Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zappa Plays Zappa: “Peaches en Regalia”

In celebration of the temporary resolution of the blog "issues," here is the uncharacteristically cheerful Frank Zappa tune from Hot Rats, played by an ensemble led by his son Dweezil.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

I think the patient has been stabilized

Comments seem to be working now in a somewhat consistent if unsatisfactory way. In Firefox, if you come to the main blog page, you see "2 comments" or whatever at the end of a post. If you click on that, you get taken to a page with only that post, and, again, "2 comments". Click on that, and you get the comments box.

It works the same in Internet Explorer, except: I find that when I go the main page the number of comments doesn't appear. Reloading the page (F5) makes it appear. But even if the number isn't there, clicking on the word "comments" seems to work as above.

The Recent Comments feature is not going to be there for a while, and when it reappears it will probably be because I've moved the blog somewhere else. I had left the old Haloscan code in the blog template. The JS-Kit folks had said it would continue to work properly. As we know, it did not. After a frustrating go-round with JS-Kit support, I finally replaced it with the new Echo code. That involved discovering and correcting some things in their examples that were just plain wrong and would never work. But Echo has no Recent Comments feature as such. Instead, it has a big ugly navigation tool which includes a Comments list along with some stuff I don't want. The tool is customizable to some degree, and I could probably make it less obtrusive and perhaps remove the unwanted items, but I really don't much want to bother.

My goal now is to escape Echo for all future commenting while preserving the old comments. The good news is that I think this will be possible: it turns out Echo comments can be accessed from locations other than the one where they were generated.

If you see my Links list empty, it's because I had to start from scratch with a fresh copy of the template (that's also why it was green for a while today). I'll put them back soon.

Update 2/28/10: we now have a recent comments list, although it's rather unattractive, and I've put the links back, so I think I'm in a position to put the commenting problem aside for now and focus on the question of where to move the blog itself. Officially I have until late March to make the move, but it's going to take a while for me to evaluate the options and make the decision.

It's funny how the absence of a recent comments list made the blog seem somehow crippled--a sort of flying-blind feeling. Just shows how important the comments are.

Facebook group: Dove Descending

I'm not sure whether I've mentioned it except in passing in a comment, but I finally gave in to curiosity and joined Facebook a month or so ago. I did mention back in January that I'm reading Thomas Howard's book about Eliot's Four Quartets for Lent. Last night I created a Facebook group for that discussion, partly because the commenting situation here is, um, in transition. So, if you're on Facebook and are interested, please join the group (and send me a friend request, though if I've set the group up as I intended that's not necessary for joining it). You're welcome even if you don't want to read the Howard book but know or would like to know the poem, which can be found, probably in violation of copyright, here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Two Totally Unrelated Items

(because, like I said, I’m too distracted to think about any one thing for very long, and will be until the blog transition is done)

For cat lovers, or anyone who thinks cats can be nice to look at: Anja (who is a cat lover) sent me this video by a woman who apparently specializes in cat photography. Perhaps I should mention that although most of these cats range from cute to beautiful, a few are scary-ugly.

Too bad Francesca has given up LODW for Lent. Well, maybe she’ll look in on Sunday.

Like I said, totally unrelated: Toby Danna posted (on Facebook) a link to this fascinating NYT piece by Stanley Fish. The basic argument is familiar to religious people—that secularists who insist on keeping God and indeed all consciously held first principles out of public debate are, to put it bluntly, cheating. Not deliberately, really, but failing utterly to recognize their own axiomatic first principles, and smuggling in appeals to abstract ethical principles without noticing or admitting it.

I don’t know much about Fish; I thought he was, like, king of the deconstructionists or something. As far as I know he is coming at this question from the point of view of a severe skeptic, and if that’s the case he’s doing something like Nietzsche, stripping away the sentimentality from materialists who insist on moralizing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not Much Happening Here For a Bit

There are several things I'd like to post about, but I'm so busy trying to figure out what to do about the Blogger and HaloScan changes that I don't have time for much else. As of now it's probable that lightondarkwater.com will remain where it is, and the blog up to some date in the near future will also stay there, and the blog from that date forward will be somewhere else, probably at WordPress. I would move the entire blog, but there doesn't seem to be any way to keep the comments if I do that, and the discussions here are half the fun at least.

I've succeeded in getting Echo to work in what I think is it's as-designed way on Blogspot. But it appears that the business of opening up the page for the individual post before you can get to the comments is the way it's designed. I'm awaiting Echo's definitive answer to that question. If there's no way to make it behave like HaloScan in that respect, I don't want to keep using it. And if I'm not going to use Echo, then I'll probably start Phase 2 of the blog at WordPress, because I like WordPress's commenting better than Bloggers. (TypePad was an option but they haven't bothered to reply to an email question about importing from Blogger/HaloScan, so never mind...)

I would really like to get this all resolved soon. If possible, I'd like to make the switch on March 1. Until this is over I probably won't be posting much besides the SNJ.

Monday, February 22, 2010

War in the Closed World (4): Incidents from the Revolution

Sunday Night Journal — February 22, 2010

I’m discovering a problem with my plan for producing a new piece of this book every week in a blog post. In addition to the basic problems that anyone beginning a book must address—where to begin, what structure to use or at least tentatively aim for—there’s the problem that a blog post of a thousand words or so is a self-contained unit. If it doesn’t tell a more or less complete story, it should at least make some specific point. But the pieces of this narrative that are taking shape in my mind don’t necessarily fit the mold. At the moment I’m floundering, and am offering just a few more anecdotes in the vein of last week’s.

Winter of 1967, in a dormitory room at the University of Alabama. This was my freshman year. I had become friends with one of the guys in the room next door. We had discovered a bond in our alienation from the normal world, and spent hours in conversation. This semester would be our last in the dorm; next fall we would share an apartment off-campus, and would continue to do so until the spring of 1970. I will have more to say about him later. At the moment I’m remembering a single remark, one that remains with me out of many hours of forgotten conversation. We talked a great deal about our sympathy with the radical movements happening in more sophisticated parts of the country; we’d been reading about them for several years in Time and Life and Newsweek, and seeing them on TV, and we felt an instinctive sympathy with them, though as I recall it our sense of kinship had nothing much to do with the specific political and cultural goals of those movements, and a great deal to do with a formless dissatisfaction and impulse to rebel.

We had taken to writing our favorite quotations on the walls of our rooms (an indulgence for which our parents would pay after we moved out). On his wall there was a juxtaposition of two quotations. One was Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Just below that was Voltaire: “Crush the infamous thing.” (It would be twenty years or more before I learned that Voltaire was speaking of the Church, or at least of its authorities—écrasez l'infâme.)  Did he mean that America should be crushed?, I wondered. “Anything would be better than what we have,” he replied.

I think I made some weak sound of agreement, which was dishonest, because I was shocked and didn’t agree at all. Could he really think of nothing worse than living in the United States of America? I could think of a great many things. Certainly there wasn’t much in the way of material goods that we could complain of lacking, especially in comparison with most of the rest of the world. (I hadn’t yet learned that any deficiency in another country, especially a poor one, was at bottom our fault.)

But he was two years older than I, and far more knowledgeable about most things. My failure to grasp that we were actually living in a nightmare must indicate some lack of sophistication on my part, some dullness of perception.

Late 1969 or early 1970. I was sitting in Kwik-Snak, an old-fashioned diner, just off the university campus, with a friend, a former student who had dropped out of school after a year or so and moved to Atlanta. She still maintained contact with a few friends in Tuscaloosa and seemed to enjoy telling us impressive tales from the big city, where the drugs were more powerful, the politics more radical, the hippies more crazy, the police more brutal. I was belittling the hard-core leftists who, in this year of escalating tension, of Kent State and other landmark events of the struggle between left-wing youth and the establishment, seemed to take Communism, or rather some not-very-coherent hodgepodge of Communist slogans, as a serious project, a goal for our revolution. I made some disparaging remark about how miserable it would be to live in the Soviet Union—I was bourgeois enough to believe that the picture we had of it was probably fairly accurate, capitalist bias in the media notwithstanding.

“Yes,” she said, “the Russian revolution didn’t work out too well. But the Chinese revolution, now—that’s a different story.”

I looked at her silently. Did she not believe what was being reported of Mao’s Cultural Revolution? Or did she believe it, and think it was a good thing? In either case, one of us was seriously deluded. I didn’t think it was I, but I wasn’t sure. Perhaps, again, I was just too dull, or too conditioned by my middle-class prejudices, to recognize the truth.

Spring of 1970. The same friend was visiting again (and by the way, “friend” is not a euphemism here—we had no romantic involvement), this time having brought with her several of her Atlanta friends, by way of demonstrating to us just how much more hip and radical they were in comparison to us provincial college-town hippies. They stayed with me, or us—I don’t recall my roommate being there, but perhaps he was. It was a tiny three-room place—front room, kitchen, bedroom. The front room was crammed with the visitors and various local friends and acquaintances who happened to stop by. It was stuffy and smoky and uncomfortable both physically and psychologically; there was a lot of posturing going on. One of the people from Atlanta was a big loud abrasive young woman who spoke in a sort of continuing sneer. She was telling some story that involved the fact that “her old man”—meaning her boyfriend, or, perhaps, husband—was in jail. I don’t remember why, probably drugs.

One of the locals, a kid, fairly new to the scene, an open-faced, enthusiastic, puppy-ish sort, was not up-to-date with the slang. He was appalled. “Your old man? They put your father in jail?”

The woman looked at him with scorn. “My. Old. Man.”

“You mean they put your father in jail? Oh my God, I can’t believe they put your father in jail

She did not intend to compromise her status by compromising her language. More slowly, and more emphatically, she repeated “My. Old. Man.”

Her tone and her look were withering, and the boy finally understood that he was being put down. He looked embarrassed and fell silent.

Looking back on it now, I think this subculture of liberation was the most rigidly conformist environment I’ve ever experienced. But at the time I was as intimidated as my poor guest, and although I was offended by the woman’s deliberate cruelty, I still felt it was a deficiency in me that made me feel so out of place.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

New test post

Should have Blogger commenting enabled...?

Yes, see the "Post a comment" button.

Blog transition: your opinions?

What a pain...I'm trying to decide whether to switch to WordPress or continue with Blogger. I won't bore you with the details but there are a lot of arguments for and against each one. One big one for WordPress is that I don't care much for Blogger's native commenting system (see Pentimento and Castle By the Sea in the sidebar for blogs that use it). But I'm really unhappy with the behavior of the new Echo Recent Comments feature. Echo itself is ok, but RC is now just a big pain, and I'm not sure whether it can be fixed, and if so how much hassle it would be.

So I'm experimenting and would like to hear any comments you have. I may really have no choice but to continue with Blogger if I want to preserve continuity, as it appears that the process for importing an existing blog into WordPress only brings in posts and Blogger-based comments--I don't think it's possible to import the old HaloScan/Echo comments, not to mention the fact that images would not be brought along.

Anyway...I am going to post this to lightondarkwater.com/blog as usual, and then immediately switch to Blogspot and re-publish, to see what's different. If you're looking at this after 10 minutes or so from the time of this post, you should be able to click here to see the Blogspot-hosted result.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Innocence Mission: When Mac Was Swimming

I promise, my reaction to this song has nothing to do with the fact that my name is part of the title. It’s the refrain that gets me. Nobody knows, darling... This is one of those albums that moves me so much that I can’t listen to it very often.

Lyrics here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I don’t support the Church

Following a link in this post at Inside Catholic, I read that actress Anne Hathaway and her parents have left the Catholic Church because they object to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. She has a brother who is gay, and I know that’s a tough situation. But I was struck by the attitude revealed by her question: “Why should I support...” the Church?

I think that’s an upside-down way of looking at it. I don’t support the Church. The Church supports me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday

I’m not doing anything much in the way of Mardi Gras partying this year. Not that my wife and I ever do much of that, not being real party people, but this year we aren’t even going to any parades: for one thing, she’s back in school and has to spend a lot of time studying, and for another we both have grown somewhat tired of the parades. Besides, it’s cold.

However, I have uploaded some pictures from Mardi Gras 2009 to my Picasa web album, which I haven’t really used before. I decided to put them there instead of on Facebook (yes, I finally joined Facebook a few weeks ago) so friends and family who aren’t on Facebook could see them. I posted several of them here last year, so if you were reading the blog then they’ll look familiar.

Tomorrow I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: spend Ash Wednesday in fasting (rather mild), prayer, and spiritual reading. My experience of Ash Wednesday has always been that it arrives suddenly, when I’m not ready for it, and I spend it at work, so that it becomes just another day full of distractions and annoyances, with the added bother that I feel a little sick from not eating the usual amount. So tomorrow I’m taking a vacation day and staying home. Usually the first week or so of Lent has passed before I’m really giving it much thought, and I hope this will make a difference.

When I say “silence” above, I mean, principally, no music and no Internet. So you won’t hear anything from me between midnight tonight and sometime Thursday morning—unless I happen to be awake at midnight tomorrow, which I don’t plan to be.

Monday, February 15, 2010

War in the Closed World (3): Incidents from the Revolution

Sunday Night Journal — February 14, 2010

I’m not making any effort at this point to begin at the beginning of my story. The order in which pieces of it appear here may have nothing to do with their order in the final work. For now I’m only rummaging around in my memories, and writing about whichever of them is uppermost in my mind on any Sunday.

I can’t remember exactly when this first incident happened, but it was certainly no earlier than 1968, and probably no later than 1969. I would have been a sophomore or junior in college, at the University of Alabama. Beyond the west end of the campus there was a residential area of many blocks consisting of old houses that had been divided into apartments. I lived in that general area, as did most of my friends and acquaintances. I was at the apartment of some one of these, though I have no idea now whose it was, or why I was there, or  anything else except a vague memory of it being a typically shabby, messy hippie apartment.

All I remember is something said by one of the people there. I’ll call him Roger. I didn’t know him very well. He was an influential person in the fairly small but very visible campus radical community. But unlike most of us, who hurled contempt on the conventional world from outside and were ready to burn our bridges to it (or thought we were), he seemed to want to keep one foot in the mainstream. He was active in campus politics. He dressed neatly and fairly conventionally. His hair was a little longer than was usual but not excessively so—it didn’t hang to his shoulders or puff out in an unkempt frizz. I thought of him when the records of Bill Clinton’s attempts to avoid the draft were published: Clinton, as you may recall, was very concerned with “maintaining his viability within the system.” As, it seemed, was Roger.

I think I recall that he paid only a brief visit to whatever group was assembled in the apartment. Perhaps he was politicking; I recall that we was talkative, in a way that seemed to me a little stagey. I recall him standing at the door, about to leave, and giving a little speech, of which I recall only the last words: we, the radicals, would do this, and we would do that, and the effect would be to “free up this university.”

Addled though I was with the desire to rebel in every way, I still had enough of my wits about me to wonder what he meant. I went home wondering what he meant, and I suppose it’s significant that I still remember the moment. What and where were the chains from which we needed to be freed? What in the university was oppressing us? What was it that he thought we should be able to do that we were being prevented from doing? We were American college students, and by virtue of that fact alone among the most privileged people in the world. Whatever rules the university imposed on us were fairly trivial and easily evaded. True, there were laws forbidding the use of drugs, and they were a threat to us, but the university had nothing to do with those laws and no power to change them. There were still restrictions on the girls who lived in the dormitories, but few in our crowd lived there.

The question recurred to me from time to time: free to do what? Not to do the work assigned in our classes? Perhaps that was it: we should be given good grades and degrees regardless of whether or not we earned them; surely the demand that we do one thing and not another was oppressive in itself.

But of course the most likely thing is that he had nothing in particular in mind. It was only words, the sort of words we used all the time, never troubling ourselves to look closely at what we might mean by them. But yet they were not entirely empty words: they did express a real anger, obscure and incoherent though it was.

Some time after this—and I think I can pin this down to sometime in the winter or spring of 1970—Jerry Rubin, a then-famous radical activist, was invited by some student group to speak on campus. I think there was a controversy about whether the administration would allow him to speak, but in the end he did, in Foster Auditorium. I went to hear him. I remember a crowd mostly standing; if there were seats there must not have been enough. I remember Rubin barking and ranting from the stage, but not a single word he said; I think it’s safe to assume that it was poisonous nonsense.

What I remember is a brief encounter with Roger. He came up to me in the crowd and said the crowd was too quiet; he wanted things to be livelier. He told me to move around in the crowd and clap and cheer and try to get others to do the same. And I  remember feeling that what my ears were telling me was so appalling that I had trouble believing them.

If there was any firm and specific conviction that was supposed to characterize our movement, it was that one was always to be authentic—never to pretend to any thought or emotion that was not genuine, never to behave in a way that was not a direct expression of what one really felt or thought. The commercial and political hype that dominated American life was evil, filling the air and the minds of the people with manipulative falsehoods, and we were to deny and defy that spirit in our lives as well as in our politics. And here was someone telling me to engage in just the sort of manipulation we despised.

I reacted as a believing Christian might on being asked to assist in perpetrating a fraudulent miracle: disgusted and angry. Of course I was absurdly naïve; the various radical movements were at least as much interested in imagery and advertising as any corporation. I don’t remember giving Roger any answer, and he moved on through the crowd, trying to get people worked up.

I can’t say this was any sort of turning point for me, but it was one of many moments of disillusionment that didn’t so much turn me against the movement as toward a very dark cynicism (which came naturally to me anyway). It is well to be stripped of destructive illusions, even if it’s painful. I just wish I hadn’t had these particular illusions in the first place.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ulrich Schnauss: Knuddelmaus

(Weekend music—a bit late, I know, as the weekend is already over for anybody very far east of the U.S. But then it is Mardi Gras weekend.)

Ulrich Schnauss is a German electronica producer. I’ve been listening to the album from which this track comes, Faraway Trains Passing By. I really don’t expect anyone else to react to this music as I do. Maybe it sounds merely pleasant to most people, but it touches something deep in me: it’s the soundtrack to the memory of leaving a place you didn’t realize you would never see again.

One more: “As If You’ve Never Been Away.” I guess that’s the way it will feel when we get there. The sehnsucht really kicks in with the voices going doot doot doot....

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Yesterday’s Snow

Now, I fully understand that falling snow is a totally unremarkable sight for many or most of the people who will read this. It’s only significant because it happens here so rarely. We might get a bit of snow like yesterday’s every five years or so. In the twenty-one years I’ve been living in this area, only once has it snowed enough to cover the ground fully and remain there for a few hours. The last time was around 1995—I can’t remember the year for sure. I actually drove the 30 miles (48km) from my house to Spring Hill College, with at least one or two of my children. I can’t remember now whether I had to go for some work-related reason and used that as an excuse to have child or children see the college grounds covered in snow, or if I went only for that reason. It was truly lovely, and I wish I had some pictures of it.

From my office window, though zoomed in a good bit.

That’s the Jesuit cemetery among those trees. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing of Joyce’s great short story, “The Dead.” (...he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.).

This is a view, also zoomed in, from a window on the west side of the building where my office is:

And this has nothing to do with the snow, which had stopped some hours earlier. As I drove across the Mobile Bay causeway on my way home, I was struck by the desolation of sky and dead sea grasses and water. It was just getting dark; within a couple of minutes after I took this picture it was too dark for my camera, or I would have taken more, from better vantage points.

Just after I took this picture, I observed what I am reasonably sure was, at that moment, the coldest person on the planet. As I got back into my car I noticed on the other side of the road (behind me from the viewpoint of this picture), a young man on a motorcycle. He had stopped for some reason, probably attempting to restore sensation to his hands. I have ridden a motorcycle in cold weather, and you cannot dress warmly enough for it, at least not in anything you’re likely to be able to buy in south Alabama. The temperature was around 35F/2C, not all that cold, but add to that a 50 or 60 miles-per-hour (80-95kmh) wind from the speed of the bike, and the 20mph/30kmh or so wind out of the north, and the fact that you are wearing only a half-length coat of middling weight, a stocking cap, and a pair of gloves, and that you must maintain a position in which your arms and legs are outstretched so as to maximize the effect of the wind, and, especially, that you must maintain a tight grip on two plastic-covered metal bars. He may not have been the coldest person on the planet as determined by instruments, but short of someone plunged into an icy sea I’m quite sure he was among the most miserable. There was nothing I could do for him, so I didn’t feel bad about feeling really good when I got back into my car.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Light Snow Possible—Region Gripped by Panic

Weather forecasts say we may get a few inches of snow early Friday morning. And maybe it will actually happen, although these predictions usually come to little or nothing. The last time we had enough snow to cover the ground was around 1995, and of course it melted within a few hours. As of this afternoon we had seen a very small amount of sleet, and on my way home an hour or so ago it was raining. The current temperature is 41F/5C.

Yet the decision has already been made to close the public schools tomorrow, and other entities are following. Not my employer, though. Our president is from Cleveland and spent the last ten or fifteen years in Chicago, so he was, I hear, totally bewildered when someone asked if we would be closed tomorrow—closed by the mere possibility of light snow. We’re told to assume the college will be open until and unless we’re told otherwise.

And yet the closings are not entirely irrational if you think of them as being intended just to keep people from driving, because most people are going to drive like complete idiots in the snow.

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, on Thursday nights I normally have an hour of eucharistic adoration at a church up the road a few miles. When I got home tonight my wife had left me the following note, which pretty well sums up the effects of a prediction of snow around here:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Few Words and Pictures About New Orleans

In celebration of the Saints winning the Super Bowl:

A nice reflection from a New Orleans priest

Something I wrote a few years ago

And a few pictures, the first one taken a couple of weeks ago in a sort of courtyard in the little hotel where we were staying, the others around town several years ago.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Catholic and Conservative (3)

Sunday Night Journal — February 7, 2010

In the first post of this series I argued that conservatism is not a religion, and therefore not, at least conceptually, a rival to the faith, and that a Catholic who describes himself as conservative does not thereby make himself less of a Catholic. In the second I argued against the idea that there is a single Catholic approach to politics and social issues. Now I want to discuss what conservatism is, and why I am willing to describe myself as a conservative (though, as I said in a comment on one of the other posts, I wear the label pretty lightly). And my intention is for this to be the last installment.

Unavoidably, because conservatism does not have a very precise definition, I will have to engage in something close to the True Scotsman gambit:

(a) All Scotsmen like haggis.

(b) Tom is a Scotsman, but he doesn’t like haggis.

(c) All true Scotsmen like haggis.

I think this is normally called a fallacy; I’m calling it a gambit, because I’m not saying “true conservative” but “my sort of conservative.” Anyone familiar with the internal debates of conservatism knows that in fact there is a never-ending discussion about who is and is not a conservative, with frequent instances of  “if you think that, you aren’t a true conservative.” That gets pretty tiresome. There is something broadly identifiable as conservatism, but, unlike Scotland, it does not have clearly defined borders. So when I speak of conservatism, I have in mind primarily principled and thoughtful conservatives, not mere right-wingers whose conservatism is mostly capitalism and nationalism. I should note, while I’m at it, that I’m using the terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably.

I can’t find the remark now, but long ago I read an observation by Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J., that went something like this: “Insofar as the terms liberal and conservative refer to anything more than personality types, they are political terms that have no place in the life of the Church.” I like those words—or perhaps I should say that idea, since I’m not sure how accurately I’m recalling the quotation. And I think anyone who wants to be a faithful Catholic should do his best to be, simply, Catholic, and to avoid looking at the life of the Church through the distorting lens of a liberal-conservative opposition. I do not describe myself as a conservative Catholic, and if someone insists on using that terminology I can just as accurately describe myself as a liberal Catholic.

Yet as appealing as it is to want to go beyond those terms, they persist, not only in politics but even in the Church, precisely because they are based on personality types which are perennial. They may harden into ideologies, but they are rooted in personal attitudes and temperaments. In almost any human enterprise, including the Church in its humanity, there are people who press urgently for change because they see the problems of the present condition, and people who think the present condition worth preserving in spite of its problems (or else think the solution recommended by the progressive will actually be a change for the worse).

Whether one finds oneself in an objectively conservative or progressive position—resisting change or calling for it—depends greatly on the circumstances. If you’re in a car going 60 miles an hour, it is, strictly speaking, the conservative position to continue going 60 miles an hour. And if you’re rolling down an open highway where the speed limit is 60, it’s the correct position. On the other hand, if an 18-wheeler going 75 miles an hour is coming up behind you, you should consider adopting more progressive views.

Similarly, what we call conservatism is fundamentally a concrete response to a specific moment in history, and it’s fundamentally the response of a certain temperament and attitude: a sort of resignation to the fact that human life is always going to be something of a mess, that things could always be worse, and that it is very easy to do more harm than good by making large and sudden changes in the name of reform. Some maddeningly literal-minded (and occasionally malicious) people insist that the word “conservative” be defined as “always and everywhere opposed to any change whatsoever.” They seem to think they’ve scored a grand rhetorical coup when they catch a conservative saying, for instance, that a Supreme Court decision should be reversed. “You want to change something! You’re not a conservative!” This is sophomoric, and really not worth arguing against. No serious conservative denies the need for a constant reform of human institutions, and the reality of continuing change in human affairs whether we want it or not.

That brings me somewhere close to my final point, which is a response to the challenge Daniel issued in that Caelum et Terra exchange, quoting my own words from a 1991 Caelum et Terra book review:

“When someone tells me he is a conservative, I want to know what it is he wishes to conserve. And I ask the question with a certain intention to harass, for I have always had trouble understanding how the beliefs which most Americans understand to be implied by the word “conservative” could reasonably merit that term.

“….what does it mean to believe oneself a conservative in a society which grows daily more attached…to practices and principles utterly irreconcilable with those one wishes to conserve?….how many of society’s assumptions may one reject before one becomes, intellectually at least, a revolutionary?”

(The complete review is here.)

I do in fact have answers to those questions, though I didn’t care to present them then and there. When someone asks me in this context what it is that I wish to conserve, the answer is: the cultural and political traditions of America and Europe. And one is a conservative and not a revolutionary in relation to one’s society as long as one believes that there is within it still some essential foundation worth preserving. And I do believe that.

For several decades now I’ve pondered, as I was doing in that book review, the question of whether our society is really worth preserving, or whether it’s so corrupt that it can’t and shouldn’t stand. I’ve very often been tempted to answer, respectively, no and yes to those questions. But in the end I come back to the many good things that still persist in our tradition, especially in the U.S., where religion apparently flourishes more vigorously than in most of Europe. For all the very grave faults of this Euro-American culture, it still represents much which I would not wish to see lost. I’ll go further and say much that the human race cannot afford to lose. In the practical realm, a reasonably stable, reasonably free, and perhaps too prosperous society is not something to be cast away lightly. The culture of the West is still far from dead, though it may be dying. And it’s one of the essential insights of conservatism that it is much, much easier to destroy than to build. If you help your enemies destroy the last of what others have built and you have inherited, you will most likely find yourself living not with what you wanted, but what those enemies wanted.

And I think the Western tradition has a real, conscious, dedicated enemy in what I might call secular progressivism. Assuming that both conservatives and progressives have similar views of how things ought to be, the quarrel between them ought to be, and often is, only one of means, not ends, and a question of emphasis. But the quarrel between conservatism and secular progressivism is now also one of ends. What I mean by secular progressivism is not the push for a certain sort of government-heavy solution to specific practical problems like health care. I mean the deep cultural revolution of which the beginning is conveniently marked by the French Revolution, the revolution of materialism which seeks to deny God, deny the existence of the soul, and make the whole being of man subservient to, on the one hand, his own appetites, and, on the other, the state, which promises to help him satisfy his appetites at the cost of his soul.

To say that I want to preserve the Western tradition is not the same as saying that I want to preserve the Catholic faith. (I don’t want so much to preserve the Catholic faith as to spread it, but that’s another, though related, topic.) The tradition could not exist without the faith, but the faith is not the only thing which gives the tradition its particular character. I also want to preserve the elements of truth and genuine progress which have appeared since the Enlightenment, and so I am willing to be part of an alliance that includes people with views pretty substantially different from my own. They are among the not necessarily Catholic, not necessarily Christian, “men of good will” to whom the Second Vatican Council wished to appeal.

American conservatism is a big and chaotic movement, and far from pure or united in its defense of what Russell Kirk referred to as the permanent things. But the battle to preserve those things from the materialist revolution is, in my view, the great and crucial fact of our times, and the conservative movement, for all its flaws and inconsistencies, is, in general, on the right side of that battle. I don’t apologize for allying myself with it.

One last thing needs mentioning: I want to preserve the U.S.A. because I love it. Sometimes I hate it, too, and in my youth I hated it more than I loved it. And often I despair of it. But I still love it, not only as I wish it were but as it is.


Now, with all that said, I want to emphasize that “liberal,” “progressive,” and “conservative” are provisional and relative terms that do not in themselves contain solid principles. To that end:

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

—G. K. Chesterton, in The Illustrated London News, 1924

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Sunday, February 07, 2010

HaloScan -> Echo conversion in progress

Commenting may be flaky. I'm not sure what to expect.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Bob Franke: “For Real”

For a while there I was attempting to post a bit of music every weekend, or at least most weekends. I’d like to resume that, although I’m sure I won’t be consistent. But anyway, here’s one.

I think it was back in the ‘80s sometime when my friend Robert sent me a tape that included this song and some others by Bob Franke. I wasn’t all that taken with his music in general, and never investigated him any further, but the line “There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life” really stayed with me, and I’d venture a guess that over the intervening years no more than a few weeks have ever passed without my thinking of it. And listening to it now I see that the lyrics are even better than I remembered. I really should buy one of his cds.

The video is just a bit amusing, because at least as seen here Franke’s dress and general vibe are more reminiscent of a businessman than of a folk singer; he looks more like someone you’d discuss insurance with than someone you’d listen to in a bar. But that just goes to show that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge by appearances.

The lyrics are very important; you can read them here.

Love lasts forever.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Low Clouds Over the Bay

Sometimes at night, when there has been or is about to be rain, but it’s not raining at the moment, the clouds make a very dark, very low ceiling over the water. You can see it—I mean, you don’t just see darkness and the absence of stars, you see an actual surface, because there is so much light coming up from the town. And there are lights all around the horizon, and looking across the bay especially, to the lights of Mobile, the effect is spooky and lurid, as if darkness is literally settling down, and the light around its edges has something unhealthy about it—a sort of greenish glow struggling to get out from under the clouds. It makes me think of the battles at the end of The Lord of the Rings, when the Black Gate has opened and Sauron has covered the sky with smoke and clouds, producing a day without dawn. But these clouds will probably be gone in the morning.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Changes Coming Here

A few days ago I logged in to my account at HaloScan, the company that provides the comment service I use here, and was greeted with the announcement that it is shutting down the HaloScan service and replacing it with a new one. February 10 (next Wednesday) is the day HaloScan dies, so I have to make the switch soon. I’m going to try to do it this weekend. I don’t know what to expect. I haven’t had a chance even to read over the information about the new service, so I don’t know if it will be an improvement or otherwise.

Then yesterday I got an email from Blogger saying that they are going to discontinue FTP publishing. This is a very big deal for this blog, bigger than the commenting change (assuming the new comment service works reasonably well). It means that sometime between now and roughly mid-March the blog is going to move. It will definitely move physically, most likely to a Blogspot server. And it may have a new address. One way or another there will still be a lightondarkwater.com, and you’ll be able to get to the blog from there. But it probably won’t be “/blog.” And I’m pretty sure that the URLs of all the blog posts will change, breaking bookmarks and links from other sites.

If you aren’t interested in any further technical explanation, you can stop reading now.

Pause.

Ok, since you’re interested, here’s the story: back in 2004 I decided to put some of my writings on the web, not in a blog, but at a conventional site. So I registered the domain name lightondarkwater.com and bought a low-priced hosting plan from GoDaddy.com, and learned enough HTML and CSS to put up simple pages. The Sunday Night Journal was published this way for the first couple of years.

Sometime in 2006—around June, I think—I decided that it would be a lot easier to maintain the SNJ as a blog. And I also wanted to be able to post casual things. But I wanted the blog to be part of my existing site. I found that although most Blogger blogs are hosted at Blogger’s domain, blogspot.com (hence most Blogger blogs are “blogname.blogspot.com”), they gave one the option of using their software but publishing the blog elsewhere, via FTP (a program that copies files from one place to another on the network). So I created a Blogger blog and published it to www.lightondarkwater.com/blog.

I discovered immediately that I had a problem with comments. Blogger provides its own commenting facility, but it publishes comments only to the Blogspot servers. This meant that a Blogger comment on my site would not actually appear on the site until I re-published the blog. Obviously this wasn’t going to be acceptable—there would be intervals of hours between remarks in a conversation, which of course meant there would be no conversations.

So I used HaloScan, which gives one the option of associating comments with any of the popular blogging services. The comments reside on their servers, not at lightondarkwater.com, which only contains links to them. When you read or post a comment here, you’re talking to haloscan.com.

Now Google (owner of Blogger) has decided that support for FTP publishing is costing them too much (and I can see why it would be a headache) for the small number of blogs being maintained that way. I haven’t yet read their detailed description of the options available to me now. I can switch the blog to lightondarkwater.blogspot.com, but then it’s no longer part of the main site. I can move the lightondarkwater.com domain name to Blogger, so that the blog would be at www.lightondarkwater.com. But what about my other stuff? A lot of it is really not suitable for blog posts; for one thing, the chronological organization is not meaningful. I could switch to WordPress, which supports non-blog pages. I’m not sure if they support user domains or not.

Anyway...this is a huge hassle, and I only have a month or so to decide what I’m going to do and start doing it. At some point my stuff is likely to be offline for a day or so. I’ll let you know when the change is closer.

A word from Simone Weil

Spiritual living is accepting reality at any cost.

—Simone Weil

Quoted in this review of a book that I should probably read.

Weil’s remark is one of those that seems to keep opening further the more I think about it.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In case you’re wondering what all that “Who dat?” stuff is about

Maybe you’ve read about the NFL threatening to sue some people in New Orleans who sell football-related stuff (t-shirts, hats, etc.) bearing the words “Who dat?” (Europeans—and Filipinos, and Australians, et.al.—: “Who dat?” = “Who is that?” in some Louisiana and/or African-American dialects.) Great outrage ensued, because the term belongs to Saints fans, not to the NFL. Happily, the NFL has now backed off.

Not having paid much attention to professional football over the years, I knew the phrase was somehow associated with the New Orleans Saints, but didn’t know its origin or meaning. Translation into more formal English: “Who is that saying they’re going to beat them [those] Saints?”

It seems Louisiana R&B legend Aaron Neville and some Saints players got together:

Speaking of Aaron Neville, here’s another side of him: