Archive for the 'news comment' Category

Moralizing and contempt

January 26, 2016

I was reading the new iteration of the feature in the NYTimes called “The Conversation.”  It used to be between Gail Collins and David Brooks, now it’s come back with Gail Collins and Arthur Brooks.

Part of the dialogue discussed the role of contempt in shaping current politics and what’s going on in the presidential race.  In a comment I wrote, I voiced my agreement that contempt is divisive and widespread.  I also mentioned that my hope that David Brooks was interested in bringing people together by bridging the gap opened up by contempt between, say, liberals and conservatives, had been disappointed.  I think I thought he was interested in seeing how conservatives have strengths in political and social relations that may not be present among liberals, and vice versa.  I had this idea that he was going to observe what each group can bring to the table that’s positive and how the members of each group might learn to relate to the positives and put aside the contempt.  Something like that.

Then later I read an article about David Brooks by Danny Funt in Columbia Journalism Review from last October that discussed Brooks’s moralizing.  I have often had a problem reading this moralizing, for my own reasons, but in light of the point raised by Arthur Brooks about the divisiveness of contempt, I started thinking about what separates moralizing from the expression of contempt.  And I decided that often, not much.

I think that doing what some people happen to deem to be morally correct is enjoyable to do because doing the thing in that way makes it go better — more easily — and less detritus is formed from doing it in that way than would be formed from engaging in behavior that tried to accomplish the same thing through things like deceit, fraud, coercion, etc.  I don’t generally think about it as being what one does because it’s a superior thing to do, I think of it more in terms of friction and fallout and how it makes one feel in the long run.  It’s kind of like picking the comfortable shoes for the hike instead of the fashionable ones.

So behaving morally doesn’t have to involve moralizing, I don’t think.  I don’t think it has to involve the part of moralizing where a person might feel contempt for people or their behavior that doesn’t measure up to a particular moral standard.  Instead such people and their behavior can seem more like something involving making a poor choice.

So why do people go in for promoting moral behavior in a way that involves moralizing and something that borders on contempt?

I don’t know if I know the answer to that, but I am aware that some people feel a need to feel special, but don’t admit that to themselves, much less consider if that’s a good idea or what its impact on others might be.  I have no idea if that’s what goes on with moralizing in general or with David Brooks’s moralizing in particular, but that’s probably the avenue I would explore first — once I was able to put aside my reaction from feeling held in contempt.


Don’t know what to say

September 16, 2015

My copy of last week’s New Yorker magazine did not arrive in the mail until Saturday.  And I didn’t get to page 61 until last night.  Which I would usually not bother to write a blog post to report, except that page 61 includes a quotation from Pope Francis about Communion being “‘not a reward for the perfect but a medicine for the sick.'”  Which I probably also would not have written a blog post about, except that I wrote in a news comment (to a Ross Douthat column) on Saturday, “Maybe receiving communion has nothing to do with those things, but I am hoping it is a means towards spiritual growth and not in the nature of a some kind of prize for already having accomplished that growth.”

When I got to the quote in the New Yorker article (called “Holy Orders,” by Alexander Stille) last night, my mind went, “Bingo!” in a sense of recognition, and dismay, that that’s where I got the idea — but I hadn’t read it yet at the time I wrote the comment, so I didn’t — couldn’t — cite the article.  (And no, I hadn’t read the article online earlier in the week.)  I had the strong sense when I read the quotation that the idea had not been an idea original to me.  Which I can’t say was a huge surprise to me —  when I wrote what I wrote in my comment, I thought it was an interesting idea and a good point, but I was a little surprised that I had come to it and wondered what a Catholic person might think of it (I worry about inadvertently offending).

So I just thought I would put these facts out there.  People can interpret them as they will.  For me it’s less about how to interpret them and more about what I do going forward as a consequence of experiencing this kind of thing.

The wisdom of Peaches

August 16, 2015

“Peaches” is capitalized in the title to this post because it refers to the nickname of a person who lived next door to me while we were growing up.  I referred to her in a news comment I made on the PBS NewsHour website, regarding the announced arrangements between HBO and Sesame Street.  She’s the person who told me that my family’s TV didn’t [receive the signal for] the Flintstones.  She wanted to discuss an episode she had recently seen, I hadn’t seen it, and my explanation that I just didn’t watch the show was not accepted.

I want to note that we were little kids at the time, I want to say 4 or 5 years old, we were washing our hands in my family’s upstairs bathroom sink at the time.  Part of why, I think, I remember the conversation so clearly was that I really puzzled over what she had said, because I considered that maybe she knew something I didn’t know, because her father worked for NBC.

This was in the 1960s, so Peaches’ explanation was factually incorrect.  My point in my news comment was what was then charmingly wrong might now actually be unfortunately true.

This post isn’t about Peaches’ remark being somehow prescient, though.

Thinking about the Flintstones remark reminded me of something else Peaches had once corrected me about.

We had been coloring, and I think we were using something other than our usual, and inexpensive, crayons.  It could have been cray-pas — I want to say it was magic markers, but I’m not sure they were common yet for kids to have.  As Peaches was using one of the colors to fill in the background to her picture, I mentioned something about not wasting the stick or marker, and Peaches replied, “It’s not wasting it unless you throw the picture out.”

I don’t think anyone in my family ever would have said that, and I really liked not only the specific idea but also the revelation that there were different points of view and that different families might subscribe to different perspectives.

(This sense of different family traditions was reinforced by the fact that her dad had a different method for teaching kids to tie shoes from what my family was using to try to teach me.  I had a terrible time trying to learn how to tie my shoes.  Mr. N. was so kindly, with his twinkly eyes.  He told me to make two rabbit ears out of the laces and then tie them together.  I didn’t know before that that was method for tying shoes, let alone a legitimate one.  I did know that my dad always tucked his shoelace bows into the side of his shoes and that my mother didn’t, so I was aware of some differences in technique, but both my parents used the loop, wrap around, and pull through method, which required some dexterity I apparently didn’t yet have.)

I liked the idea that one might actually use resources in the present and not just practice frugality, so long as one actually used them and did not just remove them from circulation without some sort of return on the use.  Having the right to enjoy something I think was an issue in our house, on account of the Holocaust, and frugality was also an issue, probably also on account of the Holocaust, as well as on account of having had to start over in this country as a result of it, and probably also on account of the general effect on my parents’ generation of the Depression.

I think Peaches’ remark also indicated to me that I as an individual might have a right to use a resource and not save it for someone else, which, again, I don’t think was an idea circulating in the air in my family’s home as I took it in.  And yet Peaches’ sense of the rules did not dispense with the idea of waste entirely, it just changed how it was conceptualized.  So I didn’t have to feel obliged to toss out her idea on the grounds it was a product of completely undisciplined thinking.

There used to be a popular book about how we learn all we need to know in kindergarten.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but we do learn a lot as young children.  I grew up with my family of origin, was exposed to the customs of other people’s families, and I suspect that being presented with differences between the two was helpful, not just because it gave me more resources from which to draw in life but because it showed me how contingent our ideas may be.  I think as a result I see it as a goal to try not to be too doctrinaire in general.  That may explain, in part, my eclectic approach to religion and spiritual matters, as well as to other more mundane matters.

Different translations

June 30, 2015

I wrote a comment this morning, to a David Brooks column about how Christian social conservatives could change their mission from advocating about sexual mores to helping the poor, and noticed that someone else had made a similar point to mine in their comment posted about a minute before mine was posted.   They call themselves HDNY and they are “verified,” so their comments post immediately, without moderation, so it is likely that HDNY and I were writing at the same time.

I talked about “some other strand” in Christian socially conservative thinking, HDNY talked about “bigots” and “self-righteousness.”  We were both talking about how there seems to be something more going on than just a matter of choosing what part of a Christian message to emphasize.

I’ve seen overlap in comments before, my mother, long before the days of online commenting, used to say, when she had an idea for a letter to the editor, that she was confident that somebody else would write the same thing and she would read it in publication.  What interested me this time was the differing treatments two people gave the same basic theme.

Applying labels to this other thing apparently going on with Christian social conservatives I suspect gets the back up of the people so labeled, unless they like to wear such labels proudly.  Translating the same concept of something else going on into broader and less judgmental terms I think opens up the possibility of seeing some of the attitudes and behaviors as being rooted in self-protective maladaptive coping devices, and that, in turn, could allow people to deal with what ails them that lies behind this perceived need to protect the self.

I admit that my approach is the less popular one, outside of certain circles, but I think it has the virtue of getting us to stop playing a game in which we exchange damaging words with one another.  If it is the case that a lot of difficulty arises from self-protective but maladaptive coping devices, why would increasing the sense that self-protection is needed improve the situation?

I have no real conclusion, only the observation that it is interesting in own right to observe how different people express, or translate, the same basic concept.  I think how we express concepts has a lot to do with which of our own issues we have effectively addressed.  Maybe it also has to do with how deep our perceptions go, how much of the iceberg we can see with the apparatus we have developed, I don’t know.  I do know that one doesn’t buy a well-developed apparatus off the shelf, that the way of thinking it allows can’t be successfully imitated, and that it “costs” plenty.  So maybe it is not surprising that more people don’t use one.

News reaction

June 18, 2015

I woke up to the news about the shooting of African-Americans in a church, and I don’t deny that it put me in a foul mood.  It’s surely the act, but it’s also the “big event”-mode news coverage and the pious reactions.  Why can’t people do something more helpful in race relations every day?  Saying the right thing in a time-limited context is preferable to some other options, but it’s not the same thing as doing what a person could do to improve the situation on a more regular basis.

Word association

June 13, 2015

I wrote a comment Friday night in which I used the word “amanuensis.”  I even replied to a reply about my word choice Saturday morning.  And, as I said there, the word was something that “burbled up” from within me, and when I thought about it after it did, I liked it enough to use it.  It was in reference to Gov. Scott Walker, in a comment on a Joe Nocera column.

It occurred to me later that there was probably an element of word association going on.  Earlier on Friday evening on I had watched Washington Week on PBS, and one of the participants was Manu Raju, senior congressional reporter at POLITICO.  I see his first name on my television screen and I immediately think of the Latin word manus, particularly in the ablative case, manu.  And I wondered if there was any connection between the two words, what with all the branches and roots on the Indo-European language tree.

Manus in Latin means “hand.”  I am particularly attuned to noticing the word because of its usage in naming a particular type of Roman marriage, marriage with manus, since I spent some number of years worrying about Roman marriages and inheritance practices and such.  Whether or not the marriage was with manus was significant for determining whether the woman would inherit from her father or from her husband.

So I think one of the ingredients in the stew that produced “amanuensis” in my comment was my earlier mulling over the name of POLITICO’s reporter.  I don’t whether to apologize or to say thank you, I mean no offense and I am grateful for the word choice coming to me.  I think my larger reaction is to be interested in how things seem to ebb and flow (or maybe go up and down, surfacing and descending, like bubbles in boiling water) and mix within the mind.

Rings of keys

June 9, 2015

I heard the song “Ring of Keys” for the first time when I clicked on the NYTimes “In Performance” feature about the Tony Awards nominees.  It was the first song in the video, and Sydney Lucas certainly gives a riveting performance — love the mobility and expressiveness of her face.

But the song took me a while to follow.  The ring of keys moment startled me, for example.  I actively dislike my ring of keys.  It’s a pain in the neck, it doesn’t always fit into my pockets, it reminds me of people places and things and experiences that I don’t always want to be reminded of, including particular people I have known who relished their rings of keys and wore them, as I am assuming the woman in the song must, on the outside of their clothing.  Yes, they can symbolize power but that kind of power I don’t cotton to.

Years ago, when I first found myself with a sizable ring of keys, I thought about the ring, its keys, and what it meant to me.  I related it sometimes to the idea of “keys to the kingdom,” and I thought that, in that regard, it’s all wrong:  there is only one key, and it’s listening.

But I like the song, it has sort of grown on me.  In that particular video, the child actress’s face seems at times so worldly and so much older than her years, and I find it interesting to observe those flashes.

I also find it interesting to put my experience of keys along side the song’s use of the object and the narrator’s experience of it.  It helps me understand why I don’t fit in with the joyful keyring bearers of whatever gender and orientation.

Making a point — or not

May 31, 2015

I wrote a comment about Ross Douthat’s concerns (in his NYTimes column for today), about a rise in the acceptance of polygamy, that asked whether polygamy isn’t an old practice and a return to it would be consistent with the conservative desire to return to past practices and attitudes.

But I do realize that the polygamy argument is usually used to try to push people back from supporting same-sex marriage:  “Aren’t you afraid of opening the floodgates by using a wide definition of marriage?  Won’t that lead to having to accept practices you don’t like?”

So why did I write what I wrote?

Part of it is that I just don’t share Douthat’s worry about a resurgence of acceptance of polygamy in our culture.  I have observed many marital relationships I would not want to be a part of (as one partner in a union of two — I am not talking about polygamy here).  It doesn’t provoke in me concern that someone will rope me into a relationship with a similar dynamic.  It’s not on my list of things I worry about — neither are natural gas explosions, although I have known people who worried about them a lot.  What we worry about, if we worry at all, says a lot about ourselves, I think.

Part of it is that I do see an inconsistency in a conservative raising concern about reviving an old practice;  it points up, in my opinion, how conservatives tend to pick and choose what about the past they like, which in turn seems to me related to how they seem to choose what they like regardless of how it would impact others:  “Let’s go back to X, even though X in the past had a negative impact on certain groups of people” (where, for instance, X can equal letting American retirees fend for themselves without Social Security).

Part of it is that as I’ve read Douthat over time, he seems to me to have become more wrapped up in particular ways of thinking and writing that remind me of being encased in a Gordian knot — maybe I was hoping to pierce through some of that.

Part of it was that I wondered if the argument was being made tongue in cheek, and so I wanted to respond in a way that could be appropriate to either possibility.

And, of course, part of it was that that was what I felt drawn to write, through whatever my own process is of arriving at what I submit.


May 25, 2015

I was frustrated that T.M. Luhrmann’s column in today’s New York Times doesn’t have a comments section, so I thought I’d write what I might have written there here.

The column is called “How Places Let Us Feel the Past.”  The part that caught my attention was about the “Jerusalem syndrome,” which I don’t think I had ever heard of before.  I was aware of people thinking they are Jesus or on a mission, but I don’t think I had heard about it tied to having visited a holy place or even tied to a particular acute episode of some sort, as far as I understand the case histories I read about before eslewhere.  Professor Luhrmann writes about people visiting a holy place and becoming overwhelmed by a spiritual experience there and ending up in a psychotic state.

In the example Professor Luhrmann starts with, a rabbi advises a person who has gone through such an experience to, in effect, put it aside and keep studying.

It is my understanding that Judaism requires long study of the law before mysticism is attempted, and I take the rabbi’s advice as consonant with this and with my own sense that the problem described has to do with insufficient prior training and interior development:  if you’re going to engage in sword-swallowing, you really need, if you’re like most people, to have learned some technique first.

So with this Jerusalem syndrome, it seems to me it’s a result of people not having pared down their ego first;  so the holiness experience becomes about them, gets caught on their ego-self, instead of being something that passes through them cleanly, which they view from an outside perch.

In our culture, we don’t take mysticism seriously, I don’t think, so we don’t talk about what it entails.  Reminds me of not recognizing what stay-at-home moms do.  We may talk about God, or even angels and demons, but we have ruled off many other phenomena to the realm of pathology.  People didn’t used to believe that microorganisms existed, either, because they couldn’t see them.  Wind we cannot “see” but we see its effects.  If observing the Jerusalem syndrome is like observing the tree branches blowing or the devastation from a micro-burst, maybe we should rethink what we are willing and unwilling to discuss.


January 24, 2015

The snow is falling, my mother is on GIP care with daily hospice attention, and I was counseled yesterday not to sweat whether I can be there at all the significant moments.  I was there, at the nursing center, for hours yesterday, as my mother’s condition shifted and a cast of thousands (or so it seemed) made adjustments and provided care and support.  Seems my challenge at the moment is to sit tight.

So I figured a blog post on trying to find a balance between messiness and sterility in life might be a helpful distraction.

I wrote recently in news comments online that I am disappointed in President Obama’s current mode of combative policy proposals.  I also wrote about the deflated footballs controversy.  I questioned why teams get to provide their own balls and pointed out that all balls could be provided from a neutral source, as they are for kicking plays already.

And then I thought about what I am saying.  And I think it comes down to taking seriously — maybe too seriously — people’s complaining about unpleasant outcomes in the implementation of a system.  The systems could probably be improved and the problems reduced, but I guess I am wondering whether most of the participants in the system actually prefer a messy system in which people get harmed from time to time, to a more sterile system in which there is less harm but less excitement.  I don’t know, but I remember a tag line a Roman history professor used to use about the aspects of Roman culture we in our culture tend to airbrush away or ignore:  “That’s the way they liked it.”  Could apply here.  Could be it is people like me who don’t like it.  In which case there’s not much point in my trying to help problem-solve these situations.