Livin' in the USA Feed

If this doesn't give you the creeps...

...it probably should. This of course is from the Department of Homeland Security.

KeepAnEyeOnYourNeighbors

I cringed when the Bush administration created DHS. Apart from its ominous name, it seemed an admission that the Department of Defense is not primarily about defense, and that the existing law enforcement and intelligence agencies weren't up to the job. Now that the Washington establishment, with help from some Trump followers, is trying to make the case that right-wing "extremists" pose a major threat to the nation, this kind of thing is more unsettling than ever. Even parents yelling at school boards, when the complainers are on the wrong political side, are now open to some very unwelcome attention from the FBI.

I'm sure there are some violent right-wingers out there, but the FBI and others managed to keep the Klan, the Weathermen, and other domestic outlaws in check back in the '60s and '70s. More, and more politicized, federal surveillance and policing are not comforting thoughts now. You could hardly ask for a better definition of mission creep, or a better example of the tendency of any government department to expand indefinitely, than the DHS Focus page, which lists climate change and COVID-19 as "part of the department's mission." Meanwhile, the southern border is porous, to say the least. 

I hope that guy doesn't live in my neighborhood. If I see him I'm going to report him. He makes me feel unsafe. 


Remembering 9/11--Or Not

I don't really have anything interesting to add to the reminiscences that are appearing everywhere. I wrote about the event fifteen years ago, in a Sunday Night Journal post called "Eventually, Like Napoleon: My 9/11 Column." On re-reading it, I see a sentiment that would get me labelled as a xenophobe now, and probably would have then if the people who like to use the word had happened to read the piece: I proposed as one possible response that we (the country) could begin being really, really careful about immigration from mostly or officially Muslim countries.

But on this anniversary I'm aware of one element of some of these reminiscences that I don't recall seeing before: prefatory remarks along the lines of "For those old enough to remember..." That was startling to me. Can it really have been long enough since September 2001 that there are people young enough not to remember it?

Well, yes, of course, it can and it is. Most people under twenty-five or so will have little or no memory, and since we persist, in spite of evidence to the contrary, in treating anyone over twenty-one as an adult, this comes to a fair number of adults. And what memory they do have will be those of a child who had no idea what was really going on. And many of those under thirty won't have a great deal more than that. 

This reminds me of a similarly startling realization that hit me some thirty years ago. At work one day several of us were standing around talking, the way people do in offices (unless someone prevents them), and the question came up, as it sometimes does among people old enough to remember it: where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot? A couple of people gave their answers (I was in 10th grade biology class). Then one young woman, having heard these, piped up: "I don't have any idea where I was because I was only two years old." And yet there she was, one of us, the grown-up people doing grown-up jobs. I think the rest of us were a bit stunned; I know I was. How could there be a functioning adult who did not remember the Kennedy assassination? (The first one, I mean. The second one never had the same effect.)

I just can't get used to this time thing. 


Twin Peaks Revisited

(Spoilers!)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been over three years since I finished Twin Peaks: The Return and stated my intention to re-watch the original series and Fire Walk With Me. Here's what I said at the time: "fascinating but disappointing."

So I finally got back to this plan a month or two ago, accepting the fact that I would have to "buy" the series on Amazon if I wanted to stream it rather than spend a lot of time waiting for Netflix DVDs to travel back and forth. I made it through the episode in season 2 where the identity of the murderer is revealed, then watched Fire Walk With Me (on DVD).

I still love the TV series, though I will admit, with a little sadness, that some of the bloom is off the rose now. I suppose part of the delight of my first viewing was the unexpectedness of so much of it--the juxtaposition of the normal and two kinds of strange, the dark and the silly. Even the darker parts have an element of...not exactly silly, but of parody or caricature, as in the decor and atmosphere of One Eyed Jack's, and for that matter even the Black Lodge, with its "modern" furniture. Obviously startling juxtapositions can't continue to startle, though they certainly still amuse. Why were all those people in uniform--Navy, I think?--bouncing balls all over the Great Northern?

The movie, on the other hand, seems even better than I remember, but it is quite different from the series. The DVD that Netflix sent includes a thirty-minute documentary made in 2000 in which most of the major actors are interviewed. Several of them, most strongly Peggy Lipton (Norma), weren't happy with the film's seriousness and darkness, the absence of the comic-but-respectful treatment of what she refers to as "small-town values" in the series.

And whether one approves or disapproves, she's right about the difference. The movie is unlike the series in that it's almost entirely serious and dark. There's not much of the whimsy of the series, less depiction of young romance, more of sex. I don't recall anything comparable to, for instance, the video of Laura and Donna larking girlishly on their outing with James, early in the original series. There's a lot more of what we think of as normal-for-Lynch weirdness, like the mysterious boy wearing a bird mask, and the Black Lodge. There's no old-fashioned wise Major Briggs, and Agent Cooper is a more straightforwardly serious character, whom we see less of than in the series (partly because Kyle McLachlan was concerned about being typecast). And it gets pretty violent, close to horror movie territory at times. It's just not lovable in the way the series is.

But this is a movie, with a time limit of a couple of hours or so, necessarily focused pretty tightly, unless it's to be just another episode in a long and wandering story. A number of the plot threads from the series are either missing or only lightly alluded to. It delves deeply into Laura's character and the things which torment her, including the entity called Bob, and succeeds, which is not a fun ride. Laura is more clearly a lost soul here, in the sense that she is further gone in corruption than we saw in the series. But she's not so lost that she doesn't know it, as witnessed by her outraged intervention when Donna attempts to follow her path. And if I understand it correctly part of the reason for her death wish is that she wants to prevent Bob from taking possession of her.

There's a lot of interesting information in the Wikipedia article on the film. I was especially interested in the critical reception, which was initially quite bad but has grown more positive over the years. Count me on the positive side. I think it's powerful and profound, and although I haven't seen all of Lynch's work, of what I have seen I would only rank Mulholland Drive higher--maybe. I admit to being a little bit annoyed about a few things that I couldn't make sense of. What exactly does it mean in the last scene that Mike demands Leland's "pain and suffering"? I thought Mike had renounced the murder and spiritual cannibalism he had practiced with Bob. Or is it really Mike? I'm generally confused about Mike and The Man From Another Place. 

I had entirely forgotten a great deal from my last viewing of Fire Walk. Two especially powerful moments stand out: Ronette's prayer in the train car, and this exchange between Laura and James not long before her murder:

James: What's wrong with us? We have everything.
Laura: Everything but everything.

That seems a fitting summary of what's happened to Western civilization over the past century or so. And particularly so for Americans of Lynch's generation, and mine. I've wondered if Lynch's work will always appeal more to those of us who recall the pre-sexual-revolution, pre-Sixties culture of the U.S. But I do know of at least one person born in the '70s who likes it as much as I do.

I noticed two very small things that are very interesting in light of Twin Peaks: The Return. In an early scene, when the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie with a bad southern accent) appears and delivers a strange rant, he says "I'm not going to talk about Judy." And one of the young people, maybe Donna, says "Laura's mother is kind of spooky," or something like that. Did Lynch already have in mind that there was an evil entity called Judy associated with Laura's mother, or did he develop that idea after the fact, and take the name from that seemingly insignificant bit in the movie?

I guess I'll finish out the second series, though I agree with what seems to be the nearly universal view that the show deteriorates. And watch The Return again?...I don't know...I guess. What I'd really like to see is Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, ninety minutes worth of footage that didn't make it into Fire Walk. But it doesn't seem to be available at the moment, either on DVD or streaming. 


Notes On the Crack-Up of America

(I started fiddling around with this post several days ago, before the debacle in Afghanistan began to unfold. There was never going to be any good way for the U.S. to get out of that situation, but I never thought it would be bungled to this degree, in a repeat of the 1975 fall of Saigon. I had thought that if nothing else, and if only for the sake of its own image, the administration would see to it that the spectacle of terrified local civilians trying to flee the vengeance of the conquerors and being left behind, or even dying in the attempt to cling to aircraft, would not be repeated. I was wrong, obviously. The best single observation on the situation I've heard is in a tweet by someone named Jack Prosobiec, which was linked to by someone at another blog: "DC Theater gave way to reality." That says so much that's so damning about what's happened to our government and our country.)

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" as descriptions of our political factions have always been a problem, but now they make less sense than ever. For a while now I've tended to substitute the simple "left" and "right," because the liberals weren't very liberal and the conservatives weren't very conservative. Now even those are inadequate, so I've resorted to "left-crazy" and "right-crazy." It's crazy all around. 

This Quillette piece, "Watching America's Crack-Up", is a pretty good assessment of what we've come to, though I disagree fairly strongly with some of the specifics. In particular I think the author is seriously mistaken about what's happening and has been happening when Democrats are in charge. Joe Biden is a Hollywood image of what some want to see in a president: white hair, white teeth, blue eyes, handsome for his age. Or maybe not even Hollywood--just an advertisement aimed at old people, fairly old but "vibrant." And he has just about as much substance. Still, the piece is right on target as far as the basic situation is concerned.

This, I think, is the worst of the many problems the writer points out: "A significant segment of the American Left and Right have both, to a great extent, given up on the republic and its institutions." If that's true, and I think it is, how can recovery be possible? 

The writer notes that "both sides [are] hermetically sealed in their cultural, ideological, and political bubbles." The term "epistemic closure" was suddenly popular a few years ago. It's just a grander--and, I must say, cooler--way of saying "closed-minded." As far as I noticed it was used mainly, if not exclusively, by the left against the right. But it's just as applicable in the other direction, as the Quillette piece points out.

I have been pretty consistent in my low opinion of Donald Trump, before and after he was elected. "Donald Trump Is Not Right In the Head" (April 4, 2016) seems to have been my first post on the subject. I never changed my mind about that. I did, however, sometimes try to make the point that Trump was being portrayed as being far worse than he actually was. I don't necessarily mean in relation to competence, but to all the claims that he was literally the new Hitler, etc. Occasionally it was a conscious experiment: show people a transcript of what Trump actually said about, for instance, neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, and see what happens. The reaction of the fanatically anti-Trump was always what I think of as a "these go to 11" moment, i.e., a brief pause, then a repetition that Trump was a Nazi sympathizer (and I was a fool), as if nothing had been said or demonstrated. 

As far as I can tell the only thing I accomplished with these experiments was to make some people think I was a Trumpist. But it confirmed my impression of epistemic closure, which has been further confirmed since Biden took office, by the reception, running from acceptance to enthusiastic support, of things he's said and done that were as bad as or worse than any of the things that Trump was denounced for (quite rightly in many cases, of course).

Trump talked a lot of garbage which sensible people didn't take seriously, with most of the harm of it coming from the crazed reactions to it (which I think he enjoyed, demonstrating his unfitness for the presidency). And he also talked garbage that was genuinely harmful. But I can't think of anything he ever said that was as poisonous and destructive as Biden saying that a law intended to prevent election fraud was "Jim Crow on steroids." As a matter of simple fact, it's an insane assertion. As the word of a president charged with the leadership of an already divided country, it's contemptible. One could argue with specific provision of such laws, but to say what Biden said...well, I can't add anything to my preceding two sentences.

A week or two ago a reader of Rod Dreher's American Conservative blog wrote that there are three factions at work in American politics now. Quoting that reader, these are:

Woke Left: This is a group that needs no introduction.

“Loyalists”: These are the classical liberals, the Eric Weinsteins, Bari Weisses, Damon Linkers, and even you, Rod! I call you all the “loyalists” because you all, despite your diverse views, still believe in the American experiment, the Constitution, and embrace our history, good and bad, and would like to see this country stay together. I’m proudly part of this group.

Authoritarian Right: There’s really no other term to describe them right now. Much the way many of the Left came to embrace dictators or, at least, find something redeemable in them, the Right is also embracing dictators and finding something redeemable in them.

The picture is clearer if you substitute "authoritarian left" for "woke left," because the woke left is authoritarian to its core. "Loyalist" isn't the best term for the middle group. Lower-case "republican" would be accurate, but has obvious problems. As do terms like "traditionalist" and "Americanist," even "constitutionalist."

So "loyalist" will do. And like this person, I remain proudly a loyalist, and hope I never find myself forced to choose between the other two. My hope in all this is in the fact that the vast majority of people just want to mind their own business. And I see a fair amount of evidence for that in the real life around me, as opposed to the online world.

The first and third of those categories encompass the most politically engaged people (all the way up to "fanatical"), and it's these who have essentially given up on the philosophy on which the American government is based, the one embodied in the constitution and in many informal ways. For want of a better term, we can call that classical liberalism. I am very much aware of the problems, including what are arguably intrinsic problems that will or could ultimately doom any system founded on it. But as a matter of down-to-earth everyday goods, bads, and uglies, I think it's preferable to most of the alternatives. I have little patience for fantasies of a confessional Christian state; aside from the question of whether it would even be desirable (Kierkegaard has a few reservations), it is not a possibility. It can only arise after a period of collapse which very few will enjoy and in which many will suffer.

A few days ago someone made the point that conservatives--conservatives of the academic, journalistic, and think-tank worlds, anyway--tend to devote more time to talking about their ideas than do those on the left. My first reaction to that was to disagree. But on further consideration I think there's something to it. These conservatives are saying "Liberal democracy is failing, and will probably be followed by some sort of authoritarianism," and they are talking incessantly about what that might mean.

Their counterparts on the left are not doing that. They are simply pressing hard for what they want, and rather than considering whether what they want is compatible with American constitutionalism they are identifying whatever they happen to want with what they call "democracy." This, I think, is the reason for "our democracy" having become a sort of robotic tic in the talk of Democrats over the past few years. "Democracy" is identified with progressive policies, regardless of what connection they do or don't have to democracy in the formal sense. It can just as well refer to John Lennon's Imaginary world as to anything actually existing. And "our" is quite literal: "our democracy" seems to be "the system in which we govern." This means that opposition to them is anti-democratic. They're even getting fond of the epithet "anti-American," as they become more dominant. It's a nice and convenient rhetorical posture, pretty much the same thing that used to be practiced by the right when it attacked opponents as unpatriotic.

Notice, by the way, that the loyalists listed by Dreher's correspondent are not conservatives in any traditional sense. Most of them are secular liberals, but of the old liberalism that emphasizes reason, free speech, and open debate. Several have been badly burned by the woke authoritarians. I find some hope in this, too.


An Odd Little Incident in the Culture War

As I've surely mentioned before, the little town where I live has grown fashionable and affluent. And of course where there is fashion and affluence there progressives will be also. Which is ok, but as Justice Ginsburg said, there are certain populations that you don't want to have too many of. (I can't bring myself to use a smiley-face in a piece of writing meant to be at least somewhat serious, but yes, I do mean that in a mildly humorous way, and no, I do not wish to exterminate progressives. I just don't want them to rule the town in which I live.)

There is a Facebook group devoted to local news and general conversation. Happily, it mostly stays clear of controversy, though there are sometimes a few people who will insist on riding their particular hobby horse into any possible opening. The phenomenon of "Pride" Month, which weirdly groups advocacy for certain sins which don't appeal to most people beneath the umbrella of one to which we are all more or less deeply attached, produced a bit of that. There were one or two posts saying, more or less, "Yay Pride Month!" As far as I saw the only reactions they got was along the lines of "Yes! Yay Pride Month!" And I noticed with interest, but not surprise, that nearly all of these were from women, mostly young women. (I'm going by the profile photo thumbnails, and the names.) This is a feature of current aggressive progressivism that as far as I know has not been sufficiently remarked upon--sufficiently in relation to its significance, I mean, because it strikes me as quite significant, though I'm not sure exactly what it signifies.

Then a couple of weeks ago a "Yay Pride" post with a different slant appeared. This one, also from a young woman, was something like "Name the local businesses that you would like to see supporting Pride Month!", and was decorated, inevitably, with smiley-faces, rainbows, and such.

There were not many comments at that point: half a dozen or so comments in agreement, but this time there were some objectors, including the accurate but probably unhelpful "You need Jesus!" Apparently there were some people who agreed with me that this was a step too far: it's one thing to cheer for your team, another to demand that everyone cheer for it. I thought something along the lines of "More proof that woke progressivism is a religion." I considered saying something like that, and even clicked on the reply button and sat there for a minute or two trying to decide whether I wanted to wade in. Then I reloaded the page to see what new comments might have been added, and got a message saying "This content is no longer available." In other words, the post had been deleted. I have no way of knowing whether the author of the post deleted it, or the administrator of the group did. Either way, I was glad, because I thought it was a good sign that one or the other of them decided that it was inappropriate, and likely to start trouble. 

It's a small incident, but a couple of things about it struck me as significant. First, the moral confidence, or perhaps aggressiveness, exhibited by the original poster: she either saw her view as being so obviously right that it didn't occur to her that there was anything objectionable about urging people to join her campaign, or she knew many people would disagree and was deliberately challenging them. Either way, this was an example of the evangelizing zeal of the LG* movement. It was reminiscent of the story Rod Dreher got from Vaclav Havel and often refers to: the greengrocer in a Communist country who puts a "Workers of the world, unite!" sign in the window of his store, not because he believes it but to avoid hostile scrutiny.

Second, the reaction suggests a way for the evangelists and those who decline to join them to coexist. Consider the reception a Christian would get for posting "Christ is risen!" in a public group on Easter Sunday. Most likely only curmudgeons would object. (Actually I think this did happen, without controversy.) But it would be a different story if the Christian posted "Name the local businesses that you would like to see praising Jesus!" There's a hint of threat in that, even if unintended. It would make a non-Christian business owner feel uneasy, at minimum: are people going to avoid my business if I don't go along? 

In the current social climate, to perceive a threat from progressive activists requires no imagination, as the news is full of their attempts to punish people who disagree with them. This incident suggests to me that places like my town might be able to preserve the live-and-let-live attitude which is in fact the attitude of most Americans, left-wing rhetoric to the contrary. 


Is "Little Pink Houses" a Patriotic Anthem?

Kyle Smith of National Review thinks so. I half-agree. I don't think I've heard it more than half a dozen times, and always on a car radio. But I do remember the first time, because "Ain't that America" jumped out at me as a perfect expression of amused and unillusioned affection: "Yeah, it's a crazy country, but we love it anyway." I've used the phrase at least a few times here, apropos some bit of very American extravagant eccentricity. Here, make up your own mind:

And I love the old man saying to his old wife: "Hey darlin', I remember when you could stop a clock." I was just saying that to my gray-haired wife the other day. 

One of the category tags on this post comes from this song, which is not that great in itself but which I've always remembered for the title phrase and for "Somebody give me a cheeseburger":

And that's my Fourth of July post. Shine, perishing republic--and recall that that poem was written in the 1920s.


"Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity..."

...and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

—T.S. Eliot

It dawned on me sometime fairly late in life that although the opening statement is obviously true, the rest of it is jive. It's Eliot justifying his own poetics as a universal principle. It's by no means necessarily false, but not necessarily true, either. One could just as well argue that the essential task of the poet in such a time is to penetrate the complexity and get at the unchanging truths which the complexity often muddles. "A time of complexity and confusion requires a poetry of directness and clarity...."

But I thought about Eliot's statement when I took a tour boat around Mobile's seaport a few weeks ago. Container shipping is apparently the way things are done now, and I think has been for some time. (Here's a recent piece in National Review with some more information about that.)

Each of those shoe-boxy containers is somewhere close to the size of the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler. What's in them? How do they (the vague "they" which we all--or at least I--see as somehow making the world work) keep track of it all, from source to destination? Those cranes are...I don't know, a couple of hundred feet tall maybe? There's a little cab that hangs underneath the horizontal part and has a driver, who runs it out over the ship and with some sort of dangling gripping apparatus picks up a container and puts it down somewhere behind the crane, where there are acres and acres of them. 

ShipWithContainers

Whatever bad things one may have to say about the modern world, and I have plenty, it is an amazing accomplishment.

A year ago I probably wouldn't have specified that the Eliot in question is Thomas Stearns. But as of this past February it could in my mind as likely be George.


Silly Things I Sometimes Wonder About

Do they starve the dogs and cats before filming them for pet food commercials? Or do they lace the food with essence of hamburger or something of that sort? 

Addendum: I'm always telling people that when you're discussing this country you have to start with the understanding that we're crazy. (That's one thing I like about Kevin Williamson's writing in National Review--he emphasizes that, and never forgets it.) Often that becomes clearer with a little distance in time.

P.S. This post was prompted by watching my cats sniff and turn away from one kind of food after another.