Previous month:
July 2010
Next month:
September 2010

August 2010

Jucifer: Hennin Hardine

Weekend Music

This one is a bit different from the other husband-and-wife bands I've been posting. You might want to make sure your audio is at a low-to-moderate volume before you click on it; you can always turn it up if you need to. If you watch the video and follow the story that goes on between the performance scenes, make sure you're paying attention around 3:50.

More info on Jucifer here. Not being a tennis fan, I was puzzled by the name of the song, so I googled it and learned that it was for a while the married name (slightly misspelled) of a pro tennis player, Justine Henin. I'm guessing that the song is connected to the breakup of her marriage.

Three Favorite Prayers

I don't believe in memes, in the sense that the term was meant when it was invented, so I'm not going to call this a meme. Theme is a perfectly good word for it, a conversational topic passed around in a sort of game, and Pentimento tagged me with this one: what are your three favorite prayers?

1) I'm going to start by cheating and counting the Our Father and the Hail Mary as one, because I usually say them together. A rosary-induced habit, I guess. (They're like Coca-Cola and Golden Flake Potato Chips: "'Great pair,' says the Bear." Southerners of a certain age will recognize that.) I learned the Our Father as a child (we called it the Lord's Prayer, which really I like better). I learned the Hail Mary not long before I became a Catholic. I never had the resistance to it that many Protestants seem to. It seemed immediately meaningful and perfectly natural to me to pray to a woman, the mother of God, and I had no problem understanding that she is not herself God.

2) The Chaplet of Mercy. You can see why this devotion has become so popular: so many of us feel that there is some desperate emergency happening, at both the individual and cultural levels. I felt that God was speaking to me--and that's not a feeling I have very often--when I read "I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy." Well, I really am not capable of very much in the way of virtue and devotion, but dang it I can trust in His mercy.

3) The Apostle's Creed. Not a prayer, exactly, but saying it is a form of devotion. I learned this in my early teens, when I was confirmed in the Methodist Church, and I don't think there is anything I ever learned in school that was so important. It sank into me, somehow, and even during the years when I didn't believe, I knew that this was what I didn't believe, and that anyone who claimed to believe but could not affirm this in a straightforward way did not really believe. It inoculated me against theological modernism. Most importantly, it gives me strength, a sense of being grounded, a renewal of hope and purpose. "The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." Yes. Yes. Yes.

I love this instruction, which appears in a lot of commercial email: "Can't view this email? Click here!"

Liberal Bigotry

Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2010

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for some months now, and putting it off because I really don’t want to do it. I’d rather write about something else. I’d rather think about something else. But the phenomenon keeps forcing itself on my attention.

I tend to avoid situations, either in life or online, where I will encounter angry bigots engaged in denouncing whatever they are bigoted against. But sometimes it pops up unexpectedly: on Facebook, for instance. A few months ago I read a wild flight of anti-conservative vituperation, a friend of a friend commenting on something the friend had said, and it occurred to me that what I was reading was nothing more or less than bigotry. It revealed a mental process not significantly different from that of a KuKluxer speaking of African-Americans. The vocabulary and grammar were better, the speaker being more educated, but the uncompromising hostility was the same. It was liberal bigotry.

What do I mean by “liberal”? I mean it in the currently popular and casual sense. As everyone who has the least acquaintance with the history of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” knows, the ways in which they are used now are only loosely connected with the way they were used a hundred and fifty years ago, and with their dictionary definitions. I know this drives a lot of people crazy, particularly the analytically-minded for whom precise definition of terms is of the essence. But even these know who is being referred to when Nancy Pelosi denounces conservatives, and when Sarah Palin denounces liberals. And I’m using the term “liberal” in that context. Someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a hateful menace to society and Keith Olbermann is a courageous truth-teller is a liberal. Etc.; I really don’t think I need to multiply the examples.

What do I mean by “bigotry”? Merriam-Webster’s definition serves perfectly well for my purpose: “A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats a group (as,a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

Let me stipulate from the start that conservatives are certainly capable of bigotry, and plenty of them engage in it. It’s safe to say that few would argue with me on that point. (Many liberals would go much further, and say that conservatism is more or less identical with bigotry. And it’s just at that point that liberalism itself becomes bigoted.) But this is more than just a tu quoque (“oh yeah? Well, so are you!”) argument. Bigotry is deplorable in any context, but it is especially a problem for a liberal, because it is a crucial part of the liberal self-conception that liberalism is the negation of bigotry: liberalism is, among other things in this self-conception, openness to other people and their opinions, and a willingness to engage ideas on the basis of reason rather than prejudice and emotion. Bigotry is, among other things, the determined refusal of both those impulses.

Bigotry in a conservative is a character flaw. But bigotry in a liberal is a fundamental contradiction. It isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy consists in saying one thing and doing, usually in secret, another. And it implies a consciousness that the thing is at least in principle wrong. Liberal bigotry generally does not operate that way; on the contrary, it is proud and open and gives no evidence of an uneasy conscience. It is comparable not to a televangelist secretly frequenting prostitutes, but—I will have to invent something, because I can’t think of any actual event that makes the point—to a televangelist openly running a prostitution service and advertising it at the bottom of the screen during a sermon on chastity, never noticing the distance between words and deeds.

The essence of bigotry is always to look, and to be sure you find, only the worst in the group you hate, and never to be fair, never to open the door to sympathy, never to attempt to understand. That is an accurate working description of the habitual attitude of far too many liberals toward conservatives. Two developments of the past few years have provided clear examples: the Tea Party movement, and the recently passed Arizona law attempting to stop the influx of illegal immigration into that state.

I’m not a huge admirer of, much less a participant in, the Tea Party movement; I do sympathize with some of its views and basic grievances, but it seems inconsistent and simplistic. And I don’t have a position on the Arizona law, though I believe the residents of that and other border states when they say that illegal immigration is in fact a problem for them. My concern is not to justify or defend either of these. But my basic sense of fair play is offended by the way the non-Fox media and punditry have treated them, as well as the violent denunciations of them I’ve heard in semi-private venues like Facebook.

In both cases the liberal reaction seems to arise from a sort of emotional syllogism: we hate people because they are racists; we hate these people; therefore these people are racists. The Tea Party was accused of racism from the moment it appeared, and convicted on evidence that ranged from flimsy to nonexistent. The one big allegation, involving Tea Partiers screaming racist remarks at black congressmen, has been pretty thoroughly exploded, because video of the scene did not support it. Even the New York Times finally admitted that the event seemed not to have occurred as originally reported (I thought I had bookmarked that story, but now I can’t find it).

That there are racists in the Tea Party, I have little doubt. That there have been occasional racist signs and remarks at Tea Party rallies, I am willing to believe. But there is no reason to believe that that the movement is racist in its essence—apart, of course, from one’s conscious or unconscious choice to assume so: always look for the worst; never be fair.

There have been any number of nasty people involved in liberal and left-wing movements in recent decades. (See this page for some recent examples in the anti-war movement.) There were communists in and around the civil rights movement, to say nothing of the anti-war movement(s). But no reasonable person—that is, no person who actually wants to understand what these movements are about, why they exist, what they want, and whether we should want them to succeed or not—treats that as the last word, and writes them off as, simply, communist operations, or otherwise defines them by the most extreme or repellent people found in their midst. That is what bigots do.

At some point over the past thirty or forty years liberalism ceased to be defined as a way of approaching politics in a spirit of openness, generosity, and reason, and instead began to identify specific opinions as the necessary products of that spirit, and to treat anyone who came to different conclusions as an enemy to be destroyed. Liberalism tells us to be open to the Other, to accept the challenge of seeing the world through another’s eyes; it has largely closed itself to the Other who votes Republican.

Of course this does not apply to all liberals any more than it applies to all conservatives. But a liberal can be forgiven for concluding, on the basis of listening to Limbaugh, Hannity,, that hostility and bluster are the marks of conservatism. And likewise, a conservative can be forgiven, on the basis of listening to Olbermann, Stewart,, that hostility and snark are the marks of liberalism. It’s time for liberals to stop congratulating themselves on a virtue which they no longer, as a group, possess. Better yet, start practicing it. And that goes for all of us.

Over the Rhine: All I Need Is Everything

Weekend Music

Another band centered around a married couple, and another band of whom I've heard great things, but haven't heard all that much: a friend made me a copy of The Trumpet Child, and I liked the musicianship but wasn't carried away by the material. This song just happened to be one of the first that turned up when I looked for them on YouTube. I like it.

Still Listening to Vinyl

I've been meaning to comment on this CNN story about the continued surprising life of the vinyl LP, though I'm not sure many people who read this blog are interested. It is an interesting phenomenon. I still have hundreds of LPs and still listen to them, though not that often, and currently not at all: my turntable is out of commission thanks to a very stupid attempt on my part to pick up the rather delicate tonearm from a spinning record while I was in a very awkward position, resulting in a broken stylus which I haven't yet replaced.

I'm not especially nostalgic for them. I don't miss the surface noise and the need to fuss over cleaning them, or the inability to skip easily to the next track (which is what I was trying to do when I broke my stylus). People who say they provided higher fidelity are, I'm pretty sure, objectively wrong. Someone in the comments on that story, for instance, claims they have greater dynamic range, which they don't--that's measurable, and I don't think there's really much contest between LP and CD on that score. 

But it is interesting that no one seems to love CDs in the way some love LPs. There is some merit to the argument that the sound is warmer. This makes sense, in a way: sometimes we develop an attachment to things that aren't perfect because they're in some way comfortable for us, like old clothes. I suspect that the "warmer" sound many people attribute to the LP is in large part the effect of noise: the characteristic crackle, hiss, and pop that's rarely completely absent, and often obtrusive. There's also an audiophile argument that the analog-to-digital conversion has an effect, though I haven't heard a convincing case for that. But I've often thought that CDs have a somehow colder sound, and I think that's either the absence of any noise whatsoever, or the effect of modern production techniques. I don't know enough to guess what the latter might be, but I know that when I listen to this clip of Moby Grape's "8:05" on YouTube, that opening guitar has a richness that one just doesn't often hear in contemporary recordings. And the LP can't be credited for that: even if the YouTube poster started with the LP, what we hear has been not only digitized but significantly reduced in fidelity.

In some cases older recordings reissued on CD seem to be missing something. Some say that's the result of poor engineering. I've never done a direct comparison of an LP in decent shape with the same recording reissued on CD.

Maybe most of all, though, I think, it's the record and its packaging as physical object. CD art work has never even approached the quality of the golden years of LP art. Even when it's a company like ECM that does its absolute best, the format is just too small. I have two LP covers on the wall in my office; you can't really do that with CD inserts.

Now that the CD is declining in popularity, replaced by intangible electronic formats that sit on computer hard drives or zip around the networks like any other data, it will be interesting to see if the CD hangs on as an object of affection the way the LP has. I wouldn't bet on it.

Yes, I have that Moby Grape album on vinyl.

Low: Sunflower

Weekend Music

Low is a band I've heard many good things about and have been meaning to investigate. It's centered on the husband-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. This is a lovely song, though beyond impressions I'm not sure what it's about.

Sparhawk and Parker are reportedly practicing Mormons. Much more info here.

I knew it I knew it I knew it

The main reason I haven't been interested in watching Mad Men is that I was pretty certain it would be impossible for the entertainment industry to produce a tv show set in the late '50s-early '60s without including a lot of self-congratulatory stuff about how much more enlightened we are than those pigs. I find it hard to endure that stuff, for all sorts of reasons, but most of all because, as a portrait of a time and a culture, it's substantially false. So no matter how good the show may be in other ways—and many people say it’s quite good—I figured I would end up gritting my teeth through a lot of it.

Here's confirmation, from the very intelligent and judicious Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic:

This striving for verisimilitude serves another purpose: Weiner seems to hope that getting the vintage mitten clasps and IBM Selectrics right will help viewers believe that outrageously un-PC attitudes and behavior were as common as the series shows them to be. Mad Men is hailed for what The Times calls its “unflinching portrayal of Eisenhower/Kennedy–era sexism, racism, anti-Semitism,” and this unrelenting focus on the unenlightened aspects of the past is clearly central for Weiner and his writers. Most of the supplemental historical material in the DVD sets focuses on racial and gender issues and progressive politics, including a lengthy paean to the SDS’s gaseous Port Huron Statement. The takeaway is clear, as The Times approvingly quotes an academic who indulges in a rather Whiggish interpretation of history: “The show explains why the ’60s had to happen.”

But even if the portrayal were as “dead-on” as The Times assures us it is, that portrayal is hardly neutral. In describing a scene in which sexist badinage is exchanged at an account meeting, McLean correctly points out that “the series is critical of this limited view and is not afraid to spell [its criticism] out.” That stance—which amounts to a defiant indictment of sexism and racism, sins about which a rough moral consensus would now seem to have formed—militates against viewers’ inhabiting the alien world the show has so carefully constructed, because it’s constantly pressing them to condemn that world.

And that stance is responsible for the rare (and therefore especially grating) heavy-handed and patronizing touches in an otherwise nuanced drama. Must the only regular black characters be a noble and cool elevator operator, a noble and understanding housekeeper, and a perceptive and politicized supermarket clerk? Must said elevator operator, who goes unnoticed by the less sensitive characters, sagely say when discussing Marilyn Monroe’s death, “Some people just hide in plain sight”? Get it—he’s talking about himself. He’s invisible. Even worse, that stance evokes and encourages the condescension of posterity; just as insecure college students feel they must join the knowing hisses of the callow campus audience when a character in an old movie makes an un-PC comment, so Mad Men directs its audience to indulge in a most unlovely—because wholly unearned—smugness. As artistically mistaken as this stance is, it nonetheless helps account for the show’s success. We all like to congratulate ourselves, and as a group, Mad Men’s audience is probably particularly prone to the temptation.

A most unlovely—because wholly unearned—smugness. I knew it. And Schwartz is a fan of the show. You can read the whole piece here.

This desperate need to spit on the recent past of our culture is pathological, more properly the study of psychologists than critics—which doesn’t mean we need to fall into the equal-and-opposite reaction of idealizing it, of course.

Here's an interesting footnote to the last SNJ, on the question of whether I, or anyone else, would have been significantly different as an adult if school hadn't fostered my (one's) laziness etc. The tentative answer would be: no.

Why Do I Find These Little Hats Annoying?

And do other people have the same reaction? This picture was in the local paper yesterday. It's the country-ish duo Sugarland performing in Gulf Shores last weekend. I have nothing against them, although I don't know their music. But that hat...I remarked on my annoyance to my wife, and she said "Because it looks too little for his head?" Maybe that's part of it, I don't know. It seems like a malformed Sinatra-style fedora (the real thing would be much preferable).

 If you find out I'm wearing one two or three years from now, please hire someone to shoot me.

Today is also the memorial of Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who wrote that "being = being-known-by-God."

Possum Playing Possum

I've heard the term "playing possum" all my life, but I'd never seen the thing itself happen until Friday night. I went out as usual with my two dogs, the larger one, Lucy, not on a leash, because she's pretty obedient, the smaller one, Andy, on a leash, because he isn't. As we started down the street, the larger one suddenly took off running in the way she only does when she's chasing an animal. She ran down the driveway of the house next door and I heard some growling and snarling, then silence.

Catching up to her with my flashlight, I found her standing over a possum which was lying perfectly still, on its side. It didn't show any sign of injury, but it looked pretty dead. It didn't even seem to be breathing. In fact it looked a lot like this, except that its fur wasn't disarranged this way. 

Next morning it was gone. I suppose it's possible that Lucy killed it and something else dragged it away, but that's doubtful--I don't know what, except another dog, would have done that, and we don't generally have dogs running loose in our neighborhood. I think it wasn't dead at all, and its trick worked. It was interesting to see the thing that gave rise to that well-known phrase.

Are There Laws of Economics?

From Toward a Truly Free Market:

There are certain tendencies in human beings that allow us to make lawlike statements. People do tend to buy more of a product when it is cheaper, and they tend to make more of that product when it is dearer; between these two tendencies, we really can posit supply and demand curves, and we can, at least in the abstract, discover the equilibrium point between these two tendencies. And while the result of our calculations will not be a law in the sense that gravity is a law, in that it cannot be violated, it will be lawlike: that is, useful enough for us to give useful descriptions of a particular economy. All of this is true. But the real difficulties in human thought come not so much as an argument between truth and error (pure error is too easy to spot), but between greater truths and lesser truths. Correct thought is a matter of arranging truths in their proper hierarchies, of not allowing a lesser truth to displace a greater, or of not reducing all truths to one truth. This last error is the besetting sin of economists because, to make economics work as physics works, guided by physical measurement and ruled by pure mathematics, they have to reduce man to a physical object in a world of physical objects. They have to reduce man's labor to a mere commodity, purchased at the lowest value like any commodity; they have to reduce man to an economic calculater, the mythical homo economicus. Mostly, they have to divorce the economic question, as Disraeli desired, from any question of ethics. But one cannot found a science on a myth. Nor can one reduce man to something he clearly is not, or at least is not completely. Man occupies a moral universe as well as a physical one, and to ignore the place he occupies is to lose the man and hence lose the science.

Toward A Truly Free Market

In a striking coincidence, I received a review copy of this book on the same day I posted those comments about the new Distributist Review. The book is by John Médaille, the Review's editor, and is subtitled "A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More," and it carries a blurb from Stratford Caldecott, among others. I haven't had a chance to start reading it yet, but it looks promising. More info here.

The fact that it's published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is very promising, as ISI is maybe the most consistent and substantial intellectual voice in the conservative movement. Despite misconceptions and persistent slander from the left, many respected conservative voices have long recognized the problems with capitalism (or whatever you want to call our system), but have tended to see it as the only alternative to socialism, which they consider worse. The publication of this book represents an encouraging trend in conservatism.

The Distributist Review

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2010

I’ve been intending to post something about this since the new Distributist Review site was unveiled a few weeks ago, and having trouble making time for it, so I think I’ll devote my Sunday writing hours to it.

The old Distributist Review site was a Blogspot blog, and was fine within those limits, but the new one is a great improvement. I’m a Facebook friend of Richard Aleman, who appears last on the new site’s staff list, but seems to have been the guy who did most of the actual construction work. He and whoever else is responsible deserve much praise for having put together a truly first-class site, with the sort of look and features that people expect from a professional site, including video (“Distributist TV”—try to get your head around that.)

Indeed, the new site is almost overwhelming, because there’s so much there, and so much being continually added. I only check in on Facebook for a short time every day or two, and when I do I usually see multiple notices from Richard Aleman about new TDR postings. I admit I have not read a great deal of the material. It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthwhile; part of the reason is the sheer quantity, and part of it is that these socio-political concerns have not been uppermost in my mind in recent years. When they are, it’s mostly in regard to current situations and controversies rather than principles. I think I’ve said most, if not all, of what I have to say on the principles in a few essays and book reviews, such as this one.

The principles of distributism are most often enunciated in a Catholic context, but the fundamentals seem to me to be pure common sense: the idea that it’s better for most people to have a small amount of property and power than for a few people to have a lot of both (as they tend to go together). It goes hand-in-hand with the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should generally be made as close as possible to the point where they have the most effect and where the most knowledge of the situation normally exists. Subsidiarity is another term heard most often in Catholic writing and supported by Catholic theology, but not dependent on it. One could argue for either idea without reference to any religious doctrine at all, on the basis of pure earthly common sense. Everyone knows, more or less instinctively, that most people most of the time will take better care of something they own than of something which belongs to someone else. Everyone knows that ownership of productive property fosters responsibility and citizenship.

But it’s not an accident that talk of distributism and subsidiarity is most often encountered in Catholic circles. Not only are the fundamental principles found in Catholic social teaching (though not necessarily under those names), but the great popularizers of distritbutist ideas have mostly been Catholic, notably of course Chesterton and Belloc.

The USA is in its foundations a Protestant country, and yet there is a great deal in distributism which seems particularly resonant with American ideas (if not current American practice). Jefferson seems to have envisioned a nation of which the backbone would be small landowners and merchants, and even today there is no more reliable way to get public sympathy for an economic program than by promising that it will move us toward that ideal. So why is distributism not more widely accepted? Especially, why is it not more widely accepted, and not only accepted but propounded, by orthodox Catholics?

Part of the answer must be a reluctance or inability to think outside the categories of capitalism and socialism. Orthodox Catholics tend to be politically conservative and pro-capitalist, and to reject as socialism any substantial challenge to our usual American conceptions of free enterprise. This in turn is, I suppose, an effect of our culture war, in which each side feels that it must reject the other’s views in toto.

Another part of the problem is that distributists tend, like any marginalized political faction, to do their part to remain marginalized. They (we) can come across as cranks, exhibiting the unattractive and unproductive tendency of those who without power and influence to sit on the sidelines and sneer at those who have it, or the fastidiousness of those who hold themselves above participation in practical politics but not above sneering at those who do participate.

And Catholic traditionalists sometimes rely heavily on appeals to papal authority, starting with Rerum novarum, to make the case for distributism, with a sort of the-pope-said-it-that-settles-it attitude which in my opinion goes a step too far, and, more importantly, neglects the practical case, which is extremely strong and likely to be more persuasive in a matter where the question of what works to produce a just and healthy prosperity is critical.

The new Distributist Review appears to be avoiding these pitfalls. The editor, John Médaille, seems to have had substantial business experience, which ought to give the magazine a good grounding in our actual contemporary situation. I hope it will be widely read.