Category Archives: DP

In Grace and Reverence

In recent years, the values embedded in a classical liberal arts education have come under sustained attack, cannibalized from within and degraded from all sides. Deep explorations of philosophy and art are considered worthless in the labor markets of the vast data mine that increasingly dominates every aspect of our economies, our behaviors and eventually our souls. In order to remain “competitive” in the global rat race, we must – or so the prevailing narrative goes – accept our fate as rats in the labyrinth of an inverted utopia, where we can no longer imagine the implications of our increasingly lethal inventions.

This toxic narrative sustains and justifies both market economies that increasingly reward a minuscule percentage of the world’s population and authoritarian political movements where even mild civic engagement is criminalized and suppressed in the name of “national security”. The stakes for a defense of the classical “arts of freedom” have never been higher; thus we were delighted to come across the lucid eloquence of Marilynne Robinson in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. The entire essay is worthy of careful consideration from DP readers; we relay a couple of excerpts below.

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In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows her to prosper, apparently. With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product, or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation, and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music.

A music scribbled, we imagine, in what Carl Sandburg once called “the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints”. Then in closing, Robinson writes:

We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism, or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough.

Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behavior and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word “beautiful” applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.

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A Different Beast Entirely

As promised in an earlier post, we open our ears to the voice of civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander in an excerpt from her devastatingly accurate account of our system of mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow. Images are from the website of the Equal Justice Initiative.

 

 

 

 

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Our question: do we have the courage to face the implications of Alexander’s brilliant stripping away of the disguise?

Below, a link to a video from the Equal Justice Initiative, tracing the passage from slavery to mass incarceration.

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Tiny House Warriors

According to a recent report by the UN, the gap between government pledges and carbon emission realities remains potentially catastrophic for coastal cities and communities. Current pledges made by governments and private corporations will increase temperatures by three degrees centigrade by the end of this century, well in excess of the stated two degree limit, as negotiated during the much ballyhooed COP 21.

As we stated at that time, the struggle against burning fossil fuels into oblivion will not be successfully advanced by fatuous elites at feel-good events such as the forthcoming COP 23; only direct action at the local level, such as the long struggle at Standing Rock, will create the necessary changes in behavior and global awareness.

This week, we serve as relay for a statement by the Secwepemc people announcing their action to block the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, a statement that conveys far more power and meaning than anything that will emerge from the assembled gas bags in Bonn:

 

 

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For a Greenpeace video profile of the Tiny House Warriors, click below:

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Malignant Normality

In an essay published in the Spring 2017 issue of Dissent, Robert Jay Lifton reminds us that the same ethical distortions that he discerned among physicians in Nazi Germany may occur among other groups of professionals at any time. Excerpts below, with a few malignantly normal charts from Stanley Milgram’s Obedience To Authority.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We are reminded also of a passage (slightly edited by DP for continuity) from a letter written in 1964 by Hannah Arendt to Gerhard Scholem:

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

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Christianity, Race, Incarceration

Now comes Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies Matthew Potts, with lucid comments regarding the Carceral State, made in advance of a conference held at Harvard Divinity School. The charts derive from research compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.

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See also an excellent essay  by Marie Gottschalk in The Atlantic Monthly; and Michelle Alexander’s recently published The New Jim Crow, which we will be reading closely for a future DP.


Reverence and Awe

This morning, the entire editorial staff of DP spent a productive hour closely observing a quartet of male turkeys making their way through nearby meadows and woodlands: vigilant, alert, very much in touch with each other and with the landscape. We were unable to suppress the recognition that within a few weeks at least half if not all of these sentient and social toms will likely be “harvested” by humans to participate through their death in yet another one of our fantasy histories: Thanksgiving Day.

In the bigger picture, the human species continues its mad descent into the unfathomable depths of what Robert Jay Lifton calls “malignant normality”, a concept we will explore in detail in a future DP. For balance and sanity regarding the whole of life on earth, we have been re-reading Mark Bekoff’s indispensable The Animal Manifesto, with an opening passage excerpted below.

Images: a trio of watercolors from the studio of Rebecca Clark, whose art so gracefully and powerfully embodies reverence and awe for the natural world, a wisdom that we must all embrace if we are to have any chance of breaking the death spiral, of which the psychopathology of contemporary American politics is but one of many alarming symptoms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Resonant with Bekoff’s manifesto, please also consider a keynote address from this year’s Animal Rights conference, as delivered by Lauren Gazzola:

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And finally, a few more words from Thomas Berry, from his magnificent The Dream of the Earth:

“Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value.”


Piles of Nothing

This week, we turn to the luminous Masha Gessen as she penetrates the dark, murky language of the autocrat in an essay published last May in the New York Review of Books, an analysis that becomes ever more timely with each passing month. As an example of Donald Trump’s talent for reducing language into piles of nothing, Gessen cites a passage from an interview in which he assesses his first hundred days in office:

Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.

Then, her analysis:

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Variations on an Orwellian theme were added by DP.

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Nothing But Eyes To Weep

In a previous post, we touched on the work of Giorgio Agamben regarding the “state of exception”, and the concept of “bare life” as it applied to extra-judicial detention at Guantanamo Bay. In her recently published One Long Night, Andrea Pitzer explores the legal and historical roots of concentration camps, among them the American Civil War’s Lieber Code of Conduct and Sherman’s scorched earth March to the Sea.

Excerpts from her introduction below, with images added by DP.

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How To Read Two Donalds

Now comes a timely and powerful exhibition at Schindler House , How to Read El Pato Pascual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney. From the exhibition’s website:

The exhibition’s curators, filmmaker/writer Jesse Lerner and artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres, thoroughly examined Disney’s long engagement with Latin American culture, from Donald Duck’s first featured role in the 1937 Mexican-themed short Don Donald to the company’s 2013 attempt to trademark the Day of the Dead. Lerner and Ortiz-Torres’s research further drew from a pivotal trip Walt Disney took with his team to South America in 1941. Along with a group of fifteen animators, musicians, and screenwriters, Disney flew to over five South American countries as part of a U.S. government-directed effort to promote the “Good Neighbor” policy during the Second World War. In addition to the celebrated film The Three Caballeros, this trip produced the feature Saludos Amigos; a “making of” documentary titled South of the Border with Disney; and propaganda films such as The Grain that Built a Hemisphere. 

The infamous 1971 Chilean book by scholars Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, Para leer al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck), was brought to Ortiz-Torres’s attention while studying with artist Michael Asher at the Disney-funded CalArts in the 1990s. The book (formerly banned in Chile and threatened by legal action in the U.S.) provides a structural analysis denouncing the ways in which Disney comic books were used as vehicles to justify and promote U.S. policies and cultural imperialism.

Arief Dorfman expands on the history of his essay (and its suppression both in Chile and in the US) in a recent essay on Truthout, excerpted below.

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Lost In Space

During a time of year when we crave the solitude of the deep forest, we revisit a few paragraphs of an essay by William Deresiewicz, dating from 2009. The image is from the solitary studio of Michel Nedjar.

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