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September 2013

Tyranny of Liberalism 5

In a chapter called "Blind Alleys," Kalb discusses various responses to liberalism. I'll be posting a bit from each of them. Here is what he calls "simple conservatism."

Simple procedural conservatism is a view for moderate worldly men attached to what is established but willing to accomodate new developments that seem sensible or inevitable. It aspires to a sort of mixed society, in which there is a place for the most helpful aspects of liberalism as well as nonliberal tradition. On ultimate standards, however, it is agnostic, with no final reference point other than what people do. As a result it tends to drift, and when social tendencies are liberal it becomes hard to distinguish such a stance from the moderate wing of liberalism....

However, such an outlook is not self-sustaining and cannot be relied on to keep liberal tendencies from going to extremes. Its lack of definite principles is its downfall. Simple conservatism is not seriously concerned with truth. It treats all social understandings, even the most basic, as negotiable interests. ...

The simple conservative is not impressed by philosophical claims. He reduces religion to a combination of traditional observances and optional private belief.... Simple conservatism is therefore unable to find a place to make a stand....

Simple conservatism has been unable to prevent the triumph of increasingly radical forms of liberalism. It has accepted the creation of a radically secular public order that treats substantive appeals to anything other than human will and scientific reason as irrational and oppressive.... It can no longer think or act coherently, because it cannot sustain substantive arguments at odds with those of its opponents.... Simple conservatism grumbles, drags its feet, and tries to moderate the disruption caused by implementing liberal demands, but it cannot argue against the justice of those demands or deny them ultimate victory. The most it can do is to try to delay and cushion its own defeat.

This is the sort of establishment conservatism which is a pretty powerful element in the Republican party, the element which is scorned by the more committed right as being just like the Democrats, but less; or as promising to reduce the speed at which we approach the cliff's edge. And the criticism is justified. It is also the kind of conservatism that accounts for some large percentage of that large percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "conservative," especially in my region, the South. And it is, tellingly, the element which earns praise from liberals for being "pragmatic" etc. I have a little sympathy for it--I've hoped that we might find "a place for the most helpful aspects of liberalism as well as nonliberal tradition." Recent developments, having to do with, for instance, same-sex marriage and religious freedom, incline me to think that the hope was misplaced. As Kalb says:

In recent decades the great compromise at the heart of American political life has unraveled. In spite of resistance, liberal principles came to be understood and applied more and more comprehensively, until social unity could no longer be based on vague Protestant moralism and religiosity and on the moral authority and halfway liberalism of those long-dead white male propertied slave owners, the Founding Fathers. A destructively pure form of liberalism became authoritative in American public life. Ruling elites came to understand conservatism as simple resistance to the plain demands of public morality and therefore as a threat to any tolerable public order.

The key period in the transformation was the sixties....

With that breakdown of the American compromise, the link was snapped between government and American tradition as a whole--and between government and the people. The American public order has consequently entered an enduring state of crisis that features a combination of anarchy and soft totalitarianism.....

The result of such developments was the appearance of a broad-based explicitly conservative movement for the first time in America.

More about that in another post, but I think it is insufficiently recognized that the rise of the religious right and other conservative movements in the 1970s was in great measure a defense of threatened goods, a response to the attack on all existing institutions by the radical movements of the '60s, not the mere reaction to loss of power, as it's generally described by the official recognizers.

Blossom Dearie: I Won't Dance

Weekend Music

The absence of comments on my previous Blossom Dearie post causes me to be concerned that people have failed to appreciate it. Obviously the solution for that is more Blossom Dearie.

I really like her on these upbeat tunes. I had not heard this charming and catchy little song before. As light as her touch is, she nevertheless suggests restrained but powerful passion and longing. The tune is by Jerome Kern, the lyrics by Dorothy Fields. That's Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Jo Jones on guitar, bass, and drums respectively, names which jazz fans will recognize. I like to think they're on this session (recorded in 1956) because they recognized what a special talent she was. The video, unfortunately, is silly Laurel and Hardy stuff that does not especially complement the song. 


One more: I absolutely love the way she does "Surrey With the Fringe On Top." Not my favorite song but she makes it enchanting. I believe this is from the Jack Parr show.


The Truth About Richard Dawkins

Discovered by one of his fellow atheists:

Can there be any residual doubt, after this latest imbecility, that Richard Dawkins is in the service of the global cabal of faiths henceforth to be known as Big Religa?

In other atheistical news:

Some atheists are starting a "church", which strikes me as very odd and yet rather predictable for the inverted religious fanaticism which seems prevalent in contemporary atheism. There's something sad as well as ridiculous about wanting to "enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church...without the stinging imposition of God Almighty."

The Unitarians have been doing this kind of thing for a while. I went to a couple of their meetings many years ago. They were a bit absurd--just lectures and discussion on miscellaneous topics of a vaguely leftish socio-political slant. I didn't believe in anything in particular myself, and couldn't understand why their rejection of Christianity still left them with an urge to do something Improving on Sunday mornings. 

How Much Damage Did the Pope's Interview Do?

I think that's the question--not "did it do any damage?" Rod Dreher, in the New York Times, thinks it was a lot:

Whatever the evangelical merits of Pope Francis’s game-changing interview, there can be no doubt that the pontiff has decisively undercut the efforts of American Catholic politicians and Catholic bishops on issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception – and, ultimately, religious freedom.

(Read the whole thing.)

There's also the question of how much good it did, if any--the "evangelical merits" of which Dreher speaks.  I haven't seen any evidence of people who are not already committed Catholics receiving the message in anything like its entirety. The scornful comments on Dreher's piece are indicative and typical. For the most part, what I've seen of secular reaction, even when positive, does not consider taking another look at what the Church offers but is at most only hopeful that this is a first step in moving the Church in a direction more acceptable to them.

And note the headlines on the accompanying opinions by an "activist" nun and a well-known abortion advocate, who are both very pleased and encouraged by the apparent abandonment of Catholics working politically against abortion etc. As I said in a comment on one of my other posts on this topic:

I'm afraid the effect of this is going to be more, not less, divisiveness. He seems to want the Church to make the outward turn that I've anticipated and hoped for, but he may be doing it in a way that may undermine it, by setting us to fighting among ourselves again.

Mario Cuomo must be loving this. Is Phil Donahue still alive?

Four Recent Movies

Recent to me, I mean. Not very recently made.


Made in 1946, this purports to be a biography of the Bronte sisters, but can most generously be described as "based upon." Among other historical crimes, it invents a love triangle involving Charlotte, Emily, and their clergyman father's vicar. It stars Ida Lupino as Emily and Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times panned it pretty harshly when it came out: "a ridiculous tax upon reason and an insult to plain intelligence." Well, I guess so, and I wouldn't make any claims for it, but as an atmospheric 1940s Korngold-scored romance, well-acted and with a charming-if-ersatz English setting (and a funny mixture of accents), I found it enjoyable. I particularly liked the brief appearance of Sydney Greenstreet as Thackeray. Here's a review by a lover of old movies who calls it a guilty pleasure.


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

I really had no idea what to expect of this one. I can't remember why I recorded it (from TCM) in the first place, because it was well over a year ago. Maybe I had heard the word "noir" associated with it. The title suggests something racy, if not semi-pornographic, but since it was made in 1946 I wasn't too worried about that. It's the story of a woman who as a teenager semi-accidentally kills the mean old aunt who is her guardian, and successfully keeps the secret for many years, until the childhood friend who may or may not know what really happened comes back to town. Martha is now rich and powerful; the friend, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, is now a bit of a shady character, not exactly a criminal but not respectable, either. Martha thinks he intends to blackmail her. Things happen. 

It's an excellent story, and noir indeed. Unfortunately for me, Martha is played by Barbra Stanwyck, and I have never really found her convincing in these femme fatale roles (e.g. Double Indemnity). I also didn't care much for the actress who played the other major female character, Lizabeth Scott. I hadn't heard of her before. She looks rather like Veronica Lake but has some mannerisms that bother me--too bad it wasn't Veronica Lake. But these are just my quirks, and if you don't share them and like this kind of movie, this is probably one of the better ones.  Kind of a weird title.


Taxi Driver

So, thirty-five years later, I finally got around to seeing this film which I know to have been the source of the apparently pointless catchphrase "You talkin' to me?" I vaguely remember thinking, at the time of its release (1976) that I didn't need to see a movie about urban decay, violence, and child prostitution. As everybody but me (and my wife) has known for many years, it's about an alienated and slightly cracked New York City loner nursing fantasies of apocalytptic violence--a type who has become all too familiar to us. It's one of the movies that established Martin Scorsese as a big-name director, but I've never been terribly interested in his work, and the truth is that I only watched it now because it's considered such a classic and I've been trying, in a desultory sort of way, to fill in these gaps in my knowledge.

I was a little surprised to find that I more or less concur with those who think it's a great film. Maybe I wouldn't go as far as great, and I don't think it would make any list of essential works that I would compose. But it is really fine. I found the resolution unconvincing, but other than that it's a powerful piece of work. And I really liked the Bernard Herrmann score, his last. Robert de Niro's performance is great, as everyone has always said.


The Departed

I was not having a Scorsese festival, and didn't even realize that this was a Scorsese film until the credits. I only picked it because I'd heard it was an excellent crime drama. And it is. The basic premise almost guarantees intensity and suspense: two cops working for the Boston Police Department, one an informer for a mobster, trying to protect him, the other working undercover for that same mobster, trying to bring him to justice. Jack Nicholson is the disgustingly evil mob boss. Matt Damon is the bad cop, and Leonardo DiCaprio is the good cop.  Each becomes aware of the other's existence, but not his identity. You can imagine the sort of tension and paranoia generated by that situation.

Of course I'm familiar with DiCaprio's name, but the sort of movie that he stars in is not usually the sort of movie I see, so I didn't really know what sort of actor he is. But his performance in this movie struck me as stunningly fine. His character comes from a family with a lot of criminal associations--which helps him to infiltrate the mob--and is a pressure cooker of tension and conflict which DiCaprio renders with great intensity. 

This is not a big idea movie; it didn't leave me reflecting on its themes. But I'll certainly remember the people, especially Billy Costigan, DiCaprio's character. And it is a very gripping story. (It's also, of course, pretty violent.)


Interesting to see the change over the years in the way trailers--or "previews," as we used to call them--are made. The old ones were a little ridiculous, but the new ones are irritating. 

Three Observations on the Pope's Interview

My wife's typically brief and accurate take: "He's sort of loosey-goosey when he talks, isn't he?"

Someone else, whom I'll refrain from identifying but who can speak up if he or she sees this and wishes to: "We've got Paul VI again."

It was a brief conversation, but what I took the Paul VI comparison to mean, among other things, is that Francis, like Paul, sometimes does not seem to grasp accurately the way his words and actions will be perceived, and the effect they'll have.

And finally, from me: I have read all but the last few paragraphs of the interview, and most of it by far is somewhere between good and wonderful. It's unfortunate that certain remarks have been so subject to incomprehension and distortion. But that phenomenon mustn't blind us to things like this:

I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”