Escape from ennui

[A]s James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

(Pankaj Mishra, America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism) That quote was new to me, though the thought was not. My “standing advice” at the end of each blog episode includes these:

The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness. Lord Jonathon Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to. W.H. Auden, 1966.

Then I also read this today:

While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.

… None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

(James Howard Kunstler)

But one of the odd blogs I find irresistible is Granola Shotgun. “Johnny” populates his blog with loads of photos and sparse commentary. Most recent:

At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.

The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.

Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational. [Yup. That sounds like an engineer’s approach to the world. Tipsy]

Back to Springfield. Steve [and Liz Shultis] took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite.  I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers (sic) can comprehend.

Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.

Pretty dry without the pictures, I’ll admit. But go check the original, The Springfield Strategy. That four story French Second Empire mansion is pretty amazing. Sample:

From their own blog, it appears that Steve & Liz (perhaps Steve and his ex) actually did raise children, now adults, in that urban environment, though the children are not visible or mentioned in Johnny’s story.

I don’t want to romanticize, let alone make a panacea of, a good, walkable and sociable living environment, but it appears (scroll on down the long page) that the urban dwellers of Springfield, Massachusetts may have escaped some aspects of the “bewilderingly empty way of life.”

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Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Wednesday, 8/3/16

  1. Have we lost our minds?
  2. Inviting cultural catastrophe
  3. Elevating sex to its preeminent place
  4. Two kinds of Trump voters
  5. PEG on neo-conservatism
  6. “Thou shalt erect solar panels upon thy temples”
  7. Take a brick out of Leviathan

Continue reading “Wednesday, 8/3/16”

The deep purpose of discussion

This weekend brings And Then They Came for Me to my hometown’s Civic Youth Theater. With that evocative title, I hope I don’t need to tell you what the general topic of the play is.

But just in case, here goes the versified version:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). The subtitle of the Civic Youth Theater production is “Remembering the World of Anne Frank.”

If you still don’t get it, stop. Nothing to see here. Move along now.

Then a week later, the local Bach Chorale Singers perform the powerful Annalies, a 14-part work for soprano, chorus and small ensemble based on the Diary of Anne Frank. 

The juxtaposition was coincidental/serendipitous/providential. Seizing the moment, friends of the arts have arranged a panel discussion, open to the Public: When they came for me.

I hope to get to the Civic Theater production, and I’ll definitely be there when the Bach Chorale performs.

The panel discussion? Maybe. Out of a sense of duty. With my guard up. And a full shaker, not just a grain, of salt.

On some topics, it seems to me, discussion has hit a dead end. The more earnest the discussion, the deader the end. The Holocaust strikes me as one of those topics.

A young woman of my acquaintance was delighted beyond all expectation a few year ago when I quipped, in response to some seemingly interminable, definitely earnest discussion in our Church, that I just wasn’t getting what the other side was getting at, and that I wondered if they might instead rhyme, dance, paint, sing or film it. Anything but more words, words, words. (Her delight was why I still vaguely remember the episode.)

Bach Chorale’s theme for this, its 51st, season is “Music and the human spirit: making the world a better place one note at a time.” Maybe that’s a little preachy, but I’ll take it.

My greatest hope for the panel discussion is that perhaps the Niemöller poem, the play and the impending choral performance, will liberate imaginations and free tongues from banality, or that the panel will at least truly focus on how the arts can so liberate (if focusing on that in prose isn’t oxymoronic).

My greatest fear for the discussion is that it will tame and domesticate the imagination again after its liberation by art.

Isn’t taming the imagination the deep purpose of most of our discussions?

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(Yes, as a matter of fact, I do own a mirror. And I am getting tired of recidivist prose blogging — even suspicious of my motives for doing it. And the utility of it. That too. Thanks for asking. And if I polish this one more time, I’m going to puke.)

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Wednesday, 7/30/14

  1. You touch our nonviolence and we blow your heads off!
  2. New Urbs
  3. Short Stories
  4. GOP to POTUS: We’ll see your passivity and raise you a compulsive interentionism
  5. UCSB Feminazi Cops a Plea
  6. A Religious Freedom Claim that Deserved to Lose
  7. The (Spiritual/Cosmic) Butterfly Effect

Continue reading “Wednesday, 7/30/14”

The Essence of The Essence (4/21/14)

I’m unapologetically light on blogging post-Pascha. Or was that prior sentence a sort of apology?

The Essence of Conservatism is an uneven book, with lots of typos in the Kindle edition (which may be the only form in which the book exists) but it’s well worth $2.99.

  • Americans know what they can expect from the left—an endless series of upheavals aiming at utopia. But for too long the right has offered much the same thing, pursuing its own utopia through wars and nation-building abroad and the debt economy at home.
  • A mere decade after the end of the Cold War had delivered history to a neat and satisfying conclusion the 9/11 attacks occurred. Along with horror and heartbreak came humiliation. How could 19 thugs armed with nothing more than box cutters have caught the indispensable nation so completely off-guard? Many factors contributed to the United States being surprised. Prominent among them was the self-congratulatory mindset to which Washington had succumbed during the 1990s…
  • As Richard Perle and David Frum, co-authors of the agitprop classicAn End to Evil, put it, “There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust.” … Along with victory or holocaust there turned out to be a third possibility that Perle and Frum had overlooked: exhaustion resulting from our own folly and malfeasance. (Typo in original)
  • Rather than peering deep into the future, the United States is demonstrably unable to see even into next week, with major events—the Arab Spring being the most recent example—catching Washington asleep at the switch.
  • The years 1991 and 2001 are commonly treated as breakpoints, markers that inaugurate distinctive chapters of history, the first labeled “Post-Cold War,” the second “Post-9/11.” Yet there is a strong case to be made for amalgamating the two decades into a single period: call it the “era of ideological fantasy,” when U.S. self-regard and Washington’s confidence in its ability to remake the world in America’s image reached unprecedented heights.
  • Burkean conservatism has never sat easily with the conditions of American life. Whereas Europe provided conservatism with history and tradition, the United States emerged as a “nation without a past.” That overstates things, but the quest for roots, stability, continuity, and tradition has never been simple here.
  • The notion that wisdom somehow lies in the intuitive sense of the majority at any time, Babbitt wrote, “should be the most completely exploded of all fallacies.”
  • [T]he really animated core of the political lobby that supports illegal immigration—its mass base, so to speak—is composed of rich homeowners, who desperately want someone to do their dirty work and to do it cheaply.
  • The wealth of the very rich is never the product of free enterprise and the free market alone but comes by operating within and exploiting a network of government supports, such as licenses, regulations, subsidies, and contracts. It is the product of a sort of giveaway. [Yes, a conservative just said, in effect, “You didn’t build that.”]
  • The way people define themselves is different in a consumer society, with a total focus upon individual self-gratification, than it is in a producer society, with an emphasis on the social consequences and connections of one’s work. It is obviously much more difficult to politically organize masses of people if they all think of themselves as individual consumers or as expressive individualists, each freely choosing his own unique (even if vapid and banal) lifestyle, than to organize masses of people who think of themselves as members of working classes or local communities, who share in common most of the important conditions of their lives.
  • [T]he most rational thing about rationality is that it knows its own limits. When even sensible economists forget they are dealing with human beings, we should forget them.
  • Roepke’s world collapsed in August 1914. Our world collapsed in September 2008. Both, we can now see, were doomed long before they fell. Out of the ruins what shall we build? Another Tower of Babel, another building too big to fail? Perhaps, if we are wise, we might try smallness for a change.
  • Conservatism has become so weak in ideas that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the word “conservative” could be and was applied with scant objection to policies that were starkly anti-conservative. Americans witnessed “conservative” Wilsonianism, if not Jacobinism, in foreign policy and an unnecessary foreign war; record “conservative” trade and federal budget deficits; major “conservative” expansions of the power of the federal government at the expense of traditional liberties; and nonchalant “conservative” de-industrialization and dispossession of the middle class in the name of Ricardian free trade and Benthamite utilitarianism. No wonder the American people are confused and disillusioned by conservatism.
  • This is the second action the next conservatism must take: putting power in its place. Tolkien’s ring of power is power itself, which in the long run cannot be used for good.
  • [T]he next conservatism should revive the dormant conservative agrarian tradition. As the Amish demonstrate, the small family farm can be economically viable. Organic farming, conservation and restoration of the soil, farmers’ markets and “crunchy cons” should find an honored place in the next conservative agenda. Family farms are good places for children to grow up. While environmentalism is becoming an ideology, conservation and care in the use of God’s creation have long-standing conservative credentials. In turn, agriculture has always been a conservative culture. [Agenda-driven conservatism is an odd fit in this collection of essays that focuses more on disposition than agenda.]
  • Another old conservative issue the next conservatism should revive is aesthetics. America may be the richest nation in history, but that has not made it the most beautiful. Strip malls, suburban sprawl, and hollowed-out cities have created an environment few people can love. The New Urbanism offers an alternative that looks to the past to recover traditional designs for towns and cities.
  • Having spent 3,000 bloody years replacing the image with the word, should we now be untroubled that television, video games, and computer screens are replacing the word with the image?
  • Lukács was a very clever literary critic, who took part in the Communist revolution in Hungary after World War I and joined the government of Béla Kun. As a political commissar, he was responsible for purges, executions, and cultural suppression. When Kun’s government was overthrown, he fled to Vienna, returning after World War II to assist the revolutionary Communist government in purifying Hungary of dissident intellectuals. His career is one long history of crime and deception, yet he has been consistently revered as a leading left-wing thinker: the person who showed us how to apply Marxism to literary criticism and how to understand literature as a genuinely revolutionary force … Heidegger belonged to the wrong set of criminals.
  •  [T]his weakness in the statist approach of communism is replicated in some capitalist economies—notably here in the United States with the unscrupulous and often corrupt use of eminent domain.
  • The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs.
  • [S]uburbanization forces millions to go to work in cars everyday when they might have been walking. It requires vast acreages of the countryside to be covered with buildings and roads, destroying natural ecosystems. Yet it goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.
  • “My misgivings are not about the wretched architects,” continued Baker, “who must give Washington what it pays for, but about their masters who have chosen to abandon the human scale for the Stalinesque. Man is out of place in these ponderosities. They are designed to make man feel negligible, to intimidate him, to overwhelm him with the evidence that he is a cipher, a trivial nuisance in the great institutional scheme of things.”
  • “President Reagan’s deepest soul is not Republican-conservative but New Deal-Second World War Democrat. Thus his well noted preference for citing FDR and Kennedy as noble precedents for his actions rather than Coolidge, Hoover, or even Eisenhower.
  • Among the worst aspects of the collapse of traditional conservatism is that my children will grow up in a world in which vulgar and belligerent nationalism will be presented to them as the alternative to leftism.
  • [T]his story-with-a-moral assumes American omnipotence: if any evil is committed anywhere in the world—be it the Ukrainian famine, the Rape of Nanking, or the rise of Benito Mussolini—it is only because we Americans selfishly failed to prevent it.
  • For the low church conservative, politics is teleocratic—a purpose-driven activity.
  • [Evelyn Waugh] famously greeted the removal of Randolph Churchill’s non-malignant tumor with the verdict: “It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”
  • Late in life, during the Second Vatican Council’s alleged golden dawn, Waugh received an invitation to a book launch by self-consciously “progressive” Catholics. He shot back by postcard his unforgettable RSVP: while he would not attend a social meal in the progressives’ company, “I would gladly attend an auto da fé at which your guests were incinerated.”
  • … Vatican II, concerning which [Waugh] proved incapable of accepting casuistic official bromides about how the conciliar church was just like the preconciliar church, only 100 times better.

(Favorites bolded)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Thanksgiving bonus

  1. Economic “science” – in the service of human ends
  2. Linda Greenhouse, obscurantist
  3. Bill Clinton, Medal of Freedom awardee
  4. The best thing about Czech communists
  5. And don’t you forget it!

Continue reading “Thanksgiving bonus”