In Need of Some Restraint

This afternoon, I am reading through Kaya Oakes’s Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church. Oakes is a self-described progressive and a feminist. One of the questions she is constantly struggling to justify, to herself and to readers is, Why be Catholic?

Oakes is a poet, so the effort is not completely futile. As Socrates said, poets have access to insights that they understand not, and can give us new ways of approaching those mysteries. But too often, for my taste, she slips out of a more poetic mode and into rationalization.

Sixty some odd pages in, Oakes has explored her deep and unexpected longing to rejoin the church of her youth. She has contrasted the Catholic Church with other religious bodies that might be a bit closer to her ideological outlook.

Episcopalians bored her with with “uninspiring sermons” and “endless repetition of verse in hymns.” United Church of Christers “had some embarrassing white-people hip-shaking thing at their service.” Praying with Unitarians “felt like entering a vacuum.” Buddhism is great, Oakes said, but it lacked anything to for her to work toward, “other than nothingness.”

So Oakes wants to join with a people she’s comfortable with and a church that stretches back through the ages. That much I understand. What I do not understand is her way of dealing with the beliefs of that Church — my Church as well.

The Catholic beliefs that are agreeable to her she accepts wholeheartedly. The beliefs that are maybe a little bit difficult she swallows hard and signs off on. And the ones that seriously challenge her way of thinking she simply rejects. On those issues — abortion, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination, etc. –, she argues that it is the Church, not her, that is in error.

It’s not the purpose of this post the argue all the specific points with her. I am not so much concerned that she is a “cafeteria Catholic” (her words) as that it looks like she is going to end up with a cafeteria morality as well.

I worry because it is terrible idea to start with the premise that “I’m not so bad, really” and construct a moral theory and a set of theological beliefs to support that conceit.

Okayness, as we might call it, is a denial of the darker side of human nature. It ultimately removes morality as a serious restrainer. And if you don’t think humanity is in need of some restraint, have I got the song for you!

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Alternate Headline: Jeremy Lott, Vindicated

A friend suggested the above headline when he passed along this Politico piece on Jonathan Krohn’s political transformation from 13-year-old conservative boy wonder to 17-year-old Nietzsche-reading, Obama-supporting NYU film student.

My critical American Spectator review of Krohn’s first book about conservatism is probably the most infamous thing I ever wrote. It’s the only controversy currently fleshed out on my Wikipedia entry, for instance. (Though feel free to add others, folks.)

The review drew scores of angry comments and denunciations and earned for me the reputation as that guy who beats up child authors. I argued that was unfair because the reputation I really deserved was as the guy who beats up on their parents.

The review started out by talking about the obligations parents have to their children. It quoted Rush Limbaugh, another speaker at CPAC, the event that made Krohn famous, saying, “Don’t be afraid to tell children that they’re wrong. They don’t know what you do. They simply haven’t lived long enough.”

It expressed “anger” at Krohn’s mother and father “for allowing this book to be published at all,” and argued that “good parents” ought to keep their children “from embarrassing themselves this badly.” After citing one egregious example from the book, it drew out the moral: “[That's] the sort of unrefined thought that we expect young people to throw out there for adults to respond, ‘Isn’t he cute?’ or ‘Well that’s not quite right, son. See…’”

In the Politico piece, Krohn almost agrees with me. He calls much of what he had to say as a kid pundit “ideological blather.” He explains: “It wasn’t me thinking. It was just me saying things I had heard so long from people I thought were interesting and just came to believe for some reason, without really understanding it.”

And it dogs him still. Krohn declares himself “absolutely annoyed” that people think of him as a sort of cub scout conservative pundit: “It’s very hard to break a stereotype like that of yourself.” The piece concludes with Krohn protesting, “Come on, I was thirteen. I was thirteen.”

That’s great but, why do I have the feeling he’s going to look back to this Politico piece in the future and protest, “Come on, I was seventeen.”

Bradbury 451

Ray Bradbury, who died yesterday at 91, would be difficult to summarize even for those steeped in his work. The man was a Mount Vesuvius of short story writing fury for page, stage, and screen. He rang up a lot of misses and more hits than any one man could ever reasonably hope for.

His most famous novella (Daniel Flynn is right that Bradbury didn’t so much write “novels” as really long short stories), which everybody will be talking about today, was Fahrenheit 451. His best critics have argued, and Bradbury has affirmed, that it was not really a book about censorship. Sure, the story was ostensibly about book burning but it was really about the kind of society that would seek to abolish books.

People in the future world of Fahrenheit 451 burned books because they viewed all that the written word had given us — history, philosophy, theology, moral struggle — as a dangerous nuisance. As Fire Captain Beatty says almost nonchalantly, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.” No book, no problem.

It occurs to me now, only after his death, that I should have written to Bradbury. I would have asked him what he thought of the argument that, in a society with the right legal protections and traditions, book burning might paradoxically promote free speech. At least then people might be moved to see what they’re missing.

One wonders what he might have thought of that because, in his declining years, Bradbury was far more concerned that ours was becoming a society that was ceasing to care about books than that we might start firing up the incinerators. He worried that the Internet was cheapening the written word by making it something too disposable. Bradbury acquiesced to releasing Fahrenheit as an e-book only grudgingly, when faced with the painful alternative of letting his favorite creation go out of print.

You don’t have to agree with Bradbury’s consternation about where tech is taking us to think he was right to worry about the future of the book in America. It will have to compete with some new forms of entertainment, certainly, though in his better moments Bradbury would admit that cuts both ways. Books are the creative impetus behind many movies, for instance, which in turn stoke interest in the source material.

What I think Bradbury saw clearer than most is that the chief obstacle to books will always be an aggressive ignorance that abhors learning as too much of a bother. Every teacher has to confront this when the student asks, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” Spread that notion around too far across the crust of society, said the famed short story writer, and you are going to have a problem. He was undeniably right about that.

So here’s to Ray Bradbury, who burned brighter and longer than most. May his better creations survive the conflagrations of time.

Ray Bradbury

Thank God for Paul Fussell and Other Blogposts

I’m seriously contemplating making a regular thing out of the New Republic‘s suspicious silence on Paul Fussell. Granted, events can and do catch editors flatfooted and unprepared. But at this point I fear something worse must be at work.

Fussell died Wednesday. Slate took its time and published a decent essay of Fussell’s literary impact on Friday. There, Fussell admirer Stephen Metcalf wrote that Fussell “was at his best, was most himself, when writing about organized killing,” but judged his influence to be portable to peacetime settings as well. It was a good essay leading up to Memorial Day. I led with it on Real Clear Books this weekend (along with this stinging dissent about Fussell’s book Class). So, eventually, did Arts & Letters Daily.

But from the New Republic, still, crickets.

Thank God for the Atom Bomb

TNR‘s The Book page reposted this “classic” piece by George Kennan on Americans and Russians rather than repost the very famous essay that became the basis for Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and other Essays. The front page called out a review by scholar and failed Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff on a book of hand-wringing about free markets with the headline “The Skyboxification of American Life.” TNR’s aggregator The Reader, which at this point specializes in warmed over Arts & Letters Daily links, can’t even bring itself to reheat the Slate link.

Again, as I have said, this is extra odd, because the New Republic published one of Fussell’s most important essays. Now, in the wake of his death, it is proceeding as if that essay never existed at a time when its republication would get actual traffic. Why wouldn’t it want those hits? A few friends have speculated to me that TNR is staffed with a bunch of younger staffers who don’t remember such things, but that can’t be it. Grand culture editor Leon Wieseltier has weathered several regime changes at the magazine, including a recent handover in ownership. The Fussell essay appeared two years before his appointment in 1983 but he must remember it.

So why ignore it? Embarrassment? It’s possible. In the famous essay, Fussell set himself up as the sworn enemy of moral reasoning that is too abstract, too removed from what, these days, we would call the “boots on the ground.”

Fussell responded to liberal moral hand-wringing about Hiroshima on one of its many anniversaries by saying, OK, let’s see what the troops who would have invaded Japan have to say on the subject. He consulted the writings of the grunts and found in them a plausible argument for why one might say “Thank God for the atom bomb.” They argued Japanese society had been driven collectively so war mad that the distinctions we normally make between soldiers and civilians no longer made sense.

Soldiers in the Pacific theater (Fussell got his “ass shot off” in Europe) viewed the entire island chain as one long meat grinder that would kill at least American soldiers who were already pretty chewed up on the eve an armed invasion that didn’t have to happen because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You don’t have to agree with their point of view but it might be worth considering at greater length. You can find that here on this day of memorial, but not on the website of the New Republic.