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July 2009

Ain’t that America Alabama Mobile Crichton

When people in your town or state do something really dumb, the best thing to do is just roll with it. In that spirit, I present to you: the Crichton leprechaun.

Perhaps you never heard of the Crichton leprechaun. Crichton is a neighborhood in Mobile. A few years ago, around St. Patrick’s Day, someone in Crichton claimed to have seen a leprechaun in a tree. Things escalated from there:

Rap version:

Although this happened in 2006, for some reason Bill O’Reilly has resurrected it, suggesting that reporting the story was racist. Today’s paper discusses that controversy. Well, all I can say about that is that there are a lot of dumb white people here, too, and the rest of the country, not to mention most of us here, would have laughed just as hard if this discovery had been made by them.

In either case, they’re my people.

It occurs to me that Crichton sounds like a Gaelic word. Hmm...

In other Alabama news, it seems we are not to be allowed to purchase a bottle of wine with a naked woman on the label.


Preliminary Remarks on Caritas in Veritate

I finished reading it several days ago and am now, as time permits, skimming over it again, re-reading passages I’d marked, and thinking about it. I’m going to try to write something about it this weekend, so I invite anyone else who’s ready to discuss it to do so then.

Two broad observations: (1) it really is a mistake to mine the encyclical for quotes that can be put to specifically partisan purposes; it’s much larger than that. (2) Those who have complained that it’s poorly written and/or that it doesn’t all seem to be the work of the same person have a point. This doesn’t justify, for instance, George Weigel’s implication that some of it is dispensable because it doesn’t represent the mind of the pope. But it is a bit of a jumble, passages of golden theology juxtaposed with sometimes slightly odd excursions into commentary on specific matters, like tourism.

I also stopped reading commentaries from other people after the first day or so, but there are a few that I want to look at now. Speaking of the overall character and effect of the document, I can agree entirely with this comment by Peter Steinfels. I must say it feels a little strange to find myself agreeing with the New York Times.


Duck and Cover

I’ve sometimes heard people of my generation joke about this phrase, as if everyone was familiar with it, and with drills held in schools where the children were taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves in a nuclear attack. I never knew the origin of the jokes, as these lessons apparently never reached my obscure little community in Alabama, and I can’t remember ever hearing anything like it. It was only this morning that my daughter showed me this on YouTube—the original 1951 government film which I gather is the source of the phrase. She knew about it from South Park and was surprised to find that it wasn’t just their joke.

The film seems comical enough now, but I’ve always thought nuclear fear had a big influence on those of us born soon after WWII. Anywhere, anytime...

If you’re wondering, as I did, just how effective any of this might have been, there is (of course) a Wikipedia article.


Walter Cronkite, R.I.P.

I suppose it’s inevitable that as one gets older the tendency to think that the world is declining gets stronger. I do try to keep that tendency in check, but sometimes the evidence is really pretty persuasive: for instance in the case of television journalism.

I was never a great admirer of Walter Cronkite. Watching the evening news was never a regular habit for me, and as my own opinions became more fully formed, and often in opposition to the conventional liberalism of most journalism, I didn’t particularly trust what Cronkite and others were telling me. And I found his magisterial “That’s the way it is” irritating—I always wanted to reply, “No, that’s the way it looks to you.” Yet I never thought that he was consciously bending the truth, only that he had a distinct point of view which limited him in ways of which he might not have been entirely aware. I can’t say as much for most television journalists now; they seem both more aware of their biases and less interested in transcending them. Of the partisan quasi-journalists like Hannity and Olbermann (to be fair to both ideological sides), I would rather not even speak.

Whatever Cronkite’s limitations, he seems a giant compared to his successors. It’s partly because he seemed to have more integrity and skill as a journalist. But it’s also because he seemed to be a man of a type that the nation just doesn’t produce anymore. He had—at least in his screen presence—a dignity, intelligence, and maturity which no one much seems to have anymore; no one in the public eye, anyway.

He was an old-school liberal who represents much of what was good about a disappearing sort of genteel WASP establishment liberalism (I’m not sure about the AS part, but he was an Episcopalian), a liberalism which had not yet, or not entirely, ossified into an ideology. He was a political liberal, certainly, and is sometimes denounced by conservatives for having said that a journalist is liberal by definition. But if you look at the entire passage, he doesn’t mean what he’s accused of meaning :

“I think being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause—but examining each case on its merits. Being left of center is another thing; it’s a political position. I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.”

This is a more fundamental sort of liberalism, a matter of character and of intellectual will rather than of political viewpoint. We could use more of it in politics and journalism. Nowadays a self-described liberal is every bit as likely as a conservative to be not only a dogmatist but a bigot, by which I mean one whose intellect is subservient to anger and hatred. (Bigotry and stupidity don’t necessarily go together; plenty of our intellectuals and semi-intellectuals are bigoted.)

Our political discourse will never again be dominated by a few voices in the way that it was in Cronkite’s time, and overall I think that’s a good thing, because those few voices left out too much of the truth, left too many questions unasked. But it seems that the more voices there are, the more shrill, hostile, and unreflective—in a word, the more uncivilized—they have become.

Good night, Mr. Cronkite. You were never anything less than civilized.


I Have Failed to Become a Sergio Leone Fan

I’ve really given it a fair shot. Over the past couple of months my wife and I have seen four of the most highly regarded Leone westerns: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s not because I was prejudiced against them; in fact the contrary was true. I wanted and expected to like them. But I found them tiresome. I actually had to force myself to finish The Good; after falling asleep during my first attempt, I let the disk sit around for several days and seriously considered sending it back to Netflix without finishing it.

I think I get what Leone was trying to do: the ritualizing, the mythologizing, the darkening of the Western. But for me it just didn’t work, for the most part; it seemed too self-conscious. There were some visual things I really liked, mainly because I love the western scenery and atmosphere. But the stories and characters simply weren’t compelling enough for me to make the slow pace work. The long stylized confrontations just seemed overblown and unconvincing. I didn’t care for a lot of the acting: Clint Eastwood’s tight-lipped squint-eyed silence does not wear well at all; it quickly begins to seem like schtick. The grim and greasy villains too often seemed like caricatures, especially the Mexican bad guys, with their stereotypical Mexican bad guy arh har har my friend laughter. By the end of The Good I was wincing every time Tuco opened his mouth.

I didn’t even like Morricone’s famous scores as much as I expected to, though they all had some great moments.

I came closest to liking Once Upon a Time. Of the four, I thought it had the most interesting plot and characters. I actually cared about what was going to happen, and didn’t find myself thinking how much longer...? (I just realized: it wasn’t planned, but we actually ate spaghetti while watching the first half of it. Maybe that helped.)

According to Wikipedia, Once Upon a Time is full of references to classic Westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don’t care at all about that sort of thing, but I’ve never seen most of those, and I think I will. I’ll probably like them better.


Goodbye to Two Bloggers

It’s hard to believe that The Dawn Patrol is going away. I’m not sure how long I’ve been a regular reader but it’s measured in years; perhaps five. Her archives go back to 2002 and I don’t think there was more than a year or two there when I first ran across it. I can’t remember how I did, either, but I quickly became engrossed in Dawn’s very moving journey from serious depression into Protestant Christianity and then into the Church. Somewhere I think there is a link to the series of posts describing that journey; I don’t have time to look for it now but will do so later.

And Toby Danna of Astonished, Yet at Home is going on leave from blogging at least for a while. There is a remarkable post on his blog now, about the third one down, which I want to discuss when I have a bit more time. Go here if you want to read it, and thanks to Janet for pointing it out to me, as I had been very busy for several weeks and gotten way behind on reading other people’s blogs.

Both these people will be missed. Both are leaving the blogosphere in part because it has become too big a distraction and a disruption to their spiritual lives. I understand. I don’t plan to quit anytime soon, but I can see how it might come to that. For instance, I’m going to have to work late this evening because I’ve overspent my lunch hour browsing the web, writing emails, and writing this post and another which I didn’t finish.


A Few Amusing Things

Three things I’ve run across in the past few days:

xkcd hits the mark again. See if you recognize yourself in this. I did.

Some years ago I read a short story by Ursula LeGuin (not by any means a favorite writer of mine) which really slammed this point home. I don’t remember the name of it, but it involves a writer—a Hollywood screenwriter, maybe—who takes himself and his work very very seriously, and who has rented a cabin on the Oregon coast to work on a book or screenplay or something. At first the point of view is his, and it’s all about his superior insight, sensitivity, and importance. He briefly notes the existence of a lowly person, a cleaning woman I think, and reflects on the fact that her inner life must be pretty empty and insignificant compared to his. And then—if I have the sequence correct—the story shifts to her point of view. Sorry I can’t remember the name; it’s worth reading. I can say it’s the only unforgettable thing I’ve ever read by LeGuin.

Surfin’ Su-o-mi (cf. the Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA”). “Suomi” is what the Finns call Finland. If you’re in a hot climate, like I am, you may actually find this slightly appealing. Slightly.

Some unintended consequences of Vatican II, observed by Thomas Peters at American Papist. I know that sounds like a familiar, possibly tired, topic. But I doubt you’ve considered this particular thing.


Wounds (a hard saying)

This is from one of the daily meditations in Magnificat.

Which one of us can say that we are not wounded in some way? Who among us still does not have open wounds? This wounded existence is us, every one of us. It is the first school for being able to be close to the wounds of others.....

You know what mercy means? It means to become wounded by sin....

There is only one cure to heal the wounds of the heart, of the conscience, and of life: the love of God. If you do not have this love, do not go near these wounds. Otherwise, you just put the knife back in the wound, deceiving others that you can heal them with your love.

—Mother Elvira Petrozzi

I had not heard of Mother Elvira before; the attribution says that she is “foundress of Comunità Cenàcolo, welcoming the lost and desperate in fifty-six fraternities in fourteen countries.“


This is Great News

Sometimes the good really do get rewarded. Dr. Regina Benjamin, a local Catholic physician who has devoted her career to providing health care to poor people, is the new Surgeon General. Bravo!

UPDATE: There’s a good picture, and a bit more info, here. She is as unpretentious as she looks in this picture—my wife had a twenty-minute conversation with her the other day in the middle of Sam’s. (They have some mutual acquaintances. Meanwhile, I was amusing myself with the computers and flat-screen TVs.)


Catholics and the Culture of Hate

I want to express my agreement with this piece by Dawn Eden and William Doino decrying the hatred so often on display in the intra-Catholic debate. Here’s a key passage:

But while it is no secret that American Catholics have been publicly bickering with one another since the end of Vatican II (and well before then, if one reads a little history), what we are seeing now is more disturbing than a simple clash of ideologies.

It is a culture war — but not the broader, endlessly discussed “culture war” between blue- and red-state America. Rather, it is a more specific, more intense, intramural Catholic culture war. It is not pretty and, more importantly, its viciousness serves only to confirm to those outside the Church that, while we call ourselves Christians, we are unable to live out the most basic precepts of Christian compassion and charity.

Sometimes it can be very difficult or even impossible to tell the truth without giving offense. Sometimes it can be difficult to state an unwelcome truth in such a way that it is not also an act of malice, especially concerning a topic on which one has strong emotions. For myself, I find that one useful guideline is to ask myself whether I’m going to take pleasure in what I say and if so what sort of pleasure. Have I said something which gives me particular enjoyment because it makes my opponent appear ridiculous? Am I pleased by the thought that I’m inflicting a wound? If so, that part probably needs to go. For instance, I left a sarcastic comment on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in another thread a little while ago. Need I have said that thing? Well, to take note the facts was justifiable. But in that way, and with that note of personal scorn? Probably not.

Some while back Daniel suggested that perhaps my exposure to liberal Catholics (liberal in both ecclesiastical and political senses) at the Jesuit school where I work had caused me to become more consciously conservative. Actually the effect has been quite different: it has caused me to become more consciously “liberal” in the sense of tolerant. It has not moved me at all in the direction of embracing liberal opinions but it has had some effect in helping me see Catholics with whom I have important disagreements as serious and honest and as much deserving of respect as anyone who is (regrettable term) on my side.

Yes, it’s true that the prophets spoke quite harshly, as did our Lord himself on certain occasions. But the prophets were chosen clearly by God and operating under his direct orders. We ought to be fearful of assuming such authority for ourselves. And as for the invective used by Jesus against certain Pharisees and others: well, it seems pretty clear that commandments such as those about loving our enemies and doing as we would be done by describe what ought to be our presumptive attitude, and the one we should struggle to maintain.


The Last Guinness

All things must pass, but some need a memorial.

By the way, Guinness is not so expensive or so hard to find that I couldn’t have it more often. But I rather enjoy limiting it to special occasions.

Along with the beer itself, my wife gave me a pair of these glasses for Father’s Day. Which was very nice, and I like them, but the fact that there are two of them is troubling; it implies that I may be called upon to share. Fortunately she doesn’t especially like beer.


The Pope and the President

I’m almost too late for this, since the meeting is probably only twelve hours or so away, but I wanted to ask people—people who pray, of course, which means most but not all the people who read this blog— to pray for Obama’s heart to be touched by his meeting with Benedict. I did not vote for Obama and am appalled by much of what he’s done and would like to do, but I still think he is a man honestly trying to do the right thing. And he seems genuinely open to much of the Church’s social teaching; perhaps that will lead him further. As it happens, Thursday is my Adoration night, and I will certainly be praying for both Obama and Benedict.

(And to those who don’t pray: think a good thought; wish these men well. I often think that’s a kind of prayer. And you don’t have to be Catholic to want to see the Pope’s vision of peace and justice advanced.)


I haven’t even read the Pope’s new encyclical yet...

...and I’m already sick of it. Or, rather, sick of the argument about it. I cannot express to you how utterly sick I am of the factional hostility within the Church. Yes, that’s three uses of the word “sick” in three sentences; perhaps that will give you an idea of how I feel.

We can look forward to weeks or months now of politically-minded Catholics trying to beat their enemies to death with this document, or trying to keep from being beaten to death. It must be more comforting to the left in this country than to the right, as it had hardly popped out of the Vatican before Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. was suddenly transformed into an ultramontanist. And by the middle of the day George Weigel, on the other side, was telling us which parts we should ignore.

A plague on them all. I’ll make you this prediction: partisans all across the spectrum will make it impossible to have a calm and charitable discussion of the encyclical and the questions it raises. And I’ll make you this promise: I’ll say nothing about Caritas in veritate until I’ve read it and reflected on it for at least a couple of weeks, and until I think I can discuss it in a way that isn’t driven by political hostility. And if I don’t discuss it at all, I’m sure the world will be none the worse.


Ain’t That America #7

And ain’t it making me hungry. Behold: the Hushpuppy King. As my wife said when she sent me this link, be sure to read the description. It appears to be manufactured by the people who run my favorite restaurant, which I think I’ve mentioned before.

And here is a true fact: I am distantly related to the inventor of the Gatling (not “Gatlin”) gun, or so my uncle Al tells me. My maternal grandfather’s middle name was Gatling, so it must be true.


Perishing Republic

You may have noticed that my previous post about Independence Day says nothing at all about the actual holiday, or about the nation, or my views on its current state. That was deliberate and doesn’t indicate that I’m not thinking about it, only that I don’t particularly feel like composing what would be a pretty melancholy reflection. But I’ve found the title of this great poem by Robinson Jeffers running through my mind often for the past few days. I’ll let it speak for me; not in many of its details, but in its mood. (Jeffers’ lines are way too long to appear properly here; I’ve tried to indent them in such a way that his intended line breaks are clear, but they may not appear that way in all browsers.)

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
    heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass,
    pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower
    fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
    ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is
    good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less
    than mountains: shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance
    from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie
     at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man,
    a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits,
    that caught—they say—God, when he walked on earth.

From the Christian point of view, of course, those last two lines carry quite different implications.


My Fourth of July Tradition

Can something be a tradition if you’ve only done it once? Last year my wife and I went to a family gathering at her sister’s house, and it was extremely pleasant. But my sister-in-law is not having that gathering this weekend. What I plan to do is what I did two years ago, and I hope to make it a tradition.

I’m going to take it easy—a bout of tendinitis in one elbow (not part of the tradition) gives me a reason to neglect the yard work—and drink a little beer and watch a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. On the 4th I will go down to the bay and watch the fireworks that will be launched from the end of the Fairhope Municipal Pier, maybe a third of a mile or so away.

The SciFi Channel’s TZ marathons around July 4 and New Year’s Day are among the few things that make having cable worthwhile, now that my wife and I have gotten thoroughly sick of all the news channels and stopped watching them.

Another tradition, now of several years standing, is that my wife gets me a six-pack of Guinness Extra Stout for Father’s Day. I still have three bottles left.

This picture of the pier was most likely taken on July 4. I can tell because of all the boats anchored out in the bay, where they’ll get a good view of the fireworks.

Or maybe it’s some other holiday; some of these boats are a little too close for safety.