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October 2017

Sunday Night Journal, October 29, 2017

Tonight I'm bringing in a guest speaker: Ryszard Legutko, author of The Demon In Democracy, which I've just read and which I think is a very important book. Off and on for a few years now I've published the occasional post categorized as "What Is Actually Happening." The tag refers to a remark by the late Kenneth Minogue (Australian political scholar) which was a sort of variant of Orwell's observation that "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Minogue said 

The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.

I changed "going on" to "happening" just because I think it sounds better. Minogue seems to have been referring to events, to the course of history, not what I would call the basic question in life, which would be something along the lines of "What's it all about?" But it's a pretty important one, especially in a time of great change. You could consider it as part of the task recommended in Matthew 16:3: to read the signs of the times.

Legutko is a Pole, about my age, who grew up under communism, then experienced the end of communism and its replacement by...what? Well, that's what the book is about. Over the years he had noticed certain disquieting similarities between the communist and liberal-democratic ideologies. And after the fall of communism he noticed how easily and successfully its former functionaries assumed a role in running the government. In an overly-condensed and simplified nutshell, he asserts that the liberal-democratic system has been transformed from a theoretically neutral mechanism for implementing government by the people into a utopian ideology. 

I'll let the quotations which follow explicate that observation. 

In this view, today also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions, the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve....

I should note right away that the "harshness" he describes is not in the form of violence, prisons, and concentration camps, but rather in exclusion, silencing, and social, economic, and legal pressures which limit or deny any public role or presence to the outdated, useless, and dangerous. The liberal-democratic ideologue sees himself as "a vigorous youngster transforming the world." He  

...feels like a part of a powerful global machine of transformation. He not only understands the process of change better than others and knows how to organize the world, but also...can easily diagnose which phenomena, communities, and institutions will disappear and, when resisting, will have to be eliminated for the sake of the future. Therefore he reacts with indignant pity toward anyone who wants to stop the unstoppable. He indulges in a favorite occupation of the youngster: to criticize what is in the name of what will be, but what a large part of humanity, less perceptive and less intelligent than himself, fails to see.

Legutko pauses here to make it clear that he is not denying the achievements of liberal democracy, or the brutality of communism, then continues:

This youngster, however, fails to notice that at some point this system, or rather the arrangement of systems covering many variants, became haughty, dogmatic, and dedicated not so much to the resolution of political conflicts as to transforming society and human nature. It lost its prior restraint and caution, created powerful tools to influence every aspect of life, and set in motion institutions and laws, frequently yielding to the temptation to conduct ideological warfare against disobedient citizens and groups. Falling into a trap of increasing self-glorification, the system began to define itself more and more against its supposed opposition, i.e., all sorts of nonliberal and nondemocratic enemies whose elimination was considered a necessary condition to achieve the next level of ideological purity. The multiparty system was gradually losing its pluralistic character, parliamentarianism was becoming a vehicle of tyranny in the hands of the ideologically constituted majority, and the rule of law was changing into judicial arbitrariness.

The "youngster" is transforming the system into something it was not and was never intended to be. He 

...infuses the old political institutions with new energy and injects them with new ideological content while remaining notoriously unaware that under new circumstances, these new institutions are no longer what they once were and that they serve a new purpose.

When I read those passages, the "youngster" immediately acquired a face: that of Barack Obama. His many idolizers will never see it, but to those who did not fall under his spell (I once likened him to Saruman), Obama exuded exactly the sort of arrogance Legutko describes. He was not malicious, or not very; he didn't want to exterminate or imprison those who resisted his wisdom. He was only serenely certain that he was right, and that anyone who disagreed with him either was malicious or just didn't understand. He would have preferred that they understand and obey. But if they didn't, he would roll right over them if he possibly could. And his followers, already of like mind, and infatuated with his rhetoric and his racial cachet, agreed: no one could decently oppose Obama, or the measures he proposed for "fundamentally transforming" the United States. Those who did so were indecent, not just mistaken: either out-and-out racial bigots, or bigots-at-large, generally reprehensible people, and of course quite stupid. At very best, they were fools who didn't know what was good for them ("cling[ing] to guns or religion," as Obama so famously put it, in words that clearly showed his disdain for at least half the people he wanted to govern).

The contraception mandate included in the mountain of regulations implementing Obamacare was a perfect case study in the process described by Legutko. He (not him directly, but his administration) needn't have done it; he could have left things as they were for the small number of employers who were affected by it, and made other arrangements for the very small number of employees who might have been inconvenienced. But the administration chose to force the issue. The Catholic Church and other Christian communions are, in the eyes of committed progressives, precisely the "institutions [which] will disappear." The "arc of history" will inevitably see to that; in the meantime, a shove may be needed here and there. The mandate seemed to be a situation where the administration wished to exact obedience, to establish the principle that such decisions were for it and it alone to make. As James Capretta says, it was "an unnecessary fight that backfired," and it probably had some influence in giving us President Trump.

Legutko, I should note, is to a great extent talking about the European Union, and he notes somewhere that the United States is a little different. What he describes as the liberal-democratic ideology is generally called just "liberalism" here, or "progressivism," or "the left." But it's very similar. The biggest difference in our situation seems to be that there is more, and more intense, opposition to the program here, as the contraception fight indicates--not necessarily coherent or wise opposition, of course and unfortunately.

The passages I've quoted are from the opening pages of the book. Now I'll jump ahead to the end, in which Legutko considers the situation of Christianity:

If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong anti-religious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. 

The triumph of anti-Christianity seems to favor [a] conciliatory approach.... The only option left for Christians to maintain some respectability in a new world was to join the great progressive camp so that occasionally they would have an opportunity to smuggle in something that could pass for a religious message.

But this conciliatory attitude on the part of Christians is certainly wrong if it is motivated by the conviction that the current hostility to religion is a result of misunderstanding, social contingencies, unfortunate errors committed by the Christians, or some minor ailments of modern society. The truth is that all these phenomena, as well as other anti-Christian developments, are the genuine consequences of the spirit of modernity on which the liberal democracy was founded. Modernity and anti-Christianity cannot be separated because they stem from the same root and since the beginning have been intertwined. There is nothing and has never been anything in this branch of the European tradition that would make it favorably disposed to Christianity.....

Therefore, whoever advocates the conciliatory strategy today fails or refuses to see the conditions in which Christians have been living. It is utterly mistaken to take the position that many do: namely that the Church should take over some liberal-democratic ingredients, open up to modern ideas and preferences, and then, after having modernized herself, manage to overcome hostility and reach people with Christian teachings. One can see why this plan has gained considerable popularity, but whatever its merits, it cannot succeed. 

There follows a brief discussion of the conciliatory path followed by Vatican II and since. But

All these changes, however, did not blunt the anti-Christian prejudices that the liberal democratic spirit had been feeding on. nor did they entice more people to enter the Church to strengthen the already-decimated army of the faithful. The good things that were expected to happen did not happen. They did not--let me say it again--because they could not. An aversion to Christianity runs so deep in the culture of modernity that no blandishment or fawning on the part of the Church can change it. 

I'll leave you with this amusing picture of those who attempt the conciliatory path, the "open Catholics":

Cardinal Wyszynski, being under an enormous pressure, was yielding to communists, but finally said Non possumus ["We cannot," according to Google Translate]. Looking at the open Catholics, it is hard to imagine that they would ever be able to utter such words, let alone think about them, no matter how far liberal democracy pushes its anti-Christian campaign. One should rather think of the open Catholics as a group of cheerleaders with funny pom-poms, similar to those that one can see at games in American, encouraging their favorites to fight for progress.

Actually I don't think it's quite that bad; I think a lot of bishops would in fact say "Non possumus," at least right now.

I don't intend this post as any sort of call to arms, except in the spiritual realm. These trends are not going to be stopped or reversed by political work. Nor, it shouldn't really need to be said, will denouncing and defaming the opposition, who are, in general and in my experience, very decent people sincerely "working for a better world" (a phrase which provokes so much cynicism in me that I have to remind myself that it is in fact a desirable thing, and that it's only disagreement about the definition of "better" that makes me cynical.) And I certainly don't mean to encourage the paranoia and excessive alarm which is all too present in Christian circles these days. I just think it's important to understand the situation, to see things as they really are. It's part of being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. 

I won't go quite as far as to say that everyone should read this book. I'll narrow it down a little: if you have enough interest in the general topic to read an entire book about it, you really should read this one. It's not that long, by the way, a little under 200 pages. And it's full of sharply illuminating observations. I must have marked fifty passages in it.

Rod Dreher has discussed Legutko often, and solicited some email comments from him soon after Trump's election. His remarks are very perceptive, I think. You can read them here, starting at the paragraph which opens "After the U.S. election."


There's one thing I would add to Legutko's appraisal: the religious nature of what he calls the liberal-democratic ideology; he suggests this only in passing, but I think it's very important. As people who read this blog regularly have heard me say many times, contemporary progressivism is for practical purposes a religion. What we are and have been witnessing is a struggle between two religions, the replacement of one predominant way of looking at the world and at man by another. Mankind will always form a culture, and a culture necessarily has a unifying vision, and by definition it can only have one. (The supposedly "multicultural" model requires a single master culture which encompasses and governs all the sub-cultures, and which happens to be the liberal-democratic culture.) If things continue to move in their current direction, what is actually happening now will eventually be recognized as a transition like that in which Christianity became the religion of the Middle East and of Europe. This is hardly a new observation, having been made by many thinkers for well over a hundred years now. 

52 Albums, Week 43: Heart Food (Judee Sill)


This is a classic, another of the albums that I figured I would work into this series. I had thought I would just write a couple of paragraphs and see what I could find on YouTube to show the best of the album. And then I thought Wait, didn't you write something about Judee Sill on the blog a long time ago? and went looking for it. Indeed I did, back in October of 2004, the blog's first year, almost exactly thirteen years ago. It was more extensive than I remembered. So I listened to the album for the first time in at least eight or ten years, to see if my opinion had changed, and it hasn't. If anything I may think more highly of it now. 

Back in the early ‘70s I worked in a couple of record stores and I heard a lot of music to the point of satiety and well beyond. Sometimes music that I liked mildly, such as the Eagles’ Desperado, was run into the ground, and music that I didn’t much like, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became hated. Records that weren’t very popular didn’t get played very much, which was fine with me whether I liked them or not: if I didn’t like them, it was nice not to have to hear them, and if I did like them, they didn’t get ruined by over-listening. One of these less-popular works was Judee Sill’s Heart Food. I remember feeling that there was something a bit haunting about it, something that was kind of getting under my skin, but for reasons I can’t now remember I never bought it and soon forgot about it when it stopped being played in the store.

More than ten years later something brought it to mind again. I can’t remember now what sparked the memory, but I do remember that a couple of lyrics came to mind: something about a road to Kingdom Come, and something that included the Kyrie. And I had a vague sense of Out West—deserts, cowboys, horses, tumbleweeds—as well as the notion of some kind of Christian-sounding spirituality. So I asked my old friend Robert Woodley, who for a long time seemed to know every pop album ever produced, and to own most of them, about it. He knew right away what I was talking about and, the record being out of print, made me a tape with Judee Sill on one side and the best of Ultravox on the other. Now there was a contrast: mystical Christian cowboy folk-pop paired with alienated world-weary synth-pop. I listened to both sides a lot, and the tape is much the worse for wear. I eventually bought most of Ultravox’s work, but Judee Sill’s remained unavailable.

In the mid-‘90s as more and more music resources became available on the web—retailers, fans, reviews—I made it a point to go looking every now and then for Heart Food. At a time when it seemed that almost everything that had ever been available on LP was appearing on CD, Heart Food remained absent. At one point I almost paid $50 for a copy of the LP on Ebay, but was held back by imagining the scene in which I attempted to justify to my wife paying that much money for a used LP.

This past summer Dawn Eden happened to mention it on her blog, The Dawn Patrol [2017 Note: there was a link here but it no longer works], which reminded me that it had been a while since I looked for it. Happily, it was now available, albeit at $26. I emailed Dawn complimenting her on her taste and complaining about the high price. She advised me to buy it anyway, quickly because it was a limited edition, adding that I shouldn’t balk at the price because I would get $260 worth of enjoyment out of it. [2017 Note: I believe it was after this time that Dawn Eden entered the Catholic Church; she is now a writer and theology professor, using her full name, Dawn Eden Goldstein. She still posts updates on her life and work at The Dawn Patrol.]

Still put off by the high price, I didn’t buy the CD right away, but put it on my birthday wish list. My wife having granted the wish last week, I can now say that Dawn’s advice was right on. It has probably been ten years or more since I listened to my old tape copy, and hearing it now in CD-quality audio is almost like hearing it for the first time. The sound is far richer and warmer and more detailed, and the music itself seems better than ever.

It’s always difficult to describe music, and this more so than some, because it produces an effect which is somewhat at odds with its raw materials. That is, if I say that in addition to Sill’s voice and guitar the first song (“There's a Rugged Road,” the “kingdom come” song I remembered from 1973) includes steel guitar and fiddle and in general sounds somewhat country-western, it will be accurate as to the sound but not as to the atmosphere, which is mystical. Country music is pretty down to earth and straightforward, as is the folk-country music of people like Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith. But there is an indefinable air of mystery about this song. Those images that I mentioned earlier—deserts, cowboys, and the like—are there, but as archetypes and symbols, not as their down-to-earth selves. Perhaps one way to put it is that the Western-ness is movie-Western: cinematic, not really meant to be the real thing, lifted out of history and put to work for other purposes, in this case to provide imagery for spiritual matters. Not all the songs are in this Western mode; there are touches of gospel, Gregorian chant, and soft rock. The album as a whole really should seem like a hodge-podge, but it’s held together by Sill’s voice and visionary songwriting.

Although the lyrics are full of Christian symbols and allusions, and at least two of them seem to be quite explicitly Christian, the album’s liner notes make it sound as if Sill’s Christianity was eccentric at best. That’s as may be, but it needn’t bother the listener. I’m always at risk of hyperbole when praising a work that I really like, but it seems to me that this album as a whole is worthy of being ranked with anything produced in post-1965 popular music. And the final song, “The Donor” (this is the one I remembered as including the Kyrie) is, whatever Judee Sill may actually have believed, one of the most moving cries to God that anyone has ever put to music.

Strong words? Well, listen for yourself. And say a prayer for the soul of Judee Sill. She had been a drug addict before getting straight enough to pursue a serious music career and make Heart Food and its predecessor, Judee Sill. Like a lot of addicts, she apparently never really shook off the lure, and returned off and on to heroin and other drugs, including pain-killers for injuries suffered in a car accident. She never made another album, although there are some demos for a projected third, and in 1979 died alone of an overdose which, as in the case of Nick Drake, may or may not have been suicide.

A long and lonely road to Kingdom Come, says the first song, and I suppose that’s what Judee Sill had, although in years it was not so very long. But “The Donor” pretty well describes her relationship to the rest of us. The making of art is a curious thing. The artist does his work for motives almost never entirely pure—Judee Sill apparently wanted very much to be a star—completes it, and moves on. The gift remains.


This is the "road to Kingdom Come" song I remembered. It's the first song on the album. 

And this is the last song, an 8-minute masterpiece. 

So sad, and so true.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear some people say they don't like her voice. It does have a rather pronounced western twang, which I think works best with the folky songs, but for me it doesn't detract from the others. Listening to the album now, I was reminded that Robert had left one song off that tape, "Soldier of the Heart." I think he was right to do so; it's not bad but it's closer to rock than anything else on the album and seems out of place. He also included at least two songs from Sill's first album, Judee Sill, which I've never really given much attention.

There is a lot more information on Judee Sill, her life and work, on the web now than when I wrote the 2004 piece. There are live performances and at least one documentary on YouTube. And it turns out that the third album was very close to completion, and has since been issued. It's called Dreams Come True, and according to Thom Jurek at AllMusic is very good. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, October 22, 2017

Last week I spent a couple of days in Athens, Alabama, for the dedication of a statue of my grandfather, Judge James E. Horton. He was the judge in one episode of the long-running and shameful Scottsboro Boys case: a notable episode, because he set aside a jury verdict which he believed to be a miscarriage of justice. I think most people have heard at least the broad outlines of the case: in 1931, nine black youths were accused and convicted of raping two white women. If you don't know about it, here is the Wikpedia account. As the article says, it was and is "widely considered a miscarriage of justice," and my grandfather has long been honored for his resistance to it. 

You can read about the statue and the ceremony here. In the photo gallery there are several shots just before and after the unveiling. The people gathered around are all my family; I'm the guy in the dark coat and sunglasses just to the left of the statue. It was a very beautiful day, though a little hot for late October even in north Alabama. That's my sister giving the speech; she did a great job. There were several speeches, all good, none overly long. 


For me this is an old family story, and as I suppose sometimes happens its very familiarity has preserved for me a surprising level of ignorance. I discover this whenever someone asks me certain fairly obvious questions about it: for instance, exactly how is it that a judge can overrule a jury verdict? Under what circumstances can this happen? Well, I'm not exactly sure. I have owned for many years a book which I think is considered the definitive account of the case, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by Dan Carter. But I have never read it, and I really should.

One of the main movers of the statue project was retired Judge James Woodroof of Athens. He's six or seven years younger than I am, which makes the "retired" part of that a little shocking to me. His parents and mine were friends, so I knew him slightly growing up, and ran into him a few times around the University of Alabama in the '70s. Those are my images of him, and I still haven't quite adjusted to the fact that he is not only grown up and then some, but in a position of prominence and grave responsibility, far more responsibility than I've ever had. He has a great regard for the statement my grandfather made, and that touches me. 

Some people seem to regard what my grandfather did as first and foremost a blow struck against racial oppression, and it certainly was that. But I'm fairly certain that he didn't see it primarily in that way. For him it was the discharge of a sacred duty: to apply the rule of law in a sternly impartial way, without concession to popular sentiment, much less to mob sentiment, without consideration of race, status, or anything else apart from the law and the facts of the case. I do not have any at all of the talents that make for a good lawyer or a good judge, but that ideal moves me deeply. And I'm gratified that it still resounds in the legal profession. I sometimes think it has little place there nowadays, and maybe it isn't as widely revered as it should be, but it isn't dead. A sitting judge from neighboring Morgan County came up to me after the ceremony to tell me how much my grandfather's example means to him.

It's an odd sensation to be the descendant of such an admired figure. Most of us, the descendants, were at the ceremony. Of his eight or so grandchildren and roughly twice that many great-grandchildren (none of the very young great-great-grandchildren were there), only one, the daughter of one of my brothers, has made the law her career. There is thus no direct way in which the rest of us can think of ourselves as carrying on his legacy. Nevertheless it's difficult not to feel that we--well, I suppose I should speak only for myself--that I have some sort of share in his virtue. I don't. I know that. And yet I'm proud to be his grandson, to be a part of the same elemental community, the family, which produced him. And since I do not and can not and would not deny that my family were also part of the system of oppression which began with slavery, his deed is a reminder that there was always nobility in that culture alongside the evil: the good crop and the weeds existing together, mysteriously, as they always do. 

I didn't grow up in Athens, exactly. My parents did, but we lived out in the country, and I went to school there. We visited in Athens frequently, but only for the three years of high school was it really a major part of my life. For thirty years or so after high school I rarely went there and mostly lost touch with the people I'd gone to school with. In 2000, not long before my father's death in 2001, my parents moved into town, and so since then visits home have been visits to Athens. I feel closer to it than I think I ever did as a teenager, and very much enjoy seeing old acquaintances. I find that the older I get the more I value these precisely because they are old, because they go so far back into youth and in some cases childhood. It is a community of memory. 


This appeared in the September issue of Magnificat. It's by Fr. Donald Haggerty, whom I know nothing about beyond what's given in the magazine, that he's a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, currently serving at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I like it so much that I'm going to the trouble of typing the whole thing into this post.

For some people, the intensity of their belief in God is matched by an inclination to ask questions of God. The correlation is not a sign of disrespect or of doubt. They would not ask questions in this manner except for a conviction that God can be addressed in an utterly personal manner. In fact, their questions, which often begin with a "why is it" or "how can it be," tend to summon a deeper act of faith from their souls. Inasmuch as their questions are not answered so readily, as usually they are not, these questions plunge their souls much more blindly into the mystery of God. The unanswered question demands a surrender to God and a greater offering. The surrender can only be made with a conviction that God has heard the request for some light and accepted the offering of one's soul for others. If no clarity is forthcoming, the soul can still remain at peace, certain that God has been listening and will extend grace to others.

Logical labors of thought that seem to provide clear answers and explanations are usually false solutions in the realm of sacred mystery. Only in waiting and in darkness do quiet spiritual insights come upon us, and when they do so, they are like the light slowly emerging at dawn. And often they have to do with our need to offer ourselves more fully in love for others. 

I realized recently that in a sense it no longer matters to me whether a prayer is answered, the sense being that the lack of the hoped-for result, or even of some sense of response, does not disturb "the conviction that God has heard...and accepted...."


This afternoon I went to pick up our dog and cat at the office of the vet where they have to be boarded when we go out of town. While waiting my turn, I saw the cover of a cat-lover's magazine which announced an article called 5 New Litter Trends! 

52 Albums, Week 42: Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Brian Eno)


I'd been thinking since this series began that I would include at least one ambient album, just in the interests of making the scope very broad.  I had in mind a few favorites as possibilities, and I finally started thinking about my choice a few weeks ago when Rob G gave us a techno album. (The association is that both techno and ambient tend to be all or mostly electronic.) 

But in listening to those favorites I found at least one or two tracks that I didn't much like, that spoiled or disrupted the atmosphere. And since ambient music is at least 80% atmosphere, that's a pretty big flaw. There was, for instance, Steve Roach and Roger King's Dust to Dust, which conjures a western desert feeling, more accurately described as a western desert movie feeling. I like it, but it has a couple of rhythmic tracks that to me don't really fit. Here's a sample track, "Rain and Creosote," which also has a nice video. And Ishq's Orchid, which I have described as an auditory tropical vacation, and have sometimes called my favorite ambient album; it, too, has its infelicities. A sample: "Bhakti." (Both these use "environmental" sounds--real-world, non-musical sounds, like rain and birdsongs, also a common feature of ambient music). Some others I thought were just very unlikely to appeal to anyone who reads this blog--too weird and dark (there is a whole sub-genre called "dark ambient," to which I'm somewhat partial)

So in the end I decided that, as the song says, the original is still the greatest. Music for Airports, as people generally refer to it, was released in 1978, and has the distinction of being the first ambient album to be described explicitly as such. You can read Eno's account of what he was trying to do with the "ambient" concept in the liner notes for the album. I hadn't heard it for some time, and when I got out the CD and listened to it I thought it was if anything better than I remembered. 

I think most of the sounds on it are "real," i.e. not produced electronically. Certainly the piano is, and I think the voices are, too. But the album is constructed with looped segments--tape loops, I assume, this being 1978. Also, this being 1978, the concept of "sides" was important. There are four tracks, two to each side of the LP. They're not named, but numbered by side and track. 

I'm pressed for time, so that's enough talk. If you want more discussion, the album's Wikipedia page has some. Here's 1/1. Or should that be "1/1"?

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, October 15, 2017

 I finally got Stalker from Netflix and watched it over a couple of nights last week. I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed. And that's not just a formula: I really am sorry, and I was, specifically, disappointed, because I had really wanted and expected to like it. Though I don't know where I got the expectation from, as I was at best unenthusiastic about the only other Tarkovsky film I've seen, Solaris

It seems to be a very philosophical work, and interesting from that point of view. But to my sensibility the ideas were not especially well embodied; to discuss them is like discussing an essay, not a work of art. It's also a somewhat puzzling work. Many of Bergman's films are also both philosophical and puzzling, but I loved those immediately, even when I couldn't make much sense of them, because they're so visually rich and emotionally involving. Stalker just wasn't either of those for me. Perhaps it's a personal quirk, but there it is.

"Stalker" may not be the best translation of the title, or at any rate the best word for what it refers to. "Tracker" or perhaps "Guide" would seem more accurate. Moreover, it has associations in contemporary English which are both unpleasant and misleading as far as the movie is concerned. You might expect something with that title to fall into the thriller or horror categories. But the stalker of the title is a man who knows how to get around safely in a mysterious place called the Zone.

In an unspecified time and country, something has fallen out of the sky and landed in a rural area. No one knows what it was, but those who went to investigate never returned. The authorities have determined rough boundaries for the mysterious phenomenon and surrounded it with heavy security. The area is now known as the Zone, and almost no one ever enters it. The soldiers manning the barricades shoot anyone who tries, and are themselves too terrified to attempt it themselves. The exceptions to this blockade are the men known as stalkers, at least two that we know of, and anyone whom they are willing to guide. One of the two is one of the film's three principal characters--I don't recall that we even know his name--and the other was his mentor, referred to only as Porcupine.  We learn fairly early on that Porcupine was very skilled and that he is now dead, having hung himself shortly after an experience in the Zone that first made him rich and then drove him to suicide. 

The other two principals are two men who have engaged the Stalker to take them into the Zone. One is a scientist--"the Professor"--and the other is a writer--"the Writer." The Stalker also has a wife and child, who have smaller though significant roles. There are very few other people and I'm not sure any of them ever speak. 

The opening is promising, to me at least; others might think "what is this?!" It's a very long, very slow shot of a somewhat shabby-looking room seen through opening doors. There's a bed in the center. The camera moves over it and very slowly pans right-to-left across three figures in the bed: a woman, a child, and a man. The man is the stalker, the woman and child his wife and daughter. We see that the man is awake. The man gets up and gets dressed, obviously trying not to wake the others. But the woman is awake, too, and follows him out into the kitchen. He's apparently intending to go to the Zone, and the woman begs him not to, but he doesn't listen. He goes to a bar where he meets the Professor and the Writer.

All this is shot in a sort of sepia monochrome, as in this image, which was the only one I could find from the opening scene. I don't think it was quite this dark on the screen.


The sepia is maintained for the next half hour or so, while the men make their way toward the Zone, hiding from soldiers and eventually taking a little gasoline-powered railroad car into the Zone itself. All this takes place in what is possibly the ugliest environment I've ever seen. Imagine an old, decrepit, abandoned industrial zone: junk machinery, collapsing or makeshift  structures,  muddy streets, puddles of dirty water, all filmed in dingy brown. Such a scene could be made poetically evocative, and maybe some viewers do see it that way. I didn't. It was only ugly, and dead.

As the travelers enter the Zone normal colors appear, and we're in a landscape of meadows and forests. While this is a welcome relief from the industrial wasteland, it isn't photographed in such a way as to make it appear anything other than ordinary. And it's strewn with debris and ruins which continue the motif of desolation. 

What follows is roughly two hours of these three men wandering around and having somewhat sententious philosophical talk, mostly on the part of the Writer. 

It's in this long sequence that Stalker really fails for me. The Stalker tells the others (and us) of the mysterious powers and dangers of the Zone--"a complex maze of traps," but containing, if one can evade the dangers and find it, a place called the Room in which one's deepest desires are granted. Apparently they are searching for the Room, which Porcupine had found before he killed himself. (What is your deepest desire? Perhaps not what you think it is.) The Stalker tells us, but nothing is shown that seems to support his warnings; no atmosphere is created. Only in one scene did I ever get any sense of either mystery or menace about the place. And to make things worse, even in the Zone there is a great deal of that industrial ruin, with its toxic-looking pools and general hideousness. The journey, or search, never developed much dramatic tension for me. 

If you've seen it and are thinking "You're wrong; I was deeply moved; it's a masterpiece," and are eager to explain to me why that's true, well, okay, I'll listen. Maybe it is. In the abstract, I see its merits. But for the most part, after that first thirty or forty minutes, it engaged me only mentally, not emotionally. There's a good deal to think about here, but not as much to enjoy. I may see it again sometime, and perhaps have a better impression. 


Speaking of Bergman: Stu sent me this BBC piece which calls him "the greatest film-maker who ever lived." I agree with the sentiment in general, and also with most of the specific opinions of the author. He refers to "Bergman's Christian humanism," which I think is accurate, not withstanding that Bergman was not a believer. As the writer says, " can sketch a notion of salvation in his depiction of Christian love and its virtues – fidelity, sanctity, devotion."

I have not seen his last film, Saraband, and rather like the idea that there is still at least one to see (not counting his very earliest ones, which in my experience are not so great, interesting mainly because he made them). I saw the movie version, abridged from a TV series, of Scenes From A Marriage long ago, and would like to see the whole thing. I notice this writer mentions Summer With Monika. I only saw it relatively recently. It's also an earlier one (1953), among the first of his mature and lasting works: a very beautiful but heartbreaking picture of young and impermanent love.


Speaking of movies, I meant to mention, when I wrote about Wise Blood a few weeks ago, this article on Flannery O'Connor which Rob G sent me. It mentions the film favorably, and I think that was part of the reason that I finally got around to watching it.


What came ye forth to see?


52 Albums, Week 41: Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole and the Commotions)


By the time this record came out in 1984 synth-driven pop had begun to dominate the music scene, and while there was a fair amount of guitar-oriented stuff circling under the mainstream radar, generally speaking you didn’t get to hear much of it unless you actively looked for it. I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to check this album out – I’m sure I had read a review somewhere – but I’m glad I did, because it became a favorite of mine, and Lloyd Cole grew to be a very dependable go-to artist for me.

Although I was a little put off at first by the album’s comparative polish (at that time rough edges tended to be generally viewed as a plus) I liked it all, finding it enjoyable both musically and lyrically. I was 23 when I bought the record (the same age as Cole was when he made it, actually) and I wasn’t quite sure how much of Cole’s lyrical shtick was tongue-in-cheek and how much was really autobiographical. That kind of thing matters far less to me now, but as it turns out Cole has said that it was both.

He can be a bit pretentious, but it’s mostly a fun sort of pretention. In the Wikipedia piece on the album he says, “I was a young man! I really was. You can just imagine me trying to wear a French trench coat at the time, thinking I looked very cool when, in fact, I looked really stupid. But maybe that's why people liked it."

Although Cole is English, the band was formed in Glasgow while he was at university there, so sometimes you’ll hear that the band was “Scottish,” which isn’t entirely untrue. When the album was released in the UK the opening track, “Perfect Skin,” became the album’s biggest single but both the title song and “Forest Fire” also got considerable airplay, and the album actually made it into the Top 20, peaking at no. 13.

The title track is quite representative of the album as a whole, while “Forest Fire” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve also included “Four Flights Up,” a fun number that contains some good samples of Cole’s memorable lyricism, including the memorable line, “Must you tell me all your secrets when it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing?”



Also worthy of mention are the soft and haunting “Down on Mission Street” and the album’s wistful closer, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”

Cole and his band did two more records, Easy Pieces and Mainstream, and while both are enjoyable and have their great moments, neither is as good overall as Rattlesnakes. The band then broke up and Cole moved to New York City, where he continued as a solo performer, producing four more albums, the best of which is 1991’s Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, arguably his best record after Rattlesnakes. In all he did seven albums between 1984 and 1995, all of them worth hearing except for 1993’s Bad Vibes, an ill-advised foray into a darker, harder-edged sound. I haven’t been much taken with his more recent acoustic material, but those records from his earlier period have been constant companions of mine over the years. Rattlesnakes has remained my favorite of those, and one of my favorite records period.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Sunday Night Journal, October 8, 2017

Contrary to my usual practice, I'm writing this on Friday afternoon. Maybe not the post as it will eventually appear, but a start on it, because we are expecting Hurricane Nate to arrive here on Sunday, and who knows whether I'll even have internet access then. I'm not terribly worried, as it isn't expected to be a bad one, just barely over the wind speed that serves as the somewhat arbitrary point where a tropical storm officially becomes a hurricane. Quite possibly it won't even be a hurricane by the time it gets to this latitude. Or it may get stronger, or it may change direction and go somewhere else. There's a peculiar suspense about waiting for a hurricane, especially of course if it's a bad one. 

A few weeks ago, when it looked possible that Hurricane Irma might end up coming this way, my wife noticed a dead tree among the many live ones on the bluff behind our house. I don't know why we had never noticed it before, as it's obviously a danger to the house, even without a hurricane. We agreed to call a tree company "soon" and get it taken down, but we haven't done it. So that's my point of greatest unease about this storm, as that tree looks as if it wouldn't take much to bring it down. I'm going to set myself a reminder on my computer or my phone for June 1, 2018: get ready for hurricane season (which officially runs from June through November). The serious ones generally occur in late August and throughout September. This October one is a little unusual.

It occurs to me that for some days now I've seen no news stories about the situation in Puerto Rico. I'm sure they're there, but they aren't appearing on the headline-aggregating web sites where I most often get my general news. I've seen a number of snarky Facebook posts about Trump's behavior regarding Puerto Rico, but I don't pay any attention to those. And that pretty much goes for the mainstream news, too. As I seem to say here at least every other week, I'm no fan of Trump. But the media have gone so far overboard in their open desire to destroy him that I don't pay much attention to their attacks, either. I figure they're usually based on some kernel of fact, but that the reporting will exaggerate, distort, and select to make Trump look as bad as possible. And unless it's a hugely important question, it's not worth the bother of trying to dig out the truth. In a day or two they'll be baying about something else anyway.

There are millions of people who look at the "mainstream media" that way, or with even more skepticism and hostility. This is a bad situation, for journalism and for the country. Institutions like the Washington Post and New York Times and the major TV networks still do very good work where their political interest isn't invested. But where it is, they simply aren't trustworthy. They want to be regarded as impartial judges, like referees in a football game, but they openly favor one team over the other, and rule accordingly. I'm sure they are sincere in their belief that it is their moral duty to work for progressive policies, but in so doing they have destroyed the respect which should have been their most effective tool. (This piece at National Review is a good treatment of the whole syndrome.)

On the left end of the political spectrum, invective inflation has set in, and I hear more people saying that they just don't have words to express their hatred and disgust for Trump. That's not surprising. They've been calling everyone who disagrees with them a Nazi for 40 years and more now. If Nixon was Hitler, and Reagan was Hitler, and Bush (2) was Hitler, and Trump is vastly worse than all of those, what can you say about him? Maybe a howl of rage is the only thing left.

I just did a quick search for news on Puerto Rico's situation. Most of the stories that turned up were much more about Trump  than about the situation on the island. The media clearly want this to be "Trump's Katrina". So far it isn't. But then "Bush's Katrina" wasn't Bush's Katrina, either. If the same thing had happened in the Clinton or Obama administrations, the disaster wouldn't have been hung around their necks in the same way. 


If you're ever in the path of a hurricane and want to extract the maximum possible anticipatory dread from the waiting, I recommend reading Isaac's Storm, a vivid account of the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas. I think I read it in 2005, not long before Hurricane Katrina, though it could have been the previous year, when we had Hurricane Ivan, which was bad enough. Here's my Sunday Night Journal from September 4, 2005, a few days after Katrina: "Uneasy in the Aftermath". I mention in that post that the water was lapping against the side of my house. This is what it looked like:



When a hurricane is churning up the sea, somewhere below the surface there is still calm. I don't know how far down the turbulence extends, but I have the impression that it isn't so very far. That thought has been on my mind frequently of late, with hurricanes in the news, and a hurricane of sorts raging in the Church. I'm referring mainly to the controversy about Amoris Laetitia, but also the general prevalence of factional conflict.

I was sick at heart when it became clear that such conflict was going to be one of the most immediate and striking characteristic of Francis's papacy. I really had thought that the worst of that was behind us, but obviously I was wrong. I think the level of animosity is actually higher than it was thirty years ago; perhaps the internet has a lot to do with that. Or probably. In this respect it mirrors our political culture.

We could argue all day about who is most to blame for the situation, but no matter what one thinks about that, the situation is there. I decided a while back that I would not participate. Occasionally I do let myself get drawn in, but not very far. For the most part I'm able not only to stay out of the fights but to avoid following them in much detail. I avoid the web sites and the Facebook posts where they are conducted. There is nothing I can do to resolve the debates, and they have nothing immediately to do with my own spiritual life. The moral questions involved are not ones that affect me directly and I have no theological qualifications enabling me to pass judgment on the abstract questions. No one is looking to me for guidance and counsel. I trust that the Holy Spirit will eventually straighten it out, but that won't be in my lifetime. And I'm grateful to God and Pope Benedict for the Ordinariate.

I pray, I go to Mass, I receive communion, now and then I go to confession. I read and think. I'm swimming below the surface now, and I don't feel the effects of the storm above very strongly. The analogy breaks down in one way, though: as you go deeper into the sea, it gets darker, but down here there more light, not less.


If you're thinking "He should treat politics the same way he treats the Church's quarrels," well, so am I. It's harder to get away from that stuff, though. And it does have a more direct influence on my life.


Sunday evening

As you've probably heard, the hurricane ended up being a pretty mild affair. I'm not sure it was even a hurricane when it made landfall sixty or seventy miles west of here. The wind we got wasn't much stronger than a big thunderstorm can muster, though it lasted a lot longer. And we had a lot of rain, six inches or so, though I've seen more in the same amount of time (roughly twenty-four hours) from more or less ordinary storms. There was quite a storm surge in the bay, though, The water came up at least four feet higher than its usual high-tide level, washing a great deal of sand and debris into the woods. A lot of piers were damaged; when the waves start pushing on the cross-pieces from below, they come loose pretty quickly. Much of the debris consisted of boards torn loose from piers and other shoreline structures in just such events. I spent an hour or two this afternoon hauling pieces of lumber, some of them quite large and heavy, from the shore and the woods up to the place where the city will pick them up. I'm grateful that I'm still able to do that kind of work.

This is what I saw around 8 this morning. There's not supposed to be water where I'm standing. The beach should start about where that wave is breaking beyond the trees. 



52 Albums, Week 40: Goths (The Mountain Goats)


My eldest son, who heard so much folk music as a baby, has now for perhaps four or five years listened to very little else but the Mountain Goats, which unavoidably means I have been exposed to their music too. His predilection makes long drives additionally trying when he has any choice of music, since with few exceptions the songs are not music to drive to. I have nevertheless become acclimatised to them. There are a couple of songs on the previous album, Beat the Champ, as well as one or two from earlier albums, that I like well enough to put on myself when nobody else is around. I even went along with my two eldest children when there was a Mountain Goats concert at a surprisingly small venue in Brussels (my eldest also attended the same tour’s show in Amsterdam, which I thought was taking things a bit far).

My grandmother used to watch the wrestling on television, back in the days when there was only one screen in the house to watch anything on. Although it was never something I would watch from choice, there’s something achingly evocative about the way the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” describes a lonely and put-upon child’s fixation:

Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night
I'm lying on the floor, I'm bathed in blue light
With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some
And I need justice in my life, here it comes
Look high, it’s my last hope
Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope

This kind of sympathetic recognition is something I find even more strongly in their latest album, released this year. The unifying theme of Beat the Champ was wrestling; that of Goths is the 80s youth subculture of those who called themselves (in South London at least) “Goffs”.

There are definite dangers in a youth subculture that revels in morbidity and decay, to the extent of using satanism as a style accessory. Nevertheless, as someone with a liking for the Gothic side of Romanticism (far more responsive to the “alone and palely loitering” than to the “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”) I was always rather sympathetic to the Goth aesthetic, however cartoonish it can be in comparison to the genuinely Gothic: so many Goths recognisably felt the same pull. There’s also something endearing, as well as a bit pitiful, about alienated teens making a mascot of their alienation, social “outsiders” forming an in-group for outcasts. The way this is then packaged and commodified by the music and fashion industries, making suckers out of those seeking solace, is one of the saddest things about it. The album Goths somehow manages to speak of the phenomenon, or style, with a nostalgic affection and a critical distance that conveys all of this.

I’m not sure how much of the album is straight autobiography, how much is ventriloquizing in imagined lives things the writers have themselves felt, and how much is an inhabiting of the unfelt imagined. I say “writers”, as there are two writers credited, but the bulk of the writing on this, as on all the other Mountain Goats albums, is by John Darnielle, the central figure in a changing line-up.

The opening track, “Rain in Soho”, has an insistent beat, and backing vocals from the Nashville Symphony Chorus, which makes for a striking combination with the cryptic lyrics.

Although oblique in specifics (perhaps through allusions that escape me), in general terms it’s clear that the song is about time past and faded, the irrecoverably lost:

No morning colder than the first frost
No friends closer than the ones you've lost
Nothing sharper than a serpent's tooth
Nothing harder than the gospel truth
Though you repent and don sackcloth and try to make nice
You can't cross the same river twice
The river goes where the water flows
No one knows when the Batcave closed

One allusion that I do get, and that astonished me, is the Batcave, a London nightclub that was the epicentre of the emergence of the Goth phenomenon (as reported on local news at the time). “Rain in Soho” perhaps suggests a later attempt to find the vanished birthplace of the movement. I saw the news clip linked above when it was first broadcast, or one very like it at about the same time, and as a 12-year-old Batman fan the name stuck with me (as did the vision of those strange young people, who seemed utterly daft yet somehow enviable). When I did encounter Goths in the flesh, maybe five years later, they seemed a sorry bunch of misfits, but by then these were the provincial diehards of an already fading fashion. It fills me with amazement that somebody from the other side of the Atlantic should be singing about the Batcave thirty-odd years later, when to me it was just a brief (though never forgotten) item on the local news.

Goth’s English origins also come up in We Do It Different on the West Coast (“The papers write about it back in England / It’s practically a lifestyle in Berlin / There’s probably some pockets in Ohio / There’s always something happening in Ohio” — like so much else, the reference to Ohio puzzles me; is it true, or does it show how hopelessly provincial the speaker is if even Ohio seems like a “happening” place?). The specifics of the English history of the Goth also crops up in the album’s second track, Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds. This narrates a low-point in a musical career, yet to take off, while other songs on the album hint at musical careers abandoned (Paid in Cocaine: “Baubles and bangles, a lost age / Still all aglow with the radiance of the stage …. Work to pay down the interest on the mortgage / Used to get paid by the gramme”), or not yet abandoned despite never really taking off: “Shelved”, with the chorus “The ride’s over, I know, but I’m not ready to go”; Rage of Travers, “Still draw pretty good in Ontario / Nobody wants to hear the twelve bar blues / From a guy in platform shoes”; For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands, with the wonderful line “Headline really big festivals every other summer in Brazil”; and Abandoned Flesh: “However big that chorused bass may throb / You and me and all of us are going to have to find a job”. All of these songs could be a memento mori, or a meditation on transitoriness and failed ambition, cast in terms of popular music. Perhaps it’s far-fetched, but I can’t help thinking of the lutes, flutes and sheet music in Dutch Vanitas still-lives.

Some of the songs are written not from the perspective of washed-up performers, but of insecure young fans, uncertain of their place in the outcast in-group that could all too easily exclude them should they be “uncool”. This is hinted at in The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement with the lines “Leather and lace and good friends / Most of them good, most of them friendly” and the repeated chorus of “I’m hard core, but I’m not that hard core”; and it’s as good as stated outright in Unicorn Tolerance (“Try hard to look hard behind my blackout sunglasses … Feel shame, real shame, for what my friends must think of me”).

“Leather and lace” in “The Grey King”, a “purple crushed velvet waistcoat” in “Stench of the Unburied” (on which more below), “dark paisley” in “Paid in Cocaine” the whole of the song “Wear Black”: the central importance of clothing, the “look”, to the Goth experience is brought out in all sorts of ways. (“Rage of Travers”, in contrast, has “aviators and a buckskin frontier hat: how come they dress like that?” — a buckskin frontier hat is just about the most un-Goth item of clothing I can imagine, after a lumberjack shirt.)

“We Do It Different on the West Coast”, incidentally, beautifully evokes just how hard it was for young people to get information about musical subcultures before the Internet:

I heard some good things from some friends about Chicago
I gotta see with my own eyes about Chicago…
Skim through such magazines as I can get my hands on
Glue circuit boards to plywood on the weekend
Trellis modulation for the children
There's a whole new world just up around the corner…

“Stench of the Unburied”, already touched on above, stands out from the other songs in sketching a single moment of drink-and-drugs-and-music-fuelled elation crashing into reality:

Heading up the Golden State Freeway toward Eagle Rock
Ice chest full of corona and pineapple crush
It'll take twenty years for the toxins to flush
And when the sirens wail
I know we're going to jail
And outside it's ninety two degrees
And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees

To finish, I will mention simply that “Abandoned Flesh”, the final song on the album, ends with the lines:

Because the world will never know or understand
The suffocated splendour of the once and future Goth band

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

Sunday Night Journal, October 1, 2017

Literally anything that one considers to be good can be called "pro-life." And any apparent contradiction can be reconciled with the addition of the word "truly." Almost by definition, any conception of what is good for people is aimed at saving or enhancing their lives, and can therefore be called "pro-life" by those who hold it. Both free-marketers and socialists can insist that their favored policies make more people better off, and so are pro-life. The fact that the term was first applied to themselves by people opposing abortion, and still is generally associated with that cause before others, doesn't mean that those who disagree have accepted it. Even advocates of abortion and euthanasia can claim that even though their immediate aim is to cause a death (though that is generally not admitted in the first case), their broader intention is to reduce suffering and to relieve people of burdens they can't or won't bear, and so they are "truly pro-life."

For these reasons I've thought for a long time that it was a mistake for the anti-abortion movement to adopt the label "pro-life" for itself. It's not that I think it's inaccurate. I understand the reasons for it, especially as its application was broadened a little to include euthanasia and assisted suicide. I have always supposed that part of the motive for using it was to make it appear a positive thing. The abortion rights movement presented itself from the beginning as a vehicle for liberation, a movement for women's rights. In the American context especially, and especially since the late '60s, any movement to restrict a right is almost always going to fare more poorly than one to expand a right. This is especially true if the right is favored by the upper crust of society and by journalism and entertainment, but even the movement to restrict gun rights, which very much has their support, has not been very successful, and part of the reason surely is that it is trying to stop people from doing something they want to do; maybe not the biggest part, but a part. So it probably seemed preferable to advertise opposition to abortion as being "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortion." 

But on the face of it, it's a vague term, and the price of that vagueness is an endless argument about "what it means to be truly pro-life." And, worse, that argument creates an opening for dividing and undermining the movement by making opposition to abortion only one part of a bigger political package, one that is "truly pro-life." I don't mean that the dividing and undermining are necessarily intentional. It's unarguable that Christians in general and Catholics in particular should have a coherent set of political principles that are aimed at the good of each and every human person. It's hardly necessary to say that Catholic ethics--in particular the social teachings of the Church--should guide Catholics, and that we should always seek to apply them as thoroughly and consistently as possible. But it's probably always going to be the case that we disagree about how those principles are to be actualized. To proclaim that one and only one approach to politics is "truly pro-life" is just a recipe for division.

For various reasons, starting with the takeover of the Democratic Party by abortion supporters, and the welcoming of abortion opponents by the Republican Party, the latter has been for a long time the only home of the anti-abortion movement in electoral politics. This has had some very bad effects. Abortion opponents tended to adopt the entire Republicans political package as their own, and to regard its enemies as their own. Correspondingly, abortion opponents who were otherwise ideologically disposed toward the Democrats had to choose between opposing abortion and supporting other causes favored by the Democrats but opposed by the Republicans. There really are some left-wingers who are serious opponents of abortion, and they've found this situation to be intolerable, especially over the past fifteen years or so as Republicans initiated an apparently endless state of war in the Middle East, and domestic conditions deteriorated in ways that, to them, cried out for the sorts of more or less socialistic interventions favored by the Democrats.

In recent years some of these people have become as vociferously hostile to the pro-life movement, as it has existed for the past few decades, as any secular left-wingers, over and over again making the long-standing charge that pro-lifers only care about people before they're born, and probably only white people at that, etc.; that they hate women, etc. And that the pro-life movement is not truly pro-life because it supports war-mongers, etc. etc. Some of these attacks have some justification, some don't. But I don't want to argue about those. The point I want to make is that it's the use of the term "pro-life" that justifies the attacks and gives at least some of them some weight. 

So now there is something called the New Pro-Life Movement (sometimes called the "whole life" movement) which is attempting to make opposition to abortion part of a package that includes various policies favored by liberals: for instance, a call for "universal health care," which seems to be the so-called "single-payer" plan, a British-style National Health Service for the U.S. Maybe that's a good idea. Maybe it's not (personally I don't think so). But from the Catholic point of view it's perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it's not mandatory; other views are also perfectly acceptable. What the NPLM does is put together a package of "truly pro-life" policies, implicitly declaring disagreement not truly pro-life. In short, it inverts the identification of the pro-life movement with "conservative" causes and identifies it with "liberal" causes. You can read a statement of their basic principles here.

If there must be a package deal, if opposition to abortion can only be discussed in inextricable linkage to various other proposals, it's just as well that there be a left-wing package as well as a right-wing one. But it shouldn't have to be that way. People who are opposed to abortion should be able to unite and work together on that issue even if they disagree on others. It seems to me that it would be better if anti-abortion people simply called themselves anti-abortion rather than using the ill-defined and endlessly debatable "pro-life."

The package deal approach almost guarantees that proponents of each will be at each other's throats a good deal of the time. This is especially true now that our politics have in general become so viciously polarized. And it has to be said that Donald Trump is a pretty horrible horse for the right-wing pro-life movement to hitch its wagon to; I can't really blame left-wingers opposed to abortion for wanting to make it crystal clear that they are not on his side.

And going for each other's throats is exactly what has happened. Rebecca Bratten Weiss (the link is to her blog) is one of the leaders of the NPLM. I've seen enough of her views to know that I disagree with her about a lot of things, but have not seen any reason to think her expressed opposition to abortion is insincere. She was the subject of a really vicious personal attack from LifeSiteNews, which I'm not linking to because I don't want to give it any more oxygen. And that set in motion an Internet war between her opponents and her supporters. From what I saw it was one of the nastiest intra-Catholic fights I've seen, and that, unfortunately, is saying a lot. One observer was moved to say that it resembled the state of things described by Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit": "no pleasure but meanness." 

The Human Life Review recently had a symposium called Whole Life vs. Pro-life? that includes a number of views on the question. The first and last contributions pretty well reflect my opinion. As several of the writers say there, we shouldn't be ashamed to say that we're anti-abortion. I'll quote the last one, written by Matthew Schmitz of First Things:

Earlier this year, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Washington Post that she considers herself anti-abortion rather than pro-life. “We’re against abortion. I think it’s much simpler. It gets across what we’re about in a faster way . . . To say you’re against it is okay. I am anti-smoking. I’m anti-sex trafficking. I’m anti-drunk driving. And yes, I’m anti-abortion.”

Debates about whether we should be consistent life, whole life, or plain old pro life ought to remind us of the virtues of precision. From first to last, we are anti-abortion. All else distracts.

All that being said, there are some limits, pretty obvious ones, to what can be accomplished in this matter by political action. Whatever political approach one favors, none of them prevent the offering of direct help to pregnant women in need. Anyone who thinks abortion is a tragedy can support those efforts. 


I've just finished reading God or Nothing, a collection of interviews with Cardinal Sarah. The title had me expecting something a bit different, something focused on the elemental struggle between belief and unbelief. Instead it's, first, a sort of autobiography (maybe the first third or so of the book), and second, a very wide-ranging commentary on Christian life, the state of the world, and the state of the Church. The autobiographical part was the most interesting to me: he has had an extraordinary life, beginning with his childhood in a rural village in Guinea. One thing that struck me was the influence he ascribes to the French missionaries of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Lefebvre's order!) who converted his parents and catechized him. Throughout the book he returns to the power of their example.

The rest of the book has its more and less interesting parts, but on the whole is--I hesitate to use this word, because it sounds dull, but it's accurate, and not dull--inspiring. Here are a few passages I marked.

I think this is the best definition of freedom I've ever read:

...God..created us free so that, by the reasonable exercise of our freedom, we might go beyond our wild impulses and tame all our instincts by taking full responsibility for our life and growth.

On the apparent religious indifference of the West:

Man wishes for what is exceptional, which is God, but he has never really encountered him. In our time of religious indifference, the search is even more vital. For temporal things are in league with eternity. Although the aridity of the era seems frightening, we must not forget that the divine source is still more present than ever. Man may search without knowing why, or he may even reject the path toward God; but his quest exists in the depth of his soul... I think that man will never be indifferent toward God. He can try to forget him, by following fashions or by an ideological mind-set. But this timid withdrawal is merely circumstantial.

On Christian doubt:

[The words of Jesus on the cross are] not a cry of rebellion, but a filial lament. Today too, when we are lost, like the witnesses of the crucifixion, our doubt is still a hope. If we call out to God, it is because we have confidence. Christian doubt is not a moment of despair but another declaration of love.

On affluence and materialism:

A society that takes material development as its only guide inevitably drifts toward slavery and oppression. Man is not born to manage his bank account; he is born to find God and to love his neighbor.

And the best definition of holiness I've ever read:

God deeply desires that we might resemble him by being saints. Charity is love, and holiness is a sublime manifestation of the ability to love.


About to get in my car after buying a few groceries, I looked back and saw this. My house is only a couple of miles away, to the south, and I expected a downpour to be in progress by the time I got there. But surprisingly, the storm never arrived here. This picture is facing east, and the storm was apparently moving southwest, but more south than west, which is unusual.