21 December, 2011

Security Angst

Nothing makes me want to sing the National Anthem at the top of my lungs more than being treated like a terrorist when I try to come into my own country. It may be over a decade since 9/11, but procedures for coming into the Police States of America (i.e. any place where the TSA is given authority to suspend any of our civil liberties it sees fit to ignore) have only gotten worse since I was in Rome in 2009. Back then, getting into Europe involved pretty much what it does now: you present your passport, present your visa, and they wave you on through. Getting into the United States, however, even for citizens, is even more of a headache than it was then.

Let's be honest here for a moment though; we Americans are lucky. If you're not Born in the USA, not only do you have to go through all the meticulous baggage controls, paperwork checks, etc; you have to be fingerprinted and get a mugshot. But that's okay, because you're not from the US, so you must be an Enemy (see movies like Taken for a great illustration of this attitude: if you're not American, you must be evil; not just evil, but an Evil Thing with a virulent hatred for all things American). Since, of course, there's no conceivably better way of securing our borders than taking fingerprints (last time I checked, all criminal acts were definitely committed by people with criminal histories...which makes me suspect that the criminal world must actually be an Underworld of Immortals, whose various rap sheets reach back to the beginning of time).

If you're American, other nifty things happen to you as you're attempting to return to your country. You go through security in Europe (which has the same requirements as the TSA, by the way), then you wait at the gate. But before you can board the plane, though you've had to show your passport about three times before even getting to this point, you need to show it again. Okay, so that's not so inconvenient, I admit. But what if the gate agents decide that you need another security check? While boarding my first Brussels-Atlanta flight, approximately every other person in line was pulled aside for a rifling-through of the baggage and an semi-assaulting of the personage (yeah, that thing that goes like this: . Fortunately I was not among them. But that didn't make me any calmer about seeing men with graying hair and women with white hair and high school students being treated like criminals and having to put up with it calmly for fear that the least complaint would be interpreted as aggression and suppressed. (Tell me again what's not police state about this?)

Of course, since the best way to protect our country from terrorism, illness, agricultural blights and a whole laundry list of other Curses of Adam is to make sure that we hermetically seal our borders, the ten hour flight following the first (two?) security checks is promptly followed by...I bet you can't guess...another security check. That is correct. With absolutely no window of opportunity available between the time you get off the plane (without exiting security), pick up your international baggage (without exiting security), bring a “imports affidavit” and your checked baggage pointlessly through another checkpoint where they actually check nothing before having you put it right back on a conveyor belt (without exiting security), there's still apparently sufficient danger that one of the frazzled passengers might have somehow picked up, I don't know, a bomb? a knife? something like that? under the watchful eyes of about five policemen per line. So guess what? You have to go through security again.

All of this makes so much sense to me. As I've said a million times before (fairly recently too, so I won't repeat in detail), possibly the most frustrating thing about it all is that it's so invasive while being so obviously ineffective. It might stop the most stupid of would-be terrorists. But a.) when you list all of the things you are going to check and all of the places you're going to search, it's kind of obvious that serious terrorists will seek other methods of attack. And b.) the checks as they are performed are so perfunctory, so shoddily done, that I really wonder what they accomplish at all. Take the huge “importation” check. They want to make sure that you don't have anything that could remotely pose a risk to public health or anything that could be “smuggled.” I suppose that's reasonable. So what's the most logical way to check for that? Obviously, have them give you a slip of paper saying “I don't have any X”, and then wave them through. Wow, look guys, I've saved the world! Why didn't I think of this before? We can ask people if they're doing anything bad and since lying is impossible, we'll definitely get an accurate answer.

The whole thing is such a mess, at least to the eye of common sense, that I end the hour-long process of getting off the plane “legally” hoping beyond all else that there's some behind-the-scenes justification for all this. That running gloved hands under the lip of an elderly man's jeans is somehow protecting us all from more 9/11's. And while I wish this so that at least the outrage of my common sense may be soothed, I can't ignore the fact that even if such tactics are achieving victories every now and then, victories that we somehow never hear about, we've kind of let the Bin Laden crowd win. Because if their goal was to “terrify” Americans (which is what terrorists do, no?), they've done that pretty well. Well enough that we're perfectly fine now with giving up more and more of our liberties just so that we can stay “safe”.

Last time I checked, America wasn't the Land of the Safe and Cowardly, at least not in theory. It was supposed to be “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” One has to wonder how many people still care to make the distinction.

18 December, 2011

A few nights in Belgium: Requiems and Royalty

I can hardly say that this semester has been uneventful. As I think back, plenty of interesting events come to mind: that first hectic week in Hotel Astrid spent scrounging free wifi at cafes across the city and going to the fortuitously-scheduled film festival at night; the challenge of meeting with my adviser, professors, and library staff and explaining my unusual academic situation to them...in French; a twenty-five mile bike ride from Bruges to Zeebrugge, just for the sake of seeing the North Sea; a few brushes with the police (not my fault!); meeting crazy pro-OWS Yugoslavians in Paris and being dragged along with them to a med-students' bar where the drinks come in...baby bottles; getting violently ill in Paris a few days later thanks to too much sun? too little water? and dragging myself back to my hostel on the metro; oh right, that "briefing" at the American embassy and reception at the ambassador's house; getting quite, quite lost in Bois de la Cambre with a friend at night; hiking seventeen miles to get to the site of the Battle of Waterloo; refusing invitations to "have a coffee" with various guys ranging from a junior staff member of the European Parliament to a Parisian bookseller; visiting way too many Christmas markets; nearly getting stranded in Germany after one particularly eventful Christmas market visit and having to push a motor scooter back to Flagey with a friend (who actually did by far the most of the pushing) through throngs of partying Brits at nearly 2:00 a.m.; getting lost around Gare du Midi for a few hours (not such a great idea); getting a super-new haircut in Lille, France and discovering that leather jackets are actually quite classy; trying roasted chestnuts, glühwein, Belgian fries, Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and waterzooi for the first time; seeing how the Belgian staff of the Sheraton interprets the American Thanksgiving menu; running into a serious riot (as in, Molotov cocktails, smashed windshields and 200 arrests sort of riot) near Porte de Namur; and lots, lots more.

Yeah, that's a lot. And that's just what comes to mind immediately. I could have written a nice, juicy blog post about any single one of them, I suppose. But I didn't, because I'm a terrible blogger...at least when it comes to posting about things that people are actually interested in. Be that as it may, I'm going to pretend that talking about my last two nights in the city will make up for any previous delinquency. Because they've been sufficiently awesome that that might be rather close to the truth.

Last night, Saturday the seventeenth of December, I attended a concert at the Bozar (get it, "beaux-arts"?) in the center of Brussels. The performance featured the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe. It took place in the Salle Henri LeBoeuf, directly across the road from the Royal Palace, on the slope of the "Mont des Arts". The Salle, and the Palais des Beaux Arts as a whole, was designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta (very famous fellow if you happen to know anything about the Art Deco movement). Actually, I could go into a whole side lecture about the Palais and how nifty Art Deco is and such, since that's been a lot of what I've been studying this semester. But such speeches are best appreciated when the buildings in question are before the audiences' eyes. I'll just comment for now that the shape of the building is rather unusual because the city didn't want it to block the view from the royal palace overlooking the city. And Salle Henri LeBoeuf is excellently designed; even the cheapest seats (which I had, rather predictably) have excellent views of the stage and the acoustic range is great.

As for the performance...note that as yet I haven't even specified the program. That's because they were playing Verdi's Requiem.

Which announcement I feel deserves a paragraph of it's own. Not for any objective reasons, but very simply because that is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music (along, rather interestingly, with Mozart's and Duruflé's requiems...yes, I know that may sound morbid, but they're fantastic).

Anyway, the performance was admittedly not Abbado's breathtaking and legendary rendition, but it had the virtue of being a live one, which always adds a great deal to one's appreciation of the piece. And unlike many of the alternatives to Abbado that I've heard over the years, this was hardly a rendition to be sneered at. The soloists worried me at first. I'm not sure if it was them or if it was the orchestra that was at fault, but in the Kyrie part they seemed a little too overwhelmed by the orchestra. Understandable enough, I suppose, since with the dynamic range the orchestra is expected to utilize in that piece, it would be difficult not to overwhelm four unaided human voices...then of course, there's the enormous choir comes in and blows everyone away and the soloists are more or less seamlessly absorbed into the larger body. That was accomplished fairly well, but not as effectively as it could have been had the orchestra not so nearly drowned them out before that.

If overly-powerful dynamics were a bit of a problem in the Kyrie, as you can probably imagine (assuming you've heard the piece), that only made the Dies Irae all the more exhilarating. The choir and orchestra completely nailed the Tuba Mirum, probably the single most dramatic and recognizable passage in the requiem. I'd very willingly compare their performance here to the Abbado one. In fact, watching it, and the conductor's style here, one couldn't help but think that the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe, and their conductor were deliberately calling on the Abbado rendition for inspiration. Not that that's a bad thing. Praise originality to the heavens, but there are some times when something is just done so well that a good imitation is the most satisfying possibility for years to come.

After the Tuba Mirum the soloists came in again and this time I was reassured. The baritone was the standout by a long shot, as he had been before, but the orchestral parts recede considerably during the solos for the rest of the piece, and you could see that paying off in terms of dynamics here. I'll admit that I still wasn't impressed per se with either the soprano or mezzo soprano yet; that could however, be because each of their parts here was more a duet than a solo, and the very young mezzo soprano was having just a bit of a difficult time keeping up with the much older and more experienced soprano. A subtle difference, but I think one might notice it after listening obsessively to the Abbado version (though one wonders how much of my "criticism" may result simply from being more accustomed to the Abbado version than from any actual fault here). To renege a bit on what I was just saying, however: the Lacrymosa, which started off with the soprano and mezzo together, was phenomenal.

Once the Dies Irae was complete (I hadn't realized very consciously before how long it is!), the soloists really started to shine. The Sanctus starts out completely a capella, for the choir, and was beautifully done. One interesting thing about this piece is that the soprano never gets a solo per se until the very last part, the Libera Me. That gorgeous high C which she hits about midway through this final segment marks a turning point in the piece. Suddenly the choir is singing more quickly, more lightly; one get's a sense of a resolution having been achieved and that joy is the natural product of that achievement. That was all perfectly done last night, and for me that clinched the performance.

I fear my criticism thus far might give an inaccurate idea of the performance's quality. I was on the whole very impressed. I wouldn't be surprised if my occasional difficulty in hearing the soloists was partly due to being up in the balcony on the side--not a bad vantage point at all, but if the way one is supposed to project one's voice in a play for maximum audibility is anything to go by, not being out in the front during such a concert might theoretically make a bit of a difference in the way one hears things. Even if that has nothing whatsoever to do with it, every part of the piece that it was really important to get they nailed. The choir and orchestra were fantastic throughout, and the soloists only got better as the evening went on. After the last note sounded, the musicians were called back on stage no less than four times by audience applause.

On a related note, I learned upon getting there (by overhearing some excited Dutch-speakers) that the Princess was going to be in attendance. Sure enough, Princess Claire of Belgium came in to the royal box moments before the concert began, and the news crew made a bit of noise in the box beside mine getting a shot for the broadcast. Because the view from where I was was just that good. Ha.

I later learned that she's a leading patron of the Brussels Choral Society, which sang at her wedding, and that she was the patron of this event.

Well, seeing as it's around 2:00 a.m. here in Belgium, the wise thing to do would be to sleep and to hope that tomorrow I'll be as enthusiastic about recounting tonight's events as I was today.

16 December, 2011

The shift from childhood to adulthood, Or: does growing up mean you've "changed"?

Ever since I came to the unsettling realization that I'm "grown up", I've been fascinated by the subtlety of this process, particularly as it affects one's ways of thinking. How do kids think compared to how adults think?

One thing I've noticed is how easy it becomes once one hits, say about twenty, to start underestimating kids. "Oh, he's only ten, he doesn't understand," one thinks...and then one realizes, with a bit of a start, that one understood X or Y quite well at ten oneself. At some point, the move into the adult world at least mostly complete, one begins to separate the experience of being a child from that of being an adult. Yet this is constantly gainsaid by one's own memories, in which the experiences aren't distinctly divided at any point. More simply, you are still "yourself" in your memories of being ten. Not "a ten year old".

Certainly, thought becomes increasingly capable of nuance and tolerant of incompleteness; one loses a certain amount of one's previous faith in reason to carry through to the bitter end of all inquiry, and then realizes that's not such a bad thing. One becomes increasingly capable of making distinctions (between people and their ideas, between the "good" aspects of certain beliefs and the ones that are less than supportable, etc). But what I can't help finding fascinating is how constant one's basic principles, both intellectual and moral, and even one's interests, remain from about the age of four on. In other words, the aspects of one's identity susceptible to alteration seem to be given their penultimate form fairly early on in life.

Not that one can't change these later; the process of change in adulthood is, however, slow and difficult, working against one's "character".

It might be helpful if I allowed myself a moment to expand on my current ideas about character. "Character" is something that I understand to be a product of free will interacting with surrounding material circumstances which it cannot control. Therefore it is fully "chosen" in the moral/determinative sense, the sense that insofar as one is inclined to certain interests, one chooses freely to pursue them, and, more importantly, insofar as one understands right and wrong one's actions are free and may be judged according to the extent to which, within the constraints of that understanding of right and wrong, one chooses the "good". However, character is also "determined" to an extent by material circumstances (a notion perfectly compatible with Catholic theology if you note that God would have put different individuals in different material circumstances expecting people to react to them accordingly; you can find plenty of support for the notion in St. Paul). One's interests, one's intellectual preoccupations, and even (in a fallen world where natural law may be imperfectly perceived) one's understanding of right and wrong can be largely determined according to material circumstances. This is not to say that "material circumstances determine action"; acts are always to at least some extent the product of free will, unless you're talking about something like sleepwalking.* However, I do see the range of action to be determined by circumstance, which, when you're looking at moral issues, will have certain ramifications when it comes to culpability. What sort of ramifications and to what extent? Ha, well, that's why we've got that little reminder to "judge not lest ye be judged".

In short, I'm basically advocating a view that merges elements of the traditionally contradictory Greek moira and persona understandings of character, and that does so invoking the Christian distinction between absolute morality and individual culpability. That is, action considered purely vs. the state of the soul.

La di da.

To get back to what I was saying about the development of character, however: character can, in my view, develop, but the culmination of material constraints over the years, compounded by the force of habit (another material aspect--repetition--though one driven, at least initially, by choice), ensures that "character" is something quite deeply ingrained in an individual.  It's not simply a "mask" that one can put on and take off as the Greek notion of persona describes it. When you choose, you're choosing in the context of an ever-lengthening series of past actions, accumulated habits, and the material circumstances both totally out of your control and those which you had once chosen but which are now out of your control. Obviously, that's not to say character equates to one's moira either; one isn't "fated" to act a certain way. But unless you have a fairly strong will to change (and a fairly strong reason to do so), who you were and how you thought as a child is likely to stay constant in many important respects as time passes.

Now what got me thinking on this train of thought may serve to demonstrate how constant certain aspects of one's character (in this case mostly interests, which, yes, I do think belong in a consideration of character, and I could and probably will someday go into a long exposition of Elizabeth Bennet's apparently shallow "And of all this I might have been the mistress" reason for warming to Darcy...). Specifically, I was remembering the mass of childhood writing I found while cleaning out my room in early September. I found it rather amusing to see how little some things change. Oh, I really have been interested in X for all that long? Oh, wait, I've been thinking about that since then? For example:

  •  The fact that I've been writing so long at all is the most obvious example. Tucked away in the corner of some box I found a tiny notebook in which I had been writing a story around the age of five...the estimate comes from the fact that I was writing it about "baby Jo-jo," who would be my now-seventeen-year-old brother. Who would be mortified, of course, to have such a name recalled now. Good thing he doesn't read blogs. It was basically about the difficulties of taking a baby to the hairdresser for my mom's appointment; I remember starting the story in the salon because the hairdresser had just given me the notebook. This story also had the fantastically idiosyncratic name of "Mer-mee-mook book". I do not remember why, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that I always found rhyming extraordinarily funny. I do remember tucking it in the box soon after coming home with the intention of writing another chapter that never would be written; starting and leaving writing unfinished is another habit I've kept unfortunately intact over the years.
  • I also kept a diary from the ages of six to eight, according to the dates. That's not to say that I kept it with any discipline. There's a total of about fifteen entries in there. What one can gather from them, however, is telling. For one, my rather inordinate pride in my family has been around for at least sixteen years! And here I thought it had developed in college. Nope. There's plenty of boasting about how "My sister is learning to read. I am very proud of her." "Jo-Jo is learning X". "William is the best baby." And many more extravagant claims for which I cannot remember the priceless wording. Much of the rest is devoted to talking about how great our animals are and my feelings when they died. Okay, not everything has remained so constant.
  • An early entry records what I believe was probably my first "poem" (or so I dubbed it):
    • Papa is walking and walking,/While Mama is talking and talking.
    • Not altogether unobservant, I suppose. Apparently my interest in writing poetry, despite the stubborn hatred of reading it that lasted until I was in my senior year of high school, goes back a bit. I do remember being highly critical of all attempts, however. They usually ended up in the fire, which is rather a bad thing now, considering how amusing it is to look back on such things.
  • I also discovered a "eulogy" I had written for our first cat, who perished in the most traumatic way possible by being hit by a car on my seventh birthday. It didn't make it any better that I was the one to find the body. Ah well. The eulogy was touching. Bearing excellent testimony to the obsession with cats that is still strong in our family, even taken to extremes by my brothers, the younger of whom seem to turn every conversation to the topic of: "Penelope just learned how to jump on our shoulders," etc.
  • A list of "life plans" dated August 1997 includes these directives: 
    • Write
    • Find out how everything works
    • Visit Russia (and yes, I am still fascinated by that country, having since hosted [or had my parents host] several Russian exchange students, read tons of Russian history and novels, compiled three full play lists of Russian music [classical, folk, and Orthodox chant], and commenced study of the Russian language)
    • Read War and Peace (at that age I only knew that it was a big book and people would be impressed if I read it), the whole Bible, and any other important books I could find
    • Learn Irish (this one sadly died off; my interests did grow a bit more practical with time)
    • Go to Europe
    • Practice the piano every day (if only) 
    • Go to Colby College (I did actually apply, but then turned down admission in favor of UD in one of those nearly inexplicable changes of opinion that proves providential in the long run)
    • Learn how to cook really well
    • Get good at archery (I had gotten a real bow as a birthday present that year; again, not all interests are permanent--partly because of lack of time and opportunity) 
  • There were plenty of other "to-do" lists, mostly compiled in cooperation with my siblings. The various lists included directions for how to:
    • Stop fighting (haha, that one never worked)
    • Train for the Olympics
    • Send money to Africa
    • Only that last was ever remotely successful. However, the interests in doing all these things have remained to one extent or another. No Olympics, nor any interest in getting to them, but I do at least want to be as good as possible at running.
  • Some very elementary musings about what it means to be "good" that I wrote after a long conversation with my mom about Scarlett O'Hara, Bill Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh, in which she essentially introduced me to the idea that one must always distinguish between a person's value as a person, their "potential," as she put it, and their actions. Also that you need to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions; as I understand it in retrospect, it was basically a simplified version of the culpability vs. morality distinction. Scarlett's infamous "Even if I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" speech had disturbed me greatly, I recall, and was the catalyst for the conversation. Which we had in the cellar while Mum was doing the laundry. Since then, it's been one of my core ideas (homeschooling works out pretty darn well when your mom is clever enough to put basic philosophical concepts into simple language and make them seem natural to little kids).
  • One of my personal favorites out of everything I found, however, was a short essay on how "Knowledge is Power". You can't say that conviction has changed much over the years. It basically defended reading as a form of knowledge (was this an assignment or an argument that my reading time shouldn't be limited? I don't remember) and went on at length to elaborate on the various ways that knowing things will give you an edge in life, both materially and spiritually. As I may have mentioned before, the unbridled optimism of this conviction has been tempered. But the gist remains the same. So very amusing.

*Which I wouldn't actually consider to be an 'action' per se.

15 December, 2011

Grocery Shopping in Europe

I've found grocery shopping here in Belgium to be a largely satisfying experience. The stores are well-stocked, many of the innovations of companies like Wegmans are already in place (Weigh and price your own vegetables! Saves so much time at check-out!), and the general quality of non-brand-name foods is much higher. The average price of food is, well, reasonable. Very much comparable with the United States in most staples, although perhaps a little expensive by Maine standards (milk's a lot cheaper than at home though).

Despite the similar prices of staples, however, for someone with rather haute-bourgeois tastes like myself, many things are a steal. Brie for only ten euros a kilo? A large block of Swiss for only two euro? You simply can't find good cheese for that price in the US. Unless it's cheddar. Which I will admit, I miss a little. But one eats cheddar all the time back home, and the chance to feast on baguettes and fine Trappist cheese is not to be missed. And then the wine and beer! Fine French wines for only seven to nine euro? Really, you can find a quite adequate one for four, and good cooking wine for as low as two. Beer is even better. One bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 10, widely acclaimed as the world's best beer, and absolutely phenomenal however it may rank, will usually cost around fourteen dollars for a glass at one of the select American beer houses that actually sells it. Here one can buy it for under two euro. Amazing!

Yes, I know...now I'm just taunting you. It's not really fair.

More seriously, what I've noticed on the whole is how dramatically the costs of importation affect the prices of food on the shelves. All of these gastronomic luxuries are near-untouchable in the States, having been brought in all the way from Europe. By contrast, American items that are imported are much more expensive than at home: cranberries, tortillas, and California wines being notable culprits.

Vaguely related to this phenomenon of expensive importation is the fact that eating locally here is the cheap way to go. Now, this I find rather fascinating, since that's not something that holds constant between America and Europe. In the US, it's usually the food snobs and the farmers who eat locally. "Local" food is très chic right now in America. It's supposed to be healthier, better for the local economy, etc. Which is probably (usually) true. But it sure costs a lot to do so. It means nothing to buy apples shipped in from California, but to buy Maine apples, you'll probably be paying a bit extra.

In Belgium, by contrast, the really dirt-cheap food is that grown or made in Wallonia or Flanders. That has its limitations, of course, because you can't grow nearly as much in a country whose climate is only slightly more temperate than that of my home state. But local milk, cheese, beer, leeks, etc, aren't very expensive comparatively. It's pretty easy to see some of the possible reasons for this. "Local" in a country the size of Maryland, means "grown somewhere in Belgium". That is, non-imported items are--no surprise--cheaper, but to not be imported in such a small country also means that the products in question are local.

In the US, not only can "non-imported" still mean 3300 miles away (distance from Sidney, ME to Los Angeles, if anyone wants a fun-fact); those non-imported items are often coming in from states which receive gigantic federal subsidies. Of course, this is just one more problem with those nasty subsidies that I complain about so often. Besides being bad for a government that can't even balance it's budget, farm subsidies do nothing whatsoever to encourage strong local economies, and they certainly don't help the "locavores", who are often, ironically enough, some of the bigger federal aid supporters out there.

Take an example: say that Idaho actually can produce potatoes more cheaply and in greater quantities than Maine (which one assumes is why in a state whose primary agricultural resource is potatoes, you generally find Idaho potatoes stocking the shelves). To transport the potatoes those nearly 3000 miles across the country, potato production doesn't just need to be a little cheaper; it needs to be a whole heck of a lot cheaper. How does this happen? Well, it can happen naturally of course, in which case I no longer have any complaints that are not rooted in my rather extreme local pride (haha). But when governments start giving money to the biggest farms in the country (i.e. the ones in Idaho, Texas, and California), it's dealing a crushing blow to small farms and really local food all across the country: how are you supposed to compete when farms from bigger states have not only their natural advantages to help them, but also the federal government giving them gigantic ($40 billion dollars worth since 1995) hand-outs? 

That's the end of that rant; I have to say, I find the whole "locavore" phenomenon to be ridiculously pretentious ("Oh yes, let us go out among the Quaint Farmers and eat Quaint food"), but the basic idea (eating local is good for the local economy and in some cases better for you) is one I agree with wholeheartedly.

 Back to the subject of grocery shopping in Europe. Here's a list of things that are hard to find here:
  • turkey
  • canned broth (it's either bouillon cubes or home-made broth, it seems)
  • "international" food (Asian especially)
  • peanuts
  • pumpkin
  • cranberries (not so much at my usual store, but in general, yes)
  • baking ingrediants--or at least the bulk sizes; I don't know why one would buy baking powder in tablespoon-sized packets; and vanilla extract comes in bottles the size of my thumbnail (no exaggeration)
Some interesting things about shopping here:
  •   There are "Carrefours" and "Delhaizes" open until evening, but then there are "express" versions of the same, much smaller and closer together and offering an opportunity to get in and out speedily. You don't usually have to walk as far to get to one of these, but the number of discount items will be much lower.
  • Not only do stores have "store-brand" items; for many things they also have "discount store-brand" items, which differ dramatically in price. A "Carrefour" pastry crust will cost a bit over a euro, but a Carrefour discount pastry crust will cost about 65 cents. Not bad. 
  • The largest size for milk containers is the liter. There are about 3.8 liters in a gallon, so you're buying not much more than a quart at a time. And it goes fast. On the bright side, whole milk here is deliciously creamy. And the cream! It puts whipping cream in the US to shame. US dairies generally skim off lots of the best cream and call the result "whole milk" and mix in the weakest cream with the top and call it "whipping cream". What a shame. 
  • The butter is Amazing.
  • Practically everything comes in cartons instead of plastic or tin. That includes milk (often), cream, pre-prepared soup, tomato sauce. The really odd thing about some of these cartons is that you have to cut them open with a scissors at one corner and then there's no way to re-seal them.
I'm not really sure why I think that this would interest anyone except the avid cooks among the readers (I am sure of only two of these). But there is a general wish that I would post more about Belgium, and this is what I have to say.

14 December, 2011

In Defense of Suffering

This is one of the best short articles I've read in months. The wealth of references (Dante, Eliot, Dostoevsky...yes please!) appeals to the classically-educated nerd within me, and the point he makes is one I agree with wholeheartedly. Are some of the claims sweeping and not to be fully supported (surely not all depression is merely psychological)? Of course. It's a short article. Should we do as much as we can to alleviate human suffering? Sure. Should we do so in particular as independent actors exercising our own freedom to choose our own and others' good? Yes. Should we manipulate governmental structures so as to minimize the extent to which free human choice (within normal limits) results in suffering, to the extent that we essentially abolish freedom? I think that would show that we have our priorities very, very wrong.

10 December, 2011

Contraception, Vatican II, and a few comments on Classic Capitalism

I spent a while the other day grousing to my boyfriend about this rather awful article by a self-proclaimed "Catholic." He referred me to an excellent rebuttal of Townsend's position (it predates her article, obviously) in the First Things magazine; I liked it so much I had to repost it. It's fantastic to see the empirical social evidence that supports the Church's position on birth control supported so well, since Catholics like Townsend will not respond to the theological argument. Why would you if you were firmly convinced that the role of religion is social, not spiritual? (Then again, why not just head over to the local Universalist church if you believe that?)

For the record, Malthus and Margaret Sanger, the "parents" of the birth/population control movement, were not particularly Nice People. The idea that humans would "breed" and "spawn" was fairly repulsive to their Victorian sensibilities ("Victorian" used here only as a descriptive adjective; Sanger came at the tail end of the Edwardian Era). People are "...human weeds,' 'reckless breeders,' 'spawning... human beings who never should have been born"--or so Sanger claims in Pivot of Civilization. Note that the "human weeds" she refers to are not the members of her own white upper middle class; they are. very specifically, poor people, immigrants, and blacks. (Here's an obviously biased website listing some of her choice quotations. Biased or not, the quotations are real, and one can easily find the works to which it refers.)

On a more positive note, here's a link to an amusing article I came across that (jestingly) reads Star Wars as an allegory for Vatican II. It's way over the top, and becomes more so as it goes along, but it does give a pretty good sketch of the situation post-VII. Hard to take oneself seriously quibbling with a blatantly joking article, but I do find the Tusken Raiders=Muslims thing to be kind of offensive and uneducated.

And the capitalism thing! Gah, allow me to get distracted for a moment by my long-standing frustration with the misunderstanding of capitalism that So Many People take for the Gospel Truth. As I have previously argued, both on this blog and countless times in person, Capitalism is not an "evil system." It's very simply a description of how markets work. Really, I begin to think that no one has even read Adam Smith. Or rather, they've read excerpts, which as I've argued plenty of times before regarding such classics as The Education of Henry Adams, is disastrous to one's understanding of the text. How many people realize that Smith's enormous tome The Wealth of Nations actually contains plenty of cautionary advice to governments acknowledging that if the market is left absolutely unrestrained, it'll kind of make for a Horrible Society?

Précisons: sure, self-interest drives the market, according to capitalism, and that's not entirely a bad thing from its perspective. As Smith observes,
 "By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."
 Of course, this is only saying that sometimes self-interested pursuit of economic profit results in the best public good, and that direct pursuit of the same end is often disappointing. I admit that this possibility is not in itself sufficient reassurance to those who care about developing a just society. However, this is simply one observation extracted from the entirety of the book. What you're not getting in this paragraph is the fact that Smith is restricting his observations to purely economic interactions. "Self-interest" does not mean Being Greedy and Stomping on the Little Guy, and anyone who does those things claiming to be justified by capitalist principles would most likely be roundly censured by Smith (who, among other things, was also the author of the mostly-forgotten Theory of Moral Sentiments). "Self-interest" as understood here is as simple as Person A. selling a bushel of beans that he's grown spending about $2 on seeds and about $30 worth of labor to Person B. for a profit of $40. Of course, Person B. only enters into the transaction if it serves his interests as well. So he's willing to pay $40 for beans because the cost (opportunity cost, in econ terms) of producing the beans himself would have been higher than the cost of buying them. 

Again, this is only economic interactions we're talking about ("economic interactions" strictly understood, because one can understand everything in economic terms, assuming that a notion of values is agreed upon). It in no way limits a person's ability to step outside of the limitations of economic self-interest and act generously, and as I've observed above, Smith actually finds generosity fairly important if the system isn't going to crumble. And he even encourages the government to put some elementary limitations on the system so that it doesn't become dehumanizing. (Great quote from Noam Chomsky: "People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."--from Class Warfare)

Of course, it's obvious that greedy people looking to maximize their own gains can find ways to manipulate the system, but it's a bit of a mystery to me why greedy people thus manipulating things discredits the very basic economic principles of capitalism. That's kind of like saying that corrupt politicians discredit American democratic republicanism or that corrupt "charitable" organizations discredit charity. Greed is not defined as "working to promote your own advantage." I'm pretty sure that last time I checked, the Church was fine with people earning money and bettering their social position. The problem is when people obsess about it to the expense of more serious matters (relationship with God and others), or, worse (and this almost always goes hand-in-hand with such obsession; it's a logical progression), do so unjustly. In other words, greed is manipulating a system or structure to promote one's own advantage at the expense of others. The "problem" Catholic writers are seeing with capitalism isn't a systemic problem, it's a moral problem. One that I'd attribute partly to fallen human nature, partly to materialism. Now that latter, that's something one can complain about. But I'm not about to get into a discussion of the effects of materialism on society at this point.

08 December, 2011

Belgium: Advice to a Tourist

Someday I'm going to write a coherent travel post instead of going the default "post interesting links and comment on them" or even the "write 3000 words on the economic crisis and then realize you still missed one of the big points so you never publish it" route. For now, having come home in a jolly mood from the Marché de Noël à Place Ste. Catherine, I will make a list.

There are already plenty of lists out there informing the novice traveler of "dead-giveaways" to their American nationality. Some of these are good points, but generally speaking, the list will be composed of a series of vile behaviors that characterize only the worst stereotype of "the American" (unfortunately all-too-common a breed in Paris, Rome, and other major tourist destinations, however; the stereotypes have to come from somewhere!). I am not going to make such a list. Rather, I'll note a few things that one learns here. Things that one learns to avoid, and things that one might simply find interesting.

However, allow me to get sidetracked for a moment by a brief observation about one item that invariably appears on the novice-traveler-do-not list. It's the infamous "portion size complaint"; i.e., Americans think European portions are too small and will often betray their nationality by complaining about it. This complaint consistently mystifies me; portion sizes, at least here in Belgium, tend to be substantial. In France too. And certainly in Germany, where you're usually served a sausage bigger than your plate with a mountain of one variety or another of cabbage and another of potato. In fact, I can safely say that I've yet to eat in a European restaurant (remember, this is including France too) without regretting the continent-wide incomprehension of take-home boxes. Since I like my money, I'm not about to just leave the food on the plate. Most certainly not. I'll doggedly finish it, thinking "ah, well, this'll take care of breakfast tomorrow too"; but it takes herculean force of body and will to do so. European portion sizes (restaurant edition, in any case) are not, in general, small. So why the complaints? Because you do hear them.

Hang on a sec; I feel a brilliant theory coming on...maybe...I know what I'm saying is revolutionary and all, but just maybe...if you don't eat on Montmartre or right by the water on the left bank of the Seine or right beside the Trevi fountain...maybe you'll get better food and better portions. I know it's tough to believe that the restaurants abutting the world's most popular tourist destinations would be bad. But. They. Are. Some restaurant owners in Europe have this idiosyncratic weakness for making as much money as possible with as little effort as possible. Owning a restaurant in the right Location can be the financial equivalent of striking oil on a Texas ranch. You, as the owner have very little to do beyond procuring very cheap ingredients and making sure that whatever comes out of the kitchen does not kill the stray dogs begging at the back door. If these tests are passed, you go outside, put chairs near the Seine, write a menu in something that looks like French, and you're set. The money will come pouring in, because you are where the tourists are and tourists eat whatever is There. These are, after all, people who've been traveling, who are looking to "relax", which apparently in some peoples' minds means "not have to walk", and who are Hungry. It's the perfect formula! Once they're lured in by the Location and those enticing menus, all you have to do is take the order and send out a platter of just-unfrozen synthetic material, portioned as though it was being served at the orphanage in Oliver Twist.

The advice, then that my Wellspring of Wisdom offers to the unseasoned tourist is simple: walk a few blocks. Better yet, get some recommendations online (though that can be tricky if you aren't practiced at distinguishing between the "undiscriminating tourist review" and the "seasoned traveler review"). Most websites cheerfully tell you to "ask a local", but, coming from a tourist-region myself, I can assure you that the last thing a "local" wants to spend his day doing is tour-guiding (unless you're an Honored Guest, in which all that changes). Supposing a local even knows what the top restaurants in his area are (often he won't; locals use supermarkets), if he wanted to work in the tourism industry, he'd probably be doing so. 

However, I wasn't planning on writing for the unseasoned tourist. After that lengthy segway, here's my partial list of Items of Useful Knowledge for the visitor to Brussels.

  1. Don't go into a superstore just to "look for something". All-purpose chain stores here put Walmart to shame with the inexpensiveness of merchandise and the poor quality of the same, yet they are major shoplifting targets all the same. To minimize the number of people just walking out with things, these stores have one-way gates at the entrances: you can get in, but you can't just walk back out. To leave, you need to go through the checkout line. All well and good if like everyone else you're buying something. But it looks quite awkward if you decide that the adaptor plug you seek is not there. Then you're stuck either shoving past people to get out, or queuing up quietly yet purposely until the person in front of you has finished checking out. 
  2. Don't be taken aback if one of the first things a person inquires about upon making your acquaintance is the nature of your political opinions. It's not taboo in Europe, and neither is debating about said politics (or debating in general, for that matter). If you're an American, you get the added bonus of a captive audience, fascinated to know whether the "media America" is anything like the real one, and to what extent. Do emergency rooms really turn people away because of a lack of free healthcare? Are radical, fundamentalist preachers from the South really in control of the country? Is everyone in America really rich? Etc. It's amazing to see the effect our news sources and their habit of focusing on the most sensational stories have on European perceptions of America. 
  3. Also on a political note, don't assume everyone is 100% on board with the E.U. Most are fine with it in some form, but not insofar as it threatens to erode their national identities.German national identity, fine, (unless you're talking to a German, I assume), but theirs, no.
  4. You can get anywhere without a car. But don't assume that that will be easy, especially if your destinations of choice are off the beaten track. Missing the last bus out of a tiny town can be a bit of a bother.
  5. When you go into a restaurant or cafe, seat yourself (though it's a good idea to make sure the waiter knows you're there, and maybe to wait around just in case he has a preference regarding where you choose to sit). Even the most basic cafes have waiters, so there's usually no going up to the counter to order. They'll come to you. 
  6. There are exceptions to the above, but they're easy to identify; usually pretty obviously modeled after the American "Starbucks-type-cafe", and prominently advertising their free wifi. This type is usually overrun with students, so you can just do what everyone else is doing.
  7. Also on the subject of cafés, know that a "café" is black, a "lait russe" is coffee with warm milk, a "cappuccino" is a small, strong drink topped with a mountain of whipped cream, and a latte usually comes in a tall, narrow glass that makes the foam look very thick indeed. All such beverages come with a cookie or chocolate.
  8. Different beers have different glasses. If a place serves you a beer in the "wrong type of glass", you've been lured into a tourist trap. Run.
  9. Don't get too excited about Christmas Markets. They're "just" Christmas Markets. Yes, they serve warm spiced wine at almost every stall. Yes, they serve foods like quiche and oysters and tartiflette and sauerkraut, et al. Yes, there's a skating rink and ferris wheel. What's so unusual about all of that?
  10. Thanksgiving is best explained with reference to the romance of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.
  11. Don't be afraid of your accent. As long as they can understand you, most Europeans apparently find the American accent "adorable". Or at least francophones claim that this is the case. 
  12. Do wear a nice jacket in the winter. Scarves are essential. Hats and gloves recommended. Incidentally, Brussels is filled with hat shops, which make me long for the days when everyone wore them. They really do look nice, and a wool hat on a guy is a sure sign of Excellent Taste.
One of the nice things about living in a place like Brussels is that if you know basically how to dress and how to get around the city, you won't stand out as an outsider at all. It's a very international city, many of whose residents are here only temporarily (E.U., NATO, one of the three American ambassadorial commissions in the city, etc). So you'll almost certainly look like a pro compared to the rest. Way back in September, on my second day here I was already being asked for directions by hapless visitors. Six times that day, if I remember correctly. And when you speak to a francophone Belgian, chances are that if you speak with sufficient confidence he or she will take you for a Belgian from Flanders, since the Dutch and American accents are apparently quite similar. Quelle chance!

06 December, 2011

This is just to say...

In fact, I have no confessions to make about raiding the icebox, whatever William Carlos Williams may expect; and "this" is not really "just to say" because this article on introverts says everything on it's own. The "science" he mentions may or may not be valid, but either way the symptoms described are right on.

Or perhaps, since I can never really resist saying something, no matter how stringently I insist upon my right to remain silent... I have to admit that despite my enjoyment of the article, I laugh when the writer concludes:
 It can be terribly destructive for an Introvert to deny themselves in order to get along in an Extrovert-Dominant World. Like other minorities, Introverts can end up hating themselves and others because of the differences. If you think you are an Introvert, I recommend you research the topic and seek out other Introverts to compare notes. The burden is not entirely on Introverts to try and become "normal." Extroverts need to recognize and respect us, and we also need to respect ourselves.
Oh the pain and tragedy! Another misunderstood minority group! Let me ally myself with them since I, like all white people with sufficient resources to even think about this sort of thing really feel bad about what happened to the Native Americans and also blame myself for all racism. So if now I get to be part of a minority group, yay! Oh the joy! Oh happy fault that can bring so much joy and peace...

Um, yes. Either way, much as it would be nice to have not spent my teenage years being known as "the smart one who's too good to talk to the rest of us", it's also been nice to be inadvertently compelled by people who don't understand introverts (as in, most people) to just do what's uncomfortable at times and spend a little more social time. Fatigue is not actually a lethal affliction; at least not more than water is a Dangerous Substance to Ingest.

Incidentally, as much as this article and another recent one I saw on the BBC news website were written in good humor, one reads things like "minorities", "difficulty", and "chemical in brain/body" and one is struck by dark premonitions of a time when introversion too might be treated as a medicable affliction. Which would be yet another step down the insidious road of making everyone truly "equal" by making them identical (thank you Madeleine L'Engle for having dramatized that distinction so many years ago): "Your condition is unusual from our perspective and difficult from yours. Here. Take a pill." I jest, of course, but if you take the contemporary logic of medication to its conclusion, it makes sense.

19 November, 2011

Technocrats and the disgust with the "Common Man"

This article by David Brooks offers an excellent, succinct description of what's going on in Europe just now. He hits the nail on the head when he acknowledges what most Americans don't get: that the EU is essentially anti-European, and that any ordinary people who actually strongly support it tend to be those who lived through WWII and see such a super-structure as the only way to prevent that sort of thing. (And of course the students who are still being told that government is smarter than the Common Man, but who seem to grow out of that soon enough--just like American students.)

09 November, 2011

Les Règles des jeux

Take the singular of this post title and you've got the title of a very excellent Jean Renoir movie from 1939. It's consistently ranked within the top ten best movies of all time, and if you watch it (there's a French language--no subtitles--version on youtube, but probably others on Netflix, etc) you'll see why. I have little to say about it that is not already very well said in this astute and lengthy analysis by Arthur Goldhammer.  Jean Renoir is, incidentally, a director whom I highly recommend. La Grande illusion is also a phenomenal film; Elena et les hommes is well-made, but more fun than anything--and you get to see the ever-engaging Ingrid Bergman speaking French and wearing enormous Belle Époque hats. Another interesting one that's a bit outside the Renoir canon is This Land is Mine, an anti-Nazi propaganda film made in the US in 1943 to avoid German censoring and drum up American support for entering the war. If you can take the film's occasional descents into preachiness and the rather jarring sound of "Germans" and "Frenchmen" speaking with the most Americanized of accents, it's an interesting look at what it was actually like to be a Resistance fighter during the occupation. The movie centers around a moral dilemma that Americans, having never had to suffer through an occupation, tend to forget entirely: how does one justify resistance if the occupiers will target innocent civilians by way of retribution? As I said, interesting, despite the flaws inherent in being a propaganda film.

Turning to a different sort of game entirely, here are three recent RCW articles that incisively discuss the origins of the EU and why it's poised to break up now. The role of nationalism is a common focus, and it's indeed interesting to see the European Far Right (especially in France) gaining momentum as the economic crisis worsens. (I'm also very pleased at being vindicated at every turn in my claims that there is such a thing as European conservatism, and that not every European is on board with the idea of creating a United States of Europe.)

Europe's Nationalism Problem
The Crisis of Europe and European Nationalism
Europe's Opacity Problem

Oh, and here are two very short more-news-less-analysis articles, just for fun.

The New Face of Digital Populism
European Far Right on the Rise Online

08 November, 2011

Poems by Northerners

I wonder what it is about the American South and the American North makes the former pretty darn good at writing stories but mediocre at poetry (really, Tate?), while the latter produces relatively few magnificent story-writers, but plenty of really brilliant poets. North of the Mason-Dixon line (and in New England more than any other region) you've got Bradstreet, Emerson (a good poet from a technical perspective more than anything), Longfellow, the Lowells, Robinson,Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop. And that's just to name the more recognizable ones. Heck, Maine alone has four Pulitzer Prize winning poets. And that's a state of barely a million people...one sixth of the size of the city in which I attended university.

Then you've got the expats and exiles. Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot both were born in St. Louis but maintained strong connections with New York (Moore) and Boston (Eliot). However much the latter might have rejected the American Unitarian culture in the process of his move to England, conversion to high Anglicanism, and alignment with monarchism, the fact remains that a good deal of the imagery he resorts to in his less angst-driven poems is that of the New England coast. Walcott moved to New England. Even (ok, this is getting into fiction, I admit) Cormac McCarthy has roots up here.

Now, I really don't have any strong theory about what might be at the root of these differences. Population certainly has something to do with the numbers, I know. If one were to start listing novelists, sticking with the greatest, and then list the great southern novelists, the numbers would actually be similar. But that may be attributed more to the fact that the north has a much more highly concentrated population; I suspect that if you were to do a per capita comparison, the number of novelists of southern origin would turn out to be more impressive than an initial glance might indicate. In either case, the great novelists of the north remain very much overshadowed by the poets.

Someday, when I've read a lot more and have time to spare, I'll probably begin thinking about this phenomenon in earnest, evaluating my current hunches (isn't the word "hunch" a hideous one?) and comparing the numbers more carefully. What I'm more interested in observing now is that I absolutely love New England poetry, and that I think there's something to be said for reading works that have their roots in your home.

Before getting into that first observation, however, I should note that the fact that I and other New Englanders have a "literature" at all is rather strange, by American standards. I have learned since college that comparatively few people in America have strong local roots; New England and the Old South seem to be two of the only places where local identities have developed and actually become part of the consciousness of kids as they grow up. And hence there actually is such a thing as "New England" literature and there is such a thing as "Southern" literature, but barely a, say, Texan or midwestern literature, and even less a Californian one.

Here in Maine you still have town meetings and lobster fishermen, and people who make their living wading through knee-deep mud to dig for clams, and dairy farmers, and kids from The County getting off school for a few weeks to help with the potato harvest. You'll find the names of your neighbors on 300-year-old tombstones in the private plots dotting the roadsides. You might grow up, as my siblings and I did, playing in a bowl-shaped hill that is actually the ruins of the house that your neighbor's family used to live in. . .during the French and Indian war, and you'd know that one of them was scalped but survived and that the age and eventual success of the family is why the neighbors own all the surrounding land for several miles. You'll know why there's nothing quite like eating clam chowder on a cool August evening, and you'll recognize the smell of dying leaves and fresh apples in October. You'll know what it's like to canoe through the bog and come face to face with a moose.

Having experienced stuff like this first hand certainly makes a poem like Elizabeth Bishop's The Moose or Wilbur's October Maples, Portland resonate a little more deeply. Not that one can't understand and appreciate them without being from the region. You can still look at the meters and imagery and be quite moved wherever your origins might be. But the lovely thing about a line that describes autumn leaves "yield[ing] us through a rustled sieve / The very light from which time fell away" can be understood two ways: through intellectual recognition, a recognition that hinges on understanding the words and being able to compose of them a coherent mental image, or through empathetic recognition, hinging on having experienced roughly the same types of things, so that you barely have to imagine the "gravelly roads,. . ./ rows of sugar maples,/. . .clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches, / bleached, ridged as clamshells, /. . . twin silver birches"--you see them quite clearly, and the scene resonates emotionally not only by virtue of its objective aesthetic qualities, but also because you have your own set of memories associated with it. 

Of course, it's pretty obvious that the line between the two types of "recognition" involved in reading poetry gets pretty blurred in practice. For one thing, we only understand language at all through empathetic recognition, as I see it. Intellectual recognition is possible because one can apply what one has understood empathetically to situations and settings that one has not experienced first hand. It's a very basic analogy-making process: yes, I know what "yellow" is from my memories of seeing yellow things, so I can make the "tincture," the "sanguine glow" of the maples a bit more concrete, and if I have any associations at all of yellow with beauty, I can have some idea of what Wilbur means when he says that the sight "cannot fail to leave a lasting stain." On the other hand, the "empathetic recognition" of which I speak will necessarily involve intellectual recognition to an extent: even if you happen to know the exact northern New England/ Canadian town of which Bishop writes, you still have never seen it at precisely the same time she did, from precisely the same perspective. And so the power of the intellect to supply what is lacking in the experience by means of analogy working to fuel the imagination is essential. Even for the readers whose cultural and geographical roots are most nearly identical to those of the poem.

The difference, then is perhaps technically no more than one of degree. One is more familiar with the imagery of art from one's own region, but the action of the imagination is by no means made unnecessary by the increased proximity. However, to admit that the difference between reading your region's poetry and the poetry of, say, Baudelaire's Paris is nothing more than a difference of degree, is not, I think, to deny that there is something peculiarly appealing about one's "own" poetry. It's rather like friendship in that respect: there's nothing about your friend per se that makes your acquaintance with him or her qualitatively different from your acquaintance with anyone else. But the fact that you're more familiar means also that you are more invested in the friend than in other people: you may sympathize quite genuinely when you hear of a tragedy it the family of an acquaintance, but that will not affect you nearly as immediately as would a tragedy in a friend's family, which can have almost the effect of a tragedy in your own. The more your understanding of a poem (or a painting, or a person) may be characterized by this empathetic recognition, the more you are invested in the object of understanding. And with that investment comes a much greater reward with each increase of understanding.

All of which is to say that while I appreciate the depth of Bishop's discussion of the nature of knowledge in At the Fishhouses, what I (not-so secretly) appreciate the most is the fact that the poem is so right when it says that:

"All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches, 
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls."

07 November, 2011

American Intolerance

A former fellow-UD student posted this article earlier today.  The article itself says pretty much everything, and what's particularly interesting is that this is a Muslim perspective on the current controversy at CUA. As usual, it's members of the supposedly marginalized group who see little to complain about. No Muslim students have voiced any complaint about "intolerance" at CUA, and if crucifixes in prayer rooms offend anyone, they should jolly well realize that it's a Catholic school. If they don't like it, no one's forcing them to attend. Which the students seem quite open to understanding. Tellingly, Banzhaf has a record of suing over so-called "discrimination" issues. Which, as a lawyer, gains him a certain notoriety. I don't know about money, since I'm not familiar with such details about the workings of the legal system, but self-interest does seem to be playing a role here, since he's certainly not advocating on the behalf of any students.

One of the really disturbing characteristics of contemporary American litigiousness is its penchant for attacking free religious expression under the guise of supporting "separation of church and state". There are several problems with the situation. For one thing, there's the nagging question of how a private institution that is open about its religious orientation can legally be considered "the state". Last time I checked, Catholic U. was a privately-run university, and should have a right to express its religion freely; at least, it should if you're going to let the First Amendment mean much of anything. Generally the litigious types tend to get around this by confusing "state" with "public"...in other words, if it can be seen, it's tantamount to the state assenting to it, which does not mean that the state is merely tolerating it; it must mean that the state is actively forcing it on everyone else as the official religion. Risible logic.

Are we really willing to take the European route and opt for pure secularism? I.e. no, or at least very limited, public expression of religion? I have problems with that, but hey, at least they're consistent about it in Europe. The same standards apply to Christians, Jews, and Muslims when it comes to religious practices. The second big problem with the American situation is that it's always the Christians who have to pay. It makes sense. We like underdogs here, so minorities are pretty romantic things to have around. If you decide to make an easy buck suing someone over religious expression, it had better be Christians that you target, because they're the majority, and it's easy for everyone to forget that denying them freedom of religious expression is just as unconstitutional as denying it to minority religions. Just to clarify things for the record: I'm very happy to see a Happy Hanukkah sign in a store, but I think it's ridiculous that Merry Christmas has become a legitimate litigation target. Go ahead and wear the hijab or wear a cross to school: you should be treated the same either way.

Now, I don't think that there would ever be (not within a hundred years or so at least) a written law explicitly limiting public religious expression in America. The ideal of religious liberty is far too important to us even today, when more than half the population can recite two words of the Declaration.  What I'm more concerned about is the effect of litigation on the de facto law. If everyone knows that Christians can get into big financial trouble simply for putting a cross in a classroom because they have the misfortune to be a historical majority, then that's as much discrimination in practice as a written law would be.

31 October, 2011

Tolkien: Does He Matter?

Joseph at Ironical Coincidings published this post the other day, discussing what it means to "Inherit Tolkien". He pointed out that he's moved away in some respects from his youthful affiliation with Tolkien, and mentioned towards the end that I seemed to have done likewise, asking for my input on what I had done with the old, pipe-smoking, armchair-loving linguist. It's a question that I found very interesting; partly because Joseph seemed to be suggesting that the two options for what to do with him are either to relegate him to the children's bookshelf (not something I'd think appropriate) or to interpret him in a way compatible with modernity. This second possibility could be read two ways: either it means finding a justification for Tolkien's work within the aesthetic criteria of literary modernism (in which case, I think one would need to look for a third solution), or showing that Tolkien was in fact responding to concerns of the modern world, though he found it necessary to move into the realm of fantasy to formulate his response. It's that latter possibility that I agree with, to some extent. It does leave out part of the truth: Tolkien started the story primarily as a way to indulge his hobby of language-creation, not so much to "send a message" or "address" anything; that came along naturally when he started to craft the story.

Anyway, the question is pertinent also to this blog in the sense that, as Joseph points out, it was started with Tolkien and his friends as the primary inspiration: just look at its name. So I'm copying the response I posted on his blog and reproducing it here. Despite the fact that it's a bit jumbled at times, it does, I think, give a bit of insight into how Tolkien can still be an "inspiration" years after discussion of his work fell by the wayside.

See Joseph's second post in the series for background for my occasional references to Gene Wolfe.

My attempt at an answer:
It’s interesting that you bring this up when you do, because I had begun to notice how far I’d moved from the original focus of my blog about two months ago. Accordingly, the updated “look” of the site dropped the Tolkien photo, which seemed a bit out of keeping with the content, and replaced it with a non-author specific photo: just a bunch of bookshelves from the tiny used bookstore in my hometown. Even the place where that photo was taken reflects my shift in focus…you mention T.S. Eliot as having supplanted Tolkien in my consciousness, which in a literary-critical sense is true, but even my initially strictly-New-Critical focus on literature has expanded to be more like cultural criticism than anything else. Not that I like the way most cultural criticism is done, but I was getting rather sick of thinking about literature in a vacuum, which (pure) New Criticism would have you do.
Questions about literature in my blog have been overshadowed by questions about the relationship between geographical places, their history, the culture of the people there, and in turn the relationship between the sum of those aspects and the sum of those found in completely different geographical areas. I’m beginning–and this is kind of natural, given that I’m over here studying “Belgian” literature and finding that the first question that needs to be asked is “Is there a Belgian literature?” Or even, “Is there any such thing, really, as a Belgian?”
When considering this shift, I'm not sure myself if it’s permanent, or simply a stage informed by my previous ideas about literature. But whether a permanent shift or a temporary stage, the fact that it’s “informed” by my earlier ideas is unquestionable. Which brings me back to Tolkien.
I, like you, was introduced to Tolkien at an early age: my dad read us the Hobbit when I was five; I had finished the trilogy by the time I was about eight. And I’m indebted to the fellow on several levels. For one thing, finishing the trilogy taught me that I could read “grown-up” literature. Without having crossed that threshold chez Tolkien, I wouldn’t have read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, or Bleak House, or Crime and Punishment, or any of the other classics I devoured well before high school. So in a sense, reading “serious literature” had its roots in Tolkien, though even that far back it was fairly obvious that Tolkien wasn’t “serious” in the sense that a lot of that other literature was. I did consider him an important literary figure, but that was more for his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain, his linguistic skills, and his encouragement of Nordic mythology–one reason I’d object to what Wolfe says is that I think Tolkien considered himself an “heir” of Dante only in the sense that he was Catholic–aesthetically, it was always the Beowulf-type story that attracted him.
But honestly, I’m not entirely ready to put Tolkien on trial to see whether his work can be called “great literature”. I always conceived of it as doing something very consciously different than the mainstream of literature, and I don’t mind that. He wasn’t a writer, primarily; not friends with Hemingway or Woolf or any of those. He was just a linguist who could tell a darn good story. Whatever literary critics will make of Tolkien, the fact remains that he is much more widely and passionately read than Woolf or Faulkner or Hemingway. As great and innovative as all of them are, they are difficult to read. Maybe not for an English major, who’s accustomed to reading difficult things, but honestly, for the average person, Faulkner or Woolf are not going to be fun, rewarding reads. Now, I know that Eliot can be accused of this excessive difficulty as well (and the accusation is true to an extent), but I’m 100% in agreement with his essays calling for a literature that’s more accessible to the public (“Marie Lloyd” is one I can think of off the top of my head).
Tolkien is accessible to the public. Tolkien tells a good story. Tolkien also in my view, for what it’s worth, is not so much trying to return to the Middle Ages, as Gene Wolfe suggests, as he is using the setting to make his emphasis on heroism, sacrifice, and redemptive suffering seem natural. He was aware enough of his time to understand that after WWI, a turn to fantasy was the only way to make “discredited” heroic virtue real again. That might not get him into the anthologies, but that hardly discredits his work as juvenile, in my opinion.
Regarding Tolkien’s influence on me. I would say that he’s neither been relegated to the children’s bookshelf, for the reasons above, nor do I find it necessary to map his solutions more closely to modernity than I’ve already done. He’s not offering a “modern” point of view; he’s offering a timeless solution to some of the deepest questions plaguing modern man…and if he doesn’t treat the modernist question of “well, how can we tell what’s real anyway”….well, he’s careful enough to make it all fiction, which actually makes it much more realistic than presenting the same ideas in a realist medium. (Although, it would admittedly be interesting to look more closely at the use of mythical models by Eliot, Joyce, Northrop Frye, etc, though that’s not the most fashionable thing to do in lit crit just now.)
What I’ve taken from Tolkien is a very basic framework for understanding what literature is and what sorts of problems the post-enlightenment, post-world wars world is facing. Sure, it’s a framework that’s not purely Tolkienian, given how often its been modified by other writers, and the fact that Tolkien certainly was not all I read when I started my blog at seventeen. But here are some of its most important points:
A.) Mythical resonances make great literature. You don’t need everything to be fantasy or theology, talking about gods or God, to find these. Look at the lighthouse in Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”; the symbol of the “accursed family” in Faulkner; the return to Greek mythology around WWII in France. You need things in literature that resonate with meaning for more than just the author. Successful literature can’t be wholly subjective; it’s got to call on images and master-plots and characters that the audience can identify with. The difference between fantasy and “realism” is actually rather blurred here: in some ways, fantasy seems to be different mostly in its willingness to forefront the symbol or master-plot (and then jettison “realism” altogether to make that move more palatable to the modern audience) while the realists seek to camouflage the same things so that they do not strike us as unrealistic.
B.) Culture matters. Friendship matters. Two things to which our society pays extravagant lip-service, but which it really doesn’t understand. What does it mean to be “rooted” in a place? What does it mean to be a friend? Those are questions of which I first became aware through Tolkien’s work, and they are still very explicitly at the center of my writing, both on the blog and off.
C.) Good literature is a good story. The biggest reason that the contemporary lit crit circles put me in such a state of ennui just now is simply that they all seem to have forgotten this. And since growing up on Tolkien (and Dickens and Austen, and the Brontes and Lewis and so forth) I can’t forget it. It’s why, even now, I hold myself to the rule of “no criticism on the first reading” unless it’s a school text and I’m forced to do so. I see absolutely no reason why one should go on about the aesthetic merits of a text unless one has first shown that the story is excellent. And if the story is excellent, the text is worth something, in my opinion. Maybe it’s not the most innovative of books; maybe the characters (as in Dickens) are stock figures; maybe the line of reasoning behind some of the Bronte’s plots is occasionally fragile. But they’re all darn good stories. You can figure out that the modernists are good storytellers after you’ve read a lot of their work and understand the type of story they’re trying to tell. Appreciation of their aesthetic innovations, comes however, for me at least, only after I appreciate the story. The reason Tolkien is so much more popular than the modernists is evident though: he tells a fantastic story that does not rely so heavily on the reader’s capacity to sit down, struggle through 200 difficult pages, go back, read it again, and then finally appreciate it. Aesthetically innovative or not, excessively “fantastical” or not, his books are admirable in that respect at least.

30 October, 2011

Legalism in America and a few of its Ramifications

I'm not going to start ranting about the woes of the American legal system; I think it's pretty good, that the level of professionalism of those involved in genuine criminal cases is generally good and that things like what happened over in Italy to Amanda Knox (basically a case of police officers saying "we knew she did it...we didn't need any proof" and then fabricating some extremely bad "evidence" and a lurid, sensationalist story that captured the imaginations of the jury) don't happen too often here. Sure, there are injustices in US criminal cases, but people are human, right? Can't condemn the system for a few peoples' abuses.

That's criminal law though. I mean, for violent crimes and such--I don't know all the technical terminology. What gets to me in America, however, is the legalism of the system, a trait which allows people to be made into criminals for really doing nothing at all. The extremely problematic and well-known litigiousness of  many Americans can essentially be reduced to people exploiting the letter of the law in order to make huge profits for themselves. Possibly worse though is the way civic liberties can be violated (especially in public schools) simply because there's a legal loophole giving paranoid, antagonistic, or simply lazy officials or private individuals the opportunity to target individuals who have done nothing morally wrong at all--or in some cases something minorly wrong, but certainly not meriting the severity of the punishment.

Some examples from the past few years:

  1. TSA: Everyone knows about this one. Not quite the same issue that I'm pointing to in this post, but annoying enough to merit a mention. Even if everyone out there has heard all the proof. Let's also point out that what it has in common with the above is the way it makes non-criminals appear criminal. Every person who chooses to travel by plane is a suspected terrorist. Right. What would the reaction be if the police force started treating everyone as a murder suspect? Searching, strip-searching and questioning and so forth just because "oh, well, you might be a criminal."? Sounds a little bit totalitarian, no? And what makes it worse is that TSA tactics really don't even work:
    1. The no-fly list:  This wouldn't be a bad idea--it would actually be extremely efficient if Israel's record is anything to go by--if we had the intelligence to back it up. As it is, naming dead people, ex-Marines, and failing to distinguish between actual suspects and five-year-olds who have the same name is not going to get you very far. It notably failed to mention the "Underwear bomber," Abdulmutallab, whose father even contacted US intelligence officials twice to warn them about his son's extremism. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted the car bombing in NYC, was actually on the no-fly list, but no one at the airport bothered to check it. Lot of good that's going to do. 
    2. Full body scanners: A.) they don't work; B.) they don't work; C.) according to Israeli security experts, they don't work; D.) while it is debatable how much harm the radiation you're exposed to in one of those machines does to the human person, I, and I assume many others as well, would like a little more reassurance that our health isn't one of the many things that can be sacrificed so that we don't die in a terrorist attack. Hmm...terrorism or cancer? Which one is more scary? Which is more likely? Regardless of whether it's unproven that the scanners do cause health problems, it's importantly unproven that they don't. Like with so many other things we've been exposing the American population to for years, we probably won't know until at least two decades from now. 
    3. Alternative searches are just nasty. And if a terrorist can dupe the scanners, which of them is going to opt for one of those anyway?
  2.   Schools--the "Zero Tolerance" policy: Sure, violence in schools is bad. Tragic. But is it really better to run your school in a state of such paranoia that students can be arrested and traumatized for carrying a plastic butter knife? And the police force will just go along with this? 
    1. Some examples: Wow, yes, I definitely would be able to kill an entire school with a plastic butter knife. At least a steak knife is more plausible. Though what a ten-year-old girl could do with it, I'm not sure.  Carrying 11 pills of ibuprofen to school is also apparently a criminal offense. Americans also really like strip searching, it seems! This sample is small because I don't want to go overboard with links.  Search google news to get lots more interesting stories. 
    2. Creative writing. This one deserves a sub-category of it's own. Yes, it sounds like a great idea to give your students a free-writing exercise, tell them to write about whatever they want, not to censor anything, and then have them arrested when their writing is "disturbing." Or wait...maybe the real purpose was to try to identify potential threats...in which case it makes a lot of sense. It's happened at least three times: one; two; three. 
  3. Stupid laws: So, did you know that you can be arrested for owning a sharpie? Like this student and this man?  Ok, sure, the man was an ex-graffiti artist, and I don't like graffiti. But the key work is "ex". He had since become a professional artist. Using.... markers, stickers, wheatpaste posters, art prints, a copy of  the Los Angeles Times, and a computer. Which is apparently enough to get you raided. Or how about ridiculous royalties? Like when Ascap started demanding that the Girl Scouts pay for singing campfire songs...apparently that's considered a public performance. Given the quality of most campfire singing, you can be pretty sure that they're not worried about the public performance issue so much as missing out on a chance to squeeze a few more bucks out of people.  Watch out if you decide to sing Happy Birthday in public...that's copyrighted too, so technically you can only sing it in "small groups of family members".
  4. This last one is tragic. I don't really understand what this Northern Virginia cop was trying to accomplish, but the way things went makes him sound either like a real-life, not-so-funny Dwight Schrute, or someone pursuing a personal vendetta. Basically, he heard this guy, Sal Culosi, betting with his friends on a college football game while at a bar. The stakes were relatively low; on the order of about $50 or so. What was the detective's response? Befriend Culosi, talk him over the course of time into raising the stakes to $2000, and then bring charges against him for running an "illegal gambling operation" (the stakes need to be at least $2000 for it to become illegal). So you have a detective seeing a guy doing something harmless and legal with his friends. The detective deliberately incites the man to cross the line and do something illegal (which the man most likely didn't even know was illegal--who knows stuff like that?), just so he can bring charges against him. Not already bad enough? He has the house raided by a Swat team. In the process of the raid he shoots Culosi. Culosi was completely unarmed by all accounts; what's saving the detective from prosecution is the claim that the shooting was an "accident"--plus the North Virginian blue wall, which is apparently as bad as I've been told it is in NY. Forensic investigation suggested that the account of the "accident" is untenable. But we don't listen to things like that, do we? Not when the guy who got shot was a dangerous criminal who liked betting on football games with his friends...Come on people, what is this? Are the blue laws back or something? And I still don't understand how the inciting thing is not a problem. Generally it would be pretty bad for a police officer or detective to go up to someone he suspected of violent tendencies and incite them to murder, just so he could have an excuse for arresting them. Or am I crazy?
Now, as much as incidents like these upset me, I have no idea how to respond to them, beyond observing that they have in common a certain legalism that makes random people into unintentional criminals. Identifying the roots and suggesting a solution is far beyond my capacities, since I have no professional knowledge of law at all. Is the root problem inherent in the legal system itself? Is it the fault of the way people manipulate the legal system? Is it due to the contemporary American weakness for "safety at all costs" (very destructive of freedom, to be sure), or more to our increasing tendency to substitute legality for morality, to live by the letter of the law and not by the spirit? And regarding that last suggestion, could one even turn the focus to the "spirit of the law" without ultimately destroying law and order unless society were almost impossibly virtuous?

On the other hand, I'm well aware that it's things like this, the "sensational" cases, that get reported, giving the general public a much bleaker view of the legal system than is probably appropriate. Moreover, these student arrests and Ascap demands don't usually hold up in court. Which is a comfort. The injustices that get perpetrated by the legal system in the long term tend to be the much more tolerable ones that exonerate someone who's obviously guilty ( O.J., Casey Anthony) rather than those which inter an innocent person for four years, like they can apparently do in Italy.

Problems with Writing

The problem with keeping a blog is that there's so much to write about. And choosing between topics can become so overwhelming that one just doesn't write at all. And then there's the fact that if I'm not at the computer, thinking with the keyboard, so to speak, I'm probably not going to write anything out at all. I've been figuring out recently that I really do write primarily to clarify my own thoughts. And so, suppose I have some really interesting idea about the relationship between the dream-world neoplatonism of the symbolists and the French reaction against naturalism...well, it's most likely that I'll have thought about it to my heart's content while attending lecture, or in between class, or on the fifty-minute tram ride back to my apartment. At that point, why write it down? It's become rather boring, and there are plenty of new things to read and think about. Writing would be (or so it seems in that state) superfluous, almost a waste of time.

There's another problem too. One that usually interferes with my intentions to write a "series", such as my so-far two part discussion of the development of European nationalism. Unless one writes out all the parts very quickly, one will almost inevitably read, hear, or think of something that complicates the predicted thesis. Such as Turkey. Or the Middle East in general. Now I really, really, really want to talk about Arab Spring in relation to the birth of nationalism, but I have to reluctantly admit that currently I know very little about the area's historical background. You know, Ottoman Empire, but not much more. So I'll have to confine myself to making oblique references suggesting connections and/or differences between what's going on there and what happened in the mid-1800s in eastern Europe.

On the other hand, I'm encouraged to start up that series again by the fact that all of my suppositions about the development of nationalism in France and England were 100% supported by the most recent lecture I attended. So I feel as though I'm somewhere near the right track, at least.

Now though, I'd rather give a few travel updates for those of my relatives who are actually probably a lot more interested in what I'm doing than in questions of the nature of the nation-state. And then perhaps finally answer Joseph's question at Ironical Coincidings--something I've been putting off along with the rest of my blogging for a few days. (Yay for long and boring IR readings! --Not Irving Renaissance...international relations.)