Another Week Ends

1. David Brooks continues with his one-man campaign for a more realistic conception of human nature, […]

David Zahl / 9.30.11

1. David Brooks continues with his one-man campaign for a more realistic conception of human nature, and the implications it might have on ethical behavior, in his new column, “The Limits of Empathy.” This time he focuses on the question of motivation, exploring how easily/frequently something as ‘good’ as empathy is subordinated to self-interest (and laziness), ht TB:

People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments. The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

2. Reviews have been trickling in for Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour George Harrison documentary, Living in the Material World, which airs on HBO this week. It’s been entertaining to watch how certain reviewers deal with all the religious content in the second half. Harrison may not have been a “co-religionist,” but his overriding concern in life was God God God (as he sings in “Brainwashed”), not exactly a fashionable view, especially in his native England. I was particularly delighted with a quote from his wife Olivia that appeared in the NY Times write-up. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, legacy was clearly not on George’s radar screen:

[Harrison] wasn’t concerned with how posterity would regard him. “When he used to be asked how he’d like to be remembered, he said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care if I’m remembered,’ ” Ms. Harrison said in an interview, affectionately imitating George’s clenched Liverpool accent. “And I really think he meant that. Not in a sarcastic way, but it’s like: Why do you have to be remembered? What’s the big deal?”

The Daily Beast ran an interview with Scorsese that touches on the spirituality at the heart of the project from his perspective.

3. The Freakonomics guys sure are on a roll! Yesterday they brought us a pretty devastating column by James Altucher, “The Ten Commandments of The American Religion.” Rumbling beneath the more perceptive tenets he lists (#1: Thou Shalt Own a Home, #2: Thou Shalt Go to College & #10: Thou Shalt Forever Progress Toward the Frontier) is “The Great American Growth Imperative” that has proven so toxic in recent years. His thoughts on charity, on the other hand, are ridiculously cynical.

4. Rising star/comedienne Mindy Kaling (Kelly on The Office) makes a hilarious case for the mixed messages of romantic comedies in The New Yorker in her article, “Flick Chicks.” Her lighthearted discussion of genre archetypes masks a pretty cutting takedown of the various (impossible) standards/Laws being promulgated, my favorite being the “Skinny Woman Who Is Beautiful and Toned but Also Gluttonous and Disgusting.” There’s only one I would add, and it’s a relatively recent trend: the precocious, pre-pubescent sage.

I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

Alas, if only recognizing the absurdity of cultural ideals were enough to take away their sub-rational power…

5. While we’re in the humorous vein, The Atlantic posted a clever little article “Has Congress Developed a Psychiatric Disorder?”

6. On a more serious note, A local Georgia newspaper published the powerful testimony of a recovering meth addict, “From Jail to Jesus.” While the man in question, Wayne Stewart, frames his sobriety in terms of a personal decision, the circumstances are anything but, i.e. his children being taken from him, a la Oscar Wilde, ht EO.

7. John Blake of CNN reports on some remarkable data about pre-marital sex in Evangelical circles that’s about to be published in Relevant magazine under the give-away title, “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It.”

8. A great article in Paste entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jeff Tweedy,” in which the Wilco frontman discusses the (sometimes unhealthy) attachment that people have to his band – how some fans seem to be overly invested in his emotional wellbeing, ht AJ.

“I think in all of the projected images of how Wilco is and how I am and how we work, there’s a certain amount of seriousness attached to the band, but I don’t think that’s ever how it really worked,” he says. “Even at my most morbid, I think it’s been pretty fun.”

The new Ryan Adams record, Ashes and Fire, has been streaming on NPR and it’s terrific, from start to finish, “Save Me” being a particularly Mbird-friendly track. Also in music news, Sly Stone is living in a van.

9. Finally, registration opened for the LIBERATE conference (2/23-25/12 in Fort Lauderdale) this past Monday, and the sooner you register, the cheaper the cost. Speakers include Rod Rosenbladt, Michael Horton, Tullian Tchividjian, Elyse Fitzpatrick, and… yours truly (wild!). Really excited about it! Of course, before we get there, we have the Mbird Conference in Bham! Which is shaping up to be one of the biggest events we’ve ever done. Talk titles coming next week. Register today.


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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Brooks on Empathy, more Quiet Beatle, American Commandments, Kaling on Chick Flicks, Meth to Master, Pre-Marital Hanky Panky, Psycho Congress, Tweedy & Ryan Adams”

  1. Wenatchee The Hatchet says:

    That pull-quote from Kaling about romantic comedies as a sub-genre of sci-fi is genius. The trope that struck me was the 42 year old mother and 30 year old romantic lead. Ouch! Then again, given the decades in which Woody Allen exemplified the December-February relationship I guess a decade of cougars simply balances the scales?

  2. Ryan says:

    I think the word “genius” gets thrown around pretty lightly these days. That being said, PRINCE IS A GENIUS.

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