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April 2012

Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2012

Dialogue and Motive

A few days ago in a comment thread Paul linked to this interesting report on a study which claims to find that conservatives understand the views of liberals better than liberals understand the views of conservatives. I take Studies of this sort in general with a pretty big dose of skepticism—after all, hardly a week seems to pass that someone doesn’t produce a Study purporting to prove that conservatives are fundamentally stupid, etc. This one is intriguing partly because the results actually go counter to the self-admitted bias of the liberal psychology professor who did it, and partly because, for what it’s worth, my personal experience supports the conclusion.

As far as I can remember I have never encountered, either in person or in print, a liberal who was able and/or willing to understand conservative arguments on their own terms—that is, to address what the conservative says he intends, and the arguments with which he supports that intention, rather than what the liberal assumes he intends. For instance, on the question of our responsibility toward the poor: if a conservative agrees that there is such a responsibility, but that there are better ways to meet it than the federal programs beloved of liberals, the liberal generally does not acknowledge that this is a disagreement about means and not ends. Instead, he concludes that the conservative doesn’t care about the poor, is a social Darwinist, etc. There simply doesn’t seem to be any willingness or ability on the part of liberals to believe that conservatives actually have the common good at heart, but differ about how to achieve it.

I don’t say that conservatives don’t often fall into the same way of thinking. But the study indicates that there are more exceptions to the tendency on the conservative than on the liberal side.

The liberal response seems always to assume that opposition to a particular approach toward solving a problem is opposition to solving the problem at all. In other words, the liberal is incapable of believing, or at least disinclined to believe, that any approach to a problem other than the liberal one can be reasonable and sincere. If you oppose affirmative action, you must favor racism. If you oppose giving more money to any and all government educational agencies, you must want children to be ignorant. (The teachers’ union in my state has been doing this for decades, pretty effectively: any opposition to anything it wants is deemed opposition to education, period.) If you think our programs for the elderly are unsustainable, you must want to push an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff, as Congressman Paul Ryan was depicted doing in an ad attacking his proposals for Social Security and Medicare reform.

(I always feel obliged to insert this disclaimer: yes, I am mindful of the inadequacy of terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” and “right,” especially in the American context, but that doesn’t mean the parties don’t exist.)

Ryan, Rand, and Georgetown

Speaking of Paul Ryan: I have long wondered how it is that Christian admirers of Ayn Rand reconcile Rand’s ideas with their faith. At the level of fundamental metaphysics, the two simply cannot be reconciled. Rand’s philosophy as a whole can fairly be described as satanic, except that Satan does not share her foolish belief that there is no such thing as spiritual reality. I’ve suspected that what they, the Christians, do is to separate Rand’s economic ideas from her metaphysics. They read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead and are thrilled by the achievements of the heroes, and filled with indignation toward their malicious collectivist enemies. They either miss or mostly ignore the materialist and atheist foundations of Rand’s didactic stories; what they see is an inspiring story of individual heroism against collective stupidity and venality. It wouldn’t be so hard to do that if one only read Atlas, which is the only work of any length by Rand that I’ve read; perhaps the same is true of The Fountainhead.

And they aren’t totally off base, at least if we ignore the question of literary judgment—I thought Atlas was bad to the point of being funny. Her opposition to collectivism was the one thing that Rand got mostly right. Her family’s pharmacy was confiscated by the early Soviet government, so she had direct experience of what happens when a government decides to confiscate private property, ostensibly for the benefit of the people but in practice for the benefit of those who run the government, either directly or indirectly. It doesn’t seem to be recognized by the most vociferous denouncers of Rand’s ideas that what disgusted her most (at least on the evidence of Atlas Shrugged) was not so much government itself as crony capitalism, the appropriation of government’s power by private interests. The most loathsome characters in Atlas are those who can’t compete with the genius of the heroes and therefore use the power of government to rig the game in their favor, like a football team that bribes the officials.

And she’s half-right about individual achievement. It’s a fine thing when a gifted person exercises those gifts, and a shabby one when the envious scheme to bring him down. Anyone can cheer the one and boo the other, just as audiences cheer and boo the heroes and villains of any melodrama. She was only half-right, because her gifted heroes are grotesquely egotistical, and risibly enchanted with their own (highly implausible) superiority, like characters in some cartoon version of Nietzsche.

Paul Ryan, a Catholic, is somewhat notorious for acknowledging Rand’s influence on him, while simultaneously claiming that his economic vision is compatible with Catholic social teaching. In the past week or so he has made some remarks distancing himself from Rand, and has been accused of lying about his earlier enthusiasm, as expressed in remarks such as “I give outAtlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well... I try to make my interns read it.” (This remark is usually paraphrased as something like “forces his staff to read Atlas Shrugged,” which is not exactly the same thing, and lacks the light tone of the actual words. The primary source and context for this remark seems to be a 2003 article in the Weekly Standard which is available only to subscribers.)

I don’t think there is necessarily any contradiction between Ryan's past and current views (which is not to say that they are entirely coherent). In fact they are what I would expect to hear from the sort of Christian I was wondering about. Every admiring word about Rand that I’ve heard attributed to Ryan has been in the context of economics, and he seems offended that people would think this makes him a full-fledged metaphysical Randian. This doesn’t say much for his intellectual consistency, but it doesn’t surprise me very much.

At any rate, I think there are a lot of good things in his address he gave at Georgetown last week, which you can read here. Some of the Georgetown faculty are up in arms about him, in particular accusing him of being insufficiently orthodox, which is pretty funny coming from them. (Nor do those who signed the letter of protest—theology professors and others—seem likely to have much knowledge of economic reality). But—in line with the study I referred to earlier—they don’t seem even to attempt to meet the argument that his proposals will actually preserve the essentials of the social safety net they advocate. They assume that his disagreement with their means is a disagreement about the end. I am certainly willing to believe that he needs to keep working at the project of basing his economic views less on Ayn Rand and more on the teachings of the Church, but I’m not convinced that he deserves their wholesale condemnation, and I think his ideas deserve an open and charitable debate.

I don’t want to take a position on Ryan’s budget proposal (apart from the fact that I think it should include defense cuts, which it reportedly does not). These things have gotten so vastly complicated that it’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to grasp what a plan like this really contains and what its significance really is. And that in itself is a symptom of something gone badly wrong. What we need are honest and disinterested experts to study it and explain it to the rest of us. But most of the people who have the time for that sort of thing are highly partisan and can be expected to slant things their way, usually in the most hyperbolic way possible. I admit that I tend to dismiss liberal rhetoric about “gutting” social programs, because they say that about any attempt whatsoever to constrain the growth of their favored programs.

I do, however, take Ryan at his word that he believes his plan would be the best thing for the country as a whole, and is not just a cover for his desire to push somebody off a cliff. As he says,

Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.

But you can’t have a civil dialogue when one side assumes that anything said by the other is only meant to divert attention from an evil conspiracy.

The Skatalites: Simmer Down

I'm not calling this Weekend Music because I'm not sure I want to commit myself to doing that post every week. So let's just call it weekend music. I posted this on Facebook the other day as a recommendation apropos the racial tensions in this country. Not that anyone who would have seen it there (or here, probably) has much power to affect the situation.



The Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

Hmm, sounds a bit like the name of a rock band.... But no: Friday will be the first anniversary of the devastating (to put it mildly) tornadoes that hit northern Alabama last year. An old friend of mine, one of a number of people who came to Tuscaloosa for college in the late 1960s and never left, was in a neighborhood that took a direct hit from the one that destroyed a big part of the city. She lived to tell the tale, and has recently put it online here. It's pretty long, too long for me to read in one stretch, but only the first quarter or so of it deals with the day of the storm itself, while the rest describes the aftermath.

On not fanning the flames

If you visited here within the past 4 or 5 hours, you saw a post linking to a story about the beating of a white man by a black mob who may have been further inflamed by the Trayvon Martin case. I took the post down because it served no real purpose other than to express my frustration at the people who have been fanning those flames of racial hostility, and I don't want to do anything that might serve to fan them further. 

Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2012

Notes on a couple of movies I’ve seen recently.

Islands in the Stream

I saw this movie when it was released in 1976 or 1977 and liked it a great deal. I’ve thought about it occasionally over the years and wanted to see it again. Now I have, and I found it at least as good, maybe better, than I remembered. In fact I’m tempted to call it great. After watching it a week or so ago I looked around on the net for other opinions, and I found several people describing it as a forgotten and/or underrated classic. Not entirely forgotten, obviously, since it’s available on DVD. But offhand I don’t remember ever hearing it mentioned by anyone, critic or friend, since I saw it that first time.

It’s based on Hemingway’s posthumously published novel of the same name, which I hadn’t read in 1977 and still haven’t. I don’t think the critics had (or have) a very high opinion of the novel, and obviously I can’t speak to the relative merits of book and film, or the degree of resemblance between them. But if indeed it’s a mediocre novel, it’s one of those cases of a so-so book inspiring a very fine film.

The story is centered on an aging artist living in a sort of exile in the Bahamas, reasonably content but isolated. You might say it tracks his re-engagement with the people he loves, and the enlargement of that circle in a pretty dramatic way. He has three sons by two marriages who come to visit him for the summer, and a big part of the story involves the establishment or re-establishment of his relationship with them. Later the first of his ex-wives reappears. I really don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoiling the story, which for me at any rate was very powerful when I was twenty-nine and is just as powerful now that I’m sixty-three. I remember on my first viewing thinking that it was a perceptive and accurate picture of the way men love, and I still think so.

George C. Scott’s performance as the protagonist, in many ways a typical Hemingway character, strikes me as simply perfect. And not the least of the film’s pleasures, by the way, is the Caribbean setting, beautifully photographed. It also has a score that seems to me at least considerably better than average.

I’d be interested in knowing whether anyone else has as high an opinion of it as I do.

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

One night six or eight weeks ago I was browsing around on Netflix and saw this available for online viewing. Out of curiosity I watched the first ten minutes or so of it. A few days later I found myself thinking about it, and went back for another ten minutes, and so watched the whole thing in ten or twenty-minute pieces.

The Minutemen, if you don’t already know it, were a punk band of the early 1980s, and theirs is one of the names that are always mentioned in any history of punk. I had paid almost no attention to punk at the time it was happening, and a few years ago decided to educate myself a bit on the subject. The Minutemen were one of the bands I had to hear, and I listened to the album which is generally considered their best, Double Nickels on the Dime (that is, 55 miles per hour on Interstate 10). I wasn’t greatly taken with their music, although I found it interesting. (You can read my review of it here.)

Yet I found this documentary fascinating. If punk is a musical style, I don’t care much for it. If it’s the expression of anger, or the simple desire to shock and offend, I don’t like it at all. But if it’s about the rejection of the entertainment industry, about people making their own music rather than passively accepting what the industry sells, and about artistic and personal integrity, I find a lot to like.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with rock-and-roll. A few minutes of watching the typical posturing of the typical commercially successful rock group are enough to make me never want to hear another note of it. The Minutemen, as they come across in this film, are refreshing, determinedly down to earth. There’s nothing of the usual sex-and-drugs-let’s-party rock-and-roll mentality about them. Watch the trailer below, especially that first bit, where the three members of the band are being interviewed. You might think at first that you’re hearing three kids who are just starting a band, but in fact that interview was made after they had become pretty successful—very successful, in the context of the “alternative” scene. They don’t seem to be trying to impress anybody; they’re still just being themselves, three guys who started a band. And look at and listen to Mike Watt, the bass player, the guy in the jeans and blue shirt whose reminiscences and reflections make up a big part of the movie: you’d never guess he’s a rock star. And of course he isn’t, in the sense that, say, Bono, is. He’s an impressive bassist and has been moderately successful since The Minutemen, but he doesn’t have anything like the stagey mannerisms and egotism (and, not infrequently, the apparent stupidity) that are too often the mark of rock musicians.

Punk rock—well, rock in general—usually brings along with it some degree of left-wing politics, and that seems to have been part of The Minutemen’s conception of integrity. To the extent that that’s expressed directly, it seems to be the usual rather simple-minded stuff—hating Ronald Reagan, and so forth. But it isn’t overpowering, and insofar as it’s rooted in a dislike of the commercialization and mechanization of every aspect of American life, those roots are healthy.

The film as a whole is made more affecting by the fact that D. Boon, the brilliant guitarist and not-so-brilliant singer, was killed in an auto accident in 1985 at the age of twenty-seven and at the height of the band’s achievement. Mike Watt’s grief is still (the movie was made in 2005) real and evident. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is an engaging picture of a very likeable group of musicians. I don’t know that it made me like their music any more, but it made me like and respect them. I think anyone with much interest in pop music would enjoy it. 

Here’s that trailer:


And, by the way, the explanation of the title, from the movie’s Wikipedia entry:

The title is a lyric from their song “The Politics of Time.” It’s also referred to in a comment made near the end of the film by Mike Watt, in a 1985 interview, when the band is asked if they have anything else to say. He answers for them: “We jam econo.” Econo was local slang for economic and described the band's dedication to low-cost record production and touring. It also describes the band’s (and burgeoning underground independent music scene’s) do-it-yourself attitude and philosophy.

Father Dan Makes Gumbo

Not sure if this is going to play correctly--if it doesn't, go here. That is, if you want to see how to make real gumbo. To my mind the phrase "seafood gumbo" is a little redundant. "Gumbo" is "seafood gumbo" unless you say otherwise. This young priest is at St. Mary's in Mobile, where I will probably be attending the annual Crawfish and Bluegrass festival this evening. 

I'm glad to see that he does gumbo the right way. Some people try to pawn off tomato soup with a few shrimp in it as "gumbo," which should be against the law.

The Band: This Wheel's On Fire

The death of Levon Helm a day or two ago means that three-fifths of The Band are gone. To my taste, they didn't produce a great deal of great music. But the best of it, created in the space of a few years in the late 1960s, was really great, and extremely influential. I think most people would probably choose their self-titled second album ("Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) over their first, Music from Big Pink. But it's the latter that's indispensible for me, or at least once was--I haven't listened to it for many years. It had a powerful effect on me, coming as it did in 1968 when psychedelia was at its height. Its loose, earthy, messy vibe was unlike anything else at the time, and although it didn't sound remotely like country music, it felt like it had very deep roots. Nowadays it would be called Americana. The second album, which was considerably slicker, didn't have its ramshackle soul. I think Big Pink produced some of my first reservations about where the "counter-culture" was going, by making me aware that there was something deep in the roots of the traditional culture that I loved. It was hardly a traditionalist work, but it had continuity with tradition.

This Dylan song was one of my favorite tracks from the album. I remember sitting in my apartment trying to work out the chords for it. Maybe they'll come back to me if I try.


RIP: Richard Manuel (1943-1986), Rick Danko (1942-1999), Levon Helm (1940-2012)