Things in a Museum

Some time ago I accompanied some students to a museum on a field trip when I encountered a harried-looking adult wearing a “Chaperone” sticker for another school.  Evidently he had gotten separated from his pack, but he didn’t seem to mind too terribly.  He had the thousand-yard stare of a man utterly defeated.  When I asked if he was supervising another group he chuckled, “You think so?  I have no idea what we’re doing or why we brought them here.”

I am proud of my students.  I have had 8th graders show far more interest on trips to museums than seniors from other high-schools I have witnessed, and yet even they have well-set limits.  The Walters Gallery in Baltimore is a wonderful museum.  Alas, at some point the students inevitably conk out and don’t care how old or rare a particular painting or artifact may be.  Any pleading or begging I might have attempted would only be met with the same thousand-yard stare I saw from the hapless chaperone.

And yet, these same students had endless energy on the bus ride for variously animated discussions on the merits of Panera or the next Avengers movie.

Now, this is not to say that I blame them at all.  I stand firmly by my appreciation for them.  But this experience of mine surely has a universality to it, experienced not just by every teacher that takes students to a museum, but anyone who has visited museums like this.  Why does “museum fatigue” set in so quickly not just for students, but for all of us?

The most obvious answer that comes to mind is that no one argues that museums are the ideal setting for such things.  To take a small thing and remove it from its context, putting it in a hushed room with lots of other things removed from their original context, surely limits their power.

I doubt that even museum curators would disagree with this, but I’m convinced this only begins to answer the question.

What makes the Walters a great place is that it packs a great deal into a small space.  Even if you wanted to linger, in about 3 hours you could go from ancient Egypt through the 1800’s in Europe and see the sweep of human culture.  And this led me to some thoughts as to why we have such a hard time engaging with the past. When you move through the Walters you can see a dramatic shift in the art and culture of different periods.  Almost everything from ancient Egypt has a direct religious purpose and is crafted with direct religious symbolism. Babylon is similar, though Assyria less so. You don’t always see the same direct ‘religiosity’ in Greece and Rome but it’s still there more often than we might think.  In the medieval world nearly everything had a distinct religious meaning, and a rich symbolic world lay behind most of what we saw with our eyes. The art from Egypt through the medieval world generally had this same quality–layers within layers of meaning that would have been intuitively obvious to those who lived in those times.  Of course the forms that they expressed this richness of symbolic meaning changed, but they all shared (more or less) in having this tapestry.

But beginning in the Renaissance (with more realistic depictions?, more overt interest in the natural world?) and sharply accelerating in the 17th century, we begin to see a dramatic shift. We could argue about why this happened (the Reformation was often iconoclastic, the Scientific Revolution happened, etc.) but that it happened is perfectly obvious.  In the 17th century and beyond we see a focus on the natural world. The ‘layers’ of meaning so obvious in centuries prior seem absent. The tree is just a tree, the man is just a man. If the layers are there they are no longer part of a general cultural understanding, but have to be supplied via individual interpretation.  

If one thinks students incapable of finding layers of meaning within images, simply observe the world of memes.  Here one witnesses students discovering whole worlds within stock cultural images.  Alas that these meanings and references remain almost entirely self-referential within a shallow cultural context.  Still, the staying power of memes surely has something to do with the joy and satisfaction they take in discovering and creating these endless loops of meaning.  So, while in my snooty and grumpy way I generally look down upon meme culture, I suppose I should see glimmers of hope that students not only can see such layers, but also enjoy finding them.

This led to some other thoughts and possible realizations.

Many have noted and lamented the decline of the influence of the text in our society, and we can point to a variety of causes for this.  No one questions that this will create a different kind of culture and eventually a new way of understanding.  The shift may be painful, but will we end up worse off?  In the “Phaedrus” Socrates recalls the Egyptian myth of Thamus and Theuth, in which the merits of writing are contested by Thamus.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, “This,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. “

Thamus replied: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Of course Egypt had writing, but even that writing was highly symbolic.  They had an overwhelmingly visual culture but achieved a very high level of civilization for millennia.  The Gothic age also had writing, but one suspects that this writing was not fashioned primarily to be read:

Though it may not be quite as obvious to some, their highly visual and religiously oriented society achieved quite a high-level of civilization.*  Their perception was more immediate.

As an example of our poverty of perception surrounding images and meaning, I refer to the famous “ichthus” symbol for Christianity.  One sees this symbol many places, and who can miss the scintillating war of fish magnets/Darwin fish magnets/anti-Darwin fish magnets on the bumpers of cars?  Though the symbol has been around in modern perception since the 1970’s, I never heard anything about the symbol except that the Greek letters for “fish” resemble the letters for “Christ.”  Of course one might also think of the direct reference to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, or the fact that some of the apostles were fisherman before they met Jesus.

But the indirect symbolic meaning has much greater depth and wholeness.  To quote Leonid Ouspensky,

The first and most essential meaning of the fish is therefore Jesus Christ Himself.  Some ancient writers occasionally call our Lord, “the Heavenly fish.  We find the image of a boat, symbol of the Church, carried by a fish: the Church rests on Christ its founder.  To represent Christ in the midst of Christians united in baptism, little fishes surrounded by a large fish were often portrayed [in early Christian art].  “We are little fish,” Tertullian writes [ca. A.D. 200], “we are born in water like our fish Jesus Christ, and can only be saved by staying in the water.”**  Thus, the symbolism of fish leads back to that of water, that is, to baptism.”

Here we see a whole history, a whole theological understanding, a whole world to explore.  We must recover this sense of the “things” we see if we wish to re-enchant ourselves.

Dave

 

*The great Kenneth Clark ranks 12th century Europe as one of the great ages of the history of civilization.  John Anthony West, a devoted reinterpreter of Egyptian civilization, makes an interesting comparison between Gothic cathedrals and Egyptian temples.  While he is not a Christian, and seems perhaps slightly tilted against it in general, he admitted that the Gothic cathedrals communicate something directly to the soul.

**Hence the practice of annointing oneself with holy water as one enters and leaves some churches, not so much as a reminder of this, but as a way of connecting to these truths.

 

 

 

 

Danton Democracy

I originally published this in 2013, and repost it in light of our study of the French Revolution.  Apologies for any dated information on the ACA . . .

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It took a while, but I finally came across an article on the ACA (also called “Obamacare”) that I resonated with.  Ross Douthat does not need to argue that the law will destroy civilization as we know it.  He admits that many will probably benefit from the law.  But in the final analysis (if coming to a final analysis even possible with such a ridiculously complex piece of legislation), he writes.

Now an effective levy of several thousand dollars on the small fraction of middle class Americans who buy on the individual market is not history’s great injustice. But neither does it seem like the soundest or most politically stable public policy arrangement. And to dig back into the position where I do strongly disagree with Cohn’s perspective, what makes this setup potentially more perverse is that it raises rates most sharply on precisely those Americans who up until now were doing roughly what we should want more health insurance purchasers to do: Economizing, comparison shopping, avoiding paying for coverage they don’t need, and buying a level of insurance that covers them in the event of a true disaster while giving them a reason not to overspend on everyday health expenses.

If we want health inflation to stay low and health care costs to be less of an anchor on advancement, we should want more Americans making $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 to spend less upfront on health insurance, rather than using regulatory pressure to induce them to spend more. And seen in that light, the potential problem with Obamacare’s regulation-driven “rate shock” isn’t that it doesn’t let everyone keep their pre-existing plans. It’s that it cancels plans, and raises rates, for people who were doing their part to keep all of our costs low.

You can find the full article here.

The article does not fully address my two ‘gut-level’ objections to the law:

  • Many well-intentioned government servants believe that they have found the ‘solution’ to problems that have heretofore eluded society.  Thus, they see only the positive and never realize the cost of certain kinds of legislation.
  • More specifically, the health care system already involved a great deal of physical complexity laid over top of a myriad of individual financial and moral choices.  Government action, almost by definition in cases like this, would almost certainly gum up the works and unintentionally create problems, even those they could not foresee.

I thought of the health care controversy as I read David Lawday’s enjoyable biography Danton: The Giant of the French Revolution.  Danton’s outsized personality stands in sharp contrast to the cold Robespierre, who eventually turned on Danton and had him executed.  Their faces tell the whole story:

georges_danton

 

Robespierre

Danton styled himself a man of the people.  He claimed to truly understand the people, for he (and not Robespierre) thought and acted like one of them.  He laughed, enjoyed food, women, and friends.  Thus, as he had a seat in government and understood the people, he naturally assumed that government action would work to benefit the people and help fulfill their wishes.  The video below may not reflect an actual historical meeting between  Danton and Robespierre, but it accurately depicts the different personalities of them both.

One can easily get drawn into Danton’s huge personality, but we should remember that he sanctioned horrible butcheries both before and after the fact, in the name of the people.  Danton was not a thinker.  He did not inscribe his speeches, he wrote few letters (that have survived at least), and so we know little of his motivations.  Lawday allows himself to make his best guesses, and paints a portrait of a man who had no love for violence per se, but believed he could successfully manage it once unleashed.  He later seemed to change his mind about this during the Reign of Terror, and this shift factored into his execution.

Unfortunately Danton’s greatest legacy to the Revolution was the Revolutionary Tribunal, the government’s supreme tool in legitimizing political murder on a mass scale.  Danton had some good motives in starting the tribunal.  He saw the random destruction engaged in by “the people,” and thought that direct government action would relieve the masses of the burden of imposing justice, or at least their version of justice.  This in turn would limit the violence that plagued the Revolution, for government would surely exercise more restraint and wisdom than the masses.  In a speech advocating for the establishment of the tribunal he reportedly said, “Let us be terrible, so they do not have to be.”

Tragically, the Tribunal simply gave legitimacy to the worst impulses of the Revolution, and the amount of deaths and imprisonments skyrocketed.  This same tribunal eventually tried Danton himself and found him guilty without allowing Danton to call any witnesses for his defense.

The ACA and the Revolutionary Tribunal remain vastly different things.  I hesitate to include mention of them both in the same post, for in 99 out of 100 ways they have nothing to do with each other.

But they do share one thing in common–they both spring from the mistaken belief that government can enter a complicated situation and with a wave of a wand make everything alright.  It usually fails to work, even with the best of intentions.

On the subject of good intentions, Marginal Revolution posted a link with this abstract. . .

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal?  Why bother?

Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I fear nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.

Dave

 

*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.