Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Body of Evidence

I was standing by a mirror in the dressing rooms at Kohl's, glancing at my reflection, as I do sometimes, when I noticed an odd bulge in my foot. It was the big vein, puffing up at the end of the day, but only on my right foot. I raised it, wiggled it, rotated my ankle this way and that, but there I was, with one bulgy foot.

I was at Kohl's because I was taking teenage daughters to buy bras. They own bras, you understand, but there have been growth spurts. My heart twisted a bit as I picked out larger cup sizes for them to try and helped hook the bands and settle the straps over smooth young backs sprinkled with a few blemishes and pimples.

My ten-year-old has the body of a nymphet, lithe and willowy, just shy of the thicker curves her older sisters have developed. It's the body type Hollywood pushes, a prepubescent slenderness. Last week she was miserable because she was losing a molar the long way. The tooth wouldn't release, and it kept twisting and cutting her gums. Finally, it came out when she swallowed, and there it was, with two wicked sharp roots over the stout ivory chomper.

Bodies are weird. There's nothing permanent about them. St. Francis was right to call the body "Brother Ass" -- you mainly notice it when it's not doing the thing you want, which is often enough that you forget all the things it does right until those fail too. My body is full of oddnesses, mostly legacies of six pregnancies, but also hair in odd places, nonstandard toenails, a stubborn plantar's wart. I sometimes envy the angelic nature, how they can just be without being confined by the earthiness and frustrations of having a body.

But Christ suffered in the flesh. God himself provided the sacrifice: Himself. He drained himself to his last drop of blood. The body is meant to be immolated, completely offered up, in pregnancy or in works or in fasting or in sickness or paralysis or bedridden in a lingering old age. God himself has provided the sacrifice.

My oldest daughter and I have been working out together for almost a month, to a half-hour video six days a week. We are burning calories, the instructor tells us. Think about why we're working out -- for your significant other? To fit into that dress? These are lowest-common denominator reasons. Who doesn't want to look better? But why do I burn? It's a difficult act of trust, to keep exercising even though my body stubbornly refuses to show any change, to believe that it matters whether I burn even without any evidence. Even if my body should never recover its previous form, if it is simply part of me now to carry fifty more pounds than I did on my wedding day, surely it's better to move than not to move, to sweat than not to sweat, to give than not to give. Maybe the fruit is not borne in my body but in the body of the teen sweating next to me, or the baby who keeps trying to hang on my back while I attempt push ups.

Burn, baby, burn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Plot, or Why We Keep Turning Pages

There's an interesting piece at The Guardian on the pleasures of plot in novels (and in TV as well).

Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, “What will happen next?” as, “What has already happened?” The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.
Plot has lost its prestige. Only a few of those novelists who feature on Man Booker shortlists give us plot-reliant fiction. Those who do – such as Michael Frayn and Sarah Waters – are sometimes underrated for their skills. It is notable that Ian McEwan, a leading literary novelist who is deeply interested in plot, and in playing tricks with a reader’s expectations, has gone to spy novels for the machinery of two of his most carefully plotted novels, The Innocent and Sweet Tooth. His reader can feel confident that everything is part of a plan that pre-existed the novel. Yet this rare skill leads some critics to suspect him of chilly manipulativeness.

I strongly agree on the importance of plot in making a novel gripping and pleasurable to read. I may, however, have a slightly broader definition of plot than this author does. He uses as many of his key examples mystery-like plots -- both actual mystery novels and novels in which the presence of some mystery is gradually revealed and then solved. For instance, in Dickens' Bleakhouse, we have multiple mysteries: the identity of Nemo, the history of Lady Deadlock, the parentage of Esther, etc. We gradually realize these are mysteries, and then we realize they are connected, and at last we find the answers.

However, "solve the mystery" is not the only way in which plot moves forward. Indeed, one of the rather audacious elements of plot which I recall, was in an author this piece lists as relying little on plot, Anthony Trollope. In Barchester Towers, there's a point where the reader and the whole town are in suspense as to which of two suitors a pretty young widow will marry, and Trollope brazenly tips his hand to the reader, telling the reader in authorial voice that she will marry neither, and that if his readers are following only in order to find out some fact which could be ascertained by flipping ahead a few hundred pages, then he's failed. It's the process of seeing how events will move from the present point to the heroine's delivery that will provide the interest. And indeed, it does.

Even in a good thriller this is the case. The enjoyment of a good mystery novel is not ruined by knowing who the killer is. Good plotting is not just the careful planning of the mystery and the slow revelation of the clues up to the last moment when all comes into focus. It's also the manner of the journey.

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a "character driven" or "theme driven" novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is "the events which happened in this character's life", for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character's life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, "Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved." Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it's that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

Monday, May 23, 2016

We're In The Play!

This summer, we're in the play!

It has been a dog's age since I auditioned for anything, but the older four and I walked down last week and auditioned for the local community theater's production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All we knew about the show was Flying Car and Ian Fleming (and now, after watching the movie, we feel we still don't know much about it), but we went, and we sung and danced and read, and generally struck a blow for the dramatic honor of the Darwins.

We came pretty much unprepared. The audition notice was pretty minimal, so I wasn't sure if they were going to teach us something to sing. As it turned out, other people had brought music, so we just winged it acapella. Julia sang "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof, Eleanor did an awesome rendition of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, Isabel (who was coming down sick) opted out, and Jack sang, "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Blah Blah, happy birthday to you!" I mashed together a few verses of "No Way To Stop It" from The Sound of Music, and actually remembered the words. We learned a short dance to "Me Ol' Bamboo", and we read scenes with gusto. I don't know that we were the most talented people there, but we were the ones having the most fun.

Since they were casting everyone, we were all cast! Isabel and Jack are in the children's chorus, Eleanor and Julia are in the adult chorus and dancers (on account of the years of dance we've paid for) and I am adult chorus and Mrs. Phillips, the secretary who makes Caractacus Potts's life miserable at the Scrumptious Candy Factory. Darwin is the Gracious Kid Wrangler who makes this possible by watching the two small fry. Full steam fake English accents ahead!

Everyone block out your calendars and venture up to see us perform on the weekend of July 22-24.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Seven Quick Takes

Mitterer bans productions of the play from using Third Reich regalia. In his author’s note, he stipulates no swastika flags, no Nazi paraphernalia, and no Nazi uniforms. ­J├Ągerst├Ątter’s non-compliance would seem too natural to us when set off against symbols that have become shorthand for evil. He’s more radical when his tempters (like the bishop who blesses the Catholics fighting for the Reich as “heroes” defending the homeland) aren’t decked out in Nazi apparel, but instead look and sound familiar to us. Mitterer does, however, invite a heavy-handed moralism when he asks that the play end with projected “scenes of recent wars and of cruelty.”
Photos of teenage Victorian girls
I spent a lot of time looking at these clear, gorgeous portraits, tracing various facial types that I recognize from modern faces. Yet few modern portraits are as appealing as these vintage photos. Is it simply because of the hairstyles and the clothing (which, though probably uncomfortable, is far more flattering than most of today's fashions), or was there something intrinsic to the process of getting one's photograph taken in the old days that granted faces a beauty that modern photos don't seem to reveal? Or is it just the lure of the unfamiliar?

Speaking of Victorian teens, here's The Toast, elucidating how thirteen-year-old Midwesterners deal with the French bits in Jane Eyre. As a member of the demographic of thirteen-year-old Midwesterners who read Jane Eyre, I vouch for the accuracy of this.

Related: French Class, 2241.

How to caramelize sugar without melting it (h/t Brandon). I don't even like caramel, but I find this intriguing.
However alluring the darkest shades of caramel are, I'm most excited by the lightest hues. A single hour of toasting won't develop any discernible caramel flavor, but it tames the intensity of marshmallows, angel food cake, and fudge—recipes that rely on sugar for structure, but have a reputation for tooth-aching sweetness. 
Lightly toasted sugar brings these desserts into balance without sacrificing structure or distracting from their classic flavor. It even cuts down on the need for salt—a real boon for those on sodium-restricted diets. Not only does toasted sugar taste less sweet, it has less sucrose, fewer calories, and a lower glycemic index than plain sugar. How much lower would depend on the extent of thermal decomposition, but it's a promising notion.
 More from The Toast (which is shutting down in July, so who's going to bring the literary humor now?): Great House Therapy: The Dashwoods' Casual and Tolerably Comfortable Cottage.
Name: Elinor Dashwood, responsible eldest sister, daughter, and heroine who demonstrates strength of understanding and coolness of judgment, even when people are real jerkwads 
Location: Devonshire, England 
Size: Comfortable and compact, with four bedrooms, two garrets, offices, unhandsome stairs, and two sixteen square-foot sitting rooms (too cramped for parties, obviously), which is all just another way of saying REALLY DISAPPOINTINGLY SMALL 
Years lived in: For several months, since leaving the family’s enormo Sussex estate of Norland Park, where for many generations the Dashwoods had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance (so that was nice of them); rented
Speaking of Jane Austen, Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman's new film based on Austen's last manuscript Lady Susan, is finally out in select cities. And one of those cities will be Columbus, next weekend, so Darwin and I have scheduled A Date. Find out if it's playing near you.

Immediate Book Meme: MrDarwin Edition

Normally, it's MrsDarwin who dusts this one off to go over her reading, but I wanted to jump in as well this time round, so here's my version of the rundown that she just did. Literacy-Chic also contributed. So has Joseph Moore. Feel free to do yourself!

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Brusilov Offensive about the Imperial Russian offensive in the summer of 1916 which pretty much ended the offensive capabilities of the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving them to be propped up by Germany for the remaining two years of the war. Timothy Dowling's book is readable specialist work and I'm finding it very helpful.

Master of the Senate
, the third volume in Robert Caro's monumental five volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson. The Paraphasic turned me on to this a while back, and it's really fascinating as a detailed examination of an utterly ruthless politician and our political system which he learned to manipulate to achieve his ambitions. Along the way, we meet a whole series of fascinating side characters, also sketched in some detail. This volume covers the period in the 1950s when LBJ served as the Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate, turning that into a much more powerful office than it had been before, and using it to try to achieve his driving ambition of becoming president. I've been listening to these on audiobook, and the recordings from Audible are quite good.

2. What book did you just finish?

Early Trench Tactics in the French Army: The Second Battle of Artois, May-June 1915 -- As the title indicates this is a bit of a specialist book (and no, I didn't pay $100+ to buy it, I borrowed it from the library) but it covers an interesting and little discussed period during which the French army was trying to figure out how to fight and win after the Western Front had settled into one massive fortress system. Contrary to one popular stereotype, all of the nations involved were working hard to figure out how to adapt tactics to the new situation, and this covers that innovation from a French perspective.

Means of Ascent
is the second volume of Caro's LBJ, covering his time in the House, his first unsuccessful run for the Senate, the beginning of his fortune drawn from radio and TV stations, and his eventually successful (through vote stealing) election to the Senate in 1948.

3. What do you plan to read next?

I'll definitely read the last currently published volume (four of the planned five) of Caro's LBJ biography, The Passage of Power, which covers Johnson's struggle against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, his relegation to the vice presidency in an administration that seemed intent on sidelining him, and his unexpected ascension to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination.

For my on-paper reading, I need to pick my next WW1 research read. On the docket are:

Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

German author Arnold Zweig's novel Outside Verdun

And French author Jules Romains novel about the same battle: Verdun

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 -- I'd picked this up cheap used, and then set it aside when my interlibrary loan requests for books too expensive to buy came in. This also deals with the evolution of infantry tactics in WW1, though it's period is a little more broad than the book on French tactics that I just finished.

Embarrassing to admit, but I've still not finished Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. I read the first half of it on a business trip (when I'm restricted to the couple square feet of an airline seat seems to be my most protracted quiet reading time these days) and although I really enjoyed it a lot I haven't got back to it since.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Leisure is the Basis of Culture has been on my reading list for a while. I bought a copy, determined to read it this year, but so far it's just sitting on my bedside table. I'm not sure why I still keep books there, since it's gotten to the point where I run on little enough sleep that I seldom read more than two or three pages in bed before falling asleep.

I'm also really eager to read Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings which both covers author Diana Glyer's research into the extent of creative influence that the Inklings' critique sessions had on the members' works, and also proposes ways in which authors might seek to imitate their creative collaboration.

6. What is your current reading trend?

World War One. And I guess, though this is mostly just a result of reading this one massive series, Lyndon Johnson.

Is Global Warming Like Eugenics?

Every so often, I run into variations of the following argument: They tell us that anthropocentric climate change (or 'global warming' if one prefers the less fancy terminology) is settled science, but the beliefs of 'settled science' can be horribly wrong. After all, in the 1920s eugenics was settled science.

I think that what's causing confusion here is the distinction between actual scientific theory and policy/moral beliefs relying on that theory which might be popular with scientists and science boosters/funders -- what one might call the "scientific establishment" in some political and cultural sense rather than in the sense of knowledge.

While the scientists involved in Eugenics work (as in, doctors and biologists who were theorizing about or conducting studies on the genetic basis of "undesirable" traits, and then formulating proposals for "racial health" initiatives) doubtless got various things wrong in terms of the exact genetic basis and probability of inheritance of certain traits, the basics of the science involved has not actually been discredited. And indeed, some of the things which population geneticists have to say are rather upsetting to politically correct sensibilities. (Something which a certain type of racist sometimes takes aid and comfort from.)

What did become wholly discredited was the idea that because someone had a higher probability than the general population of having "unfit" children, one was therefore acting morally in forcibly sterilizing that person. And even that realization didn't come so much on the merits as because it became clear how closely those people's ideology was tied in with that of the Nazis.

On climate change the science element (that global average temperatures are rising in a fashion which seems to be explainable primarily through the known greenhouse effects of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere) really is pretty well supported. Yes, there's always room for refinement and change as new information becomes available, and there could be some huge thing we don't know about, but people are overplaying it when they act as if this is much more sketchy than most areas of science that we rely on without much thought.

Once we get beyond the actual science question into what, if anything, we should actually do about it at this point, we're off into policy and moral questions, and that's not necessarily an area in which the scientists involved and their activist hangers-on can provide a whole lot more insight than others. So there's not necessarily any reason to follow the climate change movement in its proposed solutions. Indeed, many proposed solutions actually fail on scientific merits. (For example, some forms of "alternative energy" actually are more costly in terms of environmental destruction than just burning fossil fuels, if one looks at the actual effects of building all the pieces involved in the energy systems.) But attacking the climate science itself is arguably not the right way to go at disagreement.

(Note: Yes, I'm aware of the various data snafus and scandals surrounding climate science organizations. But although these are disturbing and probably point to mistakes that climate scientists have made as a result of being overly defensive, as best as I can tell critics are far overplaying their hands when they then conclude that there is simply nothing to climate change studies or that they are an elaborate fraud to get funding. My goal in this post is modest, to discuss the comparison of climate change theories to eugenics. It's not to try to resolve the entire validity to climate science via recourse to Dr. Google.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain
Twain being Twain. I can only take small doses, but he's worth it.

Arcadia, by Iain Pears
Starts off in the present tense, which puts my hackles up. Professor acquaintance of Tolkien and Lewis wants to create his own fantasy world, without having a story to tell about it. Girl gets into the world. Not really gripping, so far.

The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni


2. What book did you just finish?

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O'Connor
There was a interesting novel of moral choices buried here, obscured by pages of pretentious abstractions in which we hike literally through Jefferson's psyche, we witness Jefferson watching a movie about himself, we follow Jefferson and Hemings as they check out the Museum of Miscegenation, the author muses about colors, and we squirm through segments of self-righteous wish-fulfillment in which Jefferson is a prisoner being tortured by a sadistic guard for being evil. Perhaps the author doesn't realize, or perhaps he does, that he is creating his own Sally Hemings as much as he convicts Jefferson of doing. And all this, without mentioning the loathed present tense format of the more novelistic scenes. Egad. Special mention, though to the moving depictions of a slave auction and the death of beloved children.

Septimania, by Jonathan Levi
Ludicrous theological errors on page one made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief through a narrative that really needed suspension of disbelief. Also, I've read Umberto Eco, and you, sir, are no Umberto Eco

Plantation Parade, by Harnett Kane
The histories of several notable plantations along the Mississippi, with a keen sense of the wheel of time and fortune turning.

Ghosts Along the Mississippi, by Clarence John Laughlin
The purplest of prose, but the photos are gripping.

3. What do you plan to read next?

Ad Pyrrham, by Ronald Storrs

Scarpia, by Piers Paul Read

Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, by Amy and Leon Kass

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

John Adams, by David McCullough

The Iliad, translated by Caroline Alexander

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing making me feel guilty at the moment.

6. What is your current reading trend?

New fiction which is highly reviewed by the WSJ.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shooting Legacy

I'd made time to get out of work early on Friday and go to the rifle range.

This had been one of those weeks (indeed several of those weeks), most of the days back to back meetings with no break even for lunch, and most of the meetings heavy on negotiating the pricing for next year, something which puts me up against people a level or two above me. And the weekend was slated to be full of kid activities. And for several weeks I'd been itching to make it off by myself for a while to go shooting -- ever since I took the oldest boy a month ago. He had a great time, and I enjoyed taking him, but you can't settle down to do careful shooting when you're keeping on an eye on an excitable seven-year-old at the shooting range.

Friday afternoon proved to be the perfect time. The weather was temperate and partly cloudy, and there were only two other shooters on the rifle line. To the uninitiated, going to the shooting range might seem like a loud, if cathartic, activity. Particularly under these conditions, however, it's the opposite. Good target shooting means making every part of yourself still. Hold the rifle so that the sights don't appear to dance across the target. Make your breath steady and smooth. Squeeze the trigger gently so that the rifle doesn't move as you fire.

You put on your ear protection, and the world becomes quiet and a little distant. Calm is a necessity for shooting well.

I had got a new scope for my my dad's .22, and I wanted to sight it in. The windage on the new scope proved to be way off, so this was a process of taking a careful shot, finding the hole off to the left, adjusting the windage knob, and trying again as the shots gradually tracked in towards the center of the target.

As I was reloading, the ranger officer came by.

"Some people would say that's a nice rifle," he said. "That'd be wrong. It's a beautiful rifle."

I nodded. "It's my dad's."

"Take good care of it, and maybe someday it'll be yours," he said.

I hesitated a moment. The range officer is a personable guy, probably in his late sixties. About dad's age. Volunteer personal information or let it alone?

"Well..." The word hung in the air for a moment. "Unfortunately, it already is."

He put a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. That's a terrible way to get a gun."

"Thanks. That was ten years ago, but the rifle is... I think about fifty years old."

"Take good care of it. I've got a ninety year old Winchester for the same reason."

We talked for a few more minutes about the care of old guns and then he moved on.

It is a beautiful rifle, a Marlin Golden lever action .22 rifle. The model has been manufactured by Marlin for over a hundred years now with various minor changes along the way. The first version was put out in 1891. The latest change that I'm aware of was the addition of a safety button in the 1980s, which isn't there on mine, which Dad bought while he was in high school back in the mid sixties.

Shooting together was not a major part of my relationship with my father. The rifle dates from his high school days, when he and some friends used to drive out into the Mojave Desert east of Los Angeles to shoot. They went to different colleges, however, and the rifle went into storage in a closet at my grandparent's house.

My early connection with shooting was the result of a special issue of Boy's Life focused on shooting sports. It had an ad in it for a Daisy BB gun, and I begged and begged to have one for my tenth birthday. Eventually, my parents agreed, and I spent many hours target shooting in the back yard with it. Dad was sympathetic, having himself spent hours with a BB gun as a boy. When I first got the BB gun he taught me how to use it, firmly instilled ideas of gun safety in me, and shot it with me a bit, but shooting was always primarily a solitary activity for me.

When I was older, he eventually told me about the .22, and brought it home from his parent's house. I think we probably took it out to a range at most a half dozen times during my youth. Dad was far less interested in guns than I am. If it hadn't been for my abiding interest in shooting, the .22 probably would have remained at his parents' house indefinitely.

Still, among the things that draws me to shooting is the way in which it connects to history. A well taken care of gun remains usable for a very long time. My dad's .22 is fifty years old, but the steel is still its deep, oily blue and the walnut stock is still a beautiful piece of woodwork. With decent ammunition I can shoot one inch groups at fifty yards, and so long as its taken care of it will still do as well another fifty years from now. There aren't many things we buy these days designed to last and function for a hundred years. These can. If I'm given the time, I could teach not only my children but my grand children to shoot.

Noonan Dissembles for Trump

This weekend's column seems to encapsulate many of Peggy Noonan's worst tendencies as a columnist. Her theme is that conservatives need to take Trump and his supporters seriously. However, she'll get little hearing there when she engages in imputing motives she surely knows are not accurate:

"Mr. Trump’s victory was an endorsement of Mr. Trump but also a rebuke to professional Republicans in Washington. It was a rebuke to comprehensive immigration plans that somehow, mysteriously, are never quite intended to stop illegal immigration; a rebuke to the kind of thinking that goes, “I know, we’ll pass laws that leave Americans without work, which means they’ll be deprived of the financial and spiritual benefits of honest labor, then we’ll cut their entitlements, because if we don’t our country will go broke.” The voters backed Mr. Trump’s stands on these issues and more."

Does Noonan really believe that people formulate policy with the intention of leaving Americans without work? Many people believe others polices deprive people of work. For instance, it's a staple of Republican rhetoric (even including Trump's) that Obama's health care legislation is "job killing" policy. That represents their assessment of the likely effects of Obama's policy. But do we really think that Obama came up with his health care plan with the intention of depriving Americans of jobs? Similarly, it is the assessment of Trump and other populists that allowing free trade with other countries will result in American jobs being "stolen", leaving Americans without work. They may or may not be right on this (I think they're mostly wrong) but the people who advocate free trade policies do not do so thinking they will leave Americans without work, they do so thinking that these policies will grow the American economy and thus provide work.

Noonen then plays the outsider to the last twenty years of Republican history, writing:
"I confess I have lost patience with many of those declaring they cannot in good conscience support [Trump], not because reasons of conscience are not crucial—they are, and if they apply they should be declared. But some making these declarations managed in good conscience, indeed with the highest degree of self-regard, to back the immigration proposals of George W. Bush that contributed so much to the crisis that produced Mr. Trump. They invented Sarah Palin. They managed to support the global attitudes and structures that left the working class jobless. They dreamed up the Iraq war.

Sometimes I think their consciences are really not so delicate."

We all remember how Noonan opposed the Iraq War. We all remember how she poured populist disdain upon proposals for immigration reform which were designed to easy our country's at times Kafka-esque immigration procedures and provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and their children, who have in some cases been living in the US and paying taxes for decades already. We all remember how Noonan mocked the idea of shifting Republican policy towards more openness to immigration in an effort to woo Hispanic voters.

Oh wait. Noonan is not noted for any of these things. Rather, this column represents an attempt to be above-it-all in relation to positions she has herself held and written about in the past. And for what? To support the integration into the party of a would be strongman figure who surely any mature political writer must realize would be a disaster for the party.

This present flirtation does Noonan as little credit as her brief crush on Obama during the 2008 election.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

There Is No Time!

Let me just note down here what happens this weekend so that I don't schedule one more thing.

2:30 Schola practice for Pentecost sequence
4:30-5:30 Diana's class rehearses for dance recital
6:30-7:30 Eleanor and Isabel's class rehearses
7:30-8:30 Julia's class rehearses


1:00 First Dance Recital; big girls volunteering
4:00 Second Dance Recital; all girls dancing, family attending.
As soon as we can get down there after recital: Junior High Overnight Service Camp, Eleanor volunteering, Julia and Isabel attending


7:30 First Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel
8:30 Darwin picks up girls from Service Camp overnight; I go to church to rehearse the schola
9:00 Second Mass; children's schola sings sequence.
10:45 Third Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel.
12:15 Fourth Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel unless we have to stay for this mass because people arrived too late for the 9:00
3:45-5:15 Last religion class of the year.

Thank God that all these things are good in themselves, happy and constructive events. No court dates, no doctor's visits, no terrors. But I'll still be glad when they're over and I can just read my library books and learn to write again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Your !@&%ing Language Makes Things Harder

The frequency with which profanity is used in the office, both in the hallways and in business meetings, seems to vary by industry, by company and by individual department. At my current company, it's pretty common, enough so that even the people who pretty clearly don't naturally use it in business conversation often seem to feel obliged to work 'fucking' into any particularly strong statement of affairs in order to show they're serious.

Of course, much of what we call profanity in our current culture is not actually "swearing" in the sense of taking oaths or invoking the sacred. While Shakespeare's Henry V exclaimed 'God's Blood!' when things seemed a bit much, today's leaders mostly invoke sex and the body's waste management systems. (I suppose one could argue this is a barometer of what we actually hold sacred in our culture.)

But I'm not actually here to discuss the morality of using 'bad language', but rather the effect it has on interactions. A meeting I was dealing with got testy the other day, and there were numerous exclamations of 'Are you fucking kidding me?' and 'What is this shit?' And as people vented their frustrations at each other, you could see people becoming more defensive and angry in their body language.

One of the things that we learned in acting class back in college was that you could develop an emotion on stage by putting yourself through the motions which a person experiencing that emotion might use. Motion can create emotion. Pound the table and shout, and you'll start to feel anger to carry you through the rest of the scene.

As a parent, I've learned the flip side of this lesson: let yourself use motions which express your anger or frustration, and you'll become angrier. If the children are misbehaving and I yell at them, if I'm scooping toys off the floor and I allow myself to throw the toys with that satisfying crash into the place where they should have been in the first place, those actions make feelings of anger roil up far more than they had before.

Even in a workplace where profanity is utterly common, having it used on you tends to make you angry. Though profanity has been voided of much of its underlying meaning, it still puts up automatic defensive feelings, just like being yelled at (another office habit which quickly turns interactions more hostile.) "What the fuck were you thinking?" gets a worse reaction than "I don't think your idea will work," even in a workplace where the use of 'fuck' is constant.

Not all swearing is equal in this sense. It's specifically swearing at people or their ideas which causes situations to escalate. But the way in which it ratchets up conflict and emotion makes it a good idea (any moral or aesthetic concerns aside) to cut out the swearing in situations where you're trying to persuade people to agree and get things done.

Monday, May 09, 2016

What Is A Political Party and How Do You Take One Back?

It goes without saying I've been doing a lot of tooth gnashing since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee last Tuesday, but I figured that there were enough posts out there venting high octane anger and disgust without adding my own piece to that genre. I won't be voting for Donald Trump in November. I think that Hillary Clinton would make an absolutely terrible president, but I still think she'd be less bad that Donald Trump is likely to be, so I'm not particularly worried about the possibility that my failure to vote for Trump would contribute to a Hillary victory. That said, I won't be voting for her either. I'll either cast my presidential vote for a third party candidate or leave the top of my ballot blank and only vote in the other races.

I'm hardly the only conservative disgusted with the Republican nominee. I've seen a number of friends announce that they are changing their party registration from Republican to unaffiliated. Others have talked about the need to find or start a third party for conservatives to support, providing a way to register their opposition to Trump and a new political home if the GOP turns into the party of Trump. On the other hand, there are those who, however much they dislike Trump, dislike Hillary more, and so are determined to rally to the GOP banner no matter who is holding it, and also those who argue that it's only those who show their loyalty to the party by getting in line behind the nominee who will have a voice in rebuilding the party when the Trump phenomenon finally burns itself out.

All this has left me thinking a fair amount about what a political party is, and thus what it means to try to teach it a lesson or win back control over it.

This isn't as simple as it might seem, because a political party is several different things, all of them mutable in different ways.

First off, a political party consists of the elected officials who were elected under that party's banner and the candidates who are nominated by the party. In that sense, Trump is now one of the leaders of the Republican party. Another way of talking about a political party is its "establishment", which includes not just elected officials but party staffers, activists, donors and other people involved on a volunteer or professional basis in a party's workings. Finally, a party consists of voters who are registered with the party and/or vote for its candidates most of the time. Of those voters, only a minority even cast ballots in the recent primaries. And of those ballots cast, roughly 11 million were for Trump while roughly 15 million were for other candidates.

Trump is clearly neither a social conservative nor a small government/constitutional conservative. His nomination represents a victory of other ideas (celebrity, anti-immigration, isolationism, tariffs, anti-PC, machismo) over a more traditional conservative set of political position.

The variable here is the voters. Voters may vote or not vote, they may support the Republican party or another one. Trump has both gathered the support of a number of Republicans who have supported various other Republican candidates during recent election cycles, and also brought in the support of independents and Democrats who find his personality and political positions appealing. Other candidates draw other sets of voters. Perhaps one of the difficulties this year is that there were a number of presidential aspirants who attracted some portion of the usual GOP set of primary voters, but it was only Trump who cornered a particularly enthusiastic portion of the base along with a faction of outsiders who do not normally vote for Republicans (or if they do, do so only with frustration and disgust.) The result is the Trump coalition of voters.

What remains to be seen is: has the Trump coalition chosen a candidate capable of attracting a winning percentage of voters in the general election?

If Trump wins, and particularly if he wins convincingly, that will begin a shift in the party in which people with views similar to Trump begin to take over the slots in the first two groups, the elected officials and the functionaries, while relying for their success on voters who like Trumpian candidates. Voters, officials and functionaries who find their views incompatible with Trump would go elsewhere -- to the Democrats, to some third party, or to the political no man's land of views not fitting into any of the parties. This would be fairly similar to the process whereby liberal Republicans vanished or became Democrats over the last forty years, and the opposite process through which conservative Democrats became Republicans.

There's been a lot of talk in the recent primary about the "Republican Establishment", with Trump and to an extent Cruz running against it, while others have plaintively asked why the Establishment has sat on its hands while Trump ran away with the nomination. There is a party establishment (its officials and functionaries) and it is at fault during this last election cycle for wasting a lot of resources on the hopeless Jeb Bush bid for the nomination and for ignoring Trump until it was too late to do anything about his insurgent candidacy. However, the establishment's power is determined by who shows up and votes.

There are two opposing dynamics a play for conservatives wanting to regain and rebuild the Republican Party. On the one hand, victory tends to cement the power of the winners within a party. It builds the loyalty of the voters who supported the victory, gives positions of power to elected officials and functionaries within the party, and it pushes away voters who dislike the people elected.

On the other hand, a party's power structure is determined by the people who show up, make donations, and cast votes. If only Trump supporters are showing up to during the next couple election cycles, while conservatives sit out, waiting for candidates they like better to be put forward, the party will end up looking more like Trump, not less, because it will be formed by the people who are active in it.

To regain control of the party, the difficult needle which conservatives will need to thread is to make sure that Trump loses, and that others like him fail to gain nominations for other offices, while at the same time remaining active in the party in order to further their own candidates and causes. If Trumpism is mostly driven by its celebrity banner-holder, then defeat should send his hard core of supporters off to wherever they came from. If there's a deep desire for his kind of politics among the Republican base, then a more protected power struggle is likely to ensue.

Either way, the method by which conservatives can wrest control of the party back from Trump and his followers is by showing that more people turn out and vote for conservative candidates than for candidates like Trump.

Friday, May 06, 2016

What the Cuss

It's been a tough week for you. You want to cuss someone out, but you just don't have the right words to pour out some high-quality invective on whoever's making your life miserable. Well, search no more, because history provides.

In 1676 the Zaporozhian Cossacks had had it up to here with Sultan Mehmed IV, who, despite having suffered a defeat, demanded an unconditional surrender:
Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks: 
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians - I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks. 
--Turkish sultan Mehmed IV
The Cossacks were having none of this. Although they were not literary men, they put their heads together and sat down to the painstaking work of composing a letter to convey their response in precisely the right words to compliment the Sultan's many titles.

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan! 
O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil's kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can't slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we've no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother. 
You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother! 
So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won't even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we'll conclude, for we don't know the date and don't own a calendar; the moon's in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day's the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse! 
- koshovyi otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.
History does not record the Sultan's response.

Thursday, May 05, 2016


The Ascension strikes me as a feast of grief. The apostles stand staring up at where they last saw Jesus because once they move away from where they last saw him, he's really gone. We watch the spot where we last saw a friend. Until the apostles move, there's still a sense of physical connection with Jesus, just as someone might sit beside a dead friend, or remain in church after a funeral, or linger at a graveside. There's a faint, wild hope that he will reappear, say it was a test or that that the Father sends him back because he knows how much they need him. When they move from the spot, the thread is snapped. 

The thread does snap, but in a way they least expect. An angel shows up. We think of angels as fantastic, ethereal creatures, but in the Bible, they're as no-nonsense as you get. The angel has no patience with humans associating a physical position with proximity. "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking into the sky?" Which is a strange question, seeing as the angel next says that Jesus will return exactly the same way they saw him go. Humanly speaking, if he's coming back that way, it makes sense to stand looking into the sky, what? But the angels know that Jesus just told the apostles that they would be his witnesses starting in Jerusalem. You can't witness in Jerusalem if you're staring up at the sky on Mount Olivet.

So they go back to Jerusalem to pray in the upper room. In the week and so before the Spirit comes on Pentecost (and they didn't know when the Spirit was coming, if they even exactly understood that the Spirit was coming), they do what makes human sense for an organization: they fill empty leadership slots. Out of 120 people (minus twelve for the disciples), they winnowed the field down to two men who fit the criteria of having been with the brethren throughout the whole of Jesus's ministry, Joseph and Matthias. Here the apostles show a first glimmer of wisdom. They don't have the fullness of the Spirit yet. Their prudential judgment has always left something to be desired. So instead of trusting to themselves, they prayed and then cast lots, leaving the choice to the Lord. And then everyone accepts the outcome, with no bickering -- these, the men who jostled for position, who asked Jesus if they could sit at his right hand, who walked right behind Jesus while debating who was the top dog. Now they're ready to receive the Spirit, and they receive the Spirit with such power because their hearts are now ready and open.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Free at Last!

Ever since I was old enough to vote, I've voted Republican. Not because I have any deep love for Republicans, but because the Democrats are so wedded to abortion as a platform necessity that my conscience doesn't allow me to vote for them. When I've said, in the past, "I vote Republican," I meant, "I vote pro-life."

But thanks to Trump virtually clinching the nomination by winning Indiana, I'm freed from the tyranny of the party. I don't have to identify as a Republican anymore. When someone asks me if I'm a Democrat or a Republican, I can say neither! And for the first time, I can vote for someone I like for president. Who gets my write-in vote? Which person do I actually think would be best suited to run the country? It's almost overwhelming.

Free, free, I'm free at last.

Monday, May 02, 2016

You Will Stretch Out Your Hands

"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  John 21:18

I am not master of my own destiny, but I have a lot of agency, at this time in my life. I make decisions for many people, including myself. I tell this one go, and she goes, etc. I am wealthy in many ways: health, family, friends, secure housing, and actual money.

And we all know how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. I get to act in a lot of ways that preserve my external, worldly dignity. I can drive myself around, I can speak for myself, I can eat what I will, when I will. Sure, I depend on other people, but not in ways that damage my image or my dignity.

But the path to salvation lays in stretching out my hands and being led where I do not want to go. Many people experience that overtly, here on earth, in tangible and uncomfortable ways. Some people do not have any control over their housing. Some have no control over their mobility. Some have no choice in what they eat or wear. And sometimes I am the one making these choices for other people: for my children, for my family, for friends who depend on me. And it's incumbent on me to remember that one day I'll likely be in the same position, being led where I do not want to go, and my experience of being treated with dignity may lie with other people.

But it's not a matter of tit for tat. Even if I dropped dead tomorrow, and so never suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, my role on earth is to treat others with dignity, whether I'm leading or being led. Often, leading others is itself a form of being led where you do not want to go, when the leading is difficult or involves sacrifice.

And in the end, we're all being led where we don't want to go by Jesus Himself, because he's leading us to holiness, and if it were easy to get there ourselves, we'd already be holy.

The Sacramental Life

As MrsDarwin mentioned, the last few weeks have been packed with events in the Darwin household, and several of those events have been sacramental. Eleanor, our eldest, had her confirmation the weekend before last, and Jack, received his first communion... well, it's a bit of a story.

Originally the Confirmation was set to be the week before the First Communion, meaning that my family (traveling out from the West Coast) could only make one. They'd decided to come for Jack's First Communion, since my brother is Jack's godfather. But we got mixed up in communicating the already confusing scheduling and had the family schedule to fly out for the Confirmation weekend rather than the First Communion weekend.

A brief panic ensued when we realized this, since everyone had already bought plane tickets. Then we went and secured permission from out pastor to allow Jack to quietly receive his first communion a week early, thus allowing family to be present for both events (but resulting in a packed, whirlwind weekend with lots of events and a house full of good company, not just my family but also old friends who were visiting for Eleanor's confirmation as the husband was her confirmation sponsor.) The mass at which Eleanor and the other eighth graders were confirmed by the bishop was at 1:30 on Saturday. Then we went home briefly, collected those for whom there had not been room at the packed confirmation mass, and returned for the 4:30 vigil mass for Jack to make his first communion.

It was as I was sitting in the pew before that vigil mass, trying to put aside the worries related to getting eighteen people to the mass in creditable condition and feeding nearly thirty refreshments back at the house afterwards and to focus instead on the sacrifice of the mass in which we were about to participate, that I wondered if we were somehow shortchanging both children. Often a first communion is built up into an royalty-for-a-day kind of event, with the boys in their suits and the girls in their white dresses and veils. Family heirlooms are bestowed on the children. Presents are given. Parties are thrown. The importance of the sacrament itself is underlined by all the trappings of Big Event which are arrayed around it.

The fact that we were focused on housing and feeding and transporting so many people had made it impossible to provide the kind of overwhelming "this is your day" focus which sometimes comes with parish celebrations of first communions or confirmations. Jack was sitting next to me, solemn in his suit, but earlier in the day he'd been just one of the kids tearing around while we got Eleanor ready for confirmation. And Eleanor -- changed out of her pretty confirmation dress into a blouse, slacks and cowboy boots ensemble of the sort that she prefers -- was it fair that as soon as her confirmation was over we were rushing to get ready for the next event, or would she feel that her confirmation had been forgotten in the bustle? In a sense it was a relief to be able to bring Jack up for his reception of the Holy Eucharist without that pageantry of several dozen children dressed up for their big day, but was it a bit shabby that this was happening so quietly that Jack would be receiving his first communion from someone who didn't even know it was his first time?

But then, perhaps it's the trappings of Big Event which sometimes obscure the nature of the sacrament. What, after all, is First Communion other than receiving communion for the first time. The suits and white dresses, the procession, the children lectoring and bringing up the gifts -- none of these are actually what is being celebrated. Rather, these are intended to underscore the importance of what is happening: these boys and girls are receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist for the first time.

It's good that we surround that first reception with such pomp. It's an important thing. Too often, these days, receiving communion is treated as just something everyone does when they go to mass, not something which requires serious thought or preparation.

Both approaches have their rationales, their advantages, but in this case, after all the hurry and the fuss, the mass and the reception of the sacrament itself would be exactly as it would be the next Sunday, and the one after, and the one after that. Sacraments and the graces they bestow are not found only in the big events which serve as milestones in our lives, but in the quiet participation every week, or every day, in the life of the Church.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Trump Is No Champion of Western Civilization

An argument is haunting American conservatism, the argument that Donald Trump is the defender of Western Civilization.

This is an attempt to draw conservatives initially turned off by Trump's bullying, his dishonesty, his crassness into the Trump-supporter camp. Western Civilization and Christianity is under attack, goes the argument, by the forces of leftism and political correctness. Only Trump is willing to fight those people, and thus even if he's unsavory in some sense those who support Christianity and Western Culture must rally behind him.

One example of this argument may be found in this Mercatornet piece which asks "Is Trump the New Constantine?":
Christians are unable to speak freely. Religious freedom is under attack. Society is materialistic and immoral. Western civilisation is facing huge threats, from within and without. And apparently the one powerful emerging leader is no saint.

You’re thinking America 2016? No. Rome 312.

The leader is Constantine, who is vying to become the Roman Emperor. Constantine had many defects: he had multiple wives and even put one of them to death, was extremely ambitious, and was a ruthless general and politician. But the legend remains that he had a “Road to Damascus” moment, saw a vision, converted to Christianity, triumphed over his opponents, and became a great emperor of Rome.

Constantine would go on to not only save the Roman Empire, but also liberate Christianity. He signed the Edict of Milan in 313, giving Christians the right to practice their faith and speak freely. This was enough to allow Christians to engage in the public sphere with freedom, thereby enabling them to spread the Christian message to the ends of the empire and Christianise a pagan culture.

Constantine himself was no pillar of virtue, but he created the environment which gave Christians the freedom to influence society. The early Christians were perfectly capable of influencing society themselves; all they needed from the emperor was the freedom to do so.

Fast forward to 2016, and we can see many obvious similarities. Western society has many problems. Conservative Christians have the solutions to many of those problems, but cannot articulate them freely in the public square due to endemic political correctness and cultural Marxism.

Conservatives do not lack will, good arguments, or articulate defenders; what they lack is the freedom to speak bluntly about social issues without being shouted down by the vindictive hordes of secular progressivism for “offending” particular groups of people. Donald Trump is the only person who can give us that freedom.

But first, consider the following:

  • Stating that children should ideally have a mother and father because on average they will do best in that environment (as supported overwhelmingly by the relevant social science) renders you “homophobic” (even though the statement has nothing to do homosexuality) and a “hater of single mothers”;
  • Explaining that there is actually a biological and societal reason that marriage has been promoted and protected as between a man and a woman for millennia (hint: it's about children) makes you “bigoted”;
  • Arguing that the high divorce rate hurts children, and that no-fault divorce is responsible for many social problems, makes you “living in the 1950s” and a “dinosaur” (even though the social data on the effects of divorce is indisputable and President Obama himself has said as much);
  • Affirming the biological fact that men and women are inherently different makes you “transphobic” (something that no one knew existed just a few years ago);
  • Pointing out that babies do not simply magically appear out of nothing after nine months, and may in fact have a right to life and dignity before birth, makes you an extremist (just because) and a sexist (even though this statement says nothing about women).

There are many more examples. The point is that making perfectly reasonable statements causes so much outrage that conservatives either give up or end up losing credibility and becoming impotent in influencing public opinion. Arguments are not considered on their merits but rather assessed based on the extent to which they offend particular groups of people. This makes the conservative Christian cause in the public sphere ultimately hopeless.

And this is where Trump comes in.

American doesn’t need a president to make arguments for us. America just needs a president to give us the freedom to make our arguments without fear of being shouted down by the politically correct brigade.
Of course, this gets the history of Christianity's relationship with Constantine backwards.  Christianity did not settle upon Constantine as a strongman likely to help its cause in the Roman Empire and then push him forward in hopes that despite his not being Christian or particularly virtuous he would manage to help Christianity out. Rather, appreciation for Constantine was backward-looking. Once he became emperor, ended the persecution of Christianity, and began to promote the Christian cause within the empire, Christians warmed to him. But set that aside for the moment.

Another variation on this argument comes in a self-indulgently wandering piece in The Federalist by Mytheos Holt setting out "The Intellectual Case for Trump", where he argues that white nationalist support for Trump should not be seen as a turn off, because white nationalists actually have a point about Trump protecting the Western tradition from attack.
This brings me to the first and, arguably, the most important lesson that Sylvia taught me about what drives people into the arms of white nationalism: that urge comes not from economic dispossession, nor spiritual dispossession, but cultural dispossession.
That heritage, as white nationalists in America see it, is the heritage of Western civilization. If you wonder what that means (which is reasonable), let me spell it out: It means historically Western European cultural norms. Specifically, norms like respect for agents of the law, aspirational pride in work, willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions, disdain for laziness and welfarism, and reproductive responsibility (i.e., not having children you can’t afford to keep).
Moreover, and this cannot be stated enough: these people genuinely believe that to be proud of the history of Western European accomplishment, and one’s own descent from the people responsible, is taboo in modern America. If you look at what cultural studies departments, much of modern media, left-wing college students, and the crazy wing of the Democratic Party says, this is probably at least partially accurate. Unfortunately, however, it’s not just leftists who are responsible for the rise of white nationalism in communities like Sylvia’s. We conservatives bear some blame too, though in this case, largely because of misunderstandings of how our own behavior is perceived.

Moreover, and this cannot be stated enough: these people genuinely believe that to be proud of the history of Western European accomplishment, and one’s own descent from the people responsible, is taboo in modern America. If you look at what cultural studies departments, much of modern media, left-wing college students, and the crazy wing of the Democratic Party says, this is probably at least partially accurate. Unfortunately, however, it’s not just leftists who are responsible for the rise of white nationalism in communities like Sylvia’s. We conservatives bear some blame too, though in this case, largely because of misunderstandings of how our own behavior is perceived.

The biggest problem we have is that many conservatives are, understandably, reluctant to engage with the sort of leftist, victim-culture-spouting loons who regard Western civilization as unrepentantly evil. This is not because we have no good arguments against them; we do. But to argue with them, we think, makes them look more serious and relevant than they are. If you live in the rarefied world of Washington policy debates, this approach probably makes sense and even seems obvious.

But if you’re a blue-collar worker in Appalachia being screamed at by leftist protesters that you have “white privilege” and all you hear from the official Right is stony silence, you come to a wildly different conclusion: you assume conservatives are either ashamed to express our disagreement, or don’t disagree.

Add to this the fact that so much of the official Right’s response to left-wing attacks about diversity involves not denying their premise, but instead pointing to how many token members of each ethnic group are Republicans, or the fact that we’ll throw accusations like “racist” around over issues like immigration, and it gets harder and harder for otherwise conservative people to deny the idea that “conservatism” doesn’t want to conserve them, or the Western values and norms that made conservatism and constitutionalism possible, at all. The only people who do seem to want to man those barricades, from their perspective, are white nationalists.

This is not ground we should be ceding to extremists. Yet, so far, only one candidate has refused to do such a thing: Donald Trump.

Trump, whatever else he might be, is unabashedly pro-Western. What’s more, he understands the essentially cultural and even spiritual nature of the vacuum white nationalism fills. Unlike so many so-called “reformocons,” who wax poetic about the need to empathize with blue-collar workers’ economic concerns, yet are only willing to throw “family-friendly” tax credits at them like table scraps to starving dogs, Trump understands that however besieged people like Sylvia feel by economic woes, they feel even more besieged by attacks on their pride and dignity.

Unlike the white nationalists, Trump has defended that pride and dignity without once mentioning race, but instead with reference to the historical reality and promise of uniquely American greatness. His pitch is nationalist, yes, but it is not racist, and so immediately understandable that you can even put it on a baseball cap.

In fact, Trump, and Trump alone, has been willing to say what should have been obvious from the start: that the universalism and Whig historical pretensions of Kemp-and-W-style “bleeding heart conservatism” are dangerous distractions if they leave the American people as wounded prey for anti-American, extremist bottom feeders.

His image of a man fighting for America and its allies, and only them is a long-overdue return to form for a GOP long since captured by delusions of immanentizing the eschaton at the point of a gun. Those delusions have to stop, and Trump has to be allowed to punch through them.
There are several problems with this line of thinking, and I think it's important to be clear on them.

Perhaps the most basic error is to simplify a multi-front cultural conflict into a simplistic struggle between two sides. In this vision, if various forces associated with the left (the LGBT agenda, radical feminism, secularism, the sexual revolution, moral and cultural relativism, and the "political correctness" which is used to enforce all of these) are against some Christian beliefs and elements of the Western cultural heritage, and if those same forces of the left are also offended by the antics of someone like Trump, that he must therefore be a defender of Christianity and the West. However, it's necessary to ask not merely what Trump is against, but what he is for.

What is Trump for? A concept of ruling which ignores questions of right to focus solely on strength:
What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?
I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

You mean firm hand as in China?
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world--


The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today's. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they're going to go in the right direction. They've never really been tested. These jerks in charge don't know how to paint a wall, and we’re relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don't go there? What happens if our computer systems aren't working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I've seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don't work. It's a total mess.

And how would President Trump handle it?
He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn't trust the Russians; he wouldn't trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we're defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. . . . We're being laughed at around the world, defending Japan--

Trump is for an utter crassness in culture. (Link not safe for work.) His morals may be no worse than the Borgias, but his taste is almost infinitely so.

And in religion... Well, this is the guy who, when pressed, said that his favorite passage from the bible was "an eye for an eye". How does Trump think about religious leaders? Here's a key example from the same interview in which he praised the Chinese government for massacring the protesters in Tiananmen Square:
How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?
Every successful person has a very large ego.

Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?
Far greater egos than you will ever understand.

And the Pope? [that would have been Pope John Paul II]
Absolutely. Nothing wrong with ego. People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it's sitting on our backs.

Trump cannot be a protector or champion of Christianity or Western Civilization because he is one of the people degrading and neglecting Christianity and Western Civilization. Electing him might annoy feminists, but feminism is not wrong to object to men calling women they don't like "ugly" or "pigs". Not is feminism wrong to object to ideas of beauty and sexuality which lead to a photo shoot of one's wife lying naked on a fur while handcuffed to a suitcase full of jewelry. Feminism is wrong when it asserts that abortion is necessary for women's equality and liberation or when it asserts that marriage and childbearing represent sources of cultural repression rather than being some of the key purposes of human culture. But Trump is not going after these errors of feminism, nor will he, because it's unclear that he even disagrees with feminism on these points.

It's claimed that Trump will protect American institutions and culture by stemming a flood of immigrants. But does Trump have any understanding of what it is in American culture and government that is worth protecting, other than the relative whiteness of its current inhabitants compared to those coming from Mexico and South America? His rhetoric and policies would be far more at home in Peron's Argentina or Chavez's Venezuela than in our own republic. Trump offers the doubly depressing prospect of excluding Latin America's people while importing some of its worst tendencies of government.

Does Trump support (or even understand) the principles of American constitutional republicanism? Of limited government? Does he support the cultural and moral ideas that make Western Culture something worth maintaining? No. At best he represents a crass "up with us, down with them" approach to attacking perceived enemies, without and within, while promising to funnel jobs and money to "real Americans". He cannot make America great again because he does not even know what made and makes America great.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Forgive us the radio silence here. This past weekend saw a houseful of visitors and two sacramental celebrations: Confirmation for Eleanor, and First Communion for Jack. These two grand events were not originally scheduled for the same weekend. Jack's religion class is making first communion this weekend, and we'll have a party just for him on Saturday. But there's no better explication of my character than the fact that when my mother-in-law wanted to fly out to attend the first communion ceremony, I accidentally gave her the date for the confirmation, because they were on two successive Saturdays at the same time and I wrote them down wrong on the calendar. But Jack made his first communion a week early, and Grandma was able to attend both sacraments, and it worked itself out fine.


I do not know the solution for the problem that it seems obligatory for capstone events to be wedged into the end of the school year. Everything for which people have been preparing happens within a space of four weeks: sacraments, dance recital, piano recital, school play. I found myself calculating whether we could get away with just ending the school year now, only to remember that it's just mid-April.


We're doing testing this year. This is the first time -- not because I'm opposed to testing, but because we just haven't. In early June the four oldest will be taking the Woodcock-Johnson tests. These are supposed to test a variety of cognitive abilities, not mastery of particular subject material, so the best way to prepare is what I guess we're already doing -- working on math skills and cognition, analyzing literature and building vocabulary, etc. One reason I've been leery of testing is the very reason we probably ought to have been doing it all this time -- I fear that I'll learn that I haven't taught them anything, in the final analysis. I guess we'll find out! The kids don't seem to care one way or the other, so I'm glad we don't have any anxiety issues here.


Trying to read more lately, despite all the craziness. Interlibrary loan has been my friend, delivering to me three volumes this past week.

Without Prejudice, by Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. An autobiography written two years after the 1934 custody battle that riveted the nation, in which Vanderbilt and her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, fought for custody of 10-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt (later to found her own fashion line and become the mother of Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor). One isn't entirely sure how far to take Mrs. Vanderbilt's assessment of her life experiences, but the book is written in a lush and fascinating style that sets it above most recent autobiographies.

Ghosts Along the Mississippi, by Clarence John Laughlin. Chockful of gorgeous black-and-white photos of great plantation houses in Louisiana, most of them in the final, irreparable stages of decay. The prose is as purple as the buildings. Included are some fascinating full-sized photos of Belle Grove, the house that served as my model for Stillwater.

Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I can't get to Europe right now, but Twain is taking me along on his own trip. Occasionally I wish he would turn off the acerbity, but in general he's a valuable tour guide.


But never let it be said that I don't school my kids in the classics. Today's adventure in culture:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sanders is Rich, but Not a Tax Hypocrite

Bernie Sanders, who has been doing just well enough in the Democratic Party primary contest to keep up the hopes of young progressives, but not well enough to actually have much of any chance of winning the nomination, just bowed to pressure and released his 2014 tax return for public scrutiny. Sanders and his wife turn out to have made a combined $205,617 in gross income in 2014 (a combination of his pay as a senator and their social security payments as retirement-age Americans) which puts them within the top 5% in the US by income. However, it also makes Sanders a lot lower income than his fellow president contenders. Hillary Clinton made $28,336,212 in 2014. Ted Cruz made $1,210,382. Donald Trump claims that he can't release this tax returns because he's audited every year by the IRS due to his deep Christian faith, but he'd like us nonetheless to believe that his income is yuuuuge.

Nonetheless, Sanders has caught a certain amount of criticism for his tax return, in part because on those $205,617 in gross earnings he paid a total of $27,653 in taxes, an effective tax rate of 13%. I've seen a number of people on social media claiming that this makes Sanders a hypocrite, since he advocates an increase in the tax rate table which would put the top marginal rate (for those making over $10 million) at 52%. If Sanders thinks that it's obligatory to pay a higher tax rate than the current one, so the argument goes, why doesn't he pay one now?

I think this is actually a pretty poor argument for two reasons.

First, it fails to account for Sanders' actual proposal. He would keep tax rates the same as they are now for those making less than $250,000 per year (a group which includes him) but increase rates on those making more. Now, there's a lot to criticize about this proposal as well: That he only wants to increase taxes on those making more than himself, that the increase is not in fact nearly enough to pay for the additional programs he promises, that the increased rates would not actually be good for our economy. But one thing that can't be claimed is that he's paying less now than he would under the rates in his proposal.

However, even setting this aside, I think that argument is a bad one. The reason why people propose tax increases is not generally that they believe it is immoral in and of itself to pay less than a given tax rate. Rather, the argument that it's morally necessary to have higher taxes is generally something like this: There is a strong moral reason for the government to provide the following program. Providing this program would require more tax revenues than are currently collected. This means that we must support raising taxes in order to provide this program.

The IRS does not really make any kind of provision for people paying higher taxes than the rates would indicate, but even were Sanders to pull this off somehow, if his object is that new government programs be provided for, paying higher taxes voluntarily would not actually achieve his objective.

This is not to say that Sanders' taxes leave him above reproach. I think they do point to certain contradictions in his behavior, but failure to voluntarily pay extra taxes is not one of them.

What does strike me about Sanders taxes is that they are very ordinary for an upper middle class couple. The Sanders made $205,617 in 2014. They took $56,377 in itemized deductions and the standard exemption for a couple with no children at home ($7,900.) That $56,377 in deductions breaks down in the following fashion:

$22,946 in mortgage interest deduction
$9,666 in state/local income taxes
$14,843 in real estate taxes
$8,350 in charitable donations
$4,473 in unreimbursed business expenses
$204 in tax preparation fees

A couple things jump out to me here.

The Sanders' charitable donations constitute a fairly low percentage of their gross income at about 4%. This may be typical of many Americans (rich and otherwise) but from someone who is supposed to have such a deep concern about the poor and such a suspicion of wealth, you might expect to see more giving to those in need from someone who is, while not as rich as his opponents, still within the top 5% of Americans in terms of income.

Their mortgage interest deduction is also pretty large. For comparison, our mortgage interest deduction was just over $10,000, and that's on a house costing just under $300,000 which we bought only five years ago with only about 10% down payment. (In other words, with a thirty year mortgage, interest is still a large percentage of our payment each month.) That Sanders' mortgage interest deduction is over twice that suggest that he has a fairly expensive house, especially since he is in his 70s and probably didn't buy his house as recently or with as small a down payment. If I had to guess, he must have real estate totally a good $750k to a million in value.

Both of these things would be very normal in an upper middle class striver, the sort of person one might envision being a loyal Republican. However, the combination of expensive houses and comparatively little charitable giving seems an odd profile so someone whose life is supposedly focused around seeking justice for the poor while decrying the lifestyles of the rich. Sanders may not be a rich as a hedge fund trader, but he's definitely rich compared to the average American. Median household income in the US is about $52,000 or about one fourth the income of Bernie Sanders. In general, people consider those who make four times what they do to be rich.

One might reasonably expect someone of Sanders' convictions to have lived more simply and donated much more of his money to those in need. That, I think, is a reasonable area of critique, whereas his failure to pay extra taxes is not.