WHO HAS THE (GOOD) IDEAS NOW?

Lionel Trilling in 1950:

…it is the plain fact that nowadays,there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in actons or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

There you have a seventy-two-year old manifestation of liberal smugness, ignorance, illusion and isolation. But perhaps this was, indirectly, a call to arms for the conservative movement which was underground and burst out in full view in the mid-fifties and, happily, struggles on today between the extremes of Democratic radicalism and Republican fecklessness.

But it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest that genuine conservatism, as opposed to Trumpism, etc., has once again lost its confidence or sense of direction.

Academia and the mainstream media treat conservatism as a kind of mental disorder. And they are likely to confuse the rabble that burst into the halls of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with conservatism. I submit that this is a willful libel, and that they know better. I guess that action would fall into Lionel Trillings curious and wrongheaded 1950 diagnosis of a “conservative” action, or an “irritable mental gesture” transformed into mass action.

But, in the realm of ideas, look out there and see who really look like the crazy ones.

To be fair, look left and right. But don’t just observe the “irritable mental gestures” or actions of one side. Read! We’re talking about ideas here.

Sadly, however, there may be, as I think about it, much truth in British philsopher Roger Scruton’s diagnosis of the crisis of conservatism as stated in 1980, thirty years after liberal Lionel Trilling offered his two cents worth on the subject. Scruton wrote, Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expresson, when compelled, skeptical.

Conservative New York Times columnist Roger Douthat wrote recently, the ossified Reaganism that the younger conservatives intend to supplant is locked into the world of 1980.

Yes, there are, indeed, new brands of conservatism afoot in the land. Among the exponants of one such brand I might be at a loss to label might be counted Roger Kimbell, an art, culture and political commentator and editor of the journal, The New Criterion. And in the midst of a long analysis of the current state of conservatism in the current issue, he suggests that the election of Donald Trump, “unlikely though it seemed at the time” and given the alternatives, might have amounted to a battle for the soul of the country and, for some scholars and voters, in the current polarized state of affairs, may well have represented “the only chance for national survival.”

Which is why Kimball, an obviously intelligent and cultivated fellow, has spoken and written well elsewhere of Trump’s four years in the White House — of how he cut down illegal immigratiion, cut down on witch hunts on campus under Title IX provisions and mandates and racialist attacks throughout the federal bureacracy under the rubric of “critical race theory.” He’s written of how the 1776 initiative, begun under Trump, aimed at reviving in schools and colleges and, in the culture, an appreciation of our founding ideals — over against the tendendcy to blame America first in Academia, the media and corporate culture.

But, properly speak, he noted, this was more the “populist spirit” than conservatism, strictly speaking. (I’d also note that there is a strong strain of libertarianism in it.) And there were those elements of The Strongman, of which I, for one, remain deeply skeptical, if not fearful, when it occurs on the right or the left. In history, fascism, right and left, always seemed to coalesce around a single person and become a cult.

But what is that “populist spirit” as it is manifesting itself on American soil?

It is anti-globalist, prizes individiual liberty, limited government, distrust of the regulatory and administratie state and identity politics.

Ultimately, it is a case of the powerful influence of the elite in academia, the media and corporations versus the rest of us.

It is, I’ll admit, very odd to have cultivated, conservative intellectuals and historians on the order of Kimball or Victor Davis Hanson vouching in any way for the crass Barbarian Donald Trump. Kimball has merely suggested that Trump is “a narcisist who never managed to learn the subtleties of narcisism.” I read in that an implied comparison with the likes of Trump’s presidential prececessors Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama, though I could be wrong.

Keep in mind that the flagship publication of the traditional conservative movement, The Naitonal Review, founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., declared itself in the harshest terms opposed to a Trump presidency even before Trump won the nomination. And that opposition remains in place today. It has been critically suggested, among other things, in the pages of that journal, that Trump shattered the norms of presidential behavior in ways toxic to the body politic. And he’s still out there, aching to get back into power, while Democrats, drifting out to sea in a barque captained by a vain, borderline senescent stooge of those powerful interests enumerated above, pulls out to sea with him.

But, back to ideas. The late conservative scholar Richard Weaver wrote a book called, Ideas Have Consequences. I think I need to read it. Perhaps we all do.

More on all this later. For in 2022, ideas are going to have many consequences.

BRIAN WILLIAMS AND THE DARKNESS THAT MIGHT, IN FACT, BE “WOKE” AMERICA’S BLINDNESS

It seems that once prominent, briefly but apparently not permanently disgraced, and still popular news anchor Brian Williams has announced his retirement from broadcasting. In doing so, on his last night on the air, he issued a valediction on the state of the nation in which he said, in part ( or, perhaps, this is the whole of it)…

“I’m an institutionalist. I believe in this place. And in my love of my country, I yield to no one.But the darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods. It is now at the local bar, and the bowling alley, the school board, and the grocery store. And it must be acknowledged and answered for. Grown men and women who swore an oath to our Constitution, elected by their constituents, possessing the kinds of college degrees I could only dream of, have decided to join the mob and become something they are not while hoping we somehow forget who they were.They’ve decided to burn it all down with us inside. This should scare you to no end as much as it scares an aging volunteer fireman.”

Now, I have pondered these remarks (as transcribed and posted on Facebook by former colleagues in the news business). Many former news colleagues somehow find in them a crystal-clear indictment of –someone or some many unnamed someones (aka, “the mob”), many of them apparently elected officials. But what of the darkness he perceives spilling into “the local bar, and the bowling alley, the school board, the grocery store?” What’s he talking about? For my part I find it far too, no doubt deliberately, oblique to be more than a generalized indictment of some segment of the American populus and political class, offered in kind of a “you know who I’m talking about” over-the-back-fence bit of gossip to like-minded neighbors regarding other neighbors down the street. I say this while not denying the darkness –and division — abounding in the American neighborhood. I might have a different idea about its source. When he mentions the school board, for instance, is the darkness there being generated by the board members or the agrieved parents standing before that board? Also, he seems to be confusedly conflating their concerns and actions with those of unnamed elected officials.

But let’s cut to the heart of the matter. He’s fairly obviously talking about those elected officials and citizens who support or supported Donald Trump. And if he sees darkness, where does he see light — or enlightenment? I’ll bet we could guess. Perhaps Brian and many like him in the media are incapable of seeing how many middle class citizens feel their families and their values being darkened over by “woke” culture. Millions, but not all of them, sought refuge — or warded off the dreadful alternative (Hillary Clinton, et al.) by voting for Trump.

I fear the darkness Brian Williams sees might attributable to his own blindness.

Therefore, I could not resist adding my two cents to a Facebook thread in which multiple people were affirming Williams. Specifically, I made a reply — over long and probably unread. I was, at the outset, picking up on the skeptical observations made by some on that thread noting that Williams had lost his position as NBC main anchor after inexplicably but obviously lying about and over-inflating his actions while covering the Middle East War.

So I wrote:

We must not succumb to the fallicy of judging a person’s words on an ad hominen basis, i.e.,declaring them invalid merely because the person who spoke them is guilty of mendacity in some other area of their lives. But I think we need to cast a cold eye on the substance of this particular man’s testimonial and all the affirmations that follow in this thread, simply because so much is implied, certain terms and assertions probably deliberately ill-defined. For instance, the reference to joining “the mob.” Which “mob” is he talking about? Is it the one that stormed the Capitol, members of which are being vigorously prosecuted and whose motives rigorously explored in committee? Or is it the multitudes of thugs, arsonists and murderous vandals who pillaged and terrorized our cities last summer and who have largely gone unprosecuted and whose motives are more or less assumed to be uniformly justified if not noble?

The former mob action — on the Capitol — could be seen as an assault on Constitutional order and the peaceful transition of power,the latter — on American cities — as an all-out assault on the rule of law, and Constitutional order. Both are threats to the republic, and to democracy.

We’ve taken to using the “dog whistles” metaphor in our current national debates over assorted vexed issues. I hear in Williams’s words a dog whistle to only one side of the debate over Constitutional order.

I did not, in fact, “hear” or actually watch Brian Williams’ farewell; I have not seen him since he disappeared from the nightly news; didn’t know he’d been rehabilitated to this degree, didn’t care about him one way or the other. God love him, I wish him well. We all make mistakes. (Of course, I suspect we are quickest to forgive those puiblic figures with whom we agree politically. That goes for Trump and Trump supporters as well. Donald Trump’s actions, or lack of action — last January 6th was disgraceful and, in this instance, worthy of impeachment.)

I could be wrong here, and perhaps the elected officials Williams is singling out include the likes of Bernie Sanders, AOC and the rest of those office-holders whose idea of democracy seems decidedly skewed to the far left, even toward socialism. Of course, I think this highly unlikely. And I admit that another of my own predispositions kicks in when I hear oracular proclamations from “mainstream” (i.e. NBC, ABC, CBS) national news anchors who are almost without exception manifestly, if not overtly liberal and for whom, in my estimate, self-delusion and smug self-importance are occupational hazards. The same could be said, of course, for conservative commentator/anchors. And my own judgement might be unfair in Williams’s case, since I did not hear the tone in which his velediction was offered, or hear or read it in its entirely or in context. I’ll assume it was characterized by sincerity and humility. I speak here only of the verbal substance of what Robin (my Facebook friend) posted and and that, above, I have reproduced.

But my own final judgement is that this amounted to an only slightly veiled sortie on Trump supporters that leaves completely unsullied those who ravaged our nation this year in the name of “justice.” And, while I’m at it, here’s just one something the odious figure named Trump said that cannot be dismissed on an ad hominem basis merely because he said it — that a nation without borders ceased to be a nation. That, among many other issues, might have been on the minds of the multitude of non-rioting, non-violent citizens who turned out for HIS valediction and farewell, just as justice for George Floyd and reform of police might have been on the minds of millions who did not join in the wanton destruction of our cities this year. (Added note: the legitimacy of the last electon was also a major, in fact probably the preeminent issue rousing the main body of the more violent Capitol mob, and I disagree with them, while myself knowing reasonable law-abiding citizens who still question the results.)

So — a pox on the houses of all bad people on both sides, right? But let’s consider the possibility that the intense political/cultural hurly-burly besetting our nation right now might reflect the unavoidable sausage-making nature of democracy. With Brian Williams, we should remain “institutionalists” and lovers of America.

Again, good luck to Brian Williams. He endured disgrace, lost his exalted old position but nonetheless enjoyed an professional afterlife and redemption with multitudes. Things like that happen in America among the fair-minded.

But I’ll only add — he never in this valediction, so far as I know, scrutinized the role of the media in our current state of darkness and division.

That might be the source of the darkness — not at the edges, but in the heart of town.

BORDERLINE SLEIGH RIDE

Thanksgiving is past. We must give thanks for life. We must go on praying for our divided nation. We will be glancing at our investment sheets and bank accounts as, once again, millions of us prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior after the four weeks of the penitential Advent season whcih, of course, always seems anything but penitential amid the orgiastic holiday hype.

But, of course, who of us does not dream of boarding that chimerical one-horse sleigh and “dashing through the snow” down some moon-lit trail of glistening tree-tops? Or, with Burl Ives, of having a “Holly, Jolly Christmas”.

Of course, we know we have to pay for it– which leads us, entirely against our wishes, to vexed thoughts of the economic situation awaiting us, this year especially, at the end of that visionary moon-lit trail….

It could be fairly said that Presidents have less control over the economy than we might believe, or that political partisans would have us believe. But even the liberal New York Times has conceded that the current Presidency is an exception to the rule. President Biden and Congressional Democrats have made specific policy decisions that have led to dangerously rising inflation.

The Administration “went big” with the stimulus passed by that Democrat-dominated Congress last March. It contained $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief on top of a separate $900 billion package that passed three months earlier. That sent an extra $2.8 trillion in federal money circulating through the economy while, according to the Times and what they call “mainstream analysts”, economic activity was trending only a few hundred billion dollars a year short of good health. This would seem to have sent too much money chasing too few goods — the standard definition of the causes of inflation. That would be too much government spending chasing too few goods. Perhaps, one might argue, that that spending served to replace lost income from people not working, voluntarily or otherwise. Perhaps, just perhaps, it went into savings.

This would seem to be, to an non-economically savvy mind such as mine, an economy feverishly teetering on the border between rampant inflation and the above-referenced economic “good health,” and due primarily to the actions of the President elected this time last year.

About the same time last spring that the Times and those analysts were taking the temperature of the national economy, President Biden offered up his so-called “American Jobs Plan” billed as an infrastructure initiative. Of course it was stuffed with things that did little for either creating jobs or building infrastructure. It reportedly raised corporate tax rates back above that of most developing countries, slowing wage growth, in all likelihood. Right?

Doesn’t sound great.

That was last spring. Now the Administration has put before us the so-called Build Back Better plan. Say those words slowly, ‘trippingly ‘or the tongue,’ as Nabokov might say, then, upon examining its “wish list” of social spending, repeat after me, keeping a straight face:

Built…Back…Better…

ha!…ha!…ha!….

Then, consider something else that hasn’t gotten better and which was just reaching “critical mass” about the time starry-eyed President Joe and the Democrats were preparing to serve up this holiday pie. I refer to illegal immigration and the fact that, as of last March, illegal border crossings were setting records, including a record number of unaccompanied children (18,800 versus 11,000 in May, 2019, the previous high under President Trump.)

It continues to get worse. And it’s costing us.

The border we’re crossing as a nation careening down that moon-lit trail is the one separating reason from unreason. Or tragedy from farce.

But, buckle up. It’s nearly Christmastime. We’ll climb aboard our sleighs and go “laughing all the way.”

Jingle…Jingle….

Yet, enough, enough!!! of politics. I DO wish President Joe Biden and his family a Blessed Christmas, praying also that, especially on matters touching directly on his Catholic faith, he undergoes a Yuletide metanoia.

RELIGION IN CHINA

How horrible is China’s persecution of religious peoples and other dissenters? Ask any member of the Falun Gong sect, the Chinese Muslim Uyghurs or any Christian church, including the Chinese Catholic Church.

One Christian recently spoke out:

Li Yuese is a member of a house church in Sichuan, a province in southwest China. After being picked up in a raid in 2018 and serving a period of “criminal detention”, he says he was held for ten months in a windowless basement “transformation” center without ventilation, according to an interview he gave recently to Radio Free Asia. He says he was beaten, verbally abused and subject to other forms of mental torture while receiving only two meals a day without any time outside. He said he took to bashing his head against the wall because death seemed preferable to life in his darkness.

This is how you come between people and their God in an aggressively anti-religious country that brooks no interference with its power.

These “transformation centers” are run by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front work Department. It is in the business of brain washing Christians. Priests have been known to disappear for five to ten years at a stretch.

This is the government with which my pope and his Vatican lieutenants have concluded — and this year renewed — an agreement that insists on permitting government-appointed, invalidly ordained bishops of the so-called Chinese Patriotic Church to assert their dubious influence and oversight, at the Communist government insistence, over church affairs, while validly ordained bishops and clergy of the faithful underground Catholic still loyal to Rome, having endured generations of torture, imprisonment and persecution for resisting Communist control, have now been left naked to their determined enemy.

The Vatican has offered no reasonable explanation for this reversal of the prior policy of uncompromising, undiluted support for long-suffering underground Chinese Catholics. The reversal is baffling, inexplicable and cannot fail to demoralize faithful Catholics in that huge country.

That is a tragedy and a damn shame. What is this pope thinking?

THE CULTURE OF REPUDIATION

It was the late scholar Roger Scruton who identified the cultural upheaval through which we are suffering as the “culture of repudiation”. We must resist it with all our cultural might. It originated, as did — and does –so much that is poisoning our national life, among that ever expanding multitude who profess an evermore aggressive leftist-to-socialist ideology. Theirs is the spirit of revolution that throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. And that’s an overly gentle metaphor for what’s happening here.

Roger Kimball, editor of the journal, The New Criterion, writing in the November, 2021 issue, observes that “the curious, even hypocritical nature of this (culture of) repudiation is especially patent in the most privileged and affluent precincts of our culture, in the Ivy League writ large — all those institutions that, once upon a time, were devoted to perpetuating our civilization but which now, marinated it too much money, spend their time and seemingly bottomless animus deploring everything about America and the civilization that fed it.”

And, of course, to their mind, what fed this civilization was essentially racist. Their answer is — more racism, in the guise of anti-racism.

Columbus, Cortez and other Europeans were, upon occasion, guilty of savagery and racism. I don’t doubt that. Of course, I don’t know this for a fact, but I have been instructed thus by historians I trust. Those historians are honest about that. The leftist historians, of course, make a point of ignoring the occasional savagery and barbarism that reigned among the natives the Europeans encountered. To do otherwise, Kimball and others have noted, would render the Left’s moral outrage ludicrous. Rousseau’s Noble Savage was never entirely noble.

But Kimball suggests that those savages who suffered at European hands are mere props for the writers and activists. “The real focus of their energy,” he submits,” is against America and the European civilization that embodies it.”

Fed it, embodied it….

Kimball goes on to point out the irony — and hypocrisy — feeding and embodied in the Left’s position. To do so, he cites historian Keith Windschuttle who in his book, The Killing of History, says of the Leftist ideologues, “they themselves…bear all the characteristics of the Eurocentrism they condemn in Columbus (and) Cortez.”

How so?

Well, for them, Kimball opines, ” repudiating Columbus( et, al.) is merely a pretext for a larger repudiation of the culture that supports and flatters them. It is as disingenuous as it is repulsive. But it seems quite clear that the attacks will not end until their plump sources of support begin to be loaded onto the hecatombs of their juvenile and malicious fury.”

Ole Roger, for my tastes, is being a bit too oblique here, especially in his resort to that most obscure of words (plural form), “hecatombs”. It refers to the large-scale sacrifices to the gods favored by the ancient Greeks, such as the propitiatory slaughter of 100 cattle at one time. Is he suggesting that the now universally liberal-to-woke institutions of higher education, i.e. the Ivy League, Stanford, the Seven Sisters, etc.,etc., that currently feed (and embody) all this political correctness and “wokeness” will themselves be sacrificed –ruined, slaughtered, burned, destroyed, devoured – to propitiate those gods who demand, among many other destructive things, selective, revisionists readings of history?

And is he suggesting that only when all our valued cultural institutions– universities, libraries, museums, churches — lie in ashes or been transformed to resemble the dreary, repressed, state-controlled institutions of a socialist dystopia will the activists be satisfied?

Sounds about right to me. And that will give us much to mourn. For soon thereafter, all of American civilization and our liberties will lie in ashes as well.

And let’s face it — those false gods worshiped by the hordes of rampaging cultural hedgehogs among us will never be satisfied.

Perhaps this is the true global warming, the fire that will never be consumed, hell on earth.

Deliver us, O Lord!

WOKE STUFF AT MY OLD PLACE

I’m a Suffolk University alumnus. I got the alumni magazine today and learned about a Suffolk PHD student in something called “applied developmental psychology” who is working in something called the Youth Equity and Sexuality Lab to explore “the impact of far-right ideologies on Black women college students.” She notes that feminist scholar Moya Bailey coined a term for this. It’s “misogynoir”, defined as “racist misogyny directed toward Black women.”

This PHD student attended a small liberal arts college where she majored in dance and psychology. “I wrote an article called ‘Dancing Around White Supremacy” about (inclusion) issues in my program.”

Ah! Now I have seen bullshit dancing.

NATION DESCENDING A STAIRCASE

Marcel Duchamp was a French painter and sculptor. He is associated with many of the 20th Century’s most consequential and controversial avant-garde artistic movements, such as Cubism, Dada and “conceptual art”. He once painted a replica of the Mona Lisa with a moustache. I, for one, took this to be a joke, as if a vandalizing teenage Warhol had broken into the Louvre with his black Sharpie.

Duchamp died on October 2nd, 1968 in Neuily-sur-Seine, France at the age of 81. Among his most famous paintings is, Nude Descending a Staircase. It is abstract; or let me revise that and say that it is representational (and here I’m attempting critical analysist somewhat beyond my competence) only in that it shows the fragmented, mechanized movements one might see on a strip of film, back when film came in strips. Maybe Duchamp was imagining our digitized 21st Century future. Good for him. It was time better spent in his studio than messing up a Da Vinci.

In any event, the average person looking for a nude descending a staircase in that painting will see only a kind of bouquet of twisted tin. It would have been jarringly new to the eyes and artistic sensibilities of the average person in 1912, just as Stravinsky’s Sacre du Prentemp (The Rite of Spring) would shock the ears of many the following year. I happen to like the Stravinsky; I’m not all that fond of the Duchamp — or any Duchamp. Maybe my eyes need to catch up with my ears. Or, maybe I should trust my eyes and declare Duchamp worth only of a glance or two.

But the journal The New Criterion has offered a transcultural anecdote from the last days of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It involves, however obliquely, the artistic vision of Marcel Duchamp and belies America’s “woke” cultural blindness when it came to dealing with Afghanistan’s dominant Muslim culture. I submit it may well have confused and disenchanted Afghans to the point of softening their resistance to re-domination by the violent and zealous philistines known as the Taliban. You might say they were looking for cultural bread from America, and we handed them a funny-looking stone.

It seems that, before our cataclysmic withdrawal from the country, as part of a cultural outreach program we sponsored some art education programs. A video from one of those classes has surfaced and shows an American academic instructing a small group of Afghan men and women about the wonders of conceptual art. A slide pops up on a screen in the darkened room and the group finds itself looking at a Duchamp work called The Fountain. It is, in fact, an unadorned urinal. Duchamp impishly sprang this little novelty on the art world in 1917.

“Anyone know what this is?” asks the instructor.

“A toilet,” answers one Afghan gentleman very tentatively, as if he can’t believe he’s being asked this question or being shown this object in the name of art. The camera reportedly captures the expression on the faces of some of the women in the room. My reporter relates that it was “priceless” in its degree of bemused puzzlement. The instructor assures one and all that Duchamp is a very important figure in Western Art and that The Fountain found its way into an art gallery, flushing away (pun intended) age-old conceptions (this being conceptual art) of what did or did not constitute art. He declared that this was a huge artistic “revolution”, elevating the mundane above works meant merely, in Duchamp’s estimate, to please the eye.

I happen to believe in revolutions in art. They shake up and unexpectedly augment our vision of the world. But I suspect the mortals gathered for this little art class in Afghanistan, while doubtless eager to learn about Western art, were also painfully familiar with the destructive possibilities of any revolution. They could not fail to be conscious, while this docent was working to raise their art consciousness, that they faced the strong possibility of being swept out of that classroom and into yet another violent revolutionary maelstrom brewing on the streets. Beyond the serene luxury of that moment, they knew their fragile, preciously-bought freedom and their homeland might once again be descending civilization’s staircase.

And here they were, as if as a preview of coming attractions, being asked to admire a pisser.

Now there is some irony here. It is that Dechamp himself would comment years later that, “I threw the urinal (and other objects) into their (the commissars of the art world’s) faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their artistic beauty.”

Was his “challenge” therefore actually intended as a kind of joke? Well, artists do like to have fun with us. I told you my opinion of his mustachioed Mona Lisa.

Duchamp may have been a bit of a clown. But, as a matter of fact, I see no problem with offering up objects, no matter how functional, pedestrian or seemingly unworthy of celebration, as appropriate for our aesthetic attention and appreciation. I once toured the museum contained within the Wisconsin headquarters of Kohler, the famous makers of toilets. Among other things, it featured a huge, attractively lighted pyramid of porcelain Kohler privies. It was a surprisingly lovely display, suggesting, too, an antic Duchampian streak in Kohler’s corporate museum designers. And who’d have thought….well, you know, that a mound of toilets could be so visually edifying? I, for one, welcome the elevation of the lowliest of ordinary objects above, in this case, their urinary purposes. True, Duchamp’s “fountain” seemed more in the order of what you’d find in rows in a squalid, malodorous city bus terminal. That was probably his point. Ever stop to look at them while you were using one of them? The point of Kohler’s privy pyramid was undoubtedly advertising. And, of course, advertising has often been offered up as art.

But I’m afraid I see this pre-Afghan collapse art class as belonging to an order of purblind modern (again, “woke”) pedagogy. It reveals the transcultural priorities of much of the West’s and U.S.’s cultural and educational elite when it came to Afghanistan. I submit that they were in the toilet.

For instance, it has been reported that the United States, as part of its twenty-year, multi-trillion dollar Afghan adventure, spent $787 million on “gender programs” — a real challenge, since a writer for the journal The Spectator noted that neither the Dari nor Pasho languages of that nation contain any words for gender, per se. (I cannot confirm this, nor the companion assertion that the distinction between “sex” and “gender” was only invented by a sexually abusive child psychiatrist in the 1960s. I’ll be anxious to check out that incendiary claim, which, in light of the more dubious manifestations of the Sexual Revolution, seems not altogether implausible.)

I’ve also read that Dr. Bahar Jalali, putative founder of the first Gender Studies program in Afghanistan, noted sadly on August 30th that after teaching eight-and-a-half years at the American University in that nation, all his work was being “snatched away so needlessly.”

To which I’d say — all the while thinking it needless to say it — that Gender Studies Programs were the least of what we lost and the Taliban destroyed or rejected when that nation fell back into their hands.

I suspect the ancient, long-suffering Muslims, Christians and masses of abandoned, free-thinking, freedom-loving folks in Afghanistan could have done without the mother lode of “woke” modern cultural twaddle some of us set about heaping on them. But I’m sure the Taliban will make good use – which is to say evil use — of our heaps of left-behind weaponry and our fleet of Black Hawks. Too bad we didn’t snatch them away.

How might the waggish Marcel Duchamp have conceptualized Afghanistan’s horrible fate? Well, in dust, wire, glue and varnish he created something called, A Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors. It was broken into pieces during shipment to its final permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Every Afghan is familiar with broken thing. They might discern a universal statement in a shattered heap of glue, varnish, dust and wire. It might resemble the current state of their homes.

They’d get after it with a broom.

THE FLIGHT FROM “RELIGIOUS POLITICS” TOWARD “SOURCES OF LIGHT.”

The following are small excerpts from a provocative essay called, “Sources of Life”, by a writer named Greg Jackson, which appeared in the August, 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It originally appeared in the Spring, 2021 issue of another magazine called, The Point.

(Note: for some reason, wordpress working annoyingly in ways I can’t yet figure out, I’ve so far been unable to correct some typos and mistaken elision of words in this copied text. Sorry.)

A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it to be….It is extremely difficult to make conscious choices amid systems and technologies that tax our forbearance and reward our worst impulses….half an hour on Twitter or YouTube may…reduce us to an exposed nerve, pulsing with rage born of fear, a sense of vagrant and ubiquitous threats….

Today, media and social media organize our conformity. Calculated self-preservation dominates.

(Here, Jackson makes the case for art.)

By awakening people to the legitimacy of their feelings, art gives them confidence that their experience is not an anomalous, lonely event, but something others share in, and that it may be reasonable, therefore, to question the tyranny of public opinion.

Politics’ colonization of culture in contemporary America has greatly damaged this public lifeline to the private psyche….(W)e may each measure for ourselves the toleration of our beliefs by judging how often we wonder in our hearts whether stating them in public is perilous. Where, when public opinion rules, does private truth find an outlet?

The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics (emphasis added)…is precisely what culture of this category is meant to address….our emptiness is an emptiness that comes from continuing to consume something that resembles nourishment but consists of nothing but fat-burning calories.

Unless we claw back some sphere of cultural and civic activity from the totalizing force of religious politics (again, emphasis added), we are unlikely to find venues where we can get outside the rigid struggle of political combat to explore and expand who we are, what we want, and how we relate to one another.

END OF EXCERPTS.

BEGINNING OF A BRIEF ANALYSIS:

I don’t know this writer, nor do I know much about the magazine from which his essay was re-published by Harpers. But I regard much or most of his diagnosis of contemporary culture hearteningly accurate.

I emphasized his phrase “religious politics” and must note that he never defines it. One could say that it’s obvious, self-explanatory. But, is it?

I would suggest that the seeming obsession of seemingly millions with modern politics suggests that politics has rushed into the vacuum created by the decline of supernatural religious belief.

I know many will reject this notion.

But it is telling, at least to me, that the last sentence copied above, asserting the need for all of us to move away from this disordered “sphere” created by politics-as-religion is followed by the sentence: “In midieval Europe, there was no such thing as nonreligious art or nonreligious politics. We are backsliding.”

I happen to adhere to the religious faith that dominated medieval Europe, i.e., Catholicism. What the Church taught then, it teaches now. The spirit and letter of that core faith was not obliterated by the Renaissance, but, rather, slipped into it at the tip of Michelangelo’s brush and chisel and grew and developed, as did Catholic religious dogma along with political and economic principles such as “subsidiarity” which calls for solutions to be generated upward from the smallest, most local governmental or political bodies that are also closest to the people they affect. Many of these principles and certainly much of the dogma was destined, in our time, to be largely discarded, ignored or, to the extent that it has survived, vilified — or, in the case of purported Catholics such as power-brokers Joe Biden and Nancy Pilosi, donned as a cultural shroud over their rabidly secular ideology. (It has been said that a person either adjusts their life choices to their principles and inherited dogmatic beliefs, or else adjusts (i.e., bends) their principles and dogma to fit their life choices. The more powerful the person, the more distorted the social outcomes for the rest of their co-religionists.)

True, culture did over time secularized and we should not wish for the return of a theocratic domination of society and culture. But I, for one, believe the product of the medieval scribes and artists were informed by a culturally and spiritually redemptive force superior to the “totalizing” force of contemporary politics –which, again, has become our religion, propagated and zealously imposed by secular media, social and mainstream.

Author Jackson probably has another idea — that art for art sake is where true and self-knowledge lies. I can live with that, if only as an anodyne balm for the “totalizing” effects on our inner lives of modern politics.

I guess we’re talking about for art’s sake, or, more accurately, art as “religion”. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the path James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is last seen embarking upon at the close of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, as he flees the intense religiosity of his native Ireland. (He needn’t have worried about contemporary Ireland, which, with the rest of the western nations, has radically secularized. Is this what Stephen meant when he said he was off to forge “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”?

Take a look at where that’s gotten the Irish –and human — race.

O what a paradise it (only at times) seems.

But the radical politics Jackson identifies in the essay is more of the rightist variety, e.g., extreme nationalism and conspiracy theories as generated by the poisonous likes of QAnon. So be it. It is toxic, I acknowledge, though, I also submit, no less toxic than the “religious politics” of the left, which I also submit, is far more ascendant and dominant in our culture. Either way, Jackson posits this as the basis for his argument that, as a consequence of all this, we find ourselves escaping into the endless diversion of entertainment, narcotics, video games and social media…all that “false nourishment.”

So, Greg Jackson, obviously a thoughtful man but obviously skeptical about the influence of formal religion says, further down in this essay, “Art, unlike religion, does not ask us to be better than we are; it asks instead only that we understand ourselves, and then, from the evidence of this understanding, it points us “toward sources of light” — hence, the title of his essay, and he attributes this phrase –“sources of light” – to Saul Bellow, another very thoughtful fellow.

I guess Jackson does not see religion as a “source of light”. Much religion in our time has given his good cause to feel that way.

But, with Saul Bellow, writing in his novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I might say, “The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”

Does not thoughts of our ultimate end (i.e. death) often bring us to — religion? It sure as hell shouldn’t bring us to reliance on the transitory banalities of politics.

And, with Saint Augustine – an undeniably religious figure who once heartily attempted to embrace all the lusty emoluments of the world — I would call for self-knowledge amid the storm of contemporary diversions and politics. Bellow’s Mr. Sammler would add that it might bring us to “(t)he terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it — that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

Do we? I hope so. I pray so.

Amen.

COVID RHAPSODY

Somewhere in the cosmos it must be possible to detect the grand rhythm of the planet Earth emanating from its core to its jungles. Imagine the ear-to-the-seashell sound swarming up on some imaginary, very delicate measuring instrument able to detect human audial interaction from, say, the crowds at Piccadilly Circus to the bird squabble of jungles and the roar of Victoria Falls.

Then, on our side of the planet, from Time Square to the prairie where a lone rancher might, at this moment, be sitting strumming his guitar on his rickety front porch. Just imagine it! And let us not leave out the roar of the waves breaking along the ocean and gulf coasts and in the rocky shoals of Lake Superior and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Blended, it all might resemble the effusive finale of our National Anthem. Or “God Bless America.” Or, perhaps, “America the Beautiful.” We might hear crickets chirping along the ridges of those “Purple Mountains majesty.”

So what sound announced the coronavirus’s release? The release of that otherwise silent, invisible-to-the-naked eye microbe into the vastness of earth?

I speak of the virus that has, for nearly two years, brought the entire planet to heel and plunged every mortal into panicked pandemic mode, including, for instance, even occupants of any ocean-going vessel far from any infected port of call who might nonetheless fear that one of their cruise ship hosts might be transmitting this unseen microbe to them on the three-inch circumference of the glass of sherry they’ve gently proffered to them. My imagination envisions such once unimaginable things.

Yes, what sound did it make? Was it the airy rush of a laboratory tray being opened in the wrong manner under the wrong circumstances, carelessly violating some lab protocol at exactly 3:23 p.m. one Wuhan afternoon? Was it the faintest of sounds made by the accidental shattering of a small lab beaker?

It was that sound at that moment, whatever and whenever it was, that has for so long painfully trammeled our civilizational interactions. And there is beginning to emerge, reluctantly, a scientific consensus that, unbelievable as it seems, the billion-plus occupants of Planet Earth at this moment early in the 21st Century, have seen our lives transformed, possibly irrecoverably, by a Goof Heard Round the World.

How might one write that in Chinese? For there seems little disagreement that the virus began in Wuhan, China.

Now we have a new report that investigators have not been able to definitively conclude just yet that this virus somehow began in nature, not as an accident. They cannot at this point prove it jumped from an animal to man at, say, a Chinese wet market. That was the theory favored and then initially foisted on us at the outset — by experts.

Yet, last January 4 — I write here on August 25, 2021 — New York magazine carried a cover story by Nicholson Baker strongly suggesting, while not exactly concluding, that the coronavirus pandemic could well be the result of a laboratory accident in Wuhan. On January 15, the U.S. State Department released a fact sheet about the virus’s origin that drew no conclusions, either, but added one curious new detail:

The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the (Wuhan Institute of Virology) became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.

It has been reported that “from the first days of the pandemic, the Chinese government arrested doctors, suppressed warnings, and denied that the virus could spread one person to another. We have heard that Chinese officials have dragged their feet with the World Health Organization. Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s ruling cohort clearly don’t want a full and thorough investigation.

So I ask a vital question, like the anonymous author of that famous Zen koan who asked, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I ask, what is the sound of a lie? Of a string of lies?

Of an insistent, broken-rhythmed rhapsody of mendacity?

Listen! Is it coming from Wuhan? From Washington?

Listen!