Sunday Night Journal 2006 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 31, 2006

Losing the Christmas War

I don’t mean the Christmas War that pits the ACLU against Fox News in a war of frivolous lawsuits and inflammatory verbiage over carols in public schools, crèches on the town square, and office greetings. That one actually is showing some signs of an unexpected devolution into common sense. I mean the struggle of Catholics, and of other Christians with an eye on the traditional liturgical calendar, to observe Advent for the four weeks preceding December 25th and to observe Christmas for the following twelve days.

The carols I heard at Mass this morning—“What Child Is This?” and “Once in Royal David’s City”—made me realize that I had not heard, which means that I haven’t played at home, any Christmas music since Christmas Day. This in turn made me realize that I’ve almost given in to the commercial American Christmas calendar.

When our children were young my wife and I made a pretty serious effort to observe Advent. We had Advent calendars and Advent wreaths with candles, and a little family liturgy which alternated scripture readings with verses of “O Come Emmanuel.” We delayed Christmas decorations and the Christmas tree until the last few days before the 25th. We tried tactics like celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th to give the children a brief bit of early Christmas, and, on the other side, postponing some of the present-giving until Epiphany, or stringing it out over several days.

It was always a struggle, a swim against the current which begins the Christmas season no later than the day after Thanksgiving and ends it on December 26th, and the most vexing part of it was that we weren’t resisting only the prevailing non-Catholic culture, but also the practice of most Catholics. I sometimes found it difficult to conceal my irritation with Catholic co-workers who chided me for procrastination when they learned that on December 23rd I still hadn’t put up the Christmas tree, or for laziness when they learned that on January 2nd I still hadn’t taken it down.

Was it worth the struggle? I don’t know—define “worth it.” It was the right thing to do, I’m certain. The crucial thing is that it was a struggle, and now that the children are mostly grown, the motivation to keep it up is waning. Nobody paddles against the current without a goal, and our goal, preeminently, was to teach Advent to our children, to teach them to live in the ways of the faith. I suppose we (I, at any rate) have lost sight of the connection it might have to our own spiritual life. I paid little attention to Advent this year, and acted as if Christmas was over on December 26th.

I sometimes think the general over-busyness of contemporary life is really more of a threat to Christian life than the more obvious snares of lust, gluttony, and avarice which are always being advertised to us. And there were further complications this year: an illness and a death, the complications and after-effects of which are still continuing. Next year I intend to take up the struggle again. There’s no reason why my wife and I can’t light the candles on the Advent wreath and find the copies of those family prayers, and it won’t matter if we don’t sing very well. Meanwhile, the Christmas tree is still up and maybe I’ll get a bit of time to listen to some Christmas music while I sit and look at it. And then it’s onward to Lent.


Sunday Night Journal — December 24, 2006

In a few hours I will be going to the cathedral for midnight Mass, very happy that the local television station that ordinarily televises it is not doing so this year. I suppose there’s a good argument for doing it—people who can’t get out and that sort of thing. And a far greater number can watch it on television than could fit into the cathedral (at least potentiallly—how many people watching tv past midnight are interested in a televised liturgy?). But there’s also a good argument to be made that televising it means that no one will really see it. I’ve attended that televised Mass a couple of times, and blinding the lights required for the cameras almost ruined it—entirely ruined it, if you were sitting in the wrong place. I’ve also watched it on television, and what I saw on the screen was a dead and distorted version of what a liturgy in that cathedreal is really like. I’m going to stop short of saying that the televising is a devil’s bargain, but I will say that it doesn’t seem a very good one.

I’ve offered this Christmas meditation, “The Perfect Gift,” to my readers before. Since I really have no way of knowing who reads this blog, I’ll offer it again this year, along with the wish for a very merry and blessed Christmas to all.


Sunday Night Journal — December 17, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (2)

Last week I closed by quoting Mark Henrie: “…traditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.” Having thought about that a little more, I’d like to elaborate on it. I don’t want to save liberalism as a philosophy, but I do want to save liberal institutions. Back in May, I started a discussion on the Caelum et Terra blog with the title Can, and Should, Constitutional Liberalism Survive? My own “quick and brutal” answer to the question was “As to the ‘should’: yes, I would like for it to, because I think at it's best it’s worked very well. But as to the ‘can’: no.”

Never mind my “no” at the moment. I was struck, in the discussion that followed, by the indifference of the mostly traditionalist Catholics to what the collapse of constitutional liberalism might mean. Of course we were talking somewhat abstractly, and one can’t generalize from the comments of those who happened to read the blog and happened to be interested enough to comment, but the most commonly voiced opinion treated constitutional liberalism as at best a poor state of affairs to be tolerated, more or less unhappily, by Catholics. The great interest was in the deficiencies of liberalism, and in the distance between the liberal state and a hypothetical Catholic one.

Here’s where a conservative temperament shows itself. One component of this temperament is undoubtedly a keen awareness that things could be worse, that there is, at the very least, an even chance that change will be for the worse, and a corresponding impulse to consider very carefully the worth of what we have and know, before discarding it in favor of what we do not have and do not know.

As Daniel Nichols said in that discussion, “A relatively peaceful and prosperous society is nothing to be taken for granted. It is hardly the norm in human history.” The liberal democracies of the West are not waging war amongst or within themselves. Our governments do not actively oppress us (yes, I know, there are many subtle ways in which we are not free, but I’m talking about real oppression, the kind that imprisons and tortures and executes at will). We can depose our rulers peacefully, if enough of us want to—a complaint about our rulers is really a complaint about ourselves. We have a level of abundance that makes real, desperate, killing poverty—the poverty of Haiti and of parts of Mexico, say—rare. We are free to practice our religion without significant restraint—we are free as individuals, and our churches are free. We do indeed have to put up with a great deal that is contrary to our faith and harmful to us and our families, and we watch far too many of our fellow citizens lost and fainting, like sheep without a shepherd, but we are not seriously inhibited in our own practice.

One can debate whether and how the development of these institutions is intertwined with liberalism, philosophically and politically, but the fact is that they developed together, and we can’t simply extract what we like and throw the rest away, as if we were peeling an apple. The task is more like separating the wheat and the tares—it’s impossible, finally, but we can do some good by nurturing what’s good and suppressing what’s bad, perhaps enough to keep the tares from taking over altogether.

Nor can we whisk away one social order, and substitute another, as if we were changing the scenery on a stage. These changes involve collapse and construction, and the collapse is often full of violence and suffering, and the construction slow, haphazard, and unguided, not particularly likely to end with something we would like.

I would rather see liberal institutions survive, which entails somehow grounding them in an absolute moral order, than wait, in pleasurable anticipation, for their collapse. My own guess as to where the uncorrected present course will take us is to something far worse. In an early issue of Caelum et Terra there was a review, by a contributor whose name I can’t remember, of a book the name of which I can’t remember, which suggested that one possible outcome of the evolution of the liberal society might be “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.” I thought I knew exactly what he meant, and I think of the phrase frequently, especially when I read a news report of some grotesque new bit of tinkering with the stuff of human life itself. “Freedom” in this new order will be, in the private sphere, almost unlimited and unattended by responsibility; in the public sphere, severely limited and ineffectual, consisting mainly of entitlement to benefits.

We can be sure, even setting aside the possibility of its being the habitation of a real anti-Christ, that an order which has decided that human life and sexuality are but machinery to be manipulated by the clever and powerful will persecute Christians. There is a rage against what is left of Christian order, and an impulse to criminalize what seems, to the new age, the intolerable hostility and active opposition of Christianity to its sexual and technical proposals. Liberalism, in both the philosophical and political senses, taking evolution as a paradigm, never expected the atavistic obstructionism of religious believers to continue to be a problem for it as late as the 21st century. Like any faith that sees itself as an organizing principle for society, it can tolerate only so much denial of and resistance to its fundamental premises. Even allowing for the intensity generated by the specific situation of the Bush presidency, many on the cultural left seem to have a permanently high level of scorn and fury. When I hear their uncensored views I think of the Irishmen of whom Yeats wrote, who would have been violent “had they but courage equal to desire.” (You could say, justly, that this is true of many on the right as well, but most of them are not anti-Christian.)

One can make a reasonable argument that the best response to this situation is to head, literally or figuratively, for the hills, and attempt to lay the foundations for a new kind of Christian civilization apart from the decaying one around us. To those who want to try this, I say “Godspeed.” My own view is that to give up on liberal institutions is to concede the future to forces heading toward a disaster which would probably not spare those enclaves in the hills. I don’t think it’s just an intellectual calamity that Solzhenitsyn has in mind when he refers to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.”


Sunday Night Journal — December 10, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1a)

Being both occupied and preoccupied with the death of my brother-in-law, I’ve only just now been able to read some of the lengthier items that have been mentioned in comments or emailed to me in response to last week’s column. So instead of continuing with my own train of thought, I think I’ll stop tonight and respond to those.

First, my old friend Robert emails me a couple of items from the newest issue of Touchstone:

Since you may not have received it or gotten around to it, there's an entry in the Quodlibet section which I thought you might be interested in, concerning a topic by [S.M.] Hutchens titled “Holy Economics”:

“…The problem with socialism is its tendency to harm the individual in favor of the common good, and with capitalism its tendency to harm the common good for the enlargement of the individual. Both—as theoretical systems—are to be avoided.”

“The historian Phillip Schaff said of Calvinism and Arminianism that the Bible was more human than the first, more divine than the second and more Christian than either. Of capitalism and socialism as economic theory and practice it might be similarly said that holy economics is more selfless than the first, more interested in the individual than the second, and kinder than either.”

I have in fact received the magazine but have not so much as opened it, being now two full issues and part of a third behind. This is excellent. I particularly like the remark about avoiding both as theoretical systems. I’m adding my own emphasis to the word “theoretical,” as I think that’s very important: both words together point to one of the great mistakes typical of our time, the effort to impose a mechanical paradigm on social life and then to invent “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (I think that’s Eliot).

In my experience most discussions of capitalism in the abstract plunge directly into a false dichotomy which arises from the fact that it really doesn’t have a definition which is at once clear and generally accepted. Some pro-capitalists will assert that it simply means the legitimacy of private property, making any criticism of any market-based behavior a profession of Communism. Likewise, some socialists seem to define it as the right of the rich to feed their cats and dogs with the vital organs of the poor. It’s pretty difficult to argue against “capitalism” in the first case, or for it in the second.

Responding to my remark that “Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism,” Robert adds: “Maybe true, but there is a non-utopian socialism, a postmodern one if you will, of which we have everything to fear. Look to Europe where this postmodern socialism is poised to destroy it altogether.”

I can’t speak to this myself, but Robert has spent some time in Europe, and I haven’t. And I’ve heard some surprisingly loud complaints about European attitudes toward work, business, and bureaucracy from a couple of young Americans who have lived in France and Germany for a year or more and who are by no means on the political right (at least not by American standards).

Next, this lengthy item by Russell Arben Fox, which is really an informal essay that rather stretches the boundaries of the blog post. I’m not going to try to summarize it, but it’s very much worth reading. Dr. Fox is a political science teacher and scholar, and I’m pretty quickly out of my academic depth in trying to follow his points about Rousseau, Hegel, Derrida, and others. And I can’t define terms like “post-structuralist” and “anti-essentialist” (although I think I figured out the latter from context). The truth is, I’m not very interested in banging around among the works of people like Rousseau et. al. With my sixtieth year not very far over the horizon, I’m very conscious that the time remaining to me is not unlimited, and I don’t care to use very much of it studying political theory. I also have less inclination than Dr. Fox to look for kindred spirits on the left, which is partly a temperamental thing and partly a suspicion that there is not as much room there for the values he wants to preserve as he hopes.

Still, there is much here with which to agree, and much to think about. I particularly like this:

Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now).

As a Catholic, of course I think the Benedictine response perfectly reasonable and possibly advisable, though I myself am not in a position to make it. Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons talks of it as an option, following Alisdair Macintyre (whom I have not actually read but am always reading about). Daniel Nichols and I and a number of others talked about it a lot in Caelum et Terra ten or fifteen years ago, but I notice neither Daniel nor I is talking about it much anymore. So far, aside from actual Benedictines or other religious, no substantial movement for the establishment of formally set-apart Catholic communities along the lines of the Amish has appeared, even though a great many of us think it might be a good idea. This, I think, reveals some weakness, and perhaps some child-of-the-times-ness: we aren’t, finally, ready to make the sacrifices such an effort would require.

And, lastly, Mark Henrie of ISI, where he is among other things senior editor of Modern Age, sent me a link to a terrific essay of his which appeared in The New Pantagruel, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” I would have even less hope of doing it justice in a summary than I did with Dr. Fox’s post above. It’s quite long, but tNP is among the most readable web publications, and this is well, well worth the time. I’m going to include some snippets which I think particularly good, with occasional comments in italics:

The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia....The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

[And later: ] Wherever there is a sense of loss, the conservative knows that there lies an indicator of the human good.

...The sovereignty of the people as the sole legitimating principle of the liberal regime places in question the sovereignty of God. [I don’t think there could be a more succinct statement of the core problem of liberalism in general and the United States in particular.]

...Whereas the Enlightenment “builds down” from politics to morals, the conservative “builds up” from morals to politics.

...autonomous individuals bristling with rights... [that’s just a great phrase]

And, finally, I think this is the essential distinction between the liberal conservative and the conservative (or for that matter liberal) liberal:

…[T]raditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.


Sunday Night Journal — December 3, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1)

This is part one not because I have a grand plan but because I know I will have more to say about this topic than I can say tonight. A single more lengthy and more organized essay is probably called for, but that isn’t likely to get done anytime soon, and I want to talk about this now. It has to do with an exasperating subject: the definition of socio-political labels and categories, something I’ve been pretty uninterested in for a while, but which has gotten my attention again.

Courtesy of ISI Books, I have been reading a review copy of their new Solzhenitsyn Reader, and reading it with great and growing interest. I’d never read Solzhenitsyn apart from the famous Harvard address of 1978, although, like an awful lot of people old enough to have been buying books in the ‘70s, I have that paperback of The Gulag Archipelago which was then as ubiquitous as it was unread. Right off, in the introduction, I found these observations from the editors (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney):

To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories of late modernity....Solzhenitsyn’s alternative to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” has never been a romantic communal or theocratic society, rather a free one where individual rights are limited by “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”….Solzhenitsyn is a partisan of “liberty under God” against the pernicious illusion that men can build a world that defers to no limits above the autonomous human will….Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a liberal conservative who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice.

Ah, that’s me, I thought. Then circumstances kept me away from the book for several days, and I found myself unable to remember: did they say “liberal conservative” or “conservative liberal”? The second didn’t seem right. Why not? What is the difference?

To make “liberal” the noun and “conservative” the adjective implies that “liberal” is the core principle. But liberalism as a philosophy is not something a Christian can maintain. The two broad categories into which political ideas in our time are divided, however unsatisfactorily, are, at their most internally consistent, the party of religion and the party of skepticism. Conservatism is generally committed to a core religious metaphysic, at the least to a sense that there are eternal truths to which human thought and behavior must conform, and that the good life, for nations as well as for individuals, consists in working out that relationship. Pure classical liberalism—the liberalism of John Stuart Mill—is the philosophy of the always-open question, attempting to take its view of the development of society from the physical sciences: yesterday we believed such-and-such, which we now know to have been false; today we believe its negation, and that is progress, which is good. (The obvious next item in the sequence, that tomorrow we may understand today’s certainty to have been utterly misguided, is generally not given much attention, especially in the political realm—liberalism in practice takes the always-open question as implying an always-expanding personal freedom, and the possibility that progress might involve a return to what we believed the day before yesterday is not entertained.)

So a Christian is not, by definition, a philosophical liberal, and the phrase for the Christian Solzhenitsyn, as well as for me—the Christian who wants to preserve what is good and healthy in modernity, which is of course deeply involved with liberalism—must be “liberal conservative.”

The question immediately presents itself: “isn’t this the same thing as neo-conservatism?” Well, perhaps, but I think the term neo-conservative, denoting, in the famous phrase, a liberal mugged by reality, ought to refer to one who remains at heart a philosophical liberal. The Catholic neo-conservatives—notably the Nogelhaus, as I like to call the prominent trio of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus—would not fit this strict definition. It might be said that “neo-conservative” is now less useful as descriptive nomenclature than as the name of a party, a party to which the Nogelhaus certainly belongs.

In fact I don’t know that I have that much disagreement with the Catholic neo-conservatives (to continue to use the conventional term) in principle, based on their stated ideas alone (to the extent that I’m familiar with them, which is not all that great) and ignoring the widely held view that they’re up to something sinister which they’re hiding. Like them, I want very much to preserve liberal institutions, chiefly republican government and the republican concepts of citizenship, ordered liberty, and religious toleration as we have known them for much of the past couple of hundred years; in short, I want to conserve the genuine achievements of liberalism. (How much the existence of these institutions really owes, historically speaking, to liberalism, and how much to Christianity, is a question I’ll leave to historians, noting only that it certainly owes something, and something fairly substantial, to liberalism.)

My main argument with the Catholic neo-conservatives concerns their failure to see the real nature of corporate capitalism. They see its undeniable power as an engine of material achievement, but at best give insufficient attention to the fact that in principle it honors no principle. I don’t mean that most businessmen are personally unprincipled or dishonest—I don’t think they are—but that the system itself, as actually understood and practiced, is one straightforward thing: an engine for generating profit. It has no means within it to distinguish a licit from an illicit line of trade. Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism: it is to the corporation’s advantage, at least in the short term, that citizens should be replaced by consumers, the more malleable, suggestible, and passive the better. Moreover, corporate capitalism as we know it is, in the long run, inimical to the widespread possession of meaningful private property, as distributists have been arguing for decades. “Liberty under God” must include taming the corporate as well as the individual appetite, and as far as I know the neo-conservatives have had little or nothing to say about this.

The irony of liberalism the philosophy is that it leads to the death of liberal institutions. The conservative liberal, if there is such a thing, is ill-equipped to save them. It may distress him that the Holiday Inn, once a symbol of bland Americanism, now offers pornographic movies, but he will feel himself obliged to tolerate every new phase of the slide into squalor. It takes a liberal conservative to give liberal institutions a set of principles that can resolve the contradiction and upon which those institutions can endure.

“Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.” –Bob Dylan


Sunday Night Journal — November 26, 2006

Christ the King?

I was surprised to discover that today is the feast of Christ the King, and a little dismayed that I was surprised. There was a time when I paid more attention to the Church’s feast days. My wife and I, coming from non-Catholic families in a non-Catholic culture, have never really gotten these things entirely into our habits of mind and practice, but we made more of an effort when the children were small, especially when we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group.

These days we aren’t doing much more than the bare minimum of external observance. For a number of reasons, some worthy and others less so, we’ve stepped back from our local parish, and float between two. We go to the diocesan cathedral twenty miles away on most Sundays because the liturgy is far more conducive to worship than that of our local parish. Tonight, though, we went to the local parish for the first time in some weeks—to the evening Mass, because we had spent most of the day traveling—and the switch from the magnificent cathedral choir to the pop style at our parish was jarring. It took a few minutes for me to begin to take seriously the fact that I was in fact at Mass. But I got pretty focused at the homily, delivered by a deacon who is a very fine and solid preacher.

He had the nerve to talk about the Second Coming as a fact, to be taken as it was taken by the apostles. Spoken by a Baptist minister of the old school his evocation of the Judgment and of what’s at stake in it would have been pretty mild, but for a Catholic it was very strong stuff: the Second Coming will happen, and even if it doesn’t happen while we are in this world, we are all going to die, and we are all going to be judged. Christ is in fact the king; some will receive him willingly, some not, but all will be ruled and judged by him. He will be everyone’s king by force of cosmic law, but will he be owned as such, with grateful obeisance of the heart, or will he be resented and resisted?

I fancy that the King’s judgment will be of a piece with something that happens within us, and that we will know, immediately upon facing him, not only what he thinks of us, but what we think of him: either that this was what we have always wanted, or what we have always dreaded. In that sense the judgment may not be a surprise, but a recognition of something we’ve always known in the most secret places of our hearts.

Surprises there will, no doubt, nevertheless be. If we are not surprised by our own fates, we will probably be surprised by those of others, as Mrs. Turpin, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” is surprised by her vision of “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs”—all entering heaven ahead of herself, whom she sees somewhat glumly bringing up the rear of the procession, resentful at her place in it. There’s some reason to suppose at the end of the story that this vision of herself may, in fact, be a cure for the pride that is the cause of her resentment. And so the vision may be a prophecy that, because it was given, will not come true.

Like Mrs. Turpin, I’ll be happy to be anywhere in that procession. But I’m a pretty stiff and undemonstrative person, and I must say I kind of like the idea that I might be clapping and shouting and leaping like a frog.


Sunday Night Journal — November 19, 2006

Hefner and Marilyn

I read not long ago that Hugh Hefner has arranged to be buried near Marilyn Monroe. “’When I found the vault next door to Marilyn was available,’” he explained to the Daily Telegraph, “’it seemed natural.’” “Natural” may not be the precisely correct word; let’s say “appropriate” instead, symbolically appropriate. Marilyn appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy in December of 1953. Less than ten years later she was dead of a drug overdose, which may have been accident, suicide, or even, according to some rumors, murder. By most accounts she had an unhappy life whose disappointments were of such an elemental nature that it’s hard to imagine that they seemed to her a fair trade for fame and money. Like most movie stars, she couldn’t stay married, and she apparently couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term, a result of chronic endometriosis which may have made her position as the most visible sex symbol in the world cruelly ironic. What, in the end, is the use to a woman of being celebrated for her beauty if it only works to insure her loneliness?

Hefner, on the other hand, recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish and well-publicized party. There was a picture of him in the paper with a couple of the sort of girls who have always been associated with his magazine: blonde and curvy, but stiff and controlled and synthetic-looking, almost cold. It’s a cliché to compare them to Barbie dolls, but the resemblance can’t be missed.

Apart from differences in makeup and hair styles on the part of the girls, the picture could have appeared anytime in the past forty years or so. Hefner has aged but, thanks no doubt to medical skill, still looks pretty good. The girls, of course, are exactly as young as they were forty years ago, having been replaced again and again as necessary from an apparently endless supply.

One wonders how long the working life of a Playboy Bunny, or whatever the girls who are paid to hang around the Playboy enterprise are called these days, might be. Are they stupid, wasting their youth living it up and getting their pictures taken in ridiculous costumes (or out of them)? Some are, no doubt, but from the look of the girls in the paper, I’d guess that they tend to be a fairly hard-headed bunch who pretty well know what they’re doing, coolly using their sex appeal to get what they want. This bargaining, as old as the species, was discouraged and deplored by feminists of a generation ago but has now become acceptable again under the name of “empowerment.”

Mais où sont les bimbeaux d'antan? There’s a very limited period of life when young women can play this game. They have, roughly, the decade between twenty and thirty to make their play, and whether they’ve found a tenable path for the rest of their lives is a matter of little or no concern to Hefner and like-minded men. The girls can go on to become women, using Playboy as a path to something else that they really want: to marry a rich and/or famous man, perhaps; to have children; to have a career that allows them to remain fully dressed; to grow old in security. Or perhaps to fail, to become prostitutes or drug addicts—it doesn’t matter to the Playboy, for whom that ten or twelve years of high sexual bloom is the only thing of interest about a woman. No one, I imagine, pretends that the girls are after the life of unending and inconsequential sexual promiscuity with which the magazine tantalize the men who read it.

I’m using the word “girl,” by the way, very deliberately, mindful that it is not approved for females past puberty. I don’t know exactly when a girl becomes a woman in my perception. But, as with a boy becoming a man, it entails the assumption of some level of responsibility, or some combination of age and responsibility: reaching an age somewhere past thirty, becoming a mother—a responsible mother, that is—or some other solid accomplishment. In any case, Playboy Bunnies don’t qualify.

Marilyn Monroe exists for Hefner, one imagines, only as a sex symbol. Her sad childhood of illegitimacy and orphanages and abuse, her solitary pain, her pathetic death, and most of all the life that she did not live, the full life that might have taken her past her youthful sex appeal into something deeper and wiser—none of this is real to his sort of man. Her early death helped to insure her permanent place as a sexual icon. It’s not her achievement, but the waste of her that makes her an appropriate female counterpart to Hefner’s version of what a man should be: not husband, not father, not wise or good or brave, but a mere sybarite notable mainly for his shrewd skill in managing to remain one for fifty years. It’s darkly fitting that they should lie beside each other in death, not husband and wife, not even lovers, but consumer and consumed.

Note: the quotation in the first paragraph comes from this excellent commentary on Hefner’s career.


Sunday Night Journal — November 12, 2006

Funky Town

It’s hard to define the word “funky.” I think it originally meant “bad-smelling,” and sometimes it still does (“These leftover greens are getting kind of funky—I’m throwing them out”). But now it’s also a term of approbation, connoting among other things a sort of sloppy authenticity, along with color, flair, and insouciance toward the staid and dignified. It brings to mind certain associated adjectives: greasy, dirty, smoky, spicy; flavorful; the opposite of bland. A good exemplar in food is red beans and rice; in music, “I Got You” (if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize the sound—it’s the famous James Brown song that starts off “I feeeel good,” and if you’ve listened to the radio at all over the last forty years you should be able to hear that horn line now).

And if you want to pin the word on a city, New Orleans has first and undisputed claim. The term may be black—African-American, to use the clumsier and politer term—in origin, but now, like so many black contributions to our culture, it belongs to everybody, although it’s still particularly associated with and most used by and about black people. Likewise, the existence of an old and continuing black culture in New Orleans is a major component of its funkiness.

So is the juxtaposition of so many different and vivid things, good and bad. Songwriter Grayson Capps nails the place perfectly as “that rotten old town that everyone loves.” Don’t kid yourself: New Orleans is a mess. It was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and it’s a mess now. It has a long history of corruption and shiftlessness, from the city government to the bars of the French Quarter. But it can still get under your skin. The appeal has something to do with the color and flavor of the place, and also with starkness of its contrasts: rich and poor, sleazy and holy, clean and dirty.

We’ve just come back from an overnight trip there. We went to Mass Sunday morning in one of the more beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, the Jesuit Church of the Assumption, its architecture described as “Hispano-Moresque,” a style of which I had never heard, but which I presume is something out of post-Moslem Spain. Not too far away there were probably still a few of Saturday night’s drunks bumbling around, and others just starting out, Sunday morning or not. Sin abounded, I have no doubt. And yet grace was there in plenitude.

A friend of mine who doesn’t much like New Orleans has remarked on there being something dark about it, and of course he’s right, but that’s not the whole story. The darkness is serious and pretty much out in the open, but it coexists with a lot of Christian light and a whole lot of basic human warmth.

Sometimes in this mega-techno-capitalist world, “funky” just seems like another word for “human.” That’s part of the reason why America needs this city. It’s also, come to think of it, why white America needs black America. But that’s a topic for another day.


Sunday Night Journal — November 5, 2006

Wingless Chickens: Judging the Baby Boomers

Upon sitting down to write about this topic, I realized that it’s either too big or too small for a few hundred words. You could easily write a book tracing the roots of contemporary moral confusion back for quite some distance—to the early 20th century with no difficulty at all, easily to the 19th century, and from there just as easily to the Enlightenment, perhaps all the way back, as Richard Weaver insisted, to a medieval philosophical-theological error. Anyone even glancingly familiar with Catholic interpretations of history will have met this view. For a current example, see the October issue of Crisis where Benjamin Wiker discusses Locke’s influence on the slow rot of the concept of marriage. You could meticulously document the connections and evolutions of ideas which resulted in a lot of college kids forty years ago doing and saying a lot of really stupid and destructive things.

Or you could just observe, briefly, as I did when in the comments section when this subject came up a couple of weeks ago, that the social and political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t simply spring up overnight like mushrooms, and moreover that the baby boomers were more followers than leaders in those upheavals, at least if you use the official definition of that generation as including those born between 1946 and 1960.

Since this is not a book, I’ll content myself with noting some specific illustrations of those last two points, which really are one point: that the Great Revolution of the 1960s was simply the most visible moment of a development which had been in progress for some time. I need to note first, and then ignore, the fact that most baby boomers did not participate in the revolution. To some degree it’s still reasonable to lump them in as part of it, because they were certainly affected by it and tended to drift along in its general direction, with even those who weren’t consciously sympathetic to it sharing some of its underlying attitudes, notably a sense that life was more a matter of enjoying oneself than of doing one’s duty. Few were those who consciously and openly challenged it.

An apparently widely held view of history divides it into three phases: first, Ancient Times—everything from the Big Bang until World War II. Almost everybody was an idiot then. Here and there a few interesting things happened, such as Galileo’s tweaking of the Church, the separation of church and state, and the invention of socialism, but for the most part all was waste and void: inquisitions, crusades, slavery, the oppression of women, the repression of sexual pleasure. World War II was more or less the beginning of Modern Times, but it was really only a prelude to the 1950s.

Although this period was technically part of Modern Times, it was dominated by the same sort of people who had been doing all the inquisitions and crusades and such, and they were devoted to perpetuating or restoring those evils. A particularly oppressive aspect of the 1950s was that it had no colors: everything was black, white, or gray. Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President. Colors appeared. Political and sexual liberation erupted. The baby boomers began to look around them and to discover that not everything they saw met with their approval. Driven by their unprecedented intelligence and idealism, they set out to build a world of perfect freedom, with emphasis on the principle that no sexual impulse should be denied or have permanent consequences. All the period since then has been a titanic struggle between those who cherish this liberation and those who Want to Turn Back the Clock.

This is not, actually, the way it happened. Nor is the converse accurate: that all was well until roughly 1960—men went out to work, women took care of the home and the children, most people were reasonably well-behaved sexually, the Mass was in Latin and reverent, until one day a sexual mania erupted which has yet to run its course. It’s time I explained those chickens in my title. They come from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters:

[I]t is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

This was written in 1955, and I suppose I could rest my case here. But let me mention a few more items, narrowing the concept of the revolution (and of O’Connor’s observation) to the sexual revolution—it really encompassed more than that, but that was (and is) the non-negotiable core.

One: a week or two ago I was in the library and had a yen to read a nice shallow page-turner. I picked up From Russia With Love. I think I had read one of Ian Fleming’s books many years ago but didn’t much remember it. From Russia was published in 1955 and I was surprised at just how saturated with sexual titillation it is. It never gets very explicit, but the atmosphere and attitudes are entirely libertine.

Two: the first issue of Playboy magazine appeared in 1953.

Three: the Kinsey Report, which might be called the Great Permission for the sexual revolution, appeared in 1948 (the year I was born).

Four: the contraceptive pill, which was the great enabler of the revolution, came to market in 1961 when the first boomers had just entered high school.

Five: Elvis et. al.

In fact the principles of the modern sexual revolution were explicitly articulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most often under the name of “free love,” as the pet project of a small number of intellectuals and social revolutionaries (H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, The revolution took a while to work its way into society at large, partly because of natural and sensible resistance, and partly because for real success it required contraception and abortion, both of which had technological and legal problems. It began to reach the middle class in the 1920s (when Coming of Age in Samoa was a best-seller), was pushed into the background by the Depression and the War, began to flower in the 1950s, and bloomed riotously in the mid-‘60s when a perfect combination of factors came together: cheap, effective, accessible contraceptive technology, a level of prosperity hardly imagined by most societies, a large number of young people born into comfort and entering sexual maturity, a new low point in the steady attenuation of religious belief. And so forth.

So what, in the end, was the responsibility of the baby boomers? We were not the prime movers of the Great Revolution; we only happened to catch the crest of the wave. In the end, I think it can be said that we were essentially passive and essentially negative: we did not generally strive for much at our personal expense, but rather, simply by being what we were and hanging around, institutionalized the changes, or, more precisely, allowed the more determined among us to institutionalize them. And we were negative, in the sense that T.S. Eliot said that liberalism is essentially negative, in that its fundamental impulse is toward the elimination of restraints and limits rather than toward construction. The imagined new world was not so much an actual new thing as the elimination of the old.

Let me add, if only to avoid the charge of Manicheanism, that I do think there was a positive side to at least some of the social changes of the past forty years, even outside of the end of racial segregation, which almost no one would decry. But that’s another topic. If we weren’t directly responsible for as much as harm as some say, it is also true that the claims of our great accomplishments for the good are highly exaggerated at best. Somebody named Steinhorn has published a book called The Greater Generation which makes the claim that the baby boomers are pretty much the most wonderful people ever. That’s according to advertisements and reviews; I wouldn’t want to read the book, and the words of the author and the publisher seem to constitute a level of self-conviction that makes doing so unnecessary.


Sunday Night Journal — October 29, 2006

Scary Stuff

I had intended to write about the question brought up in the comments on last week’s journal, that is, the responsibility of the baby boomer generation—my generation—for various unhealthy social tendencies. But I think I’ll postpone that till next week, because I’ve had something else on my mind for the past day or two, and it’s more topical. Tuesday is All Hallows’ Eve, which always makes me think of Charles Williams’ novel of the same name, and I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite passages.

Next Sunday, of course, the obvious topic for discussion will be the elections coming up a couple of days later. But I find myself less and less inclined to talk about politics. It’s not that I’m not interested—there are a lot of very important things going on and I have my very definite opinions on them. It’s just that for the most part anything I might say is already being said just as well by someone else. And participation in the debate has become very unpleasant due to the level of emotion involved; calm disagreement in good faith is very difficult to manage.

Back to Williams: I’m not sure where I’d rank him from the purely literary point of view, but All Hallows’ Eve and another novel, Descent Into Hell, would probably place in the top twenty or so among books that have had a great and continuing influence on me. I doubt that a period of more than a week or so ever goes by without my thinking of one or the other of them. If you haven’t read them, you should know that they’re not entirely healthy. I recommend them, but not without hesitation. Williams seems never to have gotten his involvement with occultism entirely out of his system. But it seems to have left him a powerful sense of spiritual reality as reality—not symbol or myth or abstraction. And, his imagination being baptized (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase), he writes fiction in which that spiritual reality—Christian in conception whether or not accurate in its details or not—is very convincingly the world inhabited by his characters. That is, the real world of the fiction, which is partly the world we know and partly the spiritual world, is rendered not as something ethereal but as a place, with people in it, a place as substantial as our own, and more significant. Well, maybe not more significant, but more directly significant, less mediated and mediating.

One of the crucial events in All Hallows’ Eve is the viewing of a painting, first by a friend of the painter, then by an acquaintance of the painting’s subject, then by the subject himself. Without going into detail which would be tiresome to one who has read the book and would give away too much to one who has not, I can say that the painting reveals something of which the painter himself was unaware while he was painting, but which is very plain to the others who see it. It is the essential nature of the painting’s subject, and since that nature is evil, most who see it are disturbed. The subject is, among many other things, a sort of cult leader, and the painting reveals something not only about the real nature of the leader but about the real condition of those who follow him. Says the painter, after his friend’s remarks have confirmed what he has begun to see in the picture:

This man looks as if he were being frightfully definite and completely indefinite at the same moment—an absolute master and a lost loony at once.

The next person to view of the painting asks “Why have you painted [him] as an imbecile?” But the subject of the painting is in fact a very powerful and intelligent man who knows exactly what he is doing. What the painter has captured is the essential emptiness of evil.

This sort of insight is one of the things that art is supposed to be good for. It isn’t necessary that the artist hold correct ideas about God and man and truth and lies and good and evil, although it’s all the better if he does. But he must be able to see the difference between good and evil, or at least be unclouded enough in both his receptive and his executive faculties to see them and render them as they are. Unfortunately, many of our artists are no longer of much use here, having joined the cult themselves.

Where in our time do we find the combination of mastery and madness that Williams’s painter sees? Not, I think, in the more or less comic and fundamentally light-hearted trappings of Halloween which bother some Christians a great deal but in which I think there is little real harm. Look for it wherever there is a great deal of lying and evasion about fundamental things—where, in other words, there is a determined attack on reality. I don’t mean the everyday lies of hypocrisy and expediency, which we have always with us, but the sort of angry denial of objective good and not-good which is at heart a guilty resentment of truth.

If you want a good scare on Tuesday night, you might try reading Maureen Mullarkey’s piece in the September issue of Crisis, “Painting Money,” about the conjunction of art-world nihilism and the very wealthy and powerful people who invest in it. There’s something unholy about the deliberate derangement on display in certain quarters of the art world. “Does their wealth absolve them from all rationality except market calculus?” asks Mullarkey of the manipulators of the art market. One would almost feel comforted to find no worse an explanation than greed.