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December 2006

Sunday Night Journal — December 24, 2006

In a few hours I will be going to the cathedral for midnight Mass, very happy that the local television station that ordinarily televises it is not doing so this year. I suppose there’s a good argument for doing it—people who can’t get out and that sort of thing. And a far greater number can watch it on television than could fit into the cathedral (at least potentiallly—how many people watching tv past midnight are interested in a televised liturgy?). But there’s also a good argument to be made that televising it means that no one will really see it. I’ve attended that televised Mass a couple of times, and blinding the lights required for the cameras almost ruined it—entirely ruined it, if you were sitting in the wrong place. I’ve also watched it on television, and what I saw on the screen was a dead and distorted version of what a liturgy in that cathedreal is really like. I’m going to stop short of saying that the televising is a devil’s bargain, but I will say that it doesn’t seem a very good one.

I’ve offered this Christmas meditation, “The Perfect Gift,” to my readers before. Since I really have no way of knowing who reads this blog, I’ll offer it again this year, along with the wish for a very merry and blessed Christmas to all.


Music of the Week — December 24, 2006

My Favorite Christmas Music

Music of the Week resumes because I can't let Christmas go by without recommending these albums.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band: A Tapestry of Carols

For reasons that completely escape me, not everybody loves this album as much as I do. How to describe it? A sort of high-spirited band with winds, fiddles, and percussion, rather medieval-sounding at times, and Maddy Prior out front. She has the most winsome way with an English tune of anyone I know, and the more folky or low-church carols here are deeply delightful. You can hear thirty-second samples at the eMusic page above.

Anuna: Christmas Songs

Not all the way, but definitely toward, the other end of the spectrum: an angelic Irish choir, mostly unaccompanied. Rich and sweetly dignified. Also on eMusic.

R. Carlos Nakai: Winter Dreams for Christmas

Traditional carols (and one original composition) played on Navajo flute and guitar, with occasional embellishments. Except for "Silent Night," this is an instrumental album. I suppose the idea might be considered a little cheesy. I suppose one might say that it sounds a bit New-Agey. I think it's lovely, though. Samples, again, available on eMusic.

And for a totally different sort of atmosphere: Frank Sinatra: A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (I'll have to let you locate it for yourself). Robert sent me a tape of this five or six years ago (at least). I didn't take to it at first--it's really pretty hard to argue that it isn't cheesy, at least when the '50s hipster Frank is more in evidence, as in "Jingle Bells." Ok, part of its appeal for a fifty-something is nostalgia--it speaks of a time when adults were more adult. But what a great singer he was. The first half of the disk--undoubtedly side 1 of the LP--is secular Christmas songs, the second carols, done richly and respectfully. If you can handle a jazz singer doing Christmas music, I doubt you'd do better than this.


Ain't That America: Holiday Edition

Yes, I said "holiday" on purpose, because there's nothing particularly related to Christmas here, except the vaguely seasonal. I suppose most people have seen this now, as it was circulated last year, but in case you haven't--remember I was saying a few weeks ago that engineers are not dull people? Here's a bit of evidence. It is, as the youngsters say, awesome. (Note: this is a YouTube video with fairly loud sound.)

Sunday Night Journal — December 17, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (2)

Last week I closed by quoting Mark Henrie: “…traditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.” Having thought about that a little more, I’d like to elaborate on it. I don’t want to save liberalism as a philosophy, but I do want to save liberal institutions. Back in May, I started a discussion on the Caelum et Terra blog with the title Can, and Should, Constitutional Liberalism Survive? My own “quick and brutal” answer to the question was “As to the ‘should’: yes, I would like for it to, because I think at it's best it’s worked very well. But as to the ‘can’: no.”

Never mind my “no” at the moment. I was struck, in the discussion that followed, by the indifference of the mostly traditionalist Catholics to what the collapse of constitutional liberalism might mean. Of course we were talking somewhat abstractly, and one can’t generalize from the comments of those who happened to read the blog and happened to be interested enough to comment, but the most commonly voiced opinion treated constitutional liberalism as at best a poor state of affairs to be tolerated, more or less unhappily, by Catholics. The great interest was in the deficiencies of liberalism, and in the distance between the liberal state and a hypothetical Catholic one.

Here’s where a conservative temperament shows itself. One component of this temperament is undoubtedly a keen awareness that things could be worse, that there is, at the very least, an even chance that change will be for the worse, and a corresponding impulse to consider very carefully the worth of what we have and know, before discarding it in favor of what we do not have and do not know.

As Daniel Nichols said in that discussion, “A relatively peaceful and prosperous society is nothing to be taken for granted. It is hardly the norm in human history.” The liberal democracies of the West are not waging war amongst or within themselves. Our governments do not actively oppress us (yes, I know, there are many subtle ways in which we are not free, but I’m talking about real oppression, the kind that imprisons and tortures and executes at will). We can depose our rulers peacefully, if enough of us want to—a complaint about our rulers is really a complaint about ourselves. We have a level of abundance that makes real, desperate, killing poverty—the poverty of Haiti and of parts of Mexico, say—rare. We are free to practice our religion without significant restraint—we are free as individuals, and our churches are free. We do indeed have to put up with a great deal that is contrary to our faith and harmful to us and our families, and we watch far too many of our fellow citizens lost and fainting, like sheep without a shepherd, but we are not seriously inhibited in our own practice.

One can debate whether and how the development of these institutions is intertwined with liberalism, philosophically and politically, but the fact is that they developed together, and we can’t simply extract what we like and throw the rest away, as if we were peeling an apple. The task is more like separating the wheat and the tares—it’s impossible, finally, but we can do some good by nurturing what’s good and suppressing what’s bad, perhaps enough to keep the tares from taking over altogether.

Nor can we whisk away one social order, and substitute another, as if we were changing the scenery on a stage. These changes involve collapse and construction, and the collapse is often full of violence and suffering, and the construction slow, haphazard, and unguided, not particularly likely to end with something we would like.

I would rather see liberal institutions survive, which entails somehow grounding them in an absolute moral order, than wait, in pleasurable anticipation, for their collapse. My own guess as to where the uncorrected present course will take us is to something far worse. In an early issue of Caelum et Terra there was a review, by a contributor whose name I can’t remember, of a book the name of which I can’t remember, which suggested that one possible outcome of the evolution of the liberal society might be “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.” I thought I knew exactly what he meant, and I think of the phrase frequently, especially when I read a news report of some grotesque new bit of tinkering with the stuff of human life itself. “Freedom” in this new order will be, in the private sphere, almost unlimited and unattended by responsibility; in the public sphere, severely limited and ineffectual, consisting mainly of entitlement to benefits.

We can be sure, even setting aside the possibility of its being the habitation of a real anti-Christ, that an order which has decided that human life and sexuality are but machinery to be manipulated by the clever and powerful will persecute Christians. There is a rage against what is left of Christian order, and an impulse to criminalize what seems, to the new age, the intolerable hostility and active opposition of Christianity to its sexual and technical proposals. Liberalism, in both the philosophical and political senses, taking evolution as a paradigm, never expected the atavistic obstructionism of religious believers to continue to be a problem for it as late as the 21st century. Like any faith that sees itself as an organizing principle for society, it can tolerate only so much denial of and resistance to its fundamental premises. Even allowing for the intensity generated by the specific situation of the Bush presidency, many on the cultural left seem to have a permanently high level of scorn and fury. When I hear their uncensored views I think of the Irishmen of whom Yeats wrote, who would have been violent “had they but courage equal to desire.” (You could say, justly, that this is true of many on the right as well, but most of them are not anti-Christian.)

One can make a reasonable argument that the best response to this situation is to head, literally or figuratively, for the hills, and attempt to lay the foundations for a new kind of Christian civilization apart from the decaying one around us. To those who want to try this, I say “Godspeed.” My own view is that to give up on liberal institutions is to concede the future to forces heading toward a disaster which would probably not spare those enclaves in the hills. I don’t think it’s just an intellectual calamity that Solzhenitsyn has in mind when he refers to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.”



I've been hit by a bad case of One Thing After Another for several weeks now, including a major year-end crunch at work complicated by an unanticipated and, if I may say so, not altogether reasonable deadline for one task. Those who read my Sunday journal before I started this blog will have seen the legend there: Written on Sunday, generally published by Monday night, sometimes Tuesday, hardly ever as late as Wednesday.I've been doing pretty well at getting it posted by Monday night for a while now, but this one is going to be Tuesday night. It's the next in the Liberal Conservative series. I didn't quite finish it last night and have not been able to spare a minute for it today.

Also, Music of the Week is coming back after the New Year, but is, as they say, on hiatus till then. And it's probably going to be Music of the Fortnight. I started it mainly because I enjoy opinionizing about music, but it had begun to take too much time, especially as I've only been writing about pop music, and the self-imposed requirement to listen to something at least three times before writing about it was crowding out other kinds of music. I may continue it as a weekly thing, but if I do I'll also include classical music. Thing is, I don't know that I have anything particularly useful to say about classical music.

I mean, I've been listening to the first two Beethoven piano sonatas. They' good.... See what I mean? I can discuss classical music in terms of general cultural and historical trends, but I know almost nothing technically, and can't generally tell the difference between one performance and another. My friend Robert, who can, rolls his eyes when I say the actual sonic quality of the recording itself makes a bigger difference to me than the performance. The Beethoven I've been listening to is on the ECM label, which generally provides the expensive Scotch of recording technology. Some piano player named Schiff, seems to hit all the notes right.


Sunday Night Journal — December 10, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1a)

Being both occupied and preoccupied with the death of my brother-in-law, I’ve only just now been able to read some of the lengthier items that have been mentioned in comments or emailed to me in response to last week’s column. So instead of continuing with my own train of thought, I think I’ll stop tonight and respond to those.

First, my old friend Robert emails me a couple of items from the newest issue of Touchstone:

Since you may not have received it or gotten around to it, there's an entry in the Quodlibet section which I thought you might be interested in, concerning a topic by [S.M.] Hutchens titled “Holy Economics”:

“…The problem with socialism is its tendency to harm the individual in favor of the common good, and with capitalism its tendency to harm the common good for the enlargement of the individual. Both—as theoretical systems—are to be avoided.”

“The historian Phillip Schaff said of Calvinism and Arminianism that the Bible was more human than the first, more divine than the second and more Christian than either. Of capitalism and socialism as economic theory and practice it might be similarly said that holy economics is more selfless than the first, more interested in the individual than the second, and kinder than either.”

I have in fact received the magazine but have not so much as opened it, being now two full issues and part of a third behind. This is excellent. I particularly like the remark about avoiding both as theoretical systems. I’m adding my own emphasis to the word “theoretical,” as I think that’s very important: both words together point to one of the great mistakes typical of our time, the effort to impose a mechanical paradigm on social life and then to invent “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (I think that’s Eliot).

In my experience most discussions of capitalism in the abstract plunge directly into a false dichotomy which arises from the fact that it really doesn’t have a definition which is at once clear and generally accepted. Some pro-capitalists will assert that it simply means the legitimacy of private property, making any criticism of any market-based behavior a profession of Communism. Likewise, some socialists seem to define it as the right of the rich to feed their cats and dogs with the vital organs of the poor. It’s pretty difficult to argue against “capitalism” in the first case, or for it in the second.

Responding to my remark that “Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism,” Robert adds: “Maybe true, but there is a non-utopian socialism, a postmodern one if you will, of which we have everything to fear. Look to Europe where this postmodern socialism is poised to destroy it altogether.”

I can’t speak to this myself, but Robert has spent some time in Europe, and I haven’t. And I’ve heard some surprisingly loud complaints about European attitudes toward work, business, and bureaucracy from a couple of young Americans who have lived in France and Germany for a year or more and who are by no means on the political right (at least not by American standards).

Next, this lengthy item by Russell Arben Fox, which is really an informal essay that rather stretches the boundaries of the blog post. I’m not going to try to summarize it, but it’s very much worth reading. Dr. Fox is a political science teacher and scholar, and I’m pretty quickly out of my academic depth in trying to follow his points about Rousseau, Hegel, Derrida, and others. And I can’t define terms like “post-structuralist” and “anti-essentialist” (although I think I figured out the latter from context). The truth is, I’m not very interested in banging around among the works of people like Rousseau et. al. With my sixtieth year not very far over the horizon, I’m very conscious that the time remaining to me is not unlimited, and I don’t care to use very much of it studying political theory. I also have less inclination than Dr. Fox to look for kindred spirits on the left, which is partly a temperamental thing and partly a suspicion that there is not as much room there for the values he wants to preserve as he hopes.

Still, there is much here with which to agree, and much to think about. I particularly like this:

Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now).

As a Catholic, of course I think the Benedictine response perfectly reasonable and possibly advisable, though I myself am not in a position to make it. Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons talks of it as an option, following Alisdair Macintyre (whom I have not actually read but am always reading about). Daniel Nichols and I and a number of others talked about it a lot in Caelum et Terra ten or fifteen years ago, but I notice neither Daniel nor I is talking about it much anymore. So far, aside from actual Benedictines or other religious, no substantial movement for the establishment of formally set-apart Catholic communities along the lines of the Amish has appeared, even though a great many of us think it might be a good idea. This, I think, reveals some weakness, and perhaps some child-of-the-times-ness: we aren’t, finally, ready to make the sacrifices such an effort would require.

And, lastly, Mark Henrie of ISI, where he is among other things senior editor of Modern Age, sent me a link to a terrific essay of his which appeared in The New Pantagruel, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” I would have even less hope of doing it justice in a summary than I did with Dr. Fox’s post above. It’s quite long, but tNP is among the most readable web publications, and this is well, well worth the time. I’m going to include some snippets which I think particularly good, with occasional comments in italics:

The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia....The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

[And later: ] Wherever there is a sense of loss, the conservative knows that there lies an indicator of the human good.

...The sovereignty of the people as the sole legitimating principle of the liberal regime places in question the sovereignty of God. [I don’t think there could be a more succinct statement of the core problem of liberalism in general and the United States in particular.]

...Whereas the Enlightenment “builds down” from politics to morals, the conservative “builds up” from morals to politics.

...autonomous individuals bristling with rights... [that’s just a great phrase]

And, finally, I think this is the essential distinction between the liberal conservative and the conservative (or for that matter liberal) liberal:

…[T]raditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.


A Death in the Family

My brother-in-law passed away Wednesday night. It was not unexpected, as he had been in a slow decline for several years and a faster one for the past few months, so it hasn't come as a major blow to the family. I mention it here because events surrounding it have prevented me from reading the lengthier things that people have either emailed me or posted links to here. I hope I can catch up over the next few days.

And about that term "passed away." I'd never really thought about how accurate it is for the specific moment, the process, of death. You look at someone who was alive a few minutes ago and that's exactly the sort of phrase that comes to mind: passing, departing, leaving. It's a moment when you have an intuitive sense of the existence of the soul--you catch a glimpse of it in the fact of its absence.

Nothing you can't explain away if you choose, of course.


Sunday Night Journal — December 3, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1)

This is part one not because I have a grand plan but because I know I will have more to say about this topic than I can say tonight. A single more lengthy and more organized essay is probably called for, but that isn’t likely to get done anytime soon, and I want to talk about this now. It has to do with an exasperating subject: the definition of socio-political labels and categories, something I’ve been pretty uninterested in for a while, but which has gotten my attention again.

Courtesy of ISI Books, I have been reading a review copy of their new Solzhenitsyn Reader, and reading it with great and growing interest. I’d never read Solzhenitsyn apart from the famous Harvard address of 1978, although, like an awful lot of people old enough to have been buying books in the ‘70s, I have that paperback of The Gulag Archipelago which was then as ubiquitous as it was unread. Right off, in the introduction, I found these observations from the editors (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney):

To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories of late modernity....Solzhenitsyn’s alternative to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” has never been a romantic communal or theocratic society, rather a free one where individual rights are limited by “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”….Solzhenitsyn is a partisan of “liberty under God” against the pernicious illusion that men can build a world that defers to no limits above the autonomous human will….Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a liberal conservative who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice.

Ah, that’s me, I thought. Then circumstances kept me away from the book for several days, and I found myself unable to remember: did they say “liberal conservative” or “conservative liberal”? The second didn’t seem right. Why not? What is the difference?

To make “liberal” the noun and “conservative” the adjective implies that “liberal” is the core principle. But liberalism as a philosophy is not something a Christian can maintain. The two broad categories into which political ideas in our time are divided, however unsatisfactorily, are, at their most internally consistent, the party of religion and the party of skepticism. Conservatism is generally committed to a core religious metaphysic, at the least to a sense that there are eternal truths to which human thought and behavior must conform, and that the good life, for nations as well as for individuals, consists in working out that relationship. Pure classical liberalism—the liberalism of John Stuart Mill—is the philosophy of the always-open question, attempting to take its view of the development of society from the physical sciences: yesterday we believed such-and-such, which we now know to have been false; today we believe its negation, and that is progress, which is good. (The obvious next item in the sequence, that tomorrow we may understand today’s certainty to have been utterly misguided, is generally not given much attention, especially in the political realm—liberalism in practice takes the always-open question as implying an always-expanding personal freedom, and the possibility that progress might involve a return to what we believed the day before yesterday is not entertained.)

So a Christian is not, by definition, a philosophical liberal, and the phrase for the Christian Solzhenitsyn, as well as for me—the Christian who wants to preserve what is good and healthy in modernity, which is of course deeply involved with liberalism—must be “liberal conservative.”

The question immediately presents itself: “isn’t this the same thing as neo-conservatism?” Well, perhaps, but I think the term neo-conservative, denoting, in the famous phrase, a liberal mugged by reality, ought to refer to one who remains at heart a philosophical liberal. The Catholic neo-conservatives—notably the Nogelhaus, as I like to call the prominent trio of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus—would not fit this strict definition. It might be said that “neo-conservative” is now less useful as descriptive nomenclature than as the name of a party, a party to which the Nogelhaus certainly belongs.

In fact I don’t know that I have that much disagreement with the Catholic neo-conservatives (to continue to use the conventional term) in principle, based on their stated ideas alone (to the extent that I’m familiar with them, which is not all that great) and ignoring the widely held view that they’re up to something sinister which they’re hiding. Like them, I want very much to preserve liberal institutions, chiefly republican government and the republican concepts of citizenship, ordered liberty, and religious toleration as we have known them for much of the past couple of hundred years; in short, I want to conserve the genuine achievements of liberalism. (How much the existence of these institutions really owes, historically speaking, to liberalism, and how much to Christianity, is a question I’ll leave to historians, noting only that it certainly owes something, and something fairly substantial, to liberalism.)

My main argument with the Catholic neo-conservatives concerns their failure to see the real nature of corporate capitalism. They see its undeniable power as an engine of material achievement, but at best give insufficient attention to the fact that in principle it honors no principle. I don’t mean that most businessmen are personally unprincipled or dishonest—I don’t think they are—but that the system itself, as actually understood and practiced, is one straightforward thing: an engine for generating profit. It has no means within it to distinguish a licit from an illicit line of trade. Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism: it is to the corporation’s advantage, at least in the short term, that citizens should be replaced by consumers, the more malleable, suggestible, and passive the better. Moreover, corporate capitalism as we know it is, in the long run, inimical to the widespread possession of meaningful private property, as distributists have been arguing for decades. “Liberty under God” must include taming the corporate as well as the individual appetite, and as far as I know the neo-conservatives have had little or nothing to say about this.

The irony of liberalism the philosophy is that it leads to the death of liberal institutions. The conservative liberal, if there is such a thing, is ill-equipped to save them. It may distress him that the Holiday Inn, once a symbol of bland Americanism, now offers pornographic movies, but he will feel himself obliged to tolerate every new phase of the slide into squalor. It takes a liberal conservative to give liberal institutions a set of principles that can resolve the contradiction and upon which those institutions can endure.

“Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.” –Bob Dylan


More Fun With Wagner

Notwithstanding my experience with Siegfried, I've continued to get further acquainted with Wagner. I've decided that, in general, opera on video is a bad idea (more about that in another post). I still plan to see the video project through but Gotterdamerung is on hold until the Christmas break, when my youngest daughter will be home from college. She got as far as Die Walkure with us and wants to see the others.

My approach now is to focus on the music, totally ignoring the visual aspect and putting the text in the background. I check out an opera from the local library and play each disc several times running (over the space of several days or a week). I look at the booklet to determine what part of the action the disc covers, then set it aside. I find that this, along with the faint memories of high school and college German that enable me to recognize words and phrases here and there, is enough to give me a rough idea of what's happening, and it eliminates the distraction of trying to follow every word. (It also allows me to do this while commuting.)

I've also been listening to Speight Jenkins' recorded guide to the Ring, which is fascinating. It's not quite what I wanted--I was looking for a full guide to the musical motifs, whereas Jenkins focuses more on character and drama, but it's still worthwhile.

The result is that I'm coming to like the music more and more, and Wagner as a visionary artist/prophet less and less. The Ring is clearly a stupendous achievement, but there's something rotten at the core of it.

A side effect of this expedition is that I'm even less receptive than I was, which was not very, to the argument that there is something fundamentally noble about classical music, and fundamentally degrading about popular music. Classical music is, obviously, richer and more complex, but it is not necessarily any healthier spiritually.