Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Holy Trinity Question

One effect of the American Revolution was that, in the USA, the Church of England became The Episcopal Church. And, it went from THE church to just one of many, and a small one at that.

I am a cradle Episcopalian, but haven't really attended in a LONG time. My Sundays have been spent working as a nurse for the last 16 years. I occasionally attended Unitarian- Universalist services, since I accept universal salvation, but the UU thing is just TOO political. They wouldn't even try to drive vampires away; instead, they would pass an "action of immediate witness" to study the needs of this oppressed minority group.

Now that I have every other Sunday off, it is back to the Episcopal Church. Plenty to choose from here in Greensboro, but I picked Holy Trinity because it is a) closest to my house, b) has plenty of bells and smells liturgically, and c) has a good choir and organist. I dropped by on Easter Sunday. Since it is the "Up Town" church here, I was carefully dressed - a charcoal suit (well tailored by that genuine artist with a needle, Ms. Sanije on Radiance Drive), Borelli shoes, and a John Comfort ( 10 Leake Street, London SE1 7NN) tie. I was, as the Brits say, "well turned out." My students would say I looked “bitchin”.

The clothes didn't make a dint in traditional Episcopalian frostiness. Not a single soul so much as said "good morning" to me, except during the passing of the peace, and that doesn't count (it is in the liturgy, Baptists, so greeting the person next to you is REQUIRED). Perhaps I was over-dressed? I couldn't help but notice that I was just about the only "suit" there. Many of the men weren't even wearing a jacket. The women were nothing to brag about either. Back in the day, if you wanted to see some beautifully dressed ladies, you just popped in to an Episcopal church on Easter Sunday. Times, it seems, have changed.

I dressed down a bit the second Sunday I attended. I guess I am a bit old for this specific combination, but I selected a blue blazer, khakis, oxblood loafers, blue shirt and Nautica tie. Well turned out again ( I mean, I once went to the Old Town Country Club wearing something of the sort, and they let me in, so...), but a bit less stuffy. Same result. I might as well have been the invisible man, even though the other men were a complete mess.

Time for an interesting empirical inquiry. Rather than just blowing Holy Trinity off, let's see how long it takes before someone walks up to me, offers their hand, and says something like "Hello, I'm Andy Anglican, welcome to the parish." One unkind so called friend has suggested that the correct answer is "never." "Bob", he said, "no one is speaking to you because they all know who you are, and think you have a proven track record as an asshole." I reject this uncouth answer out of hand, of course. But what will the correct answer turn out to be? Two more months? Four? Six?

I have tomorrow, May 22, off. So, let's gather more data. I'll show up in a very nice (Prince William wears one of their blazers) navy blue Bertolini wool/silk suit, the Borelli shoes again, and tie by Dani. Not too shabby for a nurse/community college instructor.

This is a lot of fun, and it has rich philosophical interest. Consider this - someone who guesses what turns out to be the correct answer is possessed of a true belief; yet the truth conditions for the belief have not occurred. That is, they presently hold a true belief about an event which has a) not occurred and b) whose nonoccurrence is perfectly conceivable. Does this mean determinism is true, and we Episcopalians should go across the street to First Presbyterian? A repugnant conclusion, surely! Does it mean that Bradley and McTaggart were right after all, and that time is unreal? Another repugnant conclusion. Are we facing a tentative argument for Leibniz's pre-established harmony? That can't be right; a world with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives is NOT the best of all possible worlds.

More after Church, followed by a sherry and cake on the lawn.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


This being the third Sunday of Easter, I thought this would be a great time to resurrect this Blog. Besides, it is the ideal forum to post some of the fun I am having - getting ready for my trip to Dundee, ruminations on the good and/or whacky comments I come across in the Manchester Guardian, and, most amusing of all, my new "Holy Trinity" Contest.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Thanks Uncle Sam!

Is there anything about the UK that American culture has actually managed to improve? Something for us to be proud of? Two things come to mind immediately - bluejeans and good coffee.

On my last two trips to the UK, I could not help noticing (although I tried VERY hard not to, of course) how bluejeans were displaying the luscious bottoms of so many UK ladies to very best effect. This phenomenon is not confined to the UK, of course. One German lady I am very fond of looked great (indeed, spectacular!) in them too. Heterosexual men all over the western world owe the good old US of A a debt of thanks for jeans.

Likewise coffee. Yes, I know, the hegemony of Starbucks is annoying, and beginning to smack US cultural and economic imperialism. But does anyone remember UK coffee before the Starbucks onslaught? My first visit to the UK (1970) still stands out in my memory for the utter wretchedness of the coffee. It can be recreated today only by leaving a scant cup of dripped coffee on a warmer for hours, and the mixing it 50/50 with cheap instant coffee. Bad, in other words. Today, all is well on the coffee front in the UK. As one UK journalist recently put it, "Gone are the days when Londoners thought 'macchiato' was a South American knife, or that 'Monsooned Malabar' a weather-depressed town in India."

Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

The reaction from across the pond to the Virginia Tech tragedy has seemed decidedly muted, considering that the body count is up there with the subway bombings. Hell, we had the 1st Army Band serenading the British Embassy with "God Save the Queen." Maybe we figured the national trauma was greater, owing to geo-political implications; but I think 33 dead people, especially 32 good ones, is a hell of a lot of people to lose, anywhere and for any reason. I suppose more bloggers will comment on it in the coming days.

Perhaps part of the quiet has been a sort of "so what is new?" sense of resignation. Americans shooting each other is not news. That this particular lunatic was a resident alien from South Korea is just not enough of an interesting spin to make this story in to anything more than just another "bloodbath in America" item.

What comments I do see in the UK press pretty much round up the Usual Suspects - American willingness to risk collective well being and security for individual liberty, and "American 'gun culture'". I will have several things to say about this, in the coming days, that have a sort of "cross-benches" perspective. In other words, everyone will find something to disagree with me about. But, I want to wait a day or two before commenting, to see if more is said by more UK bloggers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Greetings All:

The health issues news service I use,, had an article posted today that claimed the UK has had a 21% increase in maternal childbirth deaths over the past year. It also claimed that the average salary for physicians in the UK is now higher than in the US, thanks to a new agreement between physicians and the NHS, whereas there is a hiring FREEZE for midwifes.

As the late David Falk would have said, interesting, if true. My problem is that I have found it unwise to take press reports (even those vetted by well-meaning folks like those at at face value. After all, the oft-lauded New York Times assured us a few years ago that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Are these statistics accurate? Are there interesting issues here (along with the usual costly bout of Humean sympathy I am so prone to) for consideration under the topic of, say, "justice in the distribution of health care resources?"

More importantly for purposes of this blog, will this be the occasion on which I loose those rose colored glasses through which I view all things "English?" Here in the USA there SIMPLY CANNOT BE a "FREEZEE" on hiring midwifes.

Bob Newsom

Thursday, January 25, 2007

For Good or Ill, Jackson lives on

My previous posts dealt with reasons why that rarest of American birds, a southern liberal, might want to seek political asylum in the UK. The first was (mostly) light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek; the second just a bit more serious. Since I have been away from the blogosphere for too long, I have decided to sound a more serious note in this post.

There are facets of the American outlook that are just plain out of step with the rest of the industrialized western world. The peculiarly American outlook derives from many sources, but an important one is the legacy of Jacksonian democracy, which resulted in part from what I will call "The Walpole Diagnosis" - the significant role of 18th century Scots-Irish (labeled, I think, Ulster-Scots in the UK and R of I), and their low church theology and attitudes, in shaping the American vision.

The exact historical details are a matter of continued scholarly debate, but I think there is wide agreement within the Academy that, between 1710 and 1770, nearly 250,000 Ulster-Scots settled in what would become the United States, that they formed distinct communities and a distinct sub-culture, and that they played an important (perhaps even pivotal, or critical) role in the creation and ultimate success of the American Revolution. Obviously, Walpole thought so too.

If one were to overlay a contemporary political map of the United States with a map of where Ulster-Scots and their descendants were the predominant force of white settlement, any number of things would "stand out" immediately. First, these are the parts of the country which went most solidly for George Bush in 1990 and 1994, and which Bill Clinton did NOT carry in either of his elections. Second, they are where the "Christian Right" is most politically influential. Third, their public schools systems are weaker than those of the rest of the US on a statewide basis, and by a wide margin. Fourth, they have some of the lowest per capita incomes in the US. Fifth, a larger percentage of the population elects military service than in the rest of the US.

If one studies the political career of President Andrew Jackson, and glances over at the "Ulster-Scot" map a second time, it seems pretty clear that "Ulster-Scot" America is what put him in office and kept him there. President Jackson is, of course, credited with the crafting of "Jacksonian Democracy." For my UK readers not familiar with this term I would (somewhat contentiously, I guess) define Jacksonian Democracy, then and now, as adherence to the following doctrines (among others):
  • Universal suffrage - in the sense of voting rights being in no way linked to wealth, social position or property ownership (factors such as race, gender and religious affiliation DID count, until the 1960's. Can't have those Catholics voting - they would just be following orders from the Pope).
  • Explicit limits on government power, whether local, state or federal. This deeply seated suspicion of government generally played out in the early days of Jacksonian democracy in a multitude of ways, resulting in a number of doctrines and practices, many of which still have contemporary "legs." One related Jacksonian notion that is still at least given lip service is the doctrine of a "strict construction" of the written constitution (unless we are talking about the "rights" of "terror suspects," or "enemy combatants," or persons of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific coast after Pearl Harbor- then the construction is anything BUT strict). Another is a general acceptance of laissez-faire economics. A third is an elected judiciary that is "of the people" (in many "Jacksonian" states, the judiciary did not even wear robes until the 1960's, and there were no qualifications required to hold judicial office) - no "activist" judges allowed. A fourth is the notion, unique to American conservatives, that there is such a thing as government which is "too large," no matter what benefits it might provide or how efficient and benevolent it is. Unless, of course, there's a war on. THEN the government can go half a trillion dollars in debt overnight and no one bats an eye.
  • A belief in the "Manifest Destiny" of the United Sates - at first, expressed as a right to occupy all of North America after murdering anyone who was already there; later, as a belief that the United States is uniquely favored by God, and is in some sense an "ideal" society with a right to lead the rest of the world around by the nose. This is perhaps the most "Ulster-Scot" leg of the Jacksonian outlook - containing, as it does, a dose of Calvin/Knox determinism along with a vision of a Deity who favors some people at the expense of others, and has countenanced, and indeed approved of, the virtual extermination of entire peoples, and the reckless use of natural resources for the benefit of a tiny fraction of the world's people. Why should the US, with 5% of the world's population, enjoy 25% of the world's wealth and resources? The Jacksonian answer is "because God wills it so. If God didn't want us to have it, we wouldn't." Convenient.
  • The subordination of knowledge to belief. In the early days of Jacksonian thinking, this was expressed simply as a "belief in the wisdom of the common man" - which meant in practice that the opinion of some ignorant Florida cracker, for example, was every bit as valuable as that of an Adams or a Jefferson. Today, it lives on in the form of a suspicion of, and hostility towards, education generally. Examples are numerous: elected Boards of Education made up of people who haven't read a serious book in years; attempts to smuggle "intelligent design" into the Biology curriculum; insistence that liberal arts courses have "linked employability skills;" a steady weakening of broad humanities requirements in college curricula. It is thanks to Jacksonian democracy that, in America, television discussions of "ethical issues" involve clergymen only - no philosophers present. Even the "liberal media" in America is blissfully unaware of a 2,500 year old tradition of inquiry in to the nature of the right and the good which leaves religion out of it - further proof (as if any more were needed) that in America even the press is dumber than a box of rocks, and proud of it.
There is more to the Jacksonian outlook than that, of course, but just this partial list illustrates the degree to which that outlook is still a part of the American character and experience. As a group the Ulster-Scots arrived here deeply suspicious of, and resentful towards, any government official;  accustomed to using violence to get their way (and proud of it); resentful of any clergyman who was called a "priest," whether Anglican or Catholic (Canterbury is over halfway to Rome, you know); resentful of any class distinction; and absolutely convinced, in their profound ignorance, of their own superiority to everyone else in terms of divine favor.

Needless to say, these principles have often looked even worse in practice than they do in print. To take just two examples, Universal suffrage didn't even extend to WHITE women (much less anybody else, like blacks) until less than 100 years ago. And, anti-clericalism doesn't extend to low church hacks - the rest of us are expected to listen respectfully to their dreary, ignorant, ungrammatical ravings in all manner of public places (schools, sessions of Congress, football games, etc) whether or not we want to hear it. And when politicians of a Jacksonian bent piously spout their "family values" nonsense, the temptation to paraphrase Churchill and ask "which one - adultery, wife beating or child molestation?" is hard to resist.

The American south is, of course, quintessentially Jacksonian. Jackson was born in North Carolina and lived most of his adult life in Tennessee. And, much of the current "dark side" of American politics and foreign policy finds a home here in the south. It is the only region of the United States where the Iraq war still enjoys anything like support. Most of the Senate, including many Republicans, are raising hell over the war and its conduct - but not North Carolina's Senators. Or Georgia's. Or Mississippi's. Or Alabama's. Or... You get the picture. The schools are horrible. Many of my US students arrive at college unable to construct a simple thesis-style essay. In terms of geography and world history, they are galactically ignorant, even about matters of urgent concern. My students from the UK, Bermuda, Ghana, Nigeria and the rest of the English speaking world are, in contrast, uniformly at least minimally competent writers, and are better read and generally better informed about every subject from art to zoology than their American classmates. The foreign students even know their bible better than the pious American knuckleheads they sit next to (query: if you really did believe the bible to be inerrant, wouldn't you urgently seek to familiarize yourself with the contents?).

That is the dark side. But there has been a bit of a bright side, believe it or not. Jacksonian democracy has produced a few individuals who found in it the inspiration for a vision of absolute, uncompromising adherence to constitutional principles of due process and equal protection under the law. The late Senator Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, comes to mind immediately. The trouble is, visions of the rule of law like "Senator Sam" had are easy for the American body politic to quickly loose sight of in the heat of the moment. This has been noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent address, Lord Bingham quoted, with approval, the following words of America's Justice William Brennan:

"There is considerably less to be proud about, and a good deal to be embarrassed about, when one reflects on the shabby treatment civil liberties have received in the United States during times of war and perceived threats to national security … After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along."

In that vein, I can't help but wonder what "Senator Sam" would think about what goes on these days. What WOULD he think, for example, of an Attorney General who even dares to ARGUE that American citizens can be arrested and held without trial for indefinite periods of time, without right of Habeas Corpus, while all Courts are open and sitting for the regular dispatch of business? What WOULD he think of a Vice President so Orwellian that he can say, with a straight face, that America doesn't torture prisoners because a) waterboarding isn't torture and/or b) it isn't our fault if we just happen to leave a prisoner in the hands of some OTHER jurisdiction that DOES torture people? I am pretty sure Senator Sam would nod with approval at the following recent observation by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in A (FC) and others (FC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (conjoined with another appeal):

82. That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured...

Of course, Lord Nicholls wouldn't be delivering this opinion in a case before The House of Lords if the Blair government wasn't also taking a pretty expansive view of the Government's right to abridge liberty in the name of security. So, how about Canada? No legacy of Andrew Jackson, no locking people up without trial by a supposedly liberal government. They even let you go deer hunting up there. Canada might work out, if I could learn to put "eh" at the end of each sentence.


Friday, January 12, 2007

More considerations in favor of seeking Asylum

Yesterday's post was essentially a list of the things I loved about the "British Isles" (apologies to the Irish). Since tonight's post will be the last one for a couple of days (I work 16 hours on Saturday and 16 hours on Sunday as a nurse, so no time or energy for blogging on the weekend), I thought I would continue to curry favor with the audience abroad, and continue with the "why I want political asylum over there" theme.

One good thing about my schedule is that it allows me to pursue my teaching, writing and research during the week without having to suffer serious financial hardship. Nursing in the US now pays well enough to permit nurses to live a decent life (as it damn well should). Obviously, intellectual life matters to me, and in certain respects the quality of intellectual life in Ireland and the UK is preferable to that in the US. The contrast is not in the quality of scholarship, or scholars. It is, rather, a matter of attitude and atmosphere.

In Philosophy, for example, the USA pretty clearly leads the world in terms of the sheer NUMBER of brilliant philosophers doing serious philosophy today. For example, for every Onora O'Neill doing serious Kant scholarship in the UK, the US has a Barbara Herman, Kris Kosgaard, Tom Woods, Jay Rosenberg and David Velleman. And so it should, given the relative population of the two countries and the funds available. For the same reason, the rewards for US philosophers are probably, on average, greater in purely financial terms. If you are lucky enough to be one of the "rock stars" in the field, and there is genuine competition among institutions to hire you, the USA is (mostly) the place to be.

Nor is it the case that the UK has, necessarily, the VERY best individual in many fields, as was the case a century ago. To return to the Kant example, Baroness O'neill is a formidable Kant scholar, but not clearly BETTER than Kris Kosgaard at Harvard, or Barbara Herman at UCLA. So, what's so great across the pond?

Consider the case of Baroness O'Neill. She is "Baroness," I gather, because her accomplishments are recognized by a broader segment of society than would be the case for a comparable scholar in the US. And while a cross-bench peerage in the House of Lords is not exactly the pinnacle of political power and public recognition, no intellectual in the US holds a post of similar public regard, nor can so readily be publicly heard. So, it at least seems to this American observer that there is a bit more interchange between the academic world and the wider public on the other side of the pond. Query: is this an unwelcome relic of Jacksonian democracy? More on this idea in later posts.

Exchange within the academic world seems a bit more fertile as well. Here, I think Nursing serves as a useful example. Nursing has been an ACADEMIC discipline in the US, with schools attached to major universities, for a longer period of time than has been the case abroad. Yet, there is far more collegiality between nursing scholars and other scholars in the UK, Ireland and Europe than seems to be the case in the US. Again, it is not a matter of money or the quality of the individuals, but rather one of atmosphere and attitude. That a nurse might have something to offer a seminar on, say, justice and the allocation of heathcare resources, just wouldn't even enter the minds of the philosophers, political scientists, economists and public health types who typically organize such things at US universities. It would occur to their counterparts in Europe right off.

Here is a thought, to be revisited later. Could some of this, at least, be the result of some sort of odd class consciousness? Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society, much to the amusement of the rest of the western world. Perhaps this is some evidence that such a consciousness exists at many levels. Perhaps the image of nurse as the bed-pan emptying, body washing, working class woman of good heart but limited intellect still informs attitudes and judgements, as does the image of "philosopher" as an ivory tower intellectual who has nothing useful to say about the world of practical affairs. And, perhaps, this is all the more pernicious in America because Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that there is, in America, any such conception as that of "Class" to inform collective judgement.  Another unfortunate relic of Jacksonian democracy?


About Me

My photo
Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
Writer, Adjunct Philosophy Professor, and Nurse. Formerly an Attorney. Political and Religious liberal (with a capital "L"). Gun lover (I AM American, after all is said and done). Dog lover.