Previous month:
December 2011
Next month:
February 2012

January 2012

Etymology Man!

I've always been greatly annoyed by the attempt to limit or twist the use of a common word by reference to its etymology. I've probably done it myself here and there, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. So here is xkcd doing his part to stamp out the practice.

Language changes, people; get over it. If you want meanings to stay put, do like Mother Church and use Latin. 

(Thanks to my wife for sending me this. I can't believe she saw an xkcd before I did. I haven't been reading it as regularly as I used to.)

Sunday Night Journal — January 29, 2012


Several weeks ago, in a comment on my post about David Bentley Hart's essay on American religion in The New Criterion , Rob G mentioned another TNC piece, this one by William Gairdner, called "Getting Used to the F-Word," saying it was "even better" than Hart's. I had read it when it came out, and not been especially struck by it. But at Rob's recommendation I read it again, and it's been on my mind a good deal since. My opinion of it is mixed, but its main point is one that seems increasingly accurate, and has been supported by certain events of the past week or two.

 The f-word referred to in the title is not the one you think, and the subject is not obscenity and crudeness in entertainment and everyday life. The f-word is fascism, and the subject is the increasingly tight regulation of our lives by the state.

One reason for my lukewarm initial reaction was that use of the term "fascism" has been more or less mindless for a long time, so much so as to often seem a joke in itself. For the most part none but the most inflamed political partisans use it seriously, and when they do they're likely to be scoffed at. (Variants like "Islamofascism" still have a bit of life in them.) As early as 1945 George Orwell had observed that 'almost any English person would accept "bully" as a synonym for "Fascist".' In recent years it has even seemed that the word had become so exhausted that it might fall back into application only in the fairly narrow literal sense, referring to the specific Italian political movement and its close relatives, a development which would have cheered many who like for words to have clear and stable meanings. 

I do think that as a matter of rhetoric Gairdner was unwise to use the word "fascism" for the phenomenon he discusses. Once, perhaps, we generally reacted with alarm to it; now many of us don't take it seriously, and take even less seriously those who bandy it in reference to current political developments. But he might ask "What better word is there?" and it's true that there is not a ready and convenient alternative. "Totalitarianism" comes closest, but it's somewhat clumsy.

Use of the f-word is not the only thing about the essay that I find somewhat unsatisfactory. I don't think all his arguments and examples are persuasive. And there are some key points on which I don't clearly understand him. And yet: I keep coming back to what seems the essential correctness of his essential point. He discusses what he calls "macrofascism," meaning the brutally violent, aggressive, and repressive movements in Germany and Italy that produced World War II and were destroyed by it. He emphasizes not so much their violence per se but the rationale for the violence, which was to bring everything in the life of a nation (and eventually the world) into conformity with a single will and purpose. 

These recent forms of Macro-fascism, whether French, Italian, German, or Russian, have  always been collectivist, secular, and militant, striving through the fearsome top-down powers of the State to draw all things into the ambit of a single pattern of national -- or in the case of Communism, international -- Will, or centralized choosing, a Will always expressed by the subjugation and assimilation by force of things spontaneous, private, and natural, to artificial and unnatural public designs. 

Some will object to the inclusion of Russia and communism in that list, but it's always seemed to me that communism and fascism are far more alike than different, and in the sense that Gairdner is using the term "fascism" it certainly applies (though the inevitable argument about that is, to return to my first objection, one of the problems with the usage.) The European varieties of macro-fascism were throughly discredited and abominated by and after WWII, and there seems little risk of their being revived in anything much like their original form. Communism is no longer much of a political force, though in a vaguer form it has maintained its hold on a great many intellectuals. But the desire for control, to bring everything into order by the power of the state, remains as strong as ever.

In liberal democracies the desire is very self-consciously benevolent, and imposes itself gently, in the gradual construction of a web of laws and regulations which grows ever finer and tighter, but is hardly noticed unless or until one tries to move out of it. Since these are always directed toward making someone better off, not to repression, they don't require violence and aren't resisted very strongly. And even those who are penalized or restricted in the process are generally the beneficiaries of some other manifestation of it, so that they complain only about what specifically burdens them, and are no more interested than anyone else in trying to weaken the web as a whole. This, I think, is what Gairdner calls micro-fascism:

So it seems that in a pragmatic response to the dark failures of the Macro form, a softer Micro-fascism, also rooted in a much earlier intellectual tradition, has emerged slowly in the second half of the twentieth century, and is now in full bloom as our most pervasive and therefore most invisible political religion. It has produced an historically unprecedented type of polity characterized by a radically individualistic and autonomist ethic that nevertheless, and rather ironically seeks to organize itself as a national inventory of common public orthodoxies expressed, not as a collective triumph of the Will over nature, as in the past, but instead as the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature.  

I'm with him up to the second half of the second sentence, beginning with "and rather...". I'm not 100% sure what he means by "a national inventory of common public orthodoxies"; I suppose it refers to various liberal (in the non-classical sense) doctrines concerning sex, race, secularism, and so forth. And I'm not convinced that these doctrines represent primarily "the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature." At least I wouldn't put it that way; his preceding mention of the "radically individualist and autonomist ethic" is clearer and, I think, more significant.

But, as I noted in the beginning, I do think that this urge to bring everything under the control of one central government, for the good of all, is the predominant note of what we call liberalism or progressivism. The benevolent intention is genuine, and that makes it very easy for liberals to believe that opposition to their ideas can only be motivated by anti-benevolence. (I think the left in general is more morally confident than the right; conservatives are easily put on the defensive, liberals less so.)

Well, if most people benefit in some way, and no one is being executed or tortured or sent to a concentration camp, where's the harm?--a shallow question with a deep answer that isn't generally taken seriously by those who ask the question. The resolution of the seeming paradox that Gairdner notes--increasing control at the service of increasing freedom--is in the fact that the presumption of absolute personal autonomy, the rule of the imperial self, prevails only in certain respects, above all in sexual freedom, which seems to be the real religion of a great many influential people. More importantly, it's a religion favored by the state, at least when liberals are in power, and when that religion begins to conflict with others we can see the seriously oppressive potential of the net of laws.

Which brings me to those recent events I mentioned, the main one being the Obama administration's move to require that Catholic institutions provide insurance covering contraception and sterilization to their employees. Among other things, this points up the folly of trying to impose a rigidly uniform and detailed health care system on a very diverse nation. (What, you thought diversity was supposed to be a good thing? Yes, but not the kind that leaves people free to do what progressives do not wish them to do.)

More fundamentally, what we see stirring here is the old enemy of the Church, Caesar, insisting again that he is the real God, the one you really have to obey in the end. You can have your rites and superstitions, he says; you can do what you like in your private worship. But you must acknowledge that Caesar is supreme. In this matter, as in the movement to establish rights for homosexuality at the expense of religious freedom, we're seeing the beginning of a real effort to subjugate the Church. Whether or not one thinks "microfascism" is a good word to describe the machinery in operation here, it's an ominous development, and ought to be recognized for what it is.

As for Obama: I didn't vote for him in 2008 but I respected him. I no longer do. His conciliatory and unifying rhetoric was hot air. Or rather, what he seems to have meant is that conciliation and unity are to be achieved by our doing as he wishes--which does, after all, have more than a hint of fascism about it.

Lego Man Goes to...well, not outer space, but really really up there

"They just thought it would be cool." And they were so right

Approximately 24km (15 miles) is still well within the earth's atmosphere, but very roughly double typical airliner cruising altitudes (9 to 12km or 6 to 8 miles, also very roughly). Depending on who's making the judgment and by what criteria, outer space begins anywhere from 76 to 100 km (47 to 62 miles). 

City of Ice

These astonishing structures are described as "ice sculptures," but that hardly does them justice. Click on the picture for many more, and information about the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival where they're created. (Harbin is a city in China.)


Sunday Night Journal — January 22, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs 2 and Downton Abbey

This is sort of a follow-up to that post a few weeks about Upstairs Downstairs. I don't think I mentioned in that one that the reason we were watching the original series was that we had seen the new one which first aired last year. I'd noticed the ads for it and was curious; also I thought my wife might like it, though she had not seen the original back in the '70s. So we watched the three episodes, and that led to watching the original, and having done that we were curious again about the new version.

It's really pretty good, though as with most such follow-ups you have to get over the idea that it isn't as good as the original because it isn't exactly like itl. Perhaps it was because of that syndrome that I liked it better on second viewing. Jean Marsh as Rose Buck is the only character carried over from the old series: she returns to 165 Eaton Place as housekeeper for an entirely new family (nothing is heard of the Bellamys).  It's set in 1936, and, as in the original, mixes contemporary events with domestic drama. "Contemporary events" of course must include the rise of fascism, and that ends up being a principal theme: a daughter of the wealthy family becomes infatuated with fascism and fascists (which naturally brings to mind the Mitford girls, Unity and Diana).


Unity and Diana Mitford at a Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, 1937 (source: Wikipedia)

The weakness of this three-part series is, for me, the second episode. It deals directly with Hitler's persecution of the Jews, and in my opinion the effort doesn't work very well: it involves a story which struck me as slightly implausible and generally heavy-handed. That's a somewhat harsh judgment, as I'm sure the writers were trying to approach this difficult subject with care. I think what caused me to react that way is that what is happening in Germany is made of direct consequence to the English household in a way that seems a little contrived and melodramatic. It's not necessary, as there are already two characters with fascist sympathies, and their development is sufficient to bring the great events of the time into the story. The first and third episodes are superior to the second. I've read that more are in production, and I'll certainly watch them. 

And I have now joined the ranks of those watching the very similar Downton Abbey. Its first season, which showed last year, was apparently very popular, but I  had somehow missed hearing of it. My wife hadn't, though, and had watched and enjoyed some of it over the net, so we started recording the new season when it began a couple of weeks ago. 

Perhaps it's not fair to assert that the series is modeled on Upstairs Downstairs, but it's almost inconceivable that there was no influence, as it depicts the intertwined lives of a rich English family and their servants in the early 20th century. It's well-written, well-acted, well-produced--very well--but on the basis of three episodes I don't like it as well as either the old or the new UD. It's more like a soap opera, in that there is a more continual sequence of melodramatic twists and turns designed to make sure you come back for the next installment. And unlike Upstairs Downstairs it involves truly wicked things done by truly malicious people. In general its atmosphere is a little oppressive, almost menacing. People speak quietly, the lighting is muted, the lighting in the servant's quarters especially having that yellowish quality which seems favored by cintematographers when they want to induce anxiety. The old Upstairs Downstairs certainly included a realistic mixture of folly and sin and tragedy, but there was no real malevolence on the part of any character that I can remember, and there was a general sense of good spirits about it. I don't mean that there's something amiss when art deals with real evil, but there seems something slightly less healthy about Downton

But I'll keep watching it. I want to know what happens. 

War of the Planets

It's a widely held opinion that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst movie ever made.  But last night I saw one that I think is more deserving of the honor: War of the Planets. I recorded it from the Turner Classic Movies channel a few weeks ago just because I find it hard to pass up an old sci-fi movie. Most of them are not very good but this one is truly awful. 

I've seen Plan 9, and it is indeed truly dreadful. But it almost isn't a real movie at all, just a sort of mess. You feel like the people who made it weren't really trying and didn't really care how good or bad it was. But War of the Planets looks like a lot of work and a certain amount of money went into it, and it's truly awful. It would be entertaining to describe some of the funnier moments, but I really couldn't do them justice. As it goes on, you realize that someone thought that in the future astronauts would naturally update the language by preceding ordinary words with the word "space." As in "You're a space idiot."

There seems to be more than one movie called War of the Planets--this one was made in 1966, in Italy, though it's in English and was released by MGM. Here's the trailer:


As you can see, it's actually the war against green smoke. I don't recall the term "diaphanoids" used in the trailer appearing in the film itself, but maybe I missed it.  And notice the way the guy pronounces "lasers"--"lazers."  At other points, he says it correctly. I suppose there are probably a number of movies as bad as this one, but I do think it's the worst I've ever seen, in the sense I described above.

Chronicles of Marmite

My daughter and her children--two of them as of two weeks ago--were here this afternoon. I made myself a snack of toasted rye bread with butter and Marmite, and she wanted to try it. She took a bite and didn't think it was so bad. My wife had not yet tasted Marmite, although that had not stopped her from believing it to be quite nasty. I guess my daughter's example encouraged her; anyway, she, too, took a bite. There was a long pause while the taste registered on her, then she made a sort of choking cry and spat it out. I regret very much that I didn't think to have a camera ready to capture the moment.

Later my daughter tried it again, a whole piece of toast, and said it was "sort of weirdly good." That's a good description.

Liturgical Progress

Tonight for the first time at Mass I said "and with your spirit" instead "and also with you" without stumbling. Without stumbling audibly, at least--I thought "and also with you" but caught myself before I actually said it.

Sometimes it is, I suppose

The current issue of our diocesan newspaper has an article about "premartial sex." 

Beethoven: Piano Sonata 11 op. 22

Weekend Music

You may have noticed that this sometimes-regular feature disappeared some weeks ago, I'm not sure exactly when. I hardly listened to any music at all, or opened a book, between Thanksgiving and Epiphany. After the latter, though, really feeling the lack of music, I began playing music in the car on my daily commute, a habit I'd given up for a while in the interests of trying to clear my mind for other things (an effort which wasn't particularly successful). I'd been finding myself dissatisfied with pop music, and so one of the first discs I chose was volume III of the Beethoven piano sonatas recorded by András Schiff, which includes this one. I played it through several times over the course of a week or so, and became fascinated with the first movement. Coincidentally, it was featured in this post by Pentimento, which caused me to listen to it several more times. I don't have the vocabulary to say anything much about it, only that I like it a lot, and that I especially like that mysterious part in the bass that starts around 4:55 in this video. Which happens to be the buildup to the moment around 5:28 which Pentimento was commenting on (as was the person on whose post she in turn was commenting, which I haven't read). 


All the Lovely Candidates

My great-aunt Ann was a diehard Democrat who believed that in the realm of politics FDR was the Creator and JFK the Messiah. I don't think she lived to see the JFK myth put pretty thoroughly to rest (as much as it can ever be--the true believers seem to be pretty committed still). But she was somewhat disillusioned with their successors. She spent her last years in a nursing home, and I think it was on one of my visits there during the 1988 Democratic primaries that she asked me sourly "And how are all the lovely candidates doing?" 

I watched most of the Republican "debate" tonight. I'm slightly, but only slightly, embarrassed to say that I had not watched any of the thousand or so others, and had never seen any of these men except Gingrich speak on TV. I'm not a gambler, but I'm thinking of making a large bet that Obama will win the election this fall, so that when it happens I'll have a consolation prize.  I hope I'm wrong, because I think any of them would be preferable to a second Obama term. But I really have a hard time believing that any of them can beat him, vulnerable though he is.

If I knew nothing whatever about them except what I saw tonight, I'd be for Ginrich. He was certainly the most articulate, and the one who struck me as most likely to have the combination of vision and realism to move the government in a different direction without steering it onto the rocks. But of course I do know a number of other things about him, and he may be in fact the one most likely to steer it onto the rocks. And as for his notorious private life...well, if one believed he were truly repentant and humble...but that is one point on which his advocacy is unpersuasive.

Ron Paul has often been likened to a crazy uncle, and now I see why. He is absolutely right about some things, and probably his ideas do hew closer to the Founders' vision than anyone else's. But I can't imagine him being elected.

Rick Santorum was good on almost everything that was discussed tonight (war was hardly mentioned, unless it was in the first 20 minutes or so which I missed). And he could probably be persuasive to a lot of people. But he will seem lightweight compared to Obama--seem--it will not be fair, because Obama is a lightweight, but he's the kind of lightweight who appeals to opinion-makers. And his views on social issues are already being portrayed as deranged and dangerous; sadly, a pretty large proportion of the American people now view his beliefs, most of which would have seemed unobjectionable fifty years ago, as extremist.

And Romney: his good or bad qualities are almost irrelevant, because the Democrats are going to have a great time making him the symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the economy for the past several years, never mind the fact that Obama's government is full of people who were much closer to that action. It was miserable to watch him squirm when asked if and when he would reveal his tax returns. 

Like I said, I hope I'm wrong. The bloom is certainly off the Obama rose, so maybe there will be more of an opening than I think. But that's how it looks to me now.

Sunday Night Journal — January 15, 2012

Once again I've had a very busy and stressful week, followed by a not-stressful but nevertheless busy weekend, with little time for anything apart from work and family-related doings. I brought this on myself to some extent by having signed up, back in late November, for a 20-hour course in the Java programming language, which took up five hours a day for the entire four days of the first work week after New Year's. When I signed up for it, I wasn't thinking about all the other things I would need to be doing that week. It put me behind on those, and I still haven't caught up. Well, I never actually catch up at work, but sometimes the backlog is greater than at other times.

The class was pretty challenging, but I enjoyed it. It felt good to exercise my brain in very much the same way that it feels good to exercise one's body: though it was psychological rather than physical, there was a similar sense of being stronger for the effort. And it reminded me of why I ever got into this line of work in the first place. I do like programming, and I wish my job consisted of more programming and less politics, less administration, less time supporting users of software that I didn't write and don't fully understand. 

The economic crisis of the past few years has brought attention to the number of college graduates who can't get jobs, especially liberal arts grads. But although this situation may have gotten worse since 2008, it's hardly a new development. In the early 1970s I found myself in the same situation, with a BA in English, some work toward an MA, and no prospect of employment beyond retail clerking at minimum wage.

There were some humiliating experiences in the job hunt: being rejected for jobs that required little of the intellectual capacity I'd been demonstrating in grad school, but for which I was nevertheless clearly unsuited for other reasons. I remember especially taking a mechanical aptitude test at the state employment agency, along with a couple of dozen other young men. I doubt any of them had gone past high school, and they certainly could not have written the rather ambitious philosophical-literary essay with which I'd finished Dr. Williamson's course in criticism. But in the mechanical aptitude test, I was the idiot: what the other guys did quickly and correctly I did slowly and badly, or not at all. The experience did serve as a corrective to my pride, but under the circumstances--unemployed and apparently unemployable--it was also a shove toward despair, confirmation of a sense of worthlessness. I did at least recognize the humor in the situation, and that helped alleviate the bitterness.

 I knew a few people who were involved in what was then called "data processing." One was a brilliant young mathematician and computer scientist, who had been involved in programming the University (of Alabama)'s computer--these were the days when there was only one on campus--when he was still in high school. He suggested that I give programming a try. I considered such things to be as far beyond me as most mathematics, and it had certainly never entered my mind to consider it as a potential occupation. He advised me to take an introductory course and see what happened.

At some point between receiving that advice and acting upon it, I was talking to a casual acquaintance at the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa establishment which was part bar and part subculture. I mentioned that I was planning to check out the possibility of learning something about computer programming. It turned out that she herself was a programmer, and she encouraged me, with a description of the job that has remained with me for all these years: "It's like going to work every day and having a really interesting puzzle to solve." Well, that sounded promising.

And it wasn't too bad. I found that the basics came fairly easily to me. But I also found quickly enough that I had definite limits. The abstract reaches of computer science were as beyond me as mathematics. What I soon realized was that what I had was an aptitude not for computer science but for precision in language, and a reasonable ability to think logically: I saw the essential task of programming as the expression in very precise and detailed terms of a sequence of operations, and I had a pretty good intuitive grasp of how the hardware worked. This was enough to make me a decent programmer, but not enough to make me a computer scientist, or an engineer, though the degree I eventually struggled through was in computer science, by way of the school of engineering. 

I got my first part-time programming job in 1976 or 1977, then another and somewhat more demanding one, and in 1979 took my first full-time job in the information technology business, just in time to allow my wife to give up her job and stay at home with our new baby. And I've been doing that ever since. I count myself lucky to have been able to earn a decent living doing something that I can enjoy at least part of the time.

But the words of my Chukker acquaintance now seem a false promise. For the first few years of my work in the field, her description wasn't too far off, especially when I found a little niche for myself doing a somewhat esoteric type of programming which most people weren't interested in but which was a necessary component of the products developed by the company I worked for. But my niche disappeared with changes in the technology and in the industry. And I soon found that in this line of work you eventually have to choose between remaining in a purely technical role and becoming a manager. I would have preferred the former, but I wasn't good enough, at least not in that company, which was full of extremely bright programmers and engineers. Moreover, the pool of purely technical talent was constantly being replenished with new college grads who were not only very bright but single, or at least childless, energetic, ambitious, and willing to work long hours. I couldn't compete with them in technical ability.

I had absolutely no desire to be a manager or to climb the corporate ladder. I just wanted to do work that was at least sometimes enjoyable and by which I could support my family. But when offered the opportunity of a management position, I took it. I was soon miserable. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if I had been purely a manager, but I also had still some technical responsibilities. Moreover, as a manager, I needed to understand what my seven or eight team members were doing, and the company was now moving into a software technology in which I had no hands-on experience. I couldn't keep up with it all. It was a very unpleasant position to be in, and after several years of it I fled, in 1990, to the job in which I've remained since. It's a bit like the position I left--part management, part technical--but the technical side is less demanding, mostly involving support of existing software. The only programming consists of minor modifications and extensions of it. 

The point of this lengthy recounting is that the course I took last week put me very much in mind, again, of what I'd heard in the Chukker back in the mid-1970s, and the disappointment that followed. It made me realize again how enjoyable and satisfying programming can be, and induced a bout of dissatisfaction and frustration with my job: I need to know how Java works, but I won't actually do much coding in it. 

Programmers are notoriously introverted, if not anti-social (though I've know a few who were very much the opposite), and I fit the stereotype. When I was first put into a management job an evangelical Christian of my acquaintance assured me with great confidence that God was obviously doing this in order to bring me out of my shell.

Well, it didn't work. If anything it drove me further in, by putting me in a situation where I was always insecure and off balance, in which the beginning of the work day seems the beginning of a brief prison sentence, and its end an escape (as I think is the case for most people in most jobs). It did indeed require that I deal with people more, but it also increased my desire to get away from them. I don't greatly resent this--as I said, I'm thankful to have been able to make a reasonably good living for all these years, and especially so now that so many are unemployed. But as a matter of immediate subjective experience, it is a cross. A light and mild cross, certainly, but not a pleasant experience, and one which keeps me away from the things I really love. In my better moments I accept this without begrudging it, and in my very best moments, which are relatively few, I embrace it, and am thankful for it precisely as a cross. 

But that doesn't mean that the hand of God was not in the path my career has taken. Perhaps--one can only guess at these things, and it seems a weakness of evangelicalism to attempt to read the mind of God too closely--the fact that I would not like the change was exactly why it was put before me. I can think of any number of reasons why that makes sense, and they all come down to the necessity of accepting the cross as an intrinsic part of life as a Christian. Evangelicalism often seems not to know exactly what to do with the idea of the cross as a blessing, with the obstacle put in our path not by Satan but by God. 


I hadn't planned to write more than a few paragraphs on this subject. I had intended to mention several other things, but they can wait. 

Good NYRB (!) Review of Tree of Life

I haven't been online much for the past couple of days, but I wanted to mention this, which Rob G sent me a several days ago. As Rob noted, the review doesn't say much about--the reviewer presumably doesn't get--the real spiritual significance of the movie, but I think he's very good on the aesthetics and psychology.


Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.

—Leonard Cohen

(seen on Facebook, posted by Image, I think)

Google Honors Bl. Nicholas Steno

You may have noticed the Google Doodle today, a rocky-looking thing which turns out to be a reference to Blessed Nicholas Steno, a Danish priest (actually named Steensen) who did some pioneering work in geology. Steno12-sr I was not aware of him before today, so I appreciate Google having brought him to my attention. And I'm glad they made note of someone who was not only a Catholic priest, and not only a scientist, but possibly a saint

One suspects, though, that Google, which generally avoids any religious significance for its Doodles, wasn't much interested in the Catholic aspect of Steno's life. When you click on the Doodle, you get (at least as of this writing) a series of articles praising him as a "mythbuster" and opponent of "creationsim." To say that this distorts his life is an understatement. It's curious that if you simply search for "Nicholas Steno", you get a somewhat different set of results, in which the "mythbuster" theme is less prominent. 

Try it. This is the URL which the Doodle uses:

And this is the one generated when you do a simple Google search:

I don't know what those parameters ("ct=...") at the end of the Google URL mean. No, I don't think Google somehow engineered the "mythbuster" results. But it's odd. And certainly reflective of a widespread attitude: sure, he may have actually believed that Catholic stuff, but that's just because he wasn't far enough along in enlightenment; his real importance was that he us.

Best Favorite Favourite Films of 2011...

...over at All Manner of Thing. Very much worth your while if you haven't already read it. I have to pass along this comment about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:  "I love the book, and had high hopes for the film, all of which were dashed into little pieces, swept into a little pile, and thrown overboard." All too accurate, I'm sorry to say--well, maybe not the high hopes, as mine were fairly muted--but an accurate verdict.

Sunday Night Journal — January 8, 2012

This will be brief, because I spent most of this afternoon and evening at the hospital where my daughter Ellen had just given birth to my newest grandchild, James Lucas Tynes. Mother and son are doing fine.

Second Thoughts About Christopher Hitchens

A few weeks ago I wrote a sort of obituary for Hitchens in which, like a good many American Christians, I gave him credit for being, at least, an honest searcher for truth. A week or so after that I ran across several commentaries on him which asserted that he not only never really abandoned his Communist ideology, but that he considered it a good thing that the Soviets had manage to rid the world of a pretty good number of Orthodox priests and other Christian enemies of humanity. I neglected to bookmark any of those, but I think at least one or two were at The American Conservative. If it is true that he believed up until the end that mass murder is an acceptable solution to what he regarded as the menace of religion, he does not deserve many of the admiring words, mine and others', that have been written about him. I don't feel it necessary to say much more than that.

At National Review, Victor Davis Hanson has what seems to be a very fair-minded remembrance of him. If you're interested in this at all, you should read at least the first few paragraphs. They contain the most specific information I've yet encountered about the event which is very plausibly believed to be at the root of Hitchens's burning hatred of religion: the suicide of his mother and her ex-Anglican-priest lover. Note: Anglican. I've heard this story more than once before, but if I remember correctly the lover was described either as a Catholic priest or simply as a priest, which to most people outside the Anglican or Orthodox churches generally implies Catholic. It makes more sense this way.

Also at National Review, the British native (now an American citizen) John Derbyshire sounded a pretty sour note about Hitchens and was given by a friend this explanation of his indifference to Hitchens, despite Derbyshire's also being a skeptic with regard to religion:  “One of the reasons that you were immune to Hitchensolatry, I think, is that you are English and are therefore not susceptible to the American tendency to believe that anyone who speaks fluently with an Oxbridge accent must be right.” (The post is here.) I didn't much like hearing this, because of an uneasy feeling that there might be something to it. I heard Tony Blair arguing in Parliament for the Iraq war, and he was far more persuasive than George Bush, though in the end the substance was probably much the same. 

 "Job Creators" or Gamblers

And yet again from National Review: a fine indignant piece by Kevin D. Williamson on the Wall Street-Washington symbiosis. This is refreshing because too many conservatives--and way too many conservative politicians--either don't see or willfully ignore the fact that the high rollers of high finance are not the "job creators" that Republican politicians always say they need to protect from rapacious tax collectors. Granted, a capitalist economy needs a stock market. Granted, that there's nothing wrong with the basic principle of people investing in an enterprise, underwriting the risk and hoping for a share in the profits. But a lot of the people who make the really big money in high finance are not doing that in any meaningful sense, not directly: they're gambling on the ups and downs of the market. Here's a good sample selection:

Beyond Wall Street proper, your Fortune 500 types are looking at the many-splendored tax credits and subsidies and grants and stimulus dollars lavished upon firms such as the now-defunct Solyndra and the really-should-have-been-defunct General Electric and wondering: How do I get me some of that?

 What’s worse is that much of official Washington is looking at Wall Street and asking the same question. The answer: Easy. If Wall Street has done pretty well by investing in Washington, the more despair-inducingly germane fact is that Washington has done pretty well by investing in Wall Street. A catalogue of recent congressional insider-trading, self-dealing, IPO shenanigans, and inexplicably good investment luck would fill an entire volume, and in fact it has: The book has the Tea Party–bait title Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison, by Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution. That’s a lot of title for a fairly slim book (176 pages of reportage, plus end notes), but, despite its relatively slender dimensions, it cost me an entire night’s sleep: I spent half the night reading it in a single sitting and the other half having nightmares about it. It’s the most offensive and disturbing thing I’ve read since sampling the oeuvre of the Marquis de Sade as an undergraduate.

There is nothing conservative in supporting or enabling these arrangements. It may be difficult to craft policies that hold the gamblers accountable--or, at a minimum, make sure that when they lose they can and will pay up--without penalizing real entrepreneurs, but you have to start by recognizing the difference. More Williamson:

[F]ree-market conservatives should not romanticize the lords of finance.

Wall Street can do math, and the math looks like this: Wall Street + Washington = Wild Profitability. Free enterprise? Entrepreneurship? Starting a business making and selling stuff behind some grimy little storefront? You’d have to be a fool. Better to invest in political favors.

I've snipped out only a few good quotes from a fairly lengthy piece: here's the link again.

The Marmite Poem

Last week, writing about English food, I meant to quote the poem from the label of the Marmite jar:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Marmite, you're brown
And I love you.

Roll Tide!

Alabama vs. LSU Monday night in New Orleans for the national championship. I intend to watch, but with some effort to preserve my equanimity. The misery of the last two times we played LSU, and the 2010 loss to Auburn, almost made me decide I'd rather not watch. I'll see how I do this time.


I can't resist: one more quote from Kevin Williamson:

Here’s what Wall Street doesn’t want: It doesn’t want to hear from Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann or even Newt Gingrich, or suffer any sort of tea-party populism. It wants you rubes to shut up about Jesus and please pay your mortgages. It doesn’t want to hear from such traditional Republican constituencies as Christian conservatives, moral traditionalists, pro-lifers, or friends of the Second Amendment. It doesn’t even want to hear much from the Chamber of Commerce crowd, because those guys are used-car dealers and grocery-store owners and for the most part strictly from hick, so far as Wall Street is concerned. Wall Street wants an administration and a Congress — and a country — that believes what is good for Wall Street is good for America, whether that is true or isn’t. Wall Street doesn’t want free markets — it wants friends, favors, and fealty.

Jennifer Fulwiler's Conversion Story

I haven't had time to write anything this week, being very busy with work and other things. So I was looking through my bookmarks for things I'd kept with the idea of maybe posting them here, or maybe not. This is one I came across back in November. You may be familiar with Jennifer Fulwiler's blog, Conversion Diary. She's discussed her path from atheism to the Church there, but at an interesting site called Why I'm Catholic she tells the story all in one piece. Unfortunately it appears that it attracted some quarrelsome atheists--but perhaps they heard something that made them think.

New Year's Day 2012

Sunday Night Journal — January 1, 2012

I've seen a couple of cartoons in the past few days making fun of the arbitrary designation of one day in the year as its beginning, and a moment for new starts and second chances. I normally think such spoilsport demystifying is petty, but I'm a little more sympathetic to it this year than I would ordinarily be, because I've had to work much of this week in spite of the fact that my place of employment is officially closed from December 23 through January 2. Not only that, I'm leaving ten days of 2011 vacation unused and therefore lost, as we aren't allowed to carry unused vacation into the next year. So apart from Christmas Eve, Christmas itself, and the day after Christmas, when we had some family over for a big seafood feast, I haven't had much time off, and almost none to relax, or to get done any of the things I'd hoped to do over the break. Moreover, the work situation is a complicated and very visible project with a pretty firm deadline, so just knowing that it's there has been producing a lot of stress even when I wasn't actually working on it. 

So I'm not in much of a Happy New Year! mood. However, my wife cooked the traditional New Year's dinner of ham, hoppin' john (black-eyed peas and rice), and turnip greens, and it was tasty and heartening, so maybe the year will actually get off to a better start than it seemed to be doing earlier today. 


David Bentley Hart has written what strikes me as the best thing I've ever read about religion in America: "America & the angels of Sacré-Cœur." I read it once, and thought it was very good. A couple of weeks later I read it again, and thought it was great. It's in the December issue of The New Criterion, and it seems to be available to non-subscribers. However, in case you don't want to read the whole thing, I'm going to quote some of the passages that struck me most:

There may not be a distinctive American civilization in the fullest sense, but there definitely is a distinctly American Christianity. It is something protean, scattered, fragmentary, and fissile, often either mildly or exorbitantly heretical, and sometimes only vestigially Christian, but it can nevertheless justly be called the American religion—and it is a powerful religion. It is, however, a style of faith remarkably lacking in beautiful material forms or coherent institutional structures, not by accident, but essentially. Its civic inexpressiveness is a consequence not simply of cultural privation, or of frontier simplicity, or of modern utilitarianism, or even of some lingering Puritan reserve towards ecclesial rank and architectural ostentation, but also of a profound and radical resistance to outward forms.... What America shares with, say, France is the general Western heritage of Christian belief, with all its confessional variations; what it has never had any real part in, however, is Christendom....

America may have arisen out of the end of Christendom, and as the first fully constituted political alternative to Christendom, but it somehow avoided the religious and cultural fate of the rest of the modern West. Far from blazing a trail into the post-Christian future that awaited other nations, America went quite a different way, down paths that no other Western society would ever tread, or even know how to find. Whereas European society—moving with varying speed but in a fairly uniform direction—experienced the end of Christendom simultaneously as the decline of faith, in America just the opposite happened.... [R]ather than the exhaustion of religious longing, its revival; rather than a long nocturnal descent into disenchantment, a new dawning of early Christianity’s elated expectation of the Kingdom....

Just about every living religion has found some kind of home here, bringing along whatever institutional supports it could fit into its luggage. Many such creeds have even managed to preserve the better part of their integrity. Still, I would argue (maybe with a little temerity), such communities exist here as displaced fragments of other spiritual worlds, embassies from more homogeneous religious cultures, and it is from those cultures that they derive whatever cogency they possess....

I regard American Evangelicalism in all its varieties—fundamentalist, Pentecostal, blandly therapeutic—as the most pristine expression of [the American religious] temper.... [I]t is a form of spiritual life that no other nation could have produced, and the one most perfectly in accord with the special genius and idiocy, virtue and vice, of American culture....

Whatever one’s view of Evangelicalism, only bigotry could prevent one from recognizing its many admirable features: the dignity, decency, and probity it inspires in individuals, families, and communities; the moral seriousness it nourishes in countless consciences; its frequent and generous commitment to alleviating the sufferings of the indigent and ill; its capacity for binding diverse peoples together in a shared spiritual resolve; its power to alter character profoundly for the better; the joy it confers. But, conversely, only a deep ignorance of Christian history could blind one to its equally numerous eccentricities....

It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture—whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times....Will its lack of any coherent institutional structure ultimately condemn it to haunting rather than vivifying its culture?....

[T]he secularist impulse can create nothing of enduring value. It corrupts the will and the imagination with the deadening boredom of an ultimate pointlessness, weakens the hunger for the good, true, and beautiful, makes the pursuit of diversion life’s most pressing need, and gives death the final word. A secular people—by which I mean not simply a people with a secular constitution, but one that really no longer believes in any reality beyond the physical realm—is a dying people, both culturally and demographically. Civilization, or even posterity, is no longer worth the effort. And, in our case, it would not even be a particularly dignified death. European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.

Here's the link again. Really, it's worth it. Though if you're like me and find it difficult to read anything lengthy and serious on the web, you might be better off to seek out the print edition, if that's at all possible. I give my back issues of TNC to the library, for their give-away table. I hope they aren't just throwing them out.


In the same TNC, James Panero compares Occupy Wall Street to the Paris Commune of 1871, and puts his finger on an aspect of the movement which continues to produce the adjective "creepy" in my mind, and which was very much present in the radical movements of the 1960s. 

There is an undeniable romance in doomed idealism, even if the ends are worse than the beginnings. The deadliest form of idealism invites its own ruin, either from outside or within, so that the purity of the ideal can be measured against the severity of its destruction—cataclysm as a defense against compromise. 

Like the radicalism of the '60s, the Occupy movement is really two things: on the surface, and probably in the minds of most of its participants, it's a specific protest about specific things. In the minds of a certain core of participants, including at least some of its guiding figures, it's the old romantic dream of establishing an absolutely pure society. For these, the particular object of protest is almost irrelevant; any stick will do to beat the dog; the real point is that society is corrupt through and through, and must be replaced with something new and pure. The belief that this is possible is at best an illusion, leading those who follow it deeper into a wilderness, at worst a mania inciting a rage to destroy or be destroyed. The idealism that cannot tolerate the actual is not much different from nihilism.


I have two predictions for 2012. One, the world will not come to an end. Two, Barack Obama will be re-elected president of the United States. I am ambivalent about the first of these. Both are pessimistic.