Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Of Luddites and Mammon

Here is my (1st place winning, to indulge my obsequious vanity) speech from tonight's Gardner-White Prize Debate at the Yale Political Union on the topic, Resolved: Abolish Intellectual Property. I was speaking in the affirmative, and limited to three minutes.
Luddites, Mr Speaker! Those damnable anti-capitalists of the 19th century, those destroyers of looms, revilers of progress, reactionary troglodyte simpletons! In their confusion and rage at progress’s noble but unforgiving advance they struck back at its most pernicious manifestation: the industrialized textile mill.

Two things are curious about the modern day Luddite, Mr Speaker: first, he is now allied with the State, and not against it, with the corporations, and not in protest of them, and second, while his forbear fought to preserve a way of life in the face of economic developments he could not hope to understand, the contemporary fights merely to maintain a petty and pernicious monopoly.

This debate is not about the intricacies of patents, trademarks, and copyright, all three distinct entities that egregiously get lumped under that harmless sounding euphemism, "intellectual property". This debate is about the relationship between culture and society, between creator, and, if the body will forgive me, created for

To appropriate Larry Lessig’s terminology we must decide whether we want a “read-write” culture, where the audience not only “consumes” (to use a vulgar word) but interacts, integrates, and internalizes, or a “read-only” culture, where the gatekeepers of production and distribution limit access, define appropriate responses, and thus effectively neuter our culture itself. 

When I think back to the most breathtakingly beautiful thing I have ever seen, I recall the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg. The beauty of this Church is not in her originality, her "attribution to an individual will"-- her architecture, iconography, and even the materials with which she was built are all, if you will, highly traditional, and certainly uncopywriteable. But do not think her a facsimile of preexisting Churches-- she is, in a sense, an emergent beauty, having arisen from centuries of liturgical art and just then imagined and constructed in a more perfect visual spectacle.

Beauty is irreducible to function, and to suggest that beauty requires licensing is to reduce it to its basest and saddest function: to garner pittances here and there largely not even for the artists themselves, who, as anyone who’s ever known an artist knows, rarely have the sense to concern themselves with money, but for those decidedly unartistic, uncultured, unmoveable companies.

To those who worry that without such licensing no art, or, at least, much less art, will be produced, I note only that Ashton Kutcher was paid $20 million dollars to replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. It is the status quo that is the unsustainable absurdity, ladies and gentlemen. 

Culture has not merely existed but thrived for the majority of human existence without these obscurantist regulations. Everything from the lowly folk song to the glory of our Churches, mosques, and temples, and more importantly, our deeply felt relationship to these art forms, not only does not need such laws but recoils from them. To make of every relationship a legal relationship is to utterly dehumanize us, and to reduce our relationship to art to such a state is to bow down on our knees before Mammon himself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


why settle for just one form of depression
me: conceiving of everything as shadows is my new thing
I blame reading too much about monetary policy
the Baron: i haven't looked into monetary policy at all, but i'm prepared to be convinced that the fed basically sucks
me: to be fair
all things do

at least 80% of my conversations begin or end here
me: well on a basic level, myself also being too tired to get into a long argument, though you raise good points, this is why smart libertarians hate objectivists
my longer answer involves Christianity

The rest is sadly too vulgar for this audience.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Black Coffee

Three versions (from best to worst, in my humble opinion):

Admittedly I prefer Sarah Vaughan's voice to Peggy Lee's, but I find the instrumentation on hers too ostentatious for the piece. Perhaps it's merely trying to match her presence, but I find pieces like this best suited to a minimalist accompaniment.

Ella... what can I say. Hers is the only version that includes the last verse quoted below. I think the reason Peggy wins, for me, is that I find her the most believable-- she sounds utterly, in a way the others don't, perhaps because they're focusing more on musicality, like a woman chain smoking and drinking coffee for days at a time. There's a resigned malaise that hasn't yet crossed over to numbness in hers that draws it nearer to me.
I'm feeling mighty lonesome,
haven't slept a wink,
I walk the floor and watch the door
and in between I drink
black coffee.
Love's a hand me down brew.
I'll never know a Sunday
in this weekday room. 
I'm talking to the shadows,
1 o'clock to 4,
and Lord, how slow the moments go
when all I do is pour
black coffee
since the blues caught my eye
I'm hanging out on Monday
my Sunday dreams to dry. 
Now a man is born to go a lovin',
a woman's born to weep and fret,
to stay at home and tend her oven,
and drown her past regrets
in coffee and cigarettes. 
I'm moonin' all the morning
mournin' all the night,
and in between it's nicotine
and not much heart to fight.
Black coffee
Feelin' low as the ground
It's driving me crazy, this waiting for my baby
to maybe come around. 
My nerves have gone to pieces,
my hair is turning gray.
All I do is drink black coffee
since my man's gone away.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Owning up to...possession

When malice against anyone is roused in your heart, then believe with your whole heart that it is the work of the Devil working in your heart: hate him and his brood, and malice will leave you. (Do not acknowledge it as anything of your own, and do not sympathise with it.) This is from experience. Unfortunately, the Devil shelters himself behind us, and conceals himself, whilst we are blind, and, thinking we are doing everything of ourselves, begin to stand up for the Devil's works as if they were our own, as if for something just, although every idea of there being any justice in our passion is entirely false, impious, and hurtful. Guide yourself by the same rule also in regard to others. When you see that anybody bears malice against you, do not consider his malice as his own doing; no, he is only the passive instrument of the evil one; he has not yet recognised his flattery and is deceived by him. Pray to God that the enemy may leave him and that the Lord may enlighten the eyes of his heart, darkened by the poisonous, noxious breathing of the spirit of evil. We must pray fervently for all those subjected to passions, for the enemy works within them.
Saint John of Kronstadt

My Life in Christ can be read in its entirety for free here, incidentally. I'll start posting less edifying things soon, no worries.

Omniscience: not an excuse to stop calling

Many do not pray because it seems to them that they did not receive any gift from God when they prayed before, or because they consider praying unnecessary; they say that God knows everything without our asking, and forget that it is said: "Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Our requests (prayers) are necessary expressly to strengthen our faith, through which alone can we be saved. "By grace are we saved through faith." "O woman, great is thy faith." For this reason the Lord made the woman pray earnestly, in order to awaken her faith and to strengthen it. Such men do not see that they have no faith--the Christian's most precious inheritance, which is as necessary as life itself--that they "make Him a liar" by their unbelief, and that they are the children of the Devil, unworthy of any of God's mercies; that they are going to destruction. It is also necessary that our hearts should burn during prayer with a desire for spiritual blessings, with love to God, and that we should vividly represent to ourselves His extreme mercy to mankind, and His readiness to hear all our prayers with fatherly love. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father, which is in heaven, give good things to them that ask him?"
- Saint John of Kronstadt

What a cobweb your life is!

A man that only dreams of this perishable life and does not think of the eternal, heavenly life! Consider--what is your transitory life? It is a constant laying in of fuel (meaning food) in order that the fire of our life may continue to burn and should not grow feeble, in order that our house (meaning the body) should keep warm, and that the continually changing life of our body should be restored by means of the nourishing parts of the organs of other living creatures, who are deprived of life in order to keep up the life of our body. Indeed, what an insignificant cobweb your life is, man! You are obliged twice daily to strengthen the interior of your body by means of supports to keep it sound (that is, you are obliged to fortify yourself twice every day by food and drink), and every night, daily, you must lock up your soul in your body, shutting up all the sensations of the body, like the shutters of a house, in order that the soul may not live outside the body, but within it, giving it warmth and life. What a cobweb your life is, and how easy it is to tear it asunder! Be humble and reverent before the Life eternal!
 - Saint John of Kronstadt

Some late night blasphemy

Father John's My Life in Christ has been sitting in my bag for about a week. It is nearly 600 pages long, and I should've finished it by Wednesday morning. It is now 4:30am on Thursday and I am on page 17. Mind you, I've already read an entire, rather detailed biography of Father John, which made him out to be, quite rightly, a very interesting figure. But in these 17 pages I've gone from being devastatingly and impossibly bored by this book to nearly furious with it, which strikes me as a less than ideal attitude to take to the work of a Saint, so I'm giving voice to my frustrations here, and perhaps one of you can lead me back.

If My Life in Christ is in any way organized, its organization is not apparent to me. Whether it was written as a collection of personal reflections and edited at the end of his life (it was published while he was alive), written expressly for publication in one furious bout, whether it's a journal from which all dates and narrative anchors have been removed, I do not know. It appears, to me, to be 600 pages of musings on the Gospels, Sacraments, and prayer. It doesn't feel particularly theological, insofar as the language, while heavy with scriptural references, is fairly loose and frustratingly imprecise and open to a variety of interpretations, and its suggestions and urgings for more earnest prayer and attentiveness to God at all times and so on seem at times trite and formulaic. 

The passage that pushed me from irritated boredom into anger follows:
"The miraculous effect of the life-giving Cross upon our souls, tortured by the poison of evil, proves to us most undoubtedly and clearly: (1) That we have indeed a soul, a spiritual being; (2) That there are evil spirits, harming our souls; (3) That God exists and our Lord Jesus Christ, and that He is always with us through His Divinity; and (4) That He has indeed accomplished our salvation by His sufferings and death on the Cross, and has destroyed the power of the Devil by means of the Cross. How many proofs of the advantage of our faith there are in the wonderful action upon us of the life-giving Cross alone! Glory be to the Christian faith!"
For whom are such words written? To whom are such words convincing? Are they for those already firm in their faith? Are they for Father John himself? Are they for the doubter? Are they a rhetorical flourish? They're certainly not for the heretics, the unbelievers, the lost. Father John died in 1908; he did not have the luxury of living in Christian ubiquity (though really, who did?). I certainly don't expect every work to be an apologia, but time and again I wonder why is there so much willful naivete, blindness, false consciousness, in so much Christian writing? Yes, there are works to which we can turn for strength, examples to which we ought look to show the way, but I am frustrated.

My gut says I am frustrated because Father John "got away with" saying things my atheist friends would never let me say without expecting full exegesis including metaphysics, Christology, ecclesiology, Church history, and rebuttals of whatever cockamaimey strawmen of Christianity they've picked up in the past twenty years (which, let me tell you, 99.99% of the time, I cannot deliver). They end up scornful and disdaining both me and Christianity; I end up writhing in self-hatred and dreading with a fear and a loathing my soul has rarely known the next inevitable interrogation. My mind says he didn't "get away" with anything; he simply had a courage and a boldness I lack (and certainly a much sounder and fuller theological education). I suppose I'm just (unfairly) disappointed that, at least in this book, he's not giving me much in the way of ammunition, and perhaps even incredibly unjustly ashamed, knowing, as I do, that if atheists read this it would be more likely to turn them away than make them think again.
"Why does the Lord allow there to be poor? For your good, so that you may be cleansed from your sins and expiate them, 'for alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin'; so that you may win suppliants who will pray for you in the persons of those upon whom you bestow your charity, so that the Lord may be merciful to you. 'Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.'

Why does the Lord allow people to be poor? For the same reason, amongst others, that He does not make you righteous all at once according to your wish. God might have made all men well off, even rich; but then a great forgetfulness of God would have arisen, and pride, envy, etc., would have increased. And you would have thought too highly of yourself had the Lord made you soon righteous. But as sin humbles you, showing you your great infirmity, impurity, and constant need of God and His grace, so likewise the poor man is humbled by poverty and his need of other people. If the poor were to be enriched, many of them would forget God and their benefactors, would ruin their souls in the luxury of this world. So destructive are riches, and so do they blind the spiritual vision! They make the heart gross and ungrateful!"
Does it make me a hopeless modern that the first paragraph leaves me uneasy? Perhaps. Even the second one seems to veer dangerously toward, "they're poor because they are particularly broken, and need this extra special cross to compensate," which I know cannot be what he is suggesting, because to suggest that anyone deserves poverty seems to chafe against the idea that all material things are His, and none of us have any real claim to any of them, which is why we ought help them from their poverty, which Father John himself did probably with more fervor and success than any one of his contemporaries. It is apparent to anyone with even a basic understanding of Christianity that we do not laud material comfort and acquisitiveness, but isn't poverty most fruitful when knowingly chosen? I don't understand his purpose in discussing all these easily confused ideas at once, right after suggesting that the poor exist only for the salvation of the wealthy, which, again, cannot be what he meant.

I have no real basis for complaint, because even though I grow more and more confused with each passing day, honestly I do very little to try to find clarity, precision, understanding. So here's hoping, then, that this petty wrath of mine will lead to something a bit better down the road, now that I've set this all down.
Edit: reading the first passage I quoted over again, I think I simply resented his joy. I really have nothing to say to that.

Friday, February 10, 2012


He was far too tasteful and far too clever,
a young man of very good society, too,
to make a fool of himself by acting as if he thought
that his abandonment was some great tragedy.
After all when his friend had said to him, "We two
will have love forever"--both the one who said it,
and the one who heard it, knew it for a cliché.
One night after the picture-show, and the ten
minutes they stayed at the bar, a longing
kindled in their eyes and in their blood
and they went off together, and someone said "forever."

Anyway, their "forever" lasted three years.
Far too often it lasts for less .

He was far too elegant, and far too clever,
to take the matter tragically;
and far too beautiful--both face and body--
for his carnal vanity to be touched at all.

- Cavafy

"And Above All Cynegirus"

Because he is of a great Italian house,
because he is, also, twenty years of age,
and because this is what they do in the great Greek world,
he came to Smyrna to learn rhetoric,
and to perfect his knowledge of their tongue.

And today he's listening, without
paying any attention at all, to the renowned sophist
who's speaking on Athens; who gesticulates,
and gets carried away, and tells the tale
of Miltiades, and the glorious battle of Marathon.
He's thinking about the drinking party he'll attend tonight;
and his imagination reveals to him a delicate face,
cherished lips that he's impatient to kiss ...
He's thinking about how well he's doing here.
But his money's running out. And in a few months
he'll be going back to Rome. And he remembers
how many debts he's got there. And that the ordeal
of dodging payments will start all over again,
of finding means to live in a suitable style
(he is of a great Italian house).
Old man Fulvius's will--
Ah, if only he could see it. If only he knew
how much he'll be getting from that old bugger 
(two years, maybe three; he can't last longer!).
Will he leave him half, a third? It's true
that he's already paid his debts twice before.

The sophist, very deeply moved,
practically in tears, is talking about Cynegirus.