Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth....By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy....Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

These are the words of Stephen M. Walt, Harvard professor and co-author of The Israel Lobby, in an excellent Foreign Policy article entitled The Myth of American Exceptionalism, here.

Walt identifies 5 of the pleasant lies we tell ourselves:

1. There is Something Exceptional about American Exceptionalism.

2. The United States Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do.

3. America's Success is Due to its Special Genius.

4. The United States is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World.

5. God Is on Our Side.

We are now one year and 6 days away from the 2012 presidential election. Expect to hear much about American Exceptionalism, whoever the GOP nominee turns out to be (though it will be Romney.) He will accuse President Obama of not believing in AE, and he will be wrong. Both parties completely buy into the idea, though using different language to express it.

Walt's article is superb, a much-needed corrective to our conventional mindset.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Way We Live Now

I have attended two conferences in recent weeks--one in Frisco, Texas and the other in Chicago. The first was the annual state convention of my profession. As I teach a couple of required courses in our local university, my presence was expected. (And the fact that my two nights at the Embassy Suites would be covered tended to sweeten the deal.) The second conference was the annual gathering of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America. The use of frequent flyer miles brought this meeting within the arc of affordability. Two more disparate gatherings could not be imagined.

Frisco lies at the far north edge of a conglomeration of burgeoning suburban cities we used to simply refer to as North Dallas. When it comes to runaway growth, Frisco is in a class by itself. In 1990, the town boasted 6,000 residents. Today, the population has surpassed 120,000.

Though I have lived my entire life in rural, semi-rural and small-town settings, I tend to enjoy urban areas. Dallas and environs, however, is not a favorite. I appreciate those cities with lively downtowns and that promote and protect distinctive neighborhoods. Dallas suffers on both counts. The city has few real neighborhoods for its size, with the truly interesting ones hidden away in the struggling southern and eastern sectors--not in the north where all the growth is heading. Dallas is making strides in downtown revitalization, though here again, there is an artificiality to it all, as opposed to their neighbor to the west, Fort Worth.

Frisco seems to suffer from over planning. The area around the convention center/hotel was pastureland ten years previously. Now, freeways and wide, divided esplanades splice through the black land, blocking off the shopping centers, malls, office parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues of various sorts--all set far back with acres of parking in front. Everything is carefully landscaped, to be sure.

Outside of the old town core, Frisco tends towards walled enclaves of ugly, two-story, cheaply-constructed-to-the-naked-eye brick veneer jobs jammed up alongside each other on tiny lots, or walled enclaves of back-to-back McMansionas Texiana. One area gated development opted for a different, though unintentionally hilarious look, dubbing itself "Savannah," complete with Lowland architecture and imported palms. All this on the tree-less black lands of North Texas, a stone's throw from the Red River. Frisco is an almost totally planned city and has won numerous awards and all, but I couldn't help thinking to myself--they did this on purpose? The city is absolutely incomprehensible without use of the automobile. People jog, but they don't walk. There is no where to walk to. My last night there, somewhat in protest, I left my truck in the parking garage and walked a half-mile down the street to an El Salvadoran restaurant.

There will eventually be a limit to this growth. According to those who study these things, the city of Frisco will have a population of 280,000 when it is "built out." To the north, the small community of Prosper is all set to be the "next Frisco." Beyond that, there is the Red River and Oklahoma, where all things Texan come to a screeching stop.

Other than changing planes at O'Hare, I had not been to Chicago since 1987. The conference venue was DePaul University in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The hotel for the conference was 10 blocks east, on the West edge of the park. I was in for a pleasant surprise in my accommodations. The Belden-Stratford is a 14-story 1922 hotel, complete with grand lobby. 80% of the building is given over to apartments, while the remaining 20% are offered as hotel rooms. A mistake was made in my reservations, so they had to put me in one of the vacant apartments. So, instead of a single hotel room, I ended up in a 1200 square foot two bedroom, two and a half bath, living room, dining room, full kitchen corner suite, with East views overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, and South views overlooking the Chicago skyline. I almost hated to leave the room.

The weather was perfect, crisp temperatures and without a cloud in the sky. The walk to and from the conference each day gave me opportunity to check out the neighborhood. Lincoln Park is one of those districts that has been pretty thoroughly gentrified. Being so close to downtown, it is a desirable locale, and property values reflect that. I am quite sure I could not afford to live here. The homes and apartments differed enough from one another to keep the walk interesting. I noticed that many of the residences boasted large picture windows, and most had their shades open where one could see the artwork and/or decorative items they were sharing with those on the sidewalk. While I liked this, I found it different from most streetscapes, where the blinds are kept closed.

DePaul is a Catholic university where the student body appeared earnest and well-scrubbed. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, met an old acquaintance or two, and even made a few new friends among the academe. The field of Byzantine studies is a rarefied little world if there ever was one. But what a fascinating world it is! Many of the papers were read by graduate students. I wish them all well, though I wonder where they think the jobs will be.

One night, we were all bussed out to the University of Chicago for a lecture. The drive out there, south along Lakeshore Drive as it wrapped around downtown Chicago, was worth the trip. The campus was something to see, as well. The venue that night was the Oriental Institute, where we listened to a talk delivered in an old wood-paneled lecture hall, complete with red leather theatre seats. Afterwards, they treated us with a reception in the exhibit hall, replete with Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian displays. The lamassu there, from the palace of Sargon II, was even more impressive than the one in the Louve. (I'm being a little pretentious here. A lamassu is one of those Assyrian winged horses with a human head. And no, I did not know what the word meant either until I read the sign next to the display.)

We enjoyed a reception at Cortelyou Commons the last night of the conference, where two association officers re-enacted a scene from the play, Theodora. There, I had occasion to speak briefly with Daniel Larison, whose writings I seem to constantly extol on these pages.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to squeeze in a visit to a local Irish pub (Kelley's, established 1933.) Meeting two fellow Orthodox bloggers while in Chicago was an especial treat--as was my visit to Christ the Savior Orthodox Church (OCA.) The temple was located 1.7 miles south of my hotel, and this made a nice Sunday morning walk. The church is in what was once a turn-of-the century Presbyterian church that eventually disbanded. Our Savior's got an incredible deal on the building, as well as the mansion house next door, which serves as their hall. The iconography in the church is almost finished and is beautifully done. I estimated 85-100 at Divine Liturgy, heavily represented by younger families with children. That is usually a good sign, I think.

The Rich Man and Lazarus was the subject of the homily for that particular Sunday. I remember that the priest brought out the fact that the Rich Man (whose name we do not even know) failed to see Lazarus (whose name is preserved for eternity) as a brother. The sermon hit home with me because of an incident that had happened only the day before. I was walking west on Belden, approaching the commercial area at the Clark Street intersection. A disheveled-looking man was standing on the sidewalk ahead, just outside the 7-Eleven. I could tell that he was what we call a "street person." He had a few bags on the ground and his old coat was pulled up over his head. As I approached, I was going over in my mind what I would do if he asked for money. Of course I would give him some, if asked, but then I was wondering if I had any small bills on me and that sort of thing. When I drew even with him, I tried to avoid eye contact and he did not say anything. Phew, I thought, problem solved. A block further on, I saw a man walking his two pugs. I am a pug person, and so I smiled broadly and stopped to admire the two dogs. As I walked on, the enormity of what I had just done hit me squarely in the face. I had shown great affection towards these two pampered pets. And yet, I had failed to recognize Christ in the face of my poor brother on the street corner. I had missed my chance. There was nothing to do now but to repent and try to do better next time. The following morning, before striking off to church, I made sure I had some money in my right pants pocket, just in case. A few blocks before I reached the church, a woman stopped me and asked if I could help her with bus fare. This time I was ready. My gracious Lord had given me a second chance.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Of Icarus and Other Things

I'm still having trouble getting back into the groove of blogging. Last weekend, I attended a convention in the suburban wastelands north of Dallas. This coming weekend, I will be at a conference in Chicago. That contrast ought to give me something to write about. In the meantime, I have enjoyed the following:

So Beinart has come to admire historical figures who might once have stood as correctives to his own facile brilliance—who have a deep knowledge of specific countries, a healthy respect for other people’s nationalism, a skepticism toward claims of disinterested morality in the conduct of foreign policy, and an aversion to war except as a last resort. Kennan once set out to write a biography of Chekhov; as Beinart dryly observes, “Bush sent a man to run Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, who had never before been posted to the Arab world. To grasp the intellectual chasm between American foreign policy toward the U.S.S.R. in 1946 and American foreign policy toward Iraq in 2003, one need only try to envision Bremer writing a biography of an Iraqi writer, or, for that matter, being able to name one.”

...Beinart outlines a number of the early-warning signs that a spell of myopia is about to deliver a catastrophe: doctrinaire mental habits, belief in preordained success, contempt for the counsel of allies, pervasive fear of threats, refusal to prioritize enemies. Americans have been especially vulnerable to irrational surges in national faith, because of an improbable combination: they’ve acquired the supreme strength of an imperial power without relinquishing their original claim—whether from God or the Declaration of Independence—to speak for freedom-seeking people everywhere. As a consequence, Americans like to imagine that they are acting without self-interest. It’s tough to get them to do anything overseas, including going to war, without telling them that something higher is at stake. This national character has, on balance, brought great benefits to the rest of the world. Beinart’s incontrovertible theme is that it has also brought great tragedies.

Review by George Packer of Roger Beinart's The Icarus Syndrome.

Why is there not a literalist, fundamentalist reading of the Year of Jubilee? an economic moment of the cancellation of debt? a restoration of the old property lines? A built-in systemic revulsion of servitude and slavery?

Or is at economics when right-wing fundamentalists decide to become allegorical all at once? Or when they become conveniently dispensational?

That is, when all difficult moral choices are put off to the millennium?

Why are all difficult moral choices that are put off economical? Socio-economical?

Why did the "reformation" adopt such a secularistic model of sola scriptura? Was the Calvinistic economic model of the rich getting rich off of usury so precious, that it was worth severing Christian consciousness from the Rule of the Saints?

Good questions from Fr. Jonathan Tobias at Second Terrace.

Blond said the modern Left and the modern Right have remarkably much in common. I know it sounds odd, but it’s true.” He said New Left in the 1960s promoted liberalization from traditional moral norms to emancipate individual desires. Then the New Right that followed promoted liberalization from economic strictures. What’s happened has been a social disaster, especially for the poor. The only people who have made out fine have been the wealthy. Blond had a great line about he morality of the sexually libertine left, when applied to economics by the economically libertine right:

“It produced an economy where people thought you could screw each other and everybody would get rich.”

Phillip Blond by way of Rod Dreher (h/t Teetotaler)

The great difficulty is the knowledge of God that is proper to the Christian journey of faith, is that is not sought as knowledge, per se. It comes to us as insight, sometimes suddenly and unexpected, but it comes as the fruit of humility and penance in our lives. The proud do not know God for we are told that “God resists the proud.” Humility is a very difficult struggle, for we learn ourselves to be lower than others rather than greater. This is a great mystery for we are surrounded by those whom we would easily judge to be less than ourselves and greater sinners than ourselves. However, in the truth that is revealed by the light of the Kingdom of God, this is simply not the case. That Holy Light reveals us to be less than others and the least worthy of God’s good favor.

…We hate and fear our own failure when it confronts us and scurry about to find something with which to cover our mistakes. This is the scurrying of Adam and Eve as they sought to cover themselves falsely from the presence of God. Humility would embrace such God-given moments (our failures) not to shame ourselves, but because in such moments our hearts are broken and far more able to see God.

…However, God does not wish to crush us, to break us beyond all recognition. He is, after all, a kind God.

Embrace the failings that come naturally as we are humbled before ourselves and others. Flee from pride and stubbornness. Beware of being “right.” Give thanks for all things, in all circumstances, and always. God will make Himself known.

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Knowing God (again h/t Teetotaler)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis

I have been requested to help spread the word about the recent publication of Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis, offered by Protecting Veil Press. I became an enthusiast of Papadiamandis upon reading The Boundless Garden about two years ago. Little of his work is available in English, so this reasonably-priced volume should be a welcome addition, as well as an introduction to those unfamiliar with Papadiamandis. I understand that this current publication contains two short stories, one from The Boundless Garden and another previously unpublished in English.

Herman A. Middleton, the translator, guest posted about Papadiamandis at Byzantine TX on September 30, and at Eighth Day on October 4. Future posts will be at Biblicalia at on October 6 and Mystagogy on October 11.

I hope that more and more American Orthodox readers (and non-Orthodox, for that matter) will become familiar with Papadiamandis and his work. We will certainly profit from doing so. I also want to express my appreciation to Herman for his commitment to this project.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Busy, Churchy Week

My blogging activity has been at a low ebb lately. That is usually a sign that real life is intruding onto the unreality of online life. Perhaps that is the case with me. I devote more time trying to keep my business afloat, as well as attending to my second and third jobs--teaching a couple of classes at two local colleges. In addition, this has been a particularly eventful week in church, with two extra Liturgies and a 3-day lecture series we hosted with Fr. Demetrios Carellas.

Before Liturgy last Sunday, I found myself in the strange position of giving a talk to the "old folks class" at First Presbyterian Church in the city. I do not have a Calvinist bone in my body, though many of my oldest and closest friends are of that persuasion. I do not understand it and it has never appealed to me in any way. My best friend would wryly observe, no doubt, that I was predestined not to understand. [And this reminds of my favorite line about Calvinism: In the movie Cold Comfort Farm, Calvinist preacher Amos Starkadder, portrayed by Ian McKellan, proclaims right before he leaves town: "The Lord will provide.....or not.....depending on His whim."]

My tie to the Presbyterian Sunday School class is two lifelong friends who are the youngest members of this class. They had been studying church history a bit, I think, and had been focusing on "religious art" through the ages. In so doing, they finished up with Byzantine icons and iconography. My friend suggested that I come and talk to them about iconography, the Orthodox mission in our city, and, ahem, my journey to Orthodoxy. I say this with some trepidation because I was trained-up online under the stern tutelage of the old Ochlophobist blog during its glory days. Those of us who hung on every word there were shamed away from the convert stories on the tip of our lips. Seemingly, it was a slippery slope--once you had posted a "journey" story, then before you knew it, you would find yourself listening to Fr. Peter Gillquist on AFR and wearing Get to Know the Original tee-shirts. I jest a bit a bit at Owen's expense here, but he did discipline many of us away from posting self-centered and silly convert stories. But what do you do if someone actually asks? In that case, I think you have to comply, and so I did.

I talked with them a little about iconography, concentrating mainly on what it is not. Apparently, they viewed it as just an exotic form of religious decoration, so we had to start from scratch. As it turns out, while iconography was the excuse, what they really wanted to hear was how a Church of Christ elder from East Texas ended up in the Holy Orthodox Church. I told the story as well as I could within the time constraints. I'm not going to post it here, but if anyone is interested they can email me and I will forward a transcript. The class was a congenial bunch and the talk seemed well-received, though I suspect a presentation on most anything would have fit the bill for them.

I attended lectures Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night at our mission by Fr. Demetrios Carellas. He is a noted speaker, I think, in Orthodox circles, and is the spiritual father of our priest. The topics were Faith, Hope and Love. The talks were excellent and well-attended. Fr. Demetrios is warm-hearted and a delightful man to know. We videotaped the sessions, and I hope to post links here to all three in the near future.

Friday night, after Vespers, I attended a talk by Ken Myers at Sylvania Church in the city. As many may know, Myers is the man behind Mars Hill Audio. He is well-known nationally, and the lecture should have attracted more people than it did. Sylvania Church is a former Baptist Church that dropped the B-word, though they still have The Baptist Hymnal in the back of each pew. They emphasize that they are Reformed, and have elders, so this is not a typical Southern Baptist congregation. Everyone seemed well-scrubbed and earnest. The young men would clasp your hand in a firm handshake and smile broadly at the same time. It has been a while since I visited an evangelical church and I had forgotten some of the routine. The lecture series was entitled Abandoning God's Gifts: The Tragedy of Modern Suspicion about Beauty. The specific talk I attended was Life, the Universe and Everything: Why the Gospel means more than a ticket to Heaven. Myers himself is Presbyterian. He conveyed a good grasp of the topic and I found myself in agreement with much of what he had to say. His audience listened intently, talking copious notes all along. But it was a little sad, I thought, for it all seemed just another abstract intellectual construct. In coming weeks, no doubt, they will appoint a committee to investigate how they can incorporate beauty into their services.

Liturgies on Monday morning and Friday night finished out my week in church--that, and a Catholic funeral on Friday afternoon, where the priest delivered as beautiful a homily as I have ever heard.