LinkedInTwitterFacebook

So, was Augustine black? (or, One of the many difficulties in talking about racism in a historical discipline like philosophy)

A while ago I read Eugene Park’s HuffPo piece and Brian Leiter’s follow-up over at 3 AM asking the question, is philosophy racist, or perhaps more subtly, does it need to include more non-white thinkers in what we teach and research? I have Thoughts with a capital T there, but I’m still struggling to get them into a specific form that’s really worth sharing. (The answer, will most certainly look something like “Yes, but…”, as do most of my thoughts on philosophy. Go not to the Elves, as they say.) But in the mean time, I thought it might be interested to write a bit about a simpler question (which as it turns out isn’t so simple after all): what would it mean to include more voices of color? Is non-white really the standard? And what do we mean by “white,” even?

Let me start off with a few examples from my own focus when I was a grad student, medieval philosophy.

1) Augustine (who’s not really medieval but is usually taught with medieval philosophy – another issue worth talking about some day) was born in Roman northern Africa (specifically in what’s now Algeria) in the 4th Century. His mother was Berber, and I’ve heard alternating accounts that his father was Latin or Phoenician.

Was he “black”? Certainly he was African. (So, for the record were the church fathers Tertullian and Origen.) And if you know anything about race relations in antiquity, you know a few centuries earlier being from North Africa, particularly if you weren’t purely Latin, would put you in a less-cultured (meaning viewed that way by the PTB, not actual fact) ethnic class than if you were from the area that became Italy and Greece. On the other hand, the Roman Empire was waning at this point and the Christian church was probably one of the biggest unifying cultural and intellectual institutions. And Augustine was a bishop. Add to that the fact that whether or not he was actually white, in the paintings we have of him he might as well be Nordic. He’s part of the historical tradition that modern Europeans and European-descended people think of as their narrative.

2) Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in the twelfth century to a Jewish family. At the time Spain was Muslim, under the Arabic dynasties that became the Ottoman Empire. (Can’t remember if it was actively the Ottoman Empire at that point or not.) In his childhood as a Jew his family were dhimmis which to modern minds suggests second-class status but at the time actually gave his family a legal status and the protection of the law that they lacked otherwise. Then the area was taken over by another group of Muslims and they were forced to convert or emigrate, and they chose to emigrate – to Egypt, which was much more the center of the Arabic/Muslim world than Spain, and at the time that area was much more philosophically and scientifically booming than Europe was, Spain or otherwise. And he was Jewish in any event, and not the stereotypical eastern European/Ashkhenazi Jew. Look at the history of Jewish philosophy a little more closely if you think that would have been an accepted-by-the-mainstream ethnic group to hail from.

So should we paint Maimonides as an ethnically “white” or “majority” philosopher? Um… yeah. He was Jewish, which as I hinted requires a whole lot of conversation to get at what that means throughout history. As this is from the time when Jews were forced to live in ghettos claiming that Jew = Judeo-Christian = majority is a really tough sell. He was an ethnic minority in Spain but a protected and valued one. He seemed to acclimatize to the dominant culture (there’s evidence that his family faked a conversion to Islam before leaving Spain), but he was also one of the leading legal figures of his particular subcommunity in Egypt. And his work on the distinction between philosophy and theology shows clear exposure to the dominant philosophy of his day but that philosophy was itself a majorly underrepresented strain of philosophy’s history, Islamic philosophy.

Good luck with that one. :-)

3) Then there’s Anselm, the philosopher I was researching for my dissertation. Anselm was from a fairly wealthy family, part of the Italian nobility. (Or the nobility of the states that would one day become Italy, but you know what I mean.) As thoroughly European as you’re likely to get by racial lines, and given that the Church was pretty much the dominant intellectual institution, being in what became Italy would pretty well situated him within the intellectual mainstream of his day. The problem was, he wanted to enter the church and his father refused him, and he went a bit wild. Ran away and ended up in Normandy where he finally joined a Benedictine order. In northern France, which was pretty much the outskirts of civilization at the time. His contribution was also a bit of a blip: I’d argue he was a proto-scholastic before Scholasticism was cool. And because of that his contribution was forgotten for several centuries and ended up getting bastardized into a point-by-point logical argument as part of the natural theology project that you can’t speak about God (defined a certain way) without presupposing God’s existence so the statement “God does not exist” is false on its face. And I’d say think of him as a natural theologian is to miss the point entirely.

But getting back to the race issue. The really interesting thing here to me is that Anselm was so clearly European. He was born near the center of European culture of his time and never left Europe, but his philosophy was written in virtual isolation and didn’t really key in with the way European philosophy unrolled – partly because as I said I believe his philosophy was before its time, but also because he ended up living in a part of Europe that was less connected with that cultural center and was concerned with a very small, local community that wouldn’t have been that different if it was a Christian community (or a religious community generally, to a lesser degree) in Asia or Africa or the Americas. I’d say Augustine is a more central part of European philosophy than Anselm is, for all that ethnically Anselm is more clearly European.

So what’s the point in all this? I’m not trying to let philosophy off the hook. I think philosophy does have a race problem (and for that matter a gender problem) though it’s not so much about a lack of non-white/male philosophers as it is ignoring the way people outside the dominant tradition looked at the questions philosophers are considering – and then pretending like they’re giving a (say) universal answer about whether free will is possible, or whether we’re a body or a soul or whatnot, or whether language has any innate meaning, or whatever the question may be.

But if the issue is one of representation, I think we do need to be clear on what it means to be part of a racial minority. Does Augustine count as African? Does Maimonides count as European? And do these terms mean different things depending on when we’re talking about them – is Augustine, of native North African descent in the pre-Islamic era, more akin to what we’d call “sub-Saharan African” than Maimonides was in the Islamic age, for instance?

Yes, but…

 

ETA – I’d originally titled this post “Is Philosophy racist?,” which is misleading as I didn’t even try to answer that question. I think this related question of whether certain philosophers are ethnically “diverse,” and more generally speaking what kinds of philosophers we should be working with more to combat racism in the discipline, is a question related to that basic question. But the subject line was misleading.

one man, one vote?

The Atlantic recently ran an interesting piece on how astronauts vote if they’re in orbit on election day: “How Do Astronauts Vote from Space?” From the perspective of basic curiosity, it’s… kind of boring, actually. (The process, not the article.) Since most astronauts live and are registered to vote in Texas, they passed a special state law setting up a process that would let them do just that. The state provides a ballot ahead of time which the astronauts are able to transmit electronically in a secure file format to the clerk in charge of their voting districts, which is then copied by hand by the clerk and submitted as a ballot-by-proxy on their behalf.

Apparently you can actually check your email from the space stations. (Who knew?) So that’s pretty cool, in its way. And to their credit, Texas actually has sane laws about absentee ballots and early voting policies, but with astronauts spending long periods of time on the international space station, I guess they can’t always have an absentee ballot sent to them.

I kind of wish this had been the end of my reaction to the story. But it was a bit thick for me to swallow, with all of its praise about how the astronauts’ vote was “a fulfillment of democracy’s every-vote-counts mantra.” See, Texas’ voting laws were also in the news for something much less positive:

A federal judge on Thursday likened Texas’ tough voter ID rules to a poll tax meant to suppress minority voters and blocked Texas from enforcing it just weeks ahead of last month’s election, knocking down a law that the U.S. Justice Department condemned in court as deliberately discriminatory.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi is a defeat for Republican-backed photo ID measures that have swept the U.S> in recent years and have mostly been upheld in court. And it wasn’t the only one. The U.S. Supreme Court also blocked Wisconsin from implementing a law requiring voters to present photo IDs. [...]

Gonzales Ramos’ ruling says the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” It added that the measure: “constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”

I’m hesitant to get into too much of the specifics of the voter ID laws. I suspect most people who care to know about them already know quite a bit by this point. The gist (in very broad strokes) is that many states are passing laws that in order to vote, you have to be able to provide a state-issued photo ID like a drivers license or one of those official non-driver’s license IDs you can get from the DMV without passing a drivers’ test. (That’s what I use as a non-driver.) Advocates (usually conservatives) say it’s necessary to prevent voter fraud; critics (usually progressives) say there has been almost no incidents of people voting fraudulently in person so it’s a solution in search of a problem, and also that these laws tend to disenfranchise people less likely to drive or otherwise lack proper ID. Usually those are poor people who are less likely to rely on official state ID, people with unusual names who may have mistakes or indiscrepancies in how they are spelled in official records, and people living in areas with good public transit (read: who live in a major city) and so don’t have a need for a driver’s license. Those are all groups that tend to vote progressive, so you can see the political angle: these laws are more likely to effect the DNC than the GOP.

(I don’t know about Texas, but in New York you can register to vote by providing all kinds of official documents, like paychecks, government-issued checks, utility bills, and the like, or even just providing your social security number. So it’s possible to register to vote if you can establish your identity even if you don’t have a state photo ID. In New York, the photo ID requires a $15 registration fee, various other official documents like a physical copy of your Social Security Card, which costs a pretty penny to get a copy of if you don’t have it already, and a not-insignificant window of time during normal business hours. I had to get one a while ago after losing most of those documents in a move, and it was a major undertaking, even with public transport.)

Anyway, when I heard Texas had created a special pathway letting astronauts vote when they were in space, I’m afraid it did make my blood boil a bit. It’s not that I want astronauts disenfranchised. I love the idea that everyone gets to vote, even astronauts. But I’ve seen states pass laws that make it more difficult for certain populations to vote, and they just haven’t put anywhere near the effort into making it easier for people to get the documentation they need, that they must have to pass a special law for the astronauts. It’s not even that the laws are unnecessary (I think they absolutely are, though I’m sure some people would disagree). It’s the way the state actually gets things done to make voting happen for one group, but where there’s a much larger, much more vulnerable group you don’t see anything like that level of urgency or effort to make voting a realistic possibility.

I’m not trying to beat up on the state of Texas here (okay, maybe a little), but more say how these voting laws effect the way I think and view civic engagement. Because they keep me from taking at face value the idea that an overwhelmingly red state would be committed to that democratic mantra that every vote counts. This should be a cute story about how astronauts vote. Instead, it’s a reminder to me that our society, or at least Texas’s policy-setters have had very different priorities in making voting feasible, depending on the kind of person you are. Astronauts and national heroes get a special process to ensure they’re able to vote. Poor dark-skinned inner-city dwellers? Not so much.

And to me at least, that seems like a real cost, something I’m not entirely sure I was even aware of until I reacted to the astronaut story the way I did. These voter laws make it arder to have a patriotic reaction, to trust that democracy’s core principles still are something valued and not just available to the right kind of voter.

And, honestly? That’s just depressing.

Ferguson thoughts

Over on Tumblr people are sharing tweets about how to donate to folks in Ferguson. A good cause to be sure, though I’ve not personally verified these folks are legitimate. (If anyone else can, let me know and I’ll take out that caveat.) I’ve already donated as much as I can afford just now so I’m afraid I’m not able to get involved with these specific people, but I was struck by the word choice in the way it was introduced on Tumblr.

Protesters.

At some level they are, or at least that’s how they were introduced to us who aren’t in that community. It’s more positive than looters (and as far as I can tell much more accurate), but it still seems wrong to me. Protesters to me calls to mind the people who have the luxury of not protesting, it’s a voluntary action. It’s people who are upset enough about what’s going on that they set aside their normal lives and go join a protest. And that’s often worth supporting (I baked brownies and bought wool socks for the Occupy protesters), but it seems different than what’s going on here.

These aren’t people who were outraged by something that happened (reasonably or otherwise) but had the luxury of protesting or not. If a person chose not to go out and march against the police brutality, they would still be stuck in that curfew. They’d still have to deal with the loss of wages, the schools being closed and what that does to a family’s food budget, the lack of supplies getting in and that driving up prices, the police curfews and lack of mobility and everything else. They’re also people who had something done to them. So heck yeah, a bunch of them are protesting, but that word doesn’t seem to carry the weight of the situation.

In a way they’re … refugees, maybe? Though they haven’t been forced to leave, the reality they depended on has been taken away from them. They’re people whose homes have been turned into an occupied zone, where the actions that make life seem like what we expect in America aren’t really possible right now. I’m not even sure I have a good word for that, and that seems telling somehow.

Richard Dawkins, rape being rape, and missing the point

Recently I was reading a piece on recent controversies surrounding Richard Dawkins, including the recent tweet on rape that got him into a bit of hot water, and it finally clicked for me just why I was so bothered by the comment.

For those who aren’t familiar, the tweet:

And a quote from the SoJo post, from philosopher Daniel Dennett expanding on why he agreed with the tweet and Dawkins’s subsequent defense of it:

“I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are they condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.

Now, I’m not against the idea that some rape is worse than other rapes, much less that murder is worse than rape. In principle, at least. We need to sort out what we mean by worse. Whether it’s some kind of harm done or the objective value of the thing destroyed or taken, or what exactly. I’m not convinced stranger-rape is more harmful than acquaintance-rape, because the second involves a sense of betrayal the first doesn’t which seems like it would be horrific. (Consider the psychological effects of domestic violence to, e.g., being mugged on the street.) And I can certainly imagine situations where a rape victim suffers more than a murder victim, perhaps even loses more potential for future happiness. But I’m not against saying some crimes and assaults are worse than others, either under the category of rape or more generally.

The thing is, that’s not really the point is it? Because I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who would disagree with that. “Radical feminists (and others)” don’t say that all rapes are equally bad; they say that all rapes are equally rape. And while I’ve not always been overly impressed with Dawkins’s ability for clear and concise thought, Dennett is a philosopher. I’ve read his work, and I know he’s not prone to charging after strawmen. He can do better.

Imagine two people. Mary is a college student who has rufanol slipped into her drink at a party and wakes up with the world’s worst headache (but no memory) of the night before. She discovers semen stains on her clothes and works out she was probably raped, but has no specific memory of that night. Compare that to Jaime, a pickpocket who is gangraped while in prison. Jaime is fully aware of everyone who raped him, knows their names but cannot safely tell the authorities because he fears for his safety and what their friends will do to his family if he talks. Instead he spends the next six months sleeping in the same room with his abusers. He thinks it’s his fault because he was in jail in the first place, and because he climaxed during the rape he’s scared to death he might be gay. (Not that being gay is bad, but let’s assume Jaime thinks so.)

Now we could talk about which one of these people had it worse. My money would be on Jaime, going just off these facts, partly because he suffered greater physical harm and partly because he can’t get away from his rapists, but maybe not; Mary wouldn’t know who her rapists were so she may not feel safe, she might face much more psychological pressure to be extremely “safe” in everything she does. Which of course just isn’t possible. But here’s the thing: if one rape did more harm than the other, it’s something other than the rape itself that is causing the extra harm that makes one or the other worse. Mary and Jaime are both equally raped, their rapes are both equally horrible and inexcusable, and if one is worse than the other it’s because one caused more psychological trauma, more trust issues or nightmares over remembering the event, or because one would involve sizeable physical damage while the other wouldn’t, or because there are things about society or the person’s psychological makeup that makes what happened to them harder to bear up under, or something like that. Both were equally raped, both were equally violated.

Rape is rape, as they say. Not “All rape is equally harmful” or “All rapists should receive the same jail time,” but “Rape is rape” – the rape itself is equally bad (though that word hardly seems sufficient), whether you’re raped at knifepoint or by the ex-boyfriend you’re too in shock to knee in the groin and run away from.

To me at least, that distinction seems to make all the difference.

the problem with sex dolls

Over at The Atlantic, Julie Beck has an interesting piece on the history of sex dolls, “A (Straight, Male) History of Sex Dolls.” This wasn’t actually the article I thought I was sighing up to read at first. Not Ms. Beck’s fault; for some reason my eyes simply skimmed over the word “Sex” in the title, and I thought it would be about men who collected doll-dolls. You know, porcelain and the like. Still, it was very interesting and I thought it might be worth discussing a bit.

Also, I get that this isn’t a topic everyone cares to read. I don’t think it got explicit or anything, but to be on the safe side, I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut.

(more…)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (probably) fancied men. Should evangelicals be (more) bothered?

I recently found the time to read an RNS piece on a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The big bombshell, according to the RNS headline, is that Bonhoeffer may have been gay. Or, put in the more precise terms you get in the article itself, including in quotes from Charles Marsh, author of the biography, Bonhoeffer seemed to have a romantic attraction toward at least one man, his friend Eberhard Bethge, though as another Bonhoeffer biographer quoted in the piece put it, “there is almost no evidence at all that would suggest anything more than attraction.”

None of this is particular newsworthy.

I mean, I’ve overheard this conversation at more than one conference that Bonhoeffer was probably (in one case, “almost certainly”) attracted to Bethge. Marsh seems to have some interesting facts that I hadn’t heard of before, but the basic idea seems like one most academics at least more or less took for granted. The real shocker is that evangelicals aren’t more up in arms over this new book, apparently. Bonhoeffer’s one of those figures that is so well-thought of, pretty much everyone working in this area wants to have on their side. It’s like when Glenn Beck tried to argue that Martin Luther King would have been in favor of the Tea Party program a few years back. Everyone wants to baptize King into their cause. In theological circles that’s more or less how it works with Bonhoeffer. So the biographer was concerned, and the RNS [= the AP of the theological world] saw fit to write a piece on it, Because Bonhoeffer is a favorite son among more intellectual evangelicals (yes, they exist), wouldn’t they be upset if someone claimed Bonhoeffer was one of teh gayz?

Not so much, as it turns out. The RNS piece claims several reviews from evangelical professors and influential bloggers, and nary a pitchfork is in sight. A lot of the reviews go on about how Marsh shouldn’t focus too much on the sex. The concern seems to be part that it’s tabloid stuff and part that it’s unfair to impose modern concepts of sexual orientation on someone who’s not contemporary. I’m not so sure about that last concern; Bonhoeffer died during World War II and he was pretty young. The standard approach seems to be that Bonhoeffer may or may not have been gay but his biography (certainly this part of his biography) isn’t so important and we should stay focused on what he wrote.

Here’s what interested me about the piece, though. Dr. Marsh apparently thought evangelical Christians would be strongly against that bit about Bonhoeffer being sexually attracted to a man. Was he being overly cautious or maybe even trolling for a controversy to boost his book’s profile? Or was this a realistic concern? Should evangelicals have been concerned here?

On the surface level, absolutely not. Setting aside the fact that you can produce good theology (or philosophy, or political theory, or whatever else) even if your personal life is a mess, Bonhoeffer’s personal life wasn’t a mess by standard evangelical standards. I grew up with the very common idea that there’s nothing in standard Christian belief that says gay attraction is immoral, it’s the lying with a man as you’d lie with a woman that’s the problem. Say Marsh is right, and Bonhoeffer was pursuing a romantic relationship with Bethge, even desired him sexually. As long as we’re not crossing into adultery-in-my-heart territory, which I usually heard described as wilfully choosing to fantasize about having sex with another man, thinking that you would do it if you could get away with it, if you wouldn’t face the censure of your neighbors or God or whomever –as long as it’s just a kind of involuntary attraction, there’s nothing wrong with that. From what I’ve read and heard, there’s nothing that suggests Bonhoeffer had sex with anyone, and he himself claimed to be a virgin when the Nazis were getting ready to execute him. So at a surface level this isn’t just not problematic, it actually makes him into a kind of role-model for what it means to be a “good” gay (or man-attracted-to-men) Christian. Good for him! Etc.

The problem is that while a lot of the reviews aren’t upset about this, I think they are upset it’s dwelt upon. And I think this comes down to the fact that for a lot of evangelicals, while celibates being attracted to their gender may be okay in the sense that it’s avoiding actual sin there’s a limit to how compatible that is with being truly praiseworthy. Particularly with evangelicals who put so much emphasis on the importance of the heterosexual family, I think there’s a sense that a chaste life like that is somehow incomplete, it may be tolerable and the best we can do but you have to ask whether it’s the kind of thing that should be encouraged and praised. There’s also a sense that if you’re truly spiritual you won’t have to deal with “temptations” like this.

Which is why I think you see those evangelical reviewers who are okay with Bonhoeffer experiencing attraction to other men so long as we don’t talk about it. It’s an uncomfortable fact, this idea that a hero of the faith could experience this kind of attraction. It suggests that maybe contemporary gay people need to be listened to, may have something authentic to contribute to the conversations not just about sex and gender but all the other things worth discussing. And that’s uncomfortable for a lot of evangelicals, and more generally for any kind of people when they think a certain character trait is somehow shameful or disqualifying. This is a problem, but it’s a common problem in evangelical circles. Look at the arguments in evangelical circles for why it’s okay to consult books written by women but not be taught by women; it’s generally because their particular womanly traits are less obvious so you’re less conscious of being subjugated to a woman. I think there’s a very similar dynamic at work here: it’s okay to be taught by a homosexual but not as a homosexual person. Poor theologians, theologians of color, female theologians are all allowed to have a voice in theological things, but only so far as we can abstract those voices from those things that make them different from the white, upper-middle-class, straight, male vantage point that I think a lot of people coming from the majority identify with a universal human nature rather than their own unique starting position.

In this particular case, I think Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction for Bethge is much more relevant than it might have been otherwise. Because Bonhoeffer was living in Nazi Germany, where being gay could get you sent to jail. And Nazi jail, not the cushy American equivalent; I’m no expert on the period, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people in jail for homosexuality in the period faced something pretty close to concentration camp conditions without the crematoria. So if Bonhoeffer’s plot to kill Hitler was driven by this personal threat, this intense angst (and I do mean that in the German sense) that people just like him were being put through that horrible treatment, that would seem to be relevant to people who think that event was more driven by abstract principles. I would think that how he, as a man who experienced gay attraction, was impacted by the criminalization of homosexuality, how we read his reaction or lack of reaction changes quite a bit when you realize he wasn’t as disinterested as you might think. In fact, I suspect that this detail that he could have been among the persecuted groups for his sexual attraction draws into doubt the whole idea that we could or should be disinterested here.

Finally, I found it interesting – hilarious, actually – that so many of the evangelical reviewers expressed concern about whether our modern sexual categories could be safely imposed on someone living less than a century ago. I bring this up because a major point of contention in theological circles today when it comes to homosexuality is that precise point: whether what the Biblical authors condemn as sin (“man lying with a man as he would a woman,” etc.) is the same thing as what we mean by homosexuality. There are translation concerns (I personally believe that what the New Testament passages typically translate as homosexuality is much more in line with pedophilia) but there’s also the historical question of whether what we mean by homosexuality, any sexual orientation, would even be the kind of thing the Biblical writers would have had the language framework to talk about at all. Evangelical theologians are usually first in line to insist that those verses used to condemn gay sex are talking about all sex between men and women, not just some particular cultural practice that’s miles away to my mind from the modern sexual practice. So it’s a bit interesting when they say in the case of Bonhoeffer: he lived 70-80 years ago, so it’s irresponsible to describe him using the terms we use today.

Anyway it’s an interesting discussion, I thought. I think Dr. Marsh may have been on to something when he wondered if evangelicals would be bothered by his book’s claim, though I’m not sure it’s so straightforward as thinking this would make Bonhoeffer a sinful or not suitably evangelical figure. It’s more complicated than that. No more excusable, in my book, but certainly there’s more to the question than just “would evangelicals consider same-sex attraction to be sinful.

There and Back Again?

Over at the American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead wrote an interesting piece on the value of getting lost, of actually enjoying the journey between points A and B and discovering a bit of the trip in between rather than being so focused on where we’re going. I can’t say I disagree. Actually, one of the most-used gifts I received when I finished my M.A. and came to New York was a stack of walking tours for different neighborhoods in the city. They point to the public transit that will take you to a certain neighborhood, describe the history and the spirit of the place, and point you to local landmarks that can be explored if you have maybe an hour or two to just wander around. Technically there’s a map and a list of places to go, but of course the publishers aren’t forcing you to do that.

My point starting all this was that I’m an adventurer and an explorer by nature. So I’m not averse to her basic point. But as with most technology, I don’t think the danger is so much the technology itself as it is how we use it. Let me start by quoting Ms. Olmstead’s concerns:

It is good to consider the effect GPS systems have had on our culture. They have greatly enhanced the ease of travel – the ability to get from point A to point B – but they also make it more difficult to “go somewhere ‘in-between,'” as Sturt and Nordstrom [MB: here] write. We journey, most often, on freeways that are disconnected from the social architectural fabric of passing communities. We are often too busy noting our estimated time of arrival and upcoming traffic patterns to enjoy passing landscapes. The GPS always promotes the most efficient route for drivers to take – but it doesn’t take note of scenic or historic routine. This is great when you’re in a rush, but can be potentially damaging for road trips, when we’re meant to see and savor, are disconnected from the social and architectural fabric of passing communities.

Here’s the thing. I’ve actually been on a road trip with a GPS. In a way of speaking I go on them every time I take one of my notecard days when I pluck another neighborhood out of the day and go explore Coney Island or SoHo or a certain bit of Williamsburg, and I’ve done it quite literally, both with the roadmaps and the actual electronic maps. And in both cases, the question that makes all the difference to my experience is: are you willing to say no? Those notecards list points of interest and give me a walking map where I can find them, but there’s a difference in hitting them like a checklist and using them as my starting point. Similarly with old-school maps and GPS alike: you can either let them dictate your trip, or your can let them guide it, be ready to fall back on it at need, but also be in charge of your own trip and be willing to take a detour.

That’s actually the really cool thing about GPS in particular, which I don’t think Ms. Olmstead really accounted for. It’s adaptive. I remember one particular tri up to Boston, not a road trip per se but my travel-companion and I were grad student so yay wanderlust!. We had stopped for gas and went the wrong direction out of the station, and the GPS started barking on us. But the way we went wasn’t back to the freeway but instead to a backroad and it looked interesting. We decided to turn it off and ended up having lunch at a lovely diner and chatting it up with people who lived in the area. Which is precisely the kind of in-between stop I think Ms. Olmstead is encouraging us to take. But the reason we felt free to take it was we knew the GPS would be there to get us out again when we needed to get going back toward Boston. We didn’t have to stay on the familiar path and didn’t have to know where we were going, and it was technology like GPS that let us do that. I don’t think we’d have dared or bothered if we were I know my own mini-adventures with those notecards probably would never have happened if I didn’t have the suggested itinerary and accompanying map to fall back on. I never would have gone beyond the neighborhoods I was more familiar with.

Ditto for that “estimated time of arrival” Ms. Olmstead warns us about. If you’re obsessively focusing on it, that’s one thing. But if you’re using this information to answer the question: do I have time to take this detour and still make it to my final destination on time, that’s quite another. Because those practical issues can matter in different situations, and that kind of information can either be a straightjacket or it can be a guardrail. I’m reminded of a psychological study I heard of ages ago (sorry, can’t find the reference :-S), where children on a fenced-in playground would go right up to the edge of the fence to play, whereas kids on a playground that wasn’t fenced in played much more close to the jungle gym. Knowing how far we can go safely lets us use all the space available to us, it’s empowering and freeing in its own way, particularly if we use it as a tool for making our own decisions rather than letting that information guide us.

Put more simply: knowing the anticipated arrival time doesn’t rule out adventures along the way. Sometimes it’s actually what makes them possible.

I found it quite interesting that, in making her case, Ms. Olmstead pointed to three stories: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Twain’s Huck Finn, but also Bilbo from The Hobbit. I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to any and all mention of Tolkien, so I’ll be honest, when she quoted “The Road Goes Ever On, I definitely felt my spidey-senses tingling a bit. Listen or read that poem and try not to be inspired to take the “new road or the secret-gate”; I’ve never been able to manage it.

But I’m not sure the story really helps Ms. Olmstead’s point, because neither Bilbo nor Frodo (who also recites the poem and goes on his own “there-and-back”) are engaging in side-trips. Both of them have the closest thing to GPS you’ll hope to find in Middle-earth. Bilbo’s chosen task is to be at a particular location far to the east at a very specific day and side-adventures like with the goblins in the Misty Mountains and with the Mirkwood Elves are treated very much (by Bilbo, if not by the author) as nuisances and dangers that must be navigated to get to our destination. With Frodo, the point is even more clear, I think: the company bemoans the loss of their guide, Gandalf, and Frodo and Sam are quite literally getting themselves turned around in circles until they find another guide who promises to show them how to get to their final destination. This is not a wandering focused on something other than the eventual destination, as with Huck or (I’m going to assume as I haven’t read it)

Now there are characters who take just-for-the-heck-of-it journeys. I thought immediately of Isengar Took, Bilbo’s uncle that “went off to sea” in his youth, and the many other Tooks that were enchanted to go off into the blue. Even Sam fits the bill at first, with his drive to go and see Elves, hardly part of the official itinerary. But with Bilbo and Frodo there’s a definite sense that these are not adventures of discovery or even just encountering the world for its own sake. Both hobbits want to get back home, but Fate seems to have other plans for them. Those in-between bits are probably the ones that have the biggest impact (indeed, Bilbo finds the Ring quite by accident in just one such moment), but I’d hardly hold them up as living or even wanting to live in those moments. If anything, the poem seems to be about the way the World seems to drag us to its own chosen destination, not the one we might have had in mind – but the destination, the place we’re being dragged off to, is still the important thing here.

Right, enough of me being a Tolkien nerd. My main point was that we definitely should experience those points along the way and not be so blinded by our five-year plans or the final destination we plug into our GPS. Speaking for myself, though, I’m not sure the GPS is really to blame – to paraphrase another bit of JRRT, there is in this technology no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself. Then let him beware!

thoughts on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby

Sorry to disappear abruptly around here a while ago. I simply lost interest in blogging about much beyond fandom, which I try to do at LiveJournal and Tumblr where most people I know in those circles spend their time. But the “Hobby Lobby” case, or more precisely reactions I’d seen to it, sparked my interests. As promised over at FaceBook, here are my thoughts on the issues I see involved in this case.

(more…)

World Vision and remembering the children

Today World Vision made an announcement that it’s changing how it handles LGBT employees, and IMO in a very good way. Previously, they required employees to either be in heterosexual marriages or to abstain from sexual activity. As I understand it, the old policy meant that if you were gay you couldn’t work there and be involved in even a long-term, monogamous relationship. (You still have to be married if you’re sexually active, even if you’re gay; it’s just that marriage isn’t restricted to heterosexual couples.) You couldn’t bring your spouse to the company picnic, for instance, and I’m assuming they wouldn’t be eligible for spousal health insurance or even to be listed as next of kin in a health emergency.

Some people are saying this is a really little thing and doesn’t deserve much praise, but I actually find it pretty courageous. It’s not a big change in a lot of ways, and I want to hear more about what they mean by marriage. For instance, do they mean sacramental marriage (which, to my knowledge, no church offers) or do alternate religious commitment services count? What about government marriage licenses or civil unions? It may well be this seems like a decent step when really it won’t be available to anyone. I’d also like to know how many gay people actually work at World Vision – if you’re not actually hiring them, then this seems like a progressive step when it’s really quite moot.

But I also find myself encouraged because, from a purely messaging level, World Vision made me feel particularly proud of them today. This decision sends the important message both to their employees and to gay people in the larger evangelical subculture that an authentic life is increasingly available to them in that culture, that they don’t have to choose between the common evangelical dream of family and a future together, meaningful work, a chance to effect the world for good — and who they know themselves to be. That’s a good thing in my opinion. It also tells them that there are expectations for how they live that life, too. That there’s a standard that’s meet-able, that doesn’t categorically exclude them from Christian virtue. That’s something many Christians really, really don’t do well with LGBT people. Myself included in the past, and probably to a certain extent todya, though I do hope I’m making progress there. Of course, it’s the nature of progress that you can only really see it in retrospect: if I saw I was wrong in any way now, I’d be changing my actions and thought-processes now.

Of course it’s usually two steps forward with people who take their beliefs as seriously as most people still opposed to homosexuality probably are. (more…)

Arguing Against the Defense of the Christian Private School Bubble

Over at ChristianityToday‘s Hermeneutics blog, Andrea Palpant Dilley wrote an interesting defense of her decision to put her kid in a private school. Her main point, and I think it’s usually a good one these days, is that we need to tone down the vitriol and actually see the complexity, the nuance in peoples’ situations.

To that end, Mrs. Dilley gives us some details about her own situation. She says she’s a good person, and as far as I can tell she actually is one. She’s involved in her community, cares about racial justice and equality and all the things those public school advocates apparently value so much. (In her words, “To public school advocates, I’m one of those people destroying the educational infrastructure of America, complicit in wrecking the hard-earned egalitarianism of a public classroom where kids of all creeds and colors can meet together in unity to learn about everything from planets to caterpillars.“) And yes, there’s a touch of seeing herself as put upon, maybe even a bit victimized, but that’s at least understandable. I think sometimes we underestimate a bit how hard it is to come from a position of privilege and want to work for a more just world where you’re not so privileged, but at the same time are fighting a very natural drive to do what’s best for the people you’re closest to. Your family, your kid, even your neighbors. I’m not saying this tension makes everything we do in the name of it okay; but I do see how you can look at people proclaiming form on high that all private-schoolers are selfish, elitist, etc. and think: if she just walked a day in my shoes, she’d see it just wasn’t so simple.

So I’m sympathetic to Mrs. Dilley’s position. I’ve been there, not with education but with other things, and like I said, I do agree with her central point that we need a more nuanced, merciful way of approaching public policy questions like to private school or not to private school. I’m also a proud beneficiary of private parochial school (grades 7-8 + the tail end of grade 6), and while I went to public universities most of my social life was anchored in the Campus Ministries building. So I get the value of Christian bubbles, the real value of them and also the pull of them psychologically. That’s what makes my reaction to Mrs. Dilley so frustrating. I agree with her conclusion, but I found the road she took to get there, pretty thoroughly muddled.

(more…)

Facebook login by WP-FB-AutoConnect