Praesidium, A Journal of Literate Analysis

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Devoting a Web log to cultural analysis is not an endeavor which withstands a great deal of scrutiny.  It seems to me sometimes rather like launching a paper boat to study sunken ships.  At the same time, I enjoy the informality of the exercise.  I find that I can often view my pet peeve du jour in the light of of our entire culture's distress--which is in itself a solace, since misery loves company, but also an irresistible invitation for a teacher to teach, a prophet to prophesy, and a crackpot to boil over.  I'm in that group somewhere.

Of particular strain to me lately has been an experience with a person I know only through e-mail.  I feel that I'm being stalked, in an odd way.  Or if you cannot properly stalk someone through e-exchange, you can certainly bait him into further correspondence which causes him to reveal much of himself and which he soon regrets.  The technique relies heavily upon flattery.  I was delighted to find my writing praised by this new contact: I write so much, you see, and with such effort and so very little tangible reward that any sudden flicker of recognition out there in the great dark universe is always deeply appreciated.  But I noticed early on that the praises were routinely interlaced with criticisms--only a few, but usually very caustic: the unsavory sort of poison that would only go down with a lot of sugar-coating.  I was reminded of one of my dissertation advisors, who had perfected the technique through verbal and epistolary exchanges long before we did any "logging on".  In both cases, I would be repeatedly assured of my eloquence and brilliance... but I would also be warned (between applications of greasy salve to my ego) that if I did not address such-and-such a personal hang-up quickly and effectively, my work would be compromised, my life ruined, and my soul locked forever in a cage.

I'm sure this kind of domination--a mock sycophancy which conceals an autocrat's lust for molding other minds after his own--is as old as fire.  Probably, too, it is usually practiced by men on men or women on women: I should think a mixed-gender power-play of this kind would be undermined by the already substantial fear of domination which either sex has of the other.  Furthermore, I would hypothesize that one of the parties stands in a somewhat paternal or avuncular relation to the other due to a disparity in age and experience.  (It was clearly so in both cases I have mentioned, where the "mentor" was more than a decade my senior and had garnered many worldly laurels.)

But what interests me most about these incidents--and what I find distinctly "decadent" about them--is the "hang-up" which became the crucial stake of the manipulation.  It was sexual: it was my conviction that the "joy of sex" is overshadowed by devastating psychic consequences if not suborned to a monogamous relationship dedicated to the spirit.  These men were intensely--and, I may add, suspiciously--absorbed in trying to change my view.  I do not say that they meant to corrupt me (though it is easy to find such a motive in "decadent" Victorian literature--e.g., The Picture of Dorian Gray).  I believe, rather, that the thrill is quite intellectual, a "pure" satisfaction of the libido dominandi.  I am put in mind of certain comments which Jules Romains makes about the lubricious André Gide in his memoirs: Gide was forever finessing younger men into supporting his journal and adopting his style even as he parasitized their more vigorous ideas.  Like Gide, the men of whom I write are extremely well educated and move among ideas fluidly as a livelihood and an amusement: they are preeminent examples of the postmodern Western intelligentsia.  Their hunger, first and foremost, is to see their system vindicated.  To be sure, it is paradoxical--I call it downright bizarre--to see someone argue for unobstructed eroticism with such un-erotic zeal--the cosmologist's passion to see quasars explained at last rather than the rake's to see a prude yield to his persuasion.  This was, indeed, an aspect of the argument which I originally maintained before so much dire admonition: that sex is never just sex--that it carries mind and spirit either to rare heights of self-sacrifice or to chilly depths of self-exportation.  Would that a young man might sow his wild oats without jeopardizing a certain timidity--a certain reverence--for the mystery within other people!  Some youths do so, by the grace of God... but the odds are not encouraging.

The late sixties and squalid seventies seem to have bequeathed us a generation of such hybristic advocates, devoted more than ever (as middle age retards their biological metronome) upon vanquishing the universe intellectually.  My late correspondent has adopted the further strategy of sending me tome after tome from, thus drawing me even deeper into his debt for so many handsome gifts.  (Yet never a penny has he donated to The Center for Literate Values.)  Recently I received Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, which I had heard of but never read.  A peek inside the flap informed me that the book was first published in 1940--about the time, that is, when the founding fathers of postmodernism were, as youths themselves, beginning to adumbrate a very persuasive ethic of the offbeat (while doing very little, I might add, to mount an effective resistance against fascism: cf. Sartre and Paul de Man).  I was so intrigued--and at some moments so disgusted--by what a brief browsing uncovered in this volume that I should like to save my "Rougemont reflections" for another day.  Allow me to summarize (if one may encapsulate such incoherence) that the great man  writes in defense of monogamy--but that his "defense" is based upon the premise that sex is always just sex, a good ride no matter which horse one has saddled.  Might as well keep the same horse--one is saved no end of trouble breaking in fresh fillies.  The romantic notion that some very special person may hold some very special key to one's soul is a juvenile exercise in shaping castles out of clouds.  Enjoy the sex, and keep your vows out of... well, out of an existentialist's willing acceptance of absurd limitation.

One wouldn't have supposed this appeal irresistible: strangle infatuation, keep Mr. Johnson well fed from the same larder, and don't let your tastes stray precisely because (all motives having been reduced to a gourmand's--or an imbecile's) all sweetness comes down to the chemical formula for sugar.  Yet Western intellectuals find this tawdry bourgeois "bargain basement" kind of pitch extremely seductive.  I believe the reason is power: to be exact, the supreme egotist's impressive power of preventing others from plucking at his feelings while he adroitly manipulates theirs.  I don't think I abuse the term when I call an ego of this kind narcissistic.  The history of our intelligentsia since the late sixties has been a chronicle of narcissism.  The love affairs uncorked by the promiscuous lifestyle indeed proved very painful: too much exploitation, too much rejection.  The person who could enter what soon began to be called in antiseptic euphemism a "relationship" without any pining or daydreaming or fantasizing about the other party was ahead in the new game, because he or she no longer stood to lose much of anything--especially if the sex was "good".  But why the "nobly absurd" fidelity of the existentialist?  Two reasons: monogamy creates a fire wall against rejection, just in case the rebellious spirit proceeds to fall stupidly in love, and it also advances one's worldly position by saving money, conferring respectability, and even allowing one to hold the trump card of outward religious piety.

Egotism, domination, and endless rearguard blather.  I would have more respect for an outright sybarite.  The other night, PBS aired a documentary about Canadian resorts, and I overheard a patron remarking fondly of one chalet that the walls were thin enough to eavesdrop upon others' lovemaking.  He and his fellow guests, he smiled warmly, would applaud when a honeymooning couple achieved a particularly audible rapture.  I ask you... has the educated, "cultivated" West entirely lost its collective mind along with its sense of shame?  "I had a nice little vacation... I ate high-fiber cuisine with low carbs... I walked for hours and breathed clean air... I enjoyed daily sex with my partner, most of it at least eight on the ten-scale... I am a healthy, fulfilled, balanced human animal.  Now I will go home and vote to raise the minimum wage, having just spent half of a blue-collar income on my play and being too spiritual to side with stingy employers."  The ascendancy that these coddled, self-absorbed clerics and bureaucrats assert over complex human realities and consequential moral issues is positively stomach-turning.



My struggle with the vagaries of Internet Service Provision continues.  I remarked in my last entry that to comment upon such frustration would be without interest, since we all know it in some form or other only too well and yet understand--equally well--that this is our ineluctable future.  To death and taxes may now be added computerized catastrophe as a mortal misery about which absolutely nothing can be done.

Yet maybe, after all, it's worthwhile describing these miseries.  Maybe someone will eventually take notice.  Most people, to judge by appearance, are neither very bright nor very energetic: they fall easy prey to novelty and convenience.  Downward-spiraling trends are occasionally treated as news, however, and dull, lazy people occasionally wake up indignantly when their collective nose is rubbed in a scandal.

My new, state-of-the-art computer will not connect to the Internet.  I have exchanged a week's worth of mail with Earthlink to no avail--for my e-mail program, significantly, is unaffected.  Earthlink's trouble-shooters have recommended numerous procedures, most of which I was able to perform, a few of which I was not equipped to carry through.  All failed to relieve the problem.  Among those therapies which I could not execute was the "running" of the Internet Explorer Repair Tool.  The reason for this was that no such function had ever been loaded onto my hard drive by the manufacturer--and the seller neglected, I recall belatedly, to supply me with a Windows XP disk (said also to have a Repair Tool on it).

Now, I have no intention of pursuing a technical discussion here.  I couldn't if I wanted to: the more computer-savvy will surely have divined already that I'm out of my depth in these matters.  I wished to share a certain amount of my experience only to substantiate the observations that follow.

First Observations: computers malfunction for no apparent reason--there is an element of chaos in their working.  I soon concluded on my own, having clicked here and clicked there for a bit, that my software was persistently misremembering my password and thus denying me access to the Internet.  The Mailbox program responded as it should--but Explorer would never save my proper password, no matter how many times I typed it in, substituting instead a sixteen-character mystery-word appearing on my screen only as a row of "bullets".  Why the stubborn refusal to act as directed?  I sincerely doubt that anyone could tell me.  These things simply happen.  They are endearingly called "glitches", as if they bestowed upon our boxes some quasi-human measure of whimsy.  I find them, on the contrary, quite terrifying.  Because a current inexplicably surges or an unforeseeable correspondence between two commands creates an entirely new behavior, water systems may be poisoned or missiles launched.  And we're supposed to embrace the prospect of these things being used as infallible voters' booths or aircraft pilots?

Second Observation: the "experts" not only cannot account for the chaotic element mentioned above--they are all too often weak at simple linear reasoning.  Why did I have to insist over and over again to Earthlink's staff that I had a "password override" problem before one of them finally took me seriously?  Several respondents suggested measures to me which even I, in my abysmal ignorance, knew would be ineffectual.  Why change my dial-up number when the present number is working A-okay for my Mailbox?  I noticed, further, that these rather well-paid young people could not, in many cases, write a grammatical sentence.  I often found basic subject-verb disagreement.  Determining whether a subject is singular or plural is a pretty low-level logical operation.  A mind that cannot solve little puzzlers like these hardly strikes me as the mind which will crack my Mystery of the Shanghaied Password.  Could it be that one of the casualties of our not teaching grammar will be the ability to diagnose our computers' ailments?  Logic is logic: if you can't distinguish between verb tenses, I don't see how you would expect to eliminate possible causes of a satellite's malfunction.

Third Observation:  the computer and its sidekick, the Internet, will NOT free and empower our masses--on the contrary, they will eventually put power in the hands of a small elite.  Where in my experience is the justification for this remark?  I have perhaps not described enough of my ordeal (in fear of being more tedious than I have already been) to make the connections clear.  Let me add, then, that my new computer flatly refused to load my old Earthlink software, with which I never had any trouble at all.  (It refuses to print from my "old" Xerox machine, as well.)  As we learn to do more and more things with these marvels, our hardware and software will age faster and faster.  We will not be able to run updated software on last year's hardware beyond a certain point; and, having updated our hardware, we will find that our favorite trusty old software must now be upgraded across the board.  All of this takes money.  We're often assured that such accelerated spending on vital machinery is precisely the basis of a rosy economic forecast... but how many of us individually will manage to swing the cost of more gear, time after time?  My resources are already severely strained, and yet the technology is leaving me behind.  It looks to me very much as though a huge portion of our society is likely to end up having only the most primitive Internet access over the next few years; for, rather than driving down costs, innovation drives them up.  A specific job can of course be performed with less expense on the latest ware--but the sticker price of the very latest is always necessarily near the ceiling.  Why would one develop a new item if not to make a profit from it?

Fourth Observation: the electronic society will eventually offer far less choice than the conventional free marketplace.  The marketers who succeed best on the Net have the most to spend: one simply cannot elbow one's way to the top three or four listings of a keyword search with the tools provided by my humble FrontPage program.  Healthy businesses expand their scope as they prosper, reaching out to larger and larger audiences.  Why would you continue selling out-of-print French novels in your online bookstore when the big money is in marketing the autobiographies of movie stars and athletes?  A small-town bookstore is not under the same pressure.  If it serves a university community, for instance, it may well survive by catering to some very exotic or arcane tastes... but this bookstore's owner will neither fare well before a whole planet of consumers nor, in all likelihood, have the capital or the skill to power his exotic offerings to the peak of a Google search.  I tried to find a left-handed baseball glove online last month after mine was stolen.  (I am an ambidextrous thrower.)  Not only--quite to my astonishment--did I find no online business with a lefty Rawlings in stock: the outfit which promised to order the item didn't even have the courtesy to inform me that it had been discontinued.  I eventually blundered upon just what I wanted during a trip to a local sporting goods store.  Though it seems paradoxical, I assure my younger readers that I could find far more variety when shopping twenty years ago than I can now by going online.  As markets are "universalized", the offbeat dries up and blows away.

Now tell me again: how, exactly, are these wired boxes making our lives better?




I don't know when or if I will be able to post these scribbles.  My Internet connection currently refuses to work: no matter how many times I type in the correct password, the software supplied to me by Earthlink replaces it with another.  The fault, for all I know, may lie with the computer itself.  Since shelling out for a new unit in December, I have found that my Xerox will not work at all and my PhotoDeluxe software not function smoothly when annexed to state-of-the-art sophistication.  There are a great many lessons to be gleaned from this debauch of planned obsolescence, it seems to me--but I have preached most of them before, and to what end?  The fact remains that if this column ever does see the light of virtual-day, I will have to thank the loathsome Internet and its legions of servants for the broadcast.  Outlets and cords are here to stay, along with power outages and case-sensitive sighs.

Most likely, Spanish is here to stay, too--as well as those destitute, analphabetic ambassadors of south-of-the-border "culture".  Another range of sermons I have preached, though not for a while, and with equal futility....  Where I live, at least, immersion in illegal residency has already made republican government (even as our president leads us in a global fight for "freedom") a thing of the past.  A week from today, I shall have to transport my almost-blind mother to the tax assessor's office that she may explain why her ancient home has not suddenly increased a third in value.  I expect her to be modestly successful: the tax people run this scam on all of us, trusting that most will not have the time or the alertness to protest within the narrow window of opportunity.  My wife has had to lodge similar protests for years with regard to our own humble residence, and the city's pretexts for a hiked rate have never been such that even the most wall-eyed civil servant could defend them.  I took down our gutters a couple of years ago: they were full of holes, and the tangled mess which collected in them was breeding wasps and mosquitoes.  The "improvement" elicited an instant reaction: the tax assessor decided that our home would now bring another ten thousand dollars on the market!  (Gee... maybe I should go around ripping off people's gutters for a living!)

Of course, the tax office really had nothing specific in mind when it declared arbitrarily that my home--and my mother's--had risen in value.  These decisions are in manifest bad faith.  They are the tyrannical shift of a local government forced to raise more revenue to fund public schools, hospitals, and prisons now strained to the bursting point by residents who pay no property or income tax.  (We hear that the indocumentados "pay taxes".  Well... so levy ALL taxes via a sales tax--then maybe we would begin to understand just how much the Nanny State is costing us--and then our "undocumented" brethren would begin to pull their weight.  But you and I know that a federal sales tax will never replace the income tax: too many vested interests would suffer from such fairness.)

Money aside--and this has never been primarily an issue of money to me--illegal immigration simply spells death to any attempt at recovering our beleaguered culture.  And maybe that culture is beyond beleaguered: maybe, in Thomas Sowell's phrase, the enemy has already entered the gates.  When the major "cultural event" of the summer so far has been the release of yet another Star Wars flick, and when hip-hop "melodies" are accompanied by the groans of women having orgasms, I don't imagine anything an illiterate roofer from Chihuahua might dish out could possibly bring us any lower.  We might, indeed, be the better for the influence.  A throng of Dallas latinos recently insisted that they could see the afterglow of a divine visitation in an apartment window.  (It looked to me, I confess, as though someone had done a very poor job of wiping away the Windex.)  I hate picturing my son's living in a world where masses of people who enjoy the right to vote can be so energized by fly specks or shapes in the clouds; but then, I shudder when I hear him reciting the lyrics of "Candy Shop" on his way home from school (the terminus of whose references is as yet wholly a mystery to him).  Falling down in adoration before a Rorschach Test or memorizing coarse sexual innuendo before you're old enough to shave... the devil and the deep blue sea.

If I could address the assembled crew of Telemundo 39 (out of Dallas)--all of whom implicitly advance the cause of "regularizing" illegal immigration--I would try to say something like this.  "You seem to be pleasant, attractive people.  Naturally, you would be: your job is to pose before the camera.  But even the latino man on the streets who appears so prominently in your transmissions comes across as a hard-working family man.  My first impulse is to like him--to 'root' for him.  I do not hate you all or fear you all.  Far from it.

"But consider this.  Our culture is sick.  It has been wasting away at an accelerated rate since the end of World War Two, when the television and the automobile combined to tear apart families and neighborhoods from opposing directions (within the hearth and at the community's physical borders) and to substitute a habit of thoughtless haste for an ethic of quiet reflection.  Our pathological shallowness and boredom had turned us ever more outward--to sensationalist "music", endless sporting events, sexual promiscuity, extravagant vacations, etc.--until, about fifteen years ago, we were perhaps poised to raise a protest.  The Internet's assault was just getting under way; but it seemed then to have a silver lining.  For even as families were beginning to keep their children home to be schooled, so they were eager to run businesses from a keyboard that they might ransom their lives back from rush-hour traffic.  Fifteen years ago, we may have been waking up.

"Then your brethren started to pout in.  They crowded thousands and thousands of polluting vehicles onto the roads, none of which could even be inspected yearly (for the drivers were 'undocumented').  They strained the resources of our local schools more than ever (for most of them didn't pay property taxes).  They fueled a proliferation of the squalid, unsightly 'pop culture'--fast-food drive-ins, run-down apartment complexes, vast and shoddy discount retailers, malls--which we had lately hoped to check (for they had little enough food, clothing, and shelter back home, and their expectations were not high).  They motivated the rise of 'optimate' and 'popular' political interests, the one characterized by those who had grown wealthy exploiting them and the other by those from their midst who could play them like a drum (for they viewed themselves as a voting bloc, and had no experience of healthy individualist skepticism).

"Your brothers and sisters, fleeing the miseries of poverty and governmental corruption, have derailed our own system.  Whatever corrections we might have discovered to chasten our servitude to "convenient machines"--to haste and ease and titillation--must now languish for decades, and may well be lost beyond recovery.  In the meantime, your people will no longer survive on half a dozen tortillas and a bowl of rice and beans per day.  They will grow obese on deep-fried novelties and sugary delights, and their crude but humble spirituality will be easily converted to a gringo currency of actor-and-athlete idolatry.  As they acquire more, they will grow morose over the profoundly unsatisfying tawdriness of what they have; and, in this state, they will fall easy prey to the peddlers of artificial paradises--drugs, porn, booze--and the loud exponents of orgiastic nihilism--rappers, hoods, terrorists--whose corruption was already metastasizing among us before they arrived.

"So... will they turn out to have been better off, do you think, because they made the trek north?  Will any of us turn out the better for it, including a Mexican government which passed along its problems rather than confront them?"



When Boethius wrote his Consolations of Philosophy, he was awaiting execution on a charge trumped up by his enemies.  The work is a stunning bridge between the world of pagan antiquity and patristic Christianity; or perhaps I would more correctly say that it elucidates the nascent Christianity within Platonism, or that it reveals the truly universal elements which have usually prevailed over arbitrary ritual in the Christian faith.  The gist of Boethius's rambling exchanges with the goddess- or angel-like figure of Philosophia is that goodness rules the universe and always prevails in each specific instance.  What a daring assertion, especially before a man about to lose his life for being too scrupulous!  Yet the condemned man's tutelary spirit will not yield.  At one point, she summarizes:

Verily, this order presides over things, mutable and in blind flux though they seem, with its own steadfastness.  Thus it is that, while to you mortals who are in nowise capable of evaluating divine providence everything appears jumbled and chaotic, ultimate purpose nonetheless arranges everything for the good in its own manner.  (my translation of 4.6.92-97)

I've been wanting to write about this subject and related matters for some time.  Ever since I re-read Cicero's disparagement of the Stoic position in Concerning the Ends of Good and Bad (De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum), I've been squirming.  Cicero, being a solid Aristotelian, insists that only a lunatic would deny the goodness of material comforts and pleasures.  To be sure, he says, these are very minor goods: they must never be allowed to outweigh the good recommended by moral duty, which may quite possibly require of us great physical discomfort and even risk of life and limb.  Cicero is no hedonist, no Epicurean.  He essentially accepts the Stoics as allies--but he simply cannot understand their insistence that material circumstances are wholly irrelevant to the good life.  He appeals to our common sense.  After all, even if you were convinced to the very core of your being that you were going to the Cross for hundreds of innocents redeemed thereby, you would still not be particularly happy--or you would still be more happy if you could save the children and also slip out of jail the night before the execution.  Comfort has to count for something.  Maybe not much... if we must die, then let us die honorably and gracefully; but since death itself is not part of the good end to be achieved--only a means to that end--then one would as soon do the right thing without paying the ultimate price.  Would the deed be less good thereby?  To answer "yes" would seem to be an embrace of a cultic fanaticism, where the ultimate end has been displaced from goodness to theatrical display.

I think I understand Cicero very well here.  Why, then, can I not entirely agree with him?  I know I admire Boethius's reflections a great deal.  What in them, then, rubs me the wrong way?

Cicero is probably correct, furthermore, that his peripatetic vein descends from Plato's Socrates in a straighter line than does Stoicism.  There is a kind of sensual enjoyment in Socrates's abstract embrace of Goodness which Boethius captures well.  The perverse old Gadfly of Athens would no doubt agree in his wry, playful manner that he was a hedonist himself--but only because the greatest pleasure of all is that of living in accord with the Good.  If anyone has ever drunk a cup of hemlock with real relish, it must have been Socrates.  Dame Philosophy does a good job of working the imprisoned Boethius up to the same pitch, however.  About to be slaughtered for maintaining the innocence of a lamb... and he actually believes, in his final hours, that whatever happens happens for the best!

I myself believe that goodness rules the universe.  I believe that the wicked and depraved can know no lasting peace, and that the pure of heart have easy access to that same peace though they be put on the rack.  The most pleasant of lives eventually ends in death--but a premature death may indeed be said to have a certain pleasure if one meets his end serving virtue.  I believe all of that.

And yet... to insist upon this pleasure of virtue mildly partakes of the obscene, it seems to me.  Dame Philosophy, after all, is not a gorgeous female, and right action is not a drink which one might savor or a caress which one might sensually enjoy.  The material sacrifices of being honest and upright are real blood, sweat, and tears.  For Cicero, therefore, to allow bodily comfort and security even a modest rank in the roll-call of goodness is subversive.  We must not think of our soft, safe beds as good things, not because a straw pallet is more virtuous, but because we may gradually become attached to these "infinitesimal" goods as our days pass and not be able to renounce them when our neighbors are being hauled off in cattle cars.  I do not long to die, God knows... but I refuse to acknowledge my escape of death for another day as a good in itself, lest I not be able to lay down my life when goodness demands as much.

As for Boethius, with his Socratean wassailing over a tankard of poison... I find this insuperably "positive attitude" dangerous in the same way.  It potentially inspires quietism.  Say that my neighbor is falsely arrested and unlawfully imprisoned.  Why, Providence is trying to test his mettle--or else it is pushing villainous constables to that point where they can stand their villainy no more and must reject their henchman's life.  This keeps me out of the equation rather conveniently.  It absolves me of having to protest and risk being shot.  In fact, I may well conclude that protest would be undutiful, since Providence is already working everything out for the best.  My duty is to sit back and let God weave His mysterious, glorious tapestry.

For my money, there is altogether too much of such thinking on the scene today.  I prefer not to be passive in the belief that God has all under control and is lacing His own arabesque.  I prefer to believe that the author of goodness calls me through conscience to stand up against the tormentors of truth and innocence.  I believe His plan is precisely that I and others of my faith should stand up.  I prefer this belief because I find that quietism is no real consolation at all--that I can only find peace when I am satisfied that I have striven to my utmost.

We don't know why "things" happen.  We ought to know that bad things happen because of the human heart's corruption, and that only what results from such corruption--not death or disease, but fraud and murder--is truly bad.  Our moral duty is to fight that corruption, in ourselves and others.  That God may bring good even of the most evil designs is entirely possible, but it is not a speculation which we who consider ourselves Christians can afford to make in specific cases.  We need the activating energy of our moral outrage, and sometimes even of our guilty conscience.  To be sure, outrage and guilt carry a cost in equanimity, in peace.  We are not in this sad world to seek peace, but to seek the peace of goodness--which, alas, is not the only peace known to our dull spirits.  That is perhaps the single critical element of Christianity which the ancients never successfully anticipated--and which, ironically, even the new fundamentalism neglects as it struggles to rebuild the temple from Europe's rubble of failed orthodoxy.



In The Ionian Mission, Patrick O'Brian's delightful creation, Dr. Stephen Maturin, launches into one of his many homilies on the corrosive effects of power: "... Teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul.  It exemplifies the baldness of established, artificial authority.  The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings.  He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater.  He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain.  Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men?  The Dear knows I never have.  They are most horribly warped indeed."

As usual, Stephen is shortly cut off in mid-sentence.  O'Brian typically arranges these diatribes so that they leave Maturin calling from a soap box as the rest of life hurries by him.  Yet the author, I think, frames his Irish expatriate's suspicion of authority with such humor not because he himself is out of sympathy with it, but because he understands too well that the world will never heed any warning on the subject.

The distasteful character about whom I wrote last week  is but one puny exhibit in an infinitely long rogues' gallery.  I find upon consideration that his arbitrary assertions of power over my son's Little League baseball team are truly less tailored to please a certain parent than simply to let me and everyone else know that he is in control..  Even the elementary-school principal I mentioned who once declared my family damned and excommunicate had no stronger motive, I am convinced, than proving to herself and the world that she ruled the roost.  (She made more than one "I'm in control!" comment in the hearing of my friends.)  Coaching, you will agree, is a species of teaching (which includes bad coaching and bad teaching).  Do you think, then, that Dr. Maturin might have a point about the pernicious influence upon adults of lording it over children?

Certainly anyone who has ever attended graduate school will recognize the spiritual degeneracy in question.  One of my own formative experiences happened at Vanderbilt University in the late seventies, where I had received a scholarship in the Classics Department.  A perfectly bizarre professor who stalked about campus in a cape and boasted of his skill in fencing raked me over the coals before my classmates because I found nothing "odd" in the phrase tantus et tam magnus.  He insisted that it was unforgivably redundant--that tantus already means tam magnus ("so much and so great")--and that I had some nerve to be substituting an earlier course in my transcript for his nest-semester's class in Latin prose composition when I couldn't even identify the oddity... etc., etc.  I walked away from class and campus decisively that day: I never returned to Vandy's hallowed turf.  (Cicero, by the way, uses tantus et tam magnus together all the time--so the tyrant turns out also to have been a pompous ass.)  I very nearly repeated the experience at U.T. Austin a couple of years later.  Once again, a Classics course (why on earth did I keep signing up for those things?): the reputed professor lounges into the classroom, props his feet up on the desk (so that we may all see them to be sock-less in their shoes), leans his chair far back, and laces his fingers behind his head.  He proceeds to distill his sarcasm all over the student who neglected to mention Herodotus as a possible source of information about the Persian Wars.  That would be me.  Had he dropped my name, I most certainly would have stood up and walked out for good.  Naturally, he hadn't paused an instant to reflect that I had cited no ancient authors in my paragraph-answer to a brief, vague question because I had thought him to be asking for sources other than ancient.

These people live to grind subordinates under their heel.  Most graduate students are already emotional cripples--misfits, eggheads, nerds, wallflowers, paranoids, drifters--the unwanted stepchildren of the elite.  That's why they enroll in programs for dead languages or arcane studies: the more exotic, the better.  They readily submit to being chewed up and spat out because they have known such treatment all their lives, at least socially.  (Academically they are highly garlanded: hence the calm acceptance of abuse within their area of greatest success.)  If only they can stay the course and become professors one day themselves, they, too, can chew up and spit out other human beings.  That dream is what keeps them going.

I mused about all of this (at Dr. Maturin's instigation) for the umpteenth time over the past week when I received a hastily written summary of my student evaluations from the department chair where I work as an adjunct.  He liked my work, and the evaluations were generally good, though "a couple of students found you boring."  I wondered then, as I have always wondered during these "evaluations" (usually dispensed face-to-face--but an adjunct, you know, is just an adjunct), why I should need to hear about the wearied "couple" unless His Lordship suspects that a real problem exists.  Does he fancy that a couple here and a couple there do not find him boring?  Does he suppose that, when 20% of students fail to attend half the classes and 50% fail to read the whole assignment on a given day, my comments will not often seem disconnected or inscrutable to a few?  If I know my subject and express myself audibly and intelligibly, is there any reason why any of us should care that a twenty-year-old in an institution of higher learning may find the subject matter dry?  Heaven forbid that Henry Kissinger, with his unremitting monotone, should be brought on board to teach a special seminar!  Heaven forbid that any of us should fail to be entertaining by the standard of MTV and the flamboyant disk jockey!

My reflection could now very well veer into yet another head-shaking exercise over the state of our youth... but, you see, the students didn't design these evaluations or pluck out their lessons: the students only circled a few numbers.  It is the people in authority who pose the questions and draw the conclusions.  And yes, pedagogues are now held captive by the thumbs-up or thumbs-down of the undistinguished masses in a way which Dr. Maturin could never have imagined (except before a French guillotine).  But their cage is designed by their "chairpersons" and deans.

My particular overseer seems an affable fellow.  I can well picture him writing those inflammatory words while uttering a hearty and redemptively ironic chuckle.  No doubt, he feels it his duty to set down something caustic in black and white.  But being called boring will not make me a better teacher the next time I stand before a large audience.  Frankly, it's a slap in the face after all the hard work I do for disgracefully low wages.  I find myself wishing I could return that slap.  What a bunch of boors, knaves, bullies, louts, and tinpot Napoleons our organizations shape with their exclusive awards of arbitrary power!  The greatest teacher of all--he who wanted only to be called Rabbi--warned, "not to be served, but to serve"... and now his "ministers" compete for rank and salary like corporate executives, blessing us with their smiles and brief handshakes without ever uttering a word against the futility of worldly position.

The human ego.  What squalor.  Whither may we flee it?  Not before great ideas handed down for millennia, not in the house of God, not with children on a playing field.  What sadness.



Sometimes I worry about my sanity.  Several people I know are fighting battles with cancer, either in their own bodies or in those of parents or children.  A few have husbands or sons in Iraq, and a few have recently lost sons or daughters to that great slaughterhouse which seems to define American freedom and "culture" above all else: the open road.  Some have lately lost their jobs.  I myself have never really found a professional niche in this world, and I continue to cast about for ways to pay the handful of bills I can afford to incur while the "cheap labor" provided us by Vicente Fox pumps up my taxes.  These are careworn times, as indeed all mortal time must be.  Life is travail complicated by natural physical decay, and also by acute physical trauma attendant upon the very mitigation of our travail (e.g., the stress and mayhem involved in driving those cars which spare us so many long, sweaty walks).  A vale of tears... a wait for release.

How, then, can any intelligent person allow himself to be vexed by something so trivial as Little League baseball?  Yet vexed I have been this past week, and to a degree that I haven't visited since a Bible-thumping principal locked her school's doors against my family because I extracted my son from the clutches of a certain abusive teacher.  Actually, that incident and this one, while bearing no superficial similarity, have a deep likeness.  Both are grounded in the squalor of egotism.  Even when children are at stake--and even when the key players are teachers or coaches, who have ostensibly dedicated themselves to nourishing young minds and hearts--one needn't look far to find a central figures devoted to his or her selfish advancement or amusement.

I will not dwell upon the facts of this particular case.  The person concerned has lied to me now on several occasions, though one can never say confidently of such types that they tell themselves enough of the truth to know when they lie.  Suffice it to say that he has jeopardized the whole team in order to thrust into the limelight the child of a certain fair-haired woman whose attentions he openly courts.  The woman is married, and I must not create the wrong impression even in an anonymous summary like this; but the nature of the operative fascination, if mere bachelor daydreaming à la Werther, remains culpable for having set the valorous endeavor of ten other children at naught.  (And are there really any Werthers left today?  If I wanted to speculate, I would be more inclined to draw an analogy with a married-couple drug distribution ring I once observed in action.)

I've lost sleep over this... and then, as I go grumping through the next day, I recall all those cancer patients and traffic fatalities, and I roundly curse myself for a petty-minded fool.  How I evvy those who enjoy the gift of laughing over human folly!  All I seem to do is seethe and burn.

But then I reflect that the matter is not so very petty, after all.  Our team was "set up" to fail from the start.  I know the signs: it's happened to me before, when I was the team's manager rather than a mere coach.  Yet because I have logged long hours with my son and one other child teaching the fine art of throwing strikes, we have blundered into a very successful season.  Other teams are actually defeating themselves now when they play us, because they see that we have nothing but our two pitchers and yet they cannot seem to overcome the motley crew we put on the field.  For that matter, most of our team--those who attend practice--have to some extent been inspired by the pitchers' performance.  Now they run the bases fairly well after drawing frequent walks (which our leader does everything he can to minimize by exhorting one and all to swing at each pitch).  A little miracle, in short, is in the making--the kind of miracle a parent dreams of.  In this sordid world of cheating, lying, stealing, stacking the deck, and granting special favors, a few boys are discovering that they can prevail through hard work.  They aren't building the Brooklyn Bridge--but they're boys.  This is a boy's equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge.

And now one pompous, silly little man (who has lost no occasion to take bows for the team's meteoric rise) is undermining the collective effort by insisting that his golden child play first base, despite a succession of errors there which jeopardizes every game we play.  The boys see this, and they don't understand.  The child in question doesn't even come to practices regularly.  Why must their accomplishment be constantly placed at risk so that a sorry bungler can be center-staged?  (And the bungler, I hasten to add, is not the least of the victims: can you imagine a more agonizing position for a child than to become the team's highly visible weak link?)

To be sure, this is a lesson about the adult world.  It's the story of my own career: favoritism trumps competence.  But that is a false lesson; or rather, it is a blasphemy.  If the God of goodness rules the universe, then injustice in all of its forms is always wrong.  It is a fact of life, yes--but its wrongness is also a fact.  How do I teach the children under my care the second part--the important part--of this lesson?

The "no worries--this too will pass" approach is rank quietism, I have decided.  I remain highly irritated, and I'm no longer ashamed of being irritated.  I am convinced that I could handle cancer better than this; for all of us must die in the flesh, but we must never allow the spirit to be murdered before our eyes.  I could grab the lout by the collar and turn him upside-down...

But no, that's not the second part of the lesson, either.  I can't think of anything at the moment better than urging my kid to strike everyone out (which he very nearly does).  I leave you with this question, however: if we took seriously the moral outrages involved in "petty", every-day occurrences, would any of the larger variety exist?  Where is your faith, your conscience, your duty, as you press busily through the crowd or airily finesse a client over the phone?  What are you doing to show your higher calling?



I am evidently a "move on" sort of person--by which I do not mean that I visit or concur with the nefarious website whose address is blended from these words, but merely that I don't waste much time re-living the past.  Old letters hold few thrills for me.  When I happened the other day upon some short stories I had scrawled several years ago, I couldn't recall having written any of them.  So for the rest of my professional life.  The Spring semester already seems distant.  Yet before I allow the weeds to claim its grave, I am determined to jot down a few notes about the last literary work taught in my sophomore survey course--Milton's Paradise Lost--and about the general response which it elicited.  At the time, my fingers were itching to ponder the phenomenon in writing, and the itch revives now with a little encouragement.

Just what phenomenon do I mean?  Let me begin by making the same confession here as I made to my class: Milton's representation of Eden has always disturbed me--and disturbs me exponentially more every time I return to it.  Something's not right here.  Eve is not right, for one thing.  She is a narcissist: Milton represents her as literally infatuated with her own reflection in a pool after having scarcely drawn her first breath.  She is a coquette, as well.  Her very tresses are described as half-concealing her bosom, and her every gesture in Adam's direction seems to be muted in coyness.  Since I have invariably just finished teaching the Orlando Furioso in this survey course (as I age, I insist upon including Ariosto), I cannot resist noticing Eve's resonance with the incorrigible flirt Angelica.  But Angelica, you see, is a wash-out as a human being in Ariosto's view.  Milton's winking, half-retreating nymph is (we are asked to believe) sinless.

Adam isn't much better.  That very elusiveness which taints Eve with trickery seems to prick his affection to breathless fervor.  In Eve he chases a rainbow, just as Orlando pursues in Angelica a vision of female perfection which could never possibly exist, and certainly is not incarnate in the lovely dolt forced to occupy his pedestal.  Once again, however, Ariosto clearly knows that his "hero" is a benighted, inept clown--a precursor, in my opinion, of Don Quixote.  Milton's Adam, on the other hand, is already immersed in this folly of mystifying the opposite sex as the repository of utter fulfillment while he virtuously enjoys Paradise!  His judgment, that is, has already endured a fatal warp though he still has the gleam of the Creator's kiln.

I find that this irritates me without cease.  Milton's Adam and Eve are already fallen before the Fall.  They possess the will of corrupt, misguided creatures.  Sin lies in separation from God: the sinful act merely substantiates this separation.  Eve's coquettish little frauds render her incapable of communion with the Author of Truth.  Her manipulative exchange with Adam before she fatally parts company with him in the Garden drips with such vain pride as cannot co-exist with a blessed state.  Adam's infatuation with her, in turn, may quite properly be called idolatry.  He does, after all, place Eve before God in choosing to share in her fall rather than revere the Father who imposed a single duty upon him.

In a survey class, one is constantly racing the clock and the calendar.  I've never been one for dishing out "essential facts" and leaving students to return to certain works or not, as they may choose and life may allow.  The sad truth is that they will not choose a return visit if given nothing initially but timelines and major themes.  Far better, in my view, to leave them intrigued and somewhat puzzled: though my teaching evaluations inevitably suffer for it, I insist upon offering my classes a glimpse into the abyss which opens beyond the tidy hedgerow of texts like Paradise Lost.

And so I spent much of my precious time presenting to my students the same conundrums as I have laid out in this column.  Their responses were quite thoughtful, really: even the dominant silence was thoughtful.  (Believe me, one can tell.)  The argument was advanced that Milton's account of Eden and the Fall was flawed because he himself, being a sinner, could not understand the inscrutable state of sinlessness.  Over this cryptic hypothesis, however, prevailed (if only in number of adherents) the view that sin is an overt act.  We all have sinful thought--but until we sin in deed, we are guiltless.  In other words, my professorial perplexity simply reflected my personal failure to grasp that the Fall occurred due to a blunt dereliction of duty.  "Don't eat that apple," they ate, they fell: a + b = c.

I would probably have needed a week that I didn't have to explain to this plainspoken majority the inadequacy of its formula.  Of course, I dwell in Protestant fundamentalist country--the sons and daughters of Milton's Calvinism, one might fairly say--and a behaviorist approach to morality is bred into most of my neighbors from the cradle.  I believe I managed to stammer something about how, yes, we do measure wrongdoing by actual deeds from a legal perspective... but that the relevant moral point is the disposition of the will--that a man may, in fact, do a "good deed" with a selfish heart and hence do no good deed at all.  And though, yes, we all have vicious thoughts from time to time, the virtuous will castigates itself for entertaining these thoughts.  Repentance is all about regretting a foul motive, not regretting that an act begun in vice did not blunder into a happy outcome.  In Milton's Adam and Eve, we see precious little self-analysis of any sort.  Eve never has a second thought about her coquetry and vanity.  Adam, incited by the angel Raphael, mulls briefly over the possibility that he may be enthralled to Eve... but Milton fails to suggest whence this perverse tendency first entered Adam's heart in Paradise, or indeed that the coy evasions of Eve which inspire it are in the least out of place.

The truth is that tracing our corrupt will back to a single historical event is a moral impossibility.  Milton had undertaken an explanation of what cannot be explained--of what (let me be clear) is inexplicable not by reason of its being a mystery, but by reason of its being nonsense.  The Garden of Eden allegorizes (after the fashion of Christ's beloved parables) the moral fact that the human mind cannot grasp lucidly the ultimate ends of all things, and that, being vainly discontented with this limitation, it is forever tempted to supply answers within the ken of its comprehension.  To attempt to picture a moment when people were not prey to this temptation is to sketch something without recognizable resemblance to a human being.  Milton gave it his best shot.  His failure should be instructive.  Instead, the majority which continues to distort the Christian message so that sin is an overt act invites more generations of disappointing people never to scrutinize their souls, but merely to mimic prescribed behaviors.

No wonder I have this feeling that I would be more uplifted if the syllabus had stopped right after Dante's Inferno...



The two-week hiatus (well, one week now spilling into two) in my "web log" entries is owed to a conspiracy of factors, not the least of which was the final exam cycle for the college courses I teach.  There were interesting surprises.  Never in my long, roller-coaster career, for instance, have I observed so many students impervious to the prospect of receiving an F.  People who hadn't been to class for three months turned out not to have dropped the course, though they must have known well before the generous deadline that they would never darken my room's threshold again.  A young man attending school on the GI Bill explained to me that in his case, at least, failure was less costly than a purged record.  By lightening his course load through a drop, he would diminish his monthly check.  Maybe something like this is at work in other cases.  Maybe kids have an easier time milking Mon and Dad for money when they sign up for fifteen hours and sustain the illusion of attending all their classes.  Thanks to the Buckley Amendment, the domestic cashiers would not even know of a failing mark unless their full-grown pride- and- joy should choose to be gratuitously honest.  How would the old folks ever discover that it doesn't, in fact, take five or six years to earn a Bachelor's degree if you apply yourself?

But the season's greatest surprise came from one of my best students in Composition.  I assigned this group a final essay on the subject of what I call the "cultural life cycle": that is, must cultures age and perish as do individuals, or are there ways that a tired culture can be revived indefinitely?  I used Eric Voegelin as an example (and a very persuasive one) of a thinker who finds natural--indeed, inevitable--the rigidifying of that spiritual inspiration so vibrant at a culture's birth into a dull regimen of unexamined rituals.  An ethical hardening of the arteries, as it were: a people once filled with a sense of righteous mission degenerates into a Byzantine hive of hacks, flunkeys, drudges, and sycophants.  (The contemporary "bristle value" of the word "righteous" may pose a measurement of our own progress down this slippery slope.)  My personal experience of both educational and religious organizations strongly recommends Voegelin's disheartening view.

Yet I summoned the energy to supply come optimistic ammunition.  The article I wrote recently about the vital importance of the arts ("Does Culture Undergird or Undremine Morality?": see below) stemmed from this classroom brief.  I also dusted off French novelist and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's vision of technological society's exploring ever farther horizons--what I called "romantic progressivism".  That vision kept us going back in the 60s against a tide of anti-intellectual self-doubt which surged, paradoxically, from our ivory towers.  It authored the JFK's space program (and also many hundreds of hours of Star Trek which arguably drew our culture deeper than ever into etiolation).

Of course, I further suggested that students might write about the role of religious inspiration in vivifying culture if they so desired.  I have never viewed my obligation to abstain from classroom apologetics as entailing a further obligation to stifle such performances in my students.  I was not in the least shocked that a certain young woman seized the opportunity to write about America's being specially blessed by God for adhering to His ways.  What dismayed me were the argument's references to other cultures by way of contrast.  All Islamic cultures, more or less (I couldn't detect an effort to distinguish among them), were brutal and wicked to my twenty-first century Joan of Arc--ah, but I forget that she loathes the French!  Iran and Iraq, it seems, did not even merit the denomination of "culture" (as if the cradle of the Medes and Persians were no more than Saddam's crucible).  All that lot, you know, bullies its own people and massacres the innocents of other nations.  It has therefore been cursed with poverty, backwardness, and military defeat (so much for algebra and the era of the sultans).  Africa fared no better before my young arbiter's crosshairs: the dark continent is collectively dying of AIDS because its corrupt governments ignore divine will.  Q.E.D.

Now, I had a chance to respond briefly in writing to all of the students' essays at the outline stage.  To this bright, attractive young woman, I advanced a few gentle observations, hoping that her acuity would carry through a radical transformation of some very roughly hewn notions.  I remarked that Islam generally--and Islamic fundamentalism particularly--exacts the very obedience to law and order which she believed unique to American Christians.  I suggested that obedience to the Ten Commandments is, in fact, far more rigorously exacted under such regimes, and that it is precisely this rigor, leaving no room for the freedom to err and learn, which tends to make Islam repellent to many of us Westerners.  In Africa, the nations most resistant to AIDS have proved to be none other than those where the Islamic fundamentalist influence is strongest.  In any case, to argue that God has afflicted entire populations for widespread license by sending plague, famine, poverty, and defeat is morally identical to arguing that He sends tsunamis upon those who abet the American infidels.  It is an argument, in short, which no one not already indoctrinated with fierce gnostic exclusivity (if I may again hearken to Voegelin) would find remotely compelling.

If you imagine that I am now about to pillory this "opinionated" girl and prescribe strong doses of politically correct conditioning--multicultural orientation, sensitivity training, readings of the Koran for the Freshman Seminar--to our rural, red-state campus, then you haven't been following my columns.  Indoctrination is a necessarily counter-moral bid to preempt the free will (since freedom is the prerequisite of all moral action, good or bad), whether its prophets and propagandists bark from the left side or the right.  Why should we shock this girl with an electric cow prod for uttering disrespectful words about Islam, whose heroes of the Taliban were publicly decapitating women, when we vocally excommunicate any academic who hints that women may tend to be less drawn to the sciences than men?  Thumbscrews have no place in either response.  If a certain view is benighted, then the educated person's responsibility is to explain, calmly and objectively, why it is so.

Instead, my point is precisely that the campus PC movement has created an atmosphere where one cannot refine the rash, superficial judgments of young people.  We offer fewer foreign language classes than ever, the texts in our literature courses are chosen largely on the basis of their didacticism in an approved cause, philosophy has long been bulldozed into the rubble, and even the readers for Freshman Composition are mere anthologies of diatribe and iconoclasm.  Where would I direct this young woman--whom I would have liked for my daughter to resemble, if I'd had one--to deepen her understanding of the issues?  She would know, and I would know, that any history course handling Islamic civilization in the present academic climate would sanitize an undeniable Muslim penchant for blood-letting and inflexibility as a righteous (yes, one may here use that word) resistance of Western imperialism.  Were she able to find a course in comparative religion, she would likewise be treated to an unrelenting caricature of Christianity throughout the term--but I have never seen any such course in any college catalogue.

The Left's political correctness, in short, actively fosters the Right's shallow representation of cultural issues. Our young people do not need to be bullied into biting their tongues over certain naughty words.  They need to be stirred to speak more, and to research those assertions in their speech which are wrong or oversimplified or devoid of context.  They need to be educated--and instead, all too often, they are being brainwashed.  Once they figure that out, they lurch to the opposite extreme reflexively.  A fine recipe for creating a humane world!




I  noticed last week a small card on the kitchen counter printed with the exhortation, "Serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2a)".    A simple illustration showed a little girl passing along the collection plate during a church service.  My son must have been given this memorabilium either at Sunday school or after a service at his Episcopal day school.  I'm sure the fetching items are ground out by the ream and distributed all over the country.  Only an oddball like me would ever award one of them a second thought.

But the truth is that I thought more than twice about this card during the week--about its illustration, to be exact.  I would not have imagined passing the plate as the most evident way to serve the Lord, gladly or otherwise.  Yet I've no doubt that whatever company extracts a few pennies from that plate to mass-produce its modestly tinted note cards for Christendom's congregations excels at reflecting the mean of opinion: I accept that most people styling themselves Christians believe their cash-or-check donations to fulfill a significant duty.  This deeply disturbs me as a prototypical "service of the Lord", for the following reason.

Our society is dissolving in lies, ruthless ambition, acquisitive craving, irresponsible escapism, and carnal thrill.  In the ordinary week, many, many occasions must surely arise for most people to take a stand against the vector of decline.  How many parents buy their child another video game instead of addressing his failure to complete his homework, get proper exercise, and engage others in a civil fashion?  How many employees ride the clock at work when they have nothing to do, nod and applaud over the boss's latest moronic suggestion at a meeting, connive at padding the customers' bills, and so on, and so on?  How many pillars of the community urge a rise in taxes from which they well know their friends in the private sector will profit, or from which they themselves will draw indirect benefits of an indisputably unethical nature (e.g., the mayor who owns property just outside of town, where Yuppies will be certain to flee as urban rates increase)?

In a small middle-American city like mine, virtually all such people go to church every Sunday, and many of them go on Wednesday evenings.  Church is a big business.  Ecclesiastical organizations receive an almost automatic rubber stamp for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status from the IRS.  Yet the ministers of the charitable dynamos draw annual incomes approaching or exceeding six figures.  Their parishioners harrow the parking lots in vans and SUVs which scarcely fit between any pair of white lines, then make a dash for the sanctuary's air-conditioning in suits and outfits costing about a grand-per-person.  The women--and often the men, too (though the effeminacy of such practice revolts me)--are often artificially tanned with the aid of these expensive coffins well documented to contribute to cancer.  My wife and I, furthermore, as we stalk the fellowship-roiled corridors,  have exchanged glances over many a young woman as thin as a bean pole up to her bust, whose unnaturally sudden florition bespeaks the knife and another fat check.

Now we're back to the check, and the collection plate.  I don't know what gospel these people read... but where do they find the Christ who demands money, who promises worldly riches to his faithful, and who unfurls a surefire social welfare program?  Ananias and Sapphira, perhaps: but how much endorsement of the material life can you milk out of that one unfortunate and suspect passage in the charismatic's much-thumbed Book of Acts?  Acts, indeed!  Where, then, is the renunciation of worldly possessions, glories, and amusements which beams through every word and gesture of Christ--and which manages to penetrate, even, most of the verses in Acts?

The "poor" do not need our money (little enough of which finds its way to them, after the Pastor's salary is paid) as much as we need poverty of spirit.  Our children need us to play with them, talk to them, and guide them more than they need more expensive toys.  Our fellow citizens need us to speak the truth and to show character more than they need us to contribute whoppingly to a new park after we have plowed under a poor neighborhood to create a new highway.  Our elected representatives need to insist that our children be taught how to read and write rather than putting a monitor in front of every child to the delight of someone's nephew's computer hardware company.

We are all hypocrites--I, you, all of us.  La Rochefoucauld wrote that hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.  We of twenty-first century America, however, are becoming loathsome and incorrigible hypocrites.  Though all sin is Sin (even as the ancient Stoics declared that the only virtue was Virtue), common sense qualifies that sinfulness observes degrees.  A lie to a client when you did, in fact, forget about his order is not equivalent to a false deposition which sends a competitor to jail.  How many of our "Christian nation", I wonder, would have the moral guts to insert a question mark on a public billboard that read, "Believe and obey"--as happens surreptitiously in Ignazio Silone's anti-fascist novel, Il Seme sotto la Neve (The Seed Beneath the Snow)?  On the contrary, how many of the people I meet weekly who boast about their church attendance haunt the holy precincts precisely to be seen--to make contacts, to cultivate cliques, to wrap themselves in the comfort of having achieved a certain social status?

My wife came home very upset yesterday after sacrificing valuable time to a cookout at my son's school.  This innocent child of ten years wanted to ask his new best friend over for the night.  The friend's mother had already evaded and forestalled my son several times when he phoned across town to her up-and-coming neighborhood.  Just to be quite sure that the issue would not be awkwardly broached during the cookout, the same woman--an ostentatious congregant of our city's largest Baptist church--elbowed past my wife without so much as speaking to her, then drew her son aside and whispered instructions into his ear which promptly took him from my child's orbit.

Keep your money, whited Christians, to sanitize your sepulchers.  Or if you really wish to find the path, bring home fewer dollars.  Concern yourselves less about feeding the poor, and more about living humbly.



As my Spring semester approaches a most welcome end, I offered the following final essay topic to my Freshman Composition class:

Throughout the semester, you have probably flirted with the notion that morally sound principles may be contained within seemingly arbitrary traditions.  (The common taboo against first cousins marrying, for instance, is perhaps a way to preserve a special, unselfish love within the family.)  Let us accept this idea as our final premise: i.e., that abstract goodness needs to be “dressed up” in familiar clothes.  How far can morality and cultural tradition keep harmonious company—isn’t the very dressing up of one to suit the other a kind of lie?  Don’t we deceive, intimidate, and finally even kill in order to preserve our culture—and doesn’t every culture in the world?  In the last analysis, isn’t the cultural glue which holds societies together necessary before individuals can concern themselves over moral details?

Since the entire semester has been devoted to exploring the true meaning of culture, its status in American society, and its prognosis in our ever more novelty-obsessed way of life, I thought that a reflection on culture's moral underpinnings would be justified.  The notion of human culture's morally motivated genesis, far from being original with me, has been so widely circulated that I wouldn't know where  to begin citing its authors.    (Kant's Speculative Essay on the Origin of Human History, published in 1786, is surely a prominent point in this thoroughly rationalist pedigree for human institutions.)  After all, it makes perfect moral sense that people shouldn't kill each other, that families should stay together and rear children, that neighbors should defend their common boundaries against invaders, that promises between citizens should be honored, etc.  Indeed, this quasi-utilitarian version of public morality--that we do "good" things and legislate in their favor because we are thereby looking out for our personal interests--pervades the work of Hobbes, Locke, a great many of America's founding fathers, and lately the rather cynical tribe styled neo-conservatives.  The generation which came of age in the late sixties and seventies (my generation) vomited up--as the French would say--all this bourgeois self-interest... and then returned to its vomit.  For what is the New History, with its insistence that "all literature is propaganda" (Chinua Achebe's phrase) and that truth is arbitrarily declared by those in power, but self-interest advanced by stormtroopers instead of by councils and assemblies?

Say, then, that most or many cultural practices begin in the service of the general good.  Taboos evolve against killing kinfolk, molesting every unescorted maiden, and double-dealing at the horse fair.  My question is this: doesn't the very codification of such  inklings of the Golden Rule tend to create rigid, unreflective behaviors which eventually work against morality?  For must not the truly moral person reflect upon his motives and his deed's probable consequences as well as--or rather than--simply executing the approved deed like a robot?  To the extent that culture lures us into a robotic obedience to inherited ways, does it not draw us away from its original high inspiration?  Is it, in some important sense, self-defeating?

A teacher with any experience at all can detect a kind of psychic groan in his class--an unuttered protest which proclaims in several ways (including silence), "This is too much--this time you've gone too far!"    No doubt, we are all thoroughly exhausted, if not by our own company and the course's material and grinding routine, then by the combined weight of several courses, family obligations, tedious commutes... it all adds up.  Then, too, I have perhaps never put together a question which looked more convincingly unanswerable.  I am intrigued by the unanswerable myself.  I've always argued that the "antinomies of pure reason" are the climax of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: a series of four patent contradictions which underlie our basic thought about reality.  Kant found in this vertiginous self-annihilation of logic a grand window for the leap of faith; but some people--and among them many who consider themselves deeply religious--regard flirtation with insoluble ironies as a sophist's assault on all possible meaning and all coherent being.  Some of this, too, was bound to have lurked in that groan: I mean, a certain protest at what must have seemed my faithlessness, my nihilism.  Who but a connoisseur of chaos could enjoy leading captive tourists into sealed labyrinths?

Thinking about values gets personal, you see.  I am continually shocked at how quickly it becomes so, and how personal it becomes.  For our individuality, after all, is not really all wrapped up in our height and weight and age and eye color: it is infinitely more implicated in what we believe about the ends of life and the sources of reality.  People will much sooner, and much more ferociously, fight you over the latter than over some remark about their mother.

But are we not obligated to think about such matters--not just in an academic setting, but as responsible adult human beings who are compos mentis?  How can we comfortably sit back and allow our children to be indoctrinated into cultural ways if we have not first satisfied ourselves that those ways are not toxic?  What a man would give his child a snake when he asks for a fish, a stone when he asks for bread?

Besides, my own position is that culture need not be morality's self-annihilating vortex.  That's why the arts--music, painting, poetry, plays, novels--must be an essential part of Western culture, and why we Americans can only be said to lose our culture as we abandon the arts: because, that is, true culture bears within it a mechanism of constant self-examination, confession, and absolution--of critique, as Kant would say (in a word which has been rendered all but useless by Education departments).  The whole point about any work of art--its defining characteristic--is that it fails to be about what it appears to be about.  As it advances from its beginning to its middle to its end, it leaves doors open along the way.  The curtain falls at last--the crescendo builds and the brass blare their finale--but one must go back and repeat the journey, if only in one's imagination.  The experience was not a puzzle, deprived of any interest once solved.  Within it were echoes not pursued to silence, chasms not explored to the bottom.  The very constraints of formal artistic discipline force the audience to hurry past these ghosts; and the audience walks away, as a result, with a new respect for alternatives, a new awareness of complexity, a new reverence for mystery.  It walks away more cultured.  Is it morally improved, as well?  Not, perhaps, if you associate morality with rigid, instant execution of a certain act in a certain context.  But if motive matters, and if awareness of action's consequences matters, in evaluating a deed's moral quality--if a "moral robot" is an absurdity--then, yes, art makes people better.  A community which creates great music and painting is not a community which will ever ritually stone innocents, as in Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery".

As I sit typing these words, I am painfully aware that liberal arts programs are shrinking all around the academic world.  I am even aware--very painfully--that academics themselves have presented the arts as mere propaganda for the past four decades, and so become a primary motive force behind their destruction.  I am aware that we are descending into barbarity, and that the descent seems to be accelerating..  I'm not entirely convinced, however, that this is not a normal state affairs--that human societies are not always dancing on the brink; and I am fully convinced, on the other hand, that the life of the spirit will reassert itself, sooner or later, when the only alternative to it is a clammy quagmire of intellectual narcosis.




I am particularly pressed for time in the spring, especially since my son has come of sufficient age to play baseball.  It isn't enough that my spring semester is winding up (or winding down--the metaphor of collapse seems more appropriate when one considers how many students simply stop showing up for class); my son's school also chooses, inevitably, to celebrate the lengthening days by immensely complicating our schedule with field trips and unusual assignments; the last dead leaves need collecting and the first shaggy weeds need cutting; the federal government's annual unconstitutional plunder of one's meager domestic economy needs calculating; and to top it off, the Winter issue of Praesidium must be dispatched as the Spring issue is quickly pulled together.  Early on in 2005, I surrendered in this final struggle.  The journal's Winter and Spring issues will be compacted into Praesidium 5.1-2.  That alone is almost more than I can handle.

But our obligations to our children must preoccupy us at least as much as those to our job--an un-American sentiment, perhaps, yet one of whose justice I am convinced.  And so, at the top of my spring list of labors, I allot an hour or so  per diem to coaching baseball.  Why?  Wouldn't it be enough just to show up at the games (corrigenda tucked furtively under arm and red pen in pocket) to cheer on the team?  Why so lavish a sacrifice of time and energy--why not leave the younger parents to pay the necessary dues?

The answer to these very good questions amounts to a commentary on our decaying society, and so I offer it in this space.  To put it briefly and bluntly: my son is right-handed, but he bats left-handed.  Still not enlightened?  But I assure you, this anomaly exposes him to unrelenting and extraordinary abuse from overfed white males of ruddy neck who understand almost as little about hitting as they do about the dactylic hexameter.  Invariably, they stand my son up on top of the plate, where he will be doomed to feel handcuffed all season long, unable to put bat on ball and building up an indomitable fear of wild pitches to go with a mounting conviction that he can't excel at sports.  The original source of the problem is innocent ignorance.  So, originally, I tried to explain.  Think of tennis, I would say.  You can hit a forehand shot when practically on top of the ball, but a good backhand is impossible unless you back off enough to extend your arm fully.  Most hitters are forehanders: their better hand is on top, and they strike at the ball (especially in this age group) as they would swat at a fly.  Sometimes they even hit a pitch coming directly at their head--and hit it well.  But my son is a backhander: his better hand is on the bottom of the bat's handle.  He must stroke at the ball as a dragoon would deal a backhand swipe with his sabre--arm fully extended, striving to make contact toward the weapon's end (which is also the point of maximum acceleration).  In short, he needs to stand back from the plate.

Lately I have even adduced as further evidence a video which I discovered of Ted Williams's Science of Hitting (a companion piece, I suppose, to his classic book of the same name).. Ted says very plainly that the commonest error he observes in young hitters is the desire to stand too close to the plate.  Possibly the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, and he's saying the same damn thing as that wiseacre twit who teaches part-time at some college.  Forget about my credentials, gentlemen (or whatever one calls a bubba): this is Ted Williams.  Q.E.D.  That means you're not just wrong, but that any moron could see that you're wrong.

Ladies and gentlemen of the global Internet community, reason, I must tell you, doesn't really count for much in the boondocks of American culture.  Overfed white males with low foreheads and pork-chop hands will continue to mis-advise and bully children in pursuit of wholesome diversion because they must be in command.  These men will not only never admit to being mistaken: they will cold-shoulder the adult who questions their inept advice, and sometimes even cold-shoulder his child.  That's right: the penalty for taking polite exception, with mountains of data and a coherent rationale, to a manifestly flawed instructive technique is to see your kid riding the bench for the rest of the season.

So I get involved.  I coach myself, so that my own child (and other children) will not be bullied by pompous asses who do not even know that an ass is a jackass (from asinus).  I don't really have the time for this... but I don't have the heart not to take the time.

Where do these people come from, and what makes them this way?  They seem to patronize churches (especially of a certain denomination) more than the average Joe, and yet they have imbibed no observable humility.  They seem to have no particular athletic ability themselves (probably why the tennis analogy always fails) unless they might once have obstructed blitzing linebackers with their substantial corpulence on a limed high school sward, yet they wave Ted Williams aside like a gnat.  Where do all these arrogant idiots come from?

My theory for the day (and I must be brief, for we have practice in an hour) is that, besides Original Sin, a kind of rebellion against their daily servitude is seeking outlet in our boisterous coaches' bellowing and haranguing.  These men do not display much manhood eight nine to five.  They are lackeys.  Even if they command their department--even if they should be Head of Sales at the car dealership or or the Mr. Buford of Buford and Bucksnort Insurance--they remain enslaved to the dollar, to the profit margin.  Their own domicile is a millstone about their taurine necks: house payments, car payments, payments on the new swimming pool, payments on the whopping pledge made at church.  And to meet all these payments, they cut corners on the job.  They stretch the truth routinely to close a deal; they turn the blind eye to received merchandise that ought to be sent back instead of placed on the shelves; they hire illegal workers; they fawn upon potential big-order clients at Sunday school; they send their kids to the private school attended by the mayor's brood, with instructions to be friendly to Honest Abe Junior.  Their lives are a great swirling basin of sycophancy, equivocation, mendacity, and hypocrisy.  They are not comfortable with themselves... and so their discomfort comes blaring out wherever it can risk an eruption.  They bully their subordinates, their wives, their children... and then they find their way to the playground.  We're Number One, and I'm in command.  I say, you do.  I'll make you winners--you don't even have to thank me.  Just obey.

Egotism, of course, besets all of us all the time.  But it is much exacerbated by a secret, gnawing awareness of one's own vileness.  There's no egotist like the man who hides a gruesome skeleton in his closet.  With so many swollen toads in our populace, what grim bones await discovery in our closets?  How have we come to design a manner of life where plainspoken honesty and sober dignity often spell ruin in the marketplace?  What has happened, I ask for the thousandth time, to our manhood?




I have just finished re-reading a David Guterson essay on the Mall of America (composed in 1993, when this cultural mausoleum was just opening) for my freshman composition class.  For the umpteenth time, I am struck by the American fear of life--a fear of its limits, its consequences, its inevitable tedium.  To be fair, this is a human fear which Americans have probed more deeply than others by virtue of our success in creating what Charles Baudelaire (referring to wine and opium) once called "artificial paradises".  We devote to our diversion an immense amount of resources.  Malls, however--as Guterson usefully observes--are not just about buying splendid frivolities, perhaps not even primarily about that.  People enter the mall's maw to get lost.  Once inside, they misplace real time and space.  The lighting and temperature are controlled artificially (there's that word again), so the sun's rising or setting is irrelevant.  Their activities have no particular objective (since buying is itself often an afterthought or sub-ritual), and no rational sequence connects one activity to another.  Most importantly, our bemused strollers and gawkers have no social or communal relation to each other.  The mall's hundreds of alternative destinations effectively dissolve any centripetal motion in the mass.  One has the sense of being in a very public place, yet no cost of public intercourse--no greeting or pecking order or dress code or range of polite tones and words--is ever exacted.  Teenaged boys don't even ogle teenaged girls as they would on an open street corner.  Here are no corners, here is no sidewalk, and the only benches are occupied by crazed ancient mariners.

One of my earliest memories of television is the black-and-white hospital serial-drama, Ben Casey.  To this day, when I chance to see in re-run the opening sequence where Dr. Zorba draws signs on a chalkboard and drones in impressive crescendo, "Man... woman... birth... death... infinity!" I feel a tear well in my eye.  Life doesn't last forever: not even close.  It is as fragile as a flower--and yet, the flower's beauty partakes of eternity.  When we run away from the facts of life--our necessary end, the disheartening deterioration of our body which anticipates that end, the impossibility of flowering in several directions at once (or being both a rose and a tulip)--our greatest tragedy is not that we are surprised by failure.  It is that we fail even to form a project capable of success.  Our "cultural life" is littered with examples sad and tawdry.  The sexual revolution brought millions of unwanted children into the world and deprived millions more of a chance to be born, simply because we denied the connection between sex and family.  The debauch's participants, intent upon freezing their "Grecian urn" frolic in some infertile orgasm, have often awakened rudely to a lonely middle age--and, along the way, to the numerous emotional traumas inspired by the one-night stand's quick embrace.  Our young imbibe intoxicants and hallucinogens to blunt the painful absence of meaningful service in their lives, and our thirty-somethings pass under the knife to recover their meaningless youth.  Some of us want to be cloned, some cryogenically preserved, in our Angst of realizing that the hour glass's upper cone is almost as empty as our record of noble deeds nobly attempted.

Escape is so much in demand that many of us have passed our working years precisely in bondage to escapist enterprises: amusement parks, airlines, cruise ships... cable companies, the film industry, the recording industry... professional sports, sports medicine and sports law, the myriad-tentacled beast of advertising (expert in making even wallpaper and lawn mowers seem conduits to heaven)... car manufacture, car sales, car maintenance... cosmetic surgery, weight loss gimmicry, fashion design and retail... sugar-vending, chocolate-vending, fat-vending... caffeine-vending, alcohol-vending, cocaine-vending.  We do not soberly measure how many years it might take us to put an epic or a philosophical tract into words, or how many to compose a symphony or adorn a chapel in frescoes.  How could we?  We would starve in such endeavor.  When everyone around you is in full flight, the money is in fuel and road maps, not in still-lifes and recitals.

I am convinced more every day that our cultural crisis is a crisis of work.  I have written on this subject often, and I keep returning to it.  A fulfilled human being is not one who believes himself adequately compensated in money and amusement for doing unpleasant labor five days a week.  He is one who believes his daily labor to be transformative--to bring out the best in him and to improve humanity.  How many of us dare make that claim?  Ministers?  Well, it may be so if they think it so: but in my view, a 60-100 thousand dollar position plus perks (the going rate for established churches in these parts) muddies the calling's proper motives in a truly obscene fashion--the reason, perhaps, why so many of these decorous dandies tell the congregation what it wants to hear instead of what it needs to hear.  Teachers?  But between state bureaucracy and deadbeat parents, teachers are now virtually powerless to teach.  The sweetening of the salary pot, besides, has drawn to the profession--as with the ministry--a new generation of careerists to replace the Old Guard of silly ingenues who pulled a C- in all but their Education classes at college.

What remains?  I don't know.  Maybe that's why I keep returning to the question--because I can't figure out the answer.  My son, in his child's innocence (long may it last!), imagines himself growing up to play Major League baseball.  If his dream were to be realized for only two or three years, and if he had sense enough to invest his money properly, he would be able to publish a book of poetry every subsequent year of his life, or to sail the Caribbean with a few paying and grateful passengers, or to create a Little League whose jerseys would sport the monogram of his up-scale restaurant.  Wealth generates opportunity in our system; and sometimes even the most hare-brained of enterprises, amply lubricated, can in turn generate more wealth.

But this is no remedy.  As much as I love baseball, the formula in broader terms amounts to playing whatever sordid games prove lucrative in a decadent society and then using the proceeds to study philosophy or grow apples.  A fulfilled person must be fulfilled at each of his life's moments: i.e., he must know that even his most agonizing days are the throes of creation or the sacrifices of dutiful service.  Otherwise, he is a charlatan and a hypocrite.  Swatting doubles into the gap, to be sure, may be fulfilling for those whose spirit revels in physical expression; but the outlet is closed to most of us, and it has also--like the other options above--been severely tarnished by the very remuneration which makes it an attractive livelihood.  Work can be too well rewarded, in a worldly sense.  What I seek is a formula to allow soul to live peacefully in body; and gems, satins, and palanquins can disturb that peace far more than a missed meal or a mattress on the floor.

An honest living.  Work to be proud of that buys milk and shoes.  I don't find it as I look around, and I am taxed to imagine it in our culture of panting lust after novelty.  Maybe a person who loves cars (and my least dedicated reader must know how I detest them) could achieve fulfillment restoring old jalopies, or affixing anti-pollution gear to classics.  He could do it in his own house's garage, and to his heart's content.  He might have to clear numerous obstacles of local zoning which often harass small-time craftsmen.  Yet his highest hurdle, I suspect, would be of the soul--of his own soul and of his potential client's.  He would have to be reconciled to living in relative poverty, for his labor would be time-consuming, and a big price tag would merely haze possible patrons into the eager clutches of new-model dealers.  His client, in turn, would have to discover a pride in the old-and-refurbished surpassing his present inane, ruinous, and imminently exploitable pride in the fresh-off-the-assembly-line.  They would both have to develop a certain amount of taste to resist their culture's--our culture's--reigning ostentation.

It seems to me that the neighborhood's minister could get the ball rolling, inasmuch as the soul is here both the ultimate obstacle and the ultimate stake.  "The life within... be satisfied with what the day brings... strive not after the praise of fools..."--that sort of thing.  But, of course, the contemporary minister is likely to be pressing flesh and finessing donations at the country club.  Too bad.  What an opportunity lost!



Sometimes an incident or issue is represented upon the public stage in such a way that no cultural commentator can possibly abstain from volunteering his two cents' worth.  I do not flatter myself that, under the current deluge of commentary, many readers will dredge up my own remarks about Terri Schiavo's case.  I nevertheless feel compelled to have my say.

Beginning with the frivolous, may I observe that the Italian word schiavo should be pronounced skyah-vo?  As a noun, by the way, the word means "slave" in the old country.

Less frivolous but well beyond my area of competence to assess (and probably yours, too), the "facts" of this case are both highly relevant to the ultimate issue and, for the moment, virtually unattainable.  My personal response, which is no more authoritative than any other layman's, would be headed by recollections of my father's state just before the "plug" was pulled on him.  A vegetative state is that of a vegetable.  Take a lettuce out of your refrigerator and study it for five minutes: such was my father's condition.  Anyone can tell from the briefest examination of the television screen that Terri Schiavo is not vegetating..  I am also dismayed and appalled, as a layman, that so many depositions and affidavits can have been filed on behalf of Mrs. Schiavo's far-from-petrified vitality to no avail.  I do not understand, and as an American citizen I want very much to understand.  Is there or is there not serious medical doubt about her status?  Since the matter is of critical import, why has a judge not ordered the brain scan which Mr. Schiavo (according to my information) has refused to authorize?  Judges sign search warrants which violate our privacy all the time; with a life in the balance, why is privacy an overriding concern here?

I do not understand, further, how my fellow ignorant laymen can argue for some sacrosanct right of the "family" (meaning, in this case, a husband who has already taken another mate) to arbitrate a speechless woman's life or death.  Any homicide detective can tell you that people are most often murdered by those they know, including family members--and including, especially, spouses.  A spouse in such a case as this, far from being allowed to make his or her decision behind a respectfully sealed door, should be thrust under a legal magnifying glass.

I am so irritated, I will confess, by certain "people on the street" who mutter for the camera something about government intrusion that I want to reach for the screen and slap their hypocritical mugs.  These same people are worried that their social security benefits, which will almost certainly far exceed whatever they contributed to the program, may not be secured by an ironclad guarantee.  On Telemundo's national newscast last Thursday evening (March 17), I watched half a dozen passers-by uncork in Spanish the "keep government out of our lives" bromide; yet many viewers of this newscast, if not the respondents themselves, expect our nation's government to publish all public documents in a foreign language just for them.  Our neighbors, it seems, are all in favor of big, intrusive government when their own pockets stand to weigh a little more or their day to be a little less inconvenienced after the invasion.

But the mater upon which I shall comment most lengthily in this context is the one which is most within my grasp as a commentator: I call it the "gaping and drooling" objection.  A great many people seem to feel that the contorted figure on the TV who rolls her eyes and smiles with a deranged insistence is clearly embarrassing herself.  She looks "gross" or "weird"--and who would want to live on as a weirdo?  Obviously, she would wish to die if only she could express herself, and if only she could consciously, sensibly see herself.  "She looks so weird!  God, I'm so embarrassed for her!  Somebody should put her out of her misery."

I suggest that this is precisely the depth and consistency of most of that supportive surge which, polls tell us, has reached with Mr. Schiavo for Terri's feeding tube.  Remember that we are a nation which routinely submits itself to surgery in order to look more "sexy".  We risk cancer to achieve a tan: our teenagers are beginning to demand breast implants as a graduation present.  I have an attractive student who has sported a perfect tan since early January.  She plainly patronizes one of the tanning salons which proliferate in this area--even though, I discovered lately, her younger sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Do you see the picture now?  We will quite literally risk our own lives to look svelte, slinky, and succulent to others.  The question of cutting off life support from someone who gapes and drools (or simply looks weird) isn't a tough call at all for us.

One of the sure signs of the decline into post-literacy is a loss of inner life.  Reading and writing involve one in a constant conversation with oneself--an exchange whose voice can grow so loud that silly cackling and babbling from outside become quite irksome.  The post-literate hears no such voice from within, has no such reserves of conscience and character.  He or she is nothing more than the skin-deep appearance observed by others.  Deface or vitiate that, and life simply isn't worth living.  No composed symphony or poem, no resolved mathematical conundrum or scientific puzzle, could possible compensate for the loss of popularity; such consolation, indeed, is not even within the conceptual powers of these would-be American Idols.

You slaves--you chattel!  Voialtri schiavi!  You who would have put Stephen Hawking or Giacomo Leopardi in a box because he gave you the creeps... you all make me deeply ashamed to be an American, and ashamed yet one more time to be a human being.




I doubt that I am alone in not knowing what to make of Islam--in fact, I no longer think I trust anyone who is confident in knowing precisely what to make of it.  Professor Abu El Fadl of UCLA is an extraordinary scholar who has graciously answered one or two of my e-mails over the years.  He argues fervently that Islam is a religion of peace, and that its pacific impulse emerges when one studies Koranic teaching beside the hadith (if I have not hopelessly garbled his brief).  Yet this gentle, brilliant man receives constant threats from Muslim fundamentalists, and has been physically assaulted on more than one occasion.  Some contacts tell me that my recent comments disparaging the Ayatollah Khomeini in favor of the sanguinary Shah of Iran were indefensible; yet I have also read that Khomeini butchered well over ten thousand members of a rival fundamentalist group, the People's Mujahidin--and, of course, his purges were not confined to this single rival.  When I attempt to teach the Koran as literature in my survey classes, I never fail to be chilled by its ferocity toward unbeliever and sinner alike and dismayed by its basic ignorance of faiths (like Christianity) which it judges summarily.  Yet I cannot begin to claim any authority in the matter: I am myself too ignorant to pass a summary judgment.

Muhammed, at any rate, was not unaffected by his environment.  I don't entirely know which environment it is that turns human beings into self-oblivious berserkers--maybe the desert, with its uninhabitable wastes and maddening debauches of nocturnal starlight.  I have been reading lately the ancient soldier Josephus's account of what he calls the Jewish War, and the succession of plots, uprisings, assassinations, coups, raids, sieges, plundering expeditions, and outright wars is truly dizzying.  Though I have studied the Greek language for thirty years, I struggle with the original text; and the reason, I believe, is less because of the author's off-beat koine vocabulary and usage than because I can't keep a fixed cast of characters in mind.  The subterfuge and slaughter proceed too hastily.  Only this morning, I waded through Josephus's report of how Herod (he who had John the Baptist beheaded to please Salome--and a dynamic general, it happens) wiped out the veritable army of cave-dwelling robbers which was harrowing the inhabitants of Arbela (near Arabia).  The brigands were slaughtered in their cliff-bound lairs thanks to the ingenious use of torches from a system of cranes.  Herod besought the survivors to surrender, but most simply pitched themselves into the abyss.  One hold-out, in particular, slit the throats of his seven children and his wife before Herod's horrified eyes, insulted the king, and "having hurled the bodies from the height at last cast himself down after them" (1.313).

I have seen Palestinian mothers express the "pious" hope before a documentarist's camera that their sons would strap a bomb to themselves and set it off in quarters crowded with Israeli men, women, and children.  Considering the lunacy witnessed by Herod on Arbela's cliffs (and we all know that Herod himself was no choir boy), I cannot find it in me to charge Islam with being a religion of ruthless carnage.  Displays of inhumanity have been routine in this part of the world since its history was first recorded (and, one may suppose, well before).  Islam took shape in these overheated brains and desiccated souls, a product of the disease rather than its cause.  I am naive enough to suppose that cooler heads like Kalid Abu El Fadl may one day succeed in subduing or straining out the poison of the sun--a poison the Greeks well knew, for the depraved mythic women Pasiphae, Circe, and Medea were all descendants of Helios.

In the meantime, does it make sense to imagine that three thousand years of turbulence will vanish because of Iraq's recent election?  I hear commentators like Rush Limbaugh belittling--and, indeed, dismissing--the lessons of history as defeatist whining; but I ask you, isn't the relative indifference of registered Iraqis to the physical risks of voting simply another indication that life in these parts is cheap?  Those who brave bombs and bullets to vote will brave the same storm to riot; they have done so before, and I am regrettably certain that they will do so again.  Shiites have taken far more daunting gambles than January's to assume power in the Arabic world.  I cannot see them settling down over the next twenty years to man checkout counters at new Wal-Marts.  The sun isn't suddenly going to burn less hot.

Please understand: I do not counsel deserting any populace on earth to the ravages of a brutal political system or culture.  I believe in extending a kind hand: in offering relief where possible, in cold-shouldering tyrants when possible, and in broadcasting outrages far and wide before the world's reluctant eyes.  If the wellspring of human decency is immovably and all-but-irrepressibly gurgling in the depths of every human heart, as we exponents of the Western tradition claim to believe, then innocent cries will be heard, cruel masters will be shamed, and wicked scoundrels will be exposed.  Freedom (as I have said before) is neither a gift nor a privilege: it is a moral fact.  All of us are already free, if only to choose a bullet over an oath of allegiance.  We have the freedom to speak out, and we have the moral obligation to use it.

But this other freedom, this freedom which will beat swords into computer circuitry and undermine hate-mongering rallies with Monday Night Football... is this Jesus declaring, "Before Moses was, I am"--or is it Judas's thirty pieces of silver stimulating the local economy?  What exactly is this miraculous new freedom (still on the drawing board) supposed to free people to do which they may not already choose to do, if they have the courage?  Speak out without fear of intimidation?  But it is the intimidation which ensures the moral inspiration of those who speak out.  Live the life of affluence in a luxurious confidence that one's possessions will not be plundered?  But riches are shackles: people who live for wealth speak out only in terms calculated to to benefit their investment portfolio.

In the final analysis, whether one's judgment of Islam is severe or charitable, one is forced to acknowledge that "freedom" in the mouths of our policy-makers sounds rather like a bribe, or a seduction: "Once they've had a taste, they'll be hooked."  I don't like the underlying "addict" metaphor.  I don't like having to choose between Herod and Judas.  As a free man, I insist that there is a higher choice.




Things I must do and have not yet done: grade World Lit Survey mid-term over Spring Break, grade World Lit Survey essays over Spring Break, grade Freshman Comp final drafts of third essay over Spring Break, have the heating-air conditioning unit (which whistles merrily but disconcertingly) replaced at once, apply to the Land of Freedom's IRS to have the beleaguered Center for Literate Values ruled tax-exempt (maybe by year's end), mow the lawn, get uniforms for my son's baseball team, pursue in this column a reflection on liberating the Islamic world before I lose the thought or am killed in heavy traffic, have the shyster who sold us our used truck put some genuine weather-stripping in it, go online to download something-or-other from Xerox so that I may use an old printer (five years) with this new computer...but the chore which has preoccupied me lately, if I must be honest, is having my novel Footprints in the Snow of the Moon published in a competent manner.  Mathews Books, you see, cannot so much as tell me how many copies were sold last year through Amazon.    I myself have ordered books which passed out of print decades ago from and been forced to wait... six weeks, maybe two months.  Mathews Books brought out my novel last year, and at least two acquaintances had to wait six months for their Amazon order.  That Amazon is at fault seems improbable to me, especially since Mathews Books rarely deigns to answer my urgent e-mail queries.  My book, and my considerable investment of time, labor, and money, have been sucked irrecoverably into a one-way e-hole at

But wouldn't be much of an improvement.  I would be able to track sales reliably, to be sure; but the cost of each volume, both for the general consumer and for me, would skyrocket.  Xlibris makes its dough selling copies to authors at an exorbitant rate, and also by tacking on such useless services as press releases and production of galleys for reviewers.  Xlibris must know damn well (as I learned the hard way while trying to run a tiny publishing house) that nobody pays any attention to the press, and that the press, in any case, only writes about books which are already being written about.  People read a book nowadays--especially a novel--only because they are convinced that vast numbers of other people are reading it.  They don't want to be left out.  They couldn't possibly care less about the work's quality or veracity.  Though assured of its trashiness, they will nonetheless shell out twenty bucks for it simply to be able to chime in when the chatter begins around the water cooler or the coffee-maker.  Literacy is playing a more ancillary role to blabber every day.  Journalists know this as well as divers know how much air is in their aqualung.  That's why even AP stories are composed more thoroughly in cliché and babbling solecism all the time.  You don't read newspapers any more: they speak to you.

Then there's  A friend recommended it as highly professional, and the site pulses with hard-nosed, no-nonsense advice and admonition.  I would have been grateful, however, for one more shade of yellow in this jaundice.  Why go to the trouble of submitting the ms. of a psychological novel to an outfit which only handles material with "large sales potential"?  Under the circumstances, I found the up-front insistence on flawless grammar redolent of the proverbial red herring.  Since when did books with "large sales potential" address audiences that a) cared deeply about grammatical probity or b) could tell a grammatical gaff from a slap in the face?  My friend writes very correctly, I hasten to add, and I am sure that her books about yachting reach the occasional devotee of Patrick O'Brian, or even Joseph Conrad.  But I am equally sure that Booklocker, had it existed when an unknown O'Brian was seeking a publisher high and low, would have been among the dozens of houses which rejected him.  Novels have suffered in this country from a courtship of mass readership for about half a century now.  The pogrom of literary taste didn't begin with the Internet, though it has certainly accelerated as the phone lines have heated up.

I offer you today, then, not my reflection about liberating Islam from its core values to the wonderful world of outsourcing and e-baying, but a brief thought on the travail of taste.  The development of literary taste, it turns out--of an appreciation for consistently motivated and finely detailed characters, for symbolic employment of objects, for meaningful repetitions in plot, etc.--nurtures an elite group.  As much as I personally dislike elites, I have been forced to recognize as much recently.  In this case, however, the elite is an elective one, and hence purged of elitism's most obnoxious trait: its imperviousness to merit.  Anyone can become a discerning reader who will devote several hours every week to reading and (for best results) writing.  Mass taste is the mortal enemy of literary taste, for these reasons.  First, the great mass of people is never willing to invest heavily in any labor of amusement: the very phrase is a self-contradiction to most ears.  For those who read at all (and their numbers decline with every sunset), books about movie stars, high-profile sex scandals, lurid crimes, sports superstars, and succulent food are infinitely more enticing than philosophical texts; and, in the realm of fiction, books featuring some steamy admixture of the above into a sinking ocean liner or descending tsunami or off-course space ship or star-spangled Rapture leave at the starting gate novels which explore (in the case of Footprints) how the seventies pulled our culture off track.

Secondly, mass culture immerses the far-flung members of the literate elite in strident formulas and Punch-and-Judy uproar until these unhappy few can no longer locate each other.  As I have indicated, the sad truth of this equation was already looming in evidence during the seventies and the eighties.  Especially in a multicultural society such as ours, people rely on communication technology to stay in touch with their scattered teammates and soulmates.  A few decades ago, these technical resources exploded in an inconceivable and quite ungovernable burst of activity.  VHS stations wrested television away from the Big Three networks, the infant computer allowed new print sources to compete for the readership of older ones, and book-publishing similarly mushroomed so that no one human being could possibly monitor all that was leaving the press.  The truly tasteful acumen could no longer detect messages sent by its comrades from other parts of this cacophonous galaxy.  Editors could no longer be relied upon to exact high standards in either form or content.  A new book was just another entry in a field of thousands, and it could scarcely prove its worth on the open track with so many horses' tails flapping in its face.

Big audiences, of course, mean big money: this is a third reason why mass culture is deadly to discernment.  With so much lucre at stake, publishers began to clarion their authors in the most unprincipled manner.  Indeed, it is now common for an intellectual midget widely known for sleeping with a president or or shooting steroids to be approached by publishers, checkbook open and pen poised, merely because of his or her pre-existent notoriety.  The book follows the scandal, and the scoundrel's semi-literacy is not a significant obstacle.  Not only does the publishing racket now instinctively cringe from the task of publicizing some bland, meditative scribbler; the public itself--including its few real votaries of literature--has acquired a very thick skin to defend against endless hyperbolic reviews, endorsements, blurbs, and flashes.  In a sense, getting the word out is useless: no one is listening to any more words.

Finally, mass taste, though easily led around by the nose, is anarchistic in regard to qualified authority.  It rejects experts in matters of value, just as it will consign even doctors or scientists to perdition with very little encouragement from a skilled demagogue.  I wrote above that editors proved unreliable referees of quality when their numbers grew exponentially.  The mass is unwilling, in any case, to acknowledge that some few people might understand art better than you and I do over a beer and a billiard cue.  The academy, to be sure, has exerted Herculean efforts to discredit itself before anyone possessed of common sense.  Trust me as a teacher of composition, though: the most addle-pated adolescent compositor of the most unmalleable claptrap will stand fuming before my desk and insist that his or her prose is lucid and delightful.  People who haven't spent years studying don't understand the need for study.  They know it all--and they quickly brand you a know-it-all if you dare to challenge their hip-shot verdicts.  Works of excellence do not emerge from such centrifugal slush.

I sometimes wonder... what would happen if a wealthy Visigoth self-published his vampire epic, bought ten thousand copies off of Amazon, and thereby attracted the publishing establishment's notice?  Wouldn't he receive a contract from Penguin or HarperCollins or TimeLife?  And having given him a contract, wouldn't one of these titans be able to muscle him before Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer--and wouldn't he suddenly become a genuine, bonafide bestselling author?  Ain't freedom wonderful?




Peter and Bahar were two of the best friends I ever had in my lonely twenties.  I was a literary cum liberal-arts type back in the seventies, with no connections and an increasingly shrinking circle of possibilities; and Peter took me under his wing when I became (briefly) a Latin teacher on a campus where my major qualification was a willingness to be grossly underpaid.  Bahar was a very attractive Iranian woman.  She had infinitely more "class" than the dolled-up, money-magnetized, dictionally challenged females of north Texas through whom I had unsteadily navigated throughout my young life.  One day very late in this troubled decade, the two of them invited me to a party to celebrate the expulsion of the Shah from Iran.  I couldn't attend... but I remember thinking at the time, "Why are they celebrating?  I know they're older than I, and that Bahar is Iranian, and that I'm an unworldly clod... but do they really believe that things will improve under the oligarchic reign of a few iron-fisted anti-Westerners?"

History, alas, validated my sophomoric misgivings.  Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi had been more of a Pinochet than a Saddam.  He had tended to incarcerate dissidents and not to curb overly aggressive police interrogations rather than to purge the insufficiently faithful wholesale and bulldoze entire villages into mass graves.  My suspicion is that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullah successors have piled up bodies by the thousands rather than the dozens.  The methods may not be very different--but let us never forget (or let us begin to remember, I fear I must amend) that a thousand is a hell of a lot more than a dozen in the tabulation of human lives.  It didn't make sense to me twenty-five years ago, and doesn't now, that we should have cheered a disappointing autocrat's being replaced by a bloodthirsty lunatic.  I have always been politically conservative in that regard: I mean, concerning the calculus of human lives.  I don't see how achieving a greater theoretical purity is justified when it comes at the net cost of several thousand deaths.

Hence my support of President Bush's deposing of Saddam.  (I was also convinced that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction--and I still believe this.  The chemical and biological stashes were transported to Syria: our invasion utterly failed to meet its objective of securing them.)  What has disturbed me more every day since Saddam's statue was memorably toppled via satellite in Baghdad is the Administration's creeping shift to a leftist-style idealism, where having the right motives and the right vision seem to justify stirring up a lethal hornet's nest.  Islam is not a religion which looks kindly on political freedom.  I just finished teaching The Koran in a survey class for the umpteenth time; and, while I don't begin to be an expert in Koranic studies, I am struck at every exposure by how peremptory--how black-and-white, cut-and-dried--the revelation of Mohammed is.  Do this, don't do that: Allah is merciful, but Hell awaits those who do not repent.  Clearly, this system places no premium on human choice.  There are right things to be done.  That those who do them may act more out of fear or blind conditioning is not merely secondary--it is, apparently, irrelevant, or maybe even desirable (inasmuch as The Koran envisions no natural inward inspiration such as conscience: hence the inscrutability to Muslims of the Christian Trinity).  When we impose upon an Islamic nation, therefore, a system which will allow some people to peddle porn and booze and boom-boxes if a plurality of voters should leave a door open in local ordinances, we are indeed--in a not insignificant sense--attacking Islam.  No, I wouldn't like to live in a society where my wife would be arrested for wearing pants... but this isn't about what I would like.  Islamic societies generally choose to regulate such things--to curtail severely the individual's power of choice; and to be deprived of pants, after all, is no great loss.  For the Right to contend otherwise is reminiscent of the Left's ludicrous assertions that President Bush raped its womenfolk by winning Florida in 2000.  How about a little perspective?

Even when women are routinely beheaded, as they were in Afghanistan under the Taliban, alien nations should explore diplomatic and economic means of pressure rather than launching missiles.  Our reason for attacking Afghanistan was that it was sheltering a terrorist organization responsible for killing thousands of our citizens--not that we possessed a high imperative to introduce the blessings of freedom.  Moral freedom, my brothers and sisters, is not really a blessing at all: it is a fact.  You always have freedom, even when one of your two available options is to be shot.  Political freedom, on the other hand, drags along behind it the pimps, the bawds, the shysters, the snake-oil salesmen--and it is also relative.  I haven't the freedom right now to employ a sixteen-year-old to run the the post office for me or collect supplies from Office Depot--not unless I pay him the minimum wage for doing child-like tasks.

And on the subject of freedom, isn't communism an immeasurably greater menace than Islam?  Islam requires of the believer to permit a restriction of his freedoms by his spiritual advisors and by holy texts, all for the good of his soul.  Communism does not believe in souls, in God, in an afterlife, or in moral freedom.  Its materialist epistemology upholds our being turned into happy little primates, well fed and tolerably housed, by the systematic elimination of uncooperative views (and their exponents) and the writing on the dull mind's tabula rasa of all acceptable viewpoints.  As I compose this editorial, Hugo Chavez has been "re-elected" (in a preposterous parody of elections blessed by Jimmy Carter), the Colombian FARC grows stronger by the minute, and the Sandenistas are resuming control of the military in Nicaragua.  President Bush's response to these very direct menaces to basic freedom in our hemisphere is to invite more covert operatives and pandilleros across our borders with his promise of amnesty.  Meanwhile, his staff continues to lean upon the Saudi royal family (in a placatory gesture aimed at the Left, which learned nothing from Khomeini's postscript to the Shah), although the House of Saud has been trying to rein in Wahabism--a popular movement which would win out in any plebiscite--for years.  And where the Administration does have to deal with Islamic extremism, as in Iran, it has not managed to leaven its passion for freedom with a concern about the American entertainment industry, rampant consumerism, and Western-style urban sprawl and crime.  Would you not want a nuclear weapon if your neighbor a few doors over was Red China?  Would you regard as an ally in the fight for spiritual values a nation which exported strip shows to all the world, was the planet's biggest consumer of hallucinogens, and turned a blind eye to the Castro resurrectus Chavez?

I'm used to seeing self-contradictory positions advanced with a straight face in national politics.  What's new is that the comedy always used to be enacted on the left side of the aisle.  Not any more.




I recently happened to write something about Jules Romains's friendship with Maurice Maeterlinck.  The particular incident I discussed is communicated in Romains's Amitiés et Rencontres.  This is a stunning little book, for several reasons.  Published in 1967, it is all but unobtainable now--and how the world has changed in four decades!  Many of the names on Romains's long list of encounters may still be conjured with: Claude Debussy, Gandhi, Einstein, Picasso, James Joyce, Charlie Chaplin.  Yet Romains himself (for my money, the greatest literary virtuoso of the twentieth century) has plunged into obscurity while the likes of André Gide (largely unknown to his generation, Romains assures us--and an unsavory schemer throughout Romains's years of distant association with him) frequently appear on graduate syllabi.  The world, one must conclude, has gone at least half insane.  Gentlemanly, diplomatic, eager to broach new ideas yet equally eager to accommodate disagreement, Romains isn't the sort we have seen around for a while.  The lot which stayed behind in Occupied Paris, secretly loathing the Nazis but unwilling to sacrifice their insatiable literary and academic ambitions--like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir--has meanwhile come to shape the loathsome character of our own post-cultural culture.

For now, however, what interests me about Romains's book is its testimony to the extraordinary number of doors open to rising stars in early twentieth-century Paris.  I am not wholly naive: I know that there are always places where the influential may be met, whether Paris or New York or Rome or Samarkand.  Yet many of Romains's encounters with great men involved no greasing of wheels to obtain introductions.  They were as simple as spotting a profile on the street corner which you recognize from a photograph.  This, in fact, is how Romains blundered upon Maeterlinck--and not in Paris, but in Nice.  Men of letters, it appears, would speak to each other.  They willingly acknowledged that they shared a vocation.  They were not surrounded by paperazzi or encrusted with agents and secretaries.  They were not celebrities, but exponents of ideas.

At least two reflections, both to the detriment of our own times, occur to me.  One is that we go about recruiting authors to draw checks at our universities in entirely the wrong manner.  Writers should come from the communities where they are employed to teach.  They should have grown up in those communities, and written about them.  Our present star-system has us bringing down some Pulitzer-laureate from New Haven or Seattle to a flagship university in the Grain-and-Bible Belt with the lure of big bucks.  The great man arrives, holds seminars and conferences, draws his whopping salary for a few years, and finally can stand it no more.  In the meantime, he may well stop and listen to the few earnest youths who halt him along campus boulevards through seas of thong-shod frat-rats and hung-over pledge-sisters; but what, I ask you, does a following of this kind profit the cause of civilization?  An outsider, misunderstood by (when not entirely unknown to) the local barbarians, encourages a few dozen misfits over half a dozen years to keep writing about their sexual confusion or their ethnic frustration--but, above all, to get out of Bucksnort.  Go to the Big Apple.  Go, at least, to the Big Easy.  To the extent that the community does not remain completely indifferent to such proselytizing, it grows more entrenched than ever in its suspicion of and contempt for arts and letters.  Artsy types are what is now known as "blue-staters".  They are libertines and nihilists who attract alienated weirdos; and if they ever had their way at the ballot box (which, of course, is beyond the pale of possibility), they would offer free marriages to gay couples and make us all learn Spanish.

The more we recruit intellectuals from the Northeast and the West Coast, in other words, the better we ensure that our "red states" will get "redder"..  If there is a cultural crisis in Middle America (and I certainly believe that there is), then infusing Kansas and Mississippi and South Dakota with people who write novels about girls finding spiritual rebirth as lesbians can only make the situation worse.  We need the bright kids in our high schools--not the cringing wallflowers, but popular, successful, eloquent leaders--to recognize that living to clear record numbers of new trucks off Dad's ten-acre lot on the Loop is really no life at all.  Outsiders, no matter how decorated by a literary establishment rooted in New York and Frisco, don't understand about trucks, and old money, and Dad.  They distill a uniform disdain over it all--but they cannot write about it, because they did not grow up in, with, through, and against it.  The spirit is no more dead--and no more alive--in Arkadelphia than it is in Philadelphia, but it is alive there and dead there for different reasons.  For that matter, the urban elite might do well to ponder the spiritual morbidity of the big city--and of academic snobbery--rather than imagining itself out here in Thelma-and-Louise country.  Let every man write about what he knows, and let the community which produced him be blessed and cursed with having to read him.  Let their destiny be a common one--and let the young people in their midst witness the feuding from the front row..

Of course, I would indeed be naive to suggest that Romains and his peers had won acclaim from a local audience of literati.  Part of what made him and his fellow writers mutually intelligible was the very absence of a broader readership.  There were no Harlequins in their day, no movie industry siphoning insipid romances into box-office smashes, no salivating public (or a relatively sparse one still) eager for kiss-and-tell confessions.  You might say that people who had no business trying to read didn't read.  Which brings me to a final brief reflection: taste inevitably produces elites, and where economic forces drive apart the trained and appreciative audience, taste disappears.  So much money is to be made now by grinding out some imbecile-athlete's exposé of what drugs he shot up and which starlets he slept with that a good new novel hasn't a chance in hell of reaching the one percent of readers who would embrace it.  Instead, novels are forced to go pimping to that new elite which congregates around the academic community, its tentacles flung through Peoria and Tulsa but its heart always leading back to blue-state utopia.  There are too many people waving their thumbs-up in the open marketplace, and too few devoted to belles lettres in the rabidly politicized world of our Ivory Tower.  The truly literary intellectual is part of an elitist-hating elite: he or she delves deeper than most care to go, yet is driven by a mission to communicate vital human insights as widely as possible.  The elite which stifles our literary growth under layers of system-insulated, mainstream-hating jargon and posturing has made a legend out of works like García-Márquez's Cien Años de Soledad, where legal marriage is always oppressive and "true love" erupts around brothels and in forbidden flings.

I don't know where all this ends.  Maybe this is the end... but those of us who are not yet dead to the world must keep striving to make it livable.




I remember when Ronald Reagan, running (I think) for his second term, pitched a rather lengthy free-market appeal to the American public over television, using the can-opener as an example.  A man who makes a better can-opener will out-sell his unoriginal competitors, advancing homo tecnicus and his own bank account at the same time.  (There is private irony in this example: only today I was reading Jules Romains's description of how far Maurice Maeterlinck had declined during his New York exile from Occupied France.  The great symbolist playwright could only dither around incessantly with a newfangled can-opener.)  As a matter of fact, I wish to call into question our lovable fortieth president's economics lesson.  Is the better-selling can-opener indeed a better machine?  In my last column, I argued that many of us lean, hungry types would consider it better if it merely cost less.  We can tolerate a certain low percentage of mutilated cans if the next step up in can-openage is accompanied by a $10 price hike.  Naturally, if the new machine is both cheaper and more efficient, we buy it... but efficiency always eventually means higher cost, ceteris paribus, because off-brand fly-by-nights are always eager to court us with lower prices by stinting on quality.

Economic freedom, you see, may more accurately be understood as the freedom to sell anything than the freedom to buy anything.  We are free to buy only what is for sale at any given moment.  Our choice is usually between the inefficient-but-affordable and the efficient-but-costly.  When this is not true, it is because government has tampered with the system to leave us only the inefficient-and-costly (e.g., social security).  I am enough of a Reaganite to make that assertion; yet I also believe that big business can play hand-in-glove with big government to rig the game.  We've always heard that large corporations don't like the minimum wage, for instance, but I suspect that their great collective heart is not broken by such manipulation of the marketplace.  After all, a rise in wages is merely passed along to the consumer if you are the product's major manufacturer.  If, on the other hand, you have discovered a terrific new technique for can-opening in your garage-laboratory and wish to market your brainchild, the minimum wage instantly heaps an enormous burden on your back.  Even if (having won the lottery) you are able to sink millions into your fledgling operation, the big guys can simply undercut you for three or four months until you can't make payroll.  Then they buy you out (if you're lucky) and elevate the price of can-openers right through the ceiling.

So I stand by my original assertion: a practical consequence of economic freedom is inferiority of general quality.  What can we possibly do about this--pass minimal government standards for can-openers?  Then we no longer have economic freedom, and we have also inflated prices (not only by legislating a certain level of quality, but also by creating a new tier of government bureaucracy with our quality-police).  How might people be motivated to choose, freely and at increased expense, an item of superior quality?  In the matter of can-openers, I doubt that any of us would lose sleep over the cheap variety's triumph.  But what about the extensive--and ever-expanding--triumph of the cheap and the gaudy throughout our ever more laissez-fairist planet's arts and entertainments?  How do we persuade people to patronize classical music, for example, when a semi-clad adolescent exhibitionist can grind out with electronic synthesizers and the merest droplet of talent ten golden disks for what it costs to assemble a finely trained orchestra one time?  (I leave the advertising budget out of my calculation: it's huge in the former case, but it also reaps windfalls on everything from tee shirts to soft drink endorsements.  The symphony has no such alternate means of support.)  How do we persuade people to buy oil paintings?  Most have quite literally never seen one face to face, and hence do not begin to suspect how superior the original article is to the most sophisticated reproduction.  How do we persuade people to walk a little farther to a depot or parking deck in order to preserve a certain semi-rustic tranquility in their neighborhoods?  Though noisy, dangerous traffic laps at their doorstep and sirens and tractor-trailers keep them awake half the nigh, they are content to suffer for what they perceive to be greater convenience and cost-effect.  (In the long run, the launching-pad suburb enjoys neither of these advantages.)

These are economic questions--matters of paying more to have an intangible commodity like peace or spiritual depth--and the economically free world always tends to take the shortcut, the less-quality-for-less-money option.  Contemporary liberalism, so vocal in abhorring the problem, seems capable of producing only anemic or frivolous solutions.  I recently attempted to read Canadian journalist Carl Honoré's In Praise of Silence (Harper 2004).  Honoré writes fluidly and seems to be quite a pleasant fellow... but honestly, forming cliques and clubs dedicated to eating slowly or walking slowly is no way to address a major cultural crisis.  We don't need scattered elites of socially conscious, absurdly overpaid attorneys and government workers who have managed to make a game--a fashion show, really, or a bit of cabaret--out of their nonconformity.  We need an emerging block of ordinary people who are convinced that economic freedom must not have the last say about their lives.  We need people who are not slaves to the best deal.

I can imagine no particularly promising program for achieving such a cultivated citizenry.  I can indeed propose, however, three ways in which a person of average means can resist economic freedom's all-but-inexorable gravitational pull toward the cheap and the gaudy.  Together, these three strategies will either not save our culture at all, or will barely save it.  Inasmuch as to be barely saved is to be saved, and inasmuch as the Big Brother alternative must necessarily spell the death of any spiritual culture, I am content to advance this last best hope.

Don't work overtime.  We all have to pay our bills.  Toil away as much as you must to settle your debts: then grab your coat and leave.  Too many bosses seem to expect from their employees the kind of "loyalty" which causes families to collapse and cardio-vascular ailments to proliferate.  Avoid those bosses.  Of course, if you are actually paid to make beautiful music or simply love laying bricks, then work away to your heart's content; but most of us, in this climate of economic "freedom", must grind away promoting feel-good diversions or hyping products whose limitations are sordidly evident to their familiars.  Cultivate a real freedom.  Choose to live in comparative poverty.  Let empty lackeys chase bucks as the donkey his carrot.

Use your leisure to create something.  It doesn't have to be something exquisite--but try to make it so.  The virtue of the exercise is in the trying.  Take up an instrument, scribble a poem, or photograph a sunset.  Your soul will breathe thereby, whether or not somebody ends up offering you a fat check for your opus.

Devote whatever change you can spare to buying something that another has created.  Visit a starving artists' exhibit and see what good deals you can strike.  Order a copy of Karl Capek or--well, Jules Romains--rather than being reduced to the selections of B. Dalton's bookshelves.  Cultivate eccentricity.  Seek out imaginative classics which have been all but lost.

Refuse to suffocate.  Refuse to dance to any tune for a price.  For God's sake, have some dignity.




In 1938,  scholar Seán Ó Cróinín was busy in Western Ireland collecting stories and accounts from surviving Gaelic speakers about life in bygone times.  One of his most entertaining sources was Tadhg Ó Buachalla, known throughout much of County Kerry (to author Frank O' Connor, among others) simply as The Tailor.  Ó Cróinín's transcriptions of his sessions with the old man--all in Gaelic--were later edited by Aindreas ÓMuimhneacháin and published as Seanchas an Táilliúra (Dublin and Cork: Cló Mercier, 1978).  The Tailor was a man of the old cloth.  Born with a club foot, he was unfit for heavy farm labor.  He therefore learned the trade of the tailor and spent his many productive years wandering from home to home in search of work.  Families which needed coats and suits made would give him room and board for a week as well as a meager wage--this, apparently, was the custom of the time for tailors and cobblers, and probably a great many others.  Relates The Tailor of his generation:

     Leave me alone, now!  The kind of life we had then!  People used to be full of spirit.  They would be making sport of each other and joking and passing the time.

     It's amazing how the world has changed.  It was better and it was worse.  It was worse in a way, because food was scarce and money was scarce.  You'd work from end to end of the year and when it was over you hadn't managed to save one penny..  Staying alive cost people dearly back then.  It's likely that they wouldn't have hung on at all but that their hearts were light in them.  The people you have now wouldn't have survived a minute if that kind of hardship fell on them.  (p. 77; my translation)

This passage hit me between the eyes the other day, because I have been thinking almost incessantly these past years about what has come to be called quality of life.  We Americans have been treated to a fairly steady diet of saccharine self-praise since the Iraqi election.  They've chosen our way overwhelmingly, those poor oppressed people: they turned out in droves, and at real risk of death, to select freedom over tyranny.  That's quite an "upper" to combat so many daily little "downers": e.g., our hardly less death-defying navigation of overcrowded highways to and from work, our sleep's routine disruption by revved motors and boom-boxes, our nagging subliminal fear of leaving the kids at school when some pandillero admitted through our open borders might chance to let rip with his Glock just when the field trip's bus turns the corner... as The Tailor says, just leave me alone!

Now, my point is not that the average Iraqi is less safe today than he or she was four years ago.  On the contrary: we have done great things Iraq--and would that we had advanced even one percent of the same military presence in Rwanda a few years earlier to forestall a vastly larger number of innocent deaths!  But it is almost unpardonably naive to suppose that freedom in our sad world can ever be a pure abstraction..  One is free to do something: and the question I wish to raise is, what have we freed Iraq to do?  What are we Westerners doing with our own freedom?

Solzhenitsyn wasn't impressed.  The greatest man of the twentieth century (in my opinion), having stood up single-handed to the second-most homicidal regime in the world's history (first-place honors to Mao Tse-Tung's brigade), left the "free" shores which had given him asylum with some very stern words.  We Americans no longer appreciate the value of freedom.  We use it frivolously and concupiscently.  We abuse it to indulge ourselves in childish displays, and we exploit it to grab all that our two fists can hold or rake under our coat's flap.  We had more nobility when some of us, like The Tailor's contemporaries, were very nearly starving--and we also, by the way, had more genuine joie de vivre.  For, all infantile chortling and food-throwing aside, we're a pretty depressed lot.  Under all the Kripsy Kreme Donuts and Blockbuster rentals without late fees, we nurse a horror which surprises us periodically like a hallway mirror.  We have not chosen well as human beings--we have not maximized our potential as creatures in God's image--and we run the constant danger of realizing as much.

Why were things once better, even when they were worse?  Why can't I lie beneath a tree on a summer afternoon as I did as a child without hearing traffic or heavy equipment in the distance?  Why can't you take an evening walk around your neighborhood without having to descend onto uneven pavement and risk mutilation?  Why do our clothes unravel within days of being purchased (a dismaying encounter which old Tadhg, our tailor, was quick to emphasize)?  Why do "nostalgic" TV channels do so well, yet today's ambitious multi-million dollar ventures in entertainment cannot approach their tasteful pleasure?

For the cheap clothing, at least, many would brandish the word "outsourcing" in indictment.  Lately I have heard or read defenses of outsourcing from the ever-amiable John Stossel and Walter Williams; and, frankly, I am no fan of forcing people to behave economically in ways which they resist.  It doesn't work, for one thing.  The ultimate experiment in that direction sent millions of Solzhenitsyn's generation to the gulags... and still, in the long run, it didn't work.  Now, the two delightful commentators I have named may or may not agree with me that excessively greedy unions and the minimum wage could domestically tweak the problem which chases jobs overseas.  I believe in choosing with your feet as well as your wallet.  If your employer doesn't pay you enough, find another job.  If no local employer is paying any more, start your own business.  I even go so far as to hold dear the notion that, should I and a couple of cousins wish to repair roofs without adequately insuring ourselves in order to make our fledgling business competitive, we should have that right.  We don't, as things stand (where now is all that Yankee freedom?)--but if we did, and if our under-aged sons wanted to help out for five bucks an hour (also illegal), a lot more Americans would be working with a lot more satisfaction.  The greater sabotage to this scenario is practiced, not by outsourcing, but by the employment of illegal aliens on American soil.  Illegal labor is domestic outsourcing.  It lowers prices by importing into our communities a lower standard of living--a new acceptance of rat-infested housing and crime-infested streets.  Successful theft of your rivals' inventory would have the same effect on the balance sheet: that's not what free enterprise is supposed to mean.

But let us leave to one side the economic forces--be they salutary or malign--which cause businesses to cheat or flee.  Consider merely the economic force of choosing the best buy.  My shirts fall apart--but I buy them anyway, because I can buy eight or ten for the cost of one durably, carefully stitched item.  On the whole, products are of worse quality now than they were a few decades ago--but they're also cheaper.  People like me (i.e., people who don't have much to spend) are willing to support a certain level of poor craftsmanship because it suffices for our needs and allows us to save money..  Here is the pejorative factor which laissez-faire commentators, it seems to me, understate or ignore: the free market puts more commodities within the reach of more people, but it also debases quality.

Now consider how this unhappy causation operates in matters cultural.  Most of us like to decorate our walls, and some of us even enjoy reading a book once in a while.  We cannot actually afford oil paintings.  (Believe me: I've been working on one such painting for two years--what would be its price tag if I depended upon its sale to keep me alive?)  We therefore buy reproductions, which can now be made at both high quality and low price.  A success story for freedom?  Well, yes, as long as you're only copying works from previous centuries.  But because no living American of negligible means could afford to be Rembrandt, even if he possessed Rembrandt's talent, new masterpieces are not forthcoming.  There's no market for them.  The various grants which keep our highly insular and academic communities of artists going not only do not mirror something like general taste or common sense, but typically invite theatrical statements from the fringe.  So for literary fiction.  People who would live by writing--by good writing--cannot possibly charge the price for their books which would sustain them.  How many Americans would pay fifty or a hundred bucks for a new novel?  As a result, our only professional authors are a) those who grind out several titles a year according to a silly formula with wide appeal, and b) those with some sort of academic/institutional support which disengages them from the novelist's nemesis and best friend, reality.

Economic freedom, you see, irresistibly degrades the quality of life--and yet, paternalistic rule denies to people the freedom necessary to arrive at genuine taste and refinement.  What's the answer?  Is there one?  Only in the realm of the spirit: only among those who will embrace economic hardship for the joy and privilege of a higher life--such people, that is, as the reigning band of so-called neo-conservatives cannot imagine in the nightmares they dream of a world (a new world, nothing humane conserved) hawking, outbidding, undercutting, and exploiting.  These people, no doubt, don't know what it is to have a Christmas shirt come unraveled before New Year's Day.  Most of them, I think, have done precious little competing for anything in their gilded lives.  We won't linger over their condescending utopian bromides.  In my next posting, I promise to suggest a solution composed only of spiritual striving, fully purged of any profit motive that our movers and shakers would understand.




I have just about resigned myself to the reality that I'm going to be writing about my college courses--especially my freshman composition class--for the next three months in this space.  It isn't a humbling admission, really: why should it be?  Teaching young people is highly stimulating.  One gets a fresh view of things, is forced back to basics, and not infrequently ends up revising one's own cherished prejudices.  The drawback is that such a series might begin to look like a sustained gripe session.  If I start complaining too much about the upcoming generation, remind me that it was coached by those who went before.

In this case, the trail of influence is all too apparent.  I speak of what is now popularly called a "disconnect"--one which has grown up between faith and morality.  I was explaining to my group that I do not consider the word "culture" to carry any moral valence in most cases.  Good people come from all kinds of cultures, and so do bad people.  To bolster the point by objective proof rather than by induction from personal experience, I defined a morally good person as one who struggles consistently to bring his will into accord with higher principles--who strives to behave as he would conceive of any person doing ideally in a given situation rather than consulting his selfish interests.  Groups of people, I continued, cannot be said to have a single moral will: not even the perfectly matched pair of soulmates (if such a pair exists) has a single will.  It is therefore absurd to speak of an entire culture, whose members may number in the thousands or millions, as morally good or bad.  So far, so good.

I then stepped out onto thinner ice.  I asserted that it is senseless, even, to speak of one culture as more efficient in producing morally good people than another.  I'm still not sure that I entirely believe this: it certainly deserves an essay all its own.  I was led to make the claim, however, by impeccable reasoning.  If a good person were more apt to appear in Culture A rather than in Culture B, then that person would have been conditioned in some sense to be good.  But action performed out of conditioning is morally neutral insofar as it is conditioned response--the agent must freely, deliberately choose the action.  Therefore, Culture A is really offering no special service to morality at all.  It is programming individuals with an impressive rate of success to execute certain actions identified as good: e.g., charitable giving.  But this is no guarantee whatever that said individuals actually have a charitable heart.  It only means that generous donation in particular circumstances has been bred into the culture's youth even as a taste for raw fish or an attraction to long ears might have been inspired in them.

By way of example, I used Kant's pair of fictitious donors from Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  The first man is generous by temperament and upbringing.  He passes a coin to a beggar at once without breaking stride.  The second man is a miser because life has conditioned him to be so.  Naturally, he hastens past the beggar... but he also has an active conscience, and he fails to make it halfway down the block before halting.  With a scowl on his face, he turns around, trudges back to the amazed beggar, and forks over a coin of the same value as the generous man's.  Which man performed the more moral deed?  The miser, says Kant.  Moral reflection was actively involved in his act: he was certainly not responding to habit.  Indeed, his inbred disposition to stinginess necessitated a major internal battle--a battle which his "better half" won, against all odds.  Something like a culture, perhaps, had made him resist giving, just as something like culture had programmed the former man to give without a thought.  The poor miser, then, might be said to have scored the greater moral triumph precisely because his social milieu favored less meritorious acts.

I won't say that all hell broke loose in my classroom--but hands shot up instantly.  Did I not believe that people should give freely and willingly?  Did I not know that human nature is corrupt, and that people must imitate the behavior which God has revealed as desirable to Him rather than trust in their own inspiration?

I should stress that these objections were made in a mannerly, orderly fashion by members of the class who are among the most amiable.  I did not feel in the least bullied--and yet, I have been met with these same roadblocks in open discussion time and time again, having taught in several religious institutions.  (This one is public, but the part of the country where it nestles is covered by the Bible Belt's thickest leather.)

I answered that, in the first place, we should all indeed strive to be "hilarious givers" (in the haplessly direct translation of the Pauline phrase which is current hereabout).  The emphasis is on "strive", however.  Giving without covetous second thoughts is an ideal toward which one labors--not a command performance of merry gestures which one puts on for a breathless communal audience.  Kant's point is that the miser is struggling in the right direction, whereas the habitual donor has frozen in his tracks.  From those to whom much is given, much is required.  The free giver has been "given" a generous temperament, or else straitjacketed into it by his upbringing.  He deserves little moral credit for his donation: he will have to do more now to earn his day's laudation from God.  If he doesn't--if he fails, for instance, to "donate" his silence to the vicious gossip of his colleagues or to award an impoverished child with a scholarship that might have added to his own son's laurels--then the miser may just have passed him in the race to virtue.

I quickly added that--speaking of sons--I would of course submit my own son to instruction about charity and other matters rather than leave him to find his way through the wilderness.  I would condition him in what I consider good behavior.  Any parent would do so: to do less would amount to criminal negligence.  But I would exact such exercises of imitation in the fervent hope that the principles behind them would eventually be imbibed.  As we do not teach our children multiplication and division in the expectation that the specific problems in the workbook will crop up again when they work for NASA or MIT, so we school them in behavior hoping that countless unforeseeable choices awaiting them in life will be made in reverence to goodness rather than in deference to self-interest.  We want our children to have much so that much will be required of them: we want them to meet high expectations, not to struggle after minimal ones.

The second objection above is much the more worrisome to me, because it goes right to the heart of morality and faith--or it illustrates, rather, that many believers do not fully comprehend a faith of the heart.  The source of right action CANNOT be a revealed text whose teachings appear arbitrary to a benighted human intelligence.  Why would humans receive such a text if they had no inkling within them of its authority's justice--if something in their nature, that is, did not already know the good?  Three scenarios are commonly offered to me in explanation.  (They were not advanced in this class: I confess that I have already embellished the discussion beyond the contours which the clock imposed upon it.)  Scenario One: God mystically touches the individual, inspiring him or her to accept the holy text.  Scenario Two: the individual is raised in an environment where God's word is revered, and he or she learns to follow without recalcitrance.  Scenario Three: the individual, though not naturally inclined to recognize scriptural authority, is convinced that he or she will be punished with eternal damnation unless that authority is conceded.

These scenarios are not mutually exclusive, of course--believers frequently claim that all three have operated in their own lives--but I shall separate them to scrutinize each.  In the first, allow me to inquire into the content of the revelatory or conversional experience: does it inspire one with the realization that God is all powerful, or all beautiful, or all good?  Neither of the former two has moral validity.  A true believer would feel himself required to honor goodness even when all the power in the world seems to overwhelm him; and while beauty is surely pleasant and uplifting, the world as we know it often appears ugly, and right action may well demand of us to wade through the mud at midnight.  Yet the experience cannot contain the revelation that God is all good, because then the human being would necessarily have had enough knowledge of goodness in his heart to recognize its roots in a perfect metaphysical goodness--and this ultra-Calvinist, sola scriptura view insists that the human heart, far from housing such a beacon, possesses only the sorriest scintillae..

Well, what about the power of positive example?  Scenario Two is what my interlocutors had in mind, surely, for the subject was the virtue of culture.  But if a person may correctly be said to do good when he is merely acting as he was reared to do, then goodness means no more than being born into the right community at the right time.  The good person would be a successfully programmed robot--and we also, once again, are begging the question of where the program originally came from.  How did our parents' parents know to start teaching it to their children?  The revelatory experience?  But what was the authorizing content of that experience, since it could not have been moral--since our parents' parents, as human beings, possessed hearts as benighted as ours?

Perhaps they felt the fear of God: fear is much invoked in these debates.  But we have in fact already dismissed fear in denying that power alone, without a recognized moral underpinning, can justify moral respect.  The person who follows the law--any law--because he fears punishment in the event of transgression is a very disappointing citizen.  We may presume that he would loot like a pirate during a massive power outage.  His fear is vile self-interest, not the moral fear of the conscientious person who abstains from bad deeds lest he destroy his inner peace.  It is this latter which deserves to be called the fear of God--yet the "corrupt humanity" crowd renders it inaccessible by refusing to grant to human nature any essential moral enlightenment.

Let me close with an admonition.  Though many good people have emerged from the Calvinist tradition (that, indeed, was my argument in class: that no culture has either greatly multiplied or fully stifled the forces of goodness), denying God's voice within us is extremely dangerous, precisely because of our fallen nature.  To thrust the origin of moral authority on some materially external locus is tempting to those who feel moved, in a morally commendable sentiment, to humble themselves; yet the results of such renunciation are often definitive of vain pride.  When goodness has no inner advocate, arrogant manipulators are quick to step forward and interpret its outer oracle (always insisting, of course, that they do not interpret).  Even the humble innocent who mistrusts his own heart is guilty of betraying God's will--of turning the deaf ear to God's voice where it may be heard with unique clarity  The external record left for our guidance by conscientious people is of inestimable importance: it provides one method, perhaps the best, of ensuring that we do not yield to selfishness when we think we hear an inner imperative.  But the "bibliolaters" of my experience, I must say, are far more likely than other believers to cater to a cowardly misgiving or a foolish whimsy on the ground that they heard God speaking--because the Old Testament's narrative, you know, often represents people as being intimately directed about matters of love or luck or money!  Why is it pious to suppose that God instructed the Hebrews in how to maintain their beards, but impious to suppose that He would speak directly to a thoughtful person confronted with having to lie or lose his job?  Who would you say walks with God--the man who refuses to rake leaves lest he "break the Sabbath", or the man who returns your money because you misunderstood what you were buying from him?

If we could get this right, then the world might begin to know Christ.  As it is, we are mired in a dull culture of rigidly sanctioned behaviors whose lesson may or may not be imbibed, but whose improper emphasis most certainly obscures the need to imbibe a lesson.




I haven’t read Parade Magazine since I was a young (and very slender) teenager who ritually browsed the Sunday paper over an unwholesome bourgeois repast of bean dip and Fritos.  For the record, that was a long time ago.  Last week, however, my wife brought the old rag to my attention (which, I gather, has died and been resurrected in the intervening years) because it had published some comments by Norman Mailer about our society’s educational nosedive.  Norman Mailer… yes, that was most definitely his satyric gob on the cover: wrinkles and thin white hair had done little to lead one away from the suspicion that his knee caps might point backward under their pants.  As a college freshman, I had been compelled to read a novel of his called An American Dream.  My memories are probably uncharitable (adolescents are all potential suicide bombers)—and I had not, in any case, been utterly unimpressed.  Yet nothing I had learned about Mailer then or later prepared me for the essentially conservative (well, culturally conservative) tenor of the Parade article.  My confidence in the depths of human unregeneracy was restored only when I discovered that the old goat wanted to revive general interest in reading  by having the state take over commercial television!

I was moved to pen an apologia.  I e-posted my comments to the editor of Parade the next day, and was promptly, politely informed by auto-responder that mere humans could not possibly handle the gratifying volume of mail generated by this insightful piece.  Lest the world be cheated of my splendid repartie, therefore, I now make full public disclosure of it:  

Norman Mailer's assessment of our cultural crisis in learning (Parade: January 22, 2005) is extremely perceptive while identifying symptoms.  In his diagnosis, however, Mr. Mailer disappointingly drags forward a favorite whipping boy of the aging intellectual elite: television commercials.  His indictment rings false for these reasons.  1)  Kids nowadays watch pre-recorded or commercial-free shows (e.g., DVD's) at least as much as regular programming, 2) the much-documented hebetude of the TV-addict (brain waves have actually been measured) is not related to the program's content, 3) the screen-time of many children is devoted more to video games than to performed narratives in any format, 4) commercials are often more lively and entertaining than the shows they support (at least in my nine-year-old's opinion), and 5) the literary-narrative quality of dramatic serials has dwindled virtually to nil.  Staccato editing, graphic violence, and provocative sexual encounters are the contemporary serial's answer to the mature dialogue and thoughtful characterization of Perry Mason and Ben Casey.

The old socialist's panacea of state-financed entertainment is therefore a nag more in need of the knacker than of a new jockey.  Mr. Mailer is correct, however, to the extent that electronic technology generally is literacy's nemesis.  The medium is the message, and the electronic medium peddles instant gratification in the currency of prefabricated images.  (Though Marshall McLuhan, by the way, grossly overestimated the creative energy involved in subconsciously completing the grainy images of fifties televisions--what he called a "hot" medium--he was on target in foreseeing that speech would nudge out writing.)  Literacy forces readers to produce their own pictures: screens do all the heavy imaginative lifting for viewers.  Literacy places a premium upon quiet periods of reflection: flashy technology fills every instant with fireworks displays.  Practically everything our children use to amuse themselves--video games, cell phones, GameBoys--draws their attention away from their inner resources and makes them impatient in moments of lull.  To lay the responsibility for this cultural debacle at the feet of advertisers is to blame your neighbor's gable for nightfall.

Am I framing a vastly broader socialist indictment--one against all aggressively marketed novelties rather than against mere marketing?  Not at all.  Any such indictment would be absurd.  We can't forcibly turn back our technological clock as a society: we can't pass laws against communicating the "wrong" way.  Even if we could enforce them (and how could we?), the need for enforcement would underscore the absence of interest in old-fashioned reading and writing.  The slower-paced, quieter, more reflective life of literacy is at last a spiritual choice.  Who knows?--maybe the proliferation of shallow, insipid plots and characters in our electronic narratives will be the enormous dose of cotton candy we require to grow nauseated with the whole smoke-and-mirrors show.  Sales of Jane Austen are actually rising.  If we can only hold on to our great authors through these lean years--observers of the human heart who, unlike Mr. Mailer, did something more than rail at bourgeois society--we must believe that a spiritually famished humanity will eventually come staggering back with outstretched hands.

As I write several days after having composed this letter, I feel further moved to raise an issue which preoccupies me more and more.  Mr. Mailer's artist friends (or amis artistes) of Beverly Hills may not like it that their version of reality must periodically hold its breath over the pandering of Cokes, shampoo, Kias, and wireless witlessness.  But what, I ask, is their vision, if not an orgy of narcissistic indulgence and irresponsible titillation?  Desperate Housewives... CSI Peoria... blood-guts-and-gore, dresses cleft to the navel, close-ups and quick-cuts that spell heaven for pathological voyeurs and ADD sufferers... it is this "view of reality" which defines us--all of us Americans, you and me and the postman--before the eyes of the world.  I am convinced that when the typical citizen of Riyadh or Nairobi or Rangoon or Vladivostok thinks of us, he doesn't mutter in recrimination, "Oil-thieving capitalists!" as our own Left would have us believe.  After all, he's used to bureaucratically engineered thievery.  He sees it every day all around the town, from the mayor to the traffic cop, and he is not surprised that nations play hard ball with the same corked bat.  As for oil, though he and his neighbors guzzle far less of it than we do, they are nearly as dependent upon it.  They make do with tin cans instead of SUV's.  In any case, our oil dependency renders us, in turn, exploitable as our zealously exported democratic institutions begin to grip the road.  The Third World rank-and-file suddenly has the swaggering Yank over a barrel of crude.

No, the reason so many ordinary religious people in these communities find it easy to loathe us as infidel sybarites is because they have seen our television shows and movies.  I recall a recent documentary in which mothers throughout the uplands of Kashmir were lamenting how much time their children waste watching Cartoon Network.  I can sympathize: most Middle Americans with children can.  Do you see the irony?  The Left, which sustains a persistent outrage at our war against Islamic terrorists, promotes a moral relativism in the classroom and a panting hedonism in Hollywood which leave good Muslims everywhere appalled.  Meanwhile, our own Religious Right shares this disgust at creeping cultural and moral squalor--yet it is cast (and often casts itself) as the inveterate enemy of Islam.

Would a young firebrand fresh from a Koran-based education be more likely to hyperventilate, do you think, over one of the Left Behind novels or An American Dream?  Personally, I'd rather read Patrick O'Brian, and I would be reluctant to equate my own faith with that of people who ground God's goodness contradictorily in arbitrary commands rather than in the human heart.  That's not the point: I should be delighted to elaborate upon true faith's moral requirements, I frequently do so, and I shall do so again (Deo volente).  In the meantime, however, it would be highly desirable for ordinary Muslims to stop conniving at the atrociities of adolescent thugs and for ordinary Christians to deprive the Hollywood elite of any and all patronage.  The pious Muslim is the natural ally of the pious Christian in the fight against cultural meltdown (though refusing to read Jane Austen as well as Norman Mailer produces another variety of toxic heat, to be sure).  We don't need government-refereed TV to cure our ills at home, any more than we need a more tolerant view or AIDS-implicated sexual activity to mend international fences.  We need to rediscover narrative--what a "human life lived" is, exactly, or should be--and then we need to publicize that narrative far and wide, for ourselves and others.

Nevertheless, those who vocally call themselves "God's people" in my neighborhood continue to make Whoopie Goldberg as filthy-rich as Haliburton, and usually with the same dollar  They pack 'em in Sunday morning with their "Christian rock", and their favorite sound-bites on the babble-box scintillate with West Coast tinsel.  They don't know Bach from Baccardi, and they would cheerfully assign Tim LeHaye in high schools rather than Joseph Conrad.  So maybe the global stereotype of us isn't really all that distorted... or maybe the truth is that unreflective faith falls easy prey to dazzle and gadgetry, whether on a screen or out of a muzzle.  If the Enlightened Left has any trump card for uniting these would-be friends or divorcing these murderous bedfellows, it's playing the game very close to the vest.  I suspect that, like Mr. Mailer, it is running a bluff on deuces and threes.




The real world is always something of a nuisance--but its obstacles validate one's thoughts and labors for--need I say--the real world.  I would be happy enough pecking away every day in the comfortable privacy of my tiny office, but The Center for Literate Values has not yet blossomed into a concern which will pay any of my bills.  So I am teaching again this spring: a total of about seventy freshmen and sophomores in two writing-intensive classes (while most tenured professors I know grind away with two-thirds that number of juniors, seniors, and grad students while drawing out five minutes' worth of crisis into ninety in their all-important committee assignments).  In my "real world" corner of academe's grand fantasy camp, I have the privilege (and it is that, all irony aside) of watching the next generation begin to feel for the reins which will one day rest solely in their hands  I am sometimes unnerved by what I see; but it is good to be unnerved, if the alternative is a tranquility founded upon the cushions of illusion.

My freshmen and I have lately been discussing the meaning of the phrase, "cultural tradition".  I suppose this topic was forced upon my horizon by the treatment of it in my own son's class.  (He is a fourth-grader.)  Cultural tradition, it seems, may be defined as a taste for distinctive foods, for distinctive clothes, and for distinctive holidays.  If you and a buddy decided to call yourselves neo-Troglodytes, eat your hamburgers on hotdog buns, wear your clothes backward, and take off every Tuesday... well, congratulations: you would have invented a culture.  I was not surprised that most of my freshmen had bought into the same formula.  After all, they are much closer to my son's age than to my own, and the fuzzy-headed forces of multiculturalism have been scuffing up the educational front line for a couple of decades now..  I was not surprised, even, that my attempt to define the phrase with a new rigor met with a certain muffled outrage, as though I were being mean-spirited toward those groups which fell on the wrong side of my razor (like the two fun-loving Troglodytes).  I will admit that I was a bit dismayed by the outrage's intensity; for, muffled though it was, I have taught long enough to know those whispers and sardonic smiles in the back of the room as a kind of passive-aggressive rebellion.  I could see the furrowed brows over the smirks ("I can't believe he said that!"), and I could see the glances seeing me see them.  It rather hurt, because the floor of my classroom is always open to those of opposing viewpoints.

Of course, this is not a matter of openness.  Like all the politically correct teaching of "tolerance" to which the last twenty years have treated us, it is a matter of orthodoxy.  The word "culture" has good, confirming undertones.  To deny it to any group, that is--to any minority group, at least--is the imperialist preemption of a fascist propagandist.  (Sorry for all the "-ists's": they are inevitable in the PC domain.)  I tried to explain that tallness, for instance, is a quality highly prized in our society, especially for men.  Short men are insignificant.  Yet I am not tall by any credible measure among my contemporary American neighbors--I do well to pass for "of average height".  Should I, therefore, demand to be called tall?  Does anyone have a right to inflict discomfort upon me by denying me that magical epithet?  But I'm not tall!  To say that I am would be a patent lie.  Wouldn't it be more appropriate, then (perhaps even morally obligatory) for me to explain to my benighted fellow citizens that their valuation of something so arbitrary--so irrelevant to the mind, heart, and soul--as height is perfectly idiotic?  Don't my fellow citizens need me to do that?

In the same way (I continued), we do not "violate" those groups from which we withhold the word "culture".  We merely insist that language should have meaning.  A tradition is, by definition, something "given across": that is, passed down from generation to generation.  A set of practices invented by a particular group therefore cannot be traditional--not until a "test of time" has awarded them with a degree of staying power.  "Culture" comes from the Latin verb colere, which refers, among other things, to cultivating plants.  A true culture must therefore be "grown" in some sense.  It does not occur naturally: the forces of nature tend to efface it, to favor various weeds over its rare plant.  Many cultures, in fact, grow up in direct response to nature's inclemency.  People learn how to stay together in a desert or a jungle when daily strains would otherwise tempt them to go off and fend for themselves.  By the way (I noted, since we had just read Scott Momaday's poignant essay about the Kiowa), cultures which evolve at this level often cease to have a genuine cultural strength when technology advances to neutralize the natural menace.  A sun dance doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot when you left your air-conditioned office and drove a half-hour in your Jeep Cherokee to attend it... maybe a chance to see some of the guys again.  Like a college fraternity's reunion.

I prefer not to write much more today about just what I think a culture is, lest one of my students actually read my comments.  Heaven forbid that I should preclude any of them from thinking through the question for him- or herself!  But I am unapologetically outspoken in all quarters about the importance of literature--if only "oral literature"--to true culture.  A society which has no use for how generations of human beings have viewed reality and weighed responsibility clearly makes no investment in passing along or in cultivating.  And while the argument might be made that Dante and Shakespeare have simply grown as irrelevant for us as the tepee has for the Kiowa (Kenyan author Ngugi wa Th'iongo actually makes this argument in another essay on our syllabus), literature does not address the kinds of "bare survival" relevancy which are served--or no longer served--by styles of dress or sickbed rituals.  The human being's inner life is always irrelevant if we measure meaning by the state of his body.  Yet a healthy body can contain a dead soul: this, indeed, is the quintessential insight of culture in its highest sense--of human habits, that is, which have collaborated in elevating people above the level of verbalizing primates.

I don't know how my own tiny experiment in culture will end.  Some successes and some failures, no doubt: that's how teaching is.  It is certainly an irony of the bluntest sort that the cultural institution par excellence--the academy, favorite refuge of the intelligentsia--will award "protected culture" status to any outdated body of arbitrary eating habits or to any linguistic patois scarcely intelligible even to speakers of the mainstream language (Black English of the Delta, Pachuco among certain southwestern Hispanics), yet has effectively banished Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Ariosto, Racine, Descartes, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and all the rest from the core curriculum.  Though I'm glad to have my part-time teaching, both because I enjoy the human contact and because I need the money, I sometimes long for the whole edifice to finish toppling down.  If we didn't pretend to teach culture to these kids, they would no longer labor under the crippling illusion that they have it.  The word would lose its sanitized impregnability, and become just another useful word in the pursuit of meaning.  And then maybe the few could set about re-discovering it.



As my teaching semester begins, I have found myself racing to complete a long essay on Kant, Machiavelli, and neo-conservative luminary Leo Strauss as they reflect variously upon the duty to speak truth (or the "virtue" of not speaking it).  I have had, alas, no time whatever to go a-blogging.  Instead, I offer you this week an edited excerpt from my essay.  I have deleted footnoted matter; the work from which Strauss is cited below is Thoughts on Machiavelli, first published in 1958. 

     I find it extremely revealing that Leo Strauss, the grandfather of what is now called neo-conservatism, should have radically misjudged Machiavelli’s secular idealism—should have failed to recognize in him a prototype of the twentieth century’s ruthless social engineers.  Strauss appears to be as enamored of the notion that all human beings always strive after their selfish interests as Machiavelli clearly is of the notion that moral short-cuts may be taken with considerable profit.  If the latter’s murky landscape is illuminated by a vision of “things finally arranged”, then perhaps the former’s equally dusky vista is presided over by an equally naïve crystalline summit.  For some motive or other, I believe, is required to make people surrender all morally sound motives; we human beings are not so constructed as to accept unfettered selfishness without a bit of a fight (even if our perverse construction also drags us back toward selfishness at our best moments).  Invariably, the grizzled veteran of life’s brutal campaigns, having lowered his expectations dramatically to embrace Realpolitik, will end up transferring all of his grand illusions to the terminus of the loathsome no-holds-barred struggle.  So for Strauss.  He chooses to massage Machiavelli’s intent (in the final pages  of what proves to be a very lengthy meditation) in the direction of the modern democratic republic à la Strauss.

While everyone is by nature concerned only with his own well-being—with his preservation, his security, his ease, his pleasures, his reputation, his honor, his glory—he must be concerned with the well-being of his society on which his own well-being appears to depend.  The society which is most conducive to the well-being of the large majority of the people and of the great is the good republic.  Although the reasoning which leads to the demand that one ought to dedicate oneself to the common good starts from the premise of selfishness, that reasoning is less powerful than the passions.  Men need additional selfish incentives in order to comply with the result of that reasoning.  The task of the political art consists therefore in so directing the passions and even the malignant humors that they cannot be satisfied without their satisfaction contributing to the common good or even serving it.  There is no need for a change of heart or of the intention.

Harvey Mansfield is quite right to observe that Machiavelli is no simple Hobbesian—that The Prince is written more for a nihilist Superman than for a plodding bourgeois shyster.    Strauss has succeeded here in reducing an incipient Nietzsche to a mollified Hobbes—in fashioning from the Fox a Chicken With Teeth.  The abstract nouns of desiderata at this passage’s beginning are already more his than Machiavelli’s, inasmuch as they appear to be used without any hint of irony.  The fuming whited sepulcher which is honor and glory in The Prince now comes forward in an open poverty of attire.  Esteem coaxed or beguiled from one’s fellows is as basic a need as food or shelter.  Thus are we strange birds feathered.  The republic is our happy hunting ground because it allows us all to be as foxy as we like—a veritable race of Cesare Borgias—in our hypocritical quest to be thought philanthropic or public-spirited or courageous.  It may indeed be that civil society would collapse if a subversive group of truly self-sacrificing individuals emerged from some radical cult.  How would we all survive in Strauss’s ameliorist garden if every one of us did not lust to advertise his donations, his contributions, his innovations, his risks, his wounds, his Calvary?  In a land of stentorian narcissists, he who does not trumpet his personal merits menaces an economy built upon bullhorns.

     “Merit”, of course, has no objective meaning in such a context.  Yet it is worth noting that Machiavelli’s scoundrels conceal their lack of merit that they may be found meritorious, whereas Strauss’s are meritorious in the only sense of the word he recognizes through their active success at feigning merit.  They believe their own lies—perhaps more than anyone around them..  “It is impossible to preserve the perfect combination of being loved and being feared,” Strauss continues of his ideal “real world” republic, “but deviations from the ‘middle course’ are unimportant if the governors are men of great virtue, i.e. of greatness and nobility of mind, and therefore revered as good at protecting the good and the friends, and at harming the bad and the enemies.”  I have suppressed no quotations or italics in this citation.  Strauss has fully convinced himself that leaders who wield great power may be trusted if they are men of character, by which we are to understand that they will elevate their adherents and crush their adversaries.  What a pretty trust for the ultimate misanthrope!  Without dropping names, I may surely conjure before the reader precisely the sort of statesman sketched out in this last great hope, for we have seen him haunting our television screens and corridors of power several times over the half-century since Thoughts on Machiavelli was first published—and have seen him once lately in very fine detail.  He craves the highest offices to satisfy an insatiable egotism.  He lends himself to any public spectacle which will be widely broadcast, assuming any role or position therein which his pollsters foresee as favorably influencing the masses.  (The word “dignity”, we might note in passing, is absent from the vocabulary both of Machiavelli and of Strauss.)  Once in power, he punishes those whom the public wishes him to punish while reprieving every Barabbas whom the public whimsically cheers.  When an indispensable need for coherence demands that he risk unpopularity through some shockingly decisive act, he stifles any appearance of callousness however he can—delegating the dirty work to another, assassinating under cover of darkness, confessing with mock-remorse a complete ignorance of operations behind his back, and all the rest.  Even when his lies and equivocations have grown so legion that they come spilling through the seams of the public-relations envelope, he has arrived at such a warm spot in the body politic’s heart—voters are so confident that his supple spine will bend to serve their own guilty passions in a crunch—that his knavery is forgiven as a blond playboy’s winsome prank.

     This is not a portrait of Cesare Borgia, nor even of the Lorenzo de’ Medici envisioned by Machiavelli; but it does suit one of our recent presidents to the least wrinkle.  Would Professor Strauss, I wonder, be happy with the incarnation of his American Dream?

     I have taken pains to hold this essay aloof from partisan politics, and I shall make another effort in that direction now.  The neo-conservative phalanx, some of whose mouthpieces boast of having themselves mastered the art of “triangulation” (a genuinely Machiavellian exercise), appear to desire the exportation of the strategy as a solution to Iraq ’s post-Saddam upheaval.

  Were we to give Iraqis and other oppressed Muslim societies a taste of freedom, they contend, the globe would need far fewer terrorist-police.  History will pass the ultimate verdict on this enterprise.  When I reflect, however, that its architects are in many cases the disciples of Leo Strauss, I am beset with doubt.  If our objective is simply to allow a cruelly oppressed multitude a chance to shape its liberation from daily harrowing,  then we deserve credit for a deed well done—i.e., a gesture of humanity whose selfish costs have plainly rivaled its selfish gains.    Yet if the objective is to create in Iraq a Straussian republic where self-seeking is untethered and unbridled, then we are doing nothing less than subverting spirituality, as our worse detractors say of us.  For make no mistake: Strauss’s political model is every bit as much a secular utopia as Machiavelli’s—to that extent, the scholar has faithfully interpreted the tutor.  Self-interest betrays the higher interest in whose pursuit the religious mentality believes us created, and a state which promotes self-interest is an institutionalized blasphemy.

     Ireland is a republic, but its state schools are operated substantially by the Catholic Church.  Iraq may certainly become a republic which also condemns and prohibits the showing of Hollywood films or the importing of hip-hop music.  Indeed, the exclusion of such culturally conservative forces from our own pandering, profit-driven capitalist culture frustrates millions of American voters, and may have more significantly determined our recent presidential election than the war in Iraq .  Capitalism and religious faith are not irreconcilable, but a mediocre intellect can readily understand that, where both function actively, heated friction will result.  Would a Straussian view as a failure or a throwback an Iraq where, by decree of a religious elite, citizens may not exploit certain native human weaknesses?  That is, are our policy-makers wedded to the notion that unencumbered economic activity is required to keep the ambitious pleasing the crowd rather than building squadrons of stormtroopers?  Do we, or do we not, believe that honoring metaphysical ends as the basis of reality is the only reliable source of social stability?  A man cannot serve two masters.  If we do not invest in denouncing self-interest, and in allowing other societies to so invest, then we serve self-interest; and if we serve self-interest, we do not believe that the self’s ultimate identity lies in repudiating its worldly trappings, amusements, and obsessions.

     Has not history illuminated this moral lie on our own shores?  Is it not the very heart of our cultural self-contradiction that the “Religious Right” persistently sides with the theoretical forces which condone a titillating, licentious marketplace, while the politically correct “Liberal Elite” no less inscrutably fraternizes with a depraved entertainment industry?  Our campaign cycles froth and seethe with venom precisely because the two polarities are promoting rival utopias, and hence are in fact competing for dominance of the same pole.  Since utopia is itself a moral lie, prima facie—since no human society is ever significantly happier or healthier than another of comparable logistics—we are trying, blasphemously, to build heaven of materials which we can see, touch, and lift.  Strauss’s vision is not radically different from Karl Marx’s in this regard.  How can unfettered ambition advance the human cause any farther than ambition suppressed at gunpoint?  We all know that the people, the demos, would have voted billions of dollars for tsunami flood victims if a popular referendum had been offered the next day; and the politician who had proposed and pushed the measure would have enjoyed immense popularity as a result of his “charity”, having been generous in that sense which The Prince’s Chapter Sixteen heartily endorses (i.e., with other people’s money).  Yet we also know—or ought to know—that money on such occasions is filtered through several hundred very sticky, very dirty fingers.  Whose nephew will be commissioned to deliver the canned food?  Which dictator will receive the check to mobilize relief efforts?

(N.B.: I do not suggest that our national response to the Indonesian tsunami was excessively prompt or generous; I evoke the catastrophe, rather, as an example of what sorts of situation might be exploited readily by an unprincipled aspirant to high office.  I should say of our specific response to this crisis that we showed laudable promptitude in responding in situ with helping hands: aircraft searching for survivors, ships landing medical teams and troops to clear rubbish, etc.  Such an immediate and physically active response to a crisis is just what moral law demands.  Our broader response, chided in quarters for being too stinting and too tardy, was also perhaps entirely appropriate.  Observers at my remove cannot begin to address such a matter authoritatively.  I will only note that forces in the Indonesian government are openly hostile to our anti-terrorist effort, as their chilling reserve in the midst of rescue endeavors has indeed demonstrated, and that a lavish donation running through the hands of such vocal antagonists might conceivably finance—some few or many dollars of it—the next terrorist assault on innocent civilians.)

     The pandering of the ambitious to the masses inevitably creates a nightmare for the masses’ children: the invoice for such generosity is invariably sent to the next generation.  It is purely utopian—or, as I have called it derisively elsewhere, an “idealism” of the secular world, where the underpinnings of true ideals cannot exist—to suppose that heedless, rampant mismanagement can advance human society to a more stable condition.  Wheels must turn slowly, constituents must badger, committees must wrangle, muckrakers must attack and counter-attack—not so that self-interest may dominate, but precisely so that the grease of self-interest (which drips like cold molasses) may have time to evacuate the machine of state.  Human affairs on a grand scale never work spectacularly well when they work their best.  This is because things work best when seen in truth, because lies abound, and because sufficient time is required for the lies to wilt.  The fast clocks of this world are not reliable in such cases, and this world’s fast-talkers are especially to be shunned.




As a college teacher, I enjoy a generous Christmas holiday of about three weeks.  The word "enjoy" was operative only for the actual week of Christmas (and a delightful Christmas day) during my personal year's end, however.  The reasons why my vacation's first and last weeks sent my blood pressure up the chimney with old Saint Nick may prove instructive.

WEEK ONE::  I was anxiously awaiting several final papers from students which were to be e-mailed to me by a certain date.  Allowing  my far-flung charges to employ our latest miracle of technology proved to be a disastrous concession, and one I shall never again make. Some claimed to have sent documents which I did not receive, some to have sent attachments which were refused transmission, some to have encountered hardware malfunction or system incompatibility. Among these claimants, I have no doubt that both scheming liars and honest victims were represented.  That, indeed, is the ultimate problem: I mean, the proclivity of computers to foul up with such frequency that one may never in conscience counter such excuses with a hearty, "You're lying!"  

I purchased a new computer because the Christmas discount made it irresistible.  Miseries ensued, as I had known they would--as they always do.  None of the information on my old unit could be transferred in camera to the new one, which has ports only for CD's and DVD's (as opposed to the paleolithic floppy disk).    Every file-in-progress that I wanted on the new hard disk therefore had to be sent from me (old machine) to me (new machine).   Ah, but to "log on" to my e-mail account from the new location, I required a password! (More about passwords anon.).  I had naively supposed myself to guard this magic word fondly in memory--and it turned out that I remembered it full well.  What I did not know was that my "log on" password and my e-mail password were distinct; in fact, I never knew that these two phases of identification were not one. When I was therefore unable to retrieve e-mail from the new computer, I innocently clicked, "Forgot Your Password?" thinking that, yes, I had been betrayed by memory, and that Man's Best Buddy would shoot me back some kind of hint.  Instead, it insisted that I select an entirely new password. Very well. The new shibboleth, however, did no better than the previous one in terms of inspiring electronic trust.  I then embarked upon a series of five phone calls to India (Vell, suh, you ah veree velcome!") spread out over about eight hours of my day, the respondant to each of which assured me that all was now functional.  Only the last assistant was correct.  With this young man's help, I discovered that my old machine had decided (with that impish caprice some of us recall from HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) to substitute an ISP dial-up number for my home phone in the "profile" when I had originally changed the password.  From earlier assistants, I had learned about the "second password" --that, indeed, I had remembered the old password precisely, but that another (which I shall not know till Doomsday, and hopefully not then) had sabotaged my intrusive designs.

At the end of this infernal day, I had not only failed to transfer any new files to HAL's upgraded brain; I had apparently alos overshot the deadline for submitting my grades.  This revelation, too, however, would come much later.  All I knew for sure that evening was that the university's Web site would not admit me to the page where my grades were to have been reported.  The next morning I received a phone call to the effect that my unreported grades were now automatic "Incompletes", and that I should have to submit a Grade Change Form (handwritten) for every one that I wished to alter.  I was not particularly happy, because the submission deadline entrusted to me by old-fashioned word of mouth had assured me another day's grace.  (Perhaps my "voice mail", which I cannot access--"Your password is invalid.  Please try again"--had circulated a correction.)  I would have regretted, all the same, being denied the delicious irony of ending the semester by scrawling over a bunch of forms whose every line received the same words, but for the student's name.

WEEK THREE:  Having passed a very pleasant Christmas (thanks largely to a relative poverty of gifts and humility of fanfare), I continued down the virtual Yellow-Brick Road of my new computer's Alternative Reality.  I shouldn't be snide about the machine.  It runs like a top.  Even after the Norton Virus Shield demanded two hours of phone time to download updates (a prophylactic gambit which so crippled my previous computer's operation that I had to delete all the new "protection"), this baby did fine.  I was especially gratified to note that, despite hours of sitting before the thing like a disciple at his prophet's feet, I felt almost none of the headache or diarrhea which made my stints in front of the old monitor a constant discomfort-for-productivity trade-off.  The investment was beginning to look very wise to me.  I still hadn't figured out how to burn CD's (let alone how to read books onto CD, the primum mobile of my purchase)... but I had every confidence that this, too, would come to pass.

Then I received a very gratifying e-mail from someone who had read a favorable review of my novel, Footprints in the Snow of the Moon (plug) and thought to notify me, in postscript and almost apologetically, that my Web site had several broken links..  To my horror, the information was correct.  Though I have run this present site in some form since the days of Arcturus Press (a for-profit venture that lasted about three years), I had never noticed before that a significant number of links refused to work.    What had happened?

Nothing, actually.  I had already realized, a few weeks earlier, that links on a particular page were not functioning.  The problem in that quarter turned out to be spread throughout the site.  MS FrontPage, you see--a software package designed for impoverished scribblers like me who have Web ambitions yet are HTML-illiterate--has a very peculiar way of taking you through the "final check" stage.  Terminating one of those insufferably condescending tutorials which software manuals always offer instead of plain instructions was a step-by-step "verify your links" section.  My links had always worked, according to this protocol.  Even after I had published them from my hard drive onto the Internet, they continued to take me where I wanted.  Why?  Because they were leading me right back to the original files on my hard disk!  Unless my computer happened to be turned on and its Internet connection activated, nobody from another terminal could possibly have followed most of my links anywhere.  The ones which worked properly did so by accident--or through negligence, I should say, since they would not have connected me to another page if I had followed FrontPage's verification procedure.

That these viable links existed is proved by the number of you who read my Blog column for some reason and write to me.  Most of you, I presume, were either too gentle of temperament to tell me that you couldn't travel elsewhere or (like me) too busy to let some bemused clown know that his Web empire was openly rebelling right under his fingertips.  For me, the awakening was both encouragement and devastating désabusement.  It is heartening to know that Arcturus Press probably flopped, not because nobody reads any more, but because nobody could read our site.  In the same way, perhaps The Center for Literate Values site will attract zillions of readers in the future, since it has already managed to draw some dozens with an irritatingly unnavigable morass of connections.  Yet when I think of the sweat and tears poured into my failed publishing house... and on five occasions that I remember, I actually paid hundreds of dollars to "experts" to assist me in reviewing and promoting the site!  Was it too much, then, to have expected that one of them would actually surf through my pages on the way to the bank?

I am currently still engaged in the arduous process of peering into every page's HTML and replacing "file:///My Documents" with "http://www".  Literally hundreds of substitutions are required... what a ghastly mess.  Such was the revelation, at any rate, under whose dark radiance I began the new year.  I am infused with energetic optimism now... but also recovering from yet another round of dashed hopes.  Call it a wash, with my nerves none the stronger for the roller-coaster ride.

For good measure, I discovered yesterday that my new password to the university's Web site has been changed again "for security purposes", and that no one can tell me why.  The utterly spontaneous, whimsical, nonsensical character of these changes is what makes the inner sanctum secure, I suppose.  The secretaries tell me that... well, I won't say what they told me is their favorite type of password.  Mustn't jeopardize the commonwealth.

Lest this week's ramble appear mere comic relief to the unfolding catastrophe in Southeast Asia (and I do hope that "Utlink's" helpful operators are still chattering away somewhere in India), let me close by suggesting that the malfunction or collapse of an entire computer network could wreak havoc of proportions equal to or greater than a tsunami's.  Naturally, I understand that our obsession with passwords is one way of ensuring that a catastrophic event online will not occur.  But such "security" is quickly pooling technical skills in the hands of a very few, and the threat of exploitation from the inside will soon exceed that of sabotage from the outside, in my humble opinion.  I have already been ripped off to the tune of several thousand dollars by computer savants over the years.  How long will it be before the scams grow more organized, more politicized?  A smart kid at a terminal--or a dumb kid whose girlfriend works in the Registrar's Office--can change four years of grades where the same devious endeavor would have required advanced breaking-and-entering and forgery skills two decades ago.  What happens when the kid and his girlfriend are working for Al Qaida, or the Russian mob?

Sometimes, too, no evil design from within or without is necessary to create a very bad day.  Heisenberg told us that there is something chaotic in the electron's motion.  Even when software programs are flawlessly written (and how often does that happen?), computers will not uncommonly do the inexplicable.  Some particle within them gives a leap or takes an overly excited turn... and the whole program locks or crashes.  Among my small, dilettante circle of contacts, virus shields are notorious for fouling up the operations they are meant to protect--a problem as old as Croesus (literally: legend says that the world's wealthiest king, warned by prophecy of his son's impending death, sealed the boy up in a protective cellar--wherein the lad grew so bored that he petulantly flung a spear against the wall, which rebounded and killed him).  Nobody told us that it was going to be like this: an hour's hard work irrecoverably effaced, a week's income gone in lost business and repairs because some sociopathic "geek" found a way through the "firewall", an entire enterprise hamstrung because the software written to help it was improperly reviewed.  As the whole Sargasso Sea of lacework grows exponentially more complicated, the margin for error shrinks and the number of links where errors might be made (or sabotage infused) multiplies beyond reckon.  

Meanwhile, as my vacation ends, the city is digging up my side yard to run fiber-optic cable to the grade school down the street.  We voted ourselves a very stiff tax raise (not I, but my community) just so that our kids could be plopped down in front of a monitor, apparently--at one stroke liberating teachers from lesson plans and children from books.  Is this what we now understand by the conjurer's phrase, "making life easier"?  And whose nephew, I often wonder, will be selling the inevitable software and hardware upgrades to the school system two years, four years, six years down the road?  A lot of people are making a lot of money off of this "revolution".  Are we the richer for it as a society?




However much we Americans may wish to celebrate the new year with our usual Yankee bubbles and Rebel fireworks, it must begin under a cloud for all but the most successfully narcissistic (a percentage of our population about whose magnitude I fear to speculate).  The cloud, more precisely, is a tidal wave.  The disaster in Southeast Asia is the kind of epic cataclysm which will be sure to elicit from some of us who viewed it from a safe distance the ever-ready remark, "It seemed like a movie" (though, if your safe distance was a TV screen, as was mine, the movie's special effects were miserable: all the people with cameras at "ground zero", naturally, were crushed).  Never in my lifetime has a year turned over its number with so stupifying a sweep of the scythe.

Which raises the question, what exactly does one say?  To be stupified is to be struck dumb, visited with stupor--the speechlessness of a gaping beast.  Any comment is bound to seem tastelessly inappropriate or vastly understated or grossly trite.  I myself was rather put off that our local rag accompanied last Sunday's headline with the announcement that a football player named Reggie White had died.  I'm sure Reggie must have been a nice guy.  So was baseballer Johnny Oates, who died of cancer a few days earlier.  But is there room to grieve for men who, after all, had productive and useful lives as lives go when so many thousands of children have just been throttled against walls and fences?  Maybe I expected the paper to run several clean white sheets around the headline story--the visual equivalent of an hour of silence.  But that, I realize, would be vexing to readers, damaging to business, and (if you stop and think about it) possibly grandstanding to the genuinely bereft.  Not to mention futile... for how many of us can fill an hour of silence (or a minute) with focused regret or commiseration?  Most of the participants at old-fashioned Irish wakes came home drunk.

I find myself wondering what certain highly charismatic mouthpieces of neo-orthodox pop-Christianity would say, or will say, from the pulpit.  My response to those who insist that we should always pray, spontaneously and effusively, for the moment's  hope or need or fear (as if God were just waiting in the next room to turn on Tiny Tim's night light or add an extra blanket) has always been to point out how many petition with abject sincerity, yet are not awarded their specific requests.  How many of the wretches who had time to pray beneath the descending wave do you imagine did not pray to be spared?  How many mothers who prayed through their tears to find their babies alive have received lifeless little hulks into their arms--or will never on this earth have any relic of the child?  The do ut des approach to prayer (Latin for "I give that you may give"--the practical ancient Roman's version of piety) has always made me smolder.  What could it possibly mean that God finagles entry for your children into an elite private school with a long waiting list, yet won't so much as save my only child from meningitis?  (I write hypothetically, thank God.)  Are you, then, so much more godly than I, or your children so much more worthy of His notice?  The truth, rather, is that mortality is a condition of life, and that the forces which keep the planet going--its tides, its quakes, its lightning storms--are also highly lethal around the edges.  We do not know--we cannot know--why some happen to be caught along the edges at the wrong moment.  The very least we can do by way of reverence, it seems to me, is to abstain from a style of prayer which implies that our health and material comfort flow from divine favoritism.  There should be more reading of the Beatitudes among Christians and less attempting to construct utopian timelines from strained concatenations of Old Testament events and apocalyptic prophecies.  We are supposed to believe that God is very close to the poor, the ill, the mourning, the suffering: we are called to believe it.  Now might be a good time to start believing it, if we don't.

Still other observers of this appalling catastrophe have intoned what is in them as predictable as a tent-preacher's call to repentance.  "The poor people should have been warned!" they fume.  "If the coasts of Ceylon and Sumatra had been lined with luxury hotels, you can be darn sure that...."  And so forth.  The progressive response to any calamity whatever has come to be, not only an appeal to a scientific/technological solution (or rather a demand for its application, as if it already existed), but an indictment of official inactivity, always ascribed to the vilest of motives.  Frankly, I know nothing about seismology or oceanography or the feasibililty of early warning systems--or as little, at any rate, as the vocal crowd handing down these indictments.  What ought we to have been doing which we left undone?  Scouring the Pacific and Indian Oceans with flights routinely so that no sunami could take any island by surprise?  Such theatrical indignation, to me, is the flip side of praying oneself right out of concern for the perils of living.  Instead of the Great Mystical Umbrella of the Chosen, these naifs pray to modern techno-miracles.  Any hole in the net is always the fault of reigning political leaders--never the built-in resistance of mortal life on earth to all safety nets.  The same people, no doubt, believe that death is an outrage as they ripely near its threshold.  Why hasn't the government adequately researched a cure for the aging process, or at least better means of cryogenic preservation?  Who's behind the conspiracy to force the elderly out of existence?

I suppose we all incline toward one idolatry or the other--perhaps both at various times.  I suppose it's only natural to whisper, in the same breath as a prayer for all the victims, "And thanks for not taking my child"--or to send along to the survivors, along with food and body bags, a team of crack seismologists to exorcise any lingering demons.  I appended a parenthetic "thank God" to a mention above of my own son and meningitis, which has flared up in this area frequently.  Does that imply that I believe the children who succumbed to that disease to have been unworthy in God's eyes?  God forbid!

Let us have our little non-sequiturs, then, and our apotropaic rabbit's feet.  Let us mourn Reggie White, and let us sprinkle holy water on our surviving children.  Those who didn't make it would understand: they would have done the same thing, if we had been claimed and they had remained.  But may we at least remember as we do these things that we shouldn't really, shouldn't whole-heartedly be doing them?  That our Reggies are in a better place, and that every child must someday turn to dust?

May we remember, in other words, that the power of God was not in the tidal wave we have all seen by now, but in the force which invisibly lifts souls clear of death?  Isn't that what we say we believe?


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Complete entries of 2004.

Complete entries of 2003.

Latest Posting of 2005:

As another year ends, only calendars prepare to change.


Previous Postings of 2005:

Profound religious faith depends upon reading.

Speed kills, especially at the cultural level.

Iraq's utopian overhaul: Left and Right are now the same direction.

.The flood of illegal immigrants is irresistible: so what next?

The Paris riots are a Western--not an imported--disease.

Maybe we should stop celebrating trickery once a year: we do enough of it every day.

Conservatives too often gild the sad truth about the job world.

We are as much democracy's victims as its beneficiaries.

Electronic technology is bound to inspire vaguely racist thinking.

Racism is often a matter of fearing outsiders who share a few surface traits.

The right to abort is once more in the news: why not legalize suicide?

Blog nam Booanna

(Blog na mBuanna):

The Blog of Virtues

A diving-bell view of post-literate society's adventure in dumbing down.

Review This Site

"A man and his habits are hard to separate."


The word "blog" scarcely makes my curmudgeonly literate heart leap for joy: yet another Web-engineered assault upon plain English, it conjures in me recollections of Gaelic monstrosities like the Blár Buidhe (a Highland ogre who once brought Fionn MacCumhail to the threshold of death, so the legend goes).  But the time has come to make a virtue of necessity.  I respect a great many "bloggers", I concede the appeal of their genre, and I believe that we at The Center for Literate Values have our share, too, to say about daily life in a post-literate republic (even if we must borrow the idiom of post-literacy for its rubric).  Pardon me, then, a well-intentioned allusion to William Bennett and a high-comic--or low-epic--evocation of the old country.  (Bua in Irish refers early on to a special skill which allows the hero to prevail over formidable adversaries: later it comes to mean a more internalized kind of strength, as is usual when cultures pass from speaking to writing.)  Virtuous we shall try to be: no cheap shots, slanders, band-wagon jibes, ad hominem jests, or early-adolescent gambols.  Lucidity shall be our guide as far as we may hold her hem: humility shall be our burden when lucid reason slips away behind doubt and ignorance.  We believe in ultimate truth, but... but woe unto him who would stare at the sun!

     John Harris, editor and grudging blogger


Compassion for Katrina's victims must not arrest the exercise of judgment.

Katrina's aftermath is as much a local as a national disgrace.

Latin America has no literate tradition--and that carries social consequences.

Good fiction is hard to find now--and the literary elite is part of the reason.

Hispanic immigrants are a complex group--but the net effect on culture is simple.

Has your child been reading?  You'd better find out what!

If we've had enough of terror, we should rebuild neighborhoods on a human scale.

Adult cheating too often dominates Little League rivalries.

Have you noticed that progressive intellectuals have no idealism when it comes to love?

The best educated are often insanely devoted to a self-centered universe.

Computers are a fact of life now, NOT a sign of progress.

Our undocumented neighbors may be nicer than we are... but all who chase bucks are losers.

A belief in divine providence should never induce us to sit on our hands.

Vain pride: the most basic of human sins.

With children, a tiny outrage may have infinite ripples.

Student reactions to Milton reveal a religious wrong turn.

College is the last place to explore cultural complexity.

Some of our avid church-goers need to become Christians.

The arts are not culture's window dressing, but its soul.

The origin of Little League tyrants: men who lead double lives.

We are what we do: how many of us are fulfilled in our jobs?

Post-literate aversion to "drooling vegetables" signals genuine brain death.

Islam always seems to be boiling: will "freedom" be a big ice cube?

Great literature never emerges from catering to the masses.

Costly pipedreams are no longer the exclusive province of the Left.

An arrogant Left and a Dumbed-Down Right... a familiar squeeze for authors.

The only real antidote to the cheap-and-gaudy lies in personal choice.

As freedom makes goods both cheaper and more available, the market for fine craftsmanship shrinks.

Good habits don't qualify as good deeds, nor social conditioning as religious faith.

Neither Left nor Right grasps that the literate life is a spiritual choice.

The word "culture", blessed with PC warm-fuzziness, no longer has meaning.

A conservative has every right to look suspiciously at "neo-conservatism".

Computers can ruin holidays--and lives, and cultures.

God is with the children, not the tidal wave.


Do you really want to tear the wrapper of contemporary

life's glistering tinsel?  Proceed beyond here with caution.



I've been trying to remember the exact words.  When my wife and I were at church on Christmas day, a pre-packaged sort of video meditation flashed upon the screen during a "lull in the action".  (As one who consumes little of the contemporary church, I can't pounce upon the proper nomenclature; but a huge screen behind the... podium? [formerly the pulpit] was ever ready with words to hymns and images for soul-searches.  Joy and praise.)  As a matter of fact, the vignette was rather moving.  It presented (over a background of electronically enhanced chords and percussions) a sequence of things which are "not really Christmas": shopping, caroling, visiting, present-giving, feasting.  And then... how exactly was it worded?  Christmas is... "being grateful to Him for His gift!"  Crescendo, climax, fade... that's a wrap.

Well, they're right, of course (whoever "they" are... does anyone actually know?).  On the other hand, though, was this climactic revelation anything more than a tautology?  "Christmas is..." and what's the predicate?  Being grateful for the birth of Jesus?  Yes, we celebrate Christ's birth on Christmas, and one meaning of the much assaulted and battered verb "celebrate" might well be "to express exuberant gratitude publicly and somewhat programmatically".  So... Christmas is Christmas.  But what is it to be grateful?  Do we shout three cheers to Jesus?  Who is Jesus--what gratitude would be pleasing to Him?  I haven't been young enough for a long time to be able to cling to the illusion that all Christians know Christ.  Indeed, there are entire denominations which vocally, even stridently emphasize "knowing Jesus" (sometimes parsed in my town as "taking Jesus for your best bud")--but which, alas, consider an integral part of faith to be a new and hereafter persistent insouciance to one's own moral responsibilities.  I guess that would be euphoric, wouldn't it?  Middle America's LSD.  "I can fly!  They say I break my promises--but I don't even remember them!  All I remember is that Jesus loves me!  All is forgiven!  Love, brother, love!"  Groovy.

With gratitude like that, who needs blasphemy?

I don't know... I just don't know.  I'm too old by half for this young world--this world which, in its senility, seems to have plunged into a frivolous, vilifying dotage.  Empty tautologies zing and echo around me like the ghosts of bullets in one of these New Age battle royals: paint balls, or PlayStation assassinations.  No one in the hordes among which I circulate ever appears to rear back and cry, "What did you say?  What the hell does that mean?"  Things don't mean any more: they just imitate expressionistically.  What a paradoxical pair of words I have just yoked--yet how accurate!  For the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling has become the relentless gush of cliché.  It turns out that when you don't halt your feelings at the gate for an analytical baggage check, you let past a steady stream not of explosive saboteurs, but of somnambulating zombies.

Earlier that Christmas morning, I had read Epictetus' little dialogue On Providence.  God bless the man!  He was closer to heaven, upon my soul, than some of Jesus' "best buds"!  Addressing a man who grieves over his relative penury, the philosopher exclaims, "Can you deem him blessed who acquires what he has by means which you abhor?  What harm has Providence done if it gives better things to better people--or is a sense of shame and honor not better than riches?...  For this reason, we ought to cast out, not poverty, but our prejudices about it, if we would find peace."  Only a couple of days earlier, in what I consider the climax of Ignacio Silone's Bread and Wine, I highlighted a similar passage where the old priest Don Benedetto lectures Pietro, "This wouldn't be the first time than our Heavenly Father has been constrained to hide Himself and assume pseudonyms.  As you know, He has never clung excessively to the particular first or last name with which men have tagged Him.  At the head of His commandments, He placed a warning against naming Him in vain."

Like Don Benedetto in Fascist Italy, I fight daily against the suspicion that I have wasted my life.  I scribble away in venues like this one where few read what I have to say, and where (especially this year, for some reason) my few faithful readers seem to misinterpret my intent.  I try to make connections, to forge those links which now refer to a specific technical achievement in the Internet world (but to forge other kinds of links, as well, the old-fashioned kind).  No one answers--not even by auto-responder.  The great liberator of all voices around the planet has become (as I myself and others had predicted) just another bottleneck--or perhaps the Mother of All Bottlenecks--through which only those with money or influence may pass.  Plus ça change...

And yet, I persist.  Because, in the fulfillment of some inscrutable obligation, I must.  And besides being grateful to Christ for putting wise teaching about poverty in the mouth of someone who never knew His name (since His self-styled servants have neglected the lesson) and for putting words of consolation in the pen of an exile (since His self-styled servants are busily tabulating attendance), I am grateful to Him for my readers, who have surely been led to this site by a miracle rather than the tracks of a Web Crawler.  My struggle to survive financially will probably call me away from this beloved duty several times in the coming year, especially in the spring; for my family's affairs are growing a bit pinched.  But I will return to writing as long as I have life to write.




The World Literature Survey--what folly!  During my final hour of the class this week, I attempted to do justice to John Milton's Paradise Lost by rocketing through Eve's bristly exchange with Adam in Book 9.  To be honest, I couldn't have cared less about justice: I was trying to exploit the scene's oddity so as to argue that the epic genre, for all Milton's attempts to Virgilize it once more, had become the novel.  Eve is a typical country lass, more like something out of Thomas Hardy than like Dido or Camilla--infinitely more.  She primps and pouts and cajoles and manipulates, and she has done so since the day of her creation!  Milton evidently perceives no contradiction in her pre-lapsarian coyness.  Her wiles are woman's essential nature: Adam, indeed, seems to require evasiveness in her so that he may imaginatively project into her mystery that fulfilling substance so painfully lacking in his own lucid reality.  I apologize for sounding like a deconstructionist--but Milton, frankly, asks for it.  He is Derrida's dream-target.  He arranges a hall of mirrors and then tries to palm it all off as Arcadian simplicity, whereas, in fact, such self-delusion is the very essence of sin.  When we do wrong (unless we have decayed into irredeemable evil), we always fancy that we are courting happiness--that the shadows overhanging an extra-marital affair or an accepted bribe are but a brief frisson dividing us from a sunny, peaceful vale.  We are postponing a face-to-face confrontation with the truth.  Yes... but Adam and Eve have not yet eaten of the forbidden fruit!

This side of Milton has always disturbed me immensely.  Some students defend the Edenic state of the first couple by insisting that sin is an act, not a thought.  Everyone has adulterous or murderous fantasies which pass like high clouds on a breezy day: few actually do the deed.  But to conceive of a vicious deed is not to have the habit of vice in one's thoughts.  Any man may surprise himself thinking, "Imagine being on an island with her!" or, "Imagine if he happened to step in front of my car on a lonely street!"  It is quite another thing, however, when a man imaginatively rehearses every female he meets for a role on his fantasy island, or pictures everyone obstructing his career as possible fodder for his front bumper.  Eve's disingenuous poses do not come as a surprise: they are deeply rooted in her character.  Adam's infatuation with those recoiling feints and half-veiling curls which constantly keep Eve almost out of reach and almost beyond comprehension is the dotage of a vain fool--of an Orlando dancing dreamily about a dim-witted but gorgeous Angelica.  Practically every small action these two undertake which bears some relation to the other is tinged with sin.  Eve distorts and Adam equivocates.  The Apple is an anticlimax in the lubricious exchanges of these two.

I am nagged by the feeling that I have already covered this ground in this space--probably at about the same time last year (for my fall survey always ends up at Milton, shortly before Christmas).  Maybe, then, I should proceed at once to the further observation that there is one heck of a lot we Christians don't understand about our faith.  Matters like original Sin and the Trinity are central to our belief--yet within two minutes of attempting to explain them, most of us would be mired in the most absurd contradictions. One would think that, in these circumstances, we would recognize a solemn obligation to read more.  Milton, for instance, is a big help.  We owe him a debt of gratitude for dramatizing the Fall if only because his instructive failure highlights one of the errors often hidden in our own thinking: i.e., that the reality of sin is rooted--or could be rooted--in a single act rather than in an unhealthy disposition of the will.  The Genesis story can only be viewed by a true believer as representing narratively the truth that sin arises from man's arrogant trust in his understanding--in his ability to take reality's full measure.  Men break their marriage vows and pocket bribes when assailed by such thoughts as, "I'll soon be too old for happiness," or, "Everybody does it," or, "We're all weak--God will forgive me," or, "This will make me a better person, in the long run."  They snap the boundary line of foreseeable consequence and obligatory resistance inward or outward like the margin on a word processor until they have just the width and depth of perception to flatter their urges.  And it has always been so; or, at any rate, whenever people think, their thinking is besieged by such a temptation to tinker with the limits of knowledge.  Milton's Edenic pair would have to be too dense to elocute the simplest whim if they were to appear convincingly sinless.  A fine state his epic pentameter would be in then!

Of course, collectively speaking, we do not read.  Never in our nation's history have we read less.  The current hoopla regarding the cinematic rendition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has faithful church-goers possibly more "pumped up" with optimism about the culture than they were over The Passion of the Christ.  Yet the TV teases for the film which I have seen bear no resemblance to anything I recall from C.S. Lewis's little book.  More epic pretension (less like Milton than like the Táin Bó Cúalgne), now greatly enhanced by special effects... but where is the introspection, the pause for analysis, the self-searching?  For that matter, what quality of faith is advanced by viewing graphic portrayals of Christ's scourging, his struggle toward Golgotha, and his crucifixion?  "He died for us!  Look at the blood!"  Yes, but we are also supposed to live through and in Him!  Look at the thought, if you can--your thought, your intent, your ambition, your example.  Not lurid enough for you?  Too tedious?  Blood, at least, is not a bore!

Christ is crucified all over again in our dumbed-down post-literate "faith".  A young woman in my survey class submitted to me (at the last possible instant) an essay about one of Marie de France's lais which treats of an adulterous affair--except that three of the paper's four pages merely recycled some church seminar's teachings about marriage (the source was directly quoted).  Reading, for the neo-believer, is reserved only for church-published matter: any other variety might invite sinful ideas.  By no accident, I fear, this same girl had strategically positioned herself throughout the semester (at the very back of the class and between two fairly competent students) so as to deploy her good young eyes to maximum effect during quizzes.  I would confidently wager that she owes every one of the few points she has garnered in four months to cheating.

The biggest battle our faith faces is not in Iraq, or even in the Supreme Court, but in the daily practice of us, the faithful.  Alas, we are truly approaching that state of stupid innocence which Milton failed to evoke in Adam and Eve, and which characterizes the human being before he is capable of understanding penitence.




Over the past week, I have been preoccupied with an essay (a Platonic dialogue sort of a thing, if I must be honest) for the next issue of The Center's quarterly journal.  In it, I try to thrash out certain elements of the "culture question": what is culture, why do we Americans have none, what are our prospects for acquiring one, etc.  This isn't the first time I've said so, and I'm not the first one to say so... but culture cannot co-exist with an ethic of speed and ease.  The late Christopher Lasch made several pseudo-conservative types who are really nothing better than economic libertarians very uncomfortable by exposing our collective worship of instant gratification.  Where there is no investment in conserving, there can be no culture--and one cannot be conservative in any profound sense of the word if one applauds the incessant titillation of the vulgar mass's most frivolous inclinations as a wealth-generating mechanism.  One must feel both a noblesse oblige to all those silly children and a humble subordination to a humane past accumulated over arduous centuries.

As I say, it's been said before.  But I have never before actually paused to ponder the distinction between speed and ease.  Is there one?  If our gratification must be instant, is its speedy delivery not also why it so gratifies--or is the removal of painful labor (regarded by Epicurus as the greatest of pleasures) still gratifying when it is accomplished slowly?  Take a garage-door opener, that universal yet sadly under-appreciated blessing of contemporary life.  What an irksome and oft-repeated chore it has annulled!  It represents the quintessence of ease.  Now say that I had invented a new opener requiring no electricity: a complex series of weights whose entirety would at last tip the scale at 300 pounds, but whose first member--at three ounces--I might readily activate with a flick of the finger.  What an elegant device, conserving both human labor and costly energy resources!  The only catch: I have to wait fifteen minutes form the moment I flick the first weight until the door finally rumbles open, or shut.

How many of these miracles would I sell?  You and I both know that I wouldn't attract a single customer--I wouldn't even install the thing on my garage!  No, speed is not the same as ease--but it might as well be in our post-cultural setting, for we cannot define ease apart from speed.  We cannot think of anything as providing comfort which also keeps us waiting: the wait makes us uncomfortable.  How many times have I observed my own son champing at the bit and fidgeting when his father lingers before some captivating landscape or impressive work of architecture?  In a true culture, nothing is more definitive of ease than an intricately crafted object or minutely refined flow of sounds which absorbs the senses and occupies the mind for as many moments as the observer can spare.  From the outside, this observer seems merely to wait: he is all stillness and silence.  On the inside, however, he has never been more active.  The progress of external time has been completely arrested for him: he has utterly forgotten the pressures of his circumstances to dwell in a world without grotesque accident or horrid chaos--where things are just so because they must be so, thanks to the laws of proportion or justice or causality or teleology.  He is in contemplation.  When he finally puts down his novel or his lute or his abacus, he is likely to cry, "God help me, I'm an hour late for my audience with the King!"

No more.  Our children sit rapt before PlayStation instead of Rembrandt, their manual response elicited at a rate of five or six times per second.  This is how thay are most at ease.  Full throttle is the speed at which they idle.  Intricate imaginative measurement and speculation have been replaced by a feverish digital activity which actually anesthetizes the higher faculties, much as a monotonous drumbeat or a drug might do.  They cannot be easy without speed.  They are being turned into electricity, into electrons.  If an electron could be feel, I suppose it would be positively bored as it buzzed unobstructed from one star to another.

What really, really annoys me is to hear the exponents of this Great Betrayal warble about their religious faith and offer themselves as champions of time-honored principles.  Judas, too, threw his arms around God.




I am convinced that orators on the Right are substantially right when they accuse Democrats of politicizing a delicate situation in Iraq to win an advantage at the polls.  A precipitate pull-out would probably fling open the doors of sanguinary revenge within communities and, shortly thereafter, of civil war throughout the nation.  But it isn't at all clear, on the other hand, that our continued presence in Iraq does not do the same thing.  The rhetorical sniping across the aisles of Congress notwithstanding, this is not an either/or issue, but a both/and issue.  There will be communal bloodletting and widespread civil unrest both if we remain in Iraq and if we pull out.  Iraq will not be a good place to raise a child for a very, very long time--just as it has not been so for many, many decades.  Realistically, we are faced with having to calculate the lesser of two evils--leave earlier or leave later--in a situation where variables are too many and quantities too insecurely known for anything like a calculation to be made.  We shall end up, of course, playing both ends against the middle, recalling a few thousand troops here and delaying a troop withdrawal there.  And bodies will continue to pile up, and critics will continue to carp--and they will be both right and wrong, because our decision will have saved some lives and sacrificed some others.

The situation does not remotely resemble Vietnam, where conscripted troops lolled about in passive-aggressive indecision as 500 body bags or so were filled every month, and where withdrawal had to be accomplished by frantic airlifts because the enemy--backed by an ideologically maniacal superpower--was already at the gates.  The Vietnam parallel insisted upon by ranking Democrats would be perfectly stupid if it were not transparently manipulative.  The situation much more closely resembles Northern Ireland, where the British presence motivated terrorist resistance for decades yet most certainly prevented a bloody orgy in the streets.  The Brits were both the problem's solution and its self-renewing source.  So are we in Iraq, having blundered in without a faintly adequate vision of a post-Saddam nation and--in that embarrassing moment of strategic undress--having embraced a utopian scheme for overhauling Muslim society which, at any other time, would have come straight from a liberal bedtime story.  Perhaps what we should have done was carve the place up: a Sunni chunk for Saudi Arabia, a Kurdish chunk for Turkey, a Shiite chunk for Iran.  The three Islamic nations are sufficiently large and wealthy that they might have been expected to stabilize Iraqi territory in an uneasy but fairly durable balance of power.  Investing in further strife would not have served even the volatile Iran's interests for very long.

But no.  We were under a moral compulsion, announced neo-conservatives, to let freedom ring.  Never mind that the Koran, in spirit and in letter, is vigorously opposed to any social order which would privilege individual choice over communal discipline, the quest for intimate truth over formal observance of the law... or maybe that was part of the gambit.  Maybe we were supposed to overthrow Koranic civilization.  I'm glad that I do not live in such an environment, to be sure; but are my present circumstances civilized beyond my front door?  Are yours?  Is it my and your public right and duty to force uncontrollable urban sprawl, constant exposure to pornography, shameless displays of wealth meant to arouse envy, the anesthesis of chemical and electronic drugs, the holocaust of viable fetuses in pursuit of "sexual expression", and an economy whose workers must undergird one or more of these endeavors heartily or risk falling unemployed--does our society, I say, have the right to force this brave new world upon another society which has deliberately chosen to hold the demos in check?  The charming Laura Ingraham of conservative talk-show fame asks pointedly, "If you want to be free, don't you think other people around the world want freedom?"  Her colleague, the avuncular Dennis Prager, winced plangently during his Thanksgiving broadcast, "I just don't understand the war that certain intellectuals among us carry on against the car.  The car represents freedom!" (my paraphrase).

These are strange times.  It is passing strange to hear a self-styled exponent of conservatism argue that one's own whimsical, often frivolous amusements should be exported to others with crusading zeal; for the conservative believes in moral freedom, which is not a right of a gift but an existential fact, and also in the constant inclination of every human being to debase that freedom.  It is positively bizarre to hear an orthodox Jewish male several years my senior, who is paid thousands of dollars whenever he delivers an hour's lecture on "conservatism", declare that he cannot so much as understand why anyone would deplore the sell-out of our neighborhoods and our economy to the automobile.  When these same people insist that we owe the Iraqis--and the rest of the world--our undying support in their quest for liberty, one must wonder just which libertes they have in mind.  Liberty from genocidal tyrants?  Hear, hear!  Liberty to storm Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving for electronic plunder at discount prices?  How disgusting, how servile, how undignified... how vulgar.

Dignity?  Vulgarity?  Yes, I know that these are only "laugh" words nowadays--but they are supposed to be so to those liberated of all behavioral inhibitions, not to cultural conservatives.  It seems that the word "conservative" is destined to mean no more in the chaotic twenty-first century than "opposed to the political Left", just as liberalism has long degenerated into nothing more than knee-jerk loathing of the Right.  What idiocy.  I've said it before, but... drowning at the shallow end of the pool.




 I respect George Will a great deal, though in recent years he seems to me to have grown rather too plump on success.  (Perhaps I should do so, too, if that exotic fruit ever found its way into my diet.)  When I heard Will attribute Tim Kaine's late triumph in Virginia, therefore, to Hispanic voters chafing at the conservative crackdown on immigration, I did not lightly dismiss him.  Even if Will's assessment is wrong (and it appears, at the very least, simplistic, having been finessed from him by George Stephanopoulos), it indicts certain inescapable facts which too many conservatives are hiding from.  One is simply that most politicians are bound to go a-courting en español from now on whether or not they really need to.  The Hispanic vote is up for grabs and growing all the time, and the politician's primary mission on earth is to get elected or re-elected.  Few conservative candidates will stake out a position which is perceived as generally unpopular with so dynamic a segment of the public.  If they kiss a few undocumented babies, what do they have to lose--the support of their base?  And what, then does the conservative base propose to do?  Vote for Hillary?  Stand back and do nothing while others vote for Hillary?

I have concluded, in short, that a large-scale, almost invasion-like onslaught of unskilled laborers with fast-food tastes, conversant in only one tongue (and that not English), neither expressive nor fully literate in any tongue, almost as uninterested in learning English as in reading a Spanish novel, stunningly credulous when a smudge on a window is said to be the image of Christ, more addicted--if possible--in their dismal absence of inner resources than mainstream Americans to cruising the streets in toxin-belching conveyances... I am convinced, I say, that this new component to American demographics will continue to burgeon.  There's absolutely nothing we can do about it.  Nothing.  Absolutely.

Those who have time to waste upon my weekly rants know that this is not a pleasant prospect to me.  My major objection to open immigration is, and has always been, that our home-grown corporate traitors are saturating an already moribund culture with gullible, impoverished people who will lap up mass-produced glitz and garbage so greedily and gratefully that none of us will ever again see a tasteful movie released, a tasteful novel published, or a tasteful building constructed.  Most prophets of doom have emphasized corporate America's role in encouraging illegal immigration as a means of securing cheap labor: in my writing, I have chosen to stress the other side of the equation--the decisive role which these deprived masses will have in dictating what sells, and hence what our children must sell when, as adults, they struggle to survive.  What jobs will there be for Five Star chefs when everyone wants a burger and fries?

After mourning at this lonely wake for a few hours, however, I found my heart strangely calmed, if not lifted.  The truth is that American culture has been brain-dead for... several decades: since the late sixties, I would say.  Recall that inventory of cultural handicaps I recited above.  Semi-literate monolingualism: well, does the kid next door ever read a book, ever punctuate correctly when forced to write a sentence, ever affix the final two letters to "catalogue"?  Pseudo-religious superstition: can anyone fail to have noticed the catacomb-like fervor associated with welding chrome fishes to rear fenders of cars or blaring a prayer before a high-school football game--a sport whose objective (I note as one who played it in high school) is explicit multiple battery on every play?  And speaking of lethal weapons on wheels... does the new family in the barrio really drive any more insatiably than the upper-middle-class soccer mom killing time at Starbuck's and the mall before collecting little Blade and Poynton at Saint Pecunia's?

I suggest, in a nutshell, that the bulldozing of American culture down to the lowest common denominator was a project contracted years ago and already well advanced when the first local industry decided to trim salaries by hiring indocumentados.  And I suggest that, since the bulldozing was already inevitable, our cultural landscape is better off being converted to scorched earth sooner than later.  Let's get it done.  The quicker everybody enjoys the razed vista of this fuming steppe, the more effectively some of us may--on whatever stardust of hope refuses to settle--be able to elicit real support for re-forestation.  We will have to educate Miguel and Aurelia and Cruz pretty much from scratch, it's true; but they may just prove more vulnerable, in their cultural nullity, to beauty and nobility than the Super-Savior Christian Academy's crowd of privileged white kids, with their thick incrustation of techno-fantasy and their long indoctrination of duty-free destiny.  Every person, after all, is a potential breeding ground for great things.  A soul seeking its true destiny--craving the arduous duties of that destiny--can create an ascent through any language.




The following essay should have been posted a week ago.  I was interrupted by an urgent editing project, and this ramble was shoved to the back burner.  In the meantime, I have read a column by Cal Thomas which also seizes upon the idea that in France's present turmoil, we may be seeing our own future.  Mr. Thomas, however, believes the fundamental cause of the problem to be radical Islam's spread throughout the world.  The position I advance below is that our own cultural and spiritual poverty has grown so dire that even irrational cults and mass fanaticism have little competition for human minds and hearts on our eroded soil.

I had a brief meditation crudely sketched out for this morning before I picked up the paper and found that Paris is burning.  The incendiary end to Western Europe's greatest city which Hitler failed to bring about as he withdrew will be accomplished, I suppose, by Third World drudges who are denied a "fair share" of techno-culture's frivolous acquisitions.  I have long said that the poor goatherd in Libya or farmer in Chihuahua is better off, all things considered, staying home.  Medical help would be negligible back on the farm; but then, contact with hundreds of thousands of wayfarers from all over the world in a cramped urban environment would not expose our man of the soil to dozens of exotic pathogens weekly or daily, his native air would be unpolluted, gangs would not rove humble village streets, speeding cars would not crush children chasing after a ball, and the pervading sense of nature's rhythms would retard such stress-related killers as heart disease and cancer.  Who knows if a meager diet of rice, goat's milk, and chili peppers would not be superior to what the peasant's migrant cousin encounters in the city?  At least that diet would be meager: obesity would not be a scourge.  Booze would not flow freely, and cocaine would not stream from palm to pocket to palm, passing in reverse a current of soiled d\ollar bills.

Some utopia!  Instead of a free flow of milk and honey, we have the stanched flow of depressants and hallucinogens.  The best that Arcadian poverty has to offer, no doubt, is poverty: the freedom of poverty--freedom not just from delirium-friendly substances, but from the spiritual narcosis dosed electronically by the TV, the computer, the iPod, the video game....  It was a dark day when PlayStation was allowed into our house (not with my consent).  I can't tell that my son is any keener or more fulfilled after an hour's session--quite the contrary--and a punishment of denied access to this plug-in drug occasions no end of temper tantrums and stern reprimands.  Damn the thing.  Damn it all.  I look at it all, all the mind-numbing alternatives to real time and space, and I think, "These things belong in hell."

Yet how can we convince the goatherd or the fisherman of this vital moral truth about our dark creations when we ourselves have not yet reached the recovery phase?  In fact, nothing inspires in me a more smoldering fury than the blessings which our "leaders" shower upon techno-culture.  Our entire economy is dependent upon it: we cannot not use the drug--we cannot not be its pimps and pushers--so we might as well enjoy whatever trashy ecstasy our "dystopia", our paradise in mass-produced caricature, has to offer.  While Laura Bush is introducing grade-school kids to Officer Buckle, mouthpieces of progress like Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News reveal that the only purpose of literacy is to clear the way to the keyboard, "knowledge", money, and power.  I still don't understand exactly what economic ramifications our democracy experiment" in Iraq is supposed to have: I don't know if its designers have simply not reflected that economy dictates culture, or if--more shrewdly--they have decided not to publicize that these unshackled Third World masses are marked to consume more of TimeWarner's effluvia otiosa while stitching up more cheap shirts and soccer balls for Wal-Mart.  Somewhere between Laura's holy endeavor and the No Child Left Behind "accountability" of the upper grades, we have disposed of imagination, introspection, responsible individualism molded by conscience, and--in a word--spirituality: the spirituality fostered in the West for over two millennia by literacy.  We are worse off than pre-literate tribesmen.  We have swapped folktales for Hollywood, the campfire for electricity, the community for the screen.  Progress?  No, I think if I were indeed certain that my child could have no other fate than to crouch before a monitor (probably sterilizing himself, both literally and figuratively), I would sooner grab a tent, roll up some blankets, and find us an unpolluted stream somewhere.

There's the rub, of course: there are no unpolluted streams.  LA's smog finds its way to the Rockies.  NY's sewage ends up in Dingle Bay.  When the Hoover Dam was built, thousands of tiny villages dried up in Sonora.  After decades of sucking black gold from the haunts of nomads, we have left behind fouled--and no honorarium to clean them.  The Libyan goatherd doesn't own the land his flock grazes, and the narco-trafficker eager for American sales longs to seed every rural hill with poppies.  There's no more Arcadia wherein to pitch a tent; and if you live in a shack on the edge of Mexico City--or Paris--poverty has no more freedom.  You're free of TV, but you have no drinking water or breathable air.  You're free of obesity, but you have garbage to eat instead of wild prickly pears.  I know that.  I understand why Paris is burning: not because her Africans have no Internet connection, but because they now have interminable hell instead of honest poverty.  And they can't get a ticket back to their hovel on the Niger... and the hovel no longer exists, in any case.

What they do not understand--what we do not understand--is that the high-consumption, soul-killing lifestyle of the more affluent neighborhoods holds no answer for them.  Or for us.  Nor can we can any longer simply retreat and cultivate our garden: even if a plot of earth comes with our urban "pad", buildings block out the sun, and the rain is impregnated with leaden soot.




Skeletons seem to be hauling themselves out of the crypt a week before cue this year.  Or is that horrid clank-and-mumble merely the day-to-day progress of our moribund culture haunting its own ruins?

What’s your favorite version of the words represented by “AP”?  “Addle-Pated”… “Attention Paralysis”… “Almost Prepared”… “Auto-Pilot”… “Automatic Print”?  The Associated Press reported Harriet Miers’ withdrawal from a bid for a Supreme Court berth as the triumphant stroke of a Right Wing cabal.  Never mind that the much-invoked Bible-thumping constituency was roundly delighted with Miers’ well-leaked pledge to oppose abortion and with James Dobson’s vigorous endorsement: never mind that Miers' premier credential to sit among the Supremes was a stint on the Dallas City Council.  The degree of insight and fact-checking in such coverage was rivaled only by an earlier AP story this week on the sports page.  Presses were delayed across the nation to squeeze in a late-breaking exposé that Houston Astros manager Phil Garner had blown the World Series by allowing a future Hall-of-Famer to pinch-hit for a wearying starter as the tying run waiting in scoring position and the league’s top reliever warmed up in the bull pen.  Almost Prepared, did I write?  To work on a high school rag, maybe.

Telemundo 39 tried to bill as racism (Racismo o Broma? ran the tease) a tasteless gesture at a Dallas high school’s homecoming which caricatured Latinos as attached to leaf-blowers.  This was the lead story for the 10 p.m. news on Friday, October 28: let all the grisly murders wait.  At least these Fourth Estate babblers had a clearly premeditated agenda.  In the matter of rabble-rousing, they are indeed highly competent.  But honestly… when 39 runs its stories on local fiestas, with plenty of Mariachi music and taquitos, isn’t that a caricature?  If not, why not—because it’s done in Spanish by militant anti-Anglo propagandists?  Or if so… then is it racism, as well?  Would the spoiled-brat Richlnd Hills white kids have been racists if they had replaced the leaf-blowers with trumpets and sombreros?

  What about the real racism in the Houston Astros front office--an organization known for its mishandling of blacks since the early days of Harry Craft, Harry Walker, and Paul Richards?  What about the persistent failure of the brain trust to land a left-hitting slugger throughout 2005, a coup which would have made the season a cake walk but which--having never come off--surrendered a lot of gallantly striving young men to a lot of beer-breathed abuse?  Too many players who might have supplied this glaring deficiency were black (like Matt Lawton, whom the Houston GM declined to pick up, or Darryl Ward and Bobby Abreu, whom past GM's have not bothered to retain).  I don't intend to convert this space to a sports column: I merely note that the sports beat abounds in genuine news, full of scandal, for any reporter honestly concerned about injustice OR winning baseball.  With all the folderol that has been said and printed about post-Katrina New Orleans, why has no reporter uncovered this transparent outrage in the nation's pastime?  Instead, carefully groomed and primed talking heads oblige baseball ownership by singing hymns to the Miracle White Sox, thereby tapping a considerable Middle American audience which usually tunes out baseball in October.  In fact... is the Astros ownership simply racist, or did it sense that profits would be larger if the team were kept just on the edge of being exceptional?

Speaking of the Black Sox... what about the politicizating of grand juries and the bench?  First Martha Stewart, then Tom Delay, now Scooter Libby: when the evidence of criminal activity is insufficient, be creative--feel free to indict any person generally detested by the masses for a misperception, a poor memory, or a failure to anticipate new law.  A black man here in Texas has just been sentenced to life in prison for... perjury!  At least there's no doubt of his intent to deceive, and new evidence strongly indicates that he committed several murders for which he cannot be tried.  All the same... isn't it illegal to hand down a murder-level sentence for bearing false witness?  Can they do that?  Can we be living in such a country?

If you aren't scared yet, maybe Monday's mail will bring you a shock which leaves Monday night's spooks looking positively wholesome.  I just received a notice from Blue Cross that my health insurance is going up to a level exceeding my monthly income.  I quickly surmised that the only policy I can afford carries a deductible amount of $10,000.  Even if I get decked by a truck during my bi-weekly jog, x-rays and lab work will not be covered: after I cough up the ten grand, Blue Cross will pick up only the hospital's tab.  Last month I had finally had enough of two large red moles on my back which often made me itch under my shirt.  Equipped with two mirrors, I burned them off with a soldering iron.  The treatment was fast, effective, and affordable.  Meanwhile, Blue Cross justifies holding my family hostage (a commiserating leer on its corporate mask and a bag poised to receive my life savings) by lamenting that new medicines and technology have driven up costs.  Why, I ask, do we need these new wonders if none but the filthy-rich can afford them?  Or explore the new wonders, by all means--but let the filthy-rich finance them, and don't charge the rest of us.  Deny me access to the new wonders--write it into my policy: "No New Wonders"--and give me the medicines of 1990 at a 1990 cost.  I won't be contracting AIDS or requesting plastic surgery.  Just cut out a cancer or two if the day comes, and then let me die in peace, damn you!

The only real health problem with which I struggle chronically is a discomfort of the lower gastro-intestinal track incited by exposure to computers.  I am presently as fit as a fiddle (or was before I began this typing) because I have stayed off the box for most of the week.  My moments of unease are directly proportional to time at the keyboard and distance from the screen (nowadays I work across the room with the aid of a long cord).  Yet--mirabile dictu--the pricey pioneers of new medicine and technology merely smile when I mention my complaint.  The Miracle of the Computer, you see, and the Miracle of Modern Medicine are every bit as engineered as the Miracle White Sox--a crew of gaily daubed and draped harlequins projecting a grotesque optimism on our doorsteps as their real faces crinkle in God-knows-what complex financial calculation.

Of course, Hillary will change all this.  Trick or treat!  Mierda con salsa.



"Every soul is parted from the truth unwillingly."  Epictetus claims to be citing Plato when he approvingly proffers this line.  It certainly sounds Platonic.  At some level, too, I believe it myself.  Moral endeavor would be self-contradictory and absurd if it were not founded upon some intimate guiding light--some spark of the divine--which whispers directions to the right path.  Goodness would be a hollow word.  We should have no possible basis for our behavior other than a) the programming of instinct, b) the impulsion of biological drives, or c) the arbitrary commands of some holy book--which would in fact be equivalent to b), since we should be obeying those commands in abject animal fear of supernatural reprisal rather than through inherent attraction to their ultimate end.  I couldn't live like that: I couldn't waste another day on an existence which I truly believed to be a dog's or an ape's.

All the same, it is difficult to observe a human soul plunged into grief over having deserted the truth on any given day.  Drugs and illusions sell well.  They sell so well, indeed, that they tend to push the truth right out of the marketplace.  Ministers who can fit their congregations with rose-colored glasses are more likely to find employment than ministers who call weakness and folly be their proper name.  Movies full of special effects about intergalactic odysseys leave serious documentaries at the gate.  Porn sites are more visited on the Internet than responsibly informative or tastefully literary sites by a factor of some hundred thousands, I would guess optimistically.  Candy outsells cheese, and cheese outsells carrots.  If truth is the callow soul's first love from the lofty peak of inexperience, it is also the corrupt soul's last resort when every drug wears off.  There's a lot of terrain in between, and our so-called culture thrives in that penumbrous space.

Ever since the duty of shuttling my son to and from school has fallen to me, I've acquired the habit of listening to radio talk-shows.  I certainly do not disagree with a great deal that Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham has to say; but I do find that one locus communis of such conservative commentators makes the roots of my hair start to smoke: the confident assertion, that is, that anyone who graduates from college in our free and open society can find gainful employment which matches his special talents to the public's tastes and needs.  Now, a shapely young female could make a quick bundle by hooking up a camera over her bed or her shower stall which feeds live shots to her Web site.  A bright young "geek" could become a millionaire within a month by designing a credit-card-ready site soliciting donations to Hurricane Katrina victims (which donations he would proceed to donate to his personal account).  But a poet?  An oil-painter?  A flautist or composer?  A sculptor?  Which of these people, though he should have two or three college degrees in his portfolio, would be able to pay the month's first bill with what he earns doing what he loves?  What chance, even, has a splendid wordsmith of getting a full-time job as an editor unless he is somebody's nephew?

No, Sean and Laura: you cannot survive in this society by using God-given talent (as opposed to more sublunary abilities inspired by lesser spirits).  My parents, and I presume a great many other parents, implicitly believed the folderol about the virtue of upward mobility: i.e., that as you made more money, you would also be using more of what God gave you for God's favored ends.  Actually, the word "God" never had much place in whatever open discussion about the future occurred in our household; and, despite my father's best efforts (God rest his soul), it soon evaporated entirely as we were immersed in the country-club atmosphere of a private school where the three of us kids slaved away as second-class citizens.  Somehow, just breathing that atmosphere was supposed to render us as successful as the families whose names appeared on local museums, car dealerships, department stores, and other scenes of haute culture.  We were supposed to marry into such families, maybe (though nothing of this strategy was hinted to me beyond maternal exhortations to "go out" more often).  I was supposed to redeem the pimply, overweight Melissa or Martha from old-maidhood, no doubt, in recompense for which Mr. Smith would groom me for a bank vice-presidency or Mr. Jones for a trusteeship on the foundation.  Was that the idea, Mom and Dad?  Is that the dream, Sean and Laura?

I could name a few chaps who took the "marry upward" high road.  I, however, continued to drink at the same well which keeps college humanities programs afloat.  I loved to read and write, so I kept piling up credit hours--and later degrees--in English, French, Latin, Greek, and Comparative Literature.  Finally I was equipped to... to compete with three hundred other applicants for a renewable year's contract teaching lower-division classes for twenty-five grand per annum provided that I expressed the right political convictions at my interview and was either not white or (at the very least) not unequivocally male.

Just the other day, I asked my sister if she had ever heard anything about our grandfather's offering one of us kids a "leg up" at Fidelity Union, where he successfully sold life insurance for years.  She responded with an indignation which she had learned well from the old man's daughter, our mother: "Where did you ever hear that?"--as if I had accused Papa (so we all called him) of philandering or laundering Mob money.  "I'm asking you," I reiterated.  "I'm wondering why he never offered.  Not once."  But I knew why, and my sister's answer explained why.  "So you think you would have enjoyed selling insurance all your life?" she snorted.  No, I wanted to say, I think I would have enjoyed being able to support my family, to go to sleep knowing that I'd have a job next year, to leave my work in the office, to come home and coach Little League and read a novel and write a poem and listen in peace to Debussy... but I didn't say anything.  Why bother?  It was much too late.

Sean and Laura, can you please cut the crap?  The truth is that young people should scramble early to find some line of work where daily dishonor is not required of them, where they will not be fired for performing a humane service even though they will not be promoted for it, either--and from which they will enjoy sufficient respite to nourish their God-given talents.  Any other representation of the future to their impressionable minds is a scandalous manipulation or a pompous self-indulgence.  The educational system led kids like me to the slaughter: my parents looked on smiling because they chose to believe in a postponed beatitude--a white-collar Elysium wholly unknown to them yet generously bequeathed to us by their hard labor.  What ghastly folly!  Even Marx envisioned his utopia's workers as writing poetry only after hours--even Marx never suggested that a poet could make a living!  But my parents willingly embraced the pipedream.  It was their generation's strongest hallucinogen.



Expendendi cives, non  numerandi: "Citizens should be weighed, not counted."  I ran across this profound yet transparently sensible insight yesterday in a fragment of Cicero's (with sligth differences of inflection).  What Cicero means, of course, is that, rather than tally up the "ayes" and the "nays" of our voters, we should distinguish between those voters who can't stay sober, never read a book, or can't lift their hand without first glancing their neighbors and those for whom independent thought is a habit of daily life.  Naturally, we don't so distinguish; and realistically, we can't.  When literacy tests were used at the polls several decades ago to throw sandbags around racial segregation, the citizens who found their way to a ballot simply voted en masse: the same old neighborhood marching lockstep for the same old party with the same old commitment to racist privilege.  What we get in our glorious democracy is one group of diminished capacity opposing another.  The illiterate but sympathetic sharecropper versus the diplomaed-and-brainwashed middle-class flunkey... the hard-working immigrant who only speaks an alien language versus the ironclad ideologue with a Ph.D.  And this is what we hope to export all over the world?

I suppose it's better than being ruled by a tyrant... in some ways.  But then, one can always dream of toppling the tyrant, whereas democracy is the progressive's cul-de-sac, the political end of the line.  Democracy is terminal: it can only pedal backward into oligarchy, and thence to tyranny again.  Furthermore, tyrants are inefficient in the matter of devastating culture.  They execute a few dissidents--or a few hundred thousand--burn a few dozen sanctuaries, confiscate a few hundred art treasures for their villas and vaults, and otherwise leave barber shops and soccer games and architectural design pretty much alone.  The will of the masses leaves nothing untouched.  Barber shops must have handicapped parking and wheelchair-accessible restrooms (resulting in the closure of many small businesses).  Soccer games must include girls as well as boys, and scores must not be kept (resulting in the flight of exceptionally athletic boys to more disruptive pursuits).  Housing must be designed so as to emphasize those features assured to advertise the parvenu's new resources and to stir the envy of other parvenus (resulting in the ubiquitous vulgarity of, say, the three-car garage).  You can escape the tyrant on any given day.  Like an Olympian god, he may be dining with the Ethiopians.  You can never escape The People.  They will dictate everything from the syntax of your language to the shape of your shower stall... or the marketers who lead them around by the nose, at any rate, will do so.  Back to oligarchy....

It is some consolation to reflect that we must all always be somewhere, as a people, on this shifting spectrum.  I don't mean that we should take heart because things must eventually get better--since, by the same token, they must also eventually get worse.  I mean, rather, that we have every reason not to seek our fulfillment in anything so transitory as a system of government, or in the various superficial liberties which governments of various stripes may grant us.  As long as we protect innocent children from the tyrant's stormtroopers and the masses' obscene amusements--or as long as we are willing to give our lives in offering a protection that will no doubt fail most of the time--then we are right with the world.  On to heaven--to hell with oligarchy.

My shock-of-the-week occurred after I had administered a quiz to a World Literature class over a ninth-century Chinese romance.  One of my questions asked why the hero did not ask the heroine to marry him.  The correct answer was the he claimed to be incapable of waiting out the three-month engagement period... but, of course, a lot of students hadn't read the assignment very closely and proceeded to insert explanations that made perfect sense to them, as is their lovable habit.  The most popular pis aller was that "he wanted her to know that he truly loved her."  That's right.  Chang took to a tree and entered through the bedroom window because only thus could he assure his lady that he really "cared about her".  Significantly, all who volunteered this answer were female.  If I had put their names and phone numbers up for sale to the male students, I could have retired at the end of the week.

O Freedom!  Beat at these gates which let thy folly in and thy dear judgement out!

Be honest, now: did you think I had strayed from the target when I cited wheelchair-accessibility, scoreless competitions, and three-car garages as popular innovations above?  None of the cuddly-huggable insulation or the garishly Wagnerian acquisition which pervades our culture through the fiat of our political and commercial elites lacks vast popular support.  I chose my examples carefully to make this point, precisely: that democracy always tends to annihilate itself in favor of an elite's agenda.  If today's budding young women are generally convinced that a solemn vow is antithetical to sincere attachment, then why should we imagine that The Public objects to shutting down its own shops and eviscerating its finer recreations?  The elite movement which was supposed to have liberated women from abuse by males has left them more exposed to such abuse than ever: the people have turned to their executioners for guidance.  Now it falls to me--and to you--to protect these overgrown children from themselves.  Believe me when I say that we will die in the effort.



Forgive me if I excerpt for one more week from a book project, in pursuance of which I have written about 15,000 words over the last eight days.  The following section is drawn from my concluding chapter.

k) The Black Female Coroner: Racism and Electronic Brainwashing

And just what is happening to our society—and what in the world does it have to do with racism?  System is happening: a new kind of system with the same old suicidal effects of all systems—a system for people who don’t know the difference between freedom and irresponsibility, between individualism and narcissism.  A system based upon private terminals and capsules—on free-market technology.  A private automobile for every traveler, a personal computer for every shopper, a television-and-dish for every thrill-seeker….

We are all being gratified instantly these days, but we will all awake one day (if we haven’t already) to realize that we aren’t very gratified.  The higher pleasures cannot be instant.  Playing an instrument, or composing music for it, takes years of apprenticeship.  Designing a beautiful building requires years of designing mediocre buildings, or elegant but structurally unviable buildings.  Being an All-Star hitter or pitcher requires years and years of grinding practice.  In contrast, any tall kid can succeed as a wide-receiver on his high school’s football team after a little coaching, and can extend his triumph to the school’s basketball team after football season winds down.  I’m sure players in these sports view success with satisfaction, just as I’m sure those of my students who design Web sites are being honest when they claim that their work is an artistic outlet.  As a culture, we sincerely do not suspect what deep, rich satisfactions we have given up in order to have the instant kind: collectively, we have not yet awakened.

The worst-case scenario is that we may be growing incapable of awakening: our narcosis of quick, shallow pleasures may be luring us into a coma.  Just as our athlete-heroes are looking more like invincible robots all the time, so we may be altering our nature to suit the whimsy of our machines.  Have you noticed that the more labor-saving devices we create, the more we clamor for something new to save us more labor?  Has it occurred to you that the more time our sophisticated gadgetry saves us, the less time we have?  Our ready-made-easy-opening amusements and accessories have convinced us that the only worthy work is the elimination of work, and our lightning-quick marvels have rendered all that is not quick insufferable to us. We are in danger of incurring a fundamental moral ineptitude.  A little farther along this path, and we shall not be able to think up a plan and then bring it to fruition.  Halfway through the endeavor, we’ll be looking for a channel-stick.

You can throw this book out the window right now with my blessing… but I remain absolutely convinced that a new racism is linked to the electronic American.  I have already argued that racist conduct occurs when people outside the reigning system can be plausibly associated with a readily observable set of superficial characteristics.  This is not a new argument: historian C. Vance Woodward described racism in the South by stressing that the freed slaves were, first and foremost, economic competition for poor whites.  When outsiders want in, they constitute a threat for insiders who have traditionally profited from the status quo.  But how on earth can today’s minorities—any of them—be said to remain outside of our technological revolution?  Poorer households can afford less hardware, to be sure; but nothing really prevents a determined kid from using the Internet at school or the public library.  Once online, his color or ethnicity can hardly be given away by how he clicks the mouse.

The effect I have in mind, now as before, is far more subtle.  (If these things weren’t subtle, they would have alarmed us a long time ago.)  I believe that life before a monitor induces the “user” to think in stereotypes.  Everything about electronic communication is eventually centripetal.  By that I mean that we are all, sooner or later, force-fed the same ideas out of the same cookie-cutters.  We are continually being sucked toward a central deposit of images, as if we were circling a maelstrom.  The Internet has always had its libertarian defenders who assure us that the little guy—the lonely blogger, for instance—can now reach the entire world.  Television, too (since the advent of cable) looks at first glance like a happy hunting ground for viewers with a rainbow of various tastes.  Never have so many been able to express themselves so freely.

There are two things fatally erroneous about this rosy picture, however.  The first is that any “scattering” of interests on an electronic medium is immediately followed by a “regrouping” counter-movement, just as an exploding star inevitably coalesces into smaller clouds of gas and debris.  I’m a blogger myself: I think my weekly audience may run as high as two digits on occasion.  The bloggers who have achieved sufficiently broad dissemination to render their “lonely voice” something more than a pebble on the ocean bottom are those who, in fact, reflect the general interests of vast movements.  Their work is cited or linked to dozens or hundreds of other Web sites: that’s how they pull in readers and achieve the critical mass necessary to confer influence.  As for TV, anyone who thinks that owning a dish provides access to unlimited avenues of entertainment hasn’t owned a dish.  Out of several hundred channels, one is able to strain a rather lean fare of sporting events, newscasts, porn, talk shows, and Andy Griffith reruns.  Producers simply cannot make money by targeting minute niche markets.  They well know that people who sit in front of the tube will at last settle down to doze before the least objectionable show in the absence of anything truly pleasant or intriguing.  The much-touted tendency toward the diverse ends up, sooner or later, producing rivulets which lead right back into the mainstream.

In a society dominated by such media, minorities will be stereotyped simply because they are minorities.  Movies and TV shows will have “black” parts, just as they have young-and-blonde parts.  The major networks have lately tried to resist the tendency by casting black females as—of all things—coroners!  Apparently, the intellectual demands of the job defy the old “Amos and Andy” stereotype, the association with the legal establishment nixes the “ghetto-kid outlaw” image, and the handling of corpses belies the assumption that girls are squeamish.  One of two things will happen here, though: either black females will begin to be stereotyped as personalities fit to be coroners, or else the coroner image’s distance from reality will become so apparent that the connection will be dropped.  (I actually believe the former is more apt to occur, since people reared before screens have no notion of reality beyond what the screen reveals.)

Electronic life is severely reductive.  It is usually timed, and has a window of only such-and-such proportions to communicate its message.  It is also legion: there are so many shows and sites riding the air waves and pulsing through the wires that an offering must “type” itself to win a following.  In the process, its component parts are also typed.  White people are typed, too: the young, the old, parents, teenagers, “hotties” and “hunks”… the whole degrading and imbecilic panoply which parades before our children.  Don’t think for a moment, either, that white kids abstain from trying to squeeze themselves into these stereotypes.  Peer pressure, like the “K”, was something none of us had ever heard of before about 1980.  The television has played nanny now to two generations—and counting—which consider themselves obliged to “fit in” somewhere among commonly broadcast expectations.

But minorities will always have the worst of this cookie-cutter approach to humanity, because they will always have fewer options.  Their appearance will always lead them to stick out more.  Black women will always (at least if current demographic trends continue) be more observable as coroners than white women, let alone white males.  The stereotype, by the way, need not send an overtly contemptuous message.  My son told me a year ago that he wished he were black, because black guys are rappers and star athletes.  I tried to tell him that classical musician Wynton Marsalis is black, too… but the broader implications of his error are irresistible.  Until he becomes old enough to think for himself, black people will be associated with a relatively narrow range of possibilities in his mind, even though he may value those possibilities.  The true objective of desegregation is not for minorities to be saddled with “good” stereotypes, but for the saddle to be removed.  Electronic communication has pulled the cinch a little tighter, because it must do so.



This is the second week in which I've failed to compose anything tailored to suit my "blog".  Besides being preoccupied with the removal of a tree which Rite left on top of our house, I've been immersed in working on a book about racism in the aftermath of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in baseball.  Since the book's ultimate scope is really very broad (perhaps insanely broad: I may have outdone myself this time), it occurs to me that the remarks from which I have feverishly been building a final chapter may not prove without interest for my faithful readers in this venue, few of whom (as far as I know) have any interest in professional sports.  At any rate, I offer the excerpt below on that optimistic assumption.  Next week, and perhaps the week after, I shall add more of the same.  Like a true lunatic, I rather like the way my raving is turning out.      

I began looking more closely at my old baseball cards to find out if black players after Jackie Robinson were consistently short-changed in seeking fair rewards for their abilities.  They were.  I could now uncork  a sanctimonious diatribe against those of my own skin color who are not as enlightened as I—the favorite liberal pastime of scourging yourself and your entire community for a collective sin which (you make sure to imply repeatedly) you personally have never committed.  I don’t like such generous hypocrisy.  What would be the good, in any case, of apologizing for abuses half a century old, whose victims are either no longer among us or else have created new lives in the meantime?  I suspect that most people of darker skin recognize this white-man-in-sack-cloth for the self-indulgent poseur that he is.  I have plenty of very personal sins for which to be penitent without grandstanding under the feather’s weight of the collective variety.  The truth is that I don’t believe in collective sin.  All sin is personal—intensely personal.  The soldier who machine-guns a bunch of civilians on his officer’s order is guilty of murder: personally guilty, because his finger pulled the trigger.  The proud car-owner who takes unnecessary joy-rides around town just to show off his sporty possession is guilty of wanton pollution.  On the other hand, the man who simply drives himself to work need not tear his hair about participating in a wicked Western practice which is poisoning the air.  As long as he resourcefully strives to minimize his driving, he’s doing his bit.  You have to pay your bills, and few of us can walk to work in our sprawling urban society.  I tried when I was younger: it didn’t last very long.

      I suppose if anyone should feel collective guilt for slavery, it would be the likes of me.  I know for a fact that I had ancestors who owned slaves—not a plantation-full of them, but a couple of maids and a nurse and a groom or two.  I also know that there were people in that same family who fought for the Union because they knew slavery to be wrong.  They literally took arms against their own kin to free, not just complete strangers, but strangers of a different race.  A good man will scarcely die for one he loves… yet some of these died or killed for people whose originary continent and culture were as distant to them as Mars is to us.  I don’t believe I deserve to be damned for the former group any more than I should be lauded for the latter group.  I am here, covering the ground I stand on.  Everyone has to be somewhere, and to come from some two parents.  I could be standing somewhere better, and maybe have had “better” parents according to some elitist snob’s definition.  My parents had their faults, as I have mine.  But my faults are my own—nobody else answers for them.  And I don’t answer for anyone else’s.  If God doesn’t hold us accountable for our family tree, who among us has the right to do so?

      Enough of this non-apology.  Frankly, as I have written more than once, I received the distinct impression in putting this book together that the men most victimized by the circumstances it describes were least interested in dredging the whole thing up again after all these years.  I have observed, as well, that many white people are as sensitive to being charged with racism as a recent bruise is to a soft touch.  They don’t want to hear about it any more: members of my generation have been hearing about it all their lives, even though most of them have tried to live in a manner directly opposed to the past’s bigotry.  They would never deny a black person a fair crack at a job—and they grow very impatient when accused of continuing the past’s vices just because certain black people don’t get everything they want.

This often makes the Caucasian-on-the-streets deaf to genuine cries of victimization raised by genuine sufferers of prejudice.  If you beat a bruise long enough, it becomes a callus. On extraordinary occasions such as the immersion of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina’s waters, middle-class white Americans may be forced by the ubiquity of anguishing images to acknowledge misery’s reality.  At such times, they are apt to unload immense amounts of cash so as to sleep a little easier.  This is their response to misery in general, and not just to racism specifically, since most Americans, in a profound paradox, feel both the guilt of excessive comfort and unease of extreme risk.  They (and I might as well say we) lead lives that are at once materially luxurious and beset by insecurity (lay-offs, career changes, rising taxes and insurance rates, powerlessness to influence government at any level).  Generous cash gifts in times of tragedy are like rubbing a rabbit’s foot, or sacrificing the best heifer to the unknown gods of fortune.  They show that one is aware of one’s own exposure, and hence—perhaps—they avert the evil eye.  Procul a mea tuus sit furor omnis, era, domo: “Goddess, my all thy fury stay far from my house!”

      But black kids without fathers are still waiting, just on the other side of town, for someone to show them how to throw a baseball.  White kids, too—but probably, in most towns, more black kids than white.  They don’t really need the money: they need good neighbors.  The readily bandied charge of racism, it seems to me, makes everything too easy—and also too hard.  Pay a few bucks and send your accuser on his way.  (Anyone who has ever been to a country where beggars roam the streets knows this complex feeling of guilt and resentment: “Okay, that’s all I’ve got—just go away!”)  Our children don’t need handouts and buy-offs—our neighbors’ children don’t need our checkbooks, and our own don’t need video game to keep them out of our hair.  They need our attention.  We need our attention: the state of our souls needs attending to.

      So at last I’ve come to it: the life of the spirit.  As I look back over all I have studied and written about struggling black players, I see nothing so clearly as a classic case of the human spirit being crushed within a system.  Racism was part of the system back then, yes; but the system created racial prejudice every bit as much as prejudice created the system.  More, I believe: for bigotry was not nearly well organized enough to launch a vast conspiracy throughout the whole baseball establishment.  On the contrary, it is the essential nature of systems to become suspicious of intruders.  In this case, the intruders happened to have skin of a different color.  Yet even when insiders were able to overcome with reasonable effectiveness their mistrust of dark skin, they remained leery of the “alien style”.  They didn’t like new arrivals from the Negro Leagues importing a more flamboyant kind of play—a more original kind of play, consisting of unusual hitting techniques, audacious base-running, and a lot of other things which they decided were “clownish” or “childish”.  They seemed to be deeply convinced that their new black players just didn’t get it, and probably couldn’t get it.  The game was sober and… well, systematic, like besieging a city.  You blasted away with heavy artillery and sapped the counter-effort with precise defensive alignments.  Blacks couldn’t understand the middle-infield positions, and they certainly couldn’t lead an entire team from the dugout as managers (a type of prejudice which I have not discussed, but whose reality is self-evident).  They could get the “heavy artillery” part right, and they could run fast… but their wild antics were otherwise more suggestive of an unruly child than of a responsible adult.  Stealing home, indeed



Paper-grading sits upon me oppressively.  Once more, I have only a fraction of an hour to devote to my weekly editorializing.  On the other hand, student papers often move me to editorialize.  Freshmen, far from being the least thoughtful of college-goers, are perhaps the most so in some ways.  Less sophisticated and polished, they are also less locked in on a certain plan for life, and hence more open to various points of view.  Too bad that the college experience doesn't seize upon that inquisitive spirit and nurse it into a salutary habit, but stifles it, rather, under dozens of semester-hours of curricular folderol and dozens more of high-power preparation for making big bucks.

A young black male student dazzled me this week by dedicating his paper to the evils of abortion.  I had all but bought into the stereotype that this sort of lad would be the last to "judge" a girl for exercising "autonomy over her body"  (read, "for taking him off the hook").  My student's indignation was genuine, and entirely based in moral principle.  He was outraged that we routinely countenance the taking of defenseless lives because they cramp our style, interrupting our plans for lucrative career and hedonistic diversion.  He produced examples from his personal acquaintance.  The girls in question were not concerned about birth defects or putting strains on an already tight domestic budget: they were having a good time, and they didn't want to slow down.

What I tried to get him to envision, besides, is what I shall take just a few moments to discuss now: the impact of abortion upon the mother.  I have no statistics on how many women later regret their decision to abort in some measurable way, such as seeking a counselor's help.  I understand that those stats exist, and that they are impressive.  My style is more to imagine what must pass through the mind of a young woman in the wake of the experience.  As an author, my "business" is to project myself into someone else's skin.

And so I put it to you that abortion must have a thoroughly demoralizing effect on the woman who submits to it.  What would you feel like, on the morning after--and on the morning after that?  Relieved, yes, and a little sad.  Perfectly natural.  Nobody but a psychopath would actually enjoy having a fetus ripped out by the roots.  Then you would review all the reasons why it "had" to be done: censure of friends and parents if the pregnancy had become known, suspension (perhaps permanent) of the struggle to get through college or up the career ladder, exposure of yet another fatherless child to a world where it seems destined to fail... all things considered, the baby was better off not having to mature into one more prison inmate or drug addict or--or one more you.

So... a month later, do we find our young woman snapping out of it and generally happier?  Perhaps, on the surface.  Even the strongest sentiments invariably wane when their cause is not constantly thrust before the eye.  Then, too, so many other women have done the same thing--it isn't as though our subject senses herself all alone.  She looks at other young women in the mall, in the college's corridors, and she wonders, "How many of them?  I'll bet she's had one... and her, too."  The burden grows easier, especially since the young woman is free to project her situation on virtually every other female among her contemporaries.  After all, the experience doesn't leave any scarlet letter behind, any brutal scar on the forehead.

Back to dating, then, and to college and career.  But not, I think, in quite the same fashion: never again in quite the same fashion.  For if this young woman is at all thoughtful, she must begin to realize that life, as she has now defined it, isn't worth very much.  Her pleasures have emerged intact, her money-making power has not been interrupted; but pleasure and money have themselves now taken on a very raw edge.  Sex is now and forever more just sex, just a famished race for self-centered pleasure of the most ephemeral kind.  It can't be primarily about babies, because... because that issue has just been decided with a no-going-back finality.  Men all begin to seem a little more carnivorous as they ply women in quest of their own selfish pleasures.  Unconsciously, our young woman actually seeks out this sort of man--for in the eyes of any other kind, she would seem (if he should ever know the truth--and just anticipating his reaction infuriates her) a murderess.  The glorious career, likewise, can only be life by jungle law now, red in tooth and claw.  For our subject has carefully explained to herself, over and over, that she was saving her unborn from having to live in hell: how is she to forget, thanks to that rigid self-catechism, that she who has survived is one of hell's denizens?

As an escape from such suffocating nihilism, I think many women turn to extravagant defenses of life in forms which do not turn around and directly indict their deed, their dark secret--their abortion.  They become frenzied champions of homeless dogs and cats or nearly homicidal protectors of an endangered owl.  They also, and in the same reflex, become man-haters.  Among the things for which they originally slew their unborn baby was a continued easy access to men (for babies are a drag on sexual relationships, even when the man you invite home is not the child's father).  Now what was so preciously preserved grows loathsome.  Men are not only a constant reminder of slain innocence: the kind of man whom the liberated woman likes to date is a walking advertisement for selfishness and dull carnality.  In him, young women find confirmed that very absence of principle and purpose in life which panics them.

It would have been far better just to have the child: better for the child, but also--and most certainly--better for the woman.  Alas, you poor fool!




What with the beginning of a new semester--both my son's as a student and my own as a teacher--my continued efforts to gain a tax-exempt status for The Center for Literate Values, and my deep involvement with a new book project (about which, more later), I find that I have little time for the labor of a weekly blog.  I also find that, at the moment, I am not much attracted to that labor.  My remarks last week about the multiple follies which preceded Hurricane Katrina's landfall aroused one or two tea-kettle storms of their own.  I shall be very brief this week about a subject which is obviously very prickly.

Stories abound down here close to the Louisiana border about storm victims whose victimization seems dubious.  I have confided to a couple of well-wishers already an incident involving a local church which worked mightily to fill one of its halls with sandwiches, potato chips, and drinks for the refugees.  Some of the first victims to disembark from a bus and enter the area saw with disdain that they were not being fed a "hot meal", flew into a rage, began turning tables of food over, swore at the volunteers, and had to be restrained by police.  I also heard of several incidents this week like the following.  A flood victim, having been safely evacuated and awarded his $2000 grub stake, reappeared a few hours later wearing a very expensive watch on his wrist.  The Red Cross in our vicinity has insisted for days that it will not accept food, water, or clothing: it wants to have cash.  We are given to understand that this last is needed so that victims may purchase "necessities".  Now, if food and water are not necessities but a new watch makes the cut, then the widely broadcast images of human misery are not very faithful to the facts.  If people who are supposed to have hovered on the verge of heat stroke for days are clamoring for a hot meal, then their metabolism must respond very differently from mine to such conditions (which I myself have known).

I do not say that genuine victims are not in genuine need: hopefully their misery is now being effectively alleviated, at long last.  What I say is that human suffering always attracts exploitation.  I found a stunningly apt expression of this idea recently, in metaphor as well as sentiment, when I was chipping away at Arnold Zweig's novel of vast corruption during World War I, Erziehung vor Verdun.  Zweig's most cynical character, a lieutenant whose brother was set up as a target for the French lest he live to blow the whistle on the company commanders' profiteering, makes this observation: "Just as water always works its way to the lowest point, so will the human soul always withdraw from the deepest point to a shallow place where it can dwell in collective freedom from harassment."

Katrina's victims needed relief, and I applaud those who provided it.  But most adults--able-bodied people with access to a water tap and enough money to buy a dozen cans of macaroni (you don't need to heat it to eat it, believe me)--could and should have done far more than they did in preparation, especially if they had children who were in jeopardy.  We're not talking about a vast collection of Downs patients.  God help little children when their parents can't even anticipate the interruption of running water in a natural catastrophe.

80% of white residents cleared out of New Orleans: 70% of black residents did so.  This isn't an issue of race, but of accepting adult responsibilities.  I'm sorry if racists circulate stories like the two I have repeated to suggest somehow that "they just want another handout".  On the other hand, the evil designs of racists do not eliminate the reality that certain people do exist who are trying to milk the disaster for all they can get--just as some of those who remained in New Orleans (no, I have no idea how many: how could I?) most assuredly were anticipating a field day of breaking into stores and residences while the cat's away.  To have been caught in Katrina's aftermath is not automatically ennobling.  Even a looter, of course, deserves to be fed and sheltered.  There is no practical insinuation in my comments that rescue and feeding operations have been excessive or indiscriminate.  What I mean to say is that we should not abstain from examining the motives of certain elements as we evaluate the plunder and rapine with a view to planning better next time, nor should we undertake to smother survivors in gifts as a way of assuaging our guilt.  President Bush, whose administration has been shamelessly vilified over the past week in my view, is now in the process of earning most of that opprobrium.  (He seems, I admit, to have a special talent for justifying abuse just in the nick of time.)  His whopping 50 billion dollar pity-party for "evacuees" (pardon me, but a refugee is just someone who seeks refuge--why is "evacuee" more "sensitive"?) is somewhere between bald political grandstanding and the kind of "compassionate" squandering of taxpayers' money which is this executive's distinct signature.

How many small businesses will at last be driven to insolvency as local taxes soar, insurance rates surge, and gas skyrockets?  How many families will be forced to discover true necessity as our entire society soaks up the cost of such irresponsible generosity?  The 50-billion-boondoggle whitewashes politicians while allowing upper-middle class white America to buy its way, yet again, out of the guilt which pricks it every time a Jesse Jackson mumbles "racism".  Indirectly and directly, it sabotages the efforts of real people--ordinary people, black and white--to get by from day to day.  Batten down for another storm.  Where, I wonder, will the refugees from this round of unemployment and eviction go?




A few questions, some more rhetorical than others:

Why is it assumed that the city of New Orleans could only improve its system of protective dikes and levees with federal money?  Business was booming in The Big Easy, was it not?  Why did a rare reluctance on the part of our common rulers to have Maine and Utah underwrite a project on the Gulf mean New Orleans was utterly hamstrung in the matter of securing itself against eventual disaster?

Why did the city's government, in the absence of better securing its physical position, not have in place a plan for evacuating inhabitants of limited means?  I venture to say that just about anyone can afford a bus ticket... but a bus to where?  And how does an elderly person without a car--someone like my mother--get to the bus station?  Why was no thought given to having emergency hospices farther inland, since most of the city is, after all, below sea level?

And for that matter, why were there no designated areas of refuge within New Orleans on higher ground?  About 20% of the place, I gather, remained dry throughout the catastrophe.  Wouldn't it have made sense to create certain spaces to which citizens of limited means might retreat in a disaster like a Level-5 hurricane, but not exclusive to weather events?  What if a lone terrorist had thought to place a few light charges at strategic points along the levees--or what if a dike had simply burst?  Wouldn't it be smart to have a general plan for getting to high ground, and to have points of pre-established assembly where food, water, and shelter would be supplied?

Why were no rescue units and police, at least, left behind on the high ground?  Why was it necessary for medical support and law enforcement to be choppered or air-boated back in--why did agents of such vital support services not remain behind in the dry basements of hilltop office buildings, equipped with all the food reserves which one sets aside even in rural townships where harsh winters may interrupt the flow of transport?

Why did the destitute whom we see expiring on television not, at the very least, turn on their tap before the hurricane hit and fill up every receptacle in the house with water?  Why did they not lay in supplies--why had they not been doing so steadily since the beginning of hurricane season, or since the beginning of their residence in New Orleans?  In a worst-case scenario--high winds smash all water-filled receptacles, flooding carries away all canned goods from pantry--why did they not break up some dry furniture from the attic, build a fire in a basin, boil some of the abundant but contaminated water streaming around them, strain it through a shirt or pillowcase, and use the result to stay alive a little longer?

Why are so many of the victims we see on the nightly news sitting upon hot concrete without so much as an awning above them?  Do trees not grow above sea level in New Orleans?  Has nobody there ever heard of a parasol?  Why are city-slickers so clueless about basic survival?

Why were stores with abundant inventories--and particularly stores peddling lethal merchandise, like gun shops--not supplied with impregnable iron grills which could be dropped like a portcullis in the event of an evacuation?  Why did no one apparently foresee that a city without police is a seventh heaven to human jackals and scavengers?  At the very least, why were firearms merchants not required to have a vault wherein all their stock could be secured in case of emergency?

Why does so much of the Gulf Coast economy, which appears to be our nation's least successful in terms of sustaining the local man-in-the-street, appear to depend on gambling?  Maybe the lubberly slot-machine galleons which Katrina spat into miserable heaps will be a farewell to a regional curse--for only a fool would believe that these drifting pecuniary vacuum cleaners suck in the wealth of well-heeled visitors.  On the contrary, the bulk of their harvest comes from very shallow pockets, just as most neighborhood liquor stores sell to people who struggle to make monthly payments on the interest of an immovable burden of debt.  Why can't Louisiana and Mississippi find something better to do with their human and natural resources?  If they harbor so many snakes and gators, why not make an industry out of producing wallets, boots, handbags, and tasty gourmet reptilian steaks?  Why not just set up a power plant where people walk in and cycle for so many pennies per hundred turns?  This would be a big improvement on the gambling and prostitution industry.

Katrina made a sloppy mess, but she also unveiled a sloppy mess of vastly greater proportions.  We've made some very bad decisions in this country, we've persistently evading making some very necessary decisions, and none of the chatter I hear on the tube suggests that we're at risk of profiting from last week's experience.  New Orleans is but a glimpse of how a once-proud and foreseeing nation will stew away during the twenty-first century in its own indolence, incompetence, ungovernable appetite, and willful stupidity.




Talk-radio giant Michael Medved aired a show this past week in which he extolled (grudgingly, for he shares my suspicions of the man) columnist David Brooks.  It seems that Brooks had explained in The New York Tomes why the answer to our immigration problem cannot be mere stringent patrolling of our borders, but must involve a work-visa program such as President Bush desires; and it seems that Mr. Medved concurs.  American citizens, Medved echoes Brooks, do not want to do a great many jobs which must be done.  Let Mexicans hungry for jobs clean our motels, clear tables in our restaurants, and mow our lawns.  Whatever they don't send back home will be spent right here, boosting local economies--and, as temporary workers, they will no longer import their children to split at the seams our overcrowded school systems, funded precariously by the property taxes of legal residents.

I never understood on what basis Mr. Medved drew the last of these sanguine conclusions.  Yet even if children and old people are not smuggled in by legal temporary workers to exploit our education and health facilities, the cultural problem for which I have long sought attention remains wholly unaddressed.  Here it is, in a nutshell: the operator of a small bookstore on the corner of Main Street and Elm will have to close down: all niche-market, family-owned, tastefully discriminating boutiques will disappear.  Should taxes not skyrocket because the migrant tenants of apartment complexes no longer bring with them their children and elderly, taxes will soar because over-traveled streets must be repaired, public signage must be duplicated in Spanish, officers must be added to the municipal police force, and so on, and so on.  Furthermore, reaching prospective customers will grow more difficult than ever in the new swamp of humanity congesting the city--and reaching the bookstore or the boot-maker physically will turn problematic, as well, for faithful customers who can no longer find parking places.  Furthermore, the new arrivals do not read much, in Spanish or any other language: they project a rival ethos, rather, of soccer and eating and partying, and the fiesta mentality will seep into the minds even of the native English population--or of their kids.  Nobody will give a damn about good books, fine wine, tailored clothing, or the rest: our commercial districts will be block-to-block video rental stores, gas-and-beer joints, and Wal-Marts.  Have you noticed that your kid in grade school is already being taught only Spanish as a foreign language, and that in Spanish he merely jabbers rather than reading any thoughtfully composed work of literature?

Well, here I go again with my racist cant... maybe the world would be better off without quiet readers like me.  What's so bad about partying?  Actually, quite a lot--and it's a measure of our decline that I should need to make the case: Shakespeare, for instance, understood that Prince Hal had very nearly frittered away a considerable capital of public trust and respect by partying from dusk to dawn.  But to pursue that lesson is the labor of another day.  I assert here only that Hispanic culture does not produce many readers and thinkers, and that its influence is therefore likely to be toxic as our own culture struggles to preserve its few literate shreds from Hollywood, the Internet, and Life as a Motorist..  Is this a racist proposition?  It would be, if I were asserting that people of Hispanic extraction are less intelligent.  I mean no such thing.  what I claim is that, through a conspiracy of circumstances, Latin America has become an array of the most rootless, unlettered societies on earth.  Its original natives were largely exterminated by the conquistadors, who themselves came to make money, not to spread knowledge.  Subsequent colonial times embedded such inequity throughout most of Latin America that the masses devoted their waking hours just to surviving, while the elite either left book-learning to a quasi-medieval Catholic clergy or practiced it in fantastical insulation, often with eyes averted dreamily to the Old World.

As a result, our neighbors to the south have produced fewer artists and scientists per capita than any other linguistically unified culture in the world.  They produce entertainers, sports heroes, supermodels, charismatic politicians, and maniacal revolutionaries in impressive volume--but not composers or astrophysicists.  Even Neruda and García-Márquez seem to have regarded their literary endeavors as almost indistinguishable from propagandizing for their political ideology.

In further illustration of this tradition's poverty, I shall devote the rest of my essay to a strange nineteenth-century narrative poem by the obscure Argentine author, José Hernández.  The work is titled Martín Fierro.  The eponymous hero is a gaucho--a cowboy of the pampas.  I couldn't resist the book, for I confess a fondness for Westerns, and the vast demoralization of modern literature often leaves me groping after something from a simpler age in the library.  This thin paperback, into the bargain, was attractively illustrated for a Mexican publishing house, which suggested to me that Hernández's creation might be viewed as reading for young people.  The brief introduction outrightly declared it "the national poem of Argentina"..  Surely it's worthwhile to ponder what passes for a classic in South America--a highly recommended padeia for future leaders of the Hispanic world.

To be honest, Martín Fierro reminded me of nothing so much as John Wesley Hardin's autobiography.  Hardin unwittingly applied distinctly sociopathic colors to his self-portrait in describing his youth.  Martín also seems to take offense at the most trifling vexation, to resort to his knife as quickly as Hardin to his gun, and to regard the resulting threats to his continued freedom as injustice and bad luck in some combination rather than the bitter fruit of outrageous conduct.  I could not always decipher the precise nature of Fierro's difficulties, because Argentine Spanish is not my long suit; but I gather that the first complication to his life occurs when the cavalry enlists him and several of his gaucho buddies to go Indian-hunting, then bilks the recruits when they ask for their wages and keeps them on as virtual slaves.  By the time our hero returns to his tiny plot of land, his wife and children are long gone.  His efforts to seek them out being somewhat short of obsessive, he does not deny himself hard-earned moments of diversion--and at a dance one evening, he knives a black man to death.  The cause of the quarrel?  Fierro took it upon himself to upbraid the victim's lady for daring to enter the room, reminding her that " God made whites, St. Peter made mulattoes, and the Devil made Negroes to stoke Hell's furnace."

Fierro flees the scene into the night and continues his roving.  Scarcely more conscientious as a fugitive than as a detective, he very soon again complicates his life with his leisure.  This time he meets a woman of the "right" color, and proceeds to mitigate the pain of being separated from his wife... but the girl has another admirer.  "I don't like another rooster to handle my little hen," he informs us in two more memorable verses, having decided that his lust for the girl establishes a prior claim to her  The ensuing squabble leaves behind another corpse, for which unfortunate development our footloose cowboy largely blames womenfolk.  "From then on I figured out that every woman's the same thing.  I sought no more to try my luck with a card so well known.  A woman or a stray dog--let neither one approach me."

In this heightened state of moral awareness, Fierro is overtaken by the police one night as he lies sleeping.  He awakens just in time to slice up his would-be captors with his ever-lethal knife and make good his escape, having been aided by another gaucho who hates to observe an uneven fight from the sidelines.

The Indians prove to be less manageable than the posse.  Fierro and his friend Cruz are taken hostage and held in somewhat loose confinement for several years.  The loathing amply lavished upon the Indians  in this section would make any politically correct academic faint dead away; "Tenacious in their barbarism, let no one hope to see them change: the desire to improve finds no place in their coarseness..  The barbarian knows only how to get drunk and fight."  If this description sounds rather hypocritical coming from an incurable party-brawler and two-time murderer, what follows must confuse the reader even further.  "They put all the weight of labor upon their women's shoulders.  An Indian is an Indian and desires no change in his condition.  Indians are born thieves and, being Indians, they will die thieves."  A strange defender of wronged womanhood, this loose-tongued philanderer on the rove.  Yet I found myself halfway liking Fierro for the first time when he very nearly gets killed protecting a woman who is being savagely beaten by a brave.  Of course, she is a white captive, like himself.  Her hands have been tied "with the entrails of my little boy" (she explains later), whom the brave has just slain and gutted before her eyes--so, to my mind, outraged common humanity trumps all the racist infractions of the scene, and we can comfortably rejoice that Fierro successfully kills again.

All the same, this is hardly Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne.  The book reeks from cover to cover of the central character's boasting, swagger, self-importance, remorseless violence, impatience, disdain of others, contempt for women, and--above all--racist bigotry.  Yet as of 1991 (the date of my copy's publication), it was still apparently considered appropriate fare--even exemplary, in some manner--for young readers.  There are better works in Spanish to serve such a function.  Horacio Quiroga's delightful fables may partake of that fantastical, Europe-tending element which I mentioned earlier... but if this is the alternative, why not turn back toward Europe?

I reiterate that supposedly responsible adults have repeatedly chosen Martín Fierro as a literary stand-out in the Hispanic world.  I no more chide its author for his primitive tastes and twisted morals than I hold John Wesley Hardin solely responsible for turning out bad.  (Hardin, by the way, underwent a religious conversion in prison and finished his days as a preacher.)  But how many of us would wave The Life of John Wesley Hardin at our children as a must-read classic?

I don't understand this part of Hispanic "culture"--or rather, I fear that I understand it too well.  The societies to the south of us have no meditative tradition, no philosophy.  History has not allowed them the leisure to weigh--collectively, culturally--the ends and the duties of humanity.  The recent flap in Mexico over a racist caricature of Negroid features in a stamp issued to commemorate a cartoon character is no fluke.  Those who hail from such a "tradition" waste no effort on placating others and show no interest in suppressing their whimsy for the community's sake.  They should fit into our own emergent degeneracy just fine.




I am the least bit behind schedule in composing this column due to another writing endeavor.  After mulling over a possible short story for a couple of months, I began setting it to paper (literally: I seldom write first drafts on the screen if I can avoid it) last Monday.  Once I wade in, I don't like to come back out until I reach the far side of the stream... so I consumed yesterday in squeezing out about ten handwritten pages, from which my right wrist still hurts.  The experience can be exhausting in other ways, as well--primarily in other ways.  One is likely to go about emotionally numb for a while after having infused so much imagination and psychic energy into so small a receptacle as a story, where the artful confinement of rival interests and contradictory feelings produces intensity, suspense, crisis, and climax.

At leasst, that's the way writers used to talk about their craft.  Intensity seems to have grown anachronistic.  I discussed a few weeks back my encounter with a novel which my ten-year-old son had to read over the summer: a masterpiece only of incoherence, in my opinion.  I have also wanted to record my response to a an adult work which was forced into my path this summer: a novel by Marilynne Robinson titled Gilead, winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize.  I was waiting for the day when I should actually have finished the book before making my pronouncements... but that day never seems to draw closer, despite my best intentions, and I am at last forced to admit to myself that it will never arrive.  Gilead, to me, is unreadable.  One does not chide an adult novel with incoherence, of course, as one would a children's book or a self-advertised adventure story.  I myself am all in favor of reflective depth--of motivation supplied through psychological nuance rather than through volcanoes, green-eyed aliens, or secret missions for the CIA.  But Gilead's endless excursions into the reverie of a prolix and blandly sentimental narrator advance no sort of praxis whatever.  They are not even interesting on the level of "essays" or "meditations", in the style of Montaigne or Pascal.

The narrator, you see, is composing a kind of autobiography for his young son to read some day, now that he senses death's proximity.  He is a preacher who has married twice, the second time when he was well into his sixties, and he can recall The Great Depression vividly (since the text is supposed to be penned in the mid-fifties).  One might well strain an engaging plot out of matter less promising than this.  Maybe Robinson did, at last--maybe I missed it in my impatient hopping around when I finally felt myself near to losing my mind.

But I doubt it.  I doubt that much ever happens in the book at all other than its "preacher-posturing"--and I strongly suspect that this is how it garnered a politically correct Pulitzer.  Let me explain.  Robinson places her narrator (one can scarcely call him a protagonist, since he sits constantly on the sidelines hatching his next homily) in one situation after another where he may 1) display his tolerant sentiments, and 2) omphaloskeptically dissect himself and his faith in tepid surges of comfortable self-doubt.  His father behaves like rather a fool, allowing his son to undertake with him a pilgrimage into The Dust Bowl from Maine at a time when even soup kitchens are closing.  Reverend Ames, however, looks back upon it all with "non-judgmental" tears of affection for the straight-laced pilgrim (and oblivious husband) who was his dad.  Later, we are supposed to chuckle, I suppose, over his boyish attempt at baptizing a kitty (gee, wouldn't that make a fundamentalist grind his teeth!); and still later, as he walks the streets wearing his clerical collar, we must love him (must we really?) for wishing he could share in the adolescent smirking which his passage silences on the corner.  (Our Preacher Pal apparently does not foresee being invited to relish the size of Sally's budding breasts.)

The moment which struck me as PC grandstanding of the most transparent sort, however, was when Ames virtually blesses his older brother's atheism.  The boys' father, also a preacher, forbids his younger son to discuss the apostate Edward; yet the boy (not without winsome feelings of betrayal--you're always betraying someone in this life, aren't you?) proceeds to read Edward's evil German inspiration, Feuerbach--and, horrors, he actually enjoys it!  "I'm going to set aside that Feuerbach with the books I will ask your mother to be sure to save for you," writes the declining Ames in his interminable missive.  "I hope you will read it sometime.  There is nothing alarming in it, to my mind.  I read it the first time under the covers, and down by the creek, because my mother had forbidden me to have any further contact with Edward, and I knew that would include an atheistical book he had given me."  Take that, book-banners!  All the old German does is lyricize joy, after all... and then the Reverend launches upon the memory of a loving young couple he saw down by the creek... and he wanders further into analyzing the word "just" after writing "and the girl just laughed", having caught himself in the sin of minimizing laughter....

Honestly, who could stand 250 pages of this?  I gather that Ames will opine further upon the relationship between his father and grandfather in his soporific lament that strong feelings have divided people and his equally tedious exposition of passing unfairness in his own thoughts--including , often, a scrutiny of various tedious words just set down in his epic memoir.  The words are not choice or rare, the sentiments not insightful or revealing, and the collective thrust of the ramble entirely invisible even halfway through the book.  Why on earth should a child ever wish to slush through this pseudo-confession--this debauch of sententious quietism--even left in the hand of a beloved parent?  The young inheritor would have to conclude, "He surely did go down toward the end."

But tell me, then, why the mumbles and rambles of a doddering old platitude-grinder would be awarded with a Pulitzer.  This is the real subject of my day's rant, for I do not devote the present space to reviewing books.  It simply fascinates me that such bad writing--such sing-song phrases, such tame-and-tired effusions, such purposeless meanders--can be judged as among the best fiction produced in our culture today.  I have long been inured to the sad evidence of post-literacy in the comic-strip writing affected by mass audiences: the silly action sequences stolen straight off of TV, the apparent imperviousness of characters to blowing away rivals by the dozen, the incomprehensible shifts of sentiment from amorous to vengeful to patriotic and an astonishing emotional amnesia to traumas just endured... wham, bang, kiss, kill, laugh.  James Bond movies seem to be constructed this way (not many people know that Patrick McGoohan refused to be the first Bond precisely because the murder-with-a-smirk ethos disturbed him).  Such flicks and serials spawn "books" written in the same vein: which is to say, not written with anything approaching a literate sensibility.

The political Right, I must also say--which for some reason accounts itself culturally traditionalist in these matters--loves just such claptrap, when it loves any fictional work at all.  What was the Left Behind series if not a made-for-print movie, after the fashion of made-for-TV movies?  As a true traditionalist myself, I cannot seem to recover from the self-styled "conservative" indifference to--or ignorance of--our cultural crisis.  I worry about having to turn left, toward Ivory Tower eggheads and health-food addicts in Portland, every time I seek to market a serious work of fiction... but the turn seems inevitable.

Gilead helped me to realize that, in fact, looking toward the political Left for literary taste is no less futile than expecting a "Christian" home-schooler to teach her kids Anna Karenina.  Novels are now judged entirely on the basis of whether or not they stake out the "proper" position.  They are manifestos malgré eux: they sermonize--they propagandize.  They allow a certain reader--a reader with leftist politics, in the case of Pulitzer front-runners and other darlings of the literary establishment--to believe that the universe is constructed just as his or her ideology would have it, and that people behave just as progressive utopians want them to.  Gilead's great asset is that it steals the religious high ground back from fundamentalist pulpits, something the Left has ineptly aspired to do for years.  Robinson gives us a minister who is at ease with atheism--who senses that it may be more Christian than orthodoxy--and who doesn't consider himself to have any answers beyond a beautiful flower or sunset (which sunny indecision  he urges upon us in a merciless array of parables).  For this, the prize.

One of the marks of an illiterate, uncultivated mind is the reduction of true art objects, whose open-endedness is essential, to specific ends.  A good painting is one which depicts the "wrong" party's leader in feces.  The good work of music is one which, through lyrics or dramatic accompaniment, celebrates the "right" cause.  And the good book is a political pamphlet multiplied in word-count by a thousand.  Gilead's "hero" is endlessly vapid, not open-ended.  There is no sense of a purpose to render his conundrums pregnant: there is no intimation of the absolute to bestow urgency upon his groping actions.  He is the ultimate No-Problems Preacher whom the Left wishes to see in every pulpit, if we really must have pulpits. 

I have nothing against Ms. Robinson personally.  I gather, indeed, that her own politics are vaguely centrist, and my limited exposure to her other writings apprises me that she is erudite and astute.  I respect her intelligence--but I'm afraid I deplore her abuse of that intelligence to work the system as this novel does.  We writers must make it our ambition to be shunned by both sides--for both sides today are a single phalanx of barbarism.




During my recent vacation to Georgia, I shelled out a few dollars to see a minor league baseball game.  I was surprised that our Spanish-speaking neighbors in the stands appeared so different from the Spanish-only shoppers who talk around me at the grocery store back home.  These people were slender and graceful, nor did they seem eager to raise their voices.  I hasten to add that a mother shouting after her kids in the produce section does not occupy a social situation comparable to sitting in a fold-out seat under a hot dog.  For that matter, the young people of any race tend to be slender and graceful.  Four or five kids later, beautiful women blow out like balloons (to which the populace of Ireland sadly testifies), and in a few years the pater familias also shows the effects of un-athletic lounging after the day's work is done.  The people I saw at the ballgame tended to be younger.

All the same, the occasion made me think about how diverse the population is which we are constantly induced to consider monolithically as Hispanic.  The players on the teams reflected this truth: a fair-skinned Venezuelan shortstop, a feisty little catcher from Mexico, a lanky black outfielder (moreno in Spanish--"Moorish")... these young men hailed from places far more separated than Texas is from Georgia, their racial/ethnic pedigrees were clearly distinct, and there is no reason to suppose that they received a similar education or walked similar streets as boys.  All they had in common was a language--and how much of that they shared rests in doubt, as far as I'm concerned.  I know that the Spanish of Argentine novels doesn't look much like that of Guatemalan novels; and must not the Venezuelan tongue be somewhat affected by the proximity of Portuguese?

I have little but questions on these issues, even though the "Hispanic phenomenon" is packaged more and more tidily by politicians through every election cycle.  I know that Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century tended to congregate in certain cities--Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia--and that a small group from Tralee, say, would send for their brothers and sisters to come live in the same quarter, so that entire neighborhoods would emerge as ethnic grafts of Old Country counties.  The same was true of Italian immigration: it must surely be so of Hispanic immigration.  That is, a small settlement of Guatemalans in North Carolina will tend to become a larger settlement of Guatemalans--as opposed to Cubans and Chihuahuans and Venezuelans.

What are the cultural consequences of such pockets?  The Venezuelans I have known tend to be better educated than most other émigrés.  In Texas, where the poorest of the poor trek up from Mexico, our immigrant population has little literacy in any language and (yes, I believe this, though I risk being called a racist) look different.  Greater miscegenation  is connected to deeper poverty for obvious social reasons--e.g., when you marry outside your race or caste, the social structure tends to reject you, to throw you on your own resources; and the lowest rung of Mexican society is often occupied by descendants of native Indian groups having somewhat interbred with Spanish conquerors and their African slaves.  It has long been documented that native Americans have a tragic proclivity to obesity when thrust into modern circumstances wherein they do not trim away in intense labor their body's once-precious hoard fat cells: what was once a genetic advantage has become a scourge.    Interbreeding also produces dermatological problems ("bad" complexion) and dental problems.  My wife tells me, further, that she has noticed an extraordinary propensity among Mexican females who visit her office to have severe astigmatism in one eye only.

With the exception of the final "complication", these traits visibly distinguish the impoverished Mexican refugee from the rural destitution of Coahuila or Michoacan--and they are traits not associated with beauty in our skin-deep culture.  Such superficial absence of the prepossessing is an invitation to racism in an atmosphere already charged with unease.  No doubt, matters are not helped by the relative lack of manners--as we commonly define them, for my point is entirely about convention--among hard-worked peasantry, and the relative abundance of "sneaky" survival techniques.  An example of the former would be somebody's bawling out an alien language past your face at somebody else just behind your shoulder--a behavior which is disconcerting to me even when it occurs in my mother tongue.  An example of the latter might be the gardener who refused to move his truck though I requested politely that he do so in both English and Spanish, feigning that he could understand neither as I delivered them.  Yet he grasped every word of English my neighbor drawled Texanly before paying him off.  A similar incident happens at the beginning of Ignazio Silone's Pane e Vino: a shepherd feigns deafness rather than move his sheep out of the way of an automobile--until a priest greets the driver over a wall, at which point the shepherd turns scornfully and cries, "Why didn't you say you were going to Don Benedetto's?"

Where is this all leading me?  Many places, most of which I have already visited in these columns  The most obvious point may also be the most important: that cultural diversity--in real life, as opposed to the ivory tower--imposes great strains.  The two-word phrase is a latent self-contradiction, to say the least: the notion of diversity must work against that of culture, for a culture is precisely a certain way of doing things--of eating and worshiping and dying.  You can mix your diet, but not your worship or your approach to eternity--which is why, I suppose, we have idiotically reduced "culture" to a functional synonym for "diet".

To be sure, eternity should be the most objective reference--the most objective moral reference, if not empirical--of any human being's existence.  If we cannot rise above custom and habit as we contemplate union with (or separation from) God's will, then we must be very far from recognizing God's will.  But here I intersect the final point which I shall stress.  It is this: Western culture, in its profoundest sense, is a grand endeavor to surmount culture--to factor out the circumstantial and concentrate upon the universally human.  A bright young woman told me recently that Hispanic immigrants want only what all of us want: to be happy.  Yes... but there is the happiness of devouring chocolate before a high-definition TV, and then there is the happiness of fulfilling one's human destiny--of self-sacrifice, of purely intellectual discovery, of beautiful creations.  Western culture is sick in our time, perhaps fatally so.  Objective analysis led it into science, which led it into practical technology, which has led us all into a brute's worship of speed and ease and repletion on sensual thrill.  We have lost our humanity--or our spirituality, if you prefer, which is the essential core of our humanity.  As our culture's Judases, the profiteers who would trade a star for a stock option, import more undiscriminating consumers to buy more cotton-candy and ballgame tickets (and to make more TVs in settings ever more like a sweatshop), we drift farther and farther from the day when we realize how lost we are.  That is my major concern about immigration: i.e., that an infusion of people without any intellectual training will postpone the hour when we finally stop and think.

But then, we have collectively "thought" ourselves into this pickle, to begin with.  The most nihilistic people I have ever known were all college professors.  So... so who knows?  Quién sabe?  If the south imports some of its poverty unwittingly as it reaches for some of our lucre with both hands, maybe we will rediscover the abstemious life.  What a hope!




I have always felt an instinctive revulsion at crowd-following, in all its sundry forms.  The most unprincipled professional I ever met once confided to me that she loved to shop in the mall right before Christmas, merely for the joy of being immersed in people.  In Conrad's Nostromo, the journalist Decoud is forced to hide out on a lonely island at one point for a few days.  He doesn't make it past Day Three: a few dozen hours of isolation suffice to send him wading into the sea, where he drowns himself in a kind of trance.  A person who so needs warm bodies around him (or her), it seems to me, that he grows uncertain of his very existence when left alone must be a very weak character, to say the least.

No one is ever alone, you see, who is able to draw upon such inner resources as imagination, humor, and humanity (the sense of a universal brotherhood--and the very opposite, in moral terms, of the narcissistic craving for dull eyes to mirror one's glorious passage).  Consience is among the rich rewards of a developed internal life.  The person of conscience can at once hear his own inner voice over the static of daily trifles and also recognize in this voice the verdict of universal humanity--the decree of the Golden Rule.  He does not confuse those other private voices--envy, lust, fear, the stealthy calculation of self-interest--with the firmer tone which both arises from his heart of hearts and originates in a metaphysical source.  He understands, thanks to conscience, what true confession is, and true prayer..

Christianity has always enjoyed a special relationship with literacy for this very reason: that is, because reading and writing require one to withdraw from external cacophony and surrender oneself to the voice within.  Not all writers are spiritual people, and not all spiritual people can read; but there is an affinity, I repeat between quiet meditation in search of lasting answers and commitment to a life lived by principle rather than selfish interest.  Monasteries and retreats do not always produce literary texts, but they do make one want to write, and they have historically been the means of transmitting literacy to the next generation.  The earliest universities were retreats from worldly distraction, in many ways.

How far we've come since then--how far we've fallen!  The purpose of this piece, however, is not to lament the university's collapse, but to remark the degradation of literate life from another direction.  Did you know that books can actually be used to inculcate anti-literary habits of thought?  The reading experience is not automatically reflective.  Novels can be written--and are being written, by the thousand--which do not explore the inner life of their characters, do not so much as hint that such depth is of interest, and do not tire of recycling silly buzzwords and unrooted narrative shreds like TV-and-movie formulas.  A young person who wanders through the wretched pages of such a text is worse, not better, off in meditative skills as a result.  Yet our foundering culture echoes with professional educators who proclaim, "As long as they read, who cares what's in the book?"

I care.  I shall abstain from discussing the Harry Potter phenomenon: I haven't read enough of these opera mirabilia to express a fair judgment of them (and I don't intend to correct that gap in my knowledge any time soon: I'd sooner re-read all of Patrick O'Brian).  The book which has stirred me up is Sharon Creech's Ruby Holler, required reading for my son over the summer.  I read the thing myself after he manifested an extreme unwillingness to answer several writing questions which his school had posed him... and I can only say that I felt a certain pride at my son's having noticed the book's utter nullity as a subject of meditation.  If the emperor isn't wearing new clothes, then don't say he is... and for that matter, why couldn't the school assign Hans Christian Andersen?

Don't ask me why the russet-leaved vale in the book is called Ruby "Holler".  The linguistic gesture is obviously toward Appalachia... but nothing else in the book betrays any sense of place or time.  This is intended to make the tale more magical, I gather.  What it does for me is unleash one more cliché in the fashion so typical of contemporary television.  That is to say, we have a signifier without a reference--a kind of Beverly Hillbilly register which, however, is not consistently connected to anything about parvenu hayseeds.  The old woman in the story--called Sairy, of course--doesn't even say "yaller" when describing her scarf.  (Why couldn't the school assign Old Yaller, for that matter?)

Anyway... two sexagenarian yokels named (improbably) Tiller and (affectedly) Sairy decide to take on the twin orphans Dallas and Florida.  Initial problems result from the twins' having been sadistically abused (e.g., confined all night in a rat pit after refusing to dig a well--I'm not making this up) by previous foster-parents.  The Trepids, custodians of the foster home who exhibit a host of unmotivated and unexplored neuroses, are also no walk in the park. (Mrs. Trepid hates babies, children, loud noise, running, and filth; Mr. Trepid loves money, scheming, and corporal punishment--but has bad dreams about his parents and about a boy who died in their charge.)  Hence the twins are willing to stay with the old couple... but only just.  The arrangement was intended to be temporary, in any case.  Sairy is going to Kangadoon to look for a rare bird, and old Tiller will meanwhile jet over to some other mythical island halfway around the world to go canoeing.  The children are to split up and accompany their guardians on these separate treks--which have no more motivation, as far as I could tell, than to allow the old woman to "find herself" without her husband of forty years at her side.  The twins, being parted for the first time in their lives, will also "find themselves" (it's infectious: even wicked Mr. Trepid wonders, "Who am I?" after a bad dream about the boy who died asking, "Who am I?").  Did I mention that our dirt-poor old folks living in a cabin without running water can afford these extravagant international jaunts because they sell whittlings to flatland touristers?  They keep their stashes--separately, so as not to precipitate an identity crisis--under nondescript hidden rocks, which a certain Z is nevertheless able to nose out while mapping all the stones in the forest for Mr. Trepid (after he gets wind of the stashed millions) without using so much as graph paper.  But Z turns out to be the twins' long-lost father--though nothing is ever made of this, such as a reunion--and restores his ill-gotten gain... and so on, and so on, and so on.

I insist that I haven't made a mess of summarizing the story, because there is no coherent story to summarize.  The game of unmoored signifiers inaugurated in the title runs farther and farther afield with every short chapter, injecting more clichés (villains' colloquy in abandoned building, shooting the rapids, psychic warning of fellow twin's near-death experience) rather than delving more deeply into the characters' one-dimensional, cartoon-like personalities or into the outlandish assertions of the plot.  I recall that when Arcturus Press was still afloat, I published a collection of essays by scholars called Why Boys Shoot, one of which related our morally unstable sons' behavior to the television's morally adrift gestures at unrelated but "cool" scenarios.  Ruby Holler reminded me very much of this essay.  Over here, Mugsy and Rocky plot to rob the bank; over there, Snuffy Smith meets Gentle Ben; down yonder, Steve McQueen is devising The Great Escape (and Creech's train-wreck of a novel thumb-jerks more than once at the delightful Clay-mation film Chicken Run, I must say).  We might as well encourage our children to wear "gang" clothing--arm bands, cocked caps, colored scarves--to school, for here we have an etiquette of poses and gestures.  No wonder tattoos are so big right now: like unlettered tribesmen, our kids view themselves as members of this and that clique.  The fiction we feed them is written in just the same way: instant identification of the scene's good-guy/bad-guy valence, black hats and cracking knuckles on one side, white hats and patting the dog on the other.

Indeed, the book's cartoonish stereotyping probably disturbs me more than its unraveled plot.  Sairy and Tiller are good because they live in an unspoiled natural environment.  Every other adult mentioned, no matter how passingly, is slick or unsavory or downright evil.  Even the salesclerks are hypocritical frauds.  The two hunters who offer to help Dallas and Sairy turn out to be liars and thieves.  All of the twins' previous foster-parents have been sadistic brutes.  Mr. Trepid himself is said to pray on two occasions: the word is used nowhere else in the book.

Get it?  Green equals good.  Children and nature are all good.  Adults are bad in urban/bourgeois environments, and bad without mitigation.  Hunters are bad, and people of faith are bad.

That Ms. Creech was able to play leftist causes célèbres like a harp surely has much to do with how her book got published, in the first place, and then with how it managed to win awards.  That the Far Left elite ruling our educational system, however, is collaborating with Far Right Know-Nothings suspicious of all books to overthrow literate civilization is little remarked.  I'm remarking it now.  Don't trust your child's teachers to show taste and judgment, any more than you would trust a home-schooler to teach Chekhov and Maupassant.  We can do better, and we must do better.  The life of the soul demands it of us.




The detonations keep coming: carnage in London's subway system, then a botched attempt at more carnage... slaughter of innocent citizens at a resort in Egypt... dozens of police recruits taken out by a suicide-bomber in Baghdad... the mayhem appears to have no end.  We must be firm, cries one side of the aisle--the terrorists are so desperately active precisely because they sense that they are losing!  Now is not the moment to show weakness, and so to reward their brutality!  The other side clucks, Where's Osama?  We've been drawn into a sideshow--we've forgotten the real target!  Meanwhile, skeptics who mill about in the space between the aisles ponder the nature of Islam.  Jihad is endorsed by the Koran, they sigh.  Muslims have been slaughtering infidels--and each other--for centuries.  The problem will not be removed until Muslims are made to admit that their own faith turns our mortal coil into a living hell.

It is time to repeat something I wrote more than a year ago--a few weeks after 9/11, in fact, if memory does not deceive me.  I said then, and I reiterate, that the problem is a combination of high-speed, low-margin-for-error technology and dense population.  Wherever people are being crammed like sardines into conveyances which outstrip the proverbial gazelle by a factor of ten, sanguinary accidents will occur.  Some of these "accidents" will be planned by diseased minds, and some will appear to have been so engineered but will turn out to have been stupid gaffes hatched by grimly humorous incompetence.  Be honest: wasn't your first response to the derailed train in southern California that a terrorist had surely parked the car on the track?  It doesn't really mater that the malefactor was merely a suicidal fool who got an itch in his pants at the last instant: motive does not affect casualty rates.  Frankly, I am shocked that terrorists have not yet picked off more trains.  Derailing is a low-tech kind of sabotage (ever see Lawrence of Arabia?), and no police force could possibly guard tens of thousands of miles of track.

How long will it be before we have a catastrophic breakdown of sensitive computer systems?  Businesses already lose millions of dollars a year to such malfunction.  What happens when The Big One finally comes (for the same inevitability attaches to this event, I believe, as to the epic earthquake haunting Los Angeles's future) and wipes out all records of our deposits and investments?  How long before some malign high school kid decides, instead of going out in a blaze of AK-47 glory, to hack into and poison a metropolitan water supply?

Ah, but therein (you will object) lies the essential difference.  A system breakdown is sheer misfortune, the price of progress--whereas the twisted high-school kid is a criminal who can and should be preemptively snared.  Really?  I don't see the difference.  High-school kids will not stop getting twisted around, any more than overcooked zealots will stop falling in love with an early exit in millennial fireworks.  We can't, and won't, catch them all: the few who slip through the net will take hundreds--or thousands, or millions--of lives.  What difference does it make that the computer meltdown will occur because harmless Mr. Snodgrass accidentally shorted out the motherboard when he plugged in the coffee-maker?

What we ought to be doing right now is devoting some very earnest thought to how we might live in a more natural fashion--less dependent upon machines whose merest malfunction grinds thousands of innocent limbs in its cogs, less concentrated in spaces that turn one projectile from the heavens into an arrow which pierces hundreds of hearts.  When possible, a column of soldiers advances across open ground with wide dispersal, re-amassing once it has reached cover.  A shell that kills ten soldiers walking side-by-side only kills one if they spread out.  Why do we live in concentrations which invite target-shooters like a red bull's eye?  Why is the mall superior to the neighborhood store, why the skyscraper full of high-rent office space superior to the office within a residence?

I am circling back to an issue which I consider to be far more urgent than "correcting" Islam or making smart consumer-voters out of shepherds: the destruction of the neighborhood in North America.  Were we to return to sidewalks and corner shops, we would have a) far less dependency upon oil, b) far fewer alienated youths strapping themselves to guns and bombs, c) far fewer disaster-friendly population centers, d) far less tolerance of the escapist smut which tarnishes our televised image before on-looking Islamic fundamentalists, and e) far less incentive to meddle halfway around the world in order to preserve (or outsource) our jobs.  The reasons we cannot now construct more-or-less self-sustaining communities, with their own grocers and builders and seamstresses, is that local ordinances and national economic policy have conspired to suppress the natural in favor of get-rich-quick approaches to supplying goods and services.

I have said this before, too--and something tells me that I'll keep saying it: with friends like our domestic policy-makers, who needs terrorists?




Life is moving altogether too fast.  The ruminations I had hoped to share in this space pile up in my mind and begin to grow stale before I can find the leisure to set them down.  One matter of which I never tire, however--of whose urgency I am always convinced--is the crisis of honesty in our diseased culture.  Yet another window upon that crisis opened its vista to me earlier this summer, and I cannot let the occasion pass unremarked.

My son, ten years old as of February, was fortunate enough to be named to an All Star baseball team in June.  He earned his spot: he had worked with me like a Trojan from a mound in the back yard which I heaped up for him.  (I had worked, too--but it's the duty of dads to wear out their backs and knees instructing their male children in athletic endeavor, so my sacrifice shall go unsung.)  I was particularly proud of Owen because he's not a big kid.  On the contrary, among today's carb-fed couch potatoes, he passes for an agile shrimp.  Yet he is able to propel himself so dexterously into his pitches that some of them approach sixty miles per hour--about the maximum speed ever achieved by someone of his age.

And I was the prouder of the boy in that last year he had been ignored in our local white yuppie league.  The sons of coaches and of local worthies--doctors, wealthy franchisers, the Mayor--were thrust into the limelight at the expense of us nobodies and our offsping.  My wife and I decided that the time had come to change leagues, especially since it was no very well kept secret that some of the boys were too old to be playing in Owen's bracket.  The rule-stretching was egregious, the size of the children in question most compromising, and their performance entirely beyond the bounds of what could have been considered a fair contest.

The Dixie League, then, was our boy's sunrise.  It provided him with a very happy and profitable experience after two years of gaping at special interest and sordid manipulation.  Most of his teammates were black kids from the other side of town.  On the whole, they seemed to me a more wholesome bunch of young people--less arrogant, less spoiled, less envious, less sullen--than the preppy bunch he had known for too long.  I only wish that more of them had had fathers at home--for to play baseball, you need a father: you can't learn the basic skills by shooting hoops or passing and kicking to your brother.  The game possesses too much complexity.  (With all the farm clubs and independent leagues around the nation, it also offers an immensely more credible chance at a livelihood than basketball or football--a chance of which most black kids are cheated.  But that's another story.)

I'm sure that Owen was proud to be an All Star... but the uplifting lessons of the summer ended when the actual tournament arrived.  We found ourselves back in the orbit of small-town, down-South chicanery.  Dante writes upon entering Hell and beholding its grimly sublime prospect that he had not realized so many souls had ever lived.  For my part, I had not realized that contempt for the spirit of the regulations had soaked so deeply into our rural Middle American culture.  The small towns (and I mean townships claiming only a few thousand residents--perhaps two or three) utterly dominated the play.  This was so for two reasons.  One was that their teams were not "All Star" in any  sense which implied an admixture of players from different clubs.  These boys had played together from the cradle: when All Star season arrived, they took their well-rehearsed act on the road without bothering to dilute it with more than a player or two from another club.  Knowing your teammates' habits and rhythms is a significant advantage in baseball.  It was one which our group alone did not seem to enjoy.

Yet the main disadvantage from which we suffered was sheer physical puniness.  In the proper spirit of the event, our coaches had naively mingled nine- and ten-year-olds.  (The competing teams were supposed to be composed exclusively of these two ages.)  I would take a great oath that no child started on any other team who was less than ten; and I am almost as certain that several were eleven.  I know the signs: I have taught and worked with children of various ages for many years.  An eleven-year-old is taller, and so he reads a hot ground ball better in its nuanced motions, generates more speed in his throws (celerity increasing exponentially with distance from the center), and has more leverage when swinging a bat.  His joints are also more solid--less cartilage, more bone.  Owen bravely held his own on the mound against kids who were a foot taller than he, but his youthful teammates seemed unable to make long throws across the diamond with the necessary zip.  For a taller boy, I should add, also runs down the base path with a longer stride.  Plays that had produced happy results in practice turned disappointing against these strange yokel giants.  And the giants were all white, once again.

In my frustration, and on something of a whim, I did an Internet search afterward for the keyword phrase "birth certificate forgery".  Hundreds of hits popped up.  Did you know that you can download software to create your own birth certificate within mere minutes, or that you can have someone else do it online for mere pennies?  I had already noted to my wife that changing the "5" of Owen's 1995 birth date to a "6" would have been an amateur forger's piece of cake.  Now I discovered that one indeed might assume a whole new identity in the same slice of dessert.  Birth certificates are extremely low-tech, highly fallible means of identification.  Yet no little league to my knowledge requires anything other than a copy of the document.

The superabundance of little league scandals in recent years suddenly made sense to me.  Danny Almonte carried his team to the Little League World Series a few short years ago, where they placed third--and Danny was not one year too old for his bracket, but two!  Nevertheless, the foul play would never have been unearthed had the team not achieved such success that a Sports Illustrated reporter set about researching the young phenom's past.  How many Dannys are never unmasked as frauds?  Why do other coaches not demand more thorough background checks when they see a Danny hewing down their soldiers left and right?  Could it be because their own Goliaths are just a tad "illegal"?

On the other hand, I wonder how one would realistically go about doing a background check unless one had the resources of a major publication at one's back?  Where would you find the time and money to visit each player's place of birth and dig through the courthouse records?  I can well imagine some suspicious-looking detective tramping into a hicktown Texas courthouse (where all out-of-towners are suspicious) and proceeding to open file cabinets.  The sheriff would appear within seconds and inform him that he had violated City Ordinances 78, 105, 131, and 217--at a cost of $1000 or thirty days in jail, to be waived in the event of immediate departure.  What I'm suggesting is that I find a community-wide conspiracy entirely plausible in these cases.  Small-town life is excrutiatingly dull, and people in rural America do not generally employ such inner resources as writing poetry or painting a canvas to help them surmount the tedium.  Many of them live for the glory of a local football team or a championship baseball team.  Indeed, the champions in Texas's little leagues tend to come precisely from three-intersection flyspecks on the map--not from Dallas or Houston or San Antonio.  Something in this picture should strike us as very wrong.  Norman Rockwell would have shaken it off as a nightmare.

At the most basic, homespun level, we Americans are fallen beings, no more beloved of God, I venture to say, than any other bunch of vainglorious blockheads and mendacious cutpurses.  I could do without the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner at our local sporting events--and I could certainly do without the opening invocation.  Say a fervent prayer to God that you won't roast for making cheats of children--but, for Christ's sake, don't ask His blessing on the thing!




{N.B. The mass murder committed in London this week has not passed under my radar... but the column below was already prepared for posting, and I am leaving for a week's vacation within hours.  Deo volente, I shall make it back and have more to say.]

Last week I was moved to comment upon the e-mails of a certain correspondent which had grown rather intense.  I felt that an effort was underway somehow to reform me or convert me or usurp my mind or bring my sentiments into a politically correct stride.  The exchange had grown quite invasive by the time I simply severed it lest my responses turn hostile and my blood pressure break the ceiling.  The final message I skimmed said something about the writer's self-imposed mission to help me through my benighted confusion.  That was it for me.

As I also recorded last week, this paternal evangelism was accompanied by the generous gift--through regular mail--of Denis de Rougemont's very offbeat Love in the Western World.  Contrary to the impression I may possibly have created before, I do not propose to grind out a book review.  I shall offer a few passages from the tome, rather (which is not so very long, in fact, but which vaults and rambles enough to be twice its actual length), by way of sowing the seeds of discussion.  Writes Rougemont at the end of book 2, ch. 6, "It must be borne in mind that when Saint Paul speaks of the 'flesh' he means not the physical body but the whole of the unbelieving man--body, mind, faculties, and desires--and hence his soul too."  This observation is central to Rougemont's perspective, for he aspires to show that distinguishing carnal lust from spiritual love is Manichaean: i.e., heretical, opposed to healthy Christian belief.  The position was endorsed enthusiastically by my quondam correspondent, and is indeed shared by liberal clerics and "faithful" all across our troubled country.  To be sure, the distinction is delicate.  Sexual activity must never be represented as wicked per se: castration in the cause of "purity" is the rawest fanaticism.  We were created in the flesh, and in the flesh we must seek after the good.  Yet to erase the distinction's every trace strikes me as shamelessly disingenuous (not to mention blandly untethered to any specific Pauline utterance).  Of course the sins of the flesh reflect a corrupt spirit--but they also corrupt the spirit.  Precisely because flesh and spirit are inseparable, carnal impulse (and it may be anger or gluttony as well as concupiscence) cannot charge off in its favorite directions without dragging the spirit behind.  The true believer in a supreme moral being must insist that the spirit hold the reins: the tenet is non-negotiable, since self-governance is the precondition of all moral behavior.

Rougemont's blurring of fine distinctions eventually leads him to conclude that the courtly love which animated medieval troubadours and raconteurs (inspired, he contends airily, by the Albigensian Heresy, a species of Manichaeism) was a pursuit of willfully sustained self-delusion.  All those knights represented as enduring hardship and danger for a lady's favor were so many lunatic Don Quixotes tilting at windmills.  Tristan's Iseult, Rougemont insists (having mixed Freud liberally into the brew to supply no end of refused mothers and envied fathers), is just a dehumanized goddess freezing to death on her pedestal.  By extension, "a steadfast man... realizes that he has been desiring only an illusory or fleeting aspect of what  is actually a complete life, and that perhaps this aspect has been but a projection of his own reverie....  It would thus seem that monogamy, in making sexual relations normal, becomes the best assurance of pleasure--that is, of the entirely carnal eros, which is not in the least to be deified."

My ellipsis points, I do assure the reader, leap over rather few words.  The shock which you may feel in being nudged from a "sex is just sex" position to a defense of monogamy is a genuine part of the "Rougemont encounter".  I've grown familiar with such rough rides during my years in and around academe: baldly opinionated, horridly counter-intuitive assertions are adorned in infinite gossamer threads of argument until, at the very least, they begin to look complex.  Rougemont anticipates the formula of the late twentieth-century dissertation in the humanities.  A dab of common sense (who would disagree that young men can be fools?), several doses of history or quasi-history (who but a scholar could comment upon the Albigensians?), a dusting of Freud (we all have fathers and mothers: how can we deny flatly the existence of some envious scintilla in our subconscious mind?), and several gallons of subjective whimsy (Rougemont proclaims at one point that no woman has ever pined after an imaginary man!)... behold, the crucible of postmodern scholarship!

I may as well say now that the pretext of all this line-scuffing and ground-clearing for "non-judgmentalism" was my novel Footprints in the Snow of the Moon.  My correspondent registered his alarm (early and often) over the book's portrait of a 1970s love affair.  The central character falls with a crash for a lovely but extremely mixed-up girl who only approaches to him, to begin with, after having mistaken him for a former lover.  I deliberately designed the situation to highlight the fantastical nature of Anthony's absorption with Celine.  She turns out not to be his intellectual equal, and her manic-depression is chronic, producing immense stresses for both of them... yet he stands by her.  His fidelity is unreasonable and unwholesome... but it is also the closest approximation to something honorable that he he can make in a decade of interminable thrill-seeking.  After all, a match so transparently not in his best interest can only become a self-sacrifice--and Anthony desperately craves a life of self-sacrifice at a cultural moment when such acts are universally reproached as "laying guilt trips" on others.

I would not want my own son to blunder down Anthony's twisting path.  I do not recommend that people marry those to whom they are least suited.  My thesis, rather (to the extent that the novel had a thesis: for crying out loud, it was a novel!),  was that a culture devoted entirely to selfish pleasures must eventually force those with nobler dispositions to sacrifice themselves in not-very-productive ways.  (The contemporary Anthony might be a sixteen-year-old suicide bomber.)  Self-sacrifice is ineradicable from love, at least among more thoughtful, more feeling people.  I confess that I regard Rougemont's paradigm of the faithful couple with horror and disgust: two people brought together by the frank pleasure they find in sex and by (presumably) shared tastes in cuisine or reading matter who wish to spare themselves the exhaustion of promiscuity.  Is it folly, then, to place a woman on a pedestal or to fancy a young man riding a white horse (for girls--excuse me--do fantasize)?  I found this visionary dotage immensely frustrating as a single man, when I wrote about it in fierce condemnation... but the folly I saw then was in the young man's visualizing a porn star cum virgin princess, and in the girl's visualizing a white horse named Corvette housed in a pricey stable.  To my mind, the pedestal itself is not our problem: its decaying matter is our problem--for it has become an ash heap of greed, vain pride, and--yes--coarse lust.

Were Anthony and Celine such a bad match?  I don't think so. He kept her relatively sane, and she gave him the courage to resist his mother's pretentious designs in favor of genuine spiritual humility.  Our lovers are never what we first imagine them to be, no--but we human beings have a grave need not to remain as we are.  Let men find strength living up to a woman's expectations: let women find modesty living up to a man's--for men tend to despair, and women tend to grow vain.

Instead of this, we enjoy the lowered expectations today which Rougemont outlined, and of which my insistent correspondent (who wrongly imagines himself romantically isolated--fantasy, you see, will claim us all, one way or another!) is the exponent.  We want good sex but recoil at the labor of chasing it down week after week on the "open field"--and we want, perhaps above all else, to be left just as we are, safely sealed up in our sacrosanct "individuality".  Monsieur de Rougemont, I spit on you.