A Hydra in the Racks

 

 

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Norman Rockwell’s Top of the World, courtesy of Ebay.com

It used to be considered fashionable to be late; it demonstrated that one was so important that other attentions had to be given before one could even think of making an appearance at a party or some other social function (it doesn’t seem to have worked in the work setting, unless one was somewhat elevated in the hierarchy). While I would not venture to say that I am important enough use this as an excuse for tardiness, it might still be considered fashionable to be late only because it allows one’s thoughts to mature and, hopefully because of that, to hold a little more than they could.

When Teen Vogue ran its guide to anal sex this past summer, the reactions were already written: people were shocked and rightly outraged that a magazine for teenagers would print such a how to guide while the magazine’s digital editor, Phillip Picardi claimed that the only possible explanation for the backlash was the predictable and boring accusation of “homophobia.” Of course, there was nothing “homophobic” about the reactions of the parents and the commentators who expressed their shock; they were simply flabbergasted that a magazine devoted to teen-age girls would tell its readers how to do something that has been proven to have serious medical consequences.

It is an interesting and ironic twist that the people who often cry the loudest about science really do not care about what science says. They are much like the “cafeteria Catholics” of the Eighties, Nineties and Thousands, picking and choosing which science to cite and believe and which science to ignore. Teen Vogue chose to close their eyes to the myriad risks which anal sex opens. Author Gigi Engle did mention in her guide that contact with feces was inevitable but that this was nothing to worry about, a statement that might have been true if a cornucopia of diseases, such as hepatitis A, B, and C, parasites like Giardia and intestinal amoebas, and bacteria like Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli, were not contactable through anal sex. On top of that, the risk of HIV and other STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes, increase dramatically from the practice. Added to these threats, there is another layer of danger waiting for someone’s teenage daughter who decides to give “bottoming” a try–fecal incontinence. The chances of contracting anal cancer is also increased. These bacteria, diseases and sicknesses are really not a surprising result from practicing anal sex since, to put it bluntly, things are being put where things should not be put, in this case, the male sex organ being inserted into the manhole of the body’s sewage removal system. One can compare that to the harmony naturally inherent in what Gigi Engle termed ” ‘penis in the vagina’ sex” what used to be known in common circles as simply, sex, the natural harmony found in how the two different sex organs work together so perfectly in their complimentary that Occam’s Razor practically screams that the two were made to go together. The horrible consequences of anal sex are simply the natural results of ignoring ontology and teleology, large, philosophical terms which mean nothing more than “what things are” (ontology) and “what those things are for” (teleology).

If the physical health issues were the only harms done by Engle’s guide, that would be bad enough, but Teen Vogue’s piece does even greater harm than simply the physical. In the first place, the piece can be added to the list of pieces and speeches and actions which erode history and an honest understanding of history. Engle attempted to use history as a defense of anal sex by claiming, “Anal sex, though often stigmatized, is a perfectly natural way to engage in sexual activity. People have been having anal sex since the dawn of humanity. Seriously, it’s been documented back to the ancient Greeks and then some. So if you’re a little worried about trying it or are having trouble understanding the appeal, just know that it isn’t weird or gross.” It should be noted, again, that simply possessing a long pedigree in history does not instantly make X activity moral, or else murder, lying, rape and stealing would also be seen as being “perfectly natural.” The activity has to be taken for what it is, not for how long it has been practiced or how many people have practiced it. It may also be recalled with some amusement that during the oral arguments of the Obergefell case in 2015, the fact that marriage had been seen and understood as a conjugal union of a man and a woman was not deemed sufficient reason to keep reality as it was; rather, it was merely one more barrier which the soldiers of justice had to storm in order that history could be righted. A principle which can be used and discarded at will is not the strongest pillar on which to rest a case. But, even beyond the historical fallacy, Engle’s assertion attempts to change history. It is a fact that anal sex was practiced in the world of the ancient Greeks; there even survives a debate of sorts from that time, in which it was discussed which was more pleasurable, sex with women or sex with boys. But to leave the assertion at that is to play dishonestly. Anal sex, for one, was acceptable to the Greeks only within certain parameters: In Sparta, for example, it was seen as a way for boys to bond and, thus, a way for a brotherhood of sorts to exist between the next generation of soldiers. Once the boys came of marriageable age, however, such activity was not only frowned upon but was punishable by death. Intellectual giants by the names of Socrates, Plato  and Aristotle condemned the practice. Casting a wider historical net, behavior of this sort was condemned in ancient Israel; in ancient Rome, though this sort of thing may have been accepted at times with a wink and a nod, it was technically against the law and accusations of some person having or performing anal sex was often used as an attack on one’s enemies, which happened to Emperor Elagabalus. The history is not as clear-cut as Engle would like to have it.

But there is another, and deeper, danger posed to history, not particularly by this particular article, but by the attitude which exudes from its attempt to marshal history in its defense. One of the reasons why History is necessary not just for people but for societies is because History is supposed to act as our teacher. It is true that an answer to a particular, contemporary problem–such as the exact percentage of the federal income tax– will, more than likely, not be found in the Alexiad  or in the chronicles of Tacitus or Hume’s History of England, but answers to general questions can be found in its annals. When History is simply used as a battering ram for a particular point or ideology, it ceases to be History but, rather, a monster that we attempt to control in order to sanction our own points and peccadillos and sins. When History is slashed and sewn up into one’s own Frankenstein Monster, we taken to very strange Wonderlands. In the field of American history, to give just one example, a divide has formed between those who see the Founders as Deists to a man and those who see them all as Evangelical Christians neither side making any real attempt to come to a realistic and true account of the matter. But that situation is not surprising; monsters are not strong at dialogue and reasoned arguments but are very good at attempting to crush other monsters and their creators, while the common villagers suffer the most from the battle.

In the second place, Teen Vogue’s guide destroys people and children. There are, again, all of the medical disorders that come from anal sex and which will infect boys and girls–real boys and real girls–which will cling to them and eat at their bodies. More than likely, it will not just end at anal sex; once a particular door is opened, people have a habit of rushing further into the labyrinth, opening more doors and falling further and further into the dark. I remember reading, some years ago, a piece online, the title and author of which I have forgotten but I have not forgotten his story. It concerned a young women in the Seventies who, at the time, was living in a lesbian relationship. As she and her partner were walking through a festival, the woman in question came across two other girls making out; her nonchalance became horror when she discovered that the two girls were actually twin sisters. When she turned to her partner, the partner simply said that they couldn’t say anything; if they wanted society to approve of their behavior, they could not condemn the sexual behavior of others, even if it was composed of incest. Though it happened forty years ago, that story has not expired; as Dr. Robert Oscar Lopez recorded three years ago, the homosexual community was quick to praise a pair of Brazilian brothers and a pair of Czech brothers who declared their sexual love for each other, love that was quickly captured by the camera and which left nothing to the imagination. These doors are opening more quickly than some people may give credit; an eighteen year old girl has declared that after two years of dating, she is going to marry her father after twelve years of estrangement and have children with him and a mother and son were arrested last year for incest.   These new arrangements will only lead to more physical and mental problems and, as the doors are opened by real children, they will be the ones to pay the price.

As with History, there is another way in which Engle’s guide destroys real people. Never once does Engle use the words male or female. As Jennifer Hartline commented,

Anatomical parts are mentioned, and the owners of certain parts are given directions pertaining to their parts, such as someone who has a prostate vs. someone who does not. But there’s no mention of men and women. Just nondescript persons with parts.

The world of Engle’s telling is a world without men and women, regardless of the current claim that men and women are simply two of the fifty-seven “genders” from which one can choose, as if choosing what one is were as easy as choosing which brand of milk to buy. In a way, Engle’s world is even more terrifying and cold than the world as it is now since in her mind, it seems that there never anything such as men and women. If there are only organs that can be stimulated so as to give momentary pleasure but no underlying essences to which these organs can cling then, in the words of Andrew Klaven, men and women are merely “meat puppets,” automatons surrounded by other automatons who agree to come together for the sole purpose of exchanging pleasure. Perhaps more terrifyingly, contrary to Miss Hartline, there cannot even be people in this world view since, in this physical world especially, a person can only be composed of matter and form, to use the tried and true Aristotelian language, and matter, especially in the case of people, can only be male or female. If these do not exist, then matter is a lie and if one half of the mystical formula for the creation of a person is a lie, is there really a person? Can there be a person at all?

In the third place, Engle and her guide and Teen Vogue are destroying love and romance. It is apparently a truism that must be repeated or risk being forgotten, that people who are in love want what is best for the beloved, even if that would cause inconvenience and even some discomfort to the lover. But anal sex, as is known causes physical harm; it also causes emotional harm as a 2009 Guttmacher Institute study discovered. It also causes moral harm. Such language is not taken seriously today and yet it is often the case that the most serious things are not taken seriously enough and these are the pillars which people believe they can topple to form a bridge to a new utopia. If not simply the sex organs but men and women themselves are meant for each other in a special way for a special reason, then using that natural instinct and that power for something contrary for its purpose will inevitably cause disaster, even if the participants escape any physical consequences such as, in this case, HIV or cancer; as Emerson once put it, “Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass.” An example can be found in people who live together as though they were married before they actually are married. On the surface, the proposition seems the most logical in world; marriage is such a drastic change in lives that it seems commonsensical to have a “test run” before committing to it. And yet, couples who do so seem more likely to divorce.  On an aside, even if this claim is definitely proven to be false (as one study has claimed) it is interesting to note that couples who are married handle stress better than couples who are simply living together. People addicted to pornography have confessed that they became deadened, unable to invest time in their other relationships, even their spousal and familial ones, because of the pornography and yet, at the same time, it was not satisfying them either–the very thing that they craved was unable to fill them. Speech is meant for the communication of the truth and when lies are woven for gain or personal protection against some just action against us, how many times has the lie taken over our lives so that the very thing created to protect us becomes the very thing choking the life from us? Will the consequences of anal sex be different?

Such guides as Engel’s also contribute in the destruction of love and romance by placing exorbitant emphasis on sexual pleasure–by turning it into the summum bonnum of love–that sexual pleasure becomes another monster which destroys love and romance. The reason being is that when sexual pleasure becomes the end all and be all of love and romance then the attainment of that pleasure becomes the only reason for the relationship and the romance to last and a barometer as to the health of the relationship. The spouse, again, becomes merely a means for sexual pleasure, easily replaced if “boredom” sets in. And boredom will and does set in since rather than finding delight in one’s spouse–a person–happiness is made dependent on a temporal and passing state. Not only that, but that temporal and passing state must be gradually increased so that boredom does not set in. This can be seen by a simple experiment: After you stroke your arm with a feather for a few minutes, what used to tickle you now causes no sensation. A variation must be began or more pressure be added to the same space in order for the sensation to start again. It is the same with sex and sexual pleasure; it has been made the “god” of love, the god quickly loses its luster, much as a spoiled child loses interest in his new toys. That is why, two summers ago, Men’s Health, ran a small piece declaring that BDSM a la Fifty Shades of Gray was perfectly normal and desirable. That was not the cry of healthy individuals; that was the sign of the surrender to boredom. The “god” was failing and only an increase in its bacchanalian rites could return it.

And in the fourth place, Engle and Teen Vogue are destroying the very idea of sex itself. It used to be that the word “sex” referred to the sexes, man and woman and not to what they did together, which was considered cosmically awful (in the old meaning of the word, which meant “inspiring awe”), awful because of the power which formed between the man and the woman, the power to make the beloved one’s own in the deepest sense by giving the most intimate part of yourself to the other–half of what was needed for the creation of a new life, a new person, a new story upon the stage of the world, full of his own joys and sorrows, triumphs, disasters, virtues, vices, sins and graces. Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet brilliantly captured this power and its awfulness when, at the beginning of Act Three, Juliet says:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

By telling teenage girls that sex can include equally what it is meant to be and its contradiction, Engle and Teen Vogue cheapen it to the point of buffoonery. Rather than a leap into the beloved’s arms for the amorous rites that shine with their own light, sex, to the modern sensibilities, can be that or it can equally include acts which will cause pain and emotional distress.

Young girls deserve better than this. Women deserve better than this. People deserve better than this. Rather than a cheap imitation that can corrode the body and the soul, they deserve real, genuine love and real genuine romance. Not the species that often comes to mind when we say the words, covered as they are with harlequin veneers, but the real kind that burns both the lover and the beloved into a union of awful dimensions.

 

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Stars and Hierarchies

 

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Theatrical poster for Star Wars (1977). Courtesy of fanpop.com

There are some areas where people are not allowed to have a personal opinion, areas which, more often than not, overlap the spheres of the True, the Good and the Beautiful (the Three Transcendentals, as Dr. Peter Kreeft has called them). Murder and rape, for example, regardless of one’s personal opinion are wrong and their innate wrongness cannot be changed one iota. Outside of the Transcendentals and issues of morality and what it means to be truly human, this inability to have a legitimate personal opinion can still possess some force. It is one thing, for example, to say that the 2006 movie Eragon is more personally enjoyed than The Lord of the Rings trilogy; it is another thing entirely to say that Eragon is objectively, of its own nature, better than The Lord of the Rings. Though some legitimate criticism can be laid upon Peter Jackson’s trilogy, there is really no question that he did try to faithfully bring the world which J.R.R. Tolkien discovered into cinema and, as such, many of the themes and symbols which Tolkien incorporated into his mythology present themselves in the films. To give one example: though Tolkien was not fond of allegory, which was one reason why he did not care for C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, symbolism–a sign of a metaphysical reality–was another issue entirely. As such, the personage of Jesus Christ is symbolized three times in The Lord of the Rings: Christ as King is found in Aragorn; Christ as Prophet is found in Gandalf; Christ as Sacrifice is found in Frodo. It is no coincidence, as such, that each character undergoes death and resurrection, most strikingly in the case of Gandalf the Gray who, after he is killed by the Balrog demon, is returned to Middle Earth as Gandalf the White. Jackson’s trilogy caught this and many more symbols and themes found in the books. The books and the movies, therefore, are rightly considered masterpieces.  Eragon, in comparison, is a very shallow affair. While it might offer some entertainment on a rainy or lazy day, it does not feed the imagination or the soul as Tolkien’s work does. This does not mean that people should not or cannot enjoy Eragon; there is nothing, so far as I know, nothing morally dubious in the movie or in the first book. A little cotton candy is fun and innocent to have, especially during the county fair; it is when the only thing one eats is cotton candy that a problem can and will develop.

There are other areas, outside these parameters, however, where private opinion can reign supreme. Is Casablanca a better movie than Gone with the Wind? Which possesses a sweeter sound–the flute or the violin? Are the German tunes of Oktoberfest better than the reels played and sung at Irish festivals? Good men may and do and will disagree with each other and drink and laugh while they disagree. The same holds true to the debate over whether Star Trek or Star Wars is the better series and story. Star Trek can appeal more broadly to those who enjoy stricter science fiction a la Asimov and Clark while Star Wars follows the tradition of the space operas, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Another and recent addition to this debate came from conservative commentator, Bill Whittle, on his podcast, The Stratosphere Lounge. In answer to a question posed to him, Whittle espoused that, for him, Star Trek was superior to Star Wars because there was the sense of exploration, discovery and adventure that appealed to him as a boy and which has stayed with him throughout his life; Star Wars, on the other hand, never possessed that since none of the characters were exploring anything new. There was the sense that everything that you saw in the galaxy far, far away had been seen a million times before. Whittle, however, continued and added that another defect of Star Wars was that it was hierarchial and aristocratic. His reasoning for this judgement came from the fact that while the Federation and Star Fleet of Star Trek seemed to be a pure meritocracy, in Star Wars, only a privileged few, those who were born with the ability to feel and control the Force, could become the enviable Jedi Knights.

Now, again, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Whittle having his own opinion as to which series or franchise is better. I, myself, would disagree and say that Star Wars is much more enjoyable than Star Trek but, in this case, it is only my opinion and not a matter of Truth, Goodness or Beauty. What is curious, though, is Mr. Whittle’s reasoning for the superiority of Star Trek via his attack on hierarchies and aristocracies. These have become dirty words and dirty concepts in our society today, obsessed as we are with equality. In fact, however, we and our society are not obsessed with equality; we are rabid for egalitarianism. There is a considerable difference between the two. Egalitarianism takes as its starting point that all men are equal, which is, in and of itself true. But the egalitarian does not stop to think how men are equal or what this equality signifies or resides or what follows from these distinctions; rather; the egalitarian follows a straight line of logic by which he comes to the conclusion that since all men are equal, everything about them must be equal as well. As such, the idea is beginning to circulate that even doctors should not tell patients that they are fat and need to become more healthy since that is actually “fat shaming;” this is the reason why  schools often give out “participation trophies” to all the children because having a winner and a runner up will damage the well being of the other children. It is the reason for the envy that many people have over the fact that others are wealthier than they.

Contrary to egalitarianism, equality acknowledges that men are equal but only equal in a certain sense. Russell Kirk, when explaining the English idea of equality in his Roots of American Order, wrote that the English system saw all men equal in only two ways: the first was through the recognition of the Imago Dei, the fact that all men, whether king or peasant, are created in the image of God; the second was before the law where every Englishman, whether he was the poorest man of the realm or the king himself was still bound under the sword and scale of the law. This is the idea that was transplanted from the English isle to the American colonies. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most “radical” advocates of equality during the Revolution and Early Republic, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal;” he did not write that all men are equal and certainly, he did not write that all men are equal in every aspect of their being.

Most of the Founders of the American Republic, in fact, believed strongly in what was then called the “natural aristocracy” of man. One of the best articulations of the natural aristocracy comes from a letter written by John Adams to John Taylor, dated April 15, 1814. Adams began by telling Taylor that, “Few men will deny that there is a natural aristocracy of virtues and talents in every nation and in every party, in every city and village. Inequalities are a part of the natural history of man.” He continued, recalling how, when he had been in Paris as ambassador during the Revolution, he had toured the Hospital of the Foundlings (orphans) and had seen the fifty children in the room under every condition possible. His conclusion was that, “These were all born to equal rights, but to very different fortunes; to very different success and influence in life.” Adams then used strength and beauty to illustrate his point further. Would people say that Hercules or William Wallace were of equal strength as their fellow men? Would anyone deny that some women were more beautiful than others and would not men admit that beauty was more powerful than politics? He asked Taylor:

Is not beauty a privilege granted by nature, according to Plato and to truth, often more influential in society, and even upon laws and government, than stars, garters, crosses, eagles, golden fleeces, or any hereditary titles or other distinctions?

The idea that all men were completely equal in their faculties and their virtues was ludicrous.

We today, though we give lip service to egalitarianism which we have undeservedly honored with the title equality, still recognize the natural aristocracy when we cheer athletes, compare actors and actresses, analyze musicians and singers, or test our own skills with others. Even if we or those we know, such as our children, received “participation awards,” regardless of how we had performed, it is almost certain that we will know, on a some level, that we did not deserve the participation award and that someone else should have been awarded the real prize.

Hierarchies and aristocracies, in this sense, are not pejorative or set against equality or democratic sentiments as they are not dependent on blood or birth. Contrary, in fact, to the false dichotomy Mr. Whittle set up in his analysis of Star Trek and Star Wars, natural aristocracies demand meritocracies for it is only through the sweat of developing our innate talents and gifts that they will actually bloom and be of any real good to us and to our neighbors. This truth remains true, regardless of whether one takes as a hero James Kirk or Luke Skywalker.

When There is No Soul to Lose

 

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The oldest memorial to the memory of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore was destroyed by modern barbarians.

Oscar Wilde quipped that fashion was a thing so hideous that it had to be changed every six months. Though Wilde still has not shaken off his reputation of being a dandied bon mot, his words often possess more weight than one might think and his judgement of fashion is a case in point. The reason why fashion has to be changed very six months is because it is hideous and it is hideous because there is nothing anchoring it to something solid. The only thing that fashion might be said to anchored to is Beauty but, if this were the case, fashions would remain beautiful and would not have to be changed at all. Boxers are born with floppy ears and yet their ears are shorn off to make them straight to appease Fashion; jeans are manufactured with ready made holes and rips and wears to appease the same god; and now, monuments and history are destroyed with all the fury of a religious cause because that is now the fashion de jour. 

Beacuse of this restlessness, fashion takes the form of the wind, blowing its adherents wherever it decides on the moment. The wind is a very powerful force but it usually can only whip the dead leaves along with it; oaks, with deep roots in the earth and the mountains which reach down into the core of the world, can withstand the wind and remain intact. In this way, the cult of fashion reflects just as much on us and our society as it does upon itself. The reason why we have jeans with holes and Boxers with cut ears and people with tongues split like snakes, is because fashion, being rootless, is found in the emotions entirely. To be sure, there is nothing with the emotions per se; everything has its purpose and its use. The problem comes when something is taken out of its place or used for something other than what it is for and the same is true of the emotions. It is very pleasant to hear the laughter of a child but our happiness at hearing that laughter might dry up if we discovered that the child was laughing after crushing frogs under a rock or throwing stones at a puppy. Similarly, when a man feels happy only by making others miserable, we are not unreasonable to say that the man in question needs to realign his emotions properly, especially with his intellect and his will.

When the emotions are allowed to run pell mell throughout the world, that is when all manner of trouble begins to start. Even worse, in a sense, is the unpredictableness of the emotions. Because they have been unhinged from reason and from experience and history and culture and tradition, the emotions can turn on a dime; what gave pleasure yesterday is now boring today and new diversions, new entertainments are needed to keep the emotions afloat. The only predictable thing to say about the people who allow their emotions to run wild is that they will act more and more inhumanly as time goes on and as their emotions continue to whip them in the winds of frenzy.

This would be bad enough but there is another possibility, one that is much worse. G.K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, observed that a madman is not the man who has lost his reason but a man who has lost everything except his reason. People who follow their emotions only and so fashion may only be lazy and so not engage their minds; the madmen who make fashion their god have abandoned, as Chesterton said, everything–tradition, history, morals, common sense, poetry and even a basic understanding of human nature–and only kept their reason. From a set of a priori principles (which may or may not be true to begin with) they reason inexorably toward the conclusion, regardless of what is leveled along the way.

The latest fashion is the erasure of history via the removal and destruction of monuments which has know become a fully blossomed fad. When even the statues of obscure heroes from the Revolutionary War are decapitated one can be fairly certain that a new, rabid fad has reached a maturity. But even more illuminating than the rash of destruction and vandalism is the utter inability to offer even a lukewarm defense of these monuments and the history to which they are anchored. Baltimore provided the best example of this: starting at midnight on August 15, crews removed memorials to Chief Justice Roger Taney, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, as well as memorials to the general memories of Confederate soldiers and sailors and a monument to the Confederate women, finishing at 5:30AM. A few days prior, Baltimore city councilman, Brandon Scott, called for the immediate destruction of the monuments. The common theme from Baltimore and from other locations was that these memorials have no place in our society today and that the safety of the public demands that they be taken down.

This wanton destruction and/or rush to remove that which is offensive has been called a “conversation,” a clever bit of prestidigitation that shields what is actually happening. David Elstrom, a member of the Mark Steyn Club commented to Steyn:

I notice that the left media and even Fox News talk about the “discussion” on statues, or opine on the “conversation” concerning public monuments.
This Newspeak is apparently supposed to con the plebes into thinking something civil or democratic is happening. All I’ve seen is politicians or other apparatchiks rushing to remove statues (fearing the wrath of the mob) or actual mobs tearing things down.
If this is discussion, or conversation, then rape must be a “social event,” and sticking up the local convenience store a “financial transaction.

Mr. Elstrom is correct.  The underlying cause of this latest fashion is that we, as a society and a culture, have lost the reason for our own being. Multiculturalism, in large part, is the reason for this. As Mark Steyn has commented before, multiculturalism is one of the hardest “isms” to pin down and debate because the core of multiculturalism is that there is no core; people, cultures, societies, religions, beliefs are all fundamentally the same, which, if true, means that there is nothing to fight about. If there is nothing to fight about, that must mean, logically, that there are no differences and no distinctions; if that is true, than the histories and stories of different people must not be important; if that is the case, then the erasure of history is not a terrible thing or even an important thing since one story is just as good as another. What’s more, if a story is not important, if the story does not have value in and of itself, there can be nothing wrong with changing the story in certain spots, getting rid of a few characters throughout it, especially if their personalities and ideas do not gel with the current times, and trying to weave an entirely new story out of whole cloth.

This can explain why there has been really no attempt on the part of the lawful authorities to keep the memorials and monuments and statues up. Why risk the wrath of the mobs when the history attached to these memorials does not really matter?

The West has become more surely inundated with multiculturalism since the end of World War II. With the tragedies of the war fresh in mind and with the crimes of the twentieth century newly committed (the Holocaust, the growing awareness of the crimes of Communism [which were soon to be reinforced by Mao in China]) the world’s leaders wanted there to be peace and the idea was fed that if differences were not really that different, peace might have a chance to win the day. The body which was formed as the incarnation of this hope was the United Nations.

Stories and histories, though, are dangerous things to play with. If a story, or stories, are the center that gives meaning to a society and a country–a soul, as it were–the removal of these centers means that the soul of a country is sucked away. And an entity, a being with no soul is rightly called a monster.

 

Obliterating Our History

 

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Statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Google Images

 

There is a picture in my grandparents home which I have never seen. It shows my great-great uncle, Salvatore, a first generation immigrant to America from Sicily, wearing the black uniform of Mussolini’s fascists and giving the “Heil Hitler!” salute. Many people would find that offensive and evil for the simple reason that fascism is offensive because it is evil. I wish my uncle had not shown his initial support for the Axis powers; he did mothball the uniform permanently, after the United States entered the war and his son, my cousin, Sal, joined the paratroopers but it does not change the fact that he did wear the uniform and he gave the salute. As bad as his actions then were, captured forever by the photographer, I would never want that picture destroyed. Whatever his faults and vices, my great-great uncle, as part of my family, is  a part of me and his story is a part of my story now as well. To destroy that picture would be destroying a part of my own history, in a sense, a part of who I am.

Due to the riot between “antifa” fascists and white supremacist fascists in Charlottesville, there has come a new demand for the removal of any reminders of the Confederacy and the Civil War, particularly where these reminders stand on public ground. Even as remote a monument as that erected to the “Loyal Women of the Old South,” erected by the Missouri chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Kansas City, has felt the rabidity of the purge; after being vandalized, the city decided to take the 83 year old monument down, Councilman Jermaine Reed saying, “Confederate monuments are an outdated reminder of our country’s history of racism, exclusion, and violence…They have no place in a modern society.” This mentality has even invaded those on the right side of the political spectrum. Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of National Review, wrote that it was time to “mothball the confederate monuments,” first, because some figures, such as Jefferson Davis and Chief Justice Robert Tawny (of the infamous Dredd Scott decision) were not worthy of honor in such a public manner and, two, because if Confederate statues and memorials were going to used as rallying points by white supremacists, it was better for everyone if the monuments and memorials were retired to museums and the like. Matthew J. Franck echoed many of the same sentiments, saying in addition to the points that Mr. Lowry made, that while some of the men honored by the statues were perhaps good men, such as Robert E. Lee, the monuments themselves were totems of racism since many of them were erected during Reconstruction, when the “Lost Cause” narrative and Jim Crow laws began their lives. As such, regardless to whom they were dedicated, “these statues were meant to say to black Americans, in the voice of the unreconstructed white majority, ‘We’re back in charge, and don’t you forget it.'” According to Dr. Franck, it seems as if Confederate monuments themselves cause black Americans to feel unwanted and oppressed. This is not the first time that people on the right have expressed such sentiments either; two years ago, after Dylan Roof conducted his murderous attack and made the removal of the Confederate battle flag the cause de jour, radio personality Glenn Beck was swift to say that the flag should be brought down as it was the flag of a foreign and defeated country.

Conservatives who call for the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials, however, are inadvertently helping to destroy our own national history. While Freud may have said that sometimes a cigar was just a cigar, a public statue is, more often than not, not merely a statue but a totem, a cultural memory point. In my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, there is a bronze 7,200 pound statue of a Pony Express Rider, erected in 1940. The statue stands proudly in the entrance of the downtown, what used to be the heart of the town and it acts as a constant reminder that the Pony Express began its 18 month life on April 3, 1860 in St. Joseph. Even more than that, the stature symbolizes the intrepidness and the bravery of those Americans who became Pony Expressmen and, as such, casts an aurora of glory on the American spirit in general. As the plaques around the statue say, the 1,960 mile route possessed not only natural dangers, but the threat of bandits and Indians was a constant potential too. The danger was considered so great that the advertisements for riders in the Sacramento, California newspapers said that orphans were preferred. It took rare courage to sign up for the job. The statue in St. Joseph, dedicated to all the Expressmen, serves then as a cultural reminder of a unique piece of history, not just local but national. If that statue were removed, if it was taken away from the public eye, the story of the Pony Express and part of the history of St. Joseph would be lost, a great deal more than it has already. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the old adage goes. Now some people say (and have said) that memorials can serve the same function if they are simply placed in museums but this does not seem to be the case. Museums are wonderful places, sanctuaries to the past. Museums can also be, to quote Sir Flinders Petrie, very dangerous places. The danger comes from them being seen as only reliquaries to a past that is dead, a history that is interesting but unconnected to the modern age, a place to idle a rainy afternoon away and not a place where the dead can teach us. Given the disdain that many people today have towards the past due to their chronological snobbery, we cannot simply point people in the direction of the closest museum and expect them to be educated. In the same way, we cannot rely solely on books, especially during this paradoxical time of increased and expanded education and less educated people.

Removing monuments from public grounds also sends the Orwellian message that the history of a country, of a people, of a culture, is not fixed but can be changed and warped to suit the fancy of the latest fashion. Through this, a people cannot have an identity and without an identity, they cannot have a story; rather, they simply become playthings pushed around by the zeitgeist and the “enlightened ones”, whoever they may be at any given time.  There is a reason why Ii his 1984, Orwell said, “He who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.” Orwell understood that if the past and history are teachers, philosophy acted out on the stage of life (as our Founders believed and said), then the obliteration or twisting of the historical past will mold a people and a country into something else entirely. Just as Symes, the New Speak Dictionary man in Orwell’s novel, declares to Winston Smith that the Party will utterly control people’s minds through the iron fist of New Speak which will enable people to think only as the Party wants them to think, the same is true of history: change the earlier parts of the story and you inevitably change the rest of it. Do we really want to make this power a free for all, available to which ever group has the strongest will and the loudest voice? Conservatives especially should be adamant that such a power should not be given to any man or group least of all made public to the mobs of passion and fashion. To give one example: the Liberty Monument, one of the four memorials removed from New Orleans was originally erected to commemorate the Battle of Liberty Place which took place between the desegregated police force and the Crescent City White League. In 1932 a memorial plaque was added to the monument which did possesses overt racism but in 1993 the plaque was changed to read, “In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place…A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”

Exorcising Confederate memorials from the public does more than destroy the past, it also poisons and impoverishes ourselves. It poisons us because we are conditioned to view men automatically as either devils or angels. It’s true that some men can legitimately be seen as devils, since that is what they were; such men as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. to name recent and obvious examples. But their brotherhood in a luciferian league depends more on simply the possession of one vice. Hitler, for example, did not only preach racial superiority of Aryans, he also slaughtered six million Jews for that racial creed and then tried to enslave Europe through force of arms to his vision. Before such a judgment can be laid on such a figure though, the most committed examination must be made both honest and objective. If this is neglected in the height of passion, not only will the truth suffer but justice will be perverted as men, with flaws and virtues, will be castigated as demons, pure and simple. To take one example: P.G.T. Beauregard was not only a Confederate general but he was a native of New Orleans, and as Quin Hillyer has recalled, a civil engineer who practically invented the city’s streetcar system. Not only that, but at the same time as Beauregard was co-chairman of the committee that gave New Orleans its statue of Robert E. Lee, the former general was also fighting for the full intergration of black Americans into the public schools and spaces of the city as well as full voting rights. With such credentials why should New Orleans not honor him? Why should Americans in general not honor him? Removing such monuments impoverishes us because we rid ourselves of men who possessed qualities that should be honored and emulated. Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy but he was an honorable man who cared for his troops, loved his home, and, when the war ended, worked to bind the nation’s wounds, as Lincoln had hoped would happen. At the very least, his military prowess would be worthy of respect and remembrance. Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s right arm, not only fought for the South but taught his slaves how to read at a time when educating slaves was prohibited by Virginia law, risking punishment to do what he knew was right.

Some people, such as Dr. Franck, might think that all of this is mere beating around the bush. If these statues make our fellow citizens feel unwanted and inferior, then justice demands that they be removed. While this might be the impression that the media has given us, this is not the case. According to a recent NPR/PBS Marist poll, 44% of black Americans are in favor of keeping monuments to the Confederacy up; 65% of Hispanics agree. Last year, a poll conducted by Louisiana State University found the majority of black Americans in New Orleans and in Louisiana were opposed to the removal of the New Orleans Confederate monuments.  Even if these polls told the opposite, it would not justify removing our history. Nor would it remove the very real slippery slope that removing Confederate monuments would open up to us. Despite Dr. Franck’s assertion that removing Confederate monuments would not endanger other statues or memorials, such as to our Founders, we can no longer ask if the left will remove memorials to the Founders and other historical heroes but when. James Dukes, a pastor in Chicago, has called for the removal of an equestrian statue of George Washington; CNN’s Angela Rye said that statues to Washington and Jefferson all need to be removed; a statue of St. Junipero Sera was vandalized  in Los Angeles; and while the Lincoln Memorial was vandalized, a bust to Lincoln in Chicago was burned.

We Americans have been blessed with an astounding history, made by astounding people. It and they deserve to be honored in public. The nastier parts of our history need to be remembered as well to prevent us from repeating the past. Rather than allowing the cultural obliterators to erase our story, we should defend every part of it. It is a hill to die on.

 

Praising Without Understanding

 

Flag - Betsy Ross Picture 1776 002
Betsy Ross Sewing the American Flag. Image from Pinterest

A month ago, we were inundated with patriotic gestures and speeches for the 241st birthday of our country. At least, I wish that we had been inundated. I am hindered by the fact that I was born in 1988 from personally knowing what I might call “the far past” but I have what can only be described as a feeling, so strong that it might be a certainty, that there was more patriotic fervor in the past. The curse of every age is its futile search for the lost “golden age,” futile because there has never been a golden age in the sense that there never was a time when everything was perfect when the biggest concern was whether to eat meat once or twice a day. But, in another sense, some periods of the past were better in the sense that people, in general, had a clearer idea about reality, the realness and goodness of real things, as it were, which seeped its way into all different nooks and crannies of everyday life; my grandparents have told me of songs that are impossible to find now, in spite of the best Google and YouTube searches, of trips and traditions, and of the fact that, when they were growing up, their parents hardly ever locked the doors at night. In this same vein, patriotism seems to have burned brighter in the past with more people more clearly understanding or intuiting what their patriotism was and what it entailed and why it was important and good.

Independence Day still manages to bring out some patriotic vigor, however; but, it may not be as lofty as it was and it may not be as lofty as we should expect it to be. Many times, men who rise to speak on the occasion of Independence Day will give some passing mention to the events of 1776, the Declaration, and the members of the Continental Congress; more often than not, praise for the military and for the men and women in uniform will be given, as well it should. This last aspect was a major component of President Trump’s remarks this past fourth of July. It is not the fact that there are still many people who speak on Independence Day that is the problem; it is the fact that there seem to be less and less who actually understand what Independence Day is about. Understanding of the Founding seems to be losing amid the words of all the speeches.

Often in or around Independence Day,  or when discussing the Founding in general, certain themes will crop up. Taxes are one; occasionally, among the more read speakers, the Enlightenment will make an appearance, particularly in the form of John Locke and, maybe, from time to time, Montesquieu. It is not that these themes are false but that they are incomplete. A miniscule tax on tea was not the sole reason why thirteen different clocks worked to chime as one; it was the idea and love and history of the traditional rights of Englishmen (such as trial by jury, innocent till proven guilty, the sanctity of the person’s home) and the threat made against them by the British, such as the writs of assistance which allowed port officials to board any ship and enter any home without warrant, to search for smuggled contraband. We also forget the political-philosophical questions and debates which the colonies’ protests raised, one of which was where sovreignty lay; was it in the people, the king, Parliment, the king in Parliment? In the same way, while Enlightened thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu did have an influence on the revolutionary mind, of even greater weight was the tradition of Christianity and the Bible (which was the most cited work in the Revolutionary pamphlets) and the Classics–Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, Cincinnatus, Cato, Demosthenes, and Aristotle. We forget the mythological glue which tied these diverse traditions and influences together. But, on Independence Day, we mostly talk about freedom.

Freedom is a curious word, or at the least, a curious idea, especially in our own time. The less we actually have of it, the more we talk about it, and there is certainly plenty to talk about. Many inhabitants of the Right feel that their freedom is, even now, under assault; they feel in their bones that the endless parade of regulations, made by faceless bureaucrats, living in the bowels of D.C., the taxes gathered and used for some of the most ridiculous projects, and the level of intrusion that the high government now posseses over us, make us, in reality, far, far less free than our Founders intended. They speak of cutting regulations, cutting taxes, and cutting the power fo the federal government to program our lives and they tie all these desires and ideas together with the word freedom.

None of these desires are bad in themselves and the vices they seek to correct are nonetheless vices simply because some people may speak of them passionately. But this is not the whole picture, nor could it be the whole picture, even if it tried. It is only natural to want to be free from tyranny but the question then has to be asked: Why do you want to be free? We can’t just answer, “So that we can be free!” since it puts us in a circle of wanting to be free in order to be free which we would not need to be if we were already free to begin with. It is very true that our Founders desired and prayed for a system of government that was very much like the Great Pyramid of Giza, with the cental government the topmost and, because of that location, the weakest of the three divisions of political power–the local, the state and the federal. That was one reason for the strictures placed upon the federal government by the Constitution. But this was by far the only thing that the Founders desired. When Thomas Jefferson made mention of the inalienable (and natural) rights of men, he did not give an entire catalogue following, at least implicitly, Edmund Burke’s reasoning that an entire list of natural rights cannot be compiled due to their very nature. The three that Jefferson did list, however, did not mention low taxes or a small, federal government. His short list was much more basic, citing Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. There is an almost poetical progression or syllogism in the order of the three rights: Life is, of course, the most basic natural right since, without it, we cannot enjoy any of the others, including Liberty; Liberty is required so that we can have the movement necessary to pursue our happiness; and, of course, the pursuit of happiness is necessary to have a chance to gain happiness.

This progression leads, naturally, to the asking of what, exactly is happiness? People of our time have a very subjective idea of happiness with most thinking and/or believing that happiness is doing whatever makes you happy, as long as you do not harm anyone else. This, though, is not what the Founders thought or believed. For the Founders, happiness was dependent on Virtue. Virtue, when it is thought of today, is often confused with “niceness” and a person who is nice is often cited, explicitly or implicitly, as a virtuous man. But, again, the word has suffered from a watering down, or, perhaps more correctly, a hollowing out caused, ultimately, by our own laziness. In the time of the Revolution and the Founders, Virtue was not “being nice” but was a unity of the classical virtues of ancient Greece and Rome–justice, honor, patriotism, to name a few–and the Christian virtues, such as the faith, hope and charity. It was this union of what was best in the pagan past and its fulfillment in Christianity that constituted Virtue, and it was this Virtue which was deemed necessary, not just for social order but for a man’s own personal happiness.  George Washington, in his first inaugural address in 1789, declared to the Congress:

…there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

For Washington, the idea of happiness–real, deep, and genuine, contrary to merely pleasure or satisfaction–was impossible without Virtue. His vice-president, John Adams, believed the same. Adams, who had a life-long habit of thinking and writing on government and political philosophy, declared that Liberty, that second link in the Declaration’s syllogism, was impossible without religion and morality, as they were the only principles upon which Liberty could securely stand. What was more, Adams declared that morality depended on religion since it was religion that taught morality and because all morality started from first principles which were supplied by religion. The John Jay echoed the same principles when he said in a letter to John Murray, written in 1818, that, “The moral or natural law was given by the Sovereign of the universe to all mankind; with them it was co-eval and with them it will be co-existent. Being founded upon infinite wisdom and goodness on essential right, which never varies, it can require no amendment or alteration.” We all realize, in some form or another, that wisdom and goodness are good things–we all want goodness and we all want wisdom (even if we do not realize it). Since the law written by the “Sovereign of the universe” was based on infinite wisdom and goodness and since we were made in His image (as John Adams noted) it was only by following this moral law that true happiness could be found.

This belief that virtue and happiness were linked irrevocably together was not a new idea, plucked from the Founders from the clouds; it went back to some of (if not the) greatest thinkers of history, such as Aristotle and Cicero. The Founders simply had the wisdom and the humility to see that these giants were right and, from that point, the Founders attempted to build upon the shoulders of giants. This entire line of thought comes to head in the words of Mirabeau Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, who said, ” Virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed…so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger.”

There is much gold to be found in the words of the Founders. At the very least, there is such a high possibility of gold, that their words and ideas and arguments should be examined with the utmost detail and care in order that we could prosper from their accumulated wisdom. And yet, while their thoughts concerning freedom are well known, their thoughts on the foundations of that freedom are more often than not, ignored. At the most, they may be quoted from time to time and repeated amongst some group or another, but their application leaves much to be desired. Perhaps, more than the speeches and the fireworks and the clichéd speeches, the best honor that can be given to the Founders, both on Independence Day and all the days before and after, is the pursuit of happiness as they knew it to be.

The Tyranny of Nothing

The Great Eye
The Eye of Sauron

Many people suffer from chronological snobbery; they believe that because today is part of the 21st century and sixty years ago was part of the 20th century, today must be better and more enlightened than sixty years ago by the very fact of being today and not sixty years ago. What people believed and thought in the past is of no consequence to us today, aside from providing us with a whipping boy which will enable us to pat ourselves on the back in self-congratulations that we are better than our ancestors. The problem is that the past, more often than not, proves itself to be right. Miley Cyrus demonstrated this rule, again, when she declared in an interview last week that she considers herself to be “genderless” and “ageless.” She also said that, “I’m just a spirit soul, not divided by human being, even animals…There’s no me and them and there’s no us and you. I just want to be nothing.”

It was G.K. Chesterton who said that there are not so many new ideas as there are old mistakes, and this is the principle that Cyrus demonstrated in spades. Contrary to what some might think, these ideas that Cyrus expressed are not new or daring or provocative but are, instead, quite old and tried. The idea that the real “me” is some non-corporal spirit, a ghost in the machine of the body goes back to the sixteenth century where it was postulated by the French philosopher, Renee Descartes. Descartes arrived at this dualism (the idea that body and soul are two completely separate things) from his conclusion, “I think, therefore, I am.” Descartes came to this conclusion because of all the things in the world, he believed that the only thing that he could be utterly sure existed was himself and he could be sure of this fact because he could think. Since thinking was proof of existence, Descartes held that there was a deep divide between body and soul, contra Aristotelians, Thomists and Aristotelian-Thomists, who held to what is termed hylomorphism, the idea that the human person is not just a body and not just a soul but a body with a soul. As for Cyrus’s claim that “there’s no me and them and there’s no us and you,” such an idea comes from the ancient Greeks, specifically the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, who held that everything in reality is made from the mixing of an infinite number of primary elements. In this way, a blade of grass, a cup of water, a tiger-lily, a pickup truck, an octopus, and me at the most fundamental level are made of the same things; only the ratios are different. There also seems to be a whiff of Buddhism to this expressed desire from Cyrus, reminiscent of their desire for Nirvana, where everyone will lose their personal identity and be one.

If Cyrus were an actual pre-Socratic philosopher or an actual Buddhist, her expressions, while still wrong, might not be as bad. Given that she is neither, her words take on not just a silliness but a darkness that is best incapsulated in the words, “I want to be nothing.” There is a deep and sinister quality to a person wishing that they would cease to exist. If life is a good thing–and all sane people would have to agree that it is because, without it, how can we achieve the Good which all the great philosophers spoke–what can the wish for nothing, oblivion be? It is not a wish for death, for her spirit identity to be free from its material confines since Cyrus specifically claims that she wants to be nothing. That is the true terror of her words: Miley Cyrus, full of smiles and bubbliness, wants to be non-existent. Her words are a truer condemnation of contemporary culture than any analysis. How uneducated, how hollowed, how bored must a person become that non-existence seems to be an actually desirable end? C.S. Lewis once said that we laugh at honor and then are surprised to find traitors in our midst. Lewis’s principle applies here as well: we laughed at beauty, at truth, at home and family, at romance and adventure, at glory and honor, at God and religion. We were told, and continue to be told, that if we laugh hard enough, these ideas will go away and leave us to finally be completely unrestrained and completely free. And yet, almost sixty years after laughter became the sophisticated thing to do, we are bored; bored to the extent that now people actively wish that they would stop existing to be relieved of their boredom.  It turns out that hunting beauty, truth, and imagination from the world leaves the world a barren place that leaves us exposed to every element and storm.

That is the reason for Cyrus’s boredom and the boredom of our culture as a whole. But there is a result from this radical ennui and that is chaos. That might seem like a leap but, as Aristotle pointed out, small errors in the beginning lead to great errors in the future. If Miley Cyrus says that her identity is contained in the words “ageless” and “genderless” then this same conclusion must be a legitimate choice for others. So, already then, this is not a feeling that is contained to Cyrus alone, nor can it be. But what follows from this feeling of being ageless and genderless? For one thing, this feeling forces a serious person to ask: What am I? As humans, we exist in time; time is of such a fundamental part of our existence that we cannot conceive of a state of existence without time. If we are “ageless” though, or at least claim to perceive ourselves as ageless, time can have no meaning for us and one of the primary anchors that keeps us secured to reality is untethered. It is important to realize that ageless is not the same as immortal. Immortal simple means that one does not age, even though one is still passing through time; ageless, on the other hand, implies that one is outside of time itself, having no sense of or reference to past, present or future. But, since we cannot actually conceive of a state like this, what will making that claim mean for us? The same applies with the concept of genderlessness. If I am not a man or a woman–a very hard conclusion to come to, barring illness, since the fact of maleness or femaleness is rooted deep within us physically and metaphysically– and if I am not even any of the countless new “genders” that are being created and discarded then again, the question of what I am comes round to face us. The only logic answer is that I am nothing but being genderless and ageless, at least in the minds of Cyrus and others like her, cannot be the two methods by which nothingness is achieved since, by her own admittance, Cyrus sees herself as already being ageless and genderless and yet she still craves to be nothing. The answer to the question then, it seems, is that an individual thing–not a person anymore–must create its own essence exactly as Sartre said.

This leads to own shop of horrors. If I must create myself then I can recreate myself whenever I wish. In fact, I must recreate myself as my feelings dictate because my feelings are bound to change (assuming, of course, that I still have human feelings since I, in creating and recreating myself, can no longer be human). From that, comes a host of consequences. For one thing, the moral law or Tao, as C.S. Lewis termed it, that stodgy fossil of the past that refuses to limp quietly into the sunset, despite the numerous beatings that it has taken and continues to take, becomes nonexistent. Philosophers ranging from Aristotle and Aquinas to Plato and Lewis, have all argued that the moral law, or Tao, is written on the heart of every person. It is what we can’t not know, as J. Budziskwi, has described it. But, if the Tao is written on the human heart, can it still be there if one decides, through the process of “recreating” himself, that he is no longer human? Some will react to this with cheers and champagne; the moral, natural law is finally dead and there will be freedom! But, if there is no Tao, no standard, than anything possible. In his time, Lewis said gave the example that if there was no universal, moral and natural law, then there was no way to disparage Nazism for its evil since, if there was no standard, there could be no deviation from the standard and, as such, there could be no evil. The same is true today: if there is no standard of morality, then how can there be such a thing as racism or hatred in general? Your calling my views or my behavior hateful, is merely your exercising power over me because you are stronger than I. That is a fine arrangement for you, provided that the tables are not turned and I become the stronger party able to enforce my ideas upon you. Another result,  is that if there are no persons, there can be no relationships. A relationship exists between persons because it is assumed that the persons will be able to discover each other, which means that there is a someone to discover. But, in the process of recreation, the person cannot be discovered since there is no person to begin with and because the thing that you thought you knew at the beginning of the week might have completely changed by the end of the week. Friendship is impossible, as are any of the four loves.

In a world of this sort, where relationships are impossible, and so are friends and families, where there is no chaos because there is no law because there is no Tao, only a Leviathan, as imagined by Thomas Hobbes will be able to keep order. Ironically, the very false freedom that comes from the abolition of the Tao which people chase, leads to the very tyranny which they believe the Tao will impose upon them. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Sauron the Enemy says that there is no life in the Void…only death. There can be no life in nothingness either.

 

 

When Billie Joe McAllister Jumped Off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Note: Due to some malignant configuration of the stars, I have been suffering computer trouble for the last month which has meant that this little piece, celebrating (if that’s the right word) the 50th anniversary of Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge is three weeks late. Hopefully, getting this post up will finally mean that my luck with my laptop is about to change. 

 

Bobbie GentryThere is something in the human heart that loves mystery. Oddities and coincidences, unsolved murders and disappearances, sightings of sea monsters, UFOs and Elvis, are always guaranteed things. This has been true from the beginning: the first sighting of a UFO took place in ancient Egypt and the legend of Atlantis was started by the Greek philosopher, Plato. So in the summer of 1967, it’s not surprising that here in the United States, the hot topic of conversation was not the acceleration of the Vietnam War or the threat of the long, hot summer, but what Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Fifty years later, people are still wondering and also puzzling over the fact why he then committed suicide. The amazing thing about all this speculation is that Billie Joe–at least the one remembered–never existed except in a song entitled, “Ode to Billie Joe” which was written and performed by a relatively unknown singer named Bobbie Gentry.

When Gentry recorded “Ode” on July 10, 1967, her solo debut, the twenty-three year old Mississippi native (born Roberta Lee Streeter) had been playing in California clubs and Vegas shows and had recorded two duets with Jody Reynolds. Stars like Bob Hope and Hoagy Carmichael had seen her and encouraged her but a break had not yet come. Her luck changed with “Ode to Billie Joe” which captured something dark and exquisite from the start:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day,

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay

And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat

And Mama hollered out the back door y’all remember to wipe your feet

Then she said I got some news this mornin’, from Choctow Ridge,

Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

From the substance of the first five lines and from the general tempo, a suicide at the end of the first stanza is the last thing that someone would expect. The beginning of the song almost hypnotically puts you into a false sense of security. The choice of words–“choppin'” and “y’all”–helps, by setting you firmly in the deep South, or at least, what people think of as the deep South. By grounding the song in that particular place, the heat and languidity of the South–the sleepiness of the Delata–is made present. Only gentry’s guitar–ominous in its relentless and, in itself, innocuous tune–and her own husky, slightly graveled voice lets it be known that something is not quite right.

At the dinner table, the nameless narrator’s family starts discussing Billie Joe’s death. The narrator’s brother, in particular, finds it hard to believe:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe

Put a frog down my back at the carroll County picture show

And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?

I’ll have another piece of apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctow Ridge

And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

With the rising of the story, the other instrument pieces–two violins and four cellos–make themselves known. The cellos’s three note descent at the end of the fourth line adds a good amount of foreboding, an anticipation of sorts before the reveal of the last two lines, something that is repeated in every other stanza as well. The narrator’s mother has noticed something else:

And mama said to me, child, what’s happened to your appetite?

I’ve been cooking all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite

That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today

Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctow Ridge

And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

And there is one of the greatest mysteries in song lyrics–what did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge? The song never explained. The unanswered question didn’t stop “Ode to Billie Joe” from becoming an unexpected by dramatic hit. In August of 1967 “Ode” took the #1 spot on the music billboard, ousting the Beatles’s “All You Need is Love” and stayed there for three weeks (being the longest #1 of 1967, clocking in at four minutes thirty-four seconds). Today, “Ode to Billie Joe” still is ranked #418 on Rolling Stone’s list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time. One of the things that makes “Ode” timeless is that it is lightening in a bottle. The lyrics are Southern and set up the scene but are not so regional that the listener is left scratching his head over their meaning. The minimalism of the music helps in this regard too–Gentry’s guitar and the six strings are all that there is. When arranger, Jimmie Haskell, asked producer, Kelly Gordon, what instruments to put into the song, Gordon told him to only put in the minimum since, “No one will ever hear it anyway,” the thinking that had “Ode” put on the B-side of the original record, where the lesser song was put. Compare “Ode” to “Mississippi Delta” the A-side song; guitar, some bass and drums and even a harmonic make the song very busy while words such as “apple pan dowdy,” “scuppernons,” and “friderliss-farce-nickery-john-querry-quan” are so regional as to leave the listener in the dark. “Ode’s” lightening in a bottle status is also shown by the failure of any other singer to come close to re-creating what Gentry made in the summer of ’67. Not that they haven’t tried–Sheryl Crowe, Sinead, Nancy Wilson, Joe Tex, Tammy Wynette–have all recorded their own versions of “Ode” and none of come close to the original; without Gentry and her Southern, deep gravel voive and her earnest, even tempo singing, the song lost a lot of its power. Funnily enough, though, even Gentry couldn’t catch the lightening twice; when she song the song live with Ray Charles, the the slow, even tempo and the minimalist  instruments were replaced with a jazz beat for Charles’s piano. It was a version that definitely felt like a race The ode demanded that Bobbie Gentry sing it, but it also demanded that Gentry sing it like she had in 1967. The song was the perfect combination of voice, tempo, and music.

But what makes “Ode to Billie Joe” so timeless? It goes deeper than the combination. Like Bing’s “White Christmas,” “Ode” taps into a human emotion, in this case, curiosity and love of the unknown Throughout its five stanzas, the song actually incorporates several different mysteries. The first, of course, is what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. A lot of theories have been proposed–a baby, an engagement ring, a doll, a draft card. No solid answer has come, though. The only source for such a solid answer would be Bobbie Gentry herself but, it seems, she is just as mystified as the rest of us. At one point, she said that it wasn’t important what was thrown off the bridge; on a flight to Europe, she said that a baby was the only possible answer; still later, she confessed that she wasn’t sure, finding herself in the same position as Raymond Chandler when he was asked who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. The reason why Billie Joe jumped seems tied to what was thrown into the river before but, again, without knowing the first, only speculation can give answer to the second. Speculation, in fact, has abounded, with with whole websites springing up to answer the mystery. Everyone from Papa to Brother Taylor have been named as the culprits, as well as racism (on the premise that either Billie Joe or the narrator was black) and “homophobia” (based on the idea that either Billie Joe was a girl [even though Billie Joe is referred to as “he” several times in the song] or that he was a he but was actually attracted to men (which was the direction taken by Max Baer, Jr.’s very predictable 1976 move, Ode to Billie Joe). Everyone has their own theory but, when the composer herself says that there really no answer, what is left but “conspiracy mode” where everything is up for grabs? The very identity of the narrator, nameless and faceless throughout the entire ode, weaves itself into both of these mysteries, enhancing both and making itself its own mystery as well. It didn’t have to be that way. Contrary to what some say, Gentry did originally have a different opening stanza:

People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore

There’s a lot o’ speculatin’, she’s not actin’ like she did before

Some say she knows more than she’s willin’ to tell

But she stays quiet and a few think that it’s just as well

No one really knows what went on up on Chowctow Ridge

The day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

It’s certainly not bad but so much of the mystery is inadvertently revealed that a lot of the power is seeped away.

The South’s natural mysticism adds icing to the cake. The South is more romantic, Gothic and mysterious than, say, Mid-West Kansas. The South has voodoo queens, Scottian chivalry, moons over bayous, and the distinct feeling that it was, in a different time, an almost alien place. The tempo and music, again, infuse “Ode” with that natural, Southern mystique and place it inside that tradition of the “mysterious South.”

And then, of course, there’s the whole mystery of Bobbie Gentry herself. After the success of “Ode to Billie Joe” Gentry went on to record a number of records, she sang eighteen duets with Glen Campbell, appeared on the Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash’s show and even had her own show on television. And then, in 1979, she disappeared–no more songs, no television appearances, no interviews. Although she has apparently been sighted frequently around Los Angeles, no beside a handful of select people, knows where she lives. The situation is perfect, almost as if Judge Crater had written 95% of a brilliant mystery novel before his disappearance.

All of these mysteries tie into, perhaps, the greatest allure of the song; “Ode to Billie Joe” is a living fossil, causing the same reaction in many people they they would receive in seeing a T-Rex lumber across the road. All the elements that make it timeless are practically non-existent in music today. The tempo and minimalist music have given away to frenzied beats, electronic noise, chords and creaming. In place of a girl, sitting on a stool and singing, our singers now have to be acrobats. In place of an eerie and engaging story, we have emotions dealing with break-ups, despair, cynicism, and drugs. If Bing and Doris Day have no place in our society today because of their optimism, innocence and deep felt emotions (as compared to angst) Gentry has no place with her mystery and darkness:

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe

And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo

There was a virus going ’round; papa caught it and he died last spring

And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctow Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

We don’t write songs like that anymore. maybe because, in large part, we don’t believe in mystery anymore, don’t believe that unforeseen and tragic events can strike us from out of a blue sky. maybe because all of our music now is uniform so a song that comes from Mississippi, and not just written by someone originally from Mississippi, can’t find a place by the fire anymore. All the more reason why we should remember when Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.