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October 2005

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2005

Rosa Parks, RIP

I was only a child at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. I didn’t know what it was, but I was old enough to read, and I remember seeing the word “boycott” in newspaper headlines and being puzzled by it. Obviously it had to do with boys, but beyond that I couldn’t make much sense of it. It seemed to be something serious—I may have picked that up from the adults. I think I had some inkling that it involved people refusing to ride buses, and was puzzled as to why there was anything wrong with that. I certainly would have been more than happy to give up riding the school bus.

Ten years or so later, as a teenager in the middle of the ‘60s when the civil rights movement achieved its greatest successes, of course I understood. Those who never knew the segregated south have difficulty understanding what a different world it was, and how much has changed. Of course it’s easy enough to understand the bald facts, and easy enough to appreciate how wrong the system of segregation was. What’s hard to understand is not so much the horror as the lack of horror: the degree to which a superficial peace prevailed, the apparent stability of things.

A typical Hollywood view of the period involves continual acts of intimidation and violence and an all-suffusing atmosphere of vicious meanness on the part of whites. But it wasn’t like that, at least not in my part of the South—I’ve heard that in other places the reality bore a greater resemblance to the mythology. What I saw was far more subtle. Acts of racial violence on the part of whites were rare: I never saw one or heard directly of one, or of a lynching occurring locally, or saw a Klansman in his regalia, but it doesn’t take many lynchings or beatings to make matters clear. And in personal interactions a certain courtesy, not intimidation, was the norm. For the most part it was only when the rules were broken—when the black man failed to keep to “his place”—that the underlying brutality showed itself.

In the Hollywood version of the South, Rosa Parks would have been instantly lynched when she defied white authority to its face. That she was not, and that her refusal to move to the back of the bus launched a mostly peaceful struggle, says much about the complexity of the situation. (This is not to imply that she did not act with great courage—Emmett Till was murdered later in that same year, 1955.) White people had a bad conscience, and an underlying sense of decency that made the moral force of the civil rights movement something they could only avoid by giving in to their worst passions, which most of them, most of the time, did not do.

It’s a cliché to call the 1950s “a more innocent time.” Far more innocent, in more ways, I think, were the early and middle ‘60s, when it seemed that removing legal segregation would be enough to allow the South and the whole nation to attain racial harmony. The choice was clear: Bull Connor, firehoses, and bombs vs. a simple and peaceful request for basic rights. “Free at last!” cried Martin Luther King, and a few years later the specific freedom—legal freedom—for which he marched was obtained.

But the blessings of that freedom fell far short of expectations. Now, forty years after the passage of the crucial civil rights legislation, we confront a racial situation in some ways not really much better and certainly far more complex. White racism is far from dead, but it has no legal sanction or official power. For the most part it doesn’t dare show its face (although I’ve seen recent signs that this is changing, as some white people try to assume to themselves the prized status of victimhood). Yet far too many black people live in a state of cultural pathology at least as bad as that of the 1950s at their worst, and for which the blame cannot easily be laid upon whites. Now there is no straightforward measure to be taken, no law to be passed, no barrier to be removed, that anyone seriously believes could make a large and immediate difference.

I don’t know what the solution is—I don’t even in fact believe that there is A Solution, but I believe there must be and can be improvement. As Sly and the Family Stone sang in the late ‘60s, we got to live together. We don’t have a choice. Africans and Europeans are, in effect, married in the United States of America; we are, whether we like it or not, one flesh, and we must find a way to get along. As in a marriage, the only way to bring this about is love. And I suspect that the only avenue for the attainment of that love, or at least of an understanding of its necessity, is a broad and deep revival of Christian faith. Secular materialism cannot, in the long run, nourish or encourage much beyond the desire to take care of oneself and one’s own. Its love is a doomed impulse, not a law.

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2005

Black Sabbath On A Friday Night

Because my youngest daughter plays in the band, my wife and I have been going to high school football games for the past few years. The season is almost over, and as our daughter is a senior this year, the remaining few games will probably be our last. Although I’m not interested enough to go to the trouble of attending without some reason other than the game itself, I’ll miss this routine. There are few scenes more thoroughly American than the Friday night football game: the lights are bright, the grass is green, the crowd is cheerful, and if you don’t think too much about the dark side of our sports cult you can feel as if you’re participating in something innocent and earnest and harmless, something relatively untouched by the cultural decay of the past few decades.

And so it was with a little surprise that I recognized, after searching my memory for a minute, the rock-‘n’-roll riff that the band was playing at one of the first games we attended: “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath. The incongruity made me laugh out loud: here in the midst of an all-American ceremony was a bit of the cultural movement that had set out to destroy such things. I remember very well seeing the sinister covers of the first couple of Black Sabbath albums in stores when they came out in the early ‘70s, and hearing a little of the music. Both gave me the creeps, and I wanted nothing to do with them. But some of their music floated out of the then-new heavy metal ghetto into the broader stream of pop music, and now here, under the lights of a football stadium, competing with the p.a. system and the roar of the crowd, slammed out by a marching band, was one of those riffs which, I would guess, a majority of Americans under the age of 55 or so would recognize, even if they could not name it.

“Iron Man,” I soon discovered, is only one of many ‘70s riff songs that have become part of the repertoire of high-school and college bands. I suppose this is evidence that a lot of today’s high-school band directors came of age in the ‘70s. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” is a standard, and I’ve also heard another Black Sabbath song, “Paranoid” (which is, like “Louie Louie,” one of the great riffs of all time, at once dumb and unforgettable) played there. And is my imagination getting ahead of the facts, or did one band actually feature a Black Sabbath medley in its halftime show?

It seems almost quaint now, after so many far worse things have come down the pike of popular music, to think that Black Sabbath’s music and lyrics were regarded as evil. I really never heard that much of them, but I just looked up some of their lyrics online and for the most part they aren’t that bad: there are images of menace and fear, but very little of the Satanism implied by the name of the band, and a surprising number of the songs seem to be the typical complaints about a girlfriend that comprise a lot of rock music. The lyrics of both “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” though grim and gloomy, are not satanic. I doubt anyone would find them seriously frightening or disturbing now.

Still, the band did, if I remember correctly, cultivate a dark and occult atmosphere, conveying at the very least a fascination with evil. Does it mean anything that their music is now part of the Friday night football experience? Is this a testimony to the absorptive power of American culture, or a measure of its subversion?

Both, I think. Almost everyone today would recognize the name of Black Sabbath’s original lead singer, Ozzie Osbourne, who after a long career of bizarre behavior is now almost an establishment figure, greeted familiarly and affectionately by the president of the United States at a public gathering a couple of years ago. Pundits argued about the TV show which followed the clearly rather damaged Ozzie and his family around for a year or two: did it prove how far gone we are? Or did it show that even a drug-addled shock-rocker could be a good-hearted family man?

This sort of side-show can almost always be counted on to generate a controversy, and a fairly useless one. Traditionalists deplore, liberationists applaud, ho hum. Meanwhile, I noticed on CNN’s web site the other day a story about some corporation’s attempt to revive Penthouse magazine, the former and now fallen rival to Playboy. The story analyzed the business plan—which included, of course, cheerful prospects for the role the Internet and other “new media” would play in getting the products into as many hands as possible—in the same terms in which one would discuss selling office supplies or building materials.

Why worry about whether Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath may have done a bit of subcontracting here and there for Satan, when we have allowed him to set up shop openly in the town square, and treat him as a respectable merchant?

Sunday Night Journal — October 16, 2005

Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America

I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in high school. At least I think I did. I’m sure I must have read at least some of it, because otherwise how would I have such a vivid memory of disliking it? The doubt comes from the fact that I remember nothing specific about it, while I remember with perfect clarity what it was like to read the works of Shakespeare and Eliot and any number of others that caught my heart, even ones which I now see are of a lesser order, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which may once have been over-rated but might now, I suspect, be under-rated), and Carl Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and war and fog. In some of these cases I can in fact call to mind the look of the pages themselves, and often the place where I read them: I see “The Hollow Men,” for instance, laid out in my high school English textbook, and the book on my desk, and the desk in the classroom with painted concrete-block walls and some kind of institutional linoleum flooring, and the window to my left.

But Franklin? I remember only thinking that this was pretty dry stuff. It was all about being prudent and industrious, all worldliness and pragmatism. Though I wouldn’t have used those words at that time, I was able, over the next ten years or so of reading, in and out of school, to recognize what it was that I disliked in Franklin and many other American writers: a rationalistic practicality which seemed to have no eye at all for the mystery and richness of life.

I never read Franklin again, and having just read Christopher Hitchens on the Autobiography in the latest issue of The Atlantic, I doubt that I ever will. The number of books I want to read or re-read is now so great in proportion to any reasonable expectation of time remaining to me in which to read them that it seems unlikely that I will re-visit any of those with which I have little sympathy.

Mr. Hitchens is, of course, well-known for his detestation of religion. And if he reads Franklin correctly, he confirms my adolescent aversion, for he sees the Autobiography as being filled with a subtle but intense disparagement of Christianity, and the evidence he brings forward for his view says to me that Franklin was, as I think more than one of our founders were, an adherent of a sort of bloodless Whiggery, a thin and superficial skepticism which, while scoring just points against religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, leaves me feeling that I’m listening to a tone-deaf man complaining about the histrionic gestures of an orchestral conductor. He may be right that the conductor is a ham and perhaps even something of a sham, but if he doesn’t understand music, and why someone making music might be so moved as to seem eccentric, he is no more than a dog barking at a stranger.

We think of the American conflict between the irreligious and the believer as a relatively new thing, and it is newly virulent and now impossible to ignore, but in truth it has been there since the beginning. Most American writers and intellectuals have been at least quietly skeptical and often openly hostile to religion—meaning, specifically, Christianity—all along. My own sense, which pre-dates my conscious conversion, that the religious mind sees more deeply into things is most of the reason why I preferred English literature to American and never could bring myself to read much of Emerson and Thoreau. It was not that the English writers of the same period were more religious, only that they understood the issue: a writer like Carlyle knew what it meant for England to lose her religion.

Of course the religion which Franklin, Jefferson, and others rejected provided plenty of justification for their doing so. Puritanism was unattractive and difficult to sustain, and where it ebbed it left an even more unattractive shell. And so the American soul was split, with skeptical rationalism on the one hand and narrowness and emotionalism on the other.

The Catholic faith provides space and support for both these human impulses to fulfill themselves, where rationalism need not finally fling itself into the void and emotional fervor need have no fear of the facts, for it is perfectly justified by them. Although I can’t say it seems likely, it does sometimes seem possible that the future of the USA, or at least of its Christianity, is a Catholic future.

Sunday Night Journal — October 9, 2005

What was Caelum et Terra all about?

An exchange on the Caelum et Terra blog prompts me to bring up a question which often presents itself to me: what was the magazine all about, really? Perhaps the most frequent description I’ve heard is that it was an agrarian publication (agrarian and Catholic, of course). I myself always thought of that as only an implication, one of many, of some of the magazine’s central ideas, and not necessarily a necessary implication, albeit a fairly strong one.

Since Daniel Nichols was the founder and editor and the magazine was very much a reflection of his personality, he’s the one who, in the end, is most authorized to answer this question. It was also Daniel who located the contributors and, for the most part, decided what to publish. Apart from mostly relatively minor editing, my direct contribution was largely in what I myself wrote. So in a sense the question I’m going to answer is not the one I posed above but something closer to “What did Caelum et Terra mean to me?”

For me, the magazine was fundamentally about re-connecting Catholic life and thought with two things: first, the Christian culture and traditions eclipsed by secular modernism; second, nature. Let me take the latter of these first because, although it is the less important of the two, I don’t want to leave room for misapprehension. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about a romantic or Rousseau-style return to nature, and certainly not nature-worship. I mean first of all human nature, but I’ve never thought it possible to discuss human nature intelligibly without acknowledging the degree to which it is grounded in physical reality generally. Daniel included in the first issue a quotation from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger which became a sort of touchstone for me:

In the world of technology, which is a creation of man, it is not the Creator whom one first encounters; rather, man encounters only himself.

This is an extraordinarily pregnant observation. In what it says, and in what it implies, is contains a great deal of what is wrong with the modern world. To acknowledge that we first and most often encounter the Creator by means of his creation is not nature mysticism, but sound common sense and good theology. If this encounter becomes difficult or impossible, first illusion and then evil are bound to follow. In the end one can envision arriving by this path nowhere else but at the place inhabited by Milton’s Satan: Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.

I cannot doubt that man in his attempt to make the world revolve around himself, and to enforce his sin-bent will to power not just on external but on his own nature, is constructing a hell. Acknowledgement of our own nature and our situation in creation is a necessary instrument of virtue, of understanding what is and isn’t possible and permissible to us.

As for the first connection, to Christian culture and tradition, of course I mean attention to what those cultures and traditions have to say to us (and I use the plural because Caelum et Terra was always intended to be both intensely Catholic and deeply and broadly sympathetic to other traditions), but I also mean something more: a re-incorporation of some of the Christian (and indeed simply human) mental habits we have lost. As I’m attempting no more here than a hasty sketch, I’ll mention only two things.

First: what has become of our appetite for the real? For the true? We live in a culture which tends to devour every genuine cultural artifact and then offer it back to us as a flimsy and often ridiculous decoration. We accept that we should swim in a sea of half-lies for which those who utter them bear no moral responsibility whatsoever. The most advanced of us may openly deny the existence of truth, but far too many of the rest treat it in practice as optional and negotiable. I noted in a short piece published in the first issue of Caelum et Terra that advertisers do not show us the factories in which their goods are actually produced, but instead romantic images of artisans, or, if the product is something inherently factory-based such as an automobile, a fantasy which makes comparatively little reference to what the actual product actually does, but rather shows it creating a kind of heaven in which we can live in effortless pleasure. A real interior appropriation of Christian thought on a wide scale would eventually render impossible this establishment of deliberate miscommunication as a cultural habit.

Second: how can we think in all this noise? I was talking the other day about the 18th century poets who wrote entire volumes of verse in rhymed couplets, and of other artists whose accomplishments now seem almost superhuman to us. Surely one reason they were able to do these things is that their minds were more free than ours, in the sense that they had fewer distractions and were less superficially busy. They could attain, far more frequently and easily, the state of inner silence required for real thought, or real creative work, to present itself. But these accomplishments were only the flowers of culture. It seems reasonable to assume that everyone’s attention was occupied by fewer but more substantial matters than is ours—more substantial in the literal sense, harkening back to what I said earlier about nature. As with our attitude toward nature (using the term broadly), this doesn’t mean indulging in a medieval fantasy, but it does mean recognizing that something important has been lost and needs to be restored.

It may be said, quite accurately, that there is nothing specifically Christian in the preceding two paragraphs. One of Caelum et Terra’ concerns was the way in which the Gospel becomes unintelligible to people who have lost all sense of connection with the fundamentals of human life. We (I think I can use the plural here) were concerned that contemporary culture was a soil increasingly hostile to genuinely human life, and therefore to Christian faith.

Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, but not long ago I read about a saint who maintained a peaceful little garden in the midst of a city, and by means of this garden brought many to step away from the world for a short time and allow the eternal to speak to them. That garden serves as well as anything I can think of as a metaphor for what I conceived Caelum et Terra to be. For me, any specific position articulated in the magazine—any opinion on economic, politics, education, art, technology, marriage—was to be judged in light of its support for those fundamental concerns, which I considered to be compatible (in principle at least) with quite a wide range of specific opinions on controversies of the day.

Sunday Night Journal — October 2, 2005

Simply Dispose Of Them

I noticed a change in the language of the pamphlet that was inserted in today’s bulletin for Respect Life Sunday. In place of the phrase we’ve heard for some years, that human life is sacred and to be protected “from conception until natural death,” the pamphlet has “from natural conception until natural death.” What a world of disorder and disorientation is implied in that change.

It put me in mind of a conversation I had with a co-worker some years ago, when in-vitro fertilization was new. She was young, staunchly Catholic, and either recently or soon to be married to another co-worker. Last I heard, more than ten years ago, she had quit her corporate job, and she and her husband were happy and well on their way toward a large family. I mention all this by way of saying that she was certainly not disposed to reject Catholic teaching. But she was puzzled by this one, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching against artificial birth control: she couldn’t understand why, if the Church were so keen on married people having children, it would forbid this technique for accomplishing precisely that.

Thinking about this, I realized that I really don’t know much at all about IVF, so I did a Google search which took me straight to this site. There I got a very clear answer as to the Church’s reasons for condemning it, in the question-and-answer section, in response to the question “What happens to any extra pre-embryos?” The answer: “One option is to freeze pre-embryos for your later use. Other options are to donate or simply dispose of them.”

Whether or not that last phrase gives you a cold chill says a lot about your attitude toward the question which is the most decisive and fundamental of our time: whether human life is a sacred thing or just another object, whether there are any limits upon our liberty to manipulate it for our own ends. I’ve sometimes thought that “Respect Life” is a bit weak and vague as a slogan, but suddenly it seems perfect. One of my teachers in junior high school used to say that the hallmark of Western culture was the idea that every human life is sacred. I think she was right, but whether or not she was right, no one can dispute that this idea is now held in contempt by the educated elite of our society.

There is indeed something close to a lust for the destruction of the old Western idea. It’s of a piece with the lust to destroy what remains of Christian culture altogether. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic, but I don’t think so. I don’t know what else to make of developments such as the state of California, a state acknowledged to be in fiscal crisis, pouring millions of dollars into embryonic stem-cell research which is, from what I’ve read, a questionable scientific enterprise.

One engine of this drive to foster contempt for the idea that human life is unique and sacred is the desperate need clearly felt by many people to keep abortion available. Any effort to devalue embryonic life assists that effort. And does anyone really believe that the fundamental motivator of the drive for unrestricted abortion is not the drive for the end of all constraints on sexual activity? The abortion culture wishes to make uncontroversial that statement I quoted from the IVF FAQ: that a perfectly good answer to the question of what to do with the unwanted lives that are sometimes the by-products of sexual activity is “simply dispose of them.”

I don’t think I knew enough to give my co-worker a very good answer, all those years ago, about in-vitro fertilization. I hope she eventually figured it out for herself, perhaps when she apprehended for the first time that a new person had come into existence in her womb.