Friday, April 20, 2007

Women in these times

Some bleak times, these days. The list of injustices seems endless. And yesterday, the five arrogant, all-Catholic men of the U.S. Supreme Court made a major decision predicated on the belief that women cannot decide matters of life and death for themselves.

From the New York Times editorial: "Justice Kennedy actually reasoned that banning the [intact dilation and extraction] procedure was good for women in that it would protect them from a procedure they might not fully understand..."

Thanks. But no thanks. Just get out of my life.

It reminds me of the shock I felt when watching that paragon of Catholic dogma, "The Cardinal" on TV many years ago. In a pivotal scene that takes place during World War II, the ambitious priest on a trajectory towards Cardinal-hood is asked by the obstetrician to make the decision on whether his sister, who is in a difficult childbirth, or her fetus, should live. And what made me really angry was that the heartless dolt had to think about it.

Well, we're on our way back to those days. The idea that women cannot be in charge of their bodies is a religious one. It is certainly not a scientific one. And religious, bigoted men ruled yesterday. Imagine what comes next.

Meanwhile, in the land ruled by these men's kindred spirits, the mullahs, six men were exonerated in the murders of five people for what they viewed as immoral behavior. The killers stoned their victims to death (quaint old timey method) or drowned them by sitting on their chests in a pond. (In 2004, a mullah had a 16-year old girl hung for "chastity" crimes after a monkey trial, for which he has not been held liable.)

The merest hint of sex drove these Iranian men to murder. One young engaged couple was killed because they were walking together in public.

Maybe the mullahs, and the Supreme Court, will have less to worry about once women can procreate without even thinking about men.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The stuff of beauty

I spend a lot of time pondering the subject of beauty. In the time before man conquered nature, did our ancestors have an objective awareness and appreciation of their unadorned surroundings? Is beauty something that can be enjoyed passively? Does a lack of beauty in our surroundings stunt mental development? Why are there ugly passages in the story of beauty? Although beauty may come in many forms, is it there is an objective standard for it? Does beauty begin with nature or is beauty possible without any connection to it? Can something that arouses revulsion also be considered beautiful?

Back in college, my roommate criticized me for stating that beautiful surroundings played a positive role in my happiness. She believed happiness came only from within. Was that because she had never seen real beauty? Or was she right?

A newspaper article a few years ago described the reaction of inner city children taken to the wilderness for the first time. Looking out from the bus windows at mountains and forest, they thought they were viewing a movie. In this case, the occasion of beauty was a privilege.

As a student basking in the sun on the coast of southern France, I empathized with the Swedish girl who claimed she could not be happy far from nature. It struck me then, as it had her already, that beauty was not just visual but sensorial -- the sea breeze on warm cheeks, the saltiness of the spray, the singular odor from the deep. Modern views on beauty may regard this as skirting dangerously close to associating beauty with feeling.

Naziism found its earliest adherents among the farming people of the luminous, awe-inspiring Bavarian Alps. Afrikaners brutalized native Africans in a land some have compared to the image of the mythical Eden. Here, beauty had no humanizing effect. In fact, it was used as a basis for the oppressors' moral superiority.

Years ago, after a day of such distressing world news that I grappled with despair, I ended the day with a television broadcast of the ballet "Swan Lake." Its beauty revived me and reminded me of the duality of humankind and therein endless possibilities for good.

In yesterday's (April 14) Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Lewis reviews a book by Alexander Nehamas titled "Only a Promise Of Happiness". In appraising the book, Lewis says "Mr. Nehamas sets about reclaiming something of beauty's lost meaning by showing how it is connected to our happiness." In the end, no deep revelations about the meaning of beauty are offered, but there's this: "That it is the pursuit of happiness that constitutes happiness -- and that beauty offers but a 'promise' of this happiness -- is something of a platitude."

That sounds like my response to "Swan Lake" on that dismal day. That's ok, though. I'll take it.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Turning off the lights

I keep a folder of newspaper clips and printouts on books and movie recommendations that interest me, to riffle through before my regular trips to the local library. For example, I avidly read the Wall Street Journal's Saturday interview with a cultural luminary in which they are asked to name and comment on their five favorite books, operas, films, recordings or buildings. And of course, the file with book recommendations from the Oregonian, New York Times or the New Yorker is always bulging and inexhaustible, but one can always hope.

It is my way of feeding my brain. Even if I don't get to said book or film, I've read about it and I can gain solace from the fact that it is available, and if I am not enjoying it, some other person is. We all benefit from each other's enlightenment. Like a local opera house, movie theater, dramatic troupe, a library enriches community. And for the most part, communities recognize this and vote to fund local libraries. Support, if not funding, for libraries is actually up, according to opinion polls.

I can still remember the joy of visiting the expat British library as a child living in West Africa, where bookstores were few. While learning French in a colonial school, I was also reading about the lives of children in English boarding schools and immersing myself in Agatha Christie. Our young daughter's favorite place, next to the bookstore, was the library where she'd habitually gorge herself on the most nutritious food for the mind a child could have.

Anyway, I can't say enough of what libraries have meant to me and my family. As long as they were there, we knew that the lights were on. The U.S. library system, in its essence, represents such an authentic example of what an optimistic democracy can produce. I always felt like a proud patriot frequenting one.

As one online report on the 18th century link between democratic revolution and the principles of the Englightment says: "This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. "

Is this true anymore? What has happened in Jackson County, Oregon, where this week all the libraries closed, I hope is not a harbinger. A loss of federal funding has led to county cutbacks on jails, roads and other services. Now the status of the libraries are at stake. Calling Thomas Paine, calling Thomas Jefferson.

Of course there is a chance that funding will be found. But what a jarring thought that a solution, in a time of national near-bankruptcy, might not appear. What a game changing precedent that would be. Let's hope the lights come back on in Jackson County, for the sake of us all.