Sunday Night Journal 2010 Feed

A Few Miscellaneous Observations

Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2010

It’s been a busy weekend, and I’ve been having serious computer problems. So I’m going to limit this to a few comments on recent events.

First, the so-called “ground zero mosque” story. Why “so-called”? Well, the use of the term “ground zero” to refer to the still-gaping hole where the World Trade Center used to be has always bothered me a little. The term originated, I think, with the early tests of the atomic bomb; it referred to the point of the explosion. As terrible as the destruction of the WTC was, it was not on the scale of a nuclear weapon (though one could argue that its global consequences have been). And the use of the term seems to give a greater victory to the fanatics who perpetrated the attack than they really deserve.

And what is proposed isn’t just “a mosque,” though it does include a place for Muslims to pray. Maybe this makes it technically a mosque, but the use of the term seems intended to inflame public sentiment, which certainly has been inflamed.

My own view of this, for what it’s worth, is that it needn’t be a national issue at all. Let New York decide, I say. But since it is a national issue, and the lines of the debate have been drawn largely on the familiar left-right divide, one forms an opinion. Unfortunately I can’t agree with my friend Daniel at Caelum et Terra. I think he has an overly benign view of Islam in general, and the meaning of its collision with the West, both ancient and contemporary, and I don’t think the Westboro Baptist analogy really holds. But I don’t agree, either, with those on the right who think the building of this Islamic complex would represent a successful phase one in the conquest of America by Islam. This piece at Inside Catholic is pretty much my view: in the abstract, it would have been okay to build the thing, but since a large percentage of the population in both New York and the country at large—a significant majority, according to some polls—views it as an affront, the imam ought to retreat gracefully, and build it somewhere else. The best analogy, as Rychlak says, is to the Carmelite convent opened near Auschwitz. I thought Jewish opposition to it was misguided and even offensive, but it was real and from their point of view not unreasonable, and to have insisted on keeping the convent there would only have inflamed the ill feeling.


The big Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally has come and gone. I don’t really know much about Glenn Beck, though what I have seen suggests he is in fact a bit nutty. And I didn’t really get how this event was going to restore honor to the nation. But I think those who see in it, as they see in the Tea Party and other populist outpourings, the spectre of American fascism reveal more about themselves than about their opponents. One of the things they reveal is something I’ve been noticing more and more in recent years: the left in general really does not like middle-class Americans. In fact it often seems to hate them, and it certainly fears them.

Setting aside the attempt to get at the roots and reasons of this hostility, as being too big a topic for this hasty piece, I have to say that it seems a terrible mistake, politically. The people who are attracted to this movement are ordinary hard-working civic-minded Americans who are deeply (and rightly) worried about the future of their country, and are convinced that the left in general and the Obama administration in particular wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater in what they call reform. Obama’s famous promise to “fundamentally transform” the country decidedly does not resonate with them; it sounds more like a threat. They don’t want to fundamentally transform the country, they want to fix it. For the left to work so hard at demonizing them is not only bad for the country, it’s bad for the left; it contributes to the perception that the programs of the left are quite intentionally hostile to tens of millions of ordinary people.


Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame is certainly not helping things, with his newly published book which apparently insists, with a straight face, that there is no difference between the Taliban and American conservatives. One cannot hold this view both seriously and reasonably. I don’t know in which of these categories Moulitsas is deficient, but it’s good to see that at least some on the left recognize it.


Similarly, I’m puzzled by the extreme vilification of Sarah Palin, as evidenced by a hit piece in Vanity Fair (described here—I haven’t been able to make myself read the thing itself). I’m not especially a fan of Palin, and I don’t think she’s qualified to be president, and I really hope she doesn’t run. But the repugnance with which she’s regarded by many on the left seems to go far beyond political opposition: they hate not only her views, but her, and—here it is again—the middle-class America she represents. I really don’t think the left likes the common man very much anymore, which sheds a lot of light on the difficulty it has in convincing him that its programs are for his benefit.


Also at Inside Catholic, an interesting appraisal of the appeal of Taylor Swift, by Danielle Bean. I do not know Ms. Swift’s music at all, but this explanation of the reasons for her popularity makes it seem that she’s at least a much healthier presence than, say, Lady Gaga.

But the vast majority of women respond to an instinctual drive to nurture and give of themselves to others by getting married and becoming mothers….Let's see, little girls: Shall we seek personal fulfillment through a sincere gift of self and a life of self-giving love? Or by using sex as a weapon with which we attempt to dominate men? Roll your eyes if you must, but my money's on Swift, sappy love songs...

I hope she’s right, though I fear a little for those girls who do follow this path: those who have done so and been betrayed (not just disappointed—we’re all disappointed in life to some degree—but betrayed), or simply unnoticed and unappreciated, are among the most deeply hurt people I know, and the decline of marriage in our time makes such self-giving all the more risky. But God never lets love go to waste or unanswered; if there is anything about him of which I feel certain, it is this. 


And speaking of women: The Anchoress is away in Rome, and her blog has been full of guest posts from several witty and profound Catholic women bloggers: Sally Thomas, Simcha Fischer, and the aforementioned Danielle Bean. I’m through now—go read them.

Liberal Bigotry

Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2010

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for some months now, and putting it off because I really don’t want to do it. I’d rather write about something else. I’d rather think about something else. But the phenomenon keeps forcing itself on my attention.

I tend to avoid situations, either in life or online, where I will encounter angry bigots engaged in denouncing whatever they are bigoted against. But sometimes it pops up unexpectedly: on Facebook, for instance. A few months ago I read a wild flight of anti-conservative vituperation, a friend of a friend commenting on something the friend had said, and it occurred to me that what I was reading was nothing more or less than bigotry. It revealed a mental process not significantly different from that of a KuKluxer speaking of African-Americans. The vocabulary and grammar were better, the speaker being more educated, but the uncompromising hostility was the same. It was liberal bigotry.

What do I mean by “liberal”? I mean it in the currently popular and casual sense. As everyone who has the least acquaintance with the history of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” knows, the ways in which they are used now are only loosely connected with the way they were used a hundred and fifty years ago, and with their dictionary definitions. I know this drives a lot of people crazy, particularly the analytically-minded for whom precise definition of terms is of the essence. But even these know who is being referred to when Nancy Pelosi denounces conservatives, and when Sarah Palin denounces liberals. And I’m using the term “liberal” in that context. Someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a hateful menace to society and Keith Olbermann is a courageous truth-teller is a liberal. Etc.; I really don’t think I need to multiply the examples.

What do I mean by “bigotry”? Merriam-Webster’s definition serves perfectly well for my purpose: “A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats a group (as,a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

Let me stipulate from the start that conservatives are certainly capable of bigotry, and plenty of them engage in it. It’s safe to say that few would argue with me on that point. (Many liberals would go much further, and say that conservatism is more or less identical with bigotry. And it’s just at that point that liberalism itself becomes bigoted.) But this is more than just a tu quoque (“oh yeah? Well, so are you!”) argument. Bigotry is deplorable in any context, but it is especially a problem for a liberal, because it is a crucial part of the liberal self-conception that liberalism is the negation of bigotry: liberalism is, among other things in this self-conception, openness to other people and their opinions, and a willingness to engage ideas on the basis of reason rather than prejudice and emotion. Bigotry is, among other things, the determined refusal of both those impulses.

Bigotry in a conservative is a character flaw. But bigotry in a liberal is a fundamental contradiction. It isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy consists in saying one thing and doing, usually in secret, another. And it implies a consciousness that the thing is at least in principle wrong. Liberal bigotry generally does not operate that way; on the contrary, it is proud and open and gives no evidence of an uneasy conscience. It is comparable not to a televangelist secretly frequenting prostitutes, but—I will have to invent something, because I can’t think of any actual event that makes the point—to a televangelist openly running a prostitution service and advertising it at the bottom of the screen during a sermon on chastity, never noticing the distance between words and deeds.

The essence of bigotry is always to look, and to be sure you find, only the worst in the group you hate, and never to be fair, never to open the door to sympathy, never to attempt to understand. That is an accurate working description of the habitual attitude of far too many liberals toward conservatives. Two developments of the past few years have provided clear examples: the Tea Party movement, and the recently passed Arizona law attempting to stop the influx of illegal immigration into that state.

I’m not a huge admirer of, much less a participant in, the Tea Party movement; I do sympathize with some of its views and basic grievances, but it seems inconsistent and simplistic. And I don’t have a position on the Arizona law, though I believe the residents of that and other border states when they say that illegal immigration is in fact a problem for them. My concern is not to justify or defend either of these. But my basic sense of fair play is offended by the way the non-Fox media and punditry have treated them, as well as the violent denunciations of them I’ve heard in semi-private venues like Facebook.

In both cases the liberal reaction seems to arise from a sort of emotional syllogism: we hate people because they are racists; we hate these people; therefore these people are racists. The Tea Party was accused of racism from the moment it appeared, and convicted on evidence that ranged from flimsy to nonexistent. The one big allegation, involving Tea Partiers screaming racist remarks at black congressmen, has been pretty thoroughly exploded, because video of the scene did not support it. Even the New York Times finally admitted that the event seemed not to have occurred as originally reported (I thought I had bookmarked that story, but now I can’t find it).

That there are racists in the Tea Party, I have little doubt. That there have been occasional racist signs and remarks at Tea Party rallies, I am willing to believe. But there is no reason to believe that that the movement is racist in its essence—apart, of course, from one’s conscious or unconscious choice to assume so: always look for the worst; never be fair.

There have been any number of nasty people involved in liberal and left-wing movements in recent decades. (See this page for some recent examples in the anti-war movement.) There were communists in and around the civil rights movement, to say nothing of the anti-war movement(s). But no reasonable person—that is, no person who actually wants to understand what these movements are about, why they exist, what they want, and whether we should want them to succeed or not—treats that as the last word, and writes them off as, simply, communist operations, or otherwise defines them by the most extreme or repellent people found in their midst. That is what bigots do.

At some point over the past thirty or forty years liberalism ceased to be defined as a way of approaching politics in a spirit of openness, generosity, and reason, and instead began to identify specific opinions as the necessary products of that spirit, and to treat anyone who came to different conclusions as an enemy to be destroyed. Liberalism tells us to be open to the Other, to accept the challenge of seeing the world through another’s eyes; it has largely closed itself to the Other who votes Republican.

Of course this does not apply to all liberals any more than it applies to all conservatives. But a liberal can be forgiven for concluding, on the basis of listening to Limbaugh, Hannity,, that hostility and bluster are the marks of conservatism. And likewise, a conservative can be forgiven, on the basis of listening to Olbermann, Stewart,, that hostility and snark are the marks of liberalism. It’s time for liberals to stop congratulating themselves on a virtue which they no longer, as a group, possess. Better yet, start practicing it. And that goes for all of us.

The Distributist Review

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2010

I’ve been intending to post something about this since the new Distributist Review site was unveiled a few weeks ago, and having trouble making time for it, so I think I’ll devote my Sunday writing hours to it.

The old Distributist Review site was a Blogspot blog, and was fine within those limits, but the new one is a great improvement. I’m a Facebook friend of Richard Aleman, who appears last on the new site’s staff list, but seems to have been the guy who did most of the actual construction work. He and whoever else is responsible deserve much praise for having put together a truly first-class site, with the sort of look and features that people expect from a professional site, including video (“Distributist TV”—try to get your head around that.)

Indeed, the new site is almost overwhelming, because there’s so much there, and so much being continually added. I only check in on Facebook for a short time every day or two, and when I do I usually see multiple notices from Richard Aleman about new TDR postings. I admit I have not read a great deal of the material. It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthwhile; part of the reason is the sheer quantity, and part of it is that these socio-political concerns have not been uppermost in my mind in recent years. When they are, it’s mostly in regard to current situations and controversies rather than principles. I think I’ve said most, if not all, of what I have to say on the principles in a few essays and book reviews, such as this one.

The principles of distributism are most often enunciated in a Catholic context, but the fundamentals seem to me to be pure common sense: the idea that it’s better for most people to have a small amount of property and power than for a few people to have a lot of both (as they tend to go together). It goes hand-in-hand with the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should generally be made as close as possible to the point where they have the most effect and where the most knowledge of the situation normally exists. Subsidiarity is another term heard most often in Catholic writing and supported by Catholic theology, but not dependent on it. One could argue for either idea without reference to any religious doctrine at all, on the basis of pure earthly common sense. Everyone knows, more or less instinctively, that most people most of the time will take better care of something they own than of something which belongs to someone else. Everyone knows that ownership of productive property fosters responsibility and citizenship.

But it’s not an accident that talk of distributism and subsidiarity is most often encountered in Catholic circles. Not only are the fundamental principles found in Catholic social teaching (though not necessarily under those names), but the great popularizers of distritbutist ideas have mostly been Catholic, notably of course Chesterton and Belloc.

The USA is in its foundations a Protestant country, and yet there is a great deal in distributism which seems particularly resonant with American ideas (if not current American practice). Jefferson seems to have envisioned a nation of which the backbone would be small landowners and merchants, and even today there is no more reliable way to get public sympathy for an economic program than by promising that it will move us toward that ideal. So why is distributism not more widely accepted? Especially, why is it not more widely accepted, and not only accepted but propounded, by orthodox Catholics?

Part of the answer must be a reluctance or inability to think outside the categories of capitalism and socialism. Orthodox Catholics tend to be politically conservative and pro-capitalist, and to reject as socialism any substantial challenge to our usual American conceptions of free enterprise. This in turn is, I suppose, an effect of our culture war, in which each side feels that it must reject the other’s views in toto.

Another part of the problem is that distributists tend, like any marginalized political faction, to do their part to remain marginalized. They (we) can come across as cranks, exhibiting the unattractive and unproductive tendency of those who without power and influence to sit on the sidelines and sneer at those who have it, or the fastidiousness of those who hold themselves above participation in practical politics but not above sneering at those who do participate.

And Catholic traditionalists sometimes rely heavily on appeals to papal authority, starting with Rerum novarum, to make the case for distributism, with a sort of the-pope-said-it-that-settles-it attitude which in my opinion goes a step too far, and, more importantly, neglects the practical case, which is extremely strong and likely to be more persuasive in a matter where the question of what works to produce a just and healthy prosperity is critical.

The new Distributist Review appears to be avoiding these pitfalls. The editor, John Médaille, seems to have had substantial business experience, which ought to give the magazine a good grounding in our actual contemporary situation. I hope it will be widely read.

War In the Closed World 20: Mooresville and Music

It was also in Mooresville that I first encountered my other great love: music. It may even be a greater love; if I’d been born with more musical ability and weren’t so lazy, I might have made myself a competent performer. There is an interview with Walker Percy in which he is asked what he would have liked to be if he had not been a writer; he replies that he would have liked to be an operatic tenor, a heldentenor. When I asked myself a similar question, the answer came to me instantly: I would have liked to be a really, really good electric guitar player.

My earliest memory in which music plays a part is only a sort of fragmented image. I think it was before my father remarried, though I can’t be sure; if that’s true I was probably around five years old. It was in the old house in Mooresville, in a wing that had just been converted into an apartment for my uncle Jimmy and his wife (I have a few memories of the conversion, of someone letting me hold a paintbrush and slap it at an upstairs wall). Jimmy and his father, my grandfather, were playing music, Jimmy on guitar and my grandfather on mandolin. I think other people were there. Perhaps it was a sort of party. They may have played “The Blue-tailed Fly”; at any rate I associate the song with that memory, and with that apartment.

I was fascinated by the instruments, especially the guitar. It was an arch-top, which was not usual for country or folk music, with f-holes like a violin, and a sunburst finish. I thought it was extremely beautiful, but I don’t think I was allowed to touch it, or perhaps I was just too shy to ask.

The odd thing is that I don’t remember this happening more than once. Of course it may have—after all, I didn’t live there. But I don’t remember either my grandfather or my uncle playing music again, except once, many years later, my uncle.

My first memory of hearing rock-and-roll is in Mooresville: I am outside my grandparent’s house and I hear Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” I suppose it must have been coming from a car radio. That must have been 1956, when I was eight.

My grandfather was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, among other things, and I loved to go to his shop with him, a small dim building a couple of blocks from their home, filled with aromatic lumber and well-made, well-kept tools. I even said at the time that I wanted to be a carpenter, which is very funny to me now and no doubt even more so to anyone familiar with my talents in the building line. But in my most vivid memory of the shop, I’m standing outside it, beside my grandfather’s car, a black ‘40s or early ‘50s-style Chevrolet if my memory is correct, listening to the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up, Little Susie,” on the radio. That would have been 1957, when I was nine.

My grandfather did not live much longer than that. I believe I was not more than ten when he died of lung cancer. It was a few years later—a long time in my life—that I began to have a conscious enthusiasm for music, and it was my grandmother Hill, whom I visited often, who provided the material. She had a record player, and a few dozen records, among which were Harry Belafonte’s two Carnegie Hall concert albums, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall. (She also liked Elvis.) These two albums, each one consisting of two LPs, were my gateway to a musical wonderland, and my grandmother eventually bought me my own copy of the first one.

There came a time when they seemed old-fashioned and too slick and show-business-y for my taste, and I haven’t heard them for decades. But looking at the track lists now, and remembering them, I understand why I was captivated. They have a sample of most of the interesting folk music that was happening outside the confines of commercial radio: American, both black and white, (Odetta singing both); calypso (the famous “Day-O” and others); college folk (The Chad Mitchell Trio); African (Miriam Makeba); Latin (“La Bamba”). There is humor (“A Hole in the Bucket”); sophistication (“The Ballad of Sigmund Freud,” with the chorus “Oh Doctor Freud, oh Doctor Freud, how we wish you had been differently employed”); high-energy dance-play songs (“Jump Down Spin Around”); emotional ballads (“Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah”). It was world music long before the term was coined, though the emphasis was on American music.

I continued to like rock-and-roll, but through my early adolescence it was folk music that I loved most. For a while it was the highly polished pop-folk of groups like the Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the time I was in high school my beloved grandmother’s mind had failed and she had been moved to a nursing home (more on that in another chapter), and when I visited in Mooresville it was at the home of my uncle Jimmy and his wife Libby, now living in a house they had built next door to the old family home. There I got a taste of the originals from whom the pop folksters had gotten their material and inspiration. There I heard real blues for the first time, in particular the sound of the blues guitar, for which I had an instantaneous love which has not only never faded but has grown stronger over the 45 years or so since I first heard it. As B.B. King said of hearing Bukka White for the first time: “that sound would go all through me,” and it still does.

When I was old enough to drive I sometimes spent Saturday nights at Libby and Jimmy’s. They cooked steaks and played records for me, and sometimes let me drink a beer or two. Jimmy’s great love was country blues, the rough one-man acoustic blues as it was played in the south, before Muddy Waters and others took it to Chicago and introduced the electric guitar and the rhythm section: Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy. Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell. Those evenings were magical, filled not only with the sense of discovery but with a sense of growing into something, of a sort of initiation, that probably can be had only in youth: the discovery of discovery, perhaps. One year they gave me, either for Christmas or my birthday, a four-LP anthology of folk music from the Vanguard label, which at the time had an excellent roster of folk and near-folk artists, people who were not necessarily the originators, discovered in Appalachia or rural Mississippi, but not the highly commercial popularizers, either—people like Joan Baez and Ian and Sylvia on the one hand, and Doc Watson and the Georgia Sea Island Singers on the other. That set became a sort of encyclopedia of folk music for me, serving me somewhat as the broader and more important Harry Smith anthology (which I still have never heard) served Dylan and other discoverers of folk music in the late 1950s. I was even a bit of a folk-music snob for a while, until 1965 or so, when rock got interesting, with Dylan moving that way and the Beatles getting adventurous and folk-rock appearing.

I don’t want to make this sound like music was something that I only heard in Mooresville. My mother made an attempt to introduce us to classical music with a recording of the Nutcracker Suite, which I liked, and she had some Broadway show albums that she played from time to time, of which I remember only My Fair Lady, which I considered not too bad for that sort of thing (but have since learned to admire). But there was not the same level of interest there as in Mooresville.

People Who Can Do Things (a repeat)

Sunday Night Journal — July 11, 2010

When I discontinued the Sunday Night Journal for the year of 2009, someone suggested that instead of shutting it down I might simply post a link to an older installment every week. I didn't want to put even that much time into it, so I didn't do that, but as the year went on I was a bit sorry I hadn't taken the suggestion. But I'm doing it now. I've been very busy this weekend, and it's now late Sunday evening. Rather than try to slap together something hastily tonight, I'm linking to the journal for June 26, 2005. Something like it or some part of it will probably be incorporated into the memoir. Also, it's a good companion to this N.T. Wright book, Surprised By Hope, which I'll certainly be saying more about, and which I think is going to have a lot to say about what the resurrection of the body means: it is not, repeat not, some kind of spiritual existence in which the body won't matter anymore, but rather a new kind of physical being, something we really can only make guesses about from where we are now.