Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Salvation of Mystery

The other day, I finally realized what post-modernism signifies. Post-modernism introduces an ambiguity, an uncertainty, a series of paradoxes into the understanding of everyday language and experience. I have witnessed a profound distaste for this probing and inquisitiveness, and I have directly shared this hesitation.

For a long time, I have viewed forms of post-modernism as empty, meaningless, and unnecessarily skeptical. To ask things like, 'what is the meaning of truth', 'who is the Other', and 'who are the People in "We the People"'? What's the point?

This rogue questioning seems to be a silly exercise - it ignores finding a solution to problems such as violence and poverty in favor of analyzing how we discuss problems such as violence and poverty.

Besides, isn't focusing on the problems themselves enough? The human race does, after all, have a great expertise for solving problems. Humanity has exercised a tremendous capacity for knowledge and discovery. Should I reject or cast doubt upon the workings of science and technology which have brought such monumental greatness and convenience into my life?

I am disturbed by the urgings of post-modernism, but I have realized something: I need this disturbance in my life -- and I have not yet begun to be disturbed enough.

"I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword." - Jesus, Matthew 10:34

Today, societies have unprecedented access to knowledge of the external world around us. From the smallest imaginable wonders reached through nanotechnology to the eerily beautiful images shown from the largest echoes of space by the Hubble Telescope, humanity has a more significant grasp on reality than ever before.

Or so we think...and so we tell ourselves.

I have started to embrace post-modernism because it demands that we re-ask these questions of ourselves. So let me ask you again, not what kind of grasp you have on reality, but what kind of grasp reality has on you?

Said another way: Do you have an internal knowledge of yourself which equals your knowledge of the external world?

"What is truth?" - Pontius Pilate, John 18:38

Many post-modernists have expressed skepticism about the existence of a universal and absolute truth. Many religious people have expressed strong dismay about post-modernism because of this skepticism. Religious figures have reasoned that any skepticism about a universal truth would naturally extend to skepticism about the truth of religion, which is often claimed to be absolute and universal in nature.

I believe this skepticism of skepticism is unwarranted. (Skepticism of skepticism? Isn't that just the kind of unnecessarily complicated phrase a true post-modernist would use? What is it about post-modernism which erodes the use of language? What better evidence that what questions does in fact erode!)

The skepticism (from religious people) of the skepticism (of post-modernists) is not warranted because both religion and post-modernism share some of their most important values and perspectives on the world.

Mystery Enters the World

I'm not a Christian. But I am willing to accept that a fellow named Jesus very likely existed at some point, and could have done many of the things described in the Bible.

In the Gospels, Jesus vigorously questions the religious authorities of his day. The Pharisees constantly attempt to pin Jesus down on legalities to destroy his credibility.

Jesus denied that the prominent religious figures of his day had a monopoly on universal and absolute truth. He did not come to ease their understanding - he did not come to reassure their prejudices - he did not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword, and he did not come to bring simplicity, but to bring mystery.

Both religion and post-modernism introduce a mystery and an uncertainty into our mundane, everyday world which forces individuals to confront the structure and meaning of their inner-most, firmly-held beliefs and attitudes.

Both religion and post-modernism can lead the pilgrim into a voyage of re-examination, from which emerges a new life full of vitality and hope.

Mystery's Final Ascension

Where is the hope from mystery? Where is the light in this darkness?

The answer is the power of human imagination. Both religion and post-modernism imagine new meanings and new interpretations of life - both envision new alternatives to choose, and actively confront humanity with those choices.

Both religion and post-modernism resurrect what they divide: beneath the multiplicity and diversity of meanings lies a common connection. As words and concepts used to segment and oppose human beings are undermined, a new possibility of existence is realized.

No more Jew and Gentile, no more man and woman...

No more I and Other, no more black and white...

Both post-modernism and religion can free individuals from oppression and encourage them to see beyond the superficial differences which all too often consume humanity, to see new conditions of human life, where all individuals are free to pursue their creative potential as human beings.

Both Jesus Christ and Friedrich Nietzsche can tell you that underneath truth, there is life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What Are Liberal Values?

What Are Liberal Values?

I am currently taking a class called "History of the Modern Conservative Movement". My professor is an ardent conservative. He usually does not engage directly in political arguments during class, but he occasionally challenges liberal ideas in an indirect and subtle way. He'll offer a conservative attack on a liberal idea, and then say "this is what conservatives tend to think, not necessarily what I think - and you're taking this class to hear the conservative view, so here you go".

My professor addressed the following challenge to liberals during the first month of class, and I have been considering how to answer his questions since then:

"A conservative recognizes the same rights that have been traditionally recognized by thinkers such as John Locke: life, liberty, and property. Also, a conservative believes that these rights are not given by the government - but by an external source. I always want to ask liberals this: what is your vision of the country? Where would you stop if you could have your ultimate wishes? Conservatives know what kind of country they want - with the protection of the same traditional rights which have been the heritage of America since the Founding. But liberals keep trying to create new 'rights'. Where will you stop? You can see that there may be a kind of validity to Hayek's argument that once citizens depend on the government for more and more 'rights', the government can become oppressive."

Why do liberals keep trying to invent new rights? This is the wrong question.

What's the right question?

Why aren't conservatives doing more to preserve and secure the rights they cherish?

That's the correct question.

Securing Our Rights

Life. Liberty. Property. That's a celebrated trifecta - a trilogy - a trinity - and it seems simple and convenient enough to understand. If you're an American, you heard about it from Thomas Jefferson, who scribbled something about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" once upon a time.

Isn't it enough that the government assist individuals in their pursuit of these three things? Why should the government do otherwise? Government is inherently oppressive - the less it does, the better the country.

Point taken - let's start there. Suppose you want to establish a government solely devoted to ensuring the rights of life, liberty, and property. Let's assume that the government should only intervene in cases where the public cannot accomplish a task effectively on its own, and the task relates directly to one of our big three times: life, liberty, or property. For each right, let's assess the capacity of individuals to secure the right on their own, without the intervention of government, and see if it's plausible for a government to take any additional measures to secure those rights.


The right to life is the right to personal security. If society is enmeshed in a condition of anarchy and lawlessness, the right to life may be extremely difficult to secure. Can private citizens secure law and order successfully without the aid of a government? Perhaps - to a limited extent and for a small scale. A voluntary association of citizens could access a certain supply of small arms and protect a smaller area. However, most people lack the resources to defend themselves against more threatening fears, such as a conventional military or terrorist attack.

Another option is to establish a corporation which individuals pay to protect them. However, it would be difficult to distinguish in an emergency who paid dues and who did not. Further, by failing to address a public threat only because someone did not pay for protection, there could be harm to those who did pay. It would be far more practical to establish a police force or a military. I feel that this assertion is non-controversial, and that the majority of conservatives would agree with me on this.


Liberty is a difficult concept to understand. It's not a tangible object, like life or property. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in "Democracy in America", when contrasting public support for liberty and equality: because equality is more tangible and easier to understand, there is a danger that the public will always favor measures which bolster equality at the cost of weakening liberty.

Unfortunately, the problem is even worse than de Tocqueville imagined. The public also is liable to favor measures which bolster security at the cost of weakening liberty. However, this assertion cuts across many political ideologies. I know conservatives and liberals who are wildly opposed across political issues who would make this same argument regarding the dangers of abandoning liberty in the name of security. The funny thing about this phenomenon is that it is completely foreseeable. The culprit here is that there is a wide variety of definitions of liberty.

I told you liberty was a renegade. How many possible human activities can you imagine? That's how many definitions of the word 'liberty' exist today.

Rights as Restraints

This quibble over the meaning of the word 'liberty' leads me to an important point about the understanding of rights: many of the Enlightenment thinkers believed that rights can only be secured when the actions of other people are restrained. My professor for History of the Modern Conservative Movement put it this way: "our Founders believed that with every right comes a certain responsibility".

It's no wonder liberty is preposterously hard to grasp - it's an internally contradictory concept. Every person who uses the word 'liberty' has a hidden assumption of which kinds of behavior citizens should have liberty to choose. Generally, it has been suggested that the proper limit on action should be taken when an action would infringe on another person's life, liberty, or property. Said another way: you can basically have the liberty to do what you want until you take away someone else's liberty.

Let's assume we can decide that the type of liberty we should protect is the kind that does not take away someone else's liberty - that's a simple enough definition. Now let's return to the original premise of our discussion: what should be done to secure liberty (as we have defined it), and who should be in charge of those efforts?

Reconsidering Liberty

To secure liberty as we have defined it (that individuals should have the liberty to do all things which do not remove someone else's rights) - let's try to identify some actions which may or may not violate liberty, and decide on that basis whether they are permissible. To secure liberty, we should want to stop actions which erode it.

Does abortion violate rights? If the fetus is a person, then it has a certain set of rights which should be considered. However, the mother is also a person who has a certain set of rights, too. When does the personhood of the fetus eclipse the right to liberty a woman has over her own body?

Does the death penalty violate rights? If a person has been convicted of murder, that individual has already violated another person's liberty. Should the government violate a person's rights just because he or she did it first-isn't that fighting a wrong with a wrong? Or, should the government remove the liberty of a criminal to protect the liberty of the public?

Does a ban on online gambling violate rights?

Does a ban on marijuana violate rights?

Does a ban on same-sex marriage violate rights?

I hope you are beginning to understand the difficulty of weighing liberty against other rights. It is an extremely serious and delicate matter to consider just how far a government should act to limit the actions of individuals in order to protect the liberty of other citizens. Where is the balance between the greatest freedom of action and the strongest possible security of the rights of others?

I have heard conservatives argue this one way and I have heard liberals argue this another way, but both sides should agree that the question is a matter of balance and difficult to discern.

A Return to Our Premise

I mentioned earlier that there are two questions hanging over this exploration of rights:

1. Why do liberals keep trying to invent new rights?
2. Why aren't conservatives doing more to preserve and secure the rights they cherish?

It may appear that liberals accept a broader number of rights besides the major three enumerated traditionally: life, liberty, and property. However, I reject this view. I believe that liberals have a different perception of what is necessary to preserve and secure life, liberty, and property.

A liberal assumes that each right is dependent on a host of others. A liberal has a more extensive idea of what each of the three traditional natural rights entails.

If a bank forecloses on my home because they offered fraudulent mortgage terms, my right to property is violated.

If a corporation imported goods from China which contained poisonous lead, and I fall ill from ingesting it, my right to life is violated.

If the institution of public education is dismantled, and my ability to participate in civic processes in an engaged manner is therefore lacking, my right to liberty is violated.

A 'right to health care' is a right to life. A 'right to education' is a right to liberty. A 'right to consumer protection' is a right to life and a right to property, depending on the case. This is obvious, intuitive, and self-evident to liberals.

Does it make sense that these things are natural extensions of the rights to life, liberty, and property? Can a coherent notion of the rights to life, liberty, and property exist without guaranteeing those conditions which allow them to flourish?

A liberal doesn't want new rights: a liberal wants to secure the rights we have, and is dismayed when conservatives refuse to act to protect those rights for all Americans.



present an issue clearly and concisely

get a new perspective

probably just a lunatic

maybe that means trouble for me

a more interesting connection there

short and to the point

reject everything up to this point

can I give a more spirited defense

a certain product of history

a critical eye to the reasons you believe

very illuminating

stay on board

standing alone

on a metaphysical plane

closer to the real world

a better idea for life

actual life-happenings

because it’s easy and simple

so much more than that

take it and expand it

so many aspects of life

very abstract principles

life is like a box of chocolates

come to terms with reality

become silent and face our own existence

what if I were one of these thinkers?

in what way would I have responded?

culturally ingrained in us

we have to understand why

reactions and responses

something very different than what I was exposed to


it goes back farther than that

I was shocked

I’ve got thick skin

you’ve got to be able to dish it out as well as take it

now it sounds like bullshit

real convincing

don’t start throwing things at me

it’s got its good and bad things

the nuts and bolts

probably my fault

a springboard to rant


focused on a specific period and a specific grievance

very frenzied

stops and starts

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

a double value...a figure paradoxical

"a double value...a figure paradoxical"



revolting against what's happening

grab the truth in that moment

can't verbalize it

different views

desire to come to the truth

a bold undertaking

forever and as of this morning it hasn't been resolved

you can't grasp otherwise

unveil a secret to something that you can't have

can't explicate it in words

make preparations

the teacher says my appointed time is near

truly I tell you one of you will betray me

you have said so

this is my body

poured out for many

fruit of the vine

drink anew

bring into the present

with his right hand

hands have to be washed

there's so much here

a whole process

raising the body above the earth

holy and pure

let me just interrupt you

going to be assaulted

my appointed time is near

not a regular guy

heavens opened up

you've experienced the future

touched eternity

part of a greater drama

at the same time

that resignation

belongs to a higher truth

a new truth

I'm just coming up with this now


all these conflicting forces

gestures lead the eye

we have a new truth in the universe

the whole world is coming into that truth

let's go onto the next

when you come into it

it overwhelms you

we look at it as outsiders

give me an insight

you said absolutely nothing right now

no deeper meaning

you have your tension but it's not fulfilled yet

coming close but not quite touching

the truth versus the betrayal

a love-hate relationship

what do they have in common?

participating in a drama which is going to give God to mankind

two wires just about to touch and set off a spark but they don't

that's as far as I can see in this

Monday, April 18, 2011

an illusion retained in shadow as to a moment unborn

"an illusion retained in shadow as to a moment unborn"

despair and hope

always together

blood and new life

this side is lighter and that side is darker

participate in the passion

co-existence of despair and hope

blood, death, and life

open to redemption

darkness into light

death passes into resurrection

despair comes into hope

it is now real

the end of darkness is not darkness

you have life after death

this is what I think

heaven is already present

a single truth

between life and death

articulated in different dramas

it's the same truth

collapse into it

it's already happening right now

it's even stronger

this is it

everything's pushed towards you

you are encountering this and becoming part of it

absorbing those who look upon it

* This is another found spoken word poem, which I have composed this time courtesy of Professor Gershon Greenberg and his Meaning and Purpose in the Arts class, from lecture and discussions of April 14, 2011. The same other stipulations which I mentioned as a footnote to my last found spoken word poem apply here.

** The title of this poem is an excerpted sentence fragment from Leo Steinberg's essay of artistic criticism about Leonardo's Last Supper, "The Seven Functions of the Hands of Christ".

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dear Editor

"Dear Editor"

So you’d like to personally invite,

With dull generic forms that lack insight,

Yours truly to watch revealed beauty

Derived by editorial duty.

Your magazine, loaded with amazing

Works you selected – although encasing

The realms of ideal form – excludes poor me.

So you’d love me to attend your party,

To affirm your submitters’ work – indeed! –

As your lifeblood; though mine, you did not need.

Since I’m skeptical that you can’t respire

Without my poems, which you don’t admire,

I somehow lack the pretense required

To believe my presence is desired.

Friday, April 8, 2011

long story short

"long story short"

binary of two forces

one force in opposition to another

a multitude of different oppositions

understand the power dynamic

just about anything

share those resources

a cultural bias at work

asserting itself

totalizing itself

homogenized to look this way

differences are papered over

giving the face of something that should be feared

looking at that lens at work

close the borders

try to alleviate

suffering from the disease

as the other or as the same

determine the motivations

lack of education

this is why we help

the notion is transformed

remains in place

establishing what it meant

distinguished itself

define ourselves

a region of the world

imagine one that would not do what he opposes

interconnected as it is

sovereign within its own sphere

we have some kind of obligation

we are going to make judgments

the paradigm through which we think

considered itself the center of the world

there is no homogenous, totalizing group

there is some truth in this

you need to just get used to it

you are born in a world and you can accept it or change it

language is elastic



not the end-all, be-all

the body of work

a major weakness

a system that allows them to come about in a fast manner

you are involved in the process

I am still making decisions

as a matter of form

at some point you have to evaluate me

I think that’s where I’m going

I hope we are able to tie up our loose ends

humor me

pretend you’ve learned something useful

* This is a found spoken word poem which I have composed, courtesy of Professor Shanaysha Sauls of American University and her Contemporary Political Thought class, and reinterpreted from the lecture and discussions in class on April 7th, 2011. The words and sentence fragments themselves, as far as I am able to record them, are accurate and in chronological order, although I have heavily excerpted and fragmented them for poetic quality and themes.

** I would prefer to present the text of this poem in a format which is center-aligned, but I am not sure if this is possible in Blogger.