Saturday, February 19, 2005


"We must live differently in the world, according to these different assumptions: (1) that we could always remain in it; (2) that it is certain that we shall not remain here long, and uncertain if we shall remain here one hour. This last assumption is our condition." Recent events in Asia put an exclamation point on Blaise Pascal’s concluding sentence.

Few contrasts are more jarring than the juxtaposition of scenes from Indonesia and Sumatra with typical television fare in America. The absurdity of reportorial excitations over toppled trees or flooded streets is obvious when placed alongside the massive destruction caused by walls of ocean water that traveled hundreds of miles to unleash their fury. Next to this awesome display, the breathless promos hyping "The Amazing Race" or "Desperate Housewives" are embarrassing.

Indeed, most of our everyday concerns are ruthlessly exposed as trivial diversions when viewed through the lens of an event that ripped the life from thousands of human beings and is draining the vital force out of thousands of survivors.

Tragedies, whether manmade or natural, have the bitterly redeeming virtue of focusing our attention on what is important--if we choose to pay attention. But for most of us, so much of our time is consumed with petty activities that we are tempted to reimmerse ourselves, as soon as possible, into concerns that could only be justified if our lives lasted forever.

One way to deflect attention from what stands grimly before us is to smother the event in political or ecological quibbles: Did the Bush Administration miss an opportunity to show its concern for victims of the tragedy? Has America’s response to the disaster been stingy? Has Western consumption of shrimp and the lure of luxury vacation spots led to the destruction of lagoons that might have buffered populated areas from deadly waves?

Such questions are sophisticated ways to avoid the obvious. They are reminiscent of Ivan Ilych’s focus on the terms a medical specialist used to describe his worsening condition--"vermiform appendix" or "floating kidney." What Tolstoy’s self-absorbed character finally came to realize, amid constant pain, was that Death was starring him in the face.

By all means, let us aid those who suffer and set up warning devices and study ecological patterns that might mitigate future disasters. But let us not lie to ourselves about the larger truth revealed by this event. Our lives are short, fragile, and uncertain. No government can guarantee even seventy healthy years. We ought, therefore, to live in a way that acknowledges these facts--not fritter away our hours mired in sleaze, partisanship, and mindless consumption.

To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God are the bare essentials set forth in the Old Testament book of Micah. It is a trinity whose actualization rests in large part on the realization that Asia’s mourning is also our own.

Of Gerasim, the servant who served Ivan so cheerfully in his last days, his master said, "How easily and well you do it all." To these comments the strong peasant replied, "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?" The tawdry popular cultures of America and Europe cannot survive an insight of that magnitude.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Boston Legal is a prime example of the World According to Hollywood--even more reflective of the industry’s mindset than the show’s sleazy domestic partner, Desperate Housewives. At least the latter program acknowledges the existence of children.

By contrast, the Shatner-Spader-Bergman production proceeds with a cast devoid of marital devotion. As was true on Captain Kirk’s starship, sons, daughters, wives and husbands are virtually absent from the scene. Only alien civilizations and criminal defendants, it seems, exhibit the bonding patterns and rituals that once characterized planet Earth.

In lieu of characters with familial attachments, we are given promiscuous professionals--rutting barristers whose personal standards of deportment are as low as their political ideals are high. What matters in this forensic free-for-all is not what happens, as Barbara Bush noted, "in your house," but what happens in the courthouse. James Spader is the show’s number one amoralist--pursuing every willing skirt in the workplace, living in a hotel suite, exhibiting contempt for traditional standards of civility, yet heroically advancing any political cause that can be stuffed into his hyperactive legal briefs.

One wonders what familial carts all these legal superstars fell off of. Were they raised by wolves--or on alien planets and transported, Star Trek style, to the home of the bean and the cod? Did they reach puberty under the care of Father Flanagan’s abusive successor and then bolt to the big city--a scenario that would explain their visceral aversion to Catholicism?

What is clear on Boston Legal is that neither promiscuity nor civility have anything to do with morality--nor, for that matter, do intact families or children raised by dedicated parents. Instead, what matters is one’s position on political issues--the environment, the FDA, homosexual relationships, civil rights, big business, and so on. This way of ordering things has the benefit of excluding from evidence all those habits that would dispose the public to look unfavorably on the Hollywood set--to render negative judgments on folks whose not-so-private lives regularly display all the moral dignity of drug traffickers.

What counts in this Brave New World is not how parents raise their children but whether one supports "reproductive (i.e. non-reproductive) rights." Marriage isn’t considered that important--unless it concerns the legal standing of partners biologically incapable of producing a child. Nor is civility a trait that requires vigorous defense, since all that really matters is what transpires under judicial auspices.

The philosophers Andrew Oldenquist and Daniel Callahan have noted that law inevitably fills the breach created by a crumbling social order. Do’s and don’ts increasingly become functions of legal decree and less matters of cultural stigma. A corollary to this shift in ethical emphasis is the tendency to view the Supreme Court as a deus ex machina--an institution whose statutory authority keeps things from falling apart while putting its stamp of approval on acts that, absent such endorsement, would generate debilitating pangs of conscience. In such a society it’s easier to derive a sense of rectitude from the presumed virtuosity of legal arguments than from personal character or time devoted to raising one’s offspring.