Sunday, October 30, 2005

Screwing around with--I mean, reconfiguring--marriage, yet again

After all the Great Relearnings we've been through the last half-century, oughtn't the societal if not spiritual value of monogamous heterosexual marriage be pretty much settled by now? Some on the fringe haven't yet had enough visits from the Clue Fairy--that, or they are still in revolucionario mode and actively seek to subvert the institution of marriage.

Fr. Neuhaus calls our attention to one such activist in the "While We're At It" column of October 2005's First Things. He quotes a study by the Institue for American Values which states in part:

Institutions like marriage and parenthood are not simply mechanisms to fulfill individual needs and aspirations. They are also thick, multi-layered realities that speak to the needs for meaning and identity within human community. Marriage is the complex cultural site for opposite-sex bonding. A rich heritage of symbols, myths, theologies, traditions, poetry, and art has clustered around the marital bond. To change the core features of marriage is to impact real people, adults and children, whose lives will be significantly shaped by the renewal or decline of this institution.


This reminded me of this seventy-five year old observation, by H. L. Mencken:

To propose that marriage be abandoned and half-marriage substituted is like advising a man with a sty to get a glass eye. He doesn't want a glass eye; he wants his own natural and perfect eye, with the sty plucked out. All such reformers forget that the real essence of marriage is not the nature of the relation but the performance of that relation. It is a device for time-binding, like every other basic human institution. Its one indomitable purpose is to endure. Plainly enough, divorce ought to be easy when the destruction of a marriage is an accomplished fact, but it would be folly to set up conditions tending to make that destruction more likely. Too much, indeed, has been done in that direction already. The way out for people who are incapable of the concessions and compromises that go with every contract is not to fill the contract with snakes but to avoid it altogether. There are, indeed, many men and women to whom marriage is a sheer psychic impossibility. But to the majority it is surely not. They find it quite bearable; they like it; they want it to endure. What they need is help in making it endurable.
-- H. L. Mencken, "Divorce" The New York _World_, Jan 26, 1930


Rather nice to know that we aren't the first to have to fight this fight.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Curious about Opus Dei?

I don't know the first thing (get it? first thing?) about this organization. But there is a book review about it in the Washington Monthly, here. Clicking through First Things search box, I see RJN has come to Opus Dei's defense a time or two. Here is a typical offering.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Michael Novak:

"Communism aimed to objectify everything and everybody. Its fundamental premise was materialism. Human beings are--meat. Animated for a time, perhaps, but essentially no more than a sachetto of chemicals. Instruments. Means. The "dialectical" part of "dialectical materialism" belonged to a dynamic class position of "the proletariat". The "materialist" part belonged to the people. The individual should_expect_ to be expended, sacrificed, used up, like a thing. [...]

"It is well known that belief in God can lead to torture, as in the awful scrutinies of heresy tribunals. It is less well known that atheism of a particular kind also leads to torture. The two routes to torture are quite different. The temptation of believers comes from moral arrogance or its mirror image, as in the case of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who was moved to torture by "pity," a foolish belief that most people are not as wise as he, so that it was his "duty" to keep them from liberty. This route begins in moral debility. With atheists of the Communist kind it is quite different. Here torture flows from its fundamental premises about the human being. No human has any worth apart from contributing to the Cause—to the Dialectic, to the triumph of the Party (the Vanguard of History, the Custodian of human fate). If a man will not contribute willingly to History or (it comes to the same thing) the Collective Will of the Party, he is without value and may be disposed of—indeed, is a threat to the Party, and should be disposed of."


This passage occurred to me while reading the reviews of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's new biography Mao: The Unknown Story. In terms of numbers of victims done in, Mao is history's all-time champion villain. Like Stalin, he was able to gain control over a large, inaccessible country, impose an inhumanly destructive and durable ideology on its governance, and stay in power until the natural end of his very long life. And like Stalin, Mao's professed and practiced ideology was, tacitly or openly, approved by influential Western intellectuals, in a way which Hitler's atavistic racism was not. He was not overthrown by invading armies, as was the Third Reich, and he never stained his "honor" in the eyes of Western leftists, as Stalin temporarily did with the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 1939.

So why do some reviewers of the current book feel obliged to stick up for him? Nicolas Kristoff in the New York Times Book Review grants most of Chang and Halliday's charges, but ends with a complaint that all the positive accomplishments of Mao's regime were not presented. Complaint rejected. Accomplishing land reform and women's rights in China did not require the worst democide in history. I mean, does anyone serious think that the construction of Germany's excellent Autobahn required the deaths of 12 million in concentration camps? Armavirumque at The New Criterion has more, hotter and stronger than I'm inclined to dish out.

Or take the reaction of National Public Radio. Neal Conan did an excellent job interviewing both authors (both former Maoists), but some of his listeners weren't happy having their balloons punctured.

Clicking around the print reviews available online, though, I see that there are some that take legitimate issue with assertions of fact in the book. I've no opinion nor argument along those lines here; I'm not qualified. But the discomfort some reviewers exhibit reminds me of the reception Robert Conquest's The Great Terror received, particularly from The New Republic's Malcolm Cowley. Cowley complained that Conquest's death tally in the millions was "rather large and loose". He did not live to see uninformed Russian writers attacking Conquest for low-balling the estimates. It may be so with Mao and China, some day.

So, will Mao's mummy be removed from its altar anytime soon? Who knows. China is not a simple country. I liked what Michael Ledeen once said over at The American Enterprise, that China is a civilization masquerading as a nation-state. Maybe the threadbare but still enduring veneration of Mao is an example of an aphorism by Jean Rostand:

Kill a man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conquerer. Kill everyone, and you are a god.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Richard John Neuhaus speaks

Some favorites quotes of mine from the chief editor of FT:

Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their
religion.

For people of a certain ideological disposition, socialism is the name of their desire, and nothing can discredit that desire. Although expressing confidence in history's vindication of that desire, the desire itself escapes all of history's falsifications. ... The socialist revisionists we will have always with us, for the desire becomes more demanding as the prospect of its satisfaction recedes. The idea, like a bird, escapes all the closing traps of historical fact. There must be, they insist, an alternative to this--to the paltry, striving, bourgeois, thus and so ness of democratic capitalism. There simply must be. And there is of course. But those who do not know the alternative of a new heaven and new earth of ultimate promise have no choice but to cling ever more desperately to socialism as the name of their desire.

The problem, of course, is that neither [church nor state] is prepared to remain within its institutional boundaries. Government, if it is to be sustainable, engages beliefs and loyalties of an ultimate sort that can properly be called religious. As the impulse of the modern state is to define all public space as governmental space, so the consequence is a tendency toward "civil religion." Religion, on the other hand, if it represents a comprehensive belief system, speaks to the human condition in all its aspects, including the right ordering (the government) of public life....Thus each institution is, in the eyes of the other, constantly bursting its bounds. Therein is the foundation of the open-ended argument between church and state. Open-ended, that is, so long as a society professes to be democratic.

When orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.

Friday, October 21, 2005

How I first encountered Richard John Neuhaus...

...in print, that is. Never had the pleasure of meeting him in person.

Anyway, years ago I had the great good fortune to discover The Wittenburg Door, accurately billed as the Christian MAD magazine. (I read it during the editorships of Ben Patterson and Mike Yaconelli, who deserve a post of their own.) The humor was of the pomposity-deflating and self-deriding varieties, usually very well brought off. Example: For the issue featuring an interview with the Argentinian evangelist Juan Carlos Ortiz, they put a profile portrait of a llama on the cover.

Anyway, for the February/March 1985 issue, which you can buy here, they interviewed Richard John Neuhaus, who was still a Lutheran at that time. He wouldn't allow them to photograph him during the interview, instead providing them with a stock photo from one of his lectures. So the Door dragooned their accountant to pose for the interview photos, and appear on the cover.

The pith of the interview, which unfortunately isn't online, was an account of Neuhaus' estrangement from the Sixties anti-war Left after the end of the Vietnam War. He and a very few others spoke out against the predictably tyrannical rule the communist North imposed on the country, but they were brought up short by their former peace & justice vanguard-mates. Communist Vietnam is on the correct side of the world revolution, he was told, and it is unhelpful to the cause to criticize them. So much for the Voices of Conscience, he thought, and began his pilgrimage back from those circles.

Some years later I encountered First Things, though I don't remember how, and recognized Neuhaus from that Door interview. And I read happily ever after!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

How I Learned To Relax, Listen To National Public Radio, And Not Have To Duct Tape My Head

I've had a like/disgust relationship with National Public Radio for some time. Mellifluous, high-toned, undeniably left-leaning, as even The New Republic agreed, NPR--specifically the news programs All Things Considered and its weekend editions--alternately intrigued and irritated me. It was of course interesting to listen to human interest stories, like the fellow who made a living repairing 100-year-old carnival organs. But time and again I would be put off by ATC's condescending biases. Some examples:

During Ronald Reagan's second term, I think, when homelessness was a permanent front page story in the liberal news media, someone in the administration made a comment about how anyone needing food could easily get it from most any aid agency in the city. Eagerly hoping to catch him in a gaffe, ATC phoned around to several Washington D.C. missions and shelters, asking if this was true. Each one declined to talk to ATC, referring them to their supervisors. Yet ATC still aired the phone calls, as if they actually proved anything.

Or their pro-Palestinian tilt, from at least the 1980s, which frequently went beyond offensive to downright ludicrous. I still remember Bob Edwards closing out one news story in the 80s with words to the effect that "Israel says the PLO is a terrorist organization and has refused to co-operate. The PLO has recognized Israel's right to exist and is working to revive the peace process." See? Israel, no matter how blood-spattered her kindergartens and pizza parlors get, is just making wild allegations by calling Arab terrorists terrorists. Meanwhile, a temporary propaganda gambit by Yasser Arafat is credulously accepted as the truth. And they air stuff like this all the time. Like they had a segment on about angry young Palestinian rappers. NPR approvingly summarized their rebellious message in translation, but tap-danced around what they were actually chanting, which is a sure sign that they were baying for Jewish blood.

And just this past week, they had E. L. Doctorow on, talking about his new book. He managed to work in his opinion, which was the last word in the segment btw, that the U.S. military couldn't manage the Iraq war, and that Iraq was now in the same pre-Hitler phase that Germany was after WWI. And this was a couple of days after the Iraqi constitutional referendum and a couple of days before the start of the trial of Saddam Hussein.

I could go on, and I probably will in future posts, assuming I can come up with a First Things tie-in. But I find myself tuning in more frequently nowadays. Why? Well, there's a few reasons.

1. They do air more in-depth stories than can be found elsewhere on the radio dial. I'm a big boy and I can correct for bias, plus I get news from a variety of sources. News on AM radio stations in my area is little more than the local apartment fires, convenience store shootings, national headlines, dopey listener polls, and celebrity gossip. NPR does get beyond that.

2. Garrison Keillor usually puts on a fun show, his famous contempt for Republicans aside. Sometimes he gives me the creeps, don't know why, and I chafe at hearing the existence of conservatives used as a punchline. But, I can filter that out. I'm a big boy, like I said.

and 3. I finally accepted that most of the news programming on NPR simply is not marketed towards me, so there's no reason to get torqued over what I hear. Oh, my demographic attributes probably track pretty close to the typical NPR listener, but I feel myself to be very much an uninvolved, outside observer. I may get as mad as this guy sometimes, but rarely, and only briefly.

Here's your First Things tie-in, a brief account of how NPR briefly hired cop-killer Mumia abu-Jamal as a political commentator

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Harriet Miers nomination

I don't do much current events blogging here, tending to save that for my commenting on other people's blogs. But now that First Things has started up an editorial blog, I guess it's okay for me to tag along here.

They deal with the Miers nomination here. (They haven't put in permalinks yet, only batching the posts by the week, but it ought to be near the top.)

They quote an author named Matthew Scully, defending Miers high character against her more coarse conservative critics. The person he describes, in defending Miers, certainly sounds admirable. But, I continue to resist this nomination, for a number of reasons. There is no way she is the best person out there for the job. President Bush has appointed a number of fine federal judges, and John Roberts seems like a quality pick for the SC, so he's entitled to our trust in further picks. But he's strained if not abused that trust with this nomination. Sharp cookie that she may be, she has no judicial experience, and it isn't a sign of "elitism" to want judicial experience in a SC justice. If she is so qualified, let Bush appoint her to an appellate vacancy somewhere and demonstrate it. As it is, we don't know if she'd make a competent traffic court judge.

The fact that Bush is going with a stealth candidate who just happens to be his own lawyer is very disquieting. It means that he doesn't have the stomach right now for a fight in defense of a qualified conservative judge with a paper trail, or he's developing a bunker mentality, or he's becoming impulsive. Not a good sign in a President; it's bad for the country, no matter your politics.