Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Maeve Binchy RIP

Unlike most other contemporary Irish authors, she never (as far as I know) attacked the Church or the Catholic faith, and from the one book of hers that I read (The Copper Beeches) she seemed to portray nuns and priests with considerable affection.

In one article she wrote, she stated that, though she had lost her faith, she would love to regain it. Perhaps she did before the end.

May she rest in peace.

The Human Form Divine

On Sunday I watched the movie Big Miracle, which is about three whales trapped in ice in Alaska. (I have been criticised for using the more American term "movie" rather than "film". But movie seems both more specific and more aesthetically pleasing.)

I loved Big Miracle for many reasons, but partly because I like movies set in cold places. Winter is my favourite season. There are many, many things that please me about winter, but one of them is seeing people bundled up in coats and scarves and hats and gloves. They always look so cosy and protected and-- strangely-- fragile and precious.

Looking at the actors thus bundled up in Big Miracle, it occured to me that the human body is a very beautiful thing. No, I'm not talking about Michaelangelo's statue of David, or the contours of a ballerina. I mean the human body in general, as we see it in the street.

I think we have been so eroticised, today, that we can no longer take innocent pleasure in many simple things. Mind you, I am not for a moment denying that some people are more aesthetically appealing than others, or that there is anything unhealthy in an instinctive response to a member of the opposite sex.

But I think we have become so fixated on those things-- and so obsessed, too, by looks and weight and fitness and skin tone and a long line of other factors-- that we miss out on the glory of what William Blake called "the human form divine", all around.

Children instinctively delight in drawing matchstick men, in reproducing the basic lines of head, torso, arms, legs.

If we are looking at an enormous panting of a landscape, our eye fixes gratefully upon a solitary, tiny figure in the background.

If we had not seen another human being for months and months-- how eagerly we would drink in the sight of the first person we saw!

I am always working on the Chestertonian exercise of discovering more to wonder at, more to be grateful for, all around me. And today it occurs to me; how lucky I am to be surrounded by the forms of those marvellous monstrosities, man and woman!

Monday, July 30, 2012

More Market Romanticism from George Weigel

The man makes lots of sense, except when he starts spouting about the miracles of the free market and the (modified Catholic version of) the prosperity gospel.

Here is a snippet from his latest syndicated column:

And that, from a Catholic social doctrine point of view, is the key to understanding the demise of the post-World War II social welfare state: it’s eroded the moral culture that makes free and responsible citizenship in self-governing democracies possible. Yuval Levin again: “The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance and self-government”—and it has done this, not from a lack of compassion or resources, but because the social welfare state by its nature creates dependencies that erode the virtues necessary for genuine human flourishing.

Yes, the social welfare system creates dependencies. And bureaucracies. But guess what? Those things are features of modern life anyway. Ask the cubicle slave in a gigantic multinational, the kid doing unpaid work experience because it's the only way to break into his chosen profession, or the woman desperately trying to use her bank's helpline but unable to get past the pre-recorded menu, none of whose options have anything to do with what she wants to ask about.

How about this-- untrammeled commercialism has undermined the family (parents who never see their kids because they're working all hours), self-reliance (how will that look on my CV?) and self-government (give me some more of that addictive Happy Meal NOW!). That seems to make just as much sense to me as Weigel's finger-pointing at government. What about the evils of big business, Mr. Weigel?

People like George Weigel talk as though social welfare is the only thing holding an unemployed man back from marching to the unowned virgin forest ten miles from his home and carving out a plantation for himself. Piffle, pure and simple.

Those who believe the social doctrine of the Church is compatible with neoliberal economics, anarcho-capitalism, or other laissez-faire social philosophies seem to be simply ignoring the actual teachings of the Church to which they belong. Take, for instance, John Paul the Second's enyclical Centesimus Annus, itself drawing on Leo XIII's famous Rerum Novarum, the definitive anti-free market pronouncement of the Church's magisterium:

Rerum novarum is opposed to State control of the means of production, which would reduce every citizen to being a "cog" in the State machine. It is no less forceful in criticizing a concept of the State which completely excludes the economic sector from the State's range of interest and action. There is certainly a legitimate sphere of autonomy in economic life which the State should not enter. The State, however, has the task of determining the juridical framework within which economic affairs are to be conducted, and thus of safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience.

In this regard, Rerum Novarum points the way to just reforms which can restore dignity to work as the free activity of man. These reforms imply that society and the State will both assume responsibility, especially for protecting the worker from the nightmare of unemployment...

Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings...

Finally, "humane" working hours and adequate free-time need to be guaranteed, as well as the right to express one's own personality at the work-place without suffering any affront to one's conscience or personal dignity. This is the place to mention once more the role of trade unions, not only in negotiating contracts, but also as "places" where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment.

No mention of social welfare, you might say. But I think you would also agree the whole tone and rhetoric is very different from the "get the Jerry Springer-watching bums off their asses and let the laws of supply and demand do their miraculous work" style language of of market romanticists.

Yes, perhaps my reaction is emotional. But if the champions of the free market (including other Catholics such as Thomas E. Woods and Ireland's own Gerard Casey) ever mentioned the evils of impersonal market forces and the need to balance them with other (not necessarily governmental) institutions, I would be a lot less suspicious.

I'm with the Popes, not the Catholic market romanticists.

P.S. Even though I am a Chestertonian, I am not a Distributist, though I sympathise with the goals and vision of the Distributists. I just don't find their programme convincing. Nor do I claim to understand economics, but I don't think you have to understand economics to be highly sceptical of this rather mystical faith in market forces that seems more and more prevalent in our era-- even amongst Catholics, who should be immune to superstition.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (3)

In my previous posts on this subject (here and here), I have named the three cardinal virtues of conservatism-- or at least, my sort of conservatism-- as tradition, character and gentleness. I have given some account of the first two terms, which was not too difficult. I find myself rather more challenged by the last.

It seems as though gentleness is a virtue we don't really associate with conservatism. We think of conservatives as judgemental, pessimmistic, intolerant and harsh.

And not without reason; there are many brands of conservatism which are noticeably "nasty". There is social Darwinism, which may not have very many self-confessed adherents these days, but which is surely the tradition of those who see life as a rat-race-- the radical individualists and the readers of Ayn Rand who believe altruism is a vice. (I've never read a book by Ayn Rand and I never intend to.)

There are also-- although their numbers are greatly exaggerated-- racists and extreme nationalist who view blacks, foreigners and other groups as inherently inferior and even less than human. Are these conservatives? They are certainly not liberals or progressives.

But, aside from those exceptions, I really think it makes sense to say that conservatism-- especially traditionalist conservatism-- cherishes gentleness.

In this instalment of the post, even more than the others, I plead guilty to making sweeping generalisations that are highly simplistic and highly disputable. Nevertheless I believe they describe a rough sort of truth.

Why do I say conservatism cherishes gentleness? Because conservatives tend to believe that life is worth living, that there is a benevolent Creator behind the universe. Life is not simply a defiance of a cosmos indifferent to our existence. Even if they are not religious believers themselves, traditionalist conservatives are usually sympathetic to religion. They tend to place a very high value on childhood innocence. They tend to believe in chivalry-- chivalry between men and women, rich and poor, strong and weak. They value reverence. They enjoy art and culture that is sentimental, life-affirming and optimistic rather than bleak, cynical and fatalistic-- It's a Wonderful Life rather than La Haine.

Valuing gentleness, and desiring to protect gentleness, this sort of conservative can become highly critical and censorious of whatever threatens it. They complain about bad language, violence on TV and in movies, the flaunting of sexuality, and aggressive marketing. It seems like they are always moaning, always disapproving-- but only because they yearn for a gentle world.

This type of conservative, while being hospitable towards immigrants, will tend to be hostile towards multiculturalism and "pluralism". This doesn't seem so gentle, I suppose. But this is because they recognise that multiculturalism inevitably comes with tensions, resentments, prejudices and even racism. A society that shares a common language and history (or at least accepts the primacy of one language and history) can afford to be more at ease with itself, more relaxed in telling its own story, in celebrating its festivals-- in other words, gentler.

Conservatives have a less problematic attitude to femininity than progressives and radicals. Amongst those preoccupied with sexual politics, women must prove they can be as hard-hitting, abrasive and tough-minded as any man-- generally the most obnoxious sort of man. They must repudiate the stereotypes of nurturing mother, supportive wife and kindly household angel. The extent to which they succeed is the extent of society's loss, since it is women who play the biggest role in creating a gentle society-- both in their own personalities and in the civilizing influence they have upon men and children.

Conservatives believe in bonds-- bonds of family, community, nation and religion. When these are sundered-- usually by a liberal, individualist mindest-- people find themselves in search of an identity and a role. Teenagers and young people are especially affected by this quest for identity.

Unfortunately, when the time-honoured identities are kicked away, the replacement identities close to hand are usually those of pop culture, career, sports, consumerism and sexual adventure. Since most of these are competitive fields, the quest for identity becomes a battle for status-- the battle to be "cool", or "hot", or to own the most impressive car, or to have the most advanced aristic tastes. We become used to hearing that horrible term "loser" applied to those who are deemed to have failed in the quest.

So traditionalist conservatives-- in my view-- are those conservatives who emphasise gentleness, character and tradition, rather than freedom or authority or individualism or any other set of values.

I know that this is an ideal, and one perhaps that is nowhere instantiated in reality, least of all in my own poor self. But as ideals go, I think it's a pretty good one, and one worth aspiring to. I make no stronger claim than that.

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read this trio of posts, which I enjoyed writing more than I've enjoyed writing anything else on this blog. Thank you.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (2)

In a previous post, I named the three cardinal virtues of my sort of conservatism as tradition, character and gentleness.

The first is obvious enough, I'm sure. Who is actually hostile or indifferent to tradition? Not even liberals and radicals, except those of the most hardboiled variety. Most people feel some call to honour their ancestors, to celebrate and perpetuate their national way of life, to pay homage to the past.

Futhermore, even revolutionaries can rarely resist the backward glance; Spartacus, the Peasant's Revolt, the Paris Commune and so forth.

In my case, the call of tradition is very loud indeed. I cherish all traditions. National traditions, family traditions, local traditions, school traditions, professional traditions, academic traditions...I can't understand why anyone would want to remove the wigs and gowns of judges, or force an old all-male club to accept female members (or vice versa), or abolish the English monarchy. It seems like the purest vandalism to me.

My love of tradition is so ludicrously strong that I once found myself feeling sad that the code for my workplace's staff door had changed. It had been there so long and now it would be forgotten...

I don't value tradition because it is (as Burke claimed, and as may be the case) a better guide than reason-- that is, the sort of reason that seeks to engineer society and redesign social institutions, based upon abstract ideas. I don't value tradition for its practical use, or for its distilled wisdom. I value tradition for its own sake. I like old things because they are old.

But why?

This seems to me to be one of those classic imponderable questions, like asking why people enjoy scary movies, or what makes funny things funny. But (as with those other two imponderables) I have spent some time thinking about it.

One thing we can say about tradition, and that may go some way to answering this question of why we value it, is that it cannot simply be willed into being. No amount of power, no amount of money, and no amount of ingenuity can create a fully-formed tradition. It can only be created over time, often at annual or longer intervals, and by a large amount of people, most of them anonymous and unacquainted with each other. Thus tradition has a strangely equalising effect; Christmas belongs to everybody, and unites people across time.

Another possibility is that tradition reconciles two contradictory desires deeply rooted in the human spirit-- the desire for the new, and the desire for permanence. To take the example of Christmas again-- every Christmas is a new experience, and yet it seems to stand outside time and even to unite us with those who went before, and who also decorated Christmas trees and sang Christmas carols.

But in the end, I am happy for the appeal of tradition to remain a mystery-- because I believe that everything that truly enriches life is mysterious. We can only see to the bottom of shallow things.

Character is the middle term of my conservative "trinity". By character, I do not mean moral fibre, but rather personality, distinctiveness, atmosphere.

We value our national traditions, such as the monarchy in Britain or the Irish language in Ireland, not only because they are old but because they make us special, different, unique.

A conservative-- a conservative like me, that is-- is somebody who wishes for a world full of character, and for all things to preserve their own character. His attitude to men and women is vive le différence, and he is suspicious of anything that might make the sexes more alike. In the same way, he treasures national distinctiveness. He wants England to remain quintessentially English, Russia to remain uniquely Russian. If he goes to America, he will take great pleasure in watching a baseball game, but he will frown if he hears of baseball being played in Ireland or England.

Within the nation, too, he wishes to find distinctive character. He exults in the existence of regional dialects, slang words, customs, attitudes. He wants Liverpool to be Liverpool and London to be London. Even within cities, he is pleased to hear of neighbourhoods with a particular reputation or atmosphere, and he dreads the advent of universal identikit suburbia.

I am not a seasoned traveller by any means, but I have paid several visits to Richmond, Virginia. In that city there are two "hipster" bookshops by the names of Chop Suey and Chop Suey Tuey. The shelves are packed with Jack Kerouac books, radical histories, gay and lesbian tracts, handbooks on New Age spirituality, and so forth. As a conservative, did I disapprove? Not at all. It pleases me very much that there are hipster bookshops out there. The existence of such a sub-culture seems to me to make the world a more interesting place.

A conservative of this sort does not fume and mutter about illiteracy when he sees a mispelling on a handwritten shop sign. He is pleased that the shop sign is handwritten rather than printed, laminated and composed at corporate HQ. He dreads a deadening rationalisation and a bland professionalism.

There is one final, and very important, point to be made about character. Even though it is linked to the idea of diversity, I have not used that word for a very good reason. "Diversity" has been hijacked to mean a kind of cultural and social free-for-all that, instead of increasing the world's diversity, actually diminishes it. Take the example of multiculturalism. It might seem that multiculturalism makes the world a more diverse place, but it does the opposite; instead of particular societies boasting their own distinctiveness, each becomes more like everywhere else; an anywhere rather than a somewhere.

The paradox here is that institutions and places and ways of life that are exclusive, stuffy, narrow and strict often do more to make the world an interesting and diverse place than those that are tolerant, cosmopolitan and open-minded.

This is also one of the reasons why a traditionalist conservative is ambivalent about the free market. He does not see the great blessing in having a Starbucks and a Subway in every town and village. He would prefer a local or family-run café, even if it was by all objective standards inferior to Starbucks or Subway.

"Fair enough", you say. "I give you tradition, which was entirely predictable, and character, which was only a little less so. But gentleness? What has that got to do with conservatism? Aren't conservatives the nasty party, the spoilsports, the perpetual begrudgers and curtain-twitching nosy neighours of the world?"

Well, I'll get to that in the third and final part of this post.

POSTSCRIPT: Some after publishing this post, I came upon this quotation from GK Chesterton's essay "What is Right with the World", which illustrates it nicely:

"In short, this vast, vague idea of unity is the one 'reactionary' thing in the world. It is perhaps the only connection in which that foolish word 'reactionary' can be used with significance and truth. For this blending of men and women, nations and nations, is truly a return to the chaos and unconsciousness that were before the world was made. There is of course, another kind of unity of which I do not speak here; unity in the possession of truth and the perception of the need for these varieties. But the varieties themselves; the reflection of man and woman in each other, as in two distinct mirrors; the wonder of man at nature as a strange thing at once above and below him; the quaint and solitary kingdom of childhood; the local affections and the colour of certain landscapes -- these actually are the things that are the grace and honour of the earth; these are the things that make life worth living and the whole framework of things well worthy to be sustained. And the best thing remains; that this view, whether conscious or not, always has been and still is the view of the living and labouring millions. While a few prigs on platforms are talking about 'oneness'and absorption in 'The All', the folk that dwell in all the valleys of this ancient earth are renewing the varieties for ever. With them a woman is loved for being unmanly, and a man loved for being un-womanly. With them the church and the home are both beautiful, because they are both different; with them fields are personal and flags are sacred; they are the virtue of existence, for they are not mankind but men."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Avoiding Abortion

With the storm clouds of possible pro-abortion legislation gathering over Ireland, I find myself feeling guilty about how little attention I have paid to this topic, and how-- in a certain sense-- I have lacked interest in it.

When I say "lacked interest", I don't mean that I am not horrified at the thought of abortion, or distressed at the pressure being exerted on behalf of its introduction in Ireland. I simply mean that, when I come to an article on abortion in a newspaper or magazine-- even a Catholic newspaper or magazine-- I tend to skip it, or to force myself to read it. Because of this, my grasp of the arguments-- both medical and metaphysical-- is poor.

This is simply because the subject seems so open-and-shut to me. I agree with Mother Teresa: If abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong. As many people have pointed out, every other right is meaningless without the right to life.

But it's not just that. I don't want to read articles by those who support abortion because I find it painful to witness intelligent, articulate, apparently sane people promoting the slaughter of human beings. In the same way, I don't want to get into discussions about abortion in my daily life because I don't want to face the fact that people I like and even love might agree with something so monstrous.

There are those amongst my relations, friends and acquaintances who I suspect would be "pro-choice"; but I don't want to know they are. I can enjoy other debates in an academic, detached kind of way, even when my deepest beliefs are called into question. But how can murdering the unborn be discussed in a debating club manner?

And I am conscious of a feeling of hopelessness, of defeat. If the thought of ending a human life before it has even reaached birth doesn't sicken somebody, what else is there to say? When they have seen the gory pictures, and heard the nightmarish stories-- what else will move them?

I don't say this as an excuse, but as an explanation. I should have paid more attention to this subject. And I can't help feeling guilty now, when the enemies of life are manouvering to strike.

What Will Happen to the Non-Libertarian Right?

Recently I wrote the first part of a three-part post called Why I am a Conservative, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing even if nobody else is especially interested. Using the title made me curious as to what other articles and posts appeared on an internet search if I entered in those words.

I found the results depressing. In virtually all cases, with one or two welcome exceptions, "conservative" meant free market, libertarian, anti-government, and sometimes a US foreign policy "hawk". The concentration was virtually always upon economic matters, sometimes to the exclusion of any others.

Some of the articles were by former leftists who had kept their anti-establishment, anti-traditional, lifestyle libertarian views intact but had come to the view-- naturally, I think-- that anti-statism and free market economics fit these better than their hitherto socialistic opinions.

Yesterday, while browsing the magazine rack in Eason's, I came across a magazine called Total Politics whose cover story was an interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative backbencher who is often hailed as an "old-fashioned" Tory. He looks the part and he sounds the part, with his upper-class accent, air of refinement, and cultural allusions. But a quick skim through the article showed he had little to say about the preservation of Englishness, the bolstering of family life, the importance of community, religion, or any classically High Tory subjects. It was pretty much all to do with money.

And that's your conservative today. I have had one protracted debate with a correspondent who insists he is a solid Catholic but who also insists that "greed is good" and that Rerum Novarum was "a rush of blood to the head". (One of these "Why I am Conservative" essays was written by a Christian who described his priorities as "God, my family, and my country, in that order" but who also said, "I don’t resent wealthy people. To the contrary, I want to become one of them one day.")

Some residual elements of traditional conservatism might survive alongside this passion for the free market and radical individualism-- most of these essays mentioned an opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as a commitment to patriotism.

But can these hangovers long survive when individual choice has become an idol? My guess is that social and cultural conservatism will become more and more irrelevant as the political landscape is increasingly dominated by the liberal left on one side and the libertarian right on the other.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Worried about Traditionalist Seminarians

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who at least can never be accused of trading in platitudes and soundbites, has made yet another eyebrow-raising comment, this time while speaking at a summer school.

The Irish Times reports:

On the level of priestly vocations, he said: “It is not just that the number of candidates is low. It is also that many of those who present are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them.” There was “a danger that superficial attachment to the externals of tradition may well be a sign of fearfulness and flight from changed realities”.

Now, I see what the Archbishop is getting at, and it's a fair point. If you flee to the bosom of the Church in a purely reactionary spirit, then you are simply using the Church as a weapon, a rallying point. You are not answering the call of Christ.

And yet...when the Archbishop says of the new seminarians, "some are much more traditional than those who went before them", the only response I can think of is, "I should bloody hope so!"

There seems to be a grim irony in an Archbishop of Dublin, standing on top of the ruins of an Irish Church that has been brought down by decades of insidious liberalism, warning against the dangers of excessive traditionalism. It seems like a man crawling through the desert, on the point of dying of thirst, worrying about drowning.

Home Rule is Rome Rule?

Republic of Ireland, 1980s: Garret Fitzgerald launches a so-called "constitutional crusade" to liberalise the Republic's laws on divorce and contraception, partly to make the prospect of a united Ireland more attractive to Protestant Unionists.

Belfast, July 2012: Belfast City Council becomes the first local authority in Ireland to support same-sex marriage. Ulster Unionists walk out before the vote, while all 21 Sinn Féin and SDLP councillors-- parties traditionally considered "Catholic" as well as nationalist-- supported the motion.

Isn't it time the term "Catholic" was dropped entirely from discussions of the ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (1)

There is a particularly funny moment in one classic episode of The Simpsons called "Homer the Heretic". Homer looks through his LP collection and comes across an album with the title "These Things I Believe", whose cover picture shows the artist sitting on the lap of the famous Lincoln statue, dressed in stars and stripes clothing. We hear this LP described as "a spoken word album of right-wing political views."

Not only do I find that hilarious, but I would love to hear this fictional album. I love to read books and articles whose titles begin with the words "Why I Am", whether it be Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell or Why I am not a Pacist by C.S. Lewis. I guess I am just as interested in the personal and emotional reasons as I am in the more intellectual ones; I want to know what makes this person an anarchist, or a communist, or a nihilist, what that feels like, and how it relates to their attitudes to everything else-- right down to mundane matters like housework or etiquette.

As you've guessed, I am presenting my excuse for writing a post that I really want to write, and that is going to be unashamedly personal. I am not putting forward an argument for conservatism so much as trying to put down on (metaphorical) paper the reasons I am conservative and what that means to me. This is not because I egotistically believe that my opinions have any special significance. It is because I want to write it and because I enjoy reading such musings by others.

First off, I am a Catholic conservative, and the accent is very much on the "Catholic." If any of my conservative beliefs or opinions are shown to clash with Catholic orthodoxy, I will drop them like a dumb-bell.

Another point I should make, regarding my Catholic beliefs, is that conservatism (just like liberalism and most other life-philosophies) often appears to me as an embarrassingly this-worldly attitude. What should I care about cultural nationalism, or TV in pubs, or the survival of corner shops? Heaven and Earth will one day be rolled up like a scroll, and only immortal souls will count on that day.

There are two possible responses to this. One is to quote the film Gladiator and say "What we do in time echoes in eternity." That is true, of course. We are on a spiritual battlefield and it seems obvious that the terrain and conditions should play a part in that battle.

But that would be a rather insincere answer. The truth is that my conservatism really is this-worldly, to a great extent. There is a game played in Ireland, mainly in counties Cork and Armagh, called Irish road bowling. It has been played for several centuries. The survival of this game delights me, as does its regional nature, and its disappearance would depress me. But I can't see its relevance to the salvation of anybody's soul. So my response to the accusation that my conservatism is rather this-worldly is to admit that it is, and to hope that doesn't make me a bad Catholic.

What then, is conservatism as I mean it?

For one thing, it has little or nothing to do with the free market. I couldn't really give a fig about the free market. I'm not even sure the free market exists. Laws such as limited liability and intellectual copyright seem like "government regulation" to me, every bit as much as minimum wage laws. I don't see how any market can even exist without extensive government regulation. Big business seems just as scary and bureaucratic as big government. But I don't understand economics and I rather suspect that nobody understands economics, not even economists. If they did understand their subject, wouldn't they be better able to predict recessions?

My conservatism, then, is not economic, but cultural and social.

To many conservatives, "freedom" is the defining value of conservatism. Not to me. Of course freedom is necessary and precious-- you might even say sacred. But prudence is necessary, too, and nobody uses "Prudence!" as a slogan. Engineering and sanitation and abstraction are all necessary, but nobody's pulses are set racing by the very idea of abstraction.

Freedom is precious. But does that mean that, the more freedom we have, the better? Like many conservatives, I don't believe in the freedom to kill yourself, or to help somebody else kill himself. I don't believe in the freedom to shoot yourself up with recreational drugs. Nor do I only approve of the constraint of freedom in dramatic instances like these. I have to admit that I am vastly pleased whenever I hear of some petty local restriction that causes people to grumble and go a little out of their way, like the chewing gum ban in Singapore or the ban on alcohol sales on Good Friday in Ireland.

Once I was reading a Beano annual (for those of you who don't know, the Beano is a British comic for children). In one particular story, a scheming child who craved green jelly babies (jelly beans shaped as babies) put up a sign that read "Green Free Zone", and confiscated anything green that passers-by might have been carrying-- all in the quest for green jelly babies. I liked the idea of a "Green Free Zone" very much. I like these local restrictions because they create local character and interesting situations. A horror of sameness and rationalisation is a big part of my conservatism-- and insofar as petty regulations create interesting variations, I relish them.

To that extent, I even think that societies and settings in which freedoms are limited are often more pleasing to my conservative imagination. Boarding schools, small towns, religious orders, strict families, tradition-heavy universities, fraternal orders-- all of these seem more likely to breed the traditions, slang, folklore, nicknames, rivalries and shared memories that I prize, that I think make the world a richer and more interesting place.

So if freedom is not the catch-cry of my conservatism, what is?

I can't pick just one. I can't isolate one defining value that best describes my conservative outlook. There are actually three that seem essential to me; and they are tradition, character and gentleness.

I will describe these three cardinal conservative virtues in the next instalment of this over-indulgent post.

Poetry on my Person

I like tee-shirts. There is so much potential to them. I like the idea that somebody can celebrate or commemorate or proclaim anything at all on their torso.

But I'm rather disappointed by how this potential is used. Just as the magic of the cinema and the printed page is so often wasted on dreary thrillers, the possibilities of the tee-shirt are so often squandered on corporate logos (and not even interesting ones), bad jokes, and smutty captions.

I saw a fellow recently with a tee-shirt that read: "Remember my name. You'll be screaming it later tonight." As well as being unspeakably crass, this seemed remarkably illogical to me. Why would you have to remember a name if you were going to be screaming it within a few hours anyway? It's a bit like saying, "Take a good look around. You're going to be waiting here a long time."

So this week I went to the tee-shirt printing shop in St. Stephen's Green shopping centre and had a tee-shirt printed with four lines from Louis MacNeice's justly celebrated "Snow":

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

Not only does this celebrate something about which I am passionate-- the intoxicating diversity of life-- but the very fact that it is poetry pleases me vastly. Poetry should be a bigger feature of our daily lives and I am pleased to do whatever I can to advance that.

I just hope the letters don't wash off in the washing machine. As well as being a waste, it would seem rather gloomily symbolic.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Following the Truth Wherever it Leads-- Why?

I am watching the latest Journey Home (EWTN's interview programme with converts to the Catholic Church). This one features Jennifer Fulwiler, a well-known blogger who was once an atheist and (as she explains at the beginning) was never really anything but an atheist, even as a little child.

I am very interested in conversion stories, but only from atheism. Journeys from Protestantism or some other Christian denomination, or from some other religion, are doubtless very valuable, but-- and I can't think of any way of saying this that doesn't seem insulting or dismissive-- only atheism and Catholicism seem to me like coherent worldviews.

What I find interesting is that, at the beginning of the programme, Mrs. Fulwiler describes how her father (who, I surmise, is still an atheist) always encouraged her, and still encourages her, to seek truth wherever it may be found.

I've never really understood this attitude. Why? You may say there is some disinterested, essentially human need for truth. But isn't that just a theory, a theory that can be tested like any other? Or perhaps this drive towards truth is an instinct, or a mere cognitive tendency? If thought is to be truly free why should it be bound even by truth?

I am in danger of being misunderstood, I realize. As a Catholic the truth of my creed is of unutterable importance to me. It is of no value at all unless it is true. I would have next to no interest in it as some kind of metaphor or artistic tradition or set of "values" floating free of transcendent truth.

But before I became a Catholic, I had little interest in truth per se, nor did I see why I should have had. Truth was what killed you in the end. Truth was what bumped into you a thousand times a day whether you cared about it or not. Sure, it was of practical value-- I wanted to know whether a business was a reputable business before I gave it my money, for instance-- but I had no special concern for truth for its own sake. I still don't see why I should have had, given my non-religious worldview at the time.

Apparently Isaiah Berlin once said that there was no guarantee the truth, when it was found, would be interesting. He was right. Especially in the field of philosophy, I found theories interesting because they were striking or elegant or original. I suspected Ultimate Truth would be duller than cat photographs.

It seems to me that only on a theistic view of the world do the values we all hanker after-- truth, beauty, goodness, justice etc.-- necessarily converge in the Divine. Otherwise, they are almost inevitably in conflict, and you take your pick. Why shouldn't I prefer beauty over truth? Or justice over goodness, by refusing to forgive my enemies, say?

The other reason I find myself thinking about this is that I am reading The Strings are False, the (abandoned) autobiography of Louis MacNeice, the poet. I find MacNeice interesting, not only because he wrote some of my very favourite poems, but because he had a non-religious philosophy of life that still managed to respect sacred traditions and mythology, and that refused to bow before any secular idols such as science or politics. In fact, MacNeice tells us that in his undergraduate days he was hostile to both religion and science, which seems quite a feat of independence of mind. (He believed aesthetic values were all that really mattered-- as an undergraduate, not as a mature man.)

What is the moral of this little reflection? None, really. Perhaps I am even revealing my own innate wickedness, or shallowness, or goodness knows what. But there it is-- truth only became something I got to caring about when I began to suspect that reality surpassed the wildest, most romantic of fantasies.

As they say, sue me.

Canoe-Building in Glass Reinforced Plastic

I have a passion for acquiring odd and obcure books. I think this is because, in my childhood, the teeming shelves of our home always seemed full of surprises and mysterious titles. I have no idea what member of my family acquired Portugese Africa and the West, or why, but the enigmatic presence of such books always gave me a sense of the sublime, of the limitless potential of life.

(The weirdest title on our bookshelves is the title I've given this post. What could possibly beat that? Bear in mind that zany for the sake of zany is out; it has to be a book that someone might conceivably want to read.)

Anyway, one upshot of this fascination is that I can rarely see a quirky book on a bargain bookstall without picking it up. (And paying for it, I hasten to add.)

Today I've been leafing through Oh, Come on All Ye Faithful by Dekek Nimmo (Corgi Books,1986), which is a collection of ecclesiastical humour.

I don't know if the name of Derek Nimmo is familiar to you. It wasn't to me. He was an English actor who specialised in playing clergymen. So much so that he decided to put together a compendium of churchy humour.

And the results...please don't misunderstand. I like groaners. I am a fan of long-whiskered jokes. Terrible puns delight me. "Alternative" humour makes me sick, since my preference is for good old-fashioned funny stories with a set-up, a punch-line, and preferably the use of some national or ethnic or other stereotypes.

But these are awful. Just awful. I think Oh, Come on All Ye Faithful must be the least funny book I've ever read.

Here is an example taken nearly at random (I promise):

"Parishioners who show an interest in their incumbent's work will meet with some unexpected revelations at times. A vicar who was asked by one of his flock what he thought had been his principal contribution to the life of the church in his first twelve months, replied positively, 'People here didn't know what sin was until I came."

That kind of thing. Do I regret laying out one euro on it? Not a chance. I enjoy the impossibly quaint atmosphere and the sheer Englishness of it all. And, really, how many people do you know with a copy of Oh, Come on All You Faithful by Derek Nimmo?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

When Curmudgeonliness goes Too Far

The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.

Thus wrote C.S. Lewis in the essay "Membership". Though I have a great deal of sympathy with C.S. Lewis's preference of private over public life, I think it goes altogether too far. In fact, it seems positively miserable.

"Variety's the spice of life" said William Congreve, "that gives it all its flavour". This seems obvious to me, and yet so many people don't seem to take it into account. People who think that there is never enough hours in the day for work; people who think sport is a waste of time and can't understand why anyone would spend a moment on it; people who think history is bunk; people who see national, ethnic and sexual differences as nothing but regrettable barriers between fellow humans.

And C.S. Lewis, in describing "all economies, politics, laws, armies and institutions" as a "meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit", seems to me also to be offending against the diversity of life.

I can understand the theory that there is nothing higher than the scenes Lewis describes. This is the same sentiment behind Belloc's famous line: "There's naught in life that's worth the winning but laughter and the love of friends."

But is that really everything in life that has value in itself? How about standing in the town centre, jammed against ten thousand others, whooping at the top of your voice for the New Year? Sitting in the cinema during a horror film and screaming with the rest of the audience when the killer jumps out of nowhere? Sitting in the warmth of a public house and savouring the hum of chatter in the air? Cheering at some platform speaker giving the troops what they want at a political rally? Attending a formal debate and becoming utterly absorbed in the impassioned rhetoric? Joining in a protest march or a Corpus Christi procession or a St. Patrick's Parade?

Not only do I value those things in themselves; but they add to my savour of that private world which I value just as much as Lewis. What are these two friends to talk about over this pint of beer? Books, knowing Lewis. But what are the books going to be about? Two friends sitting over a pint of beer talking about books, and so on ad infinitum?

I would not enjoy solitude or intimate company so much without my awareness of a wider world beyond. It adds to my relish of a quiet cup of tea in a café, or a solitary morning walk under glowing clouds, to know that-- somewhere in the world-- there are concerts and football matches and economic conferences. Can I even regret that there are armies? Life would seem to be missing something without them.

Chesterton and Lewis lived at a time when collectivism seemed set fair to overwhelm the private sphere. (In the essay I have quoted above, Lewis complains that university societies have changed from intimate discussion groups to large, organized associations.) Today, I think we are closer to the opposite extreme. Private life is in the ascendent; public life has been eroded.

In his wonderful book The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens complains of the changes in urban and suburban life since World War Two, and the social isolation it has created:

It is a world transformed. No Act of Parliament, not even thirty of them, could possibly have as much effect on human behaviour as this upheavel in our physical surroundings, mostly concentrated into two or three frenzied decades. The urban poor have been uprooted and displaced as thoroughly as if they were refugees, the networks of family, trade, friendship and habit bulldozed away. The better-off have suburbanized themselves, devouring the countryside on whose edges they hoped to live, and exchanging crowds, dirt and old, down-at-heel housing for the clean solitude of the outer city and the tyranny of commuting. Most of the places where people met each other other on equal terms have been destroyed or removed, leaving the supermarket and the garden centre as the only places where we encounter strangers, apart from when we are in our cars.

To wish away either public or private life seems to me a sin against the world's wondrous, giddy diversity.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

To Own and to Own Not

Sometimes I find the rhetoric that some Catholics use rather trying. I am not entirely sure that I am in the right here. Perhaps I am being over-sensitive. But if I find it trying, perhaps there is a possibility that non-Catholics-- more importantly, potential Catholics-- are alienated by it.

"Truth", said Pilate, "what is that?". "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." "I am the way, the truth and the life." The New Testament rings with the word "truth". Is it any wonder that Catholics use it as a banner?

Perhaps not, but I can't help finding its totemic brandishing rather wearisome. Of course, it is important that we make the point that we are making truth claims, that the Bible is not just one protracted pretty metaphor, that faith is not simply a kind of poetry or symbolism. It is also important to explain that we are not fideists-- that is, that we do not rely on a blind faith indifferent to evidence-- and that the Church itself has officially rejected fideism.

Yes, we are Catholics because we believe Catholicism is true. But do we have to clobber our listeners over the head with this constantly?

You see, I think most people hold their opinions because they think they are true. There may be a small number of postmodernists out there-- I've never actually met one, but I have read about them-- who apparently believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that the very concept is offensively patriarchal and imperialistic and dead-white-male-ish. I suspect that these people exist mostly, if not entirely, within the pages of novels that satirise university life.

But let that pass. Let's say there are some honest-to-goodness relativists out there.

My point is that very few people fall into that category. I do feel that we should accept the good faith of our intellectual opponents, that questioning their commitment to truth is not a good start to a discussion. Not only is it begging the question, in most cases. It is also rude.

I also feel that Catholics (and Christians in general) have a nasty habit of aiming their fire at the motivations of unbelievers, rather than their arguments. I am sure that many atheists reject a belief in the Divine because they have a problem with cosmic authority, because they are reacting against their religious upbringing, because they think religion is stuffy and repressive and a drag. Perhaps that is even at the back of all unbelief, deep down. But I see no clear evidence of this, and even if it is true, it seems something of a cheap shot.

I have met many atheists and non-religious people who seem to have no animus against religion at all, who have a high regard for tradition and authority and reverence, who are not drawing up plans for the worldly utopia. Are the emotional roots of their atheism or agnosticism simply buried deep? Perhaps. If unbelief is wicked-- and the Catechism tells us that atheism is a sin-- then surely there must be a moral failing involved in it (at least, from a Christian perspective).

Nonetheless, I don't see the benefit in stressing this. Once again, it is begging the question, and rather rude.

Worst of all are the bullish internet apologists who crow over how they, or somebody else, "owned" this or that atheist or secularist of Protestant speaker. I don't see how anything good can come of this. I think those who witness such behaviour will conclude that the Truth has made some people obnoxious rather than free.

Don't be a Voyeur

I am doing my best to avoid the news coverage of the massacre in Denver, and I urge others to do the same. I think it's of legitimate public interest up to a certain point, but not beyond that. And the line we shouldn't cross is ghoulishly lingering over all the gory and horrific details, encouraging the media to intrude on private grief, and giving the perpetrator the attention he probably craved.

Also, even though I incline towards the gun control camp, I think it is in extremely poor taste to use an incident like this as fodder for controversy, at least while the horror is still fresh.

My advice? Change the channel, turn the page, and pray for everybody involved.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Traditionalist from the Start...

No communion in the hand for me, Father, thank you.

There are hardly any pictures of me as a kid, so it's kind of miraculous that the moment of my first holy Communion has been captured and survived (though in a rather tattered form). The photo certainly didn't survive because I carefully treasured and preserved it. I came across it purely by chance not long ago. I don't know the name of the priest or the woman smiling in the background.

I don't remember much of the day. I remember getting dressed seemed to take forever, and feeling irritated at all the fuss about my suit. I remember being embarrassed that everybody was giving me money (a rather unfortunate practice in Ireland). I remember the jellies at the communion breakfast. I also remember being very taken with the prayer booklet we were given, which is, alas, long lost.

(P.S. Please note that my first sentence is meant in a light-hearted way, so no comments about early Chuch Eucharistic practices or what the Catechism says about reception in the hand are necessary...)

"Progress" Trumps Democracy Every Time

There are, remarkably, two fine examples in the opinion pages of today's Irish Times of the contempt with which the progressive mindset views freedom of conscience.

In a letter to the editor, Jessica Copley of Knocklyon writes:

"Sir, – Patrick G Burke suggests (July 18th) that “There appears to be a drive to legalise same-sex marriage without the democratic consultation of a constitutional referendum.” It should be pointed out that democracy is predicated on the right of all citizens to equality before the law. Giving the majority an opportunity to decide on whether a minority should be afforded equal rights is not democracy. It is tyranny. Yours, etc."

Of course, you are then left with the question of who in fact decides what constitutes equal rights, or what contitutes a minority in the relevant sense. These decisions, in the opinion of Ms. Copley and many others, should be taken out of the peoples' hands. Who will make them for us?

(The letter printed immediately underneath this letter is by your humble servant. Embarrassingly, I used the term "Pre-Columbine America" instead of "Pre-Columbian America". I wrote to the Irish Times to correct myself soon after sending it, but they must not have noticed the correction.)

In a pro-abortion opinion piece on the opposite page, two female Labour councillors write:

"FINE GAEL has long-established form in delaying progressive social change while in government by failing to impose a whip on key issues. We are potentially faced with a repeat performance in relation to legislation arising out of the X Case."

In other words, freedom of conscience is a good thing as long as it doesn't clash with progressive dogma.

Later on in the article, they try to argue that this is not a matter of conscience, simply a matter of applying the constitution. They even, laughably, argue that withdrawing the whip from a vote on legislating for the X Case legislation is itself anti-democratic. Of course, the Irish people have never voted for abortion to be introduced in ireland under any circumstances.

Progressives seem to believe that democracy is all very well, but that the big moral issues should be kept out of the electorates' dirty hands-- just as secularists (often the same people) believe that freedom of religion is all very well, as long as it's kept indoors and doesn't frighten the horses.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why I am a Liberal Catholic

Because the Catholic Church is a profoundly liberal institution that preaches a profoundly liberal gospel. For instance:

1) The Church teaches that nobody is beyond redemption. This is easy to say but more difficult to countenance when we really face up to what it means. The Church is willing to forgive the sort of transgessor that ordinary, decent, upstanding, respectable people would be willing to rip apart with their teeth and fingernails.

2) The Church, to the chagrin of iconoclasts of every creed, encourages sacred art.

3) The Church encourages frequent communion-- a practice that has been misguidedly attacked by those who consider it impious and irreverent, such as the Jansenists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

4) The Church has always proclaimed the dignity of all human beings. This is more or less fashionable now, but when it has been less fashionable-- for instance, during the Spanish conquest of South America or during the Nazi era-- the Church has resolutely proclaimed it.

5) The Church, unlike gnostics both religious and secular, believe in a public revelation that is available to all, as opposed to esoteric knowledge and hermetic secrets.

6) The Church proclaims the goodness of all created things-- including food, alcohol, sex, wealth, technology and art.

7) The Church has always had a special love and regard for the poor. The poor tend to go in and out of fashion with the intelligentsia, depending on whether Social Darwinism, Marxism, anarcho-capitalism, or some other doctrine is the ruling orthodoxy. "I have never had any feelings about the English working classes except a desire to abolish them and replace them with sensible people"-- Bernard Shaw.

8) The Church is willing to put its prestige and credibility behind Marian apparitions and miracles that have happened in modern times. If this isn't radical and daring, I don't know what is.

9) The Church is willing to take radical and controversial steps such as the introduction of the vernacular Mass and the blessing of Catholic Charismatic Renewal movements. Those who think that the Catholicism should "move with the times", and those who believe that it should be essentially a solid and unyielding fortress against the times, have both got it wrong.

10) The Church lays down conditions for the just conduct of warfare, and does not believe that, when the enemy is sufficiently dastardly, any measures-- torture, terrorism, total war-- are justified.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are useful words, and we can't really do without them. They mean different things in different contexts, and in most of those contexts, I would be very much a conservative and not a liberal.

But it is good to remember, from time to time, that liberalism and conservatism properly understood are both admirable ideals.

You Know You Are Too Embroiled in Religious Debate...

...when you hear a customer in a newsagent's shop asking for Amber Leaf (a type of tobacco) and mishear them as asking for Unbelief (presumably an atheist magazine so controversial it has to be kept behind the counter).

Happened to me just yesterday.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Philosopher's Return to the Faith

There's a wonderful post up on Edward Feser's blog, describing in detail his journey-- apparently entirely through philosophy-- from atheism to Catholicism.

Edward Feser, if you don't know, is an American philosopher who works in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. His book The Last Superstition was just what the doctor ordered when I was making my own way to faith. And his blog is always worth checking out, especially since it responds to specific arguments atheists and naturalists and materialists commonly make.

I don't know how it is with you, but I can't take an impersonal interest in an author. If I'm reading an article or a book, I want to know whether the writer is a man or a woman. Then I want to know what he or she looks like. Then I find myself wondering about his or her life history, working methods, political and religious beliefs, and so on. C.S. Lewis would be horrified and brand me a victim of the "personal heresy". So be it. Anyway, it's an interesting post.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On the Buses

For many years now, I have been commuting daily from Ballymun to UCD and back, which usually involves four bus rides a day. I don't mind so much. Bus journeys are a good chance to read, and when your reading material is not entertaining, your fellow passengers often are.

This evening I found myself remembering the time that my bus passed a video shop and a man and a woman, sitting together, had the following conversation:

Her (looking at a poster in the video shop window): " 'Adopted to Die'? What would that be about?"
Him (knowingly): "It sounds like it's about a kid who's adopted by a family just so that they can murder him."
Her (fervently): "I couldn't watch that! No way. It would make me sick."
Him: "Wait, it's not called 'Adopted to Die'. It's 'Addicted to Love' ".

They'd cooked up a completely imaginary film between them in a moment, supplying it with a plot and an audience reaction. I love that kind of unconscious creativity.

I also treasure this festive exchange between two girls:

A: It just doesn't feel like Christmas this year.
B: You say that every year, though.

The more I think about it, the more profound that exchange seems.

Another time I was reading the Bible on the upper deck of a bus into the city centre. I was a bit shy about doing something so potentially Pharasaical, but I'd decided my Scripture knowledge was so lamentable I had to take drastic measures. And 21st century Dublin isn't first century Jerusalem, is it? Reading the Bible in public, in today's context, seems more defiant than credit-seeking.

A man and a woman sat across the aisle from me. I saw right away that they were the kind of nightmare couple that embarrasses everybody around them, the kind that have no hesitation about shouting and arguing in public-- indeed, the kind of couple that seems engaged in a constant, twenty-four-hour public argument.

After the first few furious exchanges, I decided that I wasn't going to risk being drawn into the combat. I got up and went downstairs.

As I descended, I heard one of the antagonists (I forget which one) shrieking: "You see what you did? That man was reading THE BIBLE!!"

Why I am Irish

I used to be English, you know.

I was born in Dublin of Irish parents, and I never set foot outside Ireland until I was twenty-seven. I have no more English blood in me than most Irish people (I know there are Dixons somewhere in my lineage). And yet, for some considerable time, I made the conscious decision that I was spiritually English rather than Irish.

I have to admit that, to a great extent, this was a reaction. I come from a very nationalistic background, and I attended Irish language schools without ever developing a command of our native tongue. I was genuinely horrified by the murderous campaign of the IRA. Teenagers (and overgrown teenagers) are all about forging their own identities, and I didn't have much interest in inheriting a ready-made one, especially one that put me (as I thought) in the same camp as Sinn Féin.

But it was more than just rebellion. I was (and I am) an ardent anglophile. English humour, English poetry, English accents and English history spoke to my depths (as they still do). I thought names like Brompton, Kent and Hampshire were far more poetic than Salamanca, Luxor or Casablanca-- or, indeed, Connemara or Béal na mBláth. My soul thrilled at all the elements of Englishness: roast beef, strong tea, hedgerows, hot water bottles, deliberately mispronounced French, eccentrics building useless machines in garden sheds, ghost stories, hopeless last stands, noble yeomen, bumbling fops, dreary weather, nonsense verse, colourful pub names, muffins, the Beano-- the whole lot.

I can't remember what finally led me to accept and embrace my Irishness. Perhaps it was realising that Sinn Féin didn't have a copyright on national pride. Perhaps it was leaving school and not having to struggle with Irish tenses anymore. Perhaps it was the growing left-wing attack on all patriotism, on the very concept of the nation.

Irishness isn't like Englishness. I imagine that, to the English, Englishness is a comfortable pair of slippers, crisp and bracing air, a cosy pub-- something you can ease back into, stretch your arms in, luxuriate inside. Something that is invisible most of the time. But being Irish requires more of an effort. It is something of an assertion. We don't speak Irish naturally. We even use many Irish-English phrases, like roola-boola or craic, rather self-consciously. When we watch Irish films, we feel like we are watching foreign films- at least I do. There is the same feeling of slight mental strain. We know less about medieval Irish history than we know about the Venerable Bede and the Peasant's Revolt.

But all this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I absorbed, in my childhood, the idea that a nation was an ideal rather than a thing, and I prefer that way of looking at the matter. A nation wasn't just a population with the same language and customs, who found it more desirable to be self-governed than to be governed from abroad. A nation had a soul. Self-government was only a means to an end, and that end was a deeper and deeper development of national uniqueness. I may have resented having to get my tongue around the Irish language, but being taught Irish mythology, history, dancing, sports and music-- and absorbing the idea that all these things were cultural treasures, to be guarded and cultivated-- had a profound and (I think) beneficial effect on me. Either it actually made me a traditionalist, or it brought out my latent traditionalism. I came to see the good things of life as being fragile, inherited, and requiring constant loving attention. It also made me see society as being, not just a modus vivendi between strangers, but a kind of joint project, even a shared quest.

(Of course, this was all before my reaction against Irishness, which came in my teens and lasted till my twenties.)

I have reached the age at which nostalgia begins to bite, but it does seem to me that the Ireland of my childhood-- and especially the Ireland of my family and school background, which was nationalist, working class intellectual, labourist and Catholic-- swarmed with ideals and ideas, most of them still in the air from the Irish Revolution and Irish Renaissance of the early twentieth century. The Dubliners (the folk band) have come to stand in my mind as the perfect example of this all-sympathising idealism. "Lord of the Dance" was a Christian hymn, "Joe Hill" commemorated a fallen trade union leader, "A Nation Once Again" and a hundred others celebrated the Irish struggle for nationhood, "Raglan Road" took you into the realm of poetry and high culture (which is an idealism of its own), "Danny Farrel" drew attention to the plight of Travellers, "The Button Pusher" protested nuclear weapons. And to my childish mind, there was no contradiction or even tension between Christianity, liberalism, socialism, aestheticism and nationalism. In fact, they were all somehow draped in the Irish tricolour. James Connolly, Eamonn De Valera, Christy Moore, Patrick Pearse, W.B. Yeats, Phil Lynnot, Brendan Behan, Cu Chulainn, Granuaile, Saint Patrick-- they were all batting for the same side, all part of the same wild jaunt into the Celtic utopia.

My childish imagination was peopled with piano-playing and poetry-reading slum-dwellers, political prisoners learning Gaelic, ancient Celts perpetually building dolmens and passage tombs in the solemn light of dawn, homemade bread, Druids in Persil-white robes, gaunt intellectuals in overcoats and jam-jar spectacles discussing poetry over pints of stout, barefoot children walking to school through the fields, open air clandestine Masses, earnest-faced men in shirtsleeves puffing on cigarettes and discussing whether to call strikes, jovial and scholarly priests, and a whole gallery of other scenes and characters that seemed all of a piece to me. And underneath all of them, linking them together, was an intense excitement, a reaching towards the millennium, a vision of life as a many-splendoured thing, a spree into the sublime and the transcendental.

Maybe it's just nostalgia. Maybe I am projecting. Maybe I am wrong to contrast the (just about) still-idealistic Ireland of my childhood with the irony-heavy, rights-obsessed, hedonistic, pop-culture infatuated, disenchanted Ireland of my maturity. But I can't help feeling that the ideologies that were still alive in Ireland when I was a kid-- nationalism, trade unionism, liberal humanism, art for art's sake, hippydom, and a host of others-- were all good stepping-stones to Christian faith. They all treated life as something both intensely serious and potentially glorious. They were all aimed towards a jackpot of some kind, whether that was the artistic masterpiece, the socialist revolution or national revival. And the pay-off, they always hinted, would be beyond our wildest dreams; pressed down, shaken, overflowing.

I get the impression that today's partisans, of whatever cause, don't hold out any such bright prospect. I don't imagine gay rights activists think that gay marriage will usher in a golden era. Feminists today seem to aspire to mundane goals, compared to the galloping romantics of the past, who expected we would all start dropping capital letters and dismantling armies once the patriarchy fell. Student politicians want to retain free fees, rather than reshape the world. In some ways that's a good thing, but...

But where has it gone, the visionary gleam?

I may be wrong, but I think I was lucky to catch the tail-end (perhaps merely the echoes) of an idealistic era in Irish life and culture. I think it likely that anyone who has been seized by the vision of some overwhelming, all-demanding, transformative cause is that much closer to religious faith. And I look at Ireland today and I really do think I see a country that has ceased to believe in anything.

(P.S.: Re-reading this, it seems fist-bitingly pretentious and barely coherent. I got carried away! What the heck. Let it stand.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why Do I Blog?

This question, I think, deserves an answer. I sometimes feel rather insecure about posting my thoughts, especially on religious matters, considering I have no specialist theological, historical or scholarly knowledge.

What really motivates me, aside from the natural desire to put my ideas into words, is the desire to fly my colours. Whenever I dip my toes into the Irish internet, it is painfully obvious that there are an awful lot of people there who literally hate the Catholic Church. And not only the Catholic Church, but the very concept of religion.

They lurk in comment boxes, competing with each other for the most extreme denunciation of religious faith. They seem to spend hours on internet forums (especially Politics.ie and Indymedia.ie, which I only ever come across by accident when I am searching for something else) making ludicrously exaggerated claims about "child rapist" priests and pro-Nazi Popes. Any Irish blog that is in any way political or cultural or sociological is almost guaranteed to be both liberal and stridently secular.

Whenever John Waters contributes an article to the Irish Times-- even if it doesn't mention religion-- the electronic version is sure to attract a swarm of comments such as: "Why don't you just pray to your sky fairy about it, John?".

When I went to America recently, and spoke to young Catholics there, I realized that they are well aware of modern Ireland's hostility to the Church. I had half expected they would still have a sentimental and outdated vision of Catholic Ireland. But they actually seemed to have received-- something I didn't think was possible-- an exaggerated idea of Ireland's descent into anti-Catholicism.

It is all too easy for the anti-God brigade to paint Irish Catholics as people who go to Church out of a kind of cultural inertia, but who don't take the teachings of the Magisterium seriously, who place no great importance on their faith, and who may not even believe in God-- apart from a minority of embittered bigots who have pictures of General Franco on their bedroom walls and believe the Earth is a few thousand years old.

So I believe that writing an Irish blog that strives to be faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, to show some evidence of reflective thought on a range of religious and secular topics, and perhaps even show a glimmering of humour every now and again, might go some way to countering this stereotype, and to counteract the tsunami of anti-Church bile on the Irish internet. I know how cheered I am every time I come across evidence that there are ordinary laypeople like me who cherish their Catholic faith in countries as disparate as Norway and Australia, Canada and India. If this blog serves the same purpose for somebody out there-- or, indeed, in Ireland-- it will have achieved enough.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dangers of Technology

Despite writing a blog, I am something of a technosceptic, even (in my darker moments) a technophobe. I see great dangers in the advance of technology and the ever-increasing power of computers.

I was going through some of my old notebooks today and I was both amused and intrigued to find a list of the disadvantages, as I perceive them, of technological advance. I think I wrote it as ammunition for the next time I found myself embroiled in a debate on this subject.

I present the list as I found it, since I think it makes more sense in an unvarnished state. My feelings of alarm at technology (and those of many others, I guess) are rather inchoate, disconnected and often apparently trivial; I think admitting this might be both more honest and more effective than putting on a show of deep reflection. I tried to avoid the obvious.

So here goes...

Reasons to Resent Technology:

1) As C.S. Lewis says, it annihilates space. And time, too. In the form of ever-faster transport, immediate communication. It took a week for news of Trafalgar to reach England. That diminished the dramatic possibilities of life.
2) It does away with the precious cycles and rhythms of life. Twenty-four hour television. Night-time abolished by electric light.
3) When there are cameras everywhere, and everything is recorded, less and less is left to the imagination. We have no video of Pearse's speech from the dock, thank goodness. We have no recordings of Byron's voice.
4) It pushes back the terra incognita of Earth constantly-- especially that of the ocean.
5) It drains character from life. A typed and printed memo doesn't have the same personal idiosyncracy of handwritten letters-- the wobbles, curlicues etc.
6) First vinyl LPs became CDs, with tiny sleeves, then the entire artefact of the album disappeared in favour of audio downloads. The artistic unity of the album is lost, people download selected tracks and play them out of order on MP3 shuffle.
7) You can watch a movie trailer on the internet and don't have to go to the cinema to see it. You lose the crazy dedication of people who would do that.
8) Reference books lose their value and prestige. Why look up a dictionary or an encyclopedia when you can check the internet?
9) Automatic doors reduce the potential for chivalry and courtesy.
10) The range of possible stories becomes contracted; you can no longer have a group of characters trapped in a cellar or a warehouse, since one of them is bound to have a mobile phone. You need some further explanation of why Uncle Bob was unable to contact his nephew for two days and was never told about the accident.
11) Hypertext takes away the deliciously self-contained atmosphere of a piece of writing. No text is an island anymore.
12) Everything is integrated and one-stop; your phone is your clock and your computer and your stereo and your book. The diversity of things is reduced.
13) Silence is rarer than ever, with the hum of machines all around.
14) Everything is challenged all the time. Instead of a debate between correspondents, for instance in a series of articles and letters, you get a firestorm of point-scoring on an internet forum, with the debate inevitably being dragged to the lowest level, since nobody is willing to make allowances of be gracious-- since every concession will be taken advantage of and every generalisation will be corrected by some wiseacre. Anonymity creates venom.
15) Digital TV and the internet means that all signals can be received everywhere and TV becomes less of a determinant of local and national character. The viewing audience becomes balkanized in a bad way.
16) The charms of misquotation become less frequent.
17) There is a general increase in garishness. The glow of computer monitors, the ear-aching volume of radios and TVs and boomboxes (or even just CD players), the kinetic advertisements in the Tube and elsewhere, the plasma screens in streets and in shop windows, etc. Previous examples of this, like the screen in Trafalgar Square, lose their specialness.
18) As technologies become more sophisticated, the character- and atmosphere-giving flaws become lost-- like the crackle on radio, the lines on old TV, and the sepia in old photographs.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why didn't Ireland Have a Victorian Crisis of Faith?

I've been watching the Jeremy Paxman series Victorians on DVD, a series in which the "Axe-man" analyses that era principally through the lens of its art works. Art (I mean proper art) always makes good TV, and it doesn't take much creativity to draw out the social and historical context of paintings. Nor does Paxman evince a great deal of creativity, ticking off all the expected themes of the Victorian era, including the celebrated Crisis of Faith.

His exposition of John Martin's apocalyptic paintings leads to a discussion of Victorian fossil-hunters and the challenge they posed to Christian belief. Instead of being a few thousand years old, as orthodoxy held, the Earth (the Victorian discovered) had been around for unimaginable millions of years. Paxman quotes John Ruskin: "If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses."

This sentence, along with certain lines from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach ("the sea of faith was once, too, at its full...but now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar"), and some apocryphal exchanges from a debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, is one of the classic texts of the Victorian Crisis of Faith.

The commonly received story is that a robustly Christian British public suddenly found themselves confronted with a set of data that could not be reconciled with the old myths; Darwin's theory of the origin of the species, the discovery of dinosaur fossils and other evidences of an ancient Earth, and the historical criticism of the Bible.

I am rather sceptical of this common account. It is too tidy, too self-conscious, too dramatic. I suspect that the Victorians were all too ready too cast off their Christian faith, and that the discoveries of science (which were really no more dramatic than the discovery of the New World, or the shock of the Islamic invasions centuries before) were simply an opportunity. I believe the agnosticism of Victorian Britian had more to do with intellectual fashion than science. Was the era of Alexander Pope, a century before, really a high watermark of British Christian fervour?

Chesterton, who grew up in the late Victorian era, describes its religious temper thus: "And what I wish to attest, merely as a witness to the fact, is that the background of all that world was not merely atheism, but atheist orthodoxy, and even atheist respectability. That was quite as common in Belgravia as in Bohemia."

But the question that really strikes me is: What about Ireland? At the same time that Victorian Britian was having its (supposed) spiritual crisis, Victorian Ireland was enjoying what has often been described as a "devotional revolution". Anyone who has read a handed-down Christian Brothers textbook from the nineteenth century can attest that this was an educated revolution. The Irish panted for knowledge as much as for rosary beads and pigrimages. The Irish cultural and intellectual Renaissance of the early twentieth century was germinating at this time; and even in the mid-twentieth century prominent Irish intellectuals such as Flann O'Brien, Eamon De Valera and Michael Tierney (president of UCD) seemed to be confident in their Catholicism.

I think also of the passage in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"--The Greek, the Turk, the Chinese, the Copt, the Hottentot, said Stephen, all admire a different type of female beauty. That seems to be a maze out of which we cannot escape. I see, however, two ways out. One is this hypothesis: that every physical quality admired by men in women is in direct connexion with the manifold functions of women for the propagation of the species. It may be so. The world, it seems, is drearier than even you, Lynch, imagined. For my part I dislike that way out. It leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic. It leads you out of the maze into a new gaudy lecture-room where MacCann, with one hand on The Origin of Species and the other hand on the New Testament, tells you that you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours."

This doesn't seem to paint a picture of a defensive or anti-scientific Catholicism. And of course, Joyce was not studying at Protestant/agnostic Trinity College, but at the impeccably Catholic University College Dublin.

I think we are too prone to lazy stereotypes in the history of ideas.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Differences Between Ireland and America

(Or at least between Ireland and Richmond, Virginia):

1. Americans don’t eat with a knife and fork. They mostly just use a fork. Knives are strictly for cutting and spreading, not for trapping food against the fork.
2. They call cutlery “silverware”, even when it’s made of plastic.
3. Advertising is much more direct. Here we have ads that often have a very tenuous connection to the actual product; short films or vignettes or sketches. Over here, you often can’t tell what is actually being advertised until the last second. American “commercials” are more likely to be a talking head telling you exactly why you should use their business. I think this difference is down to European squeamishness about money, and American readiness to talk turkey.
4. Instead of VAT, Americans have sales tax. The price on the tag is not the price you pay at the till. This kept catching me out. I also think it’s part of the reason Americans are so conscious and resentful of government. Taxation is much more visible to them.
5. Credit/debit cards are more popular. At least, I think so. I always use cash for over-the-counter transactions myself, so maybe I don’t realise how popular plastic has become over here, but it seems to me that most people in Ireland still pay in cash. In America, most people pay with cards.
6. Americans call courgettes “zuchinnis”.
7. They don’t have the term “runners” for “trainers”.
8. As anyone who has seen the famous Des Bishop sketch will know, Americans don’t have to heat up their water to have a shower. It’s just there.
9. Americans don’t say “take a left” but “make a left”.
10. I was refused alcohol in a restaurant and in an off-licence because I had no ID, despite being well past my salad years. This probably differs across states.
11. Supermarkets are bigger and have a bewildering variety of brands and products. And futuristic gimmicks, too; motion-activated voice-recordings make sales pitches and artifical thunder and lightning storms draw your attention to particular products.
12. In one supermarket, there were racks of inspiring reading which mostly consisted of Christian books. Impossible to imagine this in an Irish supermarket.
13. Much to my pleasure, Americans fly flags everywhere. The stars and stripes are omnipresent, but there are lots of other flags on display, too; State flags, college pennants, rainbow flags, and many I didn’t recognize. Lots of Americans fly a flag of some sort on their porch (and most houses have porches.) They also like to announce their allegiances on car registration plates and bumper stickers.
14. Their traffic lights have no green and red men. Instead, there is a white walking man and a “Don’t Walk” caption. The high-pitched beeping noise that most of our traffic lights use, to alert blind pedestrians when they can cross, is much less prevalent there, even though America seems to be generally ahead of us in terms of provision for the disabled.
15. Residential streets seem to go on forever. There are often thousands of house numbers on one road or avenue.
16. Television is almost omnipresent—in shops, airports, hospital waiting rooms, and so on. And it usually has subtitles, and isn’t muted in public places.
17. Despite our stereotype, Americans don’t actually say “have a nice day”. They do say “have a good day”, or “have a good one”, or “have a great day”, or some variation thereof. They say those all the time. But I don’t think I heard anyone say “have a nice day”. (I mentioned this to a colleague and he suggested it might differ according to region.)
18. “Sir” and “ma’am” are ubiquitous. Perhaps this is a Southern phenomenon. I strongly approve. Also, Americans (even adult Americans) address their aunts and uncles as “Aunt Such-and-Such” or “Uncle Such-and-Such”.
19. Virtually all toll-booth operators are black women. The racial divide is very evident. Black people tend to have a different way of speaking to white people—a faster tempo that I sometimes found hard to keep up with. Beggars are mostly older black men and they say “spare some change?”. There are far fewer beggars in Richmond, Virginia than there are in Dublin.
20. Religion is much more visible. There are many more churches, and a huge variety of different denominations. Churches tend to be, not old stone buildings with spires, but broader and flatter buildings made of brick. They hustle for custom with big placards and signs (at least in the case of the Protestant denominations). Religion seems to play a huge role in social life, too, with many people belonging to church groups and associations, such as the Knights of Columbus.
21) When Irish or English people say "homely", we mean "cosy", "comfortable", "down-to-earth." In America, "homely" has only one meaning, and that's "ugly". This can be important to know.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day to all my American Readers

I'm just after coming back from two weeks in Richmond, Virginia. Last Sunday, St. Benedict's Church of that parish finished Mass with a stirring version of "God Bless America" as their recessional hymn. I couldn't help being moved myself, nor did I forbear to join in.

America comes in for a lot of criticism on this side of the Atlantic. Far too much, I believe. Every society has its flaws but I believe the USA has a heck of a lot going from it, from the effusive friendliness that seems to be everywhere ("How are you doing this morning, sir?") to the much more positive attitude towards religion (Christian tracts in the supermarket!).

So God bless America, and to all my American readers-- thank you for reading!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Human Need to Affirm

Why do most of us want to be optimists, or at least to be considered optimists? Is it a by-product of the desire for self-preservation? Is it an evolutionary mechanism?

There is a commitment that virtually all human beings hold in common, one that cuts right across divisions of religion, politics and even temperament. It is the belief that life and the world are good, or can be good, or should be good. When you think about it, you realise that this commitment is shared by everyone but the darkest of pessimists. A pessimist would have no reason to hold a gloomy view of the world unless he was measuring it against some ideal, some possible or even merely conceivable state of more desirable affairs. To that extent, even the pessimist has a kind of faith.

Unless we believed that the good of life outweighs the evil-- even if that good is simply, as it might be for an existentialist, our own heroic protest against futility-- then we would hardly continue to live, to refrain from committing suicide, to feed and care for ourselves, to stop at red traffic lights, go to work and shelter from the cold.

But for most of us, our faith in existence goes way beyond this minimal calculation. Human beings seem to harbour an insatiable urge to affirm. It is as though we cannot rest in regret or rejection. A man who loses his sight or his legs or his livelihood will, almost inevitably, struggle to "come to terms with it", as we say. Sometimes it even seems that, the worse the ordeal, the greater the reluctance to give up on life's intrinsic goodness. We even seek to find meaning in our sufferings, to discover some redemptive element to them.

I remember once, when channel-hopping late in the small hours of the morning, catching the last few minutes of a documentary about people with facial disfigurements. I always remember one of the talking heads-- a man whose misshapen face must have drawn stares wherever he went-- smiling gently at the camera and saying that, since he had "grown into" the way he now looked, he wouldn't even want to look "normal" again.

This human tendency for affirmation bears some thinking about. It is, in fact, more than a little strange. I could easily imagine a world where things were otherwise. I can imagine a world where human beings sought pleasure, distraction and stimulation, but felt no craving for the sublime, the transcendent or the meaningful. We would, essentially, seek to pass the time before our death as pleasantly (or perhaps as excitingly) as possible.

Nobody would care about the state of the world after their own demise. Nobody would invest emotionally in any great cause-- a cause such as a nation, a party, an ideology, an interest group, or a church. History would simply be a catalogue of names and events, perhaps interesting and instructive as a subject for study, but not a story in which the living felt they had a stake. Nobody would feel a debt to their ancestors, or be inspired by their own tradition and heritage. So long as the intellect was kept stimulated, nobody would feel any urge to understand the universe or their place in it.

But how different things are in reality! Even the worst of us seem to share this drive towards affirmation. No matter how badly people behave, they usually offer some justification for their actions. The excuses and rationalisations may be feeble, but the point is that nearly everybody acknowledges the need for justification. In the same way, it seems to me that every artist-- no matter how bleak, nihilistic, hopeless and squalid his productions-- claims to be ultimately on the side of the angels. Thus we are told that Beckett's plays drip with compassion for the human condition, that Franz Kafka displays a deeply religious sensibility, and so on.

Why this ingrained human urge to say an unconditional "Yes" to life, in spite of everything? And not only a "Yes" but a "Hallelujah"?

Well, you can guess my answer, can't you?