Tag Archives: God

Henry Hitchings and the Patron Saint of Asking

Henry Hitchings must be holding out on us. He claims in a New York Times Opinionator blog that the verb ask “has been used as a noun for a thousand years,” but he doesn’t provide a single illustration to support his claim. Puzzled, I went back to the OED, where, I recalled, I’d found only a single medieval instance of ask used as a noun over the past thousand years. It turns out I was wrong: the OED offers three examples – one from the year 1000, and two from the early 13th century. This makes the nominative ask “obsolete” in the view of the OED editors; and obsolescence doesn’t help Hitchings’s historical case. In fact, the literary evidence offered by the OED creates a whole host of problems for the argument Hitchings tries to advance in his Times blog – especially his effort to reduce questions of grammar to “aesthetic judgment” and “aesthetics.”

Let me focus on one medieval instance from the OED – the only one I remembered when I first commented on Hitchings’s article – to illustrate the point. This is from a medieval life of Saint Juliana called Þe Liflade of St. Juliana or Seyn Julian preserved in two manuscripts from the year 1230. There’s good reason I remembered it, because in many ways Seyn Julian is a text about a subject in which I have a growing interest — namely, the power of asking.

Juliana’s story is set in Nicomedia (now the Turkish city of Izmit) in the early fourth century AD, during the last years of Diocletian’s reign. In those days, Maximianus ruled as Augustus, Diocletian having concluded that the empire was too vast for one Caesar to rule. Throughout the empire, Christians are being persecuted – tortured, put to death, and, in one notable case, in Nicomedia, burned alive in the very church where they gathered to pray. According to Seyn Julian, Maximianus was determined to put “alle” Christians to death: “Alle cristenemen he dude to deþe.”

Juliana comes from one of Nicomedia’s ruling families, but she is (unbeknown to her parents) a Christian convert. So when a government official named Eleusius makes arrangements with Juliana’s father and mother to take her as his wife, things start to fall apart.

When Eleusius proposes to Juliana herself, she at first equivocates, saying that it would be better if he were a man of “more power.” Determined to win her hand, Eleusius makes the necessary gifts and supplications to the Emperor, and Maximianus elevates him to the position of “Justice.” (In other accounts he is made governor of Nicomedia.) He now has it in his “power” – the text repeats the word here and in several other places; “power” is really the subject of Seyn Julian, as it is of so many martyrs’ lives– to do what he will (“wat he wolde”).

What he will is not what he ought, of course, and it turns out that power, or at least the kind of official power Justice Eleusius has, is not enough to win Juliana’s hand. He proposes to her again, but fails:

ȝÞis Justice wende to Juliane. þo is power was.
And wende hire habbe as is spouse ac he failede of is as.

There’s that rare nominative usage – “failed of is as” (his ask), set playfully in the line against “habbe as is spouse”; the nominative form here rhymes with “was.” But Eleusius’ “as” – his bid for Juliana’s hand – is doomed to fail, the poem suggests, because it’s an assertion of his own will, or power, against a greater power at work in Juliana’s life: he may be a powerful agent of the Emperor’s law, but (as she finally confesses) she is a “Cristene woman.” Juliana wants to be of “one lawe” with Eleusius and she answers Eleusius’ request for her hand with a request of her own: “Bicome cristene for my loue”.

What follows is probably best described as a power failure: the world around Juliana goes very dark. When, after more cajoling, Juliana won’t come around, her father hands her over to Eleusius to do “wat he wolde.”  Humiliated, angry, determined to assert his power over this stubborn girl, Eleusius has Juliana stripped and subject to horrid tortures – whipped, stabbed, scalded and covered with molten “brass” (other accounts make it molten lead); she’s thrown into a dank prison cell and, after being tested by Satan and suffering fresh torments, she is finally beheaded and her body is set out for wild beasts to savage.

1221JulianaNicomedia

Juliana of Nicomedia, whose association with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the Patron Saint of Asking.

It’s a grisly tale, but the detailed and exaggerated account of Juliana’s torments only highlights the extent to which Eleusius has “failed of his as”: he resorts to violence, to coercive power, but that power cannot win love or obedience; it can merely kill. Juliana dies, a martyr for the asking, as it were. The tradition that associates her with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the patron saint of asking.

Seeing in Juliana’s story the limits of violence – the limits of the power that depends on violence or coercion – should help illustrate the point I touched on in an earlier post about asking: asking is not about subjecting another person to our will or power. It’s a non-coercive power arrangement between petitioner and respondent. The respondent always reserves the right to refuse or say no, and if the petitioner doesn’t recognize and respect that right, then nothing is being asked: instead, someone is issuing a command in the guise of a request.

Of course there are gray areas here. But for the time being I want to state the difference between asking and commanding starkly, because to my mind, this is one important aspect of the trouble with “the ask”: it converts a non-coercive request to a command, a form of coercion. It relies on what Hitchings – approvingly — calls a “distancing effect”; he thinks it makes asking “less personal” and that, in turn, “may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response.” But what would an “objective response” be, if not one in which both parties, the petitioner and respondent, were fully constituted as subjects and recognized one another as equals? Where is this objective world, and why does Hitchings seem to think it is exempt from the very power relations — the human relationships — that constitute it?

Invoking objectivity, Hitchings skirts the very issue Seyn Julian raises – the question of power, and how power works when someone asks someone else to do something. It’s here that political and moral – and not just aesthetic — considerations enter the discussion. “Sometimes,” Hitchings admits, “we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.” That’s tantamount to arguing that the ends justify the means.

In Seyn Julian or in the corporate boardroom, “the ask” turns a request into a foregone conclusion, a command. It becomes not a request but a statement about the objective world, about some requirement in the world that needs satisfying. Hitchings suggests the effect is largely psychological; “it focuses me on what’s at stake,” but the focus “the ask” achieves is the unwavering and unquestioning focus that obedient subordinates give to a superior’s command. It is not a request that one can meet with a yes or no. “The ask” already begins to limit the autonomy and the choices of the respondent; it aligns the petitioner’s will with the objective world. You’re not asking me anything; you’re ordering me about because that’s the way things are. Or so you say, Eleusius.

God and Mr. Dimon

While protestors at the JP Morgan Chase annual shareholders meeting in Columbus, Ohio braved the rain and faced off with police, inside the McCoy Center there was a remarkable exchange.

“As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn’t take advantage of people when they are down,” said Dawn Dannenbring, of the community group Illinois People’s Action, addressing CEO Jamie Dimon. “Do you believe in the same God I believe in?”
Dimon answered: “That’s a hard one to answer.”

Of course, whether Jamie Dimon believes in a merciful God is a matter for him to decide and settle with his own conscience. Whether he believes in the same merciful God Dawn Dannenbring believes in is probably impossible to answer, or would, at least, require an extended theological discussion. And neither Dimon nor Dannenbring seemed ready to have that conversation. The JP Morgan Chase CEO obviously wanted to get on with the business of the shareholder meeting. And Dannenbring was less interested in knowing the secrets of Mr. Dimon’s heart than in playing Portia to his Shylock and shaming him.

Dannenbring’s motives aside, her question echoed other recent criticism of Mr. Dimon. On the blog Credit Slips, Adam Levitin attacked Dimon a couple of weeks ago for having no concept of mercy after Dimon said, in an exchange with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, that some people find themselves in better financial circumstances after foreclosure, and that, moreover, foreclosure is a form of debt relief: “Giving debt relief to people that really need it, that’s what foreclosure is.” Levitin was baffled:

For real?… “Debt relief” requires a forgiveness of debt. It’s a gift, not an exchange. There’s no quid pro quo….I can’t fathom how Dimon conceives of foreclosure as an act of mercy.

Over at Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith picked up on Levitin’s criticism: “the Dimon moral calculus is fascinating. If foreclosures are kind, is it even kinder to restore debtors’ prisons? After all, those people who lose their homes would be assured of getting shelter.” If today’s bankers believe in God, Smith says, they must believe in the angry God of the Old Testament, the same God who strips Job of his possessions and reduces him to sackcloth and ashes.

That Jamie Dimon is now being put in the company of Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and other tight-fisted ministers of vengeance is all the more remarkable because Dimon is regularly held up in management literature (like this Introduction to Leadership[pdf]) and in the business press as an example of great leadership.

“Outspoken, profane, fearless,” as one CNN Money profile describes him, Dimon is regularly praised for having steered JP Morgan Chase away from the subprime crisis, exiting the business of securitizing subprime mortgages at the height of the boom and forgoing both Structured Investment Vehicles and Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs. Notably, neither New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman nor Senator Carl Levin, who are independently investigating criminal wrongdoing in the subprime crisis, have named Dimon or JP Morgan Chase as a target of their investigations. Even Matt Taibbi has focused his pieces for Rolling Stone on Goldman, not JP Morgan Chase.

For some, no doubt, it is a question of degree: while certain CEOs led their banks into criminal activity, others offered little relief to those caught up in the mortgage crisis. Perhaps both are to blame, and thanks to Levin and Schneiderman at least some of the criminals will now face justice.

But rather than expect the CEO of a global bank to forgive debts, or bear witness to his faith in a merciful God, I would prefer to know what constructive steps, if any, the banks are taking now to help the American middle class regain its footing and rebuild trust – not necessarily in God, but in the everyday workings of the American economy.

In other words, why ask for mercy when you can demand responsibility? I wish Maria Bartiromo would press Mr. Dimon in their next interview to talk specifically to this point, and to articulate clearly the obligations his company has, and the steps his bank will take, to help restore — what else to call it? — the common wealth. The exchange might be one for the leadership books.

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

Every time I pass by the World Trade Center pit, on my way to a meeting or some other business, or drive by the blighted, barren, open grave where the towers once stood — and I do that every time I drive home from visiting my folks or friends in New Jersey, because I prefer the Battery Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge — my heart aches, my stomach turns, my mood darkens.

More than seven years have passed since September 11th, 2001. The site of the attacks is still a ruin. Chances are I won’t like the new Supersize Freedom Power Towers Silverstein will build, and I am not bothered by the lag in construction per se so much as I am by what the lag in construction says about the city in which I live. The ugly pit at the bottom of Manhattan will stay an ugly pit until other things get worked out – money, contracts, promises, threats, political posturing, more money, a few more dead bodies, bags of money, more politics, more money. Would it be different anyplace else? Yes, I tell myself, but I am not so sure. Maybe New York just does it better, harder, deeper, so you feel it in your gut.

Yesterday Silverstein announced that construction at the site would probably not be completed until the year 2036. Chances are I will still be alive then, but I won’t have much time left after the towers are finished. Silverstein (who will most certainly be dead by then) blames the “failing real estate market,” and he’s wise to tie his own failure to the housing bust. It takes some of the pressure off; and, as I say, what’s going on at the World Trade Center site is not so different from what’s going on all over the country.

I was talking this morning with a guy who drives a produce truck for a living. He was eager to talk – first about trout fishing in Phoenicia, and then about his morning route, which includes a stop right near the World Trade Center, where there is now a Farmer’s Market. This is the worst stop on his route; he has a hard time finding a place to park his truck. Yesterday he heard about the delays in construction at the site on the radio, and the first thought he had was one of the first thoughts I had: I’ll be in my seventies. He didn’t want to talk about the credit crunch or the housing bubble or deal in economic abstractions; he was looking forward across the span of his life. He was going to live just long enough to see the towers completed; he took it with good humor, like a cruel joke.

He accounted for the delays in construction simply and bluntly: they’re milking it, he said.

And they are, of course. But more important, we all know they are, or at least that seems likely to us; and we know there’s a they, and we know they’re milking it. The truck driver thought it was the unions; I’m more likely to point the finger at developers, politicians and other criminals. We may not agree on the culprits, but we share a sense that it’s us versus them: they rule us, they rip us off, they ream us. This is everyman’s sociology. The divide between us and them — or the resentment it feeds — helps explain everything from teabaggery to Texan threats of secession. It used to be what was the matter with Kansas, according to Thomas Frank.

We know what they are up to and we’re not going to take it — or at least we’d like to believe we’re not. The fact is, we are; the open secret of our society is: we want to be them, we want to cross over to their side, or sidle up close enough to them so that we, too, can have a share of the theyness. We want to milk it.

We still want to believe in the land of milk and honey and the promise of redemption, maybe not for everybody, but for ourselves. Hollywood still takes our American faith to the bank over and over again.

Redemption simply means buying back; to redeem is to make good on a pledge, or to pay for property in the possession of another. In the common law, to deny someone the right to redemption is an action known as foreclosure — another word that has gained fresh currency and new purchase in the wake of the housing bust. We use redemption figuratively to mean that we can ransom ourselves, free ourselves from bondage or just from drudgery. In Christian theology, of course, redemption is our hedge against sin, of which the wage is death; it’s God’s way of making our broken lives whole again.

Which is one thing that pit down at the bottom of Manhattan does not do, at least in my mind, and this probably accounts for why it makes me so queasy and miserable when I pass by: it makes a mockery of redemption. It says we are not going to make things whole again (because they are milking it). It defers redemption until 2036, when for many of us it may be too late, if it isn’t already.