Cheering for Thanatos

Sarpedon carried away by Sleep and Death, by Henry Fuseli, 1803; public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sarpedon carried away by Sleep and Death, by Henry Fuseli, 1803; public domain, Wikimedia Commons

As if there weren’t enough mighty causes, age-defining campaigns, momentous movements coming to a head last week. As if the public square were not already deafened by the cacophony of acrimony, war cries, whoops of delight. As if health care, gun control, and gay marriage were a light load for the news cycles, yet another issue strode into the limelight, an issue the importance of which it is impossible to overstate.

At the end of that crowded week, The Economist took its stand on euthanasia. Its front page pictured a snuffed candle. “The right to die—Why assisted suicide should be legal,”  the headline read. Just a few days before, The New Yorker had run a devastating in-depth “Letter From Belgium,” which reported on the escalating number of cases of assisted suicide for people with non-terminal illnesses in that Benelux bastion of social liberalism.

What has prompted the sudden prominence of the issue?

Sheer momentum, claimed The Economist: “Campaigns to let doctors help the suffering and terminally ill to die are gathering momentum across the West.” Currently only four U.S. states exempt doctors from prosecution if they administer life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients (Oregon, Montana, Washington and Vermont). But last year a twenty-nine-year-old Californian, Brittany Maynard, moved to Oregon to die. She became the new face of the pro-euthanasia movement when she videoed an appeal to California’s lawmakers to legalize assisted dying. Since Maynard, bills and cases have been proposed in twenty new American states. Wider afield, legislation is being proposed in Canada, Germany, and South Africa. In the United Kingdom, Parliament will debate the issue once again in September. Add to that the fact that the number of euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands has doubled in the past five years, and increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent in Belgium, and it’s amply clear that changes are afoot.

For the editors of The Economist, euthanasia is “an idea whose time has come.” And their case is made in such a way that anyone who dares to disagree with the authoritative anonymity of the magazine’s pronouncements is clearly on the wrong side of history. Arguments against are neutralized by being depicted as simply old-fashioned. Euthanasia remains illegal around most of the globe for reasons that The Economist declares are already antiquated. The editors summon us, in the words of Matthew Arnold, to stop and hear the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the tide of opposition as it goes out over the “naked shingles of the world.”

The fatuously self-assured British publication projects itself as the unerring voice of common sense. It brims with briefings for busy businessmen, its prose pithy and pragmatic. It tells you what you need to know and not a jot more. But if it pretends to be above the fray, be not mistaken: This libertarian weekly is as ideologically loaded as The Daily Worker.

The New Yorker, by contrast, and perhaps surprisingly, is far more critical, far more cautious. Reporter Rachel Aviv has clearly spent enough time in Belgium to understand the issues surrounding euthanasia, and to detect what is driving the escalating number of assisted suicides. She familiarized herself with cases, got to know family members left behind, and interviewed the major players in both policy and the medical profession—people such as Wim Distelmans, the government-backed advocate for and practitioner of euthanasia, who supports the practice not only for the terminally-ill but also for men, women, and children who are depressed, bipolar, anorexic, or just plain lonely. Aviv’s research is expansive and humane. It takes the time that is needed to tell the real stories of real people, the kind of time The Economist never has.

One story is that of Godelieva De Troyer. Following estrangement from her son and daughter, and then a break-up with the partner she had met in her fifties, Godelieva suffered a major bout of clinical depression in 2010. Two years later, her son received a letter. It was from his mother, written in the past tense. Her lethal injection, she related, had been carried out the day before at the hospital of the Free University of Brussels.

Tom was flabbergasted that a doctor would do this without first speaking to the patient’s family, even if they had been estranged. He angrily accused the friends who had driven Godelieva to the hospital of aiding and abetting a suicide. And then he toured his mother’s house. Photograph frames of family members hung on the walls. Drafts of letters to friends sat in desk-drawers. “I have nothing to look forward,” the letters read. “I will not see my grandchildren grow up and that causes me pain.”

One central issue in the euthanasia debate is that of the “slippery slope.” Opponents fear a number of slopes. One is that legalizing euthanasia will lead to more and more people choosing to die. Another is that legalizing euthanasia for those who are terminally ill will lead to euthanasia in the cases of those who are not.

The Economist boldly denies the second slope. “Evidence from places that have allowed assisted dying suggests that there is no slippery slope towards widespread [emphasis added] euthanasia.” The New Yorker exposes this lie. Since Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, the all-important “incurable illness” box that has to be ticked before a lethal injection is administered has proven increasingly elastic. Now, it covers not only, for example, Godelieva’s depression but also, more recently, a transgender person desperately disappointed with his sex change.

The Economist even manages to slide down that slope in the course of its own 1,200 word leader. By the end, the editors complain that “Oregon’s law covers only conditions that are terminal. That is too rigid…doctor-assisted dying on grounds of mental suffering should [also] be allowed.”

The specter of such a development is horrifying. In a world that has seen amazing progress in so many areas of social life, euthanasia would be a huge step backwards. Why? Because in an increasingly ageist culture, many older people perceive themselves to be a burden. They might not say so. They definitely haven’t been sat down and told so. But their sense of superannuation is a societal norm that has been, in the way Michel Foucault demonstrated over and over again, thoroughly internalized. Is it not more than imaginable that this sense of being a burden will lead, in many sad and tragic cases, to euthanasia?

Author and essayist James Mumford is the Postdoctoral Wolterstorff Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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The Body In Question: The Summer Issue Appears

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The Dancer (1913), Egon Schiele; Leopold Museum, Vienna; HIP/Art Resource, NY.

Our bodies, ourselves? In one sense, of course. But the things we now do to our bodies, whether through tattooing, piercing, or sculpting, and the ways we attempt to perfect or transcend them, whether through extreme fitness regimes, self-tracking, or artificial enhancements, suggest new, if not fully articulated, conceptions of the human person and the ends and purposes of human existence.

These conceptions have a history, of course. They derive in part from a centuries-old confidence in the power of science to fix, extend, and possibly even “immortalize” our physical selves. They resonate with the American dream of self-remaking and the New Adam. And they recast the Protestant concern with the born-again experience in secular and material terms. But these ideas have been transformed and popularized through association with assorted projects reflecting our highly individualistic and commodified culture, from identity politics and transhumanism to the Quantified Self movement to assorted cults of body modification.

Despite the various attentions we now lavish on the body, the body itself may be losing its true magisterium. No longer a source of wisdom about human limits and potential, it is now seen as a means of self-transformation, an instrument in the pursuit of perfection—or an equally elusive immortality.

These questions are all explored in the newest issue of The Hedgehog Review, “The Body in Question.” As always, we’ve put some essays and book reviews up in full for you to sample:

For subscribers, we have Christine Rosen on tattoos and transgression, Gordon Marino on boxing, Chad Wellmon on the multiversity, Ronald Osborn on the Christian origins of human rights, Johann Neem on the Common Core, and more! If you aren’t a subscriber, it’s an easy problem to fix: click here and subscribe today.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 26, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The New York Public Library Wars,” Scott Sherman
“Foster’s renovation called for the creation of new rooms for children and teenagers, more computer work stations, and the demolition of seven levels of historic book stacks—containing 98,000 adjustable shelves and built by Carrère & Hastings in the first decade of the 20th century. The three million books in the stacks were to be sent to an off-site storage facility near Princeton, N.J. Library officials insisted that the plan would cost $300 million and was essential to the institution’s fiscal health.”

“I learned to love doom metal. You can too,” Freddie deBoer
“As people discover a bigger and wider array of genres, fewer and fewer people identify themselves with one scene in particular. Few people stake firm stands for what they love, or against what they hate. One prominent exception: metalheads.”

“A Universal Jewishness,” Leon Wieseltier
“As we edit and shrink our patrimony to suit our tastes and our moods and our ideologies, we become masters of subtraction; but we must teach ourselves to add. Not Maimonides or Mendele, but Maimonides and Mendele: a universal Jewishness.”

“Troll Detective,” Katie J.M. Baker
“These people — who range from C-list conservative bloggers to gluten-free bakers from Montreal, boat enthusiasts from Florida, and grocery-coupon collectors from North Carolina — claim to want #JusticeForJessica above all. Instead, they’ve terrorized her formerly sleepy hometown with their relentless demands for answers to their specious theories.”

“Altruism Shrugged,” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
“One of Ideal’s central anxieties seems to be that religion, with all its beauty and mystery and what Rand would surely dismiss as charlatan’s puffery, is nonetheless better at imparting meaning and ethics than Rand’s own overwrought didactics.”

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The Incomprehensible Witness of Forgiveness

Flowers and memorials outside Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 20, 2015 (cropped); jalexartis via flickr

Flowers and memorials outside Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 20, 2015 (cropped); jalexartis via flickr

“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you.”

Last week, the family members of those massacred in Charleston bore witness to their faith through the incredible act of forgiving the perpetrator. The ensuing days have brought a spate of commentary that misconstrues their acts and questions their agency. Pundits, of course, have gone out of their way to avoid directly impugning the family members. They have focused instead on the media, the narrative, white people, racism, religious traditions, and religious groups. Roxane Gay comes closest to critiquing the act of forgiveness itself: “There are some acts that are so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.” She, for one, is “done forgiving.”

Gay is still left with a “deep respect” for those who uttered forgiveness. But if forgiveness really merits condemnation or skepticism, then why not focus on those who gave it instead of deflecting, deconstructing, or downplaying their acts? The scandal of forgiveness does not lie with the media or the narrative—it lies with the very nature of Christian forgiveness: “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13, NRSV). And when Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21–22).

Gay speculates that the media attention on forgiveness comes from a desire “to make sense of the incomprehensible.” To the contrary, forgiveness of the kind we have witnessed can only be incomprehensible. Violence has been done and cannot be undone. It has created what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “predicament of irreversibility.” No punishment that awaits the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, will right this wrong or restore “justice.” But forgiveness can cancel an unpayable debt. It is an immeasurable—an incomprehensible—act. It may be the most God-like power we possess.

Forgiveness is not the same as legal accountability, which is a function of the state. That is one difference between the personal acts of forgiveness in Charleston and the state as enforcer of the law. Lawbreakers often harm individuals, but they also incur a debt to society by breaking its laws. In rare instances, the state can absolve that debt through something akin to “legal forgiveness”—a pardon or some other act of leniency. But in most cases, and certainly in this one, the state properly pursues legal accountability.

The family members in Charleston knew this difference between personal forgiveness and legal accountability. When they addressed Roof, they said: “Repent, confess, give your life to the one that matters the most, Christ. So that he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happens to you.” “May God have mercy on you.” “I pray God on your soul and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”

Nor is forgiveness reconciliation. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness meets repentance. And meaningful social change requires the kind of social reconciliation that can only emerge through aggregated instances of both forgiveness and repentance. In South Africa, during the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the failure of widespread repentance among whites to match widespread forgiveness among blacks constrained the possibilities for meaningful change. The United States now confronts a similar challenge: Awe-inspiring forgiveness without repentance will not bring reconciliation. Dylann Roof will not be reconciled with the families of his victims absent his repentance. And no matter how many black Americans forgive the unpayable debts owed to them by white Americans, white America will not be reconciled with black America without repentance.

Forgiveness does not displace legal accountability, and forgiveness without repentance does not bring reconciliation. But forgiveness is more than a “discourse” (Xolela Mangcu), a balm for mental and physical health (Matt Schiavenza), or a means of survival (Roxane Gay). It is not simply “noble” and “impressive” (Damon Linker). These well-intentioned efforts to domesticate forgiveness—to make it comprehensible—ultimately fall short. As Michael Wear wrote yesterday in Christianity Today, “the critiques of forgiveness in recent days are strikingly similar to the critiques against nonviolence during the civil rights movement.” Those behind the critiques—then and now—have “misunderstood the allegiances of the black Christians they criticized.” In fact, those offering forgiveness see “no conflict between forgiveness and full-throated, sacrificial advocacy for change.”

Forgiveness, as Bishop Desmond Tutu has written, helps us to recognize “that we inhabit a moral universe, that good and evil are real and that they matter.” Tutu continues:

This is a moral universe which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For we who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter, joy, compassion, gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.

That is the witness of the family members of the martyred saints in Charleston. It is a witness motivated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a witness of profound hope and profound other-worldliness. It is the incomprehensible witness of forgiveness.

John Inazu is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Twitter: @JohnInazu.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 19, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“A Living Landmark,” Jamelle Bouie
“The attack on Emanuel AME sits in a long history of violence against black churches.”

“The Internet Accused Alice Goffman of Faking Details In Her Study of a Black Neighborhood. I Went to Philadelphia to Check,” Jesse Singal
“Alice Goffman conducted some amazing ethnographic research, and her book is almost entirely true, not to mention quite important. Alice Goffman is going to have a really hard time defending herself from her fiercest critics.”

“First Thoughts on Laudato Si’,” Alan Jacobs
“For Maritain, any true humanism must incorporate the ‘vertical dimension’ of our relationship with God; Francis is clearly saying, with a similar logic, that any valid (any whole and healthy) ecology or model of ‘creation care’ must incorporate our relationships with one another and with God. Thus one cannot think of what’s good for the environment without also thinking of what’s good for human culture.”

“Our Failed Food Movement,” James McWilliams
“In so far as the Food Movement’s goal has been to reduce the impact of factory farming, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reform effort—at least in the way it articulates and pursues its mission—isn’t working.”

“Kid Chocolate,” Brin-Jonathan Butler
“Trejo is one of the oldest boxing gyms in Cuba; it’s outdoor, and every great champion the country has produced has passed through and was forged in the open air. Different sets of the same mildly sinister women who look like the Macbeth witches guard the entrance from tourists and procure a toll for entry, snapshots, or stories.”

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With Friends Like These

Students at work and at play, from the 1960 Shimer College student handbook. Wikimedia Commons.

Students at work and at play. From the 1960 Shimer College student handbook. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are a few things we all know to be true. The liberal arts and liberal education are in peril and require defending. The liberal arts are useful, but no one will say it. The liberal arts, defined loosely as something that is neither STEM nor vocational training, are relevant, necessary for the job of life, but need to be repackaged and loosened from the death grip of academics. Academics are afraid of change, the real world, and spend their time doing stupid tasks—slaves, depending on whom you ask, to critical theory or to tedious scholarly endeavors. They are all, in this story, Middlemarch’s Edward Casaubon, except some of them also hate white men.

We know these things to be true because they are told to us by the many, many professional defenders of liberal arts education. “How can liberal education be saved? By becoming truly, enduringly useful,” says Damon Linker at The Week. Liberal education teaches you how to write, speak, and learn, says Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education. Writing back in 2008, Alain de Botton dreamed a dream of a useful liberal education: “I dream of an ideal new sort of institution which could welcome Montaigne, or indeed Nietzsche, Goethe, or Kierkegaard—a University of Life that would give students the tools to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture just for the sake of passing an exam.” Then he made this dream a terrible reality.

Each of these writers is a voice crying out in the wilderness, but apparently remains unable to hear all of the others. But their appeals to the language of usefulness and of work are not as rare as they think. Very few people would argue that a liberal education is valuable because it is useless. So they are really affirming a fairly popular view.

More curious, however, is that none of these defenders of the liberal arts appears to look at a pamphlet or an advertisement produced by a marketing campaign at a college. Every one of these I have ever seen emphasize precisely the sort of things that the above defenders of liberal education view as necessary. The usefulness of a liberal education is everywhere proclaimed. Yet, the liberal arts are still in peril. One is tempted to think their advice is not very good. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 12, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Siberia’s Surprisingly Australian Past,” Helen Andrews
“The Siberians’ reluctance to discuss the matter might indicate not anxiety but a healthy state of having moved on. They had not reckoned with their past in a way that turned up under my questioning, but that hardly proves no reckoning has taken place.”

“Saint Sardine,” Cara Parks
“Today, the sardine is undergoing its own conversion of expendable foods into those given pride of plate. For years, sardines have battled a reputation as relegated only to those who couldn’t afford better—a perception not helped by their ubiquitous presence as a canned good outside of Portugal. Over the last few years, however, sardines have developed something of a food-world following.”

“Nazi Propaganda: Out of the Cage,” Francine Prose
“Nearly everyone who speaks in the film agrees that context is all-important; that the films need to be exhibited as examples of vile propaganda, that the lies they promulgate need to be exposed, and that an audience should be told about the damage that these works helped to inflict.”

“What is Code?,” Paul Ford
“This is real. A Scrum Master in ninja socks has come into your office and said, ‘We’ve got to budget for apps.’ Should it all go pear-shaped, his career will be just fine.”

“The Empty Bath,” Colin Burrow
“In ‘On Translating Homer’ Matthew Arnold described Homer as ‘eminently noble’, ‘eminently rapid’ and ‘eminently plain and direct’ in style and ideas. Homer ‘has, besides, the pure lines of an Ionian horizon, the liquid clearness of an Ionian sky’. These assertions are often quoted. I find that strange because they seem plain crazy to me.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“No Benedict Without Benedictines,” Jeff Guhin
“Much conservative discussion of the Benedict Option forgets that the ultimate goal for MacIntyre is a community rooted in tradition driven by practices. That’s only possible with a lot of communal interactions and common living.”

“The Enlightenment Index,” Brad Pasanek and Chad Wellmon
“Although much has been written on the subject, ‘print culture’ remains a puzzling hybrid term, difficult to analyze into its cultural and technological components. For both Kant and Reid, print posed a first threat to the process of enlightenment.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 5, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“After Lethal Injection,” Maurice Chammah, Andrew Cohen, and Eli Hager
“The question in Oklahoma is not whether capital punishment should continue, but how.”

“Against the Barricades,” Katie Ryder
“Today’s online commerce of words necessitates repetition—hence the fetishization of keywords, which become, in practical terms for editors and magazines, the correct labels for ideas, for observations, for all parts of thought. Cliché is quite literally the currency. We kid ourselves every time we discuss the devolution of public language as if it exists separately from this commoditization.”

“Mothers of Invention,” Parul Sehgal
“As an institution, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom.”

“The Agency,” Adrian Chen
“As Savchuk and other former employees describe it, the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling.”

“Homo Economicus Slouches Toward Retirement,” Sarah Burnside
“Adam Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas, not only cooked his dinner but lived with him for most of his life. Marçal argues that the absence of such people from Smith’s vision of the market has created a fundamental flaw in economic thinking.”

“On Longer Lives and Longer Deaths,” Julie Livingston
“America has many open secrets. The nursing home is one of them. We try not to think too hard or too long about its residents or its low-wage staff.”

“The Complex Power Coupledom of Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge,” Sarah Ellison
“or his 30th birthday, Hughes threw a party at the Queen Anne-style Brooklyn Historical Society, with a piano quartet that played Brahms. It was something a rich man would do, but it was also something that an old rich man would do. That was part of Hughes’s appeal. He had entrée to the world of technology, but he still preferred to read French novels in French.”

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