Russell and Duenes

Archive for June 2009

Mamma say, mamma sa, mam-a-kusa

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Michael Jackson’s recent death uncovers some obvious social considerations.  Pundits have made statements about Jackson’s music and legacy such as they “transcend race, ethnicity and gender” or that they “brought the world together.”  Instead I ask “why do those who did not know him interpersonally feel such loss?”  I think the answer is that we felt we knew him, in the same way we feel we know many people.  There seems to be such a loss of personal connection in our society, that we can seemingly “know” someone we never met and who most likely would not care to meet us.  Many people of my generation, globally, moon-walked in our bedrooms listening to Thriller donning our white glove and red pleather jackets.  We waited with anticipation for the “King of Pop” to show up on television so we could catch a glimpse of him.  We couldn’t believe how great it was that Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen collaborated on such a smash hit (or maybe that was just me).  Michael Jackson, from a young age, related to people without having to engage them on a personal level.  He was shy, coy and introverted.  We never really knew the “real” Michael Jackson.  So, we had to make do with his larger than life persona.  This is what is mourned.  We will miss the grandiose stage presence of one of the true American Icons.

As I have grown up, I have held onto the Michael Jackson outside the bounds of Off the Wall and Thriller.  Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror” hit me more than any other song he made famous.  I relate to the lyrics of seeing “kids in the street with not enough to eat” and asking myself “who am I to be blind, pretending not to see their needs.”  Jackson did not have to tell me that I must look at the man in the mirror to make changes.  But he did bring the idea to the masses in popular form.  It is strange to have this well known notion of self-reflection passed on to us from a figure that we only feel we know.  Michael Jackson’s death certainly shows us again how disconnected we are from reality.  That someone so distant and so unlike us could be, in a sense, a major part of our own history.  Now I do not proclaim that Michael Jackson was our American cultural sage.  It would be hard to argue this with lyrics such as: “Your Butt is mine gonna’ take you right,” “Showin’ how funky and strong is your fight,” “Tendoroni you’ve got to be,” and especially “Mamma say, mamma sa, mam-a-kusa.” But to be sure, Michael Jackson could draw people simply through dance and song.  This is a talent that is so often pursued by many people but so rarely successful.  Michael Jackson had a natural talent.  And if I miss anything about Michael Jackson, I suppose I will miss this most of all.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 29, 2009 at 6:05 am

Posted in Reflections, Russell

Michael Jackson: Gratitude is all

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I have no analysis to add to Michael Jackson’s life or death, so I’ll get right to my point: I thank God for Michael Jackson. Thriller came out when I was in middle school. Bad followed up Thriller in ’87, my senior year in high school. I wouldn’t say that I was a huge Michael Jackson fan, Thriller being his only album we ever owned, but I knew talent when I heard it, and Jackson had a motherlode. Off The Wall, the title track from his ’79 album of the same name, is easily my favorite, and I have found myself listening to it with some regularity over the last few years. When I heard of his death on Thursday evening, my first thought was, “In Michael Jackson, I have witnessed one of the greatest musical and entertainment talents in my lifetime.” And I felt privileged to have heard him. Theologian, Miroslav Volf, says that for Christians “there must be gratitude” along with our trust in Christ. Without gratitude, says Volf, one cannot have “the perception and experience of life as a guest.” And as a guest on this planet, there was much to be enjoyed by Michael Jackson. Thus, I am grateful for him, perhaps, in the same way that I’m grateful for Mozart. From what I gather, neither of them was particularly committed to worshipping Christ, yet whether they knew it or not, they had their talent from Christ, as Christ is the giver of all things to everyone under creation. I do not rejoice in everything I know about Michael Jackson, but for the songs that got my head bobbing (and some that didn’t), I am thankful. And I think these common graces, too, should lead us to worship the Giver of “every good and perfect gift.”


Written by Michael Duenes

June 29, 2009 at 3:19 am

Posted in Duenes, Music, Reflections

the poetry of james baker hall (1935-2009)

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With the recent passing of famous cultural celebrities like Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring to your attention another great loss. James Baker Hall, Kentucky Poet Laureate, artist and essayist has also died. Hall’s poems have affected me greatly over the years. He writes about youth and transformation. He is honest, eloquent and reflective. I will miss his continued writing greatly. Below are two poems from James Baker Hall.


Freeing The Sparks

I watch from the foot of the bed.
It rises at the end of what we can see

of 9th Street, a fireball in the alley
of tall buildings, exploding
in great pins of light.
I forget to think.
I forget everything
I have thought. Light is

what’s left, alleging
to have forgotten nothing.
The brown walls, the peeling paint,
first one mirror
and then another.
My hand is here

standing on its fingers.
Each day a place stands up within
the light itself, the pulses open—
We call it

here—the brown walls,
the books, the red blanket, the plants

under the window. Green is
many different things.

That First Kite

That first kite was made of newspaper and strung
with fish line. I was lying next to it, alone. Sunlight
in the bright shape of a window, X-ed once
with the shadow of the sash, moved

slowly across the floor toward
me. A way had to be found

to make it work. We were trying. All this
took place in the attic where the cat brought
the birds.
                    My mother was downstairs
or out back in the cornfield
with a gun.
                      I didn’t move. Who knew
where my father was.
Nothing ever worked.
I kept my eyes closed

whenever I thought
I was asleep
or flying. I awoke

when I felt the light touch
my feet, perfect, still

I didn’t move. When it touched
my eyes I opened. The crosshairs
were on my chest, breathing. I saw
my heart. A cold wind rattled
the kite.

Written by Michael Duenes

June 28, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Posted in Poetry, Reflections, Russell

Mark Steyn on “the safety net”

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I can’t help but mention again how much I love reading Mark Steyn. I find his wit and wisdom to be both sharpening and engrossing. He usually gets me thinking about important matters for our world and does so again with his recent column, Net Losses, in the current issue of National Review. This paragraph grabbed me:

When did human life become impossible without a “safety net”? My neighbor’s family came to my corner of New Hampshire in the winter of 1767–68 when her great-great-great-whatever dragged his huge millstones up the frozen river from Connecticut to build the first gristmill on a swift-running brook in the middle of uncleared forest in a four-year-old township comprising a dozen families. And he did it without first applying for a federal business development grant. No big deal. Her family’s nothing special, my town’s nothing special: That’s the point. It was routine — in a pre–“safety net” society.

Read the entire article here.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 25, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Posted in Duenes, Reflections

from the ivory tower: The new medicine – Life and death after hippocrates

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Nigel Cameron

What if we could no longer trust that our physicians and doctors would be bound never to act in such a way as to take human life? Or to put it differently, what if we had to worry that those practicing medicine might become our killers rather than our healers and preservers? What if our doctors were no longer bound by the Hippocratic Oath, the oath which has guided medical practice for over two millennia, but instead were moved to act primarily by the motivations of compassion and the relief of suffering? What if medicine becomes mainly a matter of technique, rather than a matter of moral commitments? Nigel M. de S. Cameron takes up such questions and more in his book, The New Medicine: Life and Death After Hippocrates.

Cameron begins by giving a brief interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath and its applications. I had always thought the oath consisted of the statement: “First, do no harm.” This is true as a very concise summary, but does not do justice to the oath as a whole. The oath begins first with a swearing of allegiance by the doctor to various pagan gods (which Christians subsequently turned into allegiance to the God of the Bible). Second, the doctor swears to have high regard for his teacher, to “regard my teacher in this art as equal to my parents…to consider his offspring equal to my brothers.” Third, the doctor swears that she will “use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but I will never use it to injure or wrong them. I will not give poison to anyone though asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a plan. Similarly I will not give a pessary to a woman to cause abortion.” Finally, the doctor pronounces a benediction upon himself, that “if I keep this oath and break it not, may I enjoy honour, in my life and art, among all men for all time; but if I transgress and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.” Throughout the book, Cameron is keen on stressing the three primary elements of the oath: The doctor’s relation to his God, his relation to his teacher, and his relation to his patients; the first relation being most crucial so that the physician has a transcendent basis for her work. The original oath was pagan in nature, but was then largely co-opted by Christians and Muslims to give it a more sure grounding in the western tradition of medicine.

As one can see, the oath first came into being as a response to accepted medical practices in the ancient world, specifically abortion and euthanasia. The hope was that this oath would bar physicians from such practices, or from any practices where the physician might act, not to heal, but to harm. The idea was that human life is sacred and should not be moved against by the physician. Those who bound themselves to this oath were in the minority and were flying in the face of the standard practices of that time. As Cameron states, “The striking conclusion which emerges…is that Hippocratism does not represent the general ethical approach to medicine in Greek antiquity. It was controversial from the first. Indeed, ‘far from being the expression of the common Greek attitude towards medicine or of the natural duties of the physician, the ethical code rather reflects opinions which were peculiarly those of a small and isolated group.’” A return to the Hippocratic Oath would be just as “controversial” and “peculiar” today.

Cameron goes on to argue that the western medical profession has gotten away from the Hippocratic notion of the sanctity of life and the obligations of the physician to heal, and has moved gradually toward the notions of “respect” for human life and the alleviation of suffering. This move has put the physician in a morally ambiguous place, where “respect” for life and the alleviation of suffering can actually allow him to positively take life. Cameron writes,

The single-minded character of the Hippocratic healing commitment has successfully protected western medicine from the unresolved, double-minded tensions of a medical tradition in which both healing and the ‘relief of suffering’ vie for status. Yet this is how many physicians today understand their task, as a balancing act between the two in which, in every case, a fresh framework of understanding requires to be established. The result is to set at the heart of clinical practice an illogic which seems to deny any single mission for medicine. The tendency is to give way to those pressures which have displaced healing from its paramount position in the tradition and to subsume it beneath the ‘relief of suffering’. The physician may actually believe that he is working with two equal principles, while in practice subordinating healing to ‘relief’ on every single occasion – since, whenever they come into conflict, the one takes precedence over the other.

Cameron then gives a brief survey of Nazi medical practice as a particularly stark historical example of what happens when the Hippocratic Oath is largely jettisoned. In justifying such an example, Cameron says, “As we have seen, medicine as a profession is closely related to the ruling elite in any society. The medical profession is liable to follow any fundamental shift in society’s values.” In response to the Nazi horrors, western medicine tried to reaffirm the commitments found in the Hippocratic Oath, but introduced subtle shifts which actually undermines them. First, the post-World War Two response took out any mention of God, thus stripping medicine of any transcendent accountability. Second, the post-war response took away the negative prohibitions of the original oath and substituted positive commitments. This may seem unimportant, but actually it is vital. The doctor was now not bound to avoid harming the patient, but rather was bound to do his utmost to “help” the patient, yet such helping might be interpreted to mean killing a patient who no longer had “a life worth living.” It is this “life worth living” criteria that Cameron addresses further as he considers “the margins of the human race.”

We all understand who those at “the margins of the human race” are: the unborn, the chronically or severely ill, and the old. When doctors are no longer bound to heal and preserve such people, but rather might be motivated, out of “compassion,” to relieve them of their suffering, then there is great danger for them. We will then begin to ask under what circumstances a life is “not worth living,” and then perhaps aid in the taking of life under such circumstances. We become no longer concerned with what it means to be human, and thus, we become no longer beholden to the sanctity of such life. If human life is not sacred, as the original oath affirms, then we might “respect” it, but we will not commit ourselves to preserving it in all circumstances. Cameron considers what this shift in thinking has done with particular reference to how we treat the human embryo and how we approach issues of euthanasia.

With respect to the embryo, it is not hard to see where the loss of Hippocratism has taken us. The Supreme Court, in the Roe v. Wade decision, clearly stated that they need not settle the issue of when life begins. Then they went ahead and affirmed the right to unfettered access to abortion. The push for more embryonic stem cell research, and the destruction of embryos in the process, has followed as well. Some ethicists, Peter Singer of Princeton in particular, have gone so far as to assert that it is a form of “speciesism” to exalt human life over other forms of animal life. It follows from this that, in certain cases, infanticide would be justified.

Cameron is has his best insights, however, in the arena of euthanasia, or as we are apt to call it today, “Physician assisted suicide.” (It is worth the price of the book to have his analysis here.) He distinguishes between voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia. Proponents of euthanasia want to stress patient autonomy in the process of having themselves killed, but they don’t want to appear to be opening the door to wanton suicide. Thus, “quality of life” considerations come into play. One should only be assisted in killing himself if his life is deemed “not worth living.” However, any attempts to define such a quality of life become impossibly relative. Further, there are competing interests in deciding who should continue to live. Thus, Cameron shows powerfully that ALL physician assisted suicide is actually involuntary to one degree or another, and thus, the doctor engaged in the act of euthanasia is clearly engaging in homicide. Cameron concludes,

There are few candid advocates of involuntary euthanasia. Yet those who favour euthanasia for volunteers have scant defence against the argument that voluntary euthanasia must inevitably tend to move in this direction. The reason does not lie in an arbitrary slippery-slope, but in the logic of the contention that there is such a thing as a life ‘not worth living.’ Without this concept, voluntary euthanasia is indefensible, since it offers a charter for suicide. With it there is unleashed the logic of euthanasia that is involuntary. Involuntary euthanasia represents the absolute exercise of power by one person over another, a pure act of homicide. We have argued that it is impossible to maintain that involuntary, non-voluntary and voluntary euthanasia fall into separate, water-tight moral compartments. The consent that is alleged to make all the difference – personal or proxy – tends toward the illusory, representing the subtle triumph of the power of another over the ‘volunteer.’ A volunteer for death must give a fully informed free consent, or he or she is merely a victim.

Such “fully informed free consent” is not possible in physician-assisted suicide because there are so many competing interests by different parties. To untangle the mass of motivations becomes impossible.

Finally, Cameron considers the future of medicine, particularly now that we are losing our grasp on the Hippocratic tradition. The challenge is to become more aware of the subtle shifts that are happening, to make clear and public what Margaret Mead made clear when she argued that the Hippocratic tradition made “for the first time in our tradition…a complete separation between killing and curing.” We are moving away from that separation today, moving into the realm where we have to wonder whether our doctor might not be our healer, but rather, our killer, where those most vulnerable (i.e., the unborn) will often find themselves as enemies of the doctor. Having become aware of these shifts, those who believe that the Hippocratic tradition is best must ask those who want to move away from it “to justify their post-Hippocratism, to be candid in their overthrow of centuries of human medical tradition, and they must be exposed as they seek by sleight of hand to claim professional and ethical precedent for their revolutionary programme.” Particularly as Christians, we must “re-assert the transcendent, covenantal character of Hippocratism as the only ground for humane, philanthropic medical practice.” We must bear in mind, in Cameron’s words, that

…there is no Nature, but there is Death. The dissolution of the corporeal existence of man, to which all sickness tends and which comes to completion in every act of human dying, is the outworking of the savage principle of Death let loose in the world by the mysterious, providential judgment of God in answer to the sin of Adam. It is an enemy, the last enemy, and in this world it is the peculiar calling of the physician to fight it, and to maintain these frail, mortal creatures to the last, in recognition of the one whose image they bear.

We must think it not strange if we find ourselves marginalized and mocked as we do these things. The love of Christ compels us.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 25, 2009 at 3:34 pm