Friday, February 24, 2006

Chris O'Donnell called this the feel good story of the year, and who am I to disagree.
As promised, a few comment on Richard Rhodes book. Why They Kill is an exploration of the career and ideas of a criminologist named Lonnie Athens. Athens grew up in a very violent home and found himself drawn to the field of criminology when he discovered there was such a thing during his college years. Athens' immediate reaction to the prevailing theories about violent criminal behavior was that they did not at all match up with his own experiences and observations. Violent criminals, in his experience, did not "snap", go crazy or otherwise act irrationally when involved in violence. They were simply acting on the basis of their personality and evaluation of the situation they were in.

While countless studies had been conducted in sociology collecting data sets on the "factors" associated with criminal acts, Athens thought this was entirely the wrong approach to the question. In his mind he felt that the best approach was to do intensive interviews with violent criminals and find out if there were common patterns in their backgrounds and in the way they perceived their reasons for acting violently. He carried out this research in various prisons and made the startling conclusion that there was a specific pattern to the background of every single one of the violent criminals. Each person went through specific stages of development, so to speak, on the way to developing a violent personality. Athens called this process "violentiztion". I'll not spell all these out, since I think you should read it for yourself.

Athens academic career was not successful though. His rough background and his non-conformity to prevalent sociological methodology put him at odds with many of the people in his field. His books were not accepted by any american publisher, though they were eventually accepted by the british publisher Routledge.

After spelling out Athens' research, Rhodes goes on to examine whether Athens' scheme could be seen as applying more broadly. He looks at several notorious cases of violence which had already been examined heavily by other journalists such as Mike Tyson and Cheryl Crane (Lana Turner's daughter). Additionally he looks at the history of child rasing in Europe and its possible connection with the violence which had been so common before the 18th century. Murder rates in rural medieval Europe, for example, were quite comparable to those in the worst 20th century cities. THe process of violentization always has as its first step brutalization. This could include either being personally beaten or witness horrible violence done to another person. In examining historical work on child raising norms in european history, Rhodes quotes one scholar as saying he could not find a single documented example of a child who was NOT beaten before the 18th century.

Rhodes also goes on to look at violence in warfare and its relationship to the training methods used by the military. Again, there was a lot a fascinating material here which I will encourage you to read for yourself.

Towards the end of the book RHodes turns his eye to a subject which Lonnie Athens had not discussed in his writings: conservative christianity. Rhodes mentions several popular christian books on child raising and scorns their model of seeing children as creatures of evil whose wills need to be "broken". I found this section disquieting. The discussion of the relation of christian child raising and violence could certainly have been nuanced quite a bit more than it was, but on the other hand, I think it is not at all far fetched to suggest that many violent parents see justification for brutalizing children through certain fundamentalistic beliefs and teachings.

Anyhow, this was easliy one of the most interesting books I've read in my lifetime. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I'm wondering if conversations like this one are in my future somewhere.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I've been rerading this week Richard Rhodes's book Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. For what amounts to a biography of an academic career, it is an overwhelmingly compelling read. More on it later, but I wanted to thank whoever recommended it to me. I just don't remember who that was. Someone in a comment quite a while back.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Something unexpected to cheer up your weekend.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Anyone know what happened to John B's blog?

Edit: seems to be back up now.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

It is time to announce the return of...


Here are the rules. Anyone may nominate a book to me. Nominations which I have already read will be discarded. Each person may only nominate one book (discraded entries do not count for this purpose). The total number of entries shall not exceed ten (10) books. I will promise to read each nominated book during the year and report on it. The book which I judge to be the best will be the winner and will earn the nominator a free book from their amazon wishlist (so please be sure to set one of those up if you plan to play).

The first two entries have already been made, so time is limited. Any sort of book is acceptable, provided that it is not out of print or terribly expensive. Even so, I could try to get it via Inter-library loan, so nominate away. My typical interests are history, biblical theology, language, economics and good fiction, though I'm happy to try anything else as well.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend of the last 10 years, Pitt Tomlinson, for recommending to me Albert Borgmann's book Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology. Borgmann is a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, and, like other philosophers, has the talent, for better or worse, of writing far denser prose than other sorts of writers. This is not a drawback, though, when the writing is clear, nautrally interesting, and not translated from German.

The portion of the book I most enjoyed is his chapter on the virtue of courage in modern society. Beginning with a look at the courage of the rescue workers on Sept 11, 2001, he asks the question of whether courage in modern society reuires an extraordinary crisis. Typically virtues have been said to only develop through practice, so this would seem to be a difficult quandry. Drawing on the analysis of William Miller (The Mystery of Courage, 2000), he talks briefly about Aristotle and Aquinas on courage, noting that for each of them, their primary models for courage (Homeric heroes for Aristotle, the martyrs for Aquinas) lived centuries before their own writing, thus each felt this quandry of how courage was to be relevant in their day.

Certainly one challenge to be courageous in our society is the lack of obvious dangers. We would (should) not consider as virtuous the intentional taking on of easily preventable harms. Borgmann here points to the moral harms provided by the lifestyle encouraged by ou technological culture:

You come home from work, frazzled and spent. You walk into the kitchen and are not surprised that the children have left already and your spouse is not yet home. You find yourself walking to the refrigerator; you take what you like most and put it in the microwave. You stare at the paper on the kitchen table; it's Wednesday, your favorite tv show is on, followed by a game of the home team. Your pulse quickens a little. The show is good, your spouse comes home, you exchange a few words, the game is boring, you move to the den to do an overdue memo on the omputer. But first you check your email, the latest news, you happen on the ESPN web site. They offer you a video game, you play it for a while, your spouse is going to bed. You decide to call it a day.

Has this been an un-Christian evening? You have not coveted your neighbor's spouse, you have not stolen anything, you have not ordered anyone around. What you have done seems unexceptional. There were moments of a pleasant sort of freedom when you were able to eat what you liked at the time you liked, while watching the program you liked. There were moments of mild excitement when you anticipated the game or started to play the video game. Sullennessmay have overtaken you in the end, but at least you id not have to presume on anyone's time or attention.

Borgmann describes this "cocoon of autonomy" as being "incapable of redemption", but then moves to the alternatives which are at hand:

Here on the shelf is the poetry we could read to one another, there in the cornerare the flute and guitar we could play together. Right next to the kitchen is the dining-room table we could gather around. nd not far from our home are the playing fields where we could teach our daughter tennis or join a softball league with our beloved. There is the museum where local painters are showing their work and the concert hall where the citizens' symphony plays.

These are the places where patience is tried and generosity rewarded, where disappointments can't be escaped and grace descends in what Virginia Wolff calls moments of being. Those places are the precincts of faith where redemption comes into view again as the perfection the world cries out for.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

It's hard for me to imagine that I have readers who don't also read Joel's blog, but just in case, make sure you read his post on his daughter's prayers.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mythology and James Frey (in case you care).
Regarding the issue of the Danish cartoon conflagration, I express my soldarity with the comments of Kendall Harmon. Thanks to Todd for the link(s).

Friday, February 03, 2006

Just finished reading Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. Lasch's work traced the idea of progress and "progressivism" through the works of (generally) american intellectuals and thinkers from the early 19th century through the 1980's. While a great deal of it was interesting, I do tire of the "history of ideas" method of talking almost exclusively about famous authors. It would be refreshing to see more work done with newspapers and magazines and other guages of more popular opinion. One of the magazines he did cite which was of interest to me, though I imagine it would be tricky to find today, is a series which was done in The Nation in the 1920's called "These United States", a profile of each state in the union. These were apparently highly influenced by the work of Mencken and thus were often quite negative in their assesment, though this was not always the case. I believe Willa Cather was commissioned to write on Nebraska and found plenty of virtues to mention.

The book is quite lengthy and covers quite a few topics. One portion towards the end I thought I would share at some length, as it is one of my pet topics:

...Relentless "improvement" of the product and upgrading of consumer tastes are the heart of mass merchandising, and these imperatives are built into the mass media at every level.

Even the reporting of news has to be understood not as propaganda for any particular ideology, liberal or conservative, but as propaganda for commodities--for the replacement of things by commodities, use values by exchnge values, and events by images. The very concept of news celebrates newness. The value of news, like that of any oher commodity, consists primarily of its novelty, only secondarily of its informational value. As Frank Waldo pointed out many years ago, the news appeals to the same jaded appetite that makes a spoiled child tire of a toy as soon as it becomes familiar and demand a new one in its place. As Frank also pointed out ( in The Rediscovery of America, 1930), the social expectations that stimulate a child's appetite for new toys appeal to the desire for appropriation: the appeal of toys comes not to lie in their use, but in their status as possesions. "A frsh plaything renews the child's opportunity to say: this is mine." A child who seldom gets a new toy, Frank noted, "prizes it as part of himself." But if "toys become more frequent, value is gradually transfered from the toy to the toy's novelty . . . The arrival of the toy, not the toy itself, becomes the event." The news, accordingly, has to be seen as the "plaything of a child whose hunger for toys has been stimulated shrewdly." We can carry this analysis one step further by pointing out that the model of possession, in a society organized around mass consumption, is addiction. The need for novely and fresh stimulation becomes more and more intense, intervening interludes of boredom more and more intolerable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

One of the hats I wear in life is as music director for the men's singing group at CGS. Last night was one of our rare "outside gigs". We had been requested to sing at a retirement/assisted living community in Durham, so we put together 30-40 minutes of music we had either sung recently or could learn pretty quickly (i.e. a couple of barbershop arrangements). The two of us who have small kids brought our wives and babies along to enjoy the show. During on of the first songs my son crawled over to me and grabbed my leg. We were singing Ralph Manuel's lovely Alleluia, a piece I know quite well, so I decided to drop my music and pick John up while I was singing. All was well and good until he decided to join in. His "ra-ra-ra-ra" fits in pretty well with "alleluia", so it wasn't too bad, but it did throw me off just a little bit. The audience loved it though, so no regrets there.