For most of my adult life, until I was getting near fifty or so, I spent a lot of time thinking about What Was Wrong with Society and what Society ought to be like. I tended to assume that Society was fundamentally messed up and therefore must be fundamentally changed. When I was twenty this change was supposed to be in the direction of some sort of leftist dream, more or less utopian. When I was forty it was Chestertonian-distributist-agrarian. The magazine Caelum et Terra, in which I was heavily involved in the early-to-mid-1990s, was devoted in large part to that basic idea.
I always felt a little dishonest and hypocritical about that, though, because in my heart I didn't really have a great desire to move to the country, much less to attempt subsistence farming, and I didn't really think it was something that should be expected of most people. I had seen farming up close and didn't fall for the romantic picture held by a lot of Catholic intellectuals. I could have come into my family's medium-sized cattle-and-crops farm if I had wanted to, and sometimes I think I should have, but it would not have been a life that either Chesterton or Belloc would have much admired. An acquaintance who grew up on a family farm, asked why he hadn't stayed there, said "it was too much like work."
I was thinking about that recently when I read an essay by Joseph Epstein, "The Big O: the Reputation of George Orwell." It was published in The New Criterion in 1990, and, as a subscriber, I was made aware of it by an occasional email the magazine sends recommending things from its archives. The essay is excellent, but unfortunately is available only to subscribers. Anyway, this remark of Orwell's really struck me:
“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,” he wrote in his essay “Rudyard Kipling” (1942), “because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”
I'm afraid that is all too shrewdly accurate an assessment not only of left-wingers but of those Catholics who tend to idealize and romanticize Catholic cultures of the past. Let's face it: most of us have fairly easy and well-provisioned lives compared to almost all the people who have ever lived, and as much as we might see and deplore the various ills (spiritual, material, and psychological) that have accompanied it--life never gives us any gain without some countering loss--we don't really want to give up things like central heat and indoor plumbing and underground sewer systems. Not to mention a plentiful and reliable food supply. Not to mention a previously unknown degree of personal freedom. And window screens, something I often think of in this context, since I live in a very hot and buggy place.
By the time I started this blog in 2004 I had pretty much given up thinking about those What's Wrong With Society And How Do We Fix It questions. Yes, things are messed up. Yes, arguably the messed-up-ness stems directly from philosophical wrong turns taken several hundred years ago. And if you want to spend time analyzing that, by all means do so. If you want to spend time thinking about, for instance, how a Christian society ought to handle property ownership, or the question of lending money at interest, by all means do so. But I don't care anymore, not in a personal way, not in any sense that suggests the ills can be done away with and right order established in my lifetime or even my grandchildren's lifetimes. It's academic, in the dismissive sense: a matter of only abstract interest and no immediate import.
You might reply that this was once true of the abstruse philosophical errors that got us where we are, and that in the long run, they had a great deal of practical effect. Yes, that's true, and it's good that intelligent people are working on the problem. But it's like engineers on the Titanic discussing the flaws of its design, and how they might be corrected in future vessels, while the ship is filling with water.
Conservatives are often asked what they want to conserve. I myself, in a Caelum et Terra piece published some twenty-five years ago, wondered at what point a conservative would become so out of step with his society as to be a de facto revolutionary. I thought the time might be coming fairly soon. Well, things have gotten considerably worse, but I find that I have not only not become a revolutionary but am a rather desperate conservative.
What do I want to conserve? In a word, civilization. In a few more words, Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian Civilization. And more specifically, right here and right now, I want to preserve the Anglo-American system of constitutional government, which for a long time has been under suspicion and sometimes attack from the left. Now it's also being endangered--not really deliberately attacked, but threatened by foolish reactions--from the right as well. And the conflict between the two seems to be producing something like a national nervous breakdown.
The "fundamental transformation" promised and pursued by Obama produced a reaction, and put into the White House a man unqualified for and unsuited to the position. Now the reaction to that has some significant portion of the country in a state which can fairly be called hysteria. Fear and hate are at some kind of fever pitch in the opposition to Trump, and as always when that happens principles of abstract law begin to look like intolerable obstacles. A day or two after Trump's executive order on immigration was struck down by a court, in a conversation with a Trump opponent, I was talking about the danger of whipping up fear and hysteria. She replied that the order might not have been overturned if not for "what you refer to as 'whipping up hysteria'".
The implication there, that judges ought to respond to the popular passions of the moment, is shocking. But I'm afraid that a very large number of our citizens (if that word still has meaning) see the whole constitutional system that way. The vague view seems to be something like "The Constitution exists to promote good things. Therefore what is good is constitutional, and what is bad is unconstitutional. And my party decides what is good and bad."
I don't think about building a new society anymore. I only want to prevent the destruction of the foundations of the one we have. Fortunately there is a lot of inertia in the system.
Yeah, I know I need to avoid being hysterical about the hysteria.
Well, I'd like to think about something more pleasant now. Also from The New Criterion, the December '16 issue: Kyle Smith, reviewing a new musical which is a sort of rewrite of Holiday Inn, the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie, writes:
When I say Holiday Inn is a musical feast for the family, I don’t mean bring small children: whether they’d be bored by such all-around excellence I have no idea, but I do know they can be entertained for a lot less than it costs to see a Broadway show. No, I mean bring the parents, even bring the in-laws, bring anyone who is wise enough to appreciate 1940s Hollywood stardust.
I rejoiced at that last bit, because I've come in my latter years to a great appreciation and affection for Hollywood stardust. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for instance. Neo-neocon had a post last week about them, a bit of cheer-up in the midst of the political strife. As she says, they "generated more human happiness than many do-gooders." In case you don't want to click over and read her post--go ahead, it's short, but in case you don't--here's the video she chose to make her point.
I know there's no accounting for tastes and all, but I don't see how that can fail to make you smile.
It's Septuagesima Sunday. Here's Janet Cupo's post from last year on the occasion. I usually don't look forward to Lent. Ok, to be honest I usually have a slight dread of Lent. But this year for some reason I'm looking forward to it. I feel a greater than usual need for some kind of purification. My own sinfulness (actual and potential) is not noticeably greater or less than usual, but it feels like some kind of spiritual corruption in the environment is clinging to me, and I want to wash it off.
He wants you to serve him without joy, without feeling, with repugnance and revulsion of spirit. Such service gives you no satisfaction, but it pleases him; it is not according to your liking, but according to his.
Imagine that you are never going to be delivered of your anguish: what would you do? You would say to God: I am yours; if my miseries are agreeable to you, give me more and let them last longer. I have confidence in our Lord that this is what you would say; then you would stop thinking about the matter, at least you would stop struggling.
Well, do this now, and make friends with your trial, as though the two of you were always to live together. You will see that when you have stopped taking thought for your deliverance, God will think of it, and when you stop worrying, God will come swiftly to your help.
--St. Francis de Sales, via the January issue of Magnificat
Meanwhile, Mardi Gras parades have started. Friday we went with daughter and grandsons to see the Conde Cavaliers.