Thursday, April 18, 2013

Things We Did Not Learn About the Marathon Bombings

Let's recap the things that did not happen on the sorry day that the Boston Marathon was bombed:

Five unexploded bombs were not discovered nearby. No unexploded bombs were discovered nearby.

The government did not shut down cell-phone service as a precaution to prevent more detonations. The cell phone system around Copley Square simply became massively overloaded, so that calls could not get through (but texts, which take much less bandwidth, could).

The police did not arrest anyone or identify any suspects.

Twelve victims did not die.

Neither of the bombs exploded inside the Copley Fairmont Hotel.

The 8-year-old girl in the photo that went around the internet was not killed; the 8-year-old victim was a boy.

And, much as I would like it to be true, the story about marathoners running across the finish line and continuing running to the hospital to donate blood cannot be true. The police closed down the finish-line area (i.e., the crime scene), and directed runners elsewhere. I'm sure some runners did donate blood, but the inspiring version of this story, where they finish the race and don't even break stride, is not true.

All of the above things that did not happen were widely reported and widely repeated, especially on the 24-hour news. If you watched the news for the first 24 hours, you were likely to "learn" at least some of these things that are not true. On the other hand, you would not learn much of anything accurate during the first 24 hours, because no one actually knew anything. The crime scene had not been properly searched yet. There had not been time for investigators to study photos and videos to look for the bomber.

So what did you gain if you watched cable news for the first 24 hours after the terrorist attack? Less than nothing. You "learned" more false information than you were given real information. What 24-hour coverage covers is the 24 hours before anyone knows anything. And watching the news during those 24 hours actually leaves you more ignorant than if you simply waited for the next day's paper.

Forty-eight hours later,  long after there was any such excuse, CNN and AP were trumpeting that a suspect had been arrested, and was on his way to arraignment at Boston's federal courthouse. A few hours later, they had to retract that story. They didn't just report that an arrest was imminent. They reported that the non-existent arrest had already happened.

Cable news obviously does a terrible job supplying information about the real world. But supplying viewers with information is not cable news's real job. The 24-hour news channels, no matter their partisan leanings, exist to insulate viewers from the emotional experience of not knowing. 24-hour news is for people who, like small children or Politico columnists, simply cannot wait.

What cable news offers is not information but protection from feelings of uncertainty. The emphasis is not on discovering the truth, but banishing the discomfort of being uncertain what the truth is. It will fill 24 hours with confidently reported gossip, speculation, and rumor in order to distract a viewer from any truths that remain unknown, and most of all from the truth that the viewer does not know. It is an emotional substitute for knowledge. That any actual information occasionally mixes into the news flow is just an accident of necessity.

The anxiety that cable news addresses, the discomfort with uncertainty, is the opposite of curiosity. Curiosity embraces uncertainty as a necessary first step to more knowledge. Curiosity is driven by the joy of discovery but also by the pleasure of groping toward that discovery, the pleasure of not knowing yet. (When the curious eventually answer a question, they become curious about a new question.) But cable news teaches that not knowing yet is intolerable. Having unanswered questions is intolerable. Not being sure of one's position is unbearable. So it promotes pseudo-knowledge, a set of cliches and talking points and reflexive attitudes that substitute for actually knowing something. That pseudo-knowledge does not help you understand the questions better. It labels questions officially answered, so you can stop thinking about them.

And conspiracy theories, which began to proliferate as soon as the bombings entered public awareness, are simply a more elaborate effort to close off the experience of the real world, to block out any sense of uncertainty and any possibility of surprise. Conspiracy theorists, whether American right-wingers or Egyptian Islamists, began denouncing the bombings as a fraud designed to frame people who share their ideologies because the conspiracy theorists think that the bombings likely were carried out by someone who shares their ideologies. (If a right-winger says that right-wingers are about to be framed, it's because on some level he thinks that right wingers did this. Likewise the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who claimed that it's all a conspiracy to defame Muslims actually thinks the bombers are Muslims.) But more importantly, conspiracy theorists are trying to fend off, well in advance, any piece of evidence that might interfere with their theories. The point of a conspiracy theory is to make the facts fit the theory, not the theory fit the facts, so you'd better get a head start on inconvenient pieces of reality. The point is never to change your mind. An old joke says that "a paranoid is never surprised." That's the point of paranoia: to ward off the discomfort of discovering and learning, the intolerable intellectual adventure of not knowing something, the tormenting possibility of change and growth. Some people will go to any lengths not to learn anything new. For those who need an easier path, there is always CNN.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marathon Day

Boston is my home, my beloved city, although I have not lived there for many years. And Patriot's Day, the Monday of the Boston Marathon, is the proudest day in a proud city's year. We open our city to all, and hold one of the world's greatest sporting events, the oldest annual marathon on the globe. We hold that race in public streets and fill the sidewalks to cheer. It is Boston's day to celebrate the many things that make it Boston.

Tonight the news is asking who did this and what they want. Of course, there are no answers to those questions yet. 24-hour news only fills the anxious time before anyone knows anything real, and makes those hours more anxious. But what the bombers want, what any bombers want, is not important. What matters is what they want to take away from us. Why they attacked does not matter, because their beliefs cannot justify this deed. What they attacked does matter, because that is what we have to keep them from taking away.

The Marathon is a celebration of athletic excellence and discipline, of course. And it has become a symbol of human willpower overcoming adversity. No one can watch the Hoyts run their race without understanding that this is about the will to face challenges and overcome them. But the Marathon was deliberately symbolic from the first. The race began in 1897, the year after the first modern Olympic Games revived the marathon as a sporting event. The Greek Revival spirit of the event resonated with Boston's vision of itself as the Athens of America, our country's university city, heir to classical learning and values. More importantly, the legacy of the ancient Greeks was bound up, as it was for the Founding Fathers, with democracy itself; celebrating an intellectual link to the ancient Athenians (in the most grueling physical way possible) inevitably means celebrating a tradition of democracy. It's not for nothing that Boston runs the Marathon on Patriot's Day, which celebrates the anniversary of Lexington and Concord. In some way that never gets spoken outright, the Marathon is a celebration of American democracy in the city that birthed the Revolution.

But the Marathon is also a game of peace, founded in the wake of the Olympic movement for many of the same reasons. It is a reenactment of the Greeks' peaceful competitions. The Boston Marathon has lived up to that Olympic ideal, drawing athletes from around the globe. Inevitably, the running of the Marathon is a celebration of the openness, the public freedom, that make a great city great (and in truth make it a city in the first place). It requires a city open to visitors from around the world. It requires a city where half a million people can gather and cheer in the streets. Holding the marathon at all celebrates the essence of urban civilization: a civic space shared by multitudes of strangers, living together in peace.

This is what the bombers want to destroy: democratic values. A dedication to shared history. Resolution in the face of adversity. Peace. International cooperation. Public space and public institutions free for all. A city of open streets and open minds.

Terrorism wants to convince us that we cannot afford these things. It works to tell us that such things are luxuries for the naive. But these are exactly the things that we must not give up, because we cannot do without them. Because these are the things terrorists fear most of all.

Boston is a city and not a fortress. The last attempt to turn it into a fort, shortly after Lexington and Concord, was an abject failure. Terrorists hate cities, hate places where people can walk the streets, can meet and talk in peace, because terrorists fear civilization itself.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Seeing the Headlights

Six years ago today, in the early morning hours of April 5, I hit a patch of highway ice while driving to the airport in an unexpected snowstorm and spun out sideways. My car was totaled, with all of the damage to the driver's side door. I survived unscathed. I did not get whiplash. I did not miss my plane.

My car turned around 180 degrees so that I was looking back at an 18-wheel truck coming toward me out of the snow while I was sliding sideways into its lane. There was nothing I could do in that long moment but watch the headlights coming toward me. Either I would slide in front of those headlights, and that would be the end, or I would slide just slowly enough to miss the truck.

In the end, I was almost slow enough. The metal step on the truck's cab gouged into my driver's-side door, buckling it inward and sending me caroming in another direction until I finally spun to a stop in the middle of the highway. Snow was falling through the foot-wide gap that the crumpling door had left between my window and the car roof. The difference between life and death had been two or three feet. I was alive.

After the wreck had been towed away and the cops had taken their report, they dropped me off at the airport with my bags, and then some time later I was standing in the California sunshine at an academic conference. Later that afternoon, California time, I took part in my scheduled seminar. Our death always follows close behind us, just over our shoulders. For a brief moment I was forcibly turned around so I could see its headlights, and see them pass, and then it was back behind me again, hidden from direct view.

Because hindsight creates the illusion of order, it looks to me as if the seeds of the last six years were already around me on that day. The seminar I took part in, and the response to the paper I had written for it, formed a turning point that began the last six years of my career. That paper became my most-cited article, and part of my book. When I went off to the same conference this year, the book was freshly out in paperback and the colleague who was covering my graduate class decided to assign my students that article. I had allowed myself to stall professionally; the jump-start came on the day I lived through the accident.

And that weekend in California I also happened to see, for the second time in my life, a person whom I later married but who was then only an interesting but skeptical stranger. That weekend was nowhere close to a beginning for us, but was a chance for me to make the all-important second impression, persuading her that I was at least not a full-time jackass. (The second impression is pretty important if you're me.) I suspect that it was on the last day of that conference that she decided I was socially tolerable. I suspect this because she has repeatedly informed me that it is so. And the last remnant of that early-morning trauma, a lurking anxiety about driving in the snow, began to dissolve later as our commuter marriage gave me strong reason to travel winter highways again.

The six years since I saw those headlights have been full: a book, a career, a house, a marriage. Six years of things I would have left undone. Six better and fuller years than the six that came before it, surely. I don't think my accident was providential, or that the last six years have been specifically part of any plan. Two or three feet further to my left and there would have been no planning left to do. But seeing the headlights puts some things in sharp focus. What you want, and what matters to you, become very clear. A couple hours after I had almost been killed, what I wanted most in the world was to go to my Shakespeare conference. (On the other hand, I absolutely did not want to go home to my apartment and spend the weekend there without structure. That idea would have been terrifying.) That may be a sorry truth about me, but it is the truth, and apparently pointless to deny.  For better or worse, that is who I am.

I don't believe that things happen to me, personally, for a reason. God's plan is not focused on my career. But seeing the headlights can put you in touch with what you want from your life. And if you glimpse the Angel and it passes you by, you should take that as a reminder. It's worth it to live.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Justice Roberts's Gay Marriage (and Mine)

The Supreme Court spent Holy Week (or, as Jesus would call it, Passover) debating gay marriage, which Chief Justice John Roberts clearly opposes. Religious opponents of gay marriage like to argue that the purpose of marriage is to beget children, so that only heterosexual marriages are "real," because only biological fertility makes a marriage "real." By this standard John Roberts's own marriage is not real, and neither is mine. I do not believe that, and neither should he.

John Roberts did not marry until 41, to a woman his own age, and they adopted their children. Justice and Mrs. Roberts are, as that link suggests, believing Catholics. That their marriage did not result in biological children does not make them less Catholic or less married. Roberts married an intellectual and professional peer rather than, say, a twenty-five year old. If he had married a twentysomething admirer, that hypothetical marriage would likely have led to biological children. Would such a marriage, to less closely-matched spouse, have been more authentic? More sacred? I do not believe so. I do not think Justice Roberts believes so, either.

Like Roberts, I did not marry until my early forties: a year and a half ago last Monday. Like Roberts, I married a person who was my equal or better intellectually, professionally, and emotionally. For me as for Roberts, that meant someone relatively close to my own age. And, like Roberts and his wife, my spouse and I share a faith life that is part of our marriage; as it happens, we and they belong to the same church. External circumstances make beginning a family out of the question for the near future; it would be irresponsible of me to father a child when I spend most of every week hundreds of miles away (just the thought of my wife entering labor while I am that far away from her opens a swampy pit inside my stomach). I am not less married because we do not have children. And I would not be more married if I had chosen a spouse with whom I could wait ten years to begin a biological family because she was half my age: God forbid.

I could not be more married than I am. My relationship with my spouse has become a fundamental element of my identity, whether I wake up beside her or two state lines away. Marriage is not just dating with tax benefits; it has the potential to transform and reorient your life, to change the way you move through the world. My marriage is part of who I am. And my spouse, to borrow John Donne's words, is the compass "who makes my circle just, and makes me end where I begun." I believe and hope that Justice Roberts's marriage gives him the same sense of purpose and the same consolations.

I do not believe that marriage is a means to an end, or simply a prerequisite to something else. Nor do I think anyone truly married can believe that. The purpose of marriage is to be married: to enter a lifelong relationship with your spouse. It is, as John Milton argued long ago, a remedy for the loneliness of the human soul: "against all the sorrows and casualties of this life to have an intimate and speaking help, a ready and reviving associate in marriage." Sex can be arranged by other means; childbirth can be arranged by other means, but, as Milton says, only marriage can satisfy the soul's thirst to join "to itself in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul ... many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it." The intellectual and spiritual companionship of marriage, not the potential for begetting children, is essential and irreplaceable.

Justice Roberts' spiritual and emotional bond with his wife, the essence of his marriage, is exactly what he would deny his fellow citizens because they have taken another man for a husband or another woman for a wife. The commitment to intense lifelong partnership comes to those who will not or cannot have children of their own body. That is as true for gay husbands and gay wives as it is for straight husbands and straight wives, as true as it is for John Roberts and his wife, as true as it is for my spouse and for me. Except for the privilege society offers to one class of citizen instead of another, John Roberts' marriage is a gay marriage, a source of profound spiritual and emotional nourishment that transcends the biological. The comforts and fulfillment of Justice Roberts's marriage, which I hope continue for many more years, are no less valid because he and his wife have not conceived children. But neither are the consolations of his fellow citizens' marriages any less real or valid because they, like Roberts and his wife, may not physically procreate. If John Roberts believes, as I trust he does, that marriage is a genuinely spiritual institution, then he should respect and honor the emotional and spiritual bonds of marriage. If mere biology invalidates such a bond, then John Roberts can no more be married to his true partner than two men or two women can be. Their marriages are as real as his, or mine. And to dishonor the sacred reality of those marriages dishonors his own.

cross-posted from Dagblog