Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Uncle Bill Hodges has passed away . . .

William E. Hodges and Family

My Uncle Elmo -- who preferred to be called "Bill" -- died on July 22, 2012 at the age of 89. I learned of his passing that same day (though the day here in Seoul was the 23rd) when Cousin Bill sent a short email to various relatives:
My words tonight are brief. Dad passed away this afternoon. Our loss and Heaven's gain.
I didn't know Uncle Bill as well as I knew Aunt Kathryn, but I think that I recall one time meeting him when I was a kid and he was visiting his mother, my Grandma Hodges, for I recall being fascinated by his electric shaver and him letting me use it to 'shave' the peach fuzz from my face.

I think that my brother Pat knew Uncle Bill better, for I seem to recall that Pat stayed with him and his family for several months when we were kids, though Pat will have to confirm this.

According to some details forwarded to me from Cousin Bill, his father served in the army in WWII and as the pastor of many churches after graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. I see that he lived a good, long life, nearly 90 years, and was beloved by many. He leaves behind his wife and their four children (and eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren). Cousin Bill added a personal note:
It has been one week since I told Dad goodbye. My eyes fill with tears yet. And will forever. We loved Dad. The Celebration of Dad's Life was beautiful. The tributes by Scott, Barbara and [the minister] Brother Crippen said it all. The music varied . . . all the way from Uncle Cran's "Sunday Morning Living Room" CD to some blue grass and Hank Williams played during the meal. Dad would've been proud. Our family appreciated the comforting thoughts and prayers of each of you.
Cousin Bill also sent me some memories from his brother Scott and his sister Barbara, memories that they shared with others at the funeral service. First, Cousin Scott's words:
Memories of my Dad . . . Always willing to spend time with me -- regardless of how hard he had worked . . . and he worked very hard. Teaching me how to cast a fishing line. Hitting fly balls to me. Putting up a basketball goal on a power line pole in the back yard at 12 ft high which explains my 'set shot' and being cut from the basketball team in 9th grade. Listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturday nights. Able to build or fix anything . . . or so I thought. Tried to teach the same to me . . . it didn't take. Picking blackberries on Grandma's farm in Arkansas. Swimming with me in the cold spring water at Grandma's farm. Traveling around the country with him and Mom on vacation each summer. Eating and drinking from green Coleman coolers at some of the most beautiful rest stops along the highway. Always willing to stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken for 'landing gears' . . . chicken legs. Bringing me along on the milk truck when he worked for Jones Dairy, getting me all the ice cream bars I wanted when we were done. Taking things apart and always trying to build a better mousetrap. Singing and humming hymns and bluegrass. Teaching me how to shoot a BB gun. Sharing with me his love for cornbread and pecan pie. Not really liking being called 'Elmo'. Taking me and Mom to Royals games in KC each summer and listening with me to them on the radio in the backyard. Telling me how much rougher he had it as a kid -- and he did! No rabbit or possum was ever on our dinner table. Having an extremely strong handshake for a 150 lb man. Being patient with me -- rarely did he ever raise his voice. Teaching me to serve others. Modeling for me what it means to be an excellent husband and father. Loving others unconditionally. Reading his Bible faithfully and using it in his instruction of me. Taking a paddle or switch off a bush to me when the scriptures didn't reach his desired conclusion on my behavior. Preaching and singing in church, all the while amazing me with his knowledge of the Bible and his love for God. Baptizing me in Dragoon Creek. Being authentic -- he was in private, the same person as in public. In Acts the Apostle Paul speaks of Barnabas in a way that I think describes my Dad as well . . . "He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith . . ." He taught me about what faith was. In John, Chapter 11: verses 25 and 26. 'Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" So you see, Dad is in heaven today. He slipped away from us on Sunday afternoon and went to spend eternity with Jesus Christ. He was ready to go and he assured our family of this on Sunday morning. Those verses ended with a question . . . Do you believe this? Dad asked a lot of people that question during his time on earth, both from the pulpit and in casual conversation. I can think of nothing more important that Dad would want me to ask you today. Do you believe this? I do, Dad. I do.
Now, Cousin Barbara's memories:
Dear Daddy -- How do I begin telling others about the man who has always been in my life? I remember . . . a little girl holding tight to her Daddy's hand as we walked down the street . . . the Dad who carried me to the car after I broke my arm twice . . . a Dad that worked hard all his life -- a man not afraid of hard work and long hours to provide for his family and then to find time to study and prepare sermons for church services Wednesday and Sunday . . . a husband that loved his wife unfailingly for almost 69 years . . . the Dad who gave unselfishly all his life -- thinking of others and putting them first . . . the Dad who would tell me consistently, Barbara, if you're that tired, go to bed -- the couch isn't made for sleeping on. (Grin) . . . the Dad who taught me right from wrong . . . the stories told of growing up in Arkansas on the farm -- your great love for your Dad and Mother, brothers and sisters, and for Grandpa Archie . . . the Dad who stood in the pulpit and preached "fire and brimstone" . . . the little girl that was so proud of my Dad, the preacher . . . the twinkle always in your eyes . . . the one liners that always made us laugh . . . . I remember you and Mom singing at church and your great voice . . . I remember the Dad who performed my wedding -- standing up there tall and straight watching his youngest daughter come down the aisle on her brother's arm, her sister as maid of honor and her little brother the ring bearer, and Mom looking so very pretty with her pink suit . . . I remember the Dad who came to the hospital when my first child was born and then my second one. I remember the Sunday I called you when I was unsure if I would go to heaven when I died. And, over the phone, you led me through the scriptures as I accepted Christ as my Savior. Through it all Dad, I remember your love for your Lord. How sweet it was Sunday morning to be at your side, praying and reading scriptures with you, and then for you to begin reciting scriptures to me. The Bible was your constant companion. Bill said he once asked you "how many times have you read the Bible" and your answer to him "was thousands of times". And we know that to be true. Even in the nursing home your Bible was always close at your side . . . . Then I remember Sunday afternoon . . . holding your hand, talking with you, telling you once again how much we all loved you; you taking your last breath here on earth and leaving peacefully to the other side. How many times you told us you just wanted to "walk on the streets of gold". Now you're doing that Dad . . . . That was your life Dad -- loving Mom, loving us four kids and eventually our spouses as they came into our lives. Loving your eight grandchildren and then ten great-grandchildren. And through it all your life showed your love for God and the riches of His glory and the ultimate crown of walking by His side forevermore. I can only imagine your life now Dad. Truly Dad -- you lived a lot of life through the dash between 1922 and 2012. The secret of a life well lived is not in counting the years but in making the years count -- that was your life. Thank you for being our Dad, living the example, and leaving us such a special legacy. We love you Dad.
One couldn't ask for greater memories than these. For me to say more would merely be to diminish their words . . .

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Monday, July 30, 2012

"radical 'poetical' processes of late-Protestant thought"?

Carter Kaplan
Intellectual Wild Man

A few days ago, I noted that Carter Kaplan had sent me a copy of his International Authors (IA) edition of The Scarlet Letter, and I closed with a quote from Carter's essay, a quote that defends Locke and criticizes Continental philosophy:
[John] Locke has . . . been identified as part of a larger Enlightenment straw man that is the target of those seeking to advance the authoritarian agenda of Continental philosophy, which as a program, in anthropological terms, seems to be the logical systemic outcome of an increasingly corporate, nihilistic and authoritarian Academy. (Kaplan, "'A' is for Antinomian: Theology and Politics in The Scarlet Letter," p. 236)
I wondered what Carter meant by this, for it seemed linked by contrast to a remark in his opening paragraph, a remark that speaks favorably of Anglo-American science and philosophy:
[T]he novel's complex philosophical dynamics . . . resonate with the anthropological and political understanding that attends skeptical-empirical science and analytic philosophy. As a phenomenon of intellectual history, The Scarlet Letter represents an important formulation of the classic liberal ideas that mark the emergence of the modern world. (p. 230)
When I came upon a similar remark later in the essay, I copied it down for more reflection:
[T]he American Revolution is properly an outcome of radical "poetical" processes of late Protestant thought. In more modern terms, this revolutionary mindset is characterized by patterns of investigation sharing close affinities with analytic philosophy and critical synoptics. Before, however, analytic and synoptic perception is possible, thought has to be set free to range beyond the limits of conventional knowledge. Custom and tradition must be left behind. Thought must fly above and beyond the law. (p. 248)
I needed to know more, so I sent Carter an email asking for an explication and received a brief response that he dashed off, practically on his way out the door:
I am leaving for Boston tomorrow morning, then Scotland Monday. Please excuse brevity.

The alienation [that the protagonist] Hester experiences [in The Scarlet Letter] enables her to effectively "think outside the box." Perhaps this is also a point of departure for considering what Wittgenstein says about "the bloody hard way [in philosophy]." That is, learning to "think outside the box", and do it right, is not easy, and, as Hester's experience illustrates, it comes with some wear and tear. The "radical 'poetical' processes of late-Protestant thought" here refer to Milton's tremendous effort to sort out the universe and give us the modern world.
As my readers might imagine, I now have even more questions, but they will have to wait until Carter has time. My retort as historian of science would be, "I believe it was Newton who gave us the modern world!" But that would be to misconstrue Carter's point. Milton attempted to sort out the universe not scientifically, but 'humanistically'! He did, after all, set forth to "justify the ways of God to men."

Carter himself is thinking outside the box, and is thus hard to follow thoughtfully . . .

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Criticism of Multiculturalism: Evidence of Racism?

Figuring Me Out

Over at the Marmot's Hole blog, in a somewhat heated discussion on the pros and cons of multiculturalism, I posted the following as an elaboration of my point that multicultural ideology has roots in the relativism of cultural anthropology, adding a 'hypothetical' case to provoke reflection:
I acknowledge a difference between moderate and radical multiculturalism.

The former is grounded in human rights and allows for cultural critique. The latter, however, is grounded in cultural relativism (with roots in cultural anthropology), and it is not a figment of its opponents' imaginations.

I myself have met multiculturalists who would defend female circumcision as a cultural practice that we cannot criticize.

The big problem is that in our modern world, enclaves of an incompatible culture can form and grow within a society.

Imagine a culture that has its own language, its own religion, and its own laws, that subjugates women, practices female circumcision, and supports honor killings, and that considers its culture superior, insists that it be respected, and threatens violence to those who demur. I'm not saying that such a culture exists -- heaven forbid -- but if such a culture did exist, could one say that it wants the same things as other cultures?

In such a case, regardless what the larger society would want -- whether it supported radical or moderate multiculturalism -- it would have radical multiculturalism as a fact on the ground.

How would even moderate multiculturalists react in such circumstances? Would they subject such a culture to an explicit, fundamental, far-reaching critique, or would they keep quiet for fear of being called "racist," "imperialist," "xenophobic," or worse?

Fortunately, such a case is merely imaginary . . .
One of my interlocutors replied with an accusation that -- if read in its least negative construal -- misses my irony and accuses me of being dishonest, of obscuring the truth:
You are being disingenuous with this example. You know full well that the most strident opposition against multiculturalism is not about criticizing the multiculturalists' alleged complicity to FGM. No, it is about immigration and the desire to exclude darker-skinned people from entering the country.
I offered appreciation for my interlocutor's 'generous' response:
Thanks for the ad hominem, . . . which I'll accept as a gift freely given and assume that you don't expect a gift in return, for you are generous to a fault.
My interlocutor continued to attack my putative dishonesty and possible racism:
[L]et us not pretend as if THAT [opposition to FGM] is the problem that the opponents of multiculturalism are concerned about. If you are allowed to criticize multiculturalism because some crazies appropriate its good name, I can just as easily put you in the same category as the dyed-in-the-wool racists who clamor for higher walls along the border.
I saw no reason to continue the discussion with an interlocutor who refuses to engage me on a level other than name-calling, so I closed with these words, in which I reflected on my own callow views of earlier years:
I was an early supporter of multiculturalism, already speaking out in the 1980s in the States, then in Germany in the 1990s, also in Australia during the latter 1990s. Like . . . [my interlocutor], I suspected those opposed to multiculturalism of xenophobia, or even racism, but as I read more on what multiculturalists generally meant, I came to see myself as a "moderate" multiculturalist, for I didn't accept strong cultural relativism.

The difficulty that I have with . . . [my interlocutor] is not his multiculturalism, per se, but his resort to personal attacks -- accusing me of dishonesty and, implicitly, of racism -- whereas I don't think I've said anything that can reasonably be interpreted as a personal attack on [him] . . . .

Naturally, I'm disappointed, but I can't criticize [him] . . . without first being harsh on my younger self. I've learned in the past quarter-century not to make assumptions about others, to listen more carefully to what they say, and to attempt to meet their actual arguments rather than what I would prefer their arguments to be.

I suppose that's all I have to say on this subject, on this thread, anyway.
This is why I generally steer clear of such debates. They almost always degenerate into personal attacks and name-calling, regardless how courteous one tries to be, especially when one is dealing with anonymous or pseudonymous interlocutors, who need not concern themselves with preserving their own good name.

Perhaps they'll learn to listen better as they grow older . . . though we too often also grow harder of hearing with age.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Carter Kaplan on Hawthorne

My friend Carter Kaplan recently sent me a copy of his International Authors (IA) edition of The Scarlet Letter, and it arrived more quickly than expected. Most of you will have heard of but not (yet) read Hawthorne's famous novel on the trials and tribulations of an adulterous woman in Puritan New England, and you probably know that the scarlet letter of the title is an "A" that stands for "adulteress." Or does it? This IA edition has a ninety-page afterword by Kaplan himself, titled, "'A' is for Antinomian: Theology and Politics in The Scarlet Letter." It begins as follows:
While it feels natural to read The Scarlet Letter as an expression of modern secular sensibility, the novel also provides evidence of political and theological concerns that resonate deeply with a radical "post-Calvinist" Protestant nexus construed along the lines of Socinus, Arminius, Cromwell, Milton, Locke, various Independent American churchmen (and women) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Thomas Jefferson. Like the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, The Scarlet Letter stands on the shoulders of well-evolved political and theological discussions advancing a range of independent notions concerning human nature, individualism, community, open public disclosure, the "real" authority of law, separation of government institutions and powers, and the separation of church and state. An examination of these ideas as they existed in England and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century -- especially the 1640s, the time of the novel's setting -- brings to light the novel's complex philosophical dynamics, which resonate with the anthropological and political understanding that attends skeptical-empirical science and analytic philosophy. As a phenomenon of intellectual history, The Scarlet Letter represents an important formulation of the classic liberal ideas that mark the emergence of the modern world. (p. 230)
One might be taken aback at the assertion about "skeptical-empirical science and analytic philosophy" -- what's a novel about religious obscurantism got to do with science and logic? -- but Carter's essay is full of human understanding and sharp analysis, as I know from proofing an earlier version. I even contributed some ideas, which Carter notes:
Horace Jeffery Hodges has suggested some intriguing possibilities for the symbology of the letter A: "It's the alpha awaiting its omega in the end. It's Arminius, always offering grace to our free choice. It's amiability, opposed to Chillingworth. It's grade 'A' because Hester's really a good egg." (p. 324, n. 51)
I hope that all readers realize my suggestions are meant tongue-in-cheek! But not everyone will catch the dry humor, so I have to be explicit, I suppose. In short, I'm joking about the letter "A."

Anyway, readers who love American literature would benefit from reading Carter's serious essay on the intellectual history behind this novel, for there is much to think about -- and much, indeed, that goes rather far beyond American literature, e.g., this remark defending Locke:
[John] Locke has . . . been identified as part of a larger Enlightenment straw man that is the target of those seeking to advance the authoritarian agenda of Continental philosophy, which as a program, in anthropological terms, seems to be the logical systemic outcome of an increasingly corporate, nihilistic and authoritarian Academy.
On that note, let's segue to the quintessential song of American exceptionalism . . .

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Shin Young-Bok's Memories . . .

Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe
Shin Young-Bok

From time to time, my wife obtains a Korean book that I can read because it's also in English, and a recent case is a brief memoir by Shin Young-Bok (신영복), Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe, translated by Cho Byung-Eun in 2008 and relating the story of a young professor's friendship with a group of penurious boys encountered on a hike with some university students to Seo-O-Reung Tomb in 1966:
They were aged about 10 or so, and were dressed in clothing that blended into the rustic landscape and the country road that had two deep lines from traces of cart-wheel tracks.

One of the boys had a middle school cap without a school badge, and another wore a white sports cap, I remember. The white sports cap was ragged by many washings, the paper in the visor was clustered in a few places and the shape of the visor was far from being the original round shape, drooping over the boy's forehead. Furthermore, stained with mud, it was hardly even white.

What caught my eyes most was the boy's woolen sweater. The sweater seemed to be knit with recycled thread from old sweaters. The colors were in disarray, with different colors for the body and the arms, and the arms of the sweater were again divided into two parts with different thread from the elbow down. The kid in that sweater wore somewhat [sic., something that] looked like a cap on the head, though.

I remember I felt sorry for these shabbily dressed kids, which reminded me of the desolation of the 'spring poverty,' the hardest period for farmers in early spring after all the food from the previous year's harvest had dried up. They looked back at us as if they did not have stories to be deeply engaged in. (Shin Young-Bok, Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe, pages 8-10; cf. this site for a related translation, though both translations could use some editing.)
Shin decides to speak with them, and they become friendly enough to set up regular meetings once a month. After two years of these meetings, Shin determines to help them in their education, somehow, but his intentions are thwarted by his arrest on suspicion of belonging to a political group intent on overthrowing the government of South Korea. His meetings with the children were thus considered politically dangerous by the police. Undoubtedly, Shin was on the left, as an interview in the Hankyoreh makes clear, even a Marxist, as a JoongAng Daily article reveals (though the term "ontology" as used in this article is decidedly odd!). Given the time's poverty and dictatorship, such politics were understandable. Moreover, his sentence of 20 years seems out of proportion to anything that he had done, and the Hankyoreh article states that "he never became a member of Tonghyukdang, the Unification Revolution Party, though the prosecution charged him with this." I am no expert on Shin's life and thoughts, of course, but I find his politics today less congenial than I would have when I was a young man from a poor family. Even today, I can still identify with those penurious young boys whom Shin befriended, which is perhaps why I find Memories of Chung-Gu Hoe so touching.

Three years after Shin's release from prison, one of the former members of his group sought him out, but the man had lost contact with the others and eventually again lost contact with Shin, much to Shin's regret. There is always something to regret in life, if one looks back in judgment, and on those dark sleepless hours of the night, when -- as my high school math teacher Jim Scott once expressed it -- "We have to justify ourselves to God," we even regret the things over which we've had little control, for the small possibility that we might have done better if we'd only tried a bit harder . . .

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vallicella on Existence . . .

Sartre's Nausea

My cyber-buddy Bill Vallicella has an excellent post on the use of "is" as copula and "is" as existence, which he gets at via Jean Paul Sartre's novel of metaphysical ideas, Nausea, with its famous scene in which the protagonist, Roquentin, experiences an epiphany on the reality of "existence":
Never, until these last days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like all the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. (p. 127, tr. Lloyd Alexander)
Bill then explicates this insight of Sartre's protagonist:
'The sea is green' and 'The green sea exists' are logically equivalent. But this equivalence rests on a tacit presupposition, namely, that the sentences are to be evaluated relative to a domain of existing items. The reason we can make the deflationary move of replacing the latter sentence with the former is because existence is already present, though hidden, in 'The sea is green.' 'The sea is green' can be parsed as follows: The sea is (exists) and the sea (is) green, where the parentheses around 'is' indicate that it functions as a pure copula, a pure predicative link and nothing more. The parsing makes it clear that the 'is' in 'The sea is green' exercises a dual function: it is not merely an 'is' of predication: it is also an 'is' of existence. Therefore, translation of 'The green sea exists' as 'The sea is green' does not eliminate existence . . .
Bill is an analytic philosopher, but he's here taking the side of continental philosophers, arguing for a "thick" theory of existence ("is" as existence) against the analytic philosophers' "thin" theory of existence ("is" as copula). This distinction is interesting in itself, at least for some of us poor souls, but it has larger philosophical implications, particularly for ontology and theistic questions.

Clearly, Bill is more than logician; he is metaphysician. Go to his blog post for more, or to his book, A Paradigm Theory of Existence, for even more.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Manohla Dargis Again: On Batman

Dark Night?
Ron Phillips/Warner Brothers Pictures
New York Times

I've already posted a blog entry noting this review by Manohla Dargis of the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises: "A Rejected Superhero Ends Up at Ground Zero" (New York Times, July 18, 2012). But I didn't offer much on her analysis, and her writing is so rich and intriguing that I have to quote from it again, this time specifically on the 9/11 connection and its ironies:
In "The Dark Knight Rises" Mr. Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan, further muddies the good-and-evil divide with Bane. A swaggering, overmuscled brute with a scar running down his back like a zipper and headgear that obscures his face and turns his cultivated voice into a strangulated wheeze, Bane comes at Batman and Gotham hard. Fortified by armed true believers, Bane first beats Batman in a punishingly visceral, intimate fist-to-foot fight and then commandeers the city with a massive assault that leaves it crippled and -- because of the explosions, the dust, the panic and the sweeping aerial shots of a very real-looking New York City -- invokes the Sept 11 attacks. It's unsettling enough that some may find it tough going.

Watching a city collapse should be difficult, maybe especially in a comic-book movie. The specter of Sept. 11 and its aftermath haunt American movies, often through their absence though also obliquely, as in action films that adopt torture as an ineluctable necessity. Mr. Nolan, for his part, has been engaging Sept. 11 in his blockbuster behemoths, specifically in a vision of Batman who stands between right and wrong, principles and their perversions, because he himself incarnates both extremes.

Mr. Nolan has also taken the duality that made the first film into an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it. [Police Commissioner] Gordon believes in its structures; Bane wants to burn it all down. And Batman? Well, he needs to work it out.
On Gordon, I differ a bit. He doesn't truly believe in Gotham's power structure, but he thinks that the structures can be manipulated -- must be manipulated -- in the interests of justice. Dargis is right about Bane, of course. As for Batman, he doesn't believe in the structures of power, nor does he seem to believe -- unlike Gordon -- that those structures can be used for justice. Rather, he works outside of those structures to effect justice, as he sees it, but he doesn't, fundamentally, challenge those structures, perhaps because order, even if imperfect, is better than disorder. Or maybe because he simply loves his city.

As for the film's religious allusions, which interest me, Dargis also sees them, for she mentions the "true believers" and the "Sept. 11 attacks," but she doesn't play these up, preferring to view events politically, and perhaps implying that audiences will as well:
So will viewers, explicitly given the grim, unsettling vision of a lawless city in which the structures of civil society have fallen, structures that Batman has fought outside of. In a formally bravura, disturbingly visceral sequence that clarifies the stakes, Bane stands before a prison and, in a film with several references to the brutal excesses of the French Revolution -- including the suitably titled "A Tale of Two Cities" -- delivers an apocalyptic speech worthy of Robespierre. Invoking myths of opportunism, Bane promises the Gotham citizenry that courts will be convened, spoils enjoyed. "Do as you please," he says, as Mr. Nolan cuts to a well-heeled city stretch where women in furs and men in silk robes are attacked in what looks like a paroxysm of revolutionary bloodlust.
Does Dargis see 9/11 purely politically? Maybe not, for she does refer to Bane's "apocalyptic speech" -- though she promptly calls it "worthy of Robespierre."

Of course, Islamism is overtly political . . .

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bane and Fire?

Flame On!

What's the story to Bane and fire? Fire seems almost a religious motif in Bane's motivating ideology. Ignore his public speeches to the Gothamites, full of specious guarantees assuring that the people will live, and Gotham survive. He means to burn it up, as he admits to Bruce Wayne, or as he assures one of his fanatical followers who has to die in a plane crash:
Bane: No! They expect one of us in the wreckage brother!

Follower: Have we started the fire?

Bane: (nodding) Yes, the fire rises!
That convinces the follower to go down with the plane. Why? Now, maybe one or two men could be persuaded to die for Bane's aim of burning down Gotham, but Bane has a rather larger number, each intent on dying in the flames. Politics can motivate fanatics, of course, but religion generates greater fanaticism . . . usually.

What is it, then, about Bane and fire? Any link to the name "Ra's al Ghul," which I noted yesterday means "Head of the Demon," demons being associated with fire?


Monday, July 23, 2012

They Both Wear Masks . . .

Bane vs. Batman
Ron Phillips/Warner Brothers Pictures
New York Times

I don't do movie reviews because I know too little about film, but I enjoy reading them, especially reviews of movies I've seen, like The Dark Knight Rises, the Christopher Nolan film that I mentioned seeing with my daughter a couple of days ago.

But to get to my point . . . I read Manohla Dargis's review of this recent Batman movie, and it's one of the most impressive reviews I've read: lucid, erudite, insightful, and instructive. It helped me think about the film -- and confirmed my decision to see this Batman movie again.

Actually, I'd like to re-watch the entire trilogy and reflect upon its exploration of the psychopathology of crime, particularly -- as grows ever clearer with each of the three films -- the way that Nolan "has layered [his developing story] with open and barely veiled references to terrorism, the surveillance state and vengeance as a moral imperative," especially in this third film, as Dargis points out ("A Rejected Superhero Ends Up at Ground Zero," New York Times, July 18, 2012).

One shortcoming of the recent film, though Dargis doesn't touch upon this, is that Nolan seems to understand terrorism in purely personal terms -- a reflection of Bruce Wayne's personal fight against crime in assuming the Batman persona, I presume -- and though this serves the dynamics of the film well and draws the viewer deeply into the developing story, it lacks the ideological aspect of terrorism that isn't merely an expression of personal vengeance. Bane wants to destroy Gotham City because it's Batman's city? Because Bane feels personally hurt by something Batman once did?

Okay, maybe, but why is Bane willing to die to destroy the city, for the plot would require his death? And what motivates his fanatical followers? They know he plans to blow the city up and them with it, so why are they willing to do this? Are they expecting an eternity of sexual pleasure with seventy dark-eyed houris? The viewer is left to infer that something like Islamist ideology inspires them, I suppose, but we're not given much evidence implying that, other than the character "Ra's al Ghul" (Arabic: رأس الغول‎, Ra's al-Ġūl "Demon's Head"), the Arabic name given to the "League of Shadows" leader from the first Batman film, who was killed by Batman and whose character recalls the "Man of the Mountain," legendary founder of the medieval assassins famous for their suicidal attacks upon infidels as well as upon Muslims considered not devout enough.

But I'm not sure that Nolan intended this, or if I'm inferring too much.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Out on Seoul . . .

Batman in Seoul?

I took my daughter to see Batman yesterday. No, not the Seoul bar that Mr. Casey Lartigue stumbled upon a couple of years ago, but the recent movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Rather dark theme for a fifteen-year-old kid? Well, yeah, I guess, but she's not afraid to watch zombie films, stuff that I won't watch for fear of night terrors! Besides, she invited me to see the Batman movie. I had to pay, of course.

The theme was rather dark, even for me, but I have an interest in terrorism. An academic interest, I mean, not a personal one -- except to the degree that the 9/11 attack felt personal, and felt even more personal when I learned that one of my brothers knew a flight attendant who died in the first plane to strike the WTC.

The film was great, with several unexpected twists, and it explored some motifs of terrorism, if not very deeply, but the terrorist plot was believable only within the framework of this well-crafted movie. An army of terrorists gathered in the sewers beneath Gotham CIty where one expects to find merely alligators? And how many years would they need for mixing enough concrete and explosives to blow up bridges, streets, and a football field?

That football scene provided a somewhat amusing sight gag as an unsuspecting Heinz Ward rushes toward the endzone for a touchdown, the field collapsing just behind his feet at every step. As he turns around in triumph, he discovers an enormous hole where the field had been. The Korean audience got a kick out of that scene because Heinz Ward is half Korean and widely recognized here in Korea.

My daughter and I left the cinema impressed, with her remarking, "I'll have to see this again, with my friends!" We then headed for a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, where over a long meal we discussed the film and life, though we didn't touch upon the shootings at the premiere showing in Aurora, Colorado. I don't think my daughter knows about those, and I still know too little myself to comment in any way worth listening to, except to express sorrow for the victims.

But if you haven't yet seen The Dark Knight Rises and are still intending to see it, here's the official site, where you can watch four official trailers.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Midday in Seoul . . .

Yesterday was the first day of my so-called 'vacation,' so I spent the midday with a lovely lady watching Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris, which was both entertaining and thought-provoking, offering substance for discussion afterwards, over a meal, followed by dessert in the coffee shop Angel-In-Us. The first photo is of a wall design in the café implying that somebody spilled the beans:

Here's the initially uneaten dessert, a Korean-style dish known as "bing-su" (빙수), or "frozen water." Actually, it's known as "pat-bing-su" (팥빙수), but this variant comes without the "pat" (팥), namely, the "red beans."

Here's the eaten dessert, formerly known as "bing-su," but now rather slushy:

I asked the lady what past she would visit if by some quirk of time this were possible, as in the film, and she said she'd visit fin-de-siècle Vienna, meaning the late 19th century, of course, the time of a youthful Arthur Schnitzler. The lovely lady then asked what past I'd visit. I promised to follow her to Vienna . . . unless she had some private business to attend to with Herr Schnitzler.

I'd surely hope not, though, for the lady and I have been together since meeting on train through Germany twenty years ago, in July 1992 . . .

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Gene Kelly: Carefree Elegance . . .

"Singin' in the Rain"
Associated Press

In my summer writing course, I broke the monotony by showing videos of dancing styles, and after showing David Byrne in Stop Making Sense and dozens of Russians dancing to Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," I happened to show Fred Astaire and then Gene Kelly on two consecutive days and realized that I was getting at two different styles without really realizing this:
Kelly danced in order to choreograph. It's not exactly the image many of us have of Kelly, whose defining and deceptively casual approach centered on virility and athleticism. He embodied a new ideal of the American male dancer that contrasted with Fred Astaire's debonair elegance. Kelly's elegance was carefree.
If I were a better teacher, I could instruct on this difference of style in writing, a difference made clear to me in Gia Kourlas's article, "He Made a Splash, and Dance History: Gene Kelly as Choreographer" (NYT, July 13, 2012). I assume that most readers know both Astaire and Kelly, but if not, the check out every video showing them on YouTube! I merely want to note how he met his wife Patricia when he was 73 and she was 26:
When she met Kelly, she said, she had no idea who he was[, though this is hard to believe]. A self-described "nerdy Herman Melville scholar," Ms. Kelly was hired as a writer for a television special about the Smithsonian Institution, for which he was host. They connected, not through his films but through their love of poetry and etymology. It goes against his image, right?
And he taught her how to walk:
Early in their relationship he fixed Ms. Kelly's walk. "I got those 'Pygmalion' lessons," she said with a laugh. "'Go up the stairs. Go back down the stairs.' I'm grateful for it now. Everyone asks, 'Are you a dancer?' He said that I walked like I just got off a horse."
That's how I walk, I suspect, but more like the horse itself, and not just any horse, rather, a draft horse, clomping my way around town or wherever.

Maybe I need to watch more Gene Kelly, or Fred Astaire, work on my style . . . but you can see both stylists together here.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Iranian Refugees' Interest in Christianity

Iranian Converts
Photo by Kairospress

An extremely interesting article by Matthias Pankau and Uwe Siemon-Netto, "The Other Iranian Revolution," appeared in Christianity Today (7/17/2012), reporting on Christian converts among Iranian refugees living in Germany:
[Apparently, there are] countless reports of Muslims having visions of Jesus. According to . . . [those] interviewed for this article, most of these appearances follow a pattern reported by converts throughout the Islamic world: Muslims see a figure of light, sometimes bearing the features of Christ, sometimes not. But they instantly know who he is. He always makes it clear that he is Jesus of the Bible, not Isa of the Qur'an, and he directs them to specific pastors, priests, congregations, or house churches, where they later hear the gospel.
How did these conversions get started?
Twelve years ago, Trinity Parish in Leipzig, a tiny congregation of the Independent Lutheran Church, began teaching German as a second language to asylum seekers awaiting government approval of their refugee status.

Trinity used Luther's Bible translation as a textbook. Linguists credit that translation with having created the modern German language. Intrigued by what they read, several exiles asked to be baptized. They brought along friends who also wished to learn the basics of the Christian faith. "Today, one third of our 150 members are Persians," says Markus Fischer, Trinity's pastor.
That's the story in Germany, anyway, but there's a broader answer, for Iranians have been converting to Christianity since the 1980s, repelled by Iran's Shi'ite Islamist government, with its system of enforced Islamic law, and attracted by Christianity, with its emphasis upon grace rather than law. Or as one German pastor explains:
"Islam is like a rope ladder on which people try to reach God . . . . They manage to climb a few rungs, but with each sin, fall off the ladder and must start all over again. Christians, by contrast, need no ladder because Jesus comes down to earth for them. Christians have salvation. Muslims don't."
Also, Iranian refugees tend to be well-educated, and among educated Iranians, Islam has lost a lot of moral legitimacy due to Iran's theocratic system, or so the article says. But I would add two more things. Shi'ite Islam in some forms speaks of a divine spark or divine light within the early caliph they honor, Ali, so the Christian concept of Jesus as both human and divine is not so foreign, and Ali's suffering at his death -- betrayed and dying of thirst -- can recall the death of Jesus. But religious concepts aside, Iranians are very proud of their pre-Islamic civilization and don't accept the Islamic view that everything pre-Islamic was mere ignorance, what Muslims call jahiliyya, a very negative expression. Iranians tend to see Islam as an Arab ideology and Islamization as Arabization, and I think there's merit to their opinion.

Whatever the motivation, these conversions are certainly a phenomenon to keep one's eyes on in the shifting kaleidoscope of contemporary European multiculturalism.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Shoed I . . . or Not?

So, there I was, sitting in Starbucks, surreptitiously sipping my homebrewed coffee in an obscure corner to save money -- but nibbling on a cheap cookie I'd paid for to legitimize my being there in that 'third place,' should I by chance of bad luck be uncovered with my contraband caffeine -- and feeling all moralistic about not spending so impulsively as that thoughtless herd of others caught up in the consumerist stampede, roiled by market, fashion, or peers to buy-buy-buy, when I happened upon an article that took me aback:
How do we understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society? Academic traditionalists and hard-headed advocates of "practical" research often dismiss scholarship on material culture, including shoes, as frivolous nonsense. So they leave thinking about questions like why people buy shoes and what they mean in people's lives to Marxists, Freudians and others who decry commercial culture, treat consumers as powerless dupes or, at best, reduce every "unnecessary" purchase to some form of status competition.

The result is a desiccated understanding of history and culture. In an academic article, [the British sociologist Alexandra] Sherlock decries "the postmodern tendency to fetishise the shoe, both in the Marxian (commodity fetish) and Freudian (psycho-sexual) sense, for what it 'stands' for rather than what it is." Even when they contain an element of truth, such theories are as simplistic and misleading as the claim that ankle boots indicate an overly aggressive personality. Commercial culture -- our culture -- deserves better.
Good Lord, all this time that I'd been thinking myself a moral person, I'd merely been thinking like a Freudian -- or worse, a Marxist! -- casually dismissing other free-thinking individuals as dupes of commercial culture! After reading Virginia Postrel's "Boots Were Made for Talking, About Who We Are" (Bloomberg, July 10, 2012), I'll never again be able to look at my thick old Curitel cell phone without reflecting that I really ought to invest in a brand-new Apple smart phone and thereby assume a more stylish look.

And while I'm considering this, I need some background music . . .

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Clint Watts on "No Al-Qaeda?"

Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)

I've not posted on Al-Qaeda in a while, though they also never write, never call, but there may be a reasonable excuse for their long silence if Clint Watts is correct in his FPRI article, "What If There Is No Al-Qaeda? Preparing For Future Terrorism" (July 2012):
Today, in comparison to ten years ago, al-Qaeda does not have the ability to execute attacks on a regular basis due to its declining mass -- a function of limited safe havens, dwindling recruits, loss of critical human capital (leaders and technical experts), and a reduction in financial support. Al-Qaeda has not executed a successful attack on the West in the West since the London subway bombings of 2005. Three of the most credible al-Qaeda plots in recent years have arisen from an affiliate, AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen, rather than the group's central leadership in Pakistan. Does this mean that al-Qaeda will dry up and never attack the U.S. again? Absolutely not! But the decline in the pace of al-Qaeda's attacks illustrates the group's broader struggles to recruit foreign fighters, prepare operations, and effectively resource missions.
But Al-Qaeda's problems don't mean that the threat of Islamist jihadi groups is past:
While the battle with al-Qaeda is not entirely over, the U.S. and its allies should begin imagining how the remnants of the old al-Qaeda threat will re-emerge as a new manifestation among regional and transnational extremist upstarts. The West should work vigorously to identify what this new frontier in terrorism will look like.
The greatly weakened Al-Qaeda thus still poses a residual threat, but it is just one jihadi group among many in a decentralized terrorist world. And there are some ironies stemming from Al-Qaeda's misfortunes:
A current assessment might instead suggest those groups most closely aligned with al-Qaeda seem to be shedding the "al-Qaeda" name to strengthen their local credibility, while those groups least connected to al-Qaeda and harboring little popular support have taken on the moniker to boost their global credibility.
The Islamists closest to Al-Qaeda are embarrassed to admit the connection, while those farthest away try to wrap themselves in the faded black flag of its failing legitimacy.

I forwarded the article to one of my contacts in the military who served with NATO in Afghanistan, where he was directly focused on the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism missions, and who still associates with individuals at US Central Command and US Special Operations Command, and he wrote back, "Very interesting and updated. Thank you for sharing."

Maybe some readers will feel the same way . . .

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Monday, July 16, 2012

With Michael J. Totten to the Ends of the Earth . . .

Michael J. Totten isn't a travel writer, but he can be read as one if you're interested in places to avoid, which include a good many parts of this world, but some are even better to avoid than others, and somewhat to my surprise, Ukraine is one such place, as Totten and a friend discovered, their first inkling of that occurring at the border, where a Polish border guard stamped their passports and warned them:
"It is very strange over there . . . . And nobody speaks English."
Their first evidence of the strangeness was the road they took after crossing the border:
This one would have been no worse off had it been deliberately shredded to ribbons by air strikes. The damage was so thorough that the surface could not possibly have been repaved or repaired even once since the Stalinist era.

I white-knuckled it behind the wheel while Sean cringed in the passenger seat. I did not dare drive faster than five miles an hour. Even at that speed I had to weave all over the place to avoid the worst of the gaping holes, some of which were as wide as mattresses and deep enough to swallow TV sets.
The condition of the road led Totten to wonder "if the roads were so bad because nobody drove or if nobody drove because the roads were so bad," and his traveling companion remarked:
"They should put up a sign on the border . . . saying That was Europe. You like that? Now prepare for something completely different."
The two were on their way to Chernobyl because City Journal had assigned Totten the job of going there and writing about Pripyat, a city that was abandoned after the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four exploded in 1986 and scattered radiation all around.

But go and read the excerpt for yourself . . .

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fiction: Scene in Café Griboyedov with Russian Expression

Café Griboyedov
Terrance Lindall

In the above illustration by Terrance Lindall of a scene in my story, "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer," we see Koroviev in his characteristic pince-nez and checkered clothes pointing to Hella as she approaches the table where he and the story's anonymous 'hero' sit, though we can't see the latter's face since he's watching Hella approach, as is also an enamored waiter. The café scene just prior to Hella's appearance is given below:
The café was large, spacious, packed; my traveling companion seemed to know everyone as he grasped hands in greeting while we made our way to a table inexplicably free of patrons. I tried to focus on what the tall fellow was telling me about each individual he greeted but could scarcely hear above a loud, jazzed-up version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." And waiters! Griboyedov had waiters! Bearing trays laden with cups and saucers high above their heads, they pushed their way among the patrons, hoarsely shouting, "Izviníte menyá!" Dropping the ordered cakes and coffees down onto tables with a clunk, sweeping used cups, saucers, and silverware clattering onto their trays, dumping loads of used dish- and silverware roaring into sinks, shouting out orders for various coffees and cakes. In short, pandaemonium.
This scene will feel familiar to those who've read Michail Bulgakov's wonderful novel, The Master and Margarita, for I've borrowed a scene from that tale to structure this description. But I have a question about the Russian expression,"Izviníte menyá," for I originally had "Prostíte menyá." A Russian girl I met suggested the change when I described the scene to her, and she also noted a third possibility, "Proshu proshcheniya," for which I've not yet found the diacritical marks, but I think that one's overly formal. Anyway, here are the three possibilities:
Простите меня!
Prostíte menyá!
Excuse me!

Извините меня!
Izviníte menyá!
Excuse me!

Прошу прощения!
Proshu proshcheniya!
I beg your pardon!
If any of my readers are Russian or at least knowledgeable about the Russian language, please feel free to advise me on the best expression for the scene. Keep in mind that the waiters are not particularly courteous and would likely use the briefest expression possible, so the expression used could even differ from any of the three that I've noted here.

I thank all in advance . . .

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

International Civil Liberties Alliance

I received an email recently from an organization known as the International Civil Liberties Alliance calling attention to its International Human Rights and Freedom of Speech Conference held in the European Parliament in Brussels on July 9, 2012, from where it issued what it has termed the Brussels Declaration, its primary concern being to oppose the extension of sharia and sharia's limits upon free speech:
Affirming the irrefutable fact that sharia law as articulated and applied is incompatible with and destructive to free speech, civil liberties and human rights and as such is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy (as stated in the 13 Feb 2003 judgment of the ECHR);

Acknowledging that the declaration known as "Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam" also commonly referred to as the "Cairo Declaration" curtails all human rights under sharia law and sharia normative behavior restrictions (CDHRI Articles 22, 23, 24) on the pretense that "All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah" (CDHRI Article 1);
I've heard of the "Cairo Declaration" of 1993, but I don't think that I've ever looked at it carefully, so let's take a look at CDHR Article 22, 23, and 24:

(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari'ah.

1. Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari'ah.

(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical Values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

(d) It is not permitted to excite nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form or racial discrimination.


(a) Authority is a trust; and abuse or malicious exploitation thereof is explicitly prohibited, in order to guarantee fundamental human rights.

(b) Everyone shall have the right to participate, directly or indirectly in the administration of his country's public affairs. He shall also have the right to assume public office in accordance with the provisions of Shari'ah.


All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah.
The ICLA is certainly right to oppose such a document, but how significant is the Cairo Declaration? According to the ICLA, rather significant:
Observing that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), being the creator of Cairo Declaration and its current main proponent has, by its continuous and single-minded activity, proven to be the principal international politico-religious organization working to restrict free speech, civil liberties and human rights and to enforce sharia in the world;
The OIC is an organization significant enough to oppose, and though I don't know a lot about the ICLA, I thought that I'd call attention to them and their recent conference because the past two blog posts of mine have expressed support for free speech and open discussion.

You can judge for yourself by visiting the ICLA site.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Resolution of Conflict in Korea, East Asia and Beyond

The papers presented last October at the "2011 Global Forum Civilization and Peace" were recently published, officially in April, but my copy arrived only yesterday, courtesy of The Academy of Korean Studies. The back covers tells us that the forum:
. . . was attended by a number of audiences and scholars including the keynote speaker Professor Jürgen Kocka, the vice president of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Under the main theme "Resolution of Conflict in Korea, East Asia and Beyond: Humanistic Approach", we tried to look into many aspects of conflicts in the modern global world and gathered to find alternatives for the harmonious resolution. This is the collection of papers that were presented at "2011 Global Forum Civilization and Peace". I hope to share the forum's rewarding experience of intellectual exploration with the public through this publication
The "I" is unnamed, but I reckon it's Professor Chung Chung-kil, president of The Academy of Korean Studies because it reads like a summary of his "Preface." Among the papers referred to is also my own, "Points Toward a Culture of Discussion," to be found on pages 89-114. Readers may recall my posts on this paper last autumn, such as this report, in which I offered my presentation's conclusion:
Let us remind ourselves that this year's Global Forum on Civilization and Peace focuses on the "Resolution of Conflict in Korea, East Asia and Beyond," specifying "A Humanistic Approach," and our session is concerned with "Difference and Discrimination." I began, humanistically enough, with a conflict between a high-status university professor in the West who advocated critical discourse without reference to hierarchical status but who felt justified in physically attacking a 'lowly' graduate student who had insulted him. We then looked at hierarchy within Confucian Civilization in East Asia and noted some of the problems that result from Confucianism's suppression of open discussion, the implication being that Confucianism needs to find some means of accommodating critical discourse. We considered Huntington's thesis concerning the clash of civilizations, but reflected upon his appeal for intercivilizational understanding as well and noted the possibility of cultural commonalities and even commonalities grounded in our meta-civilizational human nature, especially our mortality. We saw how this common mortality can offer a basis for a culture of critical discourse in which reasons and evidence are privileged over hierarchical status even in strongly hierarchical societies. We drew attention to a necessity for the freedom to insult since even substantive points grounded in reason and evidence can be taken as insults, regardless of intention. All of these things point to the truth that a harmonious society cannot be imposed at the outset but can only be understood as an aim to be attained at the end of a discursive process, if such harmony is ever even to be attained at all. Finally, if this paper has raised issues controversial enough to stimulate critical discussion, then I will have succeeded in my goal.
There's usually a Korean version of the articles published simultaneously, but not this year. I'm not sure why. Anyway, for those interested, the book can be ordered from the site linked to above, and I'll link again here. Ironically, even though the forum was for both foreigners and Koreans, the page linked to bears the heading "Books for Foreigner," but one needs to read Korean to order a copy of the book.

I therefore suspect that my call for a culture of discussion in Korea (and elsewhere) will go unread . . .

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Criticizing Religion: Illegitimate?

Jonathan Freedland
Guardian Journalist

Jonathan Freedland recently published an article for the Guardian denouncing critics of Islam, "I stand with Mehdi Hasan against the torrent of Islamophobic abuse" (July 10, 2012), and he offers some examples of objectionable abuse leveled against Islam:
Islam "is not a religion worth protecting. I would welcome its extinction," wrote one. Another, preferring to play the man rather than the ball, declared, "You ARE a sh*t-head." And there were lots more, often dressed up in pseudo-intellectual language, branding Islam backward or denouncing its beliefs and practices as "odious," and culminating in an ultimatum by which Islam's, and therefore Muslims', place in Britain was deemed conditional on adaptation to suit the critics' tastes: "If Islam is to be truly accepted as part of British society it must embrace science. It must embrace rationality, sexuality and reason."
Let me think out loud about this. The ad hominem attack in which an opponent is called, for example, a "sh*t-head" is certainly objectionable abuse that says more about the speaker than the spoken to. But as for the other criticisms, the ones leveled at Islam as a religion, how should we take them? Freedland offers a rule of thumb for evaluating such criticism:
Each time I come across the kind of abuse [cited,] . . . I mentally replace the word "Islam" with "Judaism" and "Muslim" with "Jew".
I'm not sure this is the best rule of thumb, for the term "Jew" also includes an ethnic meaning and thus raises the possibility that the critic of "Judaism" is antisemitic. I therefore propose that one substitute "Christianity" and "Christian," respectively, and also slightly tweak such criticisms to make them fit, as in the following:
Christianity "is not a religion worth protecting. I would welcome its extinction," wrote one. Another, preferring to play the man rather than the ball, declared, "You ARE a sh*t-head." And there were lots more, often dressed up in pseudo-intellectual language, branding Christianity backward or denouncing its beliefs and practices as "odious," and culminating in an ultimatum by which Christianity's, and therefore Christians', place in [modern] Britain was deemed conditional on adaptation to suit the critics' tastes: "If Christianity is to be truly accepted as part of [modern] British society it must embrace science. It must embrace rationality, sexuality and reason."
The ad hominem attack remains objectionable, of course, but it should be protected speech. People just have to grow thicker skins. As for the desire for Christianity's extinction, I'd need to know how the critic would undertake that aim. By physical attacks upon Christians aimed at their extermination? Clearly objectionable. By verbal criticism of Christian doctrines aimed at disabusing Christians of their beliefs? Welcome to modernity and free speech, sir. And concerning the denunciation of Christians' beliefs and practices as "odious," I would offer the same response. Likewise to the insistence that Christianity accept modern sexual freedom and scientific rationality. If Christians and Christianity cannot endure such expressions of free speech as these, then Christians and Christianity do not deserve to endure in the modern world.

Welcome to modernity, friends . . .

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fiction: I sign away my soul!

My Artless Contract with the Devil?
Art by Terrance Lindall

I'm considering 'changing' my name to Aitch Jae Hodges because Terrance has made an artful sight gag at my expense in the above illustration by having the nameless hero of The Bottomless Bottle of Beer sign away his soul with my name! You can see this actually occurring on the video at nearly 3 minutes (but don't watch the entire video or read the accompanying text if you want to avoid plot spoilers).

If I were to 'alter' my name to Aitch Jae Hodges, I wouldn't even need to get a legal change to make the signature official, for "Aitch Jae" is how one spells "H. J."

But why 'change' it at all? Because I'd like to avoid even a symbolic gesture of signing my soul over to the Adversary! Maybe some fellow named Horace Jeffery signed away his soul, but Aitch Jae? Never!

So, how does "Aitch Jae Hodges" sound? What do readers think?

But don't nobody go hog wild and suggest that I spell my surname "Aitch-oh-dee-gee-e-ess" because there's no end to that procedure since "Aitch" itself would be spelled "A-i-tee-cee-aitch," which could itself be spelled out, and my name would grow boundlessly long!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Europe's Integration Problems

Dani Rodrik

A year ago last fall, as some may remember, I taught a course on European integration, focusing on cultural issues, mainly, but touching upon some economic and political points, e.g., the Euro as common currency without the equivalent of America's Federal Reserve system to oversee a common monetary policy and without a political center to make fiscal policy. Not that I foresaw any of the current difficulties -- I am too ignorant of economics for that. Others predicted such risks, of course, and the contemporary economic problems in Europe have a way of focusing one's mind, so I've learned to appreciate reading what economists write, even taking a certain grim pleasure -- though not shadenfreude -- in their vocabulary of misery:
So, let's say you have mastered the euro zone concept of "financial contagion." Maybe you even know a thing or two about the euro "doom loop," in which sickly banks and indebted governments threaten to drag each other down a death spiral.

Time now to learn a new buzzword, one that captures the anxieties of those seeking long-term stability for the euro currency union: "trilemma."

The term, coined a dozen years ago by a Harvard University economist writing about the global economy, has come to encapsulate the awkward political options confronting the 17 euro zone countries.

To make the currency union work for the long haul, euro countries' heads of state have generally concluded that they must more fully integrate their economies. But within their own countries, the political leaders have only shallow support for that idea, if not outright resistance, from voters.

According to the trilemma theory, drawn in part from studies of the economic crises of 1930s and 1940s, it is possible to have two of three things: deep economic integration, democratic politics and autonomous nation-states.

But under the theory, it is not possible to have all three.
Lovely terminology: financial contagion, doom loop, trilemma. And ever notice how the word "terminology" sounds so . . . terminal? As though the end is near? But to get back to the trilemma noted by Stephen Castle in this article, "Euro Zone Nations Wrestle With a 'Trilemma'" (New York Times, July 6, 2012). This trilemma has been articulated by the above-depicted Dani Rodrik, Harvard Economist, who also proposes a resolution:
So how does Mr. Rodrik, the Harvard economist, propose that Europe resolve its trilemma?

A solution, in his view, might involve giving Greek, Spanish and Italian voters a greater say over euro zone decisions through a transnational system of democracy.

"This would be something like the U.S. federal system . . . in which the federal government doesn't bail out state governments but looks after residents of Florida, California, etc. directly because they are represented through their congressmen and senators."
He might have added that the bicameral American federal system offers a democratic compromise in return for the loss of individual, autonomous nation-state sovereignty. Each state would have both 'congressmen' and 'senators' who represent the people of their respective nations. Moreover, the 'senators,' who constitute the upper chamber of the bicameral legislature, would retain for each state a degree of state authority (not quite autonomy, of course) and a measure of state power even for states with small populations, so as to not let them be swallowed up in the political system by the democratic power of states with large populations.

But this doesn't so much resolve the trilemma (if a resolution means retaining all three horns) as offer a compromise in return for the loss of nation-state autonomy, and individual European nations might be unwilling to accept that.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

The Rhizome of Life


I stumbled upon an intriguing article, "Life after Darwin," written by the French biologist Didier Raoult and posted on a website titled Project Syndicate. Here's the part that interested me:
All living organisms appear as mosaics of genetic tissue, or chimeras . . . . This framework . . . . resembles a rhizome -- an underground stem that sends out roots and shoots that develop into new plants . . . . [W]e now know that the proportion of genetic sequences on earth that belongs to visible organisms is negligible . . . . Human cells comprise genes of eukaryotic, bacterial, archaean, and viral origin. As this chimerism increases, it occasionally integrates genes from microbes that live within the human body . . . . Once integrated in a person's genome, these genes can be transmitted from parent to child -- making microbial genes their "grandfathers" . . . . [A] transfer of genetic sequences from parasites to hosts could involve hundreds of genes for a bacterium in different hosts. For example, if the bacterium Wolbachia's genes are integrated by different hosts, such as spiders, insects, or worms, the hosts' offspring are also descendants of Wolbachia.
We're all thus genetic chimeras, imaginary creatures of mixed origins that populate the minds of superstitious folk and the tales they tell their children. Just joking. Wrong chimeras. More seriously, I recall discussing such origins of some of our genetic material when I was teaching in Germany 20 years ago, for a biologist in one of my conversation classes brought up the issue in the context of a reading on biogenetically engineered crops. His point was that objecting to biogenetics on the basis of the integrity of an organism's genetic structure is absurd since natural biogenetics is occurring constantly. He then noted that this happens not only in crops but also in humans.

That was the first I'd heard of such a process, and I'd heard nothing since until yesterday. Any experts out there among my readers who might want to post an enlightening comment? What's the extent of this sort of genetic transference? I would expect most of it to be harmful, so how does the body prevent the transferred genetic material from working harm? Especially subsequent generations if the foreign genes manage to insinuate themselves at that level?


Sunday, July 08, 2012

New Fiction: Story by Horace Jeffery Hodges, Illustrations by Terrance Lindall

First Sip
Terrance Lindall

A few days ago, I announced an upcoming publication of my story, "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer," a Faustian tale of more than fifty pages of text, which will first appear in an anthology, then later as a novella accompanied by another fifty interspersed pages or more of illustrations, of which you can read the first several paragraphs at that blog entry announcement. One commentator asked about the concept behind the story and the process of writing, so I explained:
I was enjoying a beer after exercise last January and had the abrupt thought that a bottomless bottle would be great.

I then was struck by the further thought that this could make a great temptation story. The Faustian plot was an obvious one.

When I had time in February, I wrote about 50 pages in two weeks and had the entire story. I read it to a friend trained in law because I needed advice on the courtroom scene, and he helped me rework the terminology.

I've spent some time -- when I wasn't busy with student papers -- proofreading and sharpening some points, partly due to good advice from friends.

The story is a cautionary one, of sorts, that questions scientism and postmodernism, but with humor. I try to work in a lot of allusions to other works with similar themes concerning deals with the devil -- or other such arrangements.

There are verbal echoes of Milton's Paradise Lost, Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Goethe's Faust, Gaiman's "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," and many other stories. I've put these there to be noticed, but I don't have citations since this isn't scholarship, but a creative, intertextual work.

Most of all, I try to tell a good story.
Readers will have to be the judge of that, naturally, and the story won't available until later this year, but the video of text and illustrations (8.5 minutes) is still available, along with another video that continues the story (3.5 minutes)! Incidentally, the videos contain plot spoilers, but if one ignores the text and focuses upon the images, the videos can be safely watched.

Take a look, for Terrance Lindall's illustrations alone are worth your time!

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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Sex Slavery Again . . .

Sheikh Awn with Concubine-Bride

In an article originally published by the Gatestone Institute, "Egypt's First 'Sex-Slave' Marriage" (Pundicity, July 5, 2012), Raymond Ibrahim describes an event broadcast on Egyptian television:
Last Monday, on the Egyptian TV show Al Haqiqa ("the Truth"), journalist Wael al-Ibrashi began the program by airing a video-clip of a man, Abd al-Rauf Awn, "marrying" his "slave." Before making the woman, who had a non-Egyptian accent, repeat the Koran's Surat al-Ikhlas after him, instead of saying the customary "I marry myself to you," the woman said "I enslave myself to you," and kissed him in front of an applauding audience.
Is this the new Egypt? We've seen calls by other Islamists for sex slaves, but this is the first actual instance of one, so far as I've heard. With this sort of Islamist 'marriage,' the wife's dress code differs from the usual rules for Muslim women:
[E]ven though she was wearing a hijab, her owner-husband declared her forbidden from such trappings, commanding her to be stripped of them, so as "not to break Allah's laws." She took her veil and abaya off, revealing, certainly by Muslim standards, a promiscuous red dress (all the other women present were veiled).
You see the 'husband' removing the abaya in the photo above. Apparently, this man is still too prudish, still breaking Allah's laws, for he appeared on the same television show immediately after the video had shown, and from what follows as justification also implies that the good sheikh didn't go far enough, despite his attempt to follow precedent:
Even stripping the sex-slave of her hijab, the way Awn commanded his concubine-wife, has precedent. According to Islamic jurisprudence, whereas the free (Muslim) woman is mandated to be veiled behind a hijab, sex-slaves are mandated only to be covered from the navel to the knees—with everything else exposed. During the program Awn even explained how Caliph Omar, one of the first "righteous caliphs," used to strip sex-slaves of their garments, whenever he saw them overly dressed in the marketplace.
Sheikh Awn neglected to follow the letter of Allah's law, as his own justification reveals, for he failed to strip his sex-slave down to the navel! Nevertheless, he went too far, according to another Islamist:
The other guest on the show, Dr. Abdullah al-Naggar, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al Azhar, fiercely attacked Awn for reviving this practice, calling on him and his slave-wife to "repent" and stop dishonoring Islam, arguing that "there is no longer sex-slavery" -- to which Awn responded by sarcastically asking, "Who said sex-slavery is over? What -- because the UN said so?"
The report doesn't reveal Dr. al-Naggar's response, but the question is an excellent one, and I'm glad that Sheikh Awn raised it, for this is precisely the issue faced by Islam in our modern world: Which takes precedence, Islamic law or human rights' legislation? We see from the encounter between the two Muslims on this television program that particular Islamic laws embarrass some Muslims even as other Muslims attempt to revive such laws as part of the current resurgence of Islam. Those who wish to revive such embarrassing laws can accuse the embarrassed of not being sufficiently Islamic since these laws are there in the Muslim sources and cannot be denied.

Upon such an Archimedian point, the entire Muslim world can be moved . . . but which way, toward modern human rights or toward medieval Islamic laws?

UPDATE: Long-time commentator "Erdal" explains that the scene was scripted:
This is a "scripted reality" show and the man, Abd al-Rauf Awn, is an actor-pawn of the presenter, who plays out this story to frame the scene for the studio-talk and the street interviews, who all predictably slam him down. It's a morality play in sensationalistic TV format. Even the man's name, Abd al-Rauf Awn, is a pun, meaning roughly "he who serves as an assistant, and we know it."
So . . . never mind.

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Friday, July 06, 2012

"a figure in white spoke to him . . ."

Lonnie G. Thompson
Photo by Thomas Nash

Justin Gillis, writing for the NYT, recently published an article, "A Climate Scientist Battles Time and Mortality" (July 2, 2012), on the geologist Lonnie Thompson, who studies tropical ice, which turned out to be a race against time:
One day in 1991, high in the thin, crystalline air of the Peruvian Andes, Lonnie G. Thompson saw that the world's largest tropical ice cap was starting to melt. It was the moment he realized that his life's work had suddenly become a race.
His life's work? What sort of work? This sort:
Hauling six tons of equipment to South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, he and his small team raced to recover long cylinders of ice from glaciers that had built up over thousands of years. The layers in those cylinders contained dust, volcanic ash, subtle variations in water chemistry, even the occasional frozen insect -- a record of climatic and geologic changes that could be retrieved, preserved and interpreted like a series of tree rings.
Recently, the race became one against mortality:
[L]ast October, the race against the clock became much more personal . . . . [when he] woke up in a Columbus hospital room, a strange dream rattling in his brain. He looked down. "Wires were coming out of my chest," he said. Machinery had been implanted to keep him alive. Longer term, doctors told him, only a heart transplant would restore him to full health.
But what was the "strange dream"? This:
It was deep in one of his comatose periods, he figures, that he had the dream. He described jumping through space and landing in a beautiful spot filled with flowers and streams. There, he said, a figure in white spoke to him.

"It's not your time," the figure told him. "You have another purpose."

Dr. Thompson is not a particularly religious man, and he does not try to explain the dream, but his memory of it is vivid.
Fascinating. In general, very much like many other anecdotes of near death experiences, but quite different in several details, e.g., nothing about passing through a dark tunnel toward a light. The greatest similarity lies in the renewed sense of purpose to one's life. As I said, fascinating. Also intriguing. But who knows what to make of such stories? I read a lot about these sorts of near-death 'encounters' twenty years ago in Tuebingen for a seminar taught by Hans Kung, who expressed skepticism about them as real experiences of death, else there would have been no return, but the near universality of such experiences is disconcerting, to say the least!

One test for the authenticity of Thompson's vision would be to see if he does accomplish some great purpose . . .

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