29 August 2006

Visiting SAAM...

A friend and I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum this weekend, and I have to say, it’s definitely a must see if you’re in the DC area. SAAM, which is housed in the old patent office building near Chinatown and the Verizon Center, the third building designed for the new capitol city and a stunning example of Greek-revival architecture, has been under renovation for the last 7 years. The building is still a work in progress with a courtyard shaded by a lattice-work glass canopy set to open to the public sometime next year, but it’s still a sight to see. While the building itself is stunning and there are many incredible exhibits by American artists on display, two pieces have held my attention even a few days later. One, a memorial to a lost wife, I found simply awe inspiring and captivating. The other, a photographic work by William Wegman, is nothing less than a microcosm of human decision making.

Grief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a stunning sculpture created by the artist on commission from the writer Henry Adams in memoriam of his wife who committed suicide in 1885. The original stands in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, but the museum holds in its collection one of a few replicas made by the artist. The bronze representation of an asexual, robed figure deep in contemplation quite simply imposes itself upon your mind. I found myself drawn back to it, even after having passed by and moved on down the hall. I could not take my eyes of this overpowering work. The face of the figure is serene, calming…but sexless. It may be male, it may be female, but it really does not matter. It is a calm center to an unsettling mass, and you find your eyes drawn back to it constantly. It is said in the description that Adams requested Saint-Gaudens depict an image of the Buddhist idea of nirvana. Detachment…a calmness in a crazy world. I believe the artist succeeded in depicting just that.

The other piece, which, regrettably, I cannot find an image of online, is entitled “One or Two Spoons, Two or Three Forks.” It’s a curious photo by Wegman of an arrangement of one spoon and two forks with only the handle of a fourth utensil in the field of view. As the title not-so-implicitly states, the identity of that fourth utensil determines the meaning…the way we perceive and think about…the entire photo, yet it remains unknown. Isn’t this life? Isn’t this how it truly is? Meaning is always decided at the margin, at the very edge of what we can know. We constantly go through life ascribing meaning and making decisions based on the assumption of knowledge, but we often forget that we’re working with a vastly limited set of ideas. Those ideas, that knowledge, that truly matters…that will lead us to right decisions and true perceptions…always lies just outside of our field of view. What a curious and wonderful little piece of work by this “Funney/Strange” artist.

So if you’re in DC and looking for a place to step out of the muggy weather and into a wonderful world of imagination and creativity, check out SAAM. These are just two of the many, many wonderful works that stuck with me even a few days later…maybe you’ll find your own.

24 August 2006

Faith in Democracy?

An interesting discussion has started but has yet to come to fruition over at MMF. The other day Hanno asked “What does it mean to say "I have faith in democracy"?” What a terribly interesting and convoluted question to ask. It really is about as loaded as they come. It’s got all the fun ingredients that can lead to a good knock-down-drag-out argument. We’ve got religious undertones, politics, patriotism, political philosophy, ambiguity, and did I mention religion? But, honestly, what does a claim like that mean? Well, Hanno, here’s my shot at it.

We’ve got to start with faith, because the entire question hinges on this ultra-ambiguous little jewel. The word is loaded with religious connotations but has a wide secular usage as well. It doesn’t just play in one game, so to speak.

What is secular faith? In many instances, it’s an inductive argument. “I have faith that Katy will be on time to pick me up tomorrow.” In saying this, there’s no appeal to some higher reason, some higher being or power. I’m simply stating that, “hey, she hasn’t been late before, so I believe she’ll be on time tomorrow.” But secular faith also comes in degrees…it becomes more ambiguous than an appeal to induction. It can signify a character judgment or an assessment of the strength of a relationship. To tell a friend making a difficult decision, “I have faith that you’ll do the right thing,” is, once again, not an appeal to a higher power. It is, however, different in some meaningful way from a simple induction. I’m not stating the belief that my friend has made the right decision in every instance in the past, maybe not even in a majority of situations. The belief I’m stating is more along the lines of a discernment of my friend’s moral fiber…or if the decision is in regards to me, a judgment about the state and import of our relationship. It’s an appeal to a less concrete notion of induction. This secular faith relies more on “feelings” and less on evidence, but it still remains in the secular realm. In either of these cases, or those that lie between, faith is a judgment call on the part of the believer. It is a willful determination to hold a belief, but one that is based on prior experience, evidence, and intellect.

Religious faith…this is not an entirely different construction of belief, but one with a wholly disparate ground. It is still an act of the will choosing to hold a belief about the world…a belief based not in evidence, prior experience, or intellectual rigor, but in the grace of God. Aquinas put it something like (and this is a loose paraphrase not a quote) an ascent of the will to belief brought on by the grace of God. In other words, I have faith in or about something not because I make a judgment but because I make a choice that God’s grace has influenced (or allowed) me to make. This religious connotation, this faith without evidence, is the heaviest baggage that the term is forced to carry. Even in the most mundane of secular utterances of “faith,” one cannot help but wonder about the evidence held by or intellectual prowess of the speaker. That is the religious undertone that makes many cringe when someone starts a sentence with “I have faith…”

So lets see if we can bring this back around. What does it mean to say, “I have faith in democracy?” Well, it means that I believe in the democratic system of government. It means that I have at least a general understanding of out how it works and that I agree with its principals and foundations. It means that I have seen it bring about good results in the past and induce that it should do so in the future. It means that I have made a judgment call based on the evidence presented me thus far, and think that it’s the best choice we’ve come up with to date. But…if I say that I have faith in it, you might question whether I’m making this judgment or just blindly following along (with or without the grace of God…or Goddess), but now we understand why.

Now, of course, there are other ways to approach the question of faith in democracy:

Does saying I have faith in democracy mean that I believe it will arrive at the best outcome in every occasion?

Does saying I have faith in democracy mean that I believe in our government actors and their ability to reach a good outcome within the framework of the system?

Does saying I have faith in democracy mean that I believe we as voters make the best, most informed decisions about who we put in the positions within the framework?

But these are all questions for another day, as it’s time for me to get some sleep.

17 August 2006

Going Home

Meg had a post over at Meg’s Blog back in May in which she posed the question of why one can never really go home again. Personally, I don’t buy the idea that one cannot. Going home…in my mind…isn’t so much returning to a physical place as it is returning to a feeling. Feelings are fickle. Physically going to one’s home…going back to the town you grew up in…won’t, necessarily, give one that feeling of “being home.” Though the place may be the same and the people very similar, the remembered emotion can’t be rekindled. Why is this? Well…nostalgia is an interesting and twisted thing. It’s a remembrance of a time and place and feeling that never truly existed as a single entity, yet it is a time and place and feeling to which one longs to return. That feeling of home is a nostalgic remembrance, and truly one that going home does not recreate.

Does this mean that one cannot ever return home? No. Because as much as that feeling is not recreated by returning to that place, it can just as easily be incarnated anew in different setting. For me…it happens at the beach, overlooking rolling waves, smelling the saltwater, feeling the sand on my feet…and the feelings of home come rushing to me. It happens in the mountains as I feel enveloped by their majestic tree covered peaks. It happens surrounded by my closest friends. The feeling of going home is what home truly is. It’s not a place or a time. It’s not a seeing the house I grew up in or driving through my little western PA hometown. It’s an overwhelming feeling of love, of belonging, of warmth. Home is an emotion…not a place.

Pure Conjecture and a Dash of Post Hoc

What a crazy, interesting world we’re living in…over the last 2 months we’ve seen Israel and Hamas get into it, Israel and Hezbollah blow each other’s civilians and infrastructure all to hell, BP let the Alaskan pipeline fall into a state of such disrepair that they had to shut it down, and the British government apprehend terrorists suspected of planning to use some sorts of liquids to cause an explosion on a plane. Yet…gas prices have fallen and the stock market has climbed for three days straight for the first time in who knows how long. Something doesn’t make sense here…

While the US government encourages nations in the Middle East to blow each other to bits and strips US citizens of even more freedoms (eventually we’re all going to be flying naked) gas prices fall and the market surges in spite of news of the loss of 8 million barrels of oil a day from our economy…maybe they know something in the White House that the rest of us average Joes and Janes don’t. Or maybe…just maybe, economic actors and markets aren’t really such “rational” decision makers…

Like I said…conjecture…

And post hoc ergo propter hoc: Taking away civil liberties and allowing wars to continue unnecessarily, as well as a little terrorist scare, works wonders for the markets.

16 August 2006

If You're Looking for an Incredible Read

Definitely head over to MMF and check out Aspazia's series on interviews of residents of Grove, OK, the small, conservative town where a compassionate doctor was performing hundreds of abortions in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Henrie, from the picture Spaz's interviews are painting, must have been an incredible person.

11 August 2006

I'm off for a weekend of golf and beer...

Renting a lakehouse for the weekend for a bachelor party for a good friend from college. I've been thinking about this whole "ritual" throughout the planning process. Hopefully I'll have some fun thoughts to put into writing when I get back on Sunday...or recover from the hangover on Monday. Until then...words to live by from Hemmingway:
"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."
Mantra for the weekend???

10 August 2006


THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING...run for your lives!!!
The worst part about terrorist activity in this climate is that it reinforces the ideals of the neo-cons and serves (in their minds and those of thier supporters) to justify and rationalize their power-grabbing ways. So...terrorists achieve their goal yet again...no one needs to die, they just need to make us afraid to live our lives and maintain our freedoms.

Bumper Sticker:

Never take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.

09 August 2006

Beer Blogging

Sitting here sipping on one of my favorite brews, I’ve decided that I should make beer as big a part of my blog as it is of my life. So here it is: Beer Blogging. I hope to make this a recurring and interactive post. I doubt it will be weekly, but every so often one will pop up…I promise.

Tonight’s Brew: Tröegs Hop Back
Hop Back is brewed by the Tröegs Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA, which opened its doors with a waft of hoppy aromatics back in 1997. Mechanicsburg natives and brothers Chris and John Trogner have an incredible touch for handcrafting some superb beers in Central Pennsylvania.

The Story:
I first discovered Hop Back the summer after my 21st birthday at my favorite hometown watering hole, the Jean Bonnet Tavern. That was a helluva summer filled with plenty of golf, plenty of late nights with good friends, and pitcher after keg after pitcher of good beers. The Bonnet is known in the area for carrying a wide array of microbrews and being a place where friends can gather in a quiet, laid back atmosphere for some good conversation and some great times. From that summer on, Hop Back has remained, easily, one of my top 5 beers.

The Details:
Hop Back is, as the name would suggest, a wonderfully hoppy creation. It’s an amber ale with a bold hop bite and sweet floral aroma. The hop takes your tongue by surprise on that first sip, but the sweet finish is there to soothe the startled taste buds. If you’re a fan of pales and ambers this is a must try.

So what’s your favorite? I know for a fact there are some beer drinkers out there reading this...tell me what it is I should try next time I’m wandering the isles of my local beer store or searching out a good microbrew in the PA/MD/VA area…or anywhere else for that matter.

I apologize...

To anyone who has attempted to leave a comment...thank you! I apologize that they have not been posted, I didn't realize I had moderation turned on...I just thought I wasn't gettin any love over here.

08 August 2006

Neo-Neo-Hegelianism (yeah, I stole that idea)

We see Fukuyama's neo-neo-Hegelianism in which there is a natural end -- liberal democracy -- towards which all governments naturally move if only freed from tyranny. Create a power vacuum and provide some purple finger ink, et voila, instant democracy.

SteveG gives voice here to something that’s been brewing upstairs for me for a long time now…what the fuck makes us so special? I’m not saying that liberal democracy is bad. I love living under this system and can’t imagine living any other way. It allows for dissent, provides economic and social structure, as well as the whole “majority rule, minority rights” ideal. This doesn’t, though…at least in my eyes…give us the right to push our system on the entire world by force. What leads us to believe that it is objectively the best…and, in fact, only…way to govern justly?

To describe the neoconservative belief that we are in the right in using all means possible to spread “liberal” democracy around the globe as neo-neo-Hegelianism is very telling. Hegel saw the progression towards “freedom” as the natural state of societies. Giest drives us towards this end ideal. But he left the ideal largely undefined. The neo-Hegelians took up this cause but defined the end. Communism…yes, it would be struggle, but this is the direction in which dialectical materialism was leading us. The material restraints placed on individuals functioning as a society affect the dialectic progression (borrowed by Marx from Hegel) in such a way as to lead us to a proletariat revolution. We would need strong leaders, an authoritarian system at first…we’d have socialism. But eventually, we’d achieve the ideal. So the masses began to believe and so one of the great social experiments of history began…and then failed. But the point is this…they believed communism to be the end…the ultimate social/political/economic system. An unjustified belief?

Now we see neo-neo-Hegelianism. Communism failed and whatever defeated it must be the stronger system, the new ideal. The new ideal must be capitalism thriving in a liberal democratic socio-political environment. So then, it becomes not only our right, but our duty to spread democracy. We are obligated to give this gift of freedom to the world…are we not? Should we not use any means possible to deliver this gift?

Well, if we accept a dialectical progression of history in the form Hegel lays out, then we are obligated to assume that there is some system that in the end will bring about this ideal freedom. IF we accept that...but why are we to believe that there is one ideal for all the world? Islam, ingrained in the hearts, minds, and souls of its adherents, inherently sets up a wholly different and conflicted socio-political system than liberal democracy. Does this system grant individuals the same freedoms as our system does? No. But is their ideal freedom, their perfect life/perfect society the same as ours? I doubt it. They see the world differently than we do and experience freedom differently than the west.

In any case…let’s grant the assumption that there is one ideal freedom and move on with our argument. The next step must be to question how we know that liberal democracy is the ideal system to bring about “freedom.” We must think pretty damn highly of ourselves to truly believe this proposition. Just look to the past at “ideal” systems that have failed…why shouldn’t ours. It’s only doing a half-assed job at providing real freedom and quality of life in the nations that already practice it…why shouldn’t there be some yet unimagined system that is better than this?

But again…let’s grant that it is the best tool in the shed. We then arrive at the question of spreading liberal democracy. Are we obligated to do so…if it’s the best system and we believe it will truly bring about “freedom,” then, yes, we most certainly are…but at what cost? How many lives are to be lost, how many cities are to be destroyed, how many bombs are to be dropped before the ends no longer outweigh the means? If this is really part of the progression…the way things ought to go…why do we feel such a need to push and prod it along? Undue use of force will simply mire the progression. The esteemed one-time-neoconservative Fukuyama himself wrote that neoconservatives “...believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.” (thanks Wikipedia) In other words…war mongering is not the way to go about spreading liberal democracy if we do believe that it’s the best system. We must win over the “hearts and minds” of the world...bombs only incite terror and terror impedes true progress.

Also…along the same lines…check out this post over at Bitch PhD by NO_NYM.

07 August 2006

It Sure Ain't Easy

So it’s been a week since I last blogged, and I’ve realized something…this ain’t gonna be easy. I work full time (like most bloggers probably do) and commute an hour each way, and, damn-it, when I get home I just want to grab some grub and park my butt on the couch in front of the idiot box. Also, for as much NPR as I listen to, news sites I read, and blogs I frequent…fresh ideas are often hard to come by. But I’m making a commitment, right here, right now…to myself…I’m doing this. I’m going to keep this up…it may not be every day (b/c let’s face it, hungover blogging just doesn’t sound like fun) but it’ll be frequent enough. There’s also a reason for it…and this is just a step in the right direction…I hope…

I have aspirations of eventually…though it seems far off in the distance right now…going to grad school. Problem is…I’ve forgotten how to write. Use it or lose it…well, I’m losing it. Sure, I can do the corporate jargon and techno-babble shit with the best of them. I can write emails and correspond with clients. But that’s such a watered down, boring version of the English language that it damn well might be making me dumber. There’s no subtlety there, no nuance. Hell, half the time I’m pretty sure what I’ve written has absolutely zero meaning (negative meaning…is that possible?? could something be so horrendous and boring that having been written down on paper it actually detracts from the human knowledge base? is humanity dumber for the things I’ve written? Professional Development Plans (PDPs) fit in this category, I believe). So if I plan on getting into grad school, I’ve got to relearn how to write something worthwhile…assuming I knew how to do that in the first place.

Which brings me to another thought…Jesus H Christ the thought of grad school is scary. That’s a commitment right there, how ‘bout it? One can go to college, get a degree in whatever seems fun at the time and still have a plethora of job options after graduation. There’s very little expectation of a college grad actually working in their degree field. If you go to grad school…it seems to be a different story. You’ve made a commitment to that field now, buddy. You don’t go and get a PhD in philosophy to come out managing a…never mind, maybe philosophy’s a bad example, but you get my drift. Trouble is, I’ve never been much for planning like that. I’m a go with the flow kinda guy…I’ve always made life decisions on the fly with full faith that things would work out ok. Faith in what? Hell if I know…God, luck, irony, karma. Grad school, though, takes some effort…some planning. Am I ready for that commitment? I’ve been the wedding guy this summer, watching all of my friends get married and sitting back going “Holy cow, no way! I’m not that guy! Not getting married yet! Living MY life right now! Nope, no way, no how, not now!” But really…how much less of a commitment is deciding on a path for grad school? Seems pretty similar when you think about it. And what about what kind of program to get into? Can’t get a job if you’re a continental…so they tell me…but I kinda like what they’re talking about, so how do I reconcile that? And speaking of jobs…am I really considering going back to school for 5 or so more years to come out making about what I’m making now??? Can someone please call me a psychiatrist, I’ve gotta be crazy.

But, what the hell…I’ve never been the kid to take the easy path. I’ll dive in head first…probably smack my head on the bottom of the pool cause I’m a big guy…but I’ll recover. It’s time to go for it…

Aaaaaah….I feel better…

01 August 2006

Values Talk...

It's about modernization within Islam and out of it. It's about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs.
Tony's talking values...and he's sort of right, but we've got tread lightly with this language.

In a speach given in LA today as the last event of his visit, Blair focused on the Middle East conflict reframing the discussion in terms of western values versus fundamentalism. The PM terms it as modernization, but what I think we're really talking about here liberalization. Liberal values must prevail over radicalism if we are ever to see a cooling of tempers in the region. There really only are 3 outcomes, as I see it...Israel takes military control of the entire region with US backing, Israel is wiped off the face of the planet, or everyone learns to live together. I think it's safe to say that third outcome is the most likely to be allowed by world powers. But how do we get there? Well it ain't easy. We have to start by dealing with the last 100 years that SteveG outlines eloquently in a post today. And then there are the religious tensions...the chosen people in the holy land issue. Liberalism is a wonderful tool for dealing with these issues, and if it should overcome fundamentalism I can see a brighter future in the region.

But as I said, we must be very careful with this values language. To set up a dichotomy of western values vs. fundamentalism in the current political and public discourse game sounds eerily like setting up a Christian vs. Muslim paradigm. This language can quickly serve to incite violence rather than extoll the virtues of liberalism. In fact, it may be ill-guided to even throw this idea into the arena. Islam, like Christianity once did, must undergo a liberalization from the inside out, rather than forced from the outside. It's still a growing and evolving belief system...granted, it is one based in a more rigid moral/religious code than any other belief system to arise out of human thought, but it still has room for growth from within. To try to force it is to disrespect it, to guide it gently may be the answer...

This pobably is somewhat nonsensical...as I'm just working throught these thoughts...but if anyone can add anything or criticize anything, please do.