Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reading Amoris Laetitia, Part 2: The Introduction

I'll just assume that many non-Catholics, like myself, have absolutely no idea what authority Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia exerts (or exhorts) as a "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation." So, first, a primer on Papal texts.

An apostolic exhortation is but one of many different types of communications from the Pope to the community of clerics and laypersons that constitute the Catholic Church.  It doe not define Church doctrine, so it ranks lower in Church authority than a papal encyclical.  An Apostolic Exhortation is meant to encourage the Catholic community (broadly conceived) to undertake some attitude, disposition, or activity. (If you're familiar with Paul the Apostle's epistles-- to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Philippians, to the Ephesians, to the Galatians, etc-- you should think of Pope Francis'  most recent Apostolic Exhortation in the same vein.) Pope Francis has so far issued only two encyclicals in his time as successor to St. Peter, one on climate change (Laudato Si': "On Care For Our Common Home") and one on charity and hope (Lumen Fidei: "The Light of Faith"). So, to begin, we should take into serious consideration the fact that Pope Francis opted to issue Amoris Laetitia as an Apostolic Exhortation, an encouragement to action or disposition, instead of a Papal Encyclical, which is second in authority only to an Apostolic Constitution (constittuo apistolica), the highest possible level of decree issued by a Pope.

Reading Amoris Laetitia, Part 1

Earlier this week, I finished reading the recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis entitled Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love"). Subsequently, on various news outlets and social media, I have seen a number of so-called "summaries" of Amoria Laetitia that can at best be described as grossly inadequate and ungenerous readings of it and, at worst, as fairly convincing evidence that Pope Francis' text was not read in its entirety (or, more likely, not read at all) by the authors attempting to summarize its content.  Amoris Laetitia is a long text-- roughly 300 pages-- but it is not what I would call a "difficult" text. (As a Philosophy professor, I concede in advance that I may not be the best judge of what counts as a "difficult" text.)  I think it will be clear to any reader that Pope Francis intended for Amoris Laetitia to be accessible/understandable to both Catholic and non-Catholic laity. As a member of the non-Catholic laity, I think he was largely successful in that endeavor.

The last time I found myself so genuinely befuddled by the many and varied misreadings of a non-philosophical text was shortly after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report, which I also suspect most "reviewers" did not actually read in its entirety. So, this time I've decided to make some effort to present my own summary of the text in question.

First, let me just note that if you are significantly or materially (or spiritually) invested in the content of Amoris Laetitia, you should read it yourself. (You can download the entire text here.)  If you don't want to do that, for whatever reason, you can follow this thread of my readings of it over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Campuses Are Not Sovereign Nation-States

The photo to your left is of a sock-monkey, hung by a noose from one of the windows on the campus of Rhodes College this week. It should go without saying, I hope, that not only is the sock-monkey itself a manifestly racist symbol (echoing the colonialist project of comparing blacks to apes in order to justify their exploitation and repeating many of the stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy), but hanging the monkey by a noose is also an obvious symbolic reference to the long and terroristic history of anti-black lynchings in the United States.

Rhodes' sock-monkey-lynching came on the heels of several reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. I don't know how many incidents or the details of those reports, but it was enough to motivate students and sympathetic faculty to organize a forum last week to discuss the growing and pervasive problem of sexual violence on Rhodes' campus, which I came to know about through multiple Facebook postings.  For the record, the problem of increasing and increasingly-unaddressed sexual violence is not a "new" problem at Rhodes College. Around this time last year, statistics showed that Rhodes had one of the highest numbers of reported on-campus rapes in the state of Tennessee.  Those statistics only count "reported" cases.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It's Time To Get Rid of Formatting Guidelines for Academic Journals

This morning, I was reading an engaging and superbly well-written book that I've been asked to review for philoSOPHIA and found myself, in spite of its merits, grumbling aloud about the very experience of reading it.  Why? One word:


I truly hate the maddening inconvenience of endnotes. All those unnecessary interruptions, all that flipping back and forth... who ever thought this was a good way to arrange a text? Endnotes are like the brussel sprouts of formatting. I'm sure there are people out there who like them, but those people are in the minority, and the reasons for their affection are as mysterious to me as endnotes are irritating.

There are plenty of things to complain about in academic writing-- obscurantism, clunky prose, solipsistic indulgence, the internment of otherwise meaningful insights in maximum-security jargon camps--  but none of them, to my mind, are as exasperating as our continued fealty to outdated, impractical and obstructionist formatting guidelines. The differences between citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, IEEE) are at once massive and insignificant.  Given that they all aim at accomplishing the same basic function, i.e., providing a map for the reader to travel from reference to source, one would think that allegiance to any particular citation route is a waste of time. The point is-- should be-- that the reader can get where she needs to go, no more, no less. Many paths to the same summit and all that.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lone Wolves, Together: On Trump's Curious Farrago

Like many people, I've found myself referring to "Trump supporters" in the last several weeks as a conceptually coherent, identifiable category of voters/citizens and, correspondingly, referring to the things "they" do as the actions of that collective. And every single time, I feel the words slipping, grinding, and catching, as if the very transmission system of my thought were breaking down.

What we know of the tens of thousands who are attending Trump's campaign rallies, not to mention the millions who have already made their way to the polls to cast a primary vote for him, is a lot less than we think we do. In the left-leaning echo-chamber that is my world, people speak of Trump supporters as a homogenous mass of white (read: racist), conservative (read: hawkish and angry), provincial (read: xenophobic), working class (read: poorly educated) men (read: sexist).  But that is a reductive, cartoonish rendering of what is, in reality, a far more disparate and sundry group of citizens. As Trump himself noted after his landslide win in the Nevada caucuses, "We won the evangelicals.  We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated." (He loves the poorly educated!) And that wasn't even close to an exhaustive list of the sorts of people for whom his rhetoric, his personality, if not also his platform resonate deeply. Even those for whom Trump's trumpeting has no meaningful resonance, there are other draws. A recent study by Mercury Analytics research firm found that nearly 20% of Democrats would switch parties and vote for Trump if he ran against Secretary Clinton in the general election.

"Trump supporters" is not a conceptually coherent category. It's a farrago.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


I can't quite remember exactly when email became such a nuisance in my life, but it must have been a long time ago now since I can barely remember it not being a nuisance anymore.  I think I got my first (AOL) email address in 1994.  Then, the familiar modem-screeching and you've got mail! alert were the soundtrack to a new life, a new Digital Age, about which hardly anyone understood very much. Today, of course, we take constant connection (and the constant surveillance that comes along with it) to be an indisputable (even if not "natural) fact of the human condition. We parse increasingly fine distinctions between our meatspace selves and our digital personae. We carry around instant access to the equivalent of a million Libraries of Alexandria in our pockets, or at least those of us who are "connected" do. And those of us who are connected find it almost impossible to disconnect.

I can still not answer my phone, of course, but refusing to take a call these days doesn't accomplish the same thing that it did in my pre-digital life. Because of caller ID, the caller always knows that I know s/he called.  Because of voicemail, s/he can still communicate with me, and s/he can still maintain a reasonable expectation for an acknowledgment or reply. The same goes for the relationship between snail mail and email.  I open snail mail even less often than I answer my phone, and it's relatively easy to just throw away that unopened mail once a day.  Not so with email.  Spam-filter all you want, but you still can't get away from maddeningly regular accumulation of emails that maddeningly insist on acknowledgment or reply.

Monday, February 15, 2016


I got behind a bit on this #BloggingEveryDayFebruary project, so I'm playing catch up right now.  If I'm being completely honest, I knew this would happen at some point during the month. Blogging every day is hard. It doesn't take a lot of time to write a post each day, but it takes a lot of time to think about writing a post each day in advance. I'm busy. Things come up. Et cetera. Et cetera.

It would be easier to say ah well, I tried, and just let it go. And I definitely considered quitting after the second "missed" day. There are no stakes here, really, if I finish or don't, but I really want to try to see this through to the end. I may even especially want to see it through to the end because there are no stakes.

Everyone fumbles.  Sometimes you just can't "find the handle on the ball," as my dad used to say. The game goes on.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


As a general rule, I'm not a fan of the contemporary obsession with gerunding (#seewhatIdidthere), i.e., turning words that were perfectly fine being nouns, perfectly fine accepting the assistance of helping verbs to make sense of some phenomenon, into stand-alone verbs themselves. My allergy to this practice is, for the most part, a consequence of countless, maddening hours spent experiencing first-hand the frequency (and sloppiness) with which nouns are gerund-ed in academic-assessment-speak (see: tasking) and business-speak (see: leveraging).. My suspicion is that there is a deep, unacknowledged, and fundamentally utilitarian impulse at work in this tendency, which subordinates being to doing, and which would explain its popularity in academia and business. At any rate, in neither case is anything substantially meaningful added to the gerunding of so many poor, defenseless, perfectly and independently functional nouns, in my view.

Saturday, February 13, 2016


It's Saturday, the hardest day of the week to find motivation to get things done.  Luckily for me, I have almost unrestricted access to all the music ever written (thanks, Google Play!), a stereo with a volume dial that goes all the way up to 10 (thanks, technology!), and neighbors who don't mind my loudness because they appreciate a discriminating, eminently informed and astute musical palate (thanks, humans of good taste!).

Nothing motivates me like good music, but good music motivates me in ways that are frequently hard to categorize, much less explain. Some songs are lyrically rich and motivate with the same narrative power as novels, sermons, locker room speeches. (Think: "I Will Survive") Some songs motivate with their fundamental mathematical beauty; by masterfully layering melodies and harmonies that iterate the basic ratios and relationships of the Universe itself. (Think: "God Only Knows") Others motivate with something deeper and more mysterious,something funky or groovy or aggressive or desperate, something that reaches in and grabs hold of the primal, the animal in us that wants to survive, to express, to be pleasured, to overcome. (Think: "Get Up Offa That Thing") There are a lot of different switches that turn us from "off" to "on," or maybe just a lot of different ways of flipping that one switch.  For my part, when I'm "off," nothing motivates like music.

Friday, February 12, 2016


I do not enjoy horror films. Not even a little bit. They genuinely terrify me. I hate them, I won't voluntarily go to them, and no amount of cajoling or ridicule will change my mind about that.

Now, I should note here at the start that I don't believe that ghosts or spirits or devils (or vampires, or werewolves, or zombies) are real. I don't believe in supernatural forces. I don't really believe in "evil" as a positive (rather than privative) force. I believe that things that go bump in the night have a scientific explanation. It's also important to note that I'm not, as a general rule, risk-averse. I've skydived, I like roller coasters and rickety-old carnival rides, I've performed on stage, I've stood up for myself and/or others in dangerous situations, I've even brushed up closely with my own mortality. So, the fact that something as silly as horror films absolutely paralyzes me with fear is a character tic that I've always found quite strange.