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January 2014

In These Times

What is asked of us is that we wrestle in faith with God and with whatever opposes us in the world. It is not the faith of cheerful fables that is demanded of us in these times, but rather a hard faith--for the softening and accomodating enchantment is falling away from all things, and everywhere the contradictions collide roughly with one another.

--Msgr Romano Guardini

The Thaw

It's a bright sunny day, the temperature is a few degrees above freezing, and I'm hearing something I've only heard a few times in my life. The sound of the thaw: water running off the eaves, dripping from the trees, and here and there a more substantial sound as a bit of ice crumbles and falls. Apart from the last of these, it sounds more or less like the aftermath of an ordinary rain, but the cold makes it feel much different. I'd forgotten what a pleasure it is; a bit of compensation for those who live in colder places.

Winter Storm 2014

I know this is nothing by the standards of any part of the country north of Tennessee or so, but it's hard to communicate just how freakish it is here. Normally the most severe wintry weather we get is a few days here and there slightly below freezing. Once, ca. 1996, there was enough snow in Mobile to cover the ground and stick for most of a day,  and against the stern instructions of the authorities, I drove several of my children over to see it. Now and then we get a bit of sleet or freezing rain. But I've been living in this area for 23 years and haven't seen anything remotely like this.

This was the view out the front door this morning. That looks like snow, but it's actually mostly sleet. It fell along with a little rain, so it was a bit slushy, and then it all froze hard overnight. Footprints don't show on it. The stepping stones are clear because I swept the sleet off last night while it was still falling, before it had a chance to harden. I did the same on the steps, and my wife found a box of ice cream salt which worked wonderfully for keeping the steps clear.


But the big news, and the sad news, in this picture is the dead leaves on that tree overhanging the front steps. That is our lemon tree. It should be green even in winter. The damage you see is from the similar cold snap of a couple of weeks ago, which involved no precipitation. We'll know in six weeks or so how bad the damage really is. But I think there are going to be no lemons this year. This is how it looked only six weeks or so ago.



The beach is covered with ice, too. 


On a slight slope, I could take a couple of running steps and have a nice slide, which was not very smart for a guy with a bad back, but fun.

I looked for ice along the edges of the water, because I wanted very much to be able to say that Mobile Bay is beginning to freeze over. But apart from a bit of frozen foam there really wasn't any. There was, however, some fresh frozen mullet.



We watched the weather report on one of the local TV stations last night, which we rarely do, and it was very funny. Roving correspondents all over the area, trying to think of variations on "Look at the ice on that highway. Gosh, there's a lot of ice! Ice is slippery, don't drive on it. Look at all that ice!" And there was a funny scene of kids from quite young to college age "sledding" on plastic storage-bin lids and anything else they could find that was flat and big enough to sit on.

Oh, and my wife and I, like almost everyone else in the area, got an unexpected two days off work, which is why I have time to do this.

Pete Seeger, RIP

Dead at 94. One of my early encounters with the folk music movement of the early '60s was this song by Tom Paxton, sung, unless my memory is playing tricks on me, by Seeger. There was a little clock radio in the room I shared with my brother at home in north Alabama, and I often listened to it at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I could pick up Chicago's WLS at night, and on Sunday nights there was a folk program. It's an extraordinarily vivid memory, of Seeger's clear simple voice and the poignant tune and lyrics sounding out in the dark.


Seeger's memory will always be a little tainted for me by his communism, and his clear sympathy for it that remained long after he had formally broken with it, something a wise man ought to have put behind him after the truth was known beyond any doubt. But he was like many, many others on the leftward end of the political spectrum in that. The music and his love for it remain.

What's Wrong

A few days ago I followed a link from somewhere or other to this story about the CEO of Caterpillar. Caterpillar is a big company, with approximately 121,000 employees. In 2012 it had about $5.6 billion in profits. A very hasty search informs me the company was doing worse throughout 2013, and profits are significantly lower, probably down below $4 billion for the year, although I didn't see any fourth-quarter figures.

The yearly pay of the CEO, Doug Oberhelman, was raised earlier this year from $16 million to $22 million, despite the fact that it was clear that profits were headed down. One immediately thinks "That raise should have gone to the workers," and probably it should have--but distributing that money to the workers comes out to only about $50 per employee. Even distributing the CEO's entire salary to the workers would give each one only about $180, which would no doubt be welcomed but is not enough to make a real difference in the way one lives.

Multi-million-dollar CEO salaries are often a scandal in many ways, but they aren't the main reason for stagnant or declining wages. But use $4.5 billion, a very rough midpoint between the past two years' profits, instead of $22 million, and the picture is rather different: roughly $33,000 per employee. Even half, even a third, even a sixth of that, would make a difference.

The fundamental problem here is that the profit made by the company is assumed to be meant for everyone except the people who actually built the product. The workers are considered no more than a cost of doing business, their wages no different from the price of steel. And the company feels justified, in fact obligated, to keep those costs as low as possible.

Who is the money for? Shareholders, directly--which is fine--and the stock market, indirectly, because high profit generally means higher stock price. In my limited experience in the corporate world, it seemed that the desire to keep the stock price up and climbing was one of the major, maybe the major, drivers of the practice of many companies. Granted, that was high-tech, where people were expecting a greater than average chance of investment windfalls. But I imagine it's operative throughout the corporate world.

It's almost funny that the CEO justifies his own salary by saying that the company has to be competitive. But it's not funny, because he uses the same reason to justify reducing the wages of his employees. Clearly he thinks that he would be difficult to replace, but his workers would not; therefore he can reduce their wages, or at least keep them from rising; therefore he will do so.

I get very impatient with people who say this sort of thing is a result of an immutable law, like the law of physics that says that if you push something hard enough, it will fall over.[1] What's being described here is as much a matter of culture and ethics. There is nothing in the nature of the universe that says it should be acceptable to exclude workers from sharing in the success of the company. There is in fact a lot of common sense justification for doing otherwise, entirely from the free enterprise point of view.

The great engine and virtue of the system is supposed to be incentive: if you work hard and produce something of value to others, you'll be rewarded financially. This CEO and others like him apparently don't believe in applying that logic to workers. This one isn't even willing to offer the traditional incentive to wage-earners: the assurance that if the company does well your wages will rise. But the company was doing very well at the time of this interview, and he was in the process of trying to freeze or reduce wages, offering only the vaguest lip service to the possibility that they would ever be increased. The only incentive offered is negative: work hard and maybe if things go well you'll keep your job. But no guarantees, of course. And if you don't like it, there are many others willing to take your place.

What would be the logical end point of this? To bring the cost of labor as near as possible to zero by paying the workers just barely enough to keep them alive and able to work? No doubt Mr. Oberhelman would take exception to that, but how far from the truth is it? I wonder if he's a Christian.

[1] Fudd's First Law of Opposition; see Firesign Theatre, I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus

52 Guitars: Week 4

When I thought "Time for a folk guitarist" the first name that popped into my head was John Fahey's. Then I thought, "Nah, it should be someone more authentically folk, not someone who came to the music from outside"; Fahey was a middle-class guy who discovered blues and country in his teens. But his presence was insistent. No, blues and country weren't his native language, but he took folk material and did something wonderful with it. I can't think of anything that sounds more like rural and southern America than his music. He himself referred to his style as American Primitive, and that's exactly right.

I recall seeing and hearing one of his albums when I was in college. If memory serves, someone brought it over to my apartment and we listened to it, but I think I was at least as interested in the strange text that came with it, and the general vibe: a strange mixture of musical folklore, whimsical fiction, philosophy, and religion. His first album, self-produced and distributed in 1959, was called Blind Joe Death, and that fictional bluesman appeared occasionally on other albums. There was a series of similarly-designed LPs on his own Takoma label through the early and mid-'60s, and it was one of those that I heard.

The only one of that series that I own is the one from which the following selection, its title song, is taken. The title communicates a good deal of Fahey's spirit.


Unfortunately my copy, found in a bin of used records somewhere many years after its release, does not have the accompanying text, but thanks to the Internet it can be found. Reading it will give you a better sense of the strangeness I'm talking about than anything I can say. And here is his Wikipedia entry, which will tell you about his life and career and also has links to other interesting stuff.

Here's one where you can see him playing up close.


I wish I'd bought some of those Takoma LPs in the '60s, though they were not widely available. They can still be found but sell for $30-$50 (they're available on CD at normal prices). I have a couple of others that were released on more widely-distributed labels, Vanguard and Reprise. The one on Vanguard, The Yellow Princess, is my favorite. In addition to Fahey's typical work, it contains some intriguing experiments like the sound collage "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee."

I discovered while researching this post that sometime in the 1970s he put out an album called Fare Forward Voyagers, which is a phrase from Eliot's Four Quartets. It consists of three pieces, each of which bears a phrase from Four Quartets as its title. I'll have to 

Happy 10th Anniversary To This Site

The first Sunday Night Journal was unveiled to an eager public in January 2004. Here is a link to that month's archive; the very first post was a review of Return of the King (the movie). The posts appear latest-first, so that post is at the bottom. I think I had put up some sort of "Hello World" announcement, probably including the assertion that it was not a blog, at the end of December, but I'm not sure. At the time I intended to publish only the one weekly piece.

For the first couple of years it was a very simple web site done with hand-coded HTML and CSS. I got tired of maintaining that, and also decided that I really wanted to have comments, and more casual posts, so I started a blog with Blogger. I believe that was in June of 2006. In 2010 I moved it here from Blogger. Soon after that all the previous comments were lost, which is too bad because there were some great conversations there and I'm sure future historians would have been fascinated by them.

It was actually only last year that I finally got all the stuff from the first two and a half years posted here. Wonder how many words there are in the whole shebang.

Not the Best Choice of Words

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stopped by Howard Stern’s radio show this week and revealed plans for his next big movie.

Weinstein got into a discussion with Stern about the issue of gun control, telling the controversial radio host, “I don’t think we need guns in this country, and I hate it. I think the NRA is a disaster area.”

“I shouldn’t say this, but I’ll tell it to you, Howard. I’m going to make a movie with Meryl Streep, and we’re going to take this head-on,” Weinstein continued. “And they’re going to wish they weren’t alive after I’m done with them.”

(quoted and ridiculed in this post at National Review Online)

Has there ever been a more egregious, yet oblivious, pool of hypocrisy than the entertainment industry? Harvey Weinstein has produced a number of very violent films, as well as some anti-Catholic ones, and "...has also cultivated a reputation for ruthlessness and fits of anger." (See Wikipedia article, which provided me with a link to this nice take-down of one of Weinstein's anti-Catholic efforts.

You Really Need to See These Wondrous Photos

Just a mother taking pictures of her children, as so many others do. She's Russian, and her name is Elena Shumilova. She says she "processes" the photos at night, and I really wonder what she does and what tools she uses, because I doubt that they come out of the camera looking quite this good. See the entire gallery here


52 Guitars: Week 3

Time to touch base in the jazz world: Joe Pass, "Blues in G". Next week, a folk guitarist, and after that whatever strikes my fancy from week to week.


Ok, one more, somewhat livelier:


I wish I could say that I understood this kind of improvisation. I appreciate the enormous skill, and I enjoy what I'm hearing melodically, but I know I'm missing a lot by not getting the harmonic relationships. 

If you've tried to leave a comment and gotten the message "not a hash reference," it's not your problem. Something seems to be wrong at TypePad.

UPDATE, 10pm Central (USA) time: TypePad says on their Twitter feed (I'm not on Twitter but they publish it on their main page): "We are noticing that there’s an issue when commenting while not signed in. We’re on the issue & appreciate your patience while we work on it." 

There is a sign-in facility for commenters but I've never enabled it here, so all comments here are "while not signed in."

UPDATE, 6:50am CST: Fixed, apparently, as I see some new comments.

Three More Movies

I'm beginning to run out of steam on this effort to watch as many as possible of the movies saved on our DVR before it goes back to AT&T. I told my wife the other day that we are at risk of becoming couch potatoes. But here are three from the past three weeks or so that are worth mentioning.

All About Eve (1950)

I knew that this was a famous movie, but other than that I didn't know anything at all about it. I was expecting some sort of romantic comedy thing--mysterious and capricious Eve, steady and befuddled Adam, maybe, or something along those lines. Well, it's not that at all. It's a study of female competition, of a young woman's attempt to push aside an older one. Bette Davis plays Margot Channing, an aging actress. Anne Baxter plays the Eve of the title, who first appears as Margot's star-struck worshipper, then gradually shows her true and predatory colors.

I can't say it offers any profound insights, although it probably gets studied, and maybe condemned, in feminist circles. But for the rest of us, it's just a very well-crafted piece of drama, with a witty and literate script and really good acting. I don't think it will give away too much if you watch this clip, a bit which occurs when Margot is beginning to figure out what Eve is up to. Marilyn Monroe has a small but memorable part. A bit after this scene she has one of the funniest lines in the movie.


Grand Illusion (1937)

Well, this is a classic, as you probably know, and therefore something anybody with a more than casual interest in cinema should see. But I don't mean to sound as if I'm telling you to eat your vegetables; you'll enjoy it. I had seen it once years before, and although I'd forgotten all the details, I did remember being touched by its picture of a privileged order with a genuine tradition of high honor being swept away by the modern world. But it's more than that; I mean, it's not a sociological study. And it's even better than I remembered. While looking for a suitable clip on YouTube, I ran across this 4-minute video review by a New York Times critic, which is pretty much on target (even though, this being the NYT, it dwells on a bit of cross-dressing which is really not important to the plot).


Wings of Desire (1987)

I guess most people who would be interested in this have seen it and know whether they like it or not.  But in case you don't: it's by the German director Wim Wenders and is about an angel who wants to become human, who's attracted by material reality in general and especially, of course, to women. Not surprisingly, the theology of that is pretty messed up, as is indicated by the fact that the first part is in black and white, and color only begins to appear when the angel contemplates the beautiful trapeze artist he's falling in love with. But that whole first half or so, which for a substantial length of time consists only of this angel and a companion (associate?) moving about the world, describing it to each other, touching people gently, is one of the most beautiful bits of cinema I've ever seen. I'd be happy to watch it again right now. I had seen this one, too, closer to fifteen than to thirty years ago, as with Grand Illusion, and had similarly forgotten most of it.

Here's a clip that will give you the flavor of that opening section, if you haven't seen it. The man with the scarf, the first face you see in the clip, is the angel. The voices are the thoughts of the people he sees. He is invisible to them. Oh wait, embedding is disabled for this clip, so follow this link.

Wings of Desire is the English-language title. The director's title is Der Himmel über Berlin, or The Heavens over Berlin.

G3: Red House

A little extra in the guitar series. It doesn't quite fit there, since the idea was to feature one guitarist in every post, although in a few cases (Duane Allman being the most obvious) it's hard to isolate one player from a group. And these three will all get their own posts at some point in the year. So I'll just drop it in here, as a follow-up to the Hendrix "Red House" post.

G3 is not a group, but a series of concert tours starringJoe Satriani and a varying cast of two other guitar wizards. I think this is from the first one, which includes Eric Johnson and Steve Vai. Anyone who pays much attention to the world of electric guitar music will recognize the names. Suffice to say that they're some of the most dazzling virtuosos in the field. It's interesting here that they turn the dazzle down some and play good solid blues, technically impressive but not ostentatiously so.


Rush Limbaugh Vs. the Pope

I'm pretty sure it was 1992 when I first heard Rush Limbaugh, because I remember him talking about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. It's hard for people who weren't around, and of conservative sympathies, at that time to understand how much fun it was when he came on the scene. Almost all the media, electronic and print, were conventionally liberal. There were a few token conservatives in the national media, like George Will, and there were the conservative magazines like National Review, but they were unheard outside the conservative ghetto. Suddenly there was this very irreverent and very prominent voice from the right, happily ridiculing all sorts of liberal persons and ideas that had always been treated with most solemn respect in the media. Limbaugh was witty and glib and didn't take himself too seriously, and was often rather insightful. I only heard him in brief snatches, if I happened to be driving around in the middle of the day when he was on. But I enjoyed what I heard.

The fun didn't last very long, though. I'm not sure whether Limbaugh got worse or I just got tired of him, but it seemed that bombast took over, and crude, often inaccurate and unfair, bludgeoning replaced wit. So within a few years I pretty much stopped listening to him, and have heard him only a very few times since then.

Not long after Evangelii Gaudium appeared, I read that Limbaugh had called it "pure Marxism." I thought that was pretty stupid, and wondered if that phrase was a fair representation of what he said, so I looked up the transcript. Yes, the Marxism quote was accurate and not unfairly pulled out of context. To extract and cite it was not even unkind, because the talk is such a rambling mess that one could hardly even mount an argument against it. I doubt very much that Limbaugh read more than a few snippets of EG; in fact it isn't clear that he read anything more than the news reports of it. But if he did read it, he's even dumber than the transcript makes him seem. I never took him for an intellectual but he did seem intelligent.  If you want to bother reading the transcript, it's here. There's not a funny remark in it. And that is one ugly web site.

52 Guitars: Week 2

Jimi Hendrix may not have been the absolute most proficient guitarist, in the sense of playing extremely fast and complex stuff, ever to play rock. But no one has ever been more expressive. And no one been more influential. More than forty years after his death, he's still revered by guitarists, and even with today's electronics nobody, as far as I know, has ever managed to sound exactly like him.

Some of the stuff on the Experience albums strikes me as weak, apart from the guitar playing--many of the songs just aren't that good, and there's some gimmicky stuff that doesn't hold up well. I've often wished he had recorded other people's material more often. Maybe we would have more killer tracks like "All Along the Watchtower." From this distance in time now it seems to me that his blues playing was some of his best work, though it was not much noticed during his lifetime. There's an album of blues tracks, mostly never intended for release, called simply Blues, (or :Blues?) that might in fact be my overall favorite of his albums. It includes this version of "Red House," one of a number he recorded. I think it's the Experience backing him (Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell).


I didn't hear his music for many years after his heyday in the '60s, but about ten years ago I bought a copy of Blues which renewed my appreciation for him and provoked this blog post

Evangelii Gaudium, One More Time

(This post has been sitting around almost finished for a week or two; time to go ahead and get it out of the way.)

It's unfortunate that the political aspects of Evangelii Gaudium have so overshadowed its focus on evangelization. But since they have, I find myself wanting to respond further to it and to note some other commentary that I thought worthwhile.

Something in this response by a Catholic investment banker really caught my eye. Don't be too put off by the headline; the piece itself is not as negative and combative as it suggests:

My gripe with the pope? By inserting a phrase like “trickle-down economics” in his powerful message, he let us all off the hook too easily. That simplistic caricature absolved us from thinking afresh and allowed everyone to retreat into their Republican or Democratic ideological foxholes, parrot empty catchphrases about the economy, indulge the same polarized debates that that have divided Catholics (and the rest of us) for decades, and then call it day without ever confronting the real lives of the real subjects of the pope’s comments.

This is very much like a part of my own reaction. It's not that I think Francis spoke too harshly of “capitalism”--a word which does not appear in the document and always means different things to different people, so that one can never discuss it without tedious debate over what exactly it means—or whatever you want to call the economic system. It's that I think he spoke too vaguely, too imprecisely, and in a way that doesn't challenge the individual conscience. If “the system” is the problem, no one in particular is really at fault and no one in particular is obliged to do anything in particular about it, except perhaps to add a bit more noise to the political din. 

This passage in particular bothered me:

As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.

Any problems? At all? What is one supposed to do in response to this? All right, I reject the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation. Now, what precisely shall I attack? Shall I write an indignant blog post? Run for president? “Speak out for justice,” a phrase rendered tiresome by its employment in hundreds of meretricious causes? Will any of those things help anyone, or change the situation?

By approaching the problem at the level of economic theory, but in an imprecise and fragmentary way, the pope opened the way for it to remain in the realm of debate, as has in fact happened. The exhortation is rendered ineffectual, or anyway of less effect, because it has no particular application to anyone in particular.

To be fair, the pope does say this:

Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.

And it's not the pope's fault that it hasn't gotten the attention that some of the condemnations of the system have. Still, what the investment banker describes is what seems, for the most part, to have happened. Catholics on the political left feel entitled to pummel those on the right somewhat harder, and those on the right feel defensive, but that debate has not changed significantly. Instead of a call to repentance and conversion, we heard a call to argument and finger-pointing.

Pro-market Catholics can say, with justification, that the ideas the pope condemns are not the ideas they hold. We Americans tend to assume he's talking about our situation. But the pope's description of a pure libertarian capitalism is not a view which is held by many American Catholic thinkers. The debate among Catholics in this country is not between proponents of total state control of the economy and proponents of a system entirely off-limits to state control, between Marx and Rand. It's a debate about the appropriate amount of state control over an economy which is fundamentally market-based. (Not that there aren't pure Marxists and pure Randians, but they aren't the pope's audience.)

I would like to see the pope address these questions in a way that leaves no room for debate on certain core questions. I wouldn't mind seeing a few anathemas. Like this, maybe:

If anyone should say that the goods of this world are not meant for the maintenance of all, and that those who have a greater share of these goods, even if obtained by their own industry, do not sin when they refuse to share their wealth with those who have little or nothing, let him be anathema.

Or, to borrow a phrase from EG itself:

If anyone should “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control” (EG 56) of the economy, let him be anathema.

I could go on with a number of these. I would like to see the Magisterium state these things in no uncertain terms, for our time, setting clear boundaries for the ideas and principles involved. Then let the rest of us, agreed on the destination, argue about how to get there, and give our own views a searching look in light of these principles.

And the pope, or perhaps more fittingly the bishops, individually or together, could bring the admonitions home by naming specific situations. No Catholic businessman, for instance, should feel at ease in his conscience if he makes enough money in a single year to support a family in comfort for twenty years while failing to pay his employees enough to live on.

Nor should any of us feel exempted. Ultimately the reason so many American jobs have gone abroad or to illegal immigrants at home is that the people at large did not want to pay the higher prices that would be required if these jobs were done by Americans for an American living wage. All of us can consider such things in our daily life.

I know such examples barely touch on the complexity of the problems. And I'm talking only about the American situation. Both liberals and conservatives here have reacted as if Francis were talking mainly to them, but that is surely not the case. The diversity and complexity of the problems across the world make sweeping attacks on “the system” even more vague, diffuse, and difficult to apply. Social justice is only the sum of millions of personal acts. “Structures of sin” (not a phrase used by Francis) do exist, but they are not sinners; they were created by sinners and can only be changed by sinners mending their ways. Grand schemes for universal reform may or may not be worth pursuing, but that pursuit can never take the place of doing the good available to us right here and right now. There is not a single one of us who does not have some opportunity to ease the suffering of someone—some one single person or family—who is struggling. The response to Evangelii Gaudium has been more ideological than practical. Maybe that's more the fault of the political atmosphere than of the document itself, but it does seem to me that the document leaves itself open to it.

Another Voice

A basic point of contention between those who emphasize the free market and those who emphasize the role of the state is the connection between economics and ethics. Many of the former insist on economic laws which are to some degree independent of ethics; many of the latter act as if ethical directives need take little or no account of economic realities. Bringing the kind of clarity to the abstractions that is missing from Evangelii Gaudium is this concise appraisal of the connection:

A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.

Guess who: Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1985. The quote is from several passages gathered at Ethika Politika, and I commend to you the whole article. It will renew your appreciation for the remarkable sharpness and clarity of Benedict/Ratzinger's thinking.

A Conservative Response

In one of the better commentaries from a conservative, Ross Douthat urges the right to worry less about defending its views in the abstract and more about judging those views in light of the unquestionable rightness of Francis's focus on the situation of those left behind by prosperity. As I understand it, “trickle-down” is a pejorative not accepted by economists on the right as an accurate description of their views. A better image might be “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But just as it is beyond question that commerce and industrialism have made much of the world better off materially than was dreamt of 300 years ago, it is beyond question that there were always boats that were not lifted, and even overturned and sunk by bigger ones. And there seem to be more, not fewer, of them now than there were 30 years ago. Defenders of markets etc. should give up trying to ignore this or explain it away, accept that it's a real problem, and think about how to ameliorate it. Douthat closes:

Now the challenge for conservative Catholics spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration—meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.

Read the whole column.


A Hand in the Dark

...desire truth and goodness, for desire fits one to receive what one desires...

There is God, the Supreme Spirit. We can know almost nothing about Him; we can know that He exists by reason; so far as He can be revealed to our finite minds at all, He is revealed by Christ. We can't receive much--picture a child of four asking how to drive a car; you wouldn't attempt to explain the works of it, you'd show him "You press this, you turn that," and so on. What you tell him is true, but it is by no means the truth as you know it. So it is with God and us; we can't all arrive at the same conclusion about God by ourselves, because any, or almost any, ideas we can conceive with finite minds about Infinity must be wrong, or at least very far short of Truth--but since Truth, God, is not something composed by us, made up of our ideas, but is absolute and real, we can all agree about Him if we accept His Revelation of Himself. But if not, then we cannot; not only nations cannot, but two in one family cannot. But you don't say "believe in God in the same way," but "apprehend Him"; well, that we all do differently, for apprehending is an inner knowledge; it is intimate and personal; it is like putting out your hand in the dark and finding someone else's hand stretched out to you, and somehow knowing that this is the hand of one you love.

--from a letter of Caryll Houselander


It's even cold here--I mean, not what natives consider cold, but something that people who live in actual cold places might admit is somewhat chilly, if they were out in the wind and not wearing heavy parkas and such.

But don't you love that phrase "polar vortex"?

The Mind Is Not A Computer

In Commentary, David Gelernter has a sharp critique of philosophical materialism as applied to the human mind that's very much worth reading. Materialism for many scientists has become a sort of religion, a dogma setting the bounds of permissible thinking. You can't really call yourself a Christian if you don't believe in God, and scientist-materialists would have it that you can't call yourself a scientist if you aren't a materialist--not, at least, if you allow non-materialist thinking to enter into your view of what constitutes objective reality. It's a frustrating position to argue against, because those who hold it believe that any fundamental disagreement is intrinsically irrational.

Yet it is hardly rational to attempt to account for reality while ignoring or explaining away the actual experience of being human, of being a being that wants, indeed desperately needs, to account for reality. It is an extremely mysterious experience, and people have been trying to figure it out for as long as there have been people. Our materialists are certainly not the first to deny that the experience has any meaning, but surely they are among the first to deny systematically that it even exists in any real sense. 

Gelernter, who is not some vague-minded humanities type but a professor of computer science at Yale,  focuses on the school of thought which takes the computer as an analog to the human being: hardware = body, software = mind. The actual experience of being that sort of being--i.e., human consciousness--is reduced to a more or less illusory epiphenomenon of the operation of the machine. 

Gelernter's critique is extensive and deep (barring a passing not-all-that-well-informed reference to the Catholic Church and heretics), and you should read the whole thing. Here's an important passage:

In her book Absence of Mind, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes that the basic assumption in every variant of “modern thought” is that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration.” She tells an anecdote about an anecdote. Several neurobiologists have written about an American railway worker named Phineas Gage. In 1848, when he was 25, an explosion drove an iron rod right through his brain and out the other side. His jaw was shattered and he lost an eye; but he recovered and returned to work, behaving just as he always had—except that now he had occasional rude outbursts of swearing and blaspheming, which (evidently) he had never had before.

Neurobiologists want to show that particular personality traits (such as good manners) emerge from particular regions of the brain. If a region is destroyed, the corresponding piece of personality is destroyed. Your mind is thus the mere product of your genes and your brain. You have nothing to do with it, because there is no subjective, individualyou. “You” are what you say and do. Your inner mental world either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. In fact you might be a zombie; that wouldn’t matter either.

Robinson asks: But what about the actual man Gage? The neurobiologists say nothing about the fact that “Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered prolonged infections of the brain,” that his most serious injuries were permanent. He was 25 years old and had no hope of recovery. Isn’t it possible, she asks, that his outbursts of angry swearing meant just what they usually mean—that the man was enraged and suffering? When the brain scientists tell this story, writes Robinson, “there is no sense at all that [Gage] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.”

Man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.

That last line recalls an exchange I had years ago: I was complaining about the artificial intelligence researchers who assume, with no actual evidence, that computers can ever think in the way that people do, and the person I was talking to replied: "You can only assume computers are people if you think people are computers." 

That assumption is one thing that Gelernter doesn't dwell upon, and it needs to be stressed. It needs to be insisted upon. In science and philosophy of all things no one should be allowed to get away with basing a sweeping claim about reality on an unacknowledged and unsupported assumption, and the materialist view of mind as a sort of secretion of the brain is exactly that. This needs to be said again and again: it is an assumption made in keeping with its proponents' philosophical views, and there is no evidence to support it. Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind.

As part of his critique, Gelernter has some rough words for the arguably insane ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who has a lot of followers among technologists. I had a few harsh things of my own to say about Kurzweil a few years ago, in a piece which, if I may say so, also seems worth reading. It contains a more detailed explanation of the fundamental flaw in the assertion that computers do or can "think" in the sense that we do.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

It's a three-year-old piece called "Singularly Mistaken."

52 Guitars: Week 1

I've been doing a regular weekend music post for several years now, and the choices have generally been pretty random, reflecting whatever I happened to be listening to. But for the next year, just for fun, and just because I love the guitar in all its forms, I'm going to focus on that instrument, and present a different guitarist every week. I don't think I'll have too much trouble coming up with 52 of them. Most will be rock/blues, but I'll do classical,  jazz and folk, too. It'll be a lot of fun for me and I hope for you as well.

To get things started on a classy (heh) note, here is a piece from the first classical guitar album I ever bought, back in 1966 or '67: Julian Bream's Baroque Guitar. It was a lucky choice, I guess, because I probably had very little idea of what I was buying, but it's still one of my favorite classical guitar albums. This fugue is from one of Bach's violin sonatas.


For that matter, I think Bream is my favorite classical guitarist.  Not that I am a serious connoisseur of classical guitar; the guitar is actually not that high on my list of favorite classical instruments, below the bowed strings anyway. But I do like a lot of it. There's something very pure and strong about Bream's playing.

What Will You Love Them With? (Reading Dostoevsky on New Year's Eve)

Being the dull introvert that I am, I've never done a lot of celebrating on New Year's Eve, though I usually am awake at midnight, and usually having a drink of something suitable for raising a toast to the passing of the old and the arrival of the new. Last night I didn't intend to do even that much. Two of our grandchildren, ages three-and-a-half and almost two, were spending the night with us, and since I expected them to wake us pretty early the next morning, I didn't plan to stay up late. 

But I ended up awake at midnight after all. I've been re-reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time since my mostly-forgotten reading of it in my twenties, and I happened to be at the Grand Inquisitor section, and wanted to read through till the end. As you probably know, it is a parable composed by the cynical Ivan Karamazov, a disturbing look at the fundamental questions of faith, happiness, and freedom--not political but spiritual, existential freedom. I won't attempt a summary--I don't think I'm capable of a summary--but one of the questions it raises implicitly is whether there is any sense for the great mass of human beings in pursuing anything but material security. The Inquisitor is committed to the brutal suppression of the freedom of this great mass, for their own happiness.

Ivan delivers this parable to his brother, the monk (or would-be monk) Alyosha. This exchange takes place just afterwards;  Alyosha accuses Ivan of wanting to join the forces of lies and repression; Ivan speaks first here, then Alyosha:

"Good lord, what do I care? As I told you: I just want to drag on until I'm thirty, and then--smash the cup on the floor!"

"And the sticky little leaves, and the precious graves, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, what will you love them with?.... Is it possible, with such hell in your heart and in your head?

Alyosha is referring to some remarks made earlier by Ivan:

"I want to go to Europe, Alyosha, I'll go straight from here. Of course I know that I will only be going to a graveyard, that's the thing! The precious dead lie there, each stone over them speaks of such ardent past life, of such passionate faith in their deeds, their truth, their struggle, and their science, that I--this I know beforehand--will fall to the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them--being wholeheartedly convinced, at the same time, that it has all long been a graveyard and nothing more. And I will not weep from despair, but simply because I will be happy in my shed tears. I will be drunk with my own tenderness. Sticky spring leaves, the blue sky--I love them, that's all! Such things you love not with your mind, not with logic, but with your insides, your guts, you love your first young strength... Do you understand any of this blather, Alyosha, or not?" Ivan suddenly laughed.

"I understand it all too well, Ivan: to want to love with your insides, your guts--you said it beautifully, and I'm terribly glad that you want so much to love," Alyosha exclaimed. "I think that everyone should love life before everything else in the world."

"Love life more than its meaning?"

"Certainly, love it before logic, as you say, certainly before logic, and only then will I also understand its meaning. That is how I've long imagined it. Half your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you need only apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved."

There is a page or two more of denouement, and the Grand Inquisitor chapter ends. Just as I was finishing it, I heard the noise of fireworks announcing that the new year had arrived. What will I love them with?, I wondered. It isn't clear, even if one believes with Alyosha rather than Ivan: does one have even the equipment, so to speak, for love? I ponder it as another year opens.

"Sticky little leaves" is a reference to this poem by Pushkin. It's a reference to the bright new leaves of the birch trees which abound in the north. I'm reading, by the way, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and liking it. For what it's worth, I find it more convincing than the Constance Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment which I read a few years ago.