Sunday, 26 July 2009

Abu Ghraib, porn, and Mark Sanford: thinking again about images and openness

In a fascinating article, a military man has described how conversation with Iraqis led him to change his mind about the publication of photographs from Abu Ghraib. It's a good—perhaps even over-neat—example of how listening to a different perspective can lead one not so much to discard one's own perspective as flawed, but to see something that was actually in view all along, but being missed.

It is peculiar, isn't it, the ability of images to obscure and to distract, and the difficulty of thinking clearly about them? It's scarcely a new theme in human thought, but topical at the moment given what seems to be our lack of balance and the weakness of our culture in this area.

A propos of which, I recently ran into Naomi Wolf's oft-quoted article from earlier this decade, The Porn Myth, in which she tried to pinpoint the ways in which the normalisation (and ubiquity) of pornography has damaged the culture. There are insights in it, but this doesn't stop her from being dense, as it were, in passing, such as here:
The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking. The evidence is in: Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity.

After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian...
The tacit assumption here is that moral arguments, and physical- and emotional-health arguments, are separate: that the proposition, “that porn damages people's ability to form and sustain healthy relationships”, is somehow irrelevant to the moral status of the thing. But this is unreal. Moral thought, amongst other things, is about integration; and it is most certainly about the real world.

Our culture doesn't seem to be able to keep these categories in perspective: they're either made completely separate or they're collapsed, so that on the one hand learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, and one forgives for the sake of one's own emotional health; and on the other hand, calling an argument “moral” is a way of dismissing it as mediaevalising or prurient, even at the hands of people with concerns of their own that are evidently moral in nature.

Along these lines—if some slippage between “moral” and “religious” may be allowed—the New York Times' Room for Debate site has a list of reflections, alternately interesting and obtuse, on God-talk and the Mark Sanford scandal. The inimitable Eve Tushnet has a fun commentary on the reaction to the whole thing. (The link listed under “good people” is also worth a look.)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

O'Donovan on decision, and creeping non-choice

Professor, you've chosen the metaphor of wakefulness, and of the future that presents itself to you for you for your action or decision, rather than the metaphor of “making decisions”. Which made me think about making decisions. There's this lovely phrase about “creeping non-choice”: how did you come to be in this situation, did you choose it? Well no, it was a kind of creeping non-choice. So, reflecting on the past, for ten years I was never aware of making any particular choice, but I look back on where I was and where I stand, and I find that I have made a choice, I have made a decision. So, given that you're speaking in terms of the future that presents itself to you for action, do you want to say something about discerning what the choices for action actually are, and how you see that?

Yes, yes. And I will say more — this gives me an opportunity to offer a trailer for the third lecture, which I'm very content to do, because this is a matter to which I want to attend more fully on Thursday night. I will consider there a model of making decisions and what they are, which is, as it were, the apple-and-pear model: in my left hand I have an apple, in my right hand I have a pear, and I am in a dilemma because I don't know which to bite into. And there is one understanding of moral decision which understands it always in terms of a kind of “either-or”. I always stand before two ways: two commendable paths, and I have to choose one or the other. I don't think that's a very good model for making decisions, and I want to suggest that our process in reaching decisions is one of increasing clarification: increasing understanding of ourselves, which is far more like bringing something more and more into focus. So, we start with a very blurred picture, a very vague large-scale map of what it is that lies before us, and as we go we are constantly trying to sharpen the focus, to see more detail, until the picture of what is before us and what we can do becomes sharp.

I think that when we make a decision, and particularly our very best decisions, is the moment in which we realise we don't any longer have an alternative. It's not the moment in which we realise that we have two absolutely equal alternatives, and it's absolutely up to our choice as to which we take.

To take an example of this—as I don't include this in the third lecture, I might as well include it now—I remember one occasion, in which I was on one of those committees that universities throw up from time to time, with the duty of appointing a professor to a post. And before the committee had met, a colleague met me in the street and said, “I hear you're on that committee to appoint the chair of such-and-such: You will, of course, appoint Professor Jones.” And I said, “Well, will we?”. “Well, yes,” he said, “you will.” Several months later we appointed Professor Jones. The process had been a very long one. We had naturally looked at some excellent CVs. We had considered a wide variety of alternatives. But what got borne in on us in that whole process, was what was obvious to my colleague from the beginning, namely that Professor Jones was the person who ought to be appointed to that chair.

One doesn't regret that situation, one doesn't say, “Oh this is a terrible situation, here is an outstanding candidate, I have no choice, I have no decision to make.” The decision is recognising the outstanding candidate, hmm? That's what deciding is. Now I think that's a better model for most of our decisions than apples and pears: shall I eat an apple or shall I eat a pear, there's nothing to choose, I'm going to toss a coin, and so on.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, in response to my question. Of course I was invoking (not particularly clearly) the famous saying re involuntary childlessness in our culture: something that outsiders may consider a “choice”, but that the person concerned does not experience that way.

It was fascinating to get an answer that put positive things—our very best choices, as OO'D has it—into the same basket. This tends to set the whole issue in a new light. One reason why the description of someone “choosing” childlessness, or singleness, or some other less-than-satisfactory situation—one reason why this description feels wrong, is not that the situation has not been chosen in some sense, but that our typical way of thinking about choice is wrong. Even our “best” or most satisfactory choices are not like that. We speak of choices, good or bad, as if they were acts of a disembodied will, apart from setting and constraint and progress of understanding: but this is unreal. It's no wonder that we struggle to understand choices under constraint, or under lack of viable alternative, because even the happy ideal choice of OO'D's example just isn't an untrammeled act of will like the picture we carry around in our heads.

[This (unpublished) excerpt from the question time at the lectures is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College Lecture material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures themselves are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Seven green things

The Southern Lights (Aurora Australis), with the earth illuminated by moonglow, in an amateur photograph by one of the astronauts on board the shuttle Discovery in 1991: from an article in the NYT Lens blog on photography by astronauts.

On non-high-tech ways of being environmentally responsible:
By modifying cattle feed
By putting succulents on city rooftops
By recycling obsolete electronics
By implementing bus rapid transit systems (if the conditions are right)

However, on the political front, working one step at a time is apparently not good enough for some activists (perhaps this can serve as an effective definition of the term “activist”)

On standards in scientific journals:
Physical Review Letters draws a line in the sand, and not before time

Thursday, 9 July 2009

O'Donovan on compromise

You gave a fairly prominent place to compromise in this evening's lecture—twinned together, I thought very helpfully, with ideals. On my reading, compromise enjoys a dreadful reputation in the Christian community at the moment. And you're also emphasising the need to act together, or with one mind—whereas I picture myself in a room with my brothers and sisters, recommending some course of action, that could be described as a compromise, let alone myself describing it as a compromise, and this seems like the political equivalent of suicide within the community. Are these just the times that we live in? Do you agree with that reading, or is there some way forward from this? Because, as I say, I think compromise has a very bad name, but I agree with you it's necessary, so ...

Thank you for that question, which is rather searching. I'm not sure that I can do more than kind of feel after an answer to it...

I think we distrust compromise because we associate it with a certain kind of temptation, which is a temptation to fall in with what everybody else is doing. To being conformed to this world, as St Paul puts it. That seems to me to be, as a phrase, perfect for summing up the nature of the bad compromise. [We are] rightly concerned about that: rightly on guard against any such concession, and of course, as we all know, it's ferociously easy, even for the most serious-minded of us, simply to fall in with the way other people do things, because it takes so much less effort, and our effort is being seriously required for other tasks ...

We fail to see ... as it were, the other kind of compromise, which perhaps ... perhaps it's a bad thing that we end up with the same word to describe two things, except when words are ambiguous, they warn us against certain very easy mistakes, and the fact that "compromise" is used both, as it were for the good [compromise, the] trying-to-focus-on-the-sheerly-practical-in-the-situation, the actually-bringing-into-shape of what it is that we really can do that will bear witness to God's command and to the object set before us, and [also for the bad compromise:] failing to do this because we fall in with everyone else, warns us that it's easy to mistake the one for the other, and it's easy to mistake the one for the other because discerning what is actually practicable is difficult. And we may think that because everybody disagrees with a course of action that we think right, therefore that course of action is not practicable. And that's one reason why the two types of compromise are so necessary to keep clear.

The question we have to ask is what is the best course of action that is actually available. And both sides of that equation have to be brought together. If we do that, and if we regularly did that, then compromise could lose its bad reputation perhaps.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith, in response to my question.

[This (unpublished) excerpt from the question time at the lectures is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College Lecture material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures themselves are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

“We were wrong”

An object lesson in the value and the limitations of intelligence, management disciplines, and analytical skill, Robert S. McNamara, died on Monday in Washington. The New York Times' obituary makes salutary reading, but if one is going to look at only one thing about McNamara, it should be Errol Morris' wonderful documentary The Fog of War.

I have never understood people describing McNamara as unrepentant and cold. To see him in Fog—apparently, if you were in the right meetings, to see him even in 1968—was to see a man haunted by the hubris, miscalculation, folly ... by the sheer wrongness of so much of what America did in Vietnam; of what he did, as Secretary of Defense, first for Kennedy and then for Johnson, in prosecuting the war; even for aspects of his service during WWII, including what he freely describes as war crimes (he was involved in the fire-bombing of Japanese cities).

Apart from the general cultural anger about Vietnam, and against its symbols—the NYT's most reliably angry columnist has predictably chosen to vent on this occasion—I suspect McNamara's reflections attracted such opprobium because they didn't conform to American norms of repentance. There was no religiosity. There was no talk of transformation or renewal. What there was, was a will to understand, and to draw lessons from past failings.

Lord knows, those lessons were painful enough.

There's also an unpleasant piece of generational conflict at work here: a lack of sympathy with the way McNamara's loyalty to his masters stands in conflict with the all-telling, all-denouncing ethic of younger men. Pensioned off from the DoD for losing faith in the war and urging the President to rethink it, McNamara didn't become an anti-war activist. He got on with running the World Bank as best he knew. And when he did turn again to Vietnam, he did it as a civil servant: asking, what did we do wrong; what can we learn from it. There was a dispassion to the analysis, as there should be. It doesn't mean the countless dead didn't keep him awake at night.

At the risk of an obvious statement, McNamara didn't publicly atone for his sins because he couldn't. (Where would one even start?) An unvarnished “we were wrong” should be respected for what it is. Beyond that is between him and God.

UPDATE: Errol Morris has written a fine piece on McNamara in context

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Up on the roof

James Taylor may have a better voice—and his version is certainly better-known—but I have always loved Carole King's interpretation of the song Up on the roof, which she wrote with Gerry Goffin in the early sixties. It's the last track on her rather good, but commercially unsuccessful 1970 album Writer ... soon to be followed by Tapestry, the very definition of commercial success. According to Wikipedia, it remained the top-selling pop solo album until the late Michael Jackson's Thriller.

And so to the song. In this YouTube clip of her performing it in concert (in the late eighties?) the treatment is close to that in Writer: unashamedly romantic, but fresh, and making excellent use of King's big-boned voice—even exploiting the limitations of her range. Apart from the sheer joy of it, it's a good advertisement for the singer-songwriter ideal: that a great writer, even if she's a singer of second rank, might bring something special to her own songs. And since her version of this song is free of the Tapestry hype, I think it makes the point more clearly than the album does.

Update: The 1970 recorded version is also on YouTube here.