"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, December 11, 2006

Infected or Sick?

Recent exchanges here at The Reform Club have given your Curmudgeon to think, for the first time in a long while, about the gray and misty borderland between a sick culture -- i.e., one that's laboring under an explicit and undeniable cultural malady that could eventuate in disfigurement, disability, or death -- and one that's been infected by a toxic agent but has not yet begun to suffer visibly from it. The distinction is important, for many an infection merely strengthens its host without ever causing him the least inconvenience. The subject hasn't gotten a lot of hard thought, despite the passions cultural pustules can raise.

Your Curmudgeon intends to press hard on the biological analogy. Analogies are indifferently useful in policy analysis, but indispensable to cultural analysis, because a culture is itself an analogical conception. There is no object in the material realm to which one can point and say, "There's my culture. Like it?" Nor is a culture sufficiently abstract to be classed with items of pure logic; it invariably unites a profusion of physical and informational objects, which vary in innumerable ways, with a profusion of private and public attitudes toward them, which vary at least as widely.

Though there will undoubtedly be objections to any definition of something so diffuse, one must at least attempt to define a culture before proposing to assess its health. Here is your Curmudgeon's definition:

A society's culture is the union of its perceptible themes, motifs, and constraints in all aesthetic and semi-aesthetic matters with the attitudes toward them that prevail among its members and its sources of authority.

To this let us add conceptions of cultural infection and sickness:

A culture is infected if it has accepted elements which, under certain conditions, could cause sickness, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, in members of its supporting society. A culture is sick if its dominant elements conduce to such sickness.

Yes, such a formulation raises important questions with non-obvious answers. For example, "intellectually sick" is a term one might never have encountered before happening upon this screed. Nevertheless, it has a clear meaning. As the intellect is our tool for acquiring useful knowledge about the laws that govern the world, an intellect is justly called sick if it is incapable of reaching correct conclusions about cause and effect. Intellects afflicted by an unshakeable belief in magic are therefore sick. "Cargo cults" are a typical real-world case.

But there are more pressing questions than that one. Is it really possible for a culture, defined in the fashion above, to induce significant maladies in individuals immersed in it? Since Man possesses free will, it should be possible to withstand anything non-material the world throws at one, no?

In theory, yes. In practice, not everyone possesses the strength or the endurance to hold off a culture-borne infection. The power of the culture arises from its ubiquity and its persistence; in many ways it's merely peer pressure writ large.

Consider the situation of a man bathed in a sea of disease bacilli. Perhaps he's entered a hospital whose sanitary standards are indifferent or worse; perhaps his family is currently down with "something that's going around." If his exposure is prolonged and his immune systems are not perfect, something is likely to establish a beachhead within him. Depending on the size of that initial colony and the stresses upon him, the invading bacilli might or might not succeed in multiplying sufficiently to cause him visible symptoms of illness: discomfort, fever, congestion, skin rashes, lesions, hallucinations, disorientation, or death. It's at that point that he would be called sick, but even if he were sufficiently strong to withstand the microbial invasion without ever displaying a symptom, it would still be valid to say he'd been infected.

It is defensible to say that American culture has been infected by several toxic elements:

  • Pointless prurience in art and fashion;
  • Sadomasochism as a motif in sexual depictions;
  • Entertainments that slander freedom, capitalism, and love of country;
  • "Art" that categorically rejects beauty as one of its objects;
  • "Music" that celebrates social ills from discourtesy to violent hatred;
  • Innumerable fictions and dramatic works that foster undeserved guilt and self-hatred, condemn procreation and undermine family feeling, promote hostility between the sexes, portray large categories of persons as intrinsically evil, or present ugly futures as inevitable.

No doubt this list could be extended, but the point has been made. Nor is it disputable that the psychic pressures engendered by such themes and motifs do afflict some Americans, particularly our younger set, to their detriment. The remaining question is one of degree: How many seriously afflicted infectees do we require to deem the culture itself as sick, rather than merely infected?

Questions of degree are endlessly debatable; just assemble a group of any size and try to get unanimity from it on what constitutes poverty. But many would allow that the proliferation of visible self-mutilations is at least disturbing. Many would allow that a youth population that seeks out entertainments specifically for their damaging qualities has some severe problems. And many would allow that a public sector that provides material support to ugly, offensive art, to "documentaries" that slander the nation itself, or to expressive works that condemn the principles upon which the society is based, is a danger sign of no small importance. Such infections are already claiming victims in significant numbers.

Your Curmudgeon would say that our culture is sick for one reason above all others: thanks to cultural infections of the sort tabulated above, nearly half of us have no confidence in our nation's ability to meet our needs, satisfy our desires, or uphold our vision of justice without abandoning its founding principles. A large number of Americans completely reject the philosophical basis of their country, for no better reason than that major cultural trends have imbedded that rejection as a core theme. How American society can continue to function, given so great a number of disaffiliated participants and hangers-on, is a huge question, upon whose answer the future of the nation will depend.

How parishes thrive

Rev. Jack Wall is leaving Old St. Pat’s in Chicago after 24 years.  He found four people when he arrived, now there are 3,000.  It hosts the famed “ass mass,” attended by spouse-seeking young Catholics.  It’s solvent and thriving, which is no small thing in our time.  Wall is off to the Extension (bishops’ missionary) Society, where his exquisite marketing skills should find an outlet.

Yes, marketing.  Wall has not let his light remain under a bushel, to adapt his Leader’s phrase.  Not only has he worked hard, beginning by hands-and-knees scrubbing of an encrusted rectory-kitchen floor.  He has demonstrated entrepreneurial shrewdness of the first order, finding a niche and filling it.

A, he has ridden the Irish-heritage pony hard.  The place reeks of Celtic ambience and draws disaffected or wandering Irish people from far and wide.  B, he has made it a hot gathering place for the young, whom he dispatched sometimes to various help-neighbor works such as tutoring kids at nearby, historically all-black St. Malachy’s parish on the West Side — historically not since its start, which was as Irish as St. Pat’s but declared black in the wake of black migration.  C, he has raised money and made important political connections, such as with the incumbent Mayor Daley and family.

None of it would matter if he and the other staff did not preach and teach and work hard for their own people, inspiring them to work for others.  But neither would this preaching etc. have mattered without the marketing.

His is the first of the Chicago Triumvirate of niche-marketed parishes which have been immensely successful in the last 30 years.  St. Sabina on the South Side is a black cathedral.  Rev. Michael Pfleger has made of that once-Irish bastion a gathering place for the well-heeled but race-conscious black community.  Al Sharpton has “preached” there (scare quotes by me).  So has “Minister” Farrakhan, who we presume did not make his crack about what’s under the Pope’s cassock.  But believe me, apart from these distractions from The Message, that St. Sabina jumps with Christian-related noise and joy.  Solomon in all his glory had not an orchestra like Sabina’s.

The other of the Three is St. John Cantius, whose modern founder and pastor, Rev. Frank Philips, who had been sent there by his Resurrectionist superiors to close the place — farsighted and idealistic they were, indeed — went to Wall for advice.  About niche marketing of The Word, to be sure, though Fr. Frank did not use the phrase when he told me about seeing Wall.  St. John C. is traditionalist, has had Latin masses (in addition to English) from the start of its renovation by Fr. F.  It has become a mecca for Catholics enamored of old-time Catholicism who also like splendid music.

All three churches are grand and old and sparklingly renovated.  All three parishes are busting with Catholics.  God hath wrought this in part through marketing skills of his ministers.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apocalypto Opens Strong

Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, reviewed earlier on this site, opened strong this weekend, leading the movie box office race with a take of $14.2 million. That is much less than the opening weekend take of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which brought in $83.8 million in its first weekend in 2004.

Overall box office was down 25 percent from the same weekend last year, when The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opened. However, the relatively strong performance of Gibson's movie, which has no big stars and is set in the past and spoken in a defunct foreign language translated in subtitles, suggests that his recent run-in with the law and controversial statements made while under the influence of alcohol did not harm the film's appeal.

In fact, the publicity surrounding the incident and Gibson's contriteness may actually have spurred some interest in the film, according to an industry analyst quoted by the Associated Press. AP notes that the film's appeal was fairly broad: "Disney reported that Gibson's Apocalypto drew solid crowds across-the-board, with movie-goers equally split between men and women and the core of the audience ranging from 18 to 45."

From Karnick on Culture.

Augusto Pinochet, Rest In Torment

The AP writes quite approvingly that former Chilean strongman Gen. Pinochet is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.

He's not only merely dead, he's really most sincerely dead.

I wonder if they'll write an equally bad review when his fellow cutthroat Fidel Castro finally croaks.

Fat chance. You put a "People's Republic of" or some such nonsense in front of a country's name and give them Universal Crap Healthcare, and you're a saint, not a tyrant, no matter who you waste.

(Mitt Romney recently figgered out this li'l fact, instituting a healthcare program as governor of the People's Republic of Massachusetts. If he weren't a Republican and a Mormon, the AP already would have anointed him heir apparent for January '09. But Romney has never disappeared anybody, which is why Massachusettsians, in their 1994 US Senate election wisdom, went for Ted Kennedy instead. By comparison, Romney is a bit of a slacker.)

Sunday, Sunday . . .

Soon it will be Christmas Day. . . .

Mary Ann gave me communion this morning with serious face. She did not greet me as if I had just arrived with six paying customers at her restaurant, grinning and seeking strong eye contact. I took the host with gratitude, to her as well as to the Savior who died for my sins.

Fr. John M. began his sermon with his walking the Brooklyn Bridge recently. I related to this, having walked it some months back myself. He pictured a sort of community forming, people going in the same direction as dedicated Christians do. Alas, my mind wandered as a cloud. Reader, I fell off that bridge before Fr. J. got to the end of his sermon. Maybe next time . . .

We prayed for those who "accepted the call to lead the church," and for a dreadful moment, my hearing failed me, and I thought the lady said "leave." That will be the day, when we make that prayer. However, the devil was at work in me in other ways, leading me to ponder those who angle and play cards right to make bishop. There have always been those among us. In fact, Our Leader warned us, did he not? Beware wolves in sheep's clothing?

Meanwhile, the parish came up in the black this year, by $51,000, while supporting the parish school, which had almost closed 18 months ago. The school's $198,000 deficit was borne by the parish, or -- for financial report purposes -- the church. Of the three categories, church, school, and religious education (of public school kids), only the church is in the black. Which is another way of saying that the parish's education ministry has been taken on by the parish.

And why not? Andrew Greeley, featured in a Sun-Times interview story today with the Lutheran church historian Martin Marty, once inveighed against Catholics who were ready to jettison parish schools. He convinced me but hasn't said anything about it lately, not in his newspaper columns at least, where George W. Bush and the Iraq war has been his focus. He and Marty were born on the same day, Sun-Times tells us. It was a good day for liberals.

They are called "icons" in a head, by the way. But Chi Trib uses "icon" today for the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose icons (images) are widespread in the Mexican community. If Greeley and Marty are icons, what the heck is the Virgin?

To return to preaching, where we began, Fr. Kilbridge, O.P., at St. Vincent's (another parish) the other day, preaching on the Immaculate Conception of that very Virgin, Mary -- out of Gualupe or otherwise -- quoted Wordsworth. In a throwaway reference, Fr. K. called her "our tainted nature's solitary boast." Boy. Here I am used to truly pedestrian references from the pulpit -- and I do not refer to walking the Brooklyn Bridge, which has great possibilities -- and this man quotes Wordsworth. W. was no Catholic, of course. He used the phrase in his poem, "The Virgin":

Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast; . . .

W. died in 1950, four years before the pope "defined" the Immaculate Conception as a sure thing. No connection, we may be sure, except that W.'s using that language lends credence to the widespread belief that founded the definition.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chew This Over

After almost fifty years of promising, and failing to deliver, "no child an unwanted child," the acolytes of Margaret Sanger have a new weapon in their arsenal: chewable mint flavored birth control pills.

I am a little nonplussed at the fanfare surrounding this development. Having come late to Holy Mother Church and Her theology of the body, I have had a certain amount of experience with these products, and I can state from personal knowledge that your average birth control pill is about one-third the size of a Tic-Tac and could be swallowed by any mammal the size of a guinea pig with no complications. Why a chewable version is more appealing is lost on me.

It does occur to me, however, that there were howls of outrage when Eli Lilly compounded a liquid peppermint version of Prozac. They were called drug-pushers and child abusers, even though the liquid formulations of both Prozac and competitor Paxil had been designed for senior citizens who do often have trouble swallowing pills.

We all know what's going on here. Just put the stuff in bubblegum and be done with it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Gibson's Apocalypto

Mel Gibson directs Apocalypto

Upon hearing that Mel Gibson was filming a story set at the end of the Mayan empire and performed in an ancient foreign tongue translated into subtitles, one might well have wondered what possessed Gibson to undertake such an odd task. Indeed, many people wondered exactly that.

Well, now we know, as Apocalypto premiered today in theaters across the United States. The film tells the story of a young father, Jaguar Paw, from a small tribe who is taken prisoner after a Mayan attack force destroys his village and takes the adult survivors back to the city to be sold into slavery or sacrificed to some alien "god." After a miraculous deliverance from the sacrificial blood altar, he escapes, pursued into the jungle by a Mayan SWAT team. At this point Gibson begins a remake of Cornel Wilde's 1966 film The Naked Prey, and the action sequences are as good as in most such films.

What is interesting about the film is how neatly it fits into Gibson's career and the themes of his previous films. At the center of Apocalypto is a man on the run trying to protect his family from an oppressive, violent, decadent regime, as is the central story of Braveheart, The Patriot, Signs, and others, or a surrogate family as in The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, We Were Soldiers, etc. And of course the theme of self-sacrifice for the good of others is the central idea of The Passion of the Christ.

In the case of Apocalypto, Gibson's choice of a story set in a distant time and place and spoken in an unfamiliar language strips away contemporary concerns and points us toward the central question of what exactly it is that causes people to do such violence to one another and exploit each other so routinely.

The film positively bursts with ideas. Gibson begins the film with a quote from the philosopher Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Gibson suggests that the Mayan civilization fell not because the Spanish we so powerful but because the civilization was itself so weak and decadent, a condition he makes clear in the scenes in the Mayan city. He also makes sure to draw out similarities between the Mayan civilization and contemporary Western society.

But he does not appear to do so simply in order to suggest that our society is decadent and that the real danger to us is not from Islam but from left-wing atheists (although he undoubtedly believes that to be true). No, the point is to bring out the universality of this human impulse to exploit and destroy. As an elder of the small tribe states in a campfire story early in the film, there is a hole in Man that causes him to take all that he can until the earth can give no more.

Gibson would call this hole Original Sin, and he clearly sees it as universal among human beings. But there is an antidote, he makes evident, and it too is universal, at least in availability. That is love. For it is Jaguar Paw's love for his wife and child that motivates him to escape and return to his village, in hope of rescuing them from a pit in which they were hiding from the invaders and are trapped.

Hence we see the familiar Gibson themes of self-sacrifice and the fight of the individual against a corrupt society. On the political level, the classical liberal idea of the home, family, community, and religion as superior to the state is as important in Apocalypto as in Gibson's other politically oriented films. The notion that social decadence and widespread self-indulgence lead to political oppression is another familiar Gibson theme evident in the film.

Expressing the film's religious foundation, Gibson provides images symbolizing baptism (two prominent ones) and a scene representing a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection. Religion is at the center of this film, and that religion is Christianity, despite the setting in a pagan civilization.

It's impressive indeed to see what is basically a silent film present so many interesting ideas. Gibson is most certainly a hghly talented and inventive film writer and director, and Apocalypto is a stirring example of what intelligent cinema can achieve.

From Karnick on Culture.

The Bane of Conservative Cultural Criticism

The Achilles heel of most conservative cultural critics is their tendency to characterize repugnant works of pop culture as establishing that society as a whole, or some great swath of it, is irredeemably corrupt. In commenting, for example, on Carol Iannone's scathing review of the pro-homosexual and apparently exceedingly vulgar and imbecilic British film The History Boys (written by the overrated and immensely asinine author Alan Bennett), Lawrence Auster of View from the Right claims that "the British elites despise their country, their culture, their history, and secretly or openly wish to have done with it all."

Auster says that this movie shows that Britain is on a "path to national suicide."

One play, of course, does not a culture make, and Auster can undoubtedly claim his point is that The History Boys is not conclusive in itself but is revealing as part of a massive chain of evidence of corruption. Auster, however, writes, "by the time the movie ended, the realization hit me that the British elites that created a movie like this, that praised and recommended a movie like this, seek with cold and deliberate malice the destruction of their country."

Now, that is surely wrong, and it is why conservatives so seldom gain much traction in discussions of culture. The "irredeemably corrupt society/elite" argument is simply an unsophisticated, incorrect, and uninteresting critique.

There is undoubtedly a significant proportion of the British elite that is as corrupt as Alan Bennett, and there is surely a goodly portion that is sympathetic to them although they cannot bring themselves to go that far. But there are also certainly a great many who don't accept the premises of Bennett and his ilk. That's the Omniculture: Everything happens.

A shot from TV program Footballers' WivesLook at the BBC and other British television, for example, and you'll find a good deal of material that is repugnant to the sensibilities of a reasonable, spiritually and mentally healthy person, and you'll also find much that is sensible and good. Even in openly sleazy shows such as Mile High and Footballers' Wives there are highly traditional assumptions and moral lessons to be derived. It all depends greatly on the viewer's own point of view.

Things are just a lot more complex than Auster appears to be willing to recognize. It seems clear to me that people are struggling, in England and the United States alike, to find a wordview, mentality, and culture that makes sense after the post-World War II demolition of American society's shared values. It is a process that is ongoing today, and no one can say where it will ultimately lead, whether toward destruction, regeneration, or a perpetual unhappy tension between the two. It is simply not ours to know at this point.

The fact is, anybody can cherry-pick a few especially vivid examples of popular culture on either the wilder or more traditional edges of the Omniculture and claim that things are getting worse or getting better. But the creation of simple dichotomies and the demonization of one's cultural enemies will get us nowhere. False and/or simplistic, Manichean statements simply undermine one's credibility and that of one's allies in the struggle to redeem the culture.

From Karnick on Culture.

TRC Emeritus Alan Reynolds' New Book

I don't know if Alan is still active one way or the other with TRC, but his new book is apparently out and it sounds like great stuff. Even though I've handed in my TRC retirement to blog with American Spectator, I'm just sentimental enough to plug Alan's work here at his (and my) old stomping ground. Here's what National Review's Rich Lowry had to say about it:

If you don’t yet believe that we live in a de facto caste system, just wait until the new Democratic economic populists take over Congress. They will rely on the usual myths to portray the American economy as an engine of inequity and dispossession, benefiting only the very rich.

In advance of this onslaught, Cato Institute scholar Alan Reynolds has written a new book, Income and Wealth, that explodes much of the downbeat conventional economic wisdom.

The key difference between the richest and poorest households, Reynolds finds, is simply work: “Most income in the top fifth of households is from two or more people working full time. Most income in the bottom fifth is from government transfer payments.” According to the Census Bureau, there are almost six times as many full-time workers in the top households as in the bottom, and 56.4 percent of the bottom households didn’t have anyone working at all in 2004.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Civil War? So It’s Not Just a Matter of Semantics After All

An Army Maj. General who studied civil wars at West Point and at the Army Command and Staff College should know, and from everything I can see I agree. Iraq is not currently in a Civil War. Does it matter? You bet it does.

Let’s call them the Humpty Dumpty press (to add to the growing list of mainstream media epithets). As you will remember, the egg like fellow appeared in a famous story by Lewis Carroll and made the following comment:

“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

I cannot think of a better description of the hubris of the modern mainstream media. When they say a thing you had better not question them. They determine reality, and what they say it is, is what it is, nothing more nor less. Of course we know that the goal of our esteemed press is to make President Bush look bad, so anything that will do that is what they will do. Civil War is a bad thing, Iraq is in Civil War, Bush started the war; Bush is bad. Irrefutable logic.

But let’s look at a few facts as our Army Maj. General puts them:

I don't see a civil war in Iraq. I don't see a constituency for civil war. The vast majority of the people want hope for their families, not to massacre their neighbors or divide their country. A poll conducted in June by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group that promotes democracy, found 89 percent of Iraqis supporting a unity government representing all sects and ethnic communities. No wonder no "rebel army" steps forward to claim credit for vicious car bombs and cowardly executions of civilians.

I see debates among Iraqis -- often angry and sometimes divisive -- but arguments characteristic of political discourse, not political breakdown. The Council of Representatives meets here in Baghdad as the sole legitimate sovereign representative of the people, 12 million of whom braved bombs and threats last December to vote. No party has seceded or claimed independent territory. . . .

I studied civil wars at West Point and at the Army Command and Staff College. I respect the credentials and opinions of those who want to hang that label here. But I respectfully -- and strongly -- disagree. I see the Iraqi people suffering from overlapping terrorist campaigns by extremist groups combined with the mass criminality that too often accompanies the sudden toppling of a dictatorship. This poses a different military challenge than does a civil war.

That last point shows that words actually mean things. They aren’t, a la the mainstream media, only for making impressions to push their political agenda.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Paris Hilton, Scary Godmother

Our own estimable and wise Jay D. Homnick, in a post below, properly excoriates Paris Hilton for evangelizing Eurotrashiness to the American starlet class that includes Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. The difference between them and Ms. Hilton is that as an heiress, she gets her sleep, whereas Mses. Spears and Lohan* have two conflicting clocks to punch, partying and working for a living.

Now, I'm sure this isn't a flattering photo of Ms. Lohan, but she looks a matronly 50 years old. She's 20. But perhaps her new mentor can at least instruct her on how to leave a good-looking corpse.

Lord save us from easy early success and the hard living that goes with it. (He has already spared me, for which, upon further review, I'm deeply thankful.)

(*Bet you didn't know "Mses." is the plural of the neologism "Ms." Neither did I 'til I looked it up a moment ago. Then again, I just learned the correct spelling of "Britney" and "Lindsay" too. All of which makes me feel good, not bad, although admittedly closer to 50 than 20.)

Culture and Nature: Animals Gone Wild

Our friend and fellow classical liberal Ilana Mercer has a very interesting and well-argued article in today's American Spectator, on how a powerful and widely held cultural idea has actually changed the natural world, and for the worse. Mercer points out that the often laudable effort over the past couple of centuries to discourage mankind from harming animals has had an awful unintended consequence: many animal species are losing their fear of human beings and are increasingly attacking humans.

Mercer argues:
While Western man works to rid himself of the most basic ethical instincts, like defending his kinfolk, animals remain true to their nature. Wild beasts intuit that their teeth and talons are meant for tearing flesh -- any flesh, the easier the better. It makes perfect animal sense to attack a thing that is docile, slow, and passive, like the not-so sapient Homo sapiens.

It has been decades since animals were aggressively repelled from human habitat, and they now brazenly make themselves at home in manicured suburbs. It used to be that men killed and hunted encroaching creatures. Thanks to decades of cultural and legal emasculation, they no longer have the urge or license to protect home and hearth. Instead, they robotically intone the Sierra Club's subliminal propaganda: animals are the true homesteaders of the planet.

The handful of honest experts left admits that attacks are up because politically correct policies have bred fearless critters. The Pavlovian response to aversive treatment has been bred out of the wild animal population. Mary Zeiss Stange, author of Woman the Hunter, says that hunting ultimately has less to do with killing than with instilling fear in animals that have placed us on their menu. If animal rights activists possessed a dog's smarts, they'd understand the perils of such a program, for an unafraid animal is a dangerous animal; an unafraid human an endangered fool.
Certainly we should never be cruel to animals, Mercer agrees, but killing animals is part of our human condition, and in an attempt to become hypercivilized and suppress the parts of our nature that our intellects consider less savory, we become in fact less than fully human and upset the balance of nature:
This wildlife worship is thoroughly antediluvian, down to its human sacrifice component. Human beings should care for and be kind to animals. That's ethical (if not compulsory). But people's safety and survival must always trump that of animals. A society that reverses this ethical order is philosophically primitive, base, and ultimately immoral.

"Arm yourself with knowledge when you go out into the wilderness," advised one guru, following yet another perennial, ritual, human sacrifice to the Goddess Gaia. Wrong: apply your knowledge and arm yourself!
Good advice from a very wise woman.

From Karnick on Culture.

A Christmas Treat from Roy Wood

Cover image of Wizzard BrewHere's a treat for you—a video featuring Roy Wood. Wood is one of the great — and most unfairly underappreciated — rock music composers of all time. He was the leader of the terrific 1960s band The Move, started the Electric Light Orchestra with Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan, moved from there to form the rock-oriented band Wizzard, and created in his solo albums some of the best pop music albums of the past three decades. His solo albums Boulders and Mustard, in particular, are absolute classics. Roy still tours Great Britain but hasn't made an album in many years. There's always hope, however.

Boulders is not available at all on CD at this point, which is an absolute pop culture tragedy, but the rumor is that it will soon be released by a British company. The good news is that Wizzard Brew, which I consider to be the best album by Roy Wood's Wizzard, has just been remastered for CD and is now available with eight superb bonus tracks. It's a must-have, and you can have it here.

One of the bonus tracks is Roy's huge Christmas hit "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day." Here's the video, from YouTube. I hope you'll enjoy it:

From Karnick on Culture.

Hugging, Mugging, or Simply Bugging?

From the snow covered sidewalks and overheated shopping malls of Minneapolis comes the latest evidence that Western Civilization is falling down some dark Wonderland rabbit tunnel and will eventually land on its butt in a pile of discarded dreamcatchers, stuffed pandas, and other faux-spiritual kitsch: people who come up to total strangers in public places and hug them. How do such things come to be?

I was sitting around thinking, 'How can I make a difference?'" says Carrie Rupp, a 22-year-old pool-maintenance worker from Minneapolis and "instigator" of the Hug Brigade.

There's one clue. A pool maintenance worker in Minneapolis has about eight months of downtime per year, since they're typically used as skating rinks from October to May. That much time on your hands, you're bound to think up some goofy stunts.

Some people approve of this in-your-face Leo Buscaglia aggression, others object. The Mall of America told the Hug Brigade to get lost after a couple of hours of harassing shoppers.

You know what this is? It's G-rated hooking up. Our culture has become so confused by materialist metaphysics that it mistakes the outward signs of emotion and affection for the real thing. Young women believe that having sex with casual acquaintances will give them satisfaction without complications. They don't understand that sex is only emotionally meaningful because you it is something you do only with some you trust so thoroughly that you are willing to open the door of your most secret, most sacred room and let him in. The reason a hug makes you feel better is because there is someone in your life who cares about you enough to give you a hug. The hug is a signifier for a relationship of interdependence and mutual concern. Believing a hug from a stranger makes life better is a triumph of the artificial over the real.

Upon Further Review, It Sure is the No Fun League

I still like the NFL, especially when my hometown Philadelphia Eagles are playing, but it's just not the same anymore.

These days, the NFL players call it the "No Fun League" because it's a 15-yard penalty if you celebrate a touchdown or a great play too much. But things were getting a little extreme, like a guy planting a cell phone in the goalpost so he could do his act if he scored, so I have some sympathy for the league trying to put it all in perspective. It's not like V-J Day or anything.

But I hate the Instant Replay rule, where the officials take a couple minutes to review the TV replays in order to certify their decisions, and here's why:

Several years back, the Eagles were in the playoffs. It was about 10 AM Pacific, when the games from the east coast start out here. I was still lazing in bed, as is the only civilized custom for a Sunday morning, but I'd ordered the help to bring me breakfast early as I wanted to catch the game.

The Redskins took the opening kickoff and proceeded to march decisively downfield. Around the Eagles' 15-yard line, they fumbled, and an Eagle defender scooped up the football and ran it back 85 yards. The official trailing the play, his two arms so beautifully extended toward the heavens, signaled touchdown, Birds. From impending disaster to triumph in the space of ten seconds. It doesn't get any better than that in sports.

I threw the breakfast tray off my lap, leaped out of my quite warm and comfy bed, and did the finest shimmy you ever saw since your sister Kate's.

Then the words of doom from the TV filtered into my fevered mind---"The play is under review." I didn't see what I just saw. I unfelt what I just felt.

Of course, the touchdown was taken away. The official with his arms upraised was wrong---the Redskins runner was "down by contact" before the fumble. So instead, it was first and ten deep in Eagles territory, Redskins. The 'Skins scored a TD, the Birds lost, and that was that. I haven't felt the same about anything I've seen in an NFL game since. You always have to wait for the other shoe to drop, and even when it doesn't, there's still either an uneasiness or a downright emptiness.

So when the Eagles saved the game with an interception in the end zone with 7 seconds left on Monday Night Football this week, I felt nothing. My brain permitted my face a smile, but put my heart on hold. They took all the fun away.

Intercepted! Yes!!!! No??? Maybe so?

The play was reviewed, as is the rule, and yes, two minutes later when it finally passed replay muster and the feet were adjudged inbounds, the NFL allowed me to feel and perhaps even celebrate. The Eagles had won. But I didn't dance, let alone shimmy. Yay, I said, with as much enthusiasm I could.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lowlanders Tiring of Smutty TV

Who would have thought that the merry Dutch, world pioneers of mass-marketed pornography, would eventually tire of all the smut flowing into their neat and tidy homes? Yet it has happened, according to a Reuters/Hollywood Reporter (HR) story:

Despite a long tradition of television that pushes the boundaries of the acceptable in the Netherlands, Dutch viewers are being turned off by a wave of controversial programs.

Some weeks ago, Rotterdam-based columnist Hugo Borst was watching the daily news on family channel RTL with his 11-year-old son while having dinner. At 6:45 p.m. -- with no warning -- father and son were witness to excerpts from a home video showing the goalkeeper of a Dutch professional soccer team being introduced in embarrassingly intimate terms to a sex toy by a girlfriend.

Furious about the unexpected images, Borst called the program's editor for an explanation. The response was that the sex video was considered a news item because it was placed on the Internet that day by the goalie's vengeful ex-lover.

Borst's reaction was to write a column under the headline: "Have they lost their minds at RTL?"

Maybe they have, but until recently such programs drew big ratings. That appears to be changing, however. Citing a "less explicit—but nonetheless controversial" program called The Golden Cage, the Reuters/HR story notes, "The storm of publicity surrounding the Talpa program has not resulted in high ratings. Since its October bow, the show has lost nearly 66% of its original 1 million viewers. This may indicate that the Dutch are no longer impressed by taboo-breaking programs."

An innoccuous image from the Dutch TV program Spuiten en Slikken
That may be because all the taboos have already been broken. As the Reuters/HR story observes,

Another show raising eyebrows is "Spuiten en Slikken" (Shooting and Swallowing), on which every sexual persuasion can be found. It broadcasts on the youth-oriented public broadcaster BNN, currently the most risque station in Holland. The program, which claims to have an educational purpose, caused a scandal even before its first episode. One of the presenters experiments onscreen with all kinds of soft and hard drugs. The program also features the exploration of sexual activities, including S&M, swingers clubs, squirting female orgasms and prostate milking (shown in full detail), leading to a flurry of political disapproval.

The Dutch have had their fair share of tasteless television in recent years. Considered by some as the nadir of gutter TV, "Patty's Fort," which aired in 2004 on RTL, saw minor Dutch celebs led by former pop singer Patty Brard gather for a colonic irrigation session in a health spa, with the scatological results shown to the audience.

How such things can be considered either educational or entertaining is a true mystery to this analyst, but that the Dutch are tiring of such fare certainly is an interesting news item with real implications. Perhaps leaving a little mystery to such things really is a good idea.

From Karnick on Culture.

What's Good About Ultimate Fighting

Still photo from an Ultimate Fighting bout
I know a couple of fellows, perfectly reputable sorts, who follow "ultimate fighting," the relatively new spectator sport that combines boxing, kicking, and grappling techniques. The impression one gets from the media is that the sport is an outlaw thing, even less rational than boxing and professional wrestling. The increasing appeal of ultimate fighting, however, is based on the fact that it is actually a good deal more sensible than either of these.

USA Today has published today an excellent article analyzing the appeal of ultimate fighting. Here are some excerpts:

"Boxing is boring. Brawls are not," says Stephanie Cassidy, 24, a sixth-grade teacher from Fairfield whose husband got the $400-a-pop tickets for her birthday.

Which is pretty much all you need to know about how this salute to Rome's Colosseum has evolved from cultural pariah to mainstream hit. . . .

Signs of success include the fact that UFC's Spike TV reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, often outdraws NBA and baseball games among the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic. Its pay-per-view bouts are estimated to pull in eight figures, and ufc.com has doubled its traffic, to 2 million unique visitors a month, in the past year. . . .

Far from being a lone oddity, UFC has spawned five other MMA leagues (mixed martial arts, which combines a variety of striking and grappling techniques), one of which, Pro Elite, just signed a deal with Showtime. . . .

To judge from all the couples in attendance, you'd think this was a concert or a movie megaplex.

Beyond the surprising abundance of women, there's also a range of races (only African-Americans seem in short supply), professions (from shelf stockers to stock brokers) and ages (from the occasional gray hair to the blond tresses of a 5-year-old). . . .

• Far from being barroom brawlers, UFC toughs often have college degrees, and some boast winning careers as boxers, jujitsu fighters, Muay Thai practitioners and collegiate wrestlers.

• Boxers have died in the ring, but so far not one UFC fighter.

• Football and baseball may be American pastimes, but for a high-tech generation weaned on immediacy, such sporadic action doesn't compare with UFC's short and definitive flurries of violence. . . .

For a populace jittery about the threat of terrorism at home and a costly war abroad, that tough-by-association cocktail can be hard to pass up. "Much of life feels out of control right now, so to see these gladiators fight your fight for you — it's somehow comforting," says Mike Voight, a lecturer on the sociology of sport at the University of Southern California. "It used to be boxing that gave us that escape." . . .

That many UFC fighters look and sound like everyday people — compared with figures like Mike Tyson and Hulk Hogan — is a powerful part of the sport's popularity.

Matt Hughes was a four-time All-American wrestler at two Midwestern colleges who likes to talk about how his bouts "are chess matches that require immense dedication and discipline." More to the point, far from being Goliath, Hughes is a compact 5-foot-9. . . .

"I love how many of these guys are my size. It makes it something I can relate to," says [actor Robert] Patrick, molten co-star of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and CBS' The Unit.

As the lights dim and the arena goes on the boil (metal music thrashing, crowds screaming, ring girls wiggling), Patrick's eyes widen. "I suppose all this is some kind of reflection on our society," he says. "But there's also just a great nobility to being a great warrior."

That's UFC as sociological mirror, a link to our roots as creatures bent on survival. But there's another UFC, the one that's just a heck of a way to rage with old friends. . . .

What UFC is can be wrestled into this: an upscale street duel elegantly marketed to the masses. And the masses are loving it.

I suspect that the morality and normality that the USA Today writer identifies at the center of ultimate fighting are probably central to its appeal and a big reason people are increasingly gravitating to it. In a time of war and fear, it's comforting for people to look to champions who are very much like them but so greatly skilled that they can defeat seemingly invincible enemies. Hence the appeal of ultimate fighting may well have a highly positive aspect.

I'll take a look at this interesting phenomenon and report on it in future.

From Karnick on Culture.

Fox's 24 to Get Even Darker

Keifer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on Fox TV series 24I've mentioned on several occasions the turn toward "darker" programming on network TV this year, and one of the pioneers and models for that approach, the Fox series 24, will become even darker this season. An article in USA Today notes that protagonist Jack Bauer will reach a new low to begin the season:

Central character Jack Bauer isn't dead, but he's feeling that way going into Season Six (premieres Jan. 14, 8 p.m. ET/PT), said Kiefer Sutherland, who won an Emmy in August for his portrayal of the stoic counterterrorism hero. Bauer, whose kidnapping by Chinese agents closed last season, returns in the premiere, set 20 months later, as a haggard, beaten man.

"Jack's at his darkest place. He's dead inside. Even in Season Two, when he was terribly mournful at the loss of his wife, he was feeling pain but he was alive. (Now), there's an indifference which is almost primal. It's absolutely a new place to start with the character," Sutherland said on the red carpet.

As I've noted earlier on this site, "darker" new series primetime programming has had a bad run this year, as viewers have not responded favorably in general to the new shows that tried this tack.

The reason 24 has had such success is that even though the stories are full of interlocking conspiracies and betrayals, at the center of the show we have unabashedly good characters, led by Jack Bauer, a real modern-day hero. That's what makes this show so special, and as long as Jack doesn't turn "complex," meaning morally compromised (which he never has been, despite the awful things he has regularly been forced to do), the series will retain its central warmth and decency that ultimately dissipate the darkness.

TV producers and other genre writers would do very well to remember this simple fact.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The V Dialogues

The V in the title does not stand for peace.

Unless you have been residing in some other galaxy this past few weeks, you must be aware that Paris Hilton has taken Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan under her wing, and that each of these three has allowed the paparazzi to shoot their panty-less privates as they left cars or boats. Their plan to push the envelope has clearly worked. The envelope has been thoroughly pushed and can never again be used to send shy valentines to the sweet girl across the street.

Hilton and Lohan are well removed from conceptualization, so they may never conceive. But Spears has two children who will perforce grow up a Google click away from their mother's gynecology close-up.

There is a lot to be said here, most of which my Jewish gentility precludes my saying. I will however aver that I blame Hilton for bringing the type of lowlife decadence that only the born-rich can sink to and corrupting our more wholesome breed of American got-rich types. Britney Spears started her career as a Mouseketeer at Disney; now the Eurotrash from EuroDisney is trying to turn her into a rat.


Was severely tempted to join the crowd commenting on Frank James’s posting, “How Could this happen to a citizen?” on the Chi Trib “Swamp” blog by its Wash. correspondents — “Beyond the headlines, beyond newsprint.” James wrote about how badly suspected terrorist Jose Padilla was treated, as reported in NY Times. But why should I help Chi Trib sell its web site when I can help sell my own, highly lucrative, site?

So here’s what I would have written, on this, my own, highly lucrative site:

Frank James’s grandson to Frank many years hence: “And what did you do in the War Against Islamo-Fascism, Grandpa?”

Frank: “I did what I could to turn the populace against the Bush admin’s efforts to subvert our constitution, which my colleagues and I all consider a suicide pact, Frank the Third.”

I write this though my heart goes out to James, who found the pictures of Padilla “deeply disturbing.” Indeed, James wrote,

On seeing these photos and reading the story, many Americans will likely ask, how can it be that an American citizen with due-process rights under our Constitution, a citizen who has not been found guilty of the allegations against him by a constitutionally sanctioned authority, was subjected to such treatment? What if he's innocent?

Yes. The beauty of blogging is its capacity to bring out deep feelings entertained by those we rely on to tell us what’s what in the world in fair and balanced fashion. Way to go, Frank! Up the blogosphere!


Ostensibly picking up on gospel notion of not being distracted by lesser concerns, preacher digs up tried and true chestnut, list of woes of rest of world compared to us, offering exercise in guilt-tripping for one of your most guilt-prone of audiences: sunday churchgoers, especially those eager beavers who show up at early mass.

It's like telling a dirty joke at Vegas, easy way to get a laugh; so here it's easy way to get attention. Cheaply. It's a double win for preacher, who fills his need (a) to get our attention and (b) to promulgate his sense of what's right and wrong with the world.

Meanwhile, as to being caught in a trap, which is the gospel message, one in which Christians are too often caught is that of self-flagellation. But the preacher prefers to see us in that trap and in fact facilitates it.


Reader D. adds:  You can't beat the Lutheran Hour (half-hour), Sundays, 6-6:30 a.m. on WGN [“began in 1930, is the world's longest-running, Christian outreach radio program”].  Often the topic is the Gospel of Sunday's Mass, plus a well-sung hymn by a decent choir and a Q & A.  I consider the Lutheran Hour high church -- then I go across the street to my low [RC] church, except of course, we have the Eucharist, which is sort of checkmate.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The New Avant-garde: Clean Comedy

I guess if you live long enough you pretty much see everything, but I never thought I’d see an article I read on the front page of Friday’s Weekend Journal. (I can’t link to it, because it requires a subscription--I get the dead tree version--but I can steal a few quotes.) The article’s title drew me in: “Comedy Comes Clean: In a backlash against racy and gross-out material, some comics are turning to still-biting but less salacious jokes.”

Who would have ever imagined that post-Lenny Bruce, the cutting edge of comedy would be comics who refuse to utter vulgarities or refer to bodily functions?

Since I’m not a connoisseur of comedy I had no idea such a thing even existed. Sure I’ve heard about a few comics who refuse to throw the F-bomb to get a laugh, but I would have thought they are few and far between. One of the reasons I think that I’m not a big fan of comedy is that vulgar amorality just doesn’t appeal to me. I would be the first to agree that a good curse word at the appropriate time is not a bad thing at all, but appropriate is the key. Seeing somebody stand on a stage and have vulgarity flow like a river out of his or her mouth isn’t my idea of a good time. Sounds like there is hope for folks like me.

Jeffrey Zaslow, the author states:

It’s no joke. Those in the funny business are saying that, despite all the explicit sitcoms and mean-spirited Internet humor, there’s a quite countermovement toward clean comedy. Some comedians are deciding they’re tired of using profanity as a crutch. Others find clean comedy can be more lucrative.

It’s a backlash, 40 years in the making, in which some comics say it’s time to redraw the line between edgy and unacceptable. “Blue comedy is so commonplace, it’s no longer counterculture.” Says Brian Regan . . . .As he sees it, today’s twenty somethings grew up clicking through cable and pay-TV channels, absorbing a steady diet of nonchalantly raunchy comics and sexually explicit sitcoms. To them, inoffensive humor can seem refreshing.

Zaslow quotes an amazing poll:
According to a [Zogby] poll released yesterday, just 6% of 9,065 respondents say they want edgier, more-sexual entertainment programming; 51% said they want more shows with positive messages, and even references to God and the Bible.

Well, maybe it’s not so amazing. Americans have been exposed to an ever-increasing amount of “edgier” content in every kind of entertainment medium. It makes sense that, in the inexorable laws of economics, that the supply of something determines its cost. The ubiquitous sex, vulgarity and just plain old tastelessness has cheapened the value of such stuff so much that most people over the age of 14 simply don’t find it all that valuable any more. This bodes well for the vast majority of Americans who simply want entertainment that actually entertains.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Inspector Mom—Mysteriously Good

Danica McKellar, who plays the title character of Lifetime TV program Inspector Mom

Confession time: I make a habit of not watching the Lifetime TV network, which appears to be aimed at left-of-center suburban soccer moms. However, the title of new Lifetime series, Inspector Mom, grabbed my attention, so I took a look at the pilot.

And what do you know? It was kind of fun.

Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years) plays Maddie Monroe, a—guess what?—soccer mom who's trying to juggle childraising and a part-time career as a newspaper columnist, known as Inspector Mom. She is in fact a former topnotch investigative journalist who quit her job and went down to part time work in order to raise her children.

And guess what? She's perfectly happy with her choice. That's definitely a point in the show's favor. Of course, she happens to be a born supersleuth who can't help getting involved in murder investigations in suburban America—such as the killing of a nasty, womanizing soccer coach (in the pilot episode), a judge in a baking competition, and a little old lady down the road. The show covers some of the same ground as the BBC TV series Murder in Suburbia, but with a good deal less archness and sense of superiority. That's to the good also.

McKellar is appealingly practical, hardnosed, curious, and cheerful in the pilot episode, and although the mystery isn't particularly challenging, the atmosphere is both interesting and realistic—parents will well recognize, for example, the politics surrounding the soccer team—and her goofy friends are highly recognizable contemporary suburban types. The pilot shows a nice, light touch and provides a diverting and sometimes quirky entertainment while giving the gray cells a little exercise. No, it's not deep or transgressive, and that actually helps make Inspector Mom a fun show to watch.

In addition, the values suggested by the program are highly salutary. Maddie's family, at the center of the narrative, is a basically healthy one with normal American problems—another real breath of fresh air on American TV. And after the mystery is solved and the family sits down together at the dining table to enjoy ice cream sundaes, they pray their thanks to God for the treat and for the good things they get to share.

It's a show that nicely combines charm, normality, and adventure. The pilot is not scheduled for any additional showings in the near future, but the series is being presented on Lifetime's website and can be watched at any time. There are eight "webisodes" available currently with a couple more to come. You can watch them here. You might well enjoy them.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mr. Capra Goes to Hollywood

Film director Frank Capra (r) and screenwriter Robert RiskinTurner Classic Movies is showing a five-movie tribute to director Frank Capra tomorrow (Saturday) beginning at 8 pm EST. Capra, whose career spanned the end of the silent era to the early 1960s, was one of the great American film directors. He's best known for his classic film It's a Wonderful Life, and he made numerous other fine movies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (another real classic), Meet John Doe, the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, Dirigible, Lost Horizon, the poignant Lady for a Day, and the delightfully screwy comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.

The five films to be shown tomorrow night are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (interesting and good but not nearly as fine as Mr. Deeds), You Can't Take It with You (yuk, even though it won an Oscar—see below), American Madness (very underrated film starring Walter Huston), Lady for a Day, and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Capra was a very patriotic immigrant from Sicily who supported the Republican Party, which was just as unpopular in Hollywood then as it is now. His political and cultural instincts were a populist conservatism, and his usual cowriter was more of a leftist populist. (Capra generally did not get writing credits on his films although he oversaw every aspect of the screenplays.) As a result, the ideas evident in his films are sometimes complex and sometimes rather confused, but he always gets to the emotional heart of things, as is perfectly clear in It's a Wonderful Life.

The politics of You Can't Take It with You, based on a play cowritten by leftist Broadway satirist George S. Kaufman, by contrast, are very openly left-wing, infantile, and dislikeable, and the same sort of googoo-eyed populism crops up in Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe, though less intensely and therefore less annoyingly. The politics of Capra's films seem to resemble most closely those of Pat Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative, a stance with which I am not the slightest bit sympathetic. Most of Capra's films, however, are a good deal less simpleminded than You Can't Take It with You.

Even in the more overtly political films, however, Capra was trying in a rather artistic way to consider the question of how to live as a Christian in a corrupt society. Capra was at his best when the story dealt with these issues on a more personal level, as in It Happened One Night, Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, American Madness, The Miracle Worker, Broadway Bill, and It's a Wonderful Life. Most of those films also explore the political implications of the characters' predicaments and choices, but without providing easy, stupid answers.

Saturday's tribute on TCM is well worth watching as an introduction to Capra or as an enjoyable return to a time when Hollywood films had a nice balance of ideas and entertainment. Set your DVR pronto.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Goodness and Greatness in Art

S. T. Karnick's essay on greatness in art, specifically in literature, is worthy of extended reflection. (At the least, it was enough to pull your Curmudgeon out of retirement, though whether this is a good or a bad thing is for each Reform Club reader to decide for himself.) The problem is particularly intriguing for your Curmudgeon, as he holds to an unusual thesis: that there exists a universal aesthetic -- perhaps "meta-aesthetic" would be a better term -- that circumscribes our judgments about beauty. (This departure from the received wisdom that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has caused your Curmudgeon to be disinvited from all the best parties and discussion salons. Despite the pall this has cast over his Yuletide, he's resolved to soldier on.)

A truly universal principle of any sort is a thing both exalting and terrifying. Exalting, because it hints at absolute knowledge, never to be contradicted nor doubted; terrifying, because it imposes an absolute boundary to some aspect of human action. For the claim to universality is a claim that the principle's domain of application is unbounded. One cannot escape its fetters no matter how far one wanders. Being impatient with constraint, we tend to dismiss such claims with prejudice, even when the evidence for them is ample and strong. So your Curmudgeon's notions about a universal aesthetic would remove individuals' option of judging an item beautiful if it failed the criterion. Needless to say, one can expect such an assertion to be resisted, especially in the nihilistic wasteland of contemporary "art." But if the principle is accepted, then beauty, which is one form of the property of goodness, becomes an objective matter. "Different strokes for different folks" might still apply to non-artistic activities and pleasures, but would no longer carry weight in judgments of artistic merit.

Broadly, there are three great questions before us:

  1. What is beauty?
  2. What is greatness in art?
  3. Are beauty and artistic greatness related in an objective way?

"What is" is the most dangerous question in aesthetics. It presages an attempt to define, and every attempt to define is simultaneously an attempt to exclude. So merely to ask "What is beauty?" puts one at odds with those whose conceptions differ, and of course with those who refuse all aesthetic restrictions. But let's imagine that we could assemble some non-trivial group of assessors who agree, without reservation, on what beauty is, whether intensively or by tabulation. Would they necessarily agree upon what items in their sphere of agreement are great art?

Art begins with artifice; a work of art must be a thing made by human ingenuity and effort. (Note how cleverly your Curmudgeon slipped the genus past you. Watch for the differentia; there'll be a lot of spin on it.) The judgment of whether an artifact is a work of art depends largely upon whether it has significant qualities beyond the utilitarian. For example, one would incur great hazard by deeming a commode, even American Standard's finest, to be a work of art. Such an object is all but consumed by its function. It might be beautiful, but its beauty will emerge from how well it melds its form with its function. Few art galleries would put a commode on display for their visitors to ponder; if you find one such, you've likely wandered into a Blackman's showroom by accident.

Art, therefore, must depart from the strictly utilitarian, even when the object under consideration is universally judged beautiful. Interestingly, this implies that the less useful an artifact is -- for anything -- the more likely it is to be allowed art-candidate status.

We have come to a critical juncture: Must art have a purpose of any sort, other than the depiction of beauty?

Your Curmudgeon believes that it must. Human beings do everything for a reason, which the great Ludwig von Mises captured in what he called the axiom of action: Men act only to create conditions better than those that currently exist, or to prevent worse ones.

The creator creates art for a reason. He chooses his genre for a reason. He selects his subject matter for a reason. He molds his production in a particular way for a bevy of reasons. Those reasons, in aggregate, constitute the purpose of the work. By the differentia stated above -- hah! You missed it, didn't you? Got him with a curve ball -- the work of art is not merely a useful item, and not merely a component in some such item. So the artist's purpose must stand outside the utilitarian domain.

The category of potentially non-utilitarian purposes is fairly narrow:

  • The communication of an idea;
  • The evocation of an emotion.

Your Curmudgeon would argue that the first of these is utilitarian at a remove; ultimately, there's nothing more useful than truth. That leaves us with emotional evocation: great art is art that's greatly affecting. For a quick test by contradiction, contrast this conception of greatness with one founded upon beauty alone. Many items of mere beauty, such as the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, touch the emotions not at all. They neither exalt nor disturb. Few would sincerely call them great.

Greatness is inseparable from achievement of one's purpose. Great statesmen bring peace and prosperity to their nations; great commanders triumph brilliantly even when the odds are against them; great scientists unearth important truths, to the advancement of knowledge and of Mankind; great athletes exceed the feats of their contemporaries, for our amazement and delight. In art, greatness must be measured by the artist's success in achieving his purpose: the communication or evocation of profound emotion. That success can have three dimensions:

  • Breadth of audience;
  • Intensity of reaction;
  • Longevity of impact.

A work of art that reaches few but affects all of them powerfully has a slender, unidimensional greatness. A work of art that reaches many and affects them all powerfully has attained a more robust, two-dimensional greatness -- and it need not be beautiful to do so. The nightmare fiction of Franz Kafka, the best known examples of which are "Metamorphosis" and "In The Penal Colony," is horrifying, yet it has profoundly shaken millions upon millions of readers. Francis Ford Coppola's movies The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are beautiful and ugly at intervals, but both are profoundly affecting; few walk away from them undisturbed.

The third dimension of greatness, persistence over a long period, is the hardest to attain; many artworks are too tightly bound to their spatio-temporal context to "travel well" down the centuries, and many forms of art are designed, deliberately or otherwise, to erode. Those that endure are Man's most precious patrimony. Ludwig van Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Ninth Symphony will exalt audiences until music is played no more. Auguste Rodin's sculpture "Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone" is painful to see, but it evokes overwhelming pity and admiration for the subject's struggles with her burden, and will do so for centuries to come.

Great art stirs great emotions in its audiences. A great artist is one who can do so repeatedly and consistently.

Ordinary individuals, in assessing works of art, seldom think of these things. If Smith finds that some artwork moves him to joy or tears, he won't much care that Jones is left cold by it. His judgments for his own consumption need not satisfy a more abstract standard. But he who makes art a study of importance must regard technical masteries, conformance to trends, even the opinions of critics to be adjuncts at best, distracting sideshows at worst. He must apply the criteria of emotional effectiveness, breadth of audience, and longevity. There are no others.

Here Come the Big-Mouth Idiots

There is something rather interesting and revealing in all the recent controversies about celebrities running their mouths and acting like peabrains. You've heard about these controversies on the news, of course, such as Mel Gibson's drunken diatribe against Jews, comedian Michael Richards's racial slurs in response to being interrupted by a heckler during a disastrous nightclub comedy routine, Danny DeVito's drunken rant against President Bush on The View yesterday, etc.

That's the Omniculture for you. Everything happens, and everything gets on TV or the Web, which is the new TV.

In short, expect a lot more of this.

People often act badly under stress—which is when a person's integrity and strength of character shine through or the lack of these bursts forth. And there will always be stressful situations to endure, even for the wealthy, famous, and powerful. Hence, there will be many incidents of crummy behavior by such persons. In a society with strong democratic and egalitarian impulses and consequently little to no sense of noblesse oblige among its most privileged members, such trashy behavior is inevitable.

Given that eveything happens in the Omniculture and is immediately distributed to everybody by way of TV and the Web, this will simply be the way of things for the foreseeable future: Big mouths saying and doing stupid things, and other big mouths complaining about what they said and did. There will be no escape, short of moving to a deserted island without TV or internet access.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Can We Judge Literature?

I stirred up some concerns among PKD fans with my Philip K. Dick article. Francis Poretto commented thoughtfully, suggesting that there is no way to discern true greatness in a writer. After stating, "For my money, a great writer is one who inspires me to great emotion," Francis asks, "How shall I judge Dick, or any writer, great, even if permitted to use my criterion?"

It's a fair question, and one that I implicitly answered in my original comment on PKD. Francis correctly observes that a numerical analysis of how a particular author measures up to an individual's chosen standards is impossible. Hence, he suggests, it's silly to engage in such discussions. "I think you can see where this is going," he concludes.

I can indeed see where that is going, and I am rather surprised to see someone who is most decidedly not a philosophical relativist taking the position Francis is staking out in regard to literature. Certainly it's true that we cannot hope to judge the quality of literary works and the overall achievements of their authors by some sort of quantitative analysis, but that is absolutely not the same thing as saying that there are no qualitative differences between such works and authors. And if there are such differences, then it is most certainly useful and salutary to discuss the matter.

Francis points out the following as possible standards, but then dismisses them:
-- Widespread critical acclaim?
-- Volume of sales?
-- The length of time his works have been read?
-- His avoidance of modifiers?
-- The effulgence of his imagery?
-- Some other criterion?
The answer, as you will have already guessed, is (f), some other criterion. Or, more accurately, some other criteria.

To wit:

Most assuredly there is a certain something at the heart of all great literary works that cannot quite be identified, much less quantified. Rather like the human soul, we perceive it but cannot isolate it. However, just as the human soul is held in a body that makes identifiable and even quantifiable actions, this heart of a novel is contained in (and indeed suffuses) a book that has identifiable characteristics. These characteristics can even be usefully quantified in some cases, though I believe it unnecessary for a valid literary analysis.

Specifically, it is possible to put individual tastes aside and discuss literature and the other arts in a rational and salubrious way.

We can observe, for example, that some books have deeper, more true, and more convincing characterizations than others. We can see that some have plots that are more interesting and diverting than others. Some have stories that are more plausible, convincing, and usefully reminiscent of reality than others. Some have descriptive passages that make the fictional world come alive more convincingly than others. Some have prose that is so beautiful and artful that it gives us distinct pleasure to contemplate. Some have moral implications that bring our human condition into greater focus and give us real insights into our position in the cosmos. And so on.

Yes, we cannot always quantify such things, but we certainly can make comparisons and discuss what is most worthy of our time and energy. And the point of my post was that a good many of the writings of Philip K. Dick are much more worthy of our time and attention than those of most mainstream American literary artisans of the twentieth century.

So let us indeed feel free to discuss the quality of authors' works, singly and in toto. We should always recognize that there is much room for disagreement, awareness of ambiguity, and differing assessments of how various works measure up to the ideal characteristics of literature, and that individuals can hold different rankings of importance among the various aspects of literary excellence, but that it is nonetheless both possible and necessary to discuss these works objectively and with a sincere search for truth at the heart of the matter.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What makes the 46% tick?

Is tribalism the issue in the matter of mainstream Dems supporting Todd Stroger, son of stricken Cook County board president John Stroger, in the recent election that gave him 46% of the Oak Park vote? This was a vote cast in the face of uncontested overwhelming evidence of budget-busting favoritism in hiring of friends and supporters with minimal regard to competence and other standard criteria, not to mention honesty in handling other people’s money.

Our ranking Oak Park Dem, state Sen. Don Harmon, was named in an 11/22 Chi Trib editorial with many other ranking Dems who endorsed Stroger. We may assume family matters for him, though Oak Park has traditonally shown a civic sense that counts for more than one’s tribe. It often does, anyhow, but not for the 46%.

That many do not care about hiring people with minimal regard for competence, etc. Tribalism may count among us also, but more likely livelihood or career — or those ol’ social values. Chief among these is the right to abort a fetus, with gay-rights issues not far behind followed from a longer distance by gun-banning and other such matters.

This is an interesting conflict, between social liberalism and political reform. It leads to asking if it is progressive — a cherished liberal description — to support the hiring of the incompetent or less competent because they will plant signs on street corners and knock on every door.

They Love Dick

It's official: Philip K. Dick is a great writer, according to the Library of America. As the Galley Cat at Media Bistro reports:
Buried at the tail end of Mark Sarvas's interview with Jonathan Lethem comes news of one project on the novelist's plate: "I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select."
I suppose that if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and H. P. Lovecraft are great writers, then Dick is too. But in my view, this event is most important as further evidence of how poor the mainstream American novel was during the previous century. Solid but unspectactular and fairly uninsightful genre authors (though this last limitation does not apply to Dick) are touted as among the best the nation had to offer, and this is true because the mainstream novelists were so often confused, self-important, and wrongheaded.

A good many of Philip K. Dick's books and stories are well worth reading, but he really worked largely on frankly pulp material. His great contribution was to convey interesting, provocative, and important ideas in a pulp context, but that is like making a really fast production automobile. It's fast, but it can't run with the custom jobbies.

Dick stands out as an author because the "custom cars" of his time were so shabby.

PKD's prose was usually serviceable at best, although better than, say, Theodore Drieser's glop. But whereas Dreiser's characterizations could be immensely powerful and the conflicts highly real and dramatic, Dick's characters are usually unable to sustain much interest, and the stories depend almost entirely on their ideas and interesting plot angles. Some of those concepts and ideas are so good that his writings have gained a strong foothold in the culture through film adaptations. For that reason, he's certainly one of the more important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Philip K. Dick was indeed a great pulp writer, if there can be such a thing, and a very good writer within his limits. I'll call him a very good writer overall when at his best. And his elevation to Library of America status points out once again that genre literature, despite its limitations, was where it was at in American literature during the past century.

From Karnick on Culture.

Race in Michigan, Iraqi democracy, Bush secretive, etc.

* Steve Chapman in Chi Trib: Mary Sue Coleman, U of Mich pres., protesting 58% vote against racial preferences in admissions, "has been a staunch champion of . . . correcting racial discrimination by practicing racial discrimination." She defiant, standing in schoolhouse door.

* Slouching toward realpolitik: Trib's Clarence Page: "Americans appreciate the neo-conservative dream of spreading democracy through the Middle East [once described by GW as a way to prevent terrorism], but the Iraq disaster offers us a painful lesson on the limits of our grasp." Comment: How we deal with corrupt Iraqis is one thing, but leaving the field to the bad guys is another. There is such a thing as their morale too, is there not, to be strengthened by our departure?

* Devastating Novak column about firing of Rumsfeld and what it says about GW, who he says is "no malevolent tyrant" but like all Republicans in White House since Eisenhower, subject to "congenital phobia" about leaks. He is "secretive and impersonal" in his firing of people contrary to assurances. It's "not a good sign for for his concluding years as president," says N.

* "Autumn leaves, packs its bags," begins a poem by Andrew McNeillie, "Les Feuilles d'Automne" in Times Lit Supplement of 11/17/06, leaving me to wonder for a fraction what that comma was doing there. Between subject and verb? Let's not have it, OK? Then I saw that this was not the tried and true "autumn leaves," adjective and noun, but the same, subject and verb, as in "Autumn leaves [and] packs its bags." The poet had my attention.

* Up to 17 Chi aldermen are to be targeted for political extinction by Service Employees union. Question to be, per Mark Brown in Sun-Times 11/28, are they with the working man or not? No, it's are they with the unionized working man or not. The workers paradise of total unionization not yet arrived, we must keep in mind union exclusivity. Some have no chance to belong to a union. Some choose not to when given the chance. Either way, workers of the world have not yet united, notwithstanding many a heartfelt appeal to do so, at least since Marx and Engels.

The chief beef against the aldermen and women is their vote against the "living wage," a.k.a. big-box (store) ordinance which would have dictated what Wal-Mart and Target pay employees. This ordinance would have benefited the proletariat, say Service Employees, even as it kept out of Chicago a lot of low-price merchandise which the proletariat buys right and left: see shoulder to shoulder shoppers at the suburban Forest Park Wal-Mart, where the proles are finding what they want and the village is reaping sales tax to beat all.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Soap Opera to Feature "Transgendering" Character

This undated photo supplied by ABC shows Jeffrey Carlson who plays a transgender character on ABC's soap opera 'All My Children.' The storyline with Carlson's character, a flamboyant rock star known as Zarf, begins on the Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006 episode of the daytime drama. (AP Photo/ABC,Lou Rocco)This Thursday, the ABC TV daytime serial drama All My Children will introduce a character who was born male and is being "transformed into a woman" through hormone treatments, surgery, and psychological retraining.

This is believed to be the first time an American television show has had such a "transgendering" character. Some programs in the past have had fully "transgendered" characters in the past, but you probably wouldn't remember them given that nobody watched. The L Word, on the Showtime cable network, has a character who is going the other way, from a woman to a "man."

According to the Associated Press,

"All My Children" was looking for something new, and knows its audience is always interested in anything to do with sexuality, said Julie Hanan Carruthers, the show's executive producer.

Like most daytime dramas, the program's ratings have been dropping, falling by almost 2/3 since the early 1990s.

Pardon me for thinking that this isn't going to improve the show's performance.

From Karnick on Culture.

Cancel the Order for Erin's New Lamborghini

The film hagiography notwithstanding, Erin Brockovich and her firm of glorified ambulance chasers aren't just greedy, they're patently morons.

From the LA Times
A judge on Wednesday dismissed 12 lawsuits in a headline-making case brought by Erin Brockovich-Ellis' law firm against Beverly Hills and its school district, alleging that an oil well at Beverly Hills High School caused cancers in former students.

Without explaining his decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. granted the request of Beverly Hills and other defendants to dismiss the lawsuits, saying he would issue a more detailed ruling within 25 days.

The case, which had been set to go to trial next month, broke in 2003 and quickly generated intense controversy. Beverly Hills takes great pride in its high school; alumni include actors Nicolas Cage, Alicia Silverstone and Richard Dreyfuss.

Exhibits A, B, and C. Cancer pays better, but if they'd have gone with brain damage, it would've been a slam dunk.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The “N” Word

Michael Richards’ comedy club tirade has been practically ubiquitous in the American media this last week. I happened to catch a non-Wolf Blitzer Situation Room and two of the objects of Richards' tirade were being interviewed.

I confess to being a charter member of the vast right wing conspiracy, and as such have little, actually no tolerance for political correctness. Yet I must also confess to some ambivalence as I see all the hubbub surrounding this latest installment of an offense against modern public verbal decorum.

When I hear two of the “victims” tell how much “pain” they claimed as a result of the event I get more than a little annoyed. It didn’t help that attorney Gloria Allred was threatening to sue Mr. Richards for infliction of mental and physical intimidation. One of the offended party even said his goal was to “punish” Mr. Richards if he wasn’t willing to apologize to them in person.

My first reaction was to say to these guys to just get over it. Quit being such wimps. As an American of Italian heritage being called dago, guinea, greaseball, goombah, or wop (thanks to The Godfather for the exquisite combination) wouldn’t faze me. Yet how would my grandparents and great-grandparents have responded in an atmosphere of real and virulent discrimination that existed early last century?

Not being a person of African-American decent I cannot claim to be able to put myself into the shoes of those who were the object of Richard’s calumny. So when I immediately discount the offense I have to question my initial reaction. Is it valid? Do I diminish the hurt or the threat or the pain simply because my ancestors were not slaves?

I would argue that Black Americans are a special case not because of slavery or Jim Crow, but because their worldview of a hostile and oppressive country has been shaped by a warped civil rights establishment and a great heaping of liberal white guilt (see Shelby Steele). The resulting perception of victimization and thus powerlessness is a recipe for hypersensitivity and a very large chip on the shoulder.

Am I saying that throwing verbal assaults at black Americans is acceptable? Of course not. What I am saying is that the power of such assaults has as much to do with the perceptions of the offended as the words of the offender. This is obvious from a psychological point of view, but in modern American PC culture it is not allowed to be stated in polite company. Words are important, but if we imbue them with too much power we end up treating Mr. Richards in a way that is disproportionate to the offense. We also play into and contribute to the mentality of black victimization, which in my mind makes the cure worse than the offense.