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May 2014

Reparations for Slavery and Segregation?

This lengthy piece in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," is getting a good bit of attention, and deservedly so. Coates (I wonder how his first name is pronounced) is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I think he makes a pretty strong moral case for reparations from the U.S. government to the descendants of slaves. Moreover, he writes very well. It's a powerful statement, and you really should read it before drawing a conclusion on the question.

Any decent person will be appalled and angered by the oppression Coates details. And it is not just a rehearsal of stories about slavery, with which we are all familiar, but of things that have taken place much more recently, and not just in the South but in, for instance, Chicago--tactics deliberately undertaken to keep blacks in segregated neighborhoods and, much worse, to cheat them of what little wealth they managed to get hold of. The case for some sort of attempt to make restitution is, as I say, strong.

But in the end I remain unconvinced that the proposal is a good idea, or even workable. Or rather I should say I don't think it's a good idea because I don't think it's workable, and would probably do a good deal of harm. 

I'm speaking there of the idea of material reparations. But that's not what Coates wants, really. Early in the piece he dismisses the practical concerns in favor of making the moral case. Later on he seems to see the material reparations as principally a means toward a deeper end, or perhaps even only a symbol of it:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

If only. That would be a price worth paying if it could actually purchase the healing he describes. But I don't think spiritual renewal can be obtained by any means other than spiritual renewal. 

And is a persuasive case. And unlike most white Americans I know that some of my ancestors were slave owners, and so I have a sense of real personal involvement in the history. I'll be thinking about this for a while. I could change my mind if I heard a really plausible and effective plan for implementing the idea. 

(N.B., he might have left out the Confederate flag dig, which as a matter of rhetoric is not well-chosen.  There's plenty of justification for it, but there are also plenty of people for whom the flag is a cultural symbol displayed without any particular racist intent, and reconciliation would require leaving them alone. I don't think the flag should fly from public buildings, but let's not try to stamp it out.)

Fr. Matt's Heart Attack Journal

A few weeks ago I asked for prayers for Fr. Matt Venuti, who had suffered a massive heart attack. Well, he's recovering pretty well now, and has posted an account of the attack and its aftermath on his blog, in four parts (so far):

Heart Attack

Heart Attadck: The Days After (The painkillers and the ordeal in general were apparently affecting his typing skills.)

The First Week Home

The Second Week

Continued prayers are requested and appreciated.

52 Guitars: Week 21

Eric Johnson

As a perenially failing guitarist, I have occasionally over the years read Guitar Player magazine. I even subscribed to it for a few years in the mid-1990s or so, though I was always a little uneasy in doing so, as if one day I might get a letter saying "Inasmuch as our magazine is called Guitar PLAYER, we are obliged to discontinue your subscription...." 

There was a period--in the '80s, I suppose--long before the Web and electronic distribution of music, and when it was still reasonable to assume that anyone interested in music owned a record player, when the magazine had an insert that was a piece of flexible black plastic which could be played on a record player. That was how they distributed samples of the music of some of the artists they wrote about. One of these was an instrumental by Eric Johnson, of whom I'd never heard, called "Cliffs of Dover." It's possible that it was this performance, (possibly an edited version, as I don't recall the intro being quite this long).


I thought it was fantastic, and managed to make a cassette copy of it. I kept an eye out for an official recording of it, but when I finally heard it, I was disappointed. It was a studio version that somehow lacked the excitement of the live performance. And that pattern has more or less continued in my acquaintance with his music. I like the live album Live from Austin, TX, which is an Austin City Limits performance, better than the two or three studio albums I've heard. The studio work is more polished--too polished, many would say--and the playing is superb, but something's missing.

Here's another live track, "S.R.V.", which I assume stands for Stevie Ray Vaughan.


Like a lot of virtuoso instrumentalists, Johnson wants to do it all, including singing, but unfortunately neither his compositions, for the most part, nor his vocals really appeal very much to me ("Cliffs of Dover" a striking but sadly rare exception). I can't help wishing he had found a place in a band with a singer and writer(s) as good in their specialties as he is. But I do love his playing. Obviously he's influenced by Hendrix (who isn't?), which he acknowledges in interviews, and he covers Hendrix tunes, but much of this performance seems so Hendrix-like as to be a homage.


Here's a link to the studio version; see if you agree that the live one is stronger.

Thank God for EWTN

And Catholic Answers, and other Catholic initiatives in the media world. During this past Lent, abstaining from listening to music in the car on my way to and from work, I listened to a certain amount of Catholic radio (we have a local station, Archangel Radio). Some of it was from EWTN, some from Catholic Answers, some of it locally produced. And the world is a better place because of what these people do.

Yes, I could find a lot to criticize in these efforts. I could watch EWTN anytime I want to, but I rarely do, because most of their programming doesn't appeal much to me. (I do watch The Journey Home sometimes, because the stories of converts are always interesting to  me.) But these are relatively small reservations, and I want to put them aside at the moment. EWTN has brought people to the faith, or brought people back, and if it has driven anyone away, I'd think he or she has deeper spiritual problems than EWTN can be held responsible for.

What struck me most was the Catholic Answers talk show that was generally in progress during my drive home. Over and over again I listened to knowledgeable, articulate, courteous hosts field a wide range of questions from a wide range of people, from committed Catholics wanting clarification of some point of doctrine or morals to atheists wanting to argue. I never heard them at a loss for a response, and I never heard them sound irritated or bully a caller. The most uncomfortable things ever got was when a caller rambled and the hosts couldn't bring him round to a specific question, but it's the nature of radio that you can only allow that to go on for so long before you have to stop it for the sake of your listeners. I was especially impressed by the way they dealt with a young man having serious personal problems, making an effort to get him in touch with counselors who could help him face to face. And with the recurring program where they invite atheists and agnostics to call in and discuss the existence of God or anything else relating to religion; they were unfailingly capable, patient, and good-humored. 

They're performing a great service to the Church and to the world, and, again, I thank God for them. 

To Architect Or Not To Architect

In the comments a few days ago discussing "graduated college" vs. "graduated from college," there were mentions of several current verbal tics that get on people's nerves. Rob G mentioned that he'd heard one that came from IT (information technology) that really bugs him, but couldn't remember what it was.

I wonder if it was the use of "architect" as a verb. Not only a verb, but one commonly found in the past tense, as "architected." As in "We architected this system to be very responsive." There are multiple annoying usages that come from the IT world, but this one makes me snarl.

It means, as you can gather, nothing more or less than "designed." There is a reason for its existence, and the reason reveals a lot about the linguistic knowledge and sensitivities of technologists. Going back forty years and more, there has existed a sub-category of computer engineering called computer architecture, or sometimes system architecture. It refers to the structure of a system, or some major feature of it, considered as a whole, comparable to the ordinary use of the word "architecture" in relation to building.

Some person with absolutely no feel for language apparently decided that architecture is the result of the activity of architecting, and began to speak in ugly sentences like the one above. It's caught on to some degree, though I hope it's so clumsy that few outside the technical world will adopt it. 


Typepad Problems Again

The blog has been unavailable for most of the day today. Typepad reports that they've again suffered a major denial-of-service attack. Last time it took three or four days before things were really stable. So if the blog disappears again in the next day or two, that's probably why. 

Burrell On Hart On God

Craig Burrell has written such an insightful and extensive review of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God that I'm half-tempted to write a review of the review. But instead I'll just provide you with the link and recommend strongly that you read it for yourself. 

I bought the book a couple of months ago, in a spell of eyes-bigger-than-stomach book-buying, but I'm not sure when I'm going to get to it. The review makes me want to move it up higher on my list.


And by the way: I have been wrestling with how to review a book of the same genus, if not species, as Hart's: Stratford Caldecott's The Radiance of Being. The struggle comes, as it has done in similar cases, because I feel rather out of my intellectual depth in much of the book. In the midst of this I learned a few days ago that Mr. Caldecott is suffering from prostate cancer and is not expected to live a great deal longer. And a rather touching thing has happened: he is apparently a big fan of superhero comics and movies, and somehow his family has managed to contact various people involved in those productions, and they've responded in very kind ways. I trust we will all pray for him and his family. 




52 Guitars: Week 20

Davy Graham

You knew he would be next, didn't you? Well, no, I guess you didn't, but if you're familiar with British folky guitar players, you've probably heard of him. He's not that well known outside of that world, but he's very highly regarded within it, and is said to have been a big influence on Jansch, Renbourn, and others. Here's his signature tune, "Anji", which has been recorded by a number of other people as "Angie." You may be familiar with it from Paul Simon's version on the Sounds of Silence album.


I confess that I haven't sought out his music, because he sings on much of it, and he has a very uninteresting voice. (To be honest, I think his blues vocals are worse than that--they're among the most unconvincing I've ever heard.) But in looking for samples of his work on YouTube, I'm discovering that there is quite a lot that is purely instrumental. Here is a fascinating take on the classic short story of uncanny love, "She Moves Through the Fair." (If you don't know it, you might want to listen to this performance by Anne Briggs so you know the tune.) The sound is not especially good, and I don't see any indication of what the TV show is. From the '60s, I guess.


As that clip shows, he shouldn't really be classified as a folk guitarist, because he ventured far afield into jazz and what's now called "world music" ("foreign" began to sound bad at some point). In fact his first album was mostly jazz. Here's another example. You can say it was trendy for its time, 1968, but I don't think I've ever heard as convincing an effort at a raga-style instrumental from any other guitarist.


His Wikipedia entry indicates that there is some inconsistency in whether his name should be "Davy" or "Davey."

"When I graduated..."

Which is correct?

"When I graduated from high school..."


"When I graduated high school..."

The second seems obviously wrong to me, both logically and in terms of what just sounds right or wrong, which is mostly the way I do grammar. But I see it constantly these days, and am wondering if I missed an update to the rules at some point. I don't remember seeing it before the past fifteen years or so. Is it just an idiom, sanctioned by tradition in spite of its not making sense, or another indicator of cultural decline?

It especially bothers me when it's "When I graduated college..."

Men, Women, and Early Memories

Neo-neocon had a Mother's Day post which led to her pointing out this older post about first memories. Hers is quite early, as are those of some of those described in the comments, which are worth reading (see in particular the one from "Karyn"). This reminded me of something I've noticed over the years: it seems to me that women in general have earlier, more numerous, and more vivid memories of childhood than men in general. I'm not ready to say that I consider this established, but it has seemed to be the tendency among the people I've known. Just a tendency, not a definite either-or--but it seems to be present in the comments on that post.

One of the more notable instances is the difference between me and my wife. I have very few definite memories before the age of five or so. In fact I'm not certain that I have any; there are a few images but they're vague, and I can't pin them down in time. Some clear ones could be as early as four, but no earlier, as I can place them between things that I know happened when I was three and when I was six. 

My wife, on the other hand, remembers the night the older of her two brothers was born. She would have been just over two, about 26 months. She was at her grandmother's house, and her mother was not. She remembers her grandmother telling her that her mother would not be home that night because she was at the hospital having a baby. And having received this news in the kitchen, she remembers walking through a door into the living room, and feeling very sad about her mother's absence, which may have been the first time they had been apart overnight. 

Telling this story as an adult, my wife encountered some skepticism from her mother and grandmother as to whether she could really remember anything from so early an age. But she convinced them it was a genuine memory by describing the kitchen and the doorway and the furniture in the living room as they had been at that time very accurately, and the doorway had been walled in sometime when she was still quite young. 

So, I'm curious: does anyone else have a view on this? Perhaps it's only that women think about their childhoods more?--because as I sat here writing this I began to realize that I have more of those between-three-and-six memories than I would have said at first.

52 Guitars: Week 19

John Renbourn

Renbourn's name is associated with Bert Jansch's, not only because they worked together in Pentangle but because they were basically doing very similar things. Their voices even sound somewhat similar. Also, as with Jansch, I had a little trouble finding YouTube videos that emphasized his guitar work. This is in part because he seems to have made a lot of music under his own name which emphasised strings or keyboards as the main voices. Or at least I seem to have come across a lot of it. But here's a solo (plus tabla) piece, from 1968, which sort of explains the tabla (Indian drums, often heard with sitar).


And here's a maybe better one, although it's not solo--an electric guitar comes in part way through, which according to AllMusic is Renbourn overdubbed.


I always wanted to like Pentangle more than I did. They were great musicians, and I did like them, but their singer, Jacqui McShee, through no fault of her own just didn't appeal very much to me. So one of my very favorite Pentangle tracks was one on which she only sang a bit of background, with Renbourn taking the lead: "Lord Franklin," a ballad about a lost Arctic expedition. I had always thought Jansch was the singer, and only in recent years learned otherwise. Here is a video which not only contains a great performance of the song, but also tells you how to play it. (I'm very excited about that because it turns out not to be as difficult as I thought, and I might even be able to play it. It's even in standard tuning, which I thought surely it was not.)


I learned from this performance that for lo these many years I've had part of the words wrong. I thought it was "Through cruel hardship they made a stroke / Their ship on mountains of ice was broke." But it's "Through cruel hardship they vainly strove / Their ships on mountains of ice was drove."

Here's Pentangle's version. It's really quite lovely, with the accordion or concertina or whatever that is, and the bit of electric guitar. I've always loved that combination of distorted/compressed electric single-note lead over an acoustic background.


You can read the sad story of the Franklin expedition here.

Fascism and Communism, Again

Leafing through a year-old issue of The New Criterion the other day, I came across a book review I'd forgotten. It's very relevant to something I wrote here back in March, "Socialism, National and International", in which I talked about the socialist element of Nazism. (I can never decide whether to say "Nazism" (or nazism) or "fascism" in this context, but one naturally tends to focus on German fascism because its monstrousness was so extreme compared to others.) The book is The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, and the author is Vladimir Tismaneanu. The reviewer, Paul Hollander says this:

It takes determination and formidable erudition to wade into the controversies which for several decades have enveloped and often obscured the concept of totalitarianism....

Tismaneanu has undertaken to demonstrate that the concept is meaningful and to elucidate the significant similarities (without ignoring the differences) between Nazism and Soviet communism—similarities which are at the heart of the idea of totalitarianism as well as its most contentious attribute.

And I discover the following quotation from Tismaneanu in his Wikipedia entry:

I was also discovering a theme which was to puzzle me throughout my professional career: the relation between communism, fascism, anti-communism and anti-fascism; in short, I was growing aware that, as has been demonstrated by François Furet, the relationship between the two totalitarian movements, viscerally hostile to the values and institutions of liberal democracy, was the fundamental historical issue of the 20th century.

I'm inclined to agree with that "fundamental historical issue" assessment, at least if you confine history to politics and external events rather than ideas. It's a question that has occupied me a good deal since I shed my youthful leftism,  in particular the question of why Western liberals have remained so indulgent of communism. And it does seem true that the totalitarian mentality, rather than any economic program, that constitutes the most fundamental common element between the two systems.  I don't read many books on politics, but I may read this one. The entire review is online here.


I Simply Do Not Believe This

Climate change is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy, sneezy, costly and dangerous, according to a comprehensive federal scientific report released Tuesday.

So says the San Jose Mercury-News apropos a new National Climate Assessment report. Perhaps the actual report is not as excited as the journalism, but from what I've seen of headlines today this piece is fairly typical.

I am quite willing to believe that the overall average temperature of the earth has gone up slightly in the past 100 years or so. I'm willing to believe that human activity is at least part of the reason. But it is abundantly clear that political and quasi-religious convictions are very influential on the climate-change activism side, and if I remain skeptical that the phenomenon is really so terribly serious and dangerous, that's part of the reason. I am not equipped to judge "the science" (when did that annoying term replace "the research"?), but anyone can see that there's a whole lot of emotionalism wrapped up with it, and that makes me skeptical.

"The science" may indeed show warming. But the specific evidence cited for warming's ill effects appears to be selected to fit the prediction. When we have an exceptionally cold winter, we're told that "weather is not climate," which is true. But when there is a drought in California, it seems that weather is climate after all. And you simply aren't going to persuade me that there has been a dramatic change in my local climate, because I have lived in it for some decades now, and there hasn't. Of course that says little about the global picture, but it illustrates the problem with the strategy of anecdotal alarmism. Around ten years ago we on the Gulf Coast had a spate of severe hurricanes, Katrina being the worst. We were assured that climate change was the cause, and that the storms would continue to grow worse and more frequent. Now we've had nine years of very much milder and fewer ones. That certainly doesn't disprove the warming argument, but it just as certainly doesn't support it.

Exaggeration and emotionalism do not belong in science, and they're counter-productive as a strategy when they produce dire predictions that aren't fulfilled. This article is not even a prediction, it's an attempt to paint the situation as verging on disaster now, when it plainly is not. Maybe the activists think apocalyptic talk is the only way to mobilize people. And maybe it works on some. But it isn't working on me. It only makes me skeptical--especially when the claims have become so broad that any severe weather at all, even a blizzard, is claimed as evidence for the theory.

Prayer Request

My priest and friend, Fr. Matthew Venuti, suffered a massive heart attack yesterday. He's only thirty-three years old, and has a wife and two young children. I think his prognosis is pretty good, but it's bound to be a difficult time. Please pray for his full recovery. My wife and I--especially my wife, of course--have been helping out as much as we can. Between that and various other things going on, I haven't had time to do any writing this weekend, and probably won't for the next couple of days. There are several books I've been wanting to discuss. Maybe next weekend.

52 Guitars: Week 18

Bert Jansch

It hasn't been very long (by my standard) since I wrote about Bert Jansch on the occasion of his death. That was less than three years ago, and I don't have a lot to add to it in the way of commentary, so please read it if you're interested. There are also a couple of music clips there. And here are a couple more. I wasn't able to find many videos on YouTube that showcased his guitar but didn't include other players, most notably John Renbourne, who was the other guitarist in the acoustic folk-rock-jazz group Pentangle. But these two versions of Reynardine, recorded almost thirty years apart, certainly leave no doubt as to his ability. I'm not sure which I prefer.

"Reynardine," a studio performance from 1971:


And a live performance from a 2000 documentary, which I really want to see; I assume this was recorded not too long before the release date.


Here is a good bit of interesting lore about the song. I can't quite make out all the words that Jansch sings, but as far as I can tell they are very close to the variant attributed to Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention (on Fairport's masterpiece, Liege and Leaf, released in 1969). Even when you get all the words, it isn't entirely clear just what has happened.

It can't be said that Jansch has a good voice, but I like it a great deal. I haven't really heard that much of his solo recorded work, but these really make me want to explore it further.

In case you didn't read the older post--an obituary, really--that I linked to above, one thing that really must be mentioned about Jansch is the extent of his influence. He was a bit of a legend for a while in the mid-'60s--people heard of him, but not him. Many of us first heard his name in the title of a Donovan song. It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that every serious player of folk or folk-based guitar who came after has listened to him and learned from him. 

Definite Article, The; Usage of

I grew up not far from a rather large river, the Tennessee. I didn't realize for a long time that it was as large as it is in relation to other rivers, but it is. I didn't understand this until I went to Colorado, and there encountered something that was called a river, but was so small that you could probably spit across it if you had the wind at your back. I think I actually laughed out loud; it was much smaller than what we called a creek back home. 

Flowing into the Tennessee some thirty miles or so away from my home was a tributary which everyone called Elk River. Not "the Elk River," just "Elk River." As in "they have a place up on Elk River." The Tennessee was so dominant that it was more often referred to simply as "the river," but if we did name it, it was "the Tennessee River," not "Tennessee River." 

Why did we attach "the" to one, and not to the other? No one knew. No one even thought about it, but my father used to like to pose the question, just to discombobulate people, which it always did. It's not as if there were several Tennessee Rivers, so that you needed to distinguish the most prominent as "the Tennessee." 

This is all prompted by a blog post at National Review discussing the significance of saying "Ukraine" vs. "the Ukraine"; apparently each has a political implication, which I didn't know. The post itself, as well as some of the commenters, mention other occasions when the article is used or not used for apparently arbitrary reasons. Some people in California apparently refer to some highways there as, for instance, "the I5," but I have never heard anyone refer to Interstate 10 as "the I10"--it's just "I10". And why are Brits sometimes "in hospital" while Americans are "in the hospital," even if there are multiple hospitals in the locality, any of which might be the one involved?

I expect there are many more examples. I'm glad I didn't have to learn English as a foreign language. I have heard a lot of non-native speakers struggle with articles, definite and indefinite. I recall, for some reason, a Chinese co-worker arriving at a dinner with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and saying he had brought "the wine." Aside from the fact that it wasn't wine, it wasn't the only alcohol, therefore not "the wine," nor would it have been "a wine." However, if he had brought a salad, it would have been "a salad," or perhaps "the salad." Though just "salad" would have been ok, too. Imagine trying to learn all that consciously, especially if your native language had no similar constructs. I don't know any other languages at more than the most rudimentary level, so I don't know if they all have these kinds of irregularities.