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December 2016

52 Albums Claims List

Here it is, Friday, December 30, 2016. Wednesday of next week will be January 4th, and I've been planning to kick off the 52 Albums series then, assuming there is still interest. 

As I discussed in a comment thread a few weeks ago, I want to do this one a bit differently. Rather than having people commit in advance to specific dates, and me maintain a schedule, which quickly falls apart and ceases to be updated, just send me pieces whenever you like. I'll put them in a separate mailbox, so I can see at a glance what's there and what order it was received in, and publish them in that order. If the well is dry, I'll post something. 

I want to keep Wednesday as the standard day for publishing, so sometime Tuesday I'll either grab the next piece from my list or write one myself, and anything received after that will go into the queue. I can't really give you a hard-and-fast time that I'll always adhere to, but in general I won't start preparing the Wednesday entry until Tuesday afternoon or evening.

Formatting etc.: I haven't yet had a problem opening and converting any document anyone has sent me, so I don't think there will be any difficulties there. One thing I've found, though, is that it's easier for me to handle graphics if you just send them to me as separate files, rather than embed them in the documents. I end up having to remove and re-add them anyway. So just send the graphic files as attachments to the email, and put some kind of note in the text telling me what graphic goes where. Something like:

[insert Lennon-McCartney photo here]

Same goes for a video, if you want to include a YouTube version of a song or songs. 

Also, I know one or two people have expressed hesitation about being able to write about music. By no means do you need to have any kind of specialized knowledge about music. Just treat albums as you would a movie or a novel. And it doesn't matter what genre. 

This should be fun. 

Worstalbum89

Sneak preview


52 Movies: Week 52 - About A Boy

No man is an island. – Jon Bon Jovi

This quote is the theme of the movie, discussed in voice-over by the main character at the very beginning, and then again at the very end. Will Freeman considers himself “an island”; completely self-sufficient, and in need of no other islanders to share with him his realm. To be perfectly honest I have never really liked living with other people, so was very much drawn to this movie from the opening scene back in 2002 when I was fourteen years younger. Now, such an island seems a little bleak.

It is always odd revisiting a film after many years have passed. Especially when it is one you felt at the time seemed to speak to you. There is a reason I have never re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that the enjoyment my 13-year-old self had reading it would be much diminished as a wiser adult. But I digress. When I first saw About a Boy I was surprised that:

  • Hugh Grant seemed to be playing a real person, and not the fluttering eye lidded floppy haired fop from so many of his previous films.

  • A “rom com” (romantic comedy) could have a little depth, make me think, appear to exist in a world I might recognize.

I am happy that watching it again so many years later it does still retain much of its inherent charm. I probably do not relate to Will as much as I did back then, but the movie was enjoyable and went by quickly. I kept thinking, “is this really going to make me laugh” and then during one scene I was suddenly laugh/crying and getting the insides of my glasses wet with my tears!

Grant plays Will Freeman, who lives a life that is certainly enviable in many respects: no wife, no kids, no job, money to live comfortably, ability to meet beautiful single women. But I suppose Will finds himself a little lacking in that final category and begins to date divorced single mothers. Then he attends a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) self-help group meeting, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old son named Ned. Through some oddity involving a date with a woman there who knows the mother of our titular “boy” Will eventually befriends the 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, who lately plays Beast in the X-Men films, and used to date Jennifer Lawrence).

I must sheepishly admit that I did like the Hugh Grant persona to some degree in those previous films, especially Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of how annoying his typical character back then was. About a Boy seems to be the point in his career when he either got a better agent, or simply made a conscious decision that he should try to act rather than simply react to the actors around him.

Marcus’s mother (“was clearly insane, and appeared to be wearing a yeti”- Will) Fiona (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian, neo-hippie, and quite depressed. All three of these conditions help to make his school-life more difficult than your average already difficult middle-school experience. His solid brown shoes, sweaters knitted by his mother, and occasional singing of mid-70s lite-rock hits during class without realizing it does not endear him to his fellow students. Marcus provides the viewer with a second occasional voice-over, helping to explain the action.

About a Boy began as a book by Nick Hornby, who is a favorite author of mine. He also wrote High Fidelity which was adapted into a fine movie starring John Cusack. The filmmakers who adapted High Fidelity moved the action from London to Chicago, but this time with About a Boy we stay in the UK. Both have music as a recurring theme, and the soundtrack to About a Boy was written and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, who is some sort of lite-rockish, neo-folk English singer who always wears a knit hat. At the time it came out I found his music endearing, and enjoyed how it strung the movie together. All these years later it reminds me of Jack Johnson, and I was more impressed with the U2 and Roberta Flack songs included. Redo the sound and ditch Badly Drawn Boy! As a matter of fact, both he and Jack Johnson can end their careers and do the world a favor! Uh oh, another digression.

Nick Hornby, if you’ve never read him, is what I would categorize as a very smart contemporary writer. His books are not very long, and they all speak with what I suppose is his voice. They tend to be written in first-person narrative, wherein you easily hear the main character and understand all his (or her) quirks and motivations. Hornby has also gained some success writing screenplays lately. I believe he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Brooklyn (a tremendous movie, and an even better book). With all of that said, Hornby did not write the screenplay for About a Boy.

I am discussing other things besides the movie because I feel I have already given away too much of the plot along with one very funny line. Will and Marcus befriend each other. Will understands what a boy needs more than Fiona does. Through their friendship Will becomes more open to the idea that his island does not have to be a population of simply one. That said, it is not the typical romantic comedy which has Will and Fiona carrying on at the end. It is more about the man and the boy and their friendship. And yes, I do know that John Donne said “no man is an island”, not Jon Bon Jovi.

This is probably the first romantic comedy reviewed in the series. A movie to enjoy that is not in any way cerebral, or taxing. I feel like a commoner introducing silly nonsense to a group of smart people. However, very much recommended, good acting by all parties! In 2018 let’s do “52 Rom Coms”! It made me chuckle out loud just to type that. 

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 —Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.


Have you ever wondered...

...how they ship shipping materials? I was at the local UPS facility a week or two ago when a guy came in pushing a long cart from which he unloaded all the stuff you see in the windows here, and more. I wonder what it costs to ship a bag of plastic peanuts that's a couple of cubic yards in volume but weighs only two or three pounds. 

PackingMaterials


52 Movies: Week 51 - Four Movies: Two Horses, a Queen, and an Artist

This post is made up of four short reviews of movies that are only related in the flow of my own stream of consciousness. I was thinking about the first film one day and one thing led to another, and this was the result.

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I first stumbled on the movie Dark Horse (2016) when I was looking for The Dark Horse. I had seen a trailer for the latter on the DVD of another movie, and it looked like it might be good. The description of Dark Horse looked interesting too, so I put it on my Netflix queue. By the time it arrived, I had it in my mind that it was a movie about an actual event, but in reality, it is a documentary.

Jan Vokes is a barmaid in a small Welsh mining town. Her father bred parakeets, and she followed in his footsteps, breeding other animals among which I think were greyhounds. I wish I could remember exactly, but I don't have easy access to the film now. In any case, she had a background in breeding animals, and when she overheard Howard Davis, a well-to-do patron of the bar, talking about his unprofitable foray into horse racing, she decided to give it try.

When she told her husband, Brian, what she intended to do, he said something to the effect that she was daft, but he also said that when Janet put her mind to something, you could be sure that she would do it. (I had to laugh at that, because I have heard my husband say the exact same thing many times.) Then, despite the fact that Davis had sworn to never get involved with horses again, she convinced him to help, and persuaded 100 locals to join a syndicate in which they would contribute £10 a week toward the expense of breeding and racing a horse.

Despite the fact that they had so few resources and had to go to the bargain end of the stud book to achieve their goals, the syndicate succeeded in breeding a winner. Dream Alliance gained increasing respect from the racing community who originally snubbed the syndicate, and in the end won the Welsh Grand National.

Louise Osmond, the director of the film, did a wonderful job of interviewing the members of the syndicate and telling the story in a delightful way. Godfrey Cheshire at RogertEbert.com described the film as crying out, “to be a Mike Leigh film starring Jim Broadbent and other members of the director's stock company,” and this is as accurate a description of the film as you could find.

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The Dark Horse (2014) begins with a large Maori man wearing a large quilt, wandering through the streets of a New Zealand town muttering to himself. He turns into a second-hand shop, and when he sees a chessboard on the counter, he immediately snaps into a more understandable monologue and begins playing chess. He is still obviously disturbed and the proprietors call the police who take him into custody and back to a facility for the mentally ill.

The Dark Horse is based (to what degree I don't know) on the life of Genesis Potini, a man who had in his youth had a reputation as an up-and-coming chess master. His severe manic-depression, however, put an end to his early promise. The story of the film begins as he is released into the custody of his brother, Akiri, who is the only person willing to have Genesis in his home.

Akiri is not the ideal custodian of a mentally ill person as he is the leader of a gang, the Outcasts, and his home is the place where the gang hangs out. Besides the Outcasts, Gen has to deal with his resentful nephew Manu, who has had to give up his room for his uncle. Manu is, understandably, a troubled young man who is torn by his desire to make his father happy by joining the gang, and his desire for a different kind of life.

Gen, seeing a poster advertising the Eastern Knights, a chess club for underprivileged youth led by an old friend, offers his services as a teacher for the group. The friend isn't at all thrilled with Gen's offer, but is finally convinced to see how things go. Needless to say, it isn't all smooth sailing, but the story of the Eastern Knights, the relationship between Gen and Manu, and Gen's struggle to stay on top of his illness make for a compelling film.

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I also enjoyed the French chess movie, Queen to Play (2011). Sandra Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a woman who cleans rooms in a pastoral hotel in the Corsican countryside. One day a couple tells her to go ahead and clean their room while they are sitting on the balcony playing chess. As she cleans, she watches the beautiful couple—the woman in her slip--on the balcony, intent on their game and one another, and feels a growing hunger. After the couple leaves the hotel, Hélène finds that the woman has left the slip behind in the bed, and she takes it home and begins to wear it, a sort of talisman of the life that she wants to lead.

Hoping to be able to play chess with her husband, Hélène buys him an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he is completely baffled by the gift. He does try to learn, but the complexity of the game is too much for him, so she tries to teach herself to play.

Hélène has another job cleaning the beautiful home of a reclusive and irascible Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). She finds that he owns a chess set, and asks him to play with her. He declines, but she is persistent. She even offers to work for free if he will, and he says they will try once. When he sees how serious she is about the game, and how much it means to her, he agrees to teach her.

The picture at the top of this section comes from a NPR review by Ella Taylor that describes Queen to Play as not-too-terrible, but I think it's a good deal better than that, and that Ms. Taylor has some kind of an ax to grind, particularly with Kevin Kline. I hesitated to link to the site, but I liked the picture.

Roger Ebert, on the other hand, says this about the film:

I wonder if someone who doesn't love chess as much as I do would like “Queen to Play” as much as I did. Such a person could enjoy the transformation of a Corsican maid into strong chess player. They might read it as a story of female empowerment, of a woman asserting herself in her marriage and in her job. That would be fair enough.

But what I enjoyed was the way the film summons up the pure obsessive passion that chess stirs in some people.

I live with a bit of that in my husband, but, since I can't grasp the spatial aspect of the game, I'm not a chess enthusiast myself.

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The last film is about yet another French housekeeper who has a an inner passion, and that passion is for painting. Like The Dark Horse, Séraphine (2009) is a movie about the life of a real person, a person who is also mentally ill. Séraphine Louis (played by Yolande Moreau) was born in Arcy (Oise), France in1864. She was very poor and and seems to have had a rather limited intelligence. She used the money from her work cleaning houses to buy the materials to paint the pictures which she secretly worked on at night.

Séraphine's work was accidentally discovered by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who was a neighbor of one of her employers. He was very impressed by her work, which he exhibited, and her paintings became very popular. Some of them are quite beautiful, but as you can see from the above picture, many of them had a rather disturbing quality, and they came by it honestly. Séraphine was very ill and ended her life in an institution where she was unable to paint.

This is a good movie but it is very sad and very disturbing. I would only cautiously recommend it. In fact, I'm not even sure that I want to include it in this post, except that it ties in so well with what's gone before. And then it shows that even the most unlikely people can have deeply hidden talents. Her works are still exhibited.

As I think about these four movies, I realize that the one thing that they all have in common is this discovery of gifts in unexpected places: the barmaid who breeds a race horse, the manic-depressive who mentors children, the chambermaid who plays tournament chess, and the housemaid who creates masterpieces. It's odd that I never noticed that until now.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


"Somehow the statue escaped"

It has only recently sunk in to me that the destruction of English Catholic churches, monasteries, and works of art in the Protestant revolution under Henry VIII et.al. is pretty comparable to what has recently appalled the civilized world when done by Muslim fanatics to Buddhist and other artifacts in the Middle East. Here's an interesting story in The Guardian about a statue that survived.

VirginAndChildStatue

As a student, reading all that English literature in which ruined abbeys and the like make an appearance, it really didn't occur to me to wonder why they were ruined. It was a great crime. 


When I am emperor...

...anyone who uses the word "era" for a period of less than a century will be fined. Anyone who defines an era by reference to a celebrity will be jailed for 30 days. For I am merciful.


52 Movies: Week 50 - La Sapienza

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I believe that La Sapienza, a 2014 film written and directed by Eugène Green, has not been widely seen. I forget how it came about that I heard of it; probably there was some approving notice in the local press when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. In any case, and box office returns notwithstanding, it is a film very much worth seeing.

We are introduced to a middle-aged couple, Alexandre and Aliénor, he an architect and she a psychoanalyst. They are both professionally successful, but beset by problems: their marriage has grown cold and dry, and he, in particular, has come to regret the path his professional life has followed, for though he has won many accolades he has neglected the guiding ideals that had inspired him to become an architect in the first place. He decides to travel to Italy to rekindle that early love of his subject, and she goes along.

It soon transpires that they cross paths with a young brother and sister, Goffredo and Lavinia. She is ill with a strange malady, and he, it so happens, is about to begin his university studies in architecture. Thus we get a natural shuffling: Aliénor elects to remain with Lavinia as she recovers in order that Goffredo can accompany Alexandre on his architectural tour. From this point, the film jumps back and forth between the two women and the two men, following their developing friendships, and, subterraneously, re-aligning and healing the original relationships.

The architectural tour, devoted especially to the works of Borromini, takes the two men to Turin and then, for the bulk of the film, to Rome. My friends, I know of no film more apt to delight the heart of a lover of the Eternal City! The camera lingers lovingly over details as it gently slides across a facade, or is content to gaze raptly at the intricate symmetries of a church ceiling. Rome, and its many beauties, is no mere setting, but becomes itself a subject of the film. It is truly glorious. Even were there nothing else going on in the film, the devoted attention it lavishes on these architectural gems would be enough to recommend it.

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But there is more going on. As the two women get to know one another, Aliénor explores with Lavinia her hopes for the future and the nature of her illness. Meanwhile the two men, ostensibly the master and the student, through a series of encounters and conversations find their roles gradually reversed, the older learning from the younger how to recover his lost passion for his art. Those, at least, are two of the main arcs of the story, but to leave it there would be to oversimplify.

On the surface La Sapienza is about how the friendships and experiences of the characters change them for the better, for the film believes strongly in truth and beauty as spiritual curatives. But having pondered it at some length (and watched it twice), I believe that one of its leading convictions, sunk into numerous aspects of both story and presentation, is that spiritual realities manifest themselves in physical things, or, put the other way, that tangible things possess an inner reality. This is true of buildings as of bodies. It's a rather Catholic idea, consonant with a sacramental imagination, but the film itself does not stress any particular religious connection. (Indeed, all we know of the religious convictions of the lead characters is that one is a syncretist and another an atheist.) It is nonetheless an amazingly rich theme to explore, and one rarely encountered at the cinema.

At this point I should note the most obvious thing that will strike the average viewer of La Sapienza: it is weird. I choose the word advisedly, intending to catch the resonance with the old sense of 'uncanny', as well as the modern sense of 'unusual'. Green has adopted a daring formal technique: almost always the actors speak directly into the camera, as if addressing the viewer, even when actually addressing one another. The conversations have a studied quality, each line having a little more silence around it than we’re accustomed to. Furthermore the actors often adopt a highly artificial acting style, with stiff movements, vacant facial expressions, flat tone. Even the blocking is deliberate: characters who are unfriendly to one another, for instance, stand angled away from one another, while characters who love one another stand face to face. So strange is the cumulative effect of these unconventional rules that I confess I found the experience of watching it curiously unnerving.

Here is a short excerpt of a conversation between Alexandre and Goffredo, illustrating, in part, what I mean:

 

At first I was puzzled by the purpose of these odd formal strategies, but upon reflection I believe they are related to the idea I discussed above: that inner realities are conveyed by means of external signs. In this film what we see on the characters' faces, and in their postures, and what we hear in their voices, are their souls, without disguise or polite veil. The face looks hard because the heart is hard. The eyes are bright and open because the soul is alive and beautiful. They smile because they feel genuinely happy. They walk stiffly, or easily, because their souls are bound, or free. The drama we see is the interior drama. And this revelation of the inner world by the outer is transposed in the film also to the architectural masterpieces, palaces of space and light, in which we see only the surface but are drawn to the spirit.

I hope, but doubt, that these notes adequately convey what I found so alluring about the film. If I have made it sound dull or didactic, this is just because while writing I've been trying to work out in my own mind what I think it is doing.

All told, I found it to be a fascinating and surprisingly touching film. It is rare to find a movie that has such great confidence in beauty and goodness, and one that is so wholly oriented toward light. It may seem perversely odd at first, on account of its unfamiliar and apparently bizarre conventions, but as it proceeds it slowly excavates an interior space until the viewer, without quite knowing how, finds himself in a realm of mystery.

—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.


Understated But Hilarious

That was how Paul described the BBC series Detectorists, back in June in a comment on a post here about another series, River. Apparently I put it on my Netflix watch list at the time. A few nights ago my wife and I were looking for something less than an hour long to watch, and decided to try it. The episodes are half an hour long, and after one I sort of shrugged and said, "Well, that's not bad." But by the end of the third episode I loved it. 

Paul's description is correct. This is a delightful show. I guess it's basically a situation comedy, but it's certainly superior to most of that genre. The story revolves around two men, Lance and Andy, who in the current cruel American vocabulary would have to be called losers. They're middle-aged, they have dull and low-paying jobs, and they spend their spare time pacing around the countryside with metal detectors ("This is a metal detector. We are metal detectorists."). They hope to find a Saxon hoard but mostly dig up "ring pulls" (pop tops to Americans), lost Matchbox cars, bits of wire, and the like.  Lance pines for his ex-wife, who callously takes advantage of him in various ways. Andy lives with a schoolteacher in one of those aimless "relationships" so typical of modern life.

That doesn't sound like much, and it isn't, but the writer-director, Mackenzie Crook, who also plays Andy, makes a great deal of it. "Understated" is almost an understatement; you almost forget you're watching a comedy, but then suddenly find yourself laughing out loud. I tend not to like contemporary comedy, because so much of it is excessively crude, mean, and in the end for me just not very funny. Detectorists is at the other end of that spectrum. The humor is dry, subtle, and sharp. There's some sexual humor, but it's not the staple. And it's basically warm and generous. It would be easy to portray Lance and Andy, not to mention the other half-dozen or so members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, with cold derision, but instead they're handled in such a way that you have a good deal of affection for them even as you're laughing at them. And it isn't all humor: at bottom they're taken seriously.

Here's the trailer, which gives you a pretty good sense of what the show is like. Andy is the long-haired one.




Trump and Christians

I feel like I ought to preface any remarks about the election with the statement that I did not support Trump, and thought he was entirely unfit for the presidency. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that, but here it is again for anyone who didn't know it.

But I admit that I was a little relieved when he won. It was a "too bad they can't both lose" situation, but I ended up wanting Hillary to lose more than I wanted Trump to lose. If I thought he was unfit, why? Obviously I thought Hillary would be worse, even though she was in a narrow sense more "fit" to be president, in the sense that she has a lot more experience and knowledge applicable to the job. So in what respect was she worse?

Well, I think the Christians who voted against her (whether or not they saw themselves as actively supporting Trump) know the answer to that: the experiences of the past ten or fifteen years have made it clear that Hillary's party (meaning not just the Democrats but most people on the left-liberal side of our political gauge) wishes to see those with conservative social views expelled from polite society and tolerated only to the extent that they refrain from public expression of certain views and abide by laws that force them to act against their consciences. This piece by Megan McArdle, "The Left's Doomed Effort to Coerce the Right" sums up the situation pretty clearly:

I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals who, despite their reservations about the man, ended up voting for Donald Trump because they fear that the left is out to build a world where it will not be possible to hold any prominent job while holding onto their church’s beliefs about sexuality. Discussions I’ve had in recent days with nice, well-meaning progressives suggest that this is not a paranoid fantasy. [my emphasis] An online publisher's witch hunt against two television personalities -- because of the church they attend -- validates the fears of these Christians.

When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of “convert or die,” you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.

Yep. Some Christians are being hysterical about all this and abusing the word "persecution," but that doesn't mean the problem isn't real.

Consider what I look like when viewed in terms of the attributes of greatest interest to the left: White. Male. Heterosexual. Christian. Conservative. And to top it all off, Southern. I might as well change my name to Beelzebub. Or Hitler. The only thing I could possibly to do to dispel the aura of evil produced by those words would be to change my politics, preferably my religion also, and start loudly advocating for leftist causes and denouncing my own cultural background. 

I'm not going to do that, of course. In theory I could be persuaded to embrace leftist politics, but I certainly can't be insulted into it. When I look at the face of the left what my eyes actually show me is not the tolerance, understanding, and openness which they insist I should see, but hate, fear, and the explicit hope that my kind will soon disappear from history.

Why in the world would I vote for that party? Why would I not see almost any opposition as preferable? 

I think the left made a serious miscalculation. The victories of the Obama administration made it over-confident. They thought that all they had to do was get control at the federal level and pass laws, and meaningful opposition would wither away. Well, perhaps that will happen in time, but clearly there was a lot more life left in the beast than they thought. Hillary had the lowest share of the evangelical Christian vote--16%--of the last five presidential elections. I can imagine that continuing to sink until it gets down to the blacks-for-Republicans level. Trump even carried a majority of Catholic votes--52%, 60% for white Catholics. 

It need not have been this way, and need not be this way in the future, though the signs are that it will be. The Obama administration did not have to take the extra steps it did to alarm Christians. It did not have to sue the Little Sisters of the Poor. It did not have to bathe the White House in rainbow lights after the Obergefell decision. It did not have to try to force every school in the country to comply with the latest demands from the sexual revolutionaries in regard to toilets and locker rooms. The state of Oregon did not have to try to destroy a harmless little bakery. Mozilla did not have to force out Brendan Eich. The state of California does not have to try to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. And so on.

The headline of Megan McArdle's column refers to a "doomed" effort at coercion. I don't know whether it's doomed or not in the long run, but I don't see any indication that it's going to stop. That means we are doomed to keep fighting the culture wars, which are at bottom religious wars, until one side completely subjugates the other. The left thought this victory had been achieved under the Obama administration, but the declaration of victory was premature. And war sometimes produces alliances that would not and even should not exist under normal conditions.