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October 2012

A Mid-Week Musical Treat

I found this the other day when I was looking for "Migration." It's a very young and very impressive Innocence Mission, or at least Karen--you can hardly see Don, and according to the comments on this video the other guys are the house band for the TV show (the name of which we are not supposed to mention, so that the copyright cops won't notice it). The sound is very different from their work of the past ten-plus years.


This is from their first album, of which I have a vinyl copy that I don't think I've ever listened to. Must remedy that. You could say it's derivative (U2, Cocteau Twins) but it's got some pretty original musical twists. 

Sunday Night Journal — October 28, 2012

An Opportunity Not Just Missed But Thwarted

What was noticeable from the start was that no evidence was produced in support of this accusation; the thing was simply asserted with an air of authority. And the attack was made with a maximum of personal libel and with complete irresponsibility as to any effects it might have on [race relations].

But so long as no argument is produced except a scream of "Racist]!" the discussion cannot even begin.... In such circumstances there can be no argument; the necessary minimum of agreement cannot be reached. What purpose is served by saying that [Obama's opponents] are [racist]? Only the purpose of making serious discussion impossible. It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched. Libel settles nothing.

The two preceding passages are from Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, except that the terms in brackets have been substituted for, in order: "the war," "Trotsky-Fascist", "men like Maxton," and "in Fascist pay." Orwell is describing the Communist attack on those of the Left who wanted a thoroughgoing revolution in Spain. When I read the pages from which these extracts are taken, I was struck by their applicability to the treatment of President Obama's opponents by many of his supporters.

The two accusations are similar not only in their tactics but in their import, which is the charge of being in league with some malignant conspiracy. As the term "racism" is wielded by the left, it encompasses everything from the mildest negative impression to membership in the Ku Klux Klan. And to charge someone with racism is to charge him not with some sort of personal fault but with the active intention of oppressing black people (or "people of color" in general). Until recently it has been the most poisonous of political accusations; it may still be, though it has been weakened by excessive and trivial use.  

One of the hopes for Barack Obama's presidency, shared even by many of those who did not vote for him, was that it would improve race relations simply because it happened, constituting proof of immense progress since the days of segregation. That there was some racially-based opposition to Obama as a presidential candidate, I have no doubt, nor that there is racially-based hostility to him as president. But there was also, early on, a general wave of good will which included many who opposed him, typified by the sign I saw here in very Republican Alabama: "Not my choice, but now my president." (I posted about it here.) Even those who were worried about his views and his qualifications were pleased to see that it was possible for the country to elect a man of mixed African and American ancestry who, according to the peculiar racial logic in place here, is classified as "black." We hoped that even if he pursued policies we thought wrong (as seemed likely--otherwise we would have voted for him) there would at least be some benefit to the nation in a lessening of racial hostility.

But exactly the opposite has happened, because so many of Obama's supporters chose to treat any opposition to him as evidence of racism. Whether they really believe this or simply find it politically useful doesn't matter. What matters is that they have done it from the time Obama became a candidate until right now, and it has had its effect. It has encouraged blacks to believe that anyone who opposes Obama wants to oppress them. It has infuriated whites who feel themselves falsely accused. It has prepared the way for a permanent escalation of racial hostility and paranoia, especially in the event that Obama fails to win a second term: his loss will be taken as a victory for racism. 

I'm used to hearing all this as a general charge against conservatives, of course. But I recently had the accusation made directly to me, and it was pretty startling. I avoid getting into political debates on Facebook, and have generally regretted it when I've broken that rule. One of my "friends," someone I knew years ago but haven't seen since around 1990, is a very vocal Obama supporter. A couple of weeks ago he posted his discovery that the doctrines of Mormonism are seriously at odds with those of anything resembling orthodox Christianity, and wondered if the "fundamentalist Repubs" were aware of this, and if so how they could vote for Romney. Against my better judgment, but inclined to defend fundamentalists against inaccurate or unreasoned attacks, I commented that evangelicals in general are very aware of the religious difference, but nevertheless believe that Romney would be a better president than Obama. I thought this an inoffensive observation. Someone else added a rambling comment to the effect that he didn't see why there would be a problem. I was startled by the next one, from a person completely unknown to me, which I quote in full  exactly as it appeared:

translation of last 2 teabilliy comments" Better the Devil than the N"

"Teabilly" was a new term to me; I take it to be a portmanteau of "Tea Party" and "hillbilly." "N" obviously stands for "nigger." 

I didn't respond--what would have been the point? But the incident brought home to me just how unreasoned and malicious the tactic can be: the fellow not only accused evangelicals of an intense hatred of black people, but included me in the charge, when I hadn't even mentioned my own views. This is a crude instance of the basic tactic used reflexively by many on the left. When the Tea Party appeared, it was immediately branded as racist, on the basis of flimsy and questionable evidence, by the usual illiberal techniques of emphasizing, exaggerating, and attributing to every member of a group the faults of the worst instance available.

And of course sheer audacious and unsupported assertion goes a long way in these efforts. I recall another Facebook "friend" quoting Anthony Bourdain on Tea Party racism, with the comment "No wonder I like Anthony Bourdain so much." I had no idea who Anthony Bourdain was, or what might be the source of his authority on the subject. It turned out that he is "a chef, author, and television personality," clearly not someone to be taken lightly when he speaks on politics. I could multiply examples at great length. Some are laughable to almost anyone not disoriented by political passion, like the MSNBC commentator who found racism in a joke about the amount of time Obama spends playing golf.

The basis of what I'm tempted to call this tragedy is that we have suffered the misfortune of having as our first black president a man with views well to the left of much of the country. In current political topography, a majority or a very large minority of Americans are center-right, and Obama is significantly further to the left, with evidence that he would be much further in that direction if it were politically feasible. There is a lot of opposition to his policies, and his supporters have chosen to encourage racial resentment as one of their tools for defeating that opposition. Chosen: it needn't have been this bad. The election of our first black president has been the occasion not for unity but for further division.

It is true that libel does not settle an argument of fact. But it is not without effect. Obama's supporters have managed to increase black hostility to whites, by telling the former that most of the latter are racist, and to anger whites who do not support Obama by libelling them. If you hate Jones you may succeed in making Smith your ally by assuring him that Jones is plotting against him. The question of fact is almost irrelevant when the settlement sought is the social destruction of Jones.

The Campaign for Leviathan

Patrick J. Deenan of Notre Dame, formerly of Georgetown, offers one of the better commentaries I've seen on what the Obama administration's moves against religious liberty really mean. His conclusion:

During the bloody twentieth century, the Church stood against the totalitarian ambitions of Fascism and Communism. A third ideology is clearly flexing its muscles today—threatening to make those victories of the last century merely Pyrrhic. The totalitarian impulse today is embedded in the very logic of liberalism, which seeks to expand its dominion into every aspect of life and against every competitor to its demand for the exclusive allegiance of individuals. 

Read the whole thing at First Things. I think those on either side who see the HHS mandate and the resistance to it as legalistic quibbling miss what's really going on, but the administration and the bishops understand it perfectly well.

Big Savings! Now! Hurry!

Should have posted this yesterday (or whenever it was that I first saw it). Go here to get 20% off the price of Sally Thomas's book of poems, Brief Light, today. It's not very expensive to start with, so with the discount it's down around the price of a fast-food lunch, or even one of those elaborate coffee concotions.  I've had a copy for a week or so but haven't had a chance to sit down with it yet. But I've seen some very good poems on her blog. And here's a sample at

It's depressing to think about how much of one's life is spent just waiting for something to be over.

Sunday Night Journal — October 21, 2012

George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia

This is Orwell's account of the six months or so that he spent in Spain fighting, or intending to fight, or recovering from fighting, on the Republican side of the Civil War. (In case your history is as hazy as mine, that was the side of the left-wing government, in opposition to the right-wing forces of HomageToCatalonia Franco.) He puts the Catholic reader in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with a soldier in a cause devoted to the destruction of the Church, and who is at very best indifferent to the killing of Catholics, including priests and nuns, and the demolition and desecration of churches. Moreover, he is more or less universally and justly acknowledged to be a great truth-teller and an important writer; he can't simply be dismissed as an unprincipled leftist.

One approach is to treat the book as the work of art that it is. Reasonably classifiable as journalism and memoir, it transcends the former category because it remains, three-quarters of a century after its initial publication, interesting for its own sake and not only as a document of its time. When the Spanish Civil War has become a bit of history of little contemporary relevance, Homage to Catalonia will still be read by non-historians. One need know little of the larger circumstances of the war, or of its rights and wrongs, to be interested in the events recounted and the man recounting them. It is a straighforward narrative of the author's experience, and its simple unornamented prose may appear at first glance to be merely functional, but such clarity and easy flow don't happen by accident.

Orwell's position as an Englishman among Spaniards makes for an engaging perspective. He is in many ways an almost stereotypical Englishman, or rather a certain kind of Englishman, one of the imperial and military sort, which by birth and early training he was: practical, orderly, at once impatient and indulgent of the foibles of the natives: "As usual, Spanish standards of marksmanship had saved me." He speaks of fear and danger with classic reserve, detachment, and understatement:

The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detal.

Having been shot and believing he was bleeding to death, he says:

My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.

Although he was on the front lines for some months, the situation was something of a stalemate, with Republican and Nationalist positions separated by hundreds of yards and engaged mainly in desultory and ineffective sniping and shelling. There is in fact only one instance of real close combat in the story, one in which he remembers calling out to someone "This is war! Isn't it bloody?" Mostly his experience at the front consisted of boredom, cold, lice, and filth, all of which he renders very vividly. Taken simply as a well-written memoir, the book is worth reading.

HomageToCataloniaFlowerAnd the Catholic can also take it as history, and as a testimony to the situation of the Church in Spain (and probably in all of Catholic Europe) with regard to the working class. How did it come about that the institution which ought to have worked to aid and protect the poor was, in the eyes of those same poor, so often seen as a tool of the oppressor? I suppose it must in fact have been, at least to some extent, and a scandalous extent, the tool of the oppressor. Orwell says little directly about this, but what he does say is revealing:

It struck me that the people in this part of Spain must be genuinely without religious feeling--religious feeling, I mean, in the orthodox sense. It is curious that all the time I was in Spain I never once saw a person cross himself; yet you would think such a movement would become instinctive, revolution or no revolution.... To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.

Never once? That's hard to believe, and yet there is no reason to think that Orwell is not telling the truth. He also remarks on the almost complete lack of religious texts and symbols on gravestones which long pre-date the revolution. At any rate it is not surprising that this close association of the Church and an oppressive social order helped to produce the over-reaction of liberation theology.

In immediate-post-revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell found an egalitarian society which he found greatly attractive: everyone dressed more or less alike, no one bowed or cringed before anyone else, and a genuine sense of community cooperation seemed to be the organizing principle. This did not last long, of course, and the Catholic reader is likely to suspect that it could not have lasted long, mankind being what it is.

But the specific causes which brought about the end had a lasting influence on Orwell, and are still significant today. The latter part of the book relates the intramural fighting on the left which resulted in the POUM ("Workers' Party of Marxist Unification") with which Orwell was affiliated being purged, and Orwell himself making a hasty dash for England a few steps ahead of the police.  In brief, what happened was that the international Communist party, controlled by the Russians, took steps to suppress the revolutionary parties in Spain, because a thoroughly entrenched and thoroughly socialist government there was not at the time in the best military interests of the Soviet Union. Suddenly a propaganda campaign painted Orwell's confederates as "Trotskyists," no better than actual Fascists, and people began to disappear. The bold and shameless lying by which this was effected made a deep impression on Orwell, and is a clear influence on his later work.

Like many an Anglo-American leftist before him, Orwell wanted to take refuge in the law. 

All the while, though I was technically in hiding, I could not feel myself in danger. The whole thing seemed too absurd. I had the ineradicable English belief that 'they' cannot arrest you unless you have broken the law. It is a most dangerous belief to have during a political pogrom.

But the law of Spain, much less the law of revolutionary Spain, was not the law of England. I was reminded of the words spoken by someone or other in A Man for All Seasons: "This is not Spain." And further, of More's speech in the same play, to someone who would dispense with the law to get at the Devil:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake! 

This notion of law is not universal; it is one of the greatest things in the Anglo-American tradition, and we are in danger of losing it at the hands of people who are interested only in results--but that's a topic for another day.

Homage_cataloniaOrwell's brand of socialism seems to have been benign and perhaps romantic: decentralized and democratic. I suppose he had read Chesterton, and I wonder what he thought of him. I sometimes suspect that the promising political movements promoted by such literary dreamers are doomed always either to be crushed or betrayed by the hard-headed, hard-hearted men who are most capable of seizing and using power. 

A personal footnote: somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago I met a young man who spoke with pleasurable anticipation of killing Catholics, simply because they are Catholic. My best guess is that this was Christmas of 1999, because we spoke of the then-recent riots in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization; I forget whether he had participated in them or only praised them. He was related by marriage to one of my cousins, and was at this family gathering more or less by accident, so I've never seen him again and can't remember his name. I made conversation with him, and drew him out on the subject of his revolutionary beliefs. He said it would be necessary to kill the enemies of the people, such as Catholics. I pressed him on that point--"Really? All the Catholics"--and he retreated a bit.

"Well, not the ordinary Catholics. Just the priests."


"Because they're oppressing the people." 

What form he believed this oppression took, I don't know. I think I told him I was Catholic, but I can't remember for sure, because we were interrupted soon after that point in the exchange. He was, I would guess, in his late twenties at the time, so he would be forty or so by now, and I wonder if he still thinks killing all the priests, at least, would be a good idea.