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Sunday Night Journal, April 30, 2017

When First Things appeared in the 1990s (I think), I read it occasionally but never subscribed. That was mainly because a fairly large portion  of the articles were too specialized and academic for me.It seemed, for instance, that there were a lot of long commentaries on contemporary intellectual figures whom I had not (and have not) read. Moreover, I often found its neo-conservative orientation tiresome, even though much of the time I didn't fundamentally disagree with it. And anyway, I had very little free time for reading and didn't want to spend it on that. Over the years I read it occasionally in the library, or a friend sent me something photocopied from it, and once the web became a big thing I read some of what they published there. But in spite of its prominence--and, I assume, influence--in the world of religious-political journalism, it mostly passed me by. I expect I missed a lot of good work.

Recently, though, reading articles on the web, I began to get the impression that they were publishing more stuff that was more interesting to me than had been the case, so I decided to risk $25 or so on a digital subscription. (My wife bought a used iPad a couple of years ago, and reading on it is really pretty comfortable.) I'm glad I did. Traveling over the Easter weekend, I read pretty much the entire April issue on the plane, and I thought every single thing in it was excellent. I don't expect every issue to meet that standard--I've already skipped one lengthy article in the May issue. But for now I'm very much enjoying and benefiting from the magazine. 

For instance, the first piece in the April issue, "Moral Minority," by Patrick Deneen, is an excellent overview of three books that have been very much in the Christian news recently for their analyses of the situation of Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian culture: Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, Archbishop Charles Chaput's Strangers In a Strange Land, and Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes. It is as much Deneen's own perceptive view of the subject as it is a review of the books. One of his points is one I've often made: that the Christian right, as exemplified by Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, was already, in the late '70s and early '80s, mistaken in the belief that America was a fundamentally Christian nation that only needed to be awakened to the threat against it. I don't think I'll try to summarize it. I think it's available on the web to non-subscribers--try clicking on the title above. 


A few weeks ago here I was scoffing at the people who think the inauguration of Donald Trump was also the inauguration of a police state along the lines of 1984. These people seriously misconstrued either the book (if they've read it--many are probably just repeating something a journalist said) or the present political moment. The whole point of the suppression of truth by the government in 1984 is that dissent is not just forbidden but suppressed to a point where it hardly exists, and that this is most effectively done by making it psychologically difficult or impossible. And the last weapon, the one brought to bear in very stubborn cases, is to crush the dissenter so thoroughly that he will be at first afraid to speak, and eventually unable to conceive, of truth as existing apart from whatever the government says. One does not learn the true solution to the equation 2+2=x by mathematical reasoning or even by counting fingers, but by listening to Big Brother. 

Now, anybody who genuinely believes that this is a description of current conditions in the U.S. under the Trump administration  is simply out of touch with reality. I don't think many people are actually that deluded; most likely it's just a form of hysteria, or the thrill of reading a ghost story or watching a horror movie (for those who consider the latter a thrill--I don't). Trump can't open his mouth without someone calling him a liar, suffering no harm for the deed and probably getting some applause. Most of the news media attack him relentlessly, and do not suffer for it. And that's as it should be in a free society.

But there is at least one place in the world where the methods of the state in 1984 are practiced. That is China. The experience of it is described in a piece in that April First Things, "Struggle Against the Gods," an excerpt from the memoir of Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng:

Once a guard of mine described an experience he’d had as a new recruit. He went to an “inaugural meeting,” a ritual that was an old Communist Army practice. After roll call, the squad leader pointed to a soldier next to the classroom’s shiny white wall and asked, “What color is that wall?” When the soldier answered that it was white, he was thrashed. After five soldiers in a row were beaten for giving the same answer, the sixth one replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.” The squad leader praised the soldier and once again asked the soldiers who had been beaten what color the wall was. They all replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.”

That is what Orwell was talking about. The enemy is not a blowhard who doesn't care about the truth, who will say anything that seems expedient at the moment and doesn't care whether you believe it or not, but very intelligent people who care very much about both and are determined to control them. Very intelligent and very effective. 


Another interesting item from First Things...well, "interesting" is not the most apt word--interesting and disturbing: in the February issue, "The Devil and Hilary Mantel," by Patricia Snow. I decided several years ago when I read a review by the late Christopher Hitchens of Mantel's novel Wolf Hall that I was not interested in reading the book. The review was, naturally, strongly anti-Catholic, and according to Hitchens so is the novel. Why bother? I thought, though I had the impression it was a well-crafted novel. That was also my reaction when a BBC dramatization of the novel began to appear on PBS. 

Anti-Catholicism in contemporary literary life is a pretty predictable business, so I was just barely interested enough to start reading Snow's piece. And...wow. Let's just say that the other person named in the title is not a rhetorical device. As I said, it's disturbing. No, make that frightening. You should be able to read it by clicking on the title above. If you want to.


I didn't set out to collect discouraging things to write about this week, but there's so very much of it around. And I keep saying that this thing and that thing are "interesting," and they are, even if disheartening. I saved the URL for this piece last week-before-last with a note to myself: "most interesting thing I've read this week," but then didn't use it last Sunday. It's a very sad story about a young woman who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, lost her faith, then found another in "transhumanism," the techno-faith that we will fairly soon be able to make ourselves immortal by some technological means or other.

I am fairly certain that none of these will ever happen. In particular the idea that we can somehow transfer our consciousness, that is to say our selves, that is to say our souls, from our brains, seen by materialists as a species of computer, into digital computers, and become immortal that way, is almost certainly no more than a fantasy. Even if you think it's possible, the practical difficulties and potential problems involved are rather staggering. But I'm all but certain that it's not even theoretically possible. The whole idea rests on the assumption that our souls--to use a word that the transhumanists probably don't--are some sort of by-product of our brains. That assumption is not only unproven but unfounded. It's simply asserted as an article of materialist faith, as if it were self-evident. Even if it were true, there is no reason to think that this whatever-it-is that constitutes one's consciousness could somehow be encoded as a sequence of ones and zeros, which it would have to be in order to be stored by computers as we know them. 

Anyway, here is the story, lengthy but very much worth reading. It's in The Guardian. Left-wing though it is, I find myself reading it fairly often, usually via someone else's link to a piece there (I think this was a Facebook post). The political stuff is not of much interest to me, but a lot of the rest is. I wonder if I should give them a donation, like they keep asking me to.


Once a week or so I read an article about the menace of artificial intelligence predicting that machines will soon become conscious, becoming super-intelligent almost immediately when they reach a certain point in "evolution," then either turning on us or making us obsolete. If you read these, too, and are alarmed, don't be. I am not a scientist or a philosopher but I know how computers work. Do you think the lights in your house are intelligent because they know to shine when you turn them on? If not, don't worry about artificial intelligence taking over the world. 

There is, on the other hand, plenty of reason to worry about software taking over more and more functions that used to be performed by people, and thereby continuing to make jobs obsolete. This is not a new problem. It's just a new wrinkle in the general trend toward automation that began with the industrial revolution. But it's significant. And we don't know how to deal with it. 


The misty upper part of this picture is not fog but rain. We had some violent thunderstorms yesterday evening and this was taken as they were moving in. Five minutes earlier I had been able to see far out into the bay, though not all the way across as I can when the air is clear. There is a sailboat anchored a couple of hundred yards out. This bank of rain approached as a white mass, moving fairly quickly, hiding the boat in a matter of seconds. I like the way rain falling on the water looks, but this picture, taken with my phone, doesn't really show it. I have an actual camera. I guess I should start carrying it around more.



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I think The Benedict Option may be the most mentioned book in the history of your blog, Mac.

North Korea probably is closer to 1984 these days than China is. Trump wishes he was Big Brother.

Please don't make me defend Trump, Stu.


"The Benedict Option may be the most mentioned book in the history of your blog"

Argh. I hope that's not true but it may be.

Speaking of Dreher, there's a surprisingly sympathetic profile of him in The New Yorker.


As for Trump: no, he doesn't want to be Big Brother. He just wants to be The Boss. He has no ideology. Big Brother is another kind of thing altogether.

Exactly. He doesn't want to manipulate the inside of your head. He just wants to tell you what to do.


Whereas the gender ideologues want you to conform in thought as well as deed.

I guess I could bring up Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy from now on every time The Benedict Option is mentioned.

I remember some years ago my Baptist preacher friend in Dallas (he married my first wife and I back in the 90s) said something to the effect that he wished more Christians would just realize that they had lost the culture wars. Instead of constant upset about that, spend their time trying their best to raise their children as Christians, read the Bible, and emulate Christ as much as possible.

Good advice. I don't worry about culture wars, or gender ideology.

Unfortunately, lay Catholics don't really have that option. Inasmuch as we have influence in the public square we are mandated to do what we can to infuse Gospel values into it. So, if the definition of marriage has an effect on the common good, then lay Catholics have to be at least minimally engaged in the promotion of the definition that most corresponds to Gospel values. I haven't yet been able to figure out how same-sex "marriage" can be seen as doing that, so I'm going to take the "marriage" question into consideration in my involvement in the public square. That makes me ipso facto a culture warrior.

I just let my First Things subscription lapse; I've been a subscriber for about 15 years, but for the last year or two I just can't find time to read it much. Issues have been piling up, unread. I've had to prioritize, and I've decided that books will take precedence over periodicals. If I had more time, however, I would continue to read it, because I usually find it quite good.

Instead of constant upset about that, spend their time trying their best to raise their children as Christians, read the Bible, and emulate Christ as much as possible.

Well, one of the things about the Culture Wars is that they don't want to allow us to do that.


Time was probably almost as much a part of the reason I didn't subscribe to FT way back when--I had young children then, too.

As for the cw--yeah, I was going to say, sure, it's fine to say just go about the business of being Christian and don't sweat it. But the first part really goes without saying, or ought to. Even setting aside what Robert says about our duty to the public sphere, like Janet said, and paraphrasing somebody or other: you may not care about the culture wars, but they care about you. One of the reasons Dreher's book has attracted such attention is that he's been documenting that for a long time.

I do very much agree, though, that we shouldn't get into a chronic state of anger and paranoia. There's a lot of it around. I think it's important to recognize the reality of what's happening, but not fall into that.

"I do very much agree, though, that we shouldn't get into a chronic state of anger and paranoia." Absolutely. That kind of thing is a sign of lack of trust in Divine Providence.

Exactly, Robert.



Here's a good review of the Esolen book, just posted this week:


Wolf Hall is told from the perspective of a player in the reformation. It's necessarily anti Catholic, how could it not be?

Yes, historical novel during an anti-Catholic period in England. Perhaps the author was drawn to this time because of her own anti-Catholic leanings. So I guess that leaves the question of whether or not her own perspective has negatively clouded the novels? I intend to read them, but have not gotten around to it.

"I guess that leaves the question of whether or not her own perspective has negatively clouded the novels?"

From everything I've read this seems to be the case. Cromwell is painted as heroic and More is a villain, for instance.

I thought I said this yesterday, but I don't see it and maybe I got to busy to send it.

Well, I wrote that an hour ago and am just getting back to it, so that's probably what happened yesterday. ;-)

Anyway, wrt the Benedict Option being the most mentioned book, nah, it can't hold a candle to Brideshead Revisited. We discussed that night and day for about a month, Stu. Too bad those comments are gone.


There's a book I need to re-read (Brideshead Revisited, that is), or revisit as the case may be. I remember Sebastian's sister telling the narrator she would say a decade of the rosary for him, and I thought that was odd. At this point I remember little else except that I loved the book.

So I suppose we can forgive John Milton for thinking that Cromwell was a hero since he is part of antiquity? But not Mantel because she is contemporary and should know better.

Kind of like our own past here in America where we are not supposed to like people like Andrew Jackson because he killed Indians and was a slave owner, I suppose.

I usually feel sort of anti- all groups, so I kind of like all these prickly folks from the past. I'm a conflicted Liberal.

"So I suppose we can forgive John Milton for thinking that Cromwell was a hero since he is part of antiquity?"

Wrong Cromwell. And Milton wasn't a Catholic, but his poetry doesn't express his anti-Catholicism like Mantel's novels apparently do.

I will forgive Andrew Jackson for killing Indians and being a slave owner (was he, I mean, I have no idea) because he was a man of his time and I don't know if he knew any better.

But I wouldn't forgive Mantel for killing Indians or owning slaves because she ought to know better.

I just looked up Hilary Mantel to make sure she was a she. Am I crazy or does she favor Hillary?


Funny you mention that, because I'd seen a picture of her and that hadn't occurred to me, but just now saw this one, and she does, a little:


Comments I've read from Mantel, as well as the perceptions of reviewers both pro and con, indicate not that Mantel is being unjustly accused of implicit anti-Catholicism because she decided to make Cromwell a sympathetic character, but that she is consciously and intentionally anti-Catholic, and is writing novels that embody that point of view. It's not really about whether one should or should not sympathize with and/or forgive historical figures, or even whether we should forgive Hilary Mantel, but just a recognition that that's what's going on.

My comment really had more to do with Andrew Jackson. ;-) Until I saw the picture.


I wondered that about Brideshead, too--about the number of mentions. Also Atlas Shrugged. Both those were some of the longest comment threads ever on this blog, and both disappeared with Haloscan.

Oh, and, in response to Elizabeth's comment: just from the point of view of the craft of writing, one could write from Cromwell's point of view without being anti-Catholic in a deliberate way. You could, for instance, still treat him as a villain even as you portrayed things through his eyes. Or you could just be trying to get at what made him tick. In Mantel's case she's apparently not just pro-Cromwell but anti-More. As I recall that was what made Hitchens so happy about the book. :-/

Btw: in that FT piece Patricia Snow is described simply as "a writer." So I was curious and googled her: she's Ross Douthat's mother.

I think Jackson actually was a pretty brutal man, even by the standards of the time. I hate to say that because I'm distantly related to him. Maybe only by marriage though...I never can keep that straight....

I was pretty much kidding around. What little I know about Jackson comes from a story in a Catholic reader, a movie, and a novel by Irving Stone. Also I know that in 1814 he took a little trip down the might Mississipp.


Another relative: Johnny Horton. (No, not really.)

I still find that song remarkably catchy and enjoyable. It's a very well-crafted match of words and music: "There wasn't quite as many as there was a while ago" flows so nicely.

Jackson, though, was one of the driving forces behind the Trail of Tears.

It was written by Jimmy Driftwood. Driftwood was instrumental in the beginnings of the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, AR (His home.), but through some political machinations or whatever, he lost control. But he did have a place called the Jimmy Driftwood Barn. The seats were old movie seats--very rickety and uncomfortable. The music was smooth and prettied up like that at the folk center, but very authentic blue grass and the like. There's a term for it, but I forget. We went to Mountain View fairly often, and the barn was a lot of fun.

I agree about that song. It's kind of strange that it became popular on Top 40 stations at the same time the Beatles, et al were the going thing.


By the way, are you related to the Horton who hatched the Who?


"Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the bramblers..."

That's how I sang it when I was little, apparently combining 'bramble' with 'Rambler,' which was a popular car make back then.

I wonder what image was in your mind. :-)

Janet, many people tend to assume so, but as far as I know, no. As with Johnny, distantly if at all. But even more distantly.

I haven't read the book or seen the BBC production of Wolf Hall, but I'd say the TV show will probably have a more malign influence simply because it’s TV and because of the casting. Anton Lesser in the role of More. I can't imagine any actor more the opposite of Paul Scofield than him. And sensitive-looking, mellifluous-voiced Mark Rylance as Cromwell. Sheesh.

Very early music video?


Goodness. That was something. I wonder how many albino raccoons and deer died to make that possible.

I just realized for the first time that they're saying "nigh as many," not "quite as many."

You're probably right, Marianne. Although I have the impression that the TV show isn't all that popular, I may only think so because I'm not watching it.

What was going through the mind of the person who designed those costumes?!


I had the same question. Someone with wide knowledge of early 19th century frontier life, obviously. ;-)

Deneen has a great essay in the new number of Modern Age on conservatism in the Trump age. Doesn't seem to be posted online yet, however.

The word "conservative" is getting less and less useful in reference to the specific political situation in the U.S., though I still think it's meaningful as a description of a general cultural stance. Somewhere in the past week or so I read a conservative describing himself as a constitutionalist. With respect to actual, immediate politics, I'd describe myself that way. It's more specific than "conservative" and also describes what I consider to be sort of a last-ditch political stand for American conservatives. If/when the constitution truly becomes a dead letter, we can consider the American experiment over.

Seems like I read somewhere online that the T administration would like to do some damage to the first amendment. I would like to annul the second amendment myself, but I have less power than they do.

They can't do any more than you can about the first amendment, unless Congress and the courts let them. That's been one of the big worries of constitutionalists over the past 8 years and more.

Today while I mowed the grass, I listened to the Esolen book. I didn't really want to listen to it, but I didn't have anything else downloaded and didn't want to wait. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was really good.


You mean you've already heard the whole thing?

I guess you've heard that he's leaving Providence College. He only talks here about the place he's going to, not about what Providence was doing to make his life miserable, but obviously that was part of it.


No, I'm not sure how far into it I am. Not more than a few chapters.

I hadn't heard that, but I figured it was coming. I was also pretty sure he wouldn't lack for opportunities.


Yeah, he's enough of a star to have options. The average liberal arts faculty member is lucky to have any job at all, and knows it.

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