Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Grief is not an achievement"

Jon Venables, one of the two boys involved in the horrifying James Bulger murder, has been arrested again, on charges that the British govt. -- probably with reason -- won't divulge. Andrew O'Hagan has a very good piece on this in the LRB; I particularly liked his rant about how the victim's mother has become a media sensation:
The British papers were in their favourite mode, evident again this week: mixing vengeance with sentiment, while exuding prurience and humbug. Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, is being paraded as the proper arbiter of justice: as if the mother of a murdered child should call the shots, should be the one to decide what ought to be done with the killers. She is not to be challenged: who in their right mind would seek to challenge a grieving parent?

Yet we need to challenge her, because that also means challenging the moral stupidity the media’s use of her represents, the urge towards counter-violence that always seems to make sense to the mind of the average working-class Briton. Of course she wants the boys behind bars for ever. She wants their rights taken away. Which of us, given the horror, would never be tempted down that road? No matter what the law says, a sense of entitlement nowadays devolves to the families of murder victims. The tabloids and not just the tabloids like it that way. Among the tabloids I include the Today programme.

This case has, from the beginning, involved the need to say that grief is not an achievement, doesn’t confer power, and Denise Fergus should have no say at all in the fate of the boys who killed her son. She speaks contemptuously of the justice system, feels she should be consulted on every aspect of the case, and the media egg her on because her words claim attention and sell papers. She, too, is one of the shades haunting the Strand Shopping Centre. We want to listen to her, but to act on what we hear would be criminal. She says she won’t rest until those boys are truly punished for what they did: she wants them incarcerated under their original names – a death sentence.[*] Meanwhile the justice secretary feels he must pay lip-service to her status in all of this.

That said, I suspect this would have been handled much worse in the American system, where some rising prosecutor would have mined substantial political capital out of the case.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Doctor 'Hue

It's to be regretted that Bill Donohue isn't as well-known as, e.g., Abe Foxman, because he's a lot funnier. Apparently his official role is to fight anti-Catholic tropes in the media but he moonlights as an all-purpose culture warrior. Below are some of the things he's said, they're really quite breathtaking. (I would be curious to know what a "normal" socially conservative Catholic like Ross Douthat thinks of this guy.)

On "The Passion of the Christ" [per Wikipedia]:
Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It's not a secret, OK? And I'm not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth. It's about the Messiah.
On sex:

Sexual libertines, from the Marquis de Sade to radical gay activists, have sought to pervert society by acting out on their own perversions. What motivates them most of all is a pathological hatred of Christianity. They know, deep down, that what they are doing is wrong, and they shudder at the dreaded words, "Thou Shalt Not." But they continue with their death-style anyway.

Secular saboteurs have often seized the arts to make a statement. That's why the blasphemous often tracks the obscene: if the goal is to put an artistic dagger into the heart of culture, then it makes sense to use all the ammo available by attacking the sacred. And they are certainly masters of that art. From scatological artistic exhibitions to the latest obscene installation, the charlatans have succeeded in politicizing the arts and denigrating Christianity.

On pedophiles, Ratzinger, and the Catholic church:

when Ratzinger's subordinates recommended therapy for Hullermann, he approved it. That was the drill of the day: after being treated, the patient (I prefer the term offender) returns to work. It's still the drill of the day in many secular quarters today, particularly in the public schools. A more hard-line approach, obviously, makes more sense, but the therapeutic industry is very powerful.

(This is the conservative synthesis in full bloom -- the instinctive leap from purification to violence is very Jack-D-Ripperian. Pass me the grain alcohol and rainwater!)

PS has anyone seen the South Park episode that mentions Donohue?

UPDATE Gawker (via Awl) explains what Donohue meant when he said that the church had a "homosexuality problem, not a pedophilia problem":

See, if the kids were post-pubescent—12 or 13, according to Bill—then it's not pedophilia anymore, it is homosexuality. And that means it's not the fault of the church, it is the fault of Gays.

A slightly more "moderate"-sounding version of this argument emanates from Ross Douthat. I consider my initial question largely answered.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Influential books

Yglesias, Tyler Cowen, and Kieran Healy [and probably lots of other bloggers] have been posting lists of books they found particularly influential. I'm finding it harder than I expected to come up with a similar list; I feel like I've picked up most of my ideas about life, politics, etc. -- at least the valuable ones -- by trying to reconcile apparent contradictions; the contradictions are typically easy to state, but I don't find other people's resolutions of them terribly useful. Most books that have actually mattered to me have done so by raising rather than settling problems. This should explain why I have more fiction than nonfiction on the list:

1. The Prince, by Machiavelli: for exemplifying the strictly instrumental approach to politics, and reminding me that it's valuable because good policies are useless unless you have the power to enforce them.

2. Some Versions of Pastoral, by William Empson: for the notion that "life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, yet a good life must avoid saying so" -- as Empson said elsewhere, that "life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis" -- which is at the heart of Empson's sense of the importance of literature. There's an internal paradox in this, I suppose, as Empson also declared elsewhere that "Critics, as barking dogs, are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I must, I confess, aspire to the second of these classes." The Pastoral book is the most important because it quite directly addresses the question of propaganda from a literary perspective, and once -- like me -- you've decided that there aren't objective moral truths, the study of propaganda becomes terribly important.

3. Collected Essays by George Orwell: especially the ones about Lear and Gandhi, which raise an important issue:
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.
This is a dangerous idea to take seriously -- it seems clear that there are at least some ways in which human beings leave room for unambiguous improvement -- but it identifies something that I've always considered a bit whiffy about the saints.

4-5. The Dyer's Hand and Collected Poems by W.H. Auden: for a more-or-less worked out attempt, though ultimately a flawed one, to create a sensible contemporary ethics. Auden's essay on "making, knowing, and judging" is a classic; so are a lot of the famous -- and facially silly -- distinctions between Europe and America in "The American Scene," which periodically give way to passages like this:
As the issue between virtue first and liberty first becomes clear, so does the realization that the cost to any society that accepts the latter is extremely high, and to some may seem prohibitive. ... But if the principle is accepted, it means accepting this: it means accepting a State that, in comparison to its Roman rival, is dangerously weak (though realizing that, since people will never cease trying to interfere with the liberties of others in pursuing their own, the State can never wither away. Tyranny today, anarchy tomorrow is a Neo-Roman daydream); it means accepting a “Society,” in the collective inclusive sense, that is as neutral to values (liberty is not a value but the ground of value) as the “nature” of physics; it means accepting an educational system in which, in spite of the fact that authority is essential to the growth of the individual who is lost without it, the responsibility for recognizing authority is laid on the pupil; it means accepting the impossibility of any “official” or “public” art; and, for the individual, it means accepting the lot of the Wandering Jew, i.e. the loneliness and anxiety of having to choose himself, his faith, his vocation, his tastes.
And of course "In Praise of Limestone"

6. The Penguin Book of Everyday Verse, ed. David Wright: for a good introduction to the folk poetry of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early 19th cent., which leaves one at least somewhat conscious of the limits of "progress" and of the extent to which human life is a zero-sum game that cannot be raised very far above the level of farce, regardless of how much technological progress one makes.

7. In search of lost time by Marcel Proust: for its brave attempt to argue that life is worth living because the pleasant recollections that pile up over time are enough to justify the drab interstices between them. (This offers an indirect resolution to the "lifespan dilemma" -- if your average utility per moment is proportional to how long you've lived before that moment, then average and total utility are the same thing and a long life is worthwhile on either count. I'm not, btw, convinced that this is the case, but Proust's way of reconstructing a life from its sensations makes it seem at least possible.)

8. Ulysses by James Joyce: for refuting the solipsists by example. You can stub your toe on Bloom.

9. The Canterbury Tales: for offering a reasonably complete portrait of what might be considered a harmonious "beehive" society; for making it seem a beautiful whole despite the lack of adequate plumbing; and for, in a somewhat limited sense, his defense of human existence as at least pleasantly vigorous if not dignified.

10. A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver, etc., by Jonathan Swift: for offering, through his unremitting and entertaining misanthropy, a credible case for the prosecution (contra Chaucer, that is).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Twitter roundup

Just to rescue some tweets from their probably deserved oblivion:
I can't deferret, I'll defer it.
I can't defer it, I'll deferret.
I wonder if "racist" is such a slur b'se it sounds like "rapist." (This would also account for "papist.")
I feel like "pulchriturd" has a nice ring (or squish) to it. If only it meant something.
Re Pynchon -- I draw the line at Mason & Dixon.
My g-nome ate your genome.
Shakespeare was disbard for life.
Why is the wan king wanking?
RT @hellobigfoot By look of pee stain forming on front of shorts, is fair for me to assume you familiar with my body of work
"I'm having a terrible time in here," said Anne frankly.
I'm just a harem-scarem lad with ten petrified young wives.
Roman Polanski is your new tricycle.
Picture yourself with a stoat on your liver.
There are distinctions a mustelid must elide.
"There is, it turns out, an improbably long catalog of things that you can outlive." http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23430
Adam and Eve were ribbed for your pleasure.
Livestock and two smoking barrels #farmerfilms
(Poor judgment, if evident, is partly due to sleep deprivation.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010


An odd parallel from the Wikipedia article:
The economic policy of Nero is a point of debate among scholars. According to ancient historians, Nero's construction projects were overly extravagant and the large number of expenditures under Nero left Italy "thoroughly exhausted by contributions of money" with "the provinces ruined."[77][78] Modern historians, though, note that the period was riddled with deflation and that it is likely that Nero's spending came in the form of public works projects and charity intended to ease economic troubles.[79]
Tacitus and Suetonius, I guess, were proto-Tea Partiers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A supinely indolent post

Gibbon on the Germans:
Money, in a word, is the most universal incitement, iron the most powerful instrument, of human industry; and it is very difficult to conceive by what means a people, neither actuated by the one nor seconded by the other, could emerge from the grossest barbarism.

If we contemplate a savage nation in any part of the globe, a supine indolence and carelessness of futurity will be found to constitute their general character.

To solicit by labour what might be ravished by arms was esteemed unworthy of the German spirit.
On the purpose of war:
Such, indeed, is the policy of civil war; severely to remember injuries, and to forget the most important services. Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.
On Constantine and the early church:
An absolute monarch, who is rich without patrimony, may be charitable without merit; and Constantine too easily believed that he should purchase the favour of Heaven if he maintained the idle at the expense of the industrious, and distributed among the saints the wealth of the republic.

Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty, was successfully practised.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"At least it's an ethos"

This remark of Ian Buruma's strikes me as extremely stupid:
Hitler’s Third Reich produced no great films. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant innovator and superb editor, with an extraordinary gift for visual effects, but I would hesitate to call Triumph of the Will, or even Olympia great films, unless greatness can be confined to technical prowess. Nazi Germany did not have the equivalent of an Eisenstein or Pudovkin, who still managed to create masterpieces out of political propaganda. Perhaps this reflects a difference between National Socialism and Communism, even though Stalin was no less murderous than Hitler. Great work can still emerge from the utopian ideal of the workers’ paradise. It is harder to imagine artistic excellence arising from violent racism.
Never mind that Stalin was in power twice as long as Hitler; that Communism survived a lot longer than Stalin; or that if you pick a different genre -- literature, say -- you immediately run into Celine, Hamsun, Yeats, Eliade and the rest of that lot, maybe not all Nazis, but certainly (1) brownshirts and racists fascinated with violence and (2) by and large, very great writers. (See e.g. this recent NYRB piece on Celine.) The assertion is prima facie so absurd it scarcely merits refutation. Violence and racism are, frankly, individually aesthetically appealing. There are tons of established literary tropes that a Fascist would feel at home with. There's all that stuff about blood and primal screams and ancestral soil and whatnot -- all that D.H. Lawrence crap -- which is racist or at least deeply anti-racial-mixing. (cf. Riefenstahl's later work on the Nubile Nubians) Then there's all that stuff about weeding out the degenerates -- the Taxi Driver tendency. As for hero-worship tied to expansionist nationalism, well, that was not without its appeal even to non-fascists like Virgil. And don't get me started on literature and violence...

I suppose one could argue that Celine et al. were simply "technically proficient" but that'd just be admitting that the original claim was designed to be true by construction. Incidentally I'm not trying to defend Nazi ideology as intellectually respectable; it's just that it gets the history all wrong to say that it wasn't plausible.