State of the Culture Feed

I Really Don't Understand Halloween Mania

Not that there's anything wrong with Halloween. But the way some people plunge into it now strikes me as a little crazy. 

A couple of blocks away from my house there's a yard which features a werewolf sort of thing that must be eight feet tall. And a life-sized witch, and a few other things which I haven't gotten close enough to identify. At night there's a lot of spooky purple lighting.

This is not so very unusual. But what is unusual is that this display has been up for at least two weeks: i.e., it went up in mid-September. When I first saw it I had a moment of confusion about the date of Halloween: wait, Halloween is at the end of October, right? Is it at the beginning? Am I forgetting what month we're in now? By the time Halloween actually arrives, these props will have been in place for a month and a half. 

This seems to be a relatively new thing. I knew a family back in the '90s who went to a huge amount of trouble and expense to decorate their house for Halloween. As far as I recall that was the first time I ever encountered that kind of zeal. Since I grew up in the country I may have missed some of it, but I really don't think many people in the '60s or for the next decade or two went in for it with this kind of zeal. I don't remember it happening where I lived in the '80s but maybe I've just forgotten, or didn't pay attention.

In general Halloween seems to have become a major thing for a lot of people, which must surely have some social significance, but I don't know what it is. 


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.


Rieff Was Right

I'm finally reading The Triumph of the Therapeutic and find myself thinking that Philip Rieff was the smartest person of the 20th century. But I revise that thought immediately: "smart" is not the best word, suggesting mere intelligence, a high score on an IQ test. "Wisest," "'most perceptive," "most prophetic" would be better. He was the most accurate and profound analyst, from a somewhat detached, observational, semi-scientific point of view (he was a sociologist), of the cultural revolution (his term) which took place in western civilization over the past several centuries. Notice the past tense: in Rieff's view the transformation has been accomplished.

The book is subtitled "Uses of Faith After Freud," which only hints at the magnitude of its achievement, which is to name and explain the type of civilization which was coming into being after the long twilight of Christian civilization, described by Matthew Arnold as one in which we are

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
("Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse")

Arnold is in fact referred to in the second sentence of the book. And Yeats's "The Second Coming," which unfortunately has now been overused in politics but remains as vivid and significant as ever, is its epigraph.

I'm not qualified to write a broad analysis or critique of the book. It's difficult and in some ways simply over my head. Among other things, Rieff was deeply knowledgeable about Freud and Freud's psychoanalytic procedures, and the greater part of this book is about Freud and his wayward disciples or successors: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence. I've read some Lawrence, a bit of Jung, no Reich at all, and as far as I remember no Freud. (I hedge that last one slightly because I may have read some excerpts from The Future of An Illusion in a religion class in college.) And sometimes Rieff is, for me at any rate, simply obscure. He is, by the way, a superior prose stylist.

Fortunately, there is this appreciation by Jeremy Beer. It was published in The American Conservative in 2006 and is included in the contemporaneous edition of the book published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Here is a taste, and that's really all it is:

Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”

I'm quite sure there is much in this book that I haven't clearly understood. But much of what I do understand is brilliant. What sets Rieff apart from others who have made similar broad observations is the depth of his insight into the nature and significance of the transition, and his deeply negative, but entirely unpolemical, view of it. Unlike, for instance, many Christian thinkers, he is dispassionate about the civilization which is ending and does not view its restoration as a possible solution, or even desirable. He is relentless in crushing the false hopes of Christians who believe that they can somehow preserve the faith by adapting it to the therapeutic culture, and in that respect he often seems to understand Christianity better than most Christians. Nor does he see any of the strategies and techniques proposed by Freud's successors as providing a solution, a way out of the crisis. The chapters on Jung, Reich, and Lawrence are essentially demolitions of their proposals. Freud, he seems to say, had only very modest expectations, and did not propose a grand solution, only coping strategies. 

Over the next few weeks I plan to pick out some specific passages and quote them, perhaps even venture to discuss them. Right now I have on my mind a notion sparked by this sentence, which is really just a passing remark: 

After all, Trinitarian Christianity is responsible for our present inclination to attribute an aura of divinity to the person as such--an inclination derived from the original attribution of personality to God.

Out of its context that may not strike you as so important or original, and the context is too extensive to quote. But in light of Rieff's overall effort to explain and justify his title phrase, and his treatment of the collapse of Christianity as a definer of culture, it jumped out at me. What he is pointing out is that in secular modernity, this "aura of divinity" has persisted alongside the quasi-scientific presumption of ultimate meaninglessness.

These two beliefs simply cannot be reconciled. The lame attempts to establish meaning as a purely subjective and temporary thing are only a temporary hedge against the reckoning. And (this is what suddenly struck me) the attempt to maintain both doctrines results in intense psychological conflict which I think is one of the drivers of the politics-as-religion phenomenon we're currently calling "wokeism." 

I know it's a cliché to point out that post-Christian civilization is carrying forward various features of Christianity, often in a distorted or corrupted form, but this is illuminating as a specific detail of that process. The "aura of divinity" becomes something to which the term narcissism doesn't quite do justice. The individual will is a sacred will, able not only by its own power, but by the permission and affirmation of (progressive) society, to alter reality--as long as, in the old classical liberal view, it doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet there is ultimately--I mean, ultimately--nothing essentially important or significant about the person as such: he is only an individual of an animal species not fundamentally different from any other, the result of random physical events. And according to current advanced thinking even his belief in his own conscious self is an illusion. 

If our future is to be defined by progressive ideas, this tension must eventually resolve itself, perhaps in a recurring tension and release, by means of some sort of scapegoating mechanism, perhaps in the age-old division of people into the significant and the insignificant. I'll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

TriumpOfTheTherapeutic

Yes, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn is Christopher Lasch's daughter, and the connections between the ideas of the two men are clear.

Now I have to admit that I have not actually read the entire book. It's not because I didn't try, but I have an odd problem. I've been reading a review copy of the book that was sent to me years ago when it was re-issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (I'm sorry, ISI, that I never reviewed it.) I discovered that it's missing most of the Reich chapter (and shows a few other minor physical defects which I presume were corrected before a final printing).

So I ordered a new copy. It arrived on a Friday some weeks ago. I opened the package and laid the book on the dining room table. Early on the afternoon of the next day I went out of town for a night, returning late Sunday. A day or two later I looked for the book and it was not on the table where (I thought) I had left it. I have absolutely no memory of doing anything else with it. Nor does my wife. But I've searched the house, especially the bookshelves, and it hasn't turned up. I'm very much afraid that I did something one hears of old people doing: put it in some place where it doesn't belong, and forgot that I had put it anywhere at all. But if I did that, it must have been an obscure place. Yes, I looked in the refrigerator and the freezer and the pantry. And although I was pretty certain I had not taken the book with me on that overnight trip--I had consciously considered doing so, and decided not to--I had someone check the usually vacant family house where I had stayed. Not there either. And not in the car.

It still hasn't turned up, and my fear is that somehow it got put into the recycling bin, where a lot of paper on the dining room table goes, or the trash. Far-fetched, but if it were anywhere plainly visible I'd have seen it by now. I refuse to buy another copy (although that would probably cause the missing one to return) so I will have to live without the Reich chapter. I do have the first few and last few pages of it, and Reich is discussed along with the other two in an earlier chapter, so I think I got the general idea. I was a little surprised to see Reich taken so seriously, as I had the impression he was rather a nut. And apparently he was, but some of his ideas are quite prominent in our culture now.


Better Call Saul, The End

I'm having an unusually busy week, so instead of posting something more substantial about this great show, the last episode of which appeared on Monday night, I'll repeat what I said on Facebook after watching it:

So Better Call Saul comes to an end, and joins Breaking Bad and The Wire among great American novels on video. It's some compensation for being alive while the republic comes apart.

And this, which I said, also on Facebook, to a friend who said he'd never seen any of the three and wasn't much interested in doing so:

Personal taste is personal taste, but I think you're missing some great stuff. I'm far from alone in thinking these are the best work ever done specifically for television. I don't say "great American novels" idly, as I do think they bear comparison to great literary works in their exploration of character, and of good and evil. They're Dostoevsky-class in that respect.

Saul is a "prequel" to BB but mostly a very different kind of story, and it's pretty amazing that the producers and writers were able to produce something as good as BB.

All that said, I always warn people that BB has some very violent scenes and is generally a very dark and painful story in which some bad things happen to some good people. And some worse things to worse people. As much as I admire it, I don't really want to watch it again.

Perhaps I'll regret that Dostoevsky comparison someday. It strikes me now that I didn't say, in making the comparison, that, unlike Dostoevsky's work, the TV shows do not directly engage religious matters--not at all, as far as I can remember. And that is a major difference. For Dostoevsky, Christian belief was very much a live question, its decline a matter of grave concern, and hope for its renewal a significant element in the novels. In contemporary America as seen in the three shows I named, that struggle is over, and the characters are flailing around in a godless universe. That is not of course true of the actual America, but it's the culturally predominant worldview.

And of course it's not the exploration of big themes that makes great art--it's the skill with which the exploration is done. And it's the artistry of these shows--writing, direction, cinematography, and acting--that makes them great. If they are great. 


Trainwreck: Woodstock '99

I'm about two thirds of the way through this three-part Netflix documentary on the 1999 attempt by some of the original Woodstock promoters to revive, twenty-five years later, the glory that was Woodstock in 1969. I was vaguely aware of the 1999 festival, saw news reports that it had not gone very well, and that was about the extent of my notice of it. But apparently it was much worse than I had realized. 

I have a pretty jaundiced view of the original, and am of the opinion that Woodstock was not really Woodstock until the movie and the soundtrack album came out. My college roommate at the time had attended, and had no particular illusions about it: "A lot of people doing drugs in the mud and listening to music coming from a distant stage." According to him, it was not the hippie bands that got the most enthusiastic reception, but the good-time funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The movie made the myth. But though it may not have been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or maybe it was, and maybe that's not necessarily a great thing) it was not a trainwreck. 

The further I get from the '60s counter-culture, the more negative my view of it has become. How dense did one have to be to believe that peace and love are the natural and probably inevitable result of  turning people loose to do what they really feel like doing? The film features interviews with promoters, employees, and attendees who emphasize that the whole thing was badly planned from the beginning. And I have no doubt that it was. But the explanation for the fact that things turned so dark has to take into account the change in American culture, particularly in pop music, over the thirty years between the two Woodstocks. 

It seems to me that this is a much meaner country than it was in the late '60s. I won't explore that question in detail at the moment, but I think it's a valid generalization to say that although there was certainly plenty of meanness prior to 1970, it was not as generally diffused and intense as it is now. The political and cultural polarization which are so much a part of life now was just taking shape at the end of the '60s. And there is no question that by 1999 there was a whole lot of violent rage in popular music that was not there in 1969. 

In 1999 various forms of extremely angry metal or metal-influenced music were quite popular--nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If you've never heard these bands, or, even more convincing, seen them perform, watch this clip of Limp Bizkit's Woodstock '99 performance. You won't be the least bit surprised that the festival ended in violence. This was the only the second day. Things would get worse. 

There is no pleasure to be had from watching this documentary, but as a cultural artifact it's fascinating. I don't think the particular kind of rage on exhibit here is still as much a part of pop music as it was then, but from what I occasionally hear it doesn't look as though the change represents anything I would call progress.


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.


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.


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.