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September 2019

The Downton Abbey Movie

I'm not that much of a fan and would probably not have bothered on my own, but I thought my wife would enjoy it, and anyway I'd sort of been wanting to see a movie in a theater. I enjoyed it, with my usual reservations about its soap-opera-ness etc. Suffice to say that they did a good job of creating a lavish two-hour episode of the series; that is to say, if you like the series you'll surely like the movie.

But what really struck me, and the reason I'm writing this post, was that it is in at least one respect deeply counter-cultural. I mean its approval of, its positively reveling in, hierarchy. I know its the opulence and the romance that draw in its audience, which I think is predominantly female. And I know it paints an unrealistic picture of the life of a wealthy English family and their servants. So I'm pretty sure that the mutual regard of upper and lower classes--the loyalty and devotion of the servants, the kindness and concern of the masters--is at least somewhat exaggerated and sentimentalized (though I hope not entirely without foundation in fact). It's very prominent in this film, and important to the plot. The fact that this picture is apparently very attractive to a lot of people seems significant.

I think we all in our deepest hearts believe things should be this way, though it flies in the face of many of the attitudes and presuppositions of our culture (not to mention the actual injustices it so often involves in the real fallen world). And that's because, cosmically, that's the way things actually are. 

DowntonAbbey-VulgarityAnother counter-cultural sentiment. And yes it's probably vulgar of me to post this.

The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

I've been trying to remember where I heard, attributed to some leftist, the saying that "The issue is not the issue." The only thing turned up by a quick search is a remark attributed by David Horowitz to some SDS organizer of the '60s: "The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution." 

Even if that's apocryphal, it certainly describes the method of many political activists, especially those who see themselves as being engaged in a campaign for some sort of broad and fundamental change. You pick particular situations that can be exploited for your purposes, but they're mainly important as means toward a far more important end.

I think--I'm afraid--that the quotation has a wider application now. It pretty much sums up our whole political situation. Right and left disagree as much as they ever have about specific policy questions. But those are somewhat in the background except insofar as they can be used to advance the essential cause: for progressives, to gain decisive control of the federal government so that "the New America" can begin (I've been seeing that term a lot recently); for conservatives, to prevent that. 

Old-fashioned liberals believed in the constitution, but they are a fading breed, being replaced by leftists for whom the constitution is at best a set of more or less arbitrary rules that can be set aside when progress requires it. At worst it's just one more oppressive structure put in place by white men to keep everyone else down. In any case, it should be construed as requiring (or permitting, as the case may be) whatever advances the progressive cause. That tendency on the left has been evident for as long as I can remember, but it's far stronger now. 

It becomes more and more clear that a lot of very influential progressives simply don't care in any positive way about the actual history, culture, people, and constitution of this country. They can only value it insofar as it seems to promise a bright shining socialist John-Lennon-Imaginary future. Anything that would get in the way of that vision must be discarded or destroyed. They're best understood as millenarian religious fanatics. I don't by any means say that everyone on the political left thinks this way, but, as I said, they are many and influential beyond their numbers.

So when the question "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is asked, my answer now is pretty simple: the constitution. Everything else in American political life depends on that. If we lose it, we lose the republic. And I think that would be a bad thing--even for those who don't at the moment understand that it would be. 

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review a couple of weeks ago in response to a New York Times call for "packing" the Supreme Court as a way of defeating the obstacle of originalist judges, makes the point brilliantly:

Bouie complains: “In the past, courts have walled entire areas of American life off from federal action. They’ve put limits on American democracy.” Indeed, they have — that is what they are there for. The Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments exist explicitly to “put limits on American democracy.” Majorities do not get to overturn freedom of speech or freedom of religion. They do not get to impose slavery or imprison people without trial. There are lots of things majorities do not get to do. This is not some modern conservative invention to frustrate progressives — it is the design of the American constitutional order.

(Strange that you never hear progressives complaining about how Roe vs. Wade “walled off” abortion from majoritarian lawmaking.)

Bouie’s majoritarian ideology is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; in fact, the very structure of American government is designed to frustrate that kind of crass majoritarianism. Hence the Senate (as originally organized) and the presidential veto, both designed as checks on the excessive democratic passions to which the House might be subject; hence the written Constitution and the Bill of Rights, i.e. America’s Great Big List of Important Stuff You Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On, and a Supreme Court constitutionally empowered to police those limits. You can call that an ideology, too, and even conservative ideology, which it is: Properly understood, the principles and philosophy of the Founding are what it is conservatives try to conserve.   

Exactly. The movement for getting rid of the Electoral College deserves similar scorn for similar reasons. Speaking of which, there is no surer way to get me to vote for Trump than to attempt to subvert the Electoral College. (You can read Williamson's whole piece here.)

We're in a strange situation now (to say the least). I don't think Trump really understands or cares about the constitution much more than most of these progressives do. People call him a fascist, but that's silly and lazy: if the word means anything useful (which is questionable), a fascist is a person with a rigid ideology. That's one of the last things Trump can be accused of being. The note in his manner and behavior that makes people think of fascism is that of the caudillo: the amoral strong man of the sort who tends to gain control of nations that have no strong constitutional framework, no strong deeply-rooted sense of "government of laws, not men."

And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts most, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism--even if he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. 

Ahmari and French Debate

It's perhaps a bit wrong of me to post this--or inappropriate, or ill-mannered, or something--because I probably won't actually watch the debate. Well, maybe I'll find a transcript and read it. But I'm posting it for one reason. I guess all conservatives and some others are aware of the intra-conservative argument which is represented by these two; if you're not, see this. For my part I don't really want to take a side, as I think both have pretty strong arguments.

The two met for an in-person debate a couple of weeks ago. Here's a report on it from a reader of Rod Dreher's blog. That page also includes a video of the event. But here is the one thing that really struck me, from the reader who was there:

There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari....

I think that's very significant. The times they are a-changing. Again. I myself have noticed that people of more or less my generation, and maybe a bit younger--let's say people over fifty--tend to see our current politics in more or less classically liberal and constitutionalist terms, as David French does. That framework has less purchase on the minds of younger people. Of course that could be only an effect of age itself; the younger people may change their minds as they get older. And I emphasize "tend to"; I can certainly think of plenty of exceptions, in both directions. 


Those were not my words, but I used them a week or two ago to describe to a friend my reaction to hearing Das Rheingold again (this making the third time): inwardly squealing like a teenaged girl. And they were even more apropos yesterday, at the end of Die Walküre. It seems I have become a Wagner enthusiast. 

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember that back in 2012 I saw the Metropolitan Opera production of The Ring in a local theater. That was six years after my first attempt to get to know the work; you can read about that here. Also in 2006, I said "...I'm coming to like the music more and more, and Wagner as a visionary artist/prophet less and less. The Ring is clearly a stupendous achievement, but there's something rotten at the core of it."

Here are my 2012 reports: Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and I'll just quote my one-line review of Götterdämmerung: "At just under five hours, it seemed a little too short." These notes don't amount to much, but they are decidedly more positive. I summed up my thoughts at the time in this post: Wagner: The State of the Question. Suffice to say that I was more positive then than I had been in 2006, but still had some major reservations.

This time around I have even fewer reservations. I've completely changed my mind about the "something rotten." Well, maybe not completely. But substantially. There's something rotten in most of 19th century romanticism, and I don't know that Wagner's particular failings were that much worse than those of some others. One of the things that produced the "something rotten" comment was no doubt the incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde. I'm seeing it in a very different light now--not the relationship itself, which of course is as wrong as it ever was--but its significance in the context of the entire drama. I have a good many new thoughts about that (the entire drama) but they're scattered and only half-formed as yet. They may turn into some kind of longer piece in time. Or maybe not. If they do, the title will be something like "Wagner's Unpopular Virtues." I'd need to read some Wagner criticism first, though.

At any rate I'm eager to hear the remaining two operas now, though it's probably going to be a few weeks before I do. Coincidentally, I listened to an audio version of one of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse detective novels a week or so ago. (I had to drive up and down the state of Alabama twice in one week--long story--a total of 1400 or so miles, and listened to two audiobooks in the process.) From it I learned that Siegfried is Morse's least favorite of the Ring. It will be interesting to see whether I agree.

More AI Nonsense

On stilts. At Vox: "Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral".

I'm slightly surprised that the author is a former religion editor of The Atlantic. Sadly, I'm not at all surprised that a Catholic theologian--a Franciscan sister, no less--is on hand to add some extra touches of fatuousness. 

"So would I want a robot priest? Maybe!” she said. “A robot can be gender-neutral. It might be able to transcend some of those divides and be able to enhance community in a way that’s more liberating.”

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid Trump Controversies

A few months after Trump's election I realized that there was no point in following the news stories about him. Every few days there was some new burst of outrage, and at least two thirds of the purported scandals turned out, when I read more about them, to be exaggerated, trivial (what was that nonsense about Melania's jacket a while back?), or sometimes just plain false. It's just not worth the bother of paying attention. Even the big He's A Russian Agent!! story pretty much fizzled out, and in fact, according to some non-crazy people, was more of an FBI scandal than a Trump scandal.

I thought most of the media had thoroughly discredited themselves years ago, but they continue to dig their hole deeper. They clearly see destroying Trump as part of their mission, at the moment probably the most important part. And I suppose it works for them in some ways. It does serve to keep the anti-Trump outrage at fever pitch. But for those who, like me, don't much care for him but have kept some sense of balance, it produces only irritation and disdain. And of course his millions of active supporters just dig in their heels and see him as a hero-martyr. All in all, it serves only to deepen the cloud of anger and mistrust that has enveloped the country.

As of today the completely stupid uproar about Trump's statement that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama has been going for about a week. I frequently use Google News to get an overview of the day's news stories. This is about half of the stories about Hurricane Dorian currently displayed there. 


This is crazy. On both sides. It's hard to tell at this point who's baiting whom, and who's crazier. I'm not sure what Trump originally said, but the fact is that we here in Alabama were worried about Hurricane Dorian for a while. "Threatened" might be overstating it, but the projected path of the storm for several days had it heading more or less due west across the Florida peninsula. It is not only possible but has in the past happened that a storm has done that and then re-strengthened after it got into the Gulf. And I assure you that any hurricane in the northern Gulf of Mexico is always a big deal for us. Damn right we were concerned, and watching closely, until it became more or less certain that the storm was going to turn north. In calling it a threat to Alabama, Trump was not lying and not crazy. At worst he was exaggerating and/or speaking carelessly. It was not a big deal

But then of course the Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the press and social media had to jump in and start jeering and accusing. And then of course the thin-skinned egotist in the White House had to respond. And the thin-skinned egotists in the press had to respond to that...and here we are, a week later, still talking about it as if it were important. I wonder if anyone has brought up impeachment yet.

I would like to think that this is some sort of nadir, but it can probably get worse. 

Stereolab: Dots and Loops

I bought a used CD copy of this album at least ten years ago on the strength of something I'd read about it. I think I only played it once, wasn't especially taken with the sound, and never got back to it until recently, when I put it in the CD player of my car and left it there for several weeks. I think I heard it all at least three times, but in fragments, not really listening closely. 

It grew on me. It's an odd record in some ways. I'm calling it ambient pop: it falls basically into the general pop-rock category, but it also fits Brian Eno's definition of ambient music: "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." 

Dots and Loops is fairly static and repetitive, and can easily be put into the background, yet it has enough interesting touches to make listening closely enjoyable. The sound begins with a '60s pop vibe, especially the bossa-nova pop of, for instance, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. And when I say "pop" I mean to distinguish it from rock: it's a soft, melodic, often jazzy but not in the least bluesy sound, with gentle female vocals. It has a nostalgic quality, if you remember that time, or maybe "retro" if you don't. The group released an album called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music in 1993--which is interesting, because the members were at most infants when that sort of thing was new. But there are also a lot of...I was about to say "21st-century," or "contemporary," sounds, but the album was released in 1997, making it over 20 years old. 

Many of the compositions aren't really even songs, exactly, and though the vocals are a major part of the album's appeal, the lyrics are few and not that important. "The Flower Called Nowhere" is maybe the most fully-developed song as such, so not the most typical for the album, but the overall sound is very similar throughout.

It would be nice to hear this album while sitting by a swimming pool sipping some cold drink, maybe something with a little paper umbrella on it.

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

I'm not sure why I picked up the collection containing this novella a few days ago and began to read it. It's an old paperback that I think I got from a library discard shelf not long ago. I noticed it in a pile and suddenly felt that I not only would enjoy reading Henry James, but that a Henry James ghost story seemed just the thing I wanted to read at that moment (notwithstanding the couple of other books in progress). I've had reading James in mind for several years now, but his major novels are a bigger commitment of reading time and effort than I've wanted to make. I'm not sure I've read anything by him since college, and at any rate not for a great many years.

I'm sorry to say that The Turn of the Screw has rather weakened that impulse. I'm a little puzzled by those who find it genuinely frightening as a ghost story. The events it portrays certainly ought to be frightening, and the first of them did have for me a definite menace. But as the story went on the events were buried too deeply in James's fastidious and elaborate detailing of extremely subtle psychological movements to be effective. If the phrase "wildly fastidious" is not nonsense, it applies to James's prose. Sometimes I feel like it's gotten a bit out of control, that he can't stop himself from refining his words in pursuit of some very, very sharp and subtle shade of consciousness which, after many cycles of refinement, has been reduced to a very small quantity of fine powder.

I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge.

If that's excessively and unnecessarily convoluted, and I think it is, and if it could be straightened out a bit without losing its elegance, it would certainly be much the worse without "real splendor of the little inspiration." But the virtues of this prose are not ones conducive to suspense, which is so crucial to a ghost story. 

The main characters are a governess and two children. The governess's articulation of her own reactions, motives, and decisions in dealing with the supernatural events facing her sometimes seems implausibly complex and delicate--we are supposedly hearing the story as written down by herself--and the corresponding accounts of the children's speech and her appraisals of their reasoning sometimes slip on over into the unbelievable. Which also works against the overall effect.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy it; I did, apart from the occasional sentence which I found myself unable to render into any very definite meaning. (Some of it I read late at night, and maybe the problem was that I was sleepy.) But as a ghost story it doesn't rank in power with some others I can think of: "The Judge's House," by Bram Stoker, for instance, or "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs. And I don't think I'm up to tackling, say, the 600-plus pages of The Portrait of a Lady.

Addendum: Apparently there are some critics who believe that the ghosts are not real, existing only in the imagination of one of the characters. I guess that's possible, but don't see any reason to think so.