27 November 2009

Excerpts from Benedict Anderson, Gottfried Benn, and Bob Altemeyer

Happy Thanksgiving weekend! I am spending it in Boulder, CO, one of the most beautiful cities in America.

From "Static Poems"

Deafness to imperatives
is profundity in the wise man,
children and grandchildren
don't bother him,
don't alarm him.

To represent a particular outlook,
to act,
to travel hither and yon
are all signs of a world
that doesn't see clearly.

--Gottfried Benn
(in Poetry, 11/09.)

Adult authoritarians tend to be highly ethnocentric and heavy users of the "consensual validation pill" (Newcomb, 1961). They travel in tight circles of like-minded people so much, they often think their views are commonly held in society, that they are the "Moral Majority" or the "Silent Majority." It has been hard to miss the evidence that certain kinds of religious training have sometimes helped produce their ethnocentrism and authoritarianism.

...(They) are scared. They see the world as a dangerous place, as society teeters on the brink of self-destruction from evil and violence. This fear appears to instigate aggression in them. Second, right-wing authoritarians tend to be highly self-righteous. They think themselves much more moral and upstanding than others - a self-perception considerably aided by self-deception, their religious training, and some very efficient guilt evaporators (such as going to confession). This self-righteousness disinhibits their aggressive impulses, and releases them to act out their fear-induced hostilities....

Bob Altemeyer
--"The Other 'Authoritarian Personality'"

07 November 2009

Two cents about COIN

My latest op-ed, "Two cents about COIN," appeared today on Antiwar.com. It discusses the the growing faith of U.S. political and military leaders in the military doctrine of COIN, or manpower-intensive counterinsurgency warfare.

You can find the op-ed here as well as pasted below; if you enjoy it, please consider sharing it on your Facebook wall, mentioning it on Twitter, or linking to it on your blog. Thanks, as always, for reading.


Two Cents About COIN

Ryan McCarl

The war in Afghanistan, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent assessment, is "a situation that defies simple solutions or quick fixes. Success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign." McChrystal and other American leaders calling for a "surge" of additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan to mirror the alleged success of the "surge" in Iraq are voicing their belief that the doctrinal framework for the original surge – COIN, or manpower-intensive counterinsurgency warfare – is a widely-applicable tool in asymmetric warfare that the U.S. ought to employ in Afghanistan.

05 November 2009

A limited ecumenism

My latest op-ed, "A limited ecumenism," appeared today in Sightings, the newsletter of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It discusses the Catholic Church's recent outreach to traditionalist Anglicans. Sightings is a free online publication sent out twice a week to over 7,000 scholars, ministers, students, and others interested in the intersection of religion and public life; you can subscribe to it at the Sightings subscription page. Sightings is also online at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/.

You can find the op-ed here as well as pasted below. Thanks, as always, for reading.

A Limited Ecumenism

Ryan McCarl

As reported in Sightings last Monday, the Vatican announced two weeks ago that it was setting up a new canonical structure, or Apostolic Constitution, to facilitate the conversion of disaffected Anglican traditionalists to Catholicism; the converts will be able to “enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” in the Vatican’s words. Married former Anglican clergy will be allowed to become Catholic Priests, though not Bishops.

28 October 2009

Empathy across neighborhood lines

My latest op-ed, "Love Thy Neighbor: In the wake of an attack on the Men’s Cross Country team, it’s time to rethink University-community relations," appeared in the Chicago Weekly today.

You can find the op-ed and add your comments here, and I've also pasted it below. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Love Thy Neighbor: In the wake of an attack on the Men’s Cross Country team, it’s time to rethink University-community relations

Ryan McCarl

The University of Chicago is a bastion of resources and privilege in a largely underserved and segregated South Side. The University and many of its students regularly engage in outreach and volunteer programs aimed at bridging the gap between the University community and the broader South Side, and Hyde Park is often hailed as one of the most integrated neighborhoods in the United States. But there is an undeniable separation—an invisible wall—between the University and its surroundings.

20 October 2009

Readings from Solomon's "Judaism: A Very Short Introduction"

Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas put their faith in the God of relationships. Alles Leben ist Begegnung ('all life is encounter'), declared Buber, and the important thing is to get your relationship with God and with people right (I-Thou, rather than I-It); from that relationship, which is the essence of Revelation, ethical action flows; laws and rules are feeble attempts to capture revelation, and doomed to inadequacy.
Genesis 1:27 states clearly enough: 'So God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.' This implies that in using our concept of God to model human behavior we should not distinguish between male and female.
Emil Fackenheim grounds his theology in the actual resistance of Shoah [Holocaust] victims to whom no realistic hope remained: 'A philosophical Tikkun ['repair', 'restoration'] is possible after the Holocaust because a philosophical Tikkun already took place, however fragmentarily, during the Holocaust itself'; the rebirth of Israel, and a new constructive dialogue with a self-critical Christianity, are essential to this process. Fackenheim is also noted for his statement that there should be a 614th commandment, surplus to the 613 of tradition - to survive as Jews, to remember, never to despair of God, lest we hand Hitler a posthumous victory.

12 October 2009

Readings from the stories of John Cheever

It was after four then, and I lay in the dark, listening to the rain and to the morning trains coming through. They come from Buffalo and Chicago and the Far West, through Albany and down along the river in the early morning, and at one time or another I've traveled on most of them, and I lay in the dark thinking about the polar air in the Pullman cars and the smell of nightclothes and the taste of dining-car water and the way it feels to end a day in Cleveland or Chicago and begin another in New York, particularly after you've been away for a couple of years, and particularly in the summer.
I took the eight-ten train into town in the morning and returned on the six-thirty. I knew enough to avoid the empty house in the summer dusk, and I drove directly from the station parking lot to a good restaurant called Orpheo's.

--"The Cure"

"The sun is in your hair."
"The sun is in your hair. It's a beautiful color."

--"The Chaste Clarissa"

28 September 2009

Excerpts from Jonathan Glover's "Humanity"

Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century is one of the best and most important books I have ever read.

Excerpts below:

An extimate for the period from 1900 until 1989 is that war killed 86 million people. Eighty-six million is a small proportion of all those alive during the ninety years, and is a small number compared to those who have died from hunger and preventable diseases. All the same, death in twentieth-century war has been on a scale which is hard to grasp. ...If these deaths had been spread evenly over the period, war would have killed around 2,500 people every day. That is over 100 people an hour, round the clock, for ninety years.
One of this book's aims is to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality. A consequence of this is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. ...We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.

04 September 2009

Readings from Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning"

I am currently reading Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist, was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, for several years. He survived the experience and went on to develop the theory of "logotherapy," a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on human beings' "will to meaning." The part of the book that discusses Frankl's memories of his camp experience is, like any Holocaust memoir worth its salt, extremely disturbing and difficult to read, but it ought to be read in spite of that. Here are a few (non-graphic) excerpts from the book, which I highly recommend:

Soon we had resumed the previous day's positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxes, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb. My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
If there is a meaning of life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.

24 August 2009

Discovering the letters of Justice William O. Douglas

I was sorting through some books in my closet yesterday, and I discovered a fantastic book which drew me away from my regular reading: The Douglas Letters: Selections from the Private Papers of William O. Douglas, edited by Melvin I. Urkofsky. William O. Douglas was a brilliant, contrarian Associate Justice on the Supreme Court as well as a transformative environmentalist and New Dealer who crusaded against rampant speculation and corruption in the financial industry. His writing is insightful and often hilarious. Here are a few samples:

To Ramsey Clark, 4/28/70:

On my visit to Baghdad, I went to the University with my interpreter to see what books, if any, they had on our Constitution or Bill of Rights or Jefferson, Madison, democracy, etc.

That library was bare on those subjects. So when I returned, I prepared what I called the Douglas Eight Foot Shelf which I thought should be in every underdeveloped nation. I thought then - and still think - that those ideas are more important than military missions.

To Max Radin (professor at Berkeley Law School), 5/27/46:

...If you are willing, I will ask you to find me a law clerk each year....I need not only a bright chap, but also a hard-working fellow with a smell for facts as well as for law. I do not want a hide-bound, conservative fellow. What I want is a Max Radin - a fellow who can hold his own in these sophisticated circles and who is not going to end up as a stodgy, hide-bound lawyer. I want the kind of fellow for whom this work would be an exhilaration, who will be going into teaching or into practice of the law for the purpose of promoting the public good. I do not want to fill the big law offices of the country with my law clerks....

To the Wall Street Journal, 10/16/78

19 August 2009

Interview with the University of Chicago Magazine

UChiBLOGo, the blog of the University of Chicago Magazine, interviewed me about Wide Awake Minds and the idea of self-education today.

Check it out here, and please pass the interview along to others if you enjoy reading it. Thanks for helping to spread the word about self-education!

Readings from Charles Taylor and Erich Auerbach

One way to put the question I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?
Important as science is to our present outlook, we mustn't exaggerate its causal role here, and make it the main motor of the transformation. Our encasing in secular time is also something we have brought about in the way we live and order our lives. It has been brought about by the same social and ideological changes which have wrought disenchantment. In particular, the disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before in human history. Time has become a precious resource, not to be "wasted". The result has been the creation of a tight, ordered time environment. This has enveloped us, until it comes to seem like nature. We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done. This "time frame" deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber's famous description of a "stahlhartes Gehäuse" (iron cage). It occludes all higher times, makes them even hard to conceive.
Augustine sees ordinary time as dispersal, distensio, losing the unity, being cut off from our past and out of touch with our future. We get lost in our little parcel of time. But we have an irrepressible craving for eternity, and so we strive to go beyond this. Unfortunately, this all too often takes the form of our trying to invest our little parcel with eternal significance, and therefore divinising things, and therefore falling deeper into sin.

Charles Taylor
--A Secular Age

If it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence.
To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.
The Old Testament, in so far as it is concerned with human events, ranges through all three domains: legend, historical reporting, and interpretative historical theology.
The Homeric poems, then, though their intellectual, linguistic, and above all syntactical culture appears to be so...highly developed, are yet comparatively simple in their picture of human beings; and no less so in relation to the real life which they describe in general. Delight in physical existence is everything to them, and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us. ...(The Homeric heroes) wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly.
Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, (the Bible) seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. This becomes increasingly difficult the further our historical environment is removed from that of the Biblical books; and if these nevertheless maintain their claim to absolute authority, it is inevitable that they themselves be adapted through interpretative transformation.
It is easy to separate the historical from the legendary in general. Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly.... Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted.

Erich Auerbach
--Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

15 August 2009

Quotes from Hugo Black and Lon L. Fuller

Every departure from the principles of the law's inner morality is an affront to man's dignity as a responsible agent. To judge his actions by unpublished or retrospective laws, or to order him to do an act that is impossible, is to convey to him your indifference to his powers of self-determination.
I believe that if we were forced to select the principle that supports and infuses all human aspiration we would find it in the objective of maintaining communication with our fellows. ...How and when we accomplish communication with one another can expand or contract the boundaries of life itself.

Lon L. Fuller
--The Morality of Law

The Court's justification for consulting its own notions rather than following the original meaning of the Constitution, as I would, apparently is based on the belief of the majority of the Court that for this Court to be bound by the original meaning of the Constitution is an intolerable and debilitating evil; that our Constitution should not be "shackled to the political theory of a particular era," and that to save the country from the original Constitution the Court must have constant power to renew it and keep it abreast of this Court's more enlightened theories of what is best for our society.

It seems to me that this is an attack not only on the great value of our Constitution itself but also on the concept of a written constitution which is to survive through the years as originally written unless changed through the amendment process which the Framers wisely provided. Moreover, when a "political theory" embodied in our Constitution becomes outdated, it seems to me that a majority of the nine members of this Court are not only without constitutional power but are far less qualified to choose a new constitutional political theory than the people of this country proceeding in the manner provided by Article V.

Justice Hugo Black
--Harper v. Virginia State Board of Education (dissent); 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

No one may be compelled against his conscience to render war service involving the use of arms.

--Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Article IV

I cannot consider the Bill of Rights to be an outworn 18th Century 'strait jacket' as the Twining opinion did. Its provisions may be thought outdated abstractions by some. And it is true that they were designed to meet ancient evils. But they are the same kind of human evils that have emerged from century to century wherever excessive power is sought by the few at the expense of the many. In my judgment the people of no nation can lose their liberty so long as a Bill of Rights like ours survives and its basic purposes are conscientiously interpreted, enforced and respected so as to afford continuous protection against old, as well as new, devices and practices which might thwart those purposes. I fear to see the consequences of the Court's practice of substituting its own concepts of decency and fundamental justice for the language of the Bill of Rights as its point of departure in interpreting and enforcing that Bill of Rights.

Justice Hugo Black
--Adamson v. California (dissent); 332 U.S. 46 (1946)

All excerpts from Lloyd, Introduction to Jurisprudence (4th ed., 1979).

01 August 2009

How to Think About Politics

"How to Think About Politics," my most recent essay, is being featured in the August issue of Fogged Clarity. I've also pasted it below. If you enjoy it, please consider linking to it, sharing it, or passing it along to others who might be interested. Thanks, as always, for reading.


How to Think About Politics

Ryan McCarl

First, question everything, beginning with the political ideas you inherited from your parents, family, community, church, and school.

Create an inventory, in your mind or on paper, of these ideas: what are your strong, visceral, “gut” feelings about the political parties, religion in schools, the legalization versus criminalization of abortion, taxation, drug laws, and so on? What about your ideas about other races and social classes, and about race and class relations in general? Interrogate your emotional, pre-rational political ideology: why do you think it is the case that some people are poor, others wealthy, and others starving? Do you admire military power, or are you suspicious of it? How do you react to talk of America’s present and past wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan?

The first step to becoming a serious political thinker is to distance yourself, at least temporarily, from what might be called your “political inheritance” – the political ideas and values that you were infused with as a child and young adult.

Many of these ideas may be worth keeping, of course, and it is perfectly acceptable to venture into the wilderness of new ideas and then return, older and wiser, to where you began – but it is unacceptable to never waver, even in thought, from the political ideas you grew up with. You must rediscover these ideas to make them truly your own.

The second step is to understand your own interests and distance yourself from them for the purposes of political thinking.

Your self-interest, whatever it may be, can probably be translated into a political and economic ideology: you are in a union, so you support unions and vote for pro-union politicians. You are an investment banker or venture capitalist, so you oppose anything – including unions – that could interfere with economic “efficiency,” that is, with your ability to “restructure” businesses and shift resources around to make a profit. You own a home in an almost entirely white, middle-class suburb where your kids attend a top-tier public school, so you oppose policies such as intradistrict school choice and property taxes that could, you feel, threaten your lifestyle.

But mature political thinking requires that you think about politics in terms of the public good and what is best for society (or humanity, even) as a whole. That does not imply that mature political thinking requires a “liberal” political ideology: it is quite acceptable to believe, conservatively, that radical or revolutionary changes to the status quo would do more harm than good, or that the way things are should be tweaked and adjusted rather than significantly changed, or that the public welfare is best served through deregulation, lowered taxes, and the privatization of public institutions. But whatever political ideology you adopt, you must, if you want to begin thinking seriously about politics, adopt it for some reason other than the health of your pocketbook.

Of course, it often happens that people consciously or unconsciously wrap their self-interests in a veil of ideology – they disguise the fact that their political views are a function of their self-interest by speaking in terms of the public good, and often they even believe their own disguise. But serious thinkers must honestly examine their own views and biases, look at their own ideas with critical eyes, and constantly work to create distance between their self-interest and their political views. If these overlap, it must be by accident and coincidence.

Question yourself, your ideology, your vocabulary, and the beliefs behind your beliefs. And also question every overt and covert political statement, every candidate’s speech, every newspaper opinion column, every dinner-table rant, every historical narrative, and even every piece of art or literature. Politics touches everything and everything touches politics. Cultivate your awareness of the political dimension of the world, a dimension that is often hidden beneath the surface of things. A map, for example, seems straightforward and self-evident – but what part of the world did the mapmaker select as central? Which continents’ sizes are distorted?

And speaking of looking beneath the surface of things: advanced political thinking requires a partial distancing from the rancorous spats and celebrity politics that are all-too-often the central focus of 24-hour cable news stations, political talk shows, and the most popular political blogs. Thinking politically does not mean choosing a side, stepping into the echo chamber, and becoming one more unimaginative partisan foot-soldier – it is better to keep one foot in the fray and one foot in the slightly-removed world of philosophy, theory, scholarship, history, and literature.

For me, this means reading both conservative and liberal blogs and websites, but favoring those that are more thoughtful and less reactive. More importantly, it means monitoring the amount of online, print, and cable news I consume, and giving primacy of place in my reading to good books – which are intrinsically more thought-out, edited, careful, and less bound to a specific historical moment than even the best newspapers and websites.

The third step toward mature political thinking involves understanding that we look at political issues through certain lenses – lenses of theory, of history, and of our biases and ideologies.

The best political thinkers do not get trapped in one lens. Rather, like an ophthalmologist conducting an eye examination, they shift from lens to lens and look at a problem through as many lenses as possible in order to identify which lens best clarifies the problem and points the way to a possible solution.

Let’s take the contemporary debate about school reform and vouchers as an example. Conservatives use the analogy of market economics to argue that if we privatize schools and school services and create a more competitive school system, the outcome will be better and more educationally efficient; liberals argue that it is a profound mistake to think about schooling in economic terms, and that we should focus on improving the public schools, which reflect our moral commitment to providing equal educational opportunity to every American child. But why not look at education through both lenses – the lens of economics and the lens of ethics? And also the lenses of history and law?

Take practically any political or economic problem and gather a room full of academic specialists: one each in political philosophy, political psychology, law, evolutionary biology, theology or religious studies, women’s studies, history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Each of these experts will speak intelligently about the issue, looking at it through the lens of their discipline. And each will have something valuable to contribute to the debate.

And so we arrive at a final guideline for engaging in serious political thought: become a lifelong self-educator, and never stop critically examining your own political ideas and those you find in contemporary debates.

Political issues are infinitely complex, and the political loudmouths of our world who claim to have it all figured out are cashing in on a lie. You, their target consumer, have the power to reject the narrow wares they peddle and turn to better, more thoughtful sources.

If there is one slogan and sound-bite that is worth adopting, it is this: “Well, it isn’t really that simple.”

28 July 2009

A vacation and a reading list: a personal update

It's hard to believe how quickly things happen. My summer term - roughly six hours a day, five days a week of education classes - is drawing to a close, and as of Friday afternoon I'll be free for an entire month (the life of a student is good - certainly beats two or three weeks of vacation over the course of a year). I'll be in Colorado (Boulder, Telluride, Denver) for almost two weeks, in Chicago for one, and in Muskegon for one - as well as a few days of camping in Northern Michigan with friends.

Whenever I prepare to travel, my thoughts quickly turn to the question of what books I will bring along and read. I always make absurdly ambitious reading lists and pack way, way more than I could ever hope to finish, and this time is no exception. I am bringing four:

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. About the rise of secularism in Western society. Considered one of the most important books in the field of religious studies in recent decades. Weighs in at a hefty 776 pages.

John Cheever, Collected Stories and Other Writings. Cheever is one of the best short fiction writers of the 20th century. 969 pages.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Publishers Weekly says: "The author, beginning with Homer and the Bible, traces the imitation of life in literature through the ages . . .touching upon every major literary figure in western culture on the way." A key work in 20th-century literary criticism. 574 pages.

Dennis Lord Lloyd of Hampstead, Introduction to Jurisprudence. A vast, out-of-print, fantastically rich collection of writings on the philosophy of law and political philosophy - a mangled old book I believe I picked up for free in the box outside of the Powell's Books in Hyde Park, Chicago. 981 pages (but I'll skip writings that I don't want to read for whatever reason). From the Independent's interesting obituary of Lloyd: "As important to generations of students has been his encyclopaedic Introduction to Jurisprudence (1959). Lloyd was working on the sixth edition when he died. It was through this book that law students in much of the English- speaking world came to read Kelsen, Olivecrona, Savigny, Geny, Pashukanis, giants of continental juristic thought otherwise largely inaccessible. The recipe of wise text and suitably chosen extract remains a model guide to the study of legal thought. To the text he brought his own philosophical training, his culture and his erudition. The Introduction has its detractors but it remains the standard student text on the subject."

Will I succeed in finishing all of these, or any of them? Most likely not. If history is any guide, I'll buy some other book or books during vacation and distract myself with those, or I'll get heavily involved with my writing, almost as a way of avoiding my reading with a good conscience. But if I restrict my book-reading to these four tomes and read around 118 pages a day for 27 days, I could do it - so that's the bar I'm setting for myself.

I can't wait. Two more days of finishing my summer projects, and I'll be free to travel, read, and write without restrictions for an entire month.

27 July 2009

Should we finish the books we begin? It depends.

In an article published in Friday's Washington Times, economist Tyler Cowen makes several interesting and provocative arguments about reading and books.

1. "What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don't like a book?" Cowen says: "Give up."

2. "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," (Cowen) argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series."

3. "(Cowen) notes that many up-and-coming writers complain they can't break through in a best-seller-driven marketplace. 'We're also making markets more efficient," Mr. Cowen says. "If you can sample more books, you're giving more people a chance.'"

The article goes on to discuss several other readers who advocate quitting "boring" books: "One of her online friends reminded her there's even an abandonment rule: The 'Deduct Your Age From 100 and Read That Many Pages Before Giving Up on a Book' rule"; and "Having an e-book reader has made Ms. Wendell more ruthless. "I'm holding 100+ books on one device. If one isn't floating my boat, I can move on to something else by pressing one button," she points out."

So should we finish the books we begin? The short answer: it depends. On what? That's more difficult, but it depends on something more than how much we are enjoying the book.

Why did you pick up the book in the first place? If you are reading for pure entertainment, it makes sense to put the book down if you aren't feeling entertained after giving the book a fair shot. But surely most readers read for more than pure entertainment; if "entertainment" were the ultimate goal, there would be no reason to prefer an entertaining book over an equally or more entertaining movie, television show, or video game. In fact, I suspect that the widespread idea that books are primarily sources of entertainment is partially responsible for the decline of book-reading, especially among young people, in recent decades.

I choose and read books that are rewarding and that will enrich my understanding of the world, of myself, and of the human condition. If they are entertaining or exciting at the same time, so much the better, but that isn't the primary goal. In fact, my idea of what is "entertaining" has shifted. I have conditioned myself to prefer forms of leisure - i.e., reading good books, practicing banjo and listening to music, engaging in good conversation, watching good movies - that are rewarding and educative. So even if I am reading a book that I must struggle to get through, that to me is often more entertaining than reading, say, Angels and Demons.

There are, in short, problems with considering a book's excitement and ease the most important factors in deciding whether to read it or finish it. We build our literacy and expand our understanding by reading material that challenges us, just as a musician continually improves his or her proficiency in an instrument not by playing the same basic tunes over and over, but by constantly pushing his or her limits by tackling new, more frustrating and difficult works and techniques.

I have as much trouble as anyone with finishing books, but some books are worth finishing regardless of whether I feel like finishing them. The other week, I completed Moby-Dick after a slow, gradual, four-month effort. Moby-Dick would certainly fail the "entertainment" test for the vast majority of readers, including me. And yet it is now one of my favorite books, because Melville's incredible use of language and his insights into religion, human nature, and life itself made Moby-Dick matter to me: I read it in the hope that it might change the way I write, think, and see the world.

Steinbeck writes in East of Eden: "You can start reading if you want and it will raise up your lid a little." That's as good a statement as any of what good books are for.

(Hat tip for the link to the Washington Times article: Andrew Sullivan)

21 July 2009

Quotes from Michael Walzer and Harold Bloom

At the very center of conservative thought lies this idea: that the present division of wealth and power corresponds to some deeper reality of human life. ...They want to say that whatever the division of wealth and power is, it naturally is, and that all efforts to change it, temporarily successful in proportion to their bloodiness, must be futile in the end.

Michael Walzer
--"In Defense of Equality" in Howe, ed., 25 Years of Dissent

For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains.
Shelly speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress.
In the contemporary poems that most move me...I can recognize a strength that battles against the death of poetry, yet also the exhaustions of being a latecomer.
Freud recognized sublimation as the highest human achievement, a recognition that allies him to both Plato and to the entire moral traditions of both Judaism and Christianity. Freudian sublimation involves the yielding-up of more primordial for more refined modes of pleasure, which is to exalt the second chance above the first. ...To equate emotional maturation with the discovery of acceptable substitutes may be pragmatic wisdom, especially in the realm of Eros, but this is not the wisdom of the strong poets. The surrendered dream is not merely a phantasmagoria of endless gratification, but is the greatest of all human illusions, the vision of immortality.
Poetic history, in this book's argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.
More than any other purely secular author, Shakespeare makes history more than history makes Shakespeare.
A good biography of Shakespeare, like Russell Fraser's, is preferable to any historicism, because at least we are alone with Shakespeare and Fraser, rather than being propagandized by an academic sect or coven.
Shakespeare's energies so fuse rhetoric, psychology, and cosmology that we cannot distinguish them from one another in his greatest plays.

Harold Bloom
--The Anxiety of Influence

18 July 2009

Recent posts on education at Wide Awake Minds

A few of my recent posts at Wide Awake Minds, in case you missed them:

-A few of the things you can do in a great university, in which I argue that if students want to make the most of their school years in general and their college years in particular, they must take ownership of their education and elect to do what is difficult. I propose a few of the ways in which college students can do so.

-Thinking critically about critical pedagogy, in which I encourage my readers to recognize the reality and complexity of cultural and institutional racism, but also to think critically about the theoretical lenses of critical pedagogy (a framework aimed at correcting racism and other power disparities). This post sparked a great discussion in the comment section as well as some fruitful email exchanges.

-Beyond "preparing our kids for 21st-century jobs" - a call to do away with sloganeering about education as job-preparation, and a brief sketch of the case for universal liberal education.

-Ideas about education from Deborah Meier, one of the greatest progressive educators of our time.

-On language learning textbooks - A personal account of my love of language learning textbooks, and what I have learned from them about how and why we should learn world languages.

If you enjoy Wide Awake Minds, please take a moment to link to it on your blog or social network or pass it along to someone who might be interested in reading it.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Quotes from Czeslaw Milosz and Herman Melville

I finished "Moby-Dick" yesterday. It was one of the most difficult books I've ever read - but also incredibly beautiful and rewarding.


The past is inaccurate, because we cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. We must rely on people's memory, which is treacherous, because memory is constantly juggling and revising the data of experience. ...In telling about an event, we ourselves cannot avoid revising it, because our narrative simplifies and composes a whole out of selected components, while omitting others. It suffices to compare our knowledge of facts with their depiction in chronicles, journalistic accounts, memoirs, to understand the need for fantasizing that is somehow inscribed in the language itself, and which draws us into the forest of fiction.
Los Angeles horrifies me. In our imagination money is still steel and the production of factories; it is difficult to accustom oneself to the great change, the complete reversal, that has granted a marginal human activity, entertainment, its central position as a source of money or power.
I am moved by the very fact of that woman's existence, of which all that has remained is this verse.
I know my own weakness and am inclined to consider myself...as a tangle of reflexes, a drunken child in the fog.
The essential characteristic of fame is its illusory nature, for what does a famous name mean if those who mention it are not well-informed about why it is famous? That, after all, is the fate of the majority of monuments in every large city; they turn into signs from which the content has evaporated.
Everything that enlarges man fortifies us; everything that depicts him as a multidimensional being.

Czeslaw Milosz
--Milosz's ABCs

A whole hour now passed; gold-beaten out to ages.
What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world.
Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!
But Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.
What! how can you see better of a dark night than anybody else, never mind how foolish?
Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what at length will remain but one little heap of ashes!
Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.
Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: - through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? in what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?
I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man.
Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary. But most humble though he was, and far from furnishing an example of the high, humane abstraction; the Pequod's carpenter was no duplicate.

Hermann Melville

14 July 2009

The case for Facebook and social networking

Even though Facebook currently has over 200 million active users, many people continue to doubt the value of social networking in general and Facebook in particular. Critics argue that Facebook and other social networking and Web 2.0 tools - including blogs and Twitter - are symptomatic of the "solipsism" (meaning, in this context, the self-absorption of users) of the contemporary Internet.

Indeed, Facebook can be an enormous time-waster and procrastination tool, as can any medium or Internet resource. I've reflected a lot about my own use of the site over the past six years or so, and I've asked myself whether it is a worthwhile use of my time and an appropriate way - one among others, obviously - to communicate with my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.

The debate was largely settled for me a few months ago when I heard a remarkable lecture by Clara Shih, social networking expert and author of The Facebook Era.

Shih spoke in April at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and I was in attendance to sell copies of her book. (I was working as a manager at a bookstore at the time). I went in with low expectations, as I generally take a dim view of the overcrowded genre of popular business books in general and books on making money through technology in particular. But Shih's presentation blew me away; she made me see Facebook and social networking in an entirely different light, and she helped me understand the many complex issues involved with social networking, and the utility social networking tools can have for those willing to critically evaluate and monitor their use of them.

The core reason for Facebook's popularity, according to Shih, is that it lowers the cost of keeping in touch. Keeping in touch with people you've met is a difficult and time-consuming process. Facebook makes it much, much easier. And it can help us keep in touch in a more meaningful way: there is less need to small talk with distant friends about where they are working, what they are studying, where they are living, and so forth - it's all out there on their Facebook page, and so we can keep track of people we've met as they move through their lives. When we think of them, we can think of who they are and what they are doing now rather than who they were when we met them years before.

This powerful idea was brought home to me again this month, as the host family I lived with in Italy for ten weeks in my sophomore year of college joined Facebook and "Friended" me. It takes a lot of effort to write a letter in Italian, put it in an envelope, wait in line at the post office to buy international postage, and finally send it - but it takes ten seconds to write on their "walls." And so I am much more likely to do the latter than the former, and our relationship need not be weakened by our falling out of touch.

12 July 2009

Quotes from Randall Jarrell, Herman Melville, and John D. Caputo

From Next Day

Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I've become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.
Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water -
It was so long ago....

--Randall Jarrell

The overt Godlessness of our world is a latent Godliness. To an eye keen for things theological, religion is most present where it is least visible. That "secularism" blinds us to the theological order everywhere implicit in the secular order is the "central" player in (Mark C.) Taylor's dialectic. After God is full of illuminating narratives generated by this hypothesis, the central story being how much "modernity" goes back to the Reformation: Luther's assertion of subjectivity, his rejection of tradition in favor of personal experience, his media-savvy insistence on the vernacular and use of the printing press....

John D. Caputo
--Review of Mark C. Taylor's After God in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77:1

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp - all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true - not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL.
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

Herman Melville

From 90 North

I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness - that the darkness flung me -
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

--Randall Jarrell

01 July 2009

New short fiction: "The Day-Trader"

"The Day-Trader," my most recent short story, is being featured in the July issue of Fogged Clarity. Check it out here.

There is a lot of great stuff in this issue - fiction, poetry, a short film, visual art, a music album, and an essay - so be sure to check out the other pieces as well. If you like what you see, you can support Fogged Clarity by linking to it, passing it along to others, and making a donation.

U.S. Should Resist the Urge to Confront Kim Jong-Il

My latest op-ed, "Resist the Urge to Confront Kim Jong-Il," appeared on Antiwar.com this morning. In it, I make the case that any honest examination of the U.S.'s policy options regarding North Korea must begin with the acknowledgment that, first, war is not an option, and second, that the strategies of isolation and sanctions have been tried and have failed for 60 years. Accordingly, our only chance for a resolution of the North Korean issue is through direct talks with the North aimed at a comprehensive peace settlement and an official end to the Korean War. This is not a pleasant option, but it is the right one.

Read the article and the argument here; please feel free to comment directly on the site, through a letter to the editor, or via email. If you enjoy the article, please link to it or forward it to others who might be interested in reading it.

30 June 2009

Farewell, Shaman Drum

Shaman Drum of Ann Arbor, MI, one of the best independent bookstores in the Midwest, permanently shut its doors today. It is a major loss for Ann Arbor and for book-lovers everywhere.

Independent and used bookstores need your support. Shop at them. Go to their events. Buy their gift certificates as holiday gifts.

Independent bookstores must fight back against the challenging economic environment by doing everything they can to improve their businesses. Here are a few ideas:

-Keep a constant flow of new inventory, and mark down unsaleable material to maintain a high-quality bibliography;

-Follow the lead of chain bookstores in taking full advantage of the "retail calendar" of holidays through decorations and displays of recommended holiday-related books.

-Create a pleasant, shoppable atmosphere. I personally look for classical music and places to sit while I look over a pile of books.

-Stock or display local art and photography as well as books.

-Stock books and periodicals for book-lovers, especially the stuff that is harder to find at chain stores. Out-of-print titles that remain relevant; major and local literary journals and serious newspapers; complete backlists of major, second-tier, and local literary writers.

-Sell coffee from a pot for $1 a cup.

-Become an integral part of your community by hosting frequent author events and becoming a local arts hub. Create a space for gatherings such as writers' groups and reading groups. Stock the newspapers and arts magazines of local high schools and colleges.

You can keep track of the independent book business by reading Indiebound and Shelf Awareness.

Quotes from Bishop, Hayden, Olson, and Melville

From The Man-Moth

He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.

--Elizabeth Bishop

From Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday

Oh who and oh who will sing Jesus down
to help with struggling and doing without and being colored
all through blue Monday?
Till way next Sunday?

--Robert Hayden

From Questions of Travel

Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

--Elizabeth Bishop

From Maximus, to Himself

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet.

--Charles Olson

Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play - this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Hermann Melville

(Poems excerpted from The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry)

29 June 2009

Readings from Melville's "Moby-Dick"

But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence. ...If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birth-right, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; in the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove's high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.
It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled towards the sky his one beating fin. So have I seen a bird with clipped wing, making affrighted broken circles in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. But the bird has a voice, and with plaintive cries will make known her fear; but the fear of this vast dumb brute of the sea, was chained up and enchanted in him; he had no voice, save that choking respiration through his spiracle, and this made the sight of him unspeakably pitiable; while still, in his amazing bulk, portcullis jaw, and omnipotent tail, there was enough to appal the stoutest man who so pitied.
Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said - 'Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!' This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfillments should follow the prophets.
As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
For young whales, in the highest health, and swelling with noble aspirations, prematurely cut off in the warm flush and May of life, with all their panting lard about them; even these brawny, buoyant heroes do sometimes sink.

Hermann Melville

20 June 2009

Excerpts from Czeslaw Milosz's "Milosz's ABC's"

I made it, but I have always tried to remember that I owe it to my lucky star, not to myself, and that right next door are entire neighborhoods of unfortunates. I will say even more: the thought of their grueling labor and unfulfilled hope, of the gigantic prison system in which the unneeded are kept, taught me to look skeptically at (America's) decorations - those well-kept houses amidst the suburbs' greenery.
In our deepest convictions, reaching into the very depths of our being, we deserve to live forever. We experience our transitoriness and mortality as an act of violence perpetrated against us. Only Paradise is authentic; the world is inauthentic, and only temporary. That is why the story of the Fall speaks to us so emotionally, as if summoning an old truth from our slumbering memory.
People go to church because they are divided beings. They wish, for a moment at least, to find themselves in a reality other than the one that surrounds them and claims to be the only true reality. This daily reality is unyielding, brutal, cruel, and hard to bear. The human "I" is soft in the center and feels every moment that its adaptation to the world is doubtful. ...Participating in the Mass we once again deny a world without meaning and without mercy; we enter into a dimension where what matters are goodness, love, and forgiveness.

If to participate in the Mass it were necessary to have a strong faith and a consciousness that we act in life as our religion requires us to, all the churchgoing faithful would deserve to be called hypocrites and Pharisees. In truth, however, strong faith is a rare gift, and as for acts, the liturgy reminds us that we are all sinners. Attending church is not, therefore, for the elect.

The needs of the individual determine church attendance, and knowledge of the catechism or even familiarity with the so-called truths of the faith are not the most important matters, although they are advisable.

Czeslaw Milosz
--Milosz's ABC's

18 June 2009

Quotes from Edward Abbey and John Cheever

We make the coffee with river water, dipping a canful from among the rocks and letting it set for a time until the silt settles to the bottom. For entertainment we have the murmur of the river, the drone of cicada and amphibians, the show of nighthawks plunging through the evening gulping bugs. Afterwards we sit by the fire until the fire gives out, listening, smoking, analyzing socioeconomic problems:

"Look here, Newcombe," I say, "do you think it's fitting that you and I should be here in the wilds, risking our lives amidst untold hardships, while our wives nad loved ones lounge at their ease back in Albuquerque, enjoying the multifold comforts, benefits and luxuries of modern contemporary twentieth century American urban civilization?"

"Yes," he says.

Edward Abbey
--Desert Solitaire

The light there was like a blow, and the air smelled as if many wonderful girls had just wandered across the lawn.

John Cheever
--"The Common Day"

I had already put on the football uniform, and the weight of it, the heaviness of the pants and the shoulder guards, had worked a change in me, as if in putting on these old clothes I had put off the reasonable anxieties and troubles of my life. It felt as if we had both returned to the years before our marriage, the years before thew war.
Chucky Ewing had got hold of a balloon and was trying to organize a scrimmage line in the middle of the floor. The others were dancing a samba. And I knew that Lawrence was looking bleakly at the party as he had looked at the weather-beaten shingles on our house, as if he saw here an abuse and a distortion of time; as if in wanting to be brides and football players we exposed the fact that, the lights of youth having been put out in us, we had been unable to find other lights to go by and, destitute of faith and principle, had become foolish and sad. And that he was thinking this about so many kind and happy and generous people had me angry, made me feel for him such an unnatural abhorrence that I was ashamed, for he is my brother and a Pommeroy.

John Cheever
-"Goodbye, My Brother"

16 June 2009

Transitions: A personal update

No more than three weeks after making my final decision to move to Ann Arbor to pursue an M.A. in Education at the University of Michigan and become a high school history teacher, it is happening: my furniture is being sold or moved, my possessions are being sorted into boxes. Yesterday was my last day at the bookstore I've worked at as a manager since August. On Friday I'll be on the road to Muskegon with a stuffed car and another empty apartment behind me, and on Sunday I'll be in Ann Arbor to begin the next stage of my life.

I feel alive with the movement of it all: "A man gets up, a few strokes of a brush and then already it's evening." (Milosz)

15 June 2009

War: The More We Spend on It, the More We Get

My latest op-ed, "War: The More We Spend on It, the More We Get," appeared on Antiwar.com this morning.

In it, I write:

"President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates’ $534 billion defense budget proposal is aimed at building a "21st-century military," that is, a military designed to fight asymmetrical "small wars," conduct anti-terrorism operations, and battle insurgencies. It shuffles a significant number of pieces around the chessboard, to be sure, but like its predecessors, it is an enormous waste of resources and wealth.

If we took a radically different, need-based approach to defense funding, and asked ourselves about the legitimate, just, and necessary aims of American power, and how much money we must allocate to defense to accomplish those aims, it is unlikely that we would wind up where we are now, with 20 percent of our national budget allocated to defense and accounting for a shameful 45 percent of the world’s spending on war and preparation for war.
Insofar as Obama and Gates are shaking up the military-industrial status quo, they deserve some credit. But the simple fact that their defense budget represents an increase in an already criminal level of funding for warmaking and its instruments demonstrates that whatever special interests are threatened by the new budget, this budget will create new special interests of its own.

What is needed is a dramatic cut in defense spending. To think that this would represent a decrease, rather than an increase, in America’s security is a reflex rather than the product of reflection; the safest world is one in which spending on war is minimized as much as possible."

Read the whole article here.

13 June 2009

For many in Chicago, driving is a necessity, not a luxury

My most recent op-ed, "For us, Mr. Daley, driving to work is a necessity, not a vice" (registration required) was published today on Chicagobusiness.com and will appear in this week's issue of Crain's Chicago Business. You can find the article here as well as reprinted below:


For us, Mr. Daley, driving to work is a necessity, not a vice

Ryan McCarl

It is exceedingly difficult for many commuters living on the North Side to find free parking after they return from work. After an often agonizing rush-hour commute, they must circle around their neighborhood until they find a parking space; if they arrive too late, they must choose between parking at a meter and interrupting their lives every two hours to feed it, or parking a mile or more away from their homes.

But if the North Side parking situation is a nightmare today, imagine what it will look like when the city installs meters along the entire lakefront, effectively eliminating a major artery of free parking.

I commute every workday between my apartment near Belmont Avenue in East Lakeview and Hyde Park. If I drive, I spend around 50 minutes per day, including time spent finding parking, on the road. If I take public transportation, the same round trip can take as long as three hours. That adds an extra two hours to my workday, significantly reducing my time for leisure, exercise, relationships and everything else that is important in life.

In short, for me and for many other commuters, driving is essential to maintaining a high quality of life in Chicago.

Many users of the free lakefront spots are commuters who do not have access to, cannot afford or choose not to purchase a space in a garage or a residential street parking permit. These commuters, like myself, look for free spots to park in overnight.

The new lakefront meters, which are scheduled to be in place by the fall, will mean that thousands of drivers will be competing for far fewer free spaces. Many commuters will spend more frustrated and stressful time on the road driving in circles in search of parking. Some will resort to paying an outrageous price to park in a garage. Others will give up driving and double or triple their commuting time by turning to public transit.

For many Chicagoans, driving to work — and finding free or affordable parking after work — is a necessity, not a luxury. Contrary to the inclinations of Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city, it is not a vice that ought to be subject to endless taxation and fees.

By significantly reducing the availability of free parking in lakefront neighborhoods without creating affordable alternatives for commuters, the new meters will make much of the city more expensive and inconvenient for everyone, including working families. They may boost the city's revenue, but they will do so at the direct expense of the well-being and quality of life of thousands of its residents.

Ryan McCarl is a freelance writer. He has an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and he maintains a blog at http://ryanmccarl.blogspot.com.

07 June 2009

Readings from Hemingway, O'Connor, and K. Shapiro

Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. From the time he had gotten down off the train and the baggage man had thrown his pack out of the open car door things had been different. Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.
The road ran on, dipping occasionally, but always climbing.
Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.
Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story.

Ernest Hemingway
--"Big Two-Hearted River: Part I"

The 'heroes of the spirit,' Elijah shows the conventional rabbi Baroka, are not the ostentatiously pious, not even the learned and devout like Baroka himself.... They may appear to be quite ordinary individuals, not even religious in a conventional sense, whose quiet deeds enhance the quality of life around them - the carers, the compassionate, those who use their talents to ease the burden of humanity.

Norman Solomon
--Judaism: A Very Short Introduction

The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.

Flannery O'Connor
--"Everything That Rises Must Converge"

But no appeal has yet been made to the vast American middle class, the majority class, to detach itself from our competitive industrial insanity. It is indeed our industrial way of life that lends sanction to militarism and colonialism, Preparedness and suppression of human rights. Our enemy, strange as it may sound to American ears, is the Standard of Living. We worship at the altar of the White Rhinoceros, the American kitchen. Standard of Living is the holy of holies in whose name every other evil is committed. To lower this standard or to equalize it among the peoples of the world is our greatest need. And the first step is to disassociate ourselves from the industrial-scientific madness which rules our lives twenty-four hours a day.
To remove ourselves from the world of competition is of paramount importance to the individual and to the nation. Competition is the most terrible vice of modern society. Competition is the disease of the West and is the source of our violence. Non-violence means non-competition. ...It cannot be employed by governments because governments are by definition committed to violence. Nonviolence is not a prerogative of governments but of men, even of one man. One nonviolent man, like Gandhi or Christ, can change history. Governments can only keep history on the march. Ahimsa can stop history.
Vinoba Bhave, the greatest living disciple of Gandhi, who travels throughout India asking for land for the peasantry from the great landlords and receiving it, says: "I desire to humiliate neither the rich nor the poor..." This is the opposite of communist expropriation or of capitalist competition.
Instead of class war and hatred as preached by the communists or industrial-scientific competition as preached by us, to survive we must behave nonviolently and in the spirit of love.

Karl Shapiro
--"To Revive Anarchism" in Creative Glut

29 May 2009

Becoming a teacher and a Michigan Wolverine

I'm excited to report that I have decided to enter the University of Michigan School of Education's Secondary MAC (MA in Education with Secondary Certification) program in mid-June. The program is 12 months long and includes over 1,000 hours of classroom experience as a student teacher and substitute teacher, resulting in full certification.

I look forward to finding unique ways to show my students the importance of learning and reading as well as the value of informed engagement with current events and politics. I also want to grow into a caring and effective mentor. And, finally, I hope to learn from my classroom experience in order to become a more informed and articulate advocate for education reform.

I am very, very sad to be moving from Chicago after living here for five years. I will miss my tiny apartment in East Lakeview and having easy access to my favorite places - the lakefront, Mickey's Grille, Avenue Tavern, and Stella's Diner in East Lakeview, the Noble Tree Cafe in Lincoln Park, the Grind and the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square, the Pub and Powell's Books in Hyde Park, Myopic Books in Wicker Park, Lao Beijing in Chinatown, and the Borders on Michigan Ave., among others. But I will be visiting at least once a month over the next year.

The next three weeks will be incredibly busy. I'll be packing, moving, finding a subletter in Chicago and a temporary place to stay in Ann Arbor, working for a few more weeks, and spending as much time as possible with my friends in Chicago. But I am thrilled to be entering the program and stepping into the next stage of my life and career.

15 May 2009

Out of Range: The ethics of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

My latest op-ed, "Out of Range," appeared in this morning's edition of Antiwar.com. In it, I explore the ethical dilemma of the U.S.'s ongoing campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan. This is shaping up to be one of the hottest contemporary debates in foreign policy circles.

I write: "Technology and wealth have made it possible for the U.S. to exercise decisive military power anywhere in the world. But our technology and our wealth often outrun our wisdom, our prudence, and our moral sensibilities."
"With the exception of the pacifist and nonviolent traditions, most of our moral thinking about war acknowledges that there are at least some circumstances under which violence and killing, including organized political violence (or war), is morally acceptable. But are our theories about the ethics of warmaking up to the task of determining when, if ever, it is permissible to kill a relatively impotent enemy from a safe and anonymous distance, by robot or missile?"
"For their operators, controlling these 'drones' must not be so different from playing a video game – something almost fictional, bearing at most a tangential relationship to the reality of face-to-face killing and dying that informed our ability to understand the depth of the tragedies of previous wars we have fought."

If you enjoy the op-ed, please take a moment to pass it along to others who might be interested.

Other columnists featured on Antiwar.com today: University of Chicago international relations theorist John J. Mearsheimer (also my former M.A. thesis advisor!), legendary New Left activist Tom Hayden, University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, Senior Editor at Time.com Tony Karon, and Salon.com contributor and Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald.

30 April 2009

Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History"

I recently picked up Wendy Doniger's new book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School and America's foremost scholar of Hinduism, set out to challenge many prevailing notions of Hinduism and argue for a more inclusive, broad view of the tradition, a view that recognizes the diversity of folk religions in the Hindu world as well as the contributions of women, Muslims, and people of the lower castes to the Hindu tradition.

The book was reviewed last weekend in the New York Times Book Review, and it is slated to be chosen as an Editor's Pick next week. A comment by Professor Doniger can be found here, and the favorable Times review by Pankaj Mishra can be found here.

Readings from C. Taylor, J.T. Johnson, and the US Catholic Bishops

Faith does not insulate us from the challenges of life; rather, it intensifies our desire to help solve them.... From the resources of our faith we wish to provide hope and strength to all who seek a world free of the nuclear threat. Hope sustains one's capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable. Ultimately our hope rests in the God who gave us life, sustains the world by his power and has called us to revere the lives of every person and all peoples.
As Americans, citizens of the nation which was first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral, and political responsibilities to see that a "conscious choice" is made to save humanity.

United States Catholic Bishops
--The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response - The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace

The definition of combatancy and noncombatancy follows from direct involvement in prosecuting the war, not from one's citizenship or one's personal preference among the belligerents. It is action that matters, not attitude. For this reason, I regard the use of the term civilian in the Protocols to the Geneva Conventions as misleading: it is not civilian status that matters, as irregular soldiers may technically be civilians; what matters is whether people are engaged in combatant activity or not. The relevant moral term is noncombatant, even though the language of the protocols uses civilian, and this usage has seeped into the moral debate at times.

James Turner Johnson
--The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: Just War and the New Face of Conflict

In the following chapters, I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call "subtraction stories." Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process - modernity or secularity - is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can't be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

Charles Taylor
--A Secular Age

28 April 2009

Re: Mark C. Taylor on "reforming higher education"

Mark C. Taylor, contrarian philosopher and chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion, caused a firestorm in the academic community with his op-ed, "End the University as We Know It," in yesterday's New York Times.  The op-ed remains at the top of the NYT's most-emailed list.

There are few better places to have a debate about the philosophy of education than the University of Chicago, where the Core Curriculum and the school's historical emphasis on liberal education and distaste for vocational education permeates everything.  On the U of C men's cross country email list, five current and former runners had weighed in on Taylor's piece by this morning.  My thoughts were these:

1. You can't wish away the disciplines. I would argue that you can familiarize yourself with several disciplines and do interdisciplinary work, but "interdisciplinary" means within and among the disciplines. Examining a problem or topic in the abstract before locating oneself in a discipline, or in several disciplines, could easily lead to amateurism and reinventing the wheel, and it would likely lead to missing or mistaking the assumptions upon which existing scholarship has been built.

Does it make sense to look at questions through as many disciplinary lenses as possible? Absolutely. And yet the critical advantage provided by writing within a discipline, and what an ad hoc interdisciplinary analysis of a topic risks missing, is clarity of assumptions. You always know the outlines of where a Chicago School economist or a realist in IR theory or a Frankfurt School critic is coming from, and that helps you understand the nuances and innovations of his or her argument. If you begin a research project with the idea that you are writing something above and beyond the disciplines, something entirely new, chances are good that 1. you are mistaken, 2. you will do work that has been done more thoroughly before, and 3. you will be forced to make arbitrary choices at every step.

2. Taylor bases his argument on economic grounds, not educational or philosophy of education grounds. And so he speaks of academic journals and University presses in terms of "demand" for their "products," as if they were inferior versions of Newsweek and Random House. If we are to do interdisciplinary work, then we must learn when and how to apply the conceptual lenses of each discipline appropriately. By choosing to give primacy to a view of American higher education as seen through the disciplinary lenses of economics, Taylor implicitly endorses the value choices or axioms that form the foundation of contemporary economic thinking and suggests that these should govern our thinking about higher education.

It is true that we can learn something new about higher education by looking at it through economic lenses, but I would suggest that the central purposes of higher education differ from the purposes of the market (efficiency, profit, increased "utility"/pleasure).

The twofold purpose of graduate programs is, first, to train scholars who can contribute, in whatever small way, to the sum of human knowledge, and second, to train these scholars to teach at the undergraduate level; if we judge that these are valuable and necessary functions in our society, as I believe we must, then we ought not to begin our critique of them with the question of what the consumer or the market "wants." I would also add that strong universities are at least partially public goods that add value to society and humanity at large, not just to the undergraduates they teach, and so it is a mistake to think of higher education as merely a collection of transactions between colleges and students.

3. If I am right in claiming that one of the central purposes of graduate education is to contribute to the sum of human knowledge - to train scholars, not just advanced students - then I'm afraid that Taylor's idea of substituting Powerpoint presentations and video games for dissertations misses the point, as does his suggestion that we introduce non-academic vocational training into graduate education.

--Ryan McCarl

(Mark Taylor's original op-ed is here.)

23 April 2009

Readings from Camus and Melville

I once said that, after the experiences of the last two years, I could no longer hold to any truth which might oblige me, directly or indirectly, to demand a man's life.  Certain friends whom I respected retorted that I was living in Utopia, that there was no political truth which could not one day reduce us to such an extremity, and that we must therefore either run the risk of this extremity or else simply put up with the world as it is.

They argued the point most forcefully.  But I think they were able to put such force into it only because they were unable to really imagine other people's death.  It is a freak of the times.  We make love by telephone, we work not on matter but on machines, and we kill and are killed by proxy.  We gain in cleanliness, but lose in understanding.

Albert Camus
  --"Neither Victims nor Executioners," in David P. Barash, ed., Approaches to Peace.

I would up heart, were it not like lead.  But my whole clock's run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again.
I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail.  The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.
Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.

Herman Melville

20 April 2009

Why we must remember Iraq

The Next Forgotten War,” an op-ed of mine, was published on Antiwar.com this morning; check it out here.  In it, I argue that we must keep the memory of the Iraq War, and the individuals caught up in its maelstroms, alive:

"As Iraq recedes from the headlines and slips from the public’s mind to make room for the next 'crisis,' we have a responsibility to give some thought to the two million Iraqi refugees displaced by the war and the tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed or maimed as a consequence of the war. And what we should remember is not statistics or grand narratives, but individual stories and the weight they lend to the principles of prudence, humanism, and nonviolence."

If you enjoy the article, please consider linking to it or sharing it with others you think may be interested.

19 April 2009

Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Conscientious Objector"

I discovered one of the best poems on war I've ever read the other day while reading David P. Barash's Approaches to Peace, an excellent edited volume on peace and conflict studies:

Conscientious Objector
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.