Politics Feed

Conservatism, Briefly Defined Described

Several days ago I wrote about the Ahmari-French argument, which might better be termed the liberal-postliberal argument (meaning classical liberalism, not the current party label), and which is currently happening on the right. See this post. I don't entirely agree with either side, and am not much interested in participating in the argument, so will not bother trying to articulate my view.

It's been something like forty years now since I somewhat reluctantly admitted that I had become, for lack of a better word, a conservative. But I've always maintained a certain distance from the conservative movement, and had only limited interest in the never-ending debate about What It Means To Be A Conservative.

Conservatism, as Russell Kirk said, is the negation of ideology. Or it ought to be. Accordingly, it resists definition. A decade or so ago I had an unpleasant argument with a traditionalist Catholic who had, in my opinion, taken Thomistic (or just scholastic?) logic where it doesn't readily go, and insisted (triumphantly) that because conservatism could not be defined precisely it must not exist. Cf. jazz, I thought; I can't remember whether I said it or not. That something cannot be defined in a complete and unambiguous way does not mean that we cannot speak of it.

The following note is from Kevin Williamson's entry in the Ahmari-French controversy. Both French and Williamson write for National Review and are in rough agreement on the question at hand. But this struck me as a fundamental truth that transcends that question:

Conservatives have always been, and will always be, at a disadvantage against the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right in that conservatives believe that it very often is the case that there is nothing to be done, or not much to be done, that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt which on that basis.

A few (?) months ago someone complained that I had "gotten so reactionary." Well, I may or may not be fairly described as reactionary, but if I am I have not gotten that way anytime recently. I've held pretty much the same basic political views since that transition forty years ago. Williamson expresses very well the foundation on which those views rest. I would add that "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. The list of specific policies that it requires or rejects as being intrinsically good or bad is fairly short. 

I sometimes think conservatives are in a situation something like that of Cordelia in King Lear. Her father is enraged by the modesty of her profession of love and duty toward him. The extravagant promises of Goneril and Regan are much more pleasing, so naturally he thinks better of them--for a while.

Of course conservative hopes can sometimes be overly modest, willing to tolerate evils that could be ameliorated (though probably not obliterated). A perfect balance between the impulse to preserve and the impulse to improve would be...perfect. And is unlikely.


Some people say "conservativism" instead of "conservatism." I've always thought it sounded cumbersome and a little silly, like Peter Schickele's "musicalologist." But a few days ago I read someone's case for it as being more correct. "Liberal" is made into the noun "liberalism," not "liberism." "Conservative" therefore should become concrete in something called "conservativism."

This is going to bother me for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, I'm Right

Some twenty-five years ago I wrote a piece for Caelum et Terra in which I asserted that a fundamental weakness of the American system is that it is agnostic on the ultimate questions. The Constitution defines a structure and a set of procedures that are meant to be philosophically and theologically neutral. It assumes a workable consensus on the fundamental questions, and therefore has no mechanism for coping with fundamental disagreements. Now that such disagreements have arrived, and on a scale where each side has enough political power to prevent either from totally dominating the other, we're in trouble.

The current argument raging among conservatives is at least partly about that same question, and it caused me to re-read my essay. And I think I was right. Am right: 

...now that the ethical consensus which underlay [the Constitution] has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.

You can read the whole essay here, though I should note that it's on the long side for online reading (somewhere around 6,000 words). I think it holds up well, though I probably wouldn't write that last section today in a political context. Euthanasia has not made nearly as much progress as I expected it to, but sexual "liberation" has gone much further. It is all too accurate now to say that the people do not agree about what a human being is.

If you haven't heard about it, the argument I'm referring to is between conservatives who are beginning to give up on the whole classical liberal project and those who think it can still be saved.

Political liberals have long been impatient with the Constitution, pushing the concept of a "living Constitution," a sort of secular version of the interpretive technique by which progressive theologians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Political conservatives, aka classical liberals, have defended the Constitution as written and as straightforwardly understood ("strict construction," "original intent," etc.). This argument has been going on for a long time--my high school civics teacher staged a debate on the question fifty years ago. (I took the progressive side.)

In recent years there have been more voices on the left calling either explicitly or implicitly for the whole thing to be disregarded or dumped ("written by dead white males," etc. etc. etc.) Now some on the right are beginning to give up on classical liberalism, which of course has been pretty much the essence of American conservatism. (I know, the terminology is confusing, but you have to use it to talk intelligently about this stuff.) Ross Douthat has a pretty good overview of the controversy in the New York Times. Follow his links if you want to know more.

Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for the David French side of the argument. As I said here quite a few years ago, I would like to preserve and reform the American constitutional order, and I haven't changed my mind about that. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for the idea of Christian/Catholic integralism, especially considering the character of the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy now. But I fear that the argument is becoming irrelevant. Possibly the greater danger is that the citizenry as a whole no longer really care about preserving the republic that the Constitution defines. Many on both the left and the right are looking (mostly unconsciously, but evidently) for some sort of authority figure to lead the forces of good against those of evil. Or, less apocalyptically, to be the benevolent and all-powerful Father of the Nation who will provide for them. As different as Obama and Trump are, you can see the tendency plainly among the enthusiastic followers of both.


If There's One Thing I Despise, It's a Mob

Or: "Driving Through The Caution Lights."

In 1932 my grandfather was the judge in a case where the lynching of the defendants was a very real possibility. This is what he said to the court:

Now, gentlemen, this is for the audience, and I want it to be known that these prisoners are under the protection of this court. The Sheriff and his deputies, and members of the National Guards, are under the direction and authority of this court. This court intends to protect these prisoners and any other persons engaged in this trial. Any man or group of men that attempts to take charge outside of the law are not only disobedient to the law but are citizens unworthy of the protection of the State of Alabama, and unworthy of the citizenship which they enjoy. I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer, and a man whom we should look down upon with all the contempt in our being; and I am going to say further that the soldiers here and the Sheriffs here are expected to defend with their lives these prisoners and if they must do it, listen gentlemen, you have the authority of this court, and this court is speaking with authority, the man who attempts it may expect that his own life be forfeited or the guards that guard them must forfeit their lives. If I were in command, and I will be there if I know it, I will not hesitate to give the order to protect with their lives these prisoners against any such attempt.

I am speaking with feeling and I know it because I am feeling it. I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit and that spirit that would charge the guilt or innocence of any being without knowing of their guilt or innocence. Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner. I am here listening to this case trying to sift the truth or not the truth of it and I am going to strengthen that guard if necessary and I am going to let everyone know that any attempt, and I believe these boys understand, that you have got to kill them before you get these prisoners. That is understood and they have told me they would, and they will do it. Those are the instructions and orders given to the guards.

I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I could never have been a lawyer, but I did inherit enough of my grandfather's spirit to put me in absolute agreement, intellectual and emotional, with him. I am speaking with feeling and I know it.

That was my initial reaction to the Covington Boys vs. Progressive Opinion affair, though not my initial reaction to the incident that sparked the conflict. In that reaction I'm happy to say that I passed the Covington Catholic test, as described in The Atlantic by Julie Zimmerman. That is, when I first read of the incident I thought Hmm, that looks bad, but there's probably more to the story. And I waited to see what facts would emerge when the dust settled. One lesson that we all ought to have learned in recent years is that sensational stories in the media often prove to be far less sensational when more light is shed on them.

Of course there was a great deal more to the story, so much so that the original "narrative" was shown to be largely false. I know there are still holdouts for that view, but I don't think it's tenable. As an assessment of the facts these two pieces speak for me:

Andrew Sullivan, in New York magazine: "The Abyss of Hate vs. Hate." 

Caitlin Flanagan, in The Atlantic: "The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story." 

Note that neither of these is a conservative publication, and neither of the writers is a Trump supporter; quite the contrary. I'm not sure what Sullivan's views in general are these days, but I don't think he can be described as a conservative. I had pretty much given up on him a while back and only saw this piece because someone linked to it. Flanagan is, as far as I can tell, more or less a conventional liberal, but clear-eyed and not an ideologue. She's one of the few writers currently at The Atlantic whom I'll take time to read.

For me this was something of a Young Goodman Brown moment. Brown is the protagonist of the Hawthorne short story which bears his name. In brief, it describes the crisis of a young Massachusetts Puritan man who discovers that all the respectable people of his town are participants in a rite of devil-worship held at night deep in the woods. Nothing ever looks the same to him afterwards. (You can read the story here.)

The initial reaction to the Covington story among journalists, various celebrities, and the left in general was the work of a mob in every respect except that of physical violence, and that was vehemently threatened (which put me in mind of Yeats's line "had they but courage equal to desire"). It disgusted me. On a visceral level I was sickened by the mindlessness of it, by the way a mob joyfully discards all constraints on its ugly passion. A mob is an entity in itself, something bigger, more stupid, and more wicked than the individuals who constitute it. 

But internet mob actions happen fairly often. What made this one so disturbing to me was similar to what disturbed Goodman Brown: not that there were devil worshipers in the woods, but that the respectable people were among them, as excited and happy to be there as any witch. Usually these mobs are made up of anonymous people with no power apart from whatever they can collectively exercise as a mob. But the mob attacking the Covington boys was led by institutions and people who have a great deal of cultural influence: The New York Times; The Washington Post. CNN. Pundits and entertainers. One of the first of these I saw, after the initial story appeared, was from Michael Green, one of the screenwriters for Blade Runner 2049. Green said (on Twitter, naturally) of the now-famous boy in the MAGA hat :

A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.

My interest in seeing BR 2049 again died a quick death when I saw that.

There were worse, of course, including the Beauty and the Beast co-producer who thought the boys should be fed head-first into a wood-chipper. Some of the attackers deleted and apologized for some of their most offensive and violent comments.  The press backtracked to a degree, but at least from what I saw most went no further than to admit that the situation was more complex than they had initially said.

I don't know whether any of them have ever admitted that their story was just plain false in every important respect. At worst the boys were guilty of bad manners and "disrespect" (an odd complaint to make in 21st century America)--unless you believe that a MAGA hat is only and always a symbol of white supremacy, and anyone wearing it a white supremacist, morally equivalent to a Klan member. Or that the silly "tomahawk chop" gesture, used by fans of every sports team with an Indian name, is the moral equivalent of burning a cross. It's one thing to say that the hat and the gesture are offensive and insensitive, combative where reconciliation is needed. I would largely agree. But it's quite another to say that they are threats of violence, even a species of violence, and only used by racist monsters. I know there are people who believe these things, just as there are people who believe Obama is a secret Muslim. Reason is powerless in such cases. 

Part of the secret power of a mob is a truth of human nature that we would all prefer not to see: it feels good to hate. Really good. There's a kind of ecstasy in surrendering to it. There is a lot of hate in our politics now. There is plenty of it on the right, but there is at least as much on the left. And many or most of those on the left are unable to see it, even when, in cases like this, it is on striking public display.

To a degree this is to be expected as the normal human tendency to be blind to one's own faults while having a keen eye for those of others. But part of it is that progressives have defined themselves particularly and explicitly as we who do not hate, we who are not those who hate. By definition, then, hate is something that other people, their enemies, do. It's the very essence of their opposition to the right, which they see precisely as the party of hate. Therefore whatever indignation they feel and express is not hate. If you see something in them that you might be inclined to call hate or malice, it is their righteous anger. It is an aspect of their virtue, so of course they aren't ashamed of it.

Empathy, openness, and fairness are also among the qualities on which the left prides itself, and ones which were nowhere to be seen in this affair. How was it that thousands, at least, of presumably sane people were able to focus so much hatred on one teenage boy, caught in a strange situation which he did not create, with a look on his face which they deemed arrogant, and moreover symbolic of the world's greatest evils? (Of personal grievances as well--some commentators were enraged because the picture reminded them of someone they hated in high school. If I felt that way about someone I would not expect anyone else to take it seriously.) In matters like this the left is absolutely unwilling and/or unable to consider the possibility that legitimate disagreement can exist, that anyone can see the matter other than they do and not be an evil person. In this view it's simply not possible that anyone could have reasons for supporting Trump that are not evil or at the very least hopelessly and culpably stupid, and in any case beyond respect, dialog, or simple courtesy. (I'm speaking generally; there are individual exceptions.)

All this has been under way for a long time, but it's reached a dangerous pitch now. There are a couple of remarks that I see frequently on conservative web sites: "This is how we got Trump" and "This will not end well." Both are applicable to this situation.

Flanagan and Sullivan are worth quoting in confirmation of those two observations. Flanagan, on how we got Trump, and may get him again: 

I am prompted to issue my own ethics reminders for The New York Times. Here they are: You were partly responsible for the election of Trump because you are the most influential newspaper in the country, and you are not fair or impartial. Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will casually harm them. Two years ago, they fought back against you, and they won. If Trump wins again, you will once again have played a small but important role in that victory.

Sullivan, on the bad end toward which we seem headed:

A campaign slogan for a candidate who won the votes of 46 percent of the country in 2016 is to be seen as indistinguishable from the Confederate flag. This is not the language of politics. It is a language of civil war.

I can understand this impulse emotionally as a response to Trump’s hatefulness. But I fear it morally or politically. It’s a vortex that can lead to nothing but the raw imposition of power by one tribe over another....

This is the abyss of hate versus hate, tribe versus tribe. This is a moment when we can look at ourselves in the mirror of social media and see what we have become. Liberal democracy is being dismantled before our eyes — by all of us. This process is greater than one president. It is bottom-up as well as top-down. Tyranny, as Damon Linker reminded us this week, is not just political but psychological, and the tyrannical impulse, ratcheted up by social media, is in all of us. It infects the soul of the entire body politic. It destroys good people. It slowly strangles liberal democracy. This is the ongoing extinction level event.

And a commenter at Rod Dreher's blog offered this warning: 

We are driving through the caution lights because we trust our civilization, our safety, our wealth, our technology, to be secure against self-destruction. It’s never safe to ignore the caution lights. C. S. Lewis wrote that “pain is God’s megaphone.” We would be fools to ignore the signals.

One lesson that a mob teaches us is that the restraints of civilization can be more easily broken and discarded than we like to think. And this recent incident teaches us, if we were so naive as not to know it already, that education (or "education") is no guarantee of resistance to the impulse.

I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I am speaking with feeling, and I know it.

Sunday Night Journal, December 2, 2018

I find that I'm unable to stick with the intention of only reading one book at a time, so I try to limit myself to two, one fiction and one non-fiction. But I've just broken that, too, by starting Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle before finishing Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. (The non-fiction is Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise.) I had looked for Man in the High Castle at the library a month or so ago after watching the third series in the Amazon adaptation, but it was checked out. Yesterday my wife happened to be going to the library, so I asked her to see if the book was back on the shelf. It was, she got it for me, and now I have to finish it within two weeks, because it's on her card. As King's Men is pretty long and I'm only halfway through it, I thought I'd better go ahead and get started on High Castle

I'm only a few chapters in so have no opinion yet beyond the fact that it's interesting, but I was struck by this exchange between a Nazi artist and a Swedish businessman. (For those who don't know, the book is set in approximately 1960 in an alternate universe where the Germans and the Japanese won the Second World War.) 

"Afraid I do not care for modern art," [the Swede] said. "I like the old prewar cubists and abstractionists. I like a picture to mean something, not merely to represent the idea." He turned away.

"But that's the task of art," [the artist] said. "To advance the spirituality of man, over the sensual. Your abstract art represented a period of spiritual decadence, of spiritual chaos, due to the disintegration of society, the old plutocracy."

As a skeptic toward the religion of High Art, I enjoyed this. The notion that art is always on the way toward something ever more antagonistic to the ordinary and human has been a harmful one, and accounts for some of the pathologies, especially in the current visual arts scene. To have cubists and the like put in the position of being the old fogies is amusing. But of course in this picture the cure is considerably worse than the disease. If you don't know what Nazi art was like, see this Wikipedia article.

Nazi art resembles Communist art, for reasons that should be obvious, and which I will leave you to figure out for yourself if you don't think they're obvious. Art driven by ideology is generally bad, and if it succeeds it's in spite of the ideology, not because of it. And art driven by totalitarian ideology is some of the worst.

This got me to thinking of a topic that comes up now and again among conservatives: someone asks "Why aren't there more conservative artists?" and that's often followed by a list of books and music and movies that are either produced by conservatives or have a conservative message. (Of course there have plenty of artists who could broadly be described as "conservative," though not necessarily in the contemporary sense. T.S. Eliot, for instance.)

The subject came up on Rod Dreher's blog one day last week, and I responded with a comment which I can't find now but which was something along the lines of "The term 'conservative art' nauseates me." It makes me think first of Ayn Rand's awful fiction (she wasn't a conservative, but she was right-wing), and then of those lists. I can sum up the way the lists tend to go by saying that the Beatles' "Taxman" is always on them. It's a good song, or rather a good track, because while I like the music the words are not very interesting. Is griping about taxes really a very important aspect of conservatism?

Such discussions and such lists always make me think that if there were somewhere a master list of conservatives and my name was on it, I would take it off. After an initial period of resistance ca. 1980, I long ago acquiesced to the fact that "conservative" is a more or less accurate description of my political views. But as someone said once the term is descriptive, not prescriptive, and sometimes it's much more less than more, especially when I see the term defined with some such formula as "free markets and strong defense." Russell Kirk always insisted that conservatism is the negation of ideology. 

Well, few things are duller to me now than an attempt to define The Nature of True Conservatism, so I won't go off on that path. Almost as dull is the discussion of how Liberal and Conservative Are Inadequate Descriptions Of Contemporary Political Reality, so I won't go off on that path, either. But that one's dull for a very different reason: it's so plainly true that discussing it seems to be unnecessary. The gap between anything that the terms can reasonably be said to mean, and the beliefs and behavior of the parties to which the labels are still attached, is so great that they serve no purpose except for distinguishing two things that are, whatever you call them, still pretty different from each other in principle, and very different with respect to what they want.

Also last week...or was it the week before?...someone on Facebook linked to this piece at The Week (which by the way seems to be a somewhat balanced publication, socio-politically speaking). It's about the possibility of splitting the U.S. into separate nations as a way of dealing with our deep and seemingly intractable divisions. In discussing that, I found myself discarding "left," "right," "liberal," "conservative," and the like in favor of the conceptually empty but politically and culturally significant Red and Blue. I think I'm going to continue that. The terms are functionally intelligible, and they allow one to discuss the division without getting bogged down in definitions.

Of course as I'm always saying we don't actually need to split the country. We only need to accept its diversity and quit attempting to impose uniform national rules in matters where there is deep disagreement. But--and I think I said this in the Red-Blue comment I just mentioned--I think Red would be willing to accept that (though unhappily), but Blue wouldn't, because of its quasi-religious sense of mission. (I think I'll refrain from following that line of thought at the moment, because I want to finish this post fairly quickly.)

In any case it does seem to me that the great American experiment in republican government is coming to an end. There are many reasons, but the one that makes the situation seem hopeless is that the number of citizens who really want it to continue is diminishing. I suspect that human nature makes human government tend more or less automatically toward the monarchical and autocratic. There are many, many signs that both Red and Blue are going this way, knowing little and caring less about the scheme of government defined in our constitution. Red's enthusiasm for Donald Trump is one such. I mock those who think Trump is a Nazi, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't be a dictator if he could; it's just that Nazism is far (far, far) more than that. And Blue has been for a long time now plainly longing for a king-messiah, and thought it had found one in Barack Obama, which is why Trump's occupation of the throne is simply intolerable to those on that side.

And then there's the outcry against the Electoral College. And, very strangely, the notion that if Blue (i.e. Democrats) gets more votes, in nationwide total, in congressional elections than Red (i.e. Republicans), then Blue ought by rights to have control, and that if it does not an injustice has been done. It's hard to overstate how bizarre that is when considered in light of our actual form of government. Kevin Williamson said it well:

The Democrats don’t seem to understand what it is they are really fighting, which, in no small part, is not the Republicans but the constitutional architecture of the United States. The United States is, as the name suggests, a union of states, which have interests, powers, and characters of their own. They are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. All that talk about winning x percent of the “national House vote” or the “national Senate vote” — neither of which, you know, exists — is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not like how our governments are organized, and that they would prefer a more unitary national government under which the states are so subordinated as to be effectively inconsequential. They complain that, under President Trump, “the Constitution is hanging by a thread” — but they don’t really much care for the actual order established by that Constitution, and certainly not for the limitations it puts on government power through the Bill of Rights and other impediments to étatism.

A simple nationwide democracy might or might not be a good idea (I think not, but for the sake of argument can admit that it might not). But it is not the system we have. I don't know what will replace the republic. We probably won't really feel the difference for a long time. It won't even necessarily be bad, or all bad, but it won't be the "constitutional architecture," as Williamson calls it.


All the King's Men is great, by the way, and I'm sure I will have something to say about it when I've finished it, presumably by next week.


Also by the way: I am almost certainly going to end the Sunday Night Journal at the end of the year. I'm finding it too burdensome to devote several hours every Sunday to it. I'm considering ending the blog altogether, but I probably won't do that. Most likely I'll keep it going, but revert to posting whenever I have something I want to say, and the emphasis will be on books and music and film/tv. That will probably reduce the readership, which is not that high anyway: as best I can tell from the site stats, there are somewhere between 100 and 200 people who read the blog regularly. That's minuscule in comparison to very popular blogs. But to increase that number would probably require posting much more often and about more controversial topics, and I don't want to do that.


Usually the photos I post here are recent, but this one is from 2009. Yesterday on the way to Mass we passed a gingko tree in full autumn glow. I didn't have time to take a picture of it, but I remembered a set I had taken at Spring Hill College. 


It was windy today, and on the way back from church it seemed to me that there were many fewer leaves on the gingko than there had been several hours earlier. A girl who looked to be about thirteen or so was taking a picture of her companion who was stretched out on the golden carpet.

Sunday Night Journal, November 11, 2018

This is the 100th anniversary of what used to be known as Armistice Day. God help us, what a century of slaughter that war began. What do we make of the fact that the modern era has seen both a greater awareness of and sensitivity to injustice and suffering of all sorts, not to mention a supposed flowering of reason via the sciences, and killing on a scale never before seen in history? We can say that the body count of the wars has been so high only because we have such wonderful technology for accomplishing it, and that may be true. But that doesn't account for the killing that was mass murder by any definition, planned and executed with modern organizational and technological methods, for the specific purpose of eliminating whole populations in the name of one of the big totalitarian ideals. I think of C.S. Lewis's observation that both good and evil seem to advance simultaneously in history.

Nobody much wanted to listen to Pope Benedict XV at the time, but he looks pretty good in retrospect. As does Blessed Karl of Austria. I am sure he is in many ways an unacceptable figure to the contemporary mind, but a bit of very casual reading about him from secular sources (e.g. Wikipedia) seems to support the idea that he was a ruler who genuinely sought the common good, in particular the end of that terrible war.

It was not the end of civilization, but it was the end of a civilization. What followed has yet to find an order that seems likely to last. Our most widely agreed-upon principles, foremost of which is individual freedom, do not tend toward stability. I used to say, back before the fall of the Soviet Union, that we were heading for either 1984 or Brave New World. The former doesn't have nearly the constituency it used to. But something like the latter is even more now the logical end point of Western consumerism, hedonism, and technocracy.


So FilmStruck, the artsy/classic movie streaming service, will be no more after the 29th of this month. I have an absurd feeling of slight guilt about that, because although I subscribe I haven't used it very much at all. I know that makes no sense. 

I was excited when it appeared, and immediately subscribed. But I was disappointed to find that a basic subscription didn't include access to the Criterion Collection, which was the big attraction. That was part of the reason we didn't use it very much; the other and probably more significant part was a heavy diet of the mystery/crime dramas available on Netflix and Amazon. And when I did look at FilmStruck, it seemed that everything I wanted required the upgraded subscription.

I finally took that step a few weeks ago, just in time to hear that it's shutting down. So I'm trying to make time to watch some things I had put on my watchlist. To wit:

The Asphalt Jungle. This is a film noir classic, according to a wonderful book my wife gave me a few years ago, Into the Dark. (Unfortunately most of the movies listed in the book aren't available on either FilmStruck or Netflix.) Made in 1950, this was John Huston's fourth film. He already had several classics to his credit and while I wouldn't rate this one quite up there with, say, The Maltese Falcon, it's a very good one, and anyone who likes noir will probably like it. It's a "caper" story--about the planning and execution of a complex theft, which of course does not go as planned. 

Summer Interlude. Early Bergman, though "early" in this case means his tenth film. I had never heard of it before. I agree with FilmStruck's description:

Touching on many of the themes that would define the rest of his legendary career—isolation, performance, the inescapability of the past—Ingmar Bergman’s tenth film was a gentle drift toward true mastery. In one of the director’s great early female roles, Maj-Britt Nilsson beguiles as an accomplished ballet dancer haunted by her tragic youthful affair with a shy, handsome student (Birger Malmsten). Her memories of the sunny, rocky shores of Stockholm’s outer archipelago mingle with scenes from her gloomy present, most of them set in the dark backstage environs of the theater where she works. A film that the director considered a creative turning point, Summer Interlude (Sommarlek) is a reverie about life and death that unites Bergman’s love of theater and cinema.

 It's definitely worth seeing, even if you're not especially a Bergman fan. Those sunny summer scenes are very beautiful and worth it by themselves. I'll watch it again.

From the Life of the Marionettes. Also Bergman. I had seen references to it and was under the mistaken impression that it was another early one, but it isn't. It's from 1980, which makes it actually quite late. In 1976 Bergman got into trouble with the Swedish government over some tax-related matter. I say "into trouble"--he was actually arrested, and though the charges were dropped he left the country and lived mostly in Germany until 1984. This movie was made in Germany, with German actors speaking German, which is a little disconcerting to this fan: Bergman's people are supposed to speak Swedish.

It is an extremely dark story about a man who murders a prostitute for reasons having to do with his very unhappy marriage.  As the title suggests, the general theme is that people are puppets in the hands of forces they can neither control nor understand. I didn't much care for it, not because of the darkness but because it doesn't seem to me to be all that well executed. The acting is excellent, but the cinematography, which is so often such a big part of the appeal of Bergman's work to me, is dim and fuzzy. I assumed as I watched it that Sven Nykvist, Bergman's usual cinematographer, was not involved, but I was wrong. According to Wikipedia (plot spoilers at that link) it was originally made for television, so maybe that's the problem. I speculate also that Bergman was just not at his best at this time in his life.

It's not worthless by any means. There are some good moments, moments when the Bergman gift for putting profound philosophical and psychological  insights into the mouths of his characters emerges. One that especially struck me comes from a psychologist who is counseling the man who commits the murder. He suggests that the notion of a soul is a problem, and that one should simply get rid of the whole idea. "No soul, no fear" is the way the subtitles translate his rationale, but my bit of German enables me to say that it's better in that language: "Keine seele, keine angst." Maybe that will be the motto of that still-forming new order that I mentioned earlier.

I was going to say that I won't watch it again, but as I think about it more I think maybe I will, though I would recommend it only to dedicated Bergman fans. It's very fixated on sex, and I should warn you that one scene, in a peep show (I guess that's what you'd call it) where the murderer meets the prostitute, is pretty much pornographic.


I don't know the name of this plant. The way a few of its leaves turn bright red while the others remain green is interesting.



Sunday Night Journal, October 7, 2018

So Kavanaugh has been confirmed. As I fully expected would be the case, the result is not peace but mutual declarations of war. There isn't going to be any post-game handshake and congratulation here. Rather, many or most on both sides are saying "Our enemies now stand revealed as the devils we always knew they were, and must be destroyed." Few seem to grasp or care about the possibility that playing with matches and gasoline could result in a fire.

Some Democrats have already announced that they will attempt to impeach Kavanaugh. I said last week, and have said before, that all political victories are Pyrrhic now, because they only serve to inflame the other side. That's certainly the case here. Chances look pretty good to me that we just passed the point of no return in this conflict, though what lies at the end of it is not clear. We may be seeing the unfolding of a great historical tragedy, the self-destruction of a great nation.

As is usually the case in war, neutrality becomes difficult and eventually impossible. I personally refused to take a side in the question of whether Kavanaugh was guilty of the charge made by Christine Ford, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to support it. But I'm assured that failure to believe Ford wholeheartedly makes me something of a monster; anyone who doubts that what she says is true is a misogynist and an apologist for sexual assault and rape. This is pretty much self-evidently false (not to mention irrational) and it distresses me that anyone would think this of me. But I have to either accept that, or say that I believe what I don't believe, so there really isn't a choice.

In fact I'm more in doubt about Ford's accusation today than I was a week ago. I assumed at first that she was at least telling the truth as she saw it, but in light of various pieces of information that have come out since then (such as the report issued by the attorney who questioned Ford at the hearing) I'm not so sure that she isn't lying outright, though the truth is still unknown and will most likely remain so.  


As far back as I can remember there was a copy of Nelson Algren's novel The Man With the Golden Arm on my parents' bookshelf. I don't think I ever attempted to read it but the title intrigued me. A few years ago...well, probably at least ten and maybe fifteen years ago, when they were moving into a smaller house, I brought the book home with me, and now at last have read it.

It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950, so I expected it to be at least pretty good. And it is--but not great. It's a novel of low life in Chicago just after the end of the Second World War. All the characters are poor, mostly first or second-generation immigrants from Poland, and live in a sort of shifting middle ground between the lower end of the working class and criminality. The protagonist, the man of the title, is Frankie Machine, and the "golden arm" refers to his skill as a card-dealer and gambler. But it takes on a different connotation as we learn that he's also a heroin addict, having picked up a morphine habit while recovering from wounds in the army. 

It's a story of more or less uninterrupted misery. Frankie's wife, Sophie, is in a wheel chair, as a result of a drunk-driving accident in which Frankie was at the wheel, and their relationship now consists mostly of mutual torment, of guilt and anger on Frankie's part, anger and despair on Sophie's. Most of the few bright spots involve memories of the past, of a brief youth when better things seemed possible. By this point in Frankie's life, though he's still pretty young, perhaps not out of his twenties, it's clear that the future offers nothing for him or for anybody around him. His doom, which involves his heroin habit and various crimes, is worked out in a narrative that often reveals, stylistically, the limits of dialect and slang in fiction.  A dialog between Frankie and the man who's come to get him and his friend Sparrow out of jail:

"I don't even ask how come you're in," Schwiefka complained. "I just come to spring you--what's the big squawk?"

"You know all right why we're in, that's the big squawk," Frankie let Schwiefka know. "Every time you duck Kvorka for his double sawzie he cruises down Division till he spots me or the punk 'n' pulls us in on general principles. This time he caught us together. The next time it happens you're payin' me off 'n' the punk too."

I think what's being said here is that Schwiefka failed to pay protection money to a cop named Kvorka. "Big squawk" and "double sawzie" probably sounded authentic and up-to-the-minute at the time, but nothing sounds as outdated as slang that failed to make it into the language permanently. (Why is "cool" still cool but "groovy" is not?) That kind of late '40s urban slang in particular is unavoidably associated with movies of the time which are often difficult for us to enjoy without irony. 

But there are lyrical passages, often despairing, that are very effective. A scene late one night in the bar where Frankie deals poker:

Thus in the narrowing hours of night the play became faster and steeper and an air of despair, like a sickroom odor where one lies who never can be well again, moved across the light green baize, touched each player ever so lightly and settled down in a tiny whiff of cigar smoke about the dealer's hands.

Now dealer and players alike united in an unspoken conspiracy to stave off morning forever. Each bet as if the loss of a hand meant death in prison or disease and when it was lost hurried the dealer on. "Cards, cards." For the cars kept the everlasting darkness off, the cards lent everlasting hope. The cards meant any man in the world might win back his long-lost life, gone somewhere far away.

I often thought of Allen Ginsberg's Howl while reading this book. It even includes the phrase "the Negro streets," which made me wonder if Ginsberg had borrowed it (Howl was published in 1956.) And also of some of Tom Waits's characters. I wonder if he's read it.

This adds up, I guess, to a recommendation, but not a very enthusiastic one. 



Sunday Night Journal, September 30, 2018

I can't remember whether it was before or after the Ford accusations became public, but at some point a couple of weeks ago I said of the Kavanaugh hearings that their one absolutely certain effect would be a net increase in the amount of hate in this country. Rod Dreher put it a bit more strongly: "When this is over we will all hate each other even more." (At least that's what I think he said. I can't find that exact quote now.)

Well, those prophecies have certainly proved true. No matter what the result of this fiasco is, a huge number of people are going to be enraged and will stay that way. And it's not only those on the losing side: the winners will also feel that their fear and loathing of the others--the Other--will have been fully justified, and that the effort to crush them must not flag. As I said some time ago, all political victories are Pyrrhic now, because they serve to inflame the other side.

I cannot understand how people can fail to see where this is leading. Perhaps it won't be violence, but if it isn't it won't be for lack of hatred to fuel the flames. We are surely destroying the foundations of our system of law and government, which depend on some basic elemental presumptions, such as that we are fellow citizens of one country, and that we have something close to a shared understanding of its principles. We, at least those of us who are most politically engaged, don't seem to have those anymore. 

I have a constitutional reluctance to take a stand on questions of material fact where I have no direct knowledge and there's a lot of room for doubt. So I reserve judgment on whether Brett Kavanaugh is guilty of the assault with which he's been charged. But I loathe mob passions and mob behavior, always have done, and am very disturbed by the degree to which they are active now. There's a widespread willingness to say "We know he did it because people like him do things like that." And "people like him" refers to his class, sex, and race. Do people not see where that leads? 

Another direction in which this whole mess leads is to the diminishment of the Me Too movement. I've been very much in sympathy with its stated aims, if not its feminist ideological framework. But this dishonestly-handled business tends to discredit it. As Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review wrote:  

This debacle is teaching onlookers to take the stories of victims with a grain of salt. How can the average person be expected to care about seeking justice when so many in the public square seem to care more about advancing an agenda than about discerning who has actually been mistreated or abused?

The Me Too movement has gained immense influence over the last year precisely because it has encouraged us to acknowledge the reality of sexual abuse and follow the truth wherever it leads. Now, the question of whether the accusations against Kavanaugh are true has been subjugated to a political endgame. That promises to destroy the cultural power of the Me Too movement.

Surely no reasonable person can believe that Christine Ford's unprovable accusation, whether true or false, was not uncovered and deployed primarily as a weapon to block the confirmation of a justice who would (probably) tip the balance of the Supreme Court decisively rightward. And why? I think everyone knows, though Kavanaugh's opponents in the Senate don't want to say it, that this is above all about Roe v. Wade. I think everyone knows, even if they won't admit it even to themselves, that if Kavanaugh had the endorsement of Planned Parenthood we would never have heard of Christine Ford. A few centuries from now when reasonably dispassionate historians are writing about the dissolution of the United States, that arrogant and imprudent decision will be seen to have been a major factor. 

Oh, and by the way: completely lost in this war is the small number of principled conservatives who have serious reservations about Kavanaugh because they think he is far too indulgent of executive power. See this. Few care much about anything except the "social issues" which should not be settled in Washington in the first place.


Switching topics rather abruptly: we watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri last night. For the first hour or so (of its nearly two) I was impatient with it. Well done, yes--extremely so, especially the acting. But I'm really pretty sick of the Small-Town White Hick stereotype in movies and TV. In the end, though, it won me over, partly by cleverly undermining the stereotypes. It's not an easy story to watch, its events being rooted in violence, hatred, and revenge. But those don't get quite the last word. 

In the comments where we were discussing this a week or two ago, several people mentioned being seriously put off by the language. I'm a little surprised at that, as it didn't seem any worse in that respect than the average movie. It was a bit shocking that the sheriff talked that way in front of his children. But other than that....


Something I've been meaning to mention for several weeks: also in recent comments, there was a mention of Eric Clapton. I said I would have more to say about that later. Well, what I meant to say was that anyone who is interested in the sort of flash guitar (I don't know where I got that term but I guess it's reasonably clear) that Clapton represents really should check out Jeff Beck Live at Ronnie Scott's. It's available as an audio CD, but I really recommend that you watch it on DVD. There's more music on the DVD, and watching Beck and his three bandmates (bass, drums, keyboards) is terrific. Here's an example, in which you get to see bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld at work. She looks like she's about fourteen but actually she was twenty-one when this was recorded in 2008.

I do wish Beck had not worn that sleeveless shirt and given the audience so many glimpses of his armpits. And does anybody know who that woman in the audience at the very end is? She seems familiar. I did recognize several people in the audience, including Jimmy Page (not in this clip), and there were several others on whom the camera focused, leading me to believe that I was supposed to recognize them.

Rock fans (at least those of a certain age) have a tendency to argue about which of the three former Yardbirds guitarists--Clapton, Beck, and Page--is the greatest. Well, if that discussion is limited to the music of the '60s and '70s, it could go on forever. But if the question is who's the most interesting now--well, in my opinion it's clearly Beck. Clapton himself said once that "When he's on, there's nobody better." Agreed. 

This concert has a guest appearance by Clapton, by the way. Also Joss Stone and Imogen Heap. The DVD includes some interviews which I found quite interesting. One gives the impression that the old rivalries of the Yardbirds days still have a bit of life in them, at least in Beck's mind.

It looks like the entire concert is available on YouTube at the moment. Not an official page so it may not be there indefinitely.


A building somewhere in Belfast. I just liked the image.


Sunday Night Journal, June 24, 2018

First it was "the personal is the political." Now it's "the political is the personal." The politicization of everything, as this National Review writer describes it, is bad. But it's not mysterious. Consider these items from that piece:

I fear that we shall go the way of The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who recently warned an advice-seeker against dating a man who may be (egad!) a conservative and (perish the thought!) a fan of Jordan Peterson....

In 2012, David Graham, writing in The Atlantic, noted a study that showed that a growing number of Americans would be displeased if their children married someone of the other party. 

That sounds bad. It is bad. But if you change the "liberal" and "conservative" categories to "fervent atheist" and "fervent Christian," it makes sense. Even without actual animosity, two people with such seriously opposing views on such fundamental matters ought to think twice, at least, about getting involved in love and marriage with each other.

More disturbing than such views about romance are the instances I've seen of liberals not wanting to live in the same neighborhood as conservatives. Maybe the same thing happens in the other direction, but I haven't encountered it.

Once again I assert that the culture war is actually a religious conflict. I say this not for the purpose of inflaming the situation but of understanding what is actually happening. It's possible--only possible--that if people on both sides were more aware of this they might make more of an effort to tamp down their anger. Or then again it might make things worse, if people recognize that there are irreconcilable differences over first principles, not just policies. Well, even so, I prefer to have a clear understanding, even if that means recognizing that a situation is more dire than I had hoped.


In that long Facebook argument (381 comments!) I mentioned a few weeks ago in which I was taken to task for my comments about toxic femininity, I was criticized for "attempt[ing] to be reasonable" when the other person thought (apparently) that I should be emotional. I almost took this as a compliment, because I think reasonableness is in pretty short supply these days where political-cultural matters are concerned. That was certainly on display this past week in the matter of parents and children being separated when families enter the country illegally.

As I always take pains to say whenever I discuss anything having to do with Donald Trump, I did not support him, and the best I can say about his presidency is that it hasn't been as bad as I feared. But the open crusade waged by the media, the entertainment industry et.al. is so disproportionate to what he is actually doing that when some "Oh my God did you hear what Trump just did?!?" story hits the news, which it does at least once a week, I automatically assume that it's exaggerated. I wait several days before even bothering to check it out, because the chances are very good that it will turn out to be either not as bad or not as significant as reported, and sometimes that it's not entirely true. It often seems that the anti-Trump forces never heard the old fable of the boy who cried wolf. Or didn't understand its lesson, and thought that the problem was that the boy didn't scream loudly enough.

The family separations were  (are?) a harsh and unjust practice and well worth objecting to. And so, the thing in question being in fact bad, nothing apparently would do but to ratchet up the emoting even further, and to ignore the legal and practical complexities that led to it. As usual, the only place left to go when you're stretching for a way of describing your enemy as the Ultimate Evil is the Nazi comparison. This requires equating the temporary incarceration of people who have entered a country without permission with slaughtering them. Even aside from the moral blindness of the comparison, its sheer stupidity ought to have kept anyone but Trump-deranged fanatics from making it. Yet a former director of the CIA made it, very publicly, and then defended it. I think Neo-neocon's rejoinder is worth quoting:

So: no, there is nothing familiar, not even vaguely, to the Holocaust, and it is a disgrace to suggest that there is.

I’m not going to go into a long post describing the Holocaust, but it is clear to all who study history that the death camps and even work camps were not refugee detention centers, and the people in them (Jews and others) were not illegal immigrants asking for asylum or seeking to become German citizens (or Polish citizens for that matter, the country where the Germans located most of the death camps).

In Nazi work camps, many people (if relatively able-bodied to begin with) were set to “work” to be starved, tortured both psychologically and physically, and killed in droves by disease and exhaustion because of the terrible conditions. In Nazi death camps they were killed at the outset, although a very small percentage were spared briefly to help with the cleanup of the mass killing in exchange for a few more months of life, or to work at certain other tasks for a while under conditions that would ordinarily kill them rather quickly (within months as a rule). The object was to eliminate them as a group from the face of the earth, and certainly from Europe.

That was the stark reality, and it is obscene to make the comparison so many people are making.

If you want to read some exasperatingly reasonable discussion of the complex immigration situation, try Damon Linker or David Frum. I'm usually not much of a fan of Frum, but I think he's on target here. Damon Linker is often interesting. He seems to consider himself on the left--"center-left" I think is the term he uses--but is willing to take conservative and/or populist concerns seriously and to characterize them fairly, which is unusual to put it mildly.

Well, I didn't intend to write that much about politics. Now I've run out of time for the music-related post I had planned. Next week.


For more than ten years we had a Meyer lemon tree growing beside our front steps. In many of those years it bore more lemons than we knew what to do with. This is a how it looked in its glory days, a picture of a few branches of a tree that was eight feet or so tall. 

image from lightondarkwater.typepad.com

When life gives you this many lemons, limoncello, not lemonade, is the appropriate response. Several years ago my wife made a big batch of it, several quarts at least, stored in Mason jars. It's delicious and very potent, made with a base of Everclear. I've been using this neat little bottle to dispense it. LimonCelloIt originally contained two different and delicious liqueurs, brought from Europe (France, I think) by one of our children. I liked the bottle(s) so much that I didn't want to throw it (them) away, and have been using it for limoncello for a while now. A few days ago I poured the last of the limoncello into it and took this memorial photo.  

I call it a memorial because this not just the last of that big batch: it's the last ever from our lovely lemon tree. Several years ago we had an unusually cold winter which had the tree covered in ice for several days. It lost all its leaves and we thought it might be dead, but it recovered, partially, and gave us a few lemons the next year. Then the year after we had another cold spell, not quite as bad as the earlier one but enough to kill back all the leaves, and that was pretty much the end of the tree. This spring only a few living branches were left and we finally cut it down. I'll spare you the sad sight of the stump.

Sunday Night Journal, October 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday Night Journal, October 22, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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