Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Winter’s Tale

Reading The Winter’s Tale this week reinforced my sense that Shakespeare, in his last years as a playwright, was worried about the power of a dramatist to influence people’s passions and make them believe falsehoods. In both The Winter’s Tale (1610-11) and The Tempest (1611-12), this power is seen as political and as morally ambiguous. The issues that concern Shakespeare remain alive today, although now the medium that is most problematic is film rather than live theater.

The Winter’s Tale has a fantastical plot. It’s a fairy-tale, involving an abandoned and miraculously rediscovered princess, a talking statue, and even a bear that appears without warning and devours a significant character. Whereas Shakespeare took most of his plots from purported works of history, this one was obviously a fiction–both because it was unbelievable and because the original authors were recent Englishmen. Only The Tempest belongs as clearly to the category of fiction.

One problem with telling a fictional story in an engaging way is that you thereby make people believe what is not true. This power has often made moralists uncomfortable. According to Plutarch, when the very first tragedies were performed, Solon attended and asked Thespis, the first playwright, “if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people.”

In Shakespeare’s time, Sir Phillip Sidney defended fiction on the ground that it was not the author’s intention to deceive. “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.” As author of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney was not a liar because he could count on his readers not to believe the plot. But in the midst of an effective theatrical performance, the audience will suspend disbelief. It is the playwright’s goal to make that happen.

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Rick Warren at the Inauguration

I thought Frank Rich’s response to the Rick Warren controversy was very strange. In the New York Times, Rich wrote that asking Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration “was a conscious–and glib–decision by Obama to spend political capital. It was made with the certitude that a leader with a mandate can do no wrong.” It was, Rich said, rather like George W. Bush’s high-handed dismissal of moderate and liberal voters at the outset of his administration. And “we all know how that turned out.”

I would have thought exactly the opposite. Obama seeks to obtain political capital by inviting a conservative evangelical to speak at his inaugural, thus reassuring Americans who think that the President Elect is a Muslim, or else secular and hyper-liberal. He might also hope to peel some conservative voters away from the Republican coalition. Far from arrogant or spendthrift, this was a rather calculated, cautious, and defensive political move. The people it might offend (i.e., supporters of gay rights) are outnumbered by the people it might attract; and more to the point, the former have nowhere else to go, whereas the latter are potential swing voters. If I were criticizing Obama, I would assail him for unprincipled caution rather than arrogance.

My actual views are more ambivalent. I do understand that it’s hurtful to give a ceremonial role at a public event to a person who is not only against gay marriage, but who compares legalizing it to legalizing incest. I suppose a rough equivalent would be an anti-Semitic speaker–but gays are far more victimized by discrimination and violence than Jews are in modern America. So that’s a big argument against inviting Rick Warren.

On the other hand:

1. The political advantages are considerable, since evangelicals really could splinter, and liberals could pick up their votes. The Bible is not for tax cuts; the Bible is for stewardship, education, and the poor.

2. Warren used words about gay marriage that are indefensible (and that he apparently regrets), but his actual position cannot be considered beyond the pale. Most Americans share that position. Warren also shares with most Americans the opinion that religious scriptures are authoritative. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are pretty strongly against gay marriage. I could make a theological argument in favor of gay marriage, basing my position on a certain reading of the whole biblical canon. That reading would be tendentious, although sincere. I think Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, is entitled to his more traditional and more straightforward reading of a text that he is entitled to use as his guide.

3. This invitation has hurt people, and I am sorry about that. It has also opened some healthy conversations, such as the one between Rick Warren and Melissa Etheridge. Bishop Gene Robinson and others have noted that an invocation is not a dialog or a deliberation. Robinson said, “I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table, … but we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most-watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.” I would respond that Warren shouldn’t be excluded for praying to the wrong God (if that even makes sense); and that asking him to speak was an indirect way of bringing him to the table on this issue.

There are several kinds of politics at work here. Gays are rightly trying to develop a public identity and asking for it to be favorably received. From the perspective of that “politics of identity and recognition,” Warren’s invitation is harmful. Meanwhile, Obama is trying to develop and expand social programs. For that “politics of distribution,” the Warren invitation is smart. And various people are discussing a controversial issue: gay marriage. The Warren invitation is a spur to that “politics of deliberation.” Much depends on which we think is most important. It’s not surprising that Frank Rich would opt for the first choice, since he is an almost perfect representative of liberal identity politics. What I do find surprising is his failure even to notice the other kinds of politics in this case.

travelers for quiet airport terminals

I spend many of my hours in airports, trying to read, write, or talk quietly. Very often the following noises are laid on top of each other:

  • Boarding announcements
  • TSA security announcements
  • Music
  • The CNN Airport Network on overhead TVs
  • Promotional announcements about the airport or city
  • Beeping trucks
  • People’s voices, and
  • (Unnoticeable but apparently quite audible) the sounds of the airplanes themselves.

I don’t mind my fellow passengers–not even the screaming babies, who are expressing my own feelings with simple eloquence. It’s the unnecessary layers of noise that offend me, especially when I learn that airports derive revenue from that piped-in TV advertising. Not only is the combination of CNN plus music-radio jarring and distracting; the actual content of the news is insidious and often inappropriate for kids. Sometimes one can lower the decibel level by shifting location, but in some airports (e.g., Dayton, OH), CNN is pumped everywhere, including the toilets and the business lounge.

Airports are local monopolies, subsidized by tax dollars but basically unaccountable to consumers. They profit from advertising and pay no price for noise. They may create health risks by exposing people to noise. They certainly reduce productivity by making it hard to concentrate. Noise-canceling headphones haven’t worked for me, and even if they did, what gives an airport the right to make me wear expensive and uncomfortable hardware?

I’d favor a legal remedy–possibly a class-action lawsuit on behalf of airport workers or an amendment to such legislation as the Noise Control Act of 1972 or the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990. (The latter deals with aircraft noise and seems mainly aimed at blocking local anti-noise regulation.)

Meanwhile, we travelers can at least express our opinions–I would say, “raise our voices,” if I weren’t trying to increase the peace. There is already a lobby that fights the noise of aircraft landing and taking off. That’s a problem that harms finite, identifiable minorities (homeowners in affected neighborhoods), who are therefore likely to organize in their own interests–even at some cost to the average person. Airport noise is a different kind of problem. It sporadically harms many people, but not enough for them to organize. Fortunately, the Internet lowers the cost of organizing. I just created a Facebook page called “travelers for quiet airport terminals.” I hope like-minded people will join and post complaints, praiseworthy examples, tips for finding quiet spots, and strategies for reform.

civic innovation in Britain

I’ve written before about the civic agenda of the current British government, which includes better civic education in schools, decentralization of power, and innovative opportunities for citizens’ work. Via Henry Tam, here is a government paper entitled “Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power.” It’s a long and detailed paper, but here are some highlights:

  • Participatory budgeting is a Brazilian invention; citizens are invited to meetings where they can collectively allocate portions of the local capital budget to purposes of their choice. In Brazil, participatory budgeting has increased the fairness of public-sector spending and has reduced corruption. It is now being used in 22 local councils in Britain, and the UK Government wants it to be used everywhere. (I believe that the Obama Administration should build Participatory Budgeting into its economic recovery plan.)
  • Citizens Juries are randomly selected bodies of citizens who meet for a substantial amount of time, deliberate, and make public decisions. Citizens Juries are now being used in the UK. A recent comment on this blog suggested that they are a strategy to avoid the traditional forms of representation, such as students unions, which are less tractable. That’s possible, but there have been very impressive experiments with Citizens Juries in other countries.
  • The Government intends to implement a “duty to involve” rule that would apply to most local service-providers. That reminds me a bit of the “maximum feasible participation” mandate of the War on Poverty in the US during the 1960s. Maximum feasible participation was hardly a clear-cut success, but one interpretation is that we did not yet have a sufficient infrastructure (set of practices, institutions, and trained people) to handle it. The infrastructure has improved over the last 40 years–probably in the UK as well as here.
  • The paper acknowledges the importance of “strong independent media” and promises support for “a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social

    media.” It’s tricky for a government to intervene in the news media. One must consider freedom of the press and expression. On the other hand, the 20th-century local media system is collapsing, and governments should find ideologically and politically neutral ways to promote healthy local news and debate.

  • One of the major themes is civic renewal through decentralization. Gordon Brown has argued that the 20th-century Labour Party erred by trying to implement democratic socialism in a state-centered, nationalist form. In the developing world, centralization promoted various forms of corruption, whereas decentralization has lately permitted citizens to play more constructive roles.