of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. It is made from the trash from Jardim Gramacho, the garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro where Muniz employed catadores or garbage pickers to select pieces of garbage for his work, which he then sold to support their community. There’s a documentary that was on PBS following Muniz as he made this series–Waste Land.
Muniz is a Brazilian artist who uses unusual material for recreating famous works of art. Muniz himself notes that his material is more ordinary than the materials that create paint have traditionally been–he uses peanut butter and jelly to recreate Mona Lisa, for example, GI Joe plastic toys to recreate famous photographs, recovered trash to recreate paintings, torn up postcards to recreate photographs of the youngest person to be executed by the electric chair. His work makes the ordinary extraordinary, and shows the way that high art has become part of the backdrop of our everyday lives. He says he relies on a “poster store iconography.” Working with big canvases, Muniz produces work that up close make the materials very apparent and far away show, as he himself explains in documentary film in the exhibit, the mind of someone else. Somewhere in between is a moment of a threshold where the ordinary materials manifest the mind of an artist. One of the themes of Muniz’s work is how the camera can change the way that we see. I found a number of times that big pieces did not come into focus to me until I took a picture of them, as with Old Cheyenne and Guernica. Now is the time for changing the way that we see. Read more
During primary season last year, I became pretty convinced of the view that political debate cannot stand or fall on the strategy of calling out contradictions. Yet as I noted around that time, some entire projects are based on contradictions. Socrates describes his efforts to encourage reflection in his interlocutors as a project of calling out the contradiction between what they say they are committed to and how they live. He has to assume that people don’t want to be at odds with themselves.
Yesterday the President signed an executive order that bars refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries. He explained the move with reference to the 9/11 attackers. As Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper at the New York Times write:
Most of the 19 hijackers on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., were from Saudi Arabia. The rest were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. None of those countries are on Mr. Trump’s visa ban list.
Here we seem to have a contradiction between the case the President is making for why this executive order is justified, and the reality that the order does not apply to any of the countries that would make this explanation have any legitimacy. I only want to suggest that this contradiction itself is a symptom, which Emanuela Bianchi in The Feminine Symptom says “discloses dysfunction, but also as a sign, points beyond itself, telling us to look elsewhere for its cause.” The contradictions tell us this is not the cause, look elsewhere. I believe this is true for this executive order, for the one about a border wall, and for arguments against abortion, among many other contradictions. The contradictions are not failures of thought or an unwillingness to be consistent, lack of concern for getting ones logos or account in line with her bios or way of living. The contradictions signal that something else is going on: not concern for protecting borders, but xenophobia, not concern for the terrorism, but Islamophobia, coupled with an investment in protecting business interests (thus leaving off the countries where Trump has such interests), not concern for human life, but patriarchy and misogyny.
Socrates gets a bad name for being the guy who is always trying to point out the ways people are contradictory as if his whole ethical approach is “gotchya” journalism. But what if instead Socrates aims to let the symptom appear, acting not only as the midwife, but the doctor? It is still probably the case that people will not be convinced to think otherwise because the contradiction in their position has been articulated. But I don’t think that means we should ignore the contradictions and cease pointing them out, but instead take them as a signal that something else is indeed going on.
Two days ago Terry Gross had journalist Evan Osnos on Fresh Air discussing a new phenomenon of super rich people in the tech industry making plans for the failure of the government, of the food supply, of the electrical grid, of our world as we know it. Osnos has an article in the current issue of The New Yorker on the same topic. He tells the story of a guy who decided to get laser surgery so that he wouldn’t be dependent on contacts or glasses when “we have trouble,” because the supply lines might dry up. That same guy bought some motorcycles, guns and ammo and a bunch of food so that he could get out of town and have some supplies when things go bad. Read more
Monday night I went to a high intensity interval training pilates class. During my third minute of elbow planks, I thought I was going to cry. I cried once when I was running a half marathon, when in the last half mile I realized I was going to PR. There’s something about that moment when you think you are reaching your threshold and you just cannot do anymore and then you keep doing it. That moment is where you realize the struggle is mental.
I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It also brings me close to tears. Murakami makes me feel guilty for the times I have stopped because of the pain. He makes me feel bad for being a mid-distance runner and not a long-distance runner. In the pilates class, which is grueling and unlike any pilates I have ever heard of, the teacher berates us for giving up. I understand that. Motivate, push yourself. That’s all good. But I had to learn to pay attention to pain in running and to take it easy–to do what looks like giving up, to stop feeling the exercise as demand.
At one point Murakami talks about the one time he ran an ultramarathon. After mile 34 his breathing felt good but his legs wouldn’t work, so he had to propel himself my moving his arms and hands. Then at mile 47, he broke through a wall. It stopped hurting. He kept going. He ran the next fifteen miles unencumbered. I think I know that feeling. It happens for me three minutes into an elbow plank. It’s when you realize that you can persist through the pain if you tell yourself to just keep on. Read more