Friday, March 28, 2014

The End of Exceptionalism

The “catastrophic decline of the Mainline Protestant churches that had once been central institutions in [American] public life” is far and away the most important development of the last fifty years.  So argues Joseph Bottum in his thoughtful new book, An Anxious Age

Other sociologists, working from materialistic assumptions, have noted the decay of civic virtue and social capital, but Bottum, using the insights of Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, focuses his attention on the cause of the rot.  Protestantism gave America “social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations.”  This unity and definition provided a common vocabulary with which to navigate secular spheres. 

Bottum uses the image of a stool to envisage the American experiment, with democracy, capitalism and Protestantism as the three legs.  Without the support provided by the Protestant churches, democracy and capitalism—that is, our political and economic arrangements—must bear more weight. 

The effects can be seen everywhere.  One example on which Bottum comments is the degraded form of our national discourse.  Without the framework provided by Protestantism, we can no longer make “rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree.”  Our political opponents aren't merely wrong; they are evil.

This tendency is typified by a particular group of post-Protestants, whom Bottum dubs the Poster Children.  They belong to Flannery O'Connor's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, which worships no God and preaches a sort of “Christian morality without the tommyrot,” to quote John Humphrey.  Above all, its adherents believe themselves to be morally superior—not merely elite, but elect.  In the process, they have also transferred “the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and unto food.”  Drinking soda and eating meat are venial sins, with smoking and obesity warranting the post-Christian equivalent of damnation.

In the second half of the book, Bottum traces the history of Catholicism in American during the decline of Protestantism.  Catholicism was always seen as something foreign—which, in a sense, it was.  This gave rise to American anti-Catholic sentiment.  But the same forces that undermined Protestantism also swept away a good deal of the bias against the Church of Rome, as evidenced by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Catholicism found itself trying to occupy the space left by Protestantism.  It failed to serve as a replacement for a variety of reasons, ranging from the tumult of Vatican II to the priest sex abuse scandals.  There's no indication that the author regards this failure as inevitable, as indeed it may not have been.  But if the language of Catholicism was too irregular, too alien, to serve as an adequate substitute in a Protestant country, what hope is there in one that is post-Protestant?

Moreover, the Swallows of Capistrano—Bottum's name for American Catholics—have been scattered.  He hypothesizes hopefully that they may soon return to play a larger role in American culture.  And his book ends by noting that these Swallows and his Poster Children might well get along because of “the middle-class etiquette, the good manners of niceness” that they share.  This is, well, tommyrot.  Our books must conclude with just this sort of boilerplate.  First problem, then solution—no matter how insufficient.

As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap.  America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so.  Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion

How does one begin to review a book such as this?  The Crisis of Christendom is the sixth and final volume of Dr. Warren Carroll's History of Christendom series.  Carroll began work on this book in 1975; when he passed away in 2011, his wife, Ann, edited it, and brought it to publication in 2013.  All told, the series took thirty-eight years to complete, longer than I have been alive.  This book is the capstone to a wonderful history series, the crowning achievement of a life well-lived.

And yet, the critic must criticize.  This book takes over where the previous volume left off.  Napoleon has been exiled to Saint Helena as an exhausted Europe prepares to make peace.  His volume concludes, more or less, with the death of Pope John Paul II (whom he rightly calls the Great) in 2005.  Covering two eventful centuries in a single volume is no mean feat.  On the whole, Carroll is successful, but, as Ann notes in the introduction, the latest installment is not as thorough as were the previous volumes.  This cannot be helped, but it is unfortunate all the same.

Carroll hits the important events both on the secular front—the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Communist Revolution—as well as both Vatican Councils.  He also instructively includes a section on Marian apparitions, which the secular history ignores completely, despite the wealth of evidence in favor of supernatural phenomenon.

In this vein, an appendix explores Principles for Writing Catholic History.  One could compare and contrast Carroll, the Catholic historian, with Paul Johnson, an historian who is Catholic, and one Carroll has repeatedly cited favorably throughout his series.  The former has no compunctions about chronicling the miraculous; the latter, although he is doubtless influenced by his faith, writes history that is more consistent with a secular narrative.  Although there are obvious advantages to Carroll's approach,  it must be granted that getting a secularist to read his history is a tough sell.  This is the regrettable reality in our secular age.

It is unclear to what extent this series is intended as a reference guide, rather than something to be read straight through--undoubtedly both.  The total series comes in at just over 4500 pages.  This is a fair amount of material, but those who neglect to read the series in its entirety are poorer for it.

The inclusion of a bibliography bears mentioning, helpful for either type of reader.  For many, a number of the events covered by Carroll will be new, or almost so.  Alternatively, the reader may wish for more information about a particular event.  The bibliography includes a short verdict by the historian, by way of assistance to the curious.   Wading through the thousands of volumes written about the last few centuries to find useful information is an almost herculean task, so this recommended reading list of sorts is an invaluable resource.

There's something else which I hesitate to add.  Carroll is an excellent writer.  The earlier volumes of his history read almost like novels, for, as he himself said, all good history is a story.  In the present book, the narrative flags at times, and the prose, though good, is less than stellar.  The historian's health had deteriorated in his later years; perhaps this is to blame.  It is uncharitable to fault him for his mortality; still, this book was less splendidly written than the previous installments.

But these are quibbles.  Warren Carroll has written a series that will be cherished by enthusiastic readers for many decades to come.  If it did not end as well as it began, well, neither did Christendom.    Carroll has fought the good fight, he has finished the course, he has kept the faith.  It is enough.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 book breakdown

This past year, I read seventy-three books, down from seventy-five the year before, and buttressed by some help from Shakespeare.  Not bad.

Despite my halfhearted commitment to read more fiction, I only managed to read fifteen of the buggers during the course of the year, the same as last year.  On the other hand, I did read nine plays, and a helpfully annotated poem. 

In the spirit of tradition, I hereby offer another equally halfhearted commitment. 

Here are my recommendations from the past year.  I tried to stay away from the classics: Tacitus and Plutarch are marvelous, but since everyone already knows that, there's little point in me bringing it up.

The Rise of American Civilization - Charles and Mary Beard.  Simply excellent.  Perhaps second only to Paul Johnson's book on the topic in terms of the insight and enjoyment it provided.

Shakespeare's Kings - John Julius Norwich.  The reviews seem mixed on this one, but I rather liked it.  Deserves to make the list if only because it: 1) finally got me to actually read all the plays about the kings Henry; and 2) greatly aided my understanding in that regard.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower - Professor X.  College isn't for everyone.  Or, if it is--which I doubt--our schools fail to prepare people in this regard.  An important if depressing book.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming - Rod Dreher.  Part memoir, part paean to his late sister, this book, which I reviewed here, is touching, without being sentimental.  Much recommended.

And lastly, as my piece of fiction:

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck.  I choose this less to puff up my chest at my good taste--I enjoyed a famous novel!--than to remind us of its timeliness.  If the next great American novel has been published, I would be among the last to know, but there's a need for someone to do for our recession what Steinbeck did for the Great Depression.  Read his book until that one comes along.

2014 Reading List

Currently Reading

Paradiso - Dante Alighieri (*)
Gargantua and Pantagruel - Fran├žois Rabelais

Read
The Crisis of Christendom - Warren Carroll
Tea Party Catholic - Samuel Gregg
The Fellowship of the Ring - J. R. R. Tolkien (*)
The Two Towers - J. R. R. Tolkien (*)
The Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien (*)
The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco (*)
Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
Grimm's Fairy Tales
An Anxious Age - Joseph Bottum
Summa Theologica - Thomas Aquinas (Vol. V of V)
Darwin: Portrait of a Genius - Paul Johnson
Purgatorio - Dante Alighieri (*)
Love and Responsibility - Karol Wojtyla
The Black Rose - Thomas B. Costain
The Image - Daniel Boorstin
Dracula - Bram Stoker
The Ballad of the White Horse - G. K. Chesterton
Real Education - Charles Murray
Daily Life in Ancient Rome - Jerome Carcopino
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
The Quest for Community - Robert Nisbet
How to Love Your Wife - John R. Buri
A History of the World in 6 Glasses Paperback - Tom Standage
 
* Denotes reread

Friday, November 29, 2013

On Barzun

It is not easy to know what to make of the late, great Jacques Barzun.  He wrote too many books over his long life--forty books, one hundred and five years--for more than a handful of people to fully immerse themselves in his oeuvre.  At best, we can hope to sample but a few of his more influential works.

His opus, From Dawn to Decadence is brilliant, nay--what else?--magisterial.  To understand Barzun, one may as well start here, but one is still beset with difficulties.  For to plumb the depths of five centuries of cultural history as Barzun did, one would need to possess the mind of a Barzun.  Read his book, by all means, but only a lifetime devoted to careful study of the topics on which he writes will allow one to competently pronounce judgment on the work as a whole.

I stumbled upon a key to interpreting and appreciating the great man in A Jacques Barzun Reader, a wonderful collection of his writings assembled by Michael Murray.  In his essay on Diderot, Barzun writes:

The group of geniuses I have in mind [William James, Walter Bagehot... Diderot] are figures known, at least by name, to all who discuss ideas and their history... Their distinction lies in the perennial disquiet they inspire.  Their praise is mixed with doubts.  Most significant, perhaps, the reason for valuing their work are many and conflicting.  In a word, the men and their achievements resist classification. (p. 203)

It is that last phrase which applies above all to Barzun.  In our age, we classify thinkers politically first and foremost.  Such and such is a conservative, is a liberal, is a neo-conservative, a socialist, a libertarian.  What were Barzun's politics?  I've read over one thousand pages of the man's works and I cannot tell.  No doubt, he can be used as a cudgel with which to beat the political opposition, but that is a testament to our sophistry, not an indictment of his views.

It would be silly to insist that this is the proof of his greatness; buffoons can likewise appear politically indifferent.  But it is a clue.  In these times of tired political paralysis, in which we cast truth aside to root for our team, there is much wisdom in withdrawal.  There is more, yet, in a man like Barzun, who devoted his time and energy to culture, which informs and is therefore more lasting and important, than practical politics.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sweet, sweet failure

Over at his wonderful blog, Steve Sailer frequently discusses the importance of The Narrative.  Essentially, the media settles on a single interpretation of a story.  All reactions to it must accede to this frame.  The Internet provides a partial exception to this, but one which is not important insofar as the gatekeepers--or, rather, myth makers--are concerned, at least at this juncture.

For instance, when it comes to dealing with illegal immigration, we are bombarded by insistence that the "system is broken."  In order to fix this "broken system", we need "comprehensive immigration reform."  Since illegal immigrants, are, by definition thwarting the law, a sensible person might wonder what obstacle prevents the laws from being enforced.  Further, one may ask why we would expect these new laws to be upheld when the current ones are routinely disregarded.

The Narrative is designed to preclude anyone from raising these quite reasonable objections.  Far from trying to frame a debate between two sides positing different approaches towards the national question, the issue has been framed in such a way that only one approach can be seen as possible.  Once the idiot Americans realize the wisdom of the elites, the latter can get around to achieving the real goal: passing a bill to ensure more Democratic voters and cheaper labor for Republican businessmen. 

I am not a Republican, but if I were to offer them advice, it would be to convince them of the importance of understanding the Narrative.  In their typical, bungling way, the Republicans have "shut down the government."  This is a myth, given that most of Leviathan plods steadily along, and those parts which have been furloughed will almost assuredly be paid back, for work not done, once the "shutdown" ceases. 

So, who is to blame for the shutdown?  The Republicans have pointed the finger at the Democrats, who have returned the gesture in kind.  No surprises there.  Yet this is the wrong question to ask since the matter at hand is not one based on any objective criteria.

If this seems cynical and relativistic, bear with me for a moment.  First, considered factually, both parties are responsible so long as a deal remains undone.  Until a "compromise" is reached, it is entirely fair to place blame on any one--or both--of the parties.

Moreover, we are a representative republic.  Elections are decided by the whims of the citizenry; it is to them that appeal must be made.  Any decisions reached by the people are, by nature, subjective.

Hence the importance of Narrative.  In short order, the Republicans will cave, as they always do.  However, next time they decide to make a futile gesture, if they wish to break with history and accomplish something for a change, it is imperative that they agree on a Narrative, but also that the Narrative frames their option as the only reasonable solution to the problem at hand.

When it comes to Obamacare, they should have noted that the piece of legislation was such an obvious boondoggle, that it was nowhere near ready, and therefore, they should have offered to postpone the implementation for another year.  Actually, they did this, but when it was rejected, they ought to have immediately passed a budget funding it to the hilt.

Having stated their objections, Obama would then be forced to explain to the American people why his signature piece of legislation was such a train wreck.  Then, the Republicans could campaign against a failure; this, coupled with a real reform bill--and no, they don't actually have one, which is a big problem, but this is mostly hypothetical--would posit a substantial weapon in the upcoming election.

When it comes to the debt ceiling, so long as the Republican house refuses to pass a balanced budget, that is, one that does not require us to borrow any more money and therefore breach the debt ceiling, all objections are mere bluster.  If they can produce such a budget, then they point out that while Obama is content to bankrupt the nation's children so that he can avoid tough decisions, in the house, adults are ready to make hard decisions. 

The only problem with this approach is that there are no adults in the Republican house.  Which is why a balanced budget will never be passed, the debt ceiling will again be raised, Obamacare will become the settled law of the land, and the GOP will take it on the chin without having accomplished a single thing.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Party politics

In a recent piece over at VDare, John Derbyshire observes:

To be interested in party politics nowadays, other than as a clash of personalities—which anyway happens much more within parties than between them—is a puzzling but harmless eccentricity, like stamp collecting...

A friend quipped to me recently that the GOP is just the Democratic Party with an anti-abortion plank. That’s depressingly close to the truth.


Precisely right.

There are two takeaways from this tawdry state of affairs. First, disengage from party politics; or, if one remains engaged, do so in full knowledge that one is engaged in a "harmless eccentricity."  There is much for to be said for politics as a humorous diversion.  If one prefers one's comedy dark, what could be more amusing than a Nobel Peace Prize winning president lobbing bombs indiscriminately at the Middle East, just like his cowboy predecessor?  If not exactly edifying, there is nonetheless an appeal to this level of decay.

Second, that which cannot continue eventually stops.  Naturally, the precise manner in which affairs will be altered is impossible to foresee.  Still, it seems unlikely that our bifactional ruling party will be able to thwart the will of the people forever--or even, very much longer. 

Perhaps the solution will be political, which is to say, reasonably peaceful.  Or maybe, as Jefferson put it, the tree of liberty will be watered with the blood of patriots.  We can only wait and watch.

Monday, August 26, 2013

As things stand

"Christendom is honor and the fatherland and man with his back to the wall. It is the glory of lost causes and the splendor of certain defeat." - Frederick D. Wilhelmsen

I find myself returning to Wilhlemsen again.  About the man, I know nothing, yet his succinct quote seems to capture perfectly the mood of the moment.

My preternatural pessimism has been confirmed by a recent reading of Strauss and Howe's book The Fourth Turning.  The authors posit a generational theory of history that repeats its cycle every eighty to one hundred years.  According to their calculations, we have passed into a crisis stage, during which Americans will need to band together to cast aside our broken institutions and go about the arduous task of rebuilding new ones.

I shall pause here to allow the reader time for laughter.

A crisis is certainly upon us, but I see no indication that either the people or our foolish leaders possess even a fraction of the virtue needed to steer us through these tumultuous times.  Instead of frankly admitting that our nation is insolvent, and going about the thankless task of cutting inessentials, we're pondering another war, this time in Syria.  Rather than recognizing the multitude of problems that confront our growing underclass, we are seriously considering granting amnesty to some twelve million Mexicans, many of whom will merely join the fraternity of the left hand of the bell curve beneath the poverty line.

Meanwhile, having redefined marriage, the progressive forces march onward.  The most pressing social issue of the day--now that the bigoted traditionalists are all but vanquished--is to normalize transsexualism.  No longer will a man or a woman be constrained by biological reality.  In our triumphant future--which one can almost taste, we are so close--one can be whatever one feels.  

Mencken would have loved all of this, and perhaps Swift could use his genius to find a way to satirize it.  But I grow weary.  It is all far too stupid for words.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Trial of the Century

Two great writers chronicled the sub-culture turned dominant culture of the tumultuous 60's: Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.  Thompson dove head first into the mess, developing his notorious gonzo journalism in the process.  Wolfe, meanwhile, stood off and above. 

Thompson at his best--Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72--was probably better than Wolfe, but decades of heavy drinking and indiscriminate drug use wear on a guy, and suicide puts an end to one's literary output, so Wolfe has had the longer career. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its commercial success, a lot of critics seem to hate Wolfe's fiction.  Granted, Back to Blood bears the mark of an octogenarian who has lost his fastball, and A Man in Full starts well, but reads like it was finished by a writer who had just suffered a stroke--which Wolfe had.  I found I Am Charlotte Simmons to be devastatingly brilliant, but I seem to be fairly alone in this regard, so that's a topic for another day.

This leaves us with Wolfe's debut novel: The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Here, Wolfe prophetically paints a picture of contemporary America, where race, money and violence intersect in strange ways.  Parts of his book read like transcripts from the Zimmerman trial; we can't help but think about this event in Wolfe's terminology: The Trial of the Century, the Great White Defendant, and so forth.

The details of the case are actually rather dull.  Since Martin is dead, only Zimmerman really knows what happened.  And since Zimmerman was injured, his account is as least plausible.  If this were an ordinary trial, the prosecution would probably fail to convict.  But this is no ordinary trial; the malicious media has ensured that if Zimmerman walks, there will be Chaos in the Courtroom, and... blood in the streets.  It could be an interesting summer.

When it comes to crime in America, the depressing reality, as Wolfe recounts, is that it's mostly blacks killing other blacks.  So when the pattern is reversed and a white guy killed a black guy--never mind that the white guy isn't white, and that the black guy may have attacked him--we get a chance to excise our sins by placing our white guilt onto the scapegoat. 

If you want to understand race in America, and the Zimmerman case in particular, Bonfire is simply a must read. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Labor and immigration

I've been reading Charles and Mary Beard's delightful book The Rise of American Civilization.  One of the passages I came across yesterday caught my attention in lieu of the debate--or, rather, lack of debate--over Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

In case such obstacles were surmounted, one equally perplexing remained to plague the labor organizer, namely, the practice of importing laborers in armies bound by contract to specified employers, coupled with the reduction of the ocean fare by competing steamship companies which kept the tide of immigration at its flood.  When a union successfully organized a craft and struck, either against a wage cut or in favor of an increase, it was comparatively easy for the employer to cable to Europe for a new supply of workers and have them on the spot within a fortnight, if indeed a shipload of competent workers, bought by the latest steamer, did not stand at the moment on the docks in New York waiting for jobs.  That a trade union movement was able to get under way at all is a marvel. (Vol. II, p. 216)

Although a continuous supply of cheap labor acts to depress wages, the chief beneficiaries have been so effective at castigating immigration skeptics as inveterate racists that no one seems to have noticed this rather obvious fact. It would be much more honest to admit that the purpose of the bill is to ensure that corporate profits continue to climb, but our elites are not quite that brazen.

It may not meet the criteria of libertarian purists, but the old method of restricting immigration so as to drive up wages for men--who can then afford to marry children and pay for them--seems vastly preferable to the present policy of awarding women for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.  This system, moreover, reduces the pool of marriageable men, which further exacerbates the illegitimacy crisis. 

It would be difficult to come up with a more convoluted series of incentives.  One begins to suspect that the elites not only don't like ordinary Americans, they frankly despise them.