Christmas Past

20131222-200619.jpg I once watched a boy steal all my Christmas presents. I lay on my stomach and stared through a sweaty blur as he grabbed my box-full of gifts and scampered into the woods. I did not chase him; propped on one elbow staring as he ran, I did not even rise from my stomach. The presents were gone.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, I was camped out with my Marine unit in the woods at Cheat Lake, West Virginia, where we were setting 300 pounds of C-4 to blow a bridge. Four months later, I was camped off Green Beach, near Subic Bay, Philippines, training for desert warfare in the dense jungle—by Marine Corps logic it makes sense—on our way to Iraq.

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Words for Good and Evil, Part II

Continued from yesterday

“Why is it possible,” asked Richard Feynman a year before he won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”

Feynman fretted that people cannot embrace wonder if they do not imbibe science. In my church there is a young man who cannot speak; he can only point and hoot. He claps his hands during the liturgy; he waves recklessly at people he recognizes. His mother keeps a grip on his belt loop, lest he knock over candles, or wander into the choir. Sometimes he points at the ceiling, gesturing wildly for the rest of us to look, and in those moments I am certain he sees angels.

Knowledge is no precursor to wonder. Science is no guarantor of joy.

Yesterday I mentioned a low-IQ man who will soon be sterilized, and a retarded child who will die because she isn’t allowed access to the kidney transplant queue. We have lost the language, I said, necessary to talk about these decisions in terms of their morality. [Read more...]

Words for Good and Evil, Part I

In the months to come, England’s National Health Service will sterilize a young man with a very low IQ. In Philadelphia, a three-year-old who will soon die without a new kidney is barred from entering the organ transplant waiting list because she is mentally disabled. I suspect most of us have lost the moral language necessary to talk about either. We don’t know how to discuss these facts any more than we know how to discuss God or the soul or beauty or art, and if you want to understand the slow dissolution of human communities you can begin with the disintegration of moral imagination, and with it a language for good and evil.

Our lack of moral language should not be mistaken for lack of moralizing. In fact, the opposite relationship holds true—our rhetoric about what is moral yearly escalates because volume triumphs where authority has gone missing. Likewise for our words about God; heresies large and small proliferate in near-exact proportion to the growth in blogs opining about what God thinks about what we imagine he must be thinking about, which almost certainly must be the things most important to those of us who have blogs.

Everyone is too busy composing his memoirs, meanwhile, for there to be much conversation about what is art, other than to say that surely it is that which I like. [Read more...]

Prime Time Secrets

Recently I completed work on the first season of The Americans, a new FX drama about Soviet spies posing as D.C. suburbanites in the Cold War heyday of early 1980s America. My prior job was on Boss, about a ruthless Chicago mayor desperate to hide and survive at any cost an equally ruthless degenerative disease.

Loath as I often am to watch TV at night after a day spent creating it, I am hooked enough on Breaking Bad that ahead of its final chapter this summer I’m catching up on back seasons of the saga about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who puts his lab skills to use in the crystal meth business to secure the financial future of his family.

But I’m way behind on Mad Men, about a 1960s ad exec whose primary marketing campaign consists of maintaining his fabricated identity.

What gives with all the secrets that form a kind of landscaping in prime-time television? [Read more...]

Controlling the Shot

Guest Post

By Tyler McCabe

We set sail for Robben Island prison at noon amid five-foot swells. The Atlantic was dark and agitated like a clubbed fish, and my camera pitched around my neck. We would be attending the official educational tour of the island.

Viewing, that is, the whole God-awful shebang: communal cells which held civilians and activists during apartheid, single cells which held Muslim leaders from the East Indies and indigenous African leaders, the limestone quarry where prisoners worked with pick and spade, the graveyard for lepers, the church for officers, and the maximum security cell where South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, was held for eighteen years.

The ferry churning through Table Bay held sixteen hunkering tourists composing a small army of sight: thirty-two eyes, sixteen cameras. We strapped cameras to our bodies like firearms. [Read more...]


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