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May 2005

Sunday Night Journal — May 29, 2005

Patriotism and the American Creed

Last week I mentioned patriotism as one of three things (the others being religion and love of family) to which a person of conservative temperament naturally inclines. Thinking about the different senses which many people may give to the word “patriotism,” I thought I ought to say a bit more about it, especially as I had recently run across what was to me a surprising, and to my mind erroneous, definition of it.

On reflection I think this definition is probably shared by a lot of people, and if that’s true it might explain some misunderstandings. It came from a moderately well-known conservative writer whom I won’t name, because I haven’t been able to find the remarks again (I think they were made in passing, where the main topic was something else) and I don’t want to take the chance of misrepresenting him.

At any rate, if I understood him correctly, his view is that allegiance to the governing principles of a nation is the primary component of patriotism. He seemed to be saying that one could be an American patriot anywhere in the world by professing American principles. This was not just surprising but startling to me. It really shouldn’t have been—didn’t Chesterton say many years ago that America is a nation founded on a creed, and having the soul of a church? Still, patriotism is not the name I give to that creed.

If I were to leave my wife and live with another woman, I don’t think anyone would consider me a good husband because I continued to speak of my wife in the most admiring terms. I could not claim devotion to the abstract principle of my wife as the equivalent of living with her. Similarly, if I were to move to New Zealand—move there simply because I thought it would be a better place to live, not because of some external necessity—I might still fervently profess American political principles: representative government, the rule of law, ordered liberty. But I wouldn’t call myself an American patriot.

My own sense of the word “patriotism” is that it refers primarily, and almost exclusively, to love of one’s native country, with “country” being a somewhat loose term, not necessarily the same as “nation,” but definitely referring to a place. I have a fair amount of patriotic emotion for the United States, but more for the South as a region, more still for Alabama, more still for extreme northern and extreme southern Alabama, most of all for the obscure crossroads in the Tennessee Valley where I grew up and the small town on Mobile Bay where I now live. I have a deep affection for these places not because I believe them to be objectively superior to all others but because they are my home.

I wonder if my kind of patriotism even has a place at the political table anymore. Both the right and the left seem to equate the word with a sort of ideological Americanism—it’s just that the former is for it and the latter against it. If I stop for a moment and try to think of an American conservative who is identified with a particular place or region, I can’t come up with any. The left professes a sort of theoretical admiration for what is local and unhomogenized, but doesn’t think very highly of the actual incarnations of this abstraction, as is testified by the fury and contempt directed after the last election toward most of the people who actually constitute the so-called “Red States.” Wendell Berry is an obvious example of a contemporary commenter on political affairs who is deeply rooted in a specific place, but views such as his are not much in evidence in our political life at large, and neither the right nor the left quite knows what to do with him. To tell the truth, I sometimes wonder whether more than a few Americans even have a home, properly speaking, anymore.

Sunday Night Journal — May 22, 2005

The End of Temperamental Conservativism

By “temperamental conservatism” I don’t mean a moody and irritable conservatism, but conservatism as a temperament, as opposed to a set of convictions or an ideology. And there has always been a touch of paradox in being any sort of conservative in America, but especially in being conservative by temperament.

Almost fifteen years ago, reviewing a book by Russell Kirk in the inaugural issue of Caelum et Terra, I posed the question “How direct must opposition to the prevailing tendencies of one’s culture become, how many of society’s assumptions may one reject, before one becomes, intellectually at least, a revolutionary?” This was of course not only a rhetorical but a loaded question. The United States of America is a restless nation founded on a sharp break with the past and having in its heart a sense that it’s always possible and often desirable to start over. It is true that the Founders did not see themselves as revolutionists in the French mold, but they surely conceived their experiment in self-government as a fresh start for mankind, an escape from the tyranny of kings and of the past itself. And whatever their intentions, the nation they founded had from the beginning a personality that valued liberty over tradition, was disposed to view change as a good thing, and saw real progress as the natural movement of history.

A temperamental conservative is one who believes that the burden of proof falls naturally on the innovator, that the proper question to ask about any existing custom or institution is not “why should we keep this?” but “why should we change it?” He believes in continuity and preservation and is a devout, if perhaps unconscious, believer in the law of unintended consequences.

More concretely, he believes in religion, family, and patriotism, and he believes in them not because a sociologist has proved their utility or a philosopher their truth, but because they are his, and because they are natural and traditional, the objects of what I always thought Wordsworth meant by the term “natural piety.”

And there is little place for him today. The American belief in progress, shared by socialists on the left and capitalists on the right, has pretty thoroughly plowed up the ground on which stood the shrine of this piety, and he who would enter it must expect to put some work into rebuilding it first.

What I call revolutionary skepticism, the attitude (not always a coherent belief) that anything whatsoever, particularly human life in both its physical and moral aspects, is subject to redefinition, and that society can and must be redesigned on the basis of such redefinition, has advanced very far and attained great power, both legal and cultural. The merely temperamental conservative is not likely to resist it for very long. When, for instance, a practice like abortion becomes legal and widely practiced, the simple intuitive presumption against it will not suffice as a political or cultural argument. Or when the idea that marriage might just as well be between two men or two women as between a man and a woman gets a good grip on influential and clever people, the inarticulate sense that the idea is absurd and repulsive on its face will be made to appear as unreasoning bigotry, not as an intuition about reality, which in any case is defined by emotions.

The temperamental conservative must either acquiesce to the proposals of revolutionary skepticism, and in so doing accept the revolutionary principle, or set to work discovering the implicit philosophical framework which makes reasonable his intuitive objections to them. But in doing this he ceases to be a temperamental conservative, and becomes a very conscious and principled one. And as the revolutionary spirit gains power and influence in his society, it is debatable whether the term “conservative” is any longer an accurate description of his position.

If I were re-writing that Kirk review today, I would probably not use the word “revolutionary,” as I am now more deeply skeptical than ever of the cast of mind which believes it possible and desirable to smash what exists and start all over again. I would perhaps call this figure in opposition a combatant, which he certainly must be, in what is all too accurately called the culture war. But I’m not sure I would even ask that rhetorical question. It seems pretty clear that anyone who wishes to preserve what is best in the Western tradition can no longer be a conservative in any simple sense, although we may still find it a convenience, or at least a habit difficult to break, to use the term to refer to the party of embattled tradition.

Note: the review to which I refer can be found here.

Sunday Night Journal — May 15, 2005

The Children’s Choir

It’s no secret that the quality of liturgical music in the typical Catholic parish runs the gamut from bad to mediocre. I’ve certainly done my share of complaining about it over the years and there’s no need to repeat any of those complaints. The subject pops up from time to time on popular Catholic blogs such as Open Book, and the wells of indignation start to overflow, as they have been doing for at least as long as I’ve been a Catholic, which is about twenty-five years now. Same old song, you might say. I know it pretty well, and I’m a little tired of it.

Besides, it seems to me that the situation is improving. Maybe it’s just my parish, but we have a fairly wide range of music, including some chant and Latin hymns, and are no longer as locked in to the mostly dreary Glory and Praise standards. This variety is present not just from one Mass to another but within the same Mass, and while some complain, reasonably enough, that it makes for a sense of fragmentation that’s a price I’m very willing to pay.

But even when music at a Catholic Mass is at its worst, most parishes can provide another and very rewarding auditory experience. I refer to the sound of children. Many a time I’ve been nudged out of a darkening resentment over some aspect of a liturgy when, during the homily or in some other relatively quiet moment, I became conscious of the voices of children too young to be entirely silent on demand: laughs, gurgles, cries, whines, absurdly loud whispers, any number of sentences beginning with “Mommy,” and every now and then The Big One, when you hear the thunk of a small head banging on a pew, followed by several seconds of silence, when you know the little one is gathering up all the outrage he feels and all the air he can get into his lungs, and that these will shortly burst out in a full-blown scream of anger and pain. The experienced parent uses this awful pause to get as far as possible in the direction of an exit before the embarrassing storm bursts.

A few days ago I ran across some complaints about a priest who was very intolerant of noisy children in church and published some rather ill-tempered admonitions in the parish bulletin. I don’t know what amount of noise he was responding to. Of course when a screaming child cannot be quieted fairly quickly, the level of disruption becomes unacceptable and the parents need to take the child out. But I hope the priest wasn’t trying to get rid of the sound of children altogether, as one or two parishes I’ve encountered have seemed to want to do. The sounds of children, even their crying and whining, provide a joyful and celebratory accent to whatever else is going on in the liturgy, forcing—or perhaps I should say inviting—the jaded and cantankerous to consider: here is new life, asserting its place in the community, shouting or murmuring a promise of continuity and hope, a bit of good news no matter what else is going on. Often I seek it out. If my mind wanders during the homily, I may find myself waiting attentively for the next bit of laughter or crying. At my parish I usually don’t have to wait very long, and I always smile when it comes.

Old Crow

Sunday Night Journal — May 8, 2005

My father died on September 13, 2001. That day and those that followed were not only sad but disorienting, what with the images of the falling World Trade Center playing constantly in the background of our mourning. Since my father had been in and out of consciousness and unable to communicate very much at all for a few days before his death, we weren’t sure whether he was aware of the calamity or not.

Three years, going on four, later, I’m beginning to get used to his absence from the house that is now only my mother’s. I visited her this weekend for Mother’s Day. It’s a three-hundred-and-fifty mile drive, and I only make it three or four times a year, sometimes with my wife and any of our children who are available, and sometimes for a quick trip alone, because it’s much simpler for me to just get in the car and go than to arrange for the feeding of animals and other things that have to be done if no one is going to be at home.

I arrived around four o’clock Saturday afternoon, a little wired from having had more than my usual amount of caffeine on the drive, and decided, although it was a bit early, to help myself to a drink. Although Mama drinks only an occasional glass of wine, Daddy almost always had a drink, sometimes more, every night before dinner, and there was always some liquor in the house.

Daddy drank Old Crow bourbon, except on special occasions when he might buy a bottle of Wild Turkey. In the hierarchy of bourbons Old Crow is much closer to the bottom than to the top, and people kidded Daddy about drinking it, since at least in his later years he could easily have afforded something better. Presumably he was able to tell the difference, but it must not have mattered much to him. It seems to me that there has always been a quart (or in recent years a liter, I guess) of Old Crow sitting in a cabinet at home. I’ve taken to keeping one on hand, too—it’s cheap, and it tastes all right to me, and it’s a gesture of some kind, not exactly in memory of but in continuity with.

Although my mother is not now living in the house I knew as home, as they had moved into a smaller house just before Daddy’s cancer took hold in earnest, there was still a bottle of Old Crow—presumably the last one he had bought—in the top cabinet in the kitchen. So I looked for it, and it was there, but it was nearly empty. I hesitated for a moment, since there were several other bottles in the cabinet, and then, with a vague sense that I shouldn’t be too sentimental, poured what was left into my glass, and with a mental toast to my father dropped the empty bottle into the garbage can.

Later my brother John and his wife Christy came over. We ate ribs and had a good long visit. Every now and then I thought about that empty bottle with a sense of misgiving. Mama went to bed and John and Christy and I talked for a while longer. They left around 10:30. I intended to go to bed so I wouldn’t sleep too late to go to 8:30 Mass.

But first I went into the kitchen and pulled the Old Crow bottle out of the garbage. Luckily it had not been smeared with barbecue sauce or anything else; it seemed pristine. I poked around among the bottles in the cabinet and found, behind a bottle of Wild Turkey and two bottles of scotch, a small plastic bottle of Old Crow, maybe half full. I could have just left it as the only representative of its line, but the plastic bottle just wasn’t the same.

I took both bottles over to the sink, in case of a spill, and very carefully poured about half an inch of whiskey from the plastic bottle to the glass one, then put them both back on the shelf. Then I poured a little scotch into an orange juice glass and went upstairs to bed, where I sipped scotch and read the book and music reviews in the most recent issue of The New Criterion before I went to sleep.

Sunday Night Journal — May 1, 2005

Lucy In A Bind With Pancakes

We have two dogs, Andy and Lucy. How a family in which the wife does not much care for dogs came to have two of them is a long story, like the story of how we came to have four cats; suffice to say that it is a testimony to the power of motherly love. Andy is small and cute, while Lucy is large—really too large for our small house—and smells bad unless she’s been washed in the past few days. Accordingly, Andy is allowed certain liberties, such as getting on the furniture, which Lucy is not. It’s clear that Lucy is jealous of him, and from what I know about the social life of dogs she is well within her rights: not only is she five times Andy’s size, she was here first, so she ought to be the top dog.

Yesterday morning my wife and daughter cooked pancakes for breakfast. There were a couple left over, sitting out on the kitchen counter. A couple of hours after breakfast I ate one of them and decided to give the other to the dogs, who were already hovering around. In this situation I usually give Lucy her share first, partly in guilty compensation for her other indignities and partly to keep her from trying to steal Andy’s. So I tore off about two-thirds of the pancake and gave it to Lucy.

Instead of darting off to a corner to gobble it down, which is what she usually does with a treat, she stood staring at me, pancake in mouth, eyes going back and forth between my face and the remainder of the pancake in my hand, while Andy jumped up and down beside her.

In order to get Andy’s share of the pancake she would have had to drop her own, in which case Andy would have gotten it. And she would in fact have ended up with less. She couldn’t enjoy what she actually had in her possession because she was too concerned about getting more, and could easily have lost what she did have.

The applicability of this to human life needs no elaboration.