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Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

Friday, December 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]

Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

Let’s begin here:


There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts


    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Jottings 10: The rabbi who cried Allahu Akbar

    Monday, February 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — expect the unexpected ]

    I can’t claim to understand Hebrew or Arabic, but the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a leading Gush Emunim settler rabbi, can clearly be heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” at 5.37 and then repeatedly at 5.42 and following.

    What’s going on?


    I wrote a while back:

    I am hoping to make Jottings a continuing series of brief posts, some serious and some light-hearted, that release the toxins of fascination and abhorrence from my system rapidly, ie without too much time spent in research. Jottings — hey, my degree was in Theology, Mother of the Sciences — derives from the English “jot” — and thence from the Greek iota and Hebrew yod, see Wikipedia on jots and tittles.

    Today, I hope to post four more of them. This one’s the first.


    Rabbi Froman was visiting a mosque that had been desecrated the previous day by a group of his fellow settlers, who had scribbled the phrase “price tag” and some slurs against the Prophet on the walls, then set the mosque on fire.

    Harvard Professor Noah Feldman, in a Bloomberg op-ed titled Is a Jew Meshuga for Wanting to Live in Palestine? explains:

    If Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing, it’s that more settlements in the West Bank will eventually make a two-state solution impossible. Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died on March 4 at age 68, thought differently.

    Froman was a proud and early settler, a founder of the hard-line Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), theologically committed to permanent Jewish settlement in what he considered historical Judea and Samaria. But Froman also fully accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there — in which he and his fellow settlers would continue to live as minority citizens.

    Crazy, you say — as did just about everyone else in Israel, to say nothing of other settlers. Froman played up the appearance of madness by appearing in Palestinian villages in his prayer shawl, tefillin (phylacteries) and long white beard and blessing the people in Arabic and Hebrew. His acting and speaking like a biblical figure further underscored the impression that he was some sort of unrealistic prophet, whether utopian or dystopian resting in the eye of the beholder.

    But why, really, is it impossible to imagine that religiously committed Jews might live under Palestinian sovereignty as citizens in the way that some Palestinian Arabs live under Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper? Looking at the standard reasons carefully, instead of just assuming their truth, can provide us with a much-needed thought experiment about the viability of the two-state solution, which looks increasingly tenuous to its supporters and critics alike.

    Food for whatever that thing is that hearts and minds do.


    Related readings:

  • Yair Rosenberg, To Save the Peace Process, Get Religion
  • International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Adam Garfinkle, If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge
  • **

    Allahu Akbar — God is Great. Not such an unexpected sentiment coming from a rabbi, after all?

    In the case of NSA vs Justin Bieber…

    Friday, January 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — consider my mind once again blown, but not at all surprised ]

    You may or may not all have seen this — I don’t watch TV, so such things only reach me if they crop up in my usually pristine Twitter feed — but here is a quick update from the intersection of News and Worthy. It’s like a Freudian slip — or what William Burroughs called “naked lunch” — the moment when you see all too clearly what’s on the end of your fork.


    The news media, my friends, aren’t biased “left” or “right”. I mean, they may be and in fact are, but that’s not the only bias. The bias I’m seeing here is in favor of the superficial over the serious, it’s pervasive, and it’s beautifully captured in this short video.

    This bias is obvious, we all know it so well that it’s easy to miss. But it’s also a leading indicator of the advertiser-popularity-media loop, and is to be taken seriously.

    And if you know, you know, you already know, and are ready for the occasional laugh — put @KimKierkegaard on your own Twitter feed, for “philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard mashed with the tweets and observations of Kim Kardashian”.

    Double or quits?

    Some poems, Madhu

    Saturday, September 28th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — some of my own poems, some of my own theology, and a damn fine French police procedural on Netflix ]

    Engrenages / Sprial, season 4 episode 9


    Madhu, a wonderful friend of this blog, encouraged me some while back to post some of my poems here. I don’t do it often, and I hope you will at least tolerate it when I do.

    This one, for instance:

    The rolling dice

    That there is a murder to be committed, this the god knows, that the car
    travelling through the woods contains victim and victor paired like dice strung
    on a rear-view mirror, this the god knows, but it is the tops of trees
    the god attends to, oblivious of the car which moves on its inerrant way
    between them, the topmost branches it she or he observes, the upper
    and as the car is first heard approaching, middle, and as it rolls into view
    in left field, lower branches, the car now drawing his attention, riddle
    of the two men still obscured by deflecting windows, roof doors tyres and

    the leaves, the fallen, as though the two men from their high estate had fallen
    to this, to the ground, among leaves which become mulch, the one sooner
    and the other later, man become mulch as the god had become man, a
    seasoning, of the ground, fall, a leavening of the earth, spring, in that primal
    and primordial turning of planets and years on which between tree top
    and mulch, between before and when with no after, two men’s dice are rolled.


    As you know, I’m interested in the workings of the imagination, and find much of its power concentrated in the specific theologies and rituals of the world’s religions. My poems, accordingly, allow me to explore themes at the intersection of human behavior in all its light and shade, with the divine, in all its brilliant clarity, depth of heart, and, well, ineffableness, inscrutablemness, indescribability.

    Indescribable? The word the Athanasian Creed uses is Incomprehensible:

    As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Uncomprehensible.

    You see, for my purposes the word god refers precisely to a greater unknown that nevertheless permeates and can inspire us — and simply saying that indescribable is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent gives us very little understanding. Inspiration and revelation are, for me, poetic openings on what cannot in any definitional sense be known, but from which our lives can glean radiance, love, clarity, courage.


    In my attempt to glean some of that harvest for myself, and to spread some of what I glean around in words, I have found myself writing a long, continuing series of poems that take their central motif from films. If god, or whatever name you might use to point to that Incomprehensible — that medium “in which we live and move and have our being” — if that is indeed conscious of all that is, I’m inclined to wonder how it (he, she, other, all or none of the above) perceives, in a way that makes sense to me.

    And the “seeing” that most extends my own outward perception of the world is the seeing done by cameras and brought to me by movies. So I give “god” in this series of poems all the zooms, overhead shots, close-ups, jump cuts, helicopter rides, narrative thrust, slomo, freezeframe and other tricks that film is capable of… to get a human glimpse of an omni-director who might even, like Hitchcock and Renoir, choose to make a cameo appearance in his (her its or other) own film.

    And what films do I use? The one’s I’m watching between fatigue and sleep, for late-night entertainment — usually thrillers, and on Netflix. The poem above and the two which follow were written this last week, triggered by an episode of Engrenages, a French policier [trailer here] which shows in the UK under the title Spiral, and which has been called “France’s answer to The Wire” in this Guardian write-up from an early season: Meet Spiral’s feminist anti-hero.

    I like it very much — but have to put it on pause from time to time, when a poem comes on through.


    Okay, here are the other two poems from the set of three, drawn from my viewing of Engrenages, season 4 episode 9:

    Still rolling

    The spade wasn’t used, wasn’t needed, wasn’t necessary, the dice rolled,
    no murder was committed, did the god know this, no, that the car
    traveling through these trees would roll back the two men out of the woods
    and into some new relation, clearer for being less fearful, though
    he wild with hope and he sweating with regret might yet change course
    as the god already knew or might know or might not if there be such
    a they it she or he know, passionate impassive or nonexistent, or might
    mightily decide — but the dice had rolled, the car parts the trees, departs

    the woods, burial and the eventual arising of young two leafed tree sprouts
    will continue though the car has left to right of view, and still, moved,
    the god sees, observes, reflects, and builds, in his own extended image,
    narratives of birth and eventful or eventless lives and meaningless or
    on some perhaps many occasions meaningful deaths, and — who knows,
    perhaps the god if any, rebirths after eventful nonevents, and thus onwards.

    and this one:


    And then again the car, in the woods, its doors wide open like wings,
    surely the god would lift the car above treetops, clouds, into some other,
    some blue, some empyrean, yonder, where murder would no longer
    be needed, necessary, where no dice would roll but puffballs,
    tossed clouds. hither and yon without pattern or purpose, repeating
    yet that eternal pattern, that this car so still might forever roll,
    this breath so quiet might breathe, life under the trees and under these
    stars continue, continue, one death less than the god expected, the

    car wings watching to carry the spirit windward, deprived of the death,
    the murder uncommitted is no murder but if it be committed, even
    here late in the day in the woods, in this word, committed, then
    there is murder under the high trees a few paces from the sad car, the
    corpse carrier, the fortuneless car carriage, and a man who stood
    upright yet walked crooked perhaps is fallen, flat, dead and truly buried.


    Caroline Proust as police captain Laure Berthaud, in Engrenages


    Please feel free to comment on any or all of this: the ideas about a greater-than-human perception, poetry, cinema, Engrenages, these particular poems…

    Pope Francis and the artists who move him

    Thursday, September 19th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Caravaggio, Mozart, Bach, Fellini, Cervantes — that’s who! ]

    For context and contrast, first read this:

    Pope Francis decided at the last minute not to attend a Beethoven concert last evening, Fox News and others reported. Fox News comments, “Unlike his predecessor Benedict, who was well-known as a music lover, Francis has shown scant interest in music, liturgical or otherwise.” The concert, an event long planned for the Year of Faith, included Beethoven’s 9th symphony with choir and orchestra.

    Pope Francis supposedly said “I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working,” Vatican Insider first reported, later softening its report to preserve the general sense without quoting the pope directly.

    — then this, from the first extended interview of Pope Francis, which has just been released.

    While I’m sure plenty of others will mull over other aspects of what he has to say for himself, I’m taking my own insights into his character from the artists in whose work he finds inspiration:

    I have really loved a diverse array of authors. I love very much Dostoevsky and Hölderlin. I remember Hölderlin for that poem written for the birthday of his grandmother that is very beautiful and was spiritually very enriching for me. The poem ends with the verse, ‘May the man hold fast to what the child has promised.’ I was also impressed because I loved my grandmother Rosa, and in that poem Hölderlin compares his grandmother to the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, the friend of the earth who did not consider anybody a foreigner.

    I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’ I also liked Gerard Manley Hopkins very much.

    Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. But also Chagall, with his ‘White Crucifixion.’ Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfils me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.

    We should also talk about the cinema. ‘La Strada,’ by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis. I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is ‘Rome, Open City.’ I owe my film culture especially to my parents who used to take us to the movies quite often.

    Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones. There is a nice definition that Cervantes puts on the lips of the bachelor Carrasco to praise the story of Don Quixote: ‘Children have it in their hands, young people read it, adults understand it, the elderly praise it.’ For me this can be a good definition of the classics.


    Mozart, Et incarnatus est:

    Mozart, played by Clara Haskil:

    Bach, Erbarme dich, from the Matthew Passion:

    Fellini, La Strada, innocence:

    Fellini, La Strada, despair:

    No wonder, then, that he loves the poetry of his fellow Jesuit, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

    No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
    More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
    Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
    Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
    My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
    Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
    Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
    ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

    — nor the works of Caravaggio, whose rap sheet was impressive to say the least:

    Arriving in Rome in 1595 at the age of 25, the hot-headed painter’s police dossier — hand-written in Latin and vernacular Italian and bound in great volumes that were stored in the archives until now — makes Caravaggio come across as almost compulsive in his lawlessness. For instance, the man was weapon-obsessed, sporting a sword, dagger, and pistol at various times. He was twice thrown in the clink for carrying arms without a permit, and known for beating strangers in late-night fights and pelting police with rocks.

    The documents add fresh color to well-known parts of the Caravaggio legend. Regarding the 1606 brawl during which the artist killed one Ranuccio Tommassoni, leading the artist to flee Rome and causing Pope Paul V to issue a death warrant, the documents reveal that the fight was over a gambling debt, and not a woman, as some accounts have suggested.

    It is all the more appropriate, then, to close this post with Caravaggio’s own meditation on the martyrdom by crucifixion of the first Pope, St Peter, whose chair Francis now holds:



    h/t Damian Thompson, who tweeted “I never thought I’d hear a Pope rave about Haskil’s Mozart, Furtwängler’s Beethoven and Knappertsbusch’s legendary 62 Parsifal.”

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