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September 2008

Sunday Night Journal — September 28, 2008

Hope First

One day last week Francesca Murphy said something in a comments thread that I wanted to pursue a bit further, but I was too busy. So I’ll do it now. Francesca said:

In modern times, especially in the 19th century, Christianity re-presented itself, (partly) and partly was re-presented by others, as being essentially about ethics. Its metaphysical not even to mention its mystical claims were not of great interest to moderns, but its ethics were.

I think this is true. It strikes me, too, looking at Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, that an emphasis on the faith as primarily concerned with ethics is characteristic of many factions that are in their specific concerns very hostile to each other. (I’m just going to refer to “Christianity” here, as what I’m going to say is applicable to the Christian community at large, not only to the Catholic Church.) The religious right, the social-justice left, and even traditionalists who wish to restore a past Christian order or create a new one have in common that they appear to the world as simply one group among many with a set of ideas about how to run the world. There’s nothing wrong—in fact there’s much right—about Christians presenting their social-political vision to the world on its own merits, and not as something of interest only to Christians. But if that’s all people see of the faith then its nature is being fundamentally misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s a commonplace that Christianity is not to be identified with any specific political system. But more importantly, and more essentially, it shouldn’t be seen as a primarily an ethical program at all, whether social or personal. Christian morality comes after the Gospel and much of it only makes sense in that light.

That’s a matter of truth, and also an important point for evangelization. If the first and possibly only thing an outsider knows about Christianity is, for instance,a its sexual morality, he may just laugh and pass on, believing it silly, outmoded, and repressive. To really understand why Christianity teaches what it does about sexual behavior, you have to understand what it teaches about the essential nature of sex itself and of the human person.

Moreover, to preach a system of ethics is usually to engage in an argument, and in this case it may well be an argument that is crippled by lack of agreement on underlying principles. And when an argument begins people usually want to win more than they want to arrive at truth, and this is as true of the Christian in this case as of the other. So a situation may be created where the non-Christian has a strong (and probably unacknowledged) motivation not to agree. This is especially true now when so many people are so angry about politics and all the cultural questions connected to religion.

The core of Christianity is that it is an answer to the most fundamental questions and deepest longings of human life: What is my purpose? Why must I die? Is the longing for perfect happiness that I’ve had since I was born simply an illusion that will die with me? To say to a person asking these questions that the hope of such fulfillment is as reasonable as the hope of water to a thirsty man seems a much better place to start than the moral principles which are a means toward that end. To preach morality first is often to preach in the very unpopular sense of that word. Christian hope logically precedes Christian morality.

Returning to Francesca’s comment: I would like to think we might be entering a time where the world is once again interested in Christianity’s metaphysical and mystical claims. If this is true in the modernized world—Europe, America, much of Asia—it’s probably because we have attained so much and are still so unhappy.

I don’t mean, obviously—well, maybe not so obviously, as I’ve occasionally had some very curious views attributed to me when I didn’t explicitly deny them—I don’t mean that Christians should avoid discussing ethics or refrain from making a Christian case on political and cultural controversies. It’s a matter of emphasis, and of what comes first.


The Princess Bride

Just finished watching it. Delightful. I can see why people are such big fans of it. I think I mentioned when it was discussed in the comments that I had seen bits and pieces while other family members were watching it, to which Ryan C replied that you really need to see it from the start, which is true.


Music of the Week: Metallic Falcons - Desert Doughnuts

Although this album could be categorized broadly as coming from the world of indie rock, it’s not a collection of songs but an extended sonic ambience in which fragments of music appear and disappear. I would think most people would find it either irritating or captivating. I’m definitely in the latter group.

How to describe it? Imagine a ghost town in the desert, “ghost” not only in the sense of being abandoned, but in the sense of being inhabited by ghosts. First there are the ghosts of the late 1800s when the town was born and died with a gold rush that soon fizzled out, or was built on the path of a railroad that proved to have no good reason to exist. And then there are ghosts of the mid-1900s, when hippies and rock bands used it as a brief escape from the city. You’ve been set down in the middle of the street (there’s only one) in the middle of the night. And you start to hear sounds coming out of the darkness: distant instruments and voices from the old music hall, a rock band fooling around with half-finished songs, whispers, sad young girls singing of loneliness and longing, encounters with strange beings (perhaps angels) and the sounds of the desert itself.

If that sounds at all intriguing to you, you’d probably like this. It’s mainly the work of two young women, and has a sort of guarded whimsy that I’ve noticed occasionally in sensitive young women who seem to be trying to escape or protect themselves from the brutal sexual climate of the times—notice the cover art, here, where you can also hear samples. And here’s a video; this track, “Airships,” is one of the more straightforward ones. By the way, there’s no sound until about 37 seconds in, so don’t crank the volume on your PC till after that. Length: 3:55.


Summer Afternoon

This hot-weather image is about out of season now, so I’ll go ahead and post it before it becomes even more so. Summer is over, astronomically speaking, but it takes a while to phase out here. I went outside a little while ago in my usual warm-weather off-work uniform of shorts and t-shirt and found the temperature almost cool enough to be uncomfortable, at least with a breeze blowing—somewhere in the low 60s (F, 16 or so C).

(Click for larger)


Sunday Night Journal — September 21, 2008

My Election Prediction

No, I’m not going to predict who will win this November’s presidential election, because my guess on that subject would be no better than anyone else’s and worse than many. My prediction is that no matter who is inaugurated on January 20, 2009, the country will not be all that much different in January, 2013 as a direct result of that person’s policies.

This may seem a strange prediction to be making at the very moment when the expanding financial crisis seems in fact to have the potential for changing things a great deal, and for the worse. But that’s why I include that final clause: as a direct result of that person’s policies. If things are in fact very different four years from now, the difference will probably have been made by events that are mostly outside the control of the president.

Domestically, it seems to me that, broadly speaking, the situation that existed in roughly the mid-1970s has not changed very much and is not likely to change very much unless some external event causes it to. It was in the ‘70s that the great shifts of the ‘60s resulted in a social, cultural, and political landscape very different from that of the period between roughly 1945 and 1965. And it seems to me that the basic picture that fell into place then has not fundamentally changed.

To fully support my view would require much more time and space than I want to devote to it, but here are a few instances. It was in the 1970s that:

  • The sexual revolution was won by the revolutionaries; long-standing moral traditions about sex, marriage, and family lost their standing as widely accepted principles. Of course most people didn’t go as far as the extreme revolutionaries, but enough of their ideas took hold to change the basic consensus. The connection between sex and marriage was denied and both were trivialized. Pornography became mainstream.. Etc.

  • The movement of women into the workplace became the norm, conceptually if not statistically. The middle-class neighborhood that in the past had been filled, during the day, with women and children was, by the 1980s, pretty much deserted between 8 and 5: almost everybody went out to work, school, or day-care.

  • Health care costs shot through the roof and insurance became an increasingly expensive and uncertain proposition.

  • Alarm set in about the ability of the government to maintain Social Security and other long-term “entitlements.” The loud expression of this alarm and an absolute refusal to do anything concrete about the situation became a feature of every election.

  • What we now call the culture war, which began as a battle between hippies and Christians—yes, that’s an oversimplification, and I meant for it to be funny, but I think it’s broadly justifiable—became a permanent feature of national life, with a polarizing effect on politics as moral and cultural disputes became political ones, each side wishing to gain control of the state or at least prevent the other from doing so.

  • Energy costs went from being a minor concern to a primary one, with dependence on oil helping to tie us to the explosive politics of the Middle East, and everyone decrying the dependence but no one taking any serious steps to mitigate it—not the people, who simply wanted big cars and houses at the lowest possible cost, and not the politicians, who wanted votes and didn’t think that delivering bad news was the way to get them (look what happened to Jimmy Carter).

  • After the great leap away from legal segregation, the promise of racial harmony dissipated into an unhappy and uneasy estrangement which still exists.

  • A sort of Chicken Little mentality set in, with the fervent partisans on both ends of the political divide seeing the other as being on the verge of destroying the country. Throughout the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II administrations there have been people screaming that very little of the republic would survive the current presidency. But at the end of each, the domestic situation has emerged looking a great deal as it had before.  

I think things are both not as bad as and rather worse than the more agitated among us do. I don’t think, for instance, that the Iraq war has undone us as a nation, allowed the Bush administration to “shred the Constitution,” etc. Nor do I think Islamic terrorism is a threat to our existence. I don’t mean to minimize the effect of these things on the people who are close to them, or to deny that presidents have made any difference at all, for good and ill. I’m only saying that for most people most of the time the daily routine of life in the America of today is not dramatically different from daily life in the America of September 10, 2001.

Nor do I mean to minimize the long-term effects of events like 9/11, or of the slow cultural changes of the past thirty-plus years as they have affected, for instance, marriage—because I do believe that things have changed, and are changing, and overall for the worse. But that’s another story. Suffice to say that I think the changes are slow and relatively subtle, that they drive politics more than they are driven by politics, and that—to return to my prediction—they won’t be affected dramatically by whoever wins the next presidential election.

There are two obvious possible calamities that could have truly serious effects on everyone or almost everyone in the country: a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons and a complete financial collapse. (Of course there are others—an asteroid striking the earth, for instance—but those two come first to mind for me.) If either of those happens it will probably be the case that the president and his administration bear some, or perhaps much, responsibility for not having done things that might have prevented it. What I’m saying is that I don’t think any direct positive action by a president is likely to produce effects on that scale. And that a significant part of the emotion we invest in the election is a struggle over symbols and rhetoric.

These thoughts were prompted in part by a review in a recent Atlantic by Ross Douthat of Nixonland, a history of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (read the review here). I agree with Douthat that those who believe we are now in a major crisis don’t fully appreciate the seriousness of the crisis of the late ‘60s. Let’s not forget that--to pick two examples—cities were burning in the riots of the late ‘60s and the university system was all but paralyzed in the spring of 1970. By the mid-‘70s those shocks had passed and the country had stabilized in a new configuration. And we’re still living in it.


Einstürzende Neubauten - Stella Maris

While writing last Sunday’s journal I looked for the hymn “Stella Maris” and came across this song and video. I recognized the name of the group: Einstürzende Neubauten (“new buildings that are collapsing”) is known as one of the originators of a musical style called “industrial” which sounds very much like you might expect it to (I’m assuming most people who read this blog don’t know this). But I’d never heard any of their music. Apparently they’ve branched out from their industrial roots. Anyway, I think both the song and the video are very beautiful. (The clip is 3:41 long.)


Demonic Peachdroid Menaces Interstate Travelers

Ok, I admit I’ve been taking pictures while driving again. This is from a few weeks ago when I made a trip up to north Alabama. (For the full effect, click through to the larger version.)

Up in Chilton county, 200 hundred miles or so from here (300 km or so), they grow really, really good peaches. And they are very proud of their peaches—so much so that they built and painted their water tower to look like a peach. I really wanted to get a picture of this rising out of the trees like the moon as I approached, but I missed it and didn’t want to go back. Next time...


Abusing the Union Jack

This morning’s local paper had a letter from a transplanted Englishman (an acquaintance of mine, actually) complaining that the various Union Jacks being flown around Mobile are upside down. (They’re part of displays commemorating the fact that in the course of its history the city has been under a number of different flags.) This came as a surprise to me, as I had no idea that the Union Jack has an upside-down—if you had asked me I would have said it was symmetrical horizontally (and vertically, for that matter). My wife, who knows his wife, remarked that “N says he complains about that all the time.”

So I made a point of checking out the Union Jack that I pass (without noticing) most mornings on the way to work. I couldn’t see that flipping it over would have changed it at all.

My wife did a little research on the web and here are the results.



It kind of makes my head spin to look at these together. So now you know, and if you ever need to display the flag of the UK you have no excuse for getting it wrong. Although as soon as I look away from the picture I can no longer remember which is right.

By the way, I think it would look better if the small red stripes were centered in the white ones. I wonder if the queen has an email address.


Ross Douthat On the Recent Brideshead Movie

It was just a couple of days ago that I got around to reading Ross Douthat’s review of the new Brideshead adaptation in the Sept.1 National Review. Many of us had concluded from the publicity that it was going to be really bad and we weren’t interested in seeing it. If Douthat is right, so are we.

After noting that he is more likely than, for instance, me, to be open to it, because he doesn’t consider the book an untouchable classic and hasn’t seen the 1981 version, he continues:

Alas, the new Brideshead Revisited has one damning disadvantage: It was produced by a group of utter fools. Indeed, if the passel of philistines responsible for this botch of a movie didn’t exist, Waugh himself would have had to invent them. One can’t dismiss outright the possibility that the new Brideshead is some sort of posthumous prank by the master, and that its writers and director, in particular, exist only as Waughian send-ups of a certain modern movieland type, rather than as actual flesh-and-blood nincompoops. Not since Roland Joffe transformed The Scarlet Letter into a bodice-ripping vehicle for Demi Moore’s thespian ambitions (and surgically augmented breasts) has an adaptation of a classic novel labored so strenuously to miss the point of its source material.

He concludes that it must be “a satire of clueless, artless secularism.”


Sunday Night Journal — September 14, 2008

Ave Maris Stella

The period from roughly the quarter moon through the three-quarter moon gives me of lot of pleasure if the nights are clear or partly clear. That’s when my nightly walk with the dogs, which usually happens somewhere between nine and eleven (maybe later on weekends), gives me a chance to see the moon in the west or southwest shining over Mobile Bay. I had several such nights last week, and I very much wish I had the skill to paint a picture of it, or at least to photograph the scene. I could try to paint it in words, of course, but at least for me such word-pictures rarely work. In general the more detailed they are the less they succeed, but that’s probably because I lack the visual imagination. So I’ll leave it at just a few suggestions: moonlight on the sand, a fallen tree to sit on, glittering dark wavelets breaking, and a wide path of light leading from the shoreline to the horizon.

For the past two or three nights the moon has been approaching the full and doesn’t get over the water (from my west-facing point of view) until sometime after midnight, so it’s rare that I see the full moon on the other side of the water from me. But last night I had something else almost as good: bright moonlight shining from the east on tall banks of white clouds to the west, over the bay. The clouds were moving swiftly, at the far outskirts of the winds of Hurricane Ike.

Clouds covered perhaps two-thirds of the sky, so the moonlight came and went, as did my view of the fairly few stars visible within the ambient light of town. Off to the south, toward the open sea, there was one very bright star or planet. It made me think of my favorite of the many titles given to Our Lady: “stella maris,” “star of the sea.” As stars and seas are two of the most beautiful things in the world, combining them this way in praise of the one unstained yet ordinary human being is sublime.

So I thought this seemed a good time to pray to her. But when I looked toward that star again it was behind the clouds. Well, no matter, I know it’s still there so I’ll go ahead: “Blessed mother, I beg you to pray for….” And at that instant, in a very brief pause between the request and its object, the star emerged from the clouds and stayed there until I finished my brief prayer, adding “Hail, star of the sea.”

Just coincidence? Perhaps. Or one small sign, a sort of smile from the other world, a barely audible whisper of yes, we are here? There’s no way to know, but I think there is a realm of knowledge, perhaps never accessible to us because we are too limited, where the distinction has no meaning.

A lot of people prayed last week that the fury of Hurricane Ike would be averted or ameliorated. The storm surge—the giant wave that a hurricane pushes before it—was predicted to be over twenty feet (six meters) high, but in the event was much less. From what I have seen on TV and read, the difference spared the lives of many on Galveston Island. Coincidence? Blind luck? Answered prayer? We won’t know in this life. God almost never makes it impossible for us not to believe. Or even very difficult.


Music of the Week: The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee

I listened to this album once and thought “wow, that’s brilliant, in a twisted sort of way.” Then several months went by before I got around to listening to it again, I think partly because I was in no big hurry to revisit the twisted part. When I finally did, I half-expected to change my mind about the brilliant part. But I didn’t. The Mountain Goats are, or at least were for a long time, a mainly one-man project, and that man, John Darnielle, is one of the most gifted songwriters in pop music, especially in his lyrics.

Musically, this is a pretty stripped-down album, although according to the reviews it’s actually more polished and varied than previous Mountain Goats releases. It’s mostly one or two acoustic guitars, Darnielle’s voice, and occasional percussion, electric guitar, bass, piano, and organ. Most of the guitar you hear is a very propulsively strummed acoustic. Darnielle’s voice is nothing very special, but it seems perfectly suited to the material: direct, pointed, able to convey a combination of anger and despair with controlled vehemence that only makes it more powerful.

So where does the twisted part come in? Well, this is a sort of concept album about an unhappy married couple who have moved, for reasons left obscure, to Tallahassee, where they are engaged in a sort of warfare which is clearly going to be the end of the marriage. When I say they’re “unhappy” I mean…well, here’s a sample lyric. This song begins with a pretty and gentle guitar figure and the words “My love is like…” So you think a tender moment is coming, but what you get is:

My love is like a powder keg
My love is like a powder keg
In the corner
of an empty warehouse
Somewhere just outside of town
About to burn down

The last verse begins “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania…” The title of the song is “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” with that traffic as a metaphor for a situation in which two people are busy accumulating weapons to use against each other. Here’s another sample, from the song that seems the emotional climax or rather nadir of the album, “No Children:”

Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over

I’m not much of a fan of bitter domestic dramas in any medium, but the thing about this one is that it’s extremely funny. Yes, even those lines I just quoted, in their musical context and with Darnielle’s sardonic delivery, can make you laugh. Rob O’Connor’s eMusic review here says it very well. You can also hear samples at that link.

By the way, an extra attraction for anyone who’s ever lived on the Gulf Coast is that the lyrics are very evocative of the atmosphere—the heat and humidity—of our region.

This is the only thing I’ve heard by The Mountain Goats. I definitely plan to hear more.


Pray for Coastal Texas

I'm not going to pretend I'm sorry that Hurrican Ike is not coming here. But I really do feel for the people in its path. As you may or may not know, it's bearing down on Galveston, which was hit by a hurricane in 1900 that resulted in the greatest loss of life of any natural disaster in U.S. history. There is a very fine and—especially if you live on the Gulf Coast—very scary book about that event, Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson. I happened to be reading it a week before Hurricane Katrina.

Ike is expected to make landfall "late Friday or early Saturday," according to current reports. A hurricane at night is much more frightening than one that arrives in daylight. One can only imagine what it must have been like before modern transportation and communication made it possible to keep such a close eye on these storms. Galveston in 1900 knew that a big storm was coming, but had no idea just how big it would be, and of course when they began to realize the truth it was too late.

While I'm on the subject: even though the storm is hundreds of miles away from here, we're getting some flooding in low-lying areas. My wife took some pictures yesterday (from her car, on the way to work) of flooding on the Mobile Bay causeway, a sort of land bridge across the bay. Much of it is quite low and floods fairly often. You can see the pictures here. I think she took these mostly for our absentee children. If you don't know the area, it may not be apparent, but most of the water you see in these pictures is not supposed to be there—normally there would not be water any closer to the car than 50-100 yards/meters. From what I saw this morning the flooding was probably greater today.



I walked out the door one day last week and heard a repeated low buzzing sound that I’d never heard before. I finally realized that it was coming from this heron perched in a dead tree across the creek. The normal heron noise is loud and ugly—something like a crow’s call but lower in pitch and considerably louder (these are big birds, if you can’t tell from the picture—probably something like 5ft/1.5m in wingspan). It can be a little alarming if you get close to one without seeing it and it suddenly leaps screaming into the air. I don’t know what the low sound was about.

(Click for larger)

Now that I have a camera, I want a better one. I wanted to zoom in further than this, and the auto-focus is kind of unreliable—this really should have been sharper.


Palin Madness

It seems that Sarah Palin’s nomination has driven the entire country and parts of the rest of the world completely crazy. On the left, the mere sight of her and her family apparently sends some people into a frenzy. Mark Shea and Rod Dreher (see links in sidebar) have been documenting a lot of this. In some feminists the effect is especially marked. I’ve noted for a long time the special malice they have for conservative women, whom they see as traitors, and Palin has brought it out in spectacular fashion: see this, this, and this for some really over-the-top examples.

On the right, we’re seeing something similar to the Obama phenomenon: a candidacy with such great symbolic impact that people are reading impossible promise into it.

We see the left complaining that a woman is not staying at home with her family, and the right screaming “Sexism!” at every opportunity. I’d like to think the madness reached a peak yesterday with the “lipstick on a pig” fiasco, in which the McCain campaign, not content to let the opposition dig its own grave with hysterics, resorted in a web advertisement to an an out-and-out lie (it’s the words “Barack Obama On: Sarah Palin” that take it from typical political distortion into the category of plain old lie).

All of this confirms to me something I’ve been thinking for a while: that presidential elections are now primarily symbolic contests. I don’t mean that the office is only symbolic—obviously it’s extremely powerful. But the emotions aroused are disproportionate and intense in a way that indicates that something deeper than disagreement about policy is at work. And it is; it’s what we have called for some years now the culture war. Politicians, journalists, and the public act as if we’re electing a philosopher-king, as if the president, and not Congress, were the source of all law, and as if the president, not the Supreme Court, were the final determiner of what the law means. The president can neither destroy nor repair nor command the religious belief or disbelief of the nation, the character of the people, the cultural conditions which precede politics.

As I’ve said, I think Palin’s candidacy is a promising sign. But this madness is quite the opposite of promising.


A Note On the Culture Wars

Francesca brought up the topic of the American culture wars yesterday, which I think are pretty puzzling to Europeans, and coincidentally I later read a really good comment on the topic by Pentimento. A big chunk of her post is a quote from Tertium Quid, who blogs at From Burke to Kirk, and you should click through and read his post, too (or go directly here). I’m resisting the temptation just to quote Pentimento’s very insightful last paragraph; go thou and read.


Sunday Night Journal — September 7, 2008

Arguing Conservatism

The ISI (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) put me on its list for review copies of their books a while back, and I haven’t held up my end. I haven’t mentioned them here very often, or written any reviews at all for the local paper, because I haven’t had time to read most of them. But a really fascinating one showed up the other day, and I can discuss it without having read much of it: it’s called Arguing Conservatism (Mark C. Henrie, ed.) and is a huge (over 950 pages) anthology of material from the Intercollegiate Review, one of the ISI’s periodicals.

The collection gets off to a great start with a 1968 piece by Will Herberg: “What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?”

The moral crisis of our time cannot, it seems to me, be identified merely with the widespread violation of accepted moral standards, for which our time is held to be notorious. There has never been any lack of that at any time…. No—the moral crisis of our time goes deeper, and is much more difficult to define and account for. Briefly, I should say that the moral crisis of our time consists primarily not in the widespread violation of accepted moral standards….but in the repudiation of those very moral standards themselves.

Exactly. I like this point because it’s one I often make. I’ve always seen a lot of wisdom in the somewhat cynical observation that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice plays to virtue.” Hypocrisy is a bad thing, of course. But there’s a tendency these days, a very widespread tendency, to make it the absolute worst crime of all, as if it were worse to do wrong and be ashamed than to do wrong and not be ashamed.

The repudiation of traditional moral standards noted by Herberg does not mean, as might be feared, the disappearance of morals, because we naturally and inevitably think and behave in moral terms. What it does mean is the emergence of new standards, and we get some sense of the change in the intriguing  final piece in the book: “The Fifty Worst (and Best) Books of the Century” (that would be the 20th century, of course—and by the way they limited themselves, for practical reasons, to non-fiction published in English).

There’s something endearingly emblematic of conservative pessimism in the relative emphases of “Worst” and “Best” in that title. Each list of fifty begins with a top five, the worst of the worst and best of the best. The five worst are:

Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?
Alfred Kinsey, et. al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
John Dewey, Democracy and Education

You can see in these titles the outlines of an approach to moral thinking which is now very common among a large and amorphous but clearly recognizable segment of Americans and Europeans, an approach resting on the principle that the individual has an unlimited license to pleasure, and it is the job of the state to secure that license. The Communism of the Webbs is only outdated because it didn’t do a  good job of providing material welfare; the underlying presumption that ultimate responsibility lies with the state, not the individual, is still very much with us. In the United States it’s less the state than a vague they which encompasses the welfare state, the national security state, and corporate capitalism. The source of most of what goes wrong in the world is seen as a social, not an individual matter; the individual is passive, mostly acted upon rather than acting. They did it, and they must fix it.

The five best books are:

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Whittaker Chambers, Witness
T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

I note immediately that none of these is a direct response or counter-argument to the five worst, with perhaps the exception of Witness, the work of a one-time Communist. Rather, they speak to the underlying cultural and philosophical movements which produced the bad books. And this is as it should be for a conservative argument which begins with Russell Kirk’s “permanent things.” One of those permanent things is human nature, and it’s on that level that the five good books do constitute a response to the five bad books: they are concerned with the question “What is a human being?” and with correcting the false answer to that question given by the Marxists and hedonists—in other words, by materialists.

Kirk is of course represented in this book, along with many other names on the more philosophical, religious, and culturally-oriented side of conservatism, people who are not necessarily Christian (though many are) but who, at a minimum, have a deep respect for the Western spiritual tradition: Richard Weaver, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Thomas Molnar, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Louise Cowan, and a great many more. Perhaps I should describe them rather as being on the conservative side of  philosophy, religion, and culture—conservatives in some sense, but not necessarily part of the ideological and political right wing. This is a distinction which seems ever more important, as the country’s political dialogue sinks further into unreasoning reaction of left and right against each other, one long scream of “he hit me first.”

Of the ten books named here, I’ve read only two, Lewis and Eliot, and I certainly concur with their inclusion. I’ve had a copy of Witness on my bookshelf for over twenty years; perhaps the time has come to give it a go. I’d really like to read the rest of them—the fifty best, at least, if not the fifty worst—but am too busy. I think it’s past time for them to provide me with an income so that I can spend more of my time reading and writing. And playing my guitar. And drinking.

By the way, the ISI has a really fine online journal called First Principles.

Update: Craig Burrell kindly provides a link to the full list.


Music of the Week: Beethoven — Symphony #7

I hadn’t heard this for years before this week, but I must have listened to it a lot at a more leisurely time in my life, because it was very familiar to me. I was about to say it was like meeting an old friend, but when one meets an old friend after twenty or thirty years there is usually a certain shock involved, which is not the case here. I remember that it was one of my favorites among the symphonies, and that’s still true. A few impressions, encouraged by Pentimento, who pointed out, in response to my hesitation in discussing classical music without a technical vocabulary, that critics used to work this way all the time:

The first movement is Beethoven in his robust dramatic mode, and as good as any similar ones in the other symphonies. The emergence of what I take to be the main theme in the first movement (I’m always a little hazy about these things) seems to me one of Beethoven’s great moments.

The second movement is a better funeral march than the funeral march in the Third, and seems to me to prefigure Mahler’s gloomy marches and dances. I’m not sure whether this is what Wagner had in mind when he described the Seventh as “the apotheosis of the dance,” but to me it seems less a dance than a lonely walk over grey hills under grey skies, burdened by regret, brightened once or twice by happy memories and a break in the clouds, ending in resignation.

The third movement is the second’s polar opposite: an excited revelation, unexpected good news, with a pause at the trio to let it sink in and to give a prayer of thanks. A very brief moment at the end acknowledges that all good news in this life is provisional.

As the fourth movement began I recalled that I had always thought it something of a letdown, and I still do. Well, letdown isn’t exactly the right word, because it actually cranks up the excitement past the level of the third, but it doesn’t seem to me the grand pull-it-all-together finale that one wants or expects. It’s almost like a second scherzo. But the sort of cavalry-charge theme that appears three times is wonderful. Perhaps there’s something technical going on that makes it fit in way that I don’t get.

The last two movements really rock, by the way. I wonder that some ambitious prog-rock group of the ‘70s didn’t try to work up parts of them.


Coon Wars and Hummingbirds

My wife recently developed an enthusiasm for feeding the local bird population and put up several feeders, two of which hung from lightweight steel poles. There followed a week or two of coon wars, in which raccoons came at night and pulled down the feeders, opened them up, and ate all the bird seed. Here’s a morning-after scene (click for larger images as usual):

She also put up a hummingbird feeder, and it has been a great success. While I was outside taking the above picture, a hummingbird kept flying around me—they make sort of a low buzzing sound, like a really big bug or a really small airplane. So I stood there for a while with the camera poised, and eventually got this lucky shot:

It’s fairly blurry but it may very well be the best I ever do, so I’m posting it. It really was just luck: since the camera has a fairly slow reaction time and the bird is in position and in flight only for an instant, I just pointed the camera at the feeder and snapped the picture as soon as I heard the buzz. This is the only one of a couple of dozen shots where he appeared at all.

The coon wars have been won, by the way: she bolted the poles to the deck of which you can see a corner in the picture.


God’s Presence

“...a general principle, which comes before us again and again...that God’s Presence is not discerned at the time when it is upon us, but afterwards, when we look back upon what is gone and over.”


So What Do I Really Think About Sarah Palin?

Well, I don’t get excited about politics and politicians, because I think we have deep cultural problems that aren’t amenable to political solutions. If you want political excitement, visit the political blogs, which are buzzing today with reactions to the speech and with a higher-than-usual level of liberal-conservative Democrat-Republican acrimony. However, I will say that I mostly liked the speech, and I mostly like her. Comparisons have been made to Barack Obama’s early speeches, some of which impressed me, though I later decided that there wasn’t really a great deal of substance there.

She seems to be a reformist small-government social conservative, which I think is what we need, and I hope she stays that way. She also seems to be the kind of citizen-executive that I think the founders intended us to have, so I found myself feeling hopeful and rather Frank-Capra-ish. But my fundamental pessimism remains, because it’s rooted in a gloomy view of the condition of the American people who are, after all, still the ultimate power in this country. Here’s something I posted in a comment on the Caelum et Terra blog a week or two ago:

The right wants an extremely powerful national security state; the left wants an extremely powerful welfare state; the center wants both. No one much wants to pay for either of them.

In this context liberty means the freedom to do and have whatever you want without serious consequences. E.g. sex without marriage or babies or health hazards. E.g. cheap energy without drilling or digging or refining or fission. E.g. perfect health care at no cost. E.g. global military hegemony without loss of American lives. E.g. dirt-cheap merchandise without loss of American jobs or wages. E.g. dirt-cheap labor with no illegal immigration.

In arguing with some objectivists on my blog, I’ve found myself agreeing with them about one thing: reality always has the final word.

America, meet reality. You aren’t going to be friends.

If I start thinking that people like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana) represent a trend, I may perk up a little.


More Palin Facts

  • When Ozzie Ozbourne’s guitarist died, Sarah Palin was asked to audition for the job, but Ozzie was afraid of her.

  • The devil went down to Georgia because Sarah Palin had humiliated him in a fiddlin’ contest.

  • Joe Satriani taught Steve Vai, but Sarah Palin taught Joe Satriani.

  • Moreover, Satriani, Vai, and Eric Johnson originally formed G3 to play Sarah Palin’s solo material.

  • The reason it took Brian Wilson so long to finish Smile was that he was waiting for Sarah to grow up and help him.

  • Sarah Palin’s favored sport in high school was actually football but they wouldn't let her play because she kept making the quarterback cry.

  • Sarah Palin was kicked off the swim team because her wake made it impossible for other swimmers to stay in their lanes.

  • Sarah Palin wouldn’t take the job, so Alabama settled for Nick Saban.

And lastly, from Francesca, in the comments:

  • The only time Sarah Palin laddered her pantyhose is when she strangled a moose with them.


Little-known Facts About Sarah Palin

(Apologies to my European and other outside-the-USA readers, as this is pretty USA-specific.)

These are some of my favorites from a long list of things you might want to know before hearing Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention tonight, and certainly before making up your mind about how to vote this fall:

  • Sarah Palin is the reason compasses point North.

  • Sarah Palin’s enemies are automatically added to the Endangered Species List

  • To prep for her role as Tracy Flick in Election, Reese Witherspoon spent the ‘98 seal-clubbing season with Sarah Palin.

  • Sarah Palin was not flown to Ohio in a chartered jet—she ran as part of her morning workout.

  • Sarah Palin once bit the head off a live osprey snatched from the air as it tried to fly off with a fish she caught.

  • Sarah Palin uses French Canadians as bait to catch giant king salmon.

  • Sarah Palin knows who was on the grassy knoll.

  • Sarah Palin drives a Zamboni to work.

  • Sarah Palin is actually Kaiser Sose.

  • Sarah Palin can divide by zero.

  • Sarah Palin poses more danger of creating world-destroying black holes than the Large Hadron Collidor.

Some of these are movie references which won’t make sense if you haven’t seen the movie—sorry. The whole list is at

By the way, for Francesca and others in the UK:

  • Queen Elizabeth II curtsied when she was introduced to Sarah Palin.


I know, a picture of a drop of water is a cliche, but I like the way you can see the reflection of leaves on the tree (the live oak in our front yard) in it. You might have to click through to the slightly larger version to see that. Too bad it isn’t in better focus—there really wasn’t enough light.


Sunday Night Journal — August 31, 2008

Tapeworms and Hurricanes

A year or so ago in the waiting room of a doctor’s office I picked up one of the entertainment magazines lying around there (much more interesting to me than, say, Golf World) and read an article about Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV show House. I had never seen the show, but I recognized Laurie’s name from a series of P.G. Wodehouse adaptations made some years ago (probably twenty or more) in which he had played Bertie Wooster. He mentioned how much work it was for him in his role as Dr. House to speak consistently with an accurate American accent. I find that ability fascinating, because I can’t imagine being able to do it, so, intrigued, I watched an episode of the show.

Laurie’s American voice seemed perfect—an amazing feat to me—and he’s a very good actor in general, but I was sorry I had watched the show because it ended with a nasty surprise. It involved—as I have since learned most episodes of House do—the medical detective work of a cynical and grouchy doctor named House: a patient exhibits bizarre symptoms, and House and his staff spend the rest of the episode trying to figure out what’s really wrong, which they do, triumphantly, in the end. The problem with this episode was that this patient’s trouble was caused by a very large tapeworm. (If you don’t know what that means and what it involves, feel free to stop reading at this point and google “tapeworm;” I don’t want to make either of us sick by going into the details.)

Staring in horror, and, as noted, very sorry that I had watched the show, I found myself asking why such a loathsome and abominable thing as the tapeworm should exist. An answer came abruptly and clearly to mind: that’s what sin is.

The tapeworm is an all-too-fitting image for the way sin lives within us and eats away at our lives. A novelist including something of that sort into his story would use it in some sort of symbolic way, to impart reality to an idea of evil and corruption. And I think it functions in the same way in the God-created world we live in.

One way of interpreting the world from a Christian point of view is to see it as an unimaginably huge and complex literary work in which everything has meaning. Our loathing for the tapeworm can be attributed to purely physical causes, the same basic thing that causes a mouse to fear a cat, but I think it goes deeper than that. We are creatures who instinctively see meaning everywhere, and I don’t think the meaning is only in our minds. The meaning is really there; the tapeworm is really loathsome: objectively loathsome, ontologically loathsome.

The tapeworm and similar horrors serve as symbols of evil, written into the story of human life to make truth real and present to us, in something like the same way that, for instance, Flannery O’Connor writes a murderer into her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or a dishonest Bible salesman in “Good Country People.”

Because spiritual evil is real, and can lead us to the ultimate ruin of hell, the evil of the world we live in must also be real and capable of doing us real and serious harm, capable of destroying our bodies as spiritual evil can destroy both body and soul. The dangers we face must be real, the choices we make must have the potential for real disaster—otherwise we would not take them seriously. It must be possible for human beings to lose themselves so completely to evil that they become, for instance, sadistic killers, like one who was in the news this week for the vicious murder of a child—otherwise we would not be completely free.

I’ve spent the past few days worrying about Hurricane Gustav (which as of right now appears set to harm people well to the west of us). Compared to the tapeworm a hurricane seems almost benign; it’s magnificent rather than repulsive, even if it can do a lot more damage in a lot less time than a tapeworm. Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by hurricanes and tornadoes and any sort of extremely powerful natural phenomenon. I would love to be able to experience the heart of a storm like Gustav without being killed. But if it couldn’t kill me, would I really appreciate it? If I could stand and face it with pleasure as I would an ordinary thunderstorm, it would not impress me nearly as much.

The hurricane doesn’t, like a tapeworm, seem evil in itself; it’s made of wind and rain, which are both good things; the problem is that in a hurricane they’re so powerful that they’re destructive. The obvious analogy is to our passions, and we wouldn’t grasp the lesson if the hurricane weren’t capable of enormous destruction. I’d like to think that in an unfallen condition, or a fully redeemed condition—in the next life—we would be able to experience something like a hurricane and really grasp its splendor without being destroyed by it. Similarly, C.S. Lewis and others have speculated that our emotions won’t be less, but rather more, intense and powerful in the next life; our control over them will be a result of their being in harmony with our wills, not of their weakness.

The tapeworm, however, like intrinsic evil, I can’t imagine having any place in heaven.


Gustav Passes Us By

We were lucky this time. We’ve had more wind and rain from thunderstorms than we did from this hurricane. I kept waking up in the night expecting to hear pretty strong wind, but all I heard was rain. My thanks to all who have offered prayers and concern.

From what I can tell, Louisiana is not getting hit as badly as was feared, but it will probably still be pretty bad for those low-lying bayous on the coast.

In other news, Michelle Nichols, wife of my old friend Daniel, has given birth to a baby boy—see this post and this one for more info.