Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Sacramental Poem, Presented by Nike.

About this time last week, Rod posted to his blog a comment of mine to spur a discussion about sacramentalism. I'd like to take a moment to thank Rod for doing so, even though his contribution to that discussion was much smaller than I had hoped -- one brief comment out of literally a hundred. When he does address critics like Kathleen and me, it is almost always to point again and again to his book, which obviously isn't nearly as interactive as an online discussion. The give-and-take that comes with fielding tough questions has been sorely lacking.

In addition to pointing to his book, he also pointed out a poem, "God's Grandeur", which Rod says speaks about this sensibility of sacramentalism. I didn't comment on the poem, and neither (I think) did anyone else. The comments thread seems to be on its last legs, and I think that my thoughts on the poem belong here, so I hope you will indulge a bit of poetry.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
        It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
        Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
        World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

To be completely honest, I'm generally not a huge fan of poetry. There are only a handful of poems that I can say have genuinely moved me: a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, and Friar Laurence's speech that opens Act II Scene III of Romeo and Juliet; a handful of poems by C.S. Lewis; "Ulysses", by Tennyson; this poem from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; maybe a couple others. Not counting school assignments, I myself have written only two poems in my life, both about women. I'm no poetry fiend, by any stretch of the imagination.

It is thus not surprising that I'm not moved by this particular poem; so few move me. But I think it may well express Rod's version of sacramentalism -- as I understand it -- and even highlight my fundamental problems with the sensibility.

(And it provides substance for those who want to examine Mr. Dreher's psyche. "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" Does Ray Dreher, who publishes under the pseudonym of "Rod", wonder to himself, "Why doesn't anyone listen to me?")

The poem asks, why does man now no longer consider God and His sovereign rule?

What is Gerard Manley Hopkins' answer?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Too much commerce, too much humanity, and shoes.

Perhaps, in preparing to star in the classic "Air Jordan" ads, Spike Lee was inspired by Hopkins. Was Michael Jordan's prowess on the court due to his athletic abilities, his intelligence, and his unstoppable determination? Heavens, no. It's gotta be the shoes.

Is modern man's refusal to acknowledge God and His rule due to human free will and a natural tendency to sin that we share with pre-modern man and that can be traced back to the Fall that occurred while man was yet in the garden? Nope; it's gotta be the shoes.

It's gotta be modernity.

I choke on the disconnect between this poem's nostalgia for a virtuous pre-modern past that never existed and what the Bible teaches about the source of sin. And yet, Rod apparently finds it to be an inspiring piece that communicates his sensibility.

That is the problem.

(Well, that and the irony of it all: Hopkins writing about damnable footwear, and Dreher giving the NRO piece that started this three-ring circus the title of "Birkenstocked Burkeans". As a society we're too materialistic, he preaches, but doesn't Rod have such very nice things?)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Could the Sacred Survive Without Materialism?

My previous post took on Rod's "Dangerous Question" of whether our society could truly survive in a secular materialist culture. In the discussion that followed, commenter Jeff said,
IF it is true that we can't pick and choose, THEN the Society that gave us Penicillin and MRIs (just had one myself) can go straight to hell. The price is too high: all the medical and scientific and technological benefits in the world do not offset the negatives of an institutionally depraved "Girls Gone Wild" culture that is bent on spiritual suicide.

There is a significant thread of thought out there which holds that all our modern comforts create barriers to our spiritual progress. To cut to the chase, the suggestion is that we spend less time worrying about our immortal souls because death is now largely held at a safe distance; that we spend time building up our treasures on Earth because Heaven is a long way off.

Here is a great example of this sort of thinking, as stated by a very popular and well-known pastor:
It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages, shows this is no evidence, that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world.

The pastor is none other than Jonathan Edwards, in his awesome Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, delivered on July 8, 1741. So let us dismiss the notion that any of this is uniquely connected to the degree of comfort now available.

Also, there is a more sinister undertone of Leninist "the worse, the better" in commentators' laments over our material abundance. This line of thinking, it seems to me, is one short mutation away from concluding that an Avian Influenza epidemic that killed millions of urban sophisticates woud be a good thing. "That would show them!" is not far off from the jihadist slogan, "We love life, you love death."

But this is all prologue to my main point, which is to offer a further riposte to the notion that modern materialism represents some newly lethal pathogen to the Good life, as Dreher and many others clearly believe. All of this is compared, unfavorably to the Medieval era, which comes in for significant praise on the original Crunch Blog and other kindred sources.

Certainly, one will get little argument even from me that the Church sat atop the commanding heights of human thought and that society was oriented around the authority of the Roman Curia and old Christendom in a way profoundly different than what is seen today. But, sitting here in my agnostic's perch, I cannot help but ask the question: was the Medieval Church more sacred, or simply more worldly powerful?

My study of European history suggests that it was the latter. If the average man feared God more than he does today, the leaders of the institution certainly took their liberties with the definition of right and wrong. Indeed, the City of Man and the City of God seemed much closer then, but it was because the City of God had been dragged down to our level. Unlike some, I do not view this as an indictment of the Catholic Church in particular, or Christianity in general. But I refuse to accept that the worldly role of the Church in that time has no bearing on this.

Of course, this is precisely what brought us to the Reformation, which as far as I can tell is not on the Crunchies top-10 list of positive historical events. And yet it was this which started us on the path to today's Church, full of gay priests delivering limp-wristed sermons, and yet focused almost entirely on the transcendant and spiritual. As always, fate has a way of mocking those who pretend to understand its designs.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dangerous Ideas, Continued

My dangerous idea is that the world has actually become a better place over the past 25, 50, and 100 years.

Two of my favorite books are From Dawn to Decadence by Jaques Barzun and Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. Both present history on a grand scale, taking in decades at a time. The great accomplishment is to give the reader a sense of the ebb and flow of history, and how much of what today seems novel and urgent is neither.

At any point in the past 25, 50, or 100 years you could find plenty of reasons to argue that the world was going to Hell in a handbasket. And at any time, you would find people who would say, "well we are better off today than we were 50 years ago, but the past 10-20 years have really stunk." Mind you, if you asked the same person that question every year for 50 years, you would probably get the same answer every time. It's simply human nature.

The natural response to this is to say, "well, yes, we have been in peril many times, and we are better off today only because urgent and decisive action was taken at the time, which is why today we must...." My thesis is different. The way I see it, today's problems are like a small child that has somehow wandered into the elephant pen behind the circus. The government, of course, being the elephants. Needless to say, the best way to save the child does not involve getting the elephants to move.

What is the difference between today's problems, and yesterday's? Time, and detachment. It is much easier for us, nowadays, to look at the Great Depression in its full sweep and conclude rationally that the New Deal prolonged it. At the time, though, it seemed reasonable to scream at the elephants. Oh, and family farms are certainly in peril, not like they were 100 years ago. Assuming, of course, that you ignore the Free Silver movement, which 100 years ago was just beginning its final chapter.

Aside from wars, which have a nasty tendency of being forced upon us, I can scarcely think of a single issue over the past century in which expansive government action has actually left the country better off. At the very least, the sum of all such actions has been a brake on progress rather than an engine.

Dreher is not happy with the way we live today. Neither was Thorsten Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class warned of our descent into a consumerist Hell over 100 years ago, when indoor plumbing and electric lighting were still luxuries. And yet two generations of such voluptuaries later, we produced millions of men ready to storm beaches on Normandy and Iwo Jima. And as spoiled as the 'boomers kids may have been, let's not forget that for every one who went North to Canada, many more went willingly to war. They just didn't get the same press coverage.

Likewise, it is a sure sign of crankery when someone looks upon a thing which looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and tells us that he has discovered a platypus. To wit, Dreher is convinced that we are no longer sufficiently in touch with that good old-time religion (a theme at least as old as the Reformation). Where others see the enormous success of books with implicitly religious themes, or strong growth of new evangelical sects, Dreher sees Cafeteria Christianity and the Gospel of Prosperity.

When we look at the past through the lens of the present what we see is not the world as it was, but the world as we wished it to be. For if we seek to understand the past as it was, we find a time not exactly like the present, but a world riven by multitudes of fears, uncertainties, and terrors that seemed entirely unsolvable. And yet, here we are, living in times our ancestors would envy.

So there's my dangerous idea: Cheer up, everybody, it's not as bad as you think!

Who, Indeed?

Here, published in its entirety, is what Rod Dreher posted last night on his blog:
Who said this?

"It's time to stand up and vote. Is it al Qaeda or is it America?"

I would like to tell you it was Homer Simpson, inspiring a mob of Duff-soused poltroons massed outside Springfield City Hall. It would at least be funny. But no. That priceless quote, that ne plus ultra of ersatz demagoguery, was uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives last week by House Majority Leader John Boehner. The mind reels. I can understand the reasoning of those who believe that we must continue to support this war, but even they should be embarrassed by this cheap crap.

By the mercy of God, I missed this when it was first reported, but Daniel Larison did not.

The question of who said this is an interesting one, because it appears that Rod may have gotten the answer wrong. Here's an International Herald Tribune copy of an article from the highly respected New York Times.
"Many, but not all, on the other side of the aisle lack the will to win," said Representative Charlie Norwood, Republican of Georgia. "The American people need to know precisely who they are." He added: "It is time to stand up and vote. Is it Al Qaeda, or is it America?" [emphasis mine]

Here is CBS News:
Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., attacked war critics as defeatists who do not deserve re-election. "Is it al Qaeda or is it America? Let the voters take note of this debate," he said. [emphasis mine]

Here's a transcript of a video from CNN:

REP. CHARLIE NORWOOD (R), GEORGIA: This debate is absolutely essential to preserving the victories of our troops that they have won with their blood and their lives. It is time to stand up and vote. Is it al Qaeda or is it America? Let the voters take note of this debate.


This seems quite similar to a press release posted at Congressman Norwood's own website, a copy of his remarks:
"Mr. Speaker, this rule will allow perhaps one of the most critical actions to date in the War on Terror.

This action is not military in nature --– it is entirely political. But it will determine victory or defeat as surely as any battle.

Our troops can defeat any enemy on earth, under any conditions -- if we have the will. That is what we debate under this rule – do we have the will to win.

Many -- not all --– of the other side of the aisle lack the will to win. The American public needs to know precisely who they are. If there are any on this side of the aisle who hold the same view this will allow them to be found out as well. Then the public can decide the course of this war in November, by throwing the defeatists out of office.

This debate, under the rule, is as critical a fight as any our troops could have on the battlefield. No one has any doubt our soldiers will win any fight we send them to. The world’s doubt is entirely over the backbone of this Congress.

Because of the statements of Members of this body and the Senate that have given substantial propaganda assistance to the enemy, this rule, this debate, is absolutely essential to preserving the victories our troops have won with their blood and their lives.

Time to decide -- Al Qaeda or America? Let the voters take note."

One may note the phrase "time to decide," rather than than "It's time to stand up and vote." It's possible that the press release reflects the speech as written, not as spoken. It's certainly more plausible than Boehner saying this and Norwood's site -- and the NY Times, and CBS News, and CNN -- all getting it wrong.

Dreher quoted Larison citing the Wall Street Journal. It's possible the WSJ misattributed or that Larison misread the article; apparently Dreher took Larison on faith.

Regardless, I think I can safely say that Norwood made those comments, not Boehner.

I think I can also safely say that the context of the entire comments reveal that Norwood criticized those on the other side of this issue as being "defeatists," not "pro-terrorist traitors" as Rod implied in a subsequent comment.

It's also clear that Rod's credibility on this entire issue is strained, to say the very least.

UPDATE: (6/21, 1:28 pm ET) After Daniel Larison corrected his blog entry, Rod Dreher has now offered a correction for his error. Good for him.

"Dan Larison last night sent, along with an apology for his error, the original paragraph from the Journal story, with the correct attribution."

Other individuals and their quick but thorough research into the quote were apparently of no consequence. [smirk]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dangerous Ideas

Citing the annual question "What's your dangerous idea?" from the "World Question Center" (a group who, by the way, is currently trying to recruit my 4-year-old son), Rod puts forth his dangerous idea, which is "Liberal democracy cannot be sustained in a secular, materialistic culture." IMHO, that's probably true in general, but his minor premise is that we do live in a secular, materialistic culture, which I'm not so sure about. How secular or religious our culture is seems to be a matter of degrees rather than a definitive pronouncement on one side or another.

But Rod's an all-or-nothing kind of guy; what can I say. And in typical fashion, he states that he doesn't want the comments to be in response to his "dangerous idea", but that visitors should present their own dangerous ideas in the comments, i. e., ideas which won't get them banned.

Some of the comments are funny to me; I confess I didn't read them all because I'm too lazy. But I thought since this site is a little more liberal in nature we'd allow any comments, especially regarding Rod's premises. Seems to be like there are a few paranoid folks on the left complaining that America is being run by Taliban-like religious maniacs, a few fever swampers on the right worrying that they're being wire-tapped by atheistic gays trying to abduct their kids and a bunch of folks in the middle going to church and thinking about how they make life better for their family and friends.

Of course also feel free to announce your dangerous ideas. I was thinking of coming up with some type of gunpowder plot idea because I think it would be cool to get burned in effigy once a year.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Definition of "Smackdown"

Last week, Rod gleefully referred to "the ongoing Ramesh-Derb smackdown at The Corner." Rod further reported that he "told Jonah Goldberg that those guys make the back-and-forth he and I had over 'Crunchy Cons' look like Skipper and Gilligan." For whatever reason, Jonah was clearly too polite to point out the following:

For Rod's edification, let's talk about what a 'smackdown" is. A "smackdown" is when two opponents of like ability go at it with each other full force. Ramesh and Derb pull no punches. They don't have to, because they have command of their arguments. They are in full smackdown mode.

The following cannot be considered a "smackdown": when one opponent runs all a-trembling to hide from his opponent's arguments and pretend they don't even exist. Or, even more passive aggressively, when one acknowledges his opponent's points but insists his opponent is just being "boring". Kinda like what Rod pulled when faced with Jonah's arguments on NRO.

So yeah, Rod and Jonah didn't partake in a smackdown, because Rod never responded to Jonah's arguments. Non-smackdown. Ramesh and Derb *are* responding to each other's arguments. Smackdown.

I'm not well versed in the finer points of Gilligans Island, but I'll take Rod's word for it that the exchange between himself and Jonah resembles Skipper and Gilligan. I think Rod says more than he meant to there. I do vaguely remember that Gilligan did tend to pull his hat over his face when rebuked by Skipper -- in which case, it's pretty clear that Rod is Gilligan, hiding under his hat. Carry on, Skipper Jonah!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Place Your Bets.

This weekend sees the release of Pixar's seventh feature-length film, Cars, which Time's Richard Corliss has praised thusly: "Existing both in turbo-charged today and the gentler '50s, straddling the realms of Pixar styling and old Disney heart, this new-model Cars is an instant classic."
This begs the question which I'm sure weighs heavily on everyone's mind: how will Rod Dreher react to this movie?

Will he praise the apparent plotline where the protagonist who is obsessed with speed (oh, damnable speed!) learns to slow down and appreciate nature and community in the small, out-of-the-way town of Radiator Springs?

Or will he condemn the movie for being populated with automobiles, those smoke-belching beasts that the divine Russell Kirk apparently called "mechanical Jacobins"?

Or will he and the entire Dreher brood miss this movie? Perhaps Rod will tell us (and himself) that his two young sons are far more interested in learning how to churn butter than in watching a Pixar movie about talking cars that go really fast.

We have a comments section here; let's use it. Tell us your best guess for how Rod will react to Mechanical Jacobins Cars.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The H-Bomb.

(I warn you all that this post is both lengthy and serious; despite the generally satirical nature of this blog, one must make an entirely serious point from time to time.)

I picked up my copy of Crunchy Cons from the local library over the weekend, and I find myself reluctant to start reading it. Instead I spent my leisure hours finally reading a book I got last year: Worlds of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Volume Three. I suppose I found the idea of reading a fictional story about the rapacious Ferengi to be more pleasant than trudging through Rod Dreher's apparent accusations about the greed of mainstream conservatism.

Rod's recent behavior hasn't helped things.

I'm reminded of Jonah Goldberg's criticism of Rod's book and thesis, an NRO article that Rod will apparently, finally address in the paperback edition of his book.
Crunchy conservatism strikes me now--as it did back when I first heard about it--as a journalistic invention, a confabulation fit for some snarking liberal reporter at the Washington Post "Style" section. It plays upon the Left's stereotype of conservatives and adopts it as its own. To Rod's credit, he doesn't claim that "mainstream conservatives" are racists; but he does claim that they are uptight, blue blazered, two-dimensional men motivated by greed. They are Godless materialists, unthinking dupes of Madison Avenue, with no connection to spirituality or religion unless, that is, you think being an idolatrous votary of the free market counts as being religious.

To his credit, Rod still hasn't adopted the Left's nasty habit of playing the race card, but I think he's now guilty of a charge that is equally disgusting.

The rhetorical H-bomb. Homophobia.

In less than a week, Rod has twice asserted a socially conservative position on the issue of redefining legal marriage to include gay couples -- namely, opposition to such a redefinition. He has twice defended himself against the charge of bigotry, and he has, both times, immediately implied that the charge of bigotry is accurate when it comes to the Republican mainstream.

This past Thursday:
As for the Republicans, I support privileging traditional marriage for reasons that have nothing to do with animosity towards gay people, but for philosophical and sociological reasons. I deeply resent the charge from same-sex marriage activists that the only reason one can oppose gay marriage is bigotry. It's a cheap and emotional way of arguing. That said, I think it's a pretty fair accusation that the GOP plays on the fear and loathing of gay people in its campaign-season appeals to voters based on gay marriage. It makes it hard to reward them with my vote. [emphasis mine]

And today:
As I've blogged before, I resent it when gay-marriage proponents (like this windbag) resort to the cheap slur that the only reason anybody objects to gay marriage is "bigotry." This is pathetically weak, because as Maggie Gallagher and others have tirelessly argued, there are solid legal, sociological and philosophical reasons to reject same-sex marriage. These reasons may not be persuasive to many, and possibly even most, people -- but they are reasons, not expressions of blind prejudice. But President Bush and the Republicans cut people like Gallagher off at the knees by the way they treat this issue. If it really is a civilizational issue as the GOP claims (and which I believe), then they wouldn't just trot it out cynically at election time, but would instead fight for it, and articulate a political and moral case for the amendment. It's hard to see how this kind of activism isn't, on the part of the GOP operatives, merely appealing to anti-gay prejudice, stoking an emotional issue transparently for political gain. [emphasis mine]

I have responded to both blog entries (here and here), and I emailed him this morning before the second questionable post was made. Each time, I asked for a clarification: "Are you suggesting that a large number of Republican voters are homophobes?" As of the writing of this blog entry, I have received no reply in public or via email.

Thus, I can only take Rod at his word as it is written. Since he made the same point twice, I believe I can be confident in supposing that he means what he writes.

He opposes redefining marriage for "solid legal, sociological and philosophical reasons." He resents the charge that people can take his position only out of bigotry, and he rejects the charge as a slur, as "a cheap and emotional way of arguing."

And yet, though the GOP is taking the same position Rod is taking, it is "a pretty fair accusation" to say that the party is now appealing to "anti-gay prejudice", to "the fear and loathing of gay people."

One word best describes anti-gay prejudice, and the fear and loathing of gay people. That word is homophobia.

For opposing the redefinition of marriage, Rod believes he is principled. At the same time, Rod apparently believes that we mainstream conservative Republicans are prejudiced for taking the exact same position. We hold the right position for the wrong reason.

I wonder how he knows this. If he doesn't know this as a fact, I wonder how the Christian virtue of charity permits him to assume the worst about us. And I wonder whether I'll even bother reading his book.

Regardless, Rod Dreher should be called out for making such a disgusting accusation -- and for being such a hypocrite as to defend himself against the charge of bigotry while making the same slanderous charge against the rest of us for holding the same position.

Early in his blog at NRO, Rod Dreher had the audacity to imply that he, unlike those in the mainstream of conservatism, numbered among the "honorable conservatives."

That was clearly wishful thinking on his part.