A Republic, If We Want It

This is a little long for a blog post. It wasn't originally intended to be one. It was written almost six months ago and over that time was submitted, in various revisions, to four conservative/Catholic online publications. None of them wanted it (actually, none of them even acknowledged it with a rejection, which I guess is the state of online publication these days). So I'm posting it here, where at least a few people will see it. It was written before the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which has brought out more explicit and fervent rejection of the constitution on the left. I saw a link to a story at The Atlantic, a magazine I was once willing to pay to read, called The Constitution Isn't Working. I only saw the headline, but that seems enough.

A REPUBLIC, IF WE WANT IT

"A republic, if you can keep it." I suppose everyone knows that famous remark, said to have been made by Benjamin Franklin to a woman who asked whether the Constitutional Convention had created a republic or a monarchy. (The details of the story vary, but that seems to be a common version). The remark gets a lot of exercise, generally as a scolding of political opponents charged with being the menace against which Franklin warned. But there are good grounds for wondering now if the more pertinent question is not whether we can keep Franklin’s republic, but whether we want to.

I don’t know what potential failures Franklin had in mind, but for some time now one very clear possibility has been the reduction of the constitution to an empty set of words that mean whatever the Supreme Court says they mean. That possibility has long been foreseen by at least one side of the long-running argument between those who believe that the constitution should be interpreted straightforwardly as written, and those who believe that changing times warrant very loose interpretation.

Conservatives have naturally, almost by definition, been in the former camp, liberals or progressives in the latter. Many years ago when I was in high school I had a conservative civics teacher who truly valued free discussion and organized a formal debate on this question. As a teenager with leftward inclinations, I instinctively took the progressive side: conditions in the second half of the 20th century required creative new (or new, at least) interpretations of laws written two hundred years earlier, and so forth. “Spoken like a true liberal!” I recall my teacher saying triumphantly, and I was mildly pleased. But even as I made my argument I was troubled by the challenge posed by my opponents: what would or could be the limits of this flexibility? How and by whom might they be set?

It often seems that progressives do not in fact recognize any real limits on the license to interpret, and in effect redefine, the constitution's written words. They tend to see concern for the mere letter of that document as a small-minded obstacle to the implementation of their beautiful vision. They seem to believe that the intent of the constitution is simply the promotion of the good, and that therefore what is good (i.e. what is at the moment desirable to them) is necessarily constitutional, and what is not good is unconstitutional. Lately the progressive vanguard hardly even bothers with that argument, denouncing the constitution itself as being at best obsolete, at worst an actively harmful instrument of oppression, etc., etc.

Recently (and I suppose inevitably) a similar impatience has appeared on the right, in two forms. On the populist right, many Trump enthusiasts feel frustrated by institutions and politicians that seem forever retreating under progressive pressure. The idea that Donald Trump is in any serious sense "literally a fascist" is pretty ridiculous, but he does seem to have the temperament of an autocrat (not every autocrat is a fascist). And his most zealous followers don't seem to mind. They just want him to deliver a blow to a ruling class which no longer bothers to hide its contempt for them. That “he fights” is more important to them than his fidelity to the principles of the republic. It isn’t so much that they disregard, much less reject, the constitution as that they don’t think in those terms.

And on the more sophisticated right are those described, by themselves and others, as post-liberal: academics and pundits, many of them Catholic, who believe that the classical liberal foundation of the American system is intrinsically and fatally flawed, its metaphysical agnosticism making it unable to resist moral and cultural pathogens that are killing liberalism itself and becoming repressive in its name. I’m sympathetic to this position, and in fact said similar things more than twenty-five years ago in the pages of the little-known and short-lived Catholic magazine Caelum et Terra. I referred there to the Supreme Court as “nine popes without a God,” and I did not intend it as a compliment. But I am cynical and pessimistic by nature and figure that any replacement of the liberal order is likely to be worse, at least in its first century or two. I would rather see the liberal constitutional order revivified than abandoned, though cool reason gives me little hope that it will be.

Through the rhetorical mists we can discern on both sides a drift toward two types, maybe archetypes, of non-democratic government: the benevolent monarchy, and the council of the wise. As to the first: in every presidential election we hear people talk as if the president were a national father figure whose wisdom and power can, should, and will make everything all right, if only we will do as he says. Obama's more fervent supporters went wildly in this direction, and so have Trump's. Both tend to make striking—and to my eyes embarrassing—emotional displays of their devotion to the leader and willingness to serve him.

And as to the second: people now commonly talk of the Supreme Court as if it were a council of tribal elders endowed with a fundamentally unrestricted power to decide, on the basis of its own wisdom, what is best for the whole tribe. Progressives especially, but not only, tend to speak of the Court as if its job is to consider present circumstances, needs, and wishes, and to issue commands based on their judgment of those rather than on the constitution, closing the question with "we have spoken": in short, to make law, not to apply it.

And maybe we are indeed drifting toward one of these types, or a combination of them, adding our own technocratic touch in the form of advice and consent from “experts” whose acquisition of expertise clearly does not provide them with good judgment. And maybe that's because they are natural, and self-government is not. For years now I have had an unwelcome but persistent suspicion that self-government is an unnatural thing, something of a fluke when achieved, difficult to preserve, and probably short-lived. If that's true, then the U.S. has done very well to have lasted as long as it has. And it's no surprise that the machinery is now deteriorating, possibly beyond repair.

My use of the word "machinery" is significant. Our constitution and our system are rationalistic and somewhat mechanistic, with many moving parts driven by forces which are often in opposition, but harnessed and balanced to do the work of governance. Two gears do not turn together freely in a spirit of mutual support: one forces the other to turn, and without the resistance of the second the first would spin freely and uselessly. There is wear and tear on the parts, and like all machines this one will eventually fail without proper maintenance. I don’t think anyone would seriously claim that ours is now well-maintained.

Possibly the most significant aspect of this neglect is the indifference and ignorance of the putative citizenry, many or most of whom can hardly now be called "citizen" in any sense of the word richer than "resident." (That this is not altogether an accident is another and important topic, too large for this little essay.)

Maybe this is just a matter of the peoples of the modern democratic republics settling back into the normal human modes of organization. Maybe these modes are, so to speak, organic, developing naturally out of the nature of the human, in a way that our republican machinery, based on abstract principles, does not. Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches have always had some sort of part-monarchical, part-conciliar organization, and have lasted quite a bit longer than any republic.

I return to the question: do the American people of the twenty-first century A.D. want to keep their republic? And if they do not want it, what do they want in its place? Do they yearn in their hearts for one of those more ancient, perhaps more human, modes of governance? Is this the turn of events that Walker Percy describes in the opening pages of Love In the Ruins as a stalled roller-coaster starting to move again, with “...the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes….”?

Do these tendencies, so puzzlingly atavistic to those who believe in the inevitability of rational progress and in “history” as a deity on whose right hand they sit, suggest that our system is in some degree contrary to human nature? The Israelites asked for a king, and the prophet Samuel explained in the most definite and vivid terms why this would be a bad idea: see 1 Samuel 8:10-18. The warning was dire. But they insisted, and got their way. And Samuel was right, and it turned out badly for them.


Stranger Things And A Few Other Current TV Shows

It's odd to call these "TV shows," as they have so little in common with the sort of thing that the term brings to mind. But anyway:

Jim Geraghty of National Review described the fourth and unfortunately not final "season" (see, even that word is not really applicable) of Stranger Things this way, and it's pretty much my own view:

Credit the Duffer brothers and their creative team for being willing to experiment with a popular show: making much longer episodes, darkening the tone and stepping into indisputable horror-movie territory, leaving the main setting of Hawkins for long stretches, and willing to put characters like Max, Eleven, Lucas, and Steve into new emotional territory. The characters remain as likeable, relatable, and fun to watch as ever. But not everything worked, and what was once this charming, ’80s-nostaglia-filled, suspenseful story of a seemingly ordinary small town with a scary monster lurking offscreen now increasingly resembles one of those overstuffed, explosion-filled summer blockbusters at the multiplex. Bigger isn’t always better, but that ominous closing scene suggests the fifth and final season will be the biggest yet.

That last sentence is the reason for my "unfortunately" above. In my opinion the first season was by far the best.

I'll put in another sort-of-good word for the show. My ten- and twelve-year-old grandsons have watched it (all four), and in some ways I wish they hadn't. It really has gone into "indisputable horror-movie territory." And I have other not-insignificant reservations about their exposure to it. Nevertheless, attempting to look on the bright side, as is always my inclination, I think something C.S. Lewis said about fairy tales is relevant:

A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children's literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened.... They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.

Stranger Things is full of heroism, love, and self-sacrifice. If my grandchildren are going to see horror movies, I can at least say for this one that it gives them examples of real, difficult virtue resisting real evil.

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I recently signed up for the AMC+ streaming service for the sole purpose of seeing two shows: the final season of Better Call Saul and the first (maybe only) season of Dark Winds, which is based on the novels of Tony Hillerman. These, as you probably know, are detective novels set among the Navajo people and featuring two Navajo policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I'm a great fan of those books and was very much looking forward to this series.

I'm sorry to say that I found it disappointing. Not bad, but disappointing. To go into a lot of detail would be of interest only to those who love the books as much as I do. But to sum it up: I didn't think the principal characters were faithful to the book. Leaphorn, for instance, is given a son, though in the book he and his beloved wife Emma are childless. And I didn't care for the fact that the plot, only loosely based on a Hillerman book (Listening Woman), threw together people and situations that develop only over a long period in the fictional world. That's a defensible choice, given that the creators probably have no guarantee that they will get more than one shot. Still, it sacrifices a lot of deep character development. I'm tempted to go on but will leave it that. 

Nevertheless, if there is another season, I'll probably watch it. Though I plan to cancel AMC+ as soon as Better Call Saul is over. 

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In anticipation of the latter, I watched season 5 of Saul. If you liked Breaking Bad, but haven't been watching Saul, you really, really should. (It's a prequel to BB.) Especially in the first several seasons it doesn't have the sensational and gripping quality of BB, but as not-very-ethical lawyer Jimmy McGill is slowly transformed into drug cartel lawyer Saul Goodman, the two worlds draw closer and closer together. 

The producers have put together this great little ten-minute film in the style of a network TV exposé that gives an excellent overview of the series without revealing anything major.

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There was a gap of a week or so between the end of Dark Winds and the release of new episodes of Saul. In the meantime, out of curiosity and for lack of anything more promising, my wife and I watched the first episode of a new AMC sci-fi series called Moonhaven.  The title refers to an utterly implausible colony on the moon, which is an earth-like (but better) environment on a large part of the moon, and a near-utopian community established there under the guidance of an AI entity call IO. I'm not going to recommend it, though my wife and I have, as too often happens, gotten hooked enough to want to find out what happens.

This community seems to have leapt through some horrible 1970s California time-warp and is full of the most smug and manipulative post-hippie New Age gurus you can imagine. Back on earth, things are really bad (wars, environmental disaster, the usual). And the community, under the direction of IO, is supposed to be discovering how to solve the human problem and to take the solution back to earth. Their slogan is "The Future Is Better." No. The future is insufferable, if they are it.


Stella Suberman: The Jew Store

Don't be alarmed by the title, which I think is in fact a bit alarming. It strikes our ears as crude, at least, and is the product of a time and place in which Jews were seen as foreign and held in some suspicion, sometimes hostility. The time and place was a small town in Tennessee (fictionally named Concordia) in the 1920s, and the author of this book was the daughter of a Jewish merchant who, with his family, were the first and only Jews in the town, and whose store was therefore known to the town as the Jew store:

Bronson's Low-Priced Store was Concordia's "Jew store." There had been none until my family got there, and in those days it was the custom for every small Southern town to have one. A Jew store--and that is what people called it--was a modest establishment selling soft goods--clothing and domestics (bedding, towels, yard goods)--to the poorer people of the town--the farmers, the sharecroppers, the blacks, the factory workers.

Sure, "Jew store" smells of antisemitism. And the family did encounter hostility from some because they were Jews. But they thrived, and that was not unusual.

I long ago realized that the antisemitism of the South has been greatly exaggerated. Forty years after the Bronsons came to Concordia I went to high school in a southern town somewhat like it, though a little larger. I did not notice at the time that there was a small Jewish community there, that a couple of the stores on the town square were owned by Jews, and that a popular judge was Jewish. And that his daughter was the mother of one of my friends. I didn't notice it because it wasn't remarked. I never heard the term "Jew store," which either had never been used or had passed out of use by my time. And in any case there was more than one, and the clientele of Mr. Jaffe's department store was not considered déclassé--I recall my middle-class family shopping there. 

There was a sort of pro-forma antisemitism among the same sort of people who take naturally to whatever form of bigotry is on offer. But that was something of an afterthought, amounting to little in comparison to the systematic oppression inflicted on blacks. Jews were safely on the "white" side of that divide. I can remember hearing only one explicit expression of antisemitism, and that was from a high school friend who was just trying to shock people. (I know enough of his later life to know that he outgrew that urge.)

It was even later that I learned that the situation in my town was, as Stella (Bronson) Suberman says, pretty standard throughout the South. There was in fact in the early 20th century a sort of mini-migration of Jews, recently arrived from Europe and Russia, to small Southern towns, where they opened businesses and prospered. The Bronsons were one of a great many families. 

I say the Bronsons thrived, but not in every respect. The business thrived, and the husband liked Tennessee better than New York, and anyway considered that any difficulties they encountered had to be seen alongside others that they might have experienced elsewhere:

My father guarded against sentimentalizing Concordia, going "too easy" on it, as he said. He reminded himself that it was not a place of uniformly soft hearts and warm spirits, a place where the inhabitants were partial to Jews. He wasn't a fool; he knew Concordia wasn't that way. But the way it was was okay by him. And why not? Having in Russia been tormented, chased, and attacked by Cossacks, having in New York been insulted and ignored, whatever maltreatment he had endured in Concordia was minor league. The Ku Klux Klan? Their threats had not materialized, though my father did not kid himself. "It wasn't because they loved me so much," he would say. No, it was more that having experienced a Jew store, they were now convinced that having one in Concordia was a good thing.

The children were reasonably happy--sometimes too happy and too much at home to suit Mrs. Bronson, who never stopped pining for New York and the Jewish family and community of which she had been a part there, and who worried perpetually about her children finding Jewish spouses. That became a crisis when the older daughter Miriam approached marriageable age. In the end Mrs. Bronson got her way, and after roughly a decade in Concordia they moved back to New York.

The time in Tennessee encompassed the author's life until the age of ten or eleven. Not for the first time I'm just a little skeptical of the detailed accuracy and quantity of a memoirist's childhood memories. But if I remember correctly (I read the book some months ago) she says that she draws on the testimony of others in the family, those who were older than she at the time. At any rate, this is an extremely enjoyable book. I find myself reaching for the stock terms in which one praises a memoir of what we are too apt to call "a simpler time," which in some ways it was: warm, affectionate, nostalgic, wry, full of colorful characters, especially Miss Brookie Simmons, a well-to-do and educated "spinster," as she would have been called then, who is the family's general guide and protector. Well, if those terms are stock, they're still accurate, and let's add gracefully and engagingly written. 

The story of these little Jewish communities often has in our time a sad ending, as the general movement of people and money away from those towns has seen many of those communities dispersed. It's good that chronicles like this exist. 

TheJewStore

The little girl would be Stella, the little boy her older brother Joey. I think this depicts an incident in the book. 


Shine, Perishing Republic

July42015

This was my Fourth of July picture in 2015, not long after the Obergefell decision. It remains appropriate, but the reversal of Roe v. Wade is an occasion of hope that maybe the republic is not done for yet. Whatever you think about abortion, it was a victory for the constitution and therefore for the country.

The title is from the famous Robinson Jeffers poem. Our troubles are not the same as those of his time, but that phrase is one of those that comes into my head whenever I think of our political-cultural situation. I'm not linking to it because the only online texts I can find are pretty unappealing visually. But you'll find one quickly enough if you search for the title.


Celebrity News

I'm not really up on the lives of celebrities. So when I saw this headline on a news site:

Jerry Hall Files for Divorce From Rupert Murdoch

I thought "Surely that's not the same Jerry Hall who was Mick Jagger's girlfriend." But it is. I guess I had last heard of her decades ago when she and Jagger were in the news. (Actually, according to the story, they married after some years together, but the marriage was annulled. They had four children.)

I don't have anything in particular to say about this. It just strikes me as really strange. It's like finding out that an aging Janis Joplin had married an elderly William F. Buckley. Far be it from me to suggest that either party in this marriage was anything less than wildly in love with the other. Or that Jerry Hall is not heartbroken now that it's come to naught.


Weirdest Thing I've Ever Heard A Music Critic Say

Kyle Smith of National Review on Radiohead's OK Computer:

[Radiohead] don’t seem to grasp that music has to fit in someplace, to play some purpose. It goes with walking (the Beatles), working (Bach), shirking (Yacht rock), driving (the Eighties station), imbibing (country), getting up (pop), getting down (R & B), working out (hard rock, rap), and possibly even dancing (I wouldn’t know).

If I were an under-forty online female, I would say something like "I can't even." (Or maybe that would be an under-forty female of five years ago, as the fashionable slang may have changed by now. I don't recall having heard that recently.) The jewel in that list is that Bach is for "working." No, Bach is either for listening with the deepest attention you can manage to beauty whose very existence brings tears to your eyes, or, in the devotional works, for a prayer-like state of meditation on Christian themes. Or sometimes both.

Smith is listed as "critic at large" for National Review, and is the theater critic for The New Criterion. He's an entertaining writer, and his theater criticism always sounds intelligent and plausible to me, though I have not seen and never will see any of the productions he reviews. But I certainly won't take what he says about music very seriously from now on.

He really hates OK Computer, and goes on for several hundred words explaining in detail how much he hates it, and why. Fair enough; it's not to everyone's taste. But his opening premise ought to make the reader wary of trusting his opinion. I'll include a link to it, though it may be available only to subscribers: "Against Suicide Rock." 

I think the album is getting this attention because this year is its 25th anniversary, which I will say quickly and predictably is hard to believe, time flies, etc. Another NR writer, Jack Butler, published a completely different view of it a few weeks ago: "A Pig In A Cage On Antibiotics"; you wouldn't know from that title that it's wildly enthusiastic.

All this caused me to listen to the album again for the first time at least since I stopped commuting to work six years ago. I think I only heard it back in its day because one of my then-teenaged children had it. In fact I think the CD I have may have been borrowed or inherited from her. And as far as I can remember I never heard it anywhere but in my car, and had never actually sat and listened to it at home on good equipment. Now I have, and while I liked it before I didn't quite get why so many people think it's a great work. Now I do. I'm not widely knowledgeable about the pop music of the last few decades, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the outstanding albums of the time.

It is indeed, as Smith complains and Butler enthuses, a fragmented, seemingly disorganized work.  In that respect it made me think of "The Waste Land," though in saying so I don't mean that I think it's on the same artistic level. But as a piece of popular music, including not only composition and performance but arrangement and recording, it is brilliant, deserving to be compared with other landmarks in the genre. I thought specifically of Dark Side of the Moon: you might say this is a Dark Side for a more anxious, uneasy, disoriented, technologically oppressive time. And Dark Side was not exactly cheerful or comforting.

The songs are not so much songs in the usual sense as complex compositions for voice and instruments. I doubt there have been many covers of any of them. And I doubt that any but the most zealous and gifted teenage guitarists sit around trying to play them. The music is worlds away from the bluesy foundations of most rock. Plaintive melodies are embedded in, or give way suddenly to, instrumental work going off in sometimes very different directions. Rhythms shift and jerk. Lyrics are sparse and fragmented, though not so much so that they fail to do useful work. It's all very complex and carefully assembled, or at any rate it really does sound assembled, not at all spontaneous. 

My only small reservation about the album is that it sags a bit toward the end. Something more than halfway through there's a very weird little interlude in which a synthetic voice recites a string of self-help counsels: "Fitter, happier, more productive...." The voice, if I remember correctly, is that of the text-to-speech reader of the then-current Macintosh. It always sounded somewhere between ludicrous and disconcerting and it's a perfect touch here. This leads into a sequence of three songs that end with the sweetest moment of the album, "No Surprises," which to my taste would be the perfect closer. But there are two more songs which, though they're excellent on their own, seem to me in context a bit of a falling-off. 

In case you haven't heard the album, here's a taste--the first song, "Airbag":

And thank you to Kyle Smith, who caused me to hear it in its full glory.


I Never Expected To See This Day

Well, maybe not never. But I didn't think it was very likely. And the fact that it has happened makes me think that it's at least possible that this country, which is in imminent danger of capsizing, might yet right itself. I've thought for many years that Roe v. Wade has been a terrible toxin in our body politic, rivaled only by our racial problem as a source of possibly fatal division. If it is indeed possible for the republic to function again more or less as designed and as specified in the constitution, it's a necessary condition that there be some return of independence to the states on matters where there is no national consensus.

A major part of our problem is that we have irreconcilable differences, and the overextension of the national government's reach and power has created a situation in which each side of that division believes that its only hope of survival is to once and for all defeat and subjugate the opposition. This decision is a major step toward defusing that situation. Or at least it should be; in the short run it will make it worse.

Naturally abortion proponents aren't going to accept anything less than total nation-wide elimination of restrictions. And a lot of anti-abortion people are now calling for a national ban, which I think is a bad idea, almost certain to fail and certain to make divisions worse. (A bad idea under present conditions, I mean--possibly a good one at some time in the future if more people come over to the anti-abortion side.)

Some might reply to that by saying that if a national ban would save lives then it's worth tearing the country apart. After all, that's what it took to end slavery. But the two things in themselves, and the situations surrounding them, are very, very different, in ways which ought to be obvious to anyone, and I don't see how the question could be resolved by any violent means short of near-extermination of its enemies by one side or the other, followed by the establishment of an extremely authoritarian regime. That can hardly be "worth it."

A lot of people are feeling joyful. My own feeling is a sort of somber satisfaction. This was the right decision. But, as has always been insisted upon by those paying attention, it's only one battle in a war: a major battle to be sure, but still only one battle. And I'm braced for a frenzy of hatred, lies, and attempts at political destruction from the pro-abortionists. By "political destruction" I mean, for instance, calls for the Supreme Court to be ignored and in general for the substitution of mob-like demands, perhaps of actual mobs, for law. Significant violence is certainly possible; that's hardly an unreasonable concern, since some leftists have already promised and begun it. 

In other words, the left in general, including the Democratic party, will engage in exactly the same attacks on "our democracy" that they accuse the right of. They may not do anything as dramatic as invading the Capitol--after all, they are the party which controls the presidency and Congress as well as the education and journalistic establishments, so they have many more avenues of action. But they may be more effective. I think it's been pretty clear that when they say "our democracy" they mean "that system of government in which we rule." The "our" is proprietary.

No matter what you think of Donald Trump, it seems beyond question that his presidency is directly responsible for this victory. Obviously a victory by any Democrat, and especially the one actually running in 2016, would have prevented it for another few decades. I don't think highly of Trump and didn't vote for him in 2016, because I live in the reddest of red states and availed myself of the permission, so to speak, to make a third-party protest vote. But this is his doing. You can argue that any Republican would have done the same, though that's debatable, but the fact is that he was there and he did it--with, of course, a lot of help and cooperation from those establishment Republicans whom many conservatives despise (not entirely without reason, but excessively). I think, in retrospect, that more harm was done to the country by "the Resistance" (the disgustingly appropriated title awarded to themselves by many of his enemies) than by Trump himself. But in any case: credit where credit is due. 

Just in passing, and mentioned only because I've already read it a dozen times today: the abortion-rights people have never stopped bringing up rape and incest as reasons to keep it legal. This is not a good-faith argument, because they would never support a law that banned abortion in every case except those. It's just a tactically useful appeal to natural emotions.

We can't lose sight of the fact that the desperation to hang on to the more or less unrestricted right to abortion gets its passion from the sexual revolution, from the need to preserve it at all costs, and, more fundamentally, to uphold the quasi-religious doctrine of the separation of sex and reproduction. That physical, spiritual, and cultural lie can't be defeated by law, in fact can never be entirely defeated. But it can be dethroned from its all-but-omnipotent position of power in our culture. Apart from the obvious duty of Christians to help women with unwanted pregnancies, we should also make some effort to empathize with people who have grown up believing that sexual expression does not and should not have any restrictions, that from some time in adolescence on everyone can and should engage in whatever sexual activity strikes his or her fancy, with no adverse consequences. A young woman growing up with those assumptions might well be terrified--I mean, really and sincerely terrified--by anything which promises to cut off her escape in the event that her sexual activity has what was once considered its natural result.

For Catholics, the timing of this announcement is providential: the feast of the Sacred Heart. That's a devotion which I've never been attracted to, not because I think there's anything wrong with it but because it just doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps I should give it another look. Also, in normal years (see this) June 24 is the feast of St. John the Baptist, which is, you might say, even more providential.

And it came to pass that when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.


Peter Hitchens On the Automobile

At The Lamp's blog, Hitchens has a great little essay on the wrong turning civilization took when almost everyone got a car. It starts as a personal matter with him. He just doesn't like cars, period:

Life would be a lot easier if I did not hate motor cars. But I just do hate them. I have tried not to. I even learned to drive at the age of thirty-one, a terrible surrender made as I sought to fit in with what felt increasingly like a compulsory faith. But I never really submitted, and have since drifted away from it....

I would be dishonest if I pretended to have this fine and unequivocal disdain for the thing. Like most Americans, I got my driver's license as soon as I possibly could when I turned sixteen. I was never exactly what one could call a car person, but there was a period of a couple of years in my teens when I read hot rod magazines and assembled plastic model cars. When Tom Wolfe published The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby I knew what the title referred to. I knew who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was. I coveted a Jaguar XKE.

image from cdn.dealeraccelerate.com

I spent weekend nights riding around in the nearby towns, although what I was driving was hardly cool: a low-end 1959 Chevrolet with a 6-cylinder engine and a rusting body. It was not improved by the small fire I started in the back seat when I flipped a cigarette out the driver's window and into the open window behind me.

image from www.fritte.net(The one I drove was not decorated like this one.)

A friend of mine sometimes had the use of a T-Bird. My one-time girlfriend had a white Mustang. Those were about as close to cool as I ever got.

By the time I was nineteen or twenty that interest had vanished completely. For some while a sort of detached admiration for certain cars persisted. I recall seeing a dark green Mercedes on Sundays at my parish decades ago, and thinking it was nice looking, but I had no desire to own one. I've never owned a vehicle that would merit any interest or even respect from a person seriously interested in cars.

Even the mild appreciation that continued faintly into middle age dissipated altogether. The arrival of the so-called "sport utility vehicle" really killed it. Once upon a time the term had a connection to reality, but that's gone. I have an active disdain for the really big ones, the Tahoe and such, and the luxury ones, like Mercedes and BMW "SUV"s. Some Americans seem to look back at the big cars of the '50s and '60s and congratulate our modern selves on having better taste than the people of those days. One can argue about the aesthetics but there is absolutely no room for most contemporary Americans to look down on those of the 1950s for their love of the big powerful cushy automobile.

I now drive a 2010 Honda Civic and plan to continue driving it until either I die or it does. But I admit that I still like to drive under certain conditions, still enjoy a long drive on a highway with not too much traffic. So to that extent I am not on the same page as Hitchens.

It isn't just his personal dislike, though. He also hates what the automobile has done to English cities, towns, and countryside. And there I'm very much with him:

And, if you do not love automobiles for what they are, I think you are bound in the end to hate them for what they do. Look at the way they spoil every prospect. A line of garishly colored cars parked in a beautiful city square wrecks the proportions of the place. Their curious shapes, inhuman and flashy, clash violently with almost every style of architecture except the most brutal concrete modernism. The incessant noise and smell of them, the horrible danger they represent to soft human bodies, the space they take up, are all outrages against peace, beauty, and kindness. Near where I live, there are several roads where drivers are officially encouraged to park on the sidewalk, because if they parked on the narrow road, it would be impassable. The logic of this is inexorable, once you have assumed the supremacy of the car. But if you are a car heretic, the thing is a blood-boiling outrage. 

I probably have (if it's possible) an even more intense resentment on that point because of the scale on which America has done this. I doubt that England has as many of the 100% auto-age urban areas that we do. We have vast cityscapes that did not exist before 1950 or so. Some of these have arisen around an existing city of significant size, some have only a little town at their centers, surrounded by a sprawl many times larger. And all of it is built on the assumption that everyone has a car and will get into it and drive somewhere for any activity that does not take place in his own home.

I grew up fifteen miles or so from Huntsville, Alabama. At the beginning of World War II Huntsville was a small town of roughly 13,000 people. Because a military weapons development center was located there, the population grew during the war and was up to 20,000 or so by its end. After that the military installation was mainly devoted to the coming thing in weaponry, guided missiles, and then a major piece of NASA was located there. Its currently listed population of something over 200,000 doesn't tell the story of the growth of the area, as Huntsville and/or its suburbs now extend literally to the driveway of the house I spent most of my childhood in. The two smaller towns within commuting distance have also grown and sprawled so that the three have almost grown together. The connecting highways are clogged. Most of the area between my former home and the middle of the city, the old town square which is only a relic, is literally unrecognizable to me now. When I go there I find it difficult to stop complaining. 

Here is the link to the Hitchens piece again. It's called "The Great God Zil," and I'll leave it to you to discover what Zil is or was. And I'll add that his denunciation of the huge pompous belligerent motorcades that now move our rulers around is not the least important and savagely enjoyable part of the article.


Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole. 


Julee Cruise, RIP

I first heard her on Peter Schickele's radio program, Schickele Mix. I'll guess the year was about 1991. It was a wonderfully eclectic hour of music and talk about music and I sometimes recorded it to cassette.

One night he played this song. As far as I recall he didn't say anything by way of introduction beyond the singer's name. I had never heard of her. I had never seen Twin Peaks and knew little about David Lynch beyond the fact that he was the director of a movie called Blue Velvet which I had stopped watching part way through because I found it too disturbing. I can only describe my reaction to the song as some weird combination of mesmerized and electrified. And touched by a deep sadness. I kept the tape of that program for a long time, mainly for this song.

This was before the web, and I had no way of learning more about the artist or the music. Of course I had no idea that I would eventually become a big fan of Twin Peaks and some of Lynch's other work. I don't know how much time went by before I got the album, Floating Into the Night, but it was before I ever saw Twin Peaks. That had to wait for Netflix. I liked the album as much as I liked the one song. 

Here's what I wrote about the album in the 52 Albums series. I don't see anything there that I would disagree with now, five years later.

Julee Cruise died within the past day or two. According to this obituary in The Guardian, she had lupus. And the comment from her husband--"she left this realm on her own terms"--makes it sound like she might have taken her own life rather than wait for the disease to take it. I would not judge harshly anyone who takes that step under those conditions, but I hope it's not true. 

Here's the song which was the foundation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Of the Twin Peaks sound.