Saturday, April 02, 2005

The extraordinary ordinary: Terri and John Paul

The wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope's death continues. It's amazing to have had two such astonishing stories of life and death in the same week: first Terri Schiavo, now the Pope -- one the life and death of someone very much like us, which made her story all the more immediate, the other the life and death of one of the giant world-historical figures of our time, perhaps the last of his kind. There are many, many more Terri Schiavos out there, lest we forget, but we shall not soon see another figure like Pope John Paul II in a world increasingly dominated by transient celebrity and the mediocrity of the human, all-too-human. It was Terri Schiavo's very ordinariness, if I may put it that way, that made her story so poignant. We connected to her so intimately because, somehow, we knew her, and because we related, on a deeply personal level, to her plight. Despite his admirable humility, the Pope was not ordinary at all, though we connected to him, even those of us who aren't Catholic and who don't accept (or, rather, believe in) Catholicism's central teachings, precisely because of his extraordinary combination of character, conviction, humility, and humanity -- a combination that lifted him above the ordinary but which kept him so close to those of us who are merely ordinary. His was an extraordinariness dedicated to the ordinary. We could not know him the way we knew Terri Schiavo, but, in him, we saw, I think, a lofty vision of our own best selves, a life dedicated to the pain and suffering, but also to the highest hopes and aspirations, of all, Catholic or not. Whatever our differences with what he stood for, he was an antidote to the vulgarity of so much of modern life, a repository of love from which we can continue to draw inspiration, a bridge to the rest of humankind and all of God's creation, and a model for what is truly possible in the human spirit. In saying this, I know that I neglect what so many feel, which is a connection to God through their "second father" (to quote Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York), but I personally cannot speak to that and would not be so presumptuous as to do so. I speak rather of the human side of Pope John Paul II's faith and good works -- and that faith and those good works, both in the service of God and for the sake of us all, were nothing less than extraordinary.

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Pope John Paul II: Faith, love, justice

POPE IN GRAVE CONDITION: So says the "Breaking News" on CNN. I am compelled to say something about this great man, but, I ask, who am I to say anything. This is a man whose life speaks for itself, one of the most significant and influential figures of our time. The end is obviously near, and the coming together of people around the world to pray and, soon, to mourn -- Catholics, mostly, but people of all faiths -- is itself a sign of the hope that the Pope personified.

But what of us who aren't Catholics or who aren't active members of organized religious institutions or in fact who aren't particularly spiritual? It is easy to find fault with the Pope. Nourished by Vatican II, he has been a visible and socially active pontiff. And that, needless to say, has opened him up to criticism. His firm stance against Communism during the '80s was as important in bringing down that odious ideology and freeing the peoples of the former Soviet Union and its orbit of satellite states as anything done more directly in the political sphere. Yet his equally firm stance against abortion, contraception, and euthanasia -- all in the name of the very "culture of life" that motivated the obsessive defenders of the "life" of Terry Schiavo -- likely has done more harm than good. In this sense, he was a friend -- perhaps the best friend -- of much of the developing world, yet the political consequences of his faith meant that much of that world remains in a state of stagnation. As a social liberal in this regard, I have long objected to many of the regressive social policies of the Roman Catholic Church.

But let us not go in that direction. The battle for succession -- and all that that means -- will begin soon enough, and the Church will be compelled, at an official level, to examine its very soul.

For now, let me focus on the good and positive:

From the Pope's 1993 World Day of Peace Message:

"The number of people living in extreme poverty is enormous. I am thinking, for example, of the tragic situations in certain countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There exist vast groups, often whole sectors of the population, which find themselves on the margins of civil life within their own countries. Among them is a growing number of children who in order to survive can rely on nobody except themselves. Such a situation is not only an affront to human dignity but also represents a clear threat to peace. A state, whatever its political organization or economic system, remains fragile and unstable if it does not give constant attention to its weakest members and if it fails to do everything possible to ensure that at least their primary needs are satisfied."

That is an incredible statement of social justice, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly. I have long thought that a society (or a regime, to use current political parlance) can be judged by how it treats its weakest members: the young, the old, the infirm, the mentally and physically challenged, the poor, the helpless. A civilized society -- and a government that acts justly -- cares about -- and for -- its weakest members. The Pope was speaking about the developing world, but let us not forget that poverty lies at our own doorsteps in even the wealthiest of places, however much we look straight through it and go on with our daily lives. Whatever else might be said about the pope's perhaps extreme definition of the "culture of life" (although I'll take that over the many dehumanizing cultures of death around the world: North Korea, Sudan, etc.), his commitment to the weakest members of society cannot be questioned. It lies at the core of his greatness, and of his place in history.

Finally, from the Pope's 1987 Address to Catholic Charities (in California):

"In the final analysis,... we must realize that social injustice and unjust social structures exist only because individuals and groups of individuals deliberately maintain or tolerate them. It is these personal choices, operating through structures, that breed and propagate situations of poverty, oppression, and misery. For this reason, overcoming "social" sin and reforming the social order itself must begin with the conversion of our hearts."

"Choice" is a complex matter, I acknowledge. So many simply know not what they do. But let us never forget the Pope's call to responsibility, both personal and social. Let us neither maintain nor tolerate the social injustice and unjust social structures that breed poverty, oppression, and misery. However much we may disagree with one another, is that not a just common cause?

People of all faiths, of all kinds of faiths, are soon to be in mourning. The promise and hope embodied by the Pope throughout his life, however, will live on and continue to inspire.

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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Death and dignity: The Schiavo Case

There isn't much more to say about the life and death of Terri Schiavo. A beautiful editorial in today's Times, published just hours after her death, sums up quite closely how I feel about the matter:

"Americans are a deeply pragmatic people, who constantly shock ideologues of every persuasion with their willingness to accept whatever solution seems to work out best at the moment. Our great ideals, when they are boiled down at a moment of crisis, are mainly instincts for fairness, for the right of individual self-determination. Watching the Schiavo case unfold, most Americans quickly opted for the solution that would end the ordeal.

Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die. They deserve respect, just as her husband and her family members deserve sympathy. The frightening thing about the case was that other people, far more powerful and far less emotionally involved, looked at the world we live in today, in which politics is about maximizing hysteria at the margins, and concluded that the fight was one that would pay off in worldly terms as well.

But today, finally, there is a moment of consensus. Rest in peace, Theresa Marie."

This may be a bad choice of words, but the political post mortem will continue. For my part, without knowing enough to reach any definite conclusions, I can only trust the expertise of her neurologists -- and, whatever the last-minute claims of doctors brought in by her family, those neurologists agreed that she was, in fact, living in a vegetative state. Or is that even the right way to put it? Was she at all living? In a sense, yes, but not, it would seem, in any truly human way. She was alive insofar as her body hadn't yet shut down. And those videos, streaming across the world, showed something. Yes, they had been conveniently edited to imply something approaching full consciousness, and hence to raise hopes of a miracle recovery, but they were nonetheless touching. But look through that. Her brain -- or at least the part of it that make a human being human in any full sense -- wasn't there anymore. It had withered away, much like the Terri Schiavo that had been there before the heart stoppage that ended up taking her life. In fact, it can be said that she was already "dead," and had been these past 15 years. That may sound like a heartless thing to say, but how can it be said that she was truly "alive"?

It was amazing to see how this story of one woman -- and let's remember that there are many like her, far away from the cameras -- swept through American culture for a brief few weeks in the spring of 2005. To me, stories like only compel one -- okay, me -- to confront one's mortality, to acknowledge, against our attempts at self-forgetting the linear direction of human nature: we are born and we die, and what matters, more than the bookends, is how the in-between is lived. Terri Schiavo had stopped living -- that is, had stopped living a life that anyone would want to live. It's unfortunate, if predictable, that the right, largely the religious right, prioritized its fetishization of life (anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia -- yet pro-death penalty and, often, pro-war), to quote Andrew Sullivan, over the dignity of life well-lived. It's unfortunate, too, that many on the left focused on the cold legalities of the matter, defending the decisions of the Florida courts as a matter of course and opposing Congressional interference and the intrusion of federal courts into what they accepted, because convenient, as a purely state matter. This focus on procedure, however correct the view that the rule of law (and hence states' rights) should prevail in such matters, detracted from the major point: Decisions of life and death like this one are private matters. Where that isn't possible, as here, the courts do need to intervene. But what truly matters is that the dignity of the person in question trumps other considerations. And the dignity of the person is not -- and this is where the right gets it wrong -- equatable with life itself, but with life that is worth living, with life that means something. As sad as it may be, Terri Schiavo's life had stopped meaning anything when the decomposition of her brain took away her very humanity.

As Aristotle put it, the city exists not just for the sake of living, but for the sake of living well. It's important to remember that. It should guide not just our views of life and death in individual cases, but also our very public policy. Too many people out there are alive and clinging to life: the old, the sick, the poor. But is life an end in and of itself? To a point, yes, but there must be more to life than just being alive, and, to me, a society should be judged by how well its members live, both individually and collectively.

As for Terri Schiavo, there are two ways to look at her death. Either there is an after-life, as so many of those protesters and mourners outside her hospice believe, or there isn't, in which case this is all we've got. If the former, we can have faith that Terri is in a better place, freed from the confines of a body that had mostly stopped functioning (why would all those believers who would have done anything to keep her "alive" have wanted her soul to remain trapped in that body?). If the latter, we can have faith that she touched family and friends, and now so many of us around the world, but that she is now relieved of the indignity of a life no longer worth living. Either way, let the moment of consensus continue for as long as possible.

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Torture and lies: The Kazemi Case

Surprise quickly turns to anger when you take a look at the face of Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi on the front page of today's Globe & Mail. Kazemi, arrested for photographing a student protest in Teheran and subsequently accused of espionage, was held by Saeed Mortazavi, Iranian Special Prosecutor, and died in custody. Just how did she die?

The official Iranian statement, after the acquittal of an official following what was widely viewed as a show-trial: "The death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to a fall in blood pressure resulting from a hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing." But now the truth comes out. It was torture. A doctor who treated her just before her death has since fled to Canada, and his testimony is now public. This, according to the Globe, is what it amounts to:

Bruised from forehead to ear
Skull fracture
Two broken fingers
Broken and missing fingernails
Severe abdominal bruising
Evidence of 'very brutal rape'
Swelling behind the head
Burst ear membrane
Bruised shoulder
Deep scratches on the neck
Broken 'nose-bone'
Evidence of flogging to the legs
Crushed big toe

This fills me with sickness, but also with a demand for justice. I am tempted to say that this is what the fight is all about. Whatever we might think of the war in Iraq and the American project of "regime change," let us be clear about something: No one should be defending these regimes for what they are. We may disagree on the tactics used to bring them down -- not merely to contain them indefinitely -- but there must be a standard by which to judge these regimes. The egalitarianism of the U.N., where sovereignty is broadly defined and where member-nations are more or less equal, and the relativism of values that pervades much of Western liberal democracy (and which continues to pollute liberalism as any sort of sustainable political philosophy -- call it now "postmodern liberalism") seems to deny us any legitimate hierarchy of values, indeed any sort of distinction between good and evil in any meaningful sense. (We are now, in Nietzsche's world, beyond good and evil.)

Let me be clear. I do not accept Bush's manichean view of good and evil. I do not refer to some vague notion of them as "evil-doers". We simply do have have any monopoly on righteousness, and I don't have to be the one to point our our sins. There have been many of them. Coddling illiberal and undemocratic regimes like China and Pakistan (as the Bush Administration continues to do, much to India's fury) doesn't help, but the problem goes back a long way. But there is which, which even proud liberals must acknowledge: At least -- at last -- the world's only superpower has moved beyond narrow national self-interest to embrace in its foreign policy the very ideals that make it what it is: Lincoln's last best hope... or at least a big part of that last best hope. I may not be a card-carrying neoconservative -- despite my Straussian credentials and attempts on the left to characterize all Straussians as rigid neocons -- but let's give them some credit. Wolfowitz, in particular. He may have botched the Iraq war, but at least he stands for and is willing to fight for something that is truly noble and truly just. How many of his enemies -- and I don't mean his illiberal and undemocratic enemies around the world, I mean his armchair enemies at home -- do? Not many. Simply, there is a courage and a sense of purpose to Wolfowitz, and others like him, that is sorely lacking in much of what passes these days as American liberalism.

Finally, I would add that Kazemi's death at the hands of Iranian security officers, no different than insurgent Iraqi beheaders, makes American atrocities (and that's not too strong a word) at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere all the more revolting. There is no relativism here. The U.S. is no Iran, North Korea, Sudan, etc. But that means that we must hold the U.S. -- and the U.S. must hold itself -- to lofty standards of justice. That something like 26 prisoners have died in U.S. custody in this "war on terror" is a travesty, and it's about time something were done about it. And I don't just mean prosecuting easy-to-scapegoat functionaries. I mean going through the chain of command and bringing down those who allowed this to happen. It starts at the top, where torture, thanks to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others, was accepted as legitimate. Didn't the buck stop on Truman's desk? Well, where's W.'s sense of responsibility? Isn't he all for the spread of democracy? Well, spread it at home (and in your foreign prisons), then we'll talk.

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Off and running...

It's good to see, by the counter below, that so many people have taken the time to visit this blog in just its first couple of days of existence. Thanks to all of you who have been here (and especially to those of you who have actually read what I've written!).

There's more to come. I can't post much during the day, but keep coming back for daily updates and entirely new topics. I even hope to have some guest writers contribute in the very near future. Much to look forward to.

Thus far, my focus has been on the U.S. media, but I do intend to diversify to keep the blog interesting... and, in part, to keep my own interest in it. There are specialty blogs out there, of course, but single-issue advocacy or political partisanship is not what this one's about.

Later today: Thoughts on Terri Schiavo and Zahra Kazemi -- two horrible deaths, two awful stories.

Until then, have a nice day.

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Manny, my Manny

On a lighter note, how am I to deal with the fact that my first round pick (9 of 12) in my recent fantasy baseball draft was -- gasp! -- Manny Ramirez. Sure, a perennial all-star and future hall-of-famer, but... one of those detested Red Sox! Am I to root for him -- and his flagrant abuse of the rules of fielding and baserunning -- even as I long for the Sox to go 0-162?

I say this, needless to say, as a Jays fan and, against my better judgement, I hold the Yankees in high regard as an organization. How can you not like Joe Torre? As the two-time defending champion of what is a fairly serious fantasy league, though, I have no choice but to hope that Manny pulls off his usual magnificence at the plate.

More on the ups and downs of my fantasy team -- Les Expos, I call it -- as the season moves along.

Is there anything more wonderful in sports than the start of the baseball season? It's the truly beautiful game.

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The media, again

More thoughts on "media bias" -- for some reason a topic that fascinates me. Sorry, Justin, if you've heard this rant already, but I continue to come to the defence of the one newspaper that is, for me, a must-read on a daily basis. I really must try to put all this into a more comprehensive piece:

The New York Times is often accused of liberal bias -- in fact, it is often, with CBS, considered to be the very epitome of liberal bias. I tend to think that liberal bias in the mainstream media is overstated, and that opponents of so-called liberal bias seek merely to discredit the mainstream media, however defined, by selectively revealing instances of bias, or what they, through some ideological or politically pragmatic filter, perceive to be bias -- even when it is merely sound reporting.

It's actually quite interesting that the right, which so firmly rejects America's recent "slouching towards gomorrah," the rise of postmodernism and the infiltration of relativism, and the rejection of any ultimate Truth, which bemoans the liberationist legacy of the '60s, has contributed so much to this mess. The right's insistence on focusing on bias, with or without proof, has undermined any sense of objective narrative in American life, or at least the pursuit of an objective narrative in American life. The intent may have been to uncover bias, some of it legitimate, in terms of what actually forms that narrative, but the result has been the dismantling of any sense of narrative whatsoever.

In this sense, the right has mirrored the efforts of the postmodern left to discredit so-called meta-narratives, or objective truths, and to replace them with a self-defeating "philosophy" of historicist subjectivism: there is no Truth, nor any such thing as objectivity (the postmodern left has even discredited modern rationalism), so all claims to truth are inherently subjective, or biased. We're talking about media bias here, but the same, says the postmodern left, can be said for history itself, which has been written by some hegemonic monolith of straight, white, Christian males to the detriment of various oppressed groups -- however defined, however determined.

The postmodern left has more or less destroyed much serious academic thinking, and I would argue that the media-bias right has similarly more or less destroyed serious journalism -- or, at least, has weakened serious journalism to the point where it is no longer taken seriously, where it is widely ridiculed, and where it has lost its claim as a transmitter of fact, of a narrative that transcends subjective interests. It is now taken for granted, after all, that there is no such thing as unbiased media. Whatever Fox News may claim ("fair and balanced"), the right has successfully targeted all media, whether of the left or the right, or of somewhere in between. This is not good. What we're left with is an incoherent jumble, a raucous media landscape where the noise of competing claims to "truth" drowns out any possible estimation of what is really going on, that is, where "value" has replaced "fact" and where objectivity, or at least the pursuit of objectivity, is seen as some sort of anachronism, if it's even seen at all.

Forget truth, let alone Truth: now that's an anachronism! One wonders what Socrates would say.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The media, of course

When in the blogosphere, do as the bloggers do. Which is to say, talk about the media. Which is not to say that I'm trying to circumvent what is generally known these days as the Mainstream Media (MSM). I'm all for the MSM. I read the Times, the Post, the other Times (L.A.), and I see nothing wrong with getting my news from the major networks or the major cable news networks -- the unfair and highly unbalanced Fox notwithstanding. And, unlike other bloggers, I do not see myself as a replacement for the MSM -- a circumvention of the MSM, that is. Bloggers may make news, but not intentionally. They may report the news, but really they're only reporting what the MSM has already reported. They may expose something that the MSM has failed to expose, admittedly, but such "scoops" are extremely rare and pale in comparison to what bloggers do: at best, comment on the news, usually from a preconceived (and dangerously narrow-minded) perspective; at worst, spread vicious gossip and innuendo. That's the "new" media for you.

For more on this, I recommend two websites, which I peruse regularly:

Poynter-Romenesko: an excellent daily round-up of media news from a detached, non-partisan perspective; basically, media on media, with high regard for the profession of journalism)

Media Matters:"liberal" examination of the lies -- let's call them what they are -- spread with reckless abandon by the "conservative" media (Fox, talk radio, etc.) and exposing its darlings (O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.) for the frauds they really are)

Excellent stuff.

For now, here are some preliminary thoughts:

Whither media bias?

What we're currently witnessing is the continuing ascension (or is it now plateauing?) of right-biased media, even within the MSM. There's been a lot of talk recently about bias in the media, with both sides, in America's bipolar world, accusing the other. But how do you properly assess media bias? To me, there isn't much -- let's fact it, much of the MSM, especially the non-print variety, is run by massive corporate conglomerates more concerned with the bottom line (and share prices) than with ideology. But there has been a noticeable shift to the right, even as the right continues to use "liberal media bias" as a myth to arouse its base. Whatever the causes of this shift -- perhaps something we'll get back to at a later time -- the shift is evident mostly in how political discourse is framed. Listen to the language. That's where the bias is:

If you're from Massachusetts, or New England generally, you're a stark-raving-mad liberal, an opponent of all things American, a traitor. If you're from Texas, or the South generally, you're, well, all-American and good to go. Wasn't that Bush's unchallenged message during last year's campaign? Well, both Bushes have used it. Bush I against Dukakis, Bush II against Kerry. Furthermore, if you're Michael Moore or, you're insane. If you're Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, you're a media darling. Michael Moore -- and I will acknowledge here that I think Fahrenheit 9/11 is a brilliant film, whatever its overhyped flaws -- is ridiculed for his admittedly ridiculous portrayal of pre-war Iraq or for suggesting that there's more to the story of 9/11 and Iraq than is generally known, but Hannity, who wrote a book equating liberalism (America's founding philosophy: thank you, John Locke) with terrorism, and Coulter, who wrote a book calling liberals (America's founders: thank you Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton) traitors, continue to grace our TV screens with their obnoxious (and noxious) presence on a daily basis.

What I'm saying is that the pendulum has shifted so far to the right that a "pro-family" bigot like James Dobson is regularly invited to appear on TV to peddle his fear- and hate-mongering (tolerance/diversity = gay agenda) and Jerry Falwell is brought in to guest-host Crossfire. Look, I would object if conservatives were similarly excluded from the debate or equally held in contempt, as they once were. The U.S. is neither as liberal is it was perceived to be back in the '60s, nor as conservative as it is perceived to be today. What's wrong now is that the right sets the debate and has shifted perception to the right. It's established, if you will, a false north pole, with the compass pointing well to the right of the true middle of American life. And they do it, in part, by presenting themselves as revolutionaries fighting for ordinary "folk" (to use O'Reilly's stupid term) against the "liberal" media elite.

Which is what, exactly? Fox, which is so fair and balanced that Brit Hume's regular panel guests are Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Mort Kondracke? CNN, which basically apologizes when it features a "liberal" guest? MSNBC, which is moving to the right faster than Sideshow Bob can steal an election (who gave Joe Scarborough a TV show? and why is Pat Buchanan allowed to guest-host?) CBS, a once-proud network that has been castrated on account of an error in judgement? NBC, with Nascar-Dad Brian Williams in the anchor chair? ABC, with... well, with what? Peter Jennings searching the skies for UFOs? I mean, enough already. It's time for the pendulum to swing back.

Not back to the left. Just back to the sensible middle, where journalists go about their business of reporting the news without partisan bias.

Is that possible? Maybe, maybe not. But the truth -- the dissemination of truth -- depends on it.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Fiat lux: The Reaction begins

So this is the very first post at The Reaction. More to come soon. Generally, this blog will focus on politics, philosophy, and culture, without being limited to a narrow topic. That may seem like a weakness to some, but I see it more as a strength. Why restrict myself to commenting on, say, academic life at the University of Toronto (my present academic home), a subject that may find its way into my blog but which does not inspire much in the way of enthusiasm.

I will comment on an irregular basis on whatever comes to mind. If that sounds self-indulgent, it is, and I make no apologies. This is the blogosphere, after all, and self-indulgence comes with the territory.

In brief, The Reaction is just that: a reaction to all the nonsense out there that passes for intelligent discourse. There's no way I could do it all the justice it deserves, but I'll do my part.

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