May 29, 2004


It is tempting to treat a weblog like a public journal, to let it be loose and floppy in that way. But weblogs want to be tight. Their natural use requires it. People bookmark a bundle of weblogs and check them frequently. They need the whole process to fit in their lives. And that use requires tight, frequent posts -- new entries daily to keep people interested, and not so much that it makes the whole enterprise a chore, over months or years.

It is also an interesting discipline, to break what one has to say into pieces. That gives the components individual attention.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:50 PM

May 27, 2004

Seeing Landscape


Is this really boring or really interesting or boring to me and interesting to you, or interesting to me because I am a better and more sensitive person than you are, over there yawning?

Posted by shea0017 at 9:06 AM

May 26, 2004


I can't think my way out of one puzzle about politics: a government has to be stable and reliable and trustworthy over a long time for people to build rich lives inside it. I have to trust that the rules won't change in the middle of my projects, or I can undertake only small projects. Representative governments are as stable as the settled character of the people represented. In any country of substantial size and diversity that's -- not very stable at all.

To put this in contemporary terms: if you don't like Bush, electing Kerry still leaves you facing the uncomfortable fact that this country elected Bush (sort of) and may, after Kerry, elect another Bush. Bush3 will work very hard, one assumes to undo whatever Kerry did, and Kerry2 will pay Bush3 the same compliment, and so it will go.

I think it is no accident that, while people talk a lot about democracy, in practice Americans opt over and over again for dynasties, and have so opted since the foundation of the republic. Americans sense the need for more constancy than the national character can provide, and they seek that constancy in family traditions and the comforts of family look-alikes. Another Bush in the White House. Another Kennedy in Congress.

The problem for representative government is to ensure a greater stability in public policy than the character of the people can guarantee or support. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, they did it with killer robots. Cordwainer Smith suggests that a non-governmental quasi-religious order might do the trick. I don't have the answer to this one. Anything except representative governments frightens me, and yet I can't see how representative government can possibly work, over the necessary periods of time.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:35 PM

May 25, 2004

God is by Definition Wonderful But Not Very Interesting

I am a big fan of Joan of Arcadia, mainly because Barbara Hall, the writer, understands my questions about what color socks God wears, what God does for fun, if God were a tree, what kind of tree would God be? Those questions aren't asked all that often, even by folks who are very pro-God. And the universe is generally treated more as an artifact than as the face of God.

Two points seem worth noticing about the universe. It is very big and maintains complexity into its very smallest parts - and most of what it does seems to have nothing much to do with human beings. Also, the one chunk of the universe that humans have any real experience with -- the body -- is understandable in two quite distinct ways-- mentally and physically. Neither account gets the whole story and neither account reduces to the other.

That all might suggest something about what there is to understand.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:59 AM

May 23, 2004

Would Jesus Still Talk About Sheep?

The Christian tradition connects contemporary people to the culture of First Century Palestine: that's where the central stories of that tradition were first told. This connection is largely good. It ensures that a substantial group of people have an alternative to contemporary images and messages. But I wonder whether the implicit closing of the canon with First Century material is a good thing: it seems to me that that move discourages religious meditation on contemporary images of great power: the pictures from physics and astronomy and cell biology. We think religiously about -- well, about sheep, and much more instrumentally and coldly about mitochondria and quarks and quasars. At most, these things are lumped under "the wonders of nature," showing in some way that there must have been somebody pretty smart at the beginning to think all this good stuff up. But the images from scientific exploration are not generally used the way parables are used, as clues to the deep intentions of God, or as clues to the pattern of which human life may be some very small part.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:49 AM

May 20, 2004


A fellow named Higgins made it in the south during the depression by providing the rum runners with faster boats and then selling yet faster boats to revenue agents trying to catch them. This not very honourable bit of bayou diplomacy had the result that when the U.S. marines needed a boat that would skim over obstacles to land at Normandy, he just happened to have one in his garage. Eisenhower called him "the man who won the war." (From the fine PBS special last night on D Day. Check for more information.)

The Christian Church never managed to agree on one version of the Jesus story. It preserved quite a lot of different versions, tailored to the needs of different churches. There was some agitation to produce an amalgam, but the amalgamators lost.

When we talk about genetic diversity, we talk about the preservation of transformable information. When we talk about cultural diversity, we talk about the preservation of transformable information.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:31 AM

May 19, 2004

A Day for Heroes

Here's one story. Today is the anniversary of the death of T.E. Lawrence, in 1935. He had come back from the Middle East, feeling that the British government had broken promises he had made on its behalf. He declined any high position in government, enlisted as a common soldier, and paid another soldier to beat him. He also worked hard to improve the conditions of common soldiers, using his connections to bring their situation to the attention of authorities. Nobody does that. Imagine the effect on the Arab world if Rumsfeld did exactly what Lawrence did, beatings included. It's unimaginable. But think what it would mean.

Here's another story: Sonja Gandhi announced today that she would not accept the post of Prime Minister of India. Her victory in the election was a triumph for tolerance over religious and nationalistic bigotry, a turn toward national sanity. But she feared, according a piece in today's Times, that the issue of her foreign birth was still strong enough in the public mind to compromise her ability to govern. And so, she accepted gratefully the victory she had won and declined to be a figure in a national melodrama. She knew when to stop, and she didn't see herself as irreplaceable.

Here's one more story: Socrates, awaiting death in prison for "corrupting the youth of Athens," is offered the chance to escape -- to flee to another city to raise his sons and to continue his philosophic work in some less public way than his Athenian marketplace badgering. He realizes that his flight might be understood as disrespect for the laws and customs of Athens, which are in a very fragile state after the loss of a 25 year war. He also realizes that his flight might eliminate any chance that philosophers or philosophic investigation will be part of the reconstruction of Athenian society. And so he stays and drinks the hemlock.

None of these stories is about what people had to do or about what one might have expected them to do, given all we know about human nature. They are stories about what people can do, sometimes, unaccountably. We call people heroes when they remind us of what people can do, sometimes, unaccountably.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:17 AM

May 12, 2004

Mel Gibson Doing Jesus

Mel is good at being noble and hapless. In Braveheart, he goes against impossible forces, ends up heroically gutted. In Conspiracy Theory, he goes against impossible forces, ends up sort of rescued by Julia Roberts. One has the sense, watching his movies: only supernatural intervention could save this guy. Sometimes he gets the help he needs, sometimes not.

Lots of people see Jesus that way. He was one humane guy facing down a religioius conservative establishment and/or the Roman Empire. Absent divine intervention, it's a Bambi Meets Godzilla situation. That all might be right, but I think it would useful to try out the idea that Jesus, whatever else he was, was politically astute and realistic and had a plan for solving the perennial Jewish question -- what to do with a people that wouldn't assimilate and couldn't make it as an imperial power. It would be very interesting to try out the idea that Jesus was both practical and optimistic in the context of the political problems facing his people. If such a theory bombs, we can alway go back to hapless and otherworldly.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:06 AM

May 11, 2004

Jack Weatherford: Our World Turned Upside Down

It is easy, reading history, to take arrogance to be natural. Colonialism, the destruction of indigenous peoples and native information is pictured as -- the way everybody with power behaved, until possibly our open minded times -- except for Hitler, everybody's favorite exception. In his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford pictures an empire which somehow avoided arrogance, and thereby produced a cultural flowering of which the Western Renaissance was a sort of mild aftershock. This message is very important for philosophers, because the philosophic tradition began in the west with Socrates, the great puncturer of arrogance. We have always claimed that something powerful could be built on modesty. Weatherford's book provides some reason to believe that.

Weatherford speaks at Macalester May 19 in the Weyerhaeuser Chapel, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul. 7:30.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:25 PM

May 9, 2004

The Snow Queen

The saddest story I have ever read I think is Hans Anderson's Snow Queen, about the boy who gets the piece of ice in his heart and stops -- getting it. I think ethics teaching divides into attempts to keep the ice out of the heart, attempts to remove the ice from the heart, and attempts to help people with ice in their hearts pass in humane society.

I was reminded of this reading todays column by Carolyn Hax, the finest ethical writer I know.

Dear Carolyn:

I had a very close friend for a long time -- for years, he was probably my best friend, and he helped me through a lot of hard things. Over the summer, it became clear he didn't want to be just friends anymore. I dodged the inevitable conversation since I was headed somewhere else at the end of the summer. I stopped returning his calls and e-mails, and I've since met someone else and I'm very happy with him.

I didn't return my friend's calls for a few months, and I thought he'd get the hint. But he sent me an e-mail a couple of months ago explaining the whole situation, that he was in love with me, that he knew I was seeing someone else (I didn't tell him, but I guess he figured it out), and that he was sorry and would try to move on. I haven't spoken to him since, although he's contacted me a few times. Do I owe him anything? It's been a long time, and I'm inclined to just let it go.


Let's see if I've got this straight. He was your best friend, you used him for support, he fell in love with you, you didn't need him anymore so you responded by treating him like a foul contagion, and now you haven't so much as taken the guy's calls in several months. Yes?

You owe him one of the fattest apologies ever formed, and you owe yourself an expedition deep into your being to search for signs of humanity, compassion or a soul. I could just cry.

So you didn't love him back. Would it have killed you to say so?

Read her work in the Washington Post Style section.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:02 PM

May 8, 2004

Due Process and Accountability are Not Controversial

There have been studies around for decades that show that when ordinary people are given absolute over other people's lives, without accountability or clear standards, a substantial number of them become debased and cruel. I think of famous studies in which students were hired to be jailers for other student subjects in California: a culture of abuse emerged quickly. Social psychology has documented this territory.

Also, without credible witnesses and trustworthy documentation, no one can set a limit to scandal. If abuse happened in one U.S. detention facility, no one can establish that it didn't happen in all of them. Any photo of sadistic behavior is now unanswerable evidence of sadistic behavior -- and such photos are can be mass produced.

When someone says, "Let's do this in secret, without witnesses, so that no one will ask embarrassing questions," the right answer is, "If you do this in secret, without witnesses, and anything at all goes wrong, the embarrassing questions will never end, and you will have nothing credible to say in response to them."

We need more inspectors, more auditors, more cameras, more preservation of chains of evidence, more light -- everywhere public. This is basic. It is more basic than: what we do. However stupid or misguided or even criminal a project may be, its flaws can be exposed and its damage can be contained, if we as a culture just have a strong preference for light over darkness.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:17 AM

May 7, 2004

Good People Sleeping Around with Other Good People

Mitch Pearlstein did a piece yesterday in the Star Tribune, explaining why he wouldn't be watching the last episode of Friends. He pictured his child coming to sit with him while he was watching it and being exposed to another very appealing pitch for sleeping around quite a lot.

Anyhow, he's lucky. Lots of parents would be overjoyed if their kids wanted to do anything with them.

But also, I think this is true: any kid is going to someday run into very appealing people who take sex pretty lightly. They won't have horns. They won't get into sordid bar fights. They may even stay friends with the people they used to sleep with. What sexual conservatives have to explain is why they are right anyway-- even though this sort of stuff does happen. Friends appeals because its picture of relationships seems plausible to people. To hormone driven kids, it will seem especially plausible.

I don't want to dispute Mr. Pearlstein's timing: he is entitled to choose when to talk things over with his children. But, if the conservative position is to endure in a modern society, on some couch, sometime, he has to have that conversation.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:54 AM

May 5, 2004


I just finished trying to teach a course called "Ethics in the Information Age," which was the first time I ever went at ethics by attempting to describe an age and the particular problems it makes for everybody. I came away thinking that the increase in generally available information and in free-floating power in the last maybe 20 years repeats what happened in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century, first to an educated class accustomed to leadership and then more generally to all sorts of people. I think of the great names: the Wright Brothers, Brigham Young, Edison, Pasteur. If anything, change was moving much faster then: it is a much bigger deal to fly for the first time than to fly to the moon, to cure the first major disease than to cure cancer, to communicate at all over vast distances than to communicate voice, video, massive data streams.

We have in the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th models for what folks in intoxicated periods do right and wrong. I think that that history is shadowing us in all sorts of ways, that it has become essential in our curriculum.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:45 AM

May 2, 2004


When I encounter a politically progressive message, it is as if someone had whistled the first bit of "Happy Birthday," and I am compelled to play the rest of the thing through in my head. I rebel against this intrusion, stupefaction, all the more because I generally agree with the message. But I can agree with something and still notice that hearing it makes me stupider. We need to hear things that don't make us stupid. And we are under no obligation to become stupid.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:27 PM