30 September, 2011

On G.W. Bush

Not to sound like a broken record, but I like thoughtful, well-balanced articles like this. The writer is clearly not a fan of Bush policy, but that doesn't stop him from being able, unlike most of the media, to make a distinction between the person and the ideas. Despite disagreeing with Bush on the Iraq war and on the fundamental nature of American democracy (yes, it's a Republic, but of a peculiarly democratic character; hence I think the term appropriate) I always did think the poor fellow got a bad rap with those vitriolic "I hate Bush" and "Look How Stupid Bush Is" calendars.

Thanks to Joseph at Ironical Coincidings  for the link.

29 September, 2011

What I've been doing

So, Brussels is nice. But one can only do so much sight-seeing without exhausting oneself. And a hotel isn't exactly the most welcoming place to relax, especially when it doesn't even provide free wifi so that one can email one's family. So for the past few days I've been taking full advantage of the Brussels Film Festival, during which one can get into the movies for only 4 euros. Not bad at all. So I've gotten a chance to see several movies which had intrigued me while I was in the US, but not enough for me to fork over $8 to the theaters. All were indeed decent in some respects, so I didn't regret the money, especially when there's so little else to do (other than walk around and spend money in restaurants). None of them was great. Which I kind of expected. Some brief comments: 
  •  Captain America: A fun, classic-comic-book style movie that doesn't bother with trying to make the material particularly thought provoking. That's not a bad thing, because its real charm is its evocation of a less jaded time when it was all right to be patriotic, even if one didn't agree with all the politicians, and when it was good to be a hero, whether the skinny type who ends up getting beaten up in a back alley, or the super powerful type who can bring down a Nazi munitions plant almost single-handedly. It focuses winningly on the difference between being a "message" and really doing something heroic. It returns unabashedly and successfully to the David vs. Goliath trope that people understandably love, but which seems like aesthetic pandering in many movies. The only real problem that I had with it was the ending. Sure there's a sacrifice, and sure, it's in keeping with that person's character. It's just really that it seems really abrupt, and that the follow-up is profoundly unsatisfying, leaving as it does all the previous story lines unresolved. It's as though they decided to scrap the "ending" idea and substitute "beginning of sequel".
  • The Debt: This one could have been so much better if they had scrapped the second story line entirely. I'm okay with having the original tale told in flashbacks; in fact, I think the director managed that quite skillfully, starting each flashback precisely where it needed to be started, and including precisely the right material in each one. The content of those flashbacks, which really is the bulk of the movie, is genuine John LeCarré style stuff: a thought-provoking exploration of the toll that deception (even for a good purpose) and revenge (even just retribution undertaken with proper authorization) takes on the human soul. I know that in the second story, the one that takes place about 40 years or so later, the filmmakers are attempting to pursue the whole "consequences of living a lie" theme in a much more radical way--the agents are now deceiving the world instead of their target, a much more obviously problematic activity. But I think the point was kind of made already through the sinister mockery of the ex-Nazi doctor in the first part as he scoffs at the agents' lack of conviction and claims that "Jews can't do what is necessary," that they're "weak" (essentially, not a direct quote), meaning that these agents won't be able to work up the nerve to go through with their plan. That the pressures of doing something that is so morally borderline (or that at least affects the conscience as being so, even if one agrees intellectually that the action is justified, as all of them do) will eventually break down their determination. Okay, deceiving an ex-Nazi in order to kidnap him and bring him to justice isn't the same as deceiving the world by pretending that the mission was completed when it wasn't. But the theme is already present in a more nuanced way in the first story line, and the viewer really doesn't need to be beaten over the head with it. The issue of the failure of the mission and the subsequent cover-up could have been dealt with much more skillfully, much less blatantly, and could have been done without the drama of the "second story" that commences about 2/3 of the way into the movie. What the movie really has going for it is the fact that the first story line is long enough and compelling enough to keep one watching. Too bad they didn't end it there.
  • Contagion: Not much to say about this one. Good cinematography, good acting, use of certain thriller gimmicks that actually made sense in this context. I certainly did leave the theater reluctant to ever touch anything or eat any meat again. On the other hand, while those technical successes keep one watching, one never feels anything but distant from the events that are unfolding, and I basically think that that's because they are events, but they don't constitute a story. We get snippets of many different characters' experiences, but they are just that: snippets. The frenetic movement of the script from scene to scene, country to country, character to character leaves every single character's story with gaps that really shouldn't be there, from the viewer's perspective. We aren't satisfied with seeing Marion Cotillard just run somewhere after returning to the movie almost out of nowhere...what has been going on? What's behind her decisions? We get enough information to deduce some of these things, but a story isn't supposed to be a puzzle: one doesn't "deduce" a plot, even if the genre is mystery. The Matt Damon storyline is the most humanized, the most complete. But again. We are told it in fragments, albeit larger ones. We follow it up to a certain point, but there is no ending. The credits just start to roll. I understand that this may well be intentional, meant to highlight the fact that a world-wide epidemic isn't going to be a nice Aristotelean drama and that it depersonalizes through its non-selectivity. However, even the most modern modernist isn't this impersonal, and even the most tentative of plot-creators (like Virginia Woolf)  at least have a plot for us to follow. For heaven's sake, if you want to depict The Nature of the Plague, do a documentary about the Black Death. If you want a story, however, find some human beings who are affected, discern their story line, at least with respect to this epidemic, and follow it to some conclusion. It doesn't have to be an utterly conclusive conclusion, but please, do conclude instead of just finishing.

27 September, 2011


 This article by Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest is quite intriguing. One thing that I've increasingly begun to notice over the past few years (so consistently that I don't think it's a jump to conclusions at all) is that liberals and conservatives in the USA both come off as rather desperate. Read the conventional news sources instead of say, something a little less headline-oriented and more thoughtful (Real Clear Politics, some of the New York Times' better editorials, The American Interest, some of The Atlantic), and you'll get one of two impressions:
  1. America is descending into a cesspool of communism, all Christians and libertarians are being catalogued by the nefarious Federal Government, to be actively hunted down and eliminated within the next few decades.
  2. America is being taken over by intolerant bigots who want to crucify homosexuals and bring back lynching, which, you know, they must, because all Christians hate anyone who is not white and northern European (so confusing to me, given where Christianity began and the distinctly non-European character of more than one place--Ethiopia, parts of India, the Philippines--where it has remained the strongest for at least several centuries).
Well, you can understand why those are the headlines. News is a business. Which unfortunately means that in a society where pride in the quality of one's work exists basically as a figment of the romantic imagination of company slogans, newspapers and other mass media survives on headlines that sell. And if you hype people up into a state of thinking "we are at war with X", they're going to buy more. That's the way we work. Make us think there's a battle to be fought, and we'll fight hard for a few minutes--reading newspapers and ranting at the coffee shop or on blogs or at work about the evils of the other side. Then our interest will turn to something entirely unrelated and we really don't care (in practice) any more until the next inflammatory headline catches our attention.

Now I'm hardly one to condemn that human impulse to fight, despite the rather anemic character of modern, safe, comfortable Western Civilization's method of attack. After all, what everyone is "fighting for," in their various views is "the truth," "justice", "good", etc. --although oddly enough one side insists that they are not fighting for "truth", because there is no truth (then why the fight? Even if tolerance is your highest goal, really, that at least must be true...another example of what David Brooks was pointing out in the New York Times a few days ago). Anyway, I'm not against the impulse, because it only reveals one of the elementary characteristics that humans have in common: however we misunderstand it and attenuate our search for it, we want truth, we want everyone to have access to the truth, and we are intensely dissatisfied, enraged even, when other people believe what appear to us to be lies.

Of course, that impulse can be catastrophically misdirected, because we're notoriously bad at understanding what is "true". Give people the wrong idea and they'll usually go too far. When an entire society becomes infected with a misdirected idealism, that's precisely when the worst atrocities and injustices of history have been committed. Because an ideal, an "ism" as Chesterton puts it, is the most dangerous of things: a piece of the truth. No one is going to fall for an "ideal" that is entirely contrary to human nature. (At this point I'm not going to attempt to defend the idea that one can talk about "truth" or "human nature", though I know that's the most controversial part of what I'm saying--I'm already getting far more in depth than I'd intended, and anyone interested would be better off reading the Greeks or the Bible anyway.) The problem comes with the bits of falsehood inserted into the truth. Take the cliched-but-useful examples of Nazism and Stalinism. True: Germany shouldn't have been so harshly punished after WWI, and Germans starving in the streets is not good; any oppression of the poor by the rich is bad, and the socio-economic problems of Tsarist Russia were severe. False: Jews are responsible for Germany's misfortune and so they must all be killed; all of the rich are evil and should likewise be killed, and you must unwaveringly support the communist regime or else be eliminated as a co-conspirator with the rich.

Anyway, this is getting away from the original topic, but essentially my points thus far are that 1.) News headlines attract our interest by turning all political issues into matters of moral urgency, whether they admit doing so or not; 2.) people are very susceptible to this because of a laudable common impulse to establish a true, just and good society; 3.) despite the appropriateness of the impulse, misinformation--whether incidental or malicious--perverts the action resulting from the impulse.

Now, I'm not at all intending to equate either side in the current political debate, nor even the extreme versions presented by the media, with something really evil, like my two examples. The cases are similar only in the way that a perversion of a truth is able to appeal to a whole lot of really decent people; the degree of perversion is obviously vastly different (except in the abortion case, but that's another whole article waiting to be written). However, I do think, essentially, that both sides of the media have got things quite wrong, and that we have to be very careful about sifting through claims intelligently, rationally, carefully. That we have to remember that America is not controlled by radical feminist-socialist-pro-abortionites, though that's what you'll see in Hollywood fairly often. And it's certainly not (and I really don't see how anyone with the slimmest contact with actual people in America could think otherwise), a nascent fundamentalist-Christian-lynch-mob state. (Again, really, has anyone been to a Tea Party? Talked with a real Tea Party sympathizer?)

I don't think people are all in some felicitous state of equilibrium either though. For one thing, that's impossible. For another, there are plenty of very obvious problems with American society today. Foremost among these in my opinion is actually the tendency of people to just...not care. About much of anything. (Interestingly enough you could argue that the hype in the media is almost necessary in such a lazy, individualistic society--a gadfly prodding the lazy horse into action sort of thing.) Generally as long as problem X doesn't affect me immediately, I won't care enough to get up and do anything about it. Notice that the only thing that really tends to get certain sectors of the population interested in politics is a mention of limiting welfare programs. Individualism. Self-centerism. Just what Tocqueville predicted, actually. And interestingly enough, what Mead points to in the above article as the "real America" that is obscured by the media hype on both sides.

To avoid misdirecting our efforts towards fighting a communist conspiracy or a nascent lynch mob, I have a suspicion it might be worthwhile to look at simple selfishness as the core of the problem. To realize that Americans are losing the vocabulary of ethics as "I want X" becomes an increasingly acceptable reason for doing anything. That socialist policies are more plausibly the outcome of self-interested lawmakers' desire to give immediate gratification to lazy, greedy constituents. That the more extreme comments coming out of mega-churches in the south stem from the fundamentalist tendency to preach a prosperity gospel and consequently involve themselves inappropriately in political-economic matters--or to appeal to a sector of the population that feels its legitimate moral beliefs to be under attack in today's America, often with suspiciously large fiscal gains for the pastors of said churches.

Which is all a bit of a dark outlook, but it's at least part of the truth. And since when has selfishness been not a problem?

23 September, 2011


If nothing else can be said for the man, he's certainly one of the most interesting political leaders since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. This article that I found in the archives of The Atlantic, written in 2005, eschews the media hype that usually surrounds the political leader and looks at the man behind the tiger-shooter, whale-harpooner, and judo-expert. Very interesting. On a lighter note, here's a great series of pictures from the same magazine that highlights the sort of action-hero status that makes him such a fun politician to follow...even if he is, you know, a bit on the totalitarian side, potentially dangerous, all that.

15 September, 2011

Something Rather Intelligent by Chesterton

Catholicism, in a sense little understood, stands outside a quarrel like that of Darwinism at Dayton. It stands outside it because it stands all around it, as a house stands all around two incongruous pieces of furniture. It is no sectarian boast to say it is before and after and beyond all these things in all directions. It is impartial in a fight between the Fundamentalist and the theory of the Origin of Species, because it goes back to an origin before that Origin; because it is more fundamental than Fundamentalism. It knows where the Bible came from. It also knows where most of the theories of Evolution go to. It knows there were many other Gospels besides the Four Gospels, and that the others were only eliminated by the authority of the Catholic Church. It knows there are many other evolutionary theories besides the Darwinian theory; and that the latter is quite likely to be eliminated by later science. It does not, in the conventional phrase, accept the conclusions of science, for the simple reason that science has not concluded. To conclude is to shut up; and the man of science is not at all likely to shut up. It does not, in the conventional phrase, believe what the Bible says, for the simple reason that the Bible does not say anything. You cannot put a book in the witness-box and ask it what it really means. The Fundamentalist controversy itself destroys Fundamentalism. The Bible by itself cannot be a basis of agreement when it is a cause of disagreement; it cannot be the common ground of Christians when some take it allegorically and some literally. The Catholic refers it to something that can say something, to the living, consistent, and continuous mind of which I have spoken; the highest mind of man guided by God.

~Why I Am A Catholic; The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton

10 September, 2011

Pope Benedict on Péguy

This is a short but interesting commentary by Pope Benedict on a performance of the play «Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc», which had been written by Charles Péguy, a member of that strong movement of modernist Catholic authors in France, somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century.

It's also nice to see recent papal commentary regarding the role of Joan of Arc and the reasons for her sanctity. Especially since her vocation is currently dismissed even among many Catholics as imaginary and her virtue reduced to her "strong moral conviction"...The rather Reformation-esque opinion that sincerity is the only criterion of sanctity is the commonly accepted one. While the pope does not address this opinion directly, his statements certainly are not framed in such a way as to cast doubt upon the validity of her visions or of her mission to confirm the dauphin's heritage and to end a hundred years of bloodshed by driving the English out of France.

03 September, 2011

Another good article, and more Civil War Economics

The reading about the Civil War continues. I'm finding the whole subject more and more interesting, and that interest rises as I discover excellent articles about aspects of the conflict that are generally ignored in the textbook accounts. This one, by Howard Jones at The American Interest, discusses the international ramifications of the war. It's particularly interesting to me in context of those chapters of Henry Adam's Education that dealt with the complex diplomatic situation over in London; a conflict that you really learn next to nothing about (it existed, that's pretty much it) in most accounts of the war.

Another interesting part of the article is the discussion of  Confederate efforts to woo Great Britain. Essentially, by making continued supply of cotton to Great Britain and France contingent upon those countries' recognition of the Confederate states, the Confederacy put another nail in their own coffin, economically speaking. Because the response in Europe was simply to look for cotton elsewhere. Hence the explosion of the cotton industry in Egypt, India, and Brazil. So by the end of the war, when the South was looking to get back on its feet economically,  they found that they'd deprived themselves of their own customers.

Also--and this is only tangentially related to the article--it's interesting that the more I read about this whole affair, the more clear it becomes that economics motivated the both the North and the South, despite that whole lovely mythologization of the South as fighting for some Romantic principle of Aristocratic Living and Good Old Roman Virtue. If you want to view the North's motivations solely  in economic terms, it's fair to do the same to the South; and it's necessary, in the face of the evidence. Given the south's preoccupation with the Slave trade (and who wants to believe nowadays that there was a huge push in the Confederate states to reestablish the African slave trade that the Founders had abolished in the early 1800s as a means of "strengthening"  the economy?) and the cotton trade, economic motives were certainly strong in the Confederate states. Thus while we can admit that the North may have been motivated to stop slavery because of the expansion of industry and the surplus of available immigrant labor, one must also admit that the South was also fighting for economic reasons:  for the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic, slave-owning agrarian economy vs. an industrial, wage-earning, talent-based economy. Again, any Romanticization of such motives is valid only insofar as we are willing to give a moral benefit of the doubt to both sides, since self-interest was at least as much an issue in the South as in the North.