Category Archives: dialogues

Right Livelihood Writ Large

Today, a man named Brandon Bernard was executed for a a crime committed when he was eighteen, in circumstances clouded by numerous unanswered questions. Appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears.

Now comes the honorable Bryan Stevenson, a winner of this year’s “Right Livelihood” award, for his tireless work exposing, documenting and fighting against the injustices of the Carceral State. Below, his acceptance speech for the award.

Images are from the most powerful work of public art in North America: the museum and memorial created by Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Evidence From a Regime of Racial Terror

 

 

Names to Recollect

 

Below, a link to the video of the above speech:

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What Remains

During a time of year when we are moved to reflect upon themes of rebirth, redemption, sacrifice and regeneration, we turn to the perennial wisdom of Thomas Berry, in a passage from a 1996 lecture at Harvard on Ethics and Ecology. Images are from the stunning growing grass sculptures of Mathilde Roussel-Giraudy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In closing, we offer a poem by Mary Rose O’Reilly in anticipation of new life that shall emerge, in time, from the vessel’s wreck:

 

 

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Wondrous Mystery

During this time of year, we reflect on the mirabile mysterium, the word made flesh; that explosive presence of the divine as expressed through the birth of Jesus.

In the story of Mary, we are also reminded of the sacred nature of words; that the power of speech itself might well be considered as a sacred offering. It would then follow that when we abuse said power to deceive, manipulate or incite violence against each other or against other sentient beings, we are performing acts of profound desecration.

In the spirit of such reflections, a recent interview caught our ear, with Karen Armstrong discussing key themes explored in her magnificent and essential book, The Lost Art of Scripture. Excerpts below, followed by a link to a spirited performance of the Jacobus Gallus setting for Mirabile Mysterium, as performed by La Main Harmonique.

 

 


Messengers of the Rope

Now come a few brief passages from a lucid December 2016 conversation with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, as transcribed from a radio program affiliated with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entitled Opinions.

The mission of such conversations, as described by host Robert Pogue Harrison: “To practice the persecuted religion of thinking; to think in the midst of the wasteland; to make sure the wasteland does not grow within.” Such is also the mission of DP; onwards to the Zarathustrian rope-walkers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The above three images are from the studio of Heather Pickwell. She writes:

My subject is growth, the imperceptible growth of cells, of plants; the incremental growth observed in shells and coral and the explosive growth of mutating organisms. I take my inspiration from close observation of the woods, fields and coastline of Lincolnshire. I work with natural materials – rope, wool and charcoal – these materials best reflect the physical world for me as I strive to suggest natural forms without reproducing their likeness.

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Power Into Silence

We are grateful to a distant DP reader for steering us to the illuminating, amplifying and enlivening work of artist Lena Herzog, above all the body of writings and audio-visual media related to her project Last Whispers. Below, the opening paragraphs from a talk given at MOMA, linked via the first image.

Clicking on the second image will bring you into the world of the silenced, a world where everything that was once possible to think within a specific language has been irretrievably obliterated; yet another dimension to the mass extinction event that will, in time, deal with our lethal, murderous arrogance.

 

 

 

 

 

We close with her final paragraph from the same talk, something to think about during this holiday weekend:

 

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Written in the Night

Now comes the gentle yet fierce voice of John Berger, who died this past Monday, in excerpts from a 2003 essay written for Le Monde Diplomatique. The image is from the Rothko Chapel.

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For all his literary gifts, Berger was most at home in conversation, his thoughts closely tied to his limitless capacity for dialogue, and to his vigilant ears. The below conversation with Susan Sontag highly recommended.

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Notes On Dialogue

Now comes the honorable Stringfellow Barr, a passionate advocate for the liberal arts as embodied in the so-called “new program” (conceived in 1937) at St. John’s College. Though dating from 1968, Barr’s Notes on Dialogue remain timely and incisive, though he does not mean to cut nor sever.

We have come to know St. John’s College quite well in recent years; if there is any hope at all for our wounded republic, we will need such places, colleges where members of younger generations learn how to exercise their responsibilities as true citizens; colleges that explore and celebrate the arts of freedom.

In a world of violent screams and shouting matches pretending to be politics, we will need to resurrect the polis. For that delicate task, we will also need to remember how to listen, how to reflect, and how to serve each other – and labor together – in dialogue. Unrealistic and utopian, you say? Yes, of course; for the road of the “realists” leads ever more deeply into the abyss.

In the interests of fanning embers and generating a few moments of warmth in front of an oncoming blizzard, we publish a few excerpts together with exquisite images from the hand of Jiri Anderle, borrowed from the collection at the Baruch Foundation.

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A Chasm in the Present

As we continue to explore the rich philosophical overtones within the subtle and complex thought of Giorgio Agamben, we came across an interview on the Verso website. We pick up the thread following Agamben’s suggestion that humanity, always a work in process, must measure itself against the past through an archeological scrutiny of religion and law.

The images are from the hand and eye of the tremendously undervalued Eli Levin, an artist once thrown out of art school for his refusal to accept the sovereignty of abstraction. Strangely, he insisted on painting and drawing what he saw.

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Standing Prisoner

STANDING PRISONER

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MAN IN A BOX

MAN IN A BOX

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SUBMISSION

SUBMISSION

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We Tortured Some Folks

 
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We strongly recommend close consideration of Rebecca Gordon’s recently published book, Mainstreaming Torture, Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. In examining the question of whether torture is ever morally permissible, Gordon critiques narrow utilitarian and deontological justifications, and proposes that a virtue ethics approach (descending from Alasdair MacIntyre) permits a deeper understanding of the ways in which the socially and politically embedded practice of torture twists and distorts our national character. She also suggests an alternative path; collaborative practices oriented towards the rebuilding of our presently dismantled habits of courage and wisdom.
 
Below, a brief dialogue between Rebecca Gordon and DP, intended to inspire large numbers of readers to purchase this absolutely essential book:
 
DP     We know that torture is designed to shatter and break the identity of the victim, to make it impossible for the victim to experience the world through a coherent subjectivity, as only the torturer gets to say “I”. Less well understood is the corrupting effect torture has on the torturer, and on a society such as our own that does not merely permit torture, but often seems to celebrate and reward it. Torture deforms us all, at a deep moral level, eradicating any semblance of human virtue. Throughout your writing, I am struck by your profound understanding of the devastating moral and ethical implications that institutionalized, habituated torture carries for us all. Can you describe the genesis of such understanding, certainly within your philosophy, yet also in your political engagement?
 
RG      My understanding of torture as an ongoing, socially embedded practice really began with the time I spent working in the war zones of Nicaragua in the 1980’s. There I met people who had been tortured, some earlier under the Somoza dictatorship, and some later by the remnants of the Somoza’s National Guard, who formed the nucleus of the U.S.-backed contras. I began to understand how torture works – and it does work  – not by gathering “intelligence,” but as a means of destroying social bodies that threaten a regime. By attacking the minds and bodies of some of the members of a union, a church community, a political party, a beekeeping cooperative, the agents of a state can dismember those organizations.
 
I first started writing about U.S. torture in the fall of 2001. Less than two months after the terrible attacks of 9/11, people in the mainstream press were beginning to suggest that 9/11 meant someone needed to be tortured. Quite suddenly something most people thought was a settled consensus – that torture is wrong – was once again an open question. Both the mainstream press and academic ethicists began musing about whether things hadn’t changed after 9/11. Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek called “Time to Think About Torture,” in which he suggested that something extra was needed to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history.” Anyone who had qualms about it was “hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.” Ethicists, too, began to question their positions on torture. Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example, wrote in an essay in Torture: A Collection (ed. Sanford Levinson; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) that before “the watershed event of September 11, 2001,” she was one of the many people who listed torture in the “category of ‘never,’” Afterwards, she changed her mind.
 
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As the conversation about torture began to develop, it became clear to me that both mainstream press and academics were making a basic mistake about what institutionalized state torture is. They were treating is as an isolated activity, something that people do in moments of extremity. Both the press and academics were marshaling arguments for or against “torture” largely on deontological or consequentialist grounds. Deontological arguments against torture referred to the Kantian prohibition on treating humanity as a means to some end. Those in favor cited the duty of government officials to protect their population. Consequentialist arguments for torture most often cited the choice to torture one person to save a million from a ticking time bomb. Those against torture focused either on the danger it might present to U.S. reputation in the world, or to U.S. soldiers if they were captured. But all these arguments treated torture as if it were something that happened once, or once in a while.
 
My experience in various solidarity movements had taught me something different. Institutionalized state torture is a practice. It has its own histories, traditions, and even rituals of initiation. It has its own internal values, and it forms its practitioners in a specific set of moral habits – call them virtues or vices as you will. And I believe that when torture becomes quasi-public especially in a democratic society, as it has in this country in the so-called “war on terror,” it can engender vicious moral habits in all of us. One of these is cowardice – the willingness to accept any necessary evil in the (ultimately false) belief that it can guarantee one’s personal survival. Another is a distortion of practical wisdom that I call culpable ignorance, the voluntary refusal to use one’s capacity for thought and judgment, for example to be able to see torture when it is being called something else, like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Or, indeed, to see that practices we might decry in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo are part of the daily routine in U.S. jails and prisons.
 
Thinking about torture as a practice led me to look at Alasdair MacIntyre’s contemporary revival of virtue ethics, starting with After Virtue. I found his categories of telos, virtue, practice, and tradition very useful for understanding how institutionalized state torture works.
 
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DP     Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, recently offered an interesting comment regarding the character of one of our most stridently unrepentant torture advocates, Dick Cheney: “”Immorality is something that can be ferreted out, checked and balanced. Amorality is an altogether different affair, especially when you’re exploiting the politics of fear in order to carry out state purposes, which is what Dick Cheney’s forte is.”  Can you expand on your reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, with reference to state torture, once it becomes such a fully articulated and even legally codified practice? Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist? 
 
RG     You ask, “Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist?” I think that my answer is a sort of “Yes, but…” or perhaps better, “Yes, and…”
 
In voicing any critique, one immediate question is, “Who’s the audience for the critique?” Is there any sense, for example, in arguing ethics with Dick Cheney himself? Probably not. If Wilkerson’s characterization is accurate, it seems unlikely that Cheney would engage in good faith argument, willingly disclosing his fundamental assumptions. If he were willing to disclose the foundation of his moral approach to governing as something along the lines of, “It is right to use whatever instrument is effective in advancing the power of the state,” I am hard pressed to imagine where I would begin to seek a shared assumption from which to begin an argument. One route might be to inquire about why it is important to maintain or expand the power of the state – what value lies behind this imperative, but I’m not convinced we’d get anywhere.
 
If the audience is the larger public, then I think it is not only sensible, but vital, to advance a moral critique. The challenge we face here, however, is profound. Public moral discourse in this country is almost always framed in instrumentalist terms. Arguments appealing to values other than cost/benefit calculations are generally dismissed as idealist, unrealistic, or adolescent and soft-headed. This is a very difficult frame to break. It’s easier to try to think up an argument against torture within this frame (“It doesn’t work. You don’t get good information.” “Torturing the enemy puts our own soldiers at risk if they are captured.”) than it is to challenge instrumentalism as a moral approach. It may look as if we can win the argument within the terms set by the opponents, but we can’t.
 
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This is where MacIntyre’s approach comes in. There is another way to understand the moral life than as a series of cost/benefit analyses (even if the costs and benefits we are weighing are not our own, but those of the “greatest number.”) MacIntyre encourages us to not to understand our lives as a series of isolated choices (What in this will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number in this situation? Shall I kill one person to save five? Will my maxim, if universalized, lead to a logical contradiction?) Rather, he would have us think of human life as a particular kind of story, a quest to discover what makes for a good human life. This is a quest he believes (with Aristotle) can only be undertaken in the company of other human beings. In its course we enter into particular practices – complex, collaborative activities that enable us to develop certain intellectual and often physical skills; activities that have their own internal goods, and which allow us to develop certain moral habits — virtues — that sustain us in our quest.
 
What does any of this have to do with the problem of torture? I’m arguing that torture itself is the kind of complex, collaborative activity that engenders certain moral habits – twisted versions of the four “cardinal” virtues embraced by Greek and Roman philosophers (along with Thomas Aquinas). These four are justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming Torture, I describe this process more fully, and I suggest that especially in a democratic society, it affects not only those directly involved, but the other members of the society.
 
And here’s where I come to my “Yes, but…” Unlike Enlightenment moral philosophies such as utilitarianism or Kantian deontology, virtue ethics can’t be demonstrated through argument. It is a way of living. The virtue ethics argument against torture isn’t just a verbal argument; it is a life in which people rebuild our habits of courage and wisdom. Perhaps we might begin with the complex, collaborative, long-term activity of dismantling state power built on Cheney’s politics of fear.
 
FOLKS
 

Dump Not Lard

WE NEED TO SCALE UP

WE NEED TO SCALE UP

Undeterred by the refusal of a handful of stubborn Scots to become part of his golf fantasyland at Menie in Aberdeenshire, nor by the prospect of a large wind farm that would interfere with the view while on the back nine, Donald Trump recently announced plans to expand his Celtic development plans to the west coast of Ireland — and beyond. With nothing better to do shortly past midnight, we decided to take a flier and send an email query to The Donald’s private account, which we received from his good pal Michael Forbes. We appear to have caught him in a talkative mood in the early hours of April Fool’s day, and a reply swiftly followed:

DP     We have followed your project in Scotland with much interest. Now that you have purchased a new property in Ireland, does this mean you may exit from Aberdeenshire? Have you had enough of the hard-headed Scots?

DT     I don’t care how hard their heads are. The problem is, crack them open, and they’re full of fresh cow pies. Wind power is yesterday’s news if you want to make real money. The only wind that interests me blows from a thousand backswings. That kind of wind, you can take to the bank.

DP     Do you think the Irish will be more receptive to your vision?

DT     Their economy right now is deep in the crapper. If they don’t come to grips with my line of titanium clubs, they’ll be eating potato soup for the next three generations.

I HATE POTATO SOUP

I HATE POTATO SOUP

DP     But much recent research indicates that the economics of golf are deteriorating, and that demographic trends will not make the situation any better.

DT     The problem is one of scale. Eighteen or thirty six holes are not enough anymore. The market demands a longer journey. My vision for Ireland will do that. Over the next decade or so, we intend to give Ireland the first countrywide golf course in the world.

DP     Countrywide?

DT     Eighteen thousand holes, should take an average person three years to play. Like I say, a serious journey, for the serious golfer. Sort of a modern day pilgrimage.

DP     So what, you intend to buy a thousand golf courses, and then link them up somehow?

DT     Not just golf courses. We’ll buy any little plot of green on the map. This course needs to be disruptive. Holes could be anywhere – village greens, cemeteries, parks. The golf course we bought is just a home base. The golf course of the future will be everywhere. That kind of excitement will give golfers their mojo back. Getting back to the roots.

DP    The roots?

DT     In the olden days, shepherds would whack skulls around all over those damn islands. That’s the origin of golf. No fixed course, just strong men with sturdy sticks, knocking heads. That’s what I want to do. Restore that sense of freedom, no boundaries, no restrictions.

PILGRIMAGE FOR FREE SWINGERS

PILGRIMAGE FOR FREE SWINGERS

DP     So what will it cost, to travel this free-swinging pilgrimage route?

DT     There’s the beauty of the thing. Players will pay a one time fee, we’re thinking 10,000 Euros, and then that gives them an official passport to play the whole course. Travel all around the country, buying meat pies and woolie sweaters and pints of beer and plastic leprechauns, all along the way, not just at country clubs but in every backwards village. We get paid up front and the pilgrims can take as long as they want. The longer they take, the more moolah they spend along the way, bringing joy wherever they putt.

DP     Will there be some sort of prize, when players finish?

DT     Oh yes. Once they’re done, they send in their passport with stamps and documentation, and we send out one of my signature red golfing caps, and a locket of my very own hair, something to pass down to the grandchildren, a true heirloom.

HEIRLOOM QUALITY

HEIRLOOM QUALITY

DP     Given what happened in Scotland, are you sure you have popular support for this vision?

DT     What choice do the Irish have? They’ve been royally fleeced by the EU, and left shivering butt naked in the damp night. I’m offering a bright ray of sunshine. I don’t see any losers in the picture, nothing but winners, beginning with me and ending way down the food chain.

DP     So Ireland’s gain is Scotland’s loss, eh?

DT     It could have been Scotland. But they blew it with all that wind power garbage. Plus they’re a bunch of knuckleheads even as water boys for the English – can you imagine how impossible they’ll be, out in the world on their own? Time to cut my losses, and move on to the Emerald Isle, where the little people still know how to roll over and take one for the team.