Which Religious-Liberty Protections Mean
Something? A Question for Jonathan Merritt

Protesters at the Moral March on Raleigh (February 13, 2016). Susan Melkisethian via flickr.

Protesters at the Moral March on Raleigh (February 13, 2016). Susan Melkisethian via flickr.

Although I admire Jonathan Merritt’s religion writing a great deal, I was disappointed with his latest Atlantic piece, “Religious-Liberty Laws That Have No Meaning.” Merritt takes conservatives to task for recent state-level legislation that purports to protect either religious liberty or bathroom safety at a cost to sexual minorities. His immediate targets are recent laws in Tennessee (aimed at protecting medical professionals who object to gay marriage and non-marital sex on conscience grounds) and North Carolina (requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to gender given on their birth certificate).

Merritt argues that laws of this nature are driven by conservative “fear” and reflect efforts to “‘solve’ non-existent problems.” Neither law is particularly well-written, and the North Carolina law in particular reflects partisan politics (for example, it also prevents cities from enacting minimum wages higher than the state’s). Nevertheless, I worry that Merritt’s withering critique has perhaps unwittingly contributed to a certain kind of progressive narrative as ungrounded as the conservative one that he critiques.

When it comes to understanding clashes between religious liberty and the rights of sexual minorities, there is no one “conservative narrative” and no one “progressive narrative.” For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can talk about a “fear narrative” pushed by some conservatives and a “bigotry narrative” pushed by some progressives.

The fear narrative rallies its base in much the way that Merritt describes: by promoting anxiety and mistrust in reaction to progressive causes, especially those involving sexual minorities. The bigotry narrative is similarly indiscriminate: It views traditional religious beliefs about sexuality as rooted only in animus.

Merritt does a good job critiquing the fear narrative, including highlighting the misguided legislative effort in Tennessee to declare the Bible the official state book. (That might have been a nice gesture in 1816; it makes no legal or cultural sense in 2016.) I also share Merritt’s views about North Carolina lawmakers’ approach to bathrooms. The sexual predator trope advanced by the fear narrative is as galling as it is ungrounded, and that kind of rhetoric does real harm to real people. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 22, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Now’s the Time,” Eric Olson
“If I were to die today, my loved ones would be grief-stricken, my son would be orphaned, and my colleagues would have to mark my students’ exams. That would be terrible for them.”

“A groundbreaking artist, Prince astonished right to the end,” Steve Smith
“There was never a time, not even a passing moment, that Prince didn’t matter.”

“Note To Self,” Elaine Blair
“To throw in our lot with the essay — to place it at the center of our literary culture — is to accept the idea of a more or less continuous self that can make its observations, emotions, interpretations, and opinions intelligible to others.”

“On the Road,” James McWilliams
“The trade-off for submitting voluntarily to the pain of a marathon—which really can be otherworldly—is the opportunity to transcend your anger, to step outside normal life and build a unique narrative out of a sanctioned act of rebellion.”

“Still Tilting at Windmills,” Stephen Phelan
“On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 15, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“How an Internet Mapping Glitch Turned a Random Kansas Farm Into a Digital Hell,” Kashmir Hill
“One important lesson of my sleuthing is that IP addresses, which get used as digital evidence in criminal trials and to secure search warrants, are not always reliable. Like Social Security numbers, they were a numerical system built for one purpose that are now used for something completely different.”

“Shakespeare’s Rotten Weeds, Shakespeare’s Deep Trenches,” William Logan
“A poet may make a poem worse in revision, may soften effects that give it the wrong conviction and finish when required for a chain of sonnets. Shakespeare likely had written the poems from immediate impulse, as his friendship with the Fair Youth developed, stumbled, had consequences. There was no need to polish them, because they were private. He passed a few to friends—which tells us little more than that he had friends.”

“Type Slowly: Word Processing and Literary Composition,” Dylan Hicks
“If, in one traditional view, literary perfection was either illusory or the province of poems and other short works, now, it seemed, even a long novel could be refined to an apotheosis of unalterable integrity.”

“Picturing Don Quixote,” Rachel Schmidt
“Whatever Cervantes’ initial idea, in the course of the last 400 years, Don Quixote has embarked on a journey in the world imagination that has taken the literary character far beyond its original conception. The book illustrations of Cervantes’ Don Quixote would play a decisive role in this — transforming not only the image of Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza but also by giving life to the image of Cervantes himself.”

“Suspicious Minds,” Evan Kindley
“It is in detective and spy stories, Boltanski argues, that we find the clearest expression of many of the paranoid attitudes and ideas expressed more apologetically and self-consciously in the social sciences and in everyday political life.”

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Release and Attack, Speed and Drag:
An Interview with Rosamond Casey

Mandelbrodt’s Nights, 1995, acrylic on glass, collage, from “Regions of the Will”

Rosamond Casey’s painting, Tabula Sacra, appeared in our spring issue accompanying the article “Vocation in the Valley.”  A painter, calligrapher, and teacher based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casey recently spoke to THR about this painting and her other work.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): In describing your work, you have said “I excavate recognized systems—a man’s suit, the alphabet, cultural personas—fracturing them under examination so they can be set free, made transparent, or rendered slack.” What do you mean by the idea of “slackness”? Can you describe a project in which this was revealed? Did this elicit any particular response (sadness, disappointment, or dread)?

Initiation, photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Initiation, from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Rosamond Casey (RC): “Slack” is the condition of an object lying spread out to be examined. In order to grasp the meaning of a thing it has to be taken apart visually, and emptied of its regular blood flow, its habit of being, the way it’s used to being seen. As the observer of the thing, I have to come to the project in a similar condition, a little bit empty and dumb. To understand the weight, proportions, and contours of a thing like a man’s suit (an object that held my interest because it was both ordinary and engorged with meaning and has survived centuries of fine-tuning with no fundamental breakdown of its form and function), I have to turn it around in my hands, consider the scope of its cultural reach, recall my own primal sensory reactions to the look, smell, and feel of it, dissect its interior lining, understand its high structure and flaccid motion as it moves down the street in a wind. Many small art projects accompany this stage of getting to know the object and they all inevitably get thrown out. I never doubt that the object will eventually be recharged and give itself up to a deeper interpretation by the time the work is presented in a gallery. The project was ultimately called Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill (above).

THR: Can you describe how you came to focus on kinetics in art, that is, the impulses of fixing/stabilizing and liberating/releasing?

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

RC: I came to art early through an interest in the kinetics of shaping letters and designing text. I continued my commission work as a calligrapher, but in my painting I shed the text and focused just on the kinetic, rhythmic messaging of lines in space. The possibilities of pure expressive line led me to invent new hand tools that would allow those gestures of paint to take on the illusion of three-dimensional form. The speed and pressure under which the wet painted strokes were made created undulating surfaces on glass panels that looked like natural deposits formed by wind, water, and slow growth. The character of the kinetic energy of the stroke determined the form. All this information came from studying calligraphic forms and understanding principles of touch—release and attack, speed and drag.

THR: Your interest in the art and craft of bookmaking—whether in your calligraphy, papermaking, or book art—emphasizes the physical object and the artist’s hand. Your work in acrylics on glass (below) calls for a special kind of engagement with paint and surface. Through your installations, you encourage viewers to take part in the art. You are in effect drawing attention to the “thingness” of art. What role does the material aspect of art and artistic creation represent for you? Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 8, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“In Defence of Minor Poets,” Stephen Burt
“Not all the stars shine equally; not all the stars are visible all the time (there are some you can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere), and not all are equally important to young astronomers’ sense of the sky. But they are there; they are numerous, too.”

“Freedom and Intellectual Life,” Zena Hitz
“The image of the intellect as a refuge from the world is rare nowadays, but its history is distinguished.”

“The Imaginary Suicide of Mrs. Darling,” Elyse Byrnes
“The point is, yes—the Little Mermaid stabs herself in the heart after the prince marries someone else. Why would you read a child this story? Two reasons: one, because life is hard and the earlier they learn that the better for them. Two, because life is hard and the earlier you learn that the better for you.”

“Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?,” Kelsey Osgood
“The wishful Amish have dedicated internet forums (ironically) on which they write with the feverishness of the unrequited lover about their long-held desire to get close to the aloof objects of their spiritual desire.”

“What I’ve learned reciting poems in the street,” Gary Dexter
“No. 2 was Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott.’ That can’t be right. Only one person has ever asked me for ‘The Lady of Shalott.’”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 1, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“A History of Wallpaper’s Deception,” Jude Stewart
“Wallpaper has been guilty of little white lies, like visually altering the proportions of a room or projecting your idle fancies onto the four walls—and also of more outright deception, of social pretension, even the erasure of history.”

“The Declining Taste of the Global Super-Rich,” Amber A’Lee Frost
“This is the state of fine arts under contemporary capitalism. Classics and antiquity have lost cultural cache in the age of disruption, and there is no longer an aristocratic imperative to support noble projects of lofty ambition.”

“A Century of Wild and Utopian Experiments with Self-Sustaining Worlds,” Claire Voon
“Can a house sustain itself by eating its own tail?”

“Inside a Chinese Self-Help Group,” Yuebai Liu
“The desire for self-actualization in a hyper-competitive society like China is strong. It’s also increasingly difficult as inequality continues to rise.”

“Tracing the Steps of Lost Explorers in Miserable, Beautiful Siberia,” Hampton Sides
“Today it’s hard for us to understand how intensely curious people were in the 19th century to learn what was Up There. The polar problem loomed as a public fixation and a planetary enigma. The gallant, fur-cloaked men who ventured into the Arctic had become national idols. People couldn’t get enough of them.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: March 25, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Something Big,” Geoff Dyer
“Rodia’s ambition was merely “to do something big.” It wasn’t even an ambition — those are usually underpinned by a desire for acclaim, recognition, fame, money. Instead it was more like a hobby, something he pursued in his free time, albeit with unswerving single-mindedness.”

“Human Error,” Jennifer Jacquet
“That humans have helped bring on other species’ end times is not an easy feeling to deal with. Survivor guilt in the Anthropocene may describe how we respond to harm done by human­kind’s ever-increasing dominance.”

“How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?,” Allison Eck
“The arrow of time points in the direction of disorder. The arrow of life, however, points the opposite way. From a simple, dull seed grows an intricately structured flower, and from the lifeless Earth, forests and jungles. How is it that the rules governing those atoms we call ‘life’ could be so drastically different from those that govern the rest of the atoms in the universe?”

“Amidst of the Rubble of Bedrock City,” Amy McKeever
“Bedrock City was a theme park whose main attraction was a glimpse into what the Flintstones’ hometown would have looked and felt like, if only it were real.”

 

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The Hedgehog’s Array: March 18, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the past week:

“Homelessness and the Politics of Hope,” Sydney Morrow
“At what point ought we cease to hold people to a standard that they do not seem able or willing to maintain?”

“Viktor Shklovsky and the Horror Behind Ostranenie,” Alexandra Berlina
“When a scholar claims that ‘acute experience’ of the world is to be found in literature, one might suspect that his real life consists largely of book dust. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Shklovsky.”

“Home Economics,” Heather Boushey
“Today’s families need a new contract with their employers, one that provides stability in a world where we are interacting with the economy in new ways.”

“We Other Puritans,” Michael Robbins
“Successful genre work often recycles old tropes—the demons of adolescent sexuality have haunted folk literature for centuries. But The Witch is about as subtle as a jack in the box.”

“A Life in Letters,” Doris Grumbach
“Remember when, years ago, the waiter in an upscale restaurant would come to the table between courses and clear the cloth with a little plate and brush? Now I am doing this between memories, and the crumb I find there concerns a book I never wrote.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Polling the Soul,” Jeff Guhin
“Yet there’s another curious problem with Inventing American Religion, which is Wuthnow’s insistence that the problems of polling are somehow utterly separate from the broader problems of social science.”

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