Terror, Photographed

Two people escape an Oslo office building after the 2011 terrorist attack there; Morten Holm/AFP.

Terror trades in images—it needs spectators to feed itself. It is commonplace to say that atrocities like the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Brussels, or Boston are “unspeakable”—whether to indicate that words are inadequate to describe such an act or that using words in this way is somehow, in itself, a form of violence. While these attacks may be unspeakable, they were most certainly not un-picturable: On the contrary, they generated a great number of images. These images mobilize shock, disbelief and repulsion, as well as gratuitous voyeurism. Becoming prime mediators in interrelationships between the targeted local communities and global audiences, they deploy a visual force that releases the impact of terror to the world at large.

Although piercing, images of terror are becoming more and more disconnected from the context in which they take place—all too often, photographs of mayhem, wounded bystanders, and destroyed buildings could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. No longer novel, photographs of terror now seem to create a sense of déjà vu or anxious anticipation. Many of us—myself included—have projected the photographed scenes against the background of own cities. Still, a few images stand out: Davina Douglass pressing a gauze mask to her face after being rescued in the aftermath of the 2005 London tube bombing; Tarana Akbari in a green tunic screaming in horror just minutes after a 2011 suicide bombing in Kabul; or dazed and bloodied Omran Daqneesh in the back of an Aleppo ambulance after a 2016 airstrike. Is any one of these as indelible as, for example, nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked and napalmed down a Vietnam highway in 1972? That remains to be seen, but all of these demonstrate the essential qualities of terrorism photographs: their emphatic, graphic reality and unavoidably exploitative nature.

The Intersection of Photography and Terror

Any consideration of the impact of terrorism’s imagery must also examine the entanglement of photography and terror. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero defines terrorism as an act of violence that destroys any notion of safety, integrity, or distinctiveness for individuals or society as a whole. In fact, she argues in her 2011 book Horrorism that words such as “terrorism” and “war” have become obsolete. Terrorist acts, says Cavarero, whether bombing or stabbing, are as ubiquitous as they are random: Every person, innocent or guilty, armed or defenceless, civilian or soldier, believer or atheist, is a potential target for obliteration. Terror disperses violence from its designated territories (battlefields, camps) into civilian settings (a pop concert, a restaurant, a Christmas fair), making the quotidian into a war zone. As for photographs of terror, Cavarero follows Susan Sontag’s lead in considering such images as the eroticization of horror.

But terror is also the emotional response that the act of violence engenders among bystanders, a mixture of fear, angst, disgust, and disbelief. To respond to terrorism (or horrorism as Cavarero would have it) is to experience a visceral and brutal check to our usually unexamined feelings of personal and public safety, our comfortable integration in the world, our very concept of existence. It is precisely the generation of this affective state among large populations, rather than the death and dismemberment of individuals, that is the ultimate goal of terrorists. From ISIS to white supremacy, terror’s power is in its emotional undoing.

Photographs of terrorist attacks operate to document the results of terror as an act of violence on helpless civilians and to instill a feeling of terror in viewers—viewers often caught unawares by these images and thus unwittingly coerced into a state of anxiety and fear. Further, photographs of terror create a sense of loss of time and place, a de-temporalization as lived experience comes to a halt. We become temporarily paralyzed—a reaction, it should be noted, that is fundamental to the experience of photography itself. Photographs stop a moment in time and arrest our sense of the ongoing movement that characterizes the body and the world around it. What’s more, photography interrupts our sense of interiority, disrupting with its insistence on motionlessness our feeling of being anchored in a temporal world. When the camera captures a moment of violence, it freezes the act of terror, making it unending, even eternal, forever perpetuating our emotional reaction to it.

In the Moment and After

Images of terrorism come in three forms. First, there are images of the immediate aftermath of the attack, civilians—often the most vulnerable, women and children—staggering out of the danger zone, faces bewildered or distorted by anguish, clothing torn and bloody. These victims have seen and experienced the carnage. “In the moment” imagery also includes first responders and aerial shots taken by police helicopters or drones. The latter can be particularly disquieting as they often reveal bodies of the wounded or the dead who may be the attackers themselves. Formalistically, these images tend to be visually arresting: vivid colors, dynamic compositions, chaotic scenes filled with authentic, unstudied human expressions. The element of immediacy and a lack of finish also contribute to a sense of dread. What we can see within the frame is bad enough—what horrors are taking place just out of sight?

Then come the images of mourning, grieving, and commemorating—photographs that invite viewers to become part of the visual script for grief. Streetscapes changed into shrines, a sea of snapshots, handwritten messages, flowers, and teddy bears. There are candlelight vigils and stern police officers patrolling the streets. These photographs offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they speak to the more mundane work that terror develops over time, of the personal, political, or cultural effort to make sense of the event and move beyond its senselessness. These images spark solidarity and identification, appealing to the feeling of shared mourning. They also run the risk of trivializing the act of terror and the depth of human response by replacing scenes of violence with those of sentimentality.

Accordingly, we have grown accustomed to visual performances of institutionalized grief: heads of state and high officials—Queen Elizabeth, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former prime minister Theresa May—making somber hospital visits and condemnatory speeches. Following the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester of an Ariana Grande concert, there followed a novel expression of performed grief: Grande’s June 4 benefit concert. Except for images of the singer sporting her One Love Manchester sweatshirt (merch available online), photographs of the event look exactly like any one of hundreds of other carefully choreographed and highly lucrative pop star concerts. The visual medium in this instance has brought us quite a distance from an act of terror to scenes of entertainment and capitalism seen through a screen of philanthropy.

The commemorative power of photographs reaches new potency in the world of social media. Twitter and Facebook were deluged with profile images of concertgoers as they looked before they became victims—who can forget the sweet-faced Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old victim, or Georgina Callander, a bespectacled eighteen-year-old who was shown in an older photograph with her arms around Grande’s waist? All of these private images became gateways to lives that would have otherwise remained unknown to us. Rather than being manifest and visible in these images, terror remains stored, contained, releasing an insidious emotional reaction for which we are unprepared. In the social media environment where self-celebratory rhetoric mixes with conflict reporting and funny cat videos, the snapshot portraits of victims became an affective portal for our voracious and indiscriminate quest for media consumption.

In Pursuit of Clickbait

Photographs of terrorist events also have other troubling aspects. More than other forms of photography, portraits seem to reflect the Western bias in the media coverage of terrorist attacks. Victims are presented as precarious and grief-worthy. After the concert bombing, the Greater Manchester Police Twitter account, for example, was transformed into a kind of digital shrine of personal images as a tribute to lost lives. At the same time, private images of the victims of attacks in Kabul and Baghdad, which happened around the same time as the UK attacks, are hardly to be found in the Western media. Occasionally, we do encounter memorable photographs of non-Western child victims (Omran Daqneesh, refugee Aylan Kurdi, or Kim Phúc), but countless others remain invisible and nameless.

In addition, especially since the Manchester bombing, Facebook and Twitter have been filled with images of fake victims, images stolen and posted alongside messages pretending to beg for help in finding “loved ones.” Generating thousands of shares and re-tweets by well-intentioned bystanders, these hoaxes extend the emotional impact of terror by amplifying and confusing the event for no other purpose than sowing chaos and eroding our ability to make meaning from meaninglessness. With the increasing prevalence of trolling and accusations of fake news, the credibility of media imagery grows weaker and the possibility of sensationalism, exploitation and anonymous malice increases. Photographs of terror, loss, and death and the feelings they spark become so much clickbait. These manipulations expose our disenchantment with the medium of photography, once thought to be an unimpeachable source of objectivity and truth.

Photographs of terror remain a powerful tool. More than simply capturing evidence of violence done to people and places, they provide concrete evidence of the unravelling of human identity and communities. Intentionally or not, they also reinforce the concept of violence as a norm, accommodate and expand our appetite for manipulable visual media, and forge affective (or potentially abusive) connections between individuals separated in space and time. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, photographs deepen solidarity and care for one another, but they can also intensify fear and xenophobia, invite voyeurism, and expose vulnerability. They may coerce viewers toward specific narratives, generate unwelcome emotions, manipulate people to spend money, or indoctrinate certain outlooks or ideologies. In a media saturated world, one in which photography flourishes, it is critical to recognize its dynamics, endurance, and significance.

Dr. Marta Zarzycka teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, at the Center of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge) and essays on photography in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lens Culture, and Huck Magazine.

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From the Archives: Peter Berger

Detail from cover from Penguin Random House.

Detail from cover from Penguin Random House.

It’s with sadness that we at The Hedgehog Review hear of the death of the sociologist Peter Berger, an occasional contributor to our pages and a friend to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

You can read his essay for our Globalization and Religion issue here, or his interview with Charles Mathewes here. Readers with institutional access might also be interested in THR publisher Joe Davis’s review of Berger’s memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World without Becoming a Bore.

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Introducing the Summer Issue: The Meaning of Cities

Bearden_The Block II 1972 copy copy

The Block II, 1972, by Romare Bearden (1921–1988), The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA, New York.

Whenever it pops up these days, and it does very often, the phrase smart city conjures up visions of a bright, bold urban future—a future that, to some extent, has already arrived. We are assured that through the mobilization of Big Data, the Internet of Things, robotics, and a host of other technological wonders, this “sweeping change” is not only inevitable but all to the good.

But are we reassured?

The answer depends on what we think is good not just for cities but about them—about what we expect of them as sites and incubators of commerce, creativity, and community, and, even more crucially, as places that form the minds and souls of their inhabitants. And yet, in this epoch of “the city”—when more than half of the world’s population inhabits cities, when so much thought and study have been devoted to the challenges of city life, and when so many expectations have been placed upon the city as the solution to a range of pressing national and global problems—surprisingly little attention is paid to the crucial purpose of cities.

As the pace of urbanization accelerates worldwide—with some projections putting 70 percent of humanity in cities by 2050—there is good cause to see our fate inextricably bound up with the forms our cities take. For that reason among others, the question of  the meaning of cities, the theme of this issue, has never been more urgent. We invite you to join our authors as they consider different aspects of that question.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

Here’s what subscribers can already read: Noah J. Toly’s “The New Urban Agenda and the Limits of Cities,” Marc J. Dunkelman’s “Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity,” and Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein’s “Cosmopolitanism vs. Provincialism: How the Politics of Place Hurts America.” Other contributions include essays by Mark Edmundson, Donald Dewey, and Jackson Lears.

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The Groot Gang: Superheroes, Politics, and Art

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, good guys die by disintegration. They flake apart; their death leaves confetti everywhere. This residue—sparkly, expensive-looking, soon gone—resembles the way the film exists in the memory.

As for the bad guys: They die, as in all Marvel movies, by extreme, cartoonish violence, of the sort one is supposed to find cutely amoral. In this case, it’s a glowing flying space arrow (don’t ask) that a character controls by whistling (don’t ask) and that carves beautiful arabesques on the screen as it disposes many dozens of henchmen. The crowd around me laughed, just as they laughed last year, when Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool killed eleven goons while dodging twelve bullets, or nine years ago, when Robert Downey’s Iron Man flattened those hostage-takers with the shoulder-mounted rockets. Superhero films resemble slasher movies, these days, in the cleverness and dexterity of their kills. In Guardians 2—as in the first film, which featured a space-jailbreak that presumably left hundreds dead—the audience is expected to go along with this violence, and largely does, because of the excellence of the heroes’ repartee. They’re bounty hunters and killers, but they’re cute, and one of them is a tree.

The amoral turn in superhero cinema—you can trace it to Iron Man, with Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) as a fascinating precursor—is really a turning back. Historians generally attribute the distinction of “first superhero” to Superman, but this requires willful blindness to the great silent crime serials of Louis Feuillade—the Fantomas series (1913–14), Les Vampires (1916)—or their imitators: 1926’s The Bat, based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s play; Fritz Lang’s Spies (1919). Les Vampires in particular, with its elaborately costumed, endlessly clever, undeniably sexy conspirators, in turn drew on the activities of the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect known for expropriating (though they never got around to redistributing) the goods of wealthy Parisians. Just as the first detective was a thief—Eugene Vidocq, a nineteenth-century thief-turned-fence-turned-informer, invented criminology and opened the first private detective agency—the first superheroes were supervillains. Continue reading

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Johann Neem: “Do We Still Know How to Be Good Citizens?”

Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University and frequent Hedgehog Review contributor, recently participated in a panel called “Do We Still Know How to Be Good Citizens?” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Read more about the panel here, or watch the video below.

What It Means to Be American: Do We Still Know How to Be Good Citizens? from Zocalo Public Square on Vimeo.

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What Is Innocence Worth?

lorish innocence FLAT

In its recent Nelson v. Colorado decision, the Supreme Court affirmed what might have seemed to require no formal affirmation—namely, that a person whose criminal conviction is overturned on appeal is entitled to the return of any fees, court costs, or restitution paid to the state as a result of the conviction. Previously, the state of Colorado required an exonerated defendant to file a separate civil suit and prove actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence before funds would be repaid. Having a conviction overturned on a mere legal technicality would not suffice for financial recovery. The central question in the case—which was decided six to one in favor of the petitioners, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting—concerned due process.

While it was notable that the Supreme Court took up such a seemingly self-evident case, the Court did not address the question of compensation for periods of wrongful incarceration. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, explained that the “[petitioners] seek restoration of funds they paid to the State, not compensation for temporary deprivation of those funds. Petitioners seek only their money back, not interest on those funds for the period the funds were in the State’s custody.” Justice Ginsburg continued: “Just as the restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction.” She made it clear what compensation is and what it is not: While compensation may be the return of something wrongfully taken, it is not necessarily compensation to be released from prison in which one was held for no lawful reason in the first place. Compensation is something more—an award for loss, suffering, or an injury. Continue reading

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Laugh Track: An Interview with William T. Oree

William T. Oree is serving twelve years to life at Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder, writer, and editor of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, a self-published prison comedy magazine; his work has also been published in The Harvard Lampoon. He and his comedy writing partner are shopping a pilot script called PEN * PALS to production companies in Los Angeles. He is the inventor of “jailhouse comedy,” a blend of edgy, often raw humor with a little Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.

The Hedgehog Review: Obviously, your current situation informs much of your work. What do you use about prison in your comedy or theater performances?
William Oree: In the comedy genre I created, jailhouse, I have to be authentic. I have to tell the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of incarceration. I write and perform material that is raw, zany, and politically incorrect. This truth would speak volumes in any forum, but especially so in prison.

Tell us about some of the topics that you want to address in your comedy.
I have had great success cloaking highly charged political, social, racial, and sexual issues in comedy. I have addressed everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to prison rape. I don’t mock the seriousness of these issues. Instead, I expose the racial divide that is at the center of so much of what I treat comically.

For example, I wrote a sketch for the “Disturbed Recesses of My Mind” issue of The Harvard Lampoon (May 2016) in which I relate the travails of a man who was arrested for sucking out the fillings of all the fruit pies in his neighborhood supermarket. He was arrested and prosecuted but neither the judge nor the district attorney recognized that he had a sugar addiction. They saw his actions solely as a crime for which incarceration was the only recourse. Thus, the idea of addiction became neither a medical nor a health issue but a social problem for which the only solution was going to prison. To me, it is comically obvious that what this guy needs is treatment not a jail cell.

In that same issue of the Harvard Lampoon, I had a piece, “Save America: One Crackhead at a Time,” in which I challenged society to address substance abuse through a skit about a family who invites a crackhead into their home and he gradually begins to relieve them of all their creature comforts. The point is dressed in humor, but I wanted to shock the audience into recognizing that they can address society’s ills by being proactive, no matter how silly it might seem.

Are there any subjects that you just won’t touch? Why not?
My sister was murdered under conditions inaccurately described as “domestic violence.” I find no humor in violence against women and children. When it comes to interfering in other people’s relationships, my instinct tells me to get involved—I’ve had heated arguments with many other prisoners who disagree. Many simply turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Sad. At the same time, I have to add that many of my fellow inmates have said that they would interfere to help a woman or child being attacked by a “stranger.”

What was your life like growing up?
I’m not sure if I ever grew up. My childhood was marred by two suicide attempts, the murder of my teenage sister, living with alcoholic parents, being in the foster care system, and the lack of hot running water. Because of my family’s situation, I became a sort of family “hero,” developing certain survival skills and protecting my siblings from starvation, molestation, exploitation, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and the shame associated with being the children of alcoholics. I became an unashamed liar and a thief, stealing to put food on the table. I essentially sacrificed my childhood for the well-being of my family.

How did you end up in Attica?
Two reasons: I escaped from a New York City jail where I was being held for trial. Also, I received a twelve-years-to-life sentence for being a habitual offender—in New York, three or more felony convictions qualifies you for a life sentence.

Did you do theater or stand-up on the outside? If so, in what sorts of circumstances?
My theatrical training started in my youth. As a child of alcoholic parents, I developed the ability to adopt different personas in order to protect my family. For example, when confronted with bill collectors and landlords I’d do all the talking for my parents. From an early age, I seemed to be able to make people trust me and I became a skilled liar. I discovered that adults will usually listen to a child’s pleas when they won’t listen to those of a grown-up. I recall practicing how to sound like a responsible, middle-class, educated adult.

By the time I got to high school, I was active in drama club. If I didn’t get a speaking part in the school play, I worked as a stagehand. I learned how to be a stage manager and lighting designer. After high school, I started a break-dancing troupe, the Max Factors. We later moved to the Boston/Cambridge area to perform. Break-dancing was new, and we made a name for ourselves performing at the many colleges and universities in that area. But break-dancing didn’t last too long and, lucky for me, I knew how to network. Through my connections, I found odd jobs at local college drama departments and I worked as a lighting assistant and stage manager assistant. I eventually received a stage management internship at American Repertory Theater, but I walked off the job after insisting their techniques were inferior. Still, I made friends with a movie actor there who worked as an understudy for the role of stand-up comic. He invited me for drinks at open-mic night at a local comedy club. A few drinks later, I was onstage telling the story of my life and making people laugh. Unfortunately, when I returned to the club the next week, I was unprepared and failed to get even a giggle.

Who were your role models? How were you influenced by these people?
One was a police officer who taught me how to act my age—I was twelve—when I was trying to act like a thirty-something. Also, there was the founder of the Fortune Society who taught me to create an opportunity where there were none. [Since 1967, The Fortune Society has worked to assist ex-offenders as they return to society.] And there was the neighborhood crackhead who taught me that my life should not be defined by how many times I’d be knocked down, but by how many times I get up. Last but not least, a stand-up comedian who taught me to write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You have said “to be an effective comedian, I have to meet the audience where they are.” Can you say a little more about this?
To be effective in comedy, you must know your audience. My audience is literally a tough crowd. Murderers, drug lords, thugs, and lost souls. Because my audience is in a state of psychological, sociological, and physical captivity, I have to craft my sets accordingly. I can’t simply tell jokes.

You can never be sure of what will work with a jailhouse audience. If the day before, the correctional staff assaulted a well-loved and respected inmate, the mood of the population could be restless and belligerent. Part of my craft is knowing how to elucidate the sordidness of daily prison life with humor. Truly, a tough task! I have to mix it up—a sketch here, a narrative there, followed by some Shakespeare, or something polemical. Because my audience is fluid, I have to move like water!

When you specialize in jailhouse comedy, there’s an abundance of material all around. I often say, jokingly, that I perform under duress—you can’t afford to bomb before an Attica audience. These guys have killed for less! But seriously.… In my comedy, I can address many distasteful prison conditions: strip-frisking, cavity searches—I’ve gotten a lot of laughs on that one, believe it or not! The jailhouse brand of humor emerged from just this kind of raw and edgy material.

As a performer, how do you keep people interested in what you are doing?
I have discovered that the average time a prisoner will engage with my routine is between five and fifteen minutes. That’s why I never lead with my best stuff. I often employ a strategy that works up the audience by sprinkling my sets with diatribes about current social or political topics. Polemics are alive and well in prison. This is often the means by which prisoners relieve their aggression in a safe and healthy manner. If all else fails, I pull out a few monologues by Shakespeare—you’d be amazed how much prisoners appreciate iambic pentameter. Plus, peel back the layers on just about any Shakespeare character and you’ll discover a polemical impetus.

In your work in Attica, you depend on collaboration, with fellow inmates and colleagues on the outside. What sort of collaborations have you had with people on the outside?
I collaborate with anyone willing to match my commitment to performance. At present, I am working with another prisoner who has started a performing artist program in another facility. He is awesome! I’m also working with a volunteer community college professor and the artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival [an opera festival in Cooperstown, New York] to make Attica’s theater arts program a success. The Glimmerglass opera company has performed twice for the prisoners in Attica and I think this led to the prison administration’s approval of our performing arts project. My writing partner, Sierra Katow, is a Harvard graduate who appeared on the NBC reality television show Last Comic Standing in 2015. I wrote to her out of the blue and she wrote back, requesting samples of my work. Today, we write sitcom pilots together.

Tell us about your theater arts program at Attica. What was the origin of the program and its goals?
The Glimmerglass opera performances at Attica helped the prison administration recognize the value of a theatrical arts program. But I also campaigned for three years to get the program approved. During that time, I performed Shakespeare at as many inmate events as I could. Finally, I became recognized and acknowledged for my dramatic abilities. I think it helped to be able to show the administration that I had the promise of assistance from a fellow inmate and a drama professor and Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello.

We recently received approval from Attica administrators to move ahead with the program. I have many goals for the program, but my primary objective is to establish an empathetic and caring community through theater arts. In a healthier environment, therapeutic ideas, such as conflict resolution, just work better. I have seen countless instances of how drama can be successful in helping people explore personal issues.

Recently, you performed Shakespeare at an Attica event. What was that like?
That performance took place at the Attica Lifers Organization picnic. I performed Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Julius Caesar, beginning with “But yesterday the word of Caesar might / Have stood against the world. Now lies he there, / And none so poor to do him reverence…. ” and going on to “Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.” I became so caught up that I actually had tears in my eyes. But it was wonderful—the prisoners loved it, the outside guest loved it. Even the corrections officers applauded—that was a first. I was just happy to be able to get through the scene without having the white bedsheets fall from my shoulders!

You are working with a partner on the outside to develop a cable show. Are there any developments on that project that you would like to share?
My comedy writing partner has decided to shop our PEN*PALS sitcom pilot script to a few production companies in Los Angeles. While I do a lot of writing, Sierra does all the heavy lifting. I am honored and blessed to have a professional partnership with her. She also edits my self-published magazine called The Prisoner’s Lampoon which specializes in jailhouse comedy. Before we send out any edition of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, we send out samples to introduce its rather unorthodox content. We do this because my work has been labeled “objurgating”—to which I respond that an objurgating title obfuscates the obstreperous nature of jailhouse comedy.

How have you found that performing changes the discussion when it comes to certain issues? Have there been times when your approach seemed to go nowhere? Why do you think that was?
Some time back, I wrote a dramatic piece about Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. In the piece, I reversed the roles, having George Zimmerman in a hoodie walking through Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood. This went nowhere. Naturally, I knew that in a correctional facility where half the population is black and more than a third Latino a subject like this might be too delicate to address at all. But I wondered: What if I had written this piece as a comedy sketch? Would it have been more successful?

In the final analysis, we are all prisoners in one form or another. Whether in our careers, in personal relationships, or in our ties to the “good life” (home, car, education, family, financial security)—we believe we have freedom of choice, but do we really?

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Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

Princeton Theological Seminary library.  Billy via Flickr.

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “We are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose. Continue reading

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