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.