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August 2005

Sunday Night Journal — August 28, 2005

Not So Calm Before the Storm

Yet again, only six weeks after Hurricane Dennis, we are preparing for a hurricane. Although Hurricane Katrina is as of right now (10pm Sunday night) heading for New Orleans, a lot can happen in the next twelve hours or so. And besides, this storm is so large and intense that even if it doesn’t change course we’ll still get a hurricane.

We completed most of our preparations much earlier in the day, and now although there is nothing much that I can do I find it hard to focus on anything. I had intended to write tonight about a movie that I saw for the third or fourth time Friday night: The Day the Earth Stood Still. But that will have to wait till next Sunday, or some other time.

I find this foreboding idleness very hard to bear. I figured out many years ago that I have a very low tolerance for novels or plays or movies in which the characters brood and fret and talk inactively and unproductively. I think I remember an essay in which Matthew Arnold declares this a fatal fault in drama, and I agree with him. I understand perfectly well that beneath a superficial calm profound inner dramas may occur, psychological or spiritual crises may arise and be resolved. But it had better be done with genius, as by Ingmar Bergman. If not, bring on the car chases.

Sunday Night Journal — August 21, 2005

How Guns ‘n’ Roses Came to My House

Continuing from last week’s journal the train of thought about the difficulty of keeping the entertainment industry at arm’s length, an anecdote:

Although I have a fairly big collection of pop LPs (I didn’t start buying CDs regularly until ten years or so ago), I rarely listened to them when our children were young. This was partly because I didn’t want them to grow up on that diet, and partly a practical consideration: when I listen to music, I like to listen, and it’s hard to do that in a houseful of children. When I did play rock music around the house, it was fairly benign: tuneful and tasteful music from the mid-‘60s and such.

For several years when our two oldest children were around ten or twelve years old, we listened regularly to Shickele Mix. If you’re not familiar with this radio program, it’s an entertaining musical miscellany hosted by Peter Schickele, the musico-comical mastermind behind the works of P.D.Q. Bach. A typical episode takes a particular musical technique and looks at the way it’s used in all sorts of music, including various folk and popular forms. It’s a lot of fun and you can learn a good bit about music from it, even if you disagree with Schickele’s dogma that “all musics are created equal.”

Frequently it was not convenient to listen to the program when it was broadcast; also, in many cases programs were worth listening to more than once. So I often taped it. One broadcast which consisted mainly of baroque arrangements of Beatles songs also included a string quartet transcription of a Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle.” Most people who were anywhere near a radio in the late ‘80s will have heard this song, but if you haven’t suffice to say that it’s very abrasive hard rock. And the original song was included, by way of comparison, along with the string quartet version.

One of my sons, who was probably about eleven at the time, fastened onto the song with dismaying alacrity and intensity, listening to it often until I over-wrote the tape with the following week’s Shickele Mix. It was striking to see how powerfully it took hold of him.

The point of this story? There isn’t much of one, really: simply to note how easily the less desirable elements of pop culture can slip, uninvited, into a home where a reasonable effort to suppress it is being made. I don’t want to say “you can’t be too careful,” because in a sense you can: I do believe that some, or perhaps many, Christians, go too far and become overly fearful and paranoid. And obviously listening to one song a few times is not going to undo anyone. But it is very hard to escape pop culture entirely, and as it’s the steady diet that matters most, not the occasional snack, I return to my point last week about the importance of the surrounding community: it surely makes a difference whether the likes of “Welcome to the Jungle” are to be heard regularly in the homes of your friends, neighbors, and family.

Sunday Night Journal — August 14, 2005

Advice to Parents(?!)

Now that all but one of our children have left home, and the last is about to begin her senior year of high school, I’ve attained the de facto status of old-timer at the Catholic child-rearing game. That, and my association with the counter-cultural Caelum et Terra, cause me to get the occasional request for advice from Catholic parents who are not as far along in the journey.

My first reaction to this request is that I have no advice to offer. And then, of course, I give a little anyway, against my better judgment, which instructs me to say no more than “anything can happen.” I can’t say that I myself have succeeded as a Catholic father, and I’ve seen all kinds of children from all sorts of families go in all sorts of directions. Children are not mechanisms, and there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will produce the right results, even when it’s clear what the right thing is, and much of the time that’s far from clear.

The one thing I’d say without qualification—the one piece of advice that I usually give in spite of my disclaimers—is that the nearer you can come to living within a Catholic culture, the better off you’re likely to be.

Obviously to find a genuinely or at least seriously Catholic milieu of any size at all is not easy nowadays. Less obvious is that you may not actually have achieved it even when you think you have, because even among pretty zealous Catholics—yes, even among Catholic home-schoolers, who are obviously among the most determined to do the right thing educationally—there can be a surprising amount of disagreement about how to manage a problem like that presented by the entertainment industry.

There are three basic approaches to dealing with something like television which is not intrinsically wrong but which is questionable or unhealthy, depending on what and how much: prohibition, moderation, and license. A surprising number of fairly serious and traditionalist Catholic parents practice the last of these with television, at least in respect to quantity: that is, they may strictly limit what may be watched, but not how much. I’ve always thought this a bad idea, not for specifically religious or moral reasons but in relation to basic mental soundness. This was never an option for us (although I must say we’re a lot slacker with our youngest than we were with the older ones—an old story for parents in general).

Prohibition, on the other hand, may backfire and produce a reaction in the other direction, unless the family is part of a community where pretty much everyone does the same thing. When I think of this, I always remember a family in our home-schooling group who were extremely strict about diet: they were vegetarians and moreover what I think of as health-food puritans, allowing no food in the house that wasn’t positively and certifiably good for them. When the group got together and less restrictive families brought bags of potato chips and the like, the children of this family descended like locusts on the junk food. (That was eight or ten years ago, and the family moved away, so I don’t know how the children behaved when they became old enough to make this decision for themselves.)

My wife and I were of the moderate party (see this Caelum et Terra article), but moderation may seem to the children just a sort of prohibition lite, unless, again, all or at least most of the families with whom they might spend time agree with you about what is permissible. In the absence of this, the children are more likely both to resent their restriction and to have an opportunity to escape it, and you may find yourself with a choice between isolating them and knowing that at the homes of friends and relatives they’re watching things you don’t want them to.

This community of parents probably needs to be fairly large to work very reliably. A small group of like-minded families may not suffice to give the children sufficient scope and opportunity for making friends. We never had a very large group, and as all the children got older and their personalities more distinct, children who had played happily together as eight-year-olds found that at fourteen or fifteen they no longer had much in common. Or a child would develop a serious interest which no one else in the group shared and which could only be pursued outside the very small Catholic milieu. (To be honest, this was a problem for the adults, too: despite our shared interest in Catholic home-schooling, very few real and continuing friendships developed.)

Sometimes I think that in the end none of these considerations are as important as heredity, and I’m sure that they’re no more important. The more you watch children grow up (yours and others’), the more you see in each of them an irreducible essence which will find a way to manifest itself. And we parents do well to remind ourselves that in the end we do not have the power to save anyone else, not even our children. We can certainly help or hinder, make the road straighter and shorter or crooked and longer, but ultimately the choice for salvation is made by each soul alone.

Sunday Night Journal — August 7, 2005

A Few More Words about Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Amy Wellborn at Open Book picked up my last week’s journal entry, along with a letter from the Bishops’ Conference on the same subject, and an extensive discussion followed. I must say that I’m irrationally flattered that something of mine played a role in setting off a 200-plus comment discussion—Open Book regulars know that’s a very high number, and not infrequently an indicator of hot tempers at work, but in this case the discussion was very civil and the quality of argumentation mostly high. Here are a few notes in follow-up to that discussion.

There were three main arguments in support of the bombings:

(1) That the victims of the attack were not actually classifiable as non-combatants because they supported the war effort either directly or indirectly. I don’t see how eliminating the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants can gain any purchase at all as a Catholic position. I first heard this basic argument some twenty years ago in a speech by William F. Buckley, and I think it’s one of the things that’s always made me keep a bit of distance between myself and the mainstream conservative movement, even though I pretty well fit there in most respects.

(2) That both cities contained legitimate military targets and the non-combatant deaths were not directly intended by the U.S. government. I don’t think this is supported by the facts. And even if it were, it would seem to stretch the principle beyond the breaking point.

(3) That the magnitude of the horror that was the apparent alternative to the use of the bomb justified its use. This argument was the major topic of debate and is indeed the most compelling. I think I went about as far toward granting it as one can without taking a fatal step into consquentialism, a term which I take—and I have no theological training—to be, in common sense terms, the doctrine that the end justifies the means, and that an action is good if it produces a good result. It seemed to me that many of those making this argument were in fact making a case for consequentialism.

Many years ago—more than thirty—I took what might have been my first conscious step toward embracing traditional Catholic morality when, in the context of writing a research paper on some aspect of Coleridge’s thought, I came to the conclusion that it is only by insisting on the highest ethical principles that we can expect to sustain a minimal level of decent behavior. I am now more fully convinced of that. One commenter at Open Book took me to task for not specifying what I wanted in saying that we must acknowledge that our action was wrong. But it is precisely the acknowledgment itself, and our continuing affirmation of the principle upon which it is made, that is important now.

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

              —Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov