Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Frontier Justice

After writing a post a month ago about the campus sexual assault controversy, I doubted at times the wisdom or utility of having done so. To enter this debate from the perspective of a college-educated man in his '20s is to risk the allegation of bias from others; more uncomfortably still, it makes you freshly aware of the biases, fears, and prejudices that really do possess you. I am also not unmoved, I should add, by the realization that the world is full of atrocity -- and full, most important to note here, of sexual violence against women. In such a world, the urgency of combatting the chance that campus disciplinary boards might act unfairly toward a small number of students accused of rape might seem to rank pretty low.

recent article in the NYRB by Zoë Heller not only quiets these doubts, however; it inspires new ones in the opposite direction. Her excellent and brave article makes me fear now that I have said too little by comparison, not that I have said too much.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Khirbet Khizeh" (1949) and the Guilt of Origins

I am in the midst this weekend of reading Yizhar Smilansky's 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh-- by all accounts a classic of Israeli literature. This short and vivid work-- 109 pages in the version I own; an afternoon's read, to people not cruelly interrupting themselves with blog posts -- has a reputation for controversy: it was the first book really to lay bare, they say, the ugly realities of the 1948 war that created the State of Israel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

France and Free Expression

In case you missed it, the tally by the end of last week in France was 69-- that is, 69 people who have so far been arrested on the spurious allegation of "defending terrorism." Apparently the government of France, the same one that turned out so massively at the big Je Suis Charlie protests last week, decided that the best way to declare themselves for free speech was to arrest everyone who disagreed with them. According to Amnesty International, one French citizen has been jailed simply for saying: “I am proud to be a Muslim, I do not like Charlie, they were right to do that." Another man, while drunk, likewise defended the attacks in the presence of a police officer. For these hasty utterances, delivered in moments of intoxication or high emotion or both, these men may lose up to five years of their lives to a prison sentence, and be saddled with a criminal record to boot. Others may get seven years, if they express the same sentiments on Twitter or Facebook (according to Human Rights Watch)-- online speech being more heavily criminalized in France.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tout est Pardonné

Image from The Guardian
Voilà -- the cover art too shocking and offensive to be carried this week by most mainstream media outlets. And I suppose it is a rather shocking image, in the best sense of the word. The surviving handful of the Hebdo staff could have offered the world a quite different message, after all. They could have offered a message of rage, anguish, even hate -- and it would have been hard to blame them if they did, a week after their friends and colleagues were killed. Alternatively, they could have backed down and refused to portray Muhammad. They could have followed the taboo for which their friends were murdered, out of a justified fear for the lives that are left to them. And again, it would have been hard to blame them. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Missing the Point

Our response to the murder of 17 innocent people in France this week seems to gradually be sliding, as I feared it might, away from the first outpouring of big-hearted sympathy towards cowardly, vituperative squabbling. The vultures have descended and are already worrying the remains. What seemed at first like a teachable moment about the importance of liberal principles, is now increasingly turning out to be a victory for illiberal anti-principles on all fronts. On one side we have the Murdochs and the Mahers, who would plainly like to use the attacks as yet another pretext to roll back civil liberties protections for Muslim people (who are justifiably afraid right now, in France especially, for the safety of their lives and property). On the other we've got the voices insisting that the Charlie editors, while they shouldn't have been harmed, were nonetheless guilty of printing "offensive" or "racist" material, and that other publications should refuse to follow them in the choice to depict Muhammad, etc. And the horrible thing is that probably both will get what they want! We'll get the craven identity politics and the erosion of Muslim peoples' civil and human rights-- and perhaps a newly revamped War on Terror to boot.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Blasphemy

Une blasphème


From The New York Times yesterday:
“For the first half of the 20th century, an eight-foot-tall marble statue of the Prophet Muhammad overlooked Madison Square Park from the rooftop of the Appellate Division Courthouse at Madison Avenue and 25th Street. […] Sixty years ago, the statue was quietly removed, in an episode that now looks, in light of recent events in Paris, like the model of tact, restraint and diplomacy. […] 'They probably didn’t know he was there,' George T. Campbell, the chief clerk of the Appellate Division, First Department, said in 1955, when the statue was finally removed out of deference to Muslims, to whom depictions of the prophet are an affront. […] (For the same reason, The New York Times has chosen not to publish photographs of the statue with this article.)"
And so on, in this thoroughly sold-out vein. God.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

I'm going to have to interrupt our scheduled William James programming today with a message of solidarity and friendship to the people killed in France and their friends and loved ones. The news must have broken yesterday while I was in a self-imposed, blog-writing exile from the rest of the internet, and I didn't see it until this morning. Once I did, I could do little more than stew with horror and guilt. Horror at a thought I couldn't get out of my mind-- the thought of the appalling contrast between how the day must have begun for those 12 people -- a boring, ordinary day at work, most likely, with meetings and phone calls-- and how it ended. The guilt, I suppose, is a kind of survivor's guilt. I think of the astonishing moral courage it took for the Charlie Hebdo staff to publish the images they did, despite years of death threats and an actual firebombing of the office. It brings home to me how little I risk on a daily basis, by contrast, for the sake of principle.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Metaphysics and Melancholy: A Review of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience," Part I

I set myself the goal this holiday break of toiling all the way through William James' Varieties of Religious Experience -- heading as it does my mental list of "things I probably should have read in div school by now but haven't." The book is sprawling, companionable, and at last, time-consuming -- but in a good way. It is also interesting to me for more extrinsic reasons. The book helps me to understand the place and the people among whom I currently find myself. To read Varieties after spending time at a liberal seminary is to think "Ah -- so that's how we got here." Good ideas and bad, they all seem to have their place, if not their origin, in James.