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November 2011

The Origins of Occupy Wall Street

In The New Yorker, by far the most fascinating thing I've read about OWS. Speaking of the movement a few days ago, I said "After all,  if you want people to buy your product, you have to advertise." And I thought I was pointing out an irony. Not at all: it was from the very beginning very deliberately a marketing effort. 

“It’s easy to generate cool if you have the bucks, the celebrities, the right ideas, the right slogans,” he says. “You can throw ideas into the culture that then have a life of their own.”

"Cool" has had a lot more to do with the would-be revolutionary youth movements of post-World-War-II U.S. and Europe than is generally recognized. 

The New Translations: A Bit of An Anticlimax

That's the way it struck me at Mass yesterday. It really wasn't that big a deal, because it really isn't that big a change. Following a few links around the web today on this subject, I found this dreary look into a mentality I haven't paid much attention to in recent years: progressive Catholics angry about change. Their sensitivity is a little puzzling to me. I regard these rather modest changes as an improvement, but hardly a total reconquest of the liturgical territory which has been in dispute for decades.  But to hear them tell it you'd think that not only were we going back to Latin but there would be quizzes before every Mass to determine who's worthy to participate. Some of the comments are hysterical (I don't mean hysterically funny, just hysterical.)

Craig Burrell has an open thread for reactions and opinions over at his blog.


I Fail To Become A Balletomane, and Other News

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2011

About that ballet

A month or so ago I wrote about my intention to watch a George Balanchine ballet that was being broadcast on PBS. I recorded it then, and finally found time to watch it this week. I'm sorry to have to report that I didn't really get it. I can certainly appreciate that there is a great deal of beauty in the movements of the dancers, not to mention the enormous level of skill in the dancing and the choreography, but I can't say that I was captivated or very much moved. My reaction really didn't go much beyond interesting.

There were actually three pieces (is that the right word?) on the program: "Square Dance" and "Western Symphony" by Balanchine, and "The Golden Section" by Twlya Tharp. Here is a brief preview which gives you a glimpse of all three.

Watch Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine and Tharp on PBS. See more from GREAT PERFORMANCES.

I liked "Square Dance" best. That probably had something to do with the music (Vivaldi and Corelli). "The Golden Section" was possibly the most purely interesting of the three, and even to my entirely untrained eye obviously far less classical than the Balanchine works. I suspect the fact that I found it more interesting does not speak well of it. As you might expect from a contemporary work, it was rather heatedly erotic at times, and I won't pretend indifference to that aspect of it. And in general the technique was, well, stranger than in traditional ballet, and...there is no way to say this without making myself look like a clod, but I may as well admit it: much of the vocabulary of classical ballet is not appealing to me. Part of the reason is that it involves prancing and fluttering that is often lovely, if occasionally prissy, on the women, but downright effeminate on the men. Combine that with the extremely skin-tight costumes of the men, and--I'm sorry, but I want to be honest--there is an off-putting gay vibe about the whole thing.  (And let me note here that Edward Villella, the founder and director of the Miami City Ballet and a former dancer of apparently considerable fame, was a good baseball player and boxer, twice-married and father of three.)

My wife, who has more interest in dance and a better eye for it than I do, watched the program  with me, and thought "Square Dance" was "fabulous" (and she was not using the word archly or ironically; she really liked it.) Neither of us cared much for "Western Symphony": we were not able to take seriously male ballet dancers in 1940s-style cowboy suits; it's the last piece on the program and we didn't finish watching it.

Not knowing anything about the art, it's not surprising that I would miss whatever it is that makes Balanchine different. If you didn't know anything about classical music and decided to start with "Rhapsody in Blue," you wouldn't recognize the mixture of the traditional and the innovative in it, because you'd have nothing to compare it to.  By the way, I'm throwing Balanchine's name around as if I know what I'm talking about, but I really don't. I only know that he was a choreographer who seems to have been something of a modernist in a Stravinksy-ish sort of way (as opposed to a Schoenberg-ish sort of way). He worked with Stravinksy, in fact: here is the Wikipedia biography.

So. That's that, I guess. And yet: it still sounds appealing when people talk about it.

OWS and Utopia

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street (or, as it spread, just "Occupy") movement. I think most people recognize that many of the specifically named complaints of the movement are justified: the middle class is shrinking, the economy was driven into a ditch by reckless-at-best financiers who, as the saying goes, privatized their gains and socialized their losses, etc. Yet I keep having the feeling that these things are not what the movement is fundamentally about. I don't claim to have followed it very closely, but I keep seeing and hearing things that remind me of the 1960s counter-culture, things that seem alternately amusing, pitiable, and disturbing, things that are rooted in a quasi-religion to which young people in modern times have been particularly susceptible: the belief that we can, as Joni Mitchell put it in her sweetly air-headed tribute to Woodstock, "get ourselves back to the garden." This piece in The Weekly Standard describe some of its intellectual-spiritual roots. I don't agree with everything in it, but on the whole I think it makes an important point. Read the Weekly Standard piece, then look at the Occupy Wall Street web site, and you can't miss the connections.

I say "disturbing," but it's not because I think anarchist ideas and their proponents really pose a signficant danger in any direct way. They disturb me because for a couple of years at the end of the 1960s I bought into that movement, in the hippie manifestation which is frequently echoed by OWS, and I hate to see its continuing power over young people who long for a noble cause and who turn their fundamentally religious zeal toward a hopeless quest for the earthly paradise. Too many people who shared my experiences in the 1960s (and early '70s) seem to be hoping still that one day they'll wake up and it will be 1969 again.

The slogan "We are the 99%" annoys me a little. Artur Davis, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who might be Alabama's governor now if he hadn't offended the party machine, articulated the problem

it literally links the interest of a hungry child in the Mississippi Delta to those of a six figure accountant whose mortgage is underwater.

Like, by definition, almost everybody, I am part of the 99%. But OWS doesn't speak for me. Not only does it not speak for me, it doesn't even like me, culturally and politically speaking. But I suppose if you're going to do mass politics you have to have a simplisitic slogan, and not be too scrupulous about its relation to the truth. After all,  if you want people to buy your product, you have to advertise.

Newt 2012?

The phone rang this morning and I saw the phrase above, minus the question mark, on the caller ID. I was tempted to answer, just out of curiousity, but decided not to, afraid that if there was a person (as opposed to a recording) on the other end I would find myself in a conversation I didn't want to be in, answering "poll" questions such as "Are you in favor of the Obama administration's attempt to destroy the United States?"

A Newt Ginrich presidency, viewed from many angles, seems such a terrible idea that I was surprised to find myself the other day thinking Well, maybe... There is one reason I might consider voting for him: if I thought that he might be able to engineer a reform of our health care system that would be a real reform. I'm more and more convinced that the mess we have is a signficant factor in our economic problems. It has a paralyzing effect: people fear to take risks, on either the employee or the employer side, because of its burden and uncertainty. But I think Obamacare will make things worse. Why Gingrich? Well, for all his faults and weirdness, he is a very bright guy and willing to think outside the usual categories. But I suppose that by virtue of those same qualities whatever he might want to do with health care would probably be as over-complicated and unrealistic as the Democrats' plan.

Favorite Political Remark of the Past Week or So

"the right is the party of tragedy"

From Reihan Salam at National Review Online.

The full sentence:

At its best, the right is the party of tragedy and the impossibility of creating a perfectly just human society, but also of optimism about the potential of voluntary cooperation to help us achieve (modest) moral and (immodest) material progress across generations.

The context is a comment on an article in NR on constitutional conservatism, which I haven't read but which could be interesting.

Oh, and while I'm at it, it isn't exactly political, but I really loved something Greg Wolfe posted on Facebook a couple of days ago:

I am the 100%. (Screwed-up, fully implicated, complicit, and responsible.)

(For anyone reading this years from now, the reference is to the Occupy Wall Street movement's "We Are the 99%" slogan.)

"I'm a devout Catholic..."

I've come to expect that when I hear someone say this it will be followed by something dumb and probably nasty about the Church. Nancy Pelosi delivers. Pelosi strikes me as one of the more odious politicians around, and there's a lot of competition. 

I don't think I've ever heard an actual devout Catholic say "I'm a devout Catholic." They might say "committed" or "staunch," which describe their intention to be faithful, or "orthodox" or "progressive" to describe their theology. But "I'm devout" is similar to "I'm humble," at least in my experience of the word. You don't say it if you are it.

Christ the Despot?

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2011

Today is the feast of Christ the King. The archdiocese of Mobile has a traditional celebration of this occasion which still involves an actual public procession. I was going to say that that’s probably a rare thing in this country in these days, but I decided to look around on the web first, and it seems that there are at least some others. My wife is the diocesan archivist, and she tells me that photos in the archive and the testimony of older Catholics in the area indicate that it was once a bigger deal than it is now, and included a big parade in which all the Catholic schools took part. Catholics are a minority in this area, but a large one. Even in a time when Protestants in general regarded Catholics with much more hostility than most do now, the local church was not ashamed to take over the downtown streets for a public celebration of its faith.

“King of King, Lord of Lords.” Every Christian believes that. The Catholic Church and, I suppose, the Orthodox in a somewhat different manner, make it more concrete than most Protestants, both theologically and in practice, still rejecting “separation of church and state” in the sense that secular fundamentalists use that phrase. In the fundamentalist sense, no opinion rooted in religious conviction has any legitimate voice in government. As a rule the fundamentalists are not very consistent in that view—they are mostly on the political left, and they are indignant when Christians plead the sacredness of human life as an argument against abortion, but untroubled when we plead the equality of all in God’s eyes as an argument against racism.

The fundamentalists notwithstanding, there is a vast territory between their view that religious views should be absolutely excluded from political debate (not to mention from the actual administration of government) and the theocracy which they accuse us of wanting to impose. When I hear the screech of “theocracy!” from a left-winger trying to shut down religious opinion, I’m never sure whether it’s consciously dishonest or merely irrational.

And yet—there are those on my side in that debate who worry even me a little. When some traditionalist Catholics speak of the “the social reign of Christ the King” I get the feeling that what they really want is “the social reign of me and my friends” They seem to be pretty sure about how the world should be run, and that they would sort things out in a jiffy if they had the power. Of course they pay some deference, at least, to the belief that in a fallen world political and social arrangements will never be perfect, but I sometimes get the feeling that they believe they could do a whole lot better than anyone ever has before, and that the process would be a fairly straightforward implementation of the laws they know to be right. They’re disdainful of secular republics—not altogether without reason, but yet not altogether as appreciative as I think they should be of the real gains in human rights and related matters that have been made in these republics. I have heard that case made quite succinctly: secular governments allow people to do things that endanger their souls; a Christian government would establish laws that prevented these things and thus save souls; therefore the establishment of a Christian government is a moral obligation.

Well, in some sense it is, but not necessarily in the theocratic or near-theocratic sense. It’s the over-confident quality of the prescription that bothers me. It sounds too much like other attempts, beginning with the French Revolution, to enforce an abstract ideal of government on the human race. Or like certain strains of Islam, whose leaders believe that they know God’s will in more or less perfect detail, and that all that remains is to implement it. Of course I don’t think this would-be Catholic authoritarianism is as fundamentally wrong as either the atheistic or the Islamic, because it starts with better premises, but I do think it misguided and that it would, if implemented, be bad for the Church. We don’t need a Catholic utopianism.

I often think, when I watch the behavior of American voters, that democracy really is, from the historical perspective, an unnatural phenomenon that may not last very long. Many people seem to want a king, almost naturally—or maybe not even almost; maybe it is natural, not just in the sense that it comes easily but in the sense that it is part of the nature of man. George Washington reportedly had to resist a movement to make him king. The tendency was especially noticeable in the 2008 election, when many Obama voters clearly saw him as a sort of monarch who would, entirely by his own hand, solve most of our problems. And when you look at our relationship to God it makes sense that the desire for a monarch would in fact be built into us There is certainly no reflection there of the modern idea that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed. There is no question of who is in charge, and the attempt on the part of the creature to claim equality with the Lord, and to prefer his own will to the Lord’s, is the fundamental source of evil.

Unquestionably, and unlike human beings who take the role upon themselves, God does have, intrinsically, the right to act as an absolute monarch. Just as clearly, though, the gospels do not present this as the way he chooses to act. Christ the King is not Christ the Despot. If we look to medieval civilization for a conception of kingship, we see that our relationship to this king is meant to be not that of his serfs, but of his liegemen and vassals: a sworn fealty, given freely.

It’s not an absolute freedom, of course. There are consequences for choosing wrongly, for defiance, and for oath-breaking. But if God is willing to wait on us, we must be willing to wait on our fellow sinners, and there is only so much a government of any sort can or should do to bypass that process. The social kingship of Christ is something that we can only hope to realize very imperfectly in this world; it can’t be a destination at which we expect to arrive before the end of time.

Having said all that, though, I wonder why I bothered. We are more likely to be wiped out by an asteroid strike within the next thirty years than to witness the imposition on the United States of an authoritarian Catholic government that would ban rock-and-roll and allow no television except EWTN. I suppose it’s just that these views get on my nerves. What is actually happening is that the upper class is working to make Christians of all sorts into a despised minority, and to limit the practice of the faith where it conflicts with contemporary dogma on sex, marriage, and reproduction. Here is a good example of the left-wing fear-mongering about “theocracy.” The pattern—and I don’t say it’s a conscious tactic, but the pattern that emerges—is to paint Christians as a danger to the nation. That’s a very old theme. It’s a little surprising that it would be so effective in a country that is so heavily Christian. But the left-wing position now has the prestige and confidence that mainline Protestantism had a hundred years ago. At the same time, because it is smaller in numbers, and because Christianity is still culturally predominant outside the big cities, the universities, and most of the media, it can pose as the brave rebel. Nice position to be in.

Ready For the New Liturgical Translations?

So, a week from today we begin using the new translations ("we" in this case being not just Catholics but Latin Rite Catholics). I'm wondering how much and how effectively other parishes have been preparing for this. In my case, I think not so well, unless it's been different at other Masses besides the one I normally attend.

Our pastor is a very fine priest, but he's also a very down-to-earth sort of guy whom one suspects did not really enjoy his theology studies. His discussion of the changes has not gone much past pointing them out: "We used to say this, and now we're going to say that." I get the feeling that he sees them as being more or less arbitrary, and that he's a bit annoyed at having to bother with them. So I'm expecting a somewhat rough transition.

On the other hand, I saw the bulletin of another local parish the other day, and there was a very good discussion there of what was changing and why. (It's possible there could have been something like that in my parish bulletin, because I don't always look at it.) What about your parish?

I think it will all be fairly anticlimactic, really. I don't think either the alarm and despair of the liturgical modernists or the triumph of the traditionalists is really justified, though I do certainly think these translations are, for the most part, a step in the right direction.