Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Spread the Wealth

A retweet today--a review at Powerlineblog of what appears to be a most interesting book. The thesis is that given a second term President Obama would make it a major goal to tax the suburbs to redistribute wealth to the cities. It sounds plausible, given everything we know about this President:

As often, the details are the most telling. I haven't read the book and so can't endorse it, but at the very least it seems worth knowing about.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Religion and Tolerance

The controversy stirred up this week both by the remarks of the CEO of Chic-fil-A on the one hand and the mayors of Chicago and Boston on the other has been most revealing indeed. For one thing, the controversy has served to show, once again, that contemporary PC values are on a head-on collision with traditional beliefs of all kinds, most notably traditional Christianity. For decades, we lived with a type of cultural Cold War, in which liberals made headway into the culture by commandeering discourse about race, abortion, economics, divorce, and so on. And about most of these matters, religion was, when it found conflict on these topics distasteful, able to look the other way, since none of these was an existential threat to traditional religion itself. Technically speaking, one might argue that the Bible doesn't address abortion directly; it seems to permit divorce (though it allows remarriage only under very restricted conditions), and it says nothing favoring one economic system over another. So far so good: though traditional religion might be uneasy with liberal positions, it could, to this point, ignore them and get on with its own business.

Lately, however, things have taken a turn. Despite the fact that society is split on the matter of homosexual marriage, and despite it not being allowed in most states, popular culture now seems to view it as a matter of hate worthy of social excommunication if one expresses support for the norm. When a couple of years ago Carrie Prejean said in the Miss USA pageant what a majority of Americans believe and what has been the norm throughout recorded history in virtually all societies about which we have records, she was roundly anathematized by the press. Perhaps she knew then what Dan Cathy, the President of Chic-fil-A probably suspects now--that on the matter of marriage, there can be no compromise between homosexual rights and traditional religion. And this is true not because traditional Christians are bigots but because the Bible, the focus of belief for Protestant Christians, and the Magisterium, which is the collected authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church, could not be clearer that homosexuality is wrong. The acceptance of homosexual marriage is directly incompatible with the clear teaching of traditional Christianity. This was clearly demonstrated in Massachusettes when, because the state allows same-sex marriage the Catholic Church could no longer provide adoption services, even though it had long been the largest such provider in the state. Why? Because on the matter of homosexual marriage the Church is required by very clear teaching to voice disapproval: when it condemns what the state recognizes as legal, it can no longer occupy the public space.

TMH has written before that since the question of origins has long been a religious question, teaching on origins that contradicts the religious view must constitute an unconstitutional discussion of religious topics in the public schools: something very similar is true of homosexuality. When the government--as embodied by the mayors of Chicago and Boston--try to enlist the engines of government in saying that the only acceptable position on homosexual marriage is the non-traditional one, then they are, by definition, using the government to attack traditional Christianity. Although they appear to be talking about neutral issues like tolerance and sexual orientation, the logical interpretation and the infallible result of their position is that traditional Christianity is no longer compatable with American culture.

That may indeed be the case, and it may in fact be the result that the kids, in particular, who the pollsters tell us are so fervently in favor of same-sex marriage, wish. But it will be well for the political discourse if we were honest about what is at stake: homosexual marriage is incompatible with traditional religion, and the society that celebrates the one will hardly be able to tolerate the latter.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Much Too Cool

After a long trip yesterday exploring some truly interesting spots off the beaten track in north central Mississippi, I returned home tired but happy. I remained tired, but I grew steadily less happy and more puzzled as I watched the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. To be sure, the matter of rings, forged by mock factory workers meant to evoke the dark grime of Industrial Revolution, was impressive, as was the presence of the RAF jets, but that was almost the only thing about the ceremony that gave unalloyed pleasure. Anything else that might have pleased tended to evoke confusion: why, I wondered, does Queen Elizabeth jump out of a helicopter? I know that James Bond might, but in what possible way is the Queen asociated with skydiving? There, indeed, was the stunt, impressive in its timing and precision, but instead of being able to enjoy it, one was distracted by a question without solution.

Other moments made more sense: dancing aound the maypole is very English, I suppose (though this summer I saw a truly joyful maypole celebration in Bavaria), as was the business with the Dickensian tophats and smokestacks (though again, the Industrian Revolution is also part of German history), but these moments tended to be flat. In a pageant of English history, we were treated to a glimpse of bucolic medieval life, the Industrial Revolution, marching suffrgettes, and a few guys in uniforms from WWI: toward the end, these were all intermixed with redcoats surmounted with three-cornered hats in what was meant either to evoke such London traditions as the Lord Mayor's Parade or to concoct a soup into which bits of British cultural references floated indiscriminately about. What ingredient the large bicycle with the disproportionately menacing tuba was meant to suggest was, once again, a puzzle.

That part of the ceremony concluded with a phantasmagoria stemming from children's literature, with primary reference to Peter Pan, though near the end, J.K. Rowling managed to toss in a few words--too few to make much of an impression, so that, once again, one was left with the impression that she appeared, ad hoc, for good measure, as if to satisfy the expectations of her fans around the world. One might note that the references to children's literature came in the context of a nursery ward of some sort, in which children presumbaly suffering from illness or neglect were shown to be comforted or entertained by, among other touchstones of British nursery culture, dozens of Mary Poppinses floating down, black umbrellas fully opened at the ends of outstreched arms.

Toward the end England treated the world to yet another pageant, this one lossely based around the story of a boy who likes a girl whom he pursues against a backdrop of allusions to popular British music from the 1950s onward. Straightforward as one might expect such a segment to be, even one of the children in my household expressed confusion at how the boy, on finding and picking up the cell phone which the girl had dropped, managed to use her cell phone to call her--by the normal laws of telecommunications, he would have been calling himself (since he was after all holding her phone and she wasn't). As well as I remember, that was the end of the artistic portion of the O.C., after which the pedestrian parade of nations was a positive relief.

Strangely, the O.C. resolutely avoided any refence to anything that might lift the human spirit by alluding to anything truly great in British culture. The only culture refered to was low and popular. No reference (so far as I could see) to Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer who has inhabited the planet, no reference to the defiance of the English in WWII, though during the James Bond sequence we were treated to a passing, ironic reference to Winston Churchill. There was no reference to the great British explorations, the truly awesome power of the Royal Navy on the high seas, no sense of Britain for two hundred years the civilized and civilizing seat of commerce and trade, no allusion to Britain which led the fight among the Western powers to free the slaves. The references to British music--Handel, Elgar, Vaughn Williams--was reduced to an interlude in which a small orchestra played the truly inspiring theme from "Chariots of Fire" (cmposed by a Greek, no?), but Rowland Atkinson's gags during that segment had the effect of ridiculing an otherwise fine performance. The main allusion to British literature was to children's literature, though again to the popularly entertaining, since as far as I could see, the truly uplifting "Wind and the Willows" received no homage at all.

More than anything, what the the O.C. conveyed was a culture uncomfortable with itself and utterly disillusioned. The soldiers that presented the British flag seemed sightly out of pace with one another, and even what might have been a spirited rendition of "God Save the Queen" was made made cute and inoffensive by having the anthem led by a group of children that used sign language all the way through. One got the impression that no true cultural tradition could be left untouched by some gesture, however subtle, of distancing comment, that there was nothing included that might threaten to give the audience an unalloyed sense of wonder and excitement. Particularly toward the end, the cultural references were low at best, and they seemed at times to celebrate those whose controversial lives tended to affront traditional values--Amy Winehouse and Queen most prominent among them.

In the end, I was left with the impression of a halfhearted celebration (did anyone note the listless physical motions of the front line of dancers near the end of the pageant of history?) of an anodyne British culture and a much more energetic celebration of its more recent counterculture. It was, perhaps, all in all an exercise in cultural irony, the meaning of which seemed to be that we are comfortable only with popular culture: of anything else we are either ignorant or it produces in us boredom and indifference.

I seem not to remember other O.C.s besides the one in Beijing four years ago, but compared with that, last night's performance was an embarrassment. In Beijing the Chinese celebrated their culture, even to the point of embellishing it (when, exactly, are the Chinese known for having exported their culture by ship?), but then even such embellishment indicates a culture proud enough to view itsef as the stuff of myth and legend that gives shape to life and helps its members make sense of the world and lead meaningful lives in it. I wouldn't say that China celebrated in an imperialistic way, but their military procession that carried and raised their flag was impressive in the sharpness of its movements, and the incandescent energy of the choreographed movements of the large groups assembled on stage was only one of many positive impressions from the ceremony. The sense of wonder when we found out that the impressive display of moveable type was not mechanical but rendered by humans, the amazingly precise and intricate movements of hundreds of dancers on stage, the use fireworks throughout, and the complete lack of ironic comment on all of this was refreshing and left the audience, if not with a feeling of transcendance, at least with a sense that human beings inhabit and are able to help create a world that takes us out of ourselves. The Chinese relished their moment; the British, by contrast, seemed embarrassed--like a bored school child called upon to give a report on British history. What can he do to show that he's above it all, jaded, sophisticated, an untouched in his spirit because he's too busy, too connected even to have a spirit after all? Do as little as possible and then ironize everything to show your chums that you are way too cool to take seriously the thought that anything, anything at all might be bigger than yourself.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The events of the day in Syria are both thrilling and alarming. Thrilling, of course, because the audacious suicide strike that seems to have decapitated Assad's regime may bring an end to the dictatorship much more quickly than was anticipated even a few days ago; alarming on account of the rapid pace of change in that country. More alarming still, we think, because once again America seems to be on the wrong side of history. As we mentioned in this space several times before, the unimaginably brave Syrian rebels, who sacrificed themselves by the thousands in what must for months have seemed like an entirely hopeless cause, deserve the freedom that they have fought valiantly to achieve, but the United States, which ought everywhere to support such opposition to vicious authoritarian rule, was so silent as to essentially show contempt for the Syrian revolution. That we offered scant friendship to freedom in Syria makes little sense, unless one believes what we have so far been reluctant to assert but for which there appears mounting evidence--to wit, that President Obama seems to support the overthrow of regimes like that in Egypt which are friendly to the U.S. and Israel and to offer no support for the overthrow of even more brutal regimes which actively work against our interests. The price of such an insane policy (if it is indeed a policy and not merely pure ineptitude) will inevitably be that the new Syrian government will remember America's indifference and be impervious to American influence, when we could, by aiding the rebels when it would have mattered, have secured yet another ally in the heart of a troubling part of the world.

Speaking of national movements, one notes that there appears in southern Europe to be a growing dissatisfaction with the European Union, largely, of course, because Greece and Italy, whose people have a more casual, less economically responsible way of life than do their northern European counterparts, wish their more responsible neighbors to give them money and do not wish to abide by the rules with which that money comes. Germany is now the colossus that dominates the European economy, and so the Germans now begin to feel the resentments of the southern European nations. Why the resentment? The Germans have several times now transferred to Greece and Spain large sums of cash taken from German taxpayers, yet the Germans are reviled.

The situation is ironic because it mirrors German attitudes toward the United States thirty years ago. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan, asserting American power, put intermediate range nuclear missiles in Germany to huge outcry from a country that the Americans less than forty years before had liberated from an insane tyranny and had then rebuilt with American taxpayer money. When I was there then, I remember my extended family denouncing American policy to me with an anger that grew sharper as I reminded them of what America had done for Germany in the past. In the end, of course, Reagan's policy succeeded and the existential threat posed by Communism to western Europe died away. And now it is Germany's turn. Just as America was--and often still is--resented by weaker nations simply because it was--and is--powerful, so now the German ant, which has worked and saved all the year long is resented by the southern European grasshopper simply because Germany has more. This is all a reminder that nationalism isn't always a good thing. One major reason, now often forgotten, for the European Union in the first place is that in the old Europe of the early twentieth century nationalism meant rivalry, tension, and often war; countries within the European Union, however, do not go to war against one another. If that Union should dissolve, the old resentments, baseless though they may be, will return and with them will return the possibility, however remote, of war.

The dangerous rise of nationalism is captured in literature nowhere so well as in Joseph Roth's very fine German novel Radetzkymarsch, set in the waning years of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, for which Roth had a great deal of fondness. His fondness was based in part on his conviction that once that old Habsburg empire dissolved into a number of distinct nationalities, the old, generally peaceful, generally civilized order would be drowned in a cacophonous babble of voices all demanding power, all willing to gain that power through the quickest, and therefore the most corrupt and dangerous ways possible. In a climactic scene near the end, a ball in a regional Imperial town is disrupted with news of the Archduke's assassination, and the various military officers, from different ethnic groups but serving the same Emperor Franz Josef I, begin shouting at one another not in the official German that they had been using that night but each in his own native language. As Europe begins its rapid descent into the chaos of contending interests that exploded in WWI, so these characters begin to express with venomous intensity the old hatreds and resentments that had to this been point been subsumed by their common purpose in a large enterprise.

What the overthrow of the old orders, welcome though these changes are, will bring in the Middle East God only knows. As European dissolution looks also like a possibility--though only like a possibility--one remembers that the severing of international ties, while it may allow many little men to strut and fret their hour upon the stage of life, is not always a good thing.