Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Aug 3, 2019
Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.
Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:
Aug 1, 2019
Angoulême is the largest city in the region where we’ve been staying. Over the last few days Gilles and Nicole have been showing us around. We’ve explored the Château de La Rochefoucauld and Sers. We’ve also visited a bunch of other places. Here are a few of the most interesting:
Also known as the International Comic Strip Museum, the Musée de la Bande Dessinée is located near the SNCF (high speed rail) train station. We saw a temporary exhibition on the relation between fashion and comic strips. I learned that Yves Saint Laurent made a graphic novel prior to ascending to the height of the fashion world.
The museum’s permanent collection is pretty neat too. It portrays a history of comic books (with a French focus) from the mid-19th century through the present day. As someone who was raised on Tintin comics, I appreciated the large selection of Herge’s work, much of which highlighted his early efforts at using the beloved boy reporter as a propagandist for reactionary politics and brutal colonialism.
The other big museum in town features three floors of art and artifacts that stretch from the Neolithic to the present day. The collection highlights local artists and history. The historical materials are the most intriguing part. They stretch back to perhaps two hundred thousand years before recorded history and include everything from Neanderthal and early homo sapiens skulls to surprisingly complex tools from the Iron Age.
Looking at the menhirs and (virtual) dolmen on display was something of a spiritual experience. There’s a kind of emotional resonance, maybe I should call it awe, that I feel when I think about the ancient human urge to create systems of meaning. These giant stones were used for ritual purposes. I suspect that these rituals served much the same purpose that rituals in a contemporary Unitarian Universalist (or any other faith tradition) congregation serve—to enable people to feel part of something larger than themselves.
The middle floor of the museum is basically a tribute to French colonialism. It has a selection of beautiful pieces from North Africa, Central Africa, and Oceania that I can only assume were acquired under dubious circumstances. The top floor is dedicated to local artists from the fifteenth-century to the present. The work is almost entirely banal.
Far more impressive is the view of the roof of the Angoulême Cathedral that the upper floors afford. Standing on the inner stairwell, looking through the clear glass windows, I got an excellent view of the various gargoyles that line the roof. They were exquisite and almost certainly worth a trip to the museum on their own.
This space for art and ecology is run by Gilles and Nicole’s friend Catherine Mallet. Les Modillons is located in a beautifully renovated early nineteenth-century farm about 20 minutes outside of town and regularly features exhibitions by both local and national artists. Gilles exhibited there a few years ago. The gallery space is hands down one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I’ve ever been in. It’s in a converted barn, built in 1818. The rafters and original stone have been preserved throughout. For those looking for an excuse to visit to France, Les Modillons offers residencies for artists and environmental activists.
These are two local cognac distillers. We visited Les Freres Moine our first full day in Sers. We visited Le Maine Castay on our last. Le Maine Castay is managed by a close friend of Gilles and Nicole’s. They get much of their produce from his garden and most of their meat from his farm as well. He gave us a tour of the cognac facilities. It was on a different scale than Les Freres Moine and principally provides cognac to the big cognac brands that they blend, bottle, and sell. I saw massive wooden cognac barrels and learned that a single one contains about $360,000 worth of liquor. I also learned that making cognac is dangerous work. Every year a couple of people succumb to the alchol fumes and fall into a big vat or barrel and drown. We learned that this happened to one of Gilles and Nicole’s friend’s neighbors last year.
After our tour we were invited back to his house for dinner. It was a beautiful stone building. My son played with his cats and I got to drink his homemade pineau alongside some of Le Maine Castay’s champagne. We were introduced, in French, to some of his friends and family as “the Americans who don’t speak French.” I can understand enough French that I was able to more-or-less follow the French conversation. Everyone was incredibly friendly. It was a great last evening in France after a wonderful three weeks. Tomorrow we’re off to London. I plan to write at least one more post on France as we travel from Sers to Angoulême (by car) to Bordeaux (by train) to London (by plane).
Jul 30, 2019
We spent an afternoon at about 20 minutes outside of the center of Angoulême. It has a long history. The family who built it first occupied the site in the late 10th century and have resided in it continuously since then. They claim to be one of the oldest families in France and the family archives certainly suggest that.
The château is privately owned and operated. We arrived late in the afternoon. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the property. A sole employee, the cashier, was to be seen. Classical music was blaring in the courtyard. The cashier informed us that the mother of the current Duke lived in half of the château, that she liked classical music to be played at all times, and that a large portion of the building was off limits.
We wandered out into the courtyard which overlooks the town below—hundreds of red clay roofs and lichen covered stone walls lining a river bank and dominated by an ancient Catholic church. We then made our way into the family chapel, which features a prominent display of the family tree and the crypt of a male heir who had died at the age of five. The chapel is two stories and includes a choir loft on the second floor. It could be described as modest in reference to Versailles.
Overall, the contrast between Versailles and Château de La Rochefoucauld was informative. Versailles is no longer occupied by the Bourbon family. The Rochefoucaulds wanted visitors to know that they are still around, still wealthy, and still important. Each room we went into after the chapel featured some series of portraits of influential family members or recently deceased ones (the recently deceased ones seemed much less impressive than their ancestors) and information about the family’s history. I learned that some of its members had been executed during the French Revolution despite their, in the family’s account, liberal sympathies. I also learned that the Duke La Rochefoucauld had been Louis XVI’s Master of Wardrobe. The, probably apocryphal, story is that when Louis XVI learned of the storming of the Bastille, he said to the Duke La Rochefoucauld, “It’s a revolt.” The Duke is alleged to have responded, “No, sire, it’s a revolution.”
The continuing ownership of the château by the Rochefoucaulds made me question how much of revolution it actually was. I mean, the mere fact that at least this branch of the French nobility has maintained control of a castle for over a thousand years suggests a certain continuity over time. I don’t know how the Rochefoucaulds are faring financially, but I suspect that they’re not poor. It’s true that they’ve had to monetize the family estate but the mere fact that such an asset has remained in the family is significant. As is the fact that they’ve recently been thinking of adding to it. In one of the rooms we saw an architectural model that included a proposed new wing designed by I. M. Pei (it looked to me like it would have been an aesthetic disaster).
The proposed Pei wing, however, was in keeping with the château’s most interesting feature. It has been consistently added to over the centuries. The original keep was built in the 11th century. The most recent additions are from the 18th. The real gem is the château’s grand staircase. It was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci and traversed the height of the building as a continuous piece. It is beautiful white stone and when the light hits it glows. At the very top of the staircase is a drawing of the castle attributed to da Vinci (it was unsigned).
Near the close of our visit the cashier let us into the family library and archives. They are incredible. The library contains around 18,000 volumes, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on law and theology. We were able to find other things, including a beautifully illustrated edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost that we were allowed to page through. One of the real treasurers was an original edition of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the work that invented the genre. I’d never seen an original copy before. It was a little awe inspiring to stand in front of the first European attempt to systematize human knowledge and realize that when it was written it was the project of only a handful of polymaths.
Undoubtedly, the family archives are of greatest interest to historians. I imagine all of the volumes in the library exist elsewhere. The archives, however, stretch back to the 13th century and contain records of all the kinds of wealth and power the French nobility attained for itself—mostly, I imagine, through theft and violence—over the years. The cashier had closed the front gate so she could accompany us into the library and archives. She showed us a couple of thirteenth-century documents. And then she showed us what must be one of the family’s prized possessions, the Duke La Rochefoucauld’s inventory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s jewelry. It was in an archival box. The cashier showed us the handwritten original and according to her the total value of the jewelry was 3 million pounds. At the time, she said, the Rochefoucaulds could have sold their château for 60,000 pounds.
The inventory and the cashier’s statement were, like Versailles, a good summary of reasons why the French Revolution ultimately happened—vast income inequality. Prior to the Revolution France was ruled by a hereditary elite who cared little for the vast majority of people in the country. Their wealth insulated them from everyone else’s reality. It meant that a few people had extravagant and sumptuous lives while most people eked out an existence. As year-by-year countries like the United States become more economically unequal and the dire threat of climate change increases I can’t help but think that such a situation is returning (or less romantically has returned). The world can only be different if we organize mass movements to make it so.
Jul 29, 2019
This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.
We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.
About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.
Jul 27, 2019
We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.
Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:
It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.
Yesterday was one of the hottest days on record in Paris. It was officially 108 degrees Fahrenheit. I suspect that on the streets, with all the heat bouncing up from the cobblestones and concrete, it was a lot hotter.
The heat was made worse by the fact that it was the third day in a row where temperatures had peaked at over 100 and not fallen below 80 or so at night. This meant that the inside of buildings never really cooled off. There is not a lot of air conditioning. Unlike Houston, Paris isn’t a city built to withstand extreme heat. But with global warming Parisians are going to have to figure out how to make adjustments. I had to jury rig a portable air conditioner to keep our rental apartment moderately cool—when it was 108 outside it was no more than 78 inside. If I hadn’t, I think that the situation would probably have been threatening to my parents’ health. As it was, the few times they went outside in the extreme heat they had to walk slowly and drink a lot of water to avoid heat stroke.
I went out at the height of the heat to visit the Musee d’Orsay. It is one of my favorite museums and I would have been disappointed with my trip if I hadn’t spent at least a couple of hours there. While I was there, I saw a commissioned exhibit by the British artist Tracey Emin and a retrospective of Berthe Morisot. Emin’s name is probably familiar to those acquainted with contemporary figurative art. Her highly erotic drawings did not disappoint. They were quickly executed ink on paper drawings of female figures in various amatory poses—some in the midst of sexual acts and some simply reclining in the nude. The figures were significantly abstracted and what caught me was that they managed to portray the emotional resonance of sexual love without being titillating.
Morisot, in contrast, is a name that is not well known. She was a major figure in the Impressionist movement—probably the most significant female artist that the movement produced. Over the twentieth-century, her work has largely been forgotten. The last time there was a solo show of her work was in 1941.
This is a shame as her painting was every bit as good as the Impressionist masters. She was particularly skilled at pushing the question: When is a painting finished? Like my brother Jorin, she frequently left the underpainting exposed and even in some places left bits of the sketches she made on canvas prior to painting visible.
What really struck me about her work, though, was the subject matter. She was a member of France’s cultural elite, but she routinely chose to paint intimate, ordinary, domestic scenes—servants at work, women doing laundry, mothers nursing or swaddling their babies, and parents at play with their children. This is quite different from the subject matter of most of the other Impressionists. It rendered a more complete sense of late nineteenth-century French life than is found in the paintings of the male Impressionists.
The Musee d’Orsay was incredibly crowded while I was there. It was filled with people trying to escape the heat. Walking and taking the Metro to and from the museum I drank almost a liter of water each way, and I only had to travel about 25 minutes to get to there.
On the way back I saw someone literally going mad from the heat on the Metro. One of the indigent men who begs on the streets in the Marais had stripped off most of his clothes and was in the midst of a psychotic break. He was gesticulating wildly and yelling by the ticket gate. And then he was walking along the street screaming expletives in French. I had seen him a few times earlier in the week and he had seemed quite calm. The heat had clearly pushed him beyond some inner limit.
Overall, the heatwave really changed in the energy in the city—especially at night. Once it started to cool off a little the streets completely filled up. One night I took a walk through the city and felt a rare kind of vibrant wonder. Another night I went down to the Seine for a drink. The river bank was filled with temporary restaurants and thousands of people collectively celebrating summer, enjoying each other’s company, and escaping some of the heat along the relative coolness of the river. It was a glorious scene filled with impromptu music performances and dance celebrations and passionate arguments in languages that I barely understand (French) or know well (English and Spanish).
I am not sure that I have ever quite experienced anything like it. It even exceeded the vibrancy normally present along the river in the summer. It was as if a milder form of the frenetic energy of the man on the Metro had been unleashed throughout the city.
Jul 24, 2019
Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.
Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.
Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.
Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.
The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.
According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.
Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.
Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.
However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.
Jul 22, 2019
Yesterday we went to Versailles. The crowds were enormous, and it was very hot. Overall, I would rate it a fairly miserable experience. Even with tickets we had to wait almost two hours to get in. And then, throughout the entirety of the palace, there was the sheer press of humanity. The crowd in the famous Hall of Mirrors, built by Louis XIV for parties, was equivalent to that at a large concert. People were packed elbow-to-elbow. It was hard to absorb much of anything.
I’ve only been to major tourist sites like Versailles a couple of times in my life—I went to Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto when I was in Japan this past winter and visited the Tower of London as a kid—and each time I’ve gone the experience has been similar. The site itself has been an impressive tribute to human creativity and, more often than not, an equally disgusting tribute to human greed and cruelty. But when I have been in such spaces, it has been hard to experience much more than the press of the crowds, the energy of hundreds of cell phones thrust into the air trying to get the ideal snapshot, the tour groups shouting at each other, and discomfort and low level anxiety—humans didn’t evolve to tolerate such tight quarters.
At Versailles, when I was able to focus my attention elsewhere, I mostly found myself nurturing anti-monarchist sentiments and feeling grateful for the French Revolution. The level of opulence at Versailles is truly mind boggling and its stomach turning to think that the ruling elite of France lived in such splendor while the majority of the populace had little to live on. In many ways, Versailles was the cause of the French Revolution. The massive spending that was required to build and sustain it—along with the fact that the nobility and clergy (the richest members of society)—paid very little in taxes essentially drove France to bankruptcy. It was Louis XVI’s need to raise additional money for his government, and finance his outlandish lifestyle, that caused him to call the Estates General into session. He hoped to get support for increasing taxes. He got the French Revolution.
I will refrain from singing the glories of the French Revolution. I will simply note that visiting Versailles reaffirmed my belief that inequality is a significant social problem and that a society which sustains gross economic gaps is fundamental unjust. It’s ridiculous that the Bourbons had so much by dint of their births while so many others had so little for the same reason.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Jul 18, 2019
This morning my parents and I had breakfast with John Ambler. John is a member of my congregation and a retired professor of political science. He spent his career at Rice teaching about and researching French politics. He and his wife Joyce spend part of each summer in Paris. Since we were all in town at the same time, we thought it would be nice to meet up, though Joyce ultimately wasn’t able to join us. We ate at a delightful cafe in the Marais—fresh orange juice and a croissant for me and my parents, a coffee for John and my father, and hot chocolate for my Mom. Our conversation touched on a number of personal topics and then turned to French politics and the global political situation.
I shared with John my account of my conversation with the CNT-SO militant FD yesterday. He offered his perspective on the yellow vest movement. He said that it was comprised of people who felt that they had been left behind by French society—primarily rural people and those from small cities. He also said that while it was not allied with the Left it had not been captured by the Right. Instead, it operates outside of the traditional categories of French politics.
We also spoke about the failure of French socialism. In his view, the central problem was that even when they won power the French socialists still had to operate within a global capitalist system. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he set about nationalizing a number of industries. Banks and capital writ large responded by engaging in a capital strike—they began to remove money from France and took business away from the country. The economy took a severe beating and, as a result, Mitterrand was unable to live up to his promises. A similar thing happened, John said, when François Hollande came to power—the external power of capital prevented the socialist government from pursuing any sort of anti-capitalist program.
John’s account reminded me of the old debate between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin argued that socialism is possible in one country. Trotsky countered that the strength of global capital is such that in order for socialism to succeed it must pursue the complete destruction of global capital and a situation of permanent revolution. Otherwise it will succumb to capital.
The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to suggest that the actual answer to this question is... it depends. Anti-capitalist communities can survive, it appears, in particular situations on the political, economic, and social margins. The Zapatista movement and the Rojava commune both have managed to create space for mass anti-capitalist communities whose internal economic, political, and social structures are far more radical than anything the French socialists could muster. However, they are so far from the centers of economic and political power that they appear to pose little structural threat to capitalism—which would not be true of France if Mitterrand had succeeded in his socialist project. The mere scale of France would have proved a significant challenge to capitalism if it had successfully created a socialist economy.
From there our conversation wandered to cover two more points. The first was another challenge that the Left faces: How to deal with automation? The second was about weakest point in the global economy, transit. Automation opens up all sorts of questions about what work is, how much work is available, whether working people will be able to have middle income jobs, and economic productivity. It has proven to be a significant challenge to the labor movement and provided capitalists with a crucial tool in undermining unions. Transit—particularly shipping—is central to the current itineration of capitalism. Most of manufacturing is built on just-in-time shipping. This means that transit workers have the power to significantly disrupt factory work by quickie strikes rather than protracted struggles. This is a possibility for working class resistance to capital that has largely been unexplored.
John is in his mid-eighties. We more-or-less ended the conversation with him telling me that it was up to me, my generation, and those younger than me to figure out if it was possible to find answers to the questions of socialism in one country and automation. Those are my words, not his, but I think that they capture the essence of our conversation.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.
We left Arles the same way we came: by train. The train back to Paris was uneventful. About the only thing of note that happened during the entirety of our time in transit was that at Gare de Lyon a taxi driver tried to scam me by telling me that there were only fixed fares from the train station. He wanted sixty euros. I told him no thank you and then went off to find a taxi starter who put us in a metered taxi.
Here’s a list of my blog posts in Arles:
Jul 16, 2019
On Bastille Day I took my son and Judith Walgren’s son on a day trip to Marseille. We didn’t see much of the city. We really only had two destinations in mind: the Chateau d’If and Ratonneau, a small island off the coast. Both are part of an archipelago a short ferry ride from Marseille’s Old Port. The boys wanted to go swimming—it was pretty hot—and a trip to the chateau and then Ratonneau afforded us the opportunity to see one of Europe’s most famous sites and take a dip in the Mediterranean.
First, we had to get there. We took a commuter train from Arles to Marseille. The trip was a little less than an hour. Afterwards we took a taxi to the Old Port to catch the ferry. As we walked along the wharf to buy tickets, we saw numerous fishermen selling their catches. I saw mackerel, octopus, sea bass, lobsters, and a good half-dozen other things I didn’t recognize. There was also a metallic painted man who moved when paid a euro and puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.
Once we had our tickets, we discovered we had to walk all the way across the wharf to find the dock for our ferry. It took about twenty minutes. Midway through we stopped at one of the many little bistros that line the street. I had a whole sea bass cooked in parchment and served with rice and a salad. The boys had cheeseburgers. The meal was a bit less than fifty euros.
After lunch we got on the ferry and rode it out to Chateau d’If. The chateau is probably most famous as a setting for Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I have always loved Dumas—I have read the entirety of the Three Musketeers saga, Queen Margot, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a fun imaginative exercise to go on a literary pilgrimage. The chateau wasn’t exactly like I had imagined it. I’d always thought that Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantes was locked in an underground dungeon. In fact, the chateau had no underground level and many of the prisoners were kept in cells on the second and third floors.
Dumas is an interesting literary figure for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is revealing of the way in which the Western canon—whatever it is and whatever it actually consists of—hides a certain amount of racial diversity within it. White supremacists and some misguided liberals often assume that the cannon is entirely white. This is not true. A great number of the foundational Christian theologians were actually North African—Augustine and Origen to name two—and some of the authors that people sometimes assume to be white were in fact people of color. Dumas, for instance, was black. His father Alexander-Thomas Dumas was the first person of color to serve as the general-in-chief of a French army. He was probably of sub-Saharan African descent.
How much does this matter? It depends. How much do the stories we tell about ourselves matter? I happen to think a lot. Actually, I think that one of the key distinguishing human features is our ability to create narratives about ourselves and our communities. Understanding that European art, literature, and philosophy have always been in some sense multiracial or multicultural lays lie to the notion that there is some kind of racially pure European society that innately superior.
After tromping around the old castle for an hour so—its interesting features include stone graffiti carved by both political prisoners from the 1848 uprising and the 1871 Marseille Commune—we caught the ferry to Ratonneau. It is a beautiful Mediterranean mixture of chalky cliffs, stony hills, and jagged fjords surrounded by clear cool water. After a fifteen-minute walk we found a stony beach. The boys practically leapt into the water. It was a joy to watch them. There is something about the unbridled joy of children that is contagious.
We swam for about two hours—I read a bit of James Baldwin in between dips in the ocean—and then made our way to the ferry. We caught a taxi to the train station and would have been at our hotel by eight o’clock if our train hadn’t ended up being delayed by an hour. It was an imperfect end to an almost perfect day. However, there’s something to be said for European candy. A small dose of it kept the boys happy while we waited an interminable time for the train to start.
Jul 14, 2019
One of the joys of travel has always been the moments of pure connection that arise, seemingly out of nowhere, along the way. Tonight I had one of those experiences walking behind the city hall in Arles. I was headed to get an evening drink--my parents were watching my son--when there they were: a half dozen and three singing, dancing, and strumming a guitar. Two young women pulled me in, walked up and asked me where I was from, and invited me to join the impromptu party of strangers: a old French woman missing teeth, three young Arab immigrants, an Irish republican (who later explained, “Bastille Day is when they gave the king and queen the chop, like we ought to do with Queen Elizabeth. No more nobles!”), the two art school students from the Alps who beckoned me to stand with them, a retired drunken Canadian woman, and a slightly bearded young guitarist. The Irishman was singing “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues. When he finished the guitarist began to strum a rhythmic tune. One of the young Arab women--she couldn’t have been more than seventeen--took off her shoes and began to dance--an energetic, imperfect, ballet, a poem in motion, dark blur of bending, twisting feet, leaping against the cobbles of the street before coming to rest bent upon the ground. Soon it was the art school students turn. One of them, a blonde with a floral tattoo on each arm, took the guitar and in a thin voice that grew bolder, thicker, with every passing syllable began to sing American pop songs, Nirvana, Sting, and then French ballads. There was love and a bit of comedy--a cowboy song from the Alps with the lyric “Yippee ki yay.” I even shyly shared a couple of folk hymns, “Simple Gifts” and “Down to the River to Pray.” Everyone was dancing.
Eventually it ended. This person had to go to bed. That person had to meet their friends. But while it lasted it was a moment of pure connection: beyond the horrors of the hour, beyond the difficulties of language, beyond... just beyond the ordinary.
If there is hope for humanity I am pretty sure it lies in such moments. Instances where the boundaries that separate people disappear in the experience of common connection: shared music, dance, and unexpected joy.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jun 2, 2016
I spent much of last week in Toulouse, France at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies. I was there to present a synopsis of my dissertation and participate in the graduate student seminar that proceeded the conference proper. Along the way I learned a bit about the differences between American and French approaches to American Studies. Most of these stem, I suspect, from a combination of cultural difference and the size of American Studies in France. There were about 100 people at the conference and are, I was told, about 500 people who belong to the association. In contrast, the American Studies Association has several thousand members.
Not surprisingly, the most substantive difference between American Studies in France and American Studies in the United States is that French American Studies functions like something of a province of the latter. The two keynote speakers, Michael Denning and Shelly Jackson, at the conference were both American academics. When people made appeals to the authority of other scholars those scholars were primarily American. I was at one session where a paper’s author was told that if he wanted his work to be taken seriously he had to substantively engage with the work of James Kloppenberg.
In contrast, I got through the entire conference almost without hearing anyone make mention of the French academics who are the rage in America. The only time Michelle Foucault came up was during a conversation I had with a student from Yale. I did not hear any discussions of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Bourdieu. I find this somewhat shocking. I cannot imagine spending three days at an academic conference in the humanities, of whatever discipline, in the United States and not hearing at least one paper referencing one of them.
American Studies in France is also organized differently than in the United States. The French divide pretty much all topics into two large categories: literature and civilization. Literature focuses on, well, literature. Civilization seems to include everything else: religious studies, history, cultural studies, etc.
I found myself in the civilization section of graduate students. I was surprised at the difference between my presentation and the presentations of the other graduate students. I followed the narrative form, leading with an anecdote and then laying out my major claims in an exegesis of the anecdote. I concluded by suggesting the kinds of contributions I think my dissertation is going to make. All of the French students presented papers that followed the same form. They began by stating their hypothesis. They then provided a brief discussion of their methodology. This was followed by a very specific literature review: I am engaging with x and y texts, which my work improves upon in the manner of z. Following the literature review was articulation of the project’s chapter structure and a brief conclusion.
Over the next week or so I will be posting some further reflections on my trip to France. I hope to include a piece on Yale’s Working Group on Globalization and Culture, who participated in the conference as a group, and something on French anarchism. I might also summarize what I learned about contemporary social movements in France and the conflict over French labor law.