Friday, March 29, 2013

A Tale of Two New Yorkers

Two stories from the New York religious world raised my blood pressure this month for very different reasons.

First, it turned up that Herschel Schachter, a rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University, made comments last month that some found offensive. Rabbis, he said, should refrain from carelessly reporting Jews to the police who are accused of sexually abusing minors. Otherwise, said Rabbi Schachter, a Jew could end up in a cell with a "schvartze…a black Muslim who wants to kill him." In one sentence, the distinguished Torah scholar betrayed (a) casual racism (b) tolerance of child abuse and (c) open religious prejudice. I didn't think that was possible.

Tall Tales: Rabbi Hershel Schachter was recorded at a London conference railing against the dangers of reporting child abuse claims directly to police. He used a derogatory word to claim that false claims could lead to Jews being jailed with black inmates.

Rabbi Schachter is a revered scholar among Modern Orthodox Jews. In the rush to defend his comments, he has been called a "Torah giant" and a brilliant Talmud scholar. With respect to kashruth—Jewish dietary law—he wields tremendous influence with his legal thinking. If you ask him, Rabbi Schachter will give you exactly the right answer about bread that has milk in it.

Ecch. In my book, and I hope in God's, that counts for next to nothing. I once taught Plato to a toad, but he still ate crickets whole and peed on my hand.

The uplifting, surprising opposite of Schachter's comments came from the Catholic Church. It's Holy Week, and this year Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, didn't spend his time cloistered in an ornate church. Dolan celebrated mass with inmates at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Hudson Valley. "I want you to know that I love you very much," said Dolan in his sermon. "I mean that. I respect you, I love you, I wanted to pray with you, and I wanted to know that you're not alone; that you're not forgotten."

Dolan is no New York liberal: just ask him what he thinks about abortion and gay marriage, and you'll get a very different answer than you will at any Reform synagogue. Which goes to show that for all his conservative, moralizing political positions, Dolan knows what religion is for: to love the widow and the orphan, and not to shy from breaking bread with outcasts.

Dolan claims he took his inspiration from Pope Francis I. Yesterday, instead of saying mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran as the pope usually does, Francis spent his Maundy Thursday visiting a juvenile detention center, where he washed and kissed the feet of young men and women, Muslims included. No red slippers, and no regal pomp: this Pope prefers to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God.

Pope Francis kisses the foot of a prisoner at the Casal Del Marmo Youth Detention Center during the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday, March 28, in Rome.

Funnily enough, that phrase comes from the Old Testament. Someone call Yeshiva University with the news.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Danger of Supreme Wisdom

Today and yesterday, the front page of the New York Times was covered in excited speculation. There's no telling for sure, but in Tuesday's oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed to be unwilling to uphold Proposition 8 because the appellants who support it lack standing to appeal. And yesterday, in United States v. Windsor, the court seemed skeptical of the federal government's authority to distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual marriages. In short, the court gave a victory and a half this week to supporters of gay marriage.

I do not think this is good. Not because I'm against gay marriage: I support it firmly. Nor do I fully disagree with the Equal-Protection rationale that the court will likely use to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. But I am afraid of our democracy's reliance on unelected judges to decide pressing social issues.

Gay marriage is one of the sharpest points of moral dispute facing the country. And its very importance gives our democracy the opportunity to do its best work: the citizens of each state can decide which moral commitments they're going to make, and elect accountable representatives to enact their will. There's no one in charge but us: if we decide to recognize gay marriages, we'll do it. If we don't, we won't.

It's thus a serious problem when we submit the problem to the Supreme Court, composed though it is of the nine wisest scholars in the land. When we do that, the moral question goes out of our hands, and even though we might like the public policy that results, we buy it at the price of our democratic autonomy. Advocacy groups, instead of pressing for good legislative policy, invest in convoluted legal campaigns to influence a panel of sages who are out of their control. And instead of deciding what they want for themselves and calling their legislators, citizens line up on First Street to hear the decree of the black-robed Pythoness.
This is not what democracy looks like.
Sometimes, of course, it is worth diluting pure democracy in the name of Constitutional liberty. The Constitution does impose necessary limits on democracy, because, as de Tocqueville observed, the tyranny of the majority can often be worse than that of a king. Segregation is only the most egregious example of that tyranny. But constitutional limits on democracy must be sparingly used, for if we are to remain a democracy, we must be able to decide our own destiny within broad limits. Only when our legislatures consistently and dangerously fail to protect Constitutional liberties should the court usurp their legislative authority. As Felix Frankfurter wrote, "The fact that [the narrow judicial authority to nullify legislation] may be an undemocratic aspect of our scheme of government does not call for its rejection or its disuse. But it is the best of reasons, as this Court has frequently recognized, for the greatest caution in its use."

Last November's elections gave nationwide victories to supporters of gay marriage. I was very happy: the American people took its moral fate into its own hands, and decided to abandon a centuries-old tradition of exclusion in favor of individual liberty. It was a demonstration that Americans are capable of advancing individual freedom without being forced to by Harvard-educated moral guardians. It was a vindication of our democratic experiment.

Monday, March 25, 2013

William Shakespeare is Naked

I confess: I don't like Shakespeare very much.


In one of Hans Christen Anderson's stories, a dandyish emperor walks into town naked, proclaiming that his clothing is only visible to the wise. The townsmen, each one wanting to demonstrate his wisdom, all announce their admiration for the emperor's fine clothing. Finally, a little boy, seeing that the emperor is naked, says so, and the town quickly acknowledges its mistake.

It might be that Shakespeare is wearing beautiful clothing that I can't see. It also might be that he's naked. Whichever one it is, I'm going to say what it looks like to me, and it looks to me like he's naked.

I. Shakespeare's Verse. 

Shakespeare is above all a weak poet. Let me give two examples, picked at random. First, here's Hamlet's first soliloquy from Hamlet:
O, that this too too [sic] solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
This just doesn't take an aesthetic foothold with me. In the first place, what's the point of the first metaphor? Sure, solid flesh melts, but then to thaw and become dew? Why? (Also, how can something thaw after it melts?) Then there's a mention of God—wonderful!—that immediately veers into a discussion of ecclesiastical law. Rats. After God is invoked twice to no great effect, Hamlet delivers a weary, stale, flat and unprofitable lament for his vague discomfort with the world.

Next, a sonnet:
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
     These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
     Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.
What's going on here? The dominant thread is an attempt to convince the youth to write down his thoughts. But the argument is made in an extremely confused way. In the first two lines, two separate images are introduced to show the passage of time. In the next two lines, Shakespeare drops those images in order to baldly state his case for the youth's keeping a journal. Then, for some reason, he spends four more lines returning to the two metaphors from the opening, elaborating on them uselessly. The rest of the poem is a lengthy rephrasing of lines 3 and 4, in a way that doesn't add anything. In short, the poem is a jumble of boring argument and conflicting imagery.

I've never understood, by the way, the pathos behind Shakespeare's repeated exhortations that the youth write things down. It's not an exclamation of affection; nor does it speak to any common human passion. I prefer my poetic attempts at persuasion to deal with heavenly wars and intense love, not teenagers' authorial careers.

II. Shakespeare's Characters.

On to his characters. Briefly: Prospero is bizarre and his motives incomprehensible. The sex-swap in The Merchant of Venice is forced and unnecessary. Valentine's proposed wife-gift at the end of Two Gentlemen of Verona makes no sense. Hamlet's indolence and pessimistic sophistry is too often mistaken taken for psychological depth.

Macbeth is an exception—he is monomaniacal enough to be really exciting. "Stars, hide your fires! let not light see my black and deep desires." So is his wife, but her jarring reversal at the end is weird. And what does she die of? Guilt?

I like characters like Milton's Satan and Eve—complex, human, and lyrically expressive. Shakespeare doesn't have them.

III. Shakespeare's Moral Vision.

It doesn't exist. Tolstoy explains this in excruciating detail in a novella-length polemic, which I recommend. Also, he was an anti-Semite.

I don't dislike all of Shakespeare. Some of the sonnets, especially when they stick to a single metaphor and aren't too analytic, are very good. And I've always liked Macbeth and—though Tolstoy disagreesKing Lear. I'm only saying that I don't like most of his poetry, and that I think that's okay.

You might see the emperor's clothing. I envy you, but enjoy it!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Joys of Monarchy

If you don't get the intuition behind monarchy, I suggest you see the next production of The Pirates of Penzance.

At the end of the second act, the pirates have triumphed over the dutiful policemen, and are on the verge of exacting terrible revenge on the hapless major-general. All seems lost, until in the nick of time, the defeated chief of police makes a final appeal. "We charge you yield," he says—"in Queen Victoria's name."

That's it! The pirates yield, "because, with all our faults, we love our Queen." Peace is immediately restored, and the pirates are all immediately inducted into the House of Lords.

Who wouldn't?
This part usually gets played for laughs, probably because it's funny. It's funniness, though, conceals a fundamental point: A good monarch provides tremendous moral stability. Everyone—Whigs, Republicans, and even pirates—can be united by their affection for the head of state. Even though the vicissitudes of fortune blow us around, the king remains the same. He is a rock to rest on.

All this holds even if the monarch is a powerless figurehead. Even if the king's role is limited to dressing up and getting pulled around by horses, the natural affection that the subjects hold for him can hold a society together. Even if you despise my politics and I despise your religion, we both love our king. We will both cry when he dies, and we will cheer when his successor is anointed and crowned.

I think it's curious that most classes on political philosophy skip over Robert Filmer's De Patriarcha. That book is the sharpest defense ever given of divine right, and it points out fundamental problems with social-contract theory. Human beings, Filmer argues, do not pop into independent existence like scattered mushrooms in a forest. We are naturally born in families, and we have natural duties to the parents who take care of us. This holds no less for political society. God gives monarchs the right to rule their subjects wisely, just as parents have the right to govern their children.

If we have a wise and just king, we do not need to search for social justice in abstract, disembodied principles of fairness. We can look to our common father or mother for guidance, who stands right in front of all of us in flesh and blood. For all its sophistication, Entitlement Theory can't shake your hand.

(I wonder, by the way, if any major religions have adopted this principle. It seems like a pretty good idea to me.)

I do not mean to disparage democracy. To the contrary! Once we appreciate the moral comfort of monarchy, we are also in a position to admire our self-government all the more. We, a free people, need not rely on God-given protectors to take care of us. We will build our own highways. We will go to war when we think it's prudent, and we will decide whether to let our gay citizens get married. To live in a republic is an awesome moral responsibility, and we must pray to God—or, better yet, make sure ourselves—that we have the wisdom to set our own course. We have no parents, and we must control our own fates.