Sunday Night Journal 2012 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 30, 2012

This will be the last Sunday Night Journal, at least in this form—I'm holding open the possibility of reviving it as a simple journal, not a weekly essay. I’ve kept it going for eight years, from 2004 through 2012, with a year off in 2009. And now I want to turn my attention to other projects, including longer forms of writing, which I’ve found myself unable to do with the weekly deadline of the Journal always facing me. The blog will continue, only without that weekly feature, and I hope those who have enjoyed the Journal will still find the blog worth reading.

I’ve produced quite a number of words in those eight years and some of them are worth preserving. My daughter Clare and I are working on a book which will include what we consider the best of them. To be called Sunday Light, it will be produced in both electronic and paper forms, and should be available within six months at least.

I said after the election in November that I wasn’t going to write about politics until the end of the year. I’m going to jump the gun by a couple of days now, as it seems fitting for the last Sunday Night Journal to be an attempt to discern the direction of the broad sweep of history even as we are swept along with it.


The Dearest Freshness

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

--Kenneth Minogue

That remark is the opening of an essay, “A March of Folly,” from a recent issue of The New Criterion. The essay concerns the true nature, implications, and effects, including those not necessarily intended or foreseen, of the feminist and homosexual rights movements. (It’s not available online.) It’s an interesting and I think mostly accurate view, the gist of which can be inferred from the rest of the paragraph:

That is why I have only just begun to understand what is actually at stake in the proposal to recognize civil partnerships as “marriages.” And the clue came when I discovered that Stonewall, the homosexual rights group in Britain, was proposing a memorandum that the terms “husband” and “wife” should be removed from the 1973 Marriage Act and replaced by “parties to the marriage.” This apparently trivial bit of semantics carries a large moral significance.

Hardly trivial, and “large moral significance” is an understatement. This is official madness, and already those who object to it are being treated as the mad ones, suffering from “homophobia,” which is, conveniently for those wishing to eliminate it, both an illness and a moral fault. Should such proposals become established norms in our society, it will have undergone a change at least as far-reaching as, say, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.

It’s also an understatement to say that we live in an age of great change, some for the better and some for worse, and it is often difficult to discern what the most significant and powerful forces are: as that opening sentence says, “What is actually going on?” I’ve thought about that question a lot over the course of my life, and in relation specifically to my country it has been particularly on my mind since the recent presidential election.

A great many people on both sides think the election marked a decisive shift. Progressives rejoiced at the apparent solidifying of their hold on power, and conservatives mourned for the same reason. What really happened? It is certainly not the case that the election alone decided anything permanent, and those to the left of conventional progressives scoff, with good reason, at the notion that it represents some sort of triumph of their views. At any time during George W. Bush’s presidency many on the left were convinced that the nation was turning into a “theocracy.” Or at least they said they were—personally I never really believed that they really believed it; it seemed rather a sort of ghost story they told themselves, enjoying the thrill of fear without actually being threatened, and justifying in their minds the feverish hatred they felt toward their political enemies. Similarly, I’ve heard many conservatives say that we’re now a “socialist” country, which makes actual socialists laugh. But to say that each of these charges is greatly exaggerated doesn’t mean that something big isn’t happening. For the most part broad and deep social changes do not happen suddenly or turn on one or two major events; rather, an incident such as Luther’s propagation of his famous theses becomes in retrospect a symbolic moment.

Supposing Barack Obama’s second term were to be seen, a hundred years from now, as having a similar importance, what would be the change that it was deemed to signify? What is actually going on? It is most certainly not the case that progressive forces have now achieved their final victory over conservative ones. But it may be that the balance has tipped in that direction.

I’ve discussed here before my view that when the religious right emerged in this country in the mid-1970s it was fundamentally mistaken about the nature of the situation. Jerry Falwell’s choice of a name for his organization, The Moral Majority, encapsulates his assumptions. Rather than reformulate that appraisal I’ll quote myself:

[Falwell] thought that a small number of radicals—hippies, feminists, etc.—had seized control of some of our most visible institutions (the press, especially), and were forcing the agenda of the sexual revolution on a mostly unwilling, mostly conservative Christian population. And that the task before him was to awaken those people to the fact that their society was under attack, and get them to use their political strength to reverse the sexual revolution, at least to the extent that it was becoming institutionalized, most obviously with the legalization of abortion.

But he was wrong. The sexual revolution may have flowered in the ‘60s, and hippies and feminists may have been its most visible advocates (along with Hugh Hefner), but its roots were much deeper. And in any case much of the mainstream soon embraced it quite readily. By the time Falwell attempted to rally socially conservative Christians, they were not the majority (if they ever had been).

Something similar has, I think, occurred in the secular arena regarding the common conception of what the United States is and what people believe it should be. The two contending forces, which are broadly labelled conservative and progressive, right and left, Republican and Democrat, now seem to have very different visions, two very different things in mind when they speak of American ideals.

The conservative view—again, speaking very broadly—is that this nation is a fundamentally good thing, that its Constitution defines an admirable form of republican government which assumes a citizenry competent and responsible enough to make its own decisions, and that the powers of the government are delegated to it by the people and strictly limited. Moreover, at one remove from formal government, conservatives admire American culture: its entrepreneurial spirit, its dynamism, its commitment to the twin virtues of liberty and responsibility, its diversity (in the real and not the cant-racial sense), its religiosity—and, of course, its wealth and power, Sensible conservatives recognize the dark side of American history and the great number of things that are always in need of reform, but wish to preserve, not replace, the fundamental structure and character of what they like to refer to as the American idea. (“A nation with the soul of a church,” Chesterton said.)

Progressives in general do not value these things very much, or do not believe that they actually exist, or define them in altogether different ways (e.g. “diversity,” which means racial diversity only and expects uniformity of thought). They regard the American idea as an endlessly unfolding promise of liberation. Above all, the dominant forces of progressivism as it exists today reject the idea of a competent and responsible citizenry, and of sovereignty as residing ultimately there. It sees the state, in the form of the national government, as the competent and responsible party, and the people as its clients, almost as its children. (Years ago I heard the very progressive Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., make this analogy explicitly, and favorably.) It divides the people into three classes: oppressors, victims, and those enlightened ones who know how things ought to be run, and who should rightly exercise political and cultural authority in the best interests of all. It sees the great task of politics as involving the duty of the third class to protect the second class from the first class.

Those who once constituted the American norm or type—middle-class people of European extraction—are loosely considered to be in the oppressor class (except when it is useful to treat them as victims). They are seen as always ready to inflict some sort of harm on some one, and left to their own ways would make most of the nation outside the big cities an arena for their oppression of others (“women and minorities”). They must be restrained by Washington by means of a uniform code of finely detailed law regulating almost every aspect of life, the one major exception being sexual expression of any sort. The requirements of this task, not the Constitution, are the final determinant of what is permitted to the government. (The oppressor class does not, as one might expect, in the progressive scheme include rich people as such, because quite a large proportion of the very wealthy hold progressive views, which as generally held today do not include anything which would make them less wealthy.)

This, in a nutshell, is the conservative view of the situation, and I think it’s roughly accurate, though one necessarily paints with a broad brush to cover a large area quickly. A common analysis, often similar in substance from both sides, holds that progressives and victims now constitute a permanent majority which will permanently seize power and remake the country—fundamentally transform it, as Mr. Obama promised before the 2008 election.

Like the Moral Majority in the 1970s, the conservative faction had thought that it could counter this force by appealing to old American virtues, or at least to a consensus of what those virtues ought to be: self-reliance, self-restraint, religion, reverence for the Constitution, voluntary and local action for the common good, personal responsibility, etc. But it may, like the Moral Majority, be mistaking the nature of the situation: believing that what is needed is simply to remind Americans of who they are and what their country means, when in fact such ideals no longer mean much to a very large number of people, who view appeals to them as either amusing in their simple-minded earnestness or sinister, a cover for oppressive intentions.

If this change is permanent, it’s a big one. In essence it is another in a long series of proofs of the adage that people who will not rule themselves will be ruled by others. It changes the nature of the relationship between the people and their government, who are now properly to be called rulers; the people are not citizens in the old sense but dependents whose essential relationship to the state, which is considered to be identical with “society,” consists in paying taxes and receiving “benefits.” It carries along with it a redefinition of what the word “democracy” means in the American context. The conservative meaning is that it denotes the power of the citizenry to decide who will operate the machinery of which the Constitution is the design. The progressive meaning is that the majority is entitled to make the rules. And the rules they want to make are circumscribed not by the Constitution, but by the needs of the day.

(The extent to which the Republican Party, as the electoral representative of the conservative side, constitutes a terrible witness for the virtues it espouses is certainly a part of the picture, but my guess is that it’s not a decisive part. That is, I don’t think it would have much more appeal than it does even if it did not have this problem.)

I don’t mean to be painting this as a question of good vs. evil. The traditional view of America certainly has its problems, and progressives are often honestly attempting to address them (as opposed to pursuing utopia). Call it bad vs. worse, then, from the Christian point of view, because progressivism is now a fundamentally anti-Christian force, and is becoming more aggressively so. It views Christianity as one of the oppressors from which the state must protect the people, and seeks to eliminate it as a cultural and political force. And so if this election really did represent a turning point in American history, we can expect many more attacks on religious liberty like those made by the Obama administration (in the cause of sexual freedom, of course, as that seems to be the one progressive absolute).

Even if it’s too early to tell whether progressivism has really achieved any sort of permanent victory, the increasing secularization of society can’t be denied, and moreover what I’m broadly calling the conservative force has strong anti-Christian elements (e.g. most varieties of libertarianism). So it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best.

But I’m not here to play Cassandra. All the above is only a prologue to a thought suggested by the title of this piece, from a line in Hopkins’ well-known poem “God’s Grandeur,” a line which has come to me often over the past few months:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

He was speaking of nature, but his words are equally true of the Christian faith—and why shouldn’t they be, since both spring from the same source? The American system may indeed pass away, and if I live to see the time when the change can’t be denied, I’ll mourn it. But this country is, after all, one of the many temporary and at best partially successful human attempts to establish a decent worldly order. The life of faith will continue, alongside the life of the world but apart, and the new situation will be accompanied by new expressions of it. The living waters will continue to feed the green shoots of new life, producing flowers never seen before by human eyes, though familiar and beloved in the eyes of God.

Sunday Night Journal — December 23, 2012

Always Winter and Never Christmas?

 That, as everyone who's read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe knows, was the woeful situation of Narnia under the rule of the White Witch. And it's probably one phrase everyone who reads the book remembers. It's a brilliant way of capturing in a few words the significance not only of Christmas but of the entire cultural presence of Christianity, because the idea of a winter without Christmas does seem terrible, even without the hopeless additions of "always" and "never." (And it's unfortunate that it doesn't really work for people in the southern hemisphere.)

I've always lived in fairly warm climates--well, barring one winter in Denver--and since 1990 have lived in a subtropical one. Winter here is only chilly and drab, not cold and bleak. We don't even lose all of our greenery, and camellias bloom wildly: reportedly the nuns who arrived in mid-winter to found the Visitation Monastery in Mobile were misled by the camellias into thinking they had come to a hospitable climate. But nevertheless it is a dull season, and if it never ended one would eventually despair. 

The modern world is trying to rid itself of Christianity, and achieving some success. But the more it succeeds, the more it reveals that the loss will only leave it bleak, angry, and embittered. If over many generations the very memory of Christianity should disappear altogether, something like pre-Christian paganism might emerge. But, as many have observed, a post-Christian society is a different beast altogether. Cold is one of its attributes; empty is another. Oh, it certainly has plenty of sensual and emotional warmth. But it remembers that it once believed that these things were real and eternal, and now it believes that they're only a side effect of matter rattling around in an inconceivably large, empty, and cold space: a sort of friction, perhaps, producing us and our loves and dreams as flint and steel produce sparks which flame for the barest instant before returning to the cold from which they came. And so the chill of those spaces seeps into its heart.  

It would be one thing to live in a land where it's always winter and always has been and there has never been any such thing as Christmas. It would be quite another to live in that land with the memory of Christmas. The former circumstance might make you a cold-hearted brute, but the latter could drive you mad. 

A couple of years ago I wrote about the way I felt, as a child, about the merely secular approach to Christmas--you can read that post here. I sense that more strongly with each passing Christmas. And there's a struggle within me as well. This Advent I've been even more busy and distracted than usual. I've hardly thought about Christmas, and my observance of Advent didn't amount to much. The signs of Christmas have left me almost completely indifferent, and the need for thinking of presents and family gatherings has seemed more a bother than anything else. I've even found myself wondering if I'm becoming one of those people who really doesn't much like Christmas. But I'm not. All I have to do to correct that impression is to imagine the world without it.

A couple of weekends ago my wife and I took two of our grandsons with us to buy a tree. We ordinarily wait until a few days before Christmas before buying our tree, but we wanted to take the boys, and for complicated family scheduling reasons it looked like that might be the only weekend where it worked out. So off we went to Fish River Trees, where we've bought our Christmas tree for some years now. Sometimes we cut it, and sometimes we bring home a living one and plant it after Christmas, but we've pretty much run out of space for new trees now, so this year we cut one. 

The farm is a commercial enterprise, obviously, and it features as much Christmas hokum as any such. Well, no, that's wrong: it features more Christmas hokum, because it's entirely Christmas-oriented. By hokum I mean Santa Claus stuff, snowman stuff (in a climate which might see a very light dusting of snow every 20 or 30 years), candy cane stuff, a Christmas-themed "train"--trailers pulled by a disguised tractor which half-choked us with its exhaust--that sort of thing. Sometimes that stuff gets on my nerves a little, though I always enjoy the process of finding the tree and bringing it home and am glad every year that I did it, even if I wasn't enthusiastic at first.

This year there was something new; also, perhaps, a bit of hokum, if you in turn are a bit cynical. It was a nativity scene, with nearly-life-size figures situated in a simple wooden structure, and a few live animals wandering around the enclosure: a couple of donkeys, and, representing the bovine family, a rather intriguing species of cattle bred for the Scottish highlands, much smaller than ordinary cattle and having an extremely thick and shaggy coat. The figures in the scene were plastic, and no more realistic nor affecting than you might expect. Yet I found it touching. Not only was it a direct statement of the Christmas story within the commercial Christmas that usually slights or ignores it , but the presence of a stable (more or less) of rough wood, and of live animals with their heavy warmth and rough coats and their smells brought a flavor of reality to the scene. It's good for children, most of whom nowadays never encounter any animals except dogs and cats, to see what an ox and an ass are really like. And it was good for me: having spent a great deal of time around cattle when I was growing up, I find the smell of a barnyard rather homey and comfortable, if not precisely pleasant. To be around animals is to be forced--well, at least to have the opportunity--to consider what it means that our flesh, as the old translations have it, and all flesh, shall see the glory of God.

And I'm also forced to consider what the absence of the hope of redemption means, the direction in which western civilization seems to be headed: always winter, but not even never Christmas, because Christmas itself is no longer conceivable, replaced by a wan "holiday" evacuated of any significance beyond the need of human beings to huddle together for temporary warmth against the everlasting cold and darkness.


Sunday Night Journal — December 16, 2012

 The Waning of Adulthood

This is a subject that comes to mind for me sometimes when I've been watching old, which is to say roughly pre-1960, movies or TV shows, or even listening to the classic American popular songs of the pre-rock-and-roll 20th century. To develop fully a thesis on this topic would require a fair amount of research, which I'm certainly never going to do. So consider what follows as a set of unsupported impressions, hardly definitive but, I hope, worth considering.

I've always been annoyed by those giddy commenters on pop culture who treat what they see in the entertainment or advertising of the "era" between roughly 1930 and 1965 as if it were a real picture of real life in those times. (This use of the word "era" always strikes me as a problem in itself; in my mind an era is quite a long period of time, defined by serious events, such as an ice age or the Protestant Reformation, but these writers are capable of using terms like "the Lady GaGa era.") But yet those images from popular culture are not meaningless or accidental: they do tell us something about the times that produced them. They do not show us what actually was, as anyone old enough to remember the 1950s can attest. But they do show us what some people thought about what actually was, and the way they thought it should be. Frequently they embody what artists or advertisers thought would be appealing to the masses, and in that sense they say something about the masses.

It seems to me that there has been a diminishment and almost a repudiation of the idea of adulthood as it was once understood. The adults in a movie of the 1940s might be bad or good but there was no doubt that they were adults. A thirty-year-old was expected, indeed assumed, to be about as mature as he would ever be. The men, if middle-class, wore suits and ties and hats and worked at something the rest of the world considered serious and significant. If working-class, their dress was simpler but still in some sense dignified, and their position possessed of some dignity, even if it was lowly. The women dressed more modestly and with more dignity than is typical today, and, constricted as we might see their situation to be now, it was at least a fairly clearly defined one. Though the role of housewife may have been treated lightly by men, it also commanded a certain respect, not in the sense that accomplishments in the working world were respected, but respected in its sphere. 

I notice that I mentioned dignity three times in the preceding paragraph, and I think that's a key part of what I'm trying to articulate. In contrast to older expectations, men are now mere "guys" until they are well into their 40s, essentially trivial figures (unless they are action heroes), sex-and-sports-obsessed louts. And although feminist-enforced convention dictates the designation of females as "women," they are often portrayed as acquisitive narcissists, also sex-obsessed, whose feelings are the ultimate law of the universe, and for whom children are an accessory. 

I think the general level of literacy was higher prior to 1970 or so--literacy in the broad sense, what has been called "cultural literacy." It seems that literary and historical allusions were more broadly understood. Consider, for instance, the adult humor of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I doubt it could be produced today, and if it were it would not be accepted, because it is too steeped in the lore that was once absorbed from the surrounding culture and from ordinary education. Consider, for that matter, the phrase I just used: "adult humor". To prefix the word "adult" to any form of entertainment now suggests first that it will be lewd, crude, and possibly pornographic. 

The universal acceptance of crudeness that once had no place in the public sphere is surely one of the most telling symptoms of the decline, because it was once expected that adults controlled their use of what used to be called obscene language. The amount of it that shows up in movies, news, and entertainment has reached levels that once existed only among the very crude, or in certain male-only environments such as the military. In any case, whatever the private use of this language, almost everyone understood that it was not to be used in public, and indeed to use it in certain situations--in the presence of a lady, for instance--was a grave social offense, and often illegal. (Those prohibitions survive as relics in the rules for broadcast radio and television, and are under constant attack.)

Yet now there is a positive enthusiasm for it. Just a day or two ago, in the local paper, I saw a review of a movie about a man and a teddy bear, described in the headline and twice in the first few paragraphs (which was as far as I read) as "raunchy". Well, we know what that means: not only crude language but lots of sex and unpleasant-bodily-function humor. And there's a special delight in putting this language into situations where it collides most powerfully with a natural sense of propriety: in the mouths of children, for instance. Or, I gather from this movie review, a teddy bear, a thing firmly associated with childhood innocence.

I don't think that the whole of society is happy with these changes. Millions of people are not. But they are powerless against the sophisticates.

I certainly don't mean to say that conventional notions (especially in this context bourgeois notions) of propriety are to be identified with absolute right and wrong. But the two are connected, in that they involve a respect for right order. When propriety is consciously rejected--I was about to say in art, but I think this holds in life as well--it should be largely for the purpose of pointing out a divergence between propriety and right order. When propriety is rejected merely because it is propriety, then right order is also being attacked. And I think that's what we see in the entertainment industry now, and in much of society at large.

Adulthood is an essential part of right order. The term suggests maturity, dignity, and decorum. And respect, both given and received: respect for the order of society and for the cosmic order, respect shown to others and expected from them. But some of the most popular comedy on television now, cartoon shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, include a bitter contempt for adults as an essential part of their appeal. The fathers of 1950s sitcoms, who were often portrayed as a bit out of touch but generally decent and to be taken seriously, are now often ugly selfish fools whom no one could possibly respect.

As so often in the modern rebellion, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. If the respectable didn't deserve respect, or failed to respect the people below them in the social hierarchy, the response ought to have been to expose the disparity and press for adherence to standards, not to undermine the whole idea of respect, which has been replaced by an insistence upon approval--a very different thing, as self-esteem is a very different thing from self-respect. What has been enshrined in place of adulthood is a somewhat adolescent self-assertion, a desire to see oneself as above all independent and authentic. This, naturally and inevitably, becomes a convention in itself, but not a very attractive one.

One reason this keeps bothering me (I was thinking about it nine years ago when I wrote about The Twilight Zone) is that I feel its loss. I feel that there was some form of adulthood which I once expected to attain but which vanished before I could reach it, like the top floor of a half-destroyed building. I  may recognize and regret this development, but I'm still affected by it, and a participant in it. I have no more desire than anyone else to wear a tie, and if I didn't have to maintain a certain level of presentability at work--far below coat-and-tie levels, but still not without some standard--I would probably look like a beatnik most of the time. This is a faint and distant echo of the rebellion that helped to produce the whole cultural sea-change which I'm trying to describe.

Sunday Night Journal — December 9, 2012

Some Pictures

I had a very busy weekend which left me with no time to write about the thing I'd been thinking about in odd moments over the week. Such thoughts as I had were pretty disorganized and I'm not sure the whole thing, which had to do with the nature of adulthood in our time, was worth bothering with even if I'd had plenty of time, and I certainly wasn't going to try to do it in an hour or two.

So what I decided to do instead was to post some pictures I've taken recently. I haven't taken very many pictures at all over the past 6-12 months, and I've missed it. So I have decided to take my little camera with me when possible, whether I'm walking the dogs or driving to Mobile--and, maybe, to fuss over the images a little less once I've taken them. Unless there's something to stop me--e.g. the bird I was trying to get a shot of flew away--I always take at least four or five shots in hope of getting one that I like. So when I get them off the camera and onto the computer, I have to spend a long time deciding which one I like best, which also involves a lot of tinkering--cropping, brightening, darkening, and more exotic tweaks--in Picasa, the only image editing program simple enough for me to use and yet having features that make it worthwhile.


I posted a variant of this one yesterday (click here if you don't see it on this page). As I mentioned in the discussion on that post, I had originally meant to post one without my shadow and the nose of an oncoming vehicle in the picture, and decided at the last minute that it worked better with those. Here, for comparison, is the first one. I definitely think the other is better. Besides the signs of human presence, it also includes more of the road, which also works better to my eye.


And here is the other in black-and-white. I rather like this.



 You'd have no idea, looking at the two pictures above, that just a few hundred yards/meters away is a huge commercial complex comprising auto dealers with vast parking lots, and a huge shopping center (have malls gone out of fashion?--this one is open-air). Just around the corner the businesses trail off into a carpet store and a used-car lot, where I noticed these happy shoppers browsing. Unfortunately it was late afternoon and their faces were mostly in shadow


But I did catch this one in lighting more appropriate to his upbeat mood.


I had passed by the place earlier in the day but hadn't had time to stop. I may try to get by there next Saturday and see if the same crowd is still there.


Thursday morning, about 7:15 or so.


And the next one was taken on the same morning. I don't even remember taking it, and contrary to what I said earlier it was the only one of its type. But I was struck by it when I got it off the camera. It looks like some kind of abstract painting, and to my eye not a bad one as such things go, though I don't know anything about abstract painting and am mostly baffled by the things critics say about it.



And here is a better picture of the chapel of the Society of Saint Gregory the Great, which I was discussing a couple of weeks ago.


(Monday: at my desk at work, and getting this ready to post, I am annoyed to discover that nearly all these pictures look darker on my monitor here than they did at home. It's a reminder that what other people see when I post a photograph may be significantly different from what I see. So if these look murky to you, well, I tried.)

Sunday Night Journal — December 2, 2012

Some More Old Movies

I see it's been about six weeks since my last set of movie commentaries; in that post I defined an "old movie" as "one that was old when I was young, which is to say, something made before roughly 1960." So it looks like I've watched roughly one movie per week in that time. I haven't set out to watch old movies only; it's just that I've been recording them from Turner Classic Movies for a couple of years now at a much faster rate than I can watch them, so that the DVR is almost full. Also, we really need to get rid of "cable" TV (actually AT&T's over-the-phone-lines version, Uverse). It's a rather silly luxury since our viewing is limited to a little PBS, a little TCM, and college football from late August till the first week of January, and very little else. So since the DVR will probably go away with Uverse, I've been trying to watch some of what I've accumulated.

Dark Passage

This is a Bogart & Bacall "vehicle," as the movie professionals say. There are four such, and this was the third. I have now seen all four of them, and I think this is my least favorite, though it's been so long since I saw To Have and Have Not that I can't be sure about that. There's a lot to like in this one, but the plot is pretty hard to believe. (The Big Sleep is  not so much unbelievable as puzzling.) Bogart is a prison escapee wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Bacall is the girl who believes his story, helps him out, and falls in love with him. Bogart goes to a plastic surgeon who gives him an entirely new face, which is not the first hard-to-believe bit. It's interesting to see Bacall at this stage in her life and career; she was just twenty-three, and very beautiful, without the hard-edged quality that she developed later on, or at any rate is the way I tend to think of her.  The San Francisco setting is photographed very nicely and is one of the most appealing features of the film.

I got that picture from a really nice gallery of stills here, as part of a review worth reading (the reviewer agrees with me, and then some, about the depiction of San Francisco).

Confidential Agent

The young Bacall again, but without Bogart. This was actually made between To Have And Have Not and The Big Sleep. It's based on the Graham Greene novel (with the The dropped from the title), which I haven't read, but which I suspect is a lot better than the movie. Made in 1945, but set in the '30s during the Spanish Civil War, it involves Charles Boyer, somewhat unconvincingly, as an agent of the Spanish government in England to procure help from English financiers, and Bacall, somewhat unconvincingly, as the daughter of one such financier. She meets the Boyer character and assists him in various ways. I didn't find it very involving, apart from a subplot involving a maid in the hotel where Boyer stays. There's a good bit of Greene-style dirty dealing, and perhaps the book makes more of it in that Catholic-noir way of his. Peter Lorre is in it, playing an especially unpleasant version of his typical character.

This Gun For Hire

More Greene (the novel is called A Gun for Sale). It really was just a coincidence that I saw both these within a couple of weeks of each other. I liked this one better than Confidential Agent. I think of Alan Ladd as a cowboy hero, but he's the hired assassin of the title, and quite effective. Veronica Lake is the leading lady, a nightclub singer recruited into espionage, and I was impressed with her. I don't think I'd seen her before. As an actress in the pure sense she's no better than the average Hollywood star of the time, but as with most of those stars, she has a screen presence that makes her interesting. And she was really very beautiful. The plot is a pretty complicated crime-and-espionage story that kept me interested. I suspect some things in it were prettified from the Greene original, but I haven't read this novel either, so I don't know for sure.


I think I can give this away without spoiling too much: the assassin and the nightclub singer are thrown together against both the police and the criminals, and the treatment of that situation is an interesting contrast to the way it would probably be handled today. They would undoubtedly nowadays be in "love" and in bed together pretty quickly, but although there is a pretty strong romantic current flowing between them here, and there is one scene of great tenderness, they do not fully recognize it and don't act on it. I think it's more effective that way.  


Veronica Lake had a very sad life.

Young Man With a Horn

This one again includes Lauren Bacall (maybe TCM was having some kind of Bacall festival). It was made in 1950, just two years after her last movie with Bogart. I don't know whether it was the character and the makeup, or the beginning of a change in her, but she's decidely--what was the word I used earlier?--hard-edged in this one. Hard and sharp. Her character is, to be blunt, a bitch. The film is based on a novel based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (a famous jazz trumpeter of the 1920s who drank himself to death at an early age). So, at two removals, the film probably shouldn't be taken as saying much about Beiderbecke, but it's a good story. Better than I expected, really. 


Kirk Douglas is Rick Martin, the trumpet player, and I didn't expect him to be very good, but he is. He's even convincing as a trumpet player, doing the instrumental equivalent of lip-syncing to a sound track recorded by Harry James. Considerably more surprising to me, though it probably wouldn't be to someone more familiar with her career, was the excellent performance by the young Doris Day as a singer (and she can really sing) who loves Rick, but loses him to the spoiled and unhappy rich girl played by Bacall, who...well, to avoid spoilers, let's just say she's not a good influence. It's a darker and more powerful story than I expected it to be. 

Another highlight is Hoagy Carmichael, whose character is a fellow musician and close friend to Martin. I don't suppose he was a very versatile actor, but he's certainly convincing and engaging in this role.

Tokyo Story

This was not recorded from TCM, but rented from Netflix. It had been in my queue for a long time, and finally found its way to the top. When it arrived, it sat here for several weeks before I felt like taking the time to watch it and I finally had to give myself a bit of a push, telling myself to either watch it or send it back. My resistance came from the fact that I expected it to be slow and somewhat less than gripping. Well, I was right. It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).

The plot could not be much simpler: an elderly couple (the wife is all of four years older than I) travel from their provincial town to visit their adult children. The children are busy with their own lives and don't quite know what to do with the parents. The parents stay for some days, during which time the wife begins to show signs of ill health, and return home. So low-key is the action, yet so significant, that to say anything much beyond that would involve some spoiling of the story, so I'll leave it at that.  I think anyone who has raised children will be touched by it. And possibly many of those who have been children.

(Criterion Collection link)


Sudden Impact

Ok, this is a radical shift, and not even an old movie by the definition I gave above, although it's thirty years old. It's an instance of the "very little else" besides PBS, TCM, and football that I watch on TV. I enjoy watching a Hollywood action movie now and then, and so I record one now and then, and watch it, usually when my wife is away, when I just want to relax with a beer and an undemanding movie. 

This one turned out to be somewhat ineffective for the purpose: it's just too bad, and too mean. Everybody knows, I'm sure, about Dirty Harry Callahan, the Clint Eastwood character, a cop who doesn't let much stand in the way of his shooting criminals. The story has promise: the victim of a vicious rape is stalking and killing her assailants.  But it's so stuffed with implausible shootouts and plot developments that I stopped taking it very seriously about halfway through. 

The best thing about it was that I finally heard in its original setting the famous "Go ahead--make my day." Unless your education is similarly deficient and you feel obliged to remedy it, don't bother with this movie.

The only reason I'm writing it about it is that it strikes me as being of interest as a cultural phenomenon. To say it takes a tough line against criminals, and the toleration of crime, is like saying that the Daleks take a tough line against humans. Criminals in the Dirty Harry movies are not desperate souls reacting against an unjust society; they're simply bad people who do bad things because they enjoy it. To show them mercy is only to encourage further crime, and Harry as a rule shows none. There was a sort of fashion for this sort of movie in the 1970s and early '80s (this one was released in 1983),  and it must have been rooted in a widespread sense of helplessness about the increasing rate of violent crime: not only was it increasing, but there was a general impression that the authorities had decided that they couldn't or wouldn't do much about it. Although crime continued to increase until the early 1990s, and is still much higher than it was in 1960, that impression must have changed. Or maybe the vigilante motif had just lost its appeal.


Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2012

Don and the Unprofitable Servant

When you pick up a hitchhiker, there's a moment when he opens the door and you look at each other, and you're both wondering whether you've made a big mistake: Is this guy going to do me some kind of harm? I could see that question in the eyes of the fellow I picked up the week before Thanksgiving, and I expect he could see it in mine. And for my part I had the impulse to say "Sorry" and drive away, because he looked and smelled so bad. The smell hit me almost as soon as he opened the door. He had stiff gray hair that stuck wildly out from under a baseball-style cap that would have looked dirty even without the painted-on bird droppings and the words "Damn Seagulls." He wore a grungy three-quarter length olive drab coat. His teeth were yellow and wildly crooked. A set of headphones sat askew, still on his head but not on his ears--so that he could hear, I suppose. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the 50s; whatever the number of years, they had not been kind.

This was on Interstate 10 in northern Florida, somewhere not very far west of Tallahassee. I was returning from a work-related conference in Ocala, driving a rented Toyota minivan (because the smaller car I had asked for was not available). It was a seven-hour drive, but flying would have taken just as long and cost more. And anyway, I very much enjoy a long drive alone with plenty of music to listen to. I had no desire for company, and had only stopped for this man out of a sense of obligation.

I often pick up hitchhikers if I think I can take them some useful distance, which means that on my way to and from work I pass up the occasional one near the Interestate who looks as if (or announces with a sign that) he has a long way to go. On my way to Ocala two days earlier, I had passed one by, and felt guilty about it. I had stopped for food--again near Tallahassee, but east of it--and was getting back on I10 when I saw a man sitting on a suitcase at the entrance to the on-ramp. And I hadn't stopped, because I didn't want to be bothered. I had my Zaxby's chicken and french fries open on the console where I could reach them easily, and had just inserted a CD of Mozart piano sonatas. I felt pretty bad about not picking up the hitcher, and for a few minutes wrestled with the thought of going back for him, until I had gone far enough that I could reasonably tell myself that it was now impractical, as I needed to reach Ocala by 6 or so and a time zone change was against me. 

 The drive on I10 across the Florida panhandle is extremely boring. The highway is many miles inland from the coast, and the area is sparsely populated. Towns are few and far between. Most exits take you only to a cluster of gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The man I had just picked up had been trudging along beside the open road, several miles past the last exit and several miles away from the next one. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and the sky was a uniform grey. I was cruising along happily, experimenting with the great variety of music on the XM radio. But having passed up the previous hitcher, I knew I had no choice but to stop for this one.

He was one of those who appears to be going a long way, with a backpack and a sleeping bag. When I stopped he began hurrying to catch up with me, but he was moving prettly slowly, so I backed up. He was a little out of breath when he opened the door and pushed his headphones aside. After that initial appraising moment, he asked me how far I was going. "To Mobile," I said. He  yelled "G*d*mn!", which startled me for an instant before I realized it was an elated and not an angry g*d*mn.

One reason I don't like doing this is the sheer tension of it. The odds are great that anyone you pick up is going to be perfectly harmless, but there's always the possibility that he won't be, so you're on edge, and in my case I generally stay on edge until I've taken the person as far as I'm going to take him. And even apart from that, there is for me the introvert's tension of having a stranger in the car.

Strictly speaking, I wasn't going to Mobile, but to Fairhope, which is on the east side of Mobile Bay, but I figured he probably wouldn't know where that was. I hoped maybe he wasn't going that far, but considering the load he was carrying I wasn't surprised to learn that he was heading for Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, another 250 miles or so beyond Mobile. I decided at that moment that I would in fact take him to Mobile, to get him past the long bridge and tunnel between the eastern and western shores of Mobile Bay.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Don, which happens to be my father's name (or nickname). He made me more nervous than usual because there was something about him that seemed...not crazy, but not entirely balanced, either. The tension was not eased when he pointed out the exit that led to a prison where he had spent several years. "I used to be a bad boy," he said with a chuckle. Nor was I pleased when he asked if I would stop at the next exit and let him get something to drink. I don't know why I agreed to that; mainly because I couldn't think fast enough to say no, and besides he didn't say he wanted alcohol, although I figured that was probably what he meant. But I did stop, and in fact gave him some money when he offered me a canned ham from his backpack in exchange for  something to drink. While he was in the store I considered dumping his stuff in the parking lot and driving away without him. But I discarded that idea, made the sign of the cross, and muttered Lord, into thy hands.

"Something to drink" proved to be four 16-ounce cans of beer, and it was only when he returned to the car with it that he asked me if I minded.

"Not as long as you don't get drunk and crazy," I said.

"Naw, naw, I'm a good drunk."

And he was. I'll go ahead and tell you right now, so you won't think later that I misled you, that this story isn't leading up to some violent or terrifying crisis. But of course at this point I didn't know what to expect.

He was very talkative, and I got more nervous when he mentioned another prison stay, this one at a sort of low-security camp which he considered much superior in the way of food and general atmosphere. At some point in relation to this second sentence I asked him what he'd been in for. Either he didn't notice the question--which is possible, because he didn't stop talking very often--or he didn't want to answer it, and I didn't repeat it.

He talked and talked. He was not unintelligent, and he was interested in many things.

"Tell me something. What's your theory of how the Grand Canyon was created?"

I admitted that I hadn't formulated one of my own. But he had: he thought an earthquake had released vast quantities of water from beneath the surface of the earth, carving, or blasting out, the canyon in one sudden cataclysm. He explained the tides as being caused by the magnetism of the moon pulling on dissolved metals in the oceans.

He talked about why he needed to get to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: for a court appearance, regarding a matter of battery on an officer of the law--"I might have nudged him a little when he was shoving me into the back of the car." He told me about his deceased wife, and his daughter of whom he thought the world, of various incidents on various jobs. I didn't know whether to believe it all, but it was certainly interesting. He discussed his sex life in extremely crude detail, which combined with the smell to make me feel that I might lose my own appetite in that regard.

The time passed fairly quickly. I suppose he rode with me for three hours altogether. By the time we were thirty or forty miles from Mobile Bay it had come out in conversation that I lived on the eastern shore and needed to return my rental car there. I told him I would take him on into Mobile and asked where he would like to get out.

"Aw, you don't have to do that."

"It's no problem. It's just another half hour or so over and back and I've got plenty of time."

"Well, I would sure appreciate it."

His talk at this point, three beers on, was getting even more lively and rambling. As we got onto the bay bridge, he started talking about the tunnel. The tunnel is on the west side of the bay. The bridge is six or seven miles long, and at the west end takes a sudden downturn into a tunnel which goes under the Mobile River. It is definitely not meant for pedestrians--there aren't supposed to be any pedestrians on the interstate. There is a bit of a walkway for emergencies, but it's very narrow, with only a rail to hold onto and nothing between you and the traffic--always including a good number 0f 18-wheelers--flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour a few feet away. It would be terrifying to negotiate on foot.

"I hate that g*dd**n tunnel. F***ing hate it. There ain't nowhere to walk."

He got more and more agitated. I told him I had a friend who was the same way about bridges.

"I don't mind bridges. But a tunnel is just not natural. Down in a hole in the ground, with a f***ing river right over your head."

And finally, as we entered the tunnel, it seemed that he was genuinely terrified, as if it had been the mouth of hell. "See what I mean? See?!? Where can you walk?!?" And then just "G*dD**N" over and over.  He was clutching the arm rest, and then he was clutching my arm, repeating "DAMN."


But then we were out, and he rejoiced. He began to laugh, and to thank me profusely.

"You've gone above and beyond, Mac. I really do appreciate it," he said several times. I asked again where he would like to get out. "It don't matter. Long as I'm through that damn tunnel, it don't matter."

So I stopped at the Texas Street exit. While he was gathering his things he kept talking, repeating his appreciation, and I kept telling him I just knew that if I was walking along that highway I would be glad to have a ride. He thanked me for letting him drink, "even though you're a religious man," which was odd because I'd said nothing about religion and there was no sign of it in the car--no Bible, no pamphlets, no books, no rosary. 

 We talked a bit more. I gave him what cash I had, which wasn't very much, and then remembered I had some beef jerky and some trail mix, and I gave him that, too. He was really happy to have the jerky. He had one beer left and he took that. He courteously crushed the empties and was going to take them with him but I told him not to worry about it, I would get rid of them. And we took our leave, shaking hands.

"I hope you get where you're going and don't have to stay there," I said: if the court appearance didn't go well he would end up in the Breaux Bridge jail.

"Amen," he said, "me, too." He squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye for a long time and said, "I know I'm going to be safe, because there must be a hundred people praying for me."

"Well, I'll make it a hundred and one."

He looked at me a little longer. "Let me show you something," he said, and started rummaging in his backpack. Well, here it is, I thought.  Here comes the gun, and he's going to explain why he didn't rob and shoot me, or maybe even do it now.

"Where is it?" He pulled out a battered paperback Bible. "This is my sword. I don't go nowhere without it."

We shook hands again, and I left him there near the off-ramp, driving off with a very mixed set of thoughts and feelings. My most immediate reaction was relief that my anxieties had been proven unnecessary. And you will have surmised that there was more than a little self-congratulation: how generous I had been; how kindly I had treated this near-derelict; how pleased God must be by my virtue, perhaps even more pleased than I. 

But both these were crowded out pretty quickly by the knowledge that I could have done more. I could have offered to take him all the way to Breaux Bridge--it was Friday, and I didn't have to be at work the next day. I could have offered to put him up for the night and given him something better to eat than a packet of jerky and a handful of nuts and raisins. I could have made him a continuing part of my life, giving him a hand now and then, instead of being anxious to be rid of him. And if I could have done more, I should have. 

Common sense argues: no, you did enough. You can't be expected to disrupt your life, or give away too much of your money. There are thousands of people like Don; what would happen if you tried to help them all as you think you should have helped him? Your own substance, spiritual and material, would soon be exhausted. 

But someone else counters:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

(I don't in any way intend to say that one is always obligated to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact I would say that a woman alone is generally obligated not to. I speak only of my own conscience and of this one episode.)

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.

Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.

These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.

The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.

 In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.

In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.

I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."

At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.

The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:

To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.

Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.

Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's  not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.

I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):

How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher

These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?

(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)

Sunday Night Journal — November 11, 2012

 A Litany of Election Complaints

I have to do this, but when I'm done I plan to abstain from talking about politics at least until the turn of the year. I'm also going to limit, if I can, the amount of time I spend reading political news and commentary. And if I can't limit it, I'll have to give it up entirely. It is not in any way productive for me to occupy my mind so extensively and so irritatingly with something I can't do anything about.


Four more years of President Saruman.


So my friend Robert was right. In 2008, and for a couple of years following, I viewed Obama as a fairly benign figure. Although I didn't support him, I didn't see him as being nearly as dangerous as, for instance, Hillary Clinton. I took his conciliatory rhetoric as being sincere. And, like millions of people, I liked the idea of a mixed-race president and hoped his election would help us get past our racial divisions. But Robert insisted all along: "This guy is bad news." How right he was.


And speaking of being right, I posted this on Facebook a day or so after the election: 

One of the difficulties of being a pessimist is that you're always hoping you're wrong. One of the satisfactions is that you're so often right.

Boy, was I ever right about Obamacare:

To attempt to impose a single national system on the whole country is folly. And I don’t mean just the euphemistically-named “single payer” system, but any system which is managed by the government. Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.


None of this stuff this time around; no "not my choice, but my president." We've had four years to take the measure of the man and of his governance, and there is no point in pretending that he is not doing harm to the nation. Only in the very broadest sense--a bromide such as "We all want what's best for the country"--can I claim to wish anything but frustration for the president in most of what he wants to do. I suppose there might be some common ground on straightening out our fiscal problems, if that's even possible. But he doesn't seem greatly interested in that.


When George W. Bush was president, I read a comment from an anonymous "insider," the sort of thing that always turns up in news stories about big-time politicians: "A lot of people seem to have this image of Bush as not very smart, but a nice guy. Neither is true." Something similar might be said of Obama, with the second part reversed: people think he's very smart, and a nice guy. Neither is true. Sure, Obama is smart in some ways: he seems to be politically shrewd, and he is able to talk the way people who think of themseves as being distinguished by their intelligence talk. But I see no depth of intelligence in him, and certainly no wisdom. And as for the "nice guy" part: only his dazzled fans, and I mean "fans" in exactly the same sense that I would use it of any celebrity's fans, could continue to believe it. Anyone not similarly dazzled can see that he conducted at least as vicious and demagogic a campaign as any in memory, and that when he speaks of unity he means that everyone should do as he says.


E.J. Dionne begins his column on the election by noting that Obama voters were "younger, highly diverse, and broadly progressive." True enough, I suppose, at least if you use "diverse" in its current euphemistic racial sense, and at any rate consonant with the picture liberals like to paint: Obama's opponents are older, predominantly white and presumptively at least mildly racist, and hopelessly intent on turning back the clock. What is most significant here, though, is what Dionne doesn't say, and which progressives will rarely admit: progressivism is a fundamentally anti-Christian movement. I know, Dionne is a Catholic, and there is such a thing as Catholic progressivism, but progressivism is still in its essence an ideology that looks to displace religion, and especially Christianity, with a vision of purely material happiness. There is never any advantage in pretending that unpleasant facts are not facts, and while Christians shouldn't be reactionary in defending whatever progressivism attacks, or vice versa, and certainly shouldn't be hysterical or paranoid, we should be clear about the situation.


Most liberals commenting on the election have made much of the defeat of white males by racial minorities and "women," by which they mean single and Democratic women--they don't like to notice that married women went for Romney and generally tend to vote for Republicans. The observation that a majority of white people voted for the white man usually carries at least an insinuation of racism, and is followed by a note of triumph that power is being wrested from these bad people. This sort of thing is the most poisonous aspect of Obama's presidency. In fairness it must be said that Obama has not done so much of it himself (but think of how a white politician would have fared if he had referred to someone as "a typical black person" in almost any context). But his supporters have been relentless with it, and he hasn't repudiated the tactic. One wonders whether they consciously intend to foment racial conflict, or just can't think in any other terms.

At any rate, they are playing with fire. It has been the assumption since the 1960s that all ethnic groups except whites should band together and seek the advantage of their own people, that this in fact is and should be their chief political interest. Whites were expected to accept this on the assumption that they would always be dominant and must be forced to move over and give space to others, and anyway they owed payment for the sins of their ancestors. And they were not expected to react in kind. Now we are treated to frequent happy reports that whites are soon to be a minority, and last week saw all right-thinking people united in the prospect of their becoming ever less dominant politically. It's madness to think that you can single out a group of people for historical hostility, celebrate its decline and diminishment, and expect it not to begin defending itself. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.


It's not that life changed from Tuesday to Wednesday, not that I expect that in the next few years Homeland Security (thank you, George W. Bush) will start rounding up Catholics as enemies of the state. But the HHS mandate may become, like Luther's assertion of his 95 theses, the symbolic reference point for a great historical change.

If I remember correctly, a short piece called "A Wind of Lies" was my contribution to the first issue of Caelum et Terra.

...many of the goods offered to us, are produced by a system, and for reasons, which most of us instinctively feel to be dreary at best. And so the advertisers make up stories which they hope we will like better—they show us Mr. Kraft in a horse-drawn wagon delivering cheese on a sunny morning, or a white-haired old lady baking bread in a wood-burning oven.

This election may be seen, many years from now, a point for marking the transition of the republic which had been the United States of America something else. Our structures are being hollowed out, their substance removed, and the shell left in place over a new reality. The Constitution and much of the language of the unwritten culture that surrounded it will remain, like the picture of Mr. Kraft and his wagon, while the real machinery is something altogether different.


It's often said that in the United States a movement for greater personal freedom always wins against any attempt to restrain it. And that's generally true, but Christianity is an exception. If it's a high school valedictorian praising Jesus in her speech, or a cross on public land, or a Christian student group at a university, the Christian will be treated as the aggressor to be resisted, though there may not even be any actual person who can plausibly be considered a victim. These scuffles don't usually amount to much, although their cumulative cultural effect is great.

But the HHS mandate that Catholic employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacents is in a different league entirely. I know a lot of Catholics don't think this is a big deal, but I think it is, because it establishes in law (or at least regulation, which, as a consequence of the hollowing-out referred to above, is practically the same as law) that the state has the right to force the Church to do something contrary to its own teachings.  Another Facebook remark I made some months ago: "Freedom of religion vs. free birth control. In 21st century America, the outcome is in doubt."

If it were merely a single act by a single administration, I would not be so concerned. But it's a regulation promulgated under a law of which we are unlikely to rid ourselves. The chances of doing so under a Republican president were not great, but now they're zero.


Of course Mitt Romney was in many ways a very unattractive candidate, and it was very easy to demonize him. Perhaps someone else might have been able to beat Obama, but I doubt it was any of the Republicans who ran against Romney. And he had the media against him.

As for the media--meaning the still-dominant big commercial media including the TV networks except Fox, the big-city newspapers, the general hive of like-minded journalists, and, maybe most influentially, the cloud of pop semi-journalistic babble that surrounds journalism proper--they have simply become a part of the Democratic establishment, and functioned as an arm of the Obama campaign. Self-styled referees in the game of politics, they have shamelessly intervened in favor of one team, sticking out a foot to trip a Republican runner, or spotting the ball ten yards ahead of where a Democrat was tackled.  They have the respect they deserve.


Slow decline or quick collapse due to our trillions of dollars in debt? There's no way to know, but what is extremely unlikely is quick renewal. If renewal possible, will be slow, because the problem is far deeper than politics. 


These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

--John 16:33 (KJV)


Sunday Night Journal — November 4, 2012

Election Eve Thoughts: Which Is To Be Master?

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

I really didn't want to write about politics again, but with election hysteria at its height I'm having difficulty putting much thought into other things. Never have I been so tempted to turn this into a mostly-political blog, or to start another one for that purpose.

As a rule I don't think the presence of a Republican or a Democrat in the White House represents any sort of fundamental shift in our situation, because presidents have less power than many people seem to believe. (That belief itself may be indicative of a deep-down longing to be ruled by a wise king, which longing is in turn an accurate intuition about fundamental reality, though not necessarily a good way to approach here-and-now political arrangements.) But this election is a little different, because of the Obama adminstration's attack on religious liberty. Not everyone, even among practicing Catholics, thinks this is terribly serious, but I think it is very serious indeed, by far the most important thing at stake in the election. I am no fan of Mitt Romney or the Republicans, but this is a choice, as usual, between an unreliable ally and an enemy, and the enemy's intention is to institutionalize the "dictatorship of relativism" which Benedict XVI has spoken of.

I really have not turned into an end-times nut, either. Nor am I getting lost in paranoia about dark forces operating as secret puppet-masters in politics. But I have not been able to put out of my mind the thoughts I was mulling over a few weeks ago about the presence of the anti-Christ in our time.

To a great extent the opposition now facing the Church is simply the old familiar trio of world, flesh, and devil, varying their tactics to suit the times. But there seems an element of something more now, and it's bound up with our wealth, our technology, the size and intrusiveness of our government, and its deployment as the vanguard and enforcer of consciously post-Christian principles.

The point that a post-Christian society is not the same as one which was never Christian has been made pretty often over the past century or so, and one of the major differences between them is that the post-Christian one believes it knows what Christianity is, and regards it as an enemy. This accounts for, to pick one example, the fact that many Western liberals are far more sympathetic to Islam than to Christianity. Contemporary secular liberals view Christianity as a deposed despot who still threatens them. 

Secular liberalism is a faith--it was called "secular humanism" in the early days of the culture wars, though the term has fallen out of fashion now.  Perhaps post-Christianism would be a better term, because it retains deep habits of mind formed by Christianity, most importantly the idea of salvation. It commands us to forget God and to seek our salvation in this world. It expects the state to be lifted up and to draw all things to itself.  It has its own list of works of mercy, which sometimes echoes and sometimes contradicts the Christian set, but these are mainly to be performed by the state or its contractors (e.g. Planned Parenthood). It has its beloved creed and hymn in John Lennon's "Imagine." And the most significant aspect of the current presidential campaign is that the incumbent administration is attempting to settle the question of Which shall be master? once and for all in favor of this post-Christian faith.

This curious place called the United States of America, land of extremes and contradictions, is both a progenitor and a natural enemy of the new faith; there seems to be more fight left in the older ways of thinking here, though they have undergone strange mutations. It may seem odd to think of anarchic American evangelicalism as a defender of traditional faith, but in important ways it often is.

What makes this different from the old conflict between Caesar and Christ is that Caesar is now in a much more powerful position: he can go a lot further toward making his subjects comfortable in this world, toward providing them with what he believes to be the good life, but his definition of the good life as well as his means of achieving it place him at odds with the Church. And so the Church must be put in its place, its claim not only of moral authority but of the right to moral influence in public matters denied. It is this recurring image of a pleasant earthly regime which can be sustained only by the supression of the Church that makes me think of anti-Christ.  

The thought pushed itself back into the forefront of my attention one day last week when I was reading the "Brave Thinkers" feature in the November issue of The Atlantic. I've remarked at least once here that there is always at least one thing in every issue of this magazine that makes me want to cancel my subscription, and at least one that makes me want to keep it. I don't think this issue passes that second test, so maybe it really is time for me to dump the magazine. Many of their "brave" "thinkers" do not strike me as particularly brave, and many of them are included for their actions, not for their thinking, like the Saudi woman who struck a blow for women's rights by driving a car. The genuinely brave ones are those who, like this woman, have defied oppressive regimes. Many of the others have simply said or done things that got them criticized by The Atlantic's list of internal enemies: Christians, the Catholic Church, and anyone who believes that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman and normally produces children.

The Atlantic is essentially a magazine by and for well-to-do secular liberals for whom total sexual freedom is a dogma. And so this list of "brave" "thinkers" is interesting for what it says about those who did the selecting. What's really striking is the proportion of them who are notable only for having challenged or at least irritated those who deny that dogma. Of the twenty-one "thinkers," six or seven are there only because they either made some statement in support of the dogma or against the Catholic Church, which of course is the most formidable opponent of the dogma. (The number is six if you don't count the praise of Chief Justice Roberts for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, which is the tool now being used by liberalism to settle permanently the question of who is to rule.) So roughly a third of the entries on the list are there only for their service to sexual liberation. (The traditional and professed concern of liberalism for the poor is not in evidence.)

One way of looking at the culture war is that it is the final and public disintegration of the American attempt to pretend that the state can remain entirely neutral about first principles. The usual argument for the HHS mandate involves a conjectured absurdity: "Suppose there's an employer who belongs to a sect that approves no medical treatment beyond the application of leeches, and objects to paying for insurance involving medical doctors?" (The real answer to this is that the employer shouldn't be supplying the insurance in the first place, but that's another discussion entirely.) This line of argument assumes that there is no difference in kind between the sect's view and the Church's. It maintains the fiction of a religously-neutral but extremely powerful state which pretends to treat all beliefs the same, and avoids confronting the question of whether every imaginable view deserves equal consideration. We Catholics assert that the Church's teaching is objectively an intellectually respectable and morally serious position. Such a view is met with cries of "What is truth?!", and is ipso facto out of court in the secular intellectual environment; it is not an admissible argument.

Like the mandate, the push for same-sex "marriage," which has become a core principle of the Democratic party, has forced the issue; the state will decide what the word "marriage" is to mean, at least in public, and require those who disagree with its definition to go along with it, at least in public. And this implies that a number of related words must also be redefined or eliminated: "husband," "wife," "mother," "father," as is reportedly now the official state policy for government documents in France. This is an attempt to reshape by force fundamental human realities. If successful, it could not last indefinitely, but it could certainly do a great deal of harm while it did last. No one should be under the illusion that the defeat of President Obama would constitute any sort of permanent victory in this conflict, but it still seems to me a battle worth winning.

(You can see The Atlantic's list of "Brave" "Thinkers" here. My posts about politics and anti-Christ are the Sunday journals for September 9 and September 16. I did not re-read them before writing this one, and I probably should have; apologies for any repetition.)

Sunday Night Journal — October 28, 2012

An Opportunity Not Just Missed But Thwarted

What was noticeable from the start was that no evidence was produced in support of this accusation; the thing was simply asserted with an air of authority. And the attack was made with a maximum of personal libel and with complete irresponsibility as to any effects it might have on [race relations].

But so long as no argument is produced except a scream of "Racist]!" the discussion cannot even begin.... In such circumstances there can be no argument; the necessary minimum of agreement cannot be reached. What purpose is served by saying that [Obama's opponents] are [racist]? Only the purpose of making serious discussion impossible. It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched. Libel settles nothing.

The two preceding passages are from Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, except that the terms in brackets have been substituted for, in order: "the war," "Trotsky-Fascist", "men like Maxton," and "in Fascist pay." Orwell is describing the Communist attack on those of the Left who wanted a thoroughgoing revolution in Spain. When I read the pages from which these extracts are taken, I was struck by their applicability to the treatment of President Obama's opponents by many of his supporters.

The two accusations are similar not only in their tactics but in their import, which is the charge of being in league with some malignant conspiracy. As the term "racism" is wielded by the left, it encompasses everything from the mildest negative impression to membership in the Ku Klux Klan. And to charge someone with racism is to charge him not with some sort of personal fault but with the active intention of oppressing black people (or "people of color" in general). Until recently it has been the most poisonous of political accusations; it may still be, though it has been weakened by excessive and trivial use.  

One of the hopes for Barack Obama's presidency, shared even by many of those who did not vote for him, was that it would improve race relations simply because it happened, constituting proof of immense progress since the days of segregation. That there was some racially-based opposition to Obama as a presidential candidate, I have no doubt, nor that there is racially-based hostility to him as president. But there was also, early on, a general wave of good will which included many who opposed him, typified by the sign I saw here in very Republican Alabama: "Not my choice, but now my president." (I posted about it here.) Even those who were worried about his views and his qualifications were pleased to see that it was possible for the country to elect a man of mixed African and American ancestry who, according to the peculiar racial logic in place here, is classified as "black." We hoped that even if he pursued policies we thought wrong (as seemed likely--otherwise we would have voted for him) there would at least be some benefit to the nation in a lessening of racial hostility.

But exactly the opposite has happened, because so many of Obama's supporters chose to treat any opposition to him as evidence of racism. Whether they really believe this or simply find it politically useful doesn't matter. What matters is that they have done it from the time Obama became a candidate until right now, and it has had its effect. It has encouraged blacks to believe that anyone who opposes Obama wants to oppress them. It has infuriated whites who feel themselves falsely accused. It has prepared the way for a permanent escalation of racial hostility and paranoia, especially in the event that Obama fails to win a second term: his loss will be taken as a victory for racism. 

I'm used to hearing all this as a general charge against conservatives, of course. But I recently had the accusation made directly to me, and it was pretty startling. I avoid getting into political debates on Facebook, and have generally regretted it when I've broken that rule. One of my "friends," someone I knew years ago but haven't seen since around 1990, is a very vocal Obama supporter. A couple of weeks ago he posted his discovery that the doctrines of Mormonism are seriously at odds with those of anything resembling orthodox Christianity, and wondered if the "fundamentalist Repubs" were aware of this, and if so how they could vote for Romney. Against my better judgment, but inclined to defend fundamentalists against inaccurate or unreasoned attacks, I commented that evangelicals in general are very aware of the religious difference, but nevertheless believe that Romney would be a better president than Obama. I thought this an inoffensive observation. Someone else added a rambling comment to the effect that he didn't see why there would be a problem. I was startled by the next one, from a person completely unknown to me, which I quote in full  exactly as it appeared:

translation of last 2 teabilliy comments" Better the Devil than the N"

"Teabilly" was a new term to me; I take it to be a portmanteau of "Tea Party" and "hillbilly." "N" obviously stands for "nigger." 

I didn't respond--what would have been the point? But the incident brought home to me just how unreasoned and malicious the tactic can be: the fellow not only accused evangelicals of an intense hatred of black people, but included me in the charge, when I hadn't even mentioned my own views. This is a crude instance of the basic tactic used reflexively by many on the left. When the Tea Party appeared, it was immediately branded as racist, on the basis of flimsy and questionable evidence, by the usual illiberal techniques of emphasizing, exaggerating, and attributing to every member of a group the faults of the worst instance available.

And of course sheer audacious and unsupported assertion goes a long way in these efforts. I recall another Facebook "friend" quoting Anthony Bourdain on Tea Party racism, with the comment "No wonder I like Anthony Bourdain so much." I had no idea who Anthony Bourdain was, or what might be the source of his authority on the subject. It turned out that he is "a chef, author, and television personality," clearly not someone to be taken lightly when he speaks on politics. I could multiply examples at great length. Some are laughable to almost anyone not disoriented by political passion, like the MSNBC commentator who found racism in a joke about the amount of time Obama spends playing golf.

The basis of what I'm tempted to call this tragedy is that we have suffered the misfortune of having as our first black president a man with views well to the left of much of the country. In current political topography, a majority or a very large minority of Americans are center-right, and Obama is significantly further to the left, with evidence that he would be much further in that direction if it were politically feasible. There is a lot of opposition to his policies, and his supporters have chosen to encourage racial resentment as one of their tools for defeating that opposition. Chosen: it needn't have been this bad. The election of our first black president has been the occasion not for unity but for further division.

It is true that libel does not settle an argument of fact. But it is not without effect. Obama's supporters have managed to increase black hostility to whites, by telling the former that most of the latter are racist, and to anger whites who do not support Obama by libelling them. If you hate Jones you may succeed in making Smith your ally by assuring him that Jones is plotting against him. The question of fact is almost irrelevant when the settlement sought is the social destruction of Jones.

Sunday Night Journal — October 21, 2012

George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia

This is Orwell's account of the six months or so that he spent in Spain fighting, or intending to fight, or recovering from fighting, on the Republican side of the Civil War. (In case your history is as hazy as mine, that was the side of the left-wing government, in opposition to the right-wing forces of HomageToCatalonia Franco.) He puts the Catholic reader in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with a soldier in a cause devoted to the destruction of the Church, and who is at very best indifferent to the killing of Catholics, including priests and nuns, and the demolition and desecration of churches. Moreover, he is more or less universally and justly acknowledged to be a great truth-teller and an important writer; he can't simply be dismissed as an unprincipled leftist.

One approach is to treat the book as the work of art that it is. Reasonably classifiable as journalism and memoir, it transcends the former category because it remains, three-quarters of a century after its initial publication, interesting for its own sake and not only as a document of its time. When the Spanish Civil War has become a bit of history of little contemporary relevance, Homage to Catalonia will still be read by non-historians. One need know little of the larger circumstances of the war, or of its rights and wrongs, to be interested in the events recounted and the man recounting them. It is a straighforward narrative of the author's experience, and its simple unornamented prose may appear at first glance to be merely functional, but such clarity and easy flow don't happen by accident.

Orwell's position as an Englishman among Spaniards makes for an engaging perspective. He is in many ways an almost stereotypical Englishman, or rather a certain kind of Englishman, one of the imperial and military sort, which by birth and early training he was: practical, orderly, at once impatient and indulgent of the foibles of the natives: "As usual, Spanish standards of marksmanship had saved me." He speaks of fear and danger with classic reserve, detachment, and understatement:

The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detal.

Having been shot and believing he was bleeding to death, he says:

My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.

Although he was on the front lines for some months, the situation was something of a stalemate, with Republican and Nationalist positions separated by hundreds of yards and engaged mainly in desultory and ineffective sniping and shelling. There is in fact only one instance of real close combat in the story, one in which he remembers calling out to someone "This is war! Isn't it bloody?" Mostly his experience at the front consisted of boredom, cold, lice, and filth, all of which he renders very vividly. Taken simply as a well-written memoir, the book is worth reading.

HomageToCataloniaFlowerAnd the Catholic can also take it as history, and as a testimony to the situation of the Church in Spain (and probably in all of Catholic Europe) with regard to the working class. How did it come about that the institution which ought to have worked to aid and protect the poor was, in the eyes of those same poor, so often seen as a tool of the oppressor? I suppose it must in fact have been, at least to some extent, and a scandalous extent, the tool of the oppressor. Orwell says little directly about this, but what he does say is revealing:

It struck me that the people in this part of Spain must be genuinely without religious feeling--religious feeling, I mean, in the orthodox sense. It is curious that all the time I was in Spain I never once saw a person cross himself; yet you would think such a movement would become instinctive, revolution or no revolution.... To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.

Never once? That's hard to believe, and yet there is no reason to think that Orwell is not telling the truth. He also remarks on the almost complete lack of religious texts and symbols on gravestones which long pre-date the revolution. At any rate it is not surprising that this close association of the Church and an oppressive social order helped to produce the over-reaction of liberation theology.

In immediate-post-revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell found an egalitarian society which he found greatly attractive: everyone dressed more or less alike, no one bowed or cringed before anyone else, and a genuine sense of community cooperation seemed to be the organizing principle. This did not last long, of course, and the Catholic reader is likely to suspect that it could not have lasted long, mankind being what it is.

But the specific causes which brought about the end had a lasting influence on Orwell, and are still significant today. The latter part of the book relates the intramural fighting on the left which resulted in the POUM ("Workers' Party of Marxist Unification") with which Orwell was affiliated being purged, and Orwell himself making a hasty dash for England a few steps ahead of the police.  In brief, what happened was that the international Communist party, controlled by the Russians, took steps to suppress the revolutionary parties in Spain, because a thoroughly entrenched and thoroughly socialist government there was not at the time in the best military interests of the Soviet Union. Suddenly a propaganda campaign painted Orwell's confederates as "Trotskyists," no better than actual Fascists, and people began to disappear. The bold and shameless lying by which this was effected made a deep impression on Orwell, and is a clear influence on his later work.

Like many an Anglo-American leftist before him, Orwell wanted to take refuge in the law. 

All the while, though I was technically in hiding, I could not feel myself in danger. The whole thing seemed too absurd. I had the ineradicable English belief that 'they' cannot arrest you unless you have broken the law. It is a most dangerous belief to have during a political pogrom.

But the law of Spain, much less the law of revolutionary Spain, was not the law of England. I was reminded of the words spoken by someone or other in A Man for All Seasons: "This is not Spain." And further, of More's speech in the same play, to someone who would dispense with the law to get at the Devil:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake! 

This notion of law is not universal; it is one of the greatest things in the Anglo-American tradition, and we are in danger of losing it at the hands of people who are interested only in results--but that's a topic for another day.

Homage_cataloniaOrwell's brand of socialism seems to have been benign and perhaps romantic: decentralized and democratic. I suppose he had read Chesterton, and I wonder what he thought of him. I sometimes suspect that the promising political movements promoted by such literary dreamers are doomed always either to be crushed or betrayed by the hard-headed, hard-hearted men who are most capable of seizing and using power. 

A personal footnote: somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago I met a young man who spoke with pleasurable anticipation of killing Catholics, simply because they are Catholic. My best guess is that this was Christmas of 1999, because we spoke of the then-recent riots in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization; I forget whether he had participated in them or only praised them. He was related by marriage to one of my cousins, and was at this family gathering more or less by accident, so I've never seen him again and can't remember his name. I made conversation with him, and drew him out on the subject of his revolutionary beliefs. He said it would be necessary to kill the enemies of the people, such as Catholics. I pressed him on that point--"Really? All the Catholics"--and he retreated a bit.

"Well, not the ordinary Catholics. Just the priests."


"Because they're oppressing the people." 

What form he believed this oppression took, I don't know. I think I told him I was Catholic, but I can't remember for sure, because we were interrupted soon after that point in the exchange. He was, I would guess, in his late twenties at the time, so he would be forty or so by now, and I wonder if he still thinks killing all the priests, at least, would be a good idea.


Sunday Night Journal — October 14, 2012

Some Old Movies

I've been a little surprised over the past ten years or so to hear young people apply the term "old movie" to movies made as recently as the 1980s or mid-1990s. It makes perfect sense, of course, from their point of view. Or for that matter from a fairly neutral point of view: in movie industry terms, twenty years is a pretty long time. But for me an "old movie" is one that was old when I was young, which is to say, something made before roughly 1960. Here are notes on a few such that I've seen over the past month or so.

Some Like It Hot

Although I grew up in the time when "Marilyn Monroe" was as much a synonym for "sex symbol" as "Cadillac" was for "luxury car," I don't think I'd ever actually seen one of her movies in its entirety. I was only thirteen or fourteen when she died, so she was no longer an active screen presence when I was a young man, and of course in those days, when a movie had run the course of its release, it wasn't seen again unless it happened to turn up on late-night old-movie shows. Perhaps I saw bits and pieces, but I really can't recall an entire movie.

Some Like It Hot is apparently regarded as one of her best performances, and seems to be considered a classic even apart from that. I've run across extremely enthusiastic references to it over the years, and therefore had high expectations when I sat down to watch it a few weeks ago.

So it's certainly not prejudice that causes me to report a decided lack of enthusiasm for it. At best I would put it in the "somewhat amusing" class. I had no idea at all what it was about, but if I had known, my expectations would have been much lower. Some people seem to find men dressing up as women one of the funniest things in the world, but I am not one of them. I find it a little creepy; at best it gets an occasional mild chuckle from me. The plot of Some Like It Hot involves Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as small-time musicians who witness a gangland murder and flee for their lives by dressing as women and joining an all-"girl" band, which features a seductive (to say the least) singer named Sugar Kane, played by Monroe (obviously). Naturally the boys fall for Sugar, and are fallen for by men, and all sorts of complications ensue. 

I won't say it's badly done, and I didn't hate it, but...well, as I said, "somewhat amusing" is about the best I can do.

But Marilyn:  she was a bit of a revelation. Now I understand what all the fuss was about. She plays a stock, stereotypical dumb-but-sexy-blonde, but there's something about her that transcends the role. Yes, she's a bombshell (and platinum blondes are not my type), and the character is a drunk who has lived with a series of no-good men, but in spite of that there seems something sweet and innocent about her, as if the sleazy life she's lived has not really touched her soul. You want to take her away from all that and protect her. Whether this has much relation to the real Marilyn I don't know, but if it does then I can see why a decent man like Joe DiMaggio kept trying to save her, even after their marriage had collapsed, and why he continued to behave like a gentleman toward her long after her death, until his own, after which we can hope they have had a happy meeting.


Strangers On A Train

This is a fairly early Alfred Hitchcock, which, like Some Like It Hot, most people who have any great interest in movies have probably seen. This was my first viewing, and although I doubt I'll ever watch it again, the experience was the reverse of the above: I had low expectations, which were exceeded. I have generally thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat greater than is justified. Not that I've disliked his work, but I didn't quite see why he is held in such high regard. I think I liked Rear Window best of the ones I've seen. And maybe I Confess, which was made around the same time as Strangers.

Two men meet on a train. Both have domestic difficulties and would like to be free of the person causing the difficuly: one is a tennis player who wants a divorce from his cheating wife, the second a rich young man who wants to get his domineering father out of the way and take possession of the family fortune. The rich young man suggests that they agree to murder each other's Inconvenient Person. The tennis star, a good man, is horrified and quickly detaches himself from the other. But the rich young man proves to be a psychopath who is not so easily discouraged. 

I think maybe one of the reasons I've thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat exaggerated is that some critics seem to find a depth there that I don't see. But with that expectation put aside, and taking the movies simply as good stories, I greatly enjoyed this one, except that, as with several other Hitchcock works, I found the closing resolution a bit of a letdown after the skillfully-built tension of everything up to that point. 

I'm left with one question: why did Farley Granger, who plays the tennis player, not become a major star? He's handsome and strikes me as a better actor than a lot of leading men of the period. But then he doesn't have a single memorable persona like a lot of the others: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant,

Strangers On A Train-04

Mark of the Vampire

 This is a fairly low-grade installment in the Dracula series, but it's very atmospheric and enjoyable if you like this sort of thing. There's Bela Lugosi, who actually plays a fairly minor role. But the star of the show, vampire-wise, is the Lugosi character's daughter, who looks like her cover job could be singing in a goth-metal band. She doesn't say anything until the very end, but she's a notable presence. And there's Lionel Barrymore as the Van Helsing-type professor who knows all about vampires and guides the struggle against them. And Lionel Atwill as the policeman who doesn't believe all this nonsense. And there's a plot twist that sets it apart from similar films. Like I said, if you like this sort of thing...


Swing Time

I really shouldn't mention this one yet, as I've only seen half of it (my wife and I have taken to watching movies in one-hour segments on weekday evenings, when we'd like to relax for a bit but can't spare time for an entire movie). But this is the second time I've seen it, and I already know what I think about it. It's a Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers dancing romance, and many say it's the best of that lot. I don't know about that, but, to speak again of "this sort of thing," I find it hard to imagine that it gets much better than this. 

And I'm mildly astonished, if that makes sense, that I like this sort of thing. At twenty or thirty I probably would have scoffed at it. At forty I might only have been bored. At fifty I had begun to see the appeal, and now I find it entirely delightful. 

Come to think of it, I remember scoffing at it, sometime in my early twenties: to someone who loved musicals, I said I couldn't quite accept the idea of people suddenly bursting into song and dance in the middle of ordinary life. But that, she replied, was exactly what she liked so much about them. And now I'm much more of her mind. Swing Time doesn't appear to have much to do with the world we live in, but it does: it's the world as it might be, not in heaven, but on some plane considerably nearer to heaven than is the one we inhabit. As on earth, Fred and Ginger must negotiate a series of difficulties, but you know all along that nothing will prove insurmountable, and along the way there will be a great deal of rejoicing, with much more at the end. The Astaire-Rogers dance numbers are an expression of pure joy, not only because of their skill but because the personalities they radiate are so engaging.  

I discovered some years ago that reading P.G. Wodehouse is a wonderful medicine for depression; it's effervescent, like mental champagne. Swing Time has much the same effect.  And what Waugh said of Wodehouse is true of this movie:

Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

 To the Wodehouse comparison I would add one to Mozart. Surely, as long as people are capable of enjoying the lighter works of Mozart, they will be capable of enjoying Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 


Sunday Night Journal — October 7, 2012

What to do? What to do?

I said that to my dog Andy a little while ago, by way of remarking on his confusion and indecision. He is a Bichon Frisé--and no, as I know I've said here before, I never wanted a cute little dog--he came to us more or less by accident. (I started to say "wimpy little dog," but he's actually pretty brave--just the other day he challenged a dog that towered over him and must have weighed seventy pounds, as opposed to his twelve.) And the breed is genetically disposed toward a very strong need to be with people, even stronger than for most dogs. His main activity is to seek my wife or me and settle down to sleep as close to us as possible, preferably in physical contact. He's visibly distressed when we won't stay put. Before I sat down to write this my wife and I were both going about different activities, going to different rooms and perhaps sitting down for a few minutes, long enough for Andy to get settled, then getting up and going somewhere else. Finally he was trotting anxiously back and forth from one to the other of us, with a slightly frantic edge, unable to decide which of us was more likely to be still for a while. 

Anyway, it occurred to me that "What to do?" is the right title for what I had planned to say today. I'm often in a state of mind similar to Andy's, going back and forth among things I want to do, and finding myself unable to stick with any of them for very long.

I've got to make a decision about the future of this blog. "Not again!", some of you will say. "He went off on that tear a few years ago." Well, yes, I did. And those who were reading then may remember that I gave up the Sunday Night Journal for a year, with the intention of focusing on other projects, and that I resumed it after that year because I hadn't made much actual progress on any of them. For a while after resuming the SNJ I made it a weekly chapter in a memoir. For complex reasons I stopped doing that, although the memoir remains a live, if rather neglected, project.

The memoir, in fact, is one of the reasons that I find myself again at the same place I was at in December 2009. (Question for grammar experts: is that sentence grammatically correct?) Without boring you with a lot of details, I have to say that it's become clear that I really must cut down the amount of time I spend online, and that includes the amount of time I spend on this blog. 

I've given serious consideration to the possibility of doing away with it altogether, but I don't think I'll do that. The reason I'm discussing this out loud, so to speak, instead of just deciding what to do and then doing it, is that although I don't have a lot of readers, I really value you, and the conversations we have here. And there is good reason to believe some of you would miss the blog if it weren't there.

At this point those are really my strongest reasons for keeping it going.  I've written enough here over the past eight years (it will be nine in January) that I don't feel the urge to keep producing material as strongly as I did. I could live without that now, but I really don't want to lose the talk. I've often wished that I had a neighborhood bar where I could have a couple of beers and some conversation with similarly-minded people--not identically-minded, but similar enough for good talk. I don't have that, and this serves a somewhat similar purpose.

I've read that blog readership in general has declined over the past few years, and I think part of the reason is Facebook. But although I'm on Facebook, it's not nearly as good a place for conversation as a blog, at least for me. For one thing, it just doesn't work that way. Everything flows into one feed, so that a topic appears, and may get a few comments, but soon is pushed way down or off the page. Just as important, for me, is that Facebook is a place where I have to practice the traditional caution in talking about religion and politics. I have Facebook "friends" with all sorts of views, some of them quite different from mine and held quite heatedly, and I don't want to find myself in unpleasant and unproductive arguments. But nobody comes here unless they want to, and so this entirely public forum seems more private.

 I'd like to know what you think. Two things are pretty clear to me: I do want to keep the blog going, but I have to spend less time on it. So I can't continue the Sunday Night Journal as it is. Among other things, attendance at an Anglican Use Mass in Mobile has seriously reduced the amount of spare time I have on Sundays. And I think that I won't write as many lengthy serious pieces as I have done, at least for a while ("lengthy" in blog terms meaning more than 500 words or so)--not weekly, anyway. 

Would it be better if I post something brief quite frequently, preferably every day or close to it, or that I publish a single weekly miscellany? Or perhaps more substantial posts, like the typical Sunday Night Journal, but at greater intervals? How about subject matter? Should I stick with my original books-music-movies-through-Catholic-eyes theme? Or have more posts on current affairs? I'm sometimes tempted to start another blog devoted entirely to politics and associated matters. I would probably have more readers if I did. But I suspect it is, literally, a temptation: I don't think it would be good for my mental health, possibly not for my soul, because I'd stay even more agitated about that stuff than I already do. And anyway, doing that would probably be even more demanding of my time, because the controversies of the day come and go fairly quickly, and if you don't write about them right away you might as well not bother. Also, I really would rather write things that might still be of interest five or ten or more years from now, which is not true of very much political commentary at all.

I do plan to continue the SNJ through the end of the year, by the way. It's sort of a compulsion.

Sunday Night Journal — September 30, 2012

Where Are The Bumper Stickers?

 One day last week I saw a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker, and I realized it was the first one I'd seen. Since then I've seen, I think, one more, two at most. And then I realized that I haven't been seeing many Obama stickers, either. Most of the Obama stickers I've seen are faded leftovers from 2008, and "Obama 2012" is fairly rare. 

Both these phenomena are quite a change from 2008. I live in a place which has become pretty heavily dominated by the Republicans over the past twenty or thirty years. But there are also a good many diehard and vocal Democrats. In 2000 and 2004 Bush stickers were all over the place, especially those which appeared sometime after the 2000 election: the black squares with the big white "W" and, in smaller print, "The President." Those were popular and recognizable enough to generate imitations and parodies: "S: The Coach" (for Nick Saban); "W: Wine"; and the charming "F: The President."

(A couple of funny stories about that last one: I'm sometimes very slow to catch on to word-play, and the first time I saw this I was in the car with my wife and then-teenaged daughter. I made the mistake of wondering aloud what it meant. They laughed. I still didn't get it. My daughter said something like, "Um, Dad...say it." Pause. "F. The. ...oh."

And the other: I was waiting at an optometrist's office for a new pair of glasses, standing around in their showroom. I can only look at fashionable variations on "eyewear" for so long, so I started watching the customers. A fellow came in whose whole bearing radiated anger: his face seemed to be set in the beginning of a scowl, and there was something tense and hostile in his posture. About that time the technician appeared with my new glasses, and I ended up leaving the store at the same time as Hostileman. He got into a car with the "F" bumper sticker--and a faculty parking tag for the local university.)

In 2008 the wild enthusiasm for Obama produced an unusually large number of stickers for the Democrats, though they were still not as numerous as those for McCain/Palin. I recall wondering how even a staunch Republican could be so enthusiastic about McCain; I suppose it was Palin who created whatever excitement there was for that ticket, in addition to the general hostility to the Democratic Party that is widespread here.

But this year: almost nothing. It's peculiar. The lack of new Obama/Biden stickers is not too surprising, as the enthusiasm for Obama has been badly damaged in a collision with reality. And as for Biden--surely even Democrats are embarrassed by him. But the opposition to them is stronger than ever, fueled by the president's own actions. Even those of us who voted against him but were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, not to mention feeling a certain amount of pride in the fact that the country could elect a mixed-race president, are now decidely antagonistic.  There is no more room for doubt about his intentions. He never meant to be the healer and uniter that he spoke of being, or if he did have the intention he quickly abandoned it. His concept of healing and unity is that everyone should get in line with his program, and those who refuse are be steamrollered to the best of his ability. And as we all know the steamroller is now headed for the Catholic Church. 

I am certain that there is widespread outrage against the Obama administration, opposition at least as intense as there was toward the Clinton administration. I am certain that a great many people have arrived at the same anybody-but-Obama view I have. So why am I not seeing any more public support for  the Romney/Ryan ticket? It's not as if this were a liberal district in the northeast, where openly expressing support for a Republican could invite hostility. It's not that people are intimidated by the possibility of being called racist--they weren't intimidated in 2008. 

The problem, I'm pretty sure, is that Romney is a terribly unappealing candidate. He can't ignite Palin-style fire among "the base," as Republican establishment types apparently refer to the majority of people who actually vote for them. To others, who might or might not vote Republican, depending on the candidate and the issues, he is a walking stereotype of the establishment Republican: a fabulously wealthy man running for office at a time when millions of people have seen their material standard of living decline. Though he and his party attempt to represent him as a successful entrepreneur, the effort is unconvincing because he was less an entrepreneur than a financier and manager. He did not, in the classic mold, develop a useful new product and sell it to the world, but rather bought and sold existing companies. When a company changes hands, it is, to say the least, not always good news for the company and its employees, and so Romney's business success is, to say the most, not entirely of the sort that can be described as "creating jobs." 

Were it not for the fact that he's a Mormon, he would be the sort of old-line WASP for whom the term "country club Republican" was coined. His credentials as a social conservative are mixed. Worse, he has on several occasions confirmed the out-of-touch-rich-guy stereotype. And with most of the media apart from Fox News acting as an arm of the Obama campaign, every such instance is being pounded into the consciousness of people who aren't really paying very close attention, but who may decide the election.

Very few people seem to have any great enthusiasm for him.  He's discouraging even to many of the anybody-but-Obama people, because they fear he would, once in office, actually do very little to undo the damage. And that, I think, is the main reason for the dearth of bumper stickers. 

 Almost exactly four years ago, in the Sunday Night Journal of September 21, 2008, I was critical of the idea that the election of either candidate would dramatically affect the future of the nation. I was mistaken about that election, because I failed to anticipate the passage of Obamacare, aka the laughably misnamed Affordable Health Care Act. Were it not for that, I would be prepared to shrug off this election for the same reasons I gave in that column. But I didn't anticipate the will and power of a Democratic president and a Democratic congress to push through a very dodgy "reform" of the health care system. I hope I'm being overly pessimistic, but so far I have seen nothing to make me question what I wrote about Obamacare in 2009. Arguably the Act is only the latest in a long line of similar constraints, but it may represent some sort of last straw in the process described by De Tocqueville:

Thus, after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Th end of that last sentence seems to be a pretty fair factual description of what contemporary liberalism has in mind.

And I noted, but seem to have underestimated, this factor:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

I didn't foresee that the Democrats would move so quickly to force Catholic employers to subsidize the unacceptable. Leviathan is a jealous God.

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2012

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Some months ago I saw a copy of this priced at fifty cents or dollar at a used book sale, thought "I really should read that sometime," and bought it. Well, I was right about that, more or less: I should have read it a long time ago. But better late than never. 

I'll go straight to my conclusion: anyone who cares about the race problem in America should read this book, for the illumination of both our past and our present. And that's especially true for Southerners, and not only white Southerners. I don't know exactly what I expected from it; I think I had no more than a vague idea that its treatment of the question was considered to be particularly insightful. Well, it is.

Du Bois was of a free black New England family, and he had the education of a 19th century New Englander: the classics, and Harvard. I'm pressed for time this evening, so will leave you in the capable hands of Wikipedia for further biographical information. What's more important for a discussion of the book is the sensibility, and the tools for expressing it, that this background gave him. It's worth reading simply as a work of American literature. The prose style is elaborately poetical, to the point of being florid, full of classical references and extended rhapsodical passages in the 19th century manner. Applied to a lesser subject, it might be considered overblown and sentimental. But it comes across to me more as Whitmanesque, because the matter is so important and the passion of the work so strong. Here, by way of illustration, are the first two paragraphs:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

 There is a fair amount of anger here, which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the breadth of vision and sympathy. I suppose I expected, more or less, a diatribe. But it really isn't that. It is a genuine and, I think, successful attempt to see the situation steadily, and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. The book appeared in 1903, and anger about the slavery of the recent past, and the segregation and oppression of the present are what I would have expected. I did not expect that anger at whites, and especially at the South, would sit alongside genuine sympathy, and a serious attempt to understand what motives beyond sheer brutality and avarice would make them cling to the legal segregation of the races. And I did not expect that natural sympathy with blacks would sit alongside an honest assessment of their failings.

There are no simple caricatures in the book: no devilish white and saintly Negro (that's the term Du Bois uses, and it's very difficult not to follow him in discussing the book.) Du Bois sees real human beings on all sides. Of course he spends more time and sympathy on the subjects of his book, who are moreover his own people. But he does not idealize them. He confronts fairly the charges of laziness, shiftlessness, ignorance, and so forth laid against them by the white world, and makes no attempt to pretend that these don't exist. 

As the 20th century rolled on, Du Bois became a pretty strong sympathizer with Communism, though never actually joining the party until very late in his life. This tempts one to dismiss him, but that would be a serious mistake. He did not attack racial oppression because he saw it as a useful tactic for discrediting capitalism, but because he knew all too well what that oppression really meant and how entrenched it was, and had begun to despair that it would ever change within the existing institutions of American life. He died in 1963, at the age of 93, not quite having lived to see the passage of the legislation that killed legal segregation.

One could wish for more here; one could wish Du Bois had been more informed by Christian tradition and more shaped by Christian spirituality, instead of having an apparently pretty conventional New England skepticism, perhaps somewhere between Unitarianism and atheism, though, like many of his time, he was still heavily and unconsciously influenced by Christian habits of mind and speech. He might have seen more deeply, and further, that education and the "elevation," as he puts it, of the African-American population alone would not be easy, nor sufficient to dissolve the barriers between the races; that is to say, he might have been less hopeful of human nature, and more of supernatural charity. But as a socio-cultural observer he is more than sufficient, and most of what he says is still very relevant:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither will alone bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. 

Du Bois believed that progress for the Negro was mainly a matter of education, of bringing down the barriers that shut him out from opportunity and from "white," i.e. Euro-American, culture. From our vantage point a hundred years on, there is a good deal of pathos in this. What would he have thought of the situation now, when segregation has been in its grave for almost fifty years, yet the educational level of so many blacks has actually declined? And what would he have thought of the catastrophic decline in marriage which followed those longed-for legal victories, when he blamed slavery and segregation for the difficulty of maintaining marriage in the black community, though the percentage of intact black families was then, if his suggestions are correct, actually higher than it now is? What would he think of the predominance of violent and obscene rap as the most visible representative of black culture?

There is hardly a week that goes by here, and in most places in the United States where there is a large black population, that the local news does not include at least one story about a black man (or, all too frequently, a boy of 16 or 17 or even younger) shooting someone, hardly a day without news of some lesser crime. Usually the victim in the shooting is another black man, but sometimes it isn't: there is the young white engineer who was shot dead when he had no money for the robbers who broke into his house, and the white woman who was gunned down in the street because she shouted at a speeding car to slow down. The inevitable result is more fear and prejudice on the one side, more resentment and frustration on the other. Would all this not have broken the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois? 

But maybe that's too gloomy a picture. After all, much progress has been made, and if the black community has not been elevated as Du Bois hoped, it must be admitted that the white community has descended: in the lower socio-economic levels there, the same pathologies exist. 

In any case the words that come near the end of the book remain as true and significant as they were when they were written.

Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song--soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire twohundred yearsl earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our givt of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nathion--we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

No, of course, she certainly would not have been. And no one who really loves this America that actually exists can wish it otherwise.

(The entire text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found online at Project Gutenberg.)

Sunday Night Journal — September 16, 2012

Politics and Anti-Christ (2)

As I said in a sort of disclaimer about last week’s post, the subject was really too big for the work of a few hours. Toward the end I touched on some things that need elaboration, so I’m doing that now. The subject is still too big, but I've covered the main elements of what I’d been thinking about it.

I said the ground had been well-prepared for the anti-Christ. And although one of my main points was that I think the anti-Christ more likely to be a thing of the left than the right—using the terms broadly, to include not just political but social and cultural movements—the right has had at least as much to do with that preparation.

I’m using “the right” here as broadly as possible, and in the American context: the mixture of something that can reasonably be called conservatism with decidedly un-conservative forces like libertarianism, utilitarianism, capitalism, consumerism, and militarism. Though many Christians are part of this “right,” it is not in itself a Christian thing. In recent years many Christians have looked upon it as a defense against secular progressivism, not to mention sharing some of its bad ideas, but the alliance is uneasy and full of contradictions.

I don’t particularly like the term “consumerism”: its meaning is vague, and it’s impossible really to say where a sensible concern for material needs becomes destructive and obsessive grasping for ever more: indoor plumbing and hot water are hardly necessities in any literal sense, but no one in the developed nations views them as luxuries. And if the term does refer to that sort of grasping, it is not a set of ideas but a vice, and no one is advocating it as a principle. Moreover, it’s at best a debatable assertion that modern industrialized societies are any more acquisitive than most in the past have been. What is different is that the combination of industrialism and capitalism has presented us with so much more to acquire, including a sort of feedback system in which the activity of acquiring results in the production of more and better, or at least more desirable. things to acquire.

But yet there is a pathology which has developed in the industrialized world, especially in the United States, and it has no definite name, so consumerism will serve. It tends to take the relationship of the buyer to the seller as a pattern for everything in life. The buyer wants something; the seller wants to provide it, and is in a practical sense obliged to provide it if he wants to stay in business. It’s not in the seller’s interest to think about whether the buyer needs the thing purchased, or what he intends to do with it, or whether it’s good for him: in capitalism at the ideological level the question of the intrinsic worth of what is bought and sold is not to be asked. The buyer’s desire, and the purchaser’s willingness and ability to satisfy it, are the only things to be considered. At the extreme, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” only price. And so we have a huge and entirely legal pornography industry.

This is the point (or one of them) at which right and left impulses converge. Or perhaps one should say it is a common point of origin. At any rate, what we’ve seen emerging over the past 50 years or so in capitalist societies is a view of the person as first and foremost a complex of needs and desires, the satisfaction of which he views as something to which he has a right, as a customer has a right to expect that the buyer offer what he wants. Deep and genuinely human needs, desires which in reality cannot be satisfied in this world, are mixed with mere wishes, whims, and pleasures by what has been called the imperial self. As the imperial self sees things, what it wants is also what it deserves, and has lately become not just what it hopes for but what it expects, and what the world and circumstance are expected to provide. Soon there arises the sense that if these are not provided, someone must be to blame, and something must be done.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m an habitual reader of “Dear Abby.” Just the other day there was a letter from a widow with four teen-aged children. She was considering re-marrying, but her children were very opposed to the idea. Should she or shouldn’t she do it anyway? Well, I don’t know, and I don’t necessarily say she shouldn’t, but she intended to go ahead, and I was struck by her justification for it: “I know I deserve to be happy.” This, I think, is not something that would have been said fifty years ago. It bears the stamp of the combination of popular psychology and new-age spirituality which since 1970 or so has rivaled and infiltrated Christianity in the U.S. Years ago someone writing in the National Catholic Register described it as “America’s evolving religion of self-worship.”

The right may deplore the rise of this sensibility, but it cannot be divorced from the sense of self-indulgence and entitlement produced by capitalism, in which the desire of the consumer is the supreme value.

Simultaneous with this has been the expansion of the reach and power of government, especially the national government. The right has objected to some of this, but makes a notable exception for the military. In the name of defense it has supported placing any amount of money and quite a bit of power in the hands of the military and various security and intelligence agencies. Over the past ten years, with the appearance of the scarily-named Department of Homeland Security and various other anti-terrorism measures, many on the right have begun to have second thoughts about this. The futile “war on drugs” also has a great deal to do with it, especially with the militarization of local police, and I should note that some on the right have been sounding the alarm about that for many years.

For many years most of the right in general assumed that all this military power was truly there only to protect us, and would be used only against our enemies. By the time they begin to consider that its apparatus might one day be used against them by a left-wing government, it was far too late to begin reigning it in.

So. The “prepared ground” I referred to above involves at least two important developments in which the right has been as complicit as the left: a growing number of people who expect to have everything they want as a matter of entitlement, and an extremely powerful central government. (At least some on the right can say that they have opposed other threatening developments: the rise of technology for the direct manipulation of human life, and the tendency for the Constitution to become a dead letter, reinterpreted as meaning whatever a majority of the Supreme Court says it means. And opposition to abortion has been almost entirely a phenomenon of the right.) What remains is for the government to pass into the hands of people who believe they know what’s best for everyone and are willing to use the government’s power, untethered by Constitution, religion, or traditional notions about the character of the nation, to give it to them, whether they want it or not. This last step is one that the right does not aspire to take. But the left is eager for it. They assume that most will want what they promise, which is nothing less than peace, justice, and comfort for all—and that those who don’t—those who cling to outmoded religions, for instance—will have to be pushed aside. And it’s when I come to that thought that I begin to wonder about the anti-Christ.

I feel somewhat embarrassed about even talking about this subject because it attracts so many nuts and fanatics, so many that I think of it as being primarily their territory. But although it has always been a subject of controversy, consisting as it does of little more than hints, it has been a constant presence in Christian thinking from the beginning, and we’re told to watch the signs of the times. I do want to make it clear that I don’t at all claim to have this thing figured out; I’m only voicing suspicions and speculations.

Whether or not any of this has anything to do with the anti-Christ, it is the situation we find ourselves in: on the brink of social and technological transitions which, if carried through as their proponents hope, will lead to a condition for Christians which we can only hope is benign enough to be called marginalization, and not outright persecution.

Sunday Night Journal — September 2, 2012

My Word (A Letter to the Editor)

I'm afraid this isn't going to be of great interest to most people. It's something I've been wanting to do for several months, but couldn't find time for, so I decided to devote to it the time I would ordinarily have spent working on the SNJ. The local paper (the Mobile Press-Register) has a feature called "Your Word" which is a sort of step up from a normal letter to the editor: it can run up to 600 words, and is published as a separate item on the editorial page. I am submitting the following 592 words as a candidate for that feature. It may well be too late for them to want to publish it, having been sparked by a story published three months ago. But it was going to bother me until I wrote it. Better late than never.


Back in June the Register ran a story by Roy Hoffman about Fr. Matthew Venuti, the newly-ordained Catholic priest who is the pastor of a group of Catholics affiliated with the somewhat awkwardly-named Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. As a member of that group, I was happy to see the story. I was, however, a little disappointed that it was focused on the fact that Fr. Venuti is married. Moreover, an exchange of letters over the next few weeks dealt almost entirely with arguments for and against the admission of married men to the Catholic priesthood in general. That is, obviously, an important question. But I want to point out that it’s not what the Ordinariate is about.

The Ordinariate was created by Pope Benedict in 2009, and is intended primarily for Christians of the Anglican tradition who wish to be in full communion with Rome. It allows these Christians to worship as Catholics in a mode to which they are deeply attached: the liturgy based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Anglicanism in this country is of course represented most prominently by the Episcopal Church, and it has a rich and beautiful liturgy

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and much of the language in its worship is drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. After throwing over Christianity in general as an adolescent, I found myself being drawn back to it as an adult, and joined the Episcopal Church. I was surprised and pleased to hear in the Episcopal liturgy the source of many of the things I remembered fondly from the Methodist Church. Over the next few years, however, I began to feel called to the Catholic Church, and was received into the Church in 1981.

But I always missed the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, I pined for it. It is a regrettable but unfortunate fact of history that when Rome decided, after Vatican II, to translate the liturgy into English, the language simply was no longer as rich and powerful as it had been in the 1500s. And the Catholic Church did not have the tradition of congregational singing that had developed in the Protestant churches, so music in Catholic worship has often been pretty thin stuff (though Mobile’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a striking exception, and the situation in general has improved).

This may seem only a matter of aesthetics, and it is, but not only: beauty is important. Worship should touch the heart as well as the mind, and for many people there is nothing that brings the two together more effectively than the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the hymns and chants which are part of the Anglican and indeed general Protestant tradition.

The local “chapter,” so to speak, of the Ordinariate is the Society of St. Gregory the Great, named after the pope who decreed that the Catholic Church in England should be free to worship in a manner suited to its culture. We have Mass—yes, a fully valid Catholic Mass—at St. Mary of the Visitation parish, at the corner of Old Shell and Lafayette on Sundays at 4:30, preceded by Evening Prayer at 4. We are as yet a tiny group, but we feel that we have something good that we want to share. We invite anyone who’s interested to join us: Catholics who are former Anglicans, Anglicans who have wondered about becoming Catholic, and Catholics who are simply curious about the liturgy we love so much.

Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2012

Waiting for the Hurricane

This will be brief, as I've been busy most of the day making preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to be Hurricane Isaac by the time it makes landfall somewhere along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The tropics have been pretty quiet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005--it's hard to believe that's seven years ago now--and we had gotten complacent. Even if these storms end up being relatively mild, they still produce a lot of anxiety, and it's a lot of trouble to get ready for them. You need to move things like patio furniture inside, or tie them down, so they don't end up coming through your window. Lots of people board their windows, but we're going to skip that this time. I hope we don't regret it. We're pretty protected from the wind here, and I always figure the biggest risk is of a tree falling on the house. Hurricane Katrina did send water up to the house, but fortunately not further, so we didn't get flooded. It would have to be a pretty extreme storm for our house to flood or be damaged by a surge, and at this point Isaac isn't expected to be one of those.

Here are a few hurricane-related posts from that period in 2004-2005 when we had Ivan and Katrina and several smaller storms:  Sunday Night Comes On a Tuesday Morning This Week, about waiting for Ivan. You Can't, In Fact, Always Get What You Want, written while waiting for Dennis, which preceded Katrina by six weeks or so. Then, a few weeks later, Not So Calm Before the Storm, written the night before Katrina. And Uneasy In the Aftermath, after Katrina.

I can't find it now, but I'm pretty sure I had a post at some point about how unprepared we were for one of the storms, and how bad it would have been if the storm had not turned out to be relatively mild, and how we had learned our lesson and would be prepared with food, water, flashlight batteries, etc. etc. for the next one. Well, that didn't last. But at least we no longer have the filing cabinets full of family records and important things like insurance policies in the part of the house that's on the side closer to the bay and four feet lower than the rest.

Truffaut: Day for Night

I watched this last weekend. I don't really know much of Truffaut's work. Jules and Jim was a staple of art film screenings in the 1960s, and I think I may have seen it twice. I liked it. I think I may have seen The 400 Blows back then as well, but can't remember for sure, so obviously it didn't make a lasting impression on me if I did. And I saw Stolen Kisses when it was in theaters in the late '60s--yes, there was a theater in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that showed the occasional artsy or foreign film. I remember liking it a good deal, though I don't remember anything specific from it. I recorded it off Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago and will be watching it sometime soon (if the house doesn't get destroyed by a hurricane). 

Day for Night is apparently considered one of Truffaut's best. It's a movie-about-a-movie, or rather about making a movie, which didn't produce great expectations in me. I've seen 8 1/2 and another Fellini film about movie-making of which I can't remember the name right now. I was unenthusiastic about both. I suppose I'll have to watch 8 1/2 again sometime, since so many critics regard it as a masterpiece, but am in no hurry.

I like Day for Night considerably more than either. It's an engaging and charming work, though it doesn't touch great depths. There's a kind of sweetness about it, a gentle touch: you feel that the director likes his characters, and wants them to be happy. And though they pass through a number of tribulations in the process of making the movie, they come out reasonably well in the end.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie Miller, an American actress recruited for the title role of the film-within-the-film, Meet Pamela. Before she arrives, she's described as fragile, having recently suffered a breakdown of sorts. And "fragile" is just what she seems. I didn't know much about her; beyond recognizing her name I can't remember whether I'd seen her in anything else. I was impressed. Truffaut himself plays the much-harassed director. 

I hate to sound like I'm damning with faint praise, because I really did enjoy it, perhaps the more because I wasn't necessarily expecting to.  But although I can recommend it, I can't muster a really passionate recommendation. I suppose it takes something either very big and serious, or very funny, to get that kind of reaction from me. 




Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2012

A Few Simple Commands

Thursday was the Feast of the Assumption, and I made my way across town to St. Mary of the Visitation, where our little Anglican Use congregation was having Mass at 12:15. I was having an extremely busy day at work, and had trouble getting away. Then the drive took a little longer than expected, and so I was late. I walked in just as the reading from Revelation was beginning. It was a bit of a shock to step so suddenly from the workaday world to the very strange events described there: a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, about to give birth; a dragon with seven heads and ten horns waiting to devour the child; the defeat of the one who accuses “the brethren” day and night before the throne of God.

What can all this mean? What is it really describing? We’re often told that it’s all symbolic and we shouldn’t take the specific imagery too seriously. No doubt it is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean the images are connected to what they symbolize only by the thread of metaphorical logic. I think we’re justified in supposing that the symbol is also an accurate picture of some aspect of the reality. But I also think the full reality is most likely something we could not possibly understand, the way the two-dimensional creatures in the classic Flatland are utterly unable to imagine the third dimension. We’re given these very strange but fundamentally simple representations because we aren’t capable of understanding anything more. 

I sometimes wonder what the reality represented by the term “throne of God” might actually be like. I can’t really say that I conjecture, or imagine, because I can’t even get that far. And I wonder about the relation of stories like the woman and the dragon to time and eternity. They happened, or are happening, or will happen, or perhaps all three together. How does it all work, this spiritual world of which the Bible and the traditions of the Church give us only hints and simple pictures? Dragons, thrones, women, moon and stars—we can make sense of these, but what the combat between God and evil really looks like, from an angel’s point of view, is probably as incomprehensible to us as a book on mathematics is to a dog. What does “looks like” even mean in that realm? The possibility of getting some sort of real understanding of these things is not the least of the pleasures I hope to experience in the next life. No doubt we’ll never be able to understand it all, but our understanding will grow and grow as we become more and more like God.

Meanwhile, we have to recognize our limits. I find it useful to consider my two dogs, Andy and Lucy, in connection with this. My wife and I from time to time have an exchange about their mental abilities. She’ll say, for instance, that they think its unfair if one of them gets some sort of treat or special treatment and the other doesn’t. I insist that dogs don’t “think” in that sense. It’s clear that when either of the dogs gets something, the other expects to get it, too, but I don’t think that is evidence of a concept of fairness, but rather simply that the second dog wants it. In any case, they certainly can’t form any conception of the reasons for that unequal treatment. Andy has to stay on a leash when we walk, while Lucy gets to go free (in the immediate neighborhood), because she’s reasonably obedient and he isn’t. I have explained this to him, but have never received any indication that he understood.

The human purposes that govern these things, indeed almost every aspect of the human life that goes on all around them, and occasionally makes some sort of direct intervention in theirs, are utterly incomprehensible to them. What , for instance, do they make of the sounds that we continually make and which to us constitutes a symbolic language referencing everything from the temperature of the house to theology? They recognize their names, though Lucy seems not to know the difference between “Lucy” and “Andy.” And they recognize a few simple commands: “no,” “come,” “sit.” They’re pretty good at recognizing a tone in the human voice that indicates displeasure or something bad about to happen, and they recognize a comforting gentle tone, but there’s no reason to think that they understand the content of a specific sentence like “Stop making that noise—it’s driving me crazy.” Essentially everything that isn’t a command signifies nothing more specific than approval or disapproval: “No!” “Good boy” (or girl)

Most of the activity that goes on in the house is utterly meaningless to them. What could they possibly make of, say, sweeping the floor, or washing the dishes? Every weekday morning they get put into cages,where they stay for the nine-to-ten hours we’re away at work. This was a last resort which we finally arrived at as the only way to prevent the trouble they got into while we were gone. They can have no least idea of where we go and what we do when we leave every morning, or why they have to be caged.

I think our relationship to God is very much like this. What we know is not false, but it is only a very small hint of the reality. Everyone knows the story of the vision St. Thomas Aquinas had toward the end of his life which made him declare that everything he had written was only straw. But I don’t think that meant that what he had written was false, only that it came nowhere near doing justice to the reality. All our theology tells us little more about God than my dogs know about me, which likewise is not false but which does not even have a vocabulary for the sort of knowledge it does not contain. We are capable of knowing a few things: who the food and the petting come from, and with a lot of training we can manage to understand a few simple commands—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery—but, like ill-trained dogs, we are not at all reliable about following them.

The big difference between the two cases is that we have been told that we are capable of more, and will one day pass into a different order of being where we will be capable of understanding things that are perhaps now as far beyond us as human speech is for a dog. I sometimes think we can learn something from our dogs about obedience to mysterious commands.


I’m sure this image is under copyright but I haven’t been able to find its source.

Sunday Night Journal — August 12, 2012

Father Oddie and Me

 From 1984 until 1990 I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, and my parish there was St. Mary of the Visitation, or, as it was generally called, simply Visitation. It was the oldest parish in town, and was therefore located near the original center of what had been a very small town until after World War II, when the Defense Department made its military base, Redstone Arsenal, a center for rocket development which eventually became the Marshall Space Flight Center. 

Across the street that ran behind Visitation was an Anglican church, of which I can't remember the name. Anglican, not Episcopal: it was one of those groups which had broken away from the Episcopal Church because of the latter's departure from its traditional beliefs and indeed from traditional Christianity in general. That's an old story with which anyone who's been around for the past thirty or forty years is very familiar. Some of the groups that struck out from the Episcopal Church were low-church evangelicals--there is an Anglican church not far from where I live now which describes itself as Traditional Protestant Episcopal (my emphasis), and which appeared, on the one occasion when I peeked inside, to have no altar. Others were on the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, and the Huntsville group was one of those. 

Suffering from occasional bouts of liturgical distemper which included both unhappiness with the Catholic liturgy and fond memories of the Anglican liturgy as I'd known it at Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa before turning Catholic, I sometimes wondered about the little Anglican church behind Visitation. But I never made any attempt to get acquainted with the place and its congregation, partly because I was concerned that it might be too great a temptation. 

So as far as I can remember I entered the building on one occasion only. That was sometime in the late 1980s, when I attended a talk by a Fr. William Oddie, a priest in the Church of England. I think I saw some sort of advertisement for the talk, and though I can't remember now what it said it was interesting enough that I decided to attend. Perhaps it was advertised as being specifically about Anglican-Catholic relations, the dialog and the future possibilities. At any rate, I went. 

There are really only three things I remember about the event: first, that I was greeted at the door by a pleasant and somehow very Episcopalian gentlemen--by that, I suppose I mean that he was courteous and pleasant, though not exuberantly glad-handing, well-dressed, and had about him an air of tasteful affluence. The talk was to be held in the basement, and either I asked to see the church, or he offered to show it to me. The interior was simple and pleasing, handsome without any ostentation, and there was an altar. And when we entered it my host genuflected. I was pretty disconcerted by that and didn't know whether to follow suit or not. I think I finally did, figuring that if the body of Christ was there I was doing the correct thing, and if not God would understand that I intended no idolatry. 

Second was, of course, Fr. Oddie himself, who was the sort of well-spoken Englishman who tends to impress and captivate Americans, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. He was a middle-aged man perhaps five or ten years older than I (I was forty at the time), stocky, bespectacled, and I believe he wore a clerical collar. Of his talk, which was, overall, very sympathetic to Rome, I remember only two specific things: an ironic reference to "the redoubtable Bishop Spong," who was then much in the news for his ability to deny almost every article of Christian belief while remaining a bishop, and the assertion that the best Anglican theology was currently being done in Rome. I believe he may have mentioned then-Cardinal Ratzinger as an example, though I'm not sure about that--he did mention some names, and that would have been a likely one.

Third was a brief exchange I had with him after the lecture, when he made himself available for chat with the attendees. I told him that I'd enjoyed the talk and was interested in the whole question because I had left the Episcopal Church for Rome less than ten years before. His response has stayed with me because it was not the sort of polite "oh really how interesting" sort of thing one might have expected. Instead he looked me in the eye, paused for a moment, and said "How do you find it?" It seemed to me that it was not simply a conventional response, but that he really wanted to know. 

I don't have any memory of my reply, which was probably inarticulate. I know it was somehow affirmative. Perhaps I only said "Fine." 

In the years following that talk I saw Fr. Oddie's name here and there, sometimes in Catholic publications, and supposed he must have come over to Rome, which was no surprise at all; I think I must have heard him fairly early in the process of considering the decision, though perhaps he was farther along and keeping it to himself. Lately, with the unlooked-for appearance of an Anglican Ordinariate mission here, I've thought about that exchange with him back in the 1980s, and it occurred to me the other day to search for him on the web. 

I discovered that he's now a regular columnist for the UK's Catholic Herald, which he edited for a time, and, the Olympics being in progress in London, this admirable diatribe was near the top of the search results. He wrote a book in 1997 which seems to have foreseen the Anglican Ordinariate. Somehow I managed to escape hearing that he had written a biography of Chesterton. And, judging by this list of his Herald columns, he might be called "redoubtable" without irony. I look forward to reading a number of them. I think the Herald will become a regular stop for me.


A postscript: the Web is a wonderful thing. I couldn't remember the name of the Anglican church in Huntsville, but Google turned it up immediately: it's the Church of St. Charles King and Martyr (can't get much more Anglican than that), still there and still Anglican. And here is the web site of St. Francis at the Point, which is a few miles down the road from where I live. You'll note the descriptions of the two: "Traditional Episcopal" for the first, "Traditional Protestant Episcopal" for the second.

And here is Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa. Or perhaps here

Sunday Night Journal — August 5, 2012

Blessed With a Dark Turn of Mind

Some girls are bright as the morning
Some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind

--Gillian Welch

Some boys, too. As far back as I can remember I've been troubled by an inability to get very dark things out of my mind, or to keep them from getting in there in the first place. Even if I have some warning that something I'm about to see is going to include horror--a story about a gruesome crime, for instance--something in me is inclined to press on, not because of an attraction but precisely because of fear and repulsion, something that perversely and stupidly wants to find out just how bad it can be, as if knowing the worst will somehow arm me against it. And then, if it's really bad, I'm stuck with it, perhaps for a long time. 

The first specific instance of this I can recall was when I was, I suppose, six or seven years old--old enough to read, at any rate. Somehow I came across a horror comic. It frightened me, yet I couldn't resist reading it. It may well have been an issue of Tales from the Crypt. I don't recognize any of the synopses in the Wikipedia entry, although "Terror Ride!" bears a resemblance. If it wasn't Tales from the Crypt, it was something similar; the sample illustration at Wikipedia is just the sort of thing I remember. There were several stories in it, all terrifying to me, but worst of all was the one that I think was last in the book. It involved an amusement park ride in which patrons rode little boats through a series of frightening scenes, including, for instance, a huge hideous figure with an axe poised to strike down at them. Except that there was a monstrous demented old man running the thing, and he had rigged the axe so that it actually fell.... 

This little book sent me into something close to a blind panic. It was as if I had been swallowed by some great invisible fear-beast; I could still see the world around me, but it was remote and unreal. The only real thing was my  terror, and the images from the comic that would not go away. I don't now how long I remained in this state. At the time it seemed a very long time, weeks or months, but perhaps it was only days. I never told anyone what was going on, and eventually it faded away. (As an adult in my mid-twenties I had an experience similar to that provoked by the comic, except that it wasn't provoked by any one thing, but by an accumulation of several things. It's a story for another time, but I think it was what has now come to be called a panic attack.)

Years ago I saw a Gahan Wilson cartoon that made me laugh in recognition--if you don't remember him, he specialized in creating very dark humor out of macabre situations. This one pictured a little boy walking down the sidewalk. As I recall he is bundled into a big coat, with only part of his head sticking out, and he looks somewhat fearful. Two women observe him, and one says "There goes that little Wilson boy, all alone as usual." But images of monsters and other nightmarish things are swirling all around him, visible only to him. I had to laugh; that might have been me as a child, not always but too often. 

The thing that has continued to plague me from time to time is something that I suppose happens to most people. You read about some horrible thing--it may be a news story about the atrocities committed in war, or by a despot, it may be an account of torture, it may even be something from the life of a saint. And it hits you like a blow to the gut. You're dazed and sick with horror and pity and you want to cry out. You can't believe that one human being could do such demonic things to another, you want to know why God allows it, and you get no answer. For a few minutes your mind flails about desperately, trying to escape what has just taken possession of it, wanting to be rid of the hideous knowledge, wanting to somehow undo or ameliorate the pain and terror of the person who suffered what you just read about, but helpless.

Then you get control, you go on about your business, and the horror fades. Only, if you're like me, it keeps coming back, and your mind ties itself in knots trying to keep it away--everyone knows the phenomenon in which the effort not to think about something only insures that one will think about it. I have fairly frequent bouts of insomnia, and it's often during these, as I lie awake in the dark, that images of horror come back to torment me. Sometimes I can only escape them by getting up and turning on a light and reading or listening to music for a while. 

But I've recently learned a different way of dealing with this. Like any Catholic, I'm familiar with the idea of offering any pain or suffering of my own to God as a sacrifice for others. But only somewhat recently have I begun to think of these bouts of morbid obsession in that light. I think it was Caryll Houselander who made this really clear to me, in passages like this one that I quoted a week or two ago:

"...your suffering, bitter though it is, is healing the world's sorrow. Don't think of it in terms of what is unbearable to you, but when a specially bad hour ends, even in sheer weariness, think, 'That is a drink of water to someone dying of thirst,' or, 'That is a bar of chocolate for a hungry child.' It is mysterious, but true."

Could it be possible that by accepting the anguish that sometimes visits me and offering it to God on behalf of the victims of torture and atrocities of all sorts that I could be helping them somehow--giving them a hint of comfort, helping them to endure or recover...something? With that hope, the entire picture changes, as if a negative image had suddenly become positive, and what was dark is now light. My pain now has a purpose, and therefore is easier to bear. Now, if gruesome images come to torment me in the dark--well, I won't say I welcome them, because they are still a torment, but I welcome the opportunity to make use of them. I am at peace. I don't fight them or try to escape them, but rather let them come and face them, fear and horror dispelled by the hope that this is actually of some effect in relieving the pain of the actual sufferer. I offer not only whatever is bothering me at that moment but all the similar fears that have beset me from childhood on. The idea that I might actually be helping some poor soul to survive unspeakable agony is to me a joy that is also unspeakable. Send me as much of this as I can bear, Lord, I find myself praying,  if it can help that tortured child that I read about this morning.

If it can really help--and you'll notice I say if, because I'm always struggling to believe--then I can truly say that my dark turn of mind is a blessing.

The translation of the Psalms that we use in our Anglican Use liturgy seem to be based on the Coverdale translation. I'm sure others are more accurate, but since the psalms are poetry, I think multiple meanings are permissible. Last week we had Psalm 84, and it seemed to speak directly to me, as of course scripture so often does: 

Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are thy ways, who going through the vale of misery use it for a well; and the pools are filled with water. 

Sunday Night Journal — July 29, 2012

At Least It's Out In the Open Now

There are several immediately obvious things to say about the declarations this week by the mayors of Boston and Chicago that they would attempt to block the Chick-fil-a (what a silly name) fast food chain from opening restaurants in their cities. First and most obvious is their violation of their own self-professed love of tolerance. It’s not as if the head of Chick-fil-a had advocated some sort of active oppression of homosexuals, at least not according to any reasonable definition of that idea. Unfortunately it is now a well-established debating tactic on the part of homosexual activists and their sympathizers to insist that to fail to agree with them about the nature of marriage is to encourage their active oppression, if not in fact to oppress them, at least psychologically, by “hating” them.

Second was the pretty blatant illegality of the mayors’ professed intentions. Even if you believe that Chick-fil-a’s views are objectionable, you can’t deny a business the right to operate on those grounds, and you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that. Local governments have a lot of discretion in granting licenses for a business to operate in this or that location—zoning laws, noise ordinances, and the like. Here in my little town there has just been a flap over whether a tattoo artist should be allowed to open a shop downtown amongst the snooty boutiques etc. The city at first denied a license for the shop, but happily the tattoo artist won; I say “happily” not out of any liking for tattoo parlors but out of dislike for snooty people.

But I digress: governments do have room for reasonable judgment calls about where businesses may locate, but the political opinions of the business owner are certainly not among the factors that may be legally considered in the decision. Both mayors seemed to have recognized this, or been advised of it by their legal staff, and quickly issued “clarifications.” (There is a good bit of fun to be had with Rahm Emmanuel’s invocation of “Chicago values”: “basically a by-word for political corruption and insane levels of gun violence”.)

But there’s something deeper at work, and it’s the appeal by the mayors to the notion of “values” that points toward it. Throughout the decades of the culture wars the conservative side has been on the defensive, because in resisting any progressive idea they could always be painted as intolerant. The progressives could always say “We just want to be free to do what we like. Why should you care?” America is in many ways fundamentally libertarian and utilitarian, and the argument that anyone should be able to do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else is probably about as close to a commonly-held absolute as one can find here. Tolerance of what ever the progressives wanted could always be portrayed as tolerance, period, not tolerance of anything in particular.

Thus an appeal to any sort of “shared values” was deemed entirely inadmissible, and “harm” came to mean “demonstrable material harm.” People with traditional ideas about cultural matters such as pornography were required to show that some direct connection between, e.g., the easy availability of pornography and crimes such as rape. And if that connection couldn’t be proven, the objectors were ruled out of court.

This superficial approach allowed and still allows most people to avoid dealing with the more difficult and deeper questions about the nature of man as a social animal, about the way societies work and what makes them cohere. The truth is that societies are organic things, and an organic thing must possess unity at some deep inner level. Fingers are not toes, and nerves are not veins, but they are part of one thing. The thoughtless assumption that tolerance is without limits ignores this. The superficial mechanistic formulations of John Stuart Mill assume some level of fundamental agreement about right and wrong, and collapse where that is lacking. A society can only function, or at any rate only be stable, if there is some broad consensus about what man is and what is best for him. This is a fundamentally religious question. And what’s happening now is a struggle over what religion, in the sense of fundamental assumptions about the world and man’s place in it, our society will have.

As the progressives have pushed for more and more tolerance of what they want, they have inevitably, driven by an instinct they don’t recognize or acknowledge, begun to push for the withdrawal of tolerance for views in opposition to theirs, even though this is also in the name of tolerance: opposing views are deemed “hate speech” etc., and declared to be at least a potential source of harm, and therefore not to be tolerated. In the United States this does not yet often take the form of legal penalties, but some other countries are not so diffident, and the Chick-fil-a incident certainly indicates the desire to weild the power of the government against dissenters.  In advocating the punishment or restriction of views that do not reflect the “shared values” of their communities, progressives are unconsciously affirming the views of their long-time opponents that the deep inner unity of a society does, after all, matter a great deal, and that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. Ideas in opposition to that inner unity can be tolerated to a point, but only so far; they cannot be accorded equality with the governing ideas of the society.

A man cannot serve two masters; a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most societies have recognized this, explicitly or implicitly. Among modern industrialised societies, most no longer do. Communist societies, or at least governments, are an exception, making it perfectly clear that the state is the ultimate authority. They tolerate Christianity to some greater or lesser degree, but leave no doubt as to who is the master.

As things are going, that is the sort of future Christians can look forward to in the formerly Christian nations we generally refer to as “the West.” Having gained the upper hand culturally, the progressives are getting an idea of what they need to do to assert and maintain their mastery, and of how they need to organize their society. The contraception mandate in “Obamacare,” and these gestures by the mayors of two of our biggest cities, should be seen as early skirmishes in what promises to be a long and determined campaign to put Christians in a box where they can do whatever they want inside their churches, but are not allowed to act publicly in opposition to progressive doctrine.

Sunday Night Journal — July 22, 2012

Sympathy for the Truth

I almost felt sorry for President Obama for a little while this week, because of the “you didn’t build that” controversy. In case you managed to miss all the fuss (which actually I think got relatively little attention from the pro-Obama press), he included the following words in a speech:

If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The right leapt on this with the wildest enthusiasm, repeating it as often as possible as proof that Obama believes that individual effort and achievement mean little or nothing, with the further suggestion that the owner of a business has no real title to it.

In its rawest and simplest form, the charge is unfair. My reading of the entire context indicates that this is almost certainly a case of a clumsy ambiguity in the use of the pronoun “that.” Here are the statements with a bit more context:

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

It seems pretty clear to me that the antecedent of “that” is meant to be “roads and bridges,” not “business.” And this is a more plausible reading because no politician in his right mind would say that a person who built a business did not build it, even if he believed it. This is the sort of verbal misstep that anyone could make when speaking extemporaneously, which I’ve been assuming was the case although I haven’t seen anything definite to that effect. (If it was a written speech, it was an inexcusable blunder and would serve as further  support for the view that Obama is not nearly as smart as he and many others seem to think he is.)

In a reasonable and fair discussion in which the object is to find and propound the truth, Obama’s opponents would grant, at least for the sake of argument, that he meant to say that the person who builds a business makes use of resources that he did not create, and go on to demonstrate that the speech as a whole, or at least this passage, nevertheless was a conglomeration of straw men, banalities, and falsehoods. A number of  conservative commentators did this, more or less. Here is just one example, from Neo-neocon (I laughed out loud at “great teachers all the way down.”) Just to note a few important points: no one outside a few extreme libertarians really believes that the individual stands or falls purely on his own, or that the government should not be involved in building roads and putting out fires. And the person who builds a business paid taxes to support those things just like everyone else. And Obama, along with almost everyone on the liberal side of this debate, persistently, insistently, and falsely equates “society” or “community” with “the federal government.”

But Obama gets no sympathy from me, because liberals and their allies in the media, now so outraged by the treatment of Obama’s remarks, generally practice exactly the same sort of willful distortion against Republicans at every opportunity. Consider two examples from Mitt Romney over the past months, which I still hear repeated by the left, and no doubt will continue to hear until the election, and afterwards if Romney wins.

“Romney says he’s not concerned about the poor.”

Yes, he did say the words “I’m not concerned about the poor,” and they were ill-chosen. But they had a context which gives them a quite different meaning. He was talking about the need to help the middle-class, and saying that there are measures already in place for the poor:

I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”(link)

“Romney says corporations are people.”

Yes, he said that, too, but he was not talking about the legal construct which treats corporations as persons for some purposes. He meant only that corporations are composed of people, and that a tax on a corporation is in fact a tax on those people. It’s nice to see a fair-minded liberal, Jonathan Chait, grant this.

If truth is the first casualty of war, the frequency in politics of attempts to kill it would suggest that politics is now a form of warfare, which it certainly seems to be. Democrats, in the long-established habit of showing no mercy in situations like this, should expect none. But if I have no sympathy for them, I do have it for the truth. We’re all losers when the truth–or the justice, or the logic—of what is said matters much less than whether it is politically effective or not. That’s a sin against the word, and the Word, which Christians fighting these battles ought to remember.

Sunday Night Journal — July 15, 2012

A Beautiful Mass

A couple of weekends ago I attended Mass at a parish which I will refrain from naming, in a city on the other side of the continent. I know I’ve mentioned more than once here that after a long period of struggle I eventually became reconciled to the normal American Catholic liturgy. What I tend to forget, though, is that in the archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, where I live, the general practice is not so bad. Yes, it’s the basically the usual thing, but at least in my home parish and in the cathedral, where I also sometimes attend Mass, it’s generally fairly reverent and tasteful, at least by current standards. And the cathedral has excellent, sometimes superb, music. The architecture ranges from not too bad to beautiful—again, the cathedral is a treasure. The homilies are usually solid.

The unnamed parish of a couple of weeks ago, on the other hand, had pretty much all the bad things in plenitude. It was an ugly barnlike A-frame building. The main entrance was not through one of the “A” ends but in the middle, and I wondered if it had been modified in the spirit of Vatican II, though the building didn’t really seem old enough. At any rate, it was much—several times—wider than it was deep, but it didn’t have the almost semi-circular amphitheater-style seating arrangement that usually goes with those proportions. There were chairs, not pews, and they faced straight forward, so the result was that if you were out on one of the wings, as I was, you were facing a blank wal, which made for a sense of awkwardness and distance. And though the chairs had kneelers we were instructed not to kneel by a big video screen over the choir stall which cheerfully fed us the words to the songs.

The music was pretty bad, although at least not incompetent as it so often was twenty or thirty years ago. The only instrument was a piano played in a sort of rock-and-roll style. The lectors had apparently been advised to read with fervor and drama, and the effect in at least one case was grating. In general there was an extremely casual air, a lot of bonhomie from the white-haired priest, a lot of chit-chat among the congregation, a lot of wandering around and hugging at the Peace.

Well, most Catholics reading this will know what I’m talking about, and there’s no need for me to go on about it. But it did make me realize that what I’ve gotten used to is really not so bad, comparatively, and could be considerably worse.

I was right on time for Mass, and the church was mostly full. The entrance was crowded with the procession, so I went to a side door and slipped into a mostly empty row of chairs near the back. I sat down toward the middle of the row; it’s always annoying when people sit next to the aisle, and instead of moving when someone else arrives, insist on staying put and making the others squeeze by them, so I try to remember not to do that. (And also to remember that some people might have a good reason for doing it, as I try to remember that those people heading for the door after communion may have a good reason.)

Just after Mass started a group of three or four people came in. After squeezing by the people next to the aisle who wouldn’t move, they found that they needed one more space between me and the aisle-sitters. I wasn’t paying attention, so one of them, a young Asian-looking woman, asked me if I would move over, which of course I did. She smiled pleasantly and thanked me. I say “young” because she was a lot younger than me, but not high-school or college-young—in her thirties somewhere, I would guess, possibly even early forties.

She apparently hadn’t been to Mass for a while, or at least not regularly, because she didn’t know the new responses which have been in use for..what? Eight months or so now?--and kept breaking into the old ones.

After communion, in bold defiance of the instructions from the video screen, I knelt, as did a few other people here and there, including the woman next to me. And she remained kneeling, through a longish musical interlude and into a series of announcements. When she finally stood up, I glanced at her and saw that her face was covered in tears.

How long had she been away? Why had she come back? What was the source of those tears? I don’t know, and it’s none of my business, but I know what she came back to. Amid all our complaints about the liturgy, even if they’re justified, we need to remember that the distance between a clumsy or ugly Mass and no Mass at all is infinite. This Mass was not beautiful, but it was beautiful.

Sunday Night Journal — July 8, 2012

The Quiet American

This is about both the movie and the Graham Green novel. A few weeks ago the movie was shown on one of the cable channels that broadcasts movies uninterrupted (it wasn't TCM, so it must have been Sundance). On an impulse of curiosity I recorded it. I had read the novel some years ago--probably twenty-five or more years--with fairly high expectations, and been somewhat disappointed. Not that I had thought it bad, only rather slight, and not providing the insights I had expected of it. And I wondered how a filmmaker would treat it.

What insights? Well, it's set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when the French were still fighting their colonial war against the communists, and the American of the title represents the earliest phase of the American involvement which would, in the following decade, become a long and destructive agony, one of the most serious crises in the history of the country, and of course devastating to the people of Vietnam. And this was Graham Greene still in his prime, or close to it, when one could still expect the clear presence of the Catholic faith in his work, before left-wing politics had begun to dominate it. I thought the novel would shed some light on the war in Vietnam, both the then-contemporary situation and what was to come. And I expected something beyond politics and history, something significant about the human condition. And the novel seemed a letdown.

So I watched the movie, and thought it was pretty good. And, my memory of the book being pretty hazy, I wondered how faithful the movie was to it, and whether this was perhaps one of those instances where a good film is produced from a mediocre novel. I particularly wondered whether a sort of postlude to the film--a montage of headlines outlining the transition of the French war to an American one, the growing involvement, the protests, and the sad end--was justified by the book's view of the war. So I read the book again. 

I can report that the movie is in fact quite faithful to the book, given the limits inherent in that transition, and that both are excellent. I don't know what was the matter with me when I first read the book, but the fault was definitely in me, and not it. It's a fine novel, beautifully written and well-designed.

The plot: middle-aged world-weary opium-smoking Englishman Thomas Fowler is covering the Vietnam war for an English paper. He has been in the East for some years, has a beautiful young Vietnamese mistress, and never wants to return to England, still less to see the wife he left there. Naive young American Alden Pyle arrives in the country ostensibly as part of an aid mission engaged in humanitarian relief, but in fact as an intelligence agent involved in assisting the growth of a "third force"--not the colonialists, not the communists--to save the country. The story is driven simultaneously by Pyle's endeavors in this cause, and by his falling in love with Phuong, Fowler's mistress, and attempting to win her away from him. The narrative is by Fowler in the first person, and most of it is a retrospective from the opening scene in which we learn of Pyle's death (I am not giving away anything important here, as this becomes clear within the first few pages).

Fowler is of course outraged by Pyle's move on Phoung, and just as much by Pyle's naive meddling in the war. And yet he likes Pyle, who is energetic and genuinely, if not entirely, motivated by high ideals. He wants to take Phuong away from a situation he views as sordid, and he wants to displace both the corrupt and treacherous colonials and the ruthless communists as contestants for the destiny of Vietnam. He wants to bring American-style democracy to this ancient and complex--and far from "freedom-loving"--culture, and he seems to think it will be a pretty straightforward matter.

This sounds all too familiar, of course. And as we all know Vietnam was not the last of our tragic attempts at "nation-building." And those whose praise for the novel is based primarily on its political insights are not wrong, as far as that goes. Alden Pyle is the embodiment of a persistent American trait that I once called "sinister innocence." Another way to describe it is that it's culpable naivete: a willingness to interfere in complex affairs with simple but unworkable solutions, often with very good intentions, sometimes with terrible consequences. In Pyle's case the good intentions are part of what Fowler likes and part of what he hates: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." 

I have heard the novel described as being anti-war, but that doesn't even merit being called an over-simplification. It's anti-war only in the sense of being informed by a sense of fatalistic outrage at the carnage: as propaganda for the anti-war cause, it is decidely listless and far too ambivalent. And, presaging the later Greene's biases, the violence of the communists is taken for granted--not really excused, but for the most part tacitly accepted, as if it were a natural phenomenon.

What's more important, though, is that this is about as far from a simple political tract as one can imagine. Yes, the portrait of Pyle and its implicit condemnation of American judgement and policies is important and strikingly perceptive. But the novel is very much more than that. Its moral complexities are far deeper than can be summed up in a term like "anti-war" or "anti-American," and in the end have more to do with the drama of the individual conscience than with global politics. I have not even touched on those here; you really need to read the book. As for Greene's Catholicism, no, it is not much in evidence directly--Fowler is an atheist--but for those with eyes to see it is there, silent in the background, especially in the last lines.

Back to the movie: I'm speaking of the 2002 film, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. There is also a 1958 version which I have not seen. As I mentioned earlier, I really can't find any major fault with the film at all. But it is a film, and much of the book's "action" is interior. Fowler is the narrator, and his reflections on what is happening, and on Pyle's character--which remains somewhat opaque to us as well as to Fowler--are not transferable to the screen. So the movie is considerably less than the book, but within its limits very good. Its ambience of place and time are convincing, the essentials of the story are not compromised, and the acting of the two principals is very fine. I did not recognize Brendan Fraser's name, but he is eminently believable in this role. And who better could you possibly find to play a jaded Englishman in the colonial Far East than Michael Caine?


Fowler, Pyle, Phuong

Sunday Night Journal — July 1, 2012

Gender Studies

I was away from Friday afternoon till Monday night and didn't have time for writing. And I have to admit straightaway that it's cheating a bit to call this a Sunday Night Journal, because the pictures below were taken Monday morning. But I don't want to leave a gap in the SNJ series, so here we are.

These three pictures are of three sections of a magazine stand in the airport in San Jose, California (I suppose there are other San Joses). There were two sections labelled Women's Interest and one labelled Men's Interest. Taken together, I think they're worth considerably more than a thousand words of academic gender studies, because they're the work of people who have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to find out what people really want, according to the criterion of what they're willing to pay money for.


Women 1


Women 2



On the basis of this, it would seem that women are mainly interested in food, houses, and being sexy, while men are interested in sports and sex (fitness has some connection to both). Those three blacked-out spaces at the top of the men's section are sex magazines apparently too graphic for public display.  Also maybe that women read more than men. 

Of course I don't think this is the whole story, or representative of all men and women, or representative of the truly deep needs of both, but I think it reveals a certain amount of truth.

A Very Large Tree

And here's something else from my travels, something much more rewarding to contemplate.


This was taken in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. 

Sunday Night Journal — June 23, 2012

Progressive Ironies

The past month or so has seen the deaths of two men associated with progressive Catholicism in this area. One was a priest, one was a deacon. I had a slight personal acquaintance with both of them, a bit more so with the deacon, and on the basis of that and of their reputations know them to have been good and thoughtful men who loved God and the Church, notwithstanding the fact that they were on what is, from my point of view, the wrong side of the struggle that has been going on within the Church since Vatican II. I once heard the deacon call for a Third Vatican Council which would carry through what he regarded as the clear implications of Vatican II with regard to the Church’s teachings about sex and hierarchy and so forth. And my opinion of the priest as a shepherd—he was also a theology teacher—was forever lowered by a remark he made in a homily when the Catechism was published: that the best thing about it was the pictures. I, on the other hand, regarded the Catechism as a gift from God, sorely needed by the Church for precisely the reasons the priest objected to it: its clarification and re-emphasis of traditional teachings.

Progressive Catholicism has suffered a good many setbacks since it flourished ca. 1965-1980, and so I suppose these two men died disappointed on this score—disappointed, and perhaps somewhat puzzled that the progress they had witnessed when they were young had not continued. That is certainly not to say that they died unhappy or embittered, because I don’t think they did, but I don't think things had gone as they had hoped and expected.

In 1975 or so progressives had pretty much vanquished the old order liturgically and made strong inroads in every other aspects of the church’s life, and it must have looked as if the transformation they looked for was well under way. But then came the papacy of John Paul II, and at the same time a host of younger Catholics who rebelled against the revolution, and the tide began to turn. It has been a source of amusement (not very charitable amusement) for me to see certain features of what had been a youth movement slowly become associated with grey hair and complaints about the younger generation. (Although sometimes it’s not amusing at all: I have seen more instances than I would have thought possible of younger Catholics expressing the hope that the baby boomers, having ruined the world, would die as soon as possible. That’s not only nasty but mistaken, as the baby boomers were too young to have any responsibility for anything that happened in the first ten years or so after Vatican II.)

Progressives envision a movement toward a very specific goal, an end point in which some kind of perfect freedom and equality are the rule. This direction of movement is seen as natural, right, and inevitable—right because it is inevitable, and inevitable because it is right. For religious progressives, it’s God’s will, or the will of the Spirit. For secular progressives, it seems a vague idea vaguely connected with the idea that evolution is always an advance. And yet there seems no serenity in this knowledge. Progress is constantly under threat from the forces of reaction, which must be fought constantly, and so it isn’t truly inevitable. Change in general is presumed to be change for the better, or at least expected to be, but evil forces may interfere.

That picture makes sense at the revolutionary moment. But what of the day when the revolution has assumed power, and new forces arise which were not part of the old defeated order, but which for reasons of their own oppose the revolution? When there is rebellion against the rebellion? It becomes more difficult to assert that the revolution is the vanguard of an inevitable future, to speak of changing with the times as if that could only mean change in the direction considered desirable by the progressives. The usual response to the new rebels is to associate them with the efforts of the old regime to maintain its order, but this often falls apart: no one under the age of fifty or so can now be accused of wanting to bring back the Latin Mass because he’s resistant to change.

Of the people I knew in my youth as political leftists and still have contact with, most appear not to have changed their views very much. I, on the other hand, moved to the right. Which of us then is truly progressive, and which conservative?

I often wish we could do away with the whole vocabulary of progressive and conservative, with their focus on the movement of history. They have their place, but it’s a fairly small place, and we make them serve in contexts where they make little sense. Strip away the confused notions of historical progress tending toward the earthly paradise, and of evolution tending toward what man considers progress—a notion draped in the authority of science, but completely unjustified from a scientific point of view—and all the progressives have left is This is what we want. The lazy association of “change” with “good” falls apart.

It’s not only more honest but in the long run a better argument to say that what you want is right and good. Say you want something to come about because it is right, not because progress demands it. Progressivism is a sort of wishful thinking about the future course of history, and history has a bad way of taking us where we never wished or expected to go. But the modern world is in flight from first principles, and that argument requires a willingness to assert them. It’s much easier to say that something is the wave of the future, if you like it, or a relic of the past, if you don’t.

I often hear people say that the argument from authority is the weakest argument. Well, that depends entirely on the authority. But in all except its very weakest forms it’s still stronger than the argument from progress. It makes more sense to argue that a certain notion is to be disregarded because your neighbor down the street said so than because you think it’s outmoded. Your neighbor may know something about the question, but to say that the idea is outmoded is usually no more than to say it’s unfashionable. And what does fashion have to do with truth? It’s nonsense, but people talk this way all the time. We hear it especially about social changes. Those of us who believe that many of the changes of the past forty years or so have been for the worse and ought to be reversed are frequently told that our views are out of date and therefore of no consequence. This is just a way of saying “Shut up.”

The thing is to pursue and embrace the true, the good, and the beautiful. We have no guarantee whatsoever that earthly history is headed toward a goal any of us would regard as desirable. It is true, an article of faith for Christians, that earthly history will end with the triumph of God. But it is not promised that the triumph will take place within history. It is not even promised that things will get better.There has certainly been material progress in human history, but I sometimes wonder whether there has been, on balance, moral progress. Our ancestors did things that shock us, and did them in good conscience. But we would shock some of them, too. Perhaps there has been some net progress; let’s say for the sake of argument that there has. It can only be preserved by keeping a clear grasp of what genuine progress means, which is a movement toward the good, not merely toward the new. It must mean that when we achieve something good we must work to preserve it, not throw it back into the stream of history.

Having invented the wheel, we did not forget it. But in our moral and spiritual life it is not so. Every person and every society has to labor constantly to preserve any progress there, and that labor is the only thing that’s truly inevitable, as far as human vision can see. To regard progress as inevitable is probably a way of insuring that it won’t be.

Sunday Night Journal — June 17, 2012

Report on Anglican Developments

I haven’t yet written about my experience with our local instance of the Anglican Ordinariate. I first mentioned it here on Easter Sunday (see this SNJ), shortly after it had come to my attention, and a great deal has happened since then. The first word I had, back in April, was that a seminarian, Matthew Venuti, who was an Episcopal priest and hoped to be ordained in June had founded a group called The Society of St. Gregory the Great, and would soon begin offering the Anglican service called Evensong or Evening Prayer, a descendent of the traditional liturgical rite of Vespers. That began shortly after Easter. It was held at St. Mary’s in Mobile, which is one of the two most beautiful churches in this area (the other being the cathedral), on Sunday afternoons before a regularly-scheduled 6:30 Mass.

An Anglican Use Mass was to begin in June when Matthew was ordained. Up until a week or so before the June 2 ordinations there was some doubt as to whether that would actually happen. I’m not sure what the problems were but I think they had something to do with the speed with which he had gone from being ordained in the Episcopal Church, to Catholic seminary, to ordination. In the end, though, he became Fr. Venuti, and following the ordination on Saturday June 2 he was the celebrant on Sunday at an Anglican Use Mass. And we now have a regular Sunday afternoon Evensong followed by Mass with the Anglican Use liturgy. There are also three Masses during the week.

We were doing Evening Prayer at a side chapel. The first Mass was in the main church. Now we are in a tiny chapel apart from the church proper, normally used for Adoration, and very plain, which is good. There are plans to erect an altar in the side chapel, positioned suitably for a liturgy in which the priest faces the altar. We fit in the tiny chapel because we are a tiny group, fewer than a dozen. Of these, not all are eligible for formal membership in the Ordinariate, which is restricted to former Anglicans (more on that in a moment). There are a couple of people who have never been Anglican who come because they love the liturgy.

So much for the facts; what of the experience?

Well, the Evensong services have been beautiful and deeply moving. My eyes filled with tears when I heard some of those prayers, and participated in them. For the first time in many years, I felt the full sentiment of formal communal prayer. I don’t mean to say that when I participated in such prayer in the usual Mass I was insincere. I intended what the words said but in an instrumental sort of way; as a rule, they did not, by their own beauty and richness, call up the emotion that ought to have accompanied them. Except when a prayer touched on some particular personal concern of the moment, they were a prayer of the mind but not the heart. There is a great difference between saying “Well, in the end, life really doesn’t amount to much,” and Macbeth’s terrible “Out, out, brief candle...” speech. That’s the difference between the functional English of the current liturgy and the poetry of the Book of Divine Worship, the Catholicized Book of Common Prayer used in the Ordinariate.

And we have had excellent music. Our little group is struggling with the Anglican chant settings of things like the Magnificat, but we’ll get there. For several Sundays we had an organist, which meant that even a dozen or so people could do pretty well with the hymns, also mostly out of the Anglican tradition. The organist has been out recently, but will return.

The Mass itself has been, for me at least, a more difficult adjustment than I expected. I think this is because, unlike Evensong, it is a variant of something I’ve experienced every Sunday (at minimum) for over 30 years. It’s enough like what I’m used to, and yet enough different, that I find myself getting confused. And the whole group, including our priest, is still learning the rite. At the first one, on June 3, I was still tired and feeling a bit dislocated after having been away for most of a week, and I felt like I was really not all there. But we have now had two Masses since then, and things are coming together.

There has been a whirlwind quality about all this, and I feel like I haven’t fully taken it in yet. It was utterly unexpected, and, coming as it does long after I had learned to live with the—what do I call it?--the normal English Mass, or the Novus Ordo in English, whatever the right term is—it feels, I’m sorry to say, a bit of an anti-climax. Where was this when I really needed it? I want to say. But I am grateful, and certainly will stay with it as long as I have a choice.

Moreover, it’s still in flux. We need more people if the thing is to continue, and naturally we want it to grow because we believe it is a great gift to the Church. And there is one very troubling thing about the whole project. I hadn’t realized, on reading about the Ordinariate when it was first established, that formal membership is open only to former Anglicans. I had envisioned it becoming a light to the nations who have to live with a Mass which is at best colorless, drawing anyone who would appreciate the beauty and dignity of its liturgy. This, I’m told, is exactly what happened at one major parish which came into the Church in the early 1980s under the Pastoral Provision of 1982, and a majority of its members are now Latin Rite Catholics who came in after the original Episcopal congregation became Catholic as a group. But the restrictions on entry into the Ordinariate have resulted in this parish having decided (again, so I’m told) not to become part of it.

This limitation would seem to box it in permanently as a niche for ex-Episcopalians, a niche which would always remain very small and perhaps dwindle away entirely in time. Nothing of course would prevent any Catholic from attending the liturgies, but no matter how many did so, the official head count of the Ordinariate would remain low, and there would be no possibility of recruiting new priests for it apart from the occasional Episcopal priest deciding to take the great leap.

Well, all that must be placed in God’s hands for now—like everything else, of course, but in this case requiring a distinct effort. And we will continue to work on those chants, and try to attract a few more people.


The congregation: that's my foot in the lower right, and there are two other people not visible in this picture, so, a total of nine, counting Fr. Venuti's six-month-old son.


The Elevation: ad orientem, y'all!

The local paper did a story on Fr. Venuti, which was ok as far as it went, but it focused almost exclusively on him and the fact that he is married, with almost nothing about the Ordinariate. I'm about to write a letter to the editor.

You can hear the chanted Magnificat in the YouTube video below, beginning at 1:34:



Sunday Night Journal — June 10, 2012

Reading at the Grand Babylon

I had intended to include this in last week’s journal, but had already gone on too long. So, picking up from there:

I took two books to the conference with me, and had made a pact with myself not to turn on the television. I have made and broken such pacts before, but this time I kept it. Well, mostly: I did turn the TV on twice, once out of curiosity to see if they had any good movies, which they didn’t, and once to check out of the hotel; I didn’t watch anything. It might have been wise to do something similar regarding the Internet, though I couldn’t stay off it completely, since I needed to log in to my work systems regularly, and of course once online one tends to wander around.

Anyway, the two books were Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin and Ronald Blythe’s Out of the Valley. The first is a mystery/private-eye novel in the classic style, set in postwar southern California; the second is a journal written by an Anglican clergyman and covering a year in the English countryside. Which is to say, both of them involve worlds utterly different from mine. And they could hardly have been more different from each other, and from the place where I was staying.  That world, in some ways stranger than the other two, also a strong fictive component—the simulated Texas with its artificial and un-Texan climate—I began to feel that I actually existed in some purely mental realm from which I chose alternately one of three fictional worlds to inhabit. 


It’s very likely that The Ivory Grin was the only remaining book in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series that I had not read, certainly the only unread one in my possession. For that reason I had been in no great hurry to read it. Macdonald is one of my favorite writers, and I liked having one book yet to discover. But I decided that I was not likely to have a better circumstance than the isolation of airports and airplanes and hotel rooms.

The Ivory Grin doesn’t seem to be as well-known as some of the other Archer books, and I suppose I would count it as a lesser one, too. Its people and story are not as vivid and memorable as some of the others, but it differs from all of them in one interesting respect: as far as I can remember, this is the only one which deals much with race, and in which important characters are black. One of the murder victims is a “colored girl,” and her boyfriend, also colored, is accused of the crime. Macdonald’s treatment of these characters doesn’t seem quite as skillful as is usual for him. I suspect he simply didn’t know them that well, not the way he knew the white middle-class Californians who comprise most of the people in his books. Still, it’s an interesting picture. As a Southerner I’m accustomed to thinking of strictly enforced racial segregation as a feature of the past of my region only. Though I know that racial prejudice existed in the rest of the country and that de facto segregation was common, I have tended to accept the assumption of others that the South was much much worse. Well, if Macdonald’s picture is accurate, it wasn’t that much worse, at least as compared to California. It is perfectly clear that there are many places the black characters simply cannot go. And the fact that one of them is light-skinned enough to “pass” is a factor in the plot.

Whether Macdonald was attempting to make some sort of social statement here I have no idea. There is no evidence at all of any self-conscious effort of that sort. But the statement is there, merely by virtue of the facts.


I haven’t finished the Blythe book; it’s longer and more substantial. I’ve only reached September in this journey through the year. But it’s the sort of book you can put down for a while and pick up again later without having to reorient yourself. It consists entirely of pieces of a few hundred to a thousand words, like newspaper columns, which is exactly what they are. It seems the author writes a weekly column for the Church Times, and this book consists of those columns for the years 1997-1999. Its organization is a little odd, actually: it’s the weekly journal entries of several years organized into a single year, so that in each chapter we get ten or twelve pieces all dealing with affairs of that month in different years. It may sound as if that would be confusing, and there are moments when it is, a little, but overall it feels quite natural. There is little to no narrative thread connecting one week or one month to another, so the thematic grouping works.

It is in essence a real journal, in that it chronicles the events of each week, and the reflections provoked by the events. The circumstances described are ones which I suspect many of us—myself at any rate—supposed must not exist any longer in England. The picture painted seems of another time: the comfortable and as far as I can tell fairly orthodox Anglicanism, the countryside with its ever-shifting weather and natural life, the country people, the little fairs and festivals, the long walks, the little clubs and societies devoted to nature or to little-known artists, the air of slight eccentricity which  names like Bottengoms Farm (Blythe's residence) and Little Horkesley  inevitably suggest to an American.

March, which means we paid-up members of the Wild Flower Society can begin registering this year’s plants in our Field Botanist’s Book.

The weather and landscape are observed with great precision and enthusiasm. But what really makes the book is the way all sorts of other things are pulled in from other places and times, within one paragraph and sometimes within one sentence. Present time is intertwined with historical and liturgical time so that the events of any particular week are thoroughly linked to the past and to the faith. Faulkner’s famous remark about the past—not dead, not even past—seems more true here than I think I have ever encountered it. Events and people of a thousand or more years ago sit alongside those of today. Medieval bishops are referenced as if they had only just vacated their cathedrals; historical events are local anecdotes. And literature and those who made it are a constant living presence, as is the faith. I think it would be more effective for me to illustrate this than to describe it. This is roughly half of one of the July entries:

So off we go to Colchester to see the Roman wall, which was being built at exactly the same moment as St. Paul concluded his Letter with a fascinating roll-call of first Christians, and so courteously.... And there in the museum are their inkpots and necklaces, even their sandals with the hollows made by their weary feet, for the Romans appear to have been proto-joggers and road worshippers generally, always stepping it out, counting the milestones and going straight. Jane comes to the cavalry officer’s gravestone and there is the familiar figure of Longinus, a Roman I have known all my life, mounted and stern, and she falls in love with him at once.... With millions-of-year-old mammals being dug upon the car radio, that Letter from Paul to the Romans was posted only the other day. The faith is so young....

At 6 a.m. the sun arrives in the wood with rapier-like beams, cutting into its interior and making the leaves jump with its brilliance. At breakfast I read the farming press. What grumpy news this week? Colossal machines rumble past my gaze. We potter along behind one such in a lane lined with mallows—cut satin, as the poet John Clare describes them. I have never seen so many. Wild flowers are back in abundance. Stephen Varcoe comes to talk about—the way we all talk and the difficulties of singing dialect, and how did Thomas Hardy talk? He has just returned from New Zealand where the lanes are lined with marijuana, not mallows, he says. Trinity 6. Anthony will be reading Romans 6. “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection.“

There are pretty frequent references that I don’t get, sometimes local, sometimes historical or literary. “George Herbert was given the task of begging the government not to drain the fens around Cambridge, as such a process it was thought would spoil the Backs.” The Backs? A glossary would be useful for Americans, and maybe for others: who is St. Botolph? But this is no deliberate quaintness, rather the genuine article. I seem to detect an occasional hint of Anglican anti-Romanism, but perhaps I’m over-sensitive; if it’s there, it’s pretty mild.

The entries give the impression of being dashed off, but they are far from artless. They should be savored, but I have to admit that I tend to start eating them in rush, like potato chips or popcorn, hardly finishing one before I think “just one more.” 

I’m grateful to Rob G for having sent me this book. He’d recommended Blythe before in comments here, and I did intend to act on the recommendation, but hadn’t. I’ll be reading the other two in the series in time.

If you’re wondering what the Church Times is like, have a look. And here, it appears, is a blog where the continuing diary seems to be published: the latest entry is last Friday.

Sunday Night Journal — June 3, 2012

At the Grand Babylon

“Grand Babylon” was the term Christopher Derrick once used to describe the American luxury hotel. I stayed at one of these for most of the past week, attending a conference for customers of the company that provides the software that supports most of the administrative functions of the college where I'm employed, and for which I'm the chief person responsible. It's an annual event, but this is the first time I've attended since 2008. With somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people attending, it’s always held at a big hotel with a conference center, and that means not only big but luxurious. I couldn’t get Derrick’s phrase out of my head for very long.

This particular mini-Babylon is the Gaylord Texan, located in Grapevine, Texas, which seems to be a little town in the process of being absorbed by the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis. Presumably the name was originally a straightforward reference to the fact that grapes are indeed grown here, and wine produced from them. I had the impression that it’s a formerly rustic little town which has turned to playing the role of rustic little town for city-dwellers and tourists. You find a lot of this near big cities: small towns that no longer have much of a genuine and viable economy of their own, but are now in commuting distance of the city, allowing people whose livelihood depends on the metropolis to play nostalgically at being residents of a sleepy little town, while turning it into an affluent suburb. I live in one such town, and I suppose the only thing that differentiates me much from immigrants of that sort is that I have, by way of my wife, pretty deep roots here. Also, I have less money than most of them.

My experience of Texas is very limited, and my one previous trip to Dallas was spent, like this one, in hotels and meeting rooms. Judging by what I could see from the shuttle van that took me from and to the airport, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has an interesting countryside, pretty flat, dry-looking by my standards but far from desert, covered with smallish trees including what seemed to be a lot of live oaks.

But none of this was visible to me once I entered the hotel, a word which doesn't really do justice to the scope of the place. It is an entire environment, which conceptually if not physically resembles various cities of the future imagined in old science-fiction novels: my very rough guess is that it comprehends ten acres in area and somewhere between 100 and 150 ft (30-54m) in height, all of which is enclosed. The building proper surrounds an atrium which I would guess covers five acres or so, and the apex of its glass roof (with a Lone Star emblem of darker glass) appeared to be the highest point in the place. I am basing my height estimate on the fact that there is a fountain which shoots at least 30 feet (10m) straight up, but would have to go several times higher to hit the roof. This atrium is full of landscaping, including some fairly large trees, at least one of which, disconcertingly, is artificial: a replica of the Treaty Oak in Austin, which, we are told by a plaque, cost $250,00. There are a number of streams flowing through several levels linked by winding paths and containing canyons made of concrete formed and painted to resemble sandstone. There is a “mission” tower and plaza. There is a life-sized Longhorn (steer? I didn’t notice), and the biggest and most interesting model train layout I’ve ever seen—I believe it must have been half the size of my house. And there is pop-country music audible everywhere, from speakers hidden among the plants and rocks, in case anyone should feel insufficiently peppy.

The confusion of real and artificial was disconcerting at times. My room faced the atrium, and included a tiny terrace with two chairs. Several times I thought “I’ll sit outside and read for a while this evening,” only to realize that outside was inside. Large public areas of the hotel itself were fully open to this “outside,” and again I was momentarily puzzled by the fact that they were not miserably hot, because I knew the temperature of the actual outdoors must be in the vicinity of 90 (Fahrenheit—32 Celsius). One night there was a thunderstorm, and I thought of going out to watch it, and then I remembered—though someone who was out in the atrium said the lightning had been something to see.

After a day or so at the hotel, I discovered a short cut for the ten-minute walk to the meeting rooms. It took me into the actual outdoors, though still inside the hotel complex, and still in the carefully constructed unnatural-natural landscape. There I saw something surprising: actual grapevines, with actual grapes, still very green, on them. They were a welcome bit of actuality.

I have never pursued luxury, or had much desire to do so, though I certainly enjoy it when it comes my way. But to say that I have never pursued it doesn’t mean that I don’t find it attractive. A few weeks ago I wrote something here about the lure of the earthly paradise—the paradise of sensual ease and pleasure. The lure of the idea, and of images that suggest the idea, is very strong. And to some extent a luxury hotel realizes the idea. But I can never get out of my head the knowledge that the luxury comes at great cost, and that many of those who work to provide it do not share in it. I don’t know what the normal price for a night at the Gaylord Texan is, but the “special convention rate” paid by my employer was just under $200. Most people can’t afford to pay that very often, if at all. I cringe to imagine what it must cost to maintain the constant 72 degrees or so within this complex, summer and winter. I’m enough of an environmentalist to doubt whether our way of life is sustainable, and such things as this hotel provoke those doubts especially. And whenever I walked down the long halls of the hotel on my way to and from a day of technical sessions in the convention center, I heard the voices of the Spanish-speaking housekeepers who I doubt are very well paid. It isn’t paradise if it isn’t paradise for everyone.

Anyway, I don’t even need a place like this to feel that I’m living in luxury. I’m a middle-class resident of an industrialized nation, and most of us live in great luxury compared to most people in most times and places. 

There is an undeniable moral and spiritual problem with wealth. I think every religious tradition warns against its hazards. And for a Christian especially it is simply not licit to accumulate wealth vastly in excess of one’s needs. I don’t hold the idea that if A is rather wealthy, it can only be because he stole something from B, C, and D. I’m inclined to think that the attempt to distribute wealth more widely by taking it forcibly from some and giving it to others would tend, in the long (or maybe short) run to make everyone poorer. And “needs” is a pretty flexible term. And there is plenty of room for argument about explanations and solutions for the vast gap between rich and poor across the world and within our own society. But there’s no room for arguing that it’s a morally acceptable situation for some to starve while some live in extreme luxury, that there’s nothing wrong with the current situation in which that happens on a wide scale, or that we have no obligation to give what we can to those in immediate need, and to support efforts to alleviate the fundamental problems in whatever way we think can be effective. Four days of the pure and concentrated luxury of the Texan pricked my conscience on this score, as it ought to have done.

Here’s a short video that may give you some sense of the size of the atrium, though it only shows part of it.