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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 AndrĂ¡s 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.