The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Articles filed under Culture

Still Empire

Lest ye think that the Scene has become baby central, let’s talk about an equally important topic: Star Wars.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum has a great post arguing that (audible gasps in the audience) Return of the Jedi is actually the best movie in the original trilogy. (Via Scene alum Peter Suderman )

Drum lists all of the good things that there are in Jedi, and argues that the movie wasn’t ruined by the much-reviled Ewoks because they’re only incidental to the story and are only there for a couple scenes.

I actually agree with much of Drum’s praise for Jedi, which you should definitely read, but I still reach the same conclusion as most fans: Empire is still the best movie in the trilogy.

Before I explain why, I first need to settle some scores.

Firstly, I’ve never been that pissed off about the Ewoks. It’s probably because I watched the third movie as a kid, not a teenager. Sure, they’re manipulatively cute, and they’re there to sell action figures to kids, but should they really send people into fits of conniption? Everything in Star Wars is there to sell merch (that was Lucas’ business genius): lightsabers, X-wings, Vader’s helmet, yet we adore those iconic things. Disney’s business is based on merch, and that doesn’t mean The Lion King and Toy Story aren’t great movies.

The Ewoks are also there to provide comic relief, which annoys some people, but that’s also what R2 and 3PO do, and people seem to love those fine, too.

It should be noted that the Ewoks also serve as a powerful symbol: the idea that it’s the Hidden Forces in the universe that rise up to defeat the Empire. Those small, backward furballs are dismissed by the almighty empire, but the grain of sand in the gears stops the machines. That’s something to like.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the Ewoks. But I don’t think they’re awful either.

Secondly, I’ve always been left cold by one of the most-mooted arguments for Empire: that it’s the “darkest” episode in the trilogy. Yes. So what? Does a movie have to be “dark” to be good? Since when is that a criterion? If you’re older than 16, that shouldn’t figure in your calculations.

Ok, with all that said, and with Drum’s praise for Jedi endorsed, why is Empire still the best movie?

It’s because it’s the movie where the characters are at their most raw, and where the characters undergo the most change.

At the end of the first movie, none of the characters is radically changed. Luke reaches a huge milestone, because uses the Force, but at the end of the movie he is still an idealistic boy who wants to be a fighter for Justice and the American Way like his father. Han leans to his good side but is still a mercenary rogue at heart. Leia is still a virginal princess who cares only about abstract principle. Vader is still a complete villain.

And during the third movie, with the crucial exception of Vader, every character knows what they have to do. Luke is a world-wise Jedi with scars, literal and otherwise—he has big doubts and big problems, but he is still fundamentally the same person at the beginning of the movie and the end. Han has gone through his transformation from fundamentally selfish to fundamentally selfless, through both his love for Leia and his dedication to a greater ideal. Leia, who was fundamentally a girl in the first movie—virginal and almost fanatically principled—has become a woman, fighting for love as well as abstract ideals.

During the course of Empire, though, every character is thrown through the wringer, salt poured through the still-live scars of their conscience. And as the result they are all fundamentally changed. Luke, obviously, wracked between loyalty to his friends and his desire to train as a Jedi, between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Han and Leia also have to rethink everything: they each have to overcome their fear of love and redefine their life. Even secondary characters: Lando confronts the consequences of his cowardice, and 3PO, who was only a bumbling comic-relief fool, gains a measure of agency.

Between the beginning and the end of Empire, each character has gone through that radical transformation, for the protagonists an entry to adulthood. Luke goes from teenager to man, scars and all. Leia goes from girl to woman. Han also definitively sheds what remained fundamentally a teenage outlook—self-centered, aimlessly rebellious. Even Vader is different at the end of the movie, the seeds of doubt sown by Luke’s stunning rejection.

It’s Screenwriting 101 to say that in your movie your protagonists much reach resolution and that a movie worth watching is one where the protagonist goes through some form of resolution and even redemption. While there are elements of that in each movie (Obi-Wan, Luke in the first; Vader, crucially, in the third, and also Luke), it is in Empire that each character is thrown into the starkest relief, made to confront the biggest choices (again, with the exception of Vader), and reach the most consequential resolution.

So while I agree with all the great things Drum has to say about Jedi, the strength of the character arcs, not “darkness” or Ewoks, is why Empire is still the best movie in the trilogy.

New Ventures, Too

I’m sorry to see Noah go, but have already bookmarked his new blog.

I’m going to follow his lead in this regard. As many readers here know, I usually cross-post each of my pieces to TAS and The Corner. I think it makes more logistical sense, in a world of RSS, etc. to just put the posts up there.

You can find all of my posts, the archive, the RSS location and my email on my author page at NRO.

I have a great fondness for TAS, and its greatest strength has always been the commenters. Commenting at The Corner requires free registration, but that’s about it. I do my best there, as here, to respond to all non-vituperative comments. I hope you will continue to chip in at that location.

Iron Chef Millman V

You know the drill:

Prelude: Latkes three ways: – topped with goat cheese, melted leeks and smoked salmon – topped with pea and roast garlic puree and roast lemon salsa – topped with persimmon and apple puree and sushi ginger

Soup: a duo of soups: – roast olive and garlic – roast red pepper and carrot – served together with a dollop of herb pesto

Crudo: thin-sliced hamachi topped with slivers of jalapeno, green lemon-infused olive oil, and sea salt

Salad: fennel and apple salad with tarragon and a lemon and olive oil dressing

Pasta: ricotta and swiss chard malfatti (like giant gnocchi) with sage brown butter sauce served over a bed of butternut squash pureed with mandarin orange-infused olive oil

Main: broiled arctic char dusted with ground porcini mushroom and fennel seed, served atop an oven-roasted tomato and a bed of white beans and wild mushrooms

Dessert I: crema fritta, deep-fried breaded cream

Dessert II: Rosemary lemon olive oil cake

Menus from years one, two, three and four also available.

This year we also had a signature cocktail – the maghreb martini. Gin, vermouth and preserved lemon brine, garnished with a wedge of preserved lemon. Color was a bit yellow; I think the brand of preserved lemons I used had saffron in the brine. But the flavor worked wonderfully, and paired very nicely with the latkes.

In fact, this is the first year that I can recall that really every course worked. The only hiccup was that the first batch of malfatti dissolved upon hitting the water. I had formed them in advance and frozen them, but I’ve done that before successfully, so I think either they didn’t have enough flour (I don’t think that was the problem) or the ricotta and chard between them retained too much water (I suspect this was the problem). Anyway, I heated up another pot of water, defrosted another batch quickly and re-formed them (you twirl the dough in a wine glass with a bit of flour to make the football shapes), and the second batch came out fine if a little bit late to the party. But other than that hitch, everything came off well and everything worked, in terms of flavor and presentation. If I had to pick standouts, I’d choose the soup duo, the fish, and the crema fritta.

I really enjoy doing this. I don’t entirely know why. It’s in part because I love to be the entertainer, the provider, the host; I like showing off, but I also like making people happy. And it’s in part because I love to eat. But it’s in part because cooking is one of the very few activities I engage in where I really use my hands. I don’t play a sport; I don’t paint or do woodworking or futz around with motorcycles. But I do cook. And when I cook, I still use my brain, but I use it differently, and I don’t feel so much as if I’m living in it, more like it is living in the world. Which is a very good and too-rare feeling with me.

And it seems to work for my guests.

As always, recipes available upon request – and please, don’t be afraid to email me and pester me if I fail to post something in response to a comment. Sometimes I don’t notice that a new comment has been posted; I can be bad that way. My email is available on the “About” page of the site.

Re: Gene to Phene

John, good to see you posting too, and Merry Christmas!

You say this:

Surely it will not be “the fact of our ignorance in this area” that “is likely to be very important to thinking about public policy in the upcoming decades”: rather it will be our increasing understanding in this area. The fact of our ignorance was, after all, around from the beginning of time up to 1953.

Our understanding of both genetics and the biological basis of behavior is proceeding rapidly, and I assume will continue to do so for some time. This has led to many extravagant claims for knowledge that we do not have, i.e., a “gene for depression.” Such claims have obvious policy relevance, and I think that subjecting such claims to rigorous scrutiny will become increasingly important in future decades, because there will likely be many more of them.

Then you ask the following:

And what does this mean: “We do not have the practical ability to understand why person X has normal psychological make-up Y based on analysis of his or her genome”? Do you mean to say this is a thing we metaphysically cannot understand? What is the evidence for that? The name Auguste Comte mean anything?

I know of no metaphysical reason (that I am certain is true) for why we could not ultimately understand this scientifically. We don’t understand it yet, though.

Comte is a great illustration of several kinds of errors, many of which center on unfounded claims to knowledge. You link to one example of this: his claim that we could never know the chemical composition of stars. But Comte is usually thought of as the founder of sociology: a discipline that he saw as scientifically modeling human social organization based on mathematical laws (per a recent set of Corner exchanges, Hari Seldon anyone?). He and Saint-Simon were called out by Hayek as key intellectual figures in building belief in the current (not possible at some future date) capacity to predict and therefore plan society. A key intellectual task of Hayek, Popper and the other mid-20th century libertarian thinkers was to point out the pseudo-scientific nature of these claims.

It may be that someday we will be able to use knowledge of the genome to predict human social behavior sufficiently to rationally plan our political economy, but we are not there yet. We should rigorously scrutinize claims of the reduction of non-pathological human mental states to scientific phenomena, in part because of the potentially profound political implications of such findings. More precisely, all scientific claims should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, but we should challenge the sloppy popularization of such claims unless and until they are really scientifically validated, because any such popularization may tend to create an unfounded intellectual climate hospitable to the erosion of political and economic freedom.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)

What Is a Gene “For”

Analogies or metaphors are often useful for starting to understand a given topic, but in my view, serious engagement requires that we progress from this to a description of what is really going on operationally. (Technically, at some linguistic level, I’m sure it all remains some kind of metaphor, but at least things get much, much more concrete.)

The blog Gene Expression has a recent post which explains why when we read a headline about a “gene for depression” or whatever, this is usually very misleading. It is a model of science writing. It’s not easy to engage seriously with the science, avoid jargon, and keep your eye on the main issue. I think that a broadly educated person in the 21st century should have the level of understanding on this topic that you will get from the post.

I wrote an article for National Review a few years ago in which I argued that the fact of our ignorance in this area – that while intelligence and other mental traits have been understood to be somewhat heritable since at least the time of Homer, we do not have the practical ability to understand why person X has normal psychological make-up Y based on analysis of his or her genome – is likely to be very important to thinking about public policy in the upcoming decades.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)

Oscar the Grouch

Others have commented that The Muppets serves as, by embodying or enacting, an answer to the fears fans had about what Disney would do with the Muppets franchise. That is to say: Disney knew fans would be afraid that they would exploit the Muppets and thereby destroy them, and this is exactly what the villain in the movie tries to do – replace the Muppets with the odious “Moopets.” By acknowledging the fear, and refuting it by making a movie that is true to the actual Muppet spirit, Disney has proven that they are not the villain in their own movie.

But has anyone noticed that this means the climactic speech of the movie is delivered in bad faith?

Near the end of the film, the Muppets have failed to raise the money necessary to save their old studio and keep their cherished name and brand from being strip-mined by Chris Cooper. As they file out of the home they’ve lost, Kermit gives a rousing, inspirational speech about how they haven’t failed at all, because they did get back together, they did put on a show, and if they want to make a go of it again, they can do that – and Chris Cooper and his contracts can’t stop them. They don’t need their old name and their old studio. They just need each other.

But if that’s true, then why did Disney buy the franchise?

I have mixed feelings about the movie as a whole. There were things in it that I thought were brilliant – and very true to the original Muppets. Top of the list, from my perspective, were the opening “growing up muppet” sequence of Walter and Gary, and the amazing ballad, “Man or Muppet;” close behind is May (Amy Adams) and Miss Piggy’s song, “Me Party.” And there were a variety of other moments that “clicked” with the original. The “rain” on the window that Mary looks out of that turns out to be water from a hose. Traveling by map. The fact that Mary is reading a thesaurus when she’s waiting for Gary back at the hotel. The verse, “Life’s a filet of fish….yes, it is” from “Life’s a Happy Song.” And so forth.

But precious few of these moments involved the original characters. Indeed, apart from Miss Piggy, I didn’t feel like any of them had their old joie de vivre. It was striking, to me, how easy it was to “get the gang back together.” Also how easy it was to whip the show into shape – we see one rehearsal going badly, and then the show going like clockwork. And none of the acts in the show remotely lived up to the original – Gonzo’s “head bowling” was particularly lame, but even the best act, the chickens singing “Cluck You” was a joke that wasn’t spun out to its full potential (I can’t believe they missed the opportunity to play off the fact that Gonzo, basically, keeps the chickens as a harem, but even if you didn’t want to go there the joke as it was delivered was just a bit of reference humor, because the actual song and dance routine the chickens do wasn’t, itself, funny).

And Kermit’s was the most problematic “reboot” of all. The outline of a character arc was there. Kermit needed Walter to remind him of what he really loved about life, which wasn’t being a star but putting on a show with his friends. Except that, from where I was sitting, it just didn’t happen on screen. In virtually every scene – most especially in his emceeing of the show – Kermit seemed to me to be phoning it in. It’s partly a problem of character – this Kermit is exceptionally passive, never coming up with solutions for problems, always ready to admit defeat. But this could have worked brilliantly if it had built to a big moment of recognition that this is what he was doing, and he finally returned to his true self. (Kermit is the Aragorn figure of the movie, the true king in self-imposed exile because he doesn’t believe he is actually fit to be king.) But that moment of recognition never really came. We got the speech after the moment – the speech about not having really failed and how it doesn’t really matter if they lose the studio or their name. But we didn’t get the moment.

But it was more a problem of performance. Kermit, in his prime, was a great leading man, a blend of Humphrey Bogart’s rumpled integrity and Cary Grant’s barely-suppressed hysteria. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Stanley Cavell again.) This Kermit doesn’t seem like that character grown old – it seems like that performer going through the motions.

There’s one flash of the old Kermit in the movie, in this exchange with Fozzie:

Kermit the Frog: Guys, we can’t kidnap Jack Black. That’s illegal!
bq. Fozzie Bear: What’s more illegal, Kermit: Kidnapping Jack Black, or destroying the Muppet name for good?
bq. Kermit the Frog: Kidnapping Jack Black!

There are plenty snappier and fresher lines in the movie, but this is the only one I remember Kermit delivering as if he were the old Kermit. (Unfortunately, Jack Black doesn’t actually do anything for the show he’s kidnapped to celebrity-host.)

To my mind, most of the best things in the movie involved the new characters: Walter, Gary and Mary. The old characters felt crushed under the weight of nostalgia. Their story was about their recovery of their true selves, but they never actually got to be their true selves. Their telethon show, after a while, started to feel like Mickey Rourke’s nostalgia bout at the end of The Wrestler. I can’t imagine that’s the effect the movie makers were aiming for.

All of which loops back to my original question: why do the reboot? If a reboot was to happen, it is obviously vastly preferable that it not be a Moopets-like desecration, and Disney is to be praised for sparing us that. But I sense that the level of praise this movie has received is partly due to sheer relief. It isn’t a desecration. But it’s a work of nostalgia. And nostalgia is not, in the end, a generative sentiment.

Or maybe it’s just that my son was kind of bored by it.

The Beginning of the Ways of God

Rod Dreher asks:

Question: Are there any happy-go-lucky saints? Any great artists who are thoroughgoing optimists? I can’t see that.

I’ll take a pass on the saints, and I’ll take a pass as well on “optimistic” because that’s a very shallow word – as is pessimistic. But Dreher is telling himself a story about the relationship between suffering and meaning, or about the transcendent value of a radical disconnection from ordinary modes of being (manifested by saints and holy fools and such). And I’ll nominate two artists who don’t, I think, fit the picture Dreher paints of the relationship between suffering, meaning and the divine: Henri Matisse and Samuel Beckett.

I like picking Matisse because his career proves you can make profoundly beautiful work that really is about nothing but being happy.

And I like picking Beckett because his career proves you can live what must be accounted a deeply meaningful life while not only staring into the abyss, but setting up house there.

And I like pairing them with each other because their moods could not be more opposite, and yet both are plainly comfortable in the world, this world, the word of sense and feeling that anyone can participate in.

At the end of the Book of Job, God speaks to his faithful servant out of the whirlwind. He does not tell him that his suffering had a transcendent purpose – we know it didn’t; it was inflicted on Job because God made an absurd bet with Satan. Nor does he (contra Archibald Macleish) simply browbeat Job into submission by showing him how much he doesn’t understand, and how much more powerful God is than a puny mortal man. Instead, God calls Behemoth his chief creation and lavishes line after line in praise of the wondrous Leviathan. That’s the climax of God’s message – that these wondrous monsters are what God is most proud of.

Then, of course, God tells Job’s comforters that they were wrong and Job was right, and gives Job back everything he lost – new house, new cattle, new family. But what does Job do? He names his three new daughters Jemima, Kezia and Keren Happuch – roughly, sunshine, perfume and eyeshadow.

Which, when you think about it, is not so far from “luxe, calme et volupte.”

That Rotting Smell is College Sports

I’m a little disappointed that Ross Douthat, a sophisticated moralist, could look at the monstrous fiasco at Penn State and think that the compelling independent variable in all this is Joe Paterno. Douthat compares Paterno to Father Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the Colombian priest who went from humble service to the poor of Medellin to flakking for pedophile priests in Rome. You can read what Ross says about Father Castrillón, but I just want to ask: Why should we start out from the assumption that Joe Paterno and his program are exceptional in their dishonesty, their bland bureaucratic evasions of basic moral responsibilities?

What happened around the Sandusky allegations, after all, is what big-time athletic programs do – they lie; they cover up; they fudge; they condone cheating; the require cheating; they scapegoat to avoid accountability; they force crude double standards of assessment and behavior on their universities (which put up little fight); they claim flagrant zones of exemption in admissions requirements, which they often get their universities to basically waive altogether; they minimize misbehavior, often criminal, when they cannot describe it out of existence; they secure their talent in a mortifying pageant of “recruiting” in which grown men, like clumsy Casanovas, wheedle and lie to high school juniors via endless text messages; and, while these men make piles of money from their recruits, the recruits don’t actually get what you’d call “paid,” because they’re amateurs, or as their coaches sometimes say, into cameras, for national audiences, with straight faces, “student-athletes” (that the people on the receiving end of these reassurances don’t burst out in derisive laughter is grist for another rant about the funny idea of sports journalism).

Actually, this isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are. It’s how they exist, at all. The compost smell from this steaming pile of sordid practices is their smell. That smell is their steaming-compost essence. It might have been an interesting hypothetical, a month ago, even for someone with as jaded a view of college sports as I possess, whether a program defined by such a compost smell would cover up something as heinous as a coach raping boys in its own showers, thus freeing him to rape boys hand-picked from his foundation-for-boys for as long as he cared to. It’s not a hypothetical anymore. Now we know the answer.

So, when people wonder what it was about Joe Paterno, personally, that made this disaster possible, I can only shake my head and ask: Where’s your materialism, people? Joe Paterno was the nice, avuncular, highly successful, stunningly old boss of such an organization. He did what his organization wanted him to do. Proof of this is that, given the chance, his organization – from the “graduate assistant” (let’s linger over this exquisite term for just a moment: graduate assistant; it almost sounds as if his function as an “assistant” is tied in some way to his academic standing as a “graduate,” that is, a graduate in some subject in the learning of which he is now “assisting” other aspirants to this august status as a “graduate”) to his nominal superiors in the Penn State athletic department and university administration – did the exact same thing he did. They did what the organization wanted them to do.

Surely these men are not as great as Joe Paterno, and thus subject to the same great-man blindnesses that brought him low, and yet they did just as he did. They fudged, they covered up, they did the minimum necessary so as to avoid bringing a powerful man to account, they redescribed the rape of a 10-year-old boy as “horsing around in the showers,” and like college coaches everywhere when they talk to recruits and reporters about what their programs are really about, and like administrators when they describe these programs as having a legitimate or even comprehensible place in their universities, they lied. What happened at Penn State was the scheme of big-money college sports working as it was designed to work. The act of looking away, repeated by so many in State College, is the perfect emblem for the cognitive politics of the NCAA. It should be on their flag.

Focusing on Joe Paterno, and puzzling how this could happen in idyllic State College, Pennsylvania, or, conversely, snarking about the unique evil that must lurk below the surface in State College, Pennsylvania (I mean, the students rioted for their coach; students wouldn’t have done that anywhere else) are ways for everyone to advance the state of cognitive dissonance that made this disaster possible in the first place.

Let me ask a sobering question: How do we know this isn’t happening at other big-time programs, or things just as bad, or worse, or almost as bad? Just for the most easily imagined category of malefaction: How many coeds do you think have been raped by athletes over the years, at the countries’ other athletic powerhouses, and then shamed by administrators into covering it up, or just stonewalled and ignored by campus officials, or just convinced by such prospects to shut up on their own, preemptively? What number do you think that is? Or does that just happen at Penn State, because of Joe Paterno’s unique blindness as a great man? Why shouldn’t the conceit of Joe-Pa’s integrity make us wonder how much worse it is in those many college towns where the king of the dung-heap is more of a manifest scumbag? Jerry Sandusky just happened to get caught, or caught up with, thirteen years after the first sick-making suspicions arose. Clearly, these are people with stronger stomachs than you and I have. You might say they have “iron stomachs.” They can, after all, stand their own smells. So perhaps we should start widening our imaginations, to ponder how many other disgusting things they can stand downwind of, and for how long.

there, I fixed it

Let’s fix college sports, shall we? We do it like this:

1) Eliminate all athletic scholarships. (What’s that you say? Athletic scholarships have been key to getting people from poor and otherwise marginalized communities into the nation’s colleges? Then let’s take the scholarship money that now goes to athletes and send it towards those communities without asking whether the young people involved can run fast or kick a ball accurately. Since big-time sports are money-losing propositions for almost all schools, there may even be some extra money for scholarships.)

2) Keep all the sports that universities currently sponsor, but treat them largely as clubs. Or, if the varsity/club distinction must be maintained, limit the number of coaches and pay them on the same scale used for, say, theater or dance teachers.

3) Disband the NCAA.

4) Encourage the boosters who have poured millions of dollars into their favorite universities’ sports teams to work with the NFL to create something like England’s Football Association. Ideally, the NFL would become the equivalent of the Premier League, with only the twenty best teams in the top tier, and a promotion/relegation fight each year. The boosters would likely be far happier as team owners, able to shop for and buy talent without having to try to dodge onerous NCAA regulations. At the outset, the second tier of FA-USA would be made up of the twelve weakest current NFL teams plus eight teams located at the sites of long-standing college football powerhouses: Austin, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Pasadena, Norman, Columbus, Ann Arbor, and so on. With the application of some marketing skill — including shrewd color choices and the signing of local heroes — fan loyalty could relatively easily be transferred from the universities to the new professional teams. And the universities could make some money by leasing their stadiums to the new leagues.

5) The promotion/relegation model could be applied to basketball and perhaps baseball as well, again drawing on local fandom and university arenas. (Imagine how much fun it would be to see the Tar Heels promoted and the Bobcats relegated in the same year. Talk about rivalries!) Connect the traditional basketball powers to the NBA’s developmental league — assuming the NBA eventually gets its act together — and the traditional baseball powers to appropriate levels of the minor leagues.

6) Eliminate aluminum bats at all levels of competitive baseball. (Yes, I know that’s not really relevant here, but while I’m dreaming. . . .)

7) Encourage the FA-USA to create college scholarships for their players, to be taken advantage of in the off-season or after retirement. Let those who like the current system because they are concerned about the athletes having opportunities after college make contributions to this fund.

There, it’s all better now. You’re welcome.

No Margin For Error

I saw the movie Margin Call a couple of weeks ago, and had a couple of points to make about it that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Actually, three, but the additional point has been made before, to whit: see it. It’s the first movie about Wall Street I’ve ever seen that gets it even remotely right – at least, right based on my experience. I’ve worked with every single one of the guys depicted in that movie. The world depicted is real. Not, of course, in every single detail – but in the important ways, yes, it’s real. And for that reason alone – along with the wonderful ensemble acting and the surprisingly strong pacing of the writing and direction (since almost nothing actually happens, it seems superficially slow, but it’s actually paced almost perfectly).

Now, for my actual two points.

First, John Tuld, the Jeremy Irons character is regularly being compared to Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers. But if I understood the action of the movie correctly, and the actual events of 2008, Tuld does exactly the opposite of what Fuld did. After Bear Stearns was basically forced to sell to JPMorgan Chase in March of 2008, everyone looked over to Lehman as the next domino potentially to fall. But the Fed started allowing investment banks to borrow at the window, and for a few months everybody relaxed. Fuld did not take the opportunity of the spring and summer lull to clean up the mess at his firm – rather, he tried to brazen his way through the crisis, assuming he’d be bailed out. This outrageous arrogance is a major reason why the government refused to lift a finger to save Lehman, which, in turn, led Lehman to seek the protection of Chapter 11, at which point we entered the full-fledged phase of the financial crisis.

Now, I’m not saying that Dick Fuld caused the financial crisis single-handedly. Had he done what John Tuld does in the movie, and aggressively liquidated his portfolio of sub-prime-mortgage-backed securities, he might have failed – or he might have succeeded in driving Merrill Lynch over the brink instead of Lehman. Who knows. The same weekend Lehman went under, AIG, a much, much bigger ship, was revealed to be hulled way below the water line. This was a systemic crisis; every major Wall Street house, and plenty of minor banks, along with the Federal Government and quasi-government entities like Fannie and Freddie, not to mention independent quasi-regulatory organs like the ratings agencies, was implicated. But I am saying that John Tuld, who appears to be the villain of the movie (inasmuch as there is a human villain, as opposed to the abstraction of “Wall Street”), does exactly the opposite of what his model, Dick Fuld, one of the widely-recognized and vilified villains of the actual financial crisis, did in real life. Which should tell us something about the nature of decisionmaking in the crisis.

Tuld reminded me, in fact, of the structural heroes of Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short. Lewis’s narrative follows a handful of guys who, following John Tuld’s three possible ways to make money on Wall Street (“Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.”) were first, because they were smarter. They saw through the flim-flam of the sub-prime mortgage pyramid scheme and, rather than join the party and try to ride it as far as one could, decided to short the whole business. In the popular understanding, these guys were among the villains of the crisis – or, rather, the instrument (the naked default swap) that they used to execute their trades, and the investment banks (most notably Goldman) who facilitated them were the villains. Because what these guys were doing was picking the worst mortgages and shorting them (betting they would default) by having investment banks package the other side (a long position in said junk mortgages) into securities to sell to buy-side accounts as legitimate investment products. Which said banks did. So they are understood to be part of the chain of villainy: their trades kept the game going, and made the game more toxic, and made them a whole lot of money while trashing the world financial system. But in Lewis’s book, these guys are – structurally – the heroes. Because they are the guys who didn’t cheat. They were smarter, and earlier, than everybody else in assessing what was likely to happen. They placed their bets, took their chances, and profited. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. The villains, in the Lewis book, aren’t speculators like these short-sellers, but the guys who put mortgages together into securities and marketed them as investment vehicles without caring what junk was was in the pools. The short-sellers were making money off that villainy, but they weren’t the villains.

So, to get back to Tuld, he – and his fictional firm – had been playing the game for years. And Tuld figured out – early, thanks to the smart work of risk analyst Peter Sullivan (the Zach Quinto character) – that the music was stopping, and that when it stopped his firm would be bankrupt. And so he made the call: liquidate everything, immediately, before the crisis hits. Save the firm. Screw the clients.

Which is the right call. It has to be the right call. It’s not a disinterested call – I’d assume more than 50% of the fictional Tuld’s wealth is tied up in his firm’s stock. But the whole reason he’s got all that stock is to incentivize him to do what’s right for the firm rather than what’s right for him individually, by making what’s right for the firm and what’s right for him individually identical. Of course you screw the clients when the survival of the firm is on the line. You’re not there to serve the clients. You’re there to serve the shareholders.

And there’s no systemic reason not to do it either. As John Tuld says: “I don’t cheat.” He doesn’t pull the accountants in and say: I order you to hide the loss. He doesn’t pull risk management in and say: I order you to change how we calculate VaR. He says: sell it all. To willing buyers. At the best price you can negotiate. If that’s not what he’s supposed to do, then I’m really not sure what he’s supposed to do. I suppose try to blackmail the government into bailing him out. Which is what Dick Fuld did.

All of which brings me to my second point: Sam Rogers, the Kevin Spacey character. Now, over the course of the movie, this guy, the head of the trading floor responsible for all this crap, moves from the periphery to the center of the movie. He’s the one who questions Tuld’s decision to sell everything. He’s the one who everyone looks to as the “good” guy – the one who gives the pep talks to the folks who haven’t been laid off as well as the guy who the folks who were laid off still trust and look up to, and don’t really blame for what happened. He’s the veteran, the lifer. He appears, structurally, to be the hero – a tragic hero, like Michael Corleone, who sacrifices his own sense of right and wrong for the good of the family, but a hero nonetheless.

And that’s a load of self-pitying horse-hockey.

Let’s take a closer look at Sam Rogers. The first thing we learn about him is that he’s got a dog who’s dying, and he’s totally broken up over it. Now, you could take this as a save the cat moment that makes us sympathetic toward the character – and it is, except that’s a trick. We do become sympathetic to him. But precisely because we do, we don’t notice – not until later, when we’re supposed to – what the dog’s death is really telling us about him. Because his mourning for the dog is so over-the-top, it should clue us in to something about this guy. It’s not that he’s so caring that he’s broken up over the death of his dog. It’s that the dog is all he’s got left. Which is confirmed at the end of the movie, when we find him burying the dog on the lawn of his ex-house, now occupied by his ex-wife. This is where his loyalty to the firm has got him: to a place where he cannot afford to walk away from a job he now despises because he lost all his assets in what we must presume was an ugly and acrimonious divorce.

At the big, late-night executive committee meeting, Rogers is the one to stand up to Tuld, and tell him he can’t do what he’s planning to do – he can’t screw over their entire client base this way. They’ll never trade with the firm again. Tuld says he understands. Rogers asks: do you? To which Tuld responds: do you? This is it! Meaning: there’s no point in keeping our clients if we don’t have a firm left to trade with them.

All of which is true. But, of course, Sam Rogers is not the firm. If he gives his sales force the order to liquidate everything, their clients will be furious. With his sales force, and with him. He, personally, stands to suffer. The firm may survive, but his career won’t.

But that’s the conflict. To do his job, he must sacrifice his career. To preserve his career, he’d have to refuse to do his job.

It is very, very difficult for me to see this as a moral conflict. It sounds an awful lot like a question that can be resolved monetarily: how much do we need to pay you to do your job so that you don’t worry about the fact that you’ve just torched your career?

But that assumes that Rogers’s career is just a way for him to make money. That it’s not a vocation. And, obviously, that’s not the way Rogers sees it. He, in his own view, has been doing something more than just earning a living. He’s been a leader. A mentor. A man people look up to.

Corporations need people with Sam Rogers’s skills and their self-conceptions. But the Sam Rogerses of the world would do well to bear in mind that these skills and this self-understanding is being exploited. There is no higher purpose for which they are leading their teams. The only purpose is making money. The moment when there is no prospect of doing that, the team will be disbanded.

This character, Sam Rogers, lost sight of that fact. His lack of cynicism makes him seem like the hero of the piece, but it’s just self-delusion. The only choice he faces is the choice I identified above: preserve your career, or do your job. That’s a purely self-interested question. There are no higher values involved. But the choice forced him to recognize that he had imbued both sides of the equation with emotions that were undeserved. He didn’t just feel like the firm was a good place to work; he felt loyalty. He didn’t just feel like his career was a way to make money; he felt like it was an identity. Being forced to betray your identity to prove your loyalty is a lot more serious than trying to decide whether $6 million is adequate compensation for ending your career on a sour note. But that is, in a fundamental way, Sam Rogers’s fault. He’s the one who decided that he couldn’t do his job unless it was more than a job.

The real message of the Sam Rogers character’s story is: if you’re that kind of character, you don’t belong on Wall Street. Because these character traits, which in the normal world we think of, basically, as strengths, are weaknesses that will be ruthlessly exploited – like everything else is – in the pursuit of profit. Exploitation which it’s difficult for me to fault guys like John Tuld for engaging in. Since, after all, that’s their job.

And that would have been a very good message indeed for the Peter Sullivans of the world to get before they got on the money train. Because once you’re on that train, as pretty much every character in the movie admits, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get off.

Which is another thing this movie gets right.

UPDATE: I was remiss in not pointing out at least one reviewer who understood that the story isn’t really about Lehman specifically. I don’t recall whether I read his review before writing mine, but I probably did, and he deserves the shout-out. Sorry for the omission.

O captain, my captain

For me, the question that looms largest about the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal is this: How could someone see a man raping a child and fail to intervene? Fail even to call 911? I can contemplate many difficult, challenging, frightening situations that cause me to ask myself what I really would do if faced with them — and cause me to have no clear answer. This isn't one of them. How could Mike McQueary not have done more?

The answer, I think, lies in the tradition — as old as football itself — of pretending that football is a branch of the military. Players often talk about other players they'd go to war with. That linebacker is a warrior. The guys in this locker room, they know I've got their back. Football coaches, more perhaps than coaches in any other sport, play up the idea that the team is comprised of a besieged band of brothers who can trust only one another. (Even at the school where I teach — a Division III school with no athletic scholarships, thank God — the football players sit together at dinner and chant and shout.) Moreover, the coaches themselves are the primary beneficiaries of this governing military metaphor: they are your commanding officers, and to them you are uniquely and solely accountable. I bet it never occurred to Mike McQueary to call the police. I bet the first, last, and only thought he had was: I have to tell Coach.

This pretense that sport is war and a team an army obviously extends to other sports as well, but it functions most powerfully in football. In most other sports there aren't enough players to make the metaphor work really well, and there is more room for purely individual initiative and achievement. But a football team really is like a company made up of three platoons — offense, defense, and special teams — whose assistant coaches are very like platoon leaders. It's no surprise that McQueary thought only of telling Coach Paterno. He was reporting to his commanding officer, than whom no higher (or other) authority could be imagined.

Marc Hauser is in hot water (again)

A few weeks back, the philosopher Gilbert Harman had posted to his personal Web site a short paper arguing that Marc Hauser had borrowed excessively, and without proper attribution, from the ideas of the scholar John Mikhail in Hauser’s book Moral Minds. When it started to get some public attention Harman quickly took the document down, saying that he didn’t mean for it to be widely read, and had put it up just to solicit some comments from friends and colleagues. But the other day, Harman re-posted his argument (in a revised form), together with a substantial response from Hauser. (The Boston Globe has a story on the incident, here, and here is something on the subject from the Wall Street Journal.) I’ve not read Hauser’s book, but if his response to Harman contains the best that can be said in his defense, then the situation looks dire. This is the sort of thing that students can be expelled from school (at least, from my school) for, and whether or not it is in violation of institutional guidelines or disciplinary best practices, what Hauser has done is clearly dishonest and unethical — and none of that changes if Hauser did all this “by accident”, whether because he didn’t recognize the extent of Mikhail’s influence on him or because he didn’t see the need to give him more credit. (That would just make him culpably ignorant.) To argue, as Hauser essentially does in his reply, that he really wasn’t influenced by Mikhail as much as he oh-so-obviously was, does not do much to help his cause.

But that’s just what I think. How about you?

How the Rest of 2011 Played Out

I’ve been in a powerfully good mood, which makes me a little uncomfortable as my good is running counter to the business cycle. So the following is an effort to construct a somewhat darker but still plausible scenario.

Read the full article

Wrapping Up My Season in Canada

More shows in Canada!

A combined review of two musical productions, Camelot, at Stratford, and My Fair Lady, at Shaw

And a third musical, the glorious Stratford production of Twelfth Night

Two very serious dramas: The Merry Wives of Windsor and The President

And the family-friendly comic romp known as Titus Andronicus

A moving Grapes of Wrath

And it’s about time for a decent Canadian play like The Little Years

I believe that wraps up Canadian theatre for me. Stratford also has a production of the one-woman show, Shakespeare’s Will, starring the incomparable Seana McKenna, but it’s a remount of a production they did a few years ago, and I wrote it up then.

But I’ve already seen a couple of shows in Chicago, and more to come in New York. So do keep visiting Millman’s Shakesblog!

Canada: Still Acting

Short break from rating about monetary policy: they are still doing theatre up at Stratford, and this is a truly magnificent season. I’ll have reviews of the entire season up in a few days; here’s the first batch:

The Homecoming


Jesus Christ Superstar

Richard III

The Misanthrope

Please visit me at Millman’s Shakesblog – more coming soon.

Steve Jobs and our perception of wealth

Will Wilkinson makes a few very good points about how Steve Jobs get a free pass from the press and the general public for being a very rich, tyrannical business magnate, a typically reviled species, because the products his company makes are objects of lust.

Noting that Jobs seems to have evinced no interest in philanthropy whatsoever, in contrast to most other telegenic moguls, and contrasting Jobs’ image with that of the Koch brothers, Mr Wilkinson writes: “An iPhone is a small enchanting comfort in a harsh, disenchanting world. We’ll make Mr Jobs even richer, if he gives us a chance. But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ‘em, the greedy bastards.”

The points are very well taken, but I would tend to view them in a more optimistic light.

I think Mr Wilkinson and I are in broad general agreement that, except in cases of egregious corporate welfare and the like, in the main entrepreneurs who create new products and services are praiseworthy.

This is in contrary to a prevailing cultural view that business is intrinsically predatory and could be summarized by the famous Balzac quote “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Thus, is our culture hypocritical for lionizing Jobs while disdaining the Waltons because Apple products are beautiful and aspirational while Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart is decidedly downmarket? Sure.

Or it could give us cause to be optimistic. Precisely because Jobs is such an archetype of a ruthless business magnate, and yet we adore him because we adore his products, perhaps this will shift our culture’s perception somewhat, and help us realize that people who provide goods and services that others in a free market find valuable, are not thereby detestable.

I can’t remember the details, but President Obama was once asked about his views on redistribution and “the rich” and pointed to Steve Jobs as an example of someone who produced useful goods and services in the marketplace and therefore deserves every penny in his bank (or rather, brokerage) account.

Some pundit (again, can’t remember who) responded that the President should not hold up Jobs as an example, but instead praise Bill Gates, who accumulated fantastic wealth in the private sector but then, in marked contrast to Jobs, decided to dole it all out. But no, in this case the President was absolutely right: it is praiseworthy by itself that Steve Jobs created highly popular goods and services and accumulated fantastic wealth. One should not have to “buy” acceptance of one’s success by posing for a magazine spread next to a freshly-drilled well in Africa. And Jobs’ treatment shows that our culture is ready, at least for one man, to accept that.

I may be overly optimistic, but perhaps instead of highlighting our cultural schizophrenia about wealth, the lionization of Jobs is a small step towards righting it.

(To be clear: I think it’s great when rich people give tons to charity. But I’m not making a moral judgement, I’m talking about the way our culture views wealth. Donating to charity to get on the frontpages of magazines, as opposed to doing it to do actual good, isn’t very morally praiseworthy either, but none of us can judge the heart of man.)

Before looking for the right answers, look for the right questions

Thanks for a great post, Noah.

I would make a few points, however.

First of all, Noah you’re right that my distinction probably doesn’t apply to some Oriental religions. Confucianism and some strains of Buddhism do indeed define themselves at least as much as ways of life as religious beliefs. I thought about adding a disclaimer to that effect to my original post but thought that was a bit lawyerly. Also I’m sure some faiths explicitly say “If you do this, you cannot be a Zoroastrist/Jainist/whatever.” (And with regard to Judaism, “Who is a Jew?” is a Pandora’s box I don’t want to touch right now.) This isn’t what this is about.

Second of all, you are right that I’m talking about religious belief not sociology. Obviously from a sociological perspective the only way you can determine religious belief through “external” factors. But if you want to learn about more than sociology, it’s a pretty limited approach.

Though, I’m curious, what would you think of a sociological study that said “We’re not counting the adulterers in this society as Christians”? (Let’s assume that this is a society for which we have detailed, Kinsley-type data, on who tends to be an adulterer or not.)

Third of all, I really wanted to make a narrower point, which is to attack the (in my view) unfounded axiom that some actions are automatically incompatible with (most) religious belief. I have little quarrel with the question “Why do you as a X, do Y?” That’s a good question. And I might be getting into a tizzy over semantics; people might mean “Why do you” when they say “How can you”, and in some cases that’s indeed the case. But I don’t think that’s always, or even the majority of cases.

And in any case, when I am given that question, I don’t jump on a high horse and say “How dare you give me that baffling question!” I interpret it as “Why do you”, and I do give one of these answers:

He could say: some Christians may consider X a sin, but I don’t, and I according to my faith I have the competency to make that judgement, so I see no contradiction. He could say: yes, it is a sin, and I struggle against it because I do believe it is a sin, but I am weak, and it is precisely because I know that I am weak that I am a Christian – so, again, there is no contradiction.

But let’s try to take your points and work through them.

First, your example of two men, one of whom acts like a Christian but does not believe the central tenet of the Christian faith, and the other who attacks Christianity but believes that the Apostles’ Creed is true. You’re right, I don’t think the first man is a Christian.

As for the second man, your literary reference gives up the game: it is precisely because Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a Christian, and not in the sense of belonging to an established church but in the sense of believing that Jesus is the son of God, that the story is so profound and real.

Let me take a perhaps imperfect analogy: what about a man who has a family life, a wife, and children, and regularly has sex with his wife. Maybe he even flirts with his secretary. But he is only sexually and romantically attracted to other men, and that has been the case since puberty, even though he has not so much as kissed another man. He bears his secret in silence. To borrow your phrase, we know that man exists.

Is that man straight, or is he gay? I think most people would say he is gay, even though without knowing his heart it would be impossible to say so.

Let me take a more provocative example. What about a man who loves his wife passionately, more than anything. And yet he drinks, he cheats on his wife, and he even occasionally beats her and his children. Does such a man exist? I think a lot of people would say, “No, a man who beats his wife cannot possibly love her.” And yet I think we both know from literature and from the incredible complexity of human nature, that this man does exist. And, of course, his love for his wife excuses none of his actions. It doesn’t mean that the guy isn’t a terrible person. But it doesn’t mean that his love doesn’t exist.

What about a man who greatly loves his wife but, wrongly thinking she has a relationship with another man, kills her, Noah? Do we find an example of something like that in history or literature? Is the murder incompatible with love?

And that’s kind of the point I was trying to make. The CW on domestic violence is that it’s impossible to love your wife and simultaneously beat her. And to descend in the murky waters of sociology and public policy for a second, the CW leads to bad outcomes. Because while many battered women stay because of fear or emotional blackmail or other coercive reasons, many of them do stay because of (requited) love, which makes it harder to fight domestic violence because people will say “Just leave that horrible man!” and then throw up their hands when they don’t, where a more nuanced approach would have a greater chance of success.

And so, let’s take the case of the pedophile-covering-up bishop.

You write:

If someone asked “How could bishop so-and-so do that, if he really is a Christian,” I should hope the answer would be, “indeed, his actions were gravely sinful, and if he doesn’t understand that then I, too, question the sincerity of his profession of faith.”

A tentative answer that probably won’t satisfy you and that I’m not sure satisfies me: That would indeed be my answer. But while I would certainly question the sincerity of that man’s profession of faith, I would not either categorically deny it.

Just like, upon learning that a man cheats on his wife and beats her, I would certainly question whether he does love her, but I would not discount the possibility either.

You write:

Because if that isn’t the answer, then on what basis can anyone ever question the authenticity of someone else’s professed faith?

Well, exactly. You say: “How can anyone question…” I say: “Why would anyone…”? What does that teach us?

It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about whether someone’s actions are morally right or not, except to say “And he’s a hypocrite, to boot!”

And, I think it doesn’t really tell us about whether someone is a Christian.

I guess it might tell us something about whether someone is a “good” Christian, but I don’t think the category “good Christian” means much of anything and, oh look, it just happens that we have reams and reams of writing about what it means to be a “good” Christian! Starting with the Bible, and, in the case of my denomination, the doctrinal writings of the Church and the lives of saints. If there’s one thing the Catholic Church is good at, it’s producing documentation on the Catholic religion. (And funny hats, amirite?)

And that was the point of my post. If we want to learn some things about religion, what are some good questions to ask?

To go back to my post, I think the question to ask is what does it teach us to ask the religion/action compatibility question? And my answer is: nothing at all.

A more valuable question is “Why would someone who professes religion X do action Y?” — but, and there lies the rub, once you’ve gotten past the non-contradictory answers you point out, this is a question about human nature, not religion. Which is fine, I guess. But, at the risk of sounding tautological, if you’re curious about religion, asking questions whose answers won’t teach you about religion isn’t going to teach you much about religion. Which was my point.

But here’s the thing: the subtext to this entire debate is really the question: “Does (my particular) religious belief make people a better people?” “And if so, to what extent, and how, and why?”

To the first question, my answer is a resounding yes.

But, out of the crooked timber of humanity, etc. I don’t think being Catholic makes people better every time and in a straight line. (Read Graham Greene, etc.) I think it is more likely, on the whole and over time, to make people better persons.

And maybe I’m wrong! And we can debate that! It’s an interesting debate!

But again, “How is person X doing action Y compatible with professing faith Z?” doesn’t teach us anything about that. Or anything else.

When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me

PEG says:

To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics. Either you believe that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet or you don’t. If you do, and you eat pork, this will not make Muhammad more, or less, the Prophet. The two things aren’t related.

From where I sit, and with apologies for my firmness of tone, that’s almost completely wrong for most of the world’s religions. You are not a Jew because you hold particular beliefs; ditto for being a Hindu; ditto for being a Buddhist; ditto for any number of other religions. Sociologically speaking, religion is a matter of affiliation, and secondarily of practice, but for most of the world’s religions these two questions are formally the predominant ones, certainly more so than belief.

Christianity, of course, does define itself in terms of belief. But from the epistemological standpoint of PEG’s questioners, I think PEG is wrong about Christianity as well.

Consider: a man, in his heart, believes that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, died for the world’s sins, and was resurrected to life eternal. Someone who believes this is some kind of Christian, yes?

Now consider that this man takes the following actions: to denounce Christianity as false and evil, publicly desecrate the host, and persecute Christians even to death.

We know such men exist. Why they do what they do may be debated. Perhaps one cannot bear the guilt of knowing what his God suffered for him, and he assuages his guilt by this kind of extravagant and violent rejection of what he knows to be true. (That would probably be Dostoevsky’s version of the character.) Another, perhaps, lives in a society in which Christians are generally persecuted, and it is fear that inclines him to join, even lead, the majority, against the dictates of his conscience. Undoubtedly there are myriad other examples, each with his or her own reason.

Now consider another man. He is a pious follower of the church. Prays daily. Tithes. Does frequent deeds of charity in the name of and through the organs of that church. In his personal life, he does everything he can to lead the life, if not of a saint or a martyr, then certainly of an exemplary follower and devotee of Christ.

But in his heart, he denies the divinity of Jesus, the historicity of the resurrection or any of the miracles.

Again, we know this man exists. Why doesn’t he announce to the world that he is not a Christian, and at least leave off from praying? Again, there could be many reasons. One has a sentimental attachment to the ceremonies she grew up with. Another lives in an overwhelmingly Christian community, and doesn’t want to rock the boat. Another wants to set a good example for his children, as his parents did for him, and doesn’t want to burden them with his unbelief. And so forth – again, any number of possible examples, each with his or her own rationale.

By PEG’s definition, the first type is a Christian, and the second is not. Religion is, he says, a matter of metaphysics – what you actually believe. I don’t think that’s a good definition of “religion” – but it’s a perfectly workable definition of “Christian” from an idealist rather than sociological perspective.

But from the outside, the only way I can judge either of them is by their actions. And even the statement, “I affirm that I am a Christian” is an action. It is not, in and of itself, a belief. It is a statement of belief – and speaking is an action.

When someone asks PEG, “How can you be a Christian and do X,” that person is doing exactly what PEG – by his own definition of religion – is asking them to do: understand the contents of his heart and judge his religion accordingly. Unpacking the question a bit, it goes like this: You say you are a Christian (an action). Yet you do this thing that, I thought, Christians considered sinful (an action). So either I don’t understand what Christians think you should or should not do, or I need to determine which action – your profession or faith or your act of sin – is a better guide for me to understand what you really believe.

PEG could answer in various ways. He could say: some Christians may consider X a sin, but I don’t, and I according to my faith I have the competency to make that judgement, so I see no contradiction. He could say: yes, it is a sin, and I struggle against it because I do believe it is a sin, but I am weak, and it is precisely because I know that I am weak that I am a Christian – so, again, there is no contradiction. He could also say: well, yes, I’m a “Christian” in the sense of affiliation with a church, but I don’t believe everything my church tells me to believe – I am competent to make my own calls on these questions, whether my church says I am or not.

And, depending on his answer, his interlocutor might decide, “yes, he is a Christian” or “no, he isn’t a Christian.” The purpose of the question is simply to get more information that bears on the question. So I don’t see why it’s baffling.

Perhaps the bafflement comes from the nature of the “X” in question. What if “X” wasn’t “joke about grabbing your wife’s boobs” but “cover up the crime of molesting little children by your own hierarchical subordinates.” If someone asked “How could bishop so-and-so do that, if he really is a Christian,” I should hope the answer would be, “indeed, his actions were gravely sinful, and if he doesn’t understand that then I, too, question the sincerity of his profession of faith.” Because if that isn’t the answer, then on what basis can anyone ever question the authenticity of someone else’s professed faith?

Now, PEG may simply be saying that formal statements of affiliation or belief should always be taken at face value. If someone says he’s a Christian, there’s nothing to discuss: he or she is a Christian. But what if the person who says so was never baptized properly? What if the person who says so also denies the divinity of Jesus or the historicity of the resurrection – but persists in asserting he or she is a Christian. Should that assertion be taken at face value? If so, then what happened to PEG’s original claim that “religion” is a matter of the content of belief? But if not, then we’re back to judging actions by some external standard: this is what Christians do – in this case, the kinds of statements they make – to show that they are, indeed, Christians.

And if that is the case, then I have to ask why these particular actions are favored. Compare two bishops: one covers up the rape of children and believes that this was the right thing to do. The other denies the historicity of the resurrection, and believes that this, too, is the right thing to do. Are we supposed to judge the authenticity of people’s Christianity by the orthodoxy of their formal faith statements (which are, again, actions, statements of belief, not the beliefs themselves) but not by any of their other actions? Really?

It seems to me that the only safe place to go from PEG’s premise – that Christianity is a matter of belief, of metaphysics – is to conclude that nobody can know whether anybody else is really a Christian; that, indeed, it’s exceptionally difficult to know if you yourself are a Christian. That strikes me – as a non-Christian – as an admirable place to go, and an excellent addition to PEG’s standard answer to his questioners. “How can you do X if you are a Christian?” “Well, I like to think I am a Christian, and I believe I am one, but maybe I’m not.”

The Baffling Religion/Action Compatibility Question

Being a religious person in a highly secular world, I often get asked candid questions about religion, and it is always my pleasure to answer them.

The one that always baffles me, though, is, “How can you be a Christian and do X?,” where X is some naughty thing. Sometimes the intent is to level a charge of hypocrisy, but very often the question is asked genuinely.

(Even our own Alan asked me a question in this vein, although he did it with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.)

To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics. Either you believe that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet or you don’t. If you do, and you eat pork, this will not make Muhammad more, or less, the Prophet. The two things aren’t related.

Now, of course, the question “Why do you, as a X, do Y?” makes sense. But in the main, this is not the question people ask. The question people ask is “How can you be a X, and do Y?,” and in most cases they really mean it that way. The implication, of course, is that religious belief is not really a belief but a lifestyle choice.

It’s particularly baffling when the question is posed to a Christian, since the whole premise of the religion is that people are sinners in need of redemption. For non-Christians, the question is more like “How can you drive a car and like the color blue?” (non-sensical), and for Christians the question is more like “How can you drive if you have a car?” (isn’t that the whole point?).

NB: I have cross-posted this to my personal blog, PEG 2.0 , where I have been writing about theology. You’re welcome to suggest topics in the comments you’d like me to answer questions about.

What Am I Doing Here? Or There?

Another post over at Millman’s Shakesblog concerned the role of the critic in writing about new work, whether we’re talking about entirely new work or new productions of established classics. I thought that post might be interesting to some folks who might not otherwise be inclined to wander over. So I’ll repost it here to see what, if anything, the rest of you think.


I don’t mean here as in where I am physically – that’s Canada, the promised land, where I’ve already seen six productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival that I haven’t gotten around to writing about. I mean here as in on this blog, writing about theatre. What is the purpose of this activity?

The question comes to me because I’m still hoping to take this blog to someplace where I could grow more substantial traffic, but as I’ve contemplated doing that I’ve realized that I have only the faintest idea what I’m about. And that led me to the question: what are critics about generally?

I think the purpose of criticism, generally, is to open up additional windows into work that a casual reader/viewer/listener/etc. might not otherwise think to open, or see were there at all. But that’s the function of criticism of work that is already established as worthy of criticism, or that the critic wants to justify moving into that category.

But criticism of new work can barely do this at all, because it doesn’t have the time to be properly reflective, but also because no windows are open yet. And so other considerations may come to overwhelm the proper function of criticism, functions that I think are at least somewhat questionable.

Most obviously, there is the critic’s own desire to have a reputation. If we’re talking about criticism of established work, one hopes this reputation will be based in part – though it never will be entirely – on whether it generates novel insights, and whether it communicates these persuasively and well. But for new work, a reputation can be gained other ways more easily.

The most rewarding strategy for a critic of new work is to be seen as a good pundit – someone with a good track record of getting it “right” – and getting it “right” means predicting what will be received generally the way it was received by the critic in question. For the most “powerful” critics, this process becomes somewhat self-fulfilling: lesser-regarded critics, some producers, and to a limited extent even audiences will fall into line once the great critic has pronounced sentence. For less “powerful” critics, the critic can achieve some of this success by internalizing the expectations of his or her reading audience. If he or she knows their taste well, then he or she can write reviews that will help that audience find works that will appeal. This, though, has essentially nothing to do with criticism; rather, it’s consumer advice – valuable, I would certainly say, but not as criticism.

A critic can also establish a reputation by being a gadfly, a curmudgeon, a wit, a gossip – by adopting a persona that is engaging and entertaining in and of itself, at least to some of the audience. Negative reviews are especially good for this, and I think most people – even artists who hate critics – enjoy a really well-written savaging, because they are entertaining. But this, again, has very little to do with criticism, the best evidence being that the best reviews of this sort are of work that wasn’t worth reviewing from a critical perspective in the first place. Rather than criticism, this is a kind of comedy writing.

Then there is the critic as gourmet. I think this is what most critics, in fact, think they are: people of exceptional taste and knowledge who, whether the mob follows them or not, deserve respect because they have that exceptional taste and knowledge, which empowers them to say what is good, what is better, what is best. (And what is outright bad.) But this is the critical type that is, it seems to me, the least justifiable. The gourmet, after all, does not necessarily educate in any fundamental way – does not communicate actual insights about the work in question. Because that’s not strictly necessary, and in some cases isn’t even possible – how much can you possibly learn about music from reviews of the opera, or about cuisine from reviews of great restaurants? Reviews like these are frequently stuffed with content-free terms of praise or scorn. Many readers read gourmet critics to acquire opinions about works they don’t understand and may never even have experienced, so the gourmet does not even necessarily drive sales to degree that the pundit or consumer advisor does.

So what am I doing here? Well, what I’m doing first and foremost – in keeping with my producerist predilections with regard to art generally – is pleasing myself. Writing so that I clarify for myself what I myself have experienced. I really do think that’s true for all creative writing: you do it for yourself, and then to share it with others. And I hope I am providing actual criticism, thoughtful reflection on, in particular, classical theater and productions thereof. Sharing insights I learned from particular productions in the hopes that readers who are familiar and unfamiliar will learn something – or will argue with me, and I will learn something. Artists generally, and understandably, hate to read criticism of their own work, but if I had to describe my ideal audience there would be a great many artists in it – writers, directors, actors, etc. I like to flatter myself that, if I have an insight into, say, Leontes’s motivations, which came to me because of a particular actor’s performance, that this insight might prove useful to another actor preparing for the role, even differently useful than seeing the other actor’s performance might have been, since that performance might have struck the second actor differently than it did me, and led to different insights (or merely to the imperative to find a different way in, not to copy someone else’s performance).

But, inevitably, I’m going to fall into some of these other patterns: trying to a pundit, or a wit, or a gourmet. And a little of that is ok. But I hope my limited coterie of readers will keep me on the straight and narrow and reprove me if I indulge in those habits too much.

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