Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Federal Grants Office Announces $20 Million Grant to Federal Grants Office to Administer Federal Grants

(Washington, D.C.) The U.S. Treasury Department announced today the awarding of the largest grant in the history of its Federal Grant Office, a $20 million grant to the U.S. Office of Federal Grants for the purpose of administering federal grants.

"This is an exciting day for the Federal Grant Office," said Director Daniel R. Bullrush, Sr. yesterday morning at a press conference announcing the awarding of the grant. “The Federal Grant Office is committed to the well-being of all our client agencies. We are confident that through the awarding of this grant, the Federal Grant Office will be able to efficiently guard against any bureaucratic inefficiencies that sometimes result when third-party organizations receive funds."

At a press conference later in the day to announce receipt of the grant, Bullrush was more specific. "This is an exciting day for the Federal Grant Office,” Bullrush said. “The Federal Grant Office is committed to the well-being of all our client agencies. We are confident that through the awarding of this grant, the Federal Grant Office will be able to efficiently guard against any bureaucratic inefficiencies that sometimes result when third-party organizations receive funds."

The multi-year grant will come up for renewal in two years. The funds are earmarked to provide administrative and technological support for grant office operations.

"People don't realize the costs involved in grant administration," said Federal Grant Office Deputy Director, Daniel R. Bullrush, Jr. "You've got capital inventory to stock, items such as computers, pencils and large mailing envelopes. And think of the forms. Forms, like money, don't just grow on trees, you know. Well, actually they do, but not without a lot of steps in between, and those aren't cheap."

The Federal Grants Office also announced that construction will begin this spring on the new U.S. Treasury Department of Grants Administrative Center and Application Office in nearby Reston, Virginia. The building is being funded by a special $30-million grant from the U.S. Department of Administrative Facilities and Support Centers.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

In the Beginning Was The Word...

By Mitchell

Back in 1972 the best-selling novelist Irving Wallace published a suspense thriller (made into an eight-hour miniseries on CBS in 1978) called The Word. The story centered around Steve Randall, a cynical, hard-drinking, world-weary public relations executive (played wonderfully in the miniseries by David Janssen) hired by religious publisher George Wheeler to promote a project code-name “Resurrection Two.” The project turns out to be nothing less than (are you listening, National Geographic and Discovery Channels?) the Gospel of “James the Just,” younger brother of Jesus. The blockbuster assertion: Jesus did not die on the Cross the first time, but survived, continued to preach and perform miracles, and eventually went to Rome, where He was crucified a second time, and this time actually died. Wheeler believes the discovery will present a new, more human Jesus to the world.

From here the plot focuses on the standard elements: political intrigue, sex, betrayal, even a murder or two. Randall’s job is to prepare the public-relations juggernaut that will roll out the announcement of this discovery (you can see how things were different before cable television), while at the same time bringing into line some recalcitrant theologians, one of whom is campaigning to become head of the World Council of Churches (which was apparently imagined to be a prestigious post). As he becomes more involved in Resurrection Two, Randall even begins to lose some of the cynicism that has marked his life thus far.

Now, up to this point you’d be forgiven if you confused this story with, let’s say, something like The DaVinci Code. It has all the elements, albeit in a much more entertaining, better written format. But just when all the keys seem to be falling into place, Wallace throws us a curve.

The whole thing is a hoax.

Randall uncovers the master forger responsible for the fake gospel, a man with a longstanding grudge against the church. He tells Randall how he stole scraps of ancient papyrus from museums and used them to make the scrolls, how he concocted the ink and artificially aged it in order to fool the scientific experts. He planned to wait until Wheeler and his gang announce the news to the world, and then expose the work as a fraud, thus bringing down all of religion. (If this doesn’t make complete sense to you, keep in mind this is just the Cliff’s Notes version.) However, just when he’s about to show the skeptical Randall the evidence that will prove his story, he turns up dead.

Randall, now highly skeptical of Resurrection Two, continues to dig deeper but finds everything and everyone turning against him. Those in charge of the project put pressure on him to end his investigation. The recalcitrant theologian, Randall’s last hope to stop the project, betrays him and becomes a proponent of R2. The woman he loves doubts him. And when hecomes up with an ancient artifact that will totally disprove the story, he is arrested by the Italian authorities on a trumped-up charge, forced to give up the artifact, and held in custody until after the grand announcement is made.

There is a happy ending, or at least the hint of one. Resurrection Two sweeps the world, taking everyone in (including the pope). It is ushering in a new era in Christianity, making Jesus far more accessible and human to His followers (again, remember this is the abridged version you’re getting here). The new Bible, containing the Gospel of James, becomes an international best-seller. Randall, after hitting bottom, decides to fight back. (He is a PR genius, after all.) He starts work on a book that will tell the truth behind the hoax – a book that, with the publicity he can generate acting as a slingshot, may be the stone that brings the Goliath of Resurrection Two crashing down. We don’t see how his efforts fare – the book ends as he begins his work – but he straightens out his life, reconciles with the woman he loves, and thus fortified, we have hope for his success.

Lest you sell the book short, this brief description probably doesn’t do it justice. Irving Wallace certainly knew how to write a page-turner, and The Word is one of his best. And whereas pretenders like Dan Brown are clearly trying to mock and discredit Christianity, I don’t see Wallace playing that game. The whole Gospel of James the Just is exposed as a fraud, after all. The bad guys are truly bad (they’ll even kill to protect their interests), but they’re presented mostly as dupes, opportunists, or political Machiavellians out for money, personal power and glory – not schemers trying to deceive the faithful and bring down the faith. (And isn’t it nice, for a change, to have revisionist historians who are not truth-seekers, but mere profiteers, willing to sell out the Lord not for thirty pieces of silver, but international reprint rights.) They have so much invested in R2 (financially and otherwise), nothing can be allowed to stop it – not even the truth.

(If there is a bone to pick, it would be the idea that the pope would fall for this. One would have to assume his papal infallibility would protect him from making such a doctrinal error, even if everyone else was taken in. Wallace may be mistaken in giving us this, but I don’t think it’s out of malice.)

It was impossible not to think of all this the other day, seeing James Cameron on television “sinking Christianity,” as one commentator put it. It was so much like the scene of Nicol Williamson, playing the malevolent Maertin de Vroome, selling out Randall in return for the coveted leadership of the WCC, that one almost could laugh about it. It remains true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The major difference, of course, is that Irving Wallace never pretended The Word was anything other than fiction. Dan Brown admits The DaVinci Code is fiction, but wants you to believe it’s based on fact. But James Cameron wants you to believe his is the real thing. (Or the unreal thing, if you will.) And the same gullible consumers that Steve Randall made his living off of are still there, waiting to gobble up Cameron’s titanic “discovery.”

To use a theological term, we “dare to hope” that Randall wound up bringing down Resurrection Two, just as we dare to hope Cameron’s proclamation will fall on deaf ears. And for that we have two causes for optimism: first, in this era of the blogosphere there will be any number of Catholic (and other) experts just waiting to pick the story apart, much as they do with other bogus claims.

And second – Irving Wallace had a much better plot.

Cross-Posted to: Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable

Sunday, February 25, 2007

And the Winner Is...

By Mitchell

It’s Academy Awards time, and in honor of tonight’s ceremonies it seems like a good time to talk about movies.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I mentioned in passing A Man for All Seasons, the Best Picture of 1966, a movie I’ve never been able to sit all the way through. Last night I caught it on TCM and was finally able to make it to the end. It was, needless to say, better than I had remembered, although I still think it treats the subject of St. Thomas More somewhat superficially and perfunctorily (notwithstanding a magnificent performance by Oscar-winner Paul Scofield). It was a good movie, perhaps even the best movie of that year, but not what I would consider a great one – put another way, it was not as good as it should have been. It lacked the warmth and humanity of Becket, the movie to which I compared it previously (qualities the real Thomas More apparently had in abundance); it also lacked the epic feel and length such a story deserves. Despite this, it still goes in my collection.

More disappointing was the pre-movie discussion by TCM’s resident expert, the usually reliable Robert Osborne, and Entertainment Weekly movie writer Dave Carter, TCM’s special guest for their Academy Awards marathon. Usually Osborne uses his pre-movie moment to discuss some aspect of the film we’re about to see, whether it be the performers, the backstory, a behind-the-scenes story, or the movie itself. This time Osborne and Carter chose to use A Man for All Seasons as jumping-off point for a discussion of two types of acting roles the Academy has always been infatuated with: real-life characters and British royalty – which is why Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker are such heavy favorites to walk off with the awards tonight.

There’s no doubt this is true, as any look at past Oscar winners confirms, but by lifting A Man for All Seasons from its historical context – the times from which the film was made – I think Osborne and Carter miss the more important analysis of the movie and its significance.

A Man for All Seasons appeared at the height of one of the Academy’s periodic British invasions. In this case, one need go no further than to look at the most acclaimed pictures of that decade – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Tom Jones (1963), My Fair Lady and Becket (1964), Darling (1965), Alfie (along with A Man for All Seasons, 1966), The Lion in Winter and Oliver! (1968), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). A lot of the actors and actresses nominated were British, too – Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Sylvia Miles, Edith Evans, Rex Harrison, Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris, the Redgrave family, Paul Scofield. British actors like Lawrence Harvey, Michael Caine and Peter Finch were big stars in American movies as well as British. And what with Masterpiece Theater on the horizon, there’s no missing the American infatuation with all things (and actors ) British.

In this context, it’s no wonder that A Man for All Seasons won (besides the fact that it is a good movie). It was a sign of Class and Importance to an Academy always looking to lend dignity to their work. Perhaps the movie still would have won if it had been about American politics (such as All the King’s Men), but to remove it from the context of the 60s British invasion, as Osborne and Carter did, is to miss an important part of the story.

Equally important is to keep it in the center of another important trend of 60s filmmaking – the Social Message picture. This seems like a given nowadays, and it’s always been a part of filmmaking (back to the patriotic – if not propagandistic – movies of the 30s and 40s). However, the 60s were prime territory for the Message Movie, and I think you sell A Man for All Seasons short if you don’t consider its place in that time.

A look again at other award-winning movies of the time bears this out – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Ship of Fools (1965), In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – even 1970’s Patton was originally subtitled Salute to a Rebel. These movies all had something Important to say, or at least thought they did.

Now, recall that one of the prime messages of this movie is the importance of conscience. Sir Thomas More serves his king loyally, but ultimately will not take an oath that places his king above his God, even though others have found ways to rationalize it. His conscience will not allow it, and in matters of State the conscience must ultimately prevail.

Now, transpose that scenario to the 60s, to a time in which the role of conscience is a major point in society, particularly as it relates to Vietnam. To resist the war – to evade the draft, flee to Canada, burn your card, protest in the streets – is treated as an act of conscience which the government cannot subsume. You can question whether or not these acts were those of well-formed consciences, but that’s not particularly germane to the present conversation. What is important is that A Man for All Seasons presents its conflict in stark terms that would have been instantly recognizable to anyone living in 1960s America, or most other places in the world. Whether or not Thomas More was ever abducted by the peace movement I don’t know, but clearly, you’re missing the cultural context of the times of this movie if you don’t take it into consideration.

It’s true that Osborne and Carter really were there to discuss this year’s nominees, using the films of the past as backdrop, but it demonstrates the dangers of taking something and distorting or reshaping it to fit something else entirely. Taken out of context, movies – like words, pictures and images – can be made to represent something other than what they actually are.

Granted, it’s fairly innocuous when talking about something as ultimately meaningless as the Academy Awards, but in doing so you also lose much of what’s interesting about these pictures and their times. It helps you understand the impact of a movie at a given time, why it was or was not a success, how it avoids or falls victim to becoming dated. It’s why cultural archaeology, which is what I like to think of myself as doing, is so much fun, and ultimately gives a great deal more texture and insight into the past – something we just might be able to make use of in the future.

* * * * *

Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s what we had to say about it a couple of years ago.

Here’s our good friend Badda Blogger and his take (although I have to take slight issue with him on The Departed, which I thought was clearly the best new picture of the past year).

And here’s a wonderful, not to mention prescient, comment from one of my favorite film critics, John Simon. Keep in mind that this was written prior to the 1967 show – 40 years ago:

[T]his year’s Oscar ceremonies themselves lasted two and a half hours, and may, in due time, last four, with a fifteen-minute intermission for dinner, taking a walk, or , if one happens to care about film, hanging oneself in despair.

Scary, isn’t it? I guess the message is to be careful what you joke about – it may just come true.

Friday, February 23, 2007

No Beach Read

By Drew

Perhaps it’s the recent talk about the movie adaptation of P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men that brings to mind one of the best-known of the Cold War post-apocalyptic novels, Nevil Shute’s haunting 1957 On the Beach. Like James’ novel, On the Beach tells how people face the approaching end of the human race. Like James' novel, it was made into a so-so movie (starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner). But whereas the end cause in James’ world is unknown, the reasons are all too familiar in Shute’s: nuclear war.

Before you go jumping to conclusions though, I wouldn’t call On the Beach an ideological screed. While there can't be much doubt what Shute thinks of war (he's against it, as most of us are), he approaches the subject with sorrow rather than outrage, melancholy instead of polemics. The novel is set in 1963 Australia following a catastrophic war, and observes its inhabitants as they await the slow drift of the nuclear fallout that brings with it certain death.

What’s left of the American navy is there, led by Captain Dwight Towers, who becomes involved in a platonic relationship with Moira Davidson, an Australian woman introduced to him by mutual friends. While the two form a close friendship, it doesn't go any further than that. It can't, for Towers - a good and decent man - still has a wife and children home in Connecticut. We know they're dead, as is everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and Towers knows it too - he just can't bring himself to face it. In one poignant scene Towers and Moira go shopping for presents for Towers' family, in particular his quest for a first fishing rod for his son.

Denial seems to be the predominant mood of most of the people we encounter, and what’s most fascinating (and terrifying) about On the Beach is watching how they accept their approaching death. For the most part there is no defiance, no panic in the streets. Society still maintains order, the streets are kept clean and people go about their work and their lives as best they can. On the surface it's as if there's been a slow, backward movement of civilization - cars are apparently a thing of the past, and only enough electricity for radio. It might seem not so different from the rationing and shortages of World War II, except that there was no war Down Under - only the consequences.

People enroll for college courses that won’t be completed, plant gardens they’ll never see, hoard gasoline that won’t be used. A woman goes in for an operation that her doctor says, without a trace of irony, should “give her a few more years of life.” It’s the secret that everyone ignores, the elephant in the room, the crazy aunt living in the attic, who nobody talks about. They talk of a future that's already gone, mouthing the words "next year" even though none of them really believes it. The start of trout season is moved up, and we understand why - by the time the original date rolls around, there won't be any fishermen left. That doesn't stop some from speculating that the government's just doing it for political advantage at the next election - an election, of course, that will never be held. ("Of course," one cynic says, "they'll have to change it back next year.") The date of the Australian Grand Prix is moved up too, and the drivers take ridiculous chances on the rain-slicked track – after all, what difference does it make if you die doing something you love, or wait for the sickness to kill you?

For those who might not be "fortunate" enough to die doing something they love, there's the free euthanasia pills (complete with instructions) being offered by the Aussie government. This may sound like a parody, but it’s deadly serious – and, considering the premium we seem to put on “quality of life” today, it probably creates less of a stir than it did when the book was first published. In particular Shute describes a young husband, an Aussie officer assigned to Towers’ submarine, trying to explain to his wife how she is to euthanize their baby and then herself if he hasn’t returned from his mission by the time the cloud arrives.

All through it the reader is confronted by the humanity of the characters, people struggling to get a grip over something they understand but can't comprehend. The mood shifts subtly during the year or so that the book covers. The world as they know it, the world that's left, becomes oppressive, a kind of living death, as the city slowly starts to fall into disrepair - things are broken but never fixed, shop clerks abandon their stores, people disappear from rooms and never return, presumably clutching the coveted pill in their hands. There is a sudden moment of reckless abandon as the end draws near - gasoline seems to appear out of nowhere, cars fill the streets, there's scattered crime and disorder - but even that lasts only a short time, a final fling while people can still appreciate it. "Everything's just slowing down," someone says sardonically. When reports start to come in of cases of radiation sickness in Melbourne, everyone knows the time has come.

It's that "living dead" sense (which you see so vividly in Eliot's "The Hollow Men," from which Shute gets his title) that I think stays with you after the book is over, the slow and gradual decay, the feeling you get when people just don't give a damn anymore but are helpless to do anything about it - even give up. A telling scene occurs when Towers and Moira go to an art show featuring a painting of a sorrowing Christ against the background of a destroyed city (presumably New York). Towers hates the painting - at first he criticizes it as being "phony" (the planes destroying the city are too low, the buildings are situated all wrong for New York) - and finally the truth comes out. "It couldn't have looked like that," he says, letting the denial fall away for just a moment. He goes on to say he gets no comfort from the painting: "as for religion, that's just not my line."

"You go to church regularly," Moira says.

"Oh well, that's different," Towers replies.

It is one of the saddest sections of this overwhelmingly sad book, this lack of consolation. Religion is there, sort of, but it's just pro forma. It doesn't really mean anything. In that sense I suppose it does nothing so much as mirror our own attitudes toward religion - it is a cultural thing, something you do, but not something you actually believe.

If there is a major shortcoming to On the Beach, I think it revolves around Shute's brief explanation of the war itself - how it came about, where it happened and why. Not that his explanation is implausible (it manages to indict everyone without pointing fingers at anyone) - it's just unnecessary. The war is the monster under the bed, Eliot's "Shadow," the great force that has nonetheless managed to ruin everything, no matter how they try to ignore it. As one character comments, "There never was a bomb dropped in the Southern Hemisphere. Why must it come to us? Can't anything be done to stop it?" As in any good horror story it’s the fear of the unknown rather than the known that is the most terrifying. The greatest of these stories are those in which the monster is never seen save fleetingly: a shadow, the movement of a window drape, the creak of a floorboard. Better that the war should have been seen that way, visible only in the effect it's had, but never seen straight on. To spell it out even to the extent that Shute does is to injection a brief glimpse of reality into a nightmare world that, because of its serenity, remains all the more nightmarish.

Some critics have pointed to other flaws: stilted writing, wooden dialogue, implausible behavior, bad science. It’s tempting to say these people are missing the point, though. (And you have to read this book in the context of the 50s, rather than the let-your-feelings-hang-out mores of today.) Ultimately what resonates with the reader is not how well the book is written or how realistic the dialogue is. It’s the atmosphere Shute creates - this overwhelming, almost unbearable sense of sadness. To truly appreciate it, try reading the last thirty or so pages while listening to all three parts of the Kyrie from Bach's Mass in B Minor, or perhaps Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila. If you're familiar with either of those pieces, then you'll understand what I'm talking about. If, after you finish this book you look at your loved ones and suddenly feel just how precious life is, then you understand what I'm talking about, too.

* * * * *

The Hollow Men
T.S. Eliot

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Around the Horn

By Mitchell

We haven't done this in awhile, so it seems like a good time to take a quick look around at things that have captured our interest:

At, John Rolfe talks about how fan-unfriendly professional sports have become. Cheating stock-car racers, drug scandals, police reports, free-agency, escalating ticket prices. Rolfe sums up our feelings exactly:

Colleges are still hotbeds of actual fan passion, but I imagine that as wages stagnate or shrink while player contracts rise, major pro sports will continue to become more exclusive, catering to an increasingly narrow base of well-heeled fans, the majority of them hailing from the business community. Working stiffs will be left with local horseshoes tournaments. That's fine if it means we won't have to digest the bitter news that even that humble game is awash in human growth hormone and rigged shoes, or that its biggest stars have been busted after a vicious bar fight with a pair of autograph-seeking Carmelite nuns and the National Guard.

Having said that, spring training is underway, and opening day is right around the corner. If you haven't let Barry Bonds completely turn you off from baseball, here's a cool site - Clem's Baseball. Diagrams and fascinating facts about every ball park ever used in the major leagues. For the sports junkie - especially one who keeps talking about the "good old days," you'll find a lot to like here.

From the Washington Examiner, Jim Geraghty taps into one of our favorite recent topics: the senseless anger that seems to consume so many people, and asks what good it does:

We have to live amid it and its effects, from road rage, to athletes storming into the stands to confront jeering fans, to rap music that celebrates violent or even deadly responses to any perceived slights, to those who turn a political disagreement into an opportunity to loudly denounce our views as evidence of our moral and intellectual decadence.

Geraghty points out what we've been saying all along: "While they may find this self-segregation and constant reinforcement emotionally satisfying, it ensures their distance from the non-angry and an inability to connect with those who aren’t in that same Republic of New Anger. The satisfaction of the angry comes at the high cost of their chance at persuasion."

At NRO, Jennifer Graham takes on the Church of Self-Esteem:

There once was a time when a nagging sense of unworthiness was considered a good thing. This was before 1969, when Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which sanctioned narcissism and pronounced self-esteem as the cornerstone of success. As the cult of self-esteem swelled, the art of self-deprecation — even in jest — became a character flaw, indicative of an interior smoldering heap of insecurity and self-loathing. Humility displaced pride as the seventh deadly sin.

You have to wonder how many of the people Geraghty writes about come from this same mold, the constant emphasis on individualism and self-worth. Graham reminds us of one of our favorite aspects of Lent: "Creaky old relic that it is, the Church persists in thinking that human beings are imperfect creatures that benefit from the occasional sober contemplations of their flaws. . . For dust you are, and to dust you will return. As self-esteem goes, you can’t go any lower than this."

The sidebar at 2 Blowhards led us to our newest favorite site, Architecture and Morality. (You have to love a combination like that!) Relievedebtor, the resident non-architect on the site, gives us all a good reminder of the virtues of anonymity:

As it turns out, the Christian take on all this is that anonymity is not necessarily such a bad thing. In fact, it’s practically a virtue. Over and over Jesus instructs his followers that becoming the least is our path to exaltation, and denying ourselves is preferred to worshiping ourselves. (Ayn Rand obviously has a different take, advocating man worship in no uncertain terms.) Other secularists would claim that this is the way religion controls people, by convincing them to become nothing so that someone else may control them. While this is undoubtedly true for many cults and dangerous sects of all religions, I don’t think this is at the heart of Christianity. From the Christian viewpoint, growing into anonymity simply puts us where we need to be: as creations of God worshiping our creator.

Finally, again from NRO, Peter Robinson gives us one of those "did you know" moments that seriously makes us pause: John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States, was born when George Washington was president. His grandson - not great-grandson, mind you - Harrison Tyler, now 79, still inhabits Sherwood Forest Plantation, the Tyler family home. Think about that for a moment. Imagine being able to say, "My grandpa was alive when Washington was president." Talk about a link to history. As Peter says, it reminds us that our country isn't so old after all.

Our summaries don't do them justice - read all the pieces we've linked to, and check out the sites often.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Local NPR Radio Station Announces New "All Membership Drive, All the Time" Format

(Pocatello , Idaho) -- KSPD, Idaho 's largest public radio station, announced yesterday that it is moving to a new "all membership drive, all the time" format as of March 1st.

Station Manager Philip T. Lucre announced the new format is in response to recent audience analysis. "Our rating figures show that people love membership drives," says Lucre. "The drives might seem like they're boring, tedious, even numbing, but we're finding that people just keep listening. Better yet, they keep sending in money and membership pledges, and we're very happy with that."

KSPD's most recent membership effort resulted in contributions of more than $20 million to the non-profit station, which is also underwritten by major foundations, local business sponsorships, commercials, tax breaks, the sale of services and merchandise, donations from large corporations, and state and federal tax dollars from the American people. "We're not talking golden goose here," said Lucre, "but it's certainly a winning formula, bottom-line, cash-flow wise. We couldn't do what we do without our listener's support. They know we're a non-profit and that we're counting on them."

Why do people keep listening to people asking them to send in money? Lucre believes it creates a drama that people find compelling.

"Our membership drives are great entertainment," he says. "You've got the tension built up by our self-imposed goal deadlines, people wondering if we're really going to make it. You've got the stories and personal testimonies finely crafted by our public relations department. The ringing phones in the background add a certain electricity. It's really good stuff, a lot better than any music, news or intelligent conversation you used to hear on the radio."

Lucre refused to answer questions about KSPD's recent purchase of four additional radio stations in California and Arizona , or its reported majority ownership of new office buildings and a resort casino being built in Winnemucca, Nevada . "We're a large business entity, and we need to maintain solid economic resources," he did say. "And besides, whatever we do has one main goal in mind: to provide the people of Pocatello, Idaho the kind of radio programs that they love and that meet their local needs."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why I'm a Conservative, Not a Republican: Reason #2,221

By Mitchell

In honor of Presidents' Day (actually, Washington's Birthday Observed), a look at this month's First Things and a very interesting discussion between Joseph Bottom and Michael Novak on "The Leadership of George W. Bush: Con & Pro," which, fortunately is also available online. (And which hopefully means we can finally be rid of that exceedingly tedious debate between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward Oakes.) Bottom takes the "con," and while his entire piece is valuable (both his and Novak's are well thought-out), the case couldn't be put much better than he does in the concluding four paragraphs of his brief, presented here without further elaboration.

And the fact we must face is this: We have already been defeated in Iraq. Perhaps not in literal truth; a better policy, better implemented, might yet bring about a stable, democratic country. And certainly not in historical terms; Iraq is only an early chapter in what must be a long struggle against global Jihadism. But, at the very least, the battle for perception of the Iraq War has gone entirely against the United States. In the eyes of both the American public and the Islamic world, we have lost-and lost badly.

The reason is President Bush. His administration has mishandled the logistics of the war and the politics of its perception in nearly equal measure, from Abu Ghraib to the execution of Saddam Hussein. Conservatives voted for George W. Bush in 2000 [editor's note: not this one] because they expected him to be the opposite of Bill Clinton-and so, unfortunately, he has proved. Where Clinton seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle, Bush has been a man of principle and very little political competence. The security concerns after the attacks of September 11 and the general tide of American conservatism carried Republicans through the elections of 2002 and 2004. But by 2006 Bush had squandered his party’s advantages, until even the specter of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House was not enough to keep the Republicans in power.

To abandon Iraq now would be the height of irresponsibility. It would lock in place the perception of defeat, with all the predictable consequences, and it would abandon the Iraqis to whom we promised freedom and democracy. President Bush has clearly done the right thing in refusing retreat and pledging to stay the course in Iraq.

But hasn’t that always been the problem? Again and again, he has done the right thing in the wrong way, until, at last, his wrongness has overwhelmed his rightness. How can conservatives continue to support this man in much of anything he tries to do? Iraq is not America’s failure, and it is not conservatism’s failure. We are where we are because of George W. Bush’s failure. All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates should understand the task they face over the next two years. George Bush’s ideals have gotten him elected president twice, and his incompetence has finally delivered the Congress to his domestic opponents and empowered his nation’s enemies abroad. Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush’s principles-and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Is Art a Masculine Thing?

By Drew

Michael over at 2 Blowhards makes an interesting observation: "Why do so many American males consider arty and aesthetic matters to be faggy?"

It's an intriguing question, and a troubling one as well. You should read the entire article because Michael makes a lot of interesting points, but I'll pull out this particular section. After mentioning how in many other cultures the very "artistic" qualities we talk about are seen as masculine, Michael makes this comment:

Where does this aversion to aesthetics come from, historically speaking? My hunch is that it has less to do with Puritanism than it does with our history as a place where people who want to get away from traditional cultures come to. The real American man is felt to be the adventurer and the frontiersman -- the man who escapes the shelter, nay, the claustrophobia of female-dominated "civilization." By these lights, we're all little Huck Finns, forever investing our masculinity in our quest to light out for the territories ahead of the rest. Where a guy from another kind of culture might express his straight-guy masculinity within the parameters of his culture, we straight-guy Americans are masculine because we reject civilizin'.

I think this is particularly evident in the crudity we see so often in young males - the need to be a man is in such conflict with today's PC-enforced sensibilities that their rejection of civilizin' is expressed in a defiance of the most basic types of civilized behavior. Put another way, men don't seem to have much of an opportunity to be men anymore.We've stripped young males of so many opportunities to be masculine that a return to caveman-like behavior is one of the few avenues left. (As an aside, it will be interesting to see, as young women increasingly follow the crude behavior of their male counterparts, if there's some kind of shift of behavior from the men, searching for another way to be unique.)

You see and hear about the same phenomenon in the Church, for example: the preponderence of women in the pews, and increasing numbers of them in leadership positions within parishes. More and more often men speak of the "feminized" (not necessarily "feminist") church, as if there's something vaguely unmanly about religion. It's true that there was nothing unmanly about the early Church, so I"m not quite sure why things are the way they are, other than to say that they are. Perhaps it's the submissiveness required by a true disciple, possibly it has to do with the loss of ownership required when one opens the heart completely to Christ.

While we're at it, we might also wonder why so many of theses artistic endeavors are seen as the province of the liberal establishment, the arts and croissants crowd? Interestingly enough, it's an assumption shared by conservatives as well as liberals - that red Americans turn to NASCAR and country music while blue Americans own opera and literature. It's also one of the main aspects that makes the "crunchy con" movement so intriguing. Is there anything to the linkage between liberal politics and homosexual politics, that they share the same interests? Probably a subject that demands more time and study.

At any rate, what all these things share is a need for diversification among its membership. For years conservatives have decried the liberality of institutions such as the media, acedemia, and the entertainment industry. The answer has always been the same: if more conservatives were willing to go into those fields (setting aside, for the moment, the obstacles many of them face when they try), diversity would follow. What are you left with? Michael supplies the answer:

The fact that straight American guys consider aesthetic matters to be self-evidently gay becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it means that the aesthetic fields in America in fact become ever-more gay.

And that's not a good thing. In fact, it can become a propaganda tool. The young boy who shows an interest in classical music or interior decoration must be a closet homosexual - why not come out of the closet, show your inner feelings, be the "man" you're supposed to be. If you're told this often enough, might you not come to believe it? I am told, therefore I am.

Not only that, such lockstep thinking denies a difference of opinion, a contrary outlook, a unique perspective. Without that, you wind up with a uniformity of opinion that is neither honest nor intellectually compelling.

Michael's conclusion: "Wouldn't we all be a bit better off if the aesthetic fields had a few more straight guys in them?" To that I heartily agree. It is time to reclaim that which belongs to us, which belongs to everyone. Diversity, the mantra of the very patrons of these fields, would seem to demand no less.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The GOP's Rudy Dilemma - and Our Own

By Mitchell

There are two seemingly unrelated issues floating out there that are, in my opinion, very much related. The first one is the current Republican fascination with Rudy Giuliani; the second is the controversy within Catholic circles as to whether or not the Iraq war is a just one.

First, Giuliani. There’s no question of his appeal (the 9/11 mayor, the man who cleaned up New York City and got tough on crime, and so on). Rudy is, we are told, the candidate of the economic conservatives, the man who can beat Hillary (or whomever the Democrats nominate). The objections to Rudy’s candidacy are quite familiar by now: his liberal positions on abortion, gun control, homosexual marrage, and so on. The conventional wisdom is that he'll have to moderate on at least some, if not most, of these issues in order to have a chance at the nomination.

A growing school of thought suggests ways he might be able to do that: for example, a commitment to appointing strict constitutionalists to the Supreme Court. This school, which I suspect is driven by Giuliani’s strong poll numbers, suggests that Rudy doesn’t necessarily have to change his liberal social policies as long as he takes a kind of hands-off, "let the courts and the states decide" attitude. If Rudy is the tough wartime leader the nation needs, supporters say, then we must be prepared to look away from other areas.

There’s a certain appeal to this theory, certainly. If Rudy is the man in all other areas, and if he promises not to interject himself into the dreaded social issues, then such a rationalization just might work. Or not. We’d have to wait until he actually proposes such a tack before we can measure its chances for success.

But how, you may ask, does this tie into the Catholic angst I mentioned at the start? (Other than to suggest that, based on his public record, Giuliani might not be the best example we have to offer of a practicing Catholic.) It has to do, I think, with a fundamental disconnect that exists in the debate over the proper Catholic position on the war, specifically on what is or is not torture.

This is a painful debate to watch because it has become so personal on both sides, with very little granting of good intentions, and even less desire to consider that elements of truth might exist in each position. What is likely is that both sides share a respect for the teachings of the Church and a love of country. Each side, however, would accuse the other of misplaced loyalties, idealism, an unrealistic understanding of how the world operates, an overcommitment to politics. But how to reconcile the two? The answer to this question lies in just how you look at America – what it is, what it represents, what’s happening to it now, and why.

It’s always been fashionable to ridicule people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (who certainly deserve their share of it) for always pronouncing some type of judgment (often straight from God’s lips) as to how [insert current disaster here] is a punishment from God for [insert current offense here]. And in truth it can be difficult to believe that God singles out any particular group for punishment, when so many innocent people wind up being hurt at the same time. It’s kind of like suggesting that God takes sides, an idea which would be anathema to our American sense of fair play.

There is nothing ridiculous, on the other hand, of looking at any particular event as being a form of chastisement from God, a warning that His patience and protection is not limitless, and perhaps it’s time for us to start paying more attention to Him. It is not that He has caused these events so much as that He’s allowed them to occur by withdrawing that protective Hand ever so slightly. Anyone who’s listened to the accounts of the Flood in this week’s readings has to have had the thought cross their mind.

There are those who would do anything to protect the country and their fellow Americans, and as one with a devout wish not to have my butt blown off, nor those of my friends and loved ones, I can appreciate that viewpoint. If you can save the lives of a lot of innocent people by wiping out that cell of terrorists, go to it, man. On the other hand, when I look at the innocent unborn being murdered, the cultural filth being promoted and exported, the corruption that’s become rife in so many parts of American society – well, one can be tempted to say, “the hell with it all.”

What kind of a country is America , and what kind of a country do we want it to be? If it is true that “unless the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain” (Psalm 127:1) then we’re presented with a stark choice. By choosing the man (or woman) whom we perceive to have the best chance for keeping the country safe, do we risk the alienation of God and His graces? In other words, does it do any good to save the country if it’s become a country not worth saving? It may sound like a bumper-sticker type of question, but it’s not one to be tossed aside lightly.

This, I think, is the bone of contention that really separates the two sides. One side is more inclined than the other to look at America as the world’s last great hope, a country that, for all its faults, is still the best place on earth to live. Spend any length of time with Ronald Reagan’s speeches and you’ll be hard pressed not to agree.

This may well be true, the other side would counters, but it’s not the issue. For them, America is measured not against other nations, but against God’s laws. They see, in our current situation, the dichotomy between Augustine's Cities of God and Man. The pessimists among us look at a nation seemingly hell-bent for self-destruction, full-speed ahead: homosexual marriage, euthanasia, abortion, orgiastic Hollywood celebrities, life on the edge with no sense of restraint whatsoever – and ask why God should save this country. Perhaps we're still better than most European countries, but that's grading on a bell curve if ever I saw it.

You can’t buy salvation off with good works, we are reminded. You can’t throw a buck in the cup for the homeless and think it undoes the stain of your support for Planned Parenthood, or embryonic stem-cell research, or any one of a hundred other issues. And what goes for individuals goes for countries as well. We may well be the most generous nation on earth, but also one of the most violent towards the most vulnerable. And that’s a judgment you can’t dodge through bribery, which is, of course, the American way.

One thing is clear: this nation is at war with an enemy dedicated to its destruction, and whether or not they actually have the means to accomplish that goal is a moot point, for they can do a hell of a lot of damage in the meantime. On that score I'm unequivocally with the hawks - a commitment to total victory is what is needed in order to win. But do we have that commitment? Furthermore, is it a commitment that we as a nation, in good conscience, can make? And is the war an issue that trumps all others? Rudy Giuliani or John McCain or any one of a number of candidates will make that point, but I'm not at all sure I'm willing to live with the compromises that would entail.

So we’re left with the questions with which we began. Until and unless the two sides can reach a consensus on what America currently is and is destined to be, I'm afraid we may not get much further. Rudy may be the man the Republicans need, the man who can save America , but do we really want to live in Rudy’s America? The next 21 months may give us something of an answer.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Gore Demands Computer Ballots for Oscar Voting
“I Won’t Be Robbed Again,” Sez Al

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Former Vice President Al Gore kicked off his campaign for his Oscar-nominated movie today with a demand that the Academy use electronic ballots to avoid a repeat of the 2000 Florida paper-ballot fiasco that many say cost Gore the White House.

(Left) Former Vice President Al Gore has tasted success before, but now he’s after the big prize: the Academy Award.

"We were sadly disappointed when the presidency was literally taken away from us in 2000 because of some hanging chads," said Gore in a National Press Club appearance yesterday. "We're not going through that again. The American people just won't stand for it."

An Inconvenient Truth, Gore's film on the perils of global warming, has been nominated for two Oscars, one for best documentary feature and one for best original song. The awards will be announced on the nationally-televised ceremony on February 25th.

"I realize this may be an unusual request," said Gore, responding to a question about his demand that paper ballots not be allowed. "But we've seen what can happen. I'm not accusing anyone, but if the Supreme Court of the United States can be hijacked, who's to say what can happen to an anonymous group of Academy voters. I don't think we can be too careful."

Gore also announced that he has made arrangements for a team of officials from the Carter Center in Atlanta to arrive in Hollywood next week to monitor the voting.

In a related development, Gore refused to confirm or deny the rumor that he will attend the Academy Awards personally and will actually sing the nominated song in a large-scale production number during the telecast. "I don't want to spoil any surprises," Gore commented.

What Makes a Person Great, What Doesn't?

By Drew

Regardless of your politics, I'd encourage you to go over to The Corner at National Review Online and check out a fascinating discussion that arose from a most unexpected source: Mitt Romney's presidential announcement yesterday at the Henry Ford Muesum in Dearborn. From there, we somehow get to the question of anti-Semitism in art. The topics encompass the merits and values of the museum in light of Ford's anti-Semitism (can Ford be both a great American and an anti-Semite?) and wind up with an analysis of the famed novelist Anthony Trollope.

I find this interesting for a couple of reasons: first, from a piece I wrote last year entitled "The Morality of Art, and the Artist," which raised this question (as articulated by Terry Teachout): "is there any act so absolutely heinous that the works of a great artist who commits it should be permanently banned from circulation?" I followed this up with another piece that asked whether or not Leni Riefenstahl's films were disqualified because of their Nazi content. The other reason for my interest stems from a friend relating a conversation he'd had with a co-worker about a family argument that centered on whether, in light of Mel Gibson's drunken tirade last year, you could in good conscience support his movies, or if your patronage would be taken as tacit support of his opinions.

In dealing with the possible question of the anti-Semitism of Trollope (and other writers of the time, such as Dickens), John Podhoretz frames the question in these terms: "Probably most great men of previous ages thought ill of Jews as a group. But their dislike of Jews and Judaism weren't their core concerns, nor did they imagine there was a specific "Jewish problem" in need of a solution." Which suggests that in terms of content, the works don't become inherently disagreeable simply because of the presence of disagreeable moments, as long as the work itself doesn't openly pursue or advocate a disagreeable agenda.

If these men are, to some extent, products of their time and environment, does that excuse the opinions they might have privately held? If Trollope's goal, as Peter Robinson goes on to discuss, was to show life the way it was, does that serve as explanation for perceived anti-Semitic characterizations? Certainly Riefenstahl might agree with that - to depict Hitler's Germany without showing Nazis would have been a challenge, to say the least. As I ask in my original piece, "do we punish the filmmaker because of the subject of her films?" (Or, can one listen in good conscience to the works of Wagner, for example? I've been meaning to write on that for months, and I still will, one of these days. Short answer: yes.) And, as a sidelight, is there any ideology that provokes as much of this type of discussion as anti-Semitism?

Can a Jew comment objectively on such matters? Can a non-Jew possibly understand all the dynamics at work? Can a male writer write convincingly about female characters, and vice versa? Does art cease to be art if it is also propaganda? Does a leader have to have experienced war first-hand in order to send soldiers into it? See how circular, and how relevant, the discussion can become once one explores the philosophy behind it? If nothing else, it serves as a brief for why public morality is so important in the first place. Lacking the ability to read the contents of another's heart, we are left only to judge them by their public behavior. And, as we know all too well, there is no such thing as privacy today.

Instead, I fear, we continue to waste too much time with name-calling and other extra-curricular pursuits. We dimly perceive the great questions out there, but we dance around them for fear of what they might tell us about ourselves. Which shows, if nothing else, that a mind is still a terrible thing to waste.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Yesterday's Music, Today's State, Tomorrow's Outlook

By Drew

Before I was sidetracked by our discussion of civility last month, I'd planned to write some on the latest doom-and-gloom regarding the future of classical music. (I don't mean to sound dismissive of the concerns, as I share many of them myself.) But what is the health of classical music, and is it really as old-fashioned as all that?

Greg Sandow, who blogs on the future of classical music, looks at the stats and sees an increasingly older demographic:

The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There's a common belief that it's always been this old, but I've uncovered data that shows this isn't true….If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren't coming into it.

His conclusion is not a sunny one:

This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we'll see decisive signs of where we're going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over….organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won't be very numerous, or at least won't be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts—more informal, or also offering other kinds of music—in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away.

Terry Teachout looks at Sandow's prognosis and agrees. For some time classical music has been driven by the superstars, the Three Tenors type of salesmenship, but that can go only so far.

Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show—that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person.

A major player in this situation, according to Terry, is the recording industry. As he's argued in other posts, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the time and expense of attending live concerts when the definitive recording of that piece is available to download.

In the same way, he sees the continued trend toward specialization and segmentation; in other words, such things as an eventual move of the Met completely away from the Saturday matinee radio broadcast to the kind of satellite programming that they've already started to embrace.

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, offers this rebuttal:

But I question Greg's habit of equating the health of long-established orchestras with the health of classical music at large. What about opera? Over half of professional American opera companies were established after 1970. If you compare the state of opera today to the state of opera in the sixties, as Greg does in his orchestra posts, you see dramatic growth, not decline. The audience for opera is younger, and, according to the NEA, one quarter is under the age of thirty-five. [...] As for orchestras themselves, most have reported a small rise in attendance after several years of decline, and, with hard work, that trend should continue. Although big-city orchestras may not be selling out all performances, as Greg says they were in the sixties, they are also giving more performances than ever before; it was in the course of the sixties that they converted to fifty-two-week contracts. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, had given 6700 concerts by the end of the 1962-63 season, and now it's closing in on 15,000.

Sandow sticks to the main point:

But still the numbers tell the same story. The average age of the classical music audience has been rising, almost precisely in the way the model railroad age has been (though over a longer stretch of time). Why shouldn't that just as clearly spell trouble for the concerts that our audience attends?

I tend to side with Ross on this, meaning that I'm cautiously optimistic. My concern is that as the demographic concern becomes more and more paramount, we're going to see a dumbing down of classical music - either the music itself, or the experience. It's not hard to see the trends already: if you've gone to a classical concert in the last few years, you've probably gotten used to the site of jeans, sweaters, even Reeboks, being worn by the audience. You've also heard programming that starts to mirror that heard on the radio: conservative, short, excerpts of works rather than the entire piece. All this in the name of appealing to the contemporary audience.

I suppose some classical music is better than nothing, but I would be sorry to see this become the norm in the future. It seems to me a good thing to have something to aspire to, something that requires you to better yourself in some way. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his talks about love, often speaks about one of the side effects of love being the desire to better yourself, to make yourself worthy of your beloved. In the same way I don't see anything wrong with dressing up in a tie and sportcoat and acting at least somewhat civilized for a couple of hours. Maybe you're not used to dressing up, perhaps you're uncomfortable at not being able to talk to the person sitting next to you. Tough. Classical music, more than most art forms today, affords the listener the opportunity of a transcendent experience; if it's worth attending, it's also worth making a little effort. If the music challenges you, if the experience requires a little discipline, that might not be such a bad thing. It simply mirrors the "anything goes" nature of culture today, of course, the gradual coarsening of society.

Classical music is more than just music; it represents some small part of our better nature, music that dares to show us a glimpse of the glories of God. As such, listening to it on your stereo, or via satellite may be pleasant (and it's better than nothing), but it isn't quite enough. It would be nice to think that there is some place where one can go for at least a little while to remove yourself from the madness of this milieu, where one can even dare to be "civilized." Alex Ross' analysis gives us guarded hope, but we also have to hope that it's not just whistling in the dark. So we look to the future, and what it brings us. Maybe we can do something about it, but even if we can't that still doesn't mean we have to like it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Return of a Classic

By Mitchell

Becket may or may not be great history, but it’s undeniably great filmmaking.

Originally premiering to great critical acclaim in 1964, it has now been reissued in limited release, no doubt intended to coincide with Peter O’Toole’s Oscar nomination for Venus. It tells the true story of Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), trusted advisor, intimate confidant, Chancellor and right-hand man to the king of England, Henry II (O’Toole). Becket’s position is a precarious one: as a Saxon, he remains suspect by the ruling Norman elites, and is seen as a collaborator by his fellow Saxons. To Henry, Thomas is the one man he can trust: he brings elegance and intellect to the court, while not immune from drinking and wenching with the king. Henry admires, respects and loves Thomas, holding everyone else in various stages of contempt. For Thomas Becket himself, life is a mystery. He gives to the king his personal allegiance and loyalty because there is no other place for it to be given; he loves the king (insofar as he is capable of loving anyone) because there is no other focus for his love. But what, he wonders, will happen if ever that “other” comes along?

The answer comes quickly enough as Henry seizes on an unexpected vacancy to appoint Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. For Henry the advantages are obvious: with “his” man in charge, the Church can be brought into line and cease to be a rival for Henry’s power. For Thomas the disadvantages are equally obvious, and he begs Henry not to go through with the appointment. Thomas knows well enough, or at least senses, that once he becomes God’s man he stops being the King’s. There is a showdown, both men remain unyielding, and their fates are set for the tragic ending.

Any time you condense a complex story into two-and-a-half hours (as does Edward Anhalt's Oscar-winning screenplay, based on the play by Jean Anouilh) you necessarily have to simplify some things and leave other things out. For example, I’ve always thought Becket’s inner conversion comes a little too quickly and easily to be entirely convincing. That being said, Burton is splendid in showing the little things that suggest Becket’s growing realization he cannot serve two masters (seen especially in the depiction of his investiture), his agonizing prayers to God for the strength to serve Him well, and his steely determination, once that strength arrives, to follow that course no matter what. A performance such as this only serves to remind us again what a calamity it was that Elizabeth Taylor came along in Burton’s life.

O’Toole is very nearly Burton’s equal in a role that I think could more properly be considered a supporting one. He proves once again that he can go over the top with the best of them, but also powerfully demonstrates a man of conflicted passions, loving Becket with the jealousy of the spurned lover, his hatred perhaps not of Becket but of the God who has usurped Becket’s own loyalties - shown most clearly in Henry’s deep hatred for those who dare to criticize Becket, even as Henry asks, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” (The men who follow what they perceive to be Henry’s orders will themselves be killed by Henry; as he says, we all have our penance to pay.)

Becket comes from the costume drama school of filmmaking that was so popular in the 60s: epic reflections on the human condition (usually British), dealing with great historical events (usually British), dominated by powerful actors (usually British), that became darlings of the Academy. (See Lawrence of Arabia, Anne of the Thousand Days, The Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons, etc.) As such, given the Academy’s enamored state with all things British, the quality of these movies could sometimes be spotty. (I think somewhere in Hollywood you can still hear the echo of laughter from the Best Picture nomination for Anne.)

There is no question, however, of the ultimate quality of Becket. If it is at times a little too earnest, it also captures the nobility and dignity of the human spirit. For me this is most clearly on display in the scene where Becket quietly and meticulously vests in the Cathedral with his loyal assistant Brother John, knowing that death probably awaits him once he leaves the sacristy. His calmness may be real or an act, but his determination to face his fate like a man and a servant of God is genuine.

Watching Becket, one can hardly remain unaware of the movie it most closely resembles, the aforementioned A Man For All Seasons. (Side note: I’ve never been able to warm up to that movie, though I’ve tried often enough. Perhaps it’s Paul Scofield’s brilliant but somewhat cool portrayal of Thomas More. Possibly the movie’s just a little too Shakespearian in tone. Maybe I just need to try harder.) The comparison is inevitable; both stories feature protagonists named Thomas (More and Becket) and English kings named Henry (II and VIII). Both are built around conflicts between Church and State and both end very badly for the protagonist, reminding us once again of the sometimes harsh lesson that God's justice is not always visible to us here on earth. (A Man For All Seasons does have it all over Becket in terms of Oscars though, winning Best Picture and Actor, among others.)

However, for me another movie came to mind, and stayed with me from beginning to end. That was Ben Hur, another great Biblical epic, another story of shattered friendships – in this case, the Jewish nobleman Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) and the Roman governor Messala(Stephen Boyd). Childhood companions, they become bitter enemies when Messala asks Judah to become a collaborator – a spy against his own people – which, unlike Becket, Judah refuses to do. Once again events come to a head, once again things end badly for one of the main characters. However, this time it is the villain who gets what he deserves, and the hero who not only achieves vengeance but enlightenment as well. Ben Hur is one of the great epics of all time, but there is something satisfying in the ending that begs comparison to Becket, and illustrates once again not only the difference between fact and fiction, but the obligation of the storyteller.

The mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked that the central theme of a murder mystery is the restoration of the world to truth through the equilibrium of justice. If justice is not dispensed, the equilibrium does not exist, and the mystery fails. For this reason, it is always necessary in a successful mystery for truth to win out and the perpetrator to be in some whay punished. Sayers, who was also a noted writer on religion, was of course talking about deeper things here, seeing in the mystery form a parallel of Christ's death on the Cross, restoring balance to the sinful world.

And this is where the similarity between Ben Hur and Becket ends. In Ben Hur's climatic chariot race, Messala is killed, his death the result of his own treachery on the track. Interestingly, Messala does not die in the original novel; he become a cripple, but he survives his injuries. I'm not sure who deserves credit for changing this in the movie, but whoever it was undertood the audience's need for Messala's evil to be punished. While not losing track of Judah's discovery of Christ and His teachings, and the subsequent healing of his leperous mother and sister, it was also imperative that Messala be brought to justice. With that issue resolved, the movie was free to move to its uplifting conclusion.

In Becket, we're constrained by sticking to the facts. It is true that Henry submits himself to a public scourging, but this is primarily a political move, designed to placate the restless Normans. In reality, Henry continued to reign for nearly 20 years following Thomas' death. While Becket achieves a moral victory, the audience's innate desire for the restoration of the moral balance goes unfulfilled. The movie's end may be spiritually satisfying, but remains somewhat incomplete. Proving, once again, that real life does not always go the way we might want.

The discussion is purely academic, of course. History is what it is. But it is also part of the historical record that Ben Hur goes on to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Becket's lone Oscar goes to Anhalt's screenplay. No, you have to admit that you get a certain satisfaction from seeing Messala get it in the end, and one wonders if that satisfaction has anything to do with Ben Hur's ultimate success.

Of course, A Man For All Seasons' Henry VIII survives to fight another day (not to mention divorce, murder, remarry, and all the other things kings do), while Thomas More not only dies but the Catholic church in England is virtually destroyed. Hardly a bargain there, and yet Man goes on to win Best Picture. So maybe I'm all wet on this one. Maybe Ben Hur and A Man For All Seasons were simply better movies than Becket (or at least up against lesser ones).

Still, Becket remains a great movie, the story of a man who held significant power and in the end gave it all up for a glory greater than that which he could find among worldly things. It has the glorious feel of filmmaking from an earlier era - actors larger than life, vividness of color, a soundtrack that's not a collection of the latest hit singles, a story that suggests there really is some meaning to life. It reminds us that glory does not always come easily, and often does come at a fearful price. But just as the rewards for the martyr are great in Heaven, so also are the rewards of Becket great for the moviegoer on earth.

Cross-Posted to: Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable

Thursday, February 8, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Pete Rose to Head Investor Group Seeking NBA Franchise in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV -- On the eve of the NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas, a group of investors headed by baseball legend Pete Rose has announced its intention to bring professional basketball to the desert city.

(Left) Is there a Rosey outlook for pro basketball in Las Vegas? Charlie Hustle is betting on it.

The group, "Bet on Vegas," hopes to have a team in Las Vegas within the next three years, either through league expansion or by luring an existing franchise to relocate. The team, tentatively to be known as the Vegas Hustlers, would play at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) until a new arena on the Las Vegas Strip could be constructed.

Speaking before a packed press conference at Caesar’s Palace, Rose downplayed talk that the NBA would be hesitant about putting a team in the nation’s gambling capital.

"Some people will say that a pro team in Las Vegas is a roll of the dice, a crap shoot, a spin of the wheel" Rose said. "But Vegas is the most exciting city in the world, and basketball is the most exciting game there is. It’s a natural match. I’d lay you five-to-one that we’ll get a team here, and I like those odds. We've also begun discussions with Jerry Tarkanian to see if he'll come out of retirement to coach the team. Right now over-under is at 17."

Rose, whose notorious gambling habits earned him a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball, might seem an unusual choice to head the investor group. But, according to General Partner Mark Croupier, several points were key factors in the decision.

"Pete Rose is as synonymous with the business of Las Vegas as Wayne Newton," Croupier said. "Let's face it - 'Charlie Hustle' had his feet in both worlds - sports and gambling. Vegas is really just an industry town, and Pete knows the industry better than anyone. Sure, the league usually goes for things like local ownership, but this is a case where Pete has an interest in this city as deep as that of any local businessman. Maybe more so."

League spokesman Jefferson McNeil said the Bet on Vegas application would be given due consideration by the league’s expansion committee. "We’ll evaluate their application just like any other prospective ownership group," McNeil said. "Whether it’s Pete Rose, or Tony Soprano, or any notable figure, they’ll all be looked at in the same way." Unlike Rose, McNeil refused to say what the odds of approval might be. Other members of the Bet on Vegas investor group, according to a press release handed out at the conference, are Benny (Big Hands) Molano, Hank (Cement Head) Cardinalli, and Frankie (The Fish) Volgiano.

Rose said he looks forward to pouring all his efforts into obtaining the franchise.

"We’re in this to win," Rose told reporters, while signing baseballs from a large bin near the podium. "You can take that to the bank. Once we put our cards on the table, the NBA can’t keep us out of the game. Pete Rose's job is to show you that the NBA is a good bet. And if Pete Rose doesn’t know about good bets, who does?" Rose refused, however, to reveal to reporters if he had ever bet on baseball.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Importance of Words

By Drew

Ray at Stella Borealis and Terry at Abbey-Roads2 continue our discussion from last week on civility. We're looking at the great scholar and philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, writing in the recent issue of New Oxford Review (somewhat ironic, since that's hardly a paragon of civility itself, but then I guess you go where the sinners are). At any rate, as these extracts show, von Hildebrand gets straight to the point:

Man's nobility and greatness are expressed by his capacity to use words that enable him to communicate with his neighbors. One of the problems we all face is that, when we discuss deep experiences, we feel that words prove to be pitifully inadequate. We often say, "Words fail me." Hard as we try, what we "feel" is much deeper than our vocabulary. That is why it is typical of linguists to shift from one language to another, because a foreign word can often better convey certain nuances than one's mother tongue. [...]

Great writers have a special talent for gauging the quality of words and intuitively choose those which best express the particular quality they wish to convey. The language used by a well-educated person is widely different from the one used by those whose approach to life is, shall we say, primitive. To put refined and subtle words in the mouth of an uneducated person would sound artificial and ridiculous. On the other hand, we expect people who speak about sacred objects, or deep human experiences, to use words that have a certain perfume, a certain spirituality which is called for in such cases. [...] One of the most striking phenomena of the society in which we live is that many of us have lost the sense of the propriety -- and impropriety -- of words. We live in a democratic age. Whatever the benefits and merits of democracy, it often results in a leveling down, a putting of all things on one and the same level. [...]

I would defend the thesis that the abyss separating man from animals is made manifest in the domains they share: eating, drinking, and especially the intimate sphere. It is precisely in this sphere that the words we use reveal whether or not we approach it with reverence. [...] The difference between man and animals -- far from being reduced to the fact that the former has intelligence and free will, can love, has the power of speech, etc. -- is particularly evident in the sphere we are referring to. It is a domain in which precisely the abyss separating man from animals is particularly apparent. [...]

What I am advocating is not a return to prudery, Jansenism, or Puritanism. It is the recognition that there are things that should make us blush. Woe to those who no longer know how to blush. Let us learn to chastise our vocabulary so that it produces heavenly music.

As those of you who have been with us from the beginning of the discussion know, this topic has been prompted by the carelessness with which words are used nowadays. The discussion continues because it fascinates, because there are so many facets and angles through which it can be viewed. Words mean things, and the words you select and the way you use them tell a great deal about who you are and what you believe. But they also form a common language, and by this I refer to the idea that all the words we speak and write become a shared experience, one that influences and is influenced. Every word injected into that common experience has the potential to affect any one of us, in unexpected ways. Call it a linguistic sort of Butterfly Effect. Look at it in this light, and you see the added responsibility it casts on anyone who uses words. For when you talk about people and treat them like animals long enough, that's precisely what they become.

And in the end it all seems to come back to one central point, that of the inherent dignity of the human and the imprint of the Creator. Deny this and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the debate. When you buy into the idea that religion is a myth, that this is all there is - well, then you've broken down the barriers between man and animal, between the sacred and the profane. What difference does it make? And therefore you've also removed the barriers to behavior - anything goes.

In order to have a functioning, civil society you have to base it on some kind of moral, rational foundation (and contrary to what some of these people might think, there is no inherent conflict between faith and reason, as Pope John Paul II illustrated).

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Happy Birthday, Gipper!

By Mitchell

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on my video archival project (second in my nostalgic heart only to my vingate TV Guide collection), converting and editing thousands of hours of old video tape to DVD. Over the past few days, I’ve been working on the TV coverage of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, for no particular reason other than it was something to do, although it somehow seemed like the right thing at the time. And of course it was, for today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday.

It’s interesting, listening to the commentators during the funeral, at how surprised so many of them were at the huge outpouring of emotion after Reagan’s death. Brit Hume talked of wondering whether or not Reagan’s many years out of the public eye might have dimmed the memories of his countrymen, then wryly acknowledged, “How wrong I was!”

Watching the footage serves to remind us of how large, how great a figure Ronald Reagan was. He represented the first presidential vote I ever cast, and the best. Liberals and Europeans (if that’s not a redundancy) mocked him as a cowboy, a simpleton, a right-wing extremist, an almost cartoonish figure. But by the time of his death The Economist proclaimed him “The Man Who Won the Cold War.”

Reagan's enduring quality was that of optimism, of confidence in his nation and its people. Regardless of the circumstances, he remained sure that good would triumph in the end. It was a welcome message to a nation scarred by war, scandal and incompetence in its leaders. As Jimmy Carter prepared to leave office many wondered if the presidency was too big for one man - it turned out we only needed a man big enough for the office. Ronald Reagan was that man, larger-than-life, who rose to meet the moment and made it his own.

I was particularly struck, watching the hours of coverage, at the number of young people. Kids who weren't born when Reagan was president, or couldn't have remembered him. Younger ones, who didn't even know what they were seeing. All of them had come to pay their respects to the great man. And I thought: these kids aren't going to learn about Ronald Reagan from the history books - they're going to listen to their parents or grandparents talk about what they had seen or heard, how they remembered him. "Dad, what was Ronald Reagan really like?" Living history, not the things you read in textbooks.

In the years since he left office he's continued to grow in stature, partly because of the smallness of his successors, but also because time has reaffirmed the values he held, the values that made America great. There was a decency about him, an honesty in the sense that what you saw was what you got. That's not to say that everything was perfect, that there weren't problems along the way. (Iran-Contra, anyone?) It wasn't the Golden Age of Pericles, but then Pericles' age wasn't golden, either.

As the coverage came to an end, the presidential historian Richard Norton Smith reflected on the images of the day: the world leaders gathered in Washington to pay homage, the hundreds of thousands who had passed by the casket in California and in the Capitol, the crowds, five and six deep, who had lined the motorcade route, waving flags and applauding in tribute as the hearse passed by. As the sun set over the Reagan Library at the end of this long day, he summed it up with a quote from Sophocles, "One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been." It was safe to say, he said simply, that "It is evening in America."

And so it is.

Perhaps the best way to remember Ronald Reagan is by one of his more famous quotes, from his first inaugural address in 1981:

"We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we're in a time when there are no heroes, they just don't know where to look."

We know what to look for today; we just don't know where to look. But it would be contrary to the dreams he dared to dream, the nation whose values he affirmed, if we were to simply give up and assume that America was incapable of producing more heroes. It will be morning in America again someday soon; the faith Ronald Reagan had in America and her people was not a misplaced confidence or one whose time had passed. If we do not turn our backs on all that is America, her history and heritage, her values and ideals, then the greatness that was and still is America will lead us in the future. And that will be the fitting legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Gian Carlo Menotti, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

He wrote one of the most famous operas of its time, one of the most-performed operas ever, yet his name would remain a mystery to many today. It's difficult now to understand the impact of Gian Carlo Menotti, who died on Thursday at the age of 95. His fame speaks to a time when opera actually was part of the popular culture and its stars were celebrities of the new media. His opera The Consul won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950; The Medium and another Pulitzer winner, The Saint of Bleecker Street, were hits on Broadway. His 1939 opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, was written for NBC, the first opera ever composed specifically for radio. Later works such as The Medium solidified his reputation as the preeminent American operatic composer (although born in Italy, he did much of his writing in America , in English, and therefore is usually considered an American composer). He founded the Spoleto arts festival in Italy in 1958, and its companion festival in South Carolina in 1977. His influence ranged to the unexpected, such as pop star Laura Branigan (you remember "Gloria"), who gave credit to him as her vocal coach on several of her albums.

But it was the gentle Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors that brought Gian Carlo Menotti his lasting fame. It was the first opera ever composed specifically for television – imagine that happening today. It world-premiered on Christmas Eve in 1951, the inaugural presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame (back when that brand really meant something) and was an immediate sensation, earning a review on the front page of the New York Times and becoming a Christmas TV tradition for over a decade.

I’m not a music critic, and I can’t discuss the technical ins-and-outs of Menotti’s music and influence in the same way that a professional like Terry Teachout could. But I know what I like, and I know just enough about opera to be dangerous. For many years I’ve been advocating a Menotti revival, particularly here in Minnesota . Aside from Amahl (a longtime favorite of amateur music groups), you don't see that many of his operas in significant productions anymore. And that’s a shame, because Menotti should be seen as more than a relic to gather dust on the shelf.

The problem, I suppose, is that Menotti isn't cool anymore. It's much more hip, much more provocative, to stage something truly "daring," a political polemical such as The Handmaid's Tale or the glamor of a world premiere like The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps it was as was written in the New York Times obit:

In a musical age in which controversy usually centered on the avant-garde, Mr. Menotti was controversial for his conservatism. Writing of his opera “The Last Savage” in 1964, he said: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it. For better or for worse, in ‘The Last Savage’ I have dared to do away completely with fashionable dissonance, and in a modest way, I have endeavored to rediscover the nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness.”

In a day when we're used to hearing of the financial troubles of arts groups, perhaps instead of wasting valuable time and resources on the kind of tripe companies love to boast of, they should look at the larger body of work out there that remains underperformed. One need look no farther than Menotti for such a renaissance.

Consider The Consul, a political thriller of a woman trying to escape a police state, as full of drama and intrigue as any contemporary story. Such is the nature of its timeliness that both liberals and conservatives, totalitarians and anarchists, claim it as their own. The Saint of Bleecker Street, set in New York City, presents all kinds of human drama - religious devotion, family jealousy, murder, fanaticism - what more could you ask for?

Sometime in the 1950s Menotti's star began to fade; with the movement toward neo-romanticism his more modern style fell out of favor, the critics turned on him and people who formerly championed his works now feigned an embarrassment that they'd been so partial to them. Although his name faded from the popular culture, he was never forgotten in the music industry; in 1984 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. He continued to direct opera into his 90s, and Amahl remains the most widely-performed opera in the world.

There were discordant notes, of course; he was thought to have intimate relationships with the composer Samuel Barber (for whom he wrote the libretto to Vanessa) and the conductor Thomas Schippers (who did so well with Menotti operas, conducting that premiere of Amahl). In an interview with Columbia magazine he admitted he'd left out the Credo from his Missa O Pulchritudo, replacing it with a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine, ("O Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved You") because he couldn't accept everything in the Creed. But then we look to admire Menotti's arts, and admire him; we don't seek to sanctify him.

One of the great things about recording is that it has made it possible for great works and performances to live on after those responsible for it have gone. But there’s more to a performance than just the recording – there is a time, an atmosphere, a context into which the performance has to be placed. In our DVD collection is a rare copy of the original live broadcast of Amahl in 1951. Menotti appears at the beginning to introduce the peformance, and talks briefly about the background and personal experience that went into its composition. There is something about having watched this telecast while Menotti was still living that made the experience that much more immediate. For as long as Gian Carlo Menotti was alive there was somehow a living link to that date when classical music was part of the living culture, when a network had its own symphony orchestra, and when people gathered around the TV on Christmas Eve to watch an opera. We'll be doing the same, this Christmas and in the future, but somehow it won’t be the same.

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