November 30, 2006

A Refreshing Word About Suffering

Sorry for the ironic headline.  It seems that's the only way to get people to think about suffering.

The link below is to a great little article by James F. Keenan, S.J. in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.  I came across this while doing some research for upcoming job talks (presuming I get interviews at MLA and then get invited for a campus visit).  My book draws upon some premises in Elain Scarry's The Body in Pain, a real doozy of a book dealing generally with pain and its effects on humans and specifically with torture.

Anyway, Father Keenan's emphasis is on the importance of listening to those who have endured suffering, instead of trying to intepret their pain for them--explain it away using theological interpretation.  Victims are denied voice, as Scarry discusses at length in terms of the way pain stifles the voice, or at least makes it incoherent, and they must be allowed to voice their own story freely.

Keenan feels he needs to raise this caution because many Christians try to interpret suffering and what its purpose might mean for those who have suffered, for example Catholics trying to improve Christian-Jewish relations by trying to make sense of the suffering Jews endured during the Holocaust.

Keenan admonishes, quoting Marcel Sarot, instead of asking how can we make sense of this suffering we must ask, "How can we prevent that Christianity ever again can provide fertile soil for anti-semitism and kindred movements?"

November 27, 2006

Peace on Earth?  Not in Our Subdivision!


November 19, 2006

Standing up to "Bully"

elow is a link to a brief article concerning the latest violent video game sensation, "Bully," in which you are enrolled in a tony Northeastern boarding school and must fend of upper-crust bullies through violent means.

Darcia Narvaez, Assoc. Prof of Psychology at Notre Dame says of the game:

One might think that standing up to bullies makes a good game, but not if you are using violence to stand up to them,” said Darcia Narvaez, a University of Notre Dame psychologist who researches moral development in children and the effects of violent video games on them.

The most powerful effect of violence on users is the hero using violence to meet a goal, especially if it is humorous. This type of violence is more likely to be imitated when seen, and particularly when practiced repeatedly.”

Though “Bully” doesn’t involve any blood or killing, fist fighting in the game is almost constant, with one test-gamer reporting that he engaged in 400 fights by the halfway point of the game.

“With violent video game play, children learn to associate violence with pleasure when they are rewarded for hurting another character, and this undermines moral sensitivity,” said Narvaez , director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethical Education.

November 12, 2006

60 Abu Ghraib Photos Leaked to Sydney Paper

November 06, 2006

Photograph with the Enemy

University of Pennsylvania's president, Amy Gutmann, hosted a Halloween party at her home and was put upon to take a photo with a student dressed as a suicide bomber.  The student, Saad Saadi, wore camo pants, a package of fake dynamite strapped to his chest and carried a toy gun, which he used, according to the story, to stage mock executions around campus.  The photos are circulating through cyberspace on Facebook and have gotten president Gutmann in hot water.

Those of you who have read my book will immediately grasp the relevance of this story.  In a middle chapter of my book (which is excerpted at Killing the Buddha I write about attending a Halloween party and encountering an aquaintance--a guy I had a class with once--dressed as Charles Graner, so-called ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.  He wore rubber golves, glasses, had trimmed his mustache to approximate Graner's and carried a sandbag and a Polaroid camera.  (Check out the excerpt to see how the situation played out for me.)

Let me reflect on the U Penn situation via my own experience. 

First of all, it's important to point out that at the party I attended, now two years past, no one recognized the costume for what it was.  There was no discussion among the party-goers about the tastefulness of the costume.  There was no whispering behind his back or nervous laughter, at least that I saw.  Not that lack of  recognition on the part of party-goers absolves either Saad Saadi or Graner for their poor taste, BUT the root of the problem here is the photographic record of the decision--both the student's decision to wear the costume and president Gutmann's decision to allow her picture to be taken with him. Deciding whether or not a picture of the moment is worth making is an interesting moral conversation in and of itself. John Berger, in his essay "Understanding a Photograph" agrees that a photo, the actual thing itself, is a statement:
"I believe this moment is worth capturing." Therefore, a photo is a reflection of our moral vision.

BUT is it inherently immoral to take such a photo when it is clear that the intent is to create a memento, a conversation piece to show others? Unsure? Well, what about when it is probable that the photo will be widely disseminated to potentially millions of 18-22 year olds via Facebook, a faddish yet extensive online social network as integral to college lifestyle as a cell phone, IM screenname and wireless laptop? Now we're getting closer to the line, and closer to the reality of picture taking today. If you want to become infamous, just take a photo or a video of yourself doing something tasteless, idiotic, pornographic, or all three, and put it on your Facebook/MySpace account or YouTube. Within days your deed will have circled the globe several times over. But, again, is such behavior immoral?

The short and long answer is "No."

The photographs taken of Saad Saadi create moments that are meant to be seen as transgressive in that they resemble or mimics other images we have seen, images of actual militants brandishing weapons and actual executions. This similarity creates a moment of reckoning for the viewer, a moment where the awfulness of the original image is commented on by the reinactment. In the case of Saad Saadi's costume the suicide bomber is ridiculed, made to look like a fool now he is seen in the absurd context of a Halloween party standing next to the president of Penn, who is dressed a a princess, or fairy, or whatever she is sypposed be. The ultimate effect of scary costuming is thus achieved: All of a sudden the bogeyman isn't so scary anymore now that we've seen him for ourselves and we realize that he has no power over us.

Be this as it may, such an explanation does not negate the fact that many may be wounded by such images, especially the images that depict execution style killings, in particular the one in which Saadi appears to be reading the Koran (although it looks suspiciously like the green-covered New Testaments campus preachers distribute) while another party-goer kneels before him as though waiting to be shot. Clearly, the Islamic faith is being indicted. Saadi may honestly (however, naively) believe that he has not impugned Islam, but this reveals his ignorance of how religious people of all Abrahamic faiths feel about how they are represented in popular culture. This sensitivity toward religious peoples is rejected because of the perceived damage and destruction religion reaps--such a corrupt institution does not deserve reverence. But, again, Saadi would probably deny such a blatant attack.

A quick glance at Saad Saadi's website reveals the kind of intellect we're dealing with, an intellect that despite his Ivy-League pedigree is woefully common among young men these days. One link on his page takes you to YouTube and dozens of clips of an amateur "Fight Clubs," in which scrawny kids in boxing gloves try to beat one another up. Another link takes you to video footage Saad took himself. The majority feature him in different settings make masturbatory hand gestures.

With this in mind, it's difficult to give him any credit for putting together a "transgresssive" costume. He just desires to be contrary, which is irresponsible, though not immoral, given the current global climate.

What should be the punishment of idiocy and irresponsibility? Having being part of a similar situation--although I am not president of a university--I would say that these moments catch you by surprise. You want to believe that what you are doing has very little consequences. However, I found that the consequences were, for me, personal and caused me to reflect on my own complicity not just in this kind of Halloween shenanigans but how actual images of pain and suffering change us.

November 05, 2006

A Great Quote from Thomas Merton

I'm writing this review for the Merton Seasonal, a little journal put out by the International Thomas Merton Society, and I really want to incude the above quote but just can't find the room, so I give it to you.

In a letter to Fr. Dan Berrigan:

In the beginning I was all pre-contemplation because I was
against trivial and meaningless activism. 
But now I have been told that I am destroying the image of the
contemplative vocation, when I write about peace.
  In a word, it is all right for the monk to break his ass
putting out packages of cheese for the old monastery, but as to doing anything
that is really fruitful, that is another matter altogether.