news as a duty

Watching the evening news has become a chore … or what is generally called a duty. Neil Postman, in 1985, described in detail how the news ‘industry’ had been captured by the ‘entertainment’ industry. Watching the evening news on NBC and MSNBC almost 30 years later provides hours of evidence, every night, that Postman was correct. From the sofa of someone who watches: the nightly entertainment has become “flat, stale, and unamusing” (John 14:16). I now watch the news in part to learn what has happened in the world today, but mostly to learn is how ‘the arbiters of culture’ are describing what is going on in the world. They are merely chasing ratings. Not trying to inform or educate. Only trying to start or catch whatever is “trending”. The news is now just a way of wasting time—for we have forgotten Thoreau’s warning that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity.

the end of private life

Watching the endless coverage of the 2020 election. During an interview with the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, the AG’s teenage son wandered into the frame, looking down at his phone. Then, realizing his dad was doing a Zoom/Skype/Whatever interview on the TV, quickly backed out of the room. There is no longer a separation between public life and private life. We’re back to the Year Zero. (For context see:  Ariès, Duby, and Veyne, A History of Private Life, Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium.)

an open letter to my representatives in congress

Dear Honorable X:

In the wake of the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, I am writing to ask you to begin each day by reading to the Senate the text of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and to ask the people’s representatives to think hard about its meaning — and then pass meaningful legislation regulating the ownership of assault weapons.

Despite his all-too-frequently announced “reverence” for the “original meaning” of the Constitution, Justice Scalia effectively wrote out of the constitution the first clause of the 2nd Amendment. And so we find ourselves where we are today.

The language of the Amendment is clear:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Sure, the language is a bit archaic and awkward, but, really, are you confused by what it says? The right to bear arms is specifically grounded in the need of the state for a well-regulated militia.

Only a member of a well-regulated militia, acting to preserve the security of a free state, needs a weapon whose only purpose is to kill as many people as possible as fast as possible. Only members of a well-regulated militia should be permitted to possess — or bear — such a weapon.

Many factors may contribute to mass shootings. But the guns are what make them possible and lethal.

It is time to restore the meaning of the full text of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution — and to reject the paranoid fantasies of those who believe they need a personal arsenal to protect themselves from their own government.

A free society has to be more than a society in which everyone goes about armed to the teeth — and where children are sent to school wearing body armor.

Be More

more than mere words

What does a text — particularly a venerated text — mean? Is it’s meaning to be found in the individual words that comprise the text? A disagreement concerning the meaning of those words will not be resolved by appeal to dictionary definitions, not by making the meaning of the whole a matter of assembling the meaning of each clause considered individually. In Madison’s Music, Burt Neuborne asks us to read the first amendment to the constitution of the United States broadly, with close attention not to the words that comprise it but rather the subject of the text: the promotion of democratic government. But what is democratic government? Not simply the expression of the will of the people, which is too easily confused with majority rule and which is all-too-often inchoate. Nor is the purpose of democratic government a strategy for picking the correct answer on a multiple-choice test. Democratic government is the discernment of the common good.

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government
for a redress of

What Newborne asks us to do is to read the text in its entirety. To read the text slowly, without assuming we already know its meaning and that reading is merely arguing for that meaning. To read the text as posing a question or series of closely related and difficult questions that we need to answer anew each time we read it.

scientism and moralism

Patricia Churchland recently gave a Gifford Lecture on Morality and the Mammalian Brain. It leaves me wondering what the argument is. Anyone who has read Midgley or Tallis (or a number of other philosophers and scientists) recognizes that human behavior, by definition, has a biological basis, but that biology is not the entire story. How does all of this information alter the way we pose moral questions, the way we reach moral judgements, or the moral judgements that we make? 

My answer is “not at all”.

the end of politics

In 1969 Theodore Lowi published The End of Liberalism. His critique of the ‘liberal’ policies and ambitions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society brilliantly identified the tensions that threatened social order and seemed to defeat the liberal project itself. But today we seem to have reached the end of politics, both the vacuity of political rhetoric and its incapacity to engage the pressing issues of our times but also raising the essential questions of what the purposes of politics might be. The events in Scotland seem to demonstrate the real need for a vital political dialog and the failure of our political institutions and so-called leaders to respond to those demands in any meaningful way. And as Molly Ball writes in the Atlantic, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president reveals the inability of politicians on the United States to practice politics.

piling sweater upon sweater

The image of a snake shedding its skin seems a useful way of framing different notions of the self.

The common, everyday notion of the self (the notion implicit in the casual use of “I”) implicitly posits the self as standing slightly outside momentary experience, an observer of events, including the event of itself observing its own participation in that momentary experience. This implicit (and more-or-less unconscious) notion underlies a more ‘essentialist’ concept of the self: the ‘real me’ that ties that not-quite-endless stream of momentary experiences together into a continuous life. (Not-quite-endless because it has a starting point, however fuzzy, and an apparent end point, also more than a little fuzzy.)

A similar view invokes an architectural image: Over the course of my life, I tinker with the expression of my ‘essential’ self. It may start as a simple structure — Thoreau’s one-room cabin at Walden Pond. I add a room, build an entire wing, remodel what I have built, redecorate, furnish the rooms to serve my current activities, dispose of furnishings for which I no longer have a use — or which are no longer to my taste. But always somewhere within that elaborated structure there remains the ghost of that original cabin. The additions are just accretions around it. Just as somewhere within ‘me’ there is a self that decides what ‘I’ will be now or next.

The snake as it grows simply sloughs off and leaves behind its outermost self — although its core continues on its way (larger and potentially with the marks of its experience etched more deeply into its flesh).

My own skin, that apparent boundary between my physical ‘self’ and the outer world, is constantly being lost — so imperceptibly that it is seldom noticed. The more visible, but no more permanent, boundary is something I construct (or purchase) — the clothes, the costume, the ‘drag’ I ‘put on’ before venturing out into the world. (And I assume a costume even when I venture no farther than my own living room, with no company other than my own thoughts.)

My personality, too, is a mask (persona) that I put on to present an appropriate face to others — or to myself when I look in the mirror. (Not all mirrors are on the wall. My mind’s eye, gazing upon itself, is an ever-present  mirror. The field of vision does not encompass the eye itself, but still the eye ‘sees’ itself.).Costume seems a better image of the personality than a mask. A sweater (or a pair of jeans or a suit and tie) is more ordinary, more casual, more an everyday image of the person I want others to see — and how I want to see myself in my mind’s eye.

The trouble began when I started to hold on to each sweater, each shirt, each costume as truly being the person I am — here, now, always. I become attached to my old clothes. The sweaters pile up. Unlike the snake which slithers off, leaving its old skin behind, I layer one sweater over another … over another … over another … and haul about with me wherever I go an accretion of ‘characters’ whose times have come and most certainly have passed.

My closet overflows.

walking • 1

Walking around my neighborhood with my only destination being the place where I started (“in my beginning is my end”), with no purpose beyond exercise. Traveling from point A to point A. Discovering the indefinite distances contained in the 4200 meters that separate those two points.

I looked for water, and found C. Musonius Rufus. I lost him, I think, in the galleys coming out …

It took many years of unconcerted effort to lose myself. Lose? Or to bundle myself in layer upon layer of outerwear. Unlike a snake that sheds its skin as it ages, I have merely added layer on top of layer.

Walking through the falling urban night, I start to experience the world outside my skin (the sounds of the city in the deepening evening, the sound of people walking alongside or past me, the sound of people talking, of traffic idling or rushing past, of wind blowing through the trees in which the insects sing) — and the world inside my skin (the straining of muscles too little used, the feel of the soles of my feet rhythmically striking the pavement through the cushioning of shoes, the rise and fall of breathing, waves of tension in back, neck and face).

Who or what experienced that walk?

the product of a stock company When Shareholder Capitalism Came to Town

The publicly traded corporation has two products and two customers: its stock and the goods or services that makes. It sells the one product on the stock exchange to investors, most of which are other corporations. It sells its goods and services in the ‘marketplace’. Which customer comes first? Is that a reasonable question?