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.

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