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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.



I keep seeing ads for this and they're a bit startling: I think "I didn't know they were still around," not to mention with a web presence. Turns out, of course, that it's something to do with automobiles.

Hem: Half Acre

Weekend Music

Someone pointed out the resemblance of last week's Camera Obscura song to one by Hem. Here's another Hem song, one of the best from their album Rabbit Songs. Lyrics here


This is not my favorite Hem song, which is "The Part Where You Let Go", from an EP called Home Again, Home Again (which also for some reason includes "Half Acre." I didn't post it because, for one thing, I already have, though it was five years ago (!), and for another thing I get all choked up every time I hear it, for reasons I don't really understand.

An Interview with the Creator of xkcd

It's more about his new venture, which is a series of carefully researched answers to questions like "What would happen if you pitched a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?"  But interesting for fans of the comic as well: A Conversation with Randall Munroe.

(Short answer to the baseball question: 'The answer turns out to be “a lot of things”, and they all happen very quickly, and it doesn’t end well for the batter (or the pitcher).')

(I have actually often wondered about that question involving rain.)

Speaking of xkcd, here's something to mess up the minds of those pesky election pundits (click to enlarge):



Cross-Dressing and Humor

I started to say this in a comment on the Some Like It Hot discussion, but decided to make it a separate post so I could find it later, if the subject ever came up again.

I can't explain why so many people find men dressed as women to be so very funny. But I have figured out why I don't. It can lead to some situations that are amusing to me, like the scene in Some Like It Hot where Jack Lemmon as "Daphne" has to share a cozy late-night drink and chat with Marilyn Monroe and the girls in the upper berth of a railroad car while pretending he isn't half-crazed by Marilyn's proximity.

But the thing in itself: not very funny. The reason is that the clothes, makeup, hair, and general vibe of women are meant to be sexually attractive--not necessarily in a crude way, but at least in a general way. They are meant to enclose and heighten the appeal of the female body. And this is a very pleasant and powerful thing.

But the male body is not a sexual thing to me; just the opposite, in fact.  So a male body with the accoutrements that signal "female" is jarring and unpleasant. It's like finding something like grass or twigs in your ice cream; somewhat more off-putting, really, because of the repelling effect of the like poles of two magnets. 


Sunday Night Journal — October 14, 2012

Some Old Movies

I've been a little surprised over the past ten years or so to hear young people apply the term "old movie" to movies made as recently as the 1980s or mid-1990s. It makes perfect sense, of course, from their point of view. Or for that matter from a fairly neutral point of view: in movie industry terms, twenty years is a pretty long time. But for me an "old movie" is one that was old when I was young, which is to say, something made before roughly 1960. Here are notes on a few such that I've seen over the past month or so.

Some Like It Hot

Although I grew up in the time when "Marilyn Monroe" was as much a synonym for "sex symbol" as "Cadillac" was for "luxury car," I don't think I'd ever actually seen one of her movies in its entirety. I was only thirteen or fourteen when she died, so she was no longer an active screen presence when I was a young man, and of course in those days, when a movie had run the course of its release, it wasn't seen again unless it happened to turn up on late-night old-movie shows. Perhaps I saw bits and pieces, but I really can't recall an entire movie.

Some Like It Hot is apparently regarded as one of her best performances, and seems to be considered a classic even apart from that. I've run across extremely enthusiastic references to it over the years, and therefore had high expectations when I sat down to watch it a few weeks ago.

So it's certainly not prejudice that causes me to report a decided lack of enthusiasm for it. At best I would put it in the "somewhat amusing" class. I had no idea at all what it was about, but if I had known, my expectations would have been much lower. Some people seem to find men dressing up as women one of the funniest things in the world, but I am not one of them. I find it a little creepy; at best it gets an occasional mild chuckle from me. The plot of Some Like It Hot involves Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as small-time musicians who witness a gangland murder and flee for their lives by dressing as women and joining an all-"girl" band, which features a seductive (to say the least) singer named Sugar Kane, played by Monroe (obviously). Naturally the boys fall for Sugar, and are fallen for by men, and all sorts of complications ensue. 

I won't say it's badly done, and I didn't hate it, but...well, as I said, "somewhat amusing" is about the best I can do.

But Marilyn:  she was a bit of a revelation. Now I understand what all the fuss was about. She plays a stock, stereotypical dumb-but-sexy-blonde, but there's something about her that transcends the role. Yes, she's a bombshell (and platinum blondes are not my type), and the character is a drunk who has lived with a series of no-good men, but in spite of that there seems something sweet and innocent about her, as if the sleazy life she's lived has not really touched her soul. You want to take her away from all that and protect her. Whether this has much relation to the real Marilyn I don't know, but if it does then I can see why a decent man like Joe DiMaggio kept trying to save her, even after their marriage had collapsed, and why he continued to behave like a gentleman toward her long after her death, until his own, after which we can hope they have had a happy meeting.


Strangers On A Train

This is a fairly early Alfred Hitchcock, which, like Some Like It Hot, most people who have any great interest in movies have probably seen. This was my first viewing, and although I doubt I'll ever watch it again, the experience was the reverse of the above: I had low expectations, which were exceeded. I have generally thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat greater than is justified. Not that I've disliked his work, but I didn't quite see why he is held in such high regard. I think I liked Rear Window best of the ones I've seen. And maybe I Confess, which was made around the same time as Strangers.

Two men meet on a train. Both have domestic difficulties and would like to be free of the person causing the difficuly: one is a tennis player who wants a divorce from his cheating wife, the second a rich young man who wants to get his domineering father out of the way and take possession of the family fortune. The rich young man suggests that they agree to murder each other's Inconvenient Person. The tennis star, a good man, is horrified and quickly detaches himself from the other. But the rich young man proves to be a psychopath who is not so easily discouraged. 

I think maybe one of the reasons I've thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat exaggerated is that some critics seem to find a depth there that I don't see. But with that expectation put aside, and taking the movies simply as good stories, I greatly enjoyed this one, except that, as with several other Hitchcock works, I found the closing resolution a bit of a letdown after the skillfully-built tension of everything up to that point. 

I'm left with one question: why did Farley Granger, who plays the tennis player, not become a major star? He's handsome and strikes me as a better actor than a lot of leading men of the period. But then he doesn't have a single memorable persona like a lot of the others: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant,

Strangers On A Train-04

Mark of the Vampire

 This is a fairly low-grade installment in the Dracula series, but it's very atmospheric and enjoyable if you like this sort of thing. There's Bela Lugosi, who actually plays a fairly minor role. But the star of the show, vampire-wise, is the Lugosi character's daughter, who looks like her cover job could be singing in a goth-metal band. She doesn't say anything until the very end, but she's a notable presence. And there's Lionel Barrymore as the Van Helsing-type professor who knows all about vampires and guides the struggle against them. And Lionel Atwill as the policeman who doesn't believe all this nonsense. And there's a plot twist that sets it apart from similar films. Like I said, if you like this sort of thing...


Swing Time

I really shouldn't mention this one yet, as I've only seen half of it (my wife and I have taken to watching movies in one-hour segments on weekday evenings, when we'd like to relax for a bit but can't spare time for an entire movie). But this is the second time I've seen it, and I already know what I think about it. It's a Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers dancing romance, and many say it's the best of that lot. I don't know about that, but, to speak again of "this sort of thing," I find it hard to imagine that it gets much better than this. 

And I'm mildly astonished, if that makes sense, that I like this sort of thing. At twenty or thirty I probably would have scoffed at it. At forty I might only have been bored. At fifty I had begun to see the appeal, and now I find it entirely delightful. 

Come to think of it, I remember scoffing at it, sometime in my early twenties: to someone who loved musicals, I said I couldn't quite accept the idea of people suddenly bursting into song and dance in the middle of ordinary life. But that, she replied, was exactly what she liked so much about them. And now I'm much more of her mind. Swing Time doesn't appear to have much to do with the world we live in, but it does: it's the world as it might be, not in heaven, but on some plane considerably nearer to heaven than is the one we inhabit. As on earth, Fred and Ginger must negotiate a series of difficulties, but you know all along that nothing will prove insurmountable, and along the way there will be a great deal of rejoicing, with much more at the end. The Astaire-Rogers dance numbers are an expression of pure joy, not only because of their skill but because the personalities they radiate are so engaging.  

I discovered some years ago that reading P.G. Wodehouse is a wonderful medicine for depression; it's effervescent, like mental champagne. Swing Time has much the same effect.  And what Waugh said of Wodehouse is true of this movie:

Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

 To the Wodehouse comparison I would add one to Mozart. Surely, as long as people are capable of enjoying the lighter works of Mozart, they will be capable of enjoying Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 


J.K. Rowling Writes a Novel for Adults

And, sad to say, it's apparently not very good. I'm not surprised. The things that she did well in the Harry Potter books are not the things that make a good realist novel. An interesting thing about this review, and I guess about the book itself if one were to read it, is what it suggests about Rowling's Christianity. I always thought that those who thought her books were vehicles of black magic etc. were mistaken, but I also thought those who found an explicitly Christian theology in them were at best overstating the case. My impression always was that she has enough of Christian culture in her to use themes that have Christian connections and origins, but no more than that. This review makes it sound as if she's no great admirer of Christianity as an institution. That's just one review, of course, but it does fit with the impression I had from the Potter books.

Camera Obscura: Honey In the Sun

Weekend Music

Rob G has recommended this band to me several times, but I hadn't followed up on the rec till a week or so ago, when the state PBS network featured them on a weekly live music series, from a gig in Birmingham (Alabama). I was immediately taken with them--not only with the music, but with the way they perform and the way they look. I tend to hate watching rock bands. I can't stand the contrived theatrics, the posturing, etc. I'm repulsed by the typical Super Bowl half-time show, for instance. And don't even get me started on the Madonna-type "divas," with their stripper costumes and gyrations, cold-hearted sexuality, and  soulless music. Lo and behold, here is a woman fronting a band, wearing a simple dress, and just standing there and singing, letting the music speak for itself. And it does. I should warn you that the chorus of this song is very likely to get stuck in your head.


Another Near-Death Experience

We were talking about these a couple of months agoThis one is from a neurosurgeon, who had previously believed that consciousness is an entirely material phenomenon. "But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it."

I have not read the Newsweek article to which the short notice above, in the Telegraph, points. Just the fact that it's in Newsweek makes me slightly skeptical. But something is going on here.

Update: you really should read the entire Newsweek piece. It's one of the most full and interesting accounts of this sort of the thing I've ever read. If the man is not just flat-out lying, this is, at a minimum, a striking piece of evidence for the belief that the soul does not begin and end with the body.

Sunday Night Journal — October 7, 2012

What to do? What to do?

I said that to my dog Andy a little while ago, by way of remarking on his confusion and indecision. He is a Bichon Frisé--and no, as I know I've said here before, I never wanted a cute little dog--he came to us more or less by accident. (I started to say "wimpy little dog," but he's actually pretty brave--just the other day he challenged a dog that towered over him and must have weighed seventy pounds, as opposed to his twelve.) And the breed is genetically disposed toward a very strong need to be with people, even stronger than for most dogs. His main activity is to seek my wife or me and settle down to sleep as close to us as possible, preferably in physical contact. He's visibly distressed when we won't stay put. Before I sat down to write this my wife and I were both going about different activities, going to different rooms and perhaps sitting down for a few minutes, long enough for Andy to get settled, then getting up and going somewhere else. Finally he was trotting anxiously back and forth from one to the other of us, with a slightly frantic edge, unable to decide which of us was more likely to be still for a while. 

Anyway, it occurred to me that "What to do?" is the right title for what I had planned to say today. I'm often in a state of mind similar to Andy's, going back and forth among things I want to do, and finding myself unable to stick with any of them for very long.

I've got to make a decision about the future of this blog. "Not again!", some of you will say. "He went off on that tear a few years ago." Well, yes, I did. And those who were reading then may remember that I gave up the Sunday Night Journal for a year, with the intention of focusing on other projects, and that I resumed it after that year because I hadn't made much actual progress on any of them. For a while after resuming the SNJ I made it a weekly chapter in a memoir. For complex reasons I stopped doing that, although the memoir remains a live, if rather neglected, project.

The memoir, in fact, is one of the reasons that I find myself again at the same place I was at in December 2009. (Question for grammar experts: is that sentence grammatically correct?) Without boring you with a lot of details, I have to say that it's become clear that I really must cut down the amount of time I spend online, and that includes the amount of time I spend on this blog. 

I've given serious consideration to the possibility of doing away with it altogether, but I don't think I'll do that. The reason I'm discussing this out loud, so to speak, instead of just deciding what to do and then doing it, is that although I don't have a lot of readers, I really value you, and the conversations we have here. And there is good reason to believe some of you would miss the blog if it weren't there.

At this point those are really my strongest reasons for keeping it going.  I've written enough here over the past eight years (it will be nine in January) that I don't feel the urge to keep producing material as strongly as I did. I could live without that now, but I really don't want to lose the talk. I've often wished that I had a neighborhood bar where I could have a couple of beers and some conversation with similarly-minded people--not identically-minded, but similar enough for good talk. I don't have that, and this serves a somewhat similar purpose.

I've read that blog readership in general has declined over the past few years, and I think part of the reason is Facebook. But although I'm on Facebook, it's not nearly as good a place for conversation as a blog, at least for me. For one thing, it just doesn't work that way. Everything flows into one feed, so that a topic appears, and may get a few comments, but soon is pushed way down or off the page. Just as important, for me, is that Facebook is a place where I have to practice the traditional caution in talking about religion and politics. I have Facebook "friends" with all sorts of views, some of them quite different from mine and held quite heatedly, and I don't want to find myself in unpleasant and unproductive arguments. But nobody comes here unless they want to, and so this entirely public forum seems more private.

 I'd like to know what you think. Two things are pretty clear to me: I do want to keep the blog going, but I have to spend less time on it. So I can't continue the Sunday Night Journal as it is. Among other things, attendance at an Anglican Use Mass in Mobile has seriously reduced the amount of spare time I have on Sundays. And I think that I won't write as many lengthy serious pieces as I have done, at least for a while ("lengthy" in blog terms meaning more than 500 words or so)--not weekly, anyway. 

Would it be better if I post something brief quite frequently, preferably every day or close to it, or that I publish a single weekly miscellany? Or perhaps more substantial posts, like the typical Sunday Night Journal, but at greater intervals? How about subject matter? Should I stick with my original books-music-movies-through-Catholic-eyes theme? Or have more posts on current affairs? I'm sometimes tempted to start another blog devoted entirely to politics and associated matters. I would probably have more readers if I did. But I suspect it is, literally, a temptation: I don't think it would be good for my mental health, possibly not for my soul, because I'd stay even more agitated about that stuff than I already do. And anyway, doing that would probably be even more demanding of my time, because the controversies of the day come and go fairly quickly, and if you don't write about them right away you might as well not bother. Also, I really would rather write things that might still be of interest five or ten or more years from now, which is not true of very much political commentary at all.

I do plan to continue the SNJ through the end of the year, by the way. It's sort of a compulsion.

Another Note on the End of the Newspaper Era

As we were discussing a week or so ago, the Sunday September 30 edition of the Mobile Press-Register was the last daily edition of the paper, presumably forever. In it, Frances Coleman, who had been the editorial page editor for many years, and is one of the people who will not have a job in the new state-wide organization, published this final column, and I'm a little surprised that the new powers printed it. It isn't so much a lament for the changes, the technological and social obsolescence of the old ways of doing things, and so forth, as for a whole way of approaching journalism, independent of its medium. It's quietly incendiary--read it and you'll see what I mean. 

Like almost everyone who has definite opinions about politics, in particular those whose opinions are on the conservative side, I complain a lot about the news media. But the complaint is about their malpractice, their failure to fulfill their own mission of informing the public as fully and fairly as possible. In a society where the people have the last word, that's an essential function. We're moving back into a situation like that ca 1900, when newspapers were openly partisan. And maybe that's ok; maybe it's even better, in a way, because it encourages a certain skepticism about all of them. But the pretense of fairness remains, even when the product resembles Pravda, and is the occasion for quite unjustiable self-congratulation by many journalists, and that's pretty annoying. 

Al Stewart: Denise at 16

Weekend Music

Last week, trying to think of who The Clientele's singer reminded me of, I thought of Al Stewart. And then I thought of this song, which, though it's an instrumental, somehow has some of the '60s feel of The Clientele's work. Moreover, it's actually from the '60s. I'm not sure exactly when or where I procured a very scratched-up copy of an LP compilation drawn from Stewart's early albums, before he was at all known over here. There's some good stuff on it, but this little instrumental is the thing I like most. It may just sound like a pretty little tune to you, but to me it sounds like youthful longing. Or maybe, more specifically, like being young and in love.  It was recorded in 1967, and somehow it sounds like that time. I'm not saying that because I heard it then, either--I didn't hear until sometime in the 1980s.


I don't know how he gets that watery-wobbly sound. A recording effect of some kind, I guess. 

Well, I was talking about his singing, so here's what he sounds like. I think of this song often. The details vary (in fact when Stewart wrote the song he was apparently referring at least in part to an earlier time, maybe the 1930s), but we're still in a period of great change.


He's changed a lot. Apparently sometime between the 1970s and the late 1990s he assumed the appearance of a diffident accountant in late middle age, or perhaps a shoe salesman in the days when middle-aged men often held such jobs. I saw him perform a few years before this next clip was made, and it was a great show, very much like this, except that there was no bass player.


The Debate

If you watched it...or far that matter if you didn't watch it...feel free to post your reaction. 

I thought Romney did quite well. I think this is the first time I've watched a Republican candidate in one of these circus acts who didn't make me cringe for him. I don't know whether this improved his chances or not, but I have a better opinion of the sort of president he would be than I did before the debate. I think he'd be a reasonably competent one, within the limits of what a president can do and what the country will accept. 

My Night At Maud's

This is a late '60s French movie by one of the New Wave directors (Eric Rohmer), generally regarded as a classic, so I fully expected to like it. But my reaction was lukewarm at best. I didn't know what to expect from the description: two friends, one Catholic and the other Marxist, spend an evening at the apartment of a divorcee named Maud, with whom the Marxist is having an affair. Was it going to be a round of Church-bashing? Or was it going to be intelligent and respectful? Happily, it was the latter. The first scene is a Mass, and there's another toward the end, and the priest's homily is not silly stuff at all, nor is it treated that way. 

Jean-Louis, the Catholic, and Vidal, the Marxist, run into each other in a cafe, not having seen each other for a while. Vidal talks Jean-Louis into going with him to visit Maud. Much discussion of a very French-cinema sort takes place--discussions of ideas and of love, but all in a pretty abstract sort of mode. Maud is intrigued by Jean-Louis and decides to attempt to seduce him. He resists. I'll let that suffice for plot summary, so as not to give away too much.

I will say that not a great deal happens for most of the film. But I can't blame that for my lack of enthusiasm, as there are plenty of films I like which are pretty short in the action department. I can't point to anything in particular that I disliked, but I simply wasn't engaged by the people or what they talked about or what they did. Jean-Louis seems dull, and I found Maud annoying. But I guess the fundamental problem is that none of them seem to have any deep passion about anything, not even their lovers. Since they seem a little disengaged, the viewer, or at least this viewer, does, too. 


This is one of those well-produced Criterion Collection re-issues, and you can view some scenes at their site. If you haven't seen it, and that sample looks intriguing, don't let my opinion stop you. I'm prepared to admit that the defect is in me more than in the work. But there it is. 

There seems to be some point involving Pascal and his famous wager being made here, but if so I didn't really get it. The DVD includes an episode of a French TV show in which a philosopher and a priest discuss Pascal. I'm a little ashamed to say that I only watched part of it: it was a weekday night, and I was sleepy, and tired of listening to people talk inconclusively. In French. Like I said, maybe I'm the problem. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who thinks it's a great movie.

Sunday Night Journal — September 30, 2012

Where Are The Bumper Stickers?

 One day last week I saw a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker, and I realized it was the first one I'd seen. Since then I've seen, I think, one more, two at most. And then I realized that I haven't been seeing many Obama stickers, either. Most of the Obama stickers I've seen are faded leftovers from 2008, and "Obama 2012" is fairly rare. 

Both these phenomena are quite a change from 2008. I live in a place which has become pretty heavily dominated by the Republicans over the past twenty or thirty years. But there are also a good many diehard and vocal Democrats. In 2000 and 2004 Bush stickers were all over the place, especially those which appeared sometime after the 2000 election: the black squares with the big white "W" and, in smaller print, "The President." Those were popular and recognizable enough to generate imitations and parodies: "S: The Coach" (for Nick Saban); "W: Wine"; and the charming "F: The President."

(A couple of funny stories about that last one: I'm sometimes very slow to catch on to word-play, and the first time I saw this I was in the car with my wife and then-teenaged daughter. I made the mistake of wondering aloud what it meant. They laughed. I still didn't get it. My daughter said something like, "Um, Dad...say it." Pause. "F. The. ...oh."

And the other: I was waiting at an optometrist's office for a new pair of glasses, standing around in their showroom. I can only look at fashionable variations on "eyewear" for so long, so I started watching the customers. A fellow came in whose whole bearing radiated anger: his face seemed to be set in the beginning of a scowl, and there was something tense and hostile in his posture. About that time the technician appeared with my new glasses, and I ended up leaving the store at the same time as Hostileman. He got into a car with the "F" bumper sticker--and a faculty parking tag for the local university.)

In 2008 the wild enthusiasm for Obama produced an unusually large number of stickers for the Democrats, though they were still not as numerous as those for McCain/Palin. I recall wondering how even a staunch Republican could be so enthusiastic about McCain; I suppose it was Palin who created whatever excitement there was for that ticket, in addition to the general hostility to the Democratic Party that is widespread here.

But this year: almost nothing. It's peculiar. The lack of new Obama/Biden stickers is not too surprising, as the enthusiasm for Obama has been badly damaged in a collision with reality. And as for Biden--surely even Democrats are embarrassed by him. But the opposition to them is stronger than ever, fueled by the president's own actions. Even those of us who voted against him but were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, not to mention feeling a certain amount of pride in the fact that the country could elect a mixed-race president, are now decidely antagonistic.  There is no more room for doubt about his intentions. He never meant to be the healer and uniter that he spoke of being, or if he did have the intention he quickly abandoned it. His concept of healing and unity is that everyone should get in line with his program, and those who refuse are be steamrollered to the best of his ability. And as we all know the steamroller is now headed for the Catholic Church. 

I am certain that there is widespread outrage against the Obama administration, opposition at least as intense as there was toward the Clinton administration. I am certain that a great many people have arrived at the same anybody-but-Obama view I have. So why am I not seeing any more public support for  the Romney/Ryan ticket? It's not as if this were a liberal district in the northeast, where openly expressing support for a Republican could invite hostility. It's not that people are intimidated by the possibility of being called racist--they weren't intimidated in 2008. 

The problem, I'm pretty sure, is that Romney is a terribly unappealing candidate. He can't ignite Palin-style fire among "the base," as Republican establishment types apparently refer to the majority of people who actually vote for them. To others, who might or might not vote Republican, depending on the candidate and the issues, he is a walking stereotype of the establishment Republican: a fabulously wealthy man running for office at a time when millions of people have seen their material standard of living decline. Though he and his party attempt to represent him as a successful entrepreneur, the effort is unconvincing because he was less an entrepreneur than a financier and manager. He did not, in the classic mold, develop a useful new product and sell it to the world, but rather bought and sold existing companies. When a company changes hands, it is, to say the least, not always good news for the company and its employees, and so Romney's business success is, to say the most, not entirely of the sort that can be described as "creating jobs." 

Were it not for the fact that he's a Mormon, he would be the sort of old-line WASP for whom the term "country club Republican" was coined. His credentials as a social conservative are mixed. Worse, he has on several occasions confirmed the out-of-touch-rich-guy stereotype. And with most of the media apart from Fox News acting as an arm of the Obama campaign, every such instance is being pounded into the consciousness of people who aren't really paying very close attention, but who may decide the election.

Very few people seem to have any great enthusiasm for him.  He's discouraging even to many of the anybody-but-Obama people, because they fear he would, once in office, actually do very little to undo the damage. And that, I think, is the main reason for the dearth of bumper stickers. 

 Almost exactly four years ago, in the Sunday Night Journal of September 21, 2008, I was critical of the idea that the election of either candidate would dramatically affect the future of the nation. I was mistaken about that election, because I failed to anticipate the passage of Obamacare, aka the laughably misnamed Affordable Health Care Act. Were it not for that, I would be prepared to shrug off this election for the same reasons I gave in that column. But I didn't anticipate the will and power of a Democratic president and a Democratic congress to push through a very dodgy "reform" of the health care system. I hope I'm being overly pessimistic, but so far I have seen nothing to make me question what I wrote about Obamacare in 2009. Arguably the Act is only the latest in a long line of similar constraints, but it may represent some sort of last straw in the process described by De Tocqueville:

Thus, after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Th end of that last sentence seems to be a pretty fair factual description of what contemporary liberalism has in mind.

And I noted, but seem to have underestimated, this factor:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

I didn't foresee that the Democrats would move so quickly to force Catholic employers to subsidize the unacceptable. Leviathan is a jealous God.