Thursday, April 19, 2007

Someone take away their headline-writing powers

"Yesterday's Abortion Ruling Was Only a Baby Step" - the (pro-life) Wall Street Journal

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Uninformed Political Punditry

Last weekend, political strategists from the Clinton, Obama, and Edwards campaigns met for a forum at the Kennedy School of Government held a forum. There, Clinton's long-time pollster/smooth operator Mark Penn attacked Obama for allegedly equivocating on the war in Iraq while, shockingly enough, defending his candidate. He also made the following observation: "Do you think Hillary Clinton is the kind of person who, if president, would have started the Iraq war? No."

I'm still trying to parse that sentence, but I can't figure out how that's a good thing for Clinton. Does it mean that she allowed herself to be manipulated into a war that she didn't really support? If you support a war, which tends to result in, you know, death, shouldn't you be really certain about it?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why the Natural History Museum Makes Me Want to Believe in God

There comes a time in the life of every humanities major when he realizes that his understanding of science peaked in either 9th or 10th grade. Despite having taken three “science”—scare quotes intended to mock, not terrify—classes at Columbia, I haven’t really understood what my science teachers have tried to teach me since freshman year biology.

Which, I think, is why a trip to the Natural History Museum surprised me so much. In theory, I have learned about everything in the museum before. In practice, it was all shoved out by Simpson’s trivia and differing interpretations of gender’s role in the coming of the Civil War a long time ago. Somehow, the fact that terrifying monsters exist less than a kilometer, to use fancy science talk, under the ocean still has the power to astonish me. I should know better, but I don’t.

More than anything else, my childlike stupidity mirrors that of a scientifically literate person in the pre-Darwinian era. This is a time when William Paley’s watchmaker argument was considered irrefutable evidence for the existence of God. For those of you who have forgotten long-discredited arguments from obscure 19th century theologians—for shame!—here’s a summary. If you walk down a beach and you see a fully functioning watch, you would assume that the watch didn’t get there by accident. Substitute “exist in” for walk, “universe” for beach, “all of nature” for watch, and “therefore God exists” for the unstated conclusion of the argument, and you get the idea Paley was trying to make.

Evolution caused such a foofara because it demonstrated that the watch did, in fact, land on the shore by accident. With a single, highly evolved hand, Darwin destroyed one of the most powerful argument for God’s existence from legitimate debate, until intelligent designers started making exactly the same argument some 140 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Today, evolution remains so controversial that inside the “Hall of Human Origins” at the Natural History Museum a brief video featuring two prominent Christian scientists explaining that you can still believe in God if you want to runs on a constant, annoying loop. But, in a world where giant squids, deer with super-huge antlers, and freaky-huge dinosaurs exist because of purely natural processes, why would you?

Oh yeah, fear of death, because your parents told you to, a desire to find a transcendent morality, and to understand your place in the world. Come on, though, everyone knows a giant squid would kick their collective ass.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


I have broken many promises in my life. Many, many promises. But rarely have I so flagrantly flaked out of something than with this. Starting now, and by now I mean next semester but for real this time, that's going to change. Those fuckers (fuckers=actually nice guys, especially if they want to give me a job) at Ivygate kind of stole our idea, so now it's time to strike back. Phase one is a picture that makes Jesus look very gay. I mean, he is really going for it here. Just wait until you see what phase two is. Hint: it's more gay.

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Warning

My New Years Resolutions. I picked three because its God's favorite number:

1) Write more on blog.
2) Bright more on log.
3) Restore honor and integrity to the oval office.

Does anyone remember 2000? How Bush said it all the time? That line used to kill...I hate you all.

And This? (you have to read down to see the other titles for that to make sense, and even then it's not that funny)

The summer before I came to Columbia as a first-year, I never got a haircut. By the end of August, my parents said I looked like a surly hobo; my friends thought angry but skinny drug dealer; my 6-year-old sister babbled something about a pony. The mortifying picture on my CUID—dear God, I still have to look at it every day—demonstrates that they were all right, except for my sister. That pony thing was just wrong. But nobody who met me at Columbia after that summer knew this. The day before I came, I got a really, really short haircut.

I don’t know why I thought that hair was the way to do it, but my motivation resembled that of many new college students: I wanted to create a new identity. The Onion brilliantly captured this desire, as it brilliantly captures most things, in an article titled “College Freshman Cycles Rapidly Through Identities.” It details the transformations of one new student. He starts out as a frat-guy wannabe, then moves through stoner, white hip-hop kid, and tortured artist before settling on really religious or film nerd.

The humor from this column comes from its painful familiarity. Especially at Columbia, housed in a city that promises renewal, people come to college to escape who they were and become something new.Some, perhaps in the quest to fashion an intellectual self, learn that the hottest academic theory considers this whole process of self-creation a charade. From Clifford Geertz in anthropology, to Stephen Greenblatt in literature, and Michel Foucault for pretty much everything else in the humanities, post-modern theorists have rested their entire project on a rejection of the self. Greenblatt aptly summarizes this view when he writes that the self is merely “the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society.” People think they control their self, but it is actually a blank slate upon which societal institutions carve out a meaning. Without these institutions, there is no there there.

Accepting this insight can prove remarkably painful. In the heartbreaking conclusion of Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare—which is not how one usually describes the conclusion of a book with a title like Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare—Greenblatt admits that, although he believes in the artificiality of the self, he still has “an overwhelming need to sustain the illusion that I am the principle maker of my own identity.”

Despite its wretchedly depressing nature, this theory has tremendous explanatory power. While applying to colleges, I always wished that I had control of a time machine and multiple universes. That way, I could see the type of person I would become after four years at all the schools I considered. I came to Columbia largely because I thought that Yale-me would be a douchebag, and that University-of-Chicago-me would learn to speak Klingon. This fantasy recognized that at some level I was giving up control of part of my identity to whichever college I attended.

But people give control of their identities to outside forces every day. The Core Curriculum, viewed in this light, seems less an example of the noble pursuit of knowledge than an attempt to give students the skills necessary to function in upper-class American society—which is why professors note that knowledge of Euripides can kill at a cocktail party. Participation in extracurricular activities imbues a person with a social status they wouldn’t have if they just stayed in their room. Even in relationships, people turn to another for meaning they can’t find in themselves.

Because college students’ selves are in constant flux, they have a particularly strong obsession with the accurate presentations of those selves, as anyone who has walked through a computer lab in Butler during finals week and seen rows of students madly revising their Facebook profiles can attest. If the same person walks outside of Butler and happens to notice the people sitting on the benches, smoking clove cigarettes, wearing blazers over ironic T-shirts, eyes covered by aviator glasses, and talking about how Wolf Parade was so June, she has enough material for an essay in a post-modernist review. It gets too easy if she follows this with a walk down frat row.

People fixate so intensely on their identities because they have to. “In our culture,” Greenblatt rightly claims, “to let go of one’s stubborn hold upon selfhood, even selfhood conceived as a fiction, is to die.” Eeep.

If nothing else, the changes a personality can go through in college demonstrate the painful fragility of this selfhood. On their first day, one of the only things that most first-years can probably say with certainty is that they want to be somebody different at the end of four years. By and large, they succeed, sometimes so quickly that they don’t even notice.

A few weeks after arriving at Columbia my first year, I visited one of my best friends from high school. While waiting to meet her for the first time since the summer, I skimmed over a newspaper. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her coming. I looked up to say hello, but before the words left my lips, she walked past me. Later, while I made fun of her for forgetting who I was after three weeks, she told me she hadn’t recognized me because I had changed. It was the hair.

And This!

I actually had to talk to Christians for this.

At the end of assembly, which my elementary school had at the beginning of every week, we all had to sing Father Abraham. Because of this, every Monday for five years, I joined in with an unruly mass of kids between the ages of six and 11 while we sang along to a song we kind-of-but-not-really knew. Afterwards, we ran around in angry circles until we got dizzy and fell down. Sometimes, teachers gave us ice cream.

We also had to attend Bible-study classes three times a week. Since most of the assignments involved drawing animals we would have brought with us onto Noah’s ark—I chose the butterfly, because nobody ever suspects the butterfly—we didn’t take them seriously

That was the extent of the religious training I received at my Methodist elementary school. But even if teachers didn’t make us memorize catechism, or whatever its Methodist equivalent is—see, bad school—religion insinuated itself into our lives. When I turned 10 and had my first pretentious existential crisis, I turned to the person I respected most in the world for help: my school’s principal, who was also its pastor.

Columbia reminds me of elementary school in many respects, but not this one. Although deeply religious students come here, they tend to isolate themselves from the broader community for understandable, and perhaps necessary, reasons. Moreover, the rest of student body, whose attitudes tend to range between apathy and slightly more apathy, don’t usually provide the most supportive atmosphere.

Some want to change this. A recent article in The New York Times detailed the efforts of a group of students supported by Christian activist groups across the country to, in their words, “reclaim the Ivy League for Christ.” They take their work seriously. As one explained in a grammatically mind-blowing sentence that, coming from an advocate of family values, still makes me giggle, religious students in the Ivy League today act as “a finger in the dike of keeping back the flood of immorality.” Must... not... laugh...

To add some fingers, they rely on the financial support of people like “Julian L. McPhillips Jr., a wealthy Princeton alumnus,” who believes he “cured an employee’s migraine headaches just by praying for him.” Apparently, they “joke in [his] office that we don’t need health insurance.” It’s a funny joke.

Others have given up on redeeming the Ivies altogether. Instead, they flock to established religious colleges. Most of these schools are Christian, for the simple reason that most Americans are as well. They include Bob Jones, for Fundamentalists; Brigham Young, for Mormons; and Thomas Aquinas, for Catholics.

It’s very easy, from our heavily guarded citadel deep in the heart of Blue America, to look askance at these schools, all of which describe themselves as “the Harvard of” whatever, even though they admit students who got a check for participation on their SATs. Okay, that is pretty funny, and not creepy “God told me you don’t need health insurance” funny.

But the stereotypes, as usual, conceal more than they reveal. Bob Jones, for instance, has an amazing gallery of religious art that comprises work from artists like Rubens and Botticelli. And for every slack-jawed Cletus in training, an admissions official can point to someone who got a 2400 on her boards back when they still went to only 1600 and turned down the Harvard of the Ivy League, Princeton.

More importantly, the students themselves seem happy. Compelled by God, who for some reason cares about this kind of thing, they approach learning with a purposefulness many of their Sparknotes-skimming counterparts in secular colleges lack. They have lower rates of drug use and depression. Despite their largely lily-white student body, minority students say they feel integrated into the university community.

One problem, though, afflicts students at both religious and secular colleges. When a reporter asked a professor at Thomas Aquinas, “If Nietzsche is taught with the same consideration as, say Thomas Aquinas, isn’t it likely that at least some of the students will come away doubting the existence of God,” the professor answered by “clench[ing] her hands around the edge of the table” and “rais[ing] her voice,” before becoming frustrated and leaving abruptly.

The professor had difficulty responding to the question because the answer was so obvious: of course some students will doubt. At its best, a liberal arts education challenges students’ most fundamental beliefs—even their belief in God. The people who get the most out of a college education are those willing to lose everything they ever had so they can get more. Luckily none of them have started their real lives yet, so they can afford to do so.

Except for people who take their beliefs and their education seriously. Knowledge can be more important for them, but it’s also more dangerous, because they have already found something they can’t afford to lose. Nietzsche, or any secular thinker, may be wrong. But unless students endanger their faith, they can’t seriously entertain the proposition that he may be right. Whether they do so at Bob Jones or at Brown, those who regard their religion as more than an excuse to get ice cream have to decide what they can sacrifice for their intellectual life. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

How Bout This?

From my late, lamented column.

On Friday morning, while most students are busy sleeping off hangovers, or pretending to have to sleep off hangovers because if everyone knows that you go home instead of drinking on Thursday nights they’ll think I’m...I mean you...are a loser, some people are in class. Many are pre-meds in Orgo, because Columbia decided to prove the Duke of Gloucester’s observation in King Lear that, “As flies to wanton boys are [pre-med students] to the [Columbia scheduling] gods, / They [schedule classes really early for] us for their sport.” About 130 people, though, have come to a class that does not fulfill any academic requirements and that many of them probably would not take if the directory contained only its title, “Challenges of Sustainable Development.” But right next to the title is the name of the professor. That name, of course, is Jeffrey Sachs.

For those who don’t know who Jeffrey Sachs is, I hate you. Seriously, go read something that isn’t US Weekly. As those who skim Time, which excerpted his most recent book as its cover story, or watch television, where he appears frequently, or read people’s shirts, which let the world know that, like Jesus, he is the wearers’ “homeboy,” or whom he has told himself, already know, Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia, is really famous for being really smart. Closely tied with the U.N. and Kofi Annan, he played a key role in the creation of the Millennium Development Goals, a plan for eliminating extreme global poverty.

He also has a devoted contingent of followers on campus. These are the people selling the shirts and going to his class. Last week, Chris Kulawik, whose column runs in this space on alternate Wednesdays, discussed them in an article called “The Cult of Sachs.” The title matches the column’s less-than-admiring tone. The same day, my e-mail box exploded with angry letters from students demanding the chance to defend Sachs, or, failing that, put Kulawik’s head on a spike so they could drink from it, become stronger, and sacrifice it to their dark master.

More importantly, the letters demonstrated that although their authors loved Sachs, they cared about eliminating global poverty more. This argument repeated itself in almost every letter: “No one is expecting that you would want to ‘cuddle with poor African orphans,’ but maybe it would be cool if you wanted them to be able to stay alive past their 5th birthday. Both of their parents are dead already because of AIDS and other diseases. You can’t even imagine what that is like. Neither can I, but at least that doesn’t stop me ... from wanting to help.”

The absolute misery of the lives of the more than one billion people who live on less than a dollar a day make this sentiment understandable. For them, the suffering Hurricane Katrina brought to its victims in America would make for just another, albeit wetter, day. As Sachs details early on in his book: “Every morning our newspapers could report, ‘More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty’ ... The poor die in hospital wards that lack drugs, in villages that lack antimalarial bed nets, in houses that lack safe drinking water.”

Jesus said “the poor are always with us,” but he lived 2,000 years ago, when people were even stupider than they are now. Eight hundred pages earlier, Adam tried to hide from God—who had created the universe a couple of days before—by sneaking behind a tree. Today, no educated person has an excuse for ignorance or apathy concerning the severity of global poverty. Regardless of his program’s merits, Sachs has at least made this clear.

But to his groupies on campus, the details of Sachs’s plan matter less than it’s righteousness. Even those who don’t actually do anything about global poverty can feel a sweet rush from their moral endorphins every time they condemn someone for cold-heartedness, ignorance, and inhumanity.

Anyone with true sympathy for the conditions of the world’s poor, though, might have that superiority high undercut by the massive guilt that comes from living surrounded by the privileges of life at the top of American society. In truth, we all could, and perhaps should, sacrifice everything we have, move to Malawi, and devote our lives to helping others, and that would still help only an infinitesimal fraction of the people who need it. Small acts of charity make a difference; dropping out of school and having your parents donate the rest of your tuition to UNICEF does more. Claiming sympathy for the poor comes with a price. Even Jesus knew that.

In every class that deals with people who lived more than 50 years ago, someone always takes the time to condemn the inexplicable stupidity of those who somehow failed to live by our contemporary standards. If Thomas Jefferson can’t defend himself from angry undergraduates today, imagine what future generations will think when they look back on a time when the wealthiest, most influential people stood idly by while thousands died unnecessary deaths every day. They’ll despise those who ignored the problem just as much as we despise slaveholders like Jefferson today, and they’ll be right to do so. But they won’t think too highly of those who sold T-shirts (and wrote columns) either.

Quote of the Day

"All of Springfields biggest celebrities are present. Mr. Teenie is there."

I've been watching too much Simpsons DVD commentary.

Friday, October 07, 2005


That Bill Bennet picture is sexy. Damn sexy.

I Have a Theme! I Love Themes!

Yesterday, I had a column-related epiphany, which on the scale of epiphanes is pretty pathetic. But on the scale of me-related epiphanies, it's about as good as it gets. For the next little while, belief is the new skepticisim. Mostly, how do people manage to do it. It's a concept discussed remarkably well in—where else?—Serenity. Ever since I saw that movie, also known as the movie you all have to go see, I've been thinking about it. A lot of the stuff I'm going to write this semester is a consequence of that. The stuff that isn't you know, historiographical essays for class, or editorials for Spec. So, a lot of the worthwhile stuff I'm writing this semester is going to be on that. Here's my first try:

Last year, more than 2,500 students at Columbia went to pysch services looking for help. Some of their problems were probably serious—dead relatives, divorcing parents, abusive friends. Others, at least from an outsider’s perspective, probably weren’t —“I’m too rich,” “My butt’s too flat,” “Everyone has less amazing sex than me.” But no matter what was wrong, they all had something in common: a bleak, brief, life spinning in an endless void. As Summer from The OC put it, “life is, well, random, unfair and ultimately meaningless.”

Or at least that’s what it feels like sometimes. And when someone feels like that, depression feels like the logical conclusion. Of course, not everyone who goes to psych services goes because of existential dread, but that attitude runs underneath much of Columbia’s —and, for that matter, the country’s—intellectual life, or at least that part of intellectual life that deals with life. Andrew Delbanco, head of the American Studies department here, aptly summarizes the secular consensus: “We have reached a point where it is not only specific objects of belief that have been discredited but the very capacity to believe… It is divesture without reinvestment.” (Full Disclosure: I’m in a class with Professor Delbanco this semester, but since I’m fairly certain nobody except my Mom will read this, I’m okay with quoting him. Also, Hi Mom!)

Among intellectuals, disbelief has become almost a prerequisite for discussion. They have reached a point where, as Richard Rorty, another professor, but this time at Stanford, puts it: “we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi-divinity, where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance.” Secure in their disbelief, the best and brightest have smashed, at least to their satisfaction, the old constructs that used to give people meaning. God, country, and self-hood, among many other victims, all stand revealed as delusions foisted upon us by ourselves. But everybody has had so much fun in the rubble, smashing tiny bits into even tinier ones, that nobody has yet gotten around to constructing anything new. So, for now at least, we’re adrift, or, in preferred academic speak, post-. This constitutes the background, the white noise of a contemporary liberal arts education. And, as Summer knows, it’s fucking depressing.

In a cruel coincidence, though, the structure of society works to further inculcate this worldview in students. With America having grounded its intellectual class, for now at least, to the academy, those most enamored with post-ism are also those most exposed to some of the most impressionable people in the country: us. This reality, however, runs counter to the natural inclinations of youth, simply because many haven’t had the chance to get jaded yet. It produces a jarring dissonance in students. The same people who want more than anything to have something to believe in spend their days listening to professors who tell them in countless ways that there is nothing worth believing in. The lucky ones can ignore it, even make their apathy into a virtue that demonstrates their worldliness or courage. Others can’t. In a grand tradition of aspiring intellectuals that runs at least as far back as Hamlet, they feel melancholy.

But some refuse to give up. Instead of endlessly examining themselves, they look to the world outside. Groups like the College Democrats, the College Republicans, Amnesty International, Columbia Global Justice, and Students for Choice can provide students with more than resume fodder. Students who throw themselves into these groups can spend so much time in them that they never come up for intellectual air. Monomaniacal zeal, after all, makes for a damn good organizer. Students outside protesting for a socialist revolution don’t have time to think about their place in the world because they’re too busy saving it. Religious students, despite the widespread opposition to their beliefs implicit in official academic ideology, also maintain a strong presence on campus, as anyone who attended an almost-empty classroom on Yom Kippur can attest. Members of campus religious organization often lead lives that are much, much better than those of many Columbia students. By many Columbia students, I mean me. They study hard, volunteer in the community, and work to save the immortal souls of their fellow man, while I ineffectually strive to unlock hidden characters in my Gamecube’s Super Smash Brothers.

This devotion, though, does nothing to help students who can’t believe in God or in politics. Since it’s much easier/funner to tear something down than build it back up, there are some who recognize a need for new beliefs, but don’t actually want to help create them. Instead, they content themselves with waiting. After all, those who have already lost faith in faith can afford to. Besides, something will come along. It has to.

They’re wrong. Even if beliefs are constructs, with all the contingency and irrationality that implies, people still need them to make sense of life—even people who should know better. But twiddling mental thumbs while waiting for new beliefs to come doesn’t make them come any faster. The last generation has done a fantastic job of understanding the problem of faith, and they’ve done an even better job of doing absolutely nothing to address it. Maybe it’s our turn to start trying.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Serernity Now/Later/Forever, Oh That Would Be So Nice, And Also Angel, Because I Miss It

Yum, blogsploits. Anyway, following up on my earlier post, everyone should go see Serenity. It doesn't make up for losing the show, and there are still some Buffy and Angel episodes I would take over it, but it's a damn good movie.

For an explanation of why TV is the new 19th century novel, and Joss Whedon is the new Charles Dickens, check out Slate. Ooh, I see that the generally-pretty-kick-ass Dave Edelstein has a good review up too.

This is the part where I gloat. See, Jim, I told you Firefly/Angel/Buffy were awesome. As the Miami Herald pointed out last Friday, there are two types of people in this world: people who think Joss Whedon is a genius, and people who are wrong.

Which brings me to the point which will hopefully lead me to my next posts. That's right, posts, coming on Wednesday. Joss Whedon being the genius he is, after seeing Serenity I now know how to crack this column I've been thinking about since August. You're gonna see the mega-version that makes this all makes sense, in the form of a two parter tying together a review of Serenity with an explanation of the popularity of (a) psych services at Columbia and (b) religious colleges. What ties them together? Oh I don't know...maybe it's the HUMAN CONDITION.

So yeah, it's gonna be one of those postings. Be there.