Friday, March 3, 2017

The Devil and Hilary Mantel

First Things
35 East 21st Street
Sixth Floor
New York  NY  10010

Friday, March 3, 2017

To the Editor: 

As I expect thoughtful engagement from First Things, I was surprised and confused to read what Patricia Snow herself called “psychoanalytic criticism” (perhaps the least thoughtful style of literary analysis) in “The Devil and Hilary Mantel” (February 2017). Surprised, that is, until I read Snow’s description of William Tyndale’s protestant doctrines, all of which have found a home in historic presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith: “Rarely has blasphemy or heresy been so gently proclaimed.”

Protestant readers of First Things expect and accept uncritical endorsement of Roman Catholic conciliar doctrine as the price of admission. I will be gravely disappointed if that price is increased to include shallow insults of protestant conciliar doctrine (especially when packaged in psychoanalytic criticism).

grace and peace,
The Presbyterian Curmudgeon

Monday, February 27, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

Mrs. Curmudgeon and I took in an early matinee showing of I Am Not Your Negro this morning, filmmaker Raoul Peck's presentation of the thought of James Baldwin. 

Content aside, it's a masterpiece the intensity of which drew me in, as a viewer, in a way which I don't remember experiencing since the much and well-deservedly praised Whiplash. For me, however, the nearest point of cinematic comparison is 2003's American Splendor. Neither film can be neatly categorized, and both, while not entirely new in style, present a model which we can only hope other filmmakers will imitate. American Splendor used actors and the real people they portrayed, along with elements of cartooning, to present something (entirely moving) between a biography and an autobiography of Harvey Pekar. I Am Not Your Negro is only nominally a documentary; in fact, it's an essay in film form.

That it comes off as a unified and incisive essay on race relations in these United States is Raoul Peck's personal triumph, since he edited it together from a number of Baldwin's published works, notes towards a never-completed book, and footage of James Baldwin in debate, lectures, and even an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. That last, in particular, made me wonder how anyone could not fall in love with Baldwin's mind. Completely off the cuff, in rejoinder to a white academic, he improvises a speech marked by symmetry and repetition of key phrases, and which crescendoes to a shattering climax. It's a feat of rhetorical jazz which I've rarely had the privilege to encounter.

James Baldwin wanted to use Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to tell the story of the Negro in America (and I wish I could figure out a way to mention his brilliant analysis of the role of Sidney Poitier in 1960s American cinema), but his true central thesis emerges most clearly in the film's final moments. To Baldwin, the Negro is a concept constructed by whites who sought to deny the reality that America is not composed of black and white people, but of one people with a literally shared and commingled blood. He posited that the challenge for whites, and implicitly for blacks as well, is to recognize that truth, that we are not other to one another, but rather are one. As Baldwin says, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A word to the historically ignorant

Perhaps you, like I, have heard it asserted that yesterday was the first time ever a Vice-President broke a tie vote in the U.S. Senate to confirm a Cabinet nominee.

To which I can only say, balderdash and folderol! First time ever, my foot!

That is precisely the determinative plot point in Advise and Consent! (The film version, at least. I think the book had somewhat different conclusion.) What are they teaching in high school civics classes these days?

Oh, wait. There are no high school civics classes these days.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

One reason we got where we are

I heard a pristine example of everything that is wrong with our federal government today on NPR's Morning Edition. Host David Greene interviewed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concerning an amicus brief she and other former officials have filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to continue the restraining order against Great Leader's ban on entry by travelers from seven nations. 

Greene noted that Albright's objections were political, not legal: that is, while Albright concedes the argument that a President of these United States can take the action Great Leader has, she and her amicus friends think it profoundly unwise. Fair enough, so far as that goes. In a free country, a citizen has every right to think his or her leaders profoundly unwise. (I make a hobby of doing so.) In the interview, Greene made the obvious point that courts are empowered to rule on points of law, not on the wisdom of policy choices. That's when things took a truly appalling turn.

In response, Albright asserted that she is not a lawyer, but hopes that the Court will continue the restraining order because the ban makes for bad policy. Now, I'm not a lawyer either, but having a high-school education, I know that courts ought not and must not make political decisions.

In a little more than six minutes, Albright opens a window into the mindset of our nation's ruling elites. To them, we are governed not by laws, but by men. The simplest way government by men can be executed is by seizing the executive branch and the unconstitutionally dictatorial powers now routinely conceded to the President. But if one is displeased by the policies pursued by that autocrat, one can call upon the courts to act in a similarly autocratic, lawless manner.

For Albright and her ilk, it would seem the problem is not that Great Leader is an autocratic thug: it's that he's not their thug.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


My essay "Memorials," on the sacraments, is currently featured at The Daily Genevan.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump fires acting Attorney General

That was the news when I woke up this morning.

Nixon was in his second term when he launched the Saturday Night Massacre. Great Leader hasn't even completed his second week as President of these United States.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The end of the beginning of the end

As this blog's header indicates, I believe the American Republic was lost some time ago, succeeded by a serial imperium. Nonetheless, much of my hope for the Republic's restoration rested on the fact that her institutions and customs survived, even if in a vestigial form. It wasn't that the Republic had come to an end so much as her end had begun. I fear history will mark today as the end of that beginning of the end.

Every time I hear the phrase "peaceful transition of power," I think of T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
As Pete Spilakos, political columnist at the First Things website, once noted, Mr. Trump's campaign promises were a blend of surrealism and statism. Other candidates were running for president (admittedly, a presidency with unconstitutionally expanded powers); Mr. Trump openly ran for dictator. We shouldn't be surprised if he turns out to be one. I, for one, will be surprised if even the vestigial remnants of the Republic survive much longer.

Today's inauguration makes Nat Hentoff's recent death all the sadder for American patriots. Interestingly, Richard John Neuhaus (also of First Things) died eight years ago, similarly just before the inauguration of a president he would have opposed; I remember Peter Leithart writing that the Obama years would be all the harder for the absence of Neuhaus's mordant wit. I'm already tired of opposing Trump: I need someone with Nat Hentoff's boundless capacity for outrage over unconstitutional perfidy to stoke my own waning embers of protest.

Two recent eulogies for Hentoff on the First Things website both stated that we shall never see his like again. Messrs. Doino and Smith are probably right. Nonetheless, I hope we shall. Even if the American Republic can't have Nat Hentoff anymore, we need many more of his like.

(To the left, an old photo of Nat Hentoff and his son Nick, just prior to the beginning of his legal career, enjoying a pipe together.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Minor Miracle by Marilyn Nelson

This is the second time this poem appeared in my feed since subscribing to The Poetry Foundation's Poem of the Day podcast. As a poem, it's not much, not even as blank verse. But as a testimony we all need to hear, especially in these dark days, it's something else.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nat Hentoff

You know the day is inevitable. Since it's been three months since he last published his column, I suspected the end was nearer than when he first enlisted one of his son's help in writing that column. Still, my heart sank when I read news of his death on Saturday.

I started my newspaper reading on the funny pages. Eventually, I noticed there was always a cartoon on the editorial page. Herblock introduced me to politics, and the Washington Post columnists continued my education. Back then, Nat Hentoff's "Sweet Land of Liberty" was a regular feature, and from him I learned how to read the Constitution as a strict constructionist. More importantly, I learned from him how to adhere to one's principles.

Although an atheist, Hentoff had a religion: America. He loved our country, and he loved it because of the principles on which it was founded. Amongst those principles is the unalienable right to life, and so he opposed abortion, despite the chagrin of many of his so-called-liberal colleagues.

Nat Hentoff was one of the very few people whose disagreement made me question my own beliefs. Generally, a person states his or her disagreement and one nods politely before moving on with one's life. Especially when it came to the Constitution, I knew I had to have very good reasons to disagree with him: following Hentoff's lead, I realized that my strict constructionist read of the First Amendment required an equally strict constructionist read of the Second Amendment, no matter how skeptical I continue to be regarding the putative virtues of a heavily armed populace.

For those of us for whom worship of these United States poses a serious temptation to violate the First and Second Commandments, Nat Hentoff was a chief apostle and unwavering conscience.

And he produced albums for Charles Mingus. How cool is that?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Today's breakfast

Medium burger on rye, topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, over-easy egg, and country gravy.

This is a cry for help.