Sunday Night Journal 2004 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2004

Just Your Luck

My job as director of administrative systems at a small college is very much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair that involves a lot of direct support of the people who use the administrative information system. Over the years I think almost every one of them has asserted confidently that he or she has been unfairly singled out by fate to experience an inordinate number of computer-related problems. I often hear personalized versions of Murphy’s Law such as “If it can happen, it will happen to me.” Phone calls frequently begin with remarks that may be apologetic (“I’m sorry I’m always bringing you a problem”), irritated (“I just did this yesterday and now today it doesn’t work”), self-deprecating (“I broke it again”), or anthropomorphically paranoid (“My computer hates me”).

I never know whether it’s a comfort or otherwise when I feel obliged to tell them the truth, which is that their problems are nothing special, and that every single one of their co-workers feels equally put-upon. Today’s computer systems don’t really work that well, all in all (compared, say, to your car) in spite of the fact that they have a quantity of memory and horsepower that the artificial intelligence researchers of thirty or forty years ago would have deemed sufficient to support reasoning on the level of HAL, the conscientiously homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Systems do far, far more than they did when I first got into the business in the late 1970s, but I don’t know that they do it any more reliably.

I think we all suffer from this impulse to believe that we are specially chosen for bad luck, but obviously it can’t be true that everyone has more bad luck than everyone else. Twice in the past few weeks or so I’ve heard my wife use the phrase “with my luck” or “just my luck” in expectation of some inconvenience, and I daresay most of us use it from time to time. Most often we say these things half-humorously, because most of the things we complain about most of the time—those of us in affluent societies, at any rate—are fairly minor. We don’t generally speak this way when something truly terrible happens, such as the sudden death which overtook a friend of mine two days before Christmas; the idea that such a blow was delivered with conscious malevolence is too dreadful to be trifled with.

So either we all suffer from the same persecution complex or we are all being persecuted, and as I have no doubt at all that a statistical analysis of problems encountered on any given day ranging from minor annoyance to death would show a pretty even distribution, it must be the latter. “Persecuted” may not be the right word; there may be no intention behind the general tendency of things to go wrong. But our impulse to feel persecuted is evidence of something—of two things, actually. In the first place, we feel that we have some right to expect that things go well rather than badly, and in the second place, we feel that there is something personal in the way we are treated by the universe.

If the Christian faith is true, then both these impulses—these emotional beliefs—are in fact correct. The world was meant to be a better place, and each of us is the object of particular consideration on the part of the ruler of the universe. In a way that is not mere illusion, that is accurate at least in relation to perspective, each of us is the center of a universe, the pole around which all else revolves. The fact that the earth is in motion relative to the sun and to the other planets, and all of these in motion relative to the rest of the galaxy, does not alter the functional relationship of the sun to the earth. By rights the interlocking movements of these worlds should be harmonious, blessing all equally. Instead, the worlds depart from their orbits frequently, disturbing, abrading, and colliding, with consequences ranging from comic to tragic.

But that of course is not the end of the story. We may or may not be individually persecuted—I’m not about to venture into speculation about the details of the interplay among our own sins and errors, the malicious schemes of evil spirits, and the permissive will and providence of God. But salvation, escape from misfortune both trivial and great into a world of never-interrupted, never-even-diminished perfection, is specifically offered to each of us, at the cost of nothing and everything. Just our luck.

Sunday Night Journal — December 19, 2004

A Christmas Meditation

I spent the time I would normally have spent writing a journal entry locating and re-typing this Christmas piece which I wrote many years ago for the National Catholic Register.

But a note in passing: two recent news stories related to some of the themes I touch upon in that piece, and which you may have noticed are dear to my heart, have appeared in the past week or two. One is an intriguing entry on Touchstone’s blog —scroll down to the December 15 entry entitled “Second Spring and Who's Your Brain?”— in which a philosopher named Jerry Fodor, whose research specialty seems to be cognitive science, is quoted as saying:

Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.

Exactly. Far too many thinkers and researchers in fields ranging from evolution to artificial intelligence operate on the assumption that consciousness is a by-product of brain activity and is basically a computational function, inevitable when the computations become sufficiently complex. I have never understood what makes them think they can assume this. On the basis of mere intution and common-sense I have always thought it far (far, far) from obvious that it is true. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to suppose that it might be true, but its mere assertion is based on materialist assumptions, nothing more. And I’m glad to have my intuition confirmed by someone who has been studying the theoretical basis of consciousness for decades.

The other story is the news that formerly atheistic British philosopher Anthony Flew has changed his mind and now believes that the world we know is too complex to have developed by chance. Now of course people move back and forth between belief and unbelief all the time, and Flew is at pains to say that he is not postulating the God of Christians and Jews. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to me that this certifiably very bright man now believes it is more reasonable to assert the hypothesis of intelligent design than the hypothesis of evolution by chance.

The grip of materialism on the Western mind is loosening. Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent, and Merry Christmas.

Sunday Night Journal — December 12, 2004

The Meditations of John Coltrane

I first heard John Coltrane’s Meditations when I was a freshman in college, almost forty years ago. The hip graduate student who played it for me and a few other youngsters seemed much older and more sophisticated than the rest of us, and though we were determined to be cool and our reactions were probably evasive, I think we were all appalled by it. I know I was. I’m not sure that the graduate student didn’t prize it mainly for its shock value, because he described it as sounding like a slaughterhouse. That seemed pretty accurate to me, and although I soon learned to love some of Coltrane’s earlier works, such as My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, I didn’t bother with Meditations again. I supposed that he had, toward the end of his life (Meditations was recorded in ’65 and he died in ’67) wandered off into some angry musical wilderness.

I hadn’t thought about it until right now, but I think that impression was reinforced by some people I knew in the early ‘70s who were admirers and practitioners of what still, in spite of its now rather advanced age, tends to be called “avant-garde” music—unstructured, atonal, arrhythmic, usually abrasive, often improvised: it sounded hostile, for the most part, and hostility was certainly present in the musicians. They were likable people person-to-person; the hostility I’m referring to was the social and philosophical hostility of hippies discovering the anti-bourgeois avant-garde of the Dadaists and others. It seemed to me that the whole point of it was to attack conventional ideas of what music should sound like, and by implication to attack conventional society. Resistance on the part of the audience (which of course soon dwindled to the vanishing point) seemed welcomed as a confirmation that the music was doing its job and that the musicians were superior to less advanced persons. I’m being careful to say “seemed” here, because I may have been misjudging them, but the fact remains that they left me with the impression that not music per se but some vague program of philosophical liberation was the point of their activities.

Although I don’t consider myself a serious jazz fan, and am not terribly knowledgeable about it, I’ve always been drawn to Coltrane’s music. Over the years I accumulated eight or ten of his albums, twice as many as those of his nearest competitor, Miles Davis, but still avoided his late work. A few years ago, by way of a visit from my son Jesse Canterbury, who both listens to and plays this kind of music, I had a chance to hear a sample of Meditations for the first time since 1967 and thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. So I decided to give it another try.

I like it, a lot, and am a little surprised by the fact. It’s as if I suddenly heard the music in an entirely different way, a bit like the sensation you get when you look at one of those optical illusions that can be either a single vase or the silhouettes of two faces, depending on the setting of some mysterious optical-mental switch. The sound is pretty much as I remembered it (at least in the more intense sections) but it isn’t saying what I thought it was. What I took to be anger and anguish now seems like intense yearning, so intense that it explodes out of the limits of ordinary means of expression. This could be, perhaps paradoxically, a recipe for monotony, and in fact I find most music that lacks the clear and naturally recognizable elements of music to be monotonous. But Coltrane and the other musicians on this recording make it work by their inventiveness. The experience is mesmerizing. I’m still far from convinced that this approach to music is a good example for anyone else to follow, as I’m not convinced it’s wise for a fiction writer to try to follow Joyce, but in this case at any rate it succeeds.

I don’t often find an opportunity to listen at any length to music without interruption or distraction, but I’ve been able to hear Meditations under those circumstances twice now, and both times the forty-plus minutes of the suite seemed more like ten. I didn’t read Nat Hentoff’s liner notes until after I’d heard the piece, and I found that the same metaphor had occurred to both of us: that of speaking in tongues. To quote Hentoff, it’s “…as if their insights were of such compelling force that they have to transcend ordinary ways of musical speech and ordinary textures to be able to convey that part of the essence of being they have touched.” The idea that there is something to do with religion going on here is unavoidable, and I don’t think that’s entirely because the first section is entitled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Coltrane is quoted as saying he “believe[s] in all religions,” which is logically impossible, but that doesn’t matter: he’s not a theologian and I think what he’s expressing in this music is the longing for God that exists in every single human heart and is indeed the basis of all religions, however near to or far from Him their solutions may take the believer.

Another religious reference comes to mind, the somewhat mysterious words of Christ which were used by Flannery O’Connor as the title of The Violent Bear it Away: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” I was puzzled by that until I read her explanation of it in one of her letters. If I remember correctly, her idea was that an extraordinary and in a sense violent effort to attain the Kingdom would be rewarded. (I just tried to find her comments, but the index to The Habit of Being contains several dozen references to The Violent Bear it Away, and I don’t have time to check them all.) Something of that seems to be involved in Meditations: an effort to climb into the transcendent by the sheer force of desire to get there.

Music, specifically the symphony, is often used as a theological metaphor, to convey the idea of many and frequently conflicting chains of event and meaning woven together to form a fabric that God alone perceives in full. If there is any such structure in Meditations, it isn’t apparent to me. But I think it functions as a variant of that metaphor: a lot of things happening at once that seem to have little structure in themselves and hardly any in relation to each other, but which nevertheless cohere in some broad and fundamental way. It’s an emotional coherence rather than a formal one, and suggests to me another way of thinking about the apparent near-chaos that is this world. I can’t quite articulate this on short notice, but I suppose that’s fitting when the subject is music.

Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2004

Some Kind of Artist

A few weeks before the recent election the arts section of our local paper featured a discussion of the fact that so many artists are on the political left, sometimes the fairly radical left. The editor put the question to a number of local artists, and the unsurprising answer that many of them gave was a variation on the theme that artists are superior people who naturally embrace superior ideas. This of course brings to mind Orwell’s “herd of independent minds,” and I can think of several less flattering explanations for the phenomenon under discussion.

But I’m really more interested in the underlying assumption: that “creative people” are fundamentally different from everyone else. I consider this idea not just false but pernicious, doing an injustice to the vast majority of the human race and considerable harm to art, artists, and culture. Among other things, it carries an implication which is pretty much insane: that the definition of art is “what an artist does.” Some twenty-five or so years ago I heard on NPR an interview with an artist which made clear both the madness of this idea and its grip on the world of the visual arts (at least—it doesn’t seem to have the same hold on literature and music). This disturbed fellow’s art included cutting himself with razor blades before an audience. The interviewer, a nice intelligent liberal fellow, was obviously appalled, but, not wishing to appear a Philistine, seemed to be trying not to show it and to treat this sick stunt as just the latest manifestation of the same gifts and intentions that were exercised by Leonardo. But at one point he couldn’t resist asking the question “Is this really art?” The “artist” of course pounced on this; I remember thinking that he had been waiting for just such an opening: “Yes, it is. I am an artist, and therefore what I do is art.” I wanted to reply “No, you are a nut, and therefore what you do is nuts.”

The truth, I think, is that every person is a creative person. The artist—by which I mean one whose primary vocation is one of the arts—may be more creative than most people, and he really must be more skilled in some particular craft than most people, but I deny with every fiber of my being the idea that he is intrinsically different from, still less superior to, them. It’s hard to see that the term “creativity” can mean anything more than the manifestation or expression of the interplay between a unique self and the rest of the world, which of course is always subjectively unique. In that fundamental sense almost everything we do, unless it is a strict and mechanical obedience to the orders of another, has in it some tincture of creativity. We all, for starters, have our own way of talking. We have our characteristic ways of constructing sentences, turns of phrase, witticisms, the occasional simile of our own invention, and so forth. Language in fact is a torrent of mostly anonymous creativity: the other day, listening to a sports talk show, I heard a football coach describe a thin player as having “a neck like a roll of dimes.” Various schools whose football programs are not doing very well have been described as being under attack by the terrorist duo of bin Losin’ and bin Cryin’.

Going a step further into what we more typically mean by “creativity,” we see it in much of our everyday work: a woman rearranging the furniture in her living room or decorating a cake, a bricklayer fitting the pieces of a paved path, a software developer designing a more efficient algorithm, all are exercising a degree of creativity. Our technological civilization in fact surrounds us with the work of engineers, product designers, and advertisers of all sorts who are extremely creative; although we may not consider what they do to be art and don’t credit them with being members of the fragile and superior class of creative persons, I don’t know how one could reasonably define creativity in such a way as to deny that they possess it.

A number of 19th and 20th century thinkers, such as the Catholic artist, typographer, and sculptor Eric Gill, railed against the factory system precisely because it removed the element of creativity from work, making the worker an inhuman automaton. Indeed we are now seeing the replacement of traditional assembly line workers by robots and if this did not involve unemployment we would have to consider it a good thing.

I certainly would not deny that there is a distinction between the fine arts, in which the object is made and valued principally for itself, and the useful arts, in which the object has some function outside itself. But the distinction is not hard and fast and I don’t believe there is any qualitative difference in the human impulses and gifts exercised in either case.

And when I say that everyone is creative in some way, I don’t mean to imply that there is no hierarchy of quality in the arts, or that everyone should be encouraged to write or paint or make music, whether or not they have any talent, on the grounds that creativity is only real if exercised in those arts. I’d have us understand Eric Gill’s aphorism: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” I might even go so far as to say that the term “creative person” is redundant, although the addition of an adjective such as “more” or “less” can make it useful.

Whenever I think of Gill’s words, I remember a poem by James Seay, whose writing classes I took in college. The poem was called, if I remember correctly, “Kelly Dug a Hole,” and although I don’t remember much of the poem itself I remember Jim’s account of its subject, a man who could dig a hole with perfectly square corners and perfectly straight sides. As I remember, Jim said he thought Kelly could have been, in the right circumstances, an artist of some kind. But that’s only half-right: he was an artist of some kind—as was my uncle Jimmy, who was a bookkeeper (or something) by trade but painted the walls and ceiling of his children’s playroom with vertical stripes that tapered perfectly from a foot or so wide at the baseboard to a point where they met at a light fixture in the ceiling. When I expressed my astonishment (not too strong a word) at the skill involved, he just laughed, as if to say it wasn’t that big a deal. And in a sense he was right: the skill was unusual, but the impulse and some ability, however slight or mundane, to exercise skill and imagination belong to us all.

Sunday Night Journal — November 28, 2004

The Elemental Thanksgiving

I’m sure we’ve all, in the last week or so, seen a number of lists of Things For Which We Are Or Should be Thankful. Having just read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, I’m of a mind to add something which I haven’t seen on anyone’s list: most of us should be thankful that we have never achieved great fame, the kind of fame that prevents one from being able to live a normal life and going about one’s daily business unnoticed. I’ve long suspected, and Dylan’s book confirms, that this is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

But more about Dylan’s surprisingly good book another time. Much higher on my Thanksgiving list than the absence of fame is existence. Not my personal existence but the simple fact that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing. Why should there be anything? Taking Occam’s Razor—not to multiply entities without necessity—as far as it will go, why should there be any entities in the first place? Would not a pristine nullity be as it were the most natural…what? Thing? Condition? State? Each of those words implies existence. Some months ago I picked up in a bookstore a book about the concept of nothing. The few pages that I sampled seem to indicate that the author was dealing more with the concept of zero or emptiness or specific instances of absence rather than of nothing: no space, no time, nothing, which is as difficult to imagine as infinity. To the extent that one can conceive of it, there would seem to be no way at all to get from Nothing to Something. Steven Hawkins, I read somewhere, disposed of the concept of God as unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to begin the cosmos. But quanta are not Nothing. And as Nothing is a great deal simpler and more reasonable than Something, it seems that surprise and gratitude that there is Something should inform our attitudes and our thinking.

Second on my Thanksgiving list is my personal existence: the fact that I exist and have a consciousness capable of perceiving other entities and of knowing that I perceive them. This seems to me the elemental pleasure of human life. Once in my college days I attempted to comfort a despondent friend by saying that the simple ability to see things like sunlight and green leaves ought to be enough reason for living. I learned later that there are states of agony in which this is not true, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the seeing becomes impossible. Moreover, as life goes on it is possible, if one has no belief in transcendent purpose, for this simple pleasure of existence to be blighted by a sense of futility; indeed it is probably inevitable, given a long enough life and no hope of heaven. Still, for a soul in anything less than deathly sickness or decrepitude I think my old insight is valid.

I am thankful that I have and can perceive Being. Thanksgiving becomes rejoicing when I reflect that Being is itself a person: the I AM, the great revelation given to the Jews and later through them to all the nations. God is not an entity among others, he is existence itself, the Uncontingent One, without whom was not anything made that was made, and he encompasses and exceeds everything we can see or imagine in the entities for which existence is only an attribute and not their essence, including persons and their personhood. Surely it is only habit and apathy which can render such an idea tiresome to us, and so it is well that we have a day set aside for Thanksgiving, even if we do not use it in contemplation of God. The contemplation, in gratitude, of anything outside ourselves will do for a start.

Sunday Night Journal — November 14, 2004

Rediscovering Jimi Hendrix

A few months ago, writing about the pleasures of driving, I described myself listening to a Jimi Hendrix album on my daily commute. As soon as I wrote that sentence I felt slightly embarrassed: what a stereotypical baby boomer pop fan, on the far side of middle age, tooling down the highway to the nostalgic accompaniment of the music that was new when he was in college and has long since passed into the realm of the conventional. I considered changing or removing the reference, but in the interests of honesty left it in; it was, after all, what I was listening to on the day I was describing.

But I can also, in honesty, say that I was not indulging in nostalgia. In fact, at the time it was current Hendrix’s music never really meant that much to me. There was a period of six months or so when Are You Experienced? was inescapable, at least in certain circles, and although I was, like everyone else who was interested in pop music, pretty amazed and intrigued by the guitar work on it, this was not music that really touched my emotions. His second album was a disappointment and the third a mixed bag, and by the time of his death in 1970 I had pretty much lost interest in his music and didn’t hear it again for many years, except for the few songs that had become staples of classic rock radio.

At some point in the ‘80s I had a yen to hear Hendrix again and discovered that I had lost my copy of Are You Experienced? and gained a copy of a greatest hits compilation which included most of the more popular songs from Experienced. Listening to it, I found I had completely lost the little taste I had ever had for the noisy riff songs of sexual bravado like “Foxy Lady,” but the album contained a gem I had missed in the ‘60s, a straight-up blues called “Red House.” I had always heard that Hendrix could play the blues when he wanted to, but I hadn’t known he did it with genius. This cut was timeless, unlike a lot of Hendrix’s recorded work.

It was only this year that I discovered the existence of an entire CD of Hendrix playing the blues (called simply Blues). After one hearing it took its place in my mind as one of the great blues albums of all time, even though it’s mostly comprised of jams and outtakes that were never meant to be released. Hendrix’s guitar work is just staggering. A song like “Once I Had a Woman” begins with fairly straightforward blues licks, then with every verse gets more imaginative and further out until it’s full of the intensely expressive screams and roars and wails that only he at the time could produce and few have matched since, even with electronics that can produce similar tones at the touch of a button.

The blues vocabulary is of course fundamentally limited, and even Hendrix doesn’t avoid clichés and repetition completely. I find myself wondering what it is about his playing that sets it apart. I think part of the explanation is in the rhythms, which somehow manage to be simultaneously tight and loose, heavy and light. It’s as if the temporal space in which he places each note is larger than it is for other players; as if he has some extra room to work with, and doesn’t have to be in a rush to put the note exactly where he wants it, so that there is a underlying relaxed quality even when he’s playing fast and intensely. Someone like Eric Clapton, who is equally quick, seems a bit four-square, almost stiff in comparison. Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan seems like he’s working really hard. Almost everything Hendrix does seems effortless, unstrained, as if he has as much speed and power in reserve as he is actually using at any moment.

And then there’s the tone, or rather there are the tones. Few others have (and nobody at the time had) as wide a range, and yet most electric guitar aficionados need only a few notes to recognize the Hendrix sound. To compare him to his contemporary Eric Clapton again (and no criticism of Clapton intended, because he’s a great guitarist), Clapton’s tone is very pure and clean, while Hendrix’s is scuffed up, richer, thicker, and more varied. His playing in the middle and higher range of the instrument has a liquid quality which as far as I’ve heard has not been duplicated by anybody. And of course there are what might be called the post-guitar tones. Hendrix was the first pop musician to find a way to make an expressive tool out of what at first seems to be sheer noise.

It’s when Hendrix combines the controlled noise of feedback and whatever else he stirred into the mix with ventures into melodic territory well outside the blues vocabulary that people trying to describe it come up with terms like “blues from Mars.” It’s a combination of earthiness and abstraction that to me is nothing less than gripping. There are people who play faster and louder and with more complexity, but I don’t know of anyone whose playing has more emotional power than Hendrix at his best.

This blues album sent me back to some of the other Hendrix albums for the first time in many years. I have to say that most of his songs don’t really amount to a great deal as anything except guitar vehicles, and you have to overlook a lot of gimmicky lust and psychedelia to enjoy them. The tracks that I keep going back to are the longer mostly instrumental ones, like “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland (the less said about the title song the better), or the strange ones like “Third Stone from the Sun” on Are You Experienced?. One wishes he had recorded more covers, as “All Along the Watchtower” has probably had wider popularity than anything else he recorded. Speaking of which, its famous solo is a perfect example of that intense-but-relaxed quality, with moments where many notes are dropped into a small space and yet still have plenty of room. And I downloaded from iTunes a copy of the famous Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” (I have no desire at all to hear the whole album) and it strikes me as some kind of unique American masterpiece.

Like anybody who admires the work of Jimi Hendrix, I find myself wondering what might have been. I suppose drugs had a lot to do with the wildness of some of his experimentation, but I find it hard to believe that they did not also limit and hamper him musically (aside from the fact, of course, that they also killed him.) I find myself thinking of him less as a pop star who stumbled into moments of brilliance than as an innovator who was too bogged down in the stupid and destructive aspects of stardom and hippie culture to flower fully before his untimely death.

Attempting to be realistic in one’s speculations, one must suppose that had he lived, his subsequent development would probably have been like that of most of his contemporaries: an increasingly uninspired recapitulation of his early achievements. But there are moments in some of the pop songs on Are You Experienced? and his other official releases when it almost sounds like John Coltrane has dropped in on a recording session of the Rolling Stones, and I wonder if the work of a forty-year-old Hendrix might have had more in common with that of later musicians whom he helped to inspire, such as Bill Frissel, than with what he did at twenty-five.

Sunday Night Journal — October 31, 2004

All Hallows’ Eve

I’m writing this on All Hallows’—that is, All Saints’—Eve. Tomorrow begins the traditional Christian month of praying for the dead.

I had an especially vivid and disturbing dream of death a few nights ago which has left the subject very much on my mind. I can’t describe the dream in detail, but I remember very clearly the emotion it provoked, which was something close to panic. It was not a dream about the pain and fear of the process of dying, but about the state of death itself. In the dream this state was one of disorientation, helplessness, and disconnection. I could not think or perceive clearly and could not act at all. I was aware of other souls around me but could not in any way commune with them. I think it was very much like the state which C.S. Lewis somewhere describes as possibly being what it might be like to be a ghost. And it made me think of the scene in Perelandra where the hell-bound spirit of Weston returns briefly to his body and begs Ransom to help him: what Weston describes is somewhat similar to what I dreamed, and he is in pure panic to escape it.

Somehow in my dream I did pull (or was pulled) away from this state, but only to find myself in a state of dread similar to Weston’s and feeling that it must be possible somehow to escape the inevitability of re-entering what I had just left. I felt the full horror of that inevitability and the hopelessness of escape. I saw the world as a sort of ever-narrowing tunnel through which all the human race must proceed, and as it narrowed we would lose more and more of life—our bodies, our memories, our ability to think clearly and to use language—but never lose everything, that is, never entirely cease to exist or to have some kind of broken and fragmentary consciousness—a sort of permanent burial alive.

I awoke feeling certain of the inevitability of death and simultaneously that the certainty was perfectly intolerable. Most especially, I couldn’t bear the fact that we don’t really know what death will bring. I can face the idea of extinction well enough, but not the idea of permanent living death. I felt a need to know what would happen after death with an intensity that I can only compare to the need for air one feels after holding one’s breath for thirty seconds or more. How, I thought—I was still half asleep and in the grip of the dream—could it be possible that we must all face such a thing without knowing what will happen? How can it be that no one has ever returned to tell us?

And then, of course, coming fully awake, I realized that someone has done so, or claims to have, and moreover claims to be able to tell us what we must do in order to escape a condition which is perhaps something like what I had dreamed. And I remembered that his claim is not merely his own but one well attested by eye-witnesses. Why should we not believe it? I have been a Christian for many years but I think this was the first time I experienced viscerally the intense relief and joy and release from dread with which many pagans have received the Gospel.

O Death, where is thy victory?

A Followup from Last Week

Moving rather abruptly into the mundane: the following questions and comments are ones which might have been, but were not, directed to me about to my last journal entry.

You’ve used an inversion of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced” as part of the title for your attack on CBS and implicitly the other established TV networks. This is a low blow, since Fox is just as biased. Besides, its mere existence with its Republican bias contradicts your claim that a monolithic left-wing media bias has distorted public perception of the issues surrounding the war in Iraq.

Fox is indeed biased. For the record, I don’t particularly admire its news programs (and on the basis of its own advertising have a very low opinion of most of its entertainment programming). Fox news tends to be hasty and superficial compared to, say, CNN. And its bias is arguably more blatant. But I don’t think it’s worse—in fact I think I prefer an open bias to a sneaky one. And in any case I’m glad Fox is there. If we can’t have a reasonably non-partisan press, at least we can have a multiplicity of partisan views.

I also think it’s interesting and amusing that so many on the left are beside themselves about Fox on the grounds that it does not report objectively. This tells me that either they cannot see the bias of a network like CBS, probably because they share it, or that they’re not being honest—presumably the former.

Many on the left think the mainstream media are corporate shills for right-wing forces. Doesn’t the fact that both extremes are offended prove that the media are balanced?

Not at all. First, what constitutes “extreme”? Obviously that’s a relative and somewhat subjective term. I can locate the extremes and the center of a yardstick fairly accurately and in a way with which most people would agree. But the political spectrum is not so well defined. If you think the Republican Party or even the Christian Coalition represent the extreme right, you probably resist even naming the extreme left. Perhaps you’d accept the Shining Path movement? So you’re saying that conservative American evangelicals are comparable to an armed guerrilla force? To that, all I can say is “snap out of it,” because I don’t think I can reach you with reason.

No, the right-wing counterpart to the Shining Path would be something like the Aryan Nations (ideologically speaking—in actual deeds the Aryan Nation has done very little, while Shining Path once seemed to have a fair shot at taking control of Peru). Show me where the media gives the Aryan Nations favorable treatment. The left-wing counterpart to the Christian Coalition would be, say, . Which is more likely to get sympathetic treatment from the media?

But let’s drop this language of extremes and middle. The point is that the mainstream media do have a pretty definite political point of view and that they report the news in such a way as to reinforce it. The fact that people of other views than mine also believe this does not mean that we are both wrong. And my specific complaint is that by reporting and editorializing on the war so as to reinforce their belief that it was unjustified, they have seriously exacerbated the divisions within our society. This is a serious accusation and I believe it is true.

How can you dismiss Fahrenheit 911 without having seen it?

I haven’t read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, either. Sometimes reputation is enough.

I once had a very educational conversation with a Seventh Day Adventist fanatic who believed that the Catholic Church is a satanic conspiracy controlled by the Anti-Christ himself, the Pope. It was educational for me, not for him; as far as I could tell he was entirely unchanged. What I learned was the power of maneuvering someone into trying to prove a negative. I cannot prove that the Pope is not the Anti-Christ, George Bush cannot prove that he did not go to war for Halliburton, and Michael Moore cannot prove that his baseball cap is not the receiver through which he obtains his orders from the Daleks.

One can construct from facts a web of false inferences which do not admit of disproof. Here’s how:

First you select any actions on the part of your subject which reflect badly on him. Discard all other facts which cannot be made to serve this purpose. Interpret the ones you keep in the worst possible light, and reject out of hand all possible alternative interpretations. Freely dispense with the distinction between correlation and causation. Insert as many unfalsifiable assertions as needed (the motives of your subject and any other participants are always a nice blank slate for this, as you can impute any content you want to another’s unknown thoughts). If assertions are too risky, innuendo will usually serve the purpose. Finally—and this may be the most important part—stick with monomaniacal perseverance to your core conviction that your subject is evil through and through; this will protect you from dropping your guard against other views.

Michael Moore is telling the truth and you just can’t face it.

Snap out of it.

Seriously. Say the war was immoral, say it was a strategic blunder, and give your rational account of why you believe these to be true, but come out of the shadows and fog of Mooreism. Give the administration credit for acting in good faith. Besides what should be the crippling defect of being incorrect, the Moore account of current events makes it impossible for political opponents to have a dialogue, because it is based on the imputation of bad faith to the other. The country’s divisions are dangerous enough already.

And with that I am swearing off political commentary for at least the next four weeks, no matter who wins on Tuesday.

Sunday Night Journal — October 24, 2004

Unfair, Unbalanced, Unrepentant

I did not intend to emphasize politics in this journal, and, more specifically, I did not intend to write about politics again this week. But I find myself unable to stop thinking about the current presidential campaign. What follows has been bothering me for months; maybe I’ll be able to leave it alone for a while now, although the biggest news is yet to come. I have bitten off a bigger subject here than I can handle in the time or space I usually devote to these pieces, so I may revise it later in the week.

What an exhausting and depressing campaign this has been. I feel that way and I have been involved only as a spectator. The sheer level of acrimony has begun to affect me like psychological sandpaper. The country has not been so divided since the Vietnam war.

The media bear a lot of responsibility for the intensity of the division. Never has the partisanship of the most visible media empires—the New York Times, CBS,—been more evident and less ashamed. I suppose the clearest example of this is in the treatment of the military service of Kerry and Bush, in which the media made it their business to question Bush’s service and to defend Kerry’s. When the Swift Boat Veterans began their attacks on John Kerry’s military record, the New York Times ignored the story for a couple of weeks and then, when it did not go away, attempted not to investigate the charges but to discredit the veterans. When Bush’s record was attacked, the attacks either originated with or were happily amplified by the media, as in Dan Rather’s eager trumpeting of what seem to have been bogus documents.

But the bias shows itself in less colorful but more damaging ways. For instance, the Deufler Report ( see here for the CIA’s summary) apparently indicates that although Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he was nevertheless playing more or less the sort of game the Bush administration and indeed the Clinton administration had accused him of: attempting to wait out the inspections and sanctions with the intention of restarting his WMD programs when he could safely do so—which is to say that he did in fact represent a long-term threat. But as far as I can tell most news stories have emphasised only the fact that no stockpiles existed and no active work was in progress.

Similarly, the media have repeated interminably, as a point against the administration, the assertion that Saddam Hussein had no ties to the 9-11 attacks, which is true but beside the point: the administration’s claim was not that he masterminded 9-11 but that he was very much involved with the promotion of terrorism. And although this latter claim is certainly true, the media have left an impression in the public mind that Bush lied—or, rather, BUSH LIED!!!—about Saddam’s terrorist connections.

There was and is a reasonable and principled argument to be made against the war, but most of its opponents have not bothered to make it. The Kerry campaign is certainly not making it, since its need to please both hawks and doves leaves it with little room for anything but Monday-morning quarterbacking which runs the gamut from nonsense to cheap shot. Probably the most cogent domestic opposition came from the right, from the Pat Buchanan-America First school of non-interventionism. And the most persuasive international opposition was from the Pope, who simply and passionately decried the loss of life that would surely be involved. From the left, domestic and international, we mostly had the unending shriek of BUSH LIED!!!, even before the war started. It’s easy to forget now that this accusation preceded not just the determination that Saddam Hussein possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but indeed the war itself. It was a given; most of the anti-war left began with the assumption that the administration were simply bloodthirsty liars (or psychopaths, or Zionist/neoconservative conspirators, or fools, or sometimes all of the above).

The media in general have done very little to raise the level of debate, and have helped in creating an environment in which not only the bitter leftists of A.N.S.W.E.R but prominent Democrats feel perfectly at ease in asserting (or at least insinuating) that the president took us to war based on a lie, even going so far as to seat prominently at their convention—with an ex-president no less—Michael Moore, whose film about the war is by all accounts a tower of mendacity, and not very brave mendacity at that, for it apparently proceeds by innuendo and association, generally stopping short of actually stating the lie which it is implying. (I am relying here on reports about the film, because every time I considered going to see it I was stopped by the prospect of my money ending up in Michael Moore’s pocket. This analysis seems to be a pretty thorough justification of my opinion. I have browsed Moore’s books in stores, enough to get a good sense of what he thinks and how he operates rhetorically; on the basis of that I agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s view that they are “simple big-print screaming.”)

I sometimes wonder if the BUSH LIED!!! brigade really understand and mean what they say. Sometimes it seems that they don’t understand the distinction between lying and being mistaken. Why would anyone tell a lie such as the one Bush is accused of regarding WMD, knowing that it could not possibly escape being disproved by actions which he himself was initiating? It would be like a tax evader asking the IRS to audit him. Or, on the other hand, if he was so very unscrupulous, why would he hesitate to plant a little nerve gas or something of that sort here and there to cement the deception? None of this passes a basic sanity check, yet apparently millions of people believe it.

And do Bush’s attackers really, truly believe that the president of the United States started a war for the purpose of enriching himself and his friends? I cannot think of anything short of aiding an invading army which would so clearly qualify as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” which are grounds for impeachment. I believe Bill Clinton was a very dishonest president, and in many ways a bad one (though not so bad as he might have been had he been less concerned with his own popularity). But I never would have entertained such an accusation against him, at least not without a lot of indisputable evidence. And if I believed it about George Bush I would be agitating for his impeachment.

I don’t think people like Michael Moore care much about the truth as such; or say rather that they have a Larger Truth, for instance that America is run by and for evil men, which makes them indifferent to lesser truths, and certainly uninterested in being fair. (This of course is an occupational hazard for anyone with strong convictions, but a more honest person makes at least some attempt to engage opposing arguments.) Moore reminds me of people I knew in my own days as a student radical, and I was struck then by their lack of interest in truth. Their motivation lay elsewhere, in some mysterious urge to savage the society which had produced them (an urge which I also felt at the time and still have not satisfactorily explained to myself) and their interest in facts did not extend beyond those which could be exploited for that purpose. Or perhaps Moore and others like him are best understood as conspiracy theorists, convinced that they have the key to the Real Story which explains everything and which causes them to filter out any data which does not support the theory.

Perhaps all I’m doing here is describing the fanatic mind, from which breadth and balance can hardly be expected. But the press is supposed to be a corrective to fanaticism. It is supposed to be the means by which citizens in a democracy are informed of the truth, enabled to see as comprehensive a picture as possible, and if the press fails, for partisan reasons, to do its duty it is guilty of a serious dereliction.

And what of the putatively serious statesmen of the Democratic party who fawn over Moore and repeat, in more decorous language, his assertions? Why, again, have they not moved to impeach a president who, were these charges valid, would be a criminal the like of which has never yet occupied the Oval Office? I conclude that they don’t really believe what they are saying, and that their willingness to keep saying it marks them as far more unworthy than the man they are attacking.

Consider these three items, which paint a pretty good picture of what the Democratic Party has come to in this campaign:

  • The image of the weeping and terrified CARE worker begging for her life last week after being kidnapped by men who have already demonstrated that they regard with demonic glee the prospect of using a butcher knife to saw off the head of a helpless and harmless person.

  • Michael Moore’s encouragement of men like these. Do you think I’m being harsh or unfair? Judge his words for yourself: “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow—and they will win.” And this: “I’m sorry, but the majority of Americans supported this war once it began and, sadly, that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe—just maybe—God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.” ( Entire piece here; it was written back in April and Moore does not seem to be talking this way anymore, perhaps having decided, after the televised beheadings, that praise of these “Minutemen” is impolitic.)

  • Jimmy Carter’s statement that his two favorite movies are Casbablanca and Fahrenheit 911. Carter may be a decent man in his private life but with his support of people like Moore he is putting the final nails in the coffin of his already shaky reputation as a statesman.

Note that the Democratic convention, at which Moore was very visibly seated next to ex-President Carter, occurred months after Moore made the statements above. The Democrats have embraced a man who has made it his business to poison the wells of debate about the war and who believes that the other side should win. Most of the media apparently think this is acceptable, but that there is something illicit about a group of Vietnam veterans questioning Kerry’s service. The Democratic Party and the Kerry-Edwards campaign ought to be pressed to confront their association with these repulsive statements and tactics, either to repudiate them or to justify them openly, as would be demanded of, say, a Republican candidate who hobnobbed with the KKK. But the mainstream media, willing to denounce as liars some 250 Vietnam veterans, is silent on this, either because they agree with it or because they think Bush’s defeat too important to put at risk.

Journalists ought to be like judges, intent on making sure that all the facts are put plainly before a jury. Instead too many of them have become mere bellowing lawyers, concerned only with winning and indifferent to justice. My opinion of George W. Bush’s presidency is very mixed (for the record, I describe myself as an uneasy supporter of the war). But I hope he wins this election. More than that, though, I hope and pray that the truth will win. Let the chips fall where they may, not where fanatics of any stripe want to put them.

Sunday Night Journal — October 17, 2004

The Litmus Test Test

My old friend Daniel Nichols, with whom I worked on Caelum et Terra is one of those relatively rare people who is genuinely conservative on social issues but tends to lean left on other matters. Though he’s vehemently opposed to the Iraq war (not necessarily a leftward position, of course), he wrote me recently that he intended to hold his nose and vote for Bush for the same reason that many social conservatives continue to support Republicans: the Supreme Court. Although Republicans in general and President Bush in particular can’t be counted on to appoint judges who will resist the judicial imposition of the liberal social agenda, the Democrats can certainly be counted on to promote it vigorously.

A day or two after the third presidential debate I heard from him again. Disgusted by Bush’s refusal to take a definite or specific stand on judicial appointments other than “No litmus tests,” he was reconsidering the idea of voting for the president.

Now there are a lot of arguments to be made for and against Daniel’s position, and I am at the moment entirely sick of them. I have been spending far too much time lately reading and occasionally participating in the debate at Amy Wellborn’s blog, which gravitates frequently to the intramural Catholic quarrel over whether it’s permissible to vote for someone as committed to unrestricted abortion rights as John Kerry manifestly is.

What really strikes me about the matter is the role played by the media—or, perhaps I should say, since The Media is not quite the monolith it once was, the MSM, or MainStream Media. The triumphant cries of bloggers in the wake of Dan Rather’s recent debacle notwithstanding, the MSM still have a great deal of power to frame the terms of political debate, and the question of judicial appointments is one where a conservative who takes any kind of definite stand simply cannot escape being horsewhipped for “imposing a litmus test,” illicitly injecting ideology (or theology) into the law, etc. ad nauseam. “Litmus test” is itself only a scare phrase which means nothing unless attached to a specific test—would anyone scream “litmus test” if a candidate said he would not appoint a justice who supported striking down the first amendment as unconstitutional? But a liberal can openly assert a very strict ideological test and the MSM will not complain in the least.

If Bush were to say that he intended to appoint only justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, he would be all but crucified by the Democrats and most of the press. Bush of course knows that, and so, even if he does believe the decision should be reversed, he doesn’t dare say so in such a close race. I can imagine Dan Rather’s introduction to the story: “A troubling admission today from the Bush campaign...”, and then would come the quotes from unnamed “observers” talking about “red meat for the president’s right-wing base” and asking whether the election of such a fanatic might not mean that the light of justice would wink out forever like the light from a dying star.

John Kerry, on the other hand, can stand tall for his ideology, secure in the knowledge that none of the big media, with the possible exception of Fox News, will make trouble for him, and will in fact congratulate him for his integrity. Here’s how Bush answered the question as to whether he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned:

What he’s asking me is, will I have a litmus test for my judges? And the answer is, no, I will not have a litmus test. I will pick judges who will interpret the Constitution, but I’ll have no litmus test.

And here’s the followup from Kerry:

I’m not going to appoint a judge to the Court who’s going to undo a constitutional right, whether it’s the First Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment, or some other right that's given under our courts today—under the Constitution. And I believe that the right of choice is a constitutional right.

So I don’t intend to see it undone.

Question 1: Which of these men has a “litmus test” for judicial appointees, that is, a pre-determined position, to which any potential appointees must assent, on a specific legal matter?

Question 2: Which of them will be credited by the Democrats and most of the media with having such a test?

Question 3: Why do many conservatives long to dance on the grave of Dan Rather’s career?

And a bonus essay question for advanced constitutional scholars: Comment on Mr. Kerry’s conflation of the authority and standing of Roe v. Wade with that of the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Express your feelings about the fact that John Kerry may soon be in a position to nominate Supreme Court justices. Does this thought make you happy or sad?

Sunday Night Journal — October 10, 2004

In Gratitude to a Donor

Back in the early ‘70s I worked in a couple of record stores and I heard a lot of music to the point of satiety and well beyond. Sometimes music that I liked mildly, such as the Eagles’ Desperado, was run into the ground, and music that I didn’t much like, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became hated. Records that weren’t very popular didn’t get played very much, which was fine with me whether I liked them or not: if I didn’t like them, it was nice not to have to hear them, and if I did like them, they didn’t get ruined by over-listening. One of these less-popular works was Judee Sill’s Heart Food. I remember feeling that there was something a bit haunting about it, something that was kind of getting under my skin, but for reasons I can’t now remember I never bought it and soon forgot about it when it stopped being played in the store.

More than ten years later something brought it to mind again. I can’t remember now what sparked the memory, but I do remember that a couple of lyrics came to mind: something about a road to Kingdom Come, and something that included the Kyrie. And I had a vague sense of Out West—deserts, cowboys, horses, tumbleweeds—as well as the notion of some kind of Christian-sounding spirituality. So I asked my old friend Robert Woodley, who for a long time seemed to know every pop album ever produced, and to own most of them, about it. He knew right away what I was talking about and, the record being out of print, made me a tape with Judee Sill on one side and the best of Ultravox on the other. Now there was a contrast: mystical Christian cowboy folk-pop paired with alienated world-weary synth-pop. I listened to both sides a lot, and the tape is much the worse for wear. I eventually bought most of Ultravox’s work, but Judee Sill’s remained unavailable.

In the mid-‘90s as more and more music resources became available on the web—retailers, fans, reviews—I made it a point to go looking every now and then for Heart Food. At a time when it seemed that almost everything that had ever been available on LP was appearing on CD, Heart Food remained absent. At one point I almost paid $50 for a copy of the LP on Ebay, but was held back by imagining the scene in which I attempted to justify to my wife paying that much money for a used LP.

This past summer Dawn Eden happened to mention it on The Dawn Patrol, which reminded me that it had been a while since I looked for it. Happily, it was now available, albeit at $26. I emailed Dawn complimenting her on her taste and complaining about the high price. She advised me to buy it anyway, quickly because it was a limited edition, adding that I shouldn’t balk at the price because I would get $260 worth of enjoyment out of it.

Still put off by the high price, I didn’t buy the CD right away, but put it on my birthday wish list. My wife having granted the wish last week, I can now say that Dawn’s advice was right on. It has probably been ten years or more since I listened to my old tape copy, and hearing it now in CD-quality audio is almost like hearing it for the first time. The sound is far richer and warmer and more detailed, and the music itself seems better than ever.

It’s always difficult to describe music, and this more so than some, because it produces an effect which is somewhat at odds with its raw materials. That is, if I say that in addition to Sill’s voice and guitar the first song (“There's a Rugged Road,” the “kingdom come” song I remembered from 1973) includes steel guitar and fiddle and in general sounds somewhat country-western, it will be accurate as to the sound but not as to the atmosphere, which is mystical. Country music is pretty down to earth and straightforward, as is the folk-country music of people like Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith. But there is an indefinable air of mystery about this song. Those images that I mentioned earlier—deserts, cowboys, and the like—are there, but as archetypes and symbols, not as their down-to-earth selves. Perhaps one way to put it is that the Western-ness is movie-Western: cinematic, not really meant to be the real thing, lifted out of history and put to work for other purposes, in this case to provide imagery for spiritual matters. Not all the songs are in this Western mode; there are touches of gospel, Gregorian chant, and soft rock. The album as a whole really should seem like a hodge-podge, but it’s held together by Sill’s voice and visionary songwriting.

Although the lyrics are full of Christian symbols and allusions, and at least two of them seem to be quite explicitly Christian, the album’s liner notes make it sound as if Sill’s Christianity was eccentric at best. That’s as may be, but it needn’t bother the listener. I’m always at risk of hyperbole when praising a work that I really like, but it seems to me that this album as a whole is worthy of being ranked with anything produced in post-1965 popular music. And the final song, “The Donor” (this is the one I remembered as including the Kyrie) is, whatever Judee Sill may actually have believed, one of the most moving cries to God that anyone has ever put to music.

Strong words? Well, listen for yourself. And say a prayer for the soul of Judee Sill. She had been a drug addict before getting straight enough to pursue a serious music career and make Heart Food and its predecessor, Judee Sill. Like a lot of addicts, she apparently never really shook off the lure, and returned off and on to heroin and other drugs, including pain-killers for injuries suffered in a car accident. She never made another album, although there are some demos for a projected third, and in 1979 died alone of an overdose which, as in the case of Nick Drake, may or may not have been suicide.

A long and lonely road to Kingdom Come, says the first song, and I suppose that’s what Judee Sill had, although in years it was not so very long. But “The Donor” pretty well describes her relationship to the rest of us. The making of art is a curious thing. The artist does his work for motives almost never entirely pure—Judee Sill apparently wanted very much to be a star—completes it, and moves on. The gift remains.

Sunday Night Journal — September 26, 2004

I Miss the Future

David Mills of Touchstone, writing on that magazine’s blog one day last week, solicited readers’ opinions as to the best science-fiction movie ever made. It required no reflection at all for me to come up with my answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There aren’t many sci-fi films that I consider to be worthy of comparison with 2001. Mr. Mills asked his question in the context of discussing a survey in which a number of scientists named Blade Runner as the top science fiction film. I haven’t seen Blade Runner, having been frightened away by its reputation for graphic violence, so I’ll admit the possibility that it may be better than 2001, but I imagine I would still prefer the latter. That’s because it is more than a good movie: it represents a kind of science fiction, and a kind of future, that is now for me an object of nostalgia.

As a boy in the early 1960s I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction for a couple of years. The pictures of exotic worlds and futures painted in the stories I read were almost mystically attractive to me, mainly, I think, because of their strangeness and remoteness. I directed to them what I later recognized as a displaced religious longing. The phase did not last very long, partly because most of the writing was inferior to that in the classics I was also then discovering, and partly because the vision of a future technological wonderland soon came to seem thin and shallow.

But now and then I have spells of nostalgia for those days of wonder, and sometimes in the midst of these I do slightly embarrassing things, such as seeking out and purchasing on eBay some of the very issues of Analog which enchanted me at sixteen. I find, somewhat to my disappointment but not much to my surprise, that most of the writing is even worse than I feared. Stories purveying ideas which seemed at the time very deep now seem naïve at best. Many of them seem, aside from their fanciful settings and gadgetry, almost laughably conventional: genre pieces in the basic pattern of Westerns and war stories, but done up with futuristic trappings which all too often are amusingly bound to the time in which they were written. One story, for instance, in which the special effects work of a movie crew provides a trick that saves the day, refers continually to the manipulation of tape—on a starship. The effect is of an anachronistic future, in which the electronic systems of the imagined distant future sometimes still have vacuum tubes and mechanical relays that were obsolete by 1970 or so.

And yet there is still an appeal in the endless vistas of technological marvels and galactic civilizations, and 2001 captures it better than any movie I know. It was the first movie in which technology could actually provide a convincing visual representation of what science-fictions writers and readers had previously only imagined. (“Star Trek,” for instance, never interested me much, because it was so visually unconvincing, and the stories were simplistic even by the standards of printed sci-fi.)

Thematically, 2001 is, as you know if you’ve seen it, an exercise in evolutionary wishful thinking. It supposes an ascent of human progress by evolution as directed and encouraged by an ancient, wise, and benevolent alien civilization. Stanley Kubrick had the good sense to keep these aliens offstage, so that they remain suitably beyond the ordinary. It’s remarkable how often this basic notion of salvation by godlike aliens recurs in science fiction and apparently among some scientists: the late Carl Sagan seems to have felt its pull quite strongly. It is an idea supported by considerably less empirical evidence (to wit, none) than the Resurrection, yet some intelligent people seem more willing to believe in it than in any traditional religion.

I find it fascinating that this vision of the future suffered a rapid decline even as it attained its greatest expression. I didn’t follow science fiction very closely after the mid-60s, but it’s my impression that by the 1980s dystopia was the prevalent theme. I did read a few of the so-called “cyberpunk” novels of the ‘80s, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they were certainly grim enough. A number of very popular movies, such as the Terminator and Alien series, which are at least superficially classifiable as science fiction, are set in a nightmarish future. I don’t consider these as being quite in the running for the sci-fi prize, as they are basically horror or action films with sci-fi paraphernalia. The Star Wars series is more in the old-time mode, and I’ve always enjoyed the original trilogy enormously, but it’s pretty lightweight stuff, a comic-book style adventure the excellence of which is in proportion to its lack of seriousness.

Here’s a question for the Christian: which is better: the hope and optimism of 2001, founded on illusions and delusions, or the darkness and violence of Blade Runner? Perhaps Blade Runner is more true to the earthly condition. I suppose I really ought to see it. But for sheer entertainment, and for its capturing of a sense of cosmic mystery, purpose, and grandeur, I much prefer 2001 and its older future.


Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2004

After the Storm

We missed the worst of Hurricane Ivan, or rather it missed us. The storm did weaken somewhat before it made landfall, but was still a worse-than-average hurricane. We went to bed on Tuesday night having made the decision to flee inland if the storm did not significantly weaken or change direction overnight. It didn’t, and we did, heading eighty miles or so inland to Thomasville, where my brother-in-law and his family live.

I’m always a little surprised at the readiness of family members to come to each other’s aid when it really counts. The way my wife put it to me was that she had called her brother and “told them we might be coming,” as if there were no question that they would be willing to have us—if not to welcome us actively, then at least to accept us in the emergency. In the event we were in fact warmly welcomed although we were extremely inconvenient, being five people, two dogs, and a cat. We drove up on Wednesday morning, taking back roads to avoid the congested interstate, and left a couple of days later, deeply grateful and feeling that we really ought to see them more often.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.

I heard that cynical but true line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” long before I read the poem. The line is spoken by the husband of a farm couple discussing whether they should take in a former hand who “has come home to die,” as the wife says—whether they should be to him as his actual family, in the person of a rich brother, is not. It was much later that I read the warmer and wiser response of the farmer’s wife:

I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

Both together make, to me, as vivid a nutshell summary as any I know of what family really means: a tie deeper than mere affection, a bond of obligation so potent as to outweigh most others. In using the word “home” the wife is making the hired man part of the family, in effect adopting him. Read the poem, if you don’t know it; it is one of Frost’s masterpieces.

We were lucky, or blessed, or both. The storm took a last-minute turn to the east, with the result that instead of being on the fiercer east side of the system our house was in the middle, with the eye passing directly over it. The house suffered minor damage in the form of a hole in the roof which ruined the ceiling and a few expendable furnishings in a bedroom, but it will be easily repaired. Thirty miles or so to the south and the east it was another story; there is devastation on the coast and as much as fifty miles inland. The downed trees must number in the thousands; everywhere you go there are huge piles of debris piled beside the street, containing everything from leaves to eighteen-inch logs. This area will feel the effects for years to come.

The power of these storms is almost inconceivable. There is a half-remembered line from the Bible floating around in my mind, something to the effect that if the Lord did not stay his hand no flesh would live. As the old routine re-forms around the obstacles—power outages, cleanup, and the like—I think of how much we owe, at all times, to mercy.

Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2004

Sunday Night Comes on a Tuesday Morning This Week

If you looked in at this site anytime between Monday afternoon and 11am or so (Central Daylight Time) Tuesday morning you saw a journal entry dealing with the Dan Rather/CBS/apparently-forged-memos controversy. But now I’m staring down the barrel of a very large gun labeled Hurricane Ivan, and somehow carping at the hapless Mr. Rather isn’t the appropriate note.

Maybe it never is. Samuel Johnson in a famous remark noted that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man is Hard to Find has the psycho killer say to an old woman, just before he shoots her, that she would’ve been a good woman if she’d had somebody ready to shoot her all the time. It’s highly unlikely that I will die in this hurricane, but at the moment it looks entirely possible, if not probable, that my pleasant life will be seriously and lastingly disrupted. It feels a bit like a rehearsal for the end of life, and time to let go of political quarrels, at least for now.

If you’re reading this before it happens, please offer a prayer that the power of this hurricane would be diminished before it makes landfall, as it seems pretty certain to do. At the moment it is of such force that its impact would be devastating, with effects that would last for many years.

I wonder if anyone recognizes the Pogo reference in my title above.

See the August 15 journal entry for some thoughts on hurricanes and Providence.

Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2004

As One Human Being to Another

When Ronald Reagan died a few months ago I wondered what sort of obituary I might produce on the death of Bill Clinton. The question returned this week when the ex-President entered the hospital for coronary bypass surgery. I was a little surprised at my immediate reaction, which was quite simple and direct: Good luck; best wishes; get well soon. It really was an unforced reaction, and I was glad to see that the intense and bitter partisanship which Clinton provoked in me (as in many) was not so poisonous that I did not, when a question of life and death presented itself, react simply as one human being to another.

It happened on Saturday night that I saw a re-broadcast of a June interview with Mr. Clinton on Larry King Live. Perhaps still a bit under the influence of the sympathy I felt because of his illness, I was struck again by how very gifted this man is. He discussed the war in Iraq with something pretty close to wisdom, and was in general, as is usually the case when his self-interest is not at stake, intelligent and articulate to a rare degree. I found myself for a moment understanding why people fell for him. And I felt an unexpected regret: I think I fully appreciated, for the first time, his potential as a democratic leader, and, simultaneously, his failure to achieve it.

As his admirers are quick to point out, he is still a fairly young man. Does he have something else to contribute? Genuine love of his country is undoubtedly a real component of his complex motivations. Will he spend it in the relatively petty and partisan maneuverings that characterized his presidency, or can he rise above that? Might a brush with death awaken a greater seriousness of purpose within him? In what capacity could he yet serve, since he cannot be president again?

I write this only a few weeks after the Democratic convention, in which Mr. Clinton delivered a speech that was a classic expression of the talents and attitudes we saw most while he was president: a brilliantly planned and charmingly executed piece of demagoguery, in which, in a practiced move, he used the charge of divisiveness to divide. Shall we look forward to this sort of thing for the rest of this political career, or can he find his way to higher ground?

Best wishes, Mr. Clinton. Get well soon.

Sunday Night Journal — August 29, 2004

Invasion of the Old Fools

On my way to work one recent morning, late as usual and trying to hurry, I found myself behind a car going very slowly in the left lane on Highway 98. This road has grown steadily more congested over the twelve years during which I’ve driven it to and from work. I’m convinced that on the average I’m likely to reach the end of this ten-mile stretch more quickly, and without too much vexation, if I get in the left lane and stay there. The right lane seems to move a bit more slowly most of the time, and switching lanes only leads to frustration, in accordance with the well-known fact that switching from a slower-moving queue to a faster-moving one will cause the former to speed up and the latter to slow down.

The key to preserving my equanimity in this situation while still being in a hurry is to recognize that although I may win the bet more often than not, I am still going to lose regularly, and to be ready to accept gracefully those occasions when the left lane is consistently slower. On the day in question I happened to be directly behind the car that was causing the slowdown. It was occupied by a man and a woman who appeared to be in their sixties or so. This also is not unusual, but what was unusual was that their car bore several bumper stickers advertising various more or less left-wing opinions.

Vexed after a mile or so of their blockade, and beginning to think it was time to give the right lane a try after all, I found myself thinking No fool like an old fool. An uncharitable thought, to be sure, and yet there is something a little unseemly about an old person with political views of multiple-bumper-sticker intensity. It is very hard for such a person to avoid seeming, or in fact being, a crank, or worse—for instance, the hardened old women one sees sometimes in pro-abortion marches. Left-wing causes, which at least in their more innocent forms (“Give peace a chance!”) are based on hope but often also on naivete, seem in general more fitted to youth. Or perhaps it is only that near-fanatic attachment to a political cause, whether right or left, seems more fitted to youth. Age should be more serene and more measured.

Be that as it may, I think the old saw about the old fool is going to find a lot of application over the next twenty years or so. My generation, the baby boomers, is about to join the ranks of “senior citizens” (a term I dislike—I would rather be called simply “old”), and I do not expect us to handle it well. I remember thinking, sometime around 1990 or so as I entered my early forties, that it would probably not be long before someone of my generation became president, and that I did not expect to like him. My pessimism was rewarded with Bill Clinton (and of course Hillary Clinton).

Of course like many people who discuss the baby boomers I’m really not thinking of the whole cohort of people born between 1945 and 1962 or so, but of the most visible subset of them, those of us who perpetrated the Great Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. My generation is often given, or appropriates for itself, credit for such noble works of the 1960s as the civil rights movement. But in fact we were too young to be much of a factor in that struggle, which was at its most intense from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s. We saw it and experienced its effects, but we did not much participate in it, much less initiate or lead it. A person born in 1946 was only sixteen at the time of the March on Washington. Moreover, many of the most influential artists of the time—Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for instance—were not baby boomers but rather were born in the early ‘40s.

No, our contribution was to propagate, later in the decade, the gospel of drugs and sex. We did not invent it, but we (and again I am speaking of that active and attention-getting minority) made it our own, and, what is far more important, we institutionalized it.

When I started college in 1966 there were very strict rules that kept the boys and girls out of each other’s living quarters. Neither sex could pass beyond the lobby of the other’s dormitory, and the girls had a rigorously enforced curfew, which was arguably unfair but which had the effect of providing an informal curfew for the boys as well, because once the girls were locked up there wasn’t much for them to do. By the time my wife entered the same school in 1970 all that was gone, as if it had never been. And the drugs which a few years before had been the secret of a few hipsters were to be found in fraternity and sorority houses. And within a few more years society as a whole was being transformed and ravaged by the effects of promiscuity and drug addiction.

We were young fools, that’s plain enough. But the young are often foolish. The reason the population of old fools is about to increase greatly and abruptly is that so many of us have never admitted that we were wrong or faced the harm we did. Far too many influential people in entertainment, politics, and education now accept as normal and inevitable and even laudable a level of sexual activity among teenagers that is clearly doing them a great deal of harm, especially the girls. The response of these people to the risks involved is to push a cold-blooded program of contraception and “safe sex” which operates on the impossible and absurd premise that young people can be encouraged to give in to their urges but only after coolly evaluating the costs and benefits, like bankers considering a loan. (It is mostly women, I think, who push this, women who seem to be some horrid combination of bawd and schoolmarm—most men either don’t care or know better, while women understand the risk for the girls and utterly misunderstand the boys.)

I mentioned a while back my habit of reading Dear Abby. I quote from today’s column:

I’m 14 and my name is “Pearl.” I just found out that I might have chlamydia. I really like this guy and I need to know if I should tell him. What should I do? I am a little scared. Please answer soon.

I don’t think it’s too strong to say that those who do not acknowledge the relationship between the pathetic situation of “Pearl” and the great cultural shift of the late ‘60s are fools, and I think there are a lot of them.

Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2004


This will be a brief entry. I have not had much time this weekend to think about what I would write today, and this may be the case for the next few weeks. I hope to add some more of my older writings to this site as well as to finish a couple of poems in progress.

In my August 1 journal entry I mentioned the existence of dragonflies as an intuitive argument against the idea that living things have evolved by purely random processes. I mentioned to my wife that it would be nice to have a picture of a dragonfly to go with the text. She was very willing to make the attempt, but it turned out that taking a dragonfly’s picture is no easy matter. It really needs a long lens and a lot of time. Dragonflies are skittish and timid and they don’t stay put for very long. But eventually she succeeded.

Photo by Karen Horton

Which of these, the dragonfly or the radio antenna on which it is perched, shows more evidence of being the product of deliberate and intelligent design? The dragonfly is by orders of magnitude more complex and more precisely organized. It seems to me that only prejudice could lead one to answer that it is the antenna that seems to be the product of intelligence. Such an appeal to intuition and common sense proves nothing, but it might suggest, to a person truly open-minded on the question, that educated opinion for the past hundred years and more may have been insufficiently skeptical of the doctrine of atheistic evolution.

Sunday Night Journal — August 15, 2004

Charley and Job

One often comes across stories in the news in which someone has a narrow escape and, talking to a reporter afterwards, thanks God for sparing him. This is obviously an admirable sentiment, but it often includes something along the lines of “I guess God was just watching out for me.” And when the background of that statement is, say, a car crash in which everyone else was killed, one can’t help taking a few steps down the logical path to which such statements point, and which ends with another statement: “I guess God was just not watching out for those other people.” Or, perhaps, “I guess God just decided to kill those people, but not me.”

Now, on some level incomprehensible to us, those last two statements must be true, or else we are in some pretty bad theological territory: that which is, so I’m told, traversed in the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which apparently resolves the paradoxes of divine omnipotence and human free will by denying the former. I don’t intend to touch this particular theological knot; the book of Job is enough for me: “Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out.” Still, there is something a little unseemly about the survivor’s assertion that he was saved by God while the others were abandoned, unless he follows it with the recognition that God must have had some purpose in preserving him and that his life henceforward ought to be considered as being always at God’s disposal.

To those of us who live on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from the tip of Florida all around to Yucatan (and, presumably, the northern coast of Cuba), hurricane season presents a moral dilemma. Once a hurricane starts charging around in the Gulf, it is almost certainly going to make landfall somewhere before it dissipates, and one can’t help thinking “please don’t let it land here”—which is only the converse of “please let it land somewhere else,” that is, “please let those people in Florida or Mississippi or Louisiana or Texas or Mexico, not me, have their homes damaged or destroyed.” One may modify this instinctive prayer and say instead “please let this storm disappear,” and this is obviously a much nobler wish, but when the storm is a hundred miles away and is not only not disappearing but growing stronger, and the clouds are moving in and the wind is picking up—when one is, in short, staring down the barrel of the gun—few, I think, can honestly say that they do not wish the storm to visit their neighbor rather than themselves.

Hurricane Charley devastated parts of Florida’s west coast last Friday. When it entered the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm a week or so ago, it looked as if it might go anywhere. But a cold front moving in from the west pushed the storm eastward to the Florida coast. Beginning on Wednesday or Thursday and continuing through the weekend, we had unseasonably wonderful weather: cool, cloudless, and dry, a breath of autumn in what is ordinarily the uninterrupted sauna of our coastal summer. While a dozen or more people lost their lives and thousands lost their homes, we had a beautiful weekend which didn’t just coexist ironically with the storm but actually contributed to its landing where it did.

Were we blessed, and if so why? Was Punta Gorda, Florida, cursed, and if so why? Neither and both, I think: we are all cursed and living in a world which from time to time seems to make war on us; we are all blessed and living in a world which from time to time smiles on us. Nature has a wildness which operates in the physical realm somewhat as free will operates in mankind, producing unpredictable and undeserved results, which, while known and understood by God, are inscrutable as to their justice or injustice. To insist that we have sorted out these rights and wrongs is to court the judgment of Job’s comforters, of whom the Lord said “My wrath is kindled against thee…for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right.”

Sunday Night Journal — August 8, 2004


Boswell to Johnson: Sir, you observed one day at General Oglethorpe’s, that a man is never happy for the present, but when he is drunk. Will you not add,—or when driving rapidly in a post-chaise?

If I were asked to decide whether the private automobile has done, on balance, more good or harm for the human race, I would find it difficult to reach a conclusion. I could easily argue it either way. Like all technologies, it has solved some problems and created others; it has brought us closer together and driven us farther apart; it has given us access to many places and weakened our connection to any place in particular; it has given us a sense of freedom and bound us tightly to itself.

On one count, though, my view is entirely unambivalent: I love to drive. I have a sixty-mile round-trip to work every day, and I don’t begrudge it at all, even though the time spent on the road is most often wasted. A day-long drive in a comfortable car with plenty of music on hand is a day’s vacation for me. One of my daydreams of retirement involves taking a fast quiet car on a month-long tour of the American West; specifically, I see myself in a Mitsubishi Eclipse, cream or silver-colored, zipping across a long stretch of empty desert highway into an enormous brilliant sunset. My wife, who is frugal and practical and does not care for long rides, finds this prospect unattractive, and suggests that a pickup truck with a camper top would be the right vehicle for such a trek—a suggestion I receive with the enthusiasm of a hare being told that what he really needs is a nice thick heavy shell, like the one the tortoise has. Sure, camping for a month would be nice, too, but it’s not the stuff of my daydreams.

Some months ago I bought a 2001 Honda Civic, which is a pretty humdrum car by most standards but the nicest I’ve ever owned. It’s a little bigger, significantly quicker, and much quieter and more comfortable than its predecessor, a 1990 Civic which had 260,000 miles on it when I finally decided that its increasingly frequent need for repair had reached the point of diminishing returns. I love this car, and this is a new experience for me. Of the many cars I’ve owned over the years, I’ve liked some more than others, but have never before felt the enthusiasm which, apparently, quite a few people do for their cars and which I do for this one. I actively look forward to getting into it twice a day for my drive to and from work. My family makes fun of my devotion.

On the walk from my office to the car, which takes more time than you might think because I park it in a distant area where I hope to minimize the possibility of someone opening a door into its side, I think happily about what CD I’m going to listen to on the way home. This decision involves many factors: the weather, the season, my own mood; frequently the choice is ambient music which provides an atmospheric background against which my mind wanders and is even, at times, productive. I sometimes do a little mental writing during this drive.

My commute is a forty-minute interlude on a magic carpet. Twenty of the thirty miles are on I65 and I10 and generally very smooth sailing. I fly along, a little traveling air-conditioned capsule of solitude and music, temporarily unencumbered by gravity and the crushing heat of our sub-tropical summer. The highway I travel is an inhuman environment for a person on foot, and a disaster for animals, but it makes me feel free.

And there is nothing quite like the sudden shock of having that magic carpet suddenly drift to the ground and become a plain and immobile rug. The experience of car trouble is also one with which I am very familiar. My last car went through a period of destroying distributors—I think this was due to improper installation—and whenever a distributor gave out the car simply switched off, and if I was lucky had enough momentum for me to steer it out of traffic. To suddenly find your feet on the ground and yourself with a potential maximum speed of three or four miles an hour, in unpleasant weather, in a hostile and dangerous environment is startling and illuminating, as reality often is.

One day last week I had a flat tire. I was involved enough in the Jimi Hendrix album I was listening to that I did not at first notice the sort of rhythmic roar made by a tire going flat, and by the time it sank in on me that I had a problem and found a place to pull over, I had driven so far on it that it was almost too hot to touch when I changed it.

In the space of a minute I had gone from climate-controlled speed and comfort to blistering heat and hard labor, dirt and sweat. I had been brought back to the reality in which all of the human race lived for thousands of years and in which most still live. I was not pleased, but I can’t deny that it was a healthy shock. And I can’t help wondering if one day our technological civilization may run out of tricks and leave us all once again taking seriously a phrase like hot dusty road.

Philosophy of Evolution, Science of Geology

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2004

I had an interesting note from my brother John in reply to my July 11 journal entry about the Intelligent Design movement. I wrote there that I am not a young-earth creationist—that is, I don’t dispute the current scientific consensus that age of the earth is billions of years,  not ten thousand years or so.  And I reflected on the significance of the old-earth hypothesis to Christian faith.

John is an evangelical Protestant and a young-earth creationist. He writes that he is “perplexed that [I] seem to so easily accept the current view on the age of the earth,” and, giving me some examples of problems with the old-earth hypothesis, challenges me to be open to the idea that it is in error.

Well, being open is not the problem—I’m very open to this idea, and would be delighted to learn that it is true. My difficulty is not any lack of willingness to consider it. My problem is that “How old is the earth?” is a very different sort of question from “Is life the product of blind physical forces operating purely at random?”

For convenience, let’s use the term “evolution” as shorthand for the idea of materialistic chance-driven evolution and “design” as shorthand for the idea that conscious intelligence is at work in the development of life (and indeed of the whole universe). As I think everyone realizes, but not everyone admits, the debate between evolution and design is not a purely scientific one. It’s also philosophical. A firm commitment to evolution, in the sense noted above, is also a firm commitment to the idea that the entire cosmos is a closed physical system within which everything can be explained without recourse to consciousness or intelligence. This is defended as integral to the scientific method. It isn’t, of course, or at least it shouldn’t be.

It’s reasonable when investigating the physical world to take as a working assumption that most physical phenomena have as their immediate cause other physical phenomena, but it is totally unwarranted and illogical to leap from this to the philosophical conclusion that nothing exists except physical phenomena. The exclusion of conscious intention from the picture is useful for relatively narrow purposes but cannot logically be required when one is thinking about the cosmos as a whole. The fact that a home run can be described entirely in terms of physical phenomena does not mean that it can be explained in those terms. (This is why even a perfectly consistent, plausible, and provable theory of physical evolution would not solve the philosophical question of the First Cause.)

The point of this is that as soon I notice the philosophical component of evolution I am on an equal footing with the scientists propounding it. In their role as scientists they have no more standing to assert the correctness of their philosophical position than I do. Their materialism is an axiom which they most certainly cannot prove. And since that axiom clearly plays a significant and perhaps decisive role in justifying their commitment to evolution, as well as in governing their interpretation of the data, I am perfectly justified, on this basis alone, in being skeptical of their insistence that “science” has “proved” that design is an unnecessary hypothesis as regards the physical world.

Going a step beyond that, I notice also that a critical component of their argument is the idea that random changes in a system can cause that system to become more complex and more powerful. Having spent the past twenty-five years in the information technology trade, including ten years writing fairly complex software, I view this as implausible. Yes, I know, supposedly all that’s required is enough time, and a mechanism for preserving useful changes, and all the complex flowering of life will happen as if by the turning of a crank. But I doubt this. I think of what I could expect to happen if I simply changed the state of a single bit (zero to one or one to zero) in a complex computer system. It is overwhelmingly likely that this would cause the program to malfunction, although perhaps only in a minor way. The odds that it would actually correct a defect are surely extremely remote. The odds that it would somehow introduce, or provide a first step toward introducing, an entirely new and useful function to the program seem infinitesimal.

All that seems more or less intuitive to me, based on my experience. I have to consider that I have not worked out the mathematics of this (nor would I know how to do so). But then I hear of people who have worked out the mathematics and have concluded that even the billions of years postulated by old-earth dating methods are not enough for chance to have produced the world we see around us.

So all in all, I have a pretty sound set of reasons for doubting the evolutionist’s insistence that his view is proven, established, and not to be challenged. And I can get this far without knowing anything to speak of about biology and chemistry. When I add to all this the simple intuition that if something is so complex and finely assembled that it appears to have been designed—take, for instance, one of the dragonflies which hover about my yard these days—the most obvious explanation is that it was designed, I begin to feel some confidence in my skepticism about evolution, and that I am not merely believing what I admittedly would prefer to believe.

The question of the earth’s age, on the other hand, is not so easily addressed in this abstract way. There’s nothing contrary to logic or common sense or even the concept of design in the idea that the earth is actually billions of years old. It appears to contradict Genesis, of course, but since I don’t necessarily believe that everything there is to be taken literally, I can’t resolve the question on that basis.

The only recourse here is to the physical facts. And unlike the situation with evolution as a philosophical or religious doctrine, here I’m decidedly not on an equal footing with the scientists. The only way I can argue with the old-earth hypothesis is to become an expert in geology, which is not possible (or at least not reasonable) for me to do. I can read the arguments of young-earth proponents, but as a matter of intellectual honesty I also have to read the arguments of the other side, and I know (because I’ve taken a few steps in this direction) that I will be faced with contradictory claims that I’m unequipped to judge. When two people who both claim to be competent geologists contradict each other, there is no way for me to know which of them is right.

In spite of the very human biases of scientists, and their occasional failure to be always perfectly faithful to the facts and the facts only, I have enough faith in science and scientists to believe that if the earth is indeed only ten thousand or so years old, scientists will eventually come to that conclusion. If not—and either way in the meantime—I believe I’m obliged to live with the puzzle.

Divine Office

Sunday Night Journal — July 25, 2004

I have a new office—a very nice new office—with which I am extremely, even excessively and unreasonably, pleased. A few days ago I was writing to someone about an entirely unrelated matter and found myself beginning to babble about my new office. In describing it to people, I’ve found myself about to use the description that “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” but I stop myself, because I do hope that no matter how nice my new office is, it really isn’t in the same league as heaven. And I hope and expect that heaven will not include the maintenance of computer systems (although I won’t be surprised if purgatory does). Still, the expression is apt in a couple of ways.

I work for a small liberal arts college. I’m in charge of administrative information services, which means that I’m responsible for the systems that manage the “back office” functions of the college—the very mundane stuff such as student records and financial systems which are necessary for, but a step removed from, the real work of the college, which of course is education. As anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows, the administrative side of the school is generally apart from and often perceived as being in opposition to the rest of the institution: we are, after all, only overhead, a cost of doing business, and there is frequently a degree of resentment on the part of the faculty about the resources we consume: like “powerful” to “House Ways and Means Committee” or “shadowy” to “Opus Dei”, the word “overpaid” often seems permanently attached to the word “administrator.” Those of us on this side of the house tend to operate in our own world. Just to name one difference, the traditional academic routine of long breaks and a summer lull is not for us—we work right through them, and only notice academic events that involve us, such as student registration.

The other half of information technology here, as at most colleges, was called until recently Academic Computing and deals with computing as it applies to education: student labs, technology in the curriculum and in the classroom, and the like. My school decided several years ago to build a new library. Early in the planning for the building, the decision was made that all information technology services would be housed there, mainly in order to bring library services and academic technology services closer together, as they had been overlapping considerably for some time. My department was included in this plan more or less as a tag-along: plans for the new building included a lot of computing infrastructure that we would share, and so it just made sense for us to have office space there.

Concomitant with the planning for and construction of the new library, my department was busy with the implementation of an entirely new administrative software system. This has been a huge project and we have not paid attention to much else. We had been informed that we would be moving to the new library, but beyond going to an occasional meeting to discuss some specific details of our office space and of the system room, the library project proceeded without us. We knew it was in progress but gave it very little thought until the time for us to move in became imminent.

To communicate the shock we felt at the sight of the nearly-finished facilities really requires some before-and-after pictures, which I don’t have. It’s not that the new office is luxurious. It would certainly not set any hearts on fire in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. But it is large and open and pristine, and it has a huge desk, guest seating, and a great deal of storage. I have a weakness for desks: give me a goodly expanse of open desk, a blank legal pad, and a pen, and I feel capable of great work.

The old office was, by comparison, a slum. And here is where we get into the theology of the thing. While it is true that the old office was in an old building which is in great need of renovation, its worst aspects—the really slummy aspects—were my doing. My office was one of several rooms that housed three people and a lot of hardware. It had become a warren of equipment, much of it broken or obsolete, and boxes of forms we no longer use. In part because it was so full of junk, and in part because of scheduling problems resulting from the whole little complex having its own keys and alarm codes, the housekeeping staff more or less abandoned us to our own devices years ago, except for emptying the trash. Consequently the whole area had become pretty grungy.

My office in particular was disheartening to say the least, and often elicited clearly heartfelt sympathy from visitors seeing it for the first time. Roughly one third of it was occupied by useless equipment which I, due to some mild neurosis, could not bring myself to discard: for example, a cabinet maybe three or four cubic feet in size containing two mighty 650 megabyte disk drives, which had housed a significant chunk of the college’s administrative database in 1991 or so. (If these numbers mean nothing to you, consider the fact that the laptop computer on which I am writing these words has about forty times that amount of storage.) Half the space was occupied by an enormous desk which was mostly covered in stacks of loose paper and trade magazines which I felt that I should look at but never did, and therefore did not discard. There was no place for a guest to sit (and I admit that as a typically introverted computer geek I did not consider this a problem, but rather the contrary). Ten years of spilling things while eating lunch at my desk combined with the fact that the room was only vacuumed every few months had left the cheap carpet, which was not merely not stain-repellent but positively stain-receptive, fairly nasty.

I am, in short, a grievous sinner given the unmerited grace of a fresh start. It wasn’t until I saw the nearly-completed building that I finally paid attention and realized just how much work and planning had gone into the project. Aside from the obvious monumental labors of the workers who did the actual construction, my colleagues in Academic Computing and Library Services had spent many long hours in meetings that were either difficult and contentious or deadly boring to make the thousands of decisions required.

And I had to do almost nothing except walk in and take possession. I am, to be sure, repentant, and will try very hard not to make a slum of my new office. But the grace came first, and I am grateful.

Mission: Possibly from God

Sunday Night Journal — July 18, 2004

I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.

But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.

Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.

With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.

These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond , out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.

It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.

The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:

When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came

Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:

The snow is here
The light is bright

The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.

One reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.

There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so here are some links where you can find samples of the music, as well as a little more information on the band (not as much as I would like, actually). Here is the band’s web site. You can download one song on the Befriended page there.


Great IDea

Sunday Night Journal — July 11, 2004

The new issue of Touchstone arrived a week or so ago. Touchstone, which subtitles itself “A Journal of Mere Christianity,” does a marvelous job of serving as a platform for what has been called “ecumenically orthodox” Christianity. I like it better than the somewhat similar First Things, partly because it is less academic and partly because it is more focused on spiritual life and less on political and social questions.

This issue is devoted to the emerging attack on atheistic evolutionism known as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. I haven’t yet read the featured articles and am greatly looking forward to them. There have always been philosophical problems with atheistic evolutionism, but that didn’t matter because its proponents were able to stigmatize any dissent as unscientific. I am unqualified to judge the scientific arguments, but it seems that ID is making progress in providing a scientifically respectable alternative to the crypto-religion of evolutionism. (I use the latter term as shorthand for the insistence that Darwin and his heirs have proven that no cause beyond the physical is required or indeed acceptable to account for the physical world.) The premise of ID is the fundamentally commonsensical one that living things are so complex that they must be the work of an intelligent designer; this of course is easy enough, and often enough, said, but the ID movement attempts to support common sense with scientific evidence.

What is so frustrating about the argument between theism and evolutionism is that adherents of the latter refuse to admit that their philosophical system is a philosophical system, insisting that it is a matter of pure fact and that any challenge to it is by definition irrational. One need not read very much at all in evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet to recognize that they have a very intense emotional attachment to atheism, which is (one supposes) both cause and effect of their evolutionism.

Opinions on this question arise from a pre- or sub-rational sense of what is plausible. There was a time when I felt a great deal of tension between my conscious belief in God and an underlying sense that the idea of a lifeless, meaningless, purely material universe was fundamentally more believable or at least more likely than the idea of a conscious Creator. As the years went by and I lived with and meditated upon the latter idea, my attitude slowly shifted, and I now regard the notion of creation by chance as little short of preposterous. And I lean toward the belief that at some point in the future people will wonder how we could have believed such a thing, much as we wonder at the superstitions of our ancestors.

To the evolutionist, of course, it is the concept of an active intelligence acting upon the physical materials of the universe that is absurd on its face. Rational argument alone will not change many minds on this subject, certainly not the minds of doctrinaire evolutionists. What, then, can the ID movement hope to do?

It can present, to minds not already given over to materialist axioms, a scientifically respectable alternative to evolutionism. It can deal a serious blow to the pretensions of scientific materialism. It can buttress the confidence of theists who are troubled by evolutionists’ contemptuous dismissal of their beliefs but who have not the knowledge and credentials to challenge evolutionism in the scientific arena. (Anyone, of course, can challenge the basic logic of evolutionism, but this is generally fruitless; the significance of the fact that evolutionist doctrines merely push the fundamental question of causation backward without resolving it simply does not register on them, or does not strike them as worth thinking about. In this respect evolutionists are much like those who reject any transcendent source of morality and naively accept their own moral axioms as self-evident, requiring no source, authority, or justification.)

What ID cannot do is provide direct support for the Christian faith. More specifically, it cannot resolve the apparent discrepancy between the history told in the Bible and the history told by science. The Christian story of salvation requires a state of innocent perfection, a fall into sin, and redemption. It is extremely difficult to fit this story onto the framework which science gives us for the development of life, and this is true whether or not the scientific account assumes the absence of God. I am always a little taken aback by Christians who do not see this difficulty. The usual response, of which George Sim Johnston, in his generally excellent Did Darwin Get It Right? provides a good example, is to take the very long periods of time and the gradual development postulated by science as the problem, and to say that these don’t matter, that the seven days of Genesis may be considered symbolic, and that the important thing is that God created all things, not the time he spent doing it or the mechanisms he used.

Well and good, but the problem is not, at bottom, the millions of years and the gradualness. The problem is how creatures lived during those years. The problem, as my sister-in-law Christy put it succinctly some years ago, is death.

Not only Genesis but the Gospels and the letters of Paul tell us that death entered the world because of sin, and that sin entered the world through the first man and the first woman. The current scientific consensus, on the other hand, shows us a period of millions of years in which animals destroyed each other in blood and pain, and a period of at least tens of thousands of years in which man (as far as we know) did the same, not only to the animals but to his brethren.

I have never come up with, or heard, a persuasive reconciliation of this conflict, and it troubles my faith. It does not seriously disturb my faith, because I am persuaded by many other evidences that Christianity is the most plausible account of the world in which I live, but it does trouble it. I make do with two responses. The first is to conjecture (I can’t call it much more than that) that the innocence and the fall described by Genesis are not just more but far more subtle and mystical than they are portrayed there, that the fall took place not along the timeline on which we live but on another ontological level altogether (no, I am not entirely sure what I mean by that), and that the world we know, including the very long and death-full past we think we know, actually somehow came into existence with that fall. Or that the past fell along with the present when the first man and woman sinned. But although I sometimes think I see a glimmer of truth in these conjectures they are hardly coherent enough to put into words.

My other response is to put the whole question aside as having, in the present state of both faith and science, no good answer. I can live with this. I can tolerate this puzzle—I am obliged to tolerate a great many—and anyway am more like Chesterton’s poet, who wanted to get his head into the heavens, than like his lunatic, who wanted to get the heavens into his head.

Neither response is terribly satisfactory. I am not a seven-day, six-thousand-year creationist, because I cannot, without the support of some very good authority, depart so far from what the best investigators seem to have established. But sometimes I wish I were. Try for a while the thought experiment of looking at the world as if you were a six-thousand-year, literal-Genesis, Adam-and-Eve creationist and you will see what I mean: the entire Christian story leaps immediately to a level of simple and immediate plausibility that it simply does not have for most of us most of the time.

20' 00", More Or Less

Sunday Night Journal — July 4, 2004

John Cage’s famous “composition” 4' 33" consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I’m told that he resented the people (of whom I am one) who assumed he intended it as a joke, and that he had in mind a perfectly serious exercise in listening. His intention was to provide an opportunity for people to attend actively to all the ambient sounds of their environment.

Insofar as I know anything of Cage’s ideas, which isn’t very far, I don’t much agree with them. I gather that he was concerned with breaking down what he viewed as an arbitrary line dividing music from all other sound, and that 4' 33" was part of that effort. But the invitation posed by 4' 33" is nevertheless very much worth accepting.

Last Saturday I had planned to wash the cars, but began hearing thunder, and went outside to check on the situation. The sky was indeed looking pretty dark over in the west. I would have gone back in, not at all displeased to have a reason to postpone the car-washing, but I heard the sound of something that sounded like a recorder or a penny-whistle—more woody than metallic, so I think it was the former. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the south, but that seemed impossible, as the nearest houses in that direction are too far away. Although our house is in a small town, it’s in an odd location, with a lot of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) swampy and wooded land around. It fronts on a little creek, beyond which is a stretch of woods that climbs a bluff-side for a couple of hundred yards, with the nearest house in that direction at the top of the bluff.

Wherever it came from, the sound of the flute was as sweet as it was unexpected. It was too distant for me to hear it clearly or to follow the tune it was playing, although I thought it might be something more or less Celtic. I sat down in the wooden swing in the front yard and for the next twenty minutes or so engaged in a Cagean exercise of placing my attention as completely as I could on the sounds and sights of the coming storm. Mobile Bay is a hundred and fifty yards or so to the west, beyond a line of trees, and the sound of wind and waves rose together, soon overcoming the small and distant sound of the flute. The thunder became louder and more frequent, the clouds black overhead. The temperature dropped several degrees within a few minutes. The tops of the trees swayed wildly and noisily. I expected at any moment to be drenched by rain, but the rushing sound just kept getting louder. At last a few large drops began to fall. Looking through the line of trees toward the bay, across the lot which my wealthy neighbor has converted into a playground for his children, I could see rain falling, but the wind was so strong and I was so sheltered by the trees that little of it reached me. I expected to be driven inside by the deluge which the storm must have borne, but it never came. We had only caught the edge of the storm as it drove past in a northeasterly direction.

Mr. Cage did have a point; on some mystical level the difference between music and mere sound may indeed become arbitrary, or at least indistinct. For some years now I have not been able to experience silence. I have tinnitis, generally described as a persistent ringing in the ears but more accurately a constant colorless tone that might be one of the overtones of the ringing of a small bell, somewhere around the 5000hz range. Sometimes it’s worse than others, and in general I haven’t found it terribly hard to live with, although I’m sometimes anxious that it may be a harbinger of worse hearing problems to come. At any rate the more quiet is my environment, the more noticeable is the tinnitis, and so it has had the effect of making me appreciate sound, almost any sound that is not actively unpleasant, even more than I always have. Someone (and if anyone knows who it was, please let me know) has said that in heaven all that is not silence is music. Or is it the other way around? No matter. I look forward to it eagerly, and will perhaps appreciate more than many the silence, which I imagine to be the aural equivalent of the perfect blackness we see between the stars.

Thunderstorm monitoring station

Sunday Night Journal — June 27, 2004

Marriage Fever

It is very convenient to find that someone else has said, and said better, what one has been thinking of saying, thus saving one a certain amount of trouble. Ever since I posted these comments on the homosexual marriage debate, I’ve been mulling over further remarks. One thing that has particularly struck me about the argument in favor of homosexual marriage is that it is largely couched in the language of rights and entitlement. It is mostly about the financial and legal benefits attendant upon marriage, and hardly at all about the sacrifices entailed. A recent letter to the editor in the local paper was a perfect exemplar of this, consisting of a list of social and financial benefits which normally accompany marriage and making an emotional plea against the exclusion from all these good things of people who happen to be attracted to members of their own sex. If anything was said of responsibilities it was brief and in passing.

When a man and a woman marry they know that they are sacrificing themselves for something larger—at least, they know this if they have any real respect for and understanding of what they are doing, which of course many nowadays do not. That something, of course, is the family of which they are now the founders; even at this fairly late stage of our attempt to separate marriage and child-bearing, it is still a general expectation that when one becomes a husband or wife it is more likely than not that one will sooner or later become a father or mother. The couple generally have at least some inkling that this new state may bring some extraordinarily serious responsibilities. This sacrificial spirit, which is central for real marriage, is not to be found in the arguments for same-sex marriage.

This review —by Kay S. Hymowitz, in Commentary—of Jonathan Rauch’s new book advocating homosexual marriage describes the terms in which the case is generally put: “a civil right, a public celebration of love, or a delivery system for government benefits.” That last phrase sums up the inexpressible dreariness of a great deal of what one reads on this subject. The review says most of what I have wanted to say, and says it very well. Rauch is, from what I have seen in periodicals, the most reasonable spokesman for homosexual marriage. And Ms. Hymowitz is respectful, and goes as far as she can in sympathizing with Rauch’s arguments, but in the end she cannot agree. I think she is one of a number of women who, as I have asserted before, recognize instinctively that the redefinition of marriage would not be good for women in general.

I particularly like her observation about the line of argument which which takes the high divorce rate and other symptoms of pathology in the institution of marriage as justification for further loosening its structure:

Defining marriage in terms of how "it is practiced today," as Rauch would have it, is like determining normal by taking the temperature of someone who has a fever.


Sunday Night Journal — June 20, 2004

Another Root Canal, Please, Doctor

When Ronald Reagan died a couple of weeks ago many of his prominent political opponents made an impressive effort to speak well of him. As one who disliked Bill Clinton as much as some disliked Reagan, I wondered how I would do in the event of Clinton’s death—could I speak both honestly and without derision? I even considered writing an anticipatory obituary here, such as I’m told large news organizations prepare for major public figures, just as an exercise, and made a few mental notes before dropping the idea. I found that I really didn’t want to think about him that much. I wanted to let bygones be bygones, to forgive and forget—especially to forget.

But no sooner is Reagan buried than here comes Bill, pushing his 975-page autobiography, and suddenly he’s all over the news again, with the same old retinue of PR hacks and the same old complaint that his impeachment was the result of a right-wing conspiracy, that he was guilty of nothing more than a lapse of sexual morality, and so on. All the rhetoric eventually comes round to the idea that the fundamental problem is that “right-wingers” are wicked—so paranoid, evil, and full of hate that they literally cannot live without persecuting some virtuous soul, preferably one who is an obstacle to their plans for slaughtering or enslaving most of the human race. (Not for the first time, or the last, do I note the irony in the hatred with which Clinton and his defenders regarded those whom they deemed to be haters.)

During Mr. Clinton’s administration much was made of the “Clinton haters,” those who seemed consumed by their dislike of the man. Although I always made an effort not to hate him (hate being against my religion), I could, roughly, be put in that category; certainly I had enough antipathy to him to qualify as a “hater” in the eyes of his defenders. But in all the verbiage I don’t think I ever heard my own views described with any accuracy.

So here, for the record, and briefly, because it is such a dreary topic, are the reasons why I dislike the man and thought him a bad president. I can pinpoint the moment it began. It was February of 1992, and I was in the hospital recuperating from back surgery, and I happened across the novelty of C-Span (we did not have cable TV then, or for many years afterward). Bill Clinton was participating, on stage with several African-American men, in some event having to do with civil rights. I had theretofore hardly known of his existence, and I listened to the end of his speech with an entirely open mind. I was impressed. I remember thinking that this seemed a hopeful thing: here was a Southerner (that was obvious) taking an active role in healing the nation’s racial wounds. Maybe, I thought, this was a man whom I could support.

But after he had finished speaking I kept watching him and I saw something in his face that bothered me. It was familiar, yet for a minute or two I couldn’t place it. Then it hit me: crooked preacher. He was a type all Southerners know, or should know: one skilled in the use of piety for manipulation.

From then on I was suspicious of him, and suspicion grew into a conviction that he was a deeply dishonest man. And here in a nutshell is why so many conservatives disliked him so much: we were (and are) convinced that he was (and is) a dishonest man—not just occasionally mendacious, like many a politician, but a seriously unscrupulous man—and yet he was winning. I don’t deny that the latter was the source of much of the intensity of our detestation—one naturally finds it more difficult to accept one who cheats and wins than one who cheats and loses.

As for the impeachment: to paraphrase the famous catch-phrase of the ’92 campaign, “It’s the felonies, stupid.” It was not adultery that led to impeachment, it was perjury. I feared at the time, and don’t know that I was wrong, that to let a sitting president get by with lying under oath might in time prove a terrible blow to the rule of law.

Clinton was only the latest in a long line of lying Southern demagogues. As a political personality he has much in common with the early George Wallace. And one of the few pleasures in watching the political scene between 1992 and 2000 was to see sophisticated liberals, who believe themselves above all to be smarter than everyone else, falling for the same bag of tricks which had worked with the hicks of Alabama in the 1960s. Clinton acted out on the political stage something very like the events of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant and dreadful short story “Good Country People.”

Let it be said—it will always be said, and truly—that Clinton is a brilliant and gifted man, and I believe that in one of the self-described compartments of his soul he is a man who wants to do good and to be good. Perhaps he could have been a great man, but he was not. If he were to ask my advice, I would suggest that he get off the stage and retire to a quiet life of penance, contemplation and good works. Failing that, could he at least get off the stage?

What neither Clinton nor his admirers seem to understand is that most of the man’s opponents—I believe I am safe in generalizing my own sentiments to some degree—so far from desiring to pound his reputation into the dust, really would rather not think about him at all. The Clinton presidency was for us a miserable experience. Who wants to relive a root canal? Anger and frustration are unpleasant emotions. Mr. Clinton cannot be president again, and, to repeat myself, I would prefer to forgive and forget.

But it looks as though we will not be allowed to forget. If the conventional wisdom is true, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton intend that she will reach the White House. And Mr. Clinton is clearly determined to rehabilitate his memory. It looks like we are going to have to listen to the angry buzzing of the Clinton spin machine for years to come.

Sunday Night Journal — June 13, 2004


I started noticing a few years ago that liberals and other opponents of conservatism seemed not to be using the word “conservative” as their preferred epithet for the enemy in the way they once had done. Instead, they seemed to be using the term “right-wing.” The most famous use of the term was Hillary Clinton’s famous assertion that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was seeking her husband’s ruin. I have no data at all on this other than my own observation, but it seems to me that most of my left-of-center acquaintances, and most left-of-center pundits and politicians, use “right-wing,” “right-wing extremist”, “extreme right,” “religious right,” and so forth far more often than they use “conservative.” Somehow these terms convey, and are certainly spoken and written with, a venom not communicated by “conservative.” Similarly, “left-wing” is generally a definite pejorative, while “liberal” is mild, and is the preferred self-description of a certain party, just as “conservative” is the preferred self-description of another party. Part of the pleasure in using a pejorative is that it is resented and preferably denied by its object.

Lately another term has joined “right-wing,” and perhaps even eclipsed it in popularity as a pejorative on the left: “neo-conservative.” This is driving some conservatives crazy, but not for the reason its users might think—not so much because conservatives resent being called neo-conservatives, but because as the term is used by the left it means almost nothing (aside, that is, from being a simple substitute for “evil”) as a description of an ideology. It simply refers to people in, or near, or vocally supportive of, the Bush administration who have been architects or advocates of the war in Iraq.

If "neo-conservative" has any meaning at all now in Pundish (the language spoken by Pundits), it's circular: the Bush administration is run and/or supported by neo-conservatives, therefore neo-conservatives are those who run and/or support the Bush administration. This usage of course is also to the liking of those conservatives (often called “paleo-conservatives”) who oppose the war; it allows them to excommunicate conservatives who support the war.

A lot of words have been expended on the right in mostly wasted attempts to explain exactly what a neo-conservative is, and why this or that administration figure is or is not one. This is a losing battle as far as the public war of words is concerned, although the pursuit of verbal precision is always worthwhile for its own sake. But I think there is a very simple reason why “neo-conservative” has gained such currency on the left: it’s because too many people consider “conservative” to be an accolade.

Here in Alabama we just had an election. Almost literally every candidate described himself or herself as a conservative. Granted, Alabama is perhaps just a smidgen to the right of most of the nation, but it is really not so very different from the other so-called red states, meaning those which went for Bush in the 2000 election. Despite a generation of enlightened insistence that "conservative" equals "bad," a large portion—in many places a definite majority—of the people believe the opposite. For polemical purposes, then, “right-winger” works much better. You can call Hitler a right-winger with at least some plausibility, but it really makes no sense to call him a conservative. (Similarly, you can call Stalin a left-winger, but it makes no sense to call him a liberal.)

"Neo-conservative" serves a similar purpose, with the additional benefit of having vague associations of sneakiness and elitism. It also allows the speaker to imply that he really doesn't have anything against True Conservatives, just the wily neo variety.

There’s a bit of irony in this in that “neo-conservative” properly refers to a handful of ex-liberals who moved rightward in (roughly) the 1970s, and in general what continues to distinguish them from traditional conservatives is precisely that they tend to be more liberal on social and moral questions: quite a few of them, for instance, are quietly “pro-choice” on abortion. Indeed the war itself might, if one were to attempt to apply ideological categories consistently, be seen as a liberal enterprise, an attempt to impose rational and democratic structures upon a region poisoned by a toxic mixture of some of the worst features of both modernity and traditional ways.

Sunday Night Journal — June 6, 2004

Ronald Reagan and D-Day

To judge by most of the news reports I’ve seen over the past couple of days, one would think that Ronald Reagan had been a far more universally admired president than he was. But while he was president anyone who was at all left of center politically and culturally viewed him with a hostility ranging from dislike to intense loathing. Most of the people I worked with during the Reagan administration fell somewhere in this group. The one who comes to mind first was the woman who considered him a very personal enemy and literally could not stand to look at him—she told me once that before reading a magazine with Reagan’s picture on the cover she had to tear the cover off and throw it away. I thought this very odd and somewhat amusing, but I developed more sympathy for her when I found myself having similar feelings about Bill Clinton.

Amid the talk about Bush-hating these days I think it’s often glossed over that this kind of polarization has existed with the majority of the presidents of the past few decades: Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Carter, Ford, and Bush Sr. did not, as the saying goes, rise to the level of distinctness which provokes the hatred that these four did. For that matter, it was probably true of FDR, to say nothing of Lincoln, so perhaps we worry too much about it.

Have the people who hated Reagan mellowed toward him, or are they just keeping a tastefully low profile on the occasion of his death? I don’t know, but for my part, I certainly think more highly of him than I did when he left office. Although I voted for him twice, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I was always a great enthusiast. I had, and to some extent still have, a sense of things so deeply awry in the modern world that I had, and have, only limited hope for what can be accomplished politically, although in 1980 I thought Reagan’s forthright conservatism clearly preferable to Carter’s somewhat sneaky liberalism. (I had voted for Carter in ’76. It seems unlikely that I will ever vote for another Democrat.)

I don’t think I considered it a seriously credible possibility in either 1980 or 1984 that the Soviet Union would collapse before the end of the decade, the Cold War effectively end, and the poised missiles of MAD become less of a threat than they had been for the preceding thirty years. I’m sure historians will argue forever as to whether and in what degree Reagan was really responsible for this, and no doubt it’s an over-simplification to give him all the credit, but surely it would be even more of one to give him no credit. Beyond my crediting him with this accomplishment, I think more highly of him now because evidence in the form of letters and other personal papers, as well as the testimony of those who knew him, has emerged over the past decade or so that reveal him to have been a man of far more substance than either his detractors or even the popular image concocted by his own political campaigns would lead one to believe.

Almost as much as the man himself, Americans seem to be mourning the passing of another link with what very many of us see as a better time, the period before 1960 or so, and especially the years before and during World War II, contradictory though this may seem, considering the troubles of those times. So it seems appropriate that Reagan’s death coincided with celebrations of the anniversary of D-Day. Surely there is a great deal of romantic illusion in this nostalgia, but the fact that it occurs not only in those who can actually remember those times but in those born afterward, sometimes well afterward, must, if it does not prove that the earlier time was wonderful, at least prove that we are not pleased with our own. All over the political spectrum, with the exception perhaps of the radical left, one meets the feeling that something has been lost, and when people try to articulate this they almost always include the word “decency,” a term which in the American vocabulary encompasses a great deal. To say much more than this would require an essay or perhaps a book. But whatever this thing we call decency is, Ronald Reagan seems to have possessed it in great degree—not only apparently, as his detractors would have it, but actually. May he rest in peace, and may we recover decency.

Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2004

Memorial Day: The Soldier’s Trade

Many years ago I read the following passage from John Ruskin’s Unto This Last and it permanently affected my view of the military vocation. Ruskin is considering “the general lowness of estimate in which the profession of commerce is held, as compared with that of arms”—that is to say, why we honor the soldier more than the businessman.

Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be—fond of pleasure or of adventure—all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact—of which we are well assured—that, put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that this choice may be put to him at any moment—and has beforehand taken his part—virtually takes such part continually—does, in reality, die daily.

In Memoriam: Donelson Branch Horton, June 2, 1925-September 13, 2001. Wounded in action in a forest somewhere in Czechoslovakia a few days after VE Day (May 7, 1945) and a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday.

Sunday Night Journal — May 23, 2004

The Progressive Steamroller

Once the bandwagon for homosexual marriage got rolling at a really good clip, it occurred to me that if it became thoroughly established the result would be bad for heterosexual women. Why? (A): most women want to marry and have children, while most men are at least hesitant about, and at worst determinedly hostile to, domesticity; (B) homosexual marriage will undermine real at-least-potentially-procreative marriage.

Point A above is beyond rational dispute, and I think attempts to deny at are made less frequently than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Point B is more debatable, but in my opinion it is very likely. The reasons for expecting this have been widely discussed and I won’t go into them now, except to point out that one of the first male homosexual couples to be “married” in Massachusetts made it plain that they do not take marriage very seriously at all.

I am embarrassed to admit that I’m an habitual reader of Dear Abby. An inordinate number of the letters she publishes are from unhappy women complaining about the men who won’t marry them. Many of these women already have children, either by a previous man to whom they may or may not have been married, or by the man they are currently trying to interest in “commitment,” which seems to be a euphemism for marriage. Almost all of them have made themselves sexually available to the man in question. Sometimes the couple has “been together,” which seems to mean living together, for a number of years. Frequently they are thoroughly entangled financially, perhaps having bought a house together. Sometimes (and these are the most depressing) the woman supports the man. The question usually addressed to Abby is “Should I give up on him?” and the implied question is “Are my odds of marriage better if I wait on him or if I look elsewhere?” In one recent Dear Abby, if my memory is correct, every one of the day'sletters were in this vein. The women who write this kind of letter are unhappy and seem to live with a deep fundamental anxiety.

It's safe to assume that there are more women in this situation than there were thirty years ago, and that the general decline in respect for marriage is a significant part of the reason for it. If it is indeed the case that homosexual marriage will undermine respect for the institution, there will be even more women who desperately want to marry but cannot find husbands. These women, like those who want to be stay-at-home mothers but have found themselves pushed, by an unholy alliance of feminism and business, into jobs they never wanted and don’t like, will join the ranks of those whose lives have been made worse by the steamroller of “progressive” social change. Whether or not this effect on women really occurs remains to be seen (and it would be a hard case to prove), but one thing can be said with near-certainty: those who brought the change about will not accept any responsibility for its negative consequences.

Every progressive success has its victims, to acknowledge whom is the height of bad taste. As far as I know very few opponents of the Vietnam war have ever expressed any misgivings about their role in allowing Communism and its accompanying death and hardship to sweep over Southeast Asia after the Communists took power. They may have deplored it, but they did not regret their small part in bringing it about—it was as if these calamities were natural forces that nobody could have foreseen or prevented. Women who regret having abortions are generally treated as enemies by the abortion rights movement (the existence of the aborted children is simply denied outright). The apostles of drugs, sexual liberation, quick divorce, and all the other terrible ideas of the 1960s now regard the wreckage which their propaganda helped to encourage as evidence that society is even more messed up than they had thought.

I wonder if this phenomenon, which seems stronger than is accounted for by the natural human reluctance to admit mistakes, is an effect of faith in an essentially benign forward movement of history from darkness and oppression to light and freedom. The very dark view of the future which one sometimes finds among progressives is not a loss of this faith but a fear that the forces of reaction may stop or turn back the forces of progress. But to acknowledge that a successful change thought to be progressive has been in fact for the worse would raise questions about the fundamentals. These are generally more difficult to face than the prospect of defeat.

It's a shame. There might be more of a market, so to speak, in electoral terms, for many elements of the progressive agenda if they did not come as part of a package that includes utopian redefinition of a crucial institution like marriage.

Sunday Night Journal — May 16, 2004

Writing Division Into Law

It appears that tomorrow will see the beginning of legally recognized “marriage” between persons of the same sex. If this arrangement is given the force of law throughout the country, it may very well be seen by history as the point where the deep and bitter division in American society which we call the culture war became once and for all irreconcilable. Or perhaps I should say recognized as irreconcilable, for it may already be so. This will be a tragedy, and like all tragedies all the deeper for having been preventable. The thing which might yet prevent it is federalism. If the Supreme Court acts prudently and declines to enforce the requirement that same-sex unions be recognized in all fifty states, a tenable live-and-let-live compromise may be effected. If not, the more conservative segment of the population, which believes that marriage is by definition impossible between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, and which is in the majority by a significant margin, may find it difficult ever again to look at law in the same way.

Much of this has already come to pass, of course, in the abortion debate. Had the Supreme Court been willing to allow a federalist solution in that case, a conflict barely less severe than that of the Civil War would never have divided the nation so deeply. For Christians and others who believe in certain moral definitions held by most people fifty years ago and now deemed obsolete to find themselves subject once again to a new law which they believe to be fundamentally unjust will have a corrosive and poisonous effect. The lukewarm will eventually go over to the other side. The committed, who are also in general the most loyally patriotic people in the country, will find themselves still trying to pledge allegiance to a flag which represents a nation increasingly difficult for them to respect. What will come of that, who knows?

If moral traditionalists may not look at law in the same way, it is also likely that the law will not look at them in the same way. I have been saying for years that the logical extrapolation of certain social and legal trends is that the profession of Christian moral teachings would eventually be seen as “hate speech.” Incidents of this sort have already been reported in England and Canada. Perhaps our mania for free speech will prevent this repressive impulse from gaining the force of law here, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it. But even so, marriage is such a public institution that no one will be able to escape legal entanglement. This division may be even more deeply felt than the one over abortion. The act of abortion is a worse evil, but it remains a specific act, either to be allowed or disallowed, and, as abortion-rights advocates are always pointing out, those who are opposed need not get involved. (They may feel a duty to get involved in preventing a wrongful death, but that’s a different question.) “Marriage” between two people of the same sex will eventually involve everybody to the extent that one will have no legal right to deny that they are married.

Perhaps saddest of all is that live-and-let-live is in fact what most of the more conservative population believe. Contrary to propaganda, very few conservative Christians have any desire to persecute homosexuals—unless “persecution” is defined as the denial of approbation. Live and let live is precisely the view of most of them. It is certainly mine. Individuals on both sides of the culture wars can and do get along reasonably well, even if it means declaring certain topics off-limits for conversation (if this list grows too long, of course, conversation may become difficult). But when an attempt is made to resolve a dispute about fundamental principles by resort to a law which is applicable to all and has behind it the invasive force and presence of the modern state, differences harden, lines must be drawn, and peaceful co-existence becomes difficult or impossible.

Most Christians, and most conservatives whether Christian or not, recognize that life is not an orderly business, that it often places people in difficult and unfair situations, and that not everything that is immoral should be illegal. But marriage is a state into which only individuals of opposite sexes may enter; moreover, for over two thousand years it has been, in Western traditions including the Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian, one into which only one man and one woman may enter. We are now asked to believe that this was mere bigotry and superstition, a mistake and a crime. No matter what the state says, I cannot admit that two men, or two women, or any assortment of number and sex other than one man and one woman, are in fact married, although I may be forced to pretend that they are. I adapt the words of the impolitic vicar of Wakefield: “...nor will I allow him now to be an husband, or her a wife, either de jure, de facto, or in any sense of the expression.”