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Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice
Monday, October 28, 2013 Lou Reed, 1942-2013
The bridge of my acoustic guitar is still spotted with blood, something I left there during a late-night rendition of "Heroin" in 2004 or 2005. It's a song about addiction--one of the best, for my money--that invites a kind of compulsive excess, a "how fast can I really play this" acceleration that mimics the junkie's life-threatening rush. Well, after an hour or so longer at Jimmy's than was strictly advisable, I burrowed deep into that song, obnoxiously unheedful of the existence of neighbors, playing it so fast that I nicked my third finger and bled quite a bit before I noticed anything.
I played "Pale Blue Eyes" for a bunch of totally uncomprehending school kids in Taiwan. Why? I don't really know, except that it's an awesome song and I played it every chance I got. I also played it for a church group in Glencoe, Illinois. Same reason, I suppose.
What is it about his songs that makes them sink into your bones if you play them even a few times? How is it that I have played "I'll Be Your Mirror," a two-verse wisp of a song, roughly a million times, most recently to my fussy five-month-old, and never gotten tired of it?
I was out and about today when I heard the news of Lou Reed's death and was not able to listen to his music, but it would have been practically redundant. So many of his songs, including ones I haven't played, listened to, or even thought of in years are still somewhere in my mind, word for word. I'm not going to attempt to play rock critic here--he made some garbage music, he was a huge jerk, you can read all of that from people who are good at it. But some of those lines, my goodness, I'll just never forget them. Take this from the heartbreaking "Halloween Parade," an AIDS-era lament for the decimation of New York's gay and trans scene:
No consolations please for feeling funky
I gotta get my head above my knees
But it makes me mad, and mad makes me sad
And then I start to freeze
In the back of my mind I was afraid it might be true
In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you
I brought that one to English class in 12th grade when we were sharing song lyrics as poetry. Some of the other students snickered at the lyrics--"There's a girl from Soho with a t-shirt saying 'I Blow'"--but I was irritated because it was very serious and mournful and frightening. I was probably committed to riding with Lou from that point on, now that I think of it.
Or this, from the cruelly underrated Ecstasy:
Sometimes when I think of Baton Rouge
I see us with two and a half strapping sons
One and a half flushed daughters preparing to marry
And two fat grandsons I can hardly carry
Daddy uncle family gathered there for grace
The dog and the barbecue pit go up in space
The dream recedes in the morning with a bad aftertaste
And I'm back in the big city worn from the race of the chase, what a waste
So I try not to think of Baton Rouge
And of a of a of a mariachi band
And of sixteen and a crisp green football field
And the girl and the girl I never had
I listened to that album every day and twice on Sundays in the summer of 2000 (I could go on with this sort of thing--Set the Twilight Reeling made my high school yearbook quote; I cut up a bunch of cows and chickens in the Deep Springs butcher room to Live MCMXCIII and Berlin, which I do not recommend listening to when you're around that many sharp objects; etc.). I went to the show for that tour, which was good, surliness and all. The hurt and the hostility were always so close to the surface in his music. Where Dylan was evasive and elusive, Lou Reed bled and shouted and got insufferable. And he wrote some beautiful things:
I need a guru, I need some law
To explain to me the things we saw
And why it always comes to this:
It's all downhill after the first kiss
Or the thunderous anthem, really a rare instance of forgivable monster rock, that wraps up that album:
Big sky big sky holding up the sun
Big sky big sky holding up the moon
Big sky holding down the sea
But it can't hold us down any more
Big sin big sin big original sin
Paradise where I've never been
Big snake breaks the skin
But it can't hold us down any more
I could do this all night, just with lyrics I have from memory. This, after all, is just from one rather late rather obscure album, and my taste in Lou Reed's music is by no means hipper-than-thou. So go listen to it. Just be careful--it can do things to you.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:01 AM
Friday, September 06, 2013 A Guide to Short-Conning Pastors
My apologies for the long hiatus, friends. I wish I were breaking the streak for something more than this, but at least this is pretty good (if I do say so myself):
Having spent a number of years now in the kinds of churches that entertain the travelers of the grift circuit, I’ve learned a few things about rip-off attempts. I’ve seen some great efforts—even some leaving me uncertain that they were scams—and others that were just shamefully bad. How can you increase your odds of walking away with some cash?
Don’t appeal to naked pity. Straight-up sob stories are not usually effective. We hear a lot of them. We give a lot of our money, and sometimes our congregation’s money, to fund social service agencies and other emergency aid outlets. And a lot of us are compassion burnouts. We need variety in our lives like anyone else.
Do appeal to more complex motivations. Be in some other kind of trouble, something that doesn’t immediately call dollar signs to mind—ideally, something that is at least partly of your own making. Remember that our business is aiding sinners, not victims. Protection from danger is a good thing to need, or moral counsel for a serious dilemma. Most of us imagine helping people in tight spots or wading into morally ambiguous waters. Let us do that!
Wednesday, July 03, 2013 How Not to Make a Liberal Argument
In the New Republic, T.A. Frank makes a lengthy argument for liberals opposing the Senate's immigration bill. It will be familiar to those who have followed the debate over the years: competition from current and future illegal immigrants will hurt wages, diminish the power of unionized workers, and stress the safety net on which low-wage workers rely.
Now I don't know the issue well enough to be anything but agnostic on the probability of these effects. I do know that many scholars find positive net affects to native-born workers in low-wage jobs (though they often find negative affects to less-recent immigrants), but others do not. I'll have to leave that question to the experts. But I do want to point out something Frank repeatedly does in this article:
The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity.
But if that was how I felt about protecting Hong Kong’s working class, why shouldn’t I feel that way about America’s?
For instance, buried on page 20 in Appendix Two” of this pro-legalization report touted by the Center For American Progress—trumpeted in a press release with the headline “How Immigration Reform Would Help the Economy”—is an estimate that if half of the current unauthorized labor force were deported the wage of a low-skill U.S. worker would rise by $399 a year. By contrast, legalization would raise that worker’s wage by less than half that much—and that’s assuming no further illegal immigration. (emphasis added)
The same phrasing recurs another several times in the article. And granting for the sake of the argument that it's all true, it's a curious kind of liberalism that seeks to bolster the wages of low-skill workers in one country by deporting competing low-wage workers from a much poorer one. In other words, the argument throughout, from beginning to end, only makes sense if the only group of low-wage workers whose fate is of moral concern is the one that happens to have been born in this country. If you were born in the Dominican Republic or the Philippines or Mexico, your much more severe poverty is not a problem for us to solve or even to be concerned with.
Now that is a position one could take. But it is not, by any definition I acknowledge, a liberal position. It is a nationalist position. T.A. Frank and anyone else is welcome to take the view that American lives and American welfare are just categorically more important than the lives and welfare of non-Americans, but they ought to be more clear about it. We already have an amply-represented nationalist tendency in our politics. We don't need to re-label it as "liberalism."
Now nation-states are what they are and public policy is what it is. There are unavoidable practical and moral limits on implementing the conviction that the value of human life is independent of one's place of birth. But letting people come here to exchange their labor for money and their money for goods and services and to do it all in a place where the quality of governance is higher, schools are better, and infrastructure is more productive is one of the least difficult and least costly ways to alleviate poverty for non-Americans. It's more effective than foreign aid, more effective than trying to badger developing countries into cracking down on corruption, more effective than invading a country and doing some nation-building. As a bonus, it dramatically enriches the existing American economy (in aggregate--that no one denies) in a way that allows even the worst possible (though hardly certain) outcomes for the native working class to be alleviated through fiscal transfers. Frank points out that the safety net is a tough sell when you have lots of immigrants about, but a politics based on (largely ethnic) nationalism is not exactly serving the safety net well now, and it's impossible to imagine a nationalist victory on immigration reform that is paired with a more-generous development of the safety net or stronger labor laws.
Lest anyone think of this view as a kind of new-fangled cosmopolitan version of liberalism, I would maintain that it comes from the oldest source: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:34). As Marilynne Robinson (among others) has persuasively argued, this is where American liberalism--not its stingier European homonym--really began: in the Old Testament's commands to deal generously with immigrants, widows, the landless, freed slaves, and other people who could plausibly be treated, and so often have been, as competitors for scarce national resources.
So by all means, work and argue and advocate for the interests of the native-born working class. But if your case for doing so requires ignoring entirely the moral claims of poor people in other countries, please don't call it liberalism.
Saturday, May 18, 2013 The Unwalled City
My column for the latest issue of Let's Talk is up, on the body, solidarity, and the Boston bombing:
We are perhaps now so accustomed to the “security theater” that has characterized the twelve years of the War on Terror that we have lost sight of the essential vulnerability in which we live. There is a small kind of nobility in the creation of so many “hard targets” such as federal buildings, as if a truck-bomber wouldn’t settle for blowing up the office tower across the street if the reinforced-concrete flower planters thwarted his plan to blow up the place where Social Security checks get printed. But we ourselves are the ultimate soft target. As social beings we like to congregate. We might endure security theater — the ostentatious, if practically dubious, display of anti-terror muscle — at some already unpleasant and unsociable venue like an airport. But until we give up our desire to test ourselves, body and soul, against our limits, and to do it in a pulsing, cheering crowd of our fellow bodies, we cannot be assured that our very desire for embodiment and union won’t be used as a kind of weapon. We human beings, as Lucretius put it, live in an unwalled city.
Read the whole thing! posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:40 PM
Thursday, May 16, 2013 Juvenilia
While cleaning my Augean Stable of personal papers, I came across a poem of sorts that must date from my first year at the University of Chicago (my third year of college):
Every day I cooked breakfast.
I was up long before the sun, making biscuits
Sausages, waffles, hash browns.
I cut up fruit, kneaded dough, cooked grits.
She never came to breakfast, and that made me sad. I worked so hard!
"I can't get up that early," she said.
So I brought breakfast to her room.
Waffles with strawberries and whipped cream,
Pancakes with syrup and scrambled eggs
Biscuits and sausages with gravy.
She at the food slowly and smiled at me.
Every night, when I was about to fall asleep over my books, she shook me awake.
"Let's go to the reservoir."
We skipped stones on the water
Under the moon.
Then I would go to bed, and wake up, and bring her breakfast.
And now I can't look at fresh strawberries
Or biscuits rising in the oven
Or a stone skipping across moonlit water
Without thinking of her.
I remember my awkward stabs at verse, few as they have been, with painful clarity. The only interesting thing about this little scrap of juvenilia is that I can't remember writing it. Who was it about? I don't know, not that there were many candidates around March of 2001. Was it about a person at all? Maybe it was an abstraction, like Poetry or Philosophy? I was probably re-reading Boethius at the time, so that's possible. I was working as a cook, but only making dinners. Why was breakfast on my mind? My last encounter with a reservoir had happened two years earlier at Deep Springs, and I don't recall skipping stones into it.
One of the good reasons for writing as much as you can think to do it is that you can surprise yourself in this way. The answers to the questions this doodle raised for me when I found it, a dozen years after writing it, would only diminish the interest it holds for me. We experience more things and think more thoughts than we can ever write down, and we can write down far more than we'll ever otherwise remember. Our lives as we remember them are composites into which even those things we might preserve in our minds do not always fit and do not thus always find a place. At the time, though, it would be very curious to think, "this is a rather dreary and lost time of my life in which I will write some undistinguished poetry before becoming a Christian." Stashing some artefacts about can help you to have a little compassion on, and a little curiosity about, those past selves whose chief duty was to become you. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:20 AM
Wednesday, April 10, 2013 Theologian and Martyr (1945)
Last fall I was on the bus to Hyde Park, preparing to lead a class discussion on preaching and politics, when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last surviving letter to his parents, from February, 1945:
I'm also writing today because of the People's Sacrifice. I would like to ask you to take complete control of my things. I'm told that even a dinner jacket would be accepted; please give mine away; also a 'pepper and salt' suit which is too small for me and a pair of brown shoes; you, mother, now know better than I do what I still have. In short, give away whatever anyone might need, and don't give it another thought. [emphasis original] If you have any doubts about anything, you might perhaps telephone Commissar Sonderegger! The last two years have taught me how little we can get along with... [elipsis original]
In the inactivity of a long imprisonment one has above all a great need to do whatever is possible for the general good within the narrow limits that are imposed. You'll be able to understand that. When one thinks how many people lose everything each day, one really has no claim on possessions of any kind....[elipsis added]
Now for a few more requests: unfortunately there were no books handed in here for me today; Commissar Sonderegger would be willing to accept them every now and then if Maria could bring them. I should be very grateful for them. There were no matches, face-cloths, or towels this time. Excuse my mentioning that; everything else was splendid. Could I please have some tooth-paste and a few coffee beans? Father, could you get me fromt he library Leinhard and Abendstunden eines Einsiedlers by H. Pestalozzi, Sozialpadagogik by P. Natorp, and Plutarch's Lives of Great Men?
I'm getting on all right. Do keep well. Many thanks for everything.
With all my heart, your grateful Dietrich
Please leave some writing paper with the Commissar!
I was most likely rather short on sleep, having tried conscientiously both to do my job as a pastor during Advent and to lead the discussion as the guest practitioner in the Divinity School's worship and homiletics course, so it is perhaps not too surprising that this letter left me hopelessly in tears as the hospital express rolled down Roosevelt Road and onto Lakeshore Drive and again an hour later as I wrapped up my little introduction to the day's readings with this same passage.
Yesterday, April 9th, was the 68th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's execution and hence the day of his commemoration by Lutheran churches (and others) around the world. I am sure there is no theologian of the last one hundred years who has been as influential for me personally, and there are very few who have been more influential for theology and the life of the church generally. His major works are all indispensable in their own ways, partly by being so hard to categorize--Creation and Fall, [The Cost of] Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics (unfinished)--but his Letters and Papers from Prison constitute a testament that is at once revolutionary as theology, significant as history, and profound as literature. In it he raises, fearlessly and beautifully, the questions that, to our own day, haunt a church that in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations is still too obsessed with a fruitless search for moral and philosophical foundations and too timid in facing the history through which it has lived.
Bonhoeffer inspired succeeding generations of badly declined admirers (including yours truly), but that's not his fault. There has perhaps never been a theologian as great as Aquinas--as dominant in his command of his tradition's central texts, as imaginative in his synthesis of source materials, as creative and poetic in his image of the world--and he spawned centuries of utterly worthless imitators. That is the cruel penalty history imposes upon genius: the great ones get pureed, by the imprecise future, with their pale progeny. Calvin and Luther could no doubt sympathize. But no one that I know quite captured, or even really tried to, Bonhoeffer's odd stance in the world. Not that it's easy to do. One can't just make oneself into the scion of a brilliant aristocratic German family, blessed with a library that may be called upon at will even from a Nazi prison (into which one can't simply will oneself nowadays either). As a consequence of his historical circumstances and his peculiar genius, Bonhoeffer became a sort of conservative radical. He lamented the immorality and evanescence of popular culture even as he lit the fuse of a massive bomb underneath the remnants of Christendom theology.
And I would argue, in any case, that there was and is nothing incoherent about that stance in the modern world. The calling of a theologian is not normally a heroic one in the usual sense of the word. Don't get me wrong; it is heroic in a rather less ordinary way. I tend to agree with Luther when he says that it is not by studying but by living, dying, and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian. A great theologian is a hero of the mind, someone who sees farther, deeper, or more generously than the world sees. Bonhoeffer was most definitely that. But he was also a hero of the world, albeit a comparatively minor one. He faced his age and his fate with the resignation of a Roman senator, the pity of a Christian monastic, and the unifying vision of a Romantic poet.
That final letter made me think back to an earlier letter to his confidant Eberhardt Bethge in which he remembers Jean Lasserre, a friend from his Union Seminary year. Lasserre (Bonhoeffer does not mention him by name) aspired to become a saint. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, aspired to have faith. What strikes me so deeply in that final letter is that the two aspirations are, ultimately, the same. The saint, like the killed and resurrected person of faith, knows deeply how little we really require and how little claim we have in a world of need. They each come, perhaps by different paths, to the same place of sorrow transfigured, by grace, into a love for their fellow humans that knows no earthly bound. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:44 PM
Tuesday, April 09, 2013 The Budget's Via Dolorosa
With the president's policy people having semi-officially endorsed the idea of cutting Social Security benefits to a resounding cry of "dead on arrival" from Republicans, I can't resist pointing out that this is a rare area in which I've managed to call the politics pretty presciently. Here we are, back in the dreadful summer of 2011, asking why Republicans are insisting on free falafel. And here we are looking at the politics of this from the Democrats' side of the aisle.
Certain stable facts of American life have been neglected by the Washington media in understanding what is going on with these never-ending budget battles.
1) Republican voters don't want cuts to retirement programs, at least not for themselves.
2) Neither do Democratic voters.
3) But Democratic Party leaders are in many cases interested in fiscal consolidation for its own sake and are eager to cut retirement programs.
4) Republican Party leaders are absolutely unwilling to get more revenue from upper-income people.
I just don't see any way a deal gets done under these circumstances.
The somewhat more interesting, and perhaps tractable, question is why can't American politics be sorted any differently than this? Why do progressivity on the revenue side and ambition on the spending side have to go together, and vice versa? Yglesias got at this recently by wondering why Republicans, instead of promising to slash spending in order to cut taxes on rich people, don't promise to slash spending in order to cut taxes on middle-class people. For the overwhelming majority of Americans there is no actual trade-off between public services like police, schools, and retirement insurance and income lost to the top tax rate. On the other hand, if stingier public services could fund tax cuts aimed at the median and below, voters who aren't ideologically or demographically aligned with the conservative coalition would have a choice to make. You like well-funded schools, but do you like them more than spending more money in a manner of your own choosing?
On the other hand, Democrats have made the question of who pays for new or growing public needs inseparable from whether those needs are genuine. A new cost that is not borne by wealthy people is not, apparently, a cost worth paying. Politically this is smarter than the Republicans' gambit--who doesn't want stuff paid for by other people?--but it comes at a serious cost. For one thing, it feeds an anti-government, anti-public sector ideology among wealthy people, who are in actual fact every bit as likely to benefit from a strong public sector as middle-class people. For another, it suggests to voters at the median that public spending is only worthwhile if they're not paying for it, which is not true even from the standpoint of progressive distributional concerns. Good schools, good roads, and secure retirements have a strongly progressive impact even if they are funded in a flatter manner than the present tax code.
I have attempted to sum up this state of affairs with this crude chart. And my question is, why isn't anyone trying to occupy those empty quadrants?