Thursday, December 18, 2014

How do you say 'I Can't Breathe' in Arabic?: The Ethics of Militarization

One of the key issues in the national debate following the death of Eric Garner is the militarization of American police departments across the country. Generally speaking, “militarization” refers to at least two trends: the influx of military-grade vehicles and weapons into local police armories and the frequent use of full riot-gear and military grade uniforms in non-military situations. These trends have both imaginative and material effects. The material is quite clear: things ramp up physically for people who are engaged with the police. More people are injured and killed. The imaginative side is more complex and maybe more insidious. In short, the appearance of this new style of policing is changing the way the public views their own police officers and their orientation toward them. 

Last year, the university at which I work had a stroke of March Madness luck and winning basketball games drove excited students into the streets of their neighborhood. After the first celebration, the city and the university decided to ramp up police presence for the “safety of students and property.” What this meant in real terms was a whole cadre of police officers in full riot gear (masks which hid their faces, batons out and at the ready, body armor), standing on the sidewalks as strange-looking babysitters of the increasingly drunk but rather benign students. In short order, students began to try and cross the street, attempting to simply reach their friends on the other side or blatantly taunting the police. The result was several arrests and several injuries, some of which were quite bloody.

I don’t want to imply that these students are not capable of destruction of property or each other. I do believer, however, that the outcome of the celebration was in fact more dramatic and more unfortunate precisely because of the militarized police presence itself. In short, if you are dressed for combat, people become combative.

But this is not the only sense(s) in which the police forces in this country have been militarized. I suggest that to be “militarized” in our country is to operate with an ethical standard toward perceived threats that is essentially utilitarian and fundamentally disrespectful of the dignity of the human person.

Recently, a Congressional report detailed what many people have long feared about the United States’ beleaguered war on terror: we have been torturing people for years under the auspice of intelligence-gathering. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been publicly defensive of the procedures detailed in the report, which include such terrible actions as rectal force-feeding, waterboarding, and extreme confinement. In a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Cheney told Chuck Todd and all of the Americans he served in office for eight years that he is unconcerned with the innocent people who were tortured and/or killed in the American campaign. He said, “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.” Later he added, “I would do it again in a minute.”

What he and other leaders are advancing here is an essentially utilitarian consequentialist argument for the torture and execution of innocent people. It’s the old “break a few eggs to make an omelet” argument: whatever achieves our intended end (a perceived good like preserving freedom or brining people to justice for September 11) is morally acceptable. If that includes the killing of innocent people, so be it.

Incidentally, Eric Garner was an innocent person. Eric Garner’s death was caught on tape, and no one can say that this unarmed man posed real threat to the six police officers who surrounded him and eventually strangled him to death. Many people who have been galvanized by Garner’s death continue to wonder: why aren’t people outraged by the murder of an innocent man at the hands of police? Dick Cheney tells us why.

A recent Washington Post poll demonstrates that Americans by and large think that torture is sometimes justified. What matters above all else is the eradication of a perceived threat. We have accepted, as a culture and a country, that it is simply ok to kill innocent people for the perceived greater good. Therefore, what binds modern American police departments to the military leadership of this country is the shared conviction that eradicating perceived threats—whole countries, people who live in countries where there are terrorist cells, citizens who share the skin color or economic status as the image of ‘criminal’ we have in our minds—takes precedence over the hard work of upholding human dignity.  If innocence isn’t even a reason for maintaining someone’s dignity, we can’t even begin to imagine what it means to maintain the dignity of the guilty.  

Here’s a final thought for my fellow Christian Americans: utilitarian consequentialism may be efficient, but it isn’t Christian. In fact, the killing of innocents is never acceptable in the Christian tradition, and this principle just happens to be the very same one undergirding the pro-life position that so many Republicans use to get your vote. Furthermore, the Gospel is so challenging because it actually demands that we respect the dignity of the not-so-innocent as well. It may not be good politics but true justice hardly ever is.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Trouble with Agreeing to Disagree

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and with the joy of the meal comes the dread of the conversation with family. The Thanksgiving table comes up often in my classroom. Sometimes I use it as an image for the intimacy and celebration engendered by a shared meal. More often, I describe it as the primary site for trying to avoid the most delicate subjects. I majored in political science and theology, meaning that I find intellectual and personal happiness in discussing the two things that one is not supposed to bring up at the dinner table. As the quintessential dinner table, Thanksgiving is surely not the place for these kinds of things. In order to preserve the peace, we often remind ourselves that we should "agree to disagree," a kind of ceasefire on all things contentious so that we might more properly enjoy our time together.

I've always hated the phrase "agree to disagree," mostly because it means that the conversation is over. As an extrovert and as a person whose life is basically making arguments, this is awful. I do recognize that my reaction to this beloved phrase might just be about temperament. The more introverted folks in my life may see it as a long-awaited reprieve from confrontation. But temperaments aside, I think this phrase is trouble.

One of the things I've noticed in my first few years of teaching is that students aren't so much unable to articulate themselves or ignorant of facts but that they are, as religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero says, "allergic to argument." I've been baffled and saddened by a total lack of interest on my students' part for having any opinion at all. A popular explanation for this is that the lives of young people (myself included) have become frivolous: selfies, hashtags, tweeting and texting has turned them (us) into self-absorbed, celebrity-obsessed, and politically apathetic drones. There are two main problems with this narrative: 1) social media demonstrates as much heated debates as it does frivolity (if not more), and 2) the apparent apathy of younger generations is not really their fault.

In defense of point 2, I give you the Thanksgiving table. Our collective insistence that we avoid all complex and contentious topics for the sake of peace both reflects and exacerbates our collective inability to discuss the most important things in life. The reason why people don't want to discuss religion and politics is because these are the values they hold most dear AND the ones they are probably least capable of defending. For the sake of politeness, we have neutered the spaces in which we might learn how to engage in important discourse. While I understand that people don't want to yell and fight, what I can't understand is how muting the conversation altogether will ever help us move beyond yelling and fighting to actual discourse.

Maybe young people feverishly post their every thought and feeling online because they lack the offline spaces in which to express themselves. And perhaps it appears frivolous because they are not properly formed in their own homes for responsible defense of their own positions.

I'm not insisting that people pick fights with their families. Agreeing to disagree might be an important safety valve when a conversation gets too heated, but has it become our default position? Maybe apathy has unwittingly become the new side dish for our Thanksgiving meals.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Honey Boo Boo and Class Porn

TLC has canceled "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" today as a result of the family's mother, June Shannon, dating a convicted sex offender. The reaction to this news has been a mix of disdain, condescension, vitriol, and ironic humor, much like general responses to the show itself. People love to hate and love to love Honey Boo Boo and her family. This week's story and the show's cancellation simply mark a high point in our culture's distorted fascination with a particular kind of reality television. I call it "Class Porn," and it has two distinct but related genres.

The first genre is that to which "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" belongs. I call this genre "Poverty Porn." These shows represent the sense of humor that is unique to our cultural moment. Popular humor (especially in online contexts) has become deeply ironic. The trend of "hate-watching" shows demonstrates the complicated relationship Americans (especially young Americans) have with their entertainment media. 

More than this, however, Honey Boo Boo and her family provide a mental salve for the deep economic inequalities in American society by offering poverty as a spectacle. They reinforce our stereotypes about class, reassuring us of the moral superiority that comes from a privileged economic position. "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" obscures the complicated picture of American poverty by exploiting its subjects for a national audience. We consume it with little regard for the exploitation of individuals who create the spectacle for us, and absolve ourselves from the moral complicity in the systems which create vast inequality and the diminishing of human dignity. 

The second genre is "Wealth Porn," a collection of shows featured mostly on the Bravo and E! networks. These shows focus almost exclusively on the conspicuous wealth of celebrities and would-be celebrities. Instead of engendering moral outrage at the insanity of multimillion dollar houses, faux charity galas that set the stage for nearly-scripted personal confrontations, and narcissistic personalities being praised for their net worth, these shows also function as mental salve. Once again, by holding them up as spectacle, viewing audiences are able to dissociate themselves from the moral evils of excessive wealth. These shows are watched less ironically than their Poverty Porn counterparts. Even as spectacle, the narratives of these shows suggest that such conspicuous wealth is either enviable or just normal. Once again, all involved in creating these spectacles are not individuals with a dignity and personhood that demand more of them than rampant consumption. Instead, they become even more famous and more rich by simply being famous and rich on television, playing the part of the Rich Other whom we hold at arm's length so as not to see our own consumptive appetites reflected in their eyes. (When I ask my students who Jesus means by "the rich," they often tell me the Kardashians or the Real Housewives.)

Our television habits in this regard are exploitative and escapist. We participate in systems of injustice and have sought and consumed a diet of class spectacle in order to obscure that participation. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In praise of slacktivism

My friend (successfully) defended his dissertation last week. At one point in the three hour defense, one of his committee members used the word "slacktivism" without irony. The concept seems to have leaped out of its digital confines in blogs and tweets and into a serious academic setting.

This is due in no small part to the summer of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115 million, according to the organization. As fast as social media filled with videos of people dumping icy water onto themselves, it also filled with critiques and commentary on the trendy form of donation.

It has become quite popular to point to such efforts as a symptom of the general shallowness of our online lives. Virtual actions such as signing petitions, sharing links, or using specific hashtags are categorized as "slacktivist," a somewhat paradoxical combination of "activist" and "slacker" which relies on a sharp distinction between virtual and non-virtual social action.

My problem with using the label "slacktivism" in order to critique virtual social action is twofold: 1) It assumes a robust non-virtual social action with relatively well-defined forms and goals, and 2) it assumes an understanding of virtual acts as less real than non-virtual actions.

Our assumptions about non-virtual social action: When people accuse others of "slacktivism," they appear to have in mind a non-virtual counterpart that contributes more robustly or more directly to the issue at hand. I take public demonstration (protests, strikes, large and public fundraising events, etc.) to be the ultimate non-virtual social action. It is the standard against which we measure virtual actions like sharing a link, for instance. Simply sharing a link, the critique goes, is just not as good as, say, attending a protest, presumably because it does not require as much (time? energy? effort?) from the link-sharer. Thus while the action may be activism, its lack of personal risk and "real" effort necessitates the addition of "slacker," making it "slacktivism."

In college, I spent a significant amount of time working to end the death penalty in Maryland. One rainy fall afternoon, a group of about forty abolitionists from different organizations gathered outside of Maryland's death row. More specifically, we were on a rather desolate city street under an overpass. We held signs, we chanted, we sang. Some of us prayed. After about an hour, I had a troubling thought: What is the purpose of what we're doing? 

I had no problem understanding what it meant to write to legislators, to accompany death row inmates themselves through letters, or to raise awareness on campus. On that rainy and in nearly every other public demonstration I've attended, I couldn't shake the feeling of anticipation. In my more honest moments, I could ask another question: What am I/are we waiting for?

As far as I can tell, the anticipation is for one of two things, either a significant amount of people to witness the demonstration in person or, more commonly, for a significant amount of media attention. The problem is that American culture does not seem to have spaces for the kind of direct social action that we imagine when we judge virtual action. I am not convinced that my standing on a street with a sign is better for a cause than sharing a link to a well-argued piece to hundreds of people online. I am also not convinced that the many people who will re-share that link are doing so in lieu of the non-virtual social action we idealize.

Frightening as it may sound, it's possible that the robust social space we believe is essential to democratic life may not actually exist, or if it does, it may not exist where we think it does.

Our assumptions about virtual action: There pervades in moral critiques of the internet a double-talk that assumes virtual activity forms us in real (and usually negative) ways, while at the same time maintains that our behaviors online aren't as "real" as those offline (to the extent we're really ever 'off'). We can't have it both ways, and it seems pretty clear that virtual actions are both real and formative.

If this is the case, shouldn't we be less dismissive of altruistic, outward-looking actions online, no matter how small? Dismissing so-called "slacktivism" relies on a view of social action that is mostly about results. For many systems of ethics, however, there is much more to consider than consequences. Virtue ethics, for instance, maintains that the often small, repetitive actions in a person's life cultivate habits that are either virtuous or vicious. If this is true, then even the smallest actions online (which we should take to be real actions), contribute in some way to the formation of one's habits.

By leveling the criticism of "slacktivism" at virtual social action, we delude ourselves into idealizing an alternative that, more often that not, does not exist. We also undermine the reality of virtual space, the practical effect of which is that we won't be capable of reflecting upon it and its effects. Onward, slacktivists!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Media and the Church

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been in several conversations--both virtually and non-virtually--with people--both Catholic and non-Catholic--about the Synod on the Family. Fueled in large part by a draft relatio (report) at the end of last week, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of a rather robust public discourse on one of the Catholic Church's oldest and most obscure internal practices.

And this one has been marked by drama. Over at Crux, John L. Allen's piece bears a headline calling the Synod a "soap opera." The cast of characters, emotions, and overreactions by almost everyone in the scene seems to bear out Allen's analysis. (Although until someone gets slapped in the face--as legend has St. Nicholas reprimanding Arius--the Council Nicaea in 325 CE still takes the cake for drama.)

Mediated as it is by press conferences and interviews, many folks are tempted to blame the media for exaggerating or even creating the drama. Not far behind blaming the news media is the tired refrain of blaming new media for the nefarious effects of up-to-the-minute information.

But is our situation a new one? Yes, of course...and no, of course not.

In the late 19th century, there prevailed the idea among some American bishops (known as "Americanists") that their situation in the US was unique. This compelled them to think and say things about individual liberty and the place of the church in society that did not sit well with the Vatican. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical letter, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, basically telling them to get in line.

What seems to us like a pretty boring historical moment in the relatively short history of the American Catholic church was a hot topic in 1899. All kinds of newspapers--some Catholic, many not--published articles and editorials, offering analysis of both the encyclical and the Americanist position. People were blamed; names were called. Everyone read it as soon as it could all be printed.

The Americanist controversy had issues and concerns that were different from the Synod on the Family. What obtains today, though, is the public desire to have knowledge of and weigh in on the workings of the Catholic Church. Both situations have another similarity: a pope unafraid of the media of his time. We do not think of the encyclical as a particularly modern medium--it has all the trappings of pre-modern, aristocratic models of public discourse. It is, however, effectively an "open letter," one that could communicate the teachings, desires, and concerns of the church to a wide audience. And Leo loved them.

For his part, Pope Francis has been a veritable master of the media of his own time. Opting instead for the medium of interview, Francis has captured the attention of the entire world. People who did not care about the Catholic Church three years ago care about it now. And on twitter and facebook, and in bars and classrooms, the name "Francis" is on the lips of young people.

Many people want to talk about the "Francis effect," a kind of hopeful change in tone that has affected the theological discourse and pastoral inflection of the church. But this effect is not just internal; Francis has re-invigorated the desire for media that is focused on the church from the outside as well.

This reinvigorated desire carries a promise and a challenge. The promise is that younger Catholics and young people in general might find the space to engage intelligently with the church. This intelligent and vigorous engagement might actually keep them in or bring them to the church. At the very least, it may serve to raise religious literacy in America, something of which we are sorely in need.

The challenge is that, much like the church itself, the media must find ways to draw young people into careers that can give it a future. This challenge will only be met through creativity and openness. News outlets must be creative enough to move beyond 'using' new media to focus on shaping it. They must also be open enough to listen to millennials instead of dismissing and lamenting them.

Our media change and evolve, and although at a much slower pace, so do religious institutions. Instead of seeing them at odds, assuming the worst of one or both, we should enter bravely into the spaces of knowledge, debate and dialogue before us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Acoustic Grace: Thank You, Josh Ritter

Over the past decade, artist and songwriter Josh Ritter has provided the soundtrack to my life. Because blogs operate in a weird space between public articles and private journals anyway, I thought I'd be allowed to lean heavily on the latter today and write him a weird little thank you note.

Dear Josh,

I meant to write this years ago. Specifically, I meant to write it when one of your songs, "Still Beating," got me through the toughest year of my life.

Your work has been a constant source of grace for me, a difficult word for our times but one that gets legs with the kind of beauty your music embodies.

The depth of your storytelling in "The Temptation of Adam" and "The Curse" has spurred my imagination. I have become friends and enemies with your characters and I've become lost in the worlds of these stories. They are all so fleeting, lasting only the length of a song. But the gaps and crevices of music frees its listener to supply the colors and smells, and all of this world-creating has allowed me to know myself and my world so much better.

The sincerity of your poetry in tunes like "Right Moves" and "One More Mouth" (and nearly all of The Beast In Its Tracks) has given voice to the contours and shadows of love and friendship. So much of your art speaks in gracious tones to the joy and tragedy of love. For this, I am immensely grateful, and the details of my own failings in love bear witness to the depth of my gratitude.

I have used "Lantern" to teach students about life's great questions. I have prayed with "Thin Blue Flame," a song that elevated my mind and heart into ineffability. I have laughed with "Joy to You Baby." I have benefitted greatly from your thoughtful, self-effacing and excellent art.

Thank you.


[Here is the Spotify playlist for this post.]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Life Experience"

A rather innocuous PBS commercial for the network's online content got me thinking today. In the commercial, a teacher of social work says that she has many students who lived through Hurricane Katrina, and that these students possess "life experience" that requires that her material be "relevant." As a person who is currently undergoing the process of learning how to teach, I find the phrase "life experience" to be not only redundant and nearly meaningless but also quite dangerous for many college students.

One of the most shocking things that happens in my classroom is absolute silence. Even the brightest students will refuse to express an opinion on a topic, however interested they may be. They are seemingly very content with thinking absolutely nothing about any number of issues including race, poverty, gay marriage, and war. I work very hard to ask the right questions to get them to say anything one could construe as an actual opinion on these things.

I think this deafening silence--one of the cruelest of stabs in the pedagogical heart--is related to this "life experience" thing. "Life experience" (I've typed it three times now and it's like nails on a chalkboard in my internal monologue) means something like having gone through something tough, be it the challenges (and drudgery) of working a job for many years or the hardship and sufferings of a natural disaster or other calamity, personal or otherwise. The problem is that limiting "life experience" to this understanding--an understanding with which you can certainly argue but that I believe prevails not only on college campuses but in all kinds of business settings--is that it relieves privileged students of their responsibility as human beings to think about the world as a person who actually lives in it.

My fear is that most of my students assume that they do not have "life experience." What this blinds them to are the very cultural assumptions that they need to reflect upon in order to be critical thinkers. In a way, it exempts them from reflecting on their own "life experience," understood as simply being a human being who has a body and lives in the world. Their experiences may be banal, but they are experiences had during one's life, and they need to be recognized as formative. The danger is that students aren't able to see themselves as formed by dynamics of class, race, gender and more. They are able to float free, claiming a lack of "life experience" and succumbing to the silence of apathetic existence.

This is not a millennial problem. This is a cultural problem that runs deep in our collective anthropology. Before older folks go blaming those pesky kids for their apathy, they would do well to examine their categories for adulthood. We think we know what we mean by "real world" or "life experience." Perhaps we do. But perhaps that meaning is an insidious component of the deepest flaws in our view of what it means to be human. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What Darren Aronofsky Knows

Biblical narratives vivify communities and traditions and in turn, lend themselves to deserving vivification. 

Movies based on books are always going to be compared to their antecedent texts. In the case of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, discussing the movie means discussing not just any book but one of the most important texts in all of human history. This film does incredible things with the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6-9, and it does them in a way that is probably foreign to most people who consider the Bible to be important for their religious lives. But there is a long history in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (!) of reading the text with imagination. The practical effect of the messy 16th and 17th centuries--a mess made by all parties with any stake in the debate over truth and knowledge, mind you--is that we tend to read the Bible in an incredibly "flat" way. We read it like a newspaper article, expecting to find what we need to justify our beliefs and actions in black and white. The problem is that we can no longer read these stories in any way except as "textual evidence" for whatever faith we hold. But ancient interpreters, especially the rich rabbinical tradition in Judaism, understood that when we say that the text is "inspired," we have to be ready for it to be constantly foreign, in a way not unrelated to how foreign the Divine can be.

We do not simply get stuff "out" of the text; the text is alive with the breath of God, in the shape of its letters, in the spaces between the words, and--perhaps most importantly for Noah--in the details the story leaves out. It is in these very (absent) details where we are invited into the story, to supply our own speculative and imaginative ideas, not as if we know the answers but to try many of them on and then reach the conclusion that we absolutely do not have them. Noah provides many illustrative examples, including daytime stars evocative of the Abrahamic covenant, snakeskin-tefillin that stands in as both a reminder of and movement away from the Garden, and an entire civilization with many, many gory details which rises from the descendants of Cain.

When modern people hear a story about a guy saving all of the world's animals on a boat, they think they are faced with two choices: read as history, or dismiss as childish lore. Many, as self-proclaimed Enlightened people, opt for the second. Biblical literalists, thinking their faith hangs on the Bible being factual (not the same as "true"), opt for the first. Ancient interpreters (and the makers of Noah, I think) opt for a third way: stepping further into the text, allowing it to come alive and actually draw us into the mystery of both humanity and divinity.

While the liberties Aronofsky takes with the biblical text are too much for some, I think Noah is a beautiful re-telling of a story that has lost most of its resonance and been sequestered to nurseries and children's picture books (which can be awesome but usually are not when it comes to the Bible ones). Some of the artistic choices of Noah may not be my taste, but I'll take them over stickers of bloated, pink and blue animals and rainbows in a baby's room any day. What Aronofsky did right (and tends to do right) is to recapture Noah's story in all of its complexity, darkness and mystery. It is essentially the story of the relationships that are pertinent to justice itself: humans to humans, humans to the rest of creation, and humans to the divine. What we do to this story when we turn it into a story about rainbows and pink elephants is to dull ourselves to the demands of justice. In the story of Noah, Jewish scholar Bernard Och says, the relationship between God and humanity is stretched to its thinnest, held onto by just one man and his family... but it's still there. One can say the same about the relationship between humanity and animals in the story, as well as between humans themselves.

It is not a sin to enter imaginatively into a biblical text; it is a sin to flatten it into obscurity. I want characters in the Bible to have emotions, faces, affects and defects. I want the settings to be detailed, three-dimensional and to make me think. And I want a thick understanding of "inspiration," one that expects from the text not facts to justify myself but mystery to draw me away from myself, to others and to the divine.


Some favorite things from Noah:

- Naameh turning to Noah when the snakes are coming: "The snakes are coming too?"
- The depiction of the Sons of God
- The creation sequence, which I think is even better than Malick's.
- A beautiful but tragic scene between Noah and Naameh about their (future) grandchildren
- That they mine zohar (Hebrew for "spark") to make fire
- The hairless golden Adam and Eve
- The beating heart inside the fruit
- The shadow sequence of war, leading from Cain up to present day warfare (!)