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Amor Mundi: American Faith

American Faith

Melvin Rogers argues that faith is at the very center of the black American experience. Rogers seeks a space to disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, for whom “white supremacy not as a political ideology, but [is] the defining feature of the U.S. polity—its essential nature.” Writing with and against Coates, Rogers asks that we see ourselves as more than what has been and recall that the United States has always been a future-directed project.”

Coates describes the pain visited on black bodies and engenders white guilt. He erodes the idea that who we are need not determine who we may become. He obstructs rather than opens any attempt to reckon with our racial past and present in the service of an inclusive future. And he participates in a politics where words and actions can never aspire to change the political community in which we live, and for that reason they only fortify our indignation and deepen our suspicion—namely, that as black Americans, we are as alien to this polity as it is alien to us. The aspiration to defend a more exalted vision of this country’s ethical and political life is taken as the hallmark of being asleep, dreaming in religious illusions. To be alive to an unvarnished reality, to be woke, is to recognize that no such country is possible.

This runs roughshod over that thread in the grand tradition of U.S. struggles for justice—a tradition in which hope and faith are forged through political darkness. Hope involves attachment and commitment to the possibility of realizing the goods we seek. Faith is of a broader significance, providing hope with content. Faith, the black scholar Anna Julia Cooper suggested in 1892, is grounded in a vision of political and ethical life that is at odds with the community one inhabits. It is a vision that one believes ought to command allegiance, for which one is willing to fight, and in which one believes others can find a home. Faith looks on the present from the perspective of a future vision of society, and uses the vision as a resource to remake the present. And so faith, the philosopher and psychologist William James explained in 1897, is “the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance.” In other words, faith has never been exhausted by the political reality one happens to be living in.

Political faith has always rested on the idea that we are not finished, a thought that Coates rejects out of hand. In the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson called this capacity for human renewal “ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms.” In our political life this means, as James Baldwin well knew, that both our liberal democratic institutions and its culture “depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”

Faith has always been a loving but difficult commitment precisely because it makes politics about maybes rather than certainties. One of the greatest dangers of U.S. exceptionalism, for instance, is that it has habituated us to think about the structure of political life as necessarily progressing. Writing in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott—a successful nonviolent campaign against racial segregation—King sought to chasten the obvious excitement: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” Yet Coates appears simply to invert U.S. exceptionalism, replacing it with the equally fatalistic idea that the United States is fundamentally broken. In a world where the good or bad is fated to happen, faith and hope have no foothold. This ultimately weakens our resolve and undermines our ability to take seriously the idea of an “American experiment.””


Not Me Too

Samantha Hill argues that the #metoo hashtag “is not good for women or men.”

““Me too” is an affirmative, confessional statement. And while I understand the desire to share one’s story and be recognized, I worry that this hashtag is doing more harm than good for a few reasons.

First, the act of confessing isn’t an act of political liberation. From the confessional, to the therapist’s couch, we are a deeply confessional society. The moment of release, however, comes at a price. As French philosopher Michel Foucault lays out in the History of Sexuality, the confessional has long been a space where power is exercised over individuals by compelling them to name their experiences, to reveal some hidden truth. #Metoo is the technological equivalent of the confessional. Instead of a couch, though, we have social media platforms, and the confessor is the audience that we post for and the platforms that collect the information we post. Not only do we hand over our power when we confess, but we subject ourselves to surveillance.

The second reason is that #metoo is emblematic of a new form of commodified, media driven protest.”

Read More on Medium…


The Center of Attention

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard published “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” Worth reading in its entirety, the study makes an essential observation regarding the obvious polarization of the political and media landscape. While the overall media bias in the United States skews left of center, the left wing bias is largely centrist. On the right, however, the center-right has a minimal presence and the far right is the center of attention for conservative media.

“In this study, we analyze both mainstream and social media coverage of the 2016 United States presidential election. We document that the majority of mainstream media coverage was negative for both candidates, but largely followed Donald Trump’s agenda: when reporting on Hillary Clinton, coverage primarily focused on the various scandals related to the Clinton Foundation and emails. When focused on Trump, major substantive issues, primarily immigration, were prominent. Indeed, immigration emerged as a central issue in the campaign and served as a defining issue for the Trump campaign. We find that the structure and composition of media on the right and left are quite different. The leading media on the right and left are rooted in different traditions and journalistic practices. On the conservative side, more attention was paid to pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets. On the liberal side, by contrast, the center of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism.

Our data supports lines of research on polarization in American politics that focus on the asymmetric patterns between the left and the right, rather than studies that see polarization as a general historical phenomenon, driven by technology or other mechanisms that apply across the partisan divide. The analysis includes the evaluation and mapping of the media landscape from several perspectives and is based on large-scale data collection of media stories published on the web and shared on Twitter…

The structure of the overall media landscape shows media systems on the left and right operate differently. The asymmetric polarization of media is evident in both open web linking and social media sharing measures. Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left. On the right, prominent media are highly partisan.

The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the left are integrated into this landscape and are of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum.”


A Complicated Nature

Wyatt Mason praises the new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, the first English translation by a woman.

“Throughout her translation of the “Odyssey,” Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”

Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldn’t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word they’re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseus’s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (“of many a turn”) and Cook (“of many turns”) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them — poly (“many”), tropos (“turn”) — answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does “a man of many turns” suggest the doubleness of the original word — a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the “Odyssey,” one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?

“I wanted there to be a sense,” Wilson told me, that “maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.

”Here is how Wilson’s “Odyssey” begins. Her fifth word is also her solution to the Greek poem’s fifth word — to polytropos:

Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.

When I first read these lines early this summer in The Paris Review, which published an excerpt, I was floored. I’d never read an “Odyssey” that sounded like this. It had such directness, the lines feeling not as if they were being fed into iambic pentameter because of some strategic decision but because the meter was a natural mode for its speaker. The subtle sewing through of the fittingly wavelike W-words in the first half (“wandered … wrecked … where … worked”) and the stormy S-words that knit together the second half, marrying the waves to the storm in which this man will suffer, made the terse injunctions to the muse that frame this prologue to the poem (“Tell me about …” and “Find the beginning”) seem as if they might actually answer the puzzle posed by Homer’s polytropos and Odysseus’s complicated nature.


The Democratic Humanist

Marilynne Robinson asks, “Why teach the humanities? Why study them?” Her answer is that the humanities are at the febrile core of what it means to be a democratic individual and democratic citizen.

“Their transformative emergence has historically specifiable origins in the English and European Renaissance, greatly expedited by the emergence of the printing press. At the time and for centuries afterward it amounted to very much more than the spread of knowledge, because it was understood as a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human. And it had the effect of awakening human capacities that would not otherwise have been imagined.

Alexis de Tocqueville, an early and enduring interpreter of American civilization, published his great Democracy in America, in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840. He was interested in the new society for its implications for civilization in Europe, especially France. His treatment of it is equable and perceptive, though he does have his doubts. Speaking in his introduction of the effects of the spread of learning in the countries of the West, he says:

From the moment when the exercise of intelligence had become a source of strength and wealth, each step in the development of science, each new area of knowledge, each fresh idea had to be viewed as a seed of power placed within people’s grasp. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man. Its victories spread, therefore, alongside those of civilization and education. Literature was an arsenal open to all, where the weak and the poor could always find arms.

This passage provides a sense of what became newly available to respect and admiration as knowledge spread through the populace—poetry, eloquence, wit, imagination, depth of thought—where they would not have been seen or acknowledged in earlier generations. The old humanist joy in what people are still abides in Tocqueville, and he draws a humanist conclusion about the brilliance of people simply as such. Walt Whitman wrote, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/and what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Any excellence, while it is given by heaven, more or less at random from the world’s perspective, is testimony to the fact that human beings are endowed with a capacity for excellence, whatever form it takes in any individual case. Their natural grandeur, which is overturning the old order, is not a matter of political or economic power, which according to Tocqueville are a consequence of the emergence of these gifts and secondary to them. The splendor of the gifts themselves, as they are liberated by new areas of knowledge, by fresh ideas, makes the case for democracy.

It is to be noted that these gifts are highly individual. There is no talk here of the folk, or the masses, though the transformation of society Tocqueville describes has potential for a radical, progressive overturning. There is no suggestion that those who are rising can or should be shaped or led toward participation in a benign new order foreseen either by them or for them. The social order is forming itself around change brought about by these individual expressions of a collective grandeur. Tocqueville sees something like inspiration sweeping through the West as knowledge spreads and science advances. Crucially, there is no mention of competition, no implication of a hierarchy of abilities or gifts. Every excellence, every achievement, enhances the general wealth of possibility for yet more excellence.”


Moral Poverty

Elizabeth Bruenig makes a quick riposte in an exchange that is particularly timely with tax cuts at the top of Congress’ legislative agenda.

“For Williamson, poverty comes about by “acting poor, i.e., repeating the mistakes and habits that left them (or their parents and grandparents, in many cases) in poverty or near-poverty to begin with.” He has the right to conclude this, he suggests, because he himself was raised poor.

Williamson is right that my immediate family has done well financially — especially my father, who is a private person whose privacy I want to respect, but I would be remiss in not mentioning his hard work and generosity. I am grateful for the fortune of being his daughter. But that is luck — only luck, and no virtue. Studies of social mobility in the United States suggest there are millions like me, comfortable by fortune, not merit. Williamson knows poverty because he grew up poor, so let me let him in on something about the well-to-do:

Their decisions are no better, even if they are more lucrative. Their vices may be different than those of the poor, but they’re no less vicious. Their morals are just as weak, their perversions just as abhorrent, their waste appalling, their greed all-consuming, their covetousness and anxiety and decadence just as crippling. I did not “get to where I am” because I am a special person full of merit; nor have I often met someone accorded much wealth and prestige by society of whom I think, now this person did it all on their own. I got to where I am through a sequence of lucky breaks, any of which could’ve broken another way. Anybody could do it. But few are given the opportunity. That is part of what makes me feel so strongly about programs that reduce poverty and inequality.”

At stake, for Bruenig, is Williamson’s resurrection and retooling of that most American of narratives, the Horatio Alger myth (or perhaps as accurately the Franklin Myth), the rags-to-riches tale that undergirds the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps faith that the American economy remains fundamentally meritocratic at its heart. The exchange is a political case-study in a much older divide which cuts across the traditional divide between Right and Left, and had been strangely dormant for a short time: the legitimacy of treating economic status as if it carries an inherently moral dimension.

Bruenig’s concern is first and foremost with the degree to which Williamson has taken the Alger Myth and not only made explicit its nascent moralizing dimension, but exaggerated it to the point of attaching an entire set of cultural tastes to a dichotomy of “ethics” in which one is demonstrably morally superior to the other. The result is a perfect moral-economic circle in which, she writes quoting Williamson, “poverty comes about by ‘acting poor, i.e., repeating the mistakes and habits that left them (or their parents and grandparents, in many cases) in poverty or near-poverty to begin with’.”

—Ian Storey


Venerable Evil

“The Venerable W”, the last film of Barbet Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil” has finally showed at the New York Film Festival, and Gary Lippman interviews the director for The Paris Review. “The Venerable W” chronicles the sources of the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar through the lens of Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk instrumental in promoting the terror. One of the premier living filmographers of suffering, Schroeder argues that “evil can’t be separated from humanity.” Though Schroeder’s meditations are subtle, there are noticeable parallels between his thoughts and Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann in her reporting from Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial. Schroeder carries his observations from one subject to another and develops a distinctive vocabulary of evil to describe his encounters, and the result is a resistance to Lippmann when the latter asks him about the similarities between Schroeder’s subjects.

“No, the evil in each of these three men was only part of their personality, part of their humanity, and that was a terrible discovery for me, terrifying. It implies the death of God. Also terrifying was my realization that you can meet evil people every day and fail to notice them. It’s not as if there is a big flashing light next to their heads. Everything looks pretty normal. It’s only when you dig deep and try to understand the implications and effects of their words that you discover the reality.”

In thinking about the social forces within Myanmar that wittingly or passively allow the atrocities to continue, Schroeder is willing to extend that meditation to Aung San Suu Kyi, who he unhesitatingly likens to the French regime that put Arendt in the internment camps:

“She’s made a compromise that’s too big—like Pétain, when he tried to “save France” by working with the Nazis but eventually had his police rounding up France’s Jews. Instead of trying to save a country, you put it under water, beneath any moral standard, beneath any respect. “The Lady” has done exactly that. She took a leading part in the propaganda machine destroying the Royingha. She personally supervises a Facebook page that claims the stories of rape against Royingha women are fake, that the Royingha are burning their own houses. For me, this is the red line.”


Posted on 5 November 2017 | 8:00 am

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