The fall of Corzine, in the New Yorker

The fall of Corzine, in the New Yorker

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News Desk: Corzine’s Downfall
The collapse this week of the broker-dealer MF Global and the comeuppance of its chief executive Jon Corzine, who resigned Friday, have been and will be put to many political and rhetorical purposes....

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The scent of communal religion

A recent arti­cle on the art and sci­ence of taste and smell in the New York­er had a para­graph that stood out for me. The author John Lan­ches­ter had just shared a moment where he sud­den­ly under­stood the mean­ing behind “grainy,” a term that had pre­vi­ous­ly been an eso­teric wine descrip­tor. He then writes:

The idea that your palate and your vocab­u­lary expand simultaneously
might sound felic­i­tous, but there is a catch. The words and the
ref­er­ences are real­ly use­ful only to peo­ple who have had the same
expe­ri­ences and use the same vocab­u­lary: those ref­er­ences are to a
shared basis of sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence and a shared lan­guage. To peo­ple who
haven’t had those shared expe­ri­ences, this way of talk­ing can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.

How might this apply to Quak­erism? A post-modernist philoso­pher might argue that our words are our expe­ri­ence and their argu­ment would be even stronger for com­mu­nal expe­ri­ences. I once spent a long after­noon wor­ry­ing whether the col­ors I saw were real­ly the same col­ors oth­ers saw: what if what I inter­pret­ed as yel­low was the col­or oth­ers saw as blue? After turn­ing around the rid­dle I end­ed up real­iz­ing it didn’t mat­ter as long as we all could point to the same col­or and give it the same name.

But what hap­pens when we’re not just talk­ing about yel­low. Turn­ing to the Cray­ola box, what if we’re try­ing to describe the yel­low­ish col­ors apri­cot, dan­de­lion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super hap­py”. Being a Cray­ola con­nois­seur requires an invest­ment not only in a box of col­ored wax but also in time: the time need­ed to expe­ri­ence, under­stand and take own­er­ship in the var­i­ous colors. 

Reli­gion can be a like wine snob­bery. If you take the time to read the old Quak­er jour­nals and reflect on your spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences you can start to under­stand what the lan­guage means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, out­dat­ed and parochial. They become your own reli­gious vocab­u­lary. When I pick up an engag­ing nine­teenth jour­nal (not all are!) and read sto­ries about the author’s spir­i­tu­al up and downs and strug­gles with ego and com­mu­ni­ty, I smile with shared recog­ni­tion. When I read an engag­ing historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod know­ing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blo­gos­pher­ic bruhaha.

Of course I love out­reach and want to share the Friends “sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” One way to do that is to strip the lan­guage and make it all gener­ic. The dan­ger of course is that we’re actu­al­ly chang­ing the reli­gion when we’re change the lan­guage. It’s not the expe­ri­ence that makes us Friends – all peo­ple of all spir­i­tu­al per­sua­sions have access to legit­i­mate reli­gious expe­ri­ences no mat­ter how fleet­ing, mis­un­der­stood or mis­la­beled. We are unique in how we frame that expe­ri­ence, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared under­stand­ing to direct our lives. 

We can go the oth­er direc­tion and stay as close to our tra­di­tion­al lan­guage as pos­si­ble, demand­ing that any­one com­ing into our reli­gious society’s influ­ence take the time to under­stand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spread­ing horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do some­times) and it also means we threat­en to stay a small insid­er com­mu­ni­ty. We also for­get to speak “nor­mal,” start think­ing the lan­guage real­ly is the expe­ri­ence and start car­ing more about show­ing off our vocab­u­lary than about lov­ing God or tend­ing to our neighbors.

I don’t see any good way out of this conun­drum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quak­erism, speak­ing dif­fer­ent­ly in pub­lic than in pri­vate (see this post) but I wor­ry this insti­tu­tion­al­izes the snob­bery and excus­es the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste edu­ca­tors? For want of a bet­ter anal­o­gy I won­der if there might be a Quak­er ver­sion of Star­bucks (yes yes, Star­bucks is Quak­er, I’m talk­ing cof­fee), a kind of move­ment that would edu­cate seek­ers at the same time as it sold them the Quak­er expe­ri­ence. Could we get peo­ple excit­ed enough that they’d com­mit to the high­er costs involved in under­stand­ing us? 

Exporting Prison Abuse to the World?

An article on "abuse of prisoners in the U.S.": in the _NY Times_ shows that Lane McCotter, the man who oversaw the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in iraq, was forced to resign a U.S. prison post "after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time." It was Attorney General John Ashcroft who hand-picked the officials who went to iraq.
As an American I'm ashamed but not terribly surprised to see what happened in the U.S.-run prisons in iraq. Militaries are institutions designed to command with force and only civilian oversight will ultimately keep any military insitution free from this sort of abuse. The "Red Cross had warned of prisoner mistreatment": but was largely ignored. Abu Ghraib is in the news in part because of a leaked Pentagon report, yet it's only after CBS News aired the pictures and the New Yorker quoted parts of the reports and turned it into a scandal that President Bush or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted to the problems and gave their half-hearted apologies.
_This is not to say all soldiers are abusive or all prison guards are abusive_. Most soldiers and most guards are good, decent people, serving out of call to duty and (often) because of economic necessities. But when the system is privatized and kept secret, we allow for corruption that put even the good people in positions where they are pressured to do wrong.
It is precisely because the Pentagon instinctively keeps reports like the one on the abuse conditions inside the Abu Ghraib prison secret that conditions are allowed to get this bad. That prison, along with the one at Guantanamo Bay remain largely off-limits to international law. It was probably only a few Americans that gave the orders for the abuse but it was many more who followed and many many more--all of us in one way or another--who have gave the go-ahead with our inattention to issues of justice in prisons.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”

Just fin­ished a quick read of Mal­colm Gladwell’s “The Tip­ping Point: How Lit­tle Things Can Make a Big Dif­fer­ence.” I remem­ber devour­ing some of the orig­i­nal pieces in _The New Yorker_ and was thrilled when a friend loaned me a copy of the book.

Con­tin­ue read­ing