Monday, May 24, 2010

Ethics and Meaning

Paul Starobin, in "Animal Rights on the March" (via

"The animal-rights movement gives the lie to the trope that we are living in a postmodern world in which meaning is fragmented and values are relative. These advocates burn with an old-fashioned Enlightenment fervor -- an unhealthy zeal, critics believe -- in this quest to extend liberty to nonhuman beings. The ridicule that sometimes greets their cause is unlikely to deter it..."

Indeed: I stopped thinking of myself as an existentialist (mostly) as I became more committed to life as a pacifist and a (mostly vegan) vegetarian. I realized these deeply felt commitments did not match a worldview in which we create our own meaning and morality.

Monday, May 3, 2010

They know the score: W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" explores, among other things, the way that suffering occurs

"While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"


"That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."


"how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;
and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

How do we juxtapose horrors with the everyday? How do we ourselves ignore, or hide, or diminish, or show indifference to suffering on a grand scale? The United States currently occupies two foreign countries...and how many TV shows, and movies, and video games, and sporting events, and concerts, do we have to stop us from thinking about it? When historians look back and see the United States at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade or more, and see that Americans amused themselves watching celebrities compete in a dance competition, what will they think? What will they say about us? Will it be a scandal? Will they wonder how we played while we kept electing leaders that kept it all going? That could even joke about it? That it seems it will never end, that it escalates, that the horrors and the violence continue on and on and on, but we've got American Idol and Tiger Woods to think about?

Don't we, too, turn away from the boy falling from the sky, keeping our eyes on the plough? Aren't we on a ship with places to go, while on our periphery, a splash?

But I don't know. I want most of all to watch my beautiful children be beautiful. I also want to follow the Minnesota Vikings. I want to watch funny television shows, I want to read good novels, and I want reflect on God. I want to teach students how to write and I want to teach students about a poem by W.H. Auden. I want to eat hummus and I want to go for walks on spring days. I want, in short, the small and large joys that can come from a life of peace. Can I enjoy that peaceful life, when others so obviously cannot?* Is that a sin? Should I be thankful for my life of peace, while praying and striving for peace to be spread? Or is it not enough?

In short, is the insight of Auden and "the Old Masters" a judgment, or simply an observation?