Sunday Night Journal 2017 Feed

Sunday Night Journal, September 24, 2017

A few weeks ago here I was griping about a bit of simple-minded stereotyping of a Christian character in the TV series Endeavour. Endeavour, in case you aren't aware of it, gives us the early life of Inspector Morse, whom every fan of British mystery stories knows; I found it disappointing but interesting. The stereotype was a cold and malicious Christian woman crusading against dirty words on television; according to the rules of this game, she had to be exposed as being not only ugly and self-righteous but a monster to her own family. [yawn] It was so crude and such a cliche that I couldn't even be much offended.

I was, however, a bit surprised, because I had some notion that this sort of thing has been done so often that writers are tired of it, and that portrayals of Christians and Christianity have tended recently to be more interesting. Well, I don't know how I can venture to make such a broad statement, as the number of movies and TV shows I see is very small. But for what it's worth, here are two instances of what I mean. Both are long and complex made-for-Netflix shows. 

First, Bloodline. This is a combination family saga and crime drama set in the Florida Keys (which are photographed with exceptional beauty, so that I want to live there, hurricanes or no hurricanes). I think I watched the first episode out of curiosity, Netflix having recommended it to me, without really knowing what to expect. One episode was enough to hook me. It is very well done. There's a lot of first-rate acting in it, especially on the part of Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn.

The Rayburn family runs a successful hotel, but--you know how this goes--Behind The Facade Of The Happy And Prosperous Family Lie Dark Secrets. Mendelsohn's character, Danny, is a sort of black sheep son who has been absent for a while and whose return sets in motion a chain of bad things. Chandler's character, John, is a detective in the county sheriff's department. The bad things play out over three "seasons" of a dozen or so episodes each. 

I read somewhere that the writers had originally envisioned five seasons, but that reviews and ratings declined steadily after the first season. At any rate the third season was the last. I can sort of see why, because most of the original story had run its course by then. But some strange and interesting things appeared toward the end of that last season. In particular there's a scene where Sally Rayburn, the family matriarch (played very effectively by Sissy Spacek), in desperation seeks out a Catholic priest for counseling and/or confession. The family is not Catholic and there's been no presence of religion in the show before this point (except for a funeral or two). Sally's troubles are of course all mixed up with her children, and the priest says something to her that really made me sit up and take notice:

You know who God is? A parent with insanely violent and destructive children. He had two choices: destroy them or die for them.

Now that's the real deal. I don't expect or even want TV and movies to preach Christianity to us. But I do want it to recognize the existential situation we face, and, if it deals with the faith, to understand that it is a serious response to a serious question. 

 (Later it appears that this encounter may not have really happened, and that a character named Ozzie, who has heretofore been a pretty frightening criminal lurking around the family, has become--or may have become--a sort of weird Christ figure, or maybe an angel or prophet. May have--it wasn't at all clear to me. I'm going to watch the last three or four episodes again and read some reviews and see if I can make sense of it.)

I recommend Bloodline, with a fair amount of qualification. The first season especially is very painful to watch in many ways. It's not sensationalistic--not a lot of violence etc.--just painful.  

The other show, The Killing, is not as good, and I don't really recommend it. This is the American version of a Danish series which Rob G has recommended to us here a number of times, but which is hard to find in the U.S. I think I started watching it out of curiosity (and impatience at not being able to get the original). I won't say I was hooked after the first episode, but there was enough what's-going-to-happen pull to make me continue. There was a lot about it that I really disliked. It is very dark, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively: it's set in Seattle, and if I were to take it as a realistic portrait of the city and its people I would be astonished that anyone could live there. It's almost always dark and almost always raining. Even the rare bit of sunlight is pale. The people are miserable. They never really turn on the lights in their houses, apparently making do with a few 40-watt bulbs. And the crimes depicted are dark, sometimes gruesome, and heartbreaking: the third season (there are four) involves the murders of teenaged girls living on the streets, and the mere fact of teenaged girls living on the streets is heartbreaking.

I expected the murder which happens in the opening scenes to be solved at the end of the first season and if it had been I would have stopped there. But it wasn't. It took two seasons to solve that crime, and by then I had gotten so interested in the two detectives working on the case that I wanted to follow the rest of the series just to see how things would work out for them. They are Sarah Linden (just "Linden" most of the time) and Steven Holder (just "Holder" most of the time), played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. As tends to be the case in contemporary crime stories, the detectives themselves have major personal problems of their own.

Anyway--to get to the point, since I'm not recommending the series--Holder's biggest problem is that he's a former (recovering?) meth addict. (Do they really let former addicts join the police?) Throughout the series there's always the fear that he's about to fall back into using. At one point, fairly late in the series, when a number of things have gone very badly wrong for him, he and Linden are driving around Seattle and he abruptly demands that she stop and let him out. She thinks, as do we, that he's off to buy drugs. But where he actually goes is to the church of a women's monastery/convent which I think is called Our Lady Queen of Peace. Like Sally in Bloodline, he's not Catholic. But also like Sally, he is in desperate need, and that's where he goes. He sits--maybe he kneels, I can't remember now--while the nuns chant from behind a screen. Nothing magical happens. But he isn't back on the needle.

An episode or two later he returns to the church, this time in even more desperate need. This time he's falling apart. After a minute or two he begins to storm around the church, yelling "Where is he?! Where is he?!" He goes over to the nuns' screen and beats on it, yelling; they are frightened and scurry away. 

Again, nothing happens. For all I know the writers intended to say that all that God stuff is meaningless. That's alright. The significant thing to me is that those scenes give us the question, the hard question, and a Catholic church as a place which at least might have the answer, ought to have the answer, and to which one naturally looks for it.

Perhaps the entertainment industry has gotten some of the simple-minded attacks and stereotypes out of its system and there is some kind of a trend toward intelligence and seriousness in treating Christianity. It would not be surprising. And this is suggestive for what seems to be a darkening cultural future: the darker the night, the brighter the light. As they say, it's science.

By the way as far as I can tell the Seattle monastery is fictional. 

Actually, now that I think about it, the intelligent-serious view of religion was present these many years ago in The X-Files. My all-time favorite line from that show, in an episode where suburban satanists have gotten themselves into grave danger: "Did you think you could call up the devil and make him behave?" An epitaph for our times, maybe.

Another line from The Killing that struck me: "To love a child is to open yourself up to all the hurt in the world."


As of 12:32pm Friday Sept. 22 I have essentially completed a first draft of my book. I know there are several places that need to be filled out further, but it's just a matter of paragraphs here and there. More dauntingly, there's a huge amount of sculpting to do on what's a fairly shapeless mass right now. But a presentable manuscript is within sight, although still distant. I should be able to get it done by the end of the year at least, if I don't get lazy and/or distracted. Next week I'll post an excerpt.


 I saw this goose about to take off and pointed the phone ahead of it and pressed the button several times. I didn't really expect to catch it but I guess I got lucky.


Sunday Night Journal, September 17, 2017

Yesterday I finally started working on a project that's years overdue: going through old notebooks and throwing away everything that doesn't seem worth keeping. The eventual goal of this is to get my office or study or whatever you want to call it into some kind of order, and to clean out one of the two desks there and turn it over to my wife. 

(Wait--no, you can't call it whatever you want to. You are forbidden to call it a "man cave.")

The first notebook I took up was a little three-ring binder with roughly 5"x7" paper which I remember using in the late '70s. The contents reveal that it was not long after my conversion/reversion to Christianity, so it was 1978-79; not later than '79, because I remember the little house in Tuscaloosa where we lived at the time, and we moved later in that year. I was 29-30 years old, and an Episcopalian. It would be two or three years before I became Catholic. Here are some notes and excerpts from an essay I was writing:

The contradiction between Christianity and capitalism

The necessity for the Christian not to consider socialism or communism as the alternative to capitalism, but rather Christianity itself

Liberal-socialist and conservative-nationalist Christianity are both submission of the Church to the world. 

...the ideas (if such notions can be dignified with that term) which govern the day-to-day behavior as well as the long-term aspirations of most of us are pagan through and through. What are these notions, and where do they come from? They are a wild mixture, having in common only the firm principle that one should be occupied mostly in pleasing oneself, and they come from almost everywhere, from liberal psychologists to conservative capitalists. The psychologist talks of fulfilling one's potential, the capitalist of economic incentives, but in both cases the message is that you have a right to whatever you can get, that the universe in some way owes you a continual increase of goodies. A Christian, I think, is bound to reply that we are owed nothing, that even our very existence puts us in the debt of Another, a debt we can never hope to repay, and that furthermore we continually increase that debt by our wickedness....

It is almost impossible to accumulate wealth without becoming more interested in wealth than anything else. This may apply to a nation as well as to an individual, and I think our own nation is an excellent example--as a nation, we are almost incapable of seeing life in other than economic terms--and when we do, we are often simply resorting to euphemisms, as in the phrase "quality of life," which was once used by social critics in reference to intangibles like the sense of community but which has increasingly come to refer to the number of gadgets and goodies a person or nation can afford to buy, or to the number of hours one has free for the pursuit of pleasure. And if one is devoting more [I guess I meant "most", or "too much"] of one's energy to maintaining and increasing one's wealth, one is disobeying Christ's commandment to love the Lord with all one's heart. We cannot serve two masters--it is as simple and as hopeless as that.

The essay was unfinished, and I don't think much of it is worth preserving. It's all fairly obvious stuff. But it brought home to me why I have to stifle a yawn whenever some Christian discovers, and tells us with great excitement, that American culture, especially in its economic aspects, is in many ways at odds with Christianity. This is often accompanied by the news that the Republican Party is not the Church, and that its program is not a program for advancing the kingdom of God, and may even at times be opposed to it. 

This kind of thing usually comes from someone who has been pretty wrapped up in right-wing politics, at least to the extent of thinking that conservative politics is a necessary part of being Christian, and that right-wing policies, including a pretty uncritical support of "capitalism" (not a very well-defined term) are in general Christian ones, and the Republican Party is the vehicle for putting those policies into practice. 

As the excerpts above show, I didn't believe that in 1978. I didn't come to believe it afterward, even as the battle lines of the culture war were drawn clearly and starkly. It was therefore never an idea that I needed to get past, as it was for Excited Christian above.

It happens that I am in fact a political conservative (for lack of a better word) and think that in the American context conservatism (for lack of a better word) is preferable to liberalism (for lack of a better word), and that conservatism is more congenial to Christianity than liberalism as both currently work. But I think I can say truthfully that never for a moment have I believed that any political program or party, that any conceivable political reform, was the path to the deep renewal of human life that we long for. It might be able to improve conditions and even ameliorate serious evils, but it could never turn us into good people. It might provide some of the conditions for happiness, but it could never make us happy. Even at the height of my investment in the counter-culture of the 1960s I never saw that revolution as primarily a political one, but rather as a sort of religious movement. 

And so when somebody announces as if it were a new discovery that no political party can be conflated with the Church, I agree, but I wonder why they are bothering to say it. It's as if they've just discovered that circles don't have corners and want to tell everybody about it. I want to say "Well sure, obviously. But now what?"

The thing I miss, of course, is that a lot of people apparently do make the mistake that Excited Christian is trying to correct. It really does come as a shock to them that Republican orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy are not only not the same thing but may be in contradiction. A good number of them, I suspect, are young people who have grown up amid the culture wars and have been hearing since childhood that Republicans Are Good and Democrats Are Bad, and now as adults are seeing things less simplistically, which probably became easier when so many Christians supported Trump so unreservedly. The past year certainly indicates that there are a lot more people who don't fully see the distinction between Republicanism and Christianity, or who are blinded to it by some kind of tribal loyalty, than I had realized.

The left tries to do the same sort of thing, the same sort of conflation of their program with Christianity, but they aren't as convincing, in part because if they are any sort of Christian at all they tend to be nominal or heterodox. 


There was also this in my notebook:

How mistaken to associate virtue, wisdom, intelligence with what we ordinarily call the intellectual faculty or with aesthetic sensibility. I've known too many semi-literate people who were wise and gentle, too many literary persons who brought to their studies the philosophy and ethics of a mugger.

When I wrote this down I was probably thinking, among other things, of something that had happened at the clinic where I was working part-time as a programmer. (I know I've told this story here at least once, so please bear with me if you remember it.) My desk was in a trailer out back, and I often worked odd hours. Sometimes I was there when the two cleaning women came in. They were past-middle-age black women--I'm sure I would have called them "old" at the time, but now I'd guess they were probably in their late 50s, not young but not exactly elderly. Sometimes they would sit for a bit and we would chat. One night we were talking about the state of the world, which we agreed was declining. "Everything gettin' so high," one of them said, meaning prices--this was the period of high inflation. We listed other signs of trouble. One of them sighed and said "I reckon the Lord'll take care of us. He know we all crazy."

I think that is the single wisest thing I have ever heard anyone say in actual conversation, in my presence (as opposed to something I've read in a book). I suppose hardly a week has gone by since that night that I haven't thought of it. It sums up our situation pretty neatly.

This reminds me of another gem heard many years ago, from a black preacher I heard on the radio: "Folks is not yo' enemy. The devil is yo' enemy." I have heard some great stuff from black preachers on the radio, stuff I very much wish I could have recorded. 


More nostalgia from that 1958 Life magazine. 


My parents subscribed to Life. I learned a lot from it. I remember a long and horrifying but morbidly fascinating piece they did in the mid-196os about heroin addicts in New York. Oh my goodness, here it is, at least the photos. February 1965. I was a junior in high school. I remember some of those pictures. I never thought heroin addiction would come to little towns in Alabama.

Sunday Night Journal, September 10, 2017

I finally watched the John Huston film of Wise Blood that's been sitting on my DVR for many months now. I recommend it. I can find some faults with it--one significant one, which I'll get to in a minute--but overall it's excellent. Huston obviously respected the book and intended to be faithful to it, and succeeded very well. I doubt we could hope for a better film adaptation.

Most of the characters are very well cast, especially the all-important Hazel Motes. I had read that Harry Dean Stanton was in it and assumed he would be Motes, as he certainly looks the part, but he's Reverend Hawks, and it was obvious on first sight of him that he was already in 1979 somewhat too old for Haze. Haze is played by an actor whose name I didn't recognize, Brad Dourif, but on reading a bit about him I realized I had seen him in one memorable role: Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a good movie which I never want to see again). Billy, if you recall, is a pretty messed up young mental patient; apparently Dourif has a gift for such roles. He doesn't really quite fit my physical image of Haze, but I can't hold that against him, and the important thing is that he manages to get Haze's intensity.

Some of the southern accents are a little shaky at times, but not so much as to interfere. The only major character that I felt was not well done was Enoch Emory, and it was perhaps a little miscast: Emery is not a nice person, and Dan Shor makes him seem more ordinary, harmless, and likeable than he really is.

One decision surprised me a little: instead of placing the story circa 1950, when the novel was written and seems to be set, Huston makes it contemporary--that is, in 1979. That could have been an economic decision, I guess. I thought at first that it might be a problem, but it really isn't. Possibly some of the devices that were appropriate in 1950 would not, in real life, have existed in quite the same way and with quite the same effects in the late '70s. I'm thinking of Gonga in particular, the supposed gorilla exhibited at movie theaters. One could assert plausibly that characters like Motes, Hawks, and several others would have been very different in 1979. But those concerns are pretty minor; I at any rate didn't find it difficult to accept them.

Now, about that one significant flaw: it's the very ill-advised music. Considering how well the director and the actors seemed to grasp the book at least in its psychology if not its theology, I don't know how it happened that a banjo-ridden sound track appropriate to one of those Burt Reynolds trucker movies got attached to this movie. "Tennessee Waltz" plays during the opening credits and off and on throughout, and it's not very appropriate. But the upbeat bluegrass stuff that bursts in from time to time is about as fitting as rap. The effect is really pretty jarring. No music at all would have been preferable. But it doesn't by any means ruin the film.

Not surprisingly, watching the film sent me straightaway to the book for comparison. It had probably been thirty years since I last read it, and although I retained powerful images of the big scenes, and a few details that happened to stick with me ("high rat-colored car," for instance), much of it had faded. Now I'm obliged to say that although the film is very good, it doesn't approach the power of the book. It's quite faithful to the narrative, on the whole, but is still much less than the book. It doesn't include everything in the narrative, but it keeps the essential story intact. What's missing is not so much people or incidents, but the narrative voice, which gives the book so much of its depth. No matter how well an actor does at creating on screen someone who looks and behaves like Haze Motes or Enoch Emery, he can't give us those explicit guides and glimpses into their inner lives which the narrator of the book does. He can't, for instance, by words and action alone communicate the weird and disturbing compulsion that drives Enoch Emory.

I put the book down feeling something close to awe. It is surely one of the strangest novels ever written. It's easy for people to get the impression that O'Connor is writing about people whom one might have encountered in real life anywhere in the South. And of course we have had our fanatical country preachers and so forth. But let me tell you: these folks would have been about as bizarre in the eyes of most Southerners of the time as they would be now. I'm really a little surprised that the novel was published, and that it was fairly well-received.

It may be that literary Catholics of our time have come to take O'Connor for granted. "Yeah, yeah, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, we know all about them, what else do you have?" Or maybe that's just me. At any rate, that's a mistake. Wise Blood is as strange and brilliant and shocking as it ever was. What strikes me above all is the way it scorches to ashes the spiritual evasions and pretensions of post-Christian modernity. The scene where Haze Motes and his nemesis Hoover Shoates engage in dueling sermons based on opposing errors does the job all by itself: the Church of Christ Without Christ vs. the "new Jesus" who wants everybody to be happy. But of course post-Christian modernity doesn't get the message, doesn't feel scorched at all, and still wants to follow one or the other, sans the hick trappings.

I remain a little puzzled, as I was when I first read the book, by Enoch Emery. I see him as driven by something much more primitive and dark than the philosophical and theological problems that plague Haze Motes. He seems to represent a third current, something worse than Haze's nihilism but maybe implicit in it: a desire to get rid of the burden of being human altogether, a drive toward death and/or animality. Whatever that force is--we can certainly speculate--it is very much alive among us now, even among very sophisticated and scientifically knowledgeable people.

I also remain a little unsatisfied by one element of the story. I thought, on first and second readings many years ago, that Haze's abrupt repentance is too abrupt, that we don't get sufficient insight into it. He's doing all right in his terms, heading for a new place in his rat-colored car, with no reservations of which we're aware, and then suddenly, deprived of the car, he's completely transformed, though we don't know it until he takes the next step. We can attribute the revelation to the destruction of the car and the consequent sense of helplessness and of being thrown back on his own inadequate resources--which is to say his feet--but we don't get the picture of the workings of his mind that was built up previously by his actions and by the narrator's descriptions of him. I don't know if that's a common reservation about the book or not. Maybe that's just me, too.

Netflix has the film on DVD, by the way. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I had recorded it from Turner Classic Movies, before we gave up most of our cable subscription. It was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz as a film "set in the American South, detailing the complexity of one man's return home from war." I think Flannery O'Connor would have enjoyed that.


Speaking of Catholic writers who write strange things: the Catholic Herald had an interesting piece about Alice Thomas Ellis a couple of weeks ago. She's someone who's been on my Read More Of list for a long time, since I read a couple of her books maybe twenty years ago, but I've never gotten back to her. The two I read were a novel, Fairy Tale, which though it has nothing else in common with Wise Blood is at least as weird, and Serpent on the Rock, a collection of essays. There's also a good essay about Ellis by Sally Thomas, published in First Things back in 2008.

And speaking of Sally Thomas, she has a very fine short story called "Not Less Than Everything" (T.S. Eliot, if you think the phrase sounds familiar but can't place it), in the Pentecost issue of Dappled Things. It's one of two stories in that issue which deal with--sorry to use the stock phrase--unplanned pregnancies. But don't let that give you the impression that they are in the least didactic. They aren't. They simply explore the situations, one from a male and one from a female point of view, and neither one simple or conventional. The second is by Abigail Rine Favale and is called "Obedience Lessons." To read them you'll need to buy the magazine, which you can do here. I subscribed a while back and though I don't like everything in the three issues I've received so far, I intend to renew my subscription.


A week or so ago I had occasion to look at a 1958 issue of Life magazine and was more fascinated by the advertisements than by the stories. My first car was a 1959 Chevrolet, similar to the one here but much duller: plain white, no chrome trim, blackwall tires, and I don't remember the rear of the roof having that snazzy overhang. I think of it as mine but it really wasn't. It was a joint investment on the part of my father and his brother for the purpose of their five high-school-age children getting from our home in the country to Athens High, fifteen or so miles away. But I often had the use of it on weekends. I don't think my father and uncle got such a good deal on it. I remember a few times when it barely chugged to the top of a not-very-steep hill. And it apparently had been shipped to Alabama from some dealer up north where they put salt on the roads in winter, because the floorboard in the back seat rusted through. I remember driving around town on Friday or Saturday night once and somebody putting a stick through the hole and dragging it along the pavement. It made a lot of noise, which we enjoyed.


Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017

When I was in high school and thinking about college, I thought of the admissions process as a test which I might or might not pass, a door whose default position was closed and which was only opened to those who met certain standards. The college, in my mind, was not offering to accept me; I was asking it for that privilege, and couldn't assume that it would be granted. In fact I probably could have assumed that about the school I ended up going to, the University of Alabama, since I had decent grades and good test scores, but I didn't know that, and there was at least some selectivity involved. 

Years later when I went to work at a small Catholic liberal arts college, I was more than a little shocked to discover that the admissions office could just as well (and more accurately) have been called the sales office. The job of the people who worked there was to sell the college to potential students, and while it did and does have some standards and does not admit everyone who applies, the task of the admissions staff is not to weed out the less qualified and select the best, but to recruit anyone who might possibly be able to manage both the course work and the expense. They were salespeople, as you sensed immediately if you spent time among them. (That's not a put-down; in my experience people who are good at selling are generally likeable.) That was twenty-five years ago. The task was difficult then and is just as much so now. 

I've read a good deal over the past decade or so, especially over the past five years, about the state of higher education. In many ways, as we all know, it's not very good. Among many other things, it has gotten insanely expensive, the cost far exceeding the general rate of inflation, and that's the topic of a lot of the commentary, which attempts to find causes and cures. But most of what I've read looks only at the big public universities, and possibly the bigger and more prestigious private ones. The situation of smaller and poorer institutions is very different. 

One thing which drives the overall development, and which is perhaps the biggest and most obvious thing affecting small colleges, is that there are too many of institutions pursuing too few potential students. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. There was the post-World-War-II baby boom, of course, and the fewer number of children produced by them than by their parents. But these little colleges didn't spring into existence to serve the baby boom--they existed before it. How were they managing before? I don't know. But I came into that job after a decade in the computer industry, and although I don't claim any great business insight it soon became obvious to me that if higher education had been like other areas of business,  it would have been long overdue for a shakeout: that is, for some significant number of the "companies" to fail because they were all selling very similar products and there simply weren't enough customers to support them all. 

That didn't happen, and the biggest single reason for that is federal financial aid. But the "business"--and in some ways, much as academics might like to think otherwise, higher education is in certain fundamental ways a business, even if it isn't intended to make a profit--the business has in some ways changed a great deal in twenty-five years, and in ways that are generally not much to the liking of those who really care about liberal education as an end in itself.

Last week I ran across a piece by John Seery in Modern Age called "Somewhere Between A Jeremiad and a Eulogy" which comes closer than anything else I've read to an accurate description of the situation in small liberal arts colleges. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading it. However, it still doesn't quite get to the fundamental problem of schools like mine, because the writer is at a school with a lot of money in the bank as well as a good deal of prestige. He doesn't understand (or at least doesn't address) the situation of schools which don't have big endowments and thus are dependent year-to-year on tuition and donations to keep them afloat.  One such, Marygrove College in Detroit, is essentially closing down, eliminating all its undergraduate programs. If you read the article at that link, you'll get a picture of the threat faced by every similar school; Marygrove has apparently hit a wall toward which many others have skidded fairly close but so far managed to avoid hitting. "Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines"--that prospect is all too familiar for similar colleges. And by the way note the names of the schools paragraph toward the end beginning "Other colleges....": a disproportionate number of small private liberal arts colleges are Catholic. (I suppose the early 20th-century improvement in both the numbers and the finances of Catholics in this country, combined with the desire to have specifically Catholic education, is part of my earlier question about how they came into existence pre-baby-boom.)

But the Modern Age piece misses a couple of things that perhaps apply to all institutions but are especially serious for small and relatively poor ones. One is the extent to which many of the changes which faculty deplore are driven by that market problem I mentioned (a "structural" problem, I think they call it). There are not enough qualified (financially and academically) students to go around. Therefore there is competition for them, and therefore every school is constantly looking for something to distinguish itself from other similar ones. For rich schools, the competition is for prestige. For lesser ones, it's for survival. This creates a sort of arms race for amenities. 

My field is software and my job involves (I'm still working part-time) the systems that support the dull everyday administrative work of the school. When I started at my school, there was much talk among technologists of using ("leveraging"--I hate that term) technology to set one's school apart. I groaned. I thought that was a recipe for disaster, or at least trouble. What would happen, obviously, I thought, was that the schools with bigger budgets would introduce new technology-based services, and for a while that would give them a competitive advantage, but other schools would be forced to follow along in order to keep up, and for the poorer ones this would not be an advantage but a simple necessity for keeping the doors open. I specifically remember thinking and saying that some twenty years ago when schools began to provide free internet access for their students. This, I said, would do nothing for our school but raise the cost of operating the place, which is exactly what happened. Free internet, including campus-wide wireless coverage, is now considered as much a necessity as electricity--and the school gets just the same appreciation and advantage for providing it.

Seery complains about the escalating cost of software. This is a a fact, and I sympathize. Technology is expensive and it plays a significant role in the rise of tuition. But it is more and more pervasive mainly because people want it, both students and faculty. Some faculty are clueless and frankly a bit bratty about technology: they want it, but they don't want to recognize the expense involved. I've been in more than one meeting where a faculty member has sneered at the school's IT staff because Other School has this or that cool new technology and we don't, unaware of and uninterested in the fact that Other School has three times the staff and four times the budget. In extreme cases the complaint is comparable to griping that the maintenance department is not building new buildings. 

The question of whether all this technology should even be provided is moot at most schools. Some people might argue that it is only a distraction and a drain, and I'd be inclined to agree about a lot of it. But it is not being forced upon people by the IT department--at least not at my school, where IT staff are just desperately trying to keep their heads above water.

A substantial part of Seery's complaint is the expansion of the school's administration. This is certainly a valid complaint. He is dubious that the explanations that point to federal regulations and the demands of accrediting agencies are sufficient. Well, they may not be sufficient, but they are certainly significant. I mentioned earlier that many institutions would have to shut their doors without federal financial aid (mostly loans). That happens to touch on the, um, dare I say, intersection of technology and administrative demands. As it happens my college uses the same administrative software that Seery's college does (unless they have recently changed). I'm very familiar with that software. The financial aid module is definitely the most complex piece of the system. And worse, it changes constantly, requiring attention in various ways from both IT and financial aid staff. And that change is driven by the decisions and policies of the Department of Education, and the college has no more choice about keeping up with those change than it does about paying the utility bill. 

Accreditation, I think, is driven by some of the same forces as technology. Bigger and richer schools establish "best practices." Smaller and poorer ones have to keep up because they have to stay accredited. They would not be eligible for federal programs if they were not, so withdrawal of accreditation would be a death sentence for most schools. (I believe Hillsdale College is one of the very few, if not the only, schools able to prosper outside this system. It would be interesting to know how they do it but it must involve a large endowment.)

Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this the role of faculty is diminished? I deplore that, but I think faculty often fail to comprehend the forces that are driving the change.

There's one thing in the Seery piece I'd like to emphasize, as I suspect it's not know outside of academia. He denies that faculty are, in general, the main drivers of campus leftism:

If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).

I think this is more or less true on most campuses. It was only in the past five or ten years that this began to sink in on me: that the administrative arm which is responsible for overseeing all the non-academic aspects of campus life has a decided impulse toward left-wing proselytizing. I'm on the administrative, not the academic, side of the house, and have very little involvement or contact with academics. But my impression of the faculty at my school is that, though they may be pretty uniformly liberal-progressive in their views, they are also intellectually serious and honest, and are not the single-minded ideologues from whom we hear occasionally, and who seem to be mostly in those dubious specialties that are more less left-wing-activist by definition.

The growth of the whole student life sector is also related to the amenities arms race. As is the need for constructing elaborate recreational centers. As is the need to have a coffee shop in the library. And let's not leave out the effects of general cultural decline and stress which have helped to produce more students with bigger problems than was the case a generation ago, and the corresponding growth in various forms of support and therapy for them. And that reminds me of the lawyers: fear of lawsuits probably also generates defensive measures that require administrative overhead.

Both students and parents expect as a matter of course services and facilities that would have been considered luxurious and unnecessary even twenty years ago, to say nothing of forty or fifty. In short you could probably account for a substantial portion of the rise in college costs if you could figure out a way to measure the impact of the arms race, the constant push for schools to keep up or at least not fall too far behind in the competition for making themselves attractive to students.

If this sounds like students (and parents) are in the position of being picky and demanding customers in a buyer's market, they are. I've heard many times a student complaint that begins with "I'm paying $N,000 every year to go to school here, and I expect..." And this mentality, I hear, gets into the classroom as well, and probably has an effect on grade inflation.

Well, I'm running out of time, so I'll stop there, though I could run on at length. As an academic manqué, and a firm believer in the ideals of liberal education, as well as an employee at an IHED (institution of higher education), this is a subject of great import to me. I had several other things I'd meant to discuss but they can wait till next week.


I went out to bring in the garbage can one morning last week and looked up and saw this. I think I looked up because I had walked into a spider web and couldn't figure out what it was doing in the middle of the driveway. It made me think of Mirkwood. It's at least fifteen feet from one of the two trees to which the web was attached to the other.




Sunday Night Journal, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Night Journal is now a bit different from its earlier version, the one that appeared for most of the years from 2004 through 2012. Many of those earlier ones (not all by any means) were worked on for much of the week before they appeared. Not necessarily written, but much thought about, and perhaps written in a partial and/or rough draft. By Sunday I generally knew pretty much exactly what I was going to say, and put a good bit of effort into the attempt to say it well.

That's no longer the case, as regular readers (all two dozen of you) may remember: when I decided to revive the journal this year I meant for it to be a more casual thing, in great part an outlet for my unstompable urge to comment on this or that thing that has nothing directly to do with the book project that's getting whatever attention I can manage for writing during the week. I actually do sit down Sunday afternoon or evening with no more than a mental list of one or two or three or four things I want to mention. And so much of what comes out is more or less off the top of my head. I may just be thinking out loud. 

Such was the case last week, when I wrote what amounted to a prolonged grumble about various parties who have been trying to bully everyone who is remotely associated with the political right into denouncing Nazis and Klansmen. I really had only intended to write a paragraph or so, but I kept banging on. I am naturally, and no doubt too cynically, a little suspicious of public expressions of deep emotion about events that the expresser is not personally involved in, and much more so about the species of it for which the useful phrase"virtue signaling" has been coined. I think there's been a whole lot of virtue signaling going on. And the demand had pushed my contrariness button. 

Anyway: that's all by way of saying that there's a provisional quality about what I write  here now, and I may have second thoughts, which I may or may not voice later on. Last week someone privately brought up a more substantial reason--more substantial than virtue signaling--for making the denunciation loud and clear. Among other things, this person pointed out that Trump's presidency has from the beginning had the potential to destroy the conservative movement, and that this has been the reason why so many principled and thoughtful conservatives appropriated the label NeverTrump for themselves (yes, that's supposed to have a Twitter "hashtag" but I refuse to cooperate, as Twitter seems to be an important vehicle for fulfilling the worst possibilities of the Internet). 

I more or less agreed with their basic position although I never claimed the label (like I said, I'm contrary). But the reason was more straightforward: I couldn't see Trump as a competent president. I really didn't give a whole lot of thought to the farther-reaching implications and possibilities. 

From the period in the late '70s and early '80s when I began the process of admitting that I was in fact some sort of conservative, I've tended to keep the movement at arm's length. That was mainly because I always had significant disagreements with it and am anyway not much of a movement-joiner. Worse, the vehicle for the expression of more-or-less-conservative ideas in practical politics was and is the Republican Party, and a pretty poor vehicle it is. I've more than once said that I don't care at all about the fortunes of the Republican Party, and I haven't really changed my mind. But more than one person on both sides of the Democrat-Republican divide have speculated that Trump's ascendancy could destroy the Republican party.

A lot of Trump's supporters would say that would be a good thing. But that would depend entirely on what replaced it. Being a pessimist, I am always ready to point out the folly of thinking that things can't get worse. What might replace the Republican Party? Trumpism? Well, what is that? I honestly don't know. I've mocked those who call him a fascist, because fascism is an ideology, and if there is anything that Trump is not, it's an ideologue. If he can be compared to any dictatorial type, it's to what we used to call tin-pot dictators: the ones who have tended to rise to the top in some countries where the balance between authoritarianism and anarchy is difficult to find. These men are typically motivated mainly by wealth and power, not the desire to impose an abstract system, which is the essence of both fascism and communism. 

At any rate I have never seen any evidence that Trump is a conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. I've often made a distinction between "conservative" and "right-wing," and I think it applies to him. He may (or may not, depending on his mood) be right-wing, but he's not conservative. That doesn't mean that he won't do things that conservatives applaud, and if he gets to nominate one more conservative Supreme Court justice his presidency could turn out to be more good than bad for conservatism. But because he is more or less on the right, his association with nasty forces could produce such animosity that it would cripple anything resembling conservatism as a political force. (I started to say "taint", but that's not strong enough; liberals have believed that conservatives are racist fascist etc for fifty years and nothing is going to change that.)

A lot of conservative Christians, mainly evangelicals but a fair number of Catholics as well, see Trump as a sort of warrior who will stop and maybe turn back the revolution of militant secular progressivism that seems determined to force Christians into a choice between capitulating to anti-Christian doctrine (error has no rights!) or being expelled from legitimate society. But any victories for Christians in this situation could well turn out to be Pyrrhic. 

Seems to me there are two possible outcomes. One: Trump and Trumpism turn out to be flukes, and after one term (or perhaps an uncompleted term), national politics returns to the old Democrats-vs.-Republicans pattern more or less as if nothing had happened. Two: Trumpism splits the right, broadly construed, into the factions that I've called conservative and right-wing, with conservatism a minority. It's not far-fetched to imagine that progressivism would be both the cultural and political beneficiary of that.

And why should we care? What does it matter whether conservatism is conserved? The whole question of what conservatism can mean in a fundamentally liberal order has also bothered me from the beginning, and of course conservative thinkers have chewed away on it for a long time. The question of what is left to preserve seems more challenging every year. Still: the liberal order had Christian roots and respected Christian belief and institutions, and it produced a pretty decent society, all the obvious evils notwithstanding. What is likely to replace it is the intolerant and totalizing progressive religion that is currently flourishing all over the place. 

There was a striking comment on one of Rod Dreher's posts a few days ago. As I write this I don't have the link handy but will try to find it and post it in a comment. The topic was, well, all this stuff. As you know I find Dreher's high level of agitation a bit much and don't read him that often, but have been doing so recently, and he has been saying some useful and interesting (if sometimes overwrought) things about the current controversies. Anyway, this commenter observed that some Christians see Trump as a Constantine figure, one who will (re-)establish Christian faith as the dominant political force in the U.S. (Impossible by that means, I think.) But he suggested that they might have it wrong: perhaps the actual Constantine was Obama, and Trump is Julian the Apostate.


A whole lot of pixels over the past week or two have been generated by arguments over whether the fascists or the anti-fascists are worse. It seems a moot point to me. What strikes me as more important, and more worrisome, is the thought of two very nasty factions battling in our streets. That, more than Trump himself, seems to me to conjure 1920s Germany. 

The evil of the "fascists" is obvious. (I put the word in quotes because I have the impression that they haven't fully adopted (or maybe even understood) the ideology, but are acting out some bit of theater.) I hear people saying that it's more important to condemn them than to condemn their violent opponents. I don't know about that. I know that the only two people I've ever heard explicitly state their intention to kill their political enemies were on the left. One was a young man who had been part of the protests in Seattle in 1999. This was at my parents' house at Christmas, probably of the same year. He was an in-law of an in-law who was only there the one time, and I don't remember his name. He sat across from me in a comfortable chair and calmly spoke of the necessity for the revolution to kill all the Christians. I didn't take him all that seriously, but still, it was disturbing. 

The other is a guy whose bloodthirsty hopes I've seen on Facebook via his comments on other people's posts. I don't know how seriously to take him, either. But on my personal scorecard of threats, that's anti-fascists 2, fascists 0. 

Oh yeah, and there was the guy I knew in the '60s, whose ex-wife I discovered lived down the street from us in the 1980s. I asked about him and she said he had gone far into hard leftism (she herself was still an unreconstructed hippie), and that the last time she'd seen him he'd been talking about the necessity of killing not only the bourgeoisie, but their children, so that there wouldn't be anyone left to seek vengeance.

At any rate I don't see why we should have to declare ourselves less unfavorably disposed toward the one than the other.


Changing the subject (at last!): I noticed a week or two ago that there are new episodes of the British mystery series Hinterland on Netflix. I liked the previous episodes pretty well, though not as much as some similar productions. I like this series better than the others. I'm not altogether sure why. Partly it was the plot (or plots--there are per-episode stories and a continuing one). Also, it seems to me that the cinematography is exceptional. And the sound track, a subdued minimalist combination of piano and electronica, is very good. 

Fans of the previous series will be relieved to know that the red parka is still there.

There are also new episodes of Shetland. I don't know how long they'd been there. Here, again, I liked this series even better than the earlier ones. 

And there is a new series of Endeavour in progress. Which I also think is better. Maybe I just always think the most recent one is the best. But no, that's not true. I could give instances that went the other way. House of Cards, for one.

[A Monday morning addendum: I had only seen the first episode of Endeavour when I wrote the paragraph above. Later last night I watched the second one. It was fairly terrible. Aside from the fact that it featured a walking cliche of a nasty Christian as a major character, seeing to it that she was humiliated even though she really didn't have that much to do with the main plot, the main plot was a mess that almost became nonsensical. The only thing good about it was a pretty good portrayal of a rock band of the time (ca. 1967), though even there I think it got some things wrong: an English rock band in the late '60s afraid of taking LSD?]

Sunday Night Journal, August 20, 2017

After the disturbance and the murder in Charlottesville, I saw more than one demand that anyone who considers himself a conservative or in any way on the political right make a public denunciation of the Klan, the Nazis, and all others of their ilk. I have not done this, although I do detest their views and was shocked by the murder. There is something in me that resists making such public announcements, and I've been asking myself what it is. It would cost me nothing, really, so why not do it?I think my reluctance has two components.

The first, and strongest, is that it is a bullying accusation, saying, in effect, "You resemble certain people whom I consider to be monsters, and so I suspect that you may be a monster, too. I'm generously giving you an opportunity to prove to me that you are not." (Not very generously at all, actually, because the demand tends to come from those who already consider conservatism to be next door to fascism. I know someone who seems to believe very sincerely that the Republican Party is the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan.) The demand for a public statement of correct opinion is not made of those who are not already suspect. It's a variant on the ancient rhetorical trap of the loaded question: when did you stop beating your wife? Most people who recognize the game refuse to play it. I do.

Not very long ago at all a progressive activist took a rifle and a pistol and plenty of ammunition to a softball field where a group of Republicans were practicing for a game. It seems that he would have killed them all if he had not been himself killed by police. As it was, he only managed to injure gravely one congressman, and give a police woman, Crystal Granger, an ankle wound. It didn't occur to me to demand that my friends or anyone else on the left prove their good faith by formally denouncing the shooting. I assumed that at the very least they did not approve of it, even though this fellow apparently is generally of the same mind as they on politics, which is not the case with me and the Charlottesville demonstrators. Probably I could with a few minutes' searching turn up some leftists who did approve, but I would not take those as evidence that all did.

I expect the same courtesy to be extended to me. And if that's naive, there's not much point in my trying to demonstrate my good faith; it's already presumed bad, and the burden on me to prove otherwise, and what argument will succeed in that? I deny that my political views bear any resemblance at all to those of Nazis and Klansmen, and do not deign even to argue the point because arguing with a loaded question is a losing game, and meant to be.

But there's another and more fundamental reason that I tend not to make public statements of grief or outrage about events like the Charlotte mess. This is mainly a matter of personal temperament, but I generally find such statements a little unconvincing when made by other people, and in making one would feel whatever I said to be unconvincing. The reason is that any words I might come up with would be so vastly inadequate to the thing. What, for instance, can I say to what happened a few days ago in Barcelona, which as of right now has killed fourteen times as many people as the Charlottesville attack? To write a few words expressing shock and horror, perhaps to add, on Facebook, a few emojis signifying weeping and/or prayers, would feel absurd, almost offensive in its triviality as compared to the horror. 

I don't mean to mock or belittle anyone who is in the habit of making such statements. If you do, I assume that you are expressing what you actually feel, and that you are not merely engaging in pro forma gestures. But it feels that way to me when I do it. And so I generally don't. If that makes me seem indifferent or callous, I regret it, but don't intend to do differently. Person to person, in the face of someone's grief, I'll say words that I know are inadequate, because I know that as a rule in those situations any gesture of sympathy is worth something; it is truly the gesture that matters. But publicly, in a matter that has nothing directly to do with me, and addressed to the world at large rather than to those who are actually suffering, it feels insincere. It feels like cant. 

Samuel Johnson's "Clear your mind of cant" was said in a somewhat different context, but it's relevant:

BOSWELL: “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”—JOHNSON: “That’s cant, sir. It would not vex you more in the House than in the gallery: public affairs vex no man.”—BOSWELL: “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’?”—JOHNSON: “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dog on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”—BOSWELL: “Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”—JOHNSON: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

 (I copied and pasted that directly from As often with Johnson, you have to remember that he delighted in verbal combat, and not take everything he says as the last word on the subject. I believe we all these days sometimes experience real anxiety caused by the times, and may in fact sleep less, or eat less. But for the most part it is our private joys and sorrows that really affect us, for better and for worse. As Johnson also said:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.


In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia : that's a Washington Post headline. It's a pretty disheartening contrast to the wild cries of "This is Trump's America!" that have been the progressive reaction to Charlottesville. Guilt by association is forbidden where Islam is concerned, but required toward Trump-supporting Americans.


Something else that I've seen more than once since the election: anti-Trumpers declaring their intention to cut Trump supporters entirely out of their lives. This really rather shocks me. Political differences, and even more so religious differences, can certainly, and in fact have, come between me and people I know, to the point that we don't much enjoy each other's company, and so have little to do with each other. But it's certainly not, on my side and I hope not on theirs, a deliberate act of rejection or excommunication, just a sad consequence of having too little in common to sustain the relationship. But to those for whom politics has taken the place of religion, Trump is a blasphemy, a sacrilege, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. I suppose the effect is especially brutal since he succeeds a man who was a sort of saint to them, the philosopher-king Barack the Good. 

I was at a gathering of my wife's family on Friday night. There were twenty or thirty people there, and I never heard a single word about politics. I know there was at least one avid Trump supporter there, and at least a couple who oppose him, though maybe not passionately. I think this is more typical of Americans as a whole than the obsession with politics that results in the sort of animosity I described.


Yesterday afternoon I was browsing the news and, naturally, found myself thinking "How can people be so stupid?" Then I went outside and mowed the lawn in flip-flops.


I don't understand the coloring of this picture. It's the late afternoon sun a few weeks ago, but where are the colors? It does have some hints of color, so I didn't just change it to black-and-white. I use the now-obsolete photo editing tool Picasa to fiddle around with pictures, but it saves a history all modifications, and there's no record of any change to this one. Some quirk of the no doubt overwhelmed iPhone camera, I guess.



Sunday Night Journal, August 13, 2017

Some time back, maybe two years or so, I saw a "meme" on Facebook which contrasted the educational backgrounds of left-wing and right-wing TV-radio controversialists, much to the disadvantage of the right-wingers, at least in the eyes of whoever constructed the "meme."  (I'm sorry, I cannot resign myself to the unqualified acceptance of that silly term.) For the left, it was people like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, who have degrees from prestigious schools (the only one I remember now was William and Mary). For the right, it was people like Rush Limbaugh, who have little or no education past high school. (This required some cherry-picking, excluding, for instance, George Will, Ph.D, Princeton, but then he is more a print than a television presence. If the comparison were made entirely within the realm of print, conservatives would certainly hold their own, though they would be outnumbered.)

I reposted the "meme" with some sort of derisive comment about people who place excessive value on educational credentials. I don't remember exactly what I said, and although it's presumably still available on Facebook it would take a while to find it. In any case I apparently did not express my meaning very clearly, because I immediately got several responses from people making remarks along the lines of "If you needed a lawyer, wouldn't you want one who went to a good law school?" and, if I remember correctly, at least suggesting that I might be anti-intellectual.

The episode distressed me, because I hate being misconstrued. I don't mind disagreement at all, but I want the disagreement to be about what I said--or, if I said it badly, what I meant to say--not about something I did not intend to say. (The most unpleasant interchange I've ever had on Facebook involved someone misinterpreting my assertion that white people cannot fix what is wrong in poor black communities as meaning that the condition of those communities is unrelated to white racism. Or something like that. Not sure it ever got cleared up.)

In the remark about education I meant to be saying two things: first, that formal education in itself is hardly a requirement for engaging in combat journalism on television and radio, which is essentially a branch of the entertainment industry. Any reasonably intelligent person can gather up rocks to throw at his political enemies. But very few can mount their attacks convincingly and entertainingly on television or radio. That takes a good deal of natural talent and no doubt a good deal of practice. It's not a skill I much admire, but it is both rare and lucrative, and those few people who do it really well make a great deal of money.

It does not, however, require any specific type of formal education, or very much of it. Nor does it make much use of the breadth and depth of mind which are supposed to be acquired through higher education. Excessive care for the disinterested pursuit of truth would in fact be a handicap for it.

Second, I meant that in general to make formal education a primary indicator of the respect due to the person is a serious mistake. I meant that first in relation to wisdom and virtue; I have known a great many educated and uneducated people and have never seen any indication that either is generally superior to the other in those qualities. Moreover, in our time (maybe in all times) there are special forms of foolishness that are far more likely to be found in those who have had a great deal of schooling, and therefore are pervasive today in our educated class. Much of it falls broadly under the condemnation of the adage: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you do know that ain't so." (See this for attribution of the remark.)

I meant it in more down-to-earth terms as well. Many occupations--law, medicine, plumbing--require specialized "KSAs", as personnel managers call them: Knowledge, Skills, and Ability. In some cases the K and S are best acquired through formal training. But in the end it is the A that matters most, and in many occupations a combination of natural aptitude and hands-on work in the field can be as likely as formal training to impart it. I would think performing on television and radio would be among those. 


Why is this old conversation on my mind? It was a train of thought that began with this, a "tweet" (another term I can't bring myself to use as if it were a real word except in the context of birdsong):

Difference between Nazi and Communist is when you say how horrible Nazis have been, they don’t say “Well, real Nazism has never been tried.”

I saw it at Neo-neocon's blog, and thought it was pretty funny. Reading the comments, I came across a reference to the Nazi's "Einsatzgruppen." Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that these were essentially death squads charged with carrying out massacres of certain categories of civilians considered to be enemies of the Reich. And I found this:

Many Einsatzgruppe leaders were highly educated; for example, nine of seventeen leaders of Einsatzgruppe A held doctorate degrees. Three Einsatzgruppen were commanded by holders of doctorates, one of whom (SS-Gruppenführer Otto Rasch) held a double doctorate.

Franz Jägerstätter, on the other hand, was a farmer with "little formal education."


Maybe technology has too much of a hold on me. No, not "maybe", "definitely." A little earlier today I was looking for a magazine that I have mislaid. I found myself thinking for an instant that I could just call it on my phone, as many of us have done using someone else's phone to locate ours.


Regarding the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend: haven't I been saying that many in this country have been sowing the wind, and can expect to reap the whirlwind?


Although it's only mid-August, summer is in a sense over for me. As I've mentioned before, two of my grandsons, ages five and seven, have been spending three or four days a week with us, and since it's now my wife who goes out to work every day, and I who stay at home, more than half of that time is spent with me. But school starts tomorrow, and Friday was their last day here. It's bittersweet. I've gotten almost no work done on my book, and I want to get back to it, and for that matter I've done little work of any kind at all that wasn't directly related to caring for them. But it's been good in many ways. We settled into a comfortable routine and I think it has not been an unpleasant experience for them.

One thing we've done every day unless the weather prevents us is spend a while splashing around in the bay. Happily, Friday morning was sunny and almost windless. After they'd gotten tired of playing in the water, I suggested that we walk up to the public beach and park, a quarter-mile or so away, just for a change. There are ponds there with ducks and geese and we hadn't taken that walk for a while. Depending on the water level, it can involve a lot of clambering over fallen trees or wading around stumps.

A few days before we had been playing with a tennis ball that had washed up on shore (they float and are fun to throw around in the water). But we'd forgotten to take it back to the house with us, and apparently it had washed back out with the tide. We had not gotten very far toward the park, just a few hundred feet, when they found what appeared to be the same bright green tennis ball. The boys were a bit ahead of me, as usual, and Lucas, the five-year-old, ran back and gave me the ball, in that funny way that children have: "Here"--and they hand you the pizza crust or the apple core that they don't want, or the ball that they do want but do not want to bother with at this moment. 

Well, I wanted to have my hands free to deal with obstacles, and a tennis ball is too big for the pockets of the old cut-off pants I was wearing. So I said I would walk back to "our" beach and put it with our things--the bag containing towels and sun-screen and fruit juice and pretzels. "Okay," said Lucas, and he started to go and catch up with his brother. But then he stopped, apparently a little uneasy about going too far without me, hesitated for a moment, and said "But you'll be right behind us, right?"

"Yes, I will."

Yes, God willing, now and always.


Sunday Night Journal, August 6, 2017

I've been out of town for a week and only got home late today, so this will be hasty, just a few notes on things I've read here and there over the past couple of weeks.

I've managed to avoid reading most of the reaction to that weird "ecumenism of hate" piece by Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa. But I did see a rather telling remark from him reacting to the reaction:

The reaction of the "haters" seems a clear sign that our article is telling the truth about the "ecumenism of hate".

That strikes me, first, as astonishingly juvenile, and, secondly, pretty much of a piece with the original article in its clarity of thought. If someone accuses Fr. Spadaro of being a bad priest, and he reacts angrily, does that prove the accusation? I read somewhere that he has written about Flannery O'Connor. I wonder what he said. I suppose he may have gotten the theology right but it's hard to believe that he understood the culture. Did he take Francis Tarwater to be a typical evangelical? 

One reaction that I did read was from Matthew Schmitz in The Catholic Herald, and he says something that struck me as possibly being the key not only to this little teapot-tempest but to an important aspect of what Pope Francis is doing and hopes to achieve. These two remarks, distant from each other in the article, are the nub of it:

[The article] is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Pope Francis and his advisers believe the Church must defend the system of open borders and celebratory diversity exemplified by liberal Europe. 

You need to read the whole piece--it's not very long--to establish the context and flesh out what Schmitz means. It is at least in part a conjecture about a new Catholic order. Since sometime in the 19th century (at least), the Vatican and the Church at large have been trying to figure out what the place of the Church in the modern world can and should be. In a nutshell (if I'm not misreading him), Schmitz proposes that Francis and his allies are attempting to establish a relationship between the Church and the secular liberal state similar to the one it once had with the old order in Europe. It's a fascinating thesis, and if true would explain a lot.

I just skimmed the original piece again. What a dog's breakfast it is. It's not completely wrong, nor its concerns unwarranted, by any means. It's just a mess. 


It's not all that often that I read George Will. I saw a link to this piece somewhere and followed the link purely because the title was intriguing: "Trump Is Something the Nation Did Not Know It Needed."

Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness....

Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it.

We very badly need to rein in the power, pomp, and circumstance of the presidency. He is not a king (nor will she be a queen, when that finally happens). Part of the reason that our factions consider it a matter of life and death to get one of their own in the office is the unconscious belief that he is. I often think that some form of monarchy really is most natural to mankind. Many Americans seem to want to revert to it. 


In a comment on a recent album of the week, Don linked to NPR's list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women. It's an interesting list, if you find that sort of thing interesting, though it seemed to me that in a few cases "made by women" was a bit of a stretch (Fleetwood Mac?). But as I was reading along I was astonished to find the assertion that in 1992 Tori Amos was writing about "typically taboo topics including but not limited to sex, religion and sexism. " What?!?  How can anyone seriously assert that in 1992 any of those topics were "taboo"? I guess some people still get a thrill out of thinking that there's something courageous about saying things that might have been shocking in 1960 but have long since ceased to be so. It's a pretty cheap thrill, though.


Slightly related: in The Atlantic, James Parker has an account of visiting a San Francisco museum exhibit called "The Summer of Love Experience." He notes a striking omission:

...Where are the drugs? Their symptoms and sequelae are everywhere, of course, splattered wall-to-wall and chiming from the overhead speakers. But where, in this “Summer of Love Experience,” is LSD itself? Because—not to be too drearily materialistic about it—without that, none of this. Without the willing deliverance of an entire generation to artificially induced mental blowout, to swiftly sacramentalized psychic disruption/expansion, no Jefferson Airplane posters. Indeed, no Jefferson Airplane. A 50-year retrospective might have been a good moment to confront this a little more squarely: The pop culture of the ’60s, with all its ideological ramifications and projections, was a by-product of the drugs.

 I don't think that last sentence is quite accurate. Some sort of culturally revolutionary youth movement would have happened without the drugs. I'd put it this way: the movement as it actually happened was inseparable from the drugs. 


The view from behind a rest stop somewhere on Interstate 81 in central or western Virginia. I could stand to live among those big rolling hills and their vast green fields and pastures.


I could stand to live in a great many places that I've visited, actually, and probably a great many that I haven't. What a great variety of rich beauty the world offers us!


Sunday Night Journal, July 30, 2017

I am beginning to accept the fact that there are simply too many books for me to read and too many recordings for me to hear in the amount of time I have left to live, even stretching my potential longevity as far as it can be stretched. I'm finding this surprisingly difficult. It was always true, and would have been true even if I had continued to pursue both at something like the rate I was doing it before I devoted the better part of forty years to job and family. But I had in the back of my mind that when I retired I would finally be able to do all the writing and reading and listening that I'd been putting off.

Well, even apart from the fact that I'm only about two-thirds retired, it isn't working out that way. Life still makes a number of demands that I hadn't really considered. I don't mean to sound whiny, because I am thankful every day that I don't have to go off to a job that will, including the commute, occupy at least ten hours of the day. Still, a reckoning with reality must be made, priorities must be set.

I'm saying all this as preface to an admission. I have just done something which as far as I can remember I have never done before, and of which I am somewhat ashamed. I have chosen to skim a book that I chose to read. I suppose I have skimmed a book before--my freshman biology textbook in college, for instance, when I was desperately trying to absorb enough information to avoid failing a final exam. But I don't think I've ever done it with what I am tempted to call a real book, and one that I wanted to read. Now I have.

The book is William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. As anyone who's ever been anywhere near the conservative movement knows, this was Buckley's first book, written when he was a recent graduate of Yale. I've always had the impression that it's considered a conservative classic. It's been sitting on my shelf for some years, and I decided to check it off my list.

It's a disappointment. If it were not by the man whose initials all conservatives and many liberals recognize, it would probably have been mostly forgotten, and of mainly historical interest. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the book is more specifically about Yale at that moment (the late 1940s) than I anticipated. It's a case study of the state of instruction on religion and economics at Yale--or rather, I should say, the process of secularization and liberalization (in the political sense) at Yale, because that's what Buckley is describing. As such, much of it is far too detailed to be of much interest to me. It includes a discussion of specific instructors, textbooks, events, speeches, and controversies which I would think only a historian or very dedicated Yale alumnus would care about. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not specifically interested in Buckley or Yale or both.

That said, I am struck by how familiar Buckley's complaints sound. The process by which we arrived at the almost complete domination of leftist thought in the academy was well advanced by 1950. Buckley chastises Yale for pretending to be engaged in a disinterested search for truth but actually having an orthodoxy favoring secularism and statism. By our standards it was relatively conservative, giving lip service to Christianity and opposing communism. Buckley wanted Yale to dispense with the pose of neutrality and to openly favor what I will very loosely call Americanism (not that he puts it that way). Well, he certainly got part of that wish: the pose of neutrality is not fooling much of anyone these days. I wonder if even those who preach it belligerently on their own behalf really believe it. When cant words like "diversity" are part of the mission statement, and institutions insist fervently on their dedication to them, everyone knows what is meant. And every day brings us a new story of some notable incident involving the enforcement of this orthodoxy.

I will say of God and Man at Yale that it is well-written and well-argued, and in general pretty impressive for a 25-year-old. But it's a period piece now.


I referred back there at the start of this little piece to reading and listening. I used two different words for two different things. It might have been handy to have one word. But not at the cost of resorting to a construct I see often, sometimes used by people who I think should know better. I mean the word "consuming," as in "consuming art" in reference to multiple arts.   How can anyone write or read that without a shudder? It makes me think of this character, the vacuum monster, from Yellow Submarine, which I had not thought of since I saw the movie ca. 1970. 


When I think of something being consumed, I think of it being gone, chewed up and swallowed or otherwise used up. Years ago I read some technology writer predicting the ways--the devices and the media--by which we would "consume infotainment." The phrase comes close to physically nauseating me.


Last week, writing about the film Mother and Child, I meant to mention Annette Benning's performance as Karen, which was one of the best of several excellent performances in the film. And it made me think about acting in general. For much of my life I really didn't have a great deal of regard for the art of acting, for the gifts required to do it well. I just took it for granted that some people had a knack for pretending to be other people, or for creating an appealing screen persona (e.g. John Wayne), and in fact for pretending in general.

I just spent an hour looking for a remark, which I was sure was by Samuel Johnson, which disparages acting. What I recall is that he said it needed only "great plasticity of features" and...something else...I can't remember what.

Well, if Johnson said that, I don't know where. I must have read it somewhere, because I don't think I would have invented that phrase. I've searched an online version of Boswell's Life without finding it, and done a number of Google searches for the phrase and variations of it, with no luck. At the moment I'm suspecting that it wasn't Johnson who said it, but someone else of roughly the same period, and that I read it in The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations. But if so it'll take me a while to find it.

Anyway: when I first read it, I knew, of course, that it was hyperbole, but came close enough to agreeing that I thought it was pretty sharp. At at some point, maybe fifteen or so years ago, I began to appreciate just how difficult good acting must be. The thought crossed my mind during several scenes in Mother and Child when the camera is on Karen's face: for instance, the moment when she is combing her mother's hair and chatting about her day at work. She mentions that a new guy has started there, and that he seems nice. 

"Karen, don't get your hopes up," is her mother's response. Karen says nothing, and there is not a great deal visible in her face, but it's enough to say everything about Karen's relationship with her mother and indeed about her life in general.

"Plasticity of features," indeed. Yes, that's required, just as an unusually high level of manual dexterity is required for playing a musical instrument well. But that's just the minimal requirement.

Of course the writer, who was also the director, must get credit for creating the exchange. He's the composer, the two women are the performers who bring it to life.


I'd like to know how these roses came to be here, stuck in a log on the beach. Was it a sad story or a happy one? There were several others here and there, one some distance away as if perhaps it had been tossed.


Sunday Night Journal, July 23, 2017

Some months ago The New Criterion offered a look back at Kenneth Clark's  old BBC documentary Civilization. I had never seen it, though I vaguely remembered hearing of it. In 1969 when it first appeared I was in college and rarely caught so much as a glimpse of a television. And even if I'd had the opportunity I probably wouldn't have been much interested: it would have struck me as middle-brow eat-your-cultural-spinach stuff. But the NC piece praised it highly and made me curious, so, finding that it's available on Netflix, I put it on our queue, all four disks and thirteen hours of it. It made its way to the top of the queue some weeks ago, and we've watched one disk, four episodes, now.

My conjectural prejudice was not altogether wrong. There is something almost quaint and a bit stuffy (some would say a lot stuffy) about watching and listening to this stereotypical British connoisseur giving us a tour of the great art of Europe. And, not surprisingly, it's more than a little out of step with our times, with few traces of the apologizing for the civilization it describes that would be expectable in such a venture today.  But as the New Criterion writer, Drew Oliver says:

The intellectual journey that Clark chaperones is plenty invigorating, and more than sufficient to justify the series. But the production itself is a worthy vessel for his learning. Throughout, it maintains a majestically slow pace. Luxuriously long moments where the visuals are completely unencumbered by any commentary whatsoever are hallmarks of Civilisation; you can almost feel the delight that the cinematographers must have felt as they tested the full power of their new, full-color medium. And the wide range of geography, architecture, art, music, and ideas that are explored is its own intrinsic expression of civilization, as well as a defense of it.

I especially appreciate that slow pace, though I'd like for some of those long moments to be even longer. Now and then I see an advertisement for a documentary that looks interesting, but have learned that unless it's something I really want to see, I'd rather not bother, because they never give you more than a three or four-second look at anything. Five seconds is generally the maximum. (Yes, I have timed it.) I find this extremely frustrating: just as I'm getting a good look at something, it's snatched away.

I think the whole series is on YouTube, by the way, though I haven't looked for it. 

I didn't--we didn't--want to watch all thirteen episodes of Civilization in a row, so I had moved the DVD that followed it to the top. It was The Lady In the Lake, which is not about King Arthur but a dramatization of the Raymond Chandler novel. I thought I might have seen it before, and I have. I'm not sure how it got onto our queue when it had been there once before.

But anyway: although our Netflix subscription is limited to one DVD at a time, we occasionally get an extra one. When the one at the top of the list is temporarily unavailable, Netflix will go ahead and send the next one, then the first when it becomes available. The result, since we don't usually watch them immediately, is that we have two at once. So apparently The Lady in the Lake was unavailable, and so was the rest of the Civilization series. In any case Netflix reached down to the fifth item in the queue and sent us a movie called Mother and Child. As far as I can remember, I had never heard of it. I figured my wife must have put it on the list, but if she did, she didn't remember it. I wondered if maybe someone in the course of our many discussions about movies here had recommended it to me, so I searched the blog for the title (using Google, not the unreliable Typepad search, which I really ought to get rid of). No luck. Well, maybe someone recommended it to me via email. I searched my email. No luck there, either. 

So I have no idea why this movie was on our queue. (Please let me know if you did recommend it.) It came out in 2009 and for all I know has been in the queue for years, as a number of other titles have. But here it was. And I wasn't at all sure I even wanted to watch it. The Netflix description was not at all promising to my taste:

Fifty-year-old Karen (Annette Bening) regrets giving up her daughter, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), for adoption; years later, Elizabeth questions her own approach to life. Their stories intersect with that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who hopes to fulfill her dreams of motherhood through adoption. Rodrigo García writes and directs this drama about parenting, sacrifice, romance and self-fulfillment. Eileen Ryan and Samuel L. Jackson co-star.

Oh yeah, that sounds great: two hours of female emotional travail--just what I want to relax with on a Saturday night. Maybe this was going to end up being one of those disks that I send back without watching it. And then The Lady in the Lake arrived. So last night when we got ready to watch a movie, we had a choice. I really wanted to watch Phillip Marlowe. But for some months now my movie-and-television diet has consisted almost entirely of murder mysteries, grim sensationalist fare like House of Cards and The Americans, and BBC costume dramas that are basically very well-produced soap operas. Feeling, out of some odd sense of duty, that a change might be beneficial, and also that Mother and Child sounded like something my wife might like more than Marlowe, I suggested it, trying not to sound like I meant "let's get it over with." 

Somewhat to my surprise I found it totally engrossing and very moving, even though it was in fact two hours of (mostly) female emotional travail. To expand that Netflix description a bit: the movie opens with a vignette that takes place in 1973, where we see fourteen-year-old Karen getting pregnant and giving up the baby for adoption, never so much as holding her. It is suggested that this was at her mother's command. Then we jump forward thirty-five years or so to find Karen, at almost fifty years old, never married, caring for her aged mother, lonely, bitter and prickly with everyone around her. And we meet the daughter, Elizabeth, a beautiful, gifted, and successful attorney in her mid-thirties who lives in a hard shell of self-will and self-protection. This doesn't preclude her having an active and selfish sex life, which leads to some cataclysmic consequences. At the same time we follow a young couple, Lucy and Joseph who, having failed for a long time to conceive a child, are looking into adoption and encountering various difficulties with it. For most of the film it isn't clear what the two story lines have to do with each other, but they are in the end very much connected.

First impressions sometimes mislead, but as of right now I would certainly recommend this film, with the one reservation that it has a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes of which the dramatic need is questionable, as is generally the case. They do have some justification, which is more than can be said of many such instances. And anyway any objection to them is more than outweighed by several very good things which I would like to mention but will not because they need to be encountered within the film. It's a story of love breaking through walls, but at very great cost. 

I didn't notice, when I first glanced at the Netflix description, the name of the writer-director. After seeing it, I would have confidently bet that it is the work of a woman. But unless "Rodrigo" is the name of a woman it is not.  


Yesterday I went to a funeral. The deceased was the mother of a sister-in-law, and I had never met her, so my attendance was an expression of sympathy for the family, not of personal grief. Yet there was a moment when I did feel it: when I saw a photograph of the woman taken when she was young, perhaps a high-school yearbook photo. She was about my age, and so the picture resembled in a general way--hairstyle and so forth--the pictures of the girls in my high-school yearbook, the girls I knew as a teenager. In the picture she is fresh and pretty and smiling, expecting good things from life, as most of us do when we are young. But life was going to deal her some terrible blows, and the difference between what that sweet young girl hoped for and what happened seemed heartbreaking to me. As I've mentioned several times in recent months, I feel a little sorry for young people now. 

And yet I know there was joy in her life as well. A country song, a sort of hymn, that I didn't recognize was played during the service. I was struck by one line of it, where the singer, facing death, bids goodbye to this "sweet world of sorrow." That sums up our situation pretty accurately, doesn't it? 

With that phrase I was able to find the song. It's "Lead Me Home," sung by Jamey Johnson. You can hear it on YouTube.


I read somewhere that the Huffington Post is going to put a bunch of its staffers on a bus and send them out from whatever metropolis they inhabit to have a look at those parts of America which have upset them so badly by voting for Donald Trump. This is a very funny prospect. I expect there are many frightening moments in store for them. The whole country probably ought to have a trigger warning. Especially the South.