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September 2012

"End of an Era" Is Such A Cliche

But sometimes it's applicable. As of Monday, there will no longer be a daily newspaper in Mobile. I'll miss it, though it's been in very visible decline for several years, seeming to shrink in size and in depth of coverage almost from one day to the next.

When I moved to Mobile in 1990, the paper came out in slightly different morning and evening versions. And it was a pretty terrible paper. Then sometime around the mid-1990s new management came in, and it went from being the worst major newspaper in Alabama to being the best. The company made a huge investment in a new facility, including a press that cost a jillion dollars, and I think did very well for a while. Then the effects of the Internet began to take their toll. I think at this point the routine of reading a daily newspaper is something that's associated with "older," if not just plain old, people. Like me. 

There are those with knowledge of the industry and of this paper in particular who say the fundamental problem was mismanagement. I don't know about that, but I'm going to miss it. I think almost as much as I'll miss reading it I'll miss the sense of continuity, of participating in something that has been a feature of American life for over a hundred and fifty years. As a person of conservative temperament it saddens me to see traditions like this fade away.

The Clientele: Rain

Weekend Music

The strange thing about the mid-'60s English sound of The Clientele is that you think they sound a lot like somebody but you can't figure out exactly who. At least that's the way they affect me.


I've written about them before, in 2007 and 2008. About this album, in fact. Although I have a couple of others, I haven't gotten to know them as well. 

A Walk With Heather King

Heather King is the author of several memoirs, which I have not read but plan to, and of some shorter things which I have read and liked very much. Here is a video in which she walks to Mass in her Los Angeles neighborhood, talking as she goes about the place and about being Catholic. It's half an hour long, but it's worth it. The most interesting part for me begins about halfway through. (Thanks to Janet for telling me about it.)

W.E.B. Du Bois Would Have Loved This

Yes, as I was saying, our racial problems are serious. But this scene is a nice reminder of how much things have improved. It could not have taken place fifty years ago. 

Alan Sealls is a local meteorologist whom I call the prince of weathermen--he's tremendously knowledgeable, and has this infectious enthusiasm for the subject. You can tell he is just utterly fascinated by it, and he makes you feel that way. I rarely see him on TV, but he's one of a rotating series of weather commentators in the local paper, and I always read his pieces, because there's always something interesting in them beyond the forecast.

Wallander (3)

Bah. Psycho Christian death cult. Obviously I'm prejudiced, but I didn't think it was a very good story even apart from the annoying specifics. 

The episode is called "Before the Frost," and is based on a novel of the same name. Aside from compliments to the actors and photographers, I really have only one good thing to say about it: there are several moments that struck me as subversive of the general Christians-are-so-crazy motif. For instance, being pro-life is mentioned as one of the weird and scary aspects of the Christians. But there is a scene in which people are awed and deeply moved by an ultrasound view of an unborn baby. Whether these were intentional or not, who knows? though my guess is not. 

If this had been the first episode of the season, I probably wouldn't have watched more.

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2012

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Some months ago I saw a copy of this priced at fifty cents or dollar at a used book sale, thought "I really should read that sometime," and bought it. Well, I was right about that, more or less: I should have read it a long time ago. But better late than never. 

I'll go straight to my conclusion: anyone who cares about the race problem in America should read this book, for the illumination of both our past and our present. And that's especially true for Southerners, and not only white Southerners. I don't know exactly what I expected from it; I think I had no more than a vague idea that its treatment of the question was considered to be particularly insightful. Well, it is.

Du Bois was of a free black New England family, and he had the education of a 19th century New Englander: the classics, and Harvard. I'm pressed for time this evening, so will leave you in the capable hands of Wikipedia for further biographical information. What's more important for a discussion of the book is the sensibility, and the tools for expressing it, that this background gave him. It's worth reading simply as a work of American literature. The prose style is elaborately poetical, to the point of being florid, full of classical references and extended rhapsodical passages in the 19th century manner. Applied to a lesser subject, it might be considered overblown and sentimental. But it comes across to me more as Whitmanesque, because the matter is so important and the passion of the work so strong. Here, by way of illustration, are the first two paragraphs:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

 There is a fair amount of anger here, which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the breadth of vision and sympathy. I suppose I expected, more or less, a diatribe. But it really isn't that. It is a genuine and, I think, successful attempt to see the situation steadily, and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. The book appeared in 1903, and anger about the slavery of the recent past, and the segregation and oppression of the present are what I would have expected. I did not expect that anger at whites, and especially at the South, would sit alongside genuine sympathy, and a serious attempt to understand what motives beyond sheer brutality and avarice would make them cling to the legal segregation of the races. And I did not expect that natural sympathy with blacks would sit alongside an honest assessment of their failings.

There are no simple caricatures in the book: no devilish white and saintly Negro (that's the term Du Bois uses, and it's very difficult not to follow him in discussing the book.) Du Bois sees real human beings on all sides. Of course he spends more time and sympathy on the subjects of his book, who are moreover his own people. But he does not idealize them. He confronts fairly the charges of laziness, shiftlessness, ignorance, and so forth laid against them by the white world, and makes no attempt to pretend that these don't exist. 

As the 20th century rolled on, Du Bois became a pretty strong sympathizer with Communism, though never actually joining the party until very late in his life. This tempts one to dismiss him, but that would be a serious mistake. He did not attack racial oppression because he saw it as a useful tactic for discrediting capitalism, but because he knew all too well what that oppression really meant and how entrenched it was, and had begun to despair that it would ever change within the existing institutions of American life. He died in 1963, at the age of 93, not quite having lived to see the passage of the legislation that killed legal segregation.

One could wish for more here; one could wish Du Bois had been more informed by Christian tradition and more shaped by Christian spirituality, instead of having an apparently pretty conventional New England skepticism, perhaps somewhere between Unitarianism and atheism, though, like many of his time, he was still heavily and unconsciously influenced by Christian habits of mind and speech. He might have seen more deeply, and further, that education and the "elevation," as he puts it, of the African-American population alone would not be easy, nor sufficient to dissolve the barriers between the races; that is to say, he might have been less hopeful of human nature, and more of supernatural charity. But as a socio-cultural observer he is more than sufficient, and most of what he says is still very relevant:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither will alone bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. 

Du Bois believed that progress for the Negro was mainly a matter of education, of bringing down the barriers that shut him out from opportunity and from "white," i.e. Euro-American, culture. From our vantage point a hundred years on, there is a good deal of pathos in this. What would he have thought of the situation now, when segregation has been in its grave for almost fifty years, yet the educational level of so many blacks has actually declined? And what would he have thought of the catastrophic decline in marriage which followed those longed-for legal victories, when he blamed slavery and segregation for the difficulty of maintaining marriage in the black community, though the percentage of intact black families was then, if his suggestions are correct, actually higher than it now is? What would he think of the predominance of violent and obscene rap as the most visible representative of black culture?

There is hardly a week that goes by here, and in most places in the United States where there is a large black population, that the local news does not include at least one story about a black man (or, all too frequently, a boy of 16 or 17 or even younger) shooting someone, hardly a day without news of some lesser crime. Usually the victim in the shooting is another black man, but sometimes it isn't: there is the young white engineer who was shot dead when he had no money for the robbers who broke into his house, and the white woman who was gunned down in the street because she shouted at a speeding car to slow down. The inevitable result is more fear and prejudice on the one side, more resentment and frustration on the other. Would all this not have broken the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois? 

But maybe that's too gloomy a picture. After all, much progress has been made, and if the black community has not been elevated as Du Bois hoped, it must be admitted that the white community has descended: in the lower socio-economic levels there, the same pathologies exist. 

In any case the words that come near the end of the book remain as true and significant as they were when they were written.

Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song--soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire twohundred yearsl earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our givt of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nathion--we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

No, of course, she certainly would not have been. And no one who really loves this America that actually exists can wish it otherwise.

(The entire text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found online at Project Gutenberg.)

Peter Gabriel: Mercy Street

Weekend Music

I have a real find for you this week, if you don't already know the song. And if you know the song but not the video, you still have a treat coming. 

I'm still listening to one of my CDs full of random mp3s, and this song, as performed by Iain Matthews, came up the other day. I had heard it first on a mixtape sent to me by Daniel Nichols quite a few years ago, and really liked it. But I remember thinking at the time that it seemed a bit familiar, and later on when I ran across the fact that it was a Peter Gabriel song, I thought I might have heard it when I borrowed the Gabriel album So from a co-worker. For whatever reason the album didn't make much of an impression on me, but it's apparently regarded as a classic, so I ought to give it a try.

But I'm wandering--anyway, listening to the Matthews version the other day,  I decided to look up the Gabriel original, which I like even better. Moreover, there is this beautiful video. The sound level is very low so you may need to turn up your speakers.


I also discovered that the song is dedicated to Anne Sexton. That makes some of its details, like the insitutional corridors of grey and green juxtaposed with the suburbs, make more sense. Sexton, if you don't recognize the name, was a poet who wrote about her experiences with mental illness and general misery. She committed suicide in 1974, and her posthumous volume of poems was called 45 Mercy Street. No doubt someone familiar with her work would recognize many allusions or quotations in this song.

I never read her very much, partly because I just wasn't much drawn to then-contemporary poetry, especially the sort of confessional-feminine work that hers seemed to be (never cared much for Sylvia Plath, either), and partly because she was something of a feminist poster child for the horrors of male oppression. But this song makes me wonder if I should take another look at her. 

Wallander (2)

I watched the second episode of season 3, The Dogs of Riga, a couple of nights ago. I think I liked the first one a little better. This one shared the atmosphere of the other, but is more gruesome and has more action and suspense--several people are tortured and murdered in a rather horrible way, and Wallander is in danger of the same. The torture is not shown, but its after-effects are, and just the idea is disturbing enough. Same grim atmosphere. The plot involves post-Soviet corruption in Latvia, though I don't recall any mention of dogs.

Beth is right: Kenneth Branagh has hardly any lips. I guess that had registered on me as a tight-lipped expression, but I guess it's permanent.

Sunday Night Journal — September 16, 2012

Politics and Anti-Christ (2)

As I said in a sort of disclaimer about last week’s post, the subject was really too big for the work of a few hours. Toward the end I touched on some things that need elaboration, so I’m doing that now. The subject is still too big, but I've covered the main elements of what I’d been thinking about it.

I said the ground had been well-prepared for the anti-Christ. And although one of my main points was that I think the anti-Christ more likely to be a thing of the left than the right—using the terms broadly, to include not just political but social and cultural movements—the right has had at least as much to do with that preparation.

I’m using “the right” here as broadly as possible, and in the American context: the mixture of something that can reasonably be called conservatism with decidedly un-conservative forces like libertarianism, utilitarianism, capitalism, consumerism, and militarism. Though many Christians are part of this “right,” it is not in itself a Christian thing. In recent years many Christians have looked upon it as a defense against secular progressivism, not to mention sharing some of its bad ideas, but the alliance is uneasy and full of contradictions.

I don’t particularly like the term “consumerism”: its meaning is vague, and it’s impossible really to say where a sensible concern for material needs becomes destructive and obsessive grasping for ever more: indoor plumbing and hot water are hardly necessities in any literal sense, but no one in the developed nations views them as luxuries. And if the term does refer to that sort of grasping, it is not a set of ideas but a vice, and no one is advocating it as a principle. Moreover, it’s at best a debatable assertion that modern industrialized societies are any more acquisitive than most in the past have been. What is different is that the combination of industrialism and capitalism has presented us with so much more to acquire, including a sort of feedback system in which the activity of acquiring results in the production of more and better, or at least more desirable. things to acquire.

But yet there is a pathology which has developed in the industrialized world, especially in the United States, and it has no definite name, so consumerism will serve. It tends to take the relationship of the buyer to the seller as a pattern for everything in life. The buyer wants something; the seller wants to provide it, and is in a practical sense obliged to provide it if he wants to stay in business. It’s not in the seller’s interest to think about whether the buyer needs the thing purchased, or what he intends to do with it, or whether it’s good for him: in capitalism at the ideological level the question of the intrinsic worth of what is bought and sold is not to be asked. The buyer’s desire, and the purchaser’s willingness and ability to satisfy it, are the only things to be considered. At the extreme, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” only price. And so we have a huge and entirely legal pornography industry.

This is the point (or one of them) at which right and left impulses converge. Or perhaps one should say it is a common point of origin. At any rate, what we’ve seen emerging over the past 50 years or so in capitalist societies is a view of the person as first and foremost a complex of needs and desires, the satisfaction of which he views as something to which he has a right, as a customer has a right to expect that the buyer offer what he wants. Deep and genuinely human needs, desires which in reality cannot be satisfied in this world, are mixed with mere wishes, whims, and pleasures by what has been called the imperial self. As the imperial self sees things, what it wants is also what it deserves, and has lately become not just what it hopes for but what it expects, and what the world and circumstance are expected to provide. Soon there arises the sense that if these are not provided, someone must be to blame, and something must be done.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m an habitual reader of “Dear Abby.” Just the other day there was a letter from a widow with four teen-aged children. She was considering re-marrying, but her children were very opposed to the idea. Should she or shouldn’t she do it anyway? Well, I don’t know, and I don’t necessarily say she shouldn’t, but she intended to go ahead, and I was struck by her justification for it: “I know I deserve to be happy.” This, I think, is not something that would have been said fifty years ago. It bears the stamp of the combination of popular psychology and new-age spirituality which since 1970 or so has rivaled and infiltrated Christianity in the U.S. Years ago someone writing in the National Catholic Register described it as “America’s evolving religion of self-worship.”

The right may deplore the rise of this sensibility, but it cannot be divorced from the sense of self-indulgence and entitlement produced by capitalism, in which the desire of the consumer is the supreme value.

Simultaneous with this has been the expansion of the reach and power of government, especially the national government. The right has objected to some of this, but makes a notable exception for the military. In the name of defense it has supported placing any amount of money and quite a bit of power in the hands of the military and various security and intelligence agencies. Over the past ten years, with the appearance of the scarily-named Department of Homeland Security and various other anti-terrorism measures, many on the right have begun to have second thoughts about this. The futile “war on drugs” also has a great deal to do with it, especially with the militarization of local police, and I should note that some on the right have been sounding the alarm about that for many years.

For many years most of the right in general assumed that all this military power was truly there only to protect us, and would be used only against our enemies. By the time they begin to consider that its apparatus might one day be used against them by a left-wing government, it was far too late to begin reigning it in.

So. The “prepared ground” I referred to above involves at least two important developments in which the right has been as complicit as the left: a growing number of people who expect to have everything they want as a matter of entitlement, and an extremely powerful central government. (At least some on the right can say that they have opposed other threatening developments: the rise of technology for the direct manipulation of human life, and the tendency for the Constitution to become a dead letter, reinterpreted as meaning whatever a majority of the Supreme Court says it means. And opposition to abortion has been almost entirely a phenomenon of the right.) What remains is for the government to pass into the hands of people who believe they know what’s best for everyone and are willing to use the government’s power, untethered by Constitution, religion, or traditional notions about the character of the nation, to give it to them, whether they want it or not. This last step is one that the right does not aspire to take. But the left is eager for it. They assume that most will want what they promise, which is nothing less than peace, justice, and comfort for all—and that those who don’t—those who cling to outmoded religions, for instance—will have to be pushed aside. And it’s when I come to that thought that I begin to wonder about the anti-Christ.

I feel somewhat embarrassed about even talking about this subject because it attracts so many nuts and fanatics, so many that I think of it as being primarily their territory. But although it has always been a subject of controversy, consisting as it does of little more than hints, it has been a constant presence in Christian thinking from the beginning, and we’re told to watch the signs of the times. I do want to make it clear that I don’t at all claim to have this thing figured out; I’m only voicing suspicions and speculations.

Whether or not any of this has anything to do with the anti-Christ, it is the situation we find ourselves in: on the brink of social and technological transitions which, if carried through as their proponents hope, will lead to a condition for Christians which we can only hope is benign enough to be called marginalization, and not outright persecution.

Alternate Realities

Headline from MSNBC:

Is Romney off-message about his foreign policy?

MSNBC's Chris Jansing talks with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, Jackie Kucinich of USA Today and former Bush advisor Mark McKinnon about Mitt Romney's foreign policy blunders and the unrest in the Middle East.

Romney's blunders?! The determination to talk about Romney rather than the administration's predicament, not to say massive blunders and misdirections, is really striking. I know this is MSNBC, but much of the media have been doing the same. It seems we are at a point where there is not even much of an attempt to hide the fact that they see themselves as part of the Obama campaign. Or at least of the anti-Romney campaign.

A Good Commentary on the Embassy Attacks

From John O'Sullivan at National Review Online. Sample:

A metaphorical casualty of this crisis — even at this early stage — is the reputation of the Obama  administration (and of liberal statecraft in general) for sophistication. Watching its spokesmen such as the hapless Susan Rice vainly seeking to maintain that these riots are solely and simply a reaction to an anti-Islamic video-trailer that has been on YouTube for weeks is like watching a very weak swimmer being swept out to sea — in Stevie Smith’s famous line, “not waving but drowning.” Does the State Department not know, for instance, that manufacturing pretexts for religious outrage is Lesson One in the Mideast lexicon of foreign-policy stratagems? The most obscene cartoons of Mohammed that provoked riots throughout the Middle East were actually added by the Muslim clerics who toured the region brandishing them; the Imam who accused a 14-year-old Christian girl of blasphemy has now himself been arrested for disfiguring the Koran and telling co-conspirators that this was the way to drive Christians from Pakistan. This kind of thing has been happening for centuries, but it happens more when both conspirators and rioters are unafraid of any consequences to themselves. The Obama administration has advertised its impotence as evidence of its virtue and pro-Islamic attitudes. Our Islamist enemies have noticed the first and seem unimpressed by the second. Unless the administration proposes to convert the Americans en masse to Islam — as Disraeli once said, “like the Chinese general who baptized his army with a hosepipe” — radical Islamists will continue to be unimpressed. Nothing less will be enough for them; closing down the First Amendment is just a starter.

(In a comment on the other post, Paul mentioned the story of the 14-year-old girl.)

Scarlet Town

Weekend Music

I usually do this post on Friday evening, but my attention was occupied by a problem I was having at work until pretty late, and I completely forgot about it until just now when I read this post at All Manner of Thing. So I'll suggest you go over there and have a listen: it's Dylan vs. Gillian Welch with songs named "Scarlet Town." Very interesting.

You have to wonder if they want to be stereotyped

 Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film

Embassies of U.S. and Allies Under Siege In Muslim World

etc etc etc.

Is there some faction in the Islamic world that wants to make "violent fanatical" a redundant qualifier to "Muslim"? I'm quite sure these riots are reinforcing that perception.

There's so much to be said about this, too much for me to manage. One relatively minor observation that occurs to me, though, is that one reason for the outrage, where it's genuine outrage over the "film" and not ginned-up political violence, is that these people have no conception of a free society, in the sense that we know it. If the government says it's ok, you can do it. If the government says it's not, you can't, or if you do you'll be punished. There seems to be little concept of an unwelcome or deplorable but not criminal act. Therefore, if someone does something and is not punished, the government approves it. And therefore the United States government and all its allies are responsible for some stupid movie that would have been seen by very few people apart from those who made it if the fanatics, or their manipulators, hadn't decided to make something of it.

Disturbingly, some American and European liberals want to change our laws to accomodate them. One hardly needs to point out the contrast between the liberal reaction to this and to the many, many insults handed out to Christianity and Christians in the West. In those cases, free expression is an absolute value, so fundamental that the government ought to subsidize the offending stuff and museums exhibit it.

Update: "they" in the title of this post refers to the rioters, al-Qaedists, etc., not to Muslims at large, many or most of whom are probably embarrassed and horrified by this craziness.

Update 2: And here is the 13-minute video that is at least partly responsible for the frenzy. I referred to it earlier as "some stupid movie," though I had not seen it. Now that I have, I can confirm with emphasis that it is a stupid movie. It's even worse than I had heard. I laughed out loud at several places. I kept expecting several of the actors to start sentences with Dude!.


I was vaguely aware of the existence of the series of murdery mysteries featuring this Swedish detective, but have never read one. The local PBS network has begun showing the BBC productions based on them, and I watched the first one a couple of nights ago. I say "first" but it's actually the first episode of the third season. I don't think the preceding ones were shown here; if they were, I missed hearing about them.

This episode, "Incident in Autumn," was excellent, but very grim. It's about some pretty nasty stuff, and the story takes place in winter so it's...well, very grim. But also very well done--Kenneth Branagh plays Wallander. And the story has substance. It presents terrible deeds, but with a sense of deep compassion that's not always present in the genre.

I don't have time to say much about it beyond recommending it. But there was one thing that surprised me a bit, although I'm sure it shouldn't have: I didn't know--how to say this?--well, I'll just use the old term, offensive though it is--I didn't know there is white trash in Sweden, too. I think of Sweden as being full of comfortable practical bourgeoisie. 

There is also a Swedish Wallander series. If it's available here (with subtitles!), it would be interesting to see. I see Netflix lists it but it isn't currently available.

A Change in Comment Policy

If you happened by here between roughly 5:30 and 7:30 U.S. Central Time today, you may have seen a cockroach infestation long list of spam comments. I'm not sure what happened--whether something was wrong with TypePad's spam catcher, or this was just a particularly clever spammer. Generally at least one or two of these get by every day, and I delete them as soon as I see them. It's very annoying, and probably risky for anyone foolish enough to click on the links they offer. Since they usually attack older posts, I've changed the settings so that comments are disabled on a post after thirty days. That means, unfortunately, that Janet's Undead Thread is going to be closed, at least for a while. It's a frequent target for spam, I suppose because there are already so many comments on it.  I think I can still open up specific posts, so I may re-open it later. I really don't want to start using a "captcha"-type thing where you have to recognize letters in a graphic. Have you tried to post a comment on a Blogger blog that uses this lately? They've gotten really difficult, I suppose in response to the creeps writing software that can analyze a graphic for letters. I had to try four times the other day to leave a comment on a blog the other day. I would have given up if I hadn't already spent a couple of minutes writing the comment, but I won't be doing it again.

What vermin these people are. If you don't work in IT, you may not be aware of the huge amounts of money and effort that go into fighting spam, viruses, and other forms of software aggression. I can't remember the number offhand, but the email system where I work gets many times more spam than legitimate email. Without a specialized machine that does nothing but monitor the mail and intercept spam, our email system literally could not function.  

Sunday Night Journal — September 9, 2012

Politics and Anti-Christ

This is late because it’s long, and is one of those cases where I bit off a bit more than I could chew in a few hours. If I were a well-known pundit, I would not have written this: the propagandists would immediately accuse me of saying that all Democrats are possessed by Satan. But as an obscure blogger I have the luxury of writing for people capable of reason.

I’ve been thinking about this piece by Alasdair MacIntyre, which someone posted on Facebook a couple of days ago. I agree with its premises—that the Democratic and Republican parties are both seriously deficient. I disagree with the conclusion—that both are so bad that it would be wrong to vote for either of them.

I’m always a bit surprised to hear a Catholic make the point that neither liberalism nor conservatism is a fully Catholic political vision, that the terms “left” and “right” are not Catholic categories (and perhaps not even coherent) and are not useful in articulating a Catholic political viewpoint, and so forth. I’m surprised not because these assertions are wrong but because they seem so obvious to me as not to require statement; to me they are axioms. Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t seem to run into many people who are unaware of this, though they may need to be reminded of it from time to time. Not to say that they don’t take one side or the other, but for the most part they seem to recognize that such positions are responses to the issues of the day, not part of the faith. I myself at any rate start with the assumption that neither right nor left is philosophically or even practically consistent with Catholic teaching, but I do not conclude from there that the proper response is to hold oneself aloof from the battle. That’s an honorable position, but not the only honorable one. As frustrating as it may be to us,“right” and “left”, Republican and Democratic, are what we have to work with in American politics, and to denounce them both and withdraw from the field strikes me as being just as problematic as to identify too closely with one or the other.

It seems to me that those who incline to the plague-on-both-their-houses view are often people who once placed a great deal of hope in politics and are now disillusioned and sometimes bitter. The person who posted the MacIntyre piece, for instance, was once very active in conservative politics. (I’m not sure whether he reads this blog or not; if so perhaps he’ll comment.) But I have never expected much from politics, or been very active in it. And never for a moment have I believed in such a thing as a “political solution” for broad social problems. Even in my days as a radical leftist the revolution I had in mind was more a psychological and spiritual thing than a political one. I have very low expectations as to what good might be accomplished politically, but am very aware that a great deal of harm is possible.

We can’t ignore the historical and social context of our politics, and treat principles as if they were pure abstractions. In a culture which owes most of its ideas to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, and in which both those traditions are considerably decayed, we can’t expect to implement a political order (even if we could agree on what it should be) based on Catholic ideas about the common good. I regard the political area with more hope of constraining the evil than of constructing the good—not that we should ever give up on the latter, but we cannot reasonably expect swift movement in that direction, because it requires shifting some of the philosophical bases of politics.

It’s in that spirit that I’ve voted for Republicans for the past thirty years. In this year’s presidential election, as a practical matter, it doesn’t really matter who I vote for, because my state is so dominated by the Republican party that my vote is effectively irrelevant. I may not even vote, as I have no enthusiasm for the Republican candidates—except that they are not the Democratic candidates. My vote may not matter, but for the first time I am praying for the defeat of a candidate.

In recent years there have been a certain number of fundamentalist Christians who declared a Democratic president to be the anti-Christ. They did it with Bill Clinton, and they’ve done it with Barack Obama. I think it’s a preposterous claim, and yet: depending on what you think the anti-Christ may be, it’s a plausible argument that the left has made itself an instrument of the anti-Christ’s aims. No, I’m not suggesting that the Democrats are Satanists. But their political program has become anti-Christian.

I’m not referring, of course, to the more or less ordinary things that the left claims to advocate, and which used to be its mainstay: a reasonable degree of economic welfare for everyone, protection of the weak and naïve from the predatory, racial justice, and so on. I’m really talking about something more fundamental, something which has largely eclipsed the old-style populist causes of the mainstream left. Those have not been repudiated, but increasingly since the 1960s the left has been driven by a quasi-religious desire for the transformation of society and human nature itself. The main elements of the program involve sex, marriage, and family: sexual freedom, “reproductive rights” (which should rightly be termed a kind of anti-feminism, but that’s another story) and homosexual rights, now including the newly-created idea that it is “hate” to believe that the word “marriage” refers, intrinsically by definition, to something that happens between men and women, not between men and men or women and women. These are the issues on which the party as a whole is most committed, and on which it will not compromise. It’s always been an implicitly anti-Christian program, and the Obama administration has made that opposition explicit with its recent attack on religious liberty.

I’ve never made a study of the idea of the anti-Christ, and am certainly open to correction from someone who has, but if we assume that the essential aim of the anti-Christ is to separate men from God, then it makes more sense to expect that he (it?) would work for the establishment of an earthly paradise than that he would inaugurate a regime of violent oppression. People seem sometimes to expect it to be the latter. And that a man like Hitler is satanic is not in doubt. But the anti-Christ is not merely an agent of evil, but a powerfully subtle and seductive one. The key to understanding it seems to me to be that found in Mark 13:22: that it would be able to deceive, if it were possible, even the very elect. That surely must mean that it will bear much more of the appearance of good than a brutal oppressor ever could. The anti-Christ will be an oppressor, certainly, but one who will succeed by making his subjects happy.

I’ve been arguing for a long time that the dystopia toward which modern civilization has often appeared to be heading is more plausibly depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World than in Orwell’s 1984. Certainly history is on my side in this argument. Violent totalitarianism in the forms of fascism and communism have been pretty soundly defeated. Totalitarian Islam has a lot of energy but is attractive only to a small minority within Islam itself. Fascism has almost no support anywhere in the world, and although Communism survives it is in control in very few places (whether China can currently be described as a truly communist system seems very debatable). And the reason that the one is more or less defunct and the other still holding on buttresses my argument: communism at least promises something much more benign than fascism.

Today’s left has much in common with the communists of old, but its implicit totalitarianism is at once vaguer and more potent. It appeals to the dream expressed in John Lennon’s awful song “Imagine”: if we can just get rid of religion, nationalism, and other atavistic forces, “the world will live as one.” In a society which is dominated by practical materialism and utilitarianism, this is a very appealing vision, to say the least. This is what anti-Christ promises: not conquest and riches for some at the expense of others—the elect would never fall for that—but peace and justice and plenty for all, the same things that the Church wants. Only: anti-Christ makes the rejection of God a condition for the achievement of its heaven on earth.

And now the Obama administration has moved to assert openly its power over the Church: to reject the historic American accommodation between Christianity and the state by decreeing that in matters of conscience the Christian must bow to the state, and not in some rarely-occurring circumstance like conscientious objection to military service, but with an order that requires hundreds of religious institutions to violate their own teachings. The apparent intention is to define “freedom of religion” as the freedom to do what you like inside your church, but not in public life. This goes far beyond the sorts of specific wrongs and mistakes that any government can be expected to commit at times. It is the initiation of an explicitly anti-religious principle—Christians of “conservative” theology are its main target, but it would affect Jews and Muslims and everyone else as well.

Arguably this development is possible only because there is no positive statement of ultimate good in the American system; this was by design, but it could only work as long as there was broad agreement about fundamentals. That agreement no longer exists, and the resultant struggle can be expected to continue for a long time.

I’ve never been inclined to think much about the end times, to watch for signs and fret about prophecies. Maybe I’m being overly apocalyptic now, and this is really just another episode in the long struggle of church and state. I would like to think so. But what seems different in our situation is the power our wealth and technology have given us. It now seems plausible to many that we do in fact have the means to make life perfectly comfortable, if only we will give the enlightened ones the power to make it happen.

I am by no means unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the capitalist program favored by most of the right in this country, and by the Republican party, is profoundly corrosive of Christianity, and for that matter of any system of belief rooted in the eternal and in the notion of objective good and evil. But the undermining of Christianity by capitalism is a side effect of the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, not a consciously-defined program to be implemented by the state; in fact it’s all too unconscious, which keeps many people from seeing how it works. But it’s only an especially powerful manifestation of the lure of the world against which the Church has always warned us, and as such is not a new enemy. The left’s program is not new, either, but it has never had at its disposal such powerful tools, or ground so well-prepared to receive it. I often think, when considering the current social and political landscape, of something I read years ago. I think it was in an early issue of Caelum et Terra, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know who the author was, but he speculated that the United States could in time become “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.”

Brian Eno: This

Weekend Music

A few days ago I wanted to hear something different on my way to work, so I picked up a CD more or less at random from a group that I was using several years ago, before I got an external hard drive, to back up my mp3 files. Each CD contains a hundred or so tracks, and I had no idea what was on this one. The first album was reggae dub (King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown), and I ended up skipping it because the bass is such a major part of that sound and I can't hear it in my car. The second was Brian Eno's Another Day On Earth, and I really enjoyed hearing it again. It came out five or six years ago, Eno's first venture into non-ambient music in a long while, and as I remember the few reviews I saw were lukewarm. But I like it a lot. This (heh) is the first track. The lyrics are beautiful and beautifully fitted to the song. 


I wouldn't recommend the album to anyone who doesn't like pretty heavy electronic effects; it is definitely not an organic-granola sort of sound. But if you do like electronica, it's terrific. Most of it is similar to this track, very tranquil and reflective, except for the last track, "Bone Bomb," which is about a suicide bomber--it's pretty low-key musically, but disturbing when you realize what it's about.

Well, of course he does

Bill Clinton Pulls the Race Card.

I just can't stand the guy. Arguably he was a less-bad president than Obama, but I can't stand him. It's partly the unctuous-preacher/redneck-playboy smarm that's so irritating. As I've probably said here before, I can see him playing the Bible salesman in a movie of Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." 

I wonder if the race card isn't about played out, though, because of its indiscriminate and often absurd use. As you probably heard, the absurdity reached some kind of pinnacle a few days ago with journalist (?) Lawrence O'Donnell's assertion that making fun of Obama's fondness for golf is a "racial double entendre."

This is supposedly one of those Republican "dog whistle" signals meant to encourage the KKK types who make up the base of the party. Yet it seems to be only Democrats who hear them. As someone (James Taranto, maybe?) said the other day, if you can hear the dog whistle, you're the dog. 

A Drowned Forest

A fascinating story from the Sunday paper, by environmental reporter Ben Raines: it seems that the sea-floor-shifting power of Hurricane Katrina exposed the remains of an old cypress forest, now 60 feet (roughly 20 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and 10 miles (16km) from land. In other words, 10,000 years or so ago these sunken stumps were part of the river delta leading out into the gulf. It makes me think that my battle against erosion on the shore of Mobile Bay is certainly bound to be lost in the long run, at least until we have another Ice Age. Watch the video if you can.

Labor Day: Why Unions Exist

Whittaker Chambers, in Witness, describing the time he spent working on a streetcar line in Washington (D.C.), ca. 1920:

There was one job that every man dreaded. The two third rails hung, just below the surface of the street, in a shallow tunnel. It could not have been more than four feet deep. The concrete in the tunnel had to be chipped out by hand with a cold chisel. I saw men refuse to go down into the shallow tunnel and work with the live rails just above them. One day the boss ordered me down. I went. I thought: "I wonder if I will be killed." I had to lie prone on a heap of rubble. The third rails, with the full power of the Capitol Transit System flowing through them, were about two inches above my sweat-soaked shoulders. In that cramping position, I had to break concrete. A sudden turn of my head, a slip of the hammer or chisel would have brought me in contact with the rail. It was an invaluable experience.

Sunday Night Journal — September 2, 2012

My Word (A Letter to the Editor)

I'm afraid this isn't going to be of great interest to most people. It's something I've been wanting to do for several months, but couldn't find time for, so I decided to devote to it the time I would ordinarily have spent working on the SNJ. The local paper (the Mobile Press-Register) has a feature called "Your Word" which is a sort of step up from a normal letter to the editor: it can run up to 600 words, and is published as a separate item on the editorial page. I am submitting the following 592 words as a candidate for that feature. It may well be too late for them to want to publish it, having been sparked by a story published three months ago. But it was going to bother me until I wrote it. Better late than never.


Back in June the Register ran a story by Roy Hoffman about Fr. Matthew Venuti, the newly-ordained Catholic priest who is the pastor of a group of Catholics affiliated with the somewhat awkwardly-named Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. As a member of that group, I was happy to see the story. I was, however, a little disappointed that it was focused on the fact that Fr. Venuti is married. Moreover, an exchange of letters over the next few weeks dealt almost entirely with arguments for and against the admission of married men to the Catholic priesthood in general. That is, obviously, an important question. But I want to point out that it’s not what the Ordinariate is about.

The Ordinariate was created by Pope Benedict in 2009, and is intended primarily for Christians of the Anglican tradition who wish to be in full communion with Rome. It allows these Christians to worship as Catholics in a mode to which they are deeply attached: the liturgy based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Anglicanism in this country is of course represented most prominently by the Episcopal Church, and it has a rich and beautiful liturgy

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and much of the language in its worship is drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. After throwing over Christianity in general as an adolescent, I found myself being drawn back to it as an adult, and joined the Episcopal Church. I was surprised and pleased to hear in the Episcopal liturgy the source of many of the things I remembered fondly from the Methodist Church. Over the next few years, however, I began to feel called to the Catholic Church, and was received into the Church in 1981.

But I always missed the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, I pined for it. It is a regrettable but unfortunate fact of history that when Rome decided, after Vatican II, to translate the liturgy into English, the language simply was no longer as rich and powerful as it had been in the 1500s. And the Catholic Church did not have the tradition of congregational singing that had developed in the Protestant churches, so music in Catholic worship has often been pretty thin stuff (though Mobile’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a striking exception, and the situation in general has improved).

This may seem only a matter of aesthetics, and it is, but not only: beauty is important. Worship should touch the heart as well as the mind, and for many people there is nothing that brings the two together more effectively than the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the hymns and chants which are part of the Anglican and indeed general Protestant tradition.

The local “chapter,” so to speak, of the Ordinariate is the Society of St. Gregory the Great, named after the pope who decreed that the Catholic Church in England should be free to worship in a manner suited to its culture. We have Mass—yes, a fully valid Catholic Mass—at St. Mary of the Visitation parish, at the corner of Old Shell and Lafayette on Sundays at 4:30, preceded by Evening Prayer at 4. We are as yet a tiny group, but we feel that we have something good that we want to share. We invite anyone who’s interested to join us: Catholics who are former Anglicans, Anglicans who have wondered about becoming Catholic, and Catholics who are simply curious about the liturgy we love so much.

Bob Dylan: Duquesne Whistle

Weekend Music

Dylan has a new album, Tempest,  coming out in a week or so, and this video for one of the songs was released a few days ago. I really hadn't planned on buying the album, but I like this song. Be warned that the video takes a rather violent turn somewhere past the three-minute mark. Someone suggested that it's meant to be a take-off on the romantic comedy cliche where the boy, smitten on sight by a strange girl, does something silly and sweet to get her attention. Maybe so. At any rate, here she thinks he's a scary stalker, and he gets into big trouble, charming the girl only in the dreams that come to him after he's been beaten unconscious. 


An interviewer asked Dylan whether the album's title was meant to be his last, and the title an allusion to Shakespeare's last play. He replied, "Shakespeare's last play was called The Tempest. It wasn't called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles."

Also in music: The Avett Brothers have a new album, which can be heard online at NPR for some limited period of time. I've heard only a few songs by them, and they were all outstanding. The only reason I haven't investigated them further is that there is just so much more music available than I can listen to, and I haven't gotten around to them. I haven't listened to this yet but thought I would mention it.