Reposted from a defunct blog I used to write, The Arnoldian Project, on the sad occasion of Roth’s death.
Philip Roth, Nobel or not, means more to me than any other writer. Reading his work for the first time was like stumbling blindly into an experience both familiar and alien, and built wholly from words. These words did not represent the life I had lived, but they captured the life I’d felt. Roth’s words projected a truer than true landscape of human relationships on the wall of my Platonic cave. Through the experience of his fiction, the skirmishes between my individuality and my communities found a vocabulary and a mythology — and this magical purgatory was entirely constructed out of words. It all hung on the word.
The precise word to call just the right sense and emotion into being. For all the joy this act brings to the right reader, it is, most surely, a brutal task for the writer.
Roth, now 80, has cited this brutality in his decision to call it a career.
As disappointed as I am, I also understand.
I’ve been struggling for months to capture a particular experience in words and, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, preserve it for posterity. Yet the weight of this task has been too much for me and linguistic paralysis set in. It isn’t writer’s block I’m struggling with (I know this because there is no such thing). Rather, I feel too much responsibility to choose the right words to capture something truly unique and special. Like the speaker in Keats poem, for whom the urn was “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” I feel my words can’t do justice to the event.
Fiction, Life, and the Park Bench
Last March, I had the honor of presenting a paper on Roth’s work at a conference in celebration of his 80th birthday. The conference was in Newark, New Jersey, which may sound disappointing to most readers, but it is Roth’s hometown and we were treated to some opportunities that were truly remarkable for people interested in his fiction. In addition to the excellent academic conference, there were guided tours of Roth’s childhood home and other special events. The main event was a speaking engagement featuring a litany of literary dignitaries and culminating with a talk by Roth himself, followed by a birthday party at which we would occupy the same room as The Great Man.
The “life in photos” collection at the Newark Public Library was special enough, but when I broke out a copy of Goodbye, Columbus while there and read passages describing the park across the street, I was overcome. In a strange haze, I hobbled to the bench Neil sits on as he surveys the park and library, reflecting on his attachment to Newark.
Here is a point where my failings as a writer taunt me. I don’t have access to The Words.
It was as if I had briefly entered the novella I’d so long admired. For a moment, I was able to step out of my existence and into the fictional body of Neil Klugman. Postmoderns like myself love to talk about the collapse of ontological distinction between fiction and the actually-existing world, but, so help me, it happened. Either I diminished into the world Roth’s words wrought, or those words escaped the covers of their book and sat with me on that park bench. I cannot stress the strangeness of this moment enough and, if you stick with me, I will return to it again.
Falling into Fiction
Our Disney-Roth vacation also included a bus tour that took us to various Newark landmarks, Rothian and otherwise. Each bus load of wide-eyed academics was given a tour guide who gracefully read passages from Roth’s work that described the locations we visited. The readings were often, as one would expect from Roth’s work, humorous, but what stood out to me was the descriptive power of the writer’s words. Though Newark has morphed into an altogether new social space in the 50 years since Roth became its emotional historian, his words, when religiously invoked in those spaces, collapsed time and space. Just as with my experience on Neil Klugman’s park bench, Roth’s words, when experienced in the places they froze in literary time, recreated the modern world in the image of Roth’s Atlantean Jewish Newark.
In a comically appropriate way, the driver of my bus was surely the doppelganger of the elderly Arthur Miller, and, fittingly our representative from the world of fiction drove us headlong into that world.
The tour’s highlight was a dual stop at Roth’s youth. First, we pulled in front of his old school, Weequahic High, and we scurried into the cold to snap photos of ourselves in front of its entrance. Here is my own selfie:
The postmodern romantic in me likes to think that with each of these photos, we not only commemorated our visit to literary history, we hurled ourselves into literature. This act intensified when we boarded our bus again and headed to the pleasure-dome of Alexander Portnoy’s own “Kubla Khan,” The Philip Roth House.
Located just around the corner from the high school whose daily lessons we interrupted, the house that Roth grew up in politely sits in a quiet, even pleasant neighborhood, so utterly dignified that it disorients the devoted reader of Roth’s sometimes raucous fiction. Undaunted by all this oppressive respectability, my colleagues and I tumbled out of the bus for voluminous digital photographs of Alexander Portnoy’s house of Atreus, each shutter-click seemingly inaugurating dirty jokes by extremely smart people. There was a sense that we’d been dissolved into Roth’s great fiction and were powerless to behave like folks with Ph.Ds. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself immensely, nor that I regret the dirty jokes and neighborhood disturbance. I am simply in awe of the experience.
As the day drew us closer to The Event, my metamorphosis into a fictional character escalated. At a stop on the way back to the fabulous Newark Museum, where the festivities would be held, I was approached by a reporter who asked if I’d like to comment on the tour. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name at the time and I assumed he was a reporter for a local, Newark paper. Professionally and politely, he asked me several questions about my experience and, still on a fanboy high, I answered them. As it turned out, the reporter, Matthew Schuerman was a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, and he completed my voyage into Wonderland by describing me, in his article, as almost sounding like one of Roth’s “compulsive, self-doubting characters.” He might as well have introduced me as “the nebbish, Danny Anderson.” Note that I don’t blame Mr. Schuerman for this. He crafted a fine account of the event, and it isn’t his fault that I had chased the White Rabbit so far down the hole.
Oh, and, hmm…well…there’s also…you know…an…audio package that was aired and features my interview. Here’s the link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/276933-bus-tour-brings-philip-roths-newark-life/
Out of Body Experiences and Jumping Valences
My pumpkin eventually brought me to the ball in my best suit and I lightly entered the ballroom, certain that I was going to be found out and escorted home — or at least back out into the streets of Newark, with Cory Booker nowhere around to save me. Yet this did not happen. Instead, I saw some of my fellow academics, many of whom are actual big-wigs in the profession. The fact that they were as outwardly shaken by our shared out-of-body experience as I was either comforted me or added to my terror. I could not distinguish.
Nonetheless, we chatted about our excitement, hit the fruit-and-cheese table, and I avoided the alcohol, thinking water was the wise choice given my recent postmodern dissolution into fictionality. Like Bob Hoskins’ fear of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was sure I was dangerously close to becoming Alvin Pepler and I decided not to take unnecessary risks.
So, feigning a witty and urbane manner, I nibbled on my kiwi fruit and cheddar as the small talk took us. Events then began to snowball.
First, someone identified Paul Auster in the crowd. City of Glass is a favorite novel of mine and I involuntarily gasped at the sight of its writer. Our celery sticks were abandoned as we started to scamper into the crowd, pointing out literati as if we were playing nerd-bingo. “Look there’s Nathan Englander.” “I heard Mia Farrow was supposed to be here.” “Is that Jonathan Lethem? I almost wrote about him in my dissertation.”
My index finger rose and directed awe-inspired traffic to Don…“DeLillo! He wrote White Noise, for Pete’s sake!” I unashamedly swooned in front of my colleagues, and not because of DeLillo’s purple sweater.
By this time, the room had been transformed into a great atom, with excited electrons like myself whirling around it. I had no idea how not to buzz around in such company. I just write and teach about these people, I don’t rub shoulders with them. Yet, as a former person who was now a fictionalized avatar, I did.
Then, through an archway that divided the marble room from the marble hall that encircled it, I saw Philip Roth. He was maybe 100 feet from me, thin, healthy, and dressed in black. As if bombarded by an intense heat source, the highly charged electrons in the room tried to jump levels, from the nucleus of finger foods and plastic wine glasses, up the brief staircase to the energy source dressed like Johnny Cash. Physics got in the way of my migration, however, as the staircase served as a bottleneck that trapped me long enough for Roth to be removed to the auditorium in preparation for the talks in his honor.
C-SPAN fortunately recorded this part of the event, so I need not try and recreate my experience of it in words. Words, it seems to me, are sirens, tempting sailors to their doom. An experience like this, that was for me so meaningful and profound, begs me to not let it drift off onto a Sea of Forgetting. Never again, I suspect, will my consciousness touch the border between our physical world and that of our cultural imagination. I have been tortured by the desire to keep its magic ever existent, carrying it with me through my everyday life without it falling victim to the Everyday. I could do so, I suppose, by boring people with my story for the rest of my life, like the speaker in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” But it seems to me that this is what writing is for. The tortuous act of rendering multifarious experience into words is supposed to accomplish the work of Keats’ Grecian Urn.
Yet finding those words is brutal. Worse yet is the act of placing the words into the right relationships, and capturing not only fact and chronology, but emotion, newness, and wonder. This is, I think, what lurks behind Roth’s retirement. A lifetime of finding words, typing them, becoming discontented with them, erasing them, and replacing them is more than I can imagine bearing. Let me just say that I’ve never been more captivated by a speaker in my life. Listening to Roth read a few pages from Sabbath’s Theater was what the Romantics meant by sublime. Thank God for C-SPAN’s videographers and sound engineers. Do yourself a favor and take some time to watch it here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311957-1
Shaking the Hand that Shook the Liver
I had assumed that Roth’s speech would be the end of the evening, and that would have been enough. There was more, however. The attendees, great and small, would gather once again in the marble Xanadu of the Newark Museum to wish Roth a happy 80th birthday and consume pieces of an amazing cake, which was baked and frosted into images of Roth’s novels. I ate a piece of Nemesis, myself.
Standing near Roth while we sang and toasted to his honor (Louise Erdrich provided a toast in Ojibwe — Roth responded that he had wanted her to “jump out of a cake”), was, I thought, the culminating moment in my escape from tyrannical reality. I was wrong.
Roth proceeded to sit down at a table and, organically and without prompt or organization, two greeting lines formed. Still uncomfortable in my alternative-universe skin, I suppose, I hesitated to join the line. Meeting Roth terrified me. I tried even to avoid eye, let alone physical, contact, as I didn’t wish for my carriage to revert back to a pumpkin at an embarrassing moment. My dissertation adviser, friend, and mentor, Judy Oster, however, pushed me into line, providing me with a gracious and loving slap in the back of the head.
As I waited, I watched others greet the man and I was jealous that they actually seemed to have something to say to him. I am, in professional circles, rather a Nobody. I feel that my great contribution is almost entirely in the classroom and not the journal. So I watched and waited my turn, jumping in and out of line to snap pictures of the others, who I now realize were just as awestruck as I was. The childlike giddiness with which they took in their own experience of the event was a truly heartwarming sight. That people who had held me in such envious awe were, in the end, not so different than me, was an oddly comforting epiphany.
As my camera was passed to a colleague for my own photo op, Roth’s intimidating gaze landed on me at last. Maybe it was the lifetime of breaking experience down into sensory-rich words that gave Roth’s eyes such an intensity, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was under observation even in conversation. Were he to write another novel, what great schmuck might I inspire?
Surrendering at the outset, I decided to get out quickly. I said, “Mr. Roth, I don’t want to take up any of your time. I just want to say that it’s a great honor to meet you and to wish you a happy birthday.”
I was satisfied with this. I had spoken to him and shaken his hand. I needed no further magic. Yet there was some. As if to convince me that I was not just a disembodied consciousness perceiving an experience, but also a being to be perceived myself, Roth held me up: “Ok. Now who are you?”
“Who?” The events of the day had somehow almost made me forget that I was a Who. Ironically, Roth had reached within the novel I’d sunk into and pulled me back out into my own skin. The creator of fiction re-established my reality. I was not “the nebbish, Danny Anderson,” I was, again, “Danny Anderson.” A name that once having recovered, I announced to the man shaking my hand. And then, “I’m just a teacher, and I wanted to say how much I admired what you did tonight in your talk. You made literature come alive in me in exactly the way I want it to come alive in my students.”
Roth politely listened to me, we shook hands again, and I ceded my place at the table to the next admirer.
I walked away, restored to my body and name, emerged from Wonderland, filled with an extraordinary magic and the dread of losing it.
When we think about American cinema’s “best,” “most influential,” or “most important” directors, the conversation almost universally omits John Carpenter. This omission no doubt traces to Carpenter’s association with genre films like Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing. But think for a moment about the influence and vision of the films in that list. By any standard, Carpenter’s oeuvre is “important.”
Coming up on the Sectarian Review Podcast, Carter Stepper and I will be discussing another of Carpenter’s films, the cult classic They Live!
This masterpiece of lowbrow social critique offered a scathing critique of capitalism in the 1980s, which has only become more insightful and prescient for our own economic moment. Starring the wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Carpenter regular Keith David, the film follows the adventures of a marginally employed, semi-homeless, unnamed construction worker who acquires a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the subliminal messages in the advertising we’re immersed in as well as the identity of skull-faced space aliens who are secretly controlling the world’s economy.
Slavoj Zizek provides a fascinating reading of how the film explains Ideology in his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. I highly recommend checking that sequence out for some great insight into both Zizek and They Live! I also wonder whether the film offers a useful way to understand James K.A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. We’ll start to unpack that a bit in this upcoming podcast (and I will hopefully address it more formally in a future writing project as well). In the meantime, I want to open the forum of the podcast to You, Dear Listener. Have you seen They Live? What aspects of it interest you? Is there anything we can discuss for you? Please do submit your questions and ideas. The greatest pleasure of podcasting is conversing with the world’s best podcast audience.
Consider poor Vision.
Shining from his synthetic forehead is the final Infinity Stone that Thanos needs to complete the set. The mad Titan’s glove awaits this final accessory and he will attain the powers of God. Not a god, but capital-G God.
In a last ditch effort to thwart this fate, Vision’s love-interest, the Scarlet Witch, must destroy the stone where it rests, killing Vision along the way. She does so, and mourns over the body of her beloved. Thanos, however, is already 5/6 God and simply reverses time to the moments before Visions first death. He then rips the stone out himself, reuniting all the stones and killing Vision a second time.
Marvel’s latest film will be dissected in excruciating detail over the next few weeks, so I will be focused and brief here.
Thanos indeed becomes God for all intents and purposes. He has complete creative control over the universe, able to bend and reform reality, travel through space and time, and do whatever else those other stones allow him to do (I’d love some clarity on that, actually). In other words, he is a being who is able to right the wrongs of the universe as he sees fit. And I wonder if his solution (basically erase half of all living beings in the universe to make more room for the other half) isn’t precisely what all of us would do with such power.
Isn’t any material solution to the question of theodicy ultimately choosing a side to save? Granted, almost nobody would have the other half turn to literal dust, but we’re talking metaphor here, right? In this way, Thanos provides an interesting image of a secular God. A being with all of the Creator’s power, but none of the Grace.
A pretty well-accepted tenet of Christianity is the idea of the resurrection (there are of course debates about bodily vs. spiritual etc..but that’s for another podcast). Vision is indeed resurrected, right in line with Orthodox beliefs about God’s grace and redemption. Unfortunately for him, his resurrection is at the hands of an all-too-human God, and leads only to a second death. There is no redemption for him, only for the half-Creation that Thanos wishes to save. There is no salvation for all.
Loki then, in his dying words, was right about Thanos. Though he may attain God’s power, he will never be a God.
In preparation for a science fiction film class I teach, I recently watched the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. The movie’s famous anti-war message is more than “still relevant.” In no way has our species taken up it’s call to peace. If the film’s premise were real, our benevolent alien overlords would have justifiably obliterated us long ago.
However, it is another of the movie’s themes that struck me as utterly prescient. The film is saturated with depictions of mass media. The motif is introduced in a montage sequence at the beginning and carries through to the end of the film. The mass media are implicated in rumor-mongering, inciting fear and panic, and encouraging personal greed, and virtually all forms of media are treated with such hostility. Viewing this film for the first time in our contemporary age of mass and social forms of communication, I could not help but wonder what this film says about the message of our media.
The film opens with a flying saucer landing in Washington DC and its occupant, Klaatu, emerging with a gift. He is, of course, promptly shot by a panicked soldier. In the hospital, Klaatu informs a representative of the President that he has a message that he must deliver to the entire world; the message cannot be given to individual actors on the world stage. The leaders of the world cannot agree on a forum, so Klaatu is held captive at Walter Reed Hospital, from which he escapes and mingles with the humans of Washington. He eventually finds support from a single-mother and her son, and is able to deliver his message to a group of scientists and other dignitaries: Earth’s development of atomic power has drawn the attention of a federation of worlds. In the interest of security for all, the federation has developed a race of all powerful robots that will destroy any individual world that threatens the others. Earth must choose: either give up its warlike ways or be destroyed by Gort, the famous silver robot.
The rather naive idealism of the film’s message is further complicated by its seeming unwillingness to confront the obvious contradiction in its call for peace; the peaceful utopia of inter-planetary brotherhood that Klaatu offers is constructed on the threat of total annihilation. Nonetheless, the movie’s message retains its power and still captures the imagination.
But as I said, I think the film’s contemporary significance is its scathing critique of the fear-inducing capacity of mass media. In Earth, Klaatu, so desperate to deliver his message of ultimate importance, discovers a world utterly saturated in communication media. This overabundance of communication is, ironically, partly the reason why he cannot spread his world-saving message.
The film opens with a radar operator discovering the alien ship’s otherworldly blip. A phone call to a military command center reports news of this paradigm-shifting arrival. Every movement the ship makes is communicated, electronically, in real time. The Messianic event is translated to panic and shared with radio announcers across the world, first in India, then Italy, then England, until it reaches the eager ears of Americans, who luxuriate in the hyperbolic message sold by the media.
From there, television and newspapers take over, entering every home and keeping the world hanging on a suspense-filled string.
Important to note is that the information spread like wildfire in these sequences is not useful. No message has yet been delivered. In that absence of certainty, the media sell panic, and the public voraciously buys it.
The dissemination of newspapers in the film offers a key insight. With his “extra extra read all about it” singsong, the newsboy’s siren-call has him quickly surrounded by readers, eagerly exchanging money for “news.”
Engaged citizens they are, but engaged in what? He collects their money and that is the image that should haunt us today. Just as then, our media is big business.
The same question applies exponentially to our consumption of news on social media. Like the subjects of a fictional alien invasion, we too are desperate for essays, tweets, hot takes, sick burns, Facebook posts, and cell phone videos of people shouting at us about our fears. Or rather selling us our fears.
Business is booming. We’re buried under an avalanche of information, and just like the people of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re missing the actual message.
Friend of the show, Chris E. commented on our recent show:
Half way through the podcast and would like to make a few comments and push back a little: A comment on the book itself; I believe this was originally part of a trio of books commissioned at the same time, with the others to be written by Daryl Hart and George Marsden - so it would have been interesting to hear the book discussed in that context. I found much of the political discussion flawed as it centred on an American axis of what left and right constitute[*] - though at least Derick was a good dissenting voice at times (the only alternative to communism in the 80s was libertarian free-marketism? really?). On the dispensationalist point, I think your conspiracy episode got this right. Dispensationalism wasn't all, or even mostly, George Eldon Ladd, at the popular level it was basically the 80s version of infowars ('99 reasons why Christ will return by 1999', apache helicopters are the locusts of revelation and so on). So in that sense it was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement, even when there was a large amount of effort put into making it internally coherent. On Evangelicals voting for Trump - is this not simply a continuation of the politics of the Republicans during the Obama-era ? Where opposition on all points was the order of the day, and plenty of Evangelicals joined groups like the Tea Party. Finally - so far! - a point about the lack of Evangelicals on the bench of the Supreme Court. This was discussed at a level of political influence and legislated morality - but it wasn't pointed out that this illustrated the thesis of the book - Evangelicalism stopped producing the kinds of intellects likely to be promoted to the bench. * This is one of the flaws to me of the City of Man podcast - the 'left' isn't truly represented as such, instead there's a concilatory left of centre (in the American sense) voice opposite a more take-no-prisoners conservative. Reaching parody in the last episode where one side basically said that the subject under discussion didn't interest them at all!
I leave it to Coyle and Ed of the City of Man Podcast to respond to Chris's side note, but I do want to elaborate on his point about dispensationalism's relationship to the intellect.
At one point in the show, it was claimed that there is a great deal of intellectual work involved in End-Timesey thinking and publishing. To a degree, I suppose this is true. However it is not the kind of intellectual work that Noll prizes and laments the absence of in Evangelicalism. It is, as Chris suggests, of the sort found in Alex Jones' imagination. Conspiracy theorists (and do check out our show on that subject) put an amazing amount of thought in constructing their analyses, and the intellectual products they make are elaborate and often bound together with intricate logic. However, their theories are too often inwardly focused and divorced from an engagement with the actually existing material world.
This is how I see End Times prophecy as well. It isn't as though no thought or research goes into piecing together its elaborate structures, but rather that it is a house of cards built upon itself, not a deep engagement with the natural world.
I reached out to my co-hosts for the episode for their responses to Chris's email and Derek Varn took me up. I leave you with his words:
I'll bite Danny, "I vaguely remember the trio of books when I first read "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" in the early Bush years in college, and I have read Marsden's "Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism." I actually agree with the comment on the frustrations about left and right, and would have insisted a larger split between left-liberals and leftists, which is a fundamentally different thing. I am often more frustrated with what represents the left on podcasts like City of Man and thus is why I actually asked for Coyle to be on. In many ways, I would rather engage in conservatives who took fundamental problems of economics seriously, but the binary is frustrating. As I actually agree more with Coyle on some questions than I do the side that "represents me.." My point about Dispensationalism and the conspiracy mongering and Puritans should have been explicated more and that is my fault. Emblematic thinking in the Puritan context LED a very rich intellectual tradition down a contradictory path of paranoia and hollowed out the tradition in such a way that it made Unitarianism and Deism MUCH more appealing to New Englanders, even if some of that Puritanism remains in the US secular culture.' This was true in the degeneration of Dispensational thought to infowars style Hal Lindsey-ism.
I AFFIRM your right to wave your arms and scream "look at me!!!"
I DENY the social requirement to voice an opinion about it.
I AFFIRM the cleverness of counter-hashtags.
I DENY that hashtagtivism moves the wheel of history.
I AFFIRM that it feels good to join things that people are tweeting about.
I DENY that it gives you any more swag with the congregation that goes to your megachurch and already thinks these things.
I AFFIRM that it's OK to be mad at people for thinking the things.
I DENY that breaking social bonds with The People That Think The Things will change the world.
I AFFIRM that ten is an authoritative, round number.
I DENY that you needed more than five articles to say what you said.
Hello dear listener. First of all, if you subscribe to the show already thanks so much!
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After pretty much every episode, I regret leaving something unstated or at least under-emphasized. Even though this was a two-hour show, it happened again.
I'm not sure that I made it clear enough that I think that Evangelicalism's copulation with American patriotism is nothing less than idolatry. After the show posted, a listener emailed me about the show's relationship to the Dallas First Baptist Church "Celebrate Freedom" Rally in DC (which the great John Fea has much more intelligent things to say about than I do - click and understand). Our listener identifies the blind spot:
"After watching the rally, I had to wonder how it is that most mainstream evangelicals have no qualms about physically reverencing the flag and confessing their allegiance to it and yet are quick to denounce the Catholic/Orthodox veneration of statues and icons as idolatry."
My own sense about this is that patriotism is both more immaterial in nature as well as part of the cultural hegemony of our society. It essentially "feels natural" to the Evangelical American's cultural experience, unlike the veneration of icons, which is now largely counter-cultural in American society, and thus easier to identify.
Recall the vile Pulpit and Pen's excoriation of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy (click). Jeff Maples utter alienation from Eastern Orthodoxy's traditions (due to his own bad-faith engagement with them) turned everything he saw (and smelled, apparently) into Satanic idolatry. The middlebrow Evangelical has no such alienated perspective when it comes to patriotism and Christian nationalism. They are so immersed in it, they cannot see it.
On Twitter, another listener noted that the "Evangelical Quadrilateral" Coyle Neal and I discussed suffered in interpretation:
What Seth identifies here is a failure of imagination. If, for example, Biblicism can only and forever mean a form of literalism, then the Evangelical imagination is impoverished, thereby damaging its ability to observe and correct its own cultural assumptions.
I'm reminded of Matthew Arnold's observation about mechanical, routinized English culture:
"Where was the hope of making reason and the will of God prevail among people who had a routine which they had christened reason and the will of God, in which they were inextricably bound, and beyond which they had no power of looking?"
Perhaps the Evangelical Imagination is damaged in a similar manner?
If you're like me, I'm sure you love listening to endless requests to go to your favorite podcast's Patreon page and give money. Better still are the <insert favorite curse word> commercials that are increasingly ubiquitous in podcastland.
To poke a little fun at this sad capitalist invasion of the medium, we at the Sectarian Review are hosting a little contest.
The concept is simple: listeners will write advertising copy for a phony product that Danny will read during upcoming shows. Listeners will then vote on their favorite, and the top two vote-getters will receive a custom-made Sectarian Review coaster (crafted by friend of the show Josh Mozug of Mozug Custom Woodworking - click to learn more).
Be creative, keep the cussing to a minimum, and let's have some fun mocking the monetization of podcasting! We're supposed to be losing money on this thing.
One thing we love is to hear back from our listeners. In this case, Danny's brilliant wife, Kim, was nice enough to give us the what for about some of our blind spots when talking about Corporate Feminism. Please read her response below, and if you'd like to chime in about this (or any other episode), consider yourself encouraged to do so.
I listened to your recent podcast regarding the Fearless Girl statue and I felt like there was a very different lens from which you could have viewed it. A big part of what struck me was what seemed to be this complete distrust of corporations throughout. Particularly, this conversation at the end.
Danny: Should we be cutting them some slack here or is it just an entirely a crass means of getting into our pocket books?
Megan: “it is also a big Wall Street Corporation with billions of dollars at their disposal to actually forward the rights of women. I am more likely to celebrate the baby steps of individual people who are working to recognize and support women in their everyday lives. I have a student who writes a paper pushing back against sexist language “you play like a girl.” I will celebrate the baby steps of those students. I am not inclined to celebrate the baby steps of corporations who could take much larger ones.”
Earlier in the podcast, you had discussed the Dove beauty commercials and had (I feel skeptically) talked about howeven though these commercials might be good, the company in the end is doing it to get their name out there. My question is this: what baby steps would you accept from a company with the so-called millions of dollars at their disposal?
First, I ask you to step back and consider that a company is not a faceless entity but is rather made up of living, breathing individuals. Second, consider that they are a system with an ingrained culture. That each of those individuals needs to change (and change is slow) in order for the larger corporation to change. And that the corporation is functioning within a society that has norms and values that are ingrained into each of us that are often slow to change as well. Those individuals might very well have good motives but be slow to change. Changing one individual is easy (or is it?). Changing thousands of individuals within a corporate culture can be difficult and slow. Not that this is an excuse.
But back to my original question of what would you consider a baby step for a company like State Street Global Advisors? Asking this question led me to wonder why would a big bad Wall Street corporation with only poor motives put up a statue of a fearless girl if that were the ONLY thing they were doing to promote diversity within their organization. So, I googled “State Street Global Advisors diversity.” And this is when this post is going to start sounding like a commercial for SSGA. I ask you to consider completely changing your world view (which I realize I am only inferring from the comments made in the pod cast) that corporations do everything only for profit and that they can’t do anything for good.
First, it took me about five seconds to find out that SSGA put the statue up in conjunction with the announcement that the company is advocating not just for the diversity of their own company but also gender diversity of the trillions of dollars of assets that it manages (which amounts to the assets of about 3,500 companies), many of whom have NO women on their boards. (You cited statistics about the number of women in leadership at SSGA and I did not take the time to compare these numbers to others in their industry but that would be a good exercise. I am willing to guess that of the top Wall Street firms, their numbers are actually pretty good. I digress.)
The statue was not just a hollow gesture but a symbol celebrating a movement within their company to impact (press, even) the leadership of thousands of companies whose assets they manage. I think that is a noble effort. And whether or not they are doing this for their own profit or for the greater good of society (more on that later), I think this is a bit more than a baby step. (1)
Further research on this topic lead to an article stating that “SSGA found in a study it conducted that 35% of public companies in the US have zero female directors on their boards, compared with 36% in the UK and 45% in Australia. The firm has a new set of guidelines giving 3,500 public companies about a year to increase diversity on their own before SSGA starts influencing their selection of board directors at the proxy level.” So, SSGA is attempting to influence the leadership of these firms not only through telling them it is a good thing to do but also by impacting the actual votes about their boards.
At this point, you might still be skeptical that maybe they are just doing this for publicity. But this is not the first time that this company has taken a stand on doing what is right for the long-term sustainability of the companies it manages- and the world they impact. Since 2014, it has been pushing for corporate responsibility on an environmental level as well. As the third largest manager of assets in the world, they are positioned to have a big impact on the way businesses function around the world. Recently, they have increased these efforts as well. Their CEO, Ronald P. O’Hanley, sent a letter to “companies in the US, UK and Australia reinforcing the importance for boards to consider the impact of environmental and social sustainability issues on their long-term performance. Included was our framework for boards to evaluate and communicate how these risks and opportunities can affect long-term strategy.” In the letter, he encourages the boards to consider ”board leadership and board composition, diversity and talent development, safety issues, and climate change. (2) Just think if you read between the lines you find a mix between “this is good for business” and “this is the right thing to do for everyone,” and by everyone, I mean the world.
So, in summary, it is easy to be skeptical about companies and their motives. But there is a growing movement within corporations to focus on corporate social responsibility. And this must start at the top. I don’t know anything about Ronald P. O’Hanley, but I certainly would like to have dinner with him. Because his company put up a statue that people are enjoying taking selfies with, sure. And maybe that seems like a hollow gesture both on the part of the selfie takers and the company. But if you take a few minutes and look a bit deeper, you see the 3rd largest asset manager in the world (who we all like to criticize because of recent corruption) who has investing responsibility to advance economic prosperity and social progress as their mission. And they have taken a stand and are working to influence not only the diversity and environmental impact of their own company but also that of 3,500 other organizations around the world. Companies who, in turn, employ millions (or more) of individuals, donate money to community organizations and have an impact on the communities in which they operate. I consider this much more than a baby step, which they seem to take very seriously.
The Sectarian Review Podcast is hosted by Danny Anderson, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.