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September 2011

Two Guitar Pieces

Weekend Music

A couple of Sundays ago I went to a concert by the Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. The first piece was the Prelude No. 1 of Heitor Villa-Lobos. I'm hoping that most people who read this blog are not overly familiar with it. It's so widely played that I suspect classical guitar fans are tired of it. But it is a really lovely piece, and Villegas played it beautifully. I didn't find it on YouTube, but here it is by Julian Bream. Some would say Bream is not at his best in this kind of music--too cool, too restrained--but I like his precision and delicacy.


Not to neglect Villegas, here he is, with another very well-known piece, Tárrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra). That rapid picking that carries the melody line is very hard to do at all, and unbelievably hard to sustain smoothly and evenly for very long. So guitarists tend to make this a show-off piece, but Villegas isn't doing that here: he's very modest, and is enough of a virtuoso to let the piece sing, and let the listener forget the virtuosity. He played this for his encore Sunday, but unfortunately I missed it because I had to duck out as soon as the last piece on the program was finished, in order to get to Mass. So I'm glad to have this.


Already Obvious in 1831

In a letter to his cousin Louis Kergorlay dated June 29, 1831, Tocqueville goes so far as to say that there are no real "beliefs"--ancient mores, settled traditions, deep-rooted memories--in America, except for the belief in the self-evident rightness of republican government and the truth of human perfectibility.

--from a review of a collection of Tocqueville's letters, Letters From America, in the April 2011 New Criterion

Merton Looks at the World, 1960

We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.

That's Merton in a 1960 letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in the October issue of Touchstone, in an interesting piece about their friendship. One thing that strikes me about it is that it's still true, despite the degree to which society has changed since then. The enlightened now despise the 1950s, but still essentially value the same things Merton mentions, though perhaps replacing the bursting smile with an ironic smirk.

But has it ever been very different? The world (in the sense that the Gospels use the term) is always this way. If we are significantly different from times past, it's probably only because we have so many more means of pursuing and preserving our comfort and pleasure.

A Few Notes on the News

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2011

Two Executions

If you paid any attention at all to news in (or from, as the case may be) the U.S. for the past week or so, you know that the state of Georgia executed a man named Troy Davis for the 1989 killing of a police officer. And you also know that the execution was widely protested on the grounds that Davis may have been innocent, and on the grounds that the death penalty is wrong, period. I take no position on his guilt or innocence; I've read persuasive arguments both ways, and am generally slow to be convinced one way or another on a disputed factual question on which I have no direct knowledge. I look at Google News, which collects news stories from all over the net partly on the basis of the number of people who read them, several times a day, and can't count the number of stories I saw about Davis's case, almost all of them either clearly opposing the execution or highlighting the opposition to it.

On the same night, a Texas man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed for one of the most sickening crimes in recent American history, the murder of James Byrd, killed by being dragged behind a truck for two miles. The crime was apparently racially motivated, since Byrd was black and Brewer and one of the others were known white supremacists. Brewer's execution attracted comparatively little publicity and almost no opposition, one notable exception being Brewer's son.

I could be described as an unenthusiastic opponent of the death penalty. I accept the current Catholic teaching on the matter, though I think it has tended to create confusion about the much more important teaching against the deliberate taking of innocent life and, worse, political cover for Catholics who promote abortion rights. The Catechism says that although the death penalty is permissible in principle in order to protect society, the circumstances under which it is necessary for that purpose are "very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

(The "very rare" quote quote is from Evangelium Vitae.) This strikes me as a somewhat unsatisfactory argument, particularly the point about the possibility of the criminal redeeming himself (an odd phrase for an official document of the Catholic Church). It is far from obvious that repentance is more likely on the part of a man facing decades in prison than one facing death. But never mind that for the moment: surely from this point of view Brewer's execution deserves to be condemned every bit as much as Davis's. The Cathechism's argument starts with the presumption that the accused is guilty; it hardly needs to be said that the innocent should not be punished. Principled opponents of the death penalty should be willing to make their argument for the most detested perpetrators of the most loathsome crimes, but we didn't hear that this week.

 Software Is Eating the World

There seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the American middle class is shrinking, and that fewer and fewer jobs pay a middle-class wage.  I would be amused by the people who on the one hand excoriate the American middle class for its cultural failings, its tacky religiosity, etc. etc., and on the other hand lament that it's shrinking, if the situation weren't in fact alarming. I think the reasons for the phenomenon are complex, but one of them is that the ever-expanding role of technology in the economy has, over the past thirty years or so, caused the value of mental work--everything from law to computer programming--to increase, and the value of physical work to decrease. There is an interesting (if ungraceful) formulation of this by Jim Manzi at National Review Online:

The way I have put this is that workers in our economy are in a race between development of as-yet-non-commoditized cognitive capabilities on one hand, and wage reductions, as capabilities are commoditized through technological advances (broadly defined) on the other. This has been going on for a long, long time, but it does seem to be speeding up — why?

In other words, American workers are having a tough time finding things to do that can't be done by machines or people who are willing to work like machines. You can read the whole thing here. I find Manzi's commentary generally interesting, because he's pretty non-ideological, in the sense that he really makes an effort to see what's there, not what his political views tell him should be there. Also because he's very bright. And the two pieces to which he links are interesting.

However, this raises a question not just about the future of the American middle class but about that of the human race. We're not really supposed to notice this, but the fact is that not everybody is capable of work which is predominantly mental, which requires a fairly high level of abstract reasoning ability and is done mostly at that level. We've all known people who are very good at some form of physical work but not "book learning." And that doesn't mean they're stupid: a lot of them have a high degree of intelligence where the solving of physical problems are concerned. They're much smarter than I am in that way--I may have scored higher than they did on academic aptitude and achievement tests, but I'm an idiot when it comes to building something.

Moreover, there are people who are in fact not very bright at all; they do not have the intelligence to do any sort of very demanding work. But they are people, and there is absolutely no warrant for believing that God prefers the intelligent to the unintelligent. Or rather I should say that it is wisdom, not mere reasoning ability, that God prefers. To the extent that we can plan our society, they must be included in the plan, with the assumption that their intrinsic value is no less than that of anyone else.

Software entrepreneur Marc Andreessen (one of the co-founders of Netscape), in an article called Why Software is Eating the World, predicts that everything which can be automated and software-driven will be, and says

many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high. This problem is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again. There's no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.

If his last sentence is correct, then there might as well be a period after the word "problem." I know something about software development. The number of people who can do it is fairly small, and the number of people who can do it really well is very small. And sales and marketing certainly require abilities that most people don't possess (and many don't want to possess). This is only partly a matter of education. Anyone who believes that anyone can be educated to be a computer programmer is living in a fantasy. Human differences in aptitude exist, and no amount of education can make those differences go away.

And anyway, how could one even hypothesize a world in which everyone makes his living working on the machines that do all the work? It doesn't take as many people to program robots to weld auto bodies as it does to weld auto bodies. If we can't or won't think any further or deeper than the old sci-fi dream of eliminating all manual labor, we're headed for trouble. The fantasy used to be that when hard work was no longer necessary, everyone would sit around reading Shakespeare and listening to classical music. Surely nobody believes that anymore. Mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat Art by a factor of 50 to 1, at least. For that matter, the actual practice of what is depicted in mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat cultivation of the civilized virtues for some very large percentage of the human race. The idea that people will be happy with enough money to live on, no onerous work to do, and no purpose other than enjoyment is another fantasy; "idle hands are the devil's workshop" is a sounder view.

 I don't have a solution for this problem. I note that it was not very long ago that we were denouncing the soul-killing life of the factory worker, but now that those jobs have either been automated or outsourced to China (, we lament their loss. Should we turn our backs on technological innovation? I don't think that's feasible or desirable.  But one thing we can and should do is fight against the devaluation of physical work, and against the assumption that we can just somehow write off people who don't do very well on intelligence tests.

Why We Need Unions. And Journalists.

 I followed a link from The Atlantic to this story in the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call, though I can't find the Atlantic piece now. It seems that Amazon achieves its shipping efficiency by driving their warehouse workers very hard, and that high unemployment is making it easier for them to do that.

I don't feel obliged to cheer for unions in every circumstance. The teacher's union here in Alabama, for instance, has long been considered one of the more corrupting political forces in the state, and was responsible last year for what I think is the single most disgustingly dishonest campaign ad I've ever seen. And it was, naturally, directed against the candidate who was most serious about improving the educational system.

Nevertheless. The right-wing version of the left-wing fantasy that every poor criminal would be law-abiding if he only had better economic opportunities is that every business would treat its workers decently if the unions and/or the government would get out of the way. I am skeptical, to put it mildly, of the argument that improved conditions for workers and the rise of labor unions were unconnected. I read a lot of anti-union stuff in the conservative press, and I'm sure a lot of the specific complaints are, like mine above, correct. But we always need to distinguish between a bad thing and the abuse of a good thing. Unions came into existence for very good reasons,  and I hope we don't have to go too far back down that road to refresh our memories.

Similarly: like most people of conservative leanings I complain a lot about journalistic bias. But that doesn't mean I think journalism is a bad thing. When I complain about the press, I don't mean that I want it to go away (my son-in-law is a journalist); I mean I want it to do a better job. A free society needs it, and I am alarmed as I watch the almost daily shrinking of my local newspapers. I salute the reporter who investigated the Amazon situation. Here, by the way, is a followup which includes Amazon's response.

More from Benedict

Also from his visit to Germany:

In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from the 'worldliness' of the world. ... One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularisation, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.

Secularising trends, whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like, have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty.

Wouldn't that have earned an anathema, or at least a rebuke, from some popes, even within the past hundred or hundred and fifty years?

Where God is, there is a future. Indeed, when we allow God's love to influence the whole of our lives, then heaven stands open. ... Then the little things of everyday life acquire meaning, and great problems find solutions.

--Benedict XVI, speaking in Germany yesterday

John Coltrane: Impressions

Weekend Music

Nobody like him. Never was, never will be. I'm not a hard-core jazz fan, but somehow over the years I've acquired more recordings by him than of any other non-classical artist. Today is his birthday. This is from my favorite period, between the beautiful but more conventional early and the completely unstructured (as far as I can tell) late.