Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Monday, December 5, 2016

Reading and Writing Makes you Liberal

According to Stephen King, anyway.

He suggests that people who are well-read would be somehow immune to Donald Trump's crude and vague use of language. I wonder how many millions of Trump voters were highly literate?

He also dismisses non-readers as people who get their knowledge of the world from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Stephen King is a genius and I've happily lost myself in many of his books; he has that primary gift of a story-teller, that the worlds he creates have a solidity and a reality of their own, which has nothing to do with how realistic or plausible they might be. 

But quite a few of the things he says here irritates me. He lists off a few names of contemporary writers of literary fiction, and suggests ordinary Americans are semi-illiterate for knowing nothing about them. Why should they? What's so great about literary fiction, particularly contemporary literary fiction?

I don't know what makes people liberal or conservative, but I'm pretty sure it's more elusive than whether or not a person is an enthusiastic reader.

All my life I've felt ill-read. I can hardly ever remember 'devouring' a book. I have never felt the inclination to read for hours. I share King's view on the importance of reading, but I think there are many different sorts of reader, and I certainly don't agree that reading (by itself) necessarily inclines you towards any particular view of the world.

This is Reassuring

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that Catholic teaching on Communion for the divorced and remarried has not changed, and cannot change.

The permanence of Catholic doctrine is the Faith's single greatest 'selling point' in modern society. If that is undermined, everything is undermined.

The enemies of the Faith realise this-- that is why they are always trying to convince people that changes in discipline (such as clerical celibacy) or plurality of opinions amongst theologians before a doctrine was infallibly proclaimed (for instance in the case of the Immaculate Conception) are changes in doctrine.

'Mercy' that undermines the authority of the Church, or that creates confusion and ambiguity, is not mercy at all.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Some Reasons I'm Watching "Supergirl"

1) Because we recently switched to Sky TV, from an old and financially crippling contract with UPC/Virgin, and the deal includes Sky Go, which lets me watch past episodes of TV shows on my laptop and smartphone. It's pretty nifty.

2) Because, even though I think the contemporary obsession with superheroes is rather infantile, superhero stories have some virtues. One is that they are usually old-fashioned in both storytelling and morality. They generally eschew the shades of grey and anti-heroes which are so prevalent elsewhere. In terms of narrative, they usually have a simple 'quest' storyline, and don't go in for non-linear storytelling or endless atmosphere-building shots.

For this reason I find myself watching more superhero films (and now, TV) than I would like. I wish there were more good old-fashioned stories outside that genre, but there's not.

Also, superhero movies (like science fiction movies) usually look great.

3) Because Supergirl herself is adorkable, to use a nice portmanteau word coined by TV Tropes. At last, an action heroine who is not angry or bitter or out for revenge against men. It's refreshing. (At first, Supergirl is trying to emerge from Superman's shadow. But that seems fair enough, and she's over it by the second series.)

4) It's true that the show is is quite politically correct. But then, isn't almost all TV these days? Superheroes are always presented as symbolic of 'minorities', and all 'minorities' are presumed to be the same-- whether that minority has to do with skin colour, belief system, sexual behaviour or delusion regarding gender. Aliens (like Supergirl) are regarded with suspicion in the show's fictional world, and this is made the occasion for all kinds of left-wing messages. (Which is not to say that "we should be tolerant of difference" isn't a good moral in itself-- it is, although it can obviously be misapplied, and routinely is.)

The more blatant a piece of fiction's ideology is, the less it bothers me. A couple of years ago I read a young adult's horror novel called Gallows Hill by Lois Duncan. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was blatantly pro-New Age and anti-conservative Christian, but that didn't bother me-- I even enjoyed how hammy it was about it.

Apparently one of the characters in the Supergirl comic book was made black for the TV show. I don't care about that. I don't care what colour or sex the characters in a story are. I haven't seen the new Ghostbusters movie, but the premise of all-female Ghostbusters is fine by me.

Another of the prominent characters is a lesbian. Well, homosexuality is a feature of our time, and entertainment can't ignore it.

5) I watched the first episode on a plane, and that makes me feel strangely invested in it-- even nostalgic for it. Watching a movie or a TV show on a plane is a very unique experience. (I'm told you can't qualify 'unique'. Phooey!) 

Superhero comics were not a feature of my childhood. Not that I didn't read comics. I loved comics. But I read British comics; Battle (war stories), Transformers, Eagle (adventure and science fiction), and Roy of the Rovers (soccer). My knowledge of superheroes was limited to toys, the Adam West Batman TV series (and I had no idea it was supposed to be self-parody) and occasional annuals. (I did have a Spider-Man annual, composed of one long story, which I read quite often). 

But the whole superhero phenomenon-- the fact that there were dozens of these characters, maybe even hundreds, and complex fictional worlds devoted to each one-- passed me by.

I can remember, towards the end of my childhood, my mother gave me some American superhero comic-books she'd bought in Dublin city centre-- the first ones I'd read (and the last, come to think of it). They actually disturbed me. There were letters from readers (obviously adults) which compared the storylines to various stories in the news and discussed them like they were Shakespeare plays. This is a bit weird, I thought.

Generally, I think superhero entertainments are OK as long as they don't take themselves too seriously. After that, it does indeed get weird. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Retracting the Retraction (Sort of)

Recently, in my blog post 'Retractions and Reassessments' (the fruit of a very great deal of thought), a post in which I reassessed many of my previously stated views, I had this comment to make on nationalism:
Then again, there is my many blog posts about globalization and cultural nationalism.

I declared war on globalization and the cultural homogenization I perceived in the world. But, seen from the view of Eternity-- which is really the only view worth taking-- what difference does this make?

Our purpose in this world is to get to Heaven and to take as many people with us as we can. Our political, cultural and social goals should flow from that. "Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things, but so few are needed-- indeed, only one." (Luke 10:41-42.)

Again, I'm not suggesting we should all become utterly otherworldly, or cease to take pleasure in our national heritages, or cease to preserve them-- or to preserve other secular institutions that we cherish. But the salient point is how much of an effort, how much focus this demands. If it takes up an extraordinary amount of our time and effort, I think it has become an idol-- and, indeed, I think cultural nationalism (and even more political nationalism) has very often become an idol. I admit that it has been an idol to me.

I must admit that, even more recently, I have been feeling that this was an over-reaction.

Here is the thing; I can't really help being an Irish nationalist. Indeed, I am not only an Irish nationalist but an English nationalist, a French nationalist, an American nationalist, etc. etc.

The word 'home', I believe, is the most powerful word in the English language.

In our time, we are seeing a quite amazing sea-change in world politics, where national populations are reasserting the importance of national sovereignty, national identity, traditions, roots, and so forth, in the face of political, media and entertainment elites who tell them that a world without borders, indeed the dissolution of any kind of fixed identity, is the ideal-- and who have told them this for decades, even generations. I am amazed this is happening-- although I often hoped there would be such a reaction, I tended to assume it would be decades in the future (or even longer), if ever.

I can't hide the fact that I am entirely in sympathy with this 'populism'-- indeed, that few public events (if any) gave me more joy than Brexit, whatever its short-term implications might be.

I think this sympathy is rooted so deeply in my soul that I couldn't eradicate it if I wanted to. I think it goes right back to my childhood of loving legends, fantasies and science-fiction stories where the heroes travel from island to island, or planet to planet, or kingdom to kingdom, each one with its own government, culture, society and customs. I dread a global village with every fibre of my being. 

Are there dangers in this reaction? I'm sure there are. Tribalism can be explosive. I'm certainly not aligning myself with every populist party that is rearing its head-- although, if I was English, I have little doubt I would vote UKIP.

How does this tally with my stated view in that blog post, that our Faith is 'the one thing is needful'? I still believe that. Indeed, if ever my Irish nationalism is in conflict with my Catholicism, my Catholicism will always take priority. The spiritual brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the human race is far more important than our national and ethnic differences.

Furthermore, my Irish nationalism is inescapably Catholic, rather than secular or non-sectarian.

Having said that my Catholicism takes priority, I should add that I don't necessarily defer to the Irish bishops, or even to Church spokesmen in general, when they speak on matters of politics, society or economics in a way that is neither binding nor rooted in Catholic tradition and Catholic doctrine.

Here is a good article about the tendency of the contemporary Catholic Church to back supranational institutions, and the desirability of rethinking this approach. (The tedious and arbitrary wrangling over the terms 'nationalism' and 'patriotism' can be ignored. I don't know any nationalist who claims that his nation is superior to others or deserves absolute loyalty.)

Have I reached my 'final destination' when it comes to this subject? Maybe not. Maybe I will continue to oscillate on this matter until the day I die. But I'm pretty sure that, at heart, I will always be an Irish nationalist.

Heaven is our home-- but perhaps we need an image of that home on earth.

Oh Dear...

Staffless libraries coming to Ireland.

Or so the article would have you believe. As a matter of fact, the libraries will be unstaffed only outside of staffed hours.

I'm obviously not so naive that I don't see that this could be a first step to libraries that are permanently unstaffed, or that have a skeleton crew staff. At the same time, nobody is entitled to a job. If the technology is there and the user experience is not so bad that there is a genuine outcry from the public, then it's hard to oppose it. If we are going to oppose automation when it imperils librarians' jobs, then we really have to impose that rationale consistently-- which we're not going to do.

I recently started using the self-service machines in my local public library. I avoided using them for years, but eventually decided that the staff in that library are so unhelpful-- dilatory, unenthusiastic, unfriendly-- that I didn't feel bad going to the machines instead. Indeed, one of them moaned at me for not using the machine.

At the same time, I have recently switched my bank for the sole reason that my nearest branch (or the nearest to my place of work, since banks are only accessible in Ireland during office hours) went entirely self-service. After sixteen years of loyalty, that pushed me over the edge.

So I think it comes down to what actually discommodes people. People are going to choose convenience over humanity up to the point that automation becomes more inconvenient and troublesome, not less.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

On a Poetry Pamphlet

As I've often mentioned, I work in a university library. One of the committees I sit on is the Library Spotlight committee. The Library Spotlight is a display of books (and other material) taken from our collection, featuring a particular theme that changes every couple of weeks or so. (I named it!)

When the Library Spotlight was set up, I pushed for it to feature some traditional and seasonal themes, such as Halloween and St. Patrick's Day and Christmas. (They were absent from the original calendar, though it did feature gay pride, Chinese New Year, etc. etc. I should add that my suggestion was readily accepted.)

So each year for the last three years I've found myself trying to find Christmas books for our Christmas display. In a library of more than a million volumes, you'd think this would be easy, but there are surprisingly few of them. (Bear in mind that we need books with nice covers. A plain cloth-covered hardback doesn't really do anything for a display, and for years the library put its own cloth covers on most of the books it acquired.)

For three years running, I've included a pamphlet of Christmas-themed poetry which some Irish fellow self-published about thirty-five years ago. It's one of a great number of self-published pamphlets and booklets which we keep in our store-room, and which, in the normal run of things, would most likely remain there undisturbed. (I won't give the author or title.)

Me with the Spotlight display.

Each year, I've found myself browsing the poems. They're not bad, but they're not exactly good. There's a certain wistfulness and sweetness to them, but also a naivety and flatness which makes them seem childish, not necessarily in a good way.

All the same, it gives me pleasure to fish this pamphlet up year after year. (At first, I featured it because I had so little material to work with-- the pamphlet has a crude ink drawing of a nativity scene on the cover, which instantly gives it an edge over all the plain-covered volumes-- and that's the still the case. But even if I had more than enough material, I would keep bringing it up, now it's become a Tradition.)

It gives me pleasure because, as a poet, I know how much poetry means to those who write it. I'm happy to give a fellow poet an airing.

Flicking through the poems also made me think of my own years of writing poetry. From my late teens until my mid-twenties, I thought of myself primarily as a poet. That was my ambition. I thought that it was better to write one sonnet that was remembered, that even had a flickering kind of existence as the one poem of a minor poet, than to found a business empire. (I'm still inclined to this opinion.)

And how much work I put into my poetry! I think the greatest English-language poet of all time, W.B. Yeats, described the labour of writing poetry more eloquently than anyone else ever has (apart from the rather petty, and all-too-Yeatsian, anti-bourgeois and anti-pious outburst at the tend):

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen 

The martyrs call the world.’

W.B. Yeats

Too true! I used to contribute poems to my college newspaper (I'm very glad I did, and I'm very glad I still have the issues). Now and again I would reflect that more effort probably went into the writing of my poems than went into the pages of text that surrounded them-- by orders of magnitude.

Poets are generally all too aware, wretchedly aware, of the world's low opinion of poets and 'poetasters'. In fact, this is the whole point of this post-- I think poets have a greatly exaggerated notion of the world's hostility to them. They are so wounded by every throwaway reference to an over-enthusiastic poet inflicting his poems on whoever is polite enough to listen, that they believe everyone views them like that, all the time. After all, poets are an easy target. I can remember how much I was vexed by Pope's witheringly satirical lines on would-be poets and dramatist who were 'proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines'.

So along with my ardent desire to Become a Poet, there was a kind of crushing shame, a furtiveness which might be expressed by adapting Philip Larkin's description of sexuality:

A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Poetry was my secret vice. Asking someone to read your poetry was hardly less shameful than groping someone, in my mind (though I still did it-- the first one, I mean). And I yearned for the day I could say I had been a success and I no longer had to labour under the description "would-be poet" or "aspiring poet".

I felt a vicarious embarrassment for people who self-published their bad poetry in little pamphlets, and who read it out at writer's groups, and who sold it in the streets. I cringed for them.

As well as this, I felt conflicted about the place of poetry in the world. I thought modern society paid too little attention to poetry. At the same time, I was aware of what a remarkably self-interested assessment this seemed to be, and I felt furtive about that, too.

Well, all of that is in the past. I no longer think of myself as a poet first and foremost. I hardly think of myself as a poet at all. I don't have any more poetic ambitions. I would like to write a hymn (at least one) that actually gets sung and has a life of its own, but my heart isn't set on it, as my heart used to be entirely set on the idea of becoming a poet.

Yesterday, when I once again fished out this pamphlet of poems, and found myself flicking through it, I felt twenty years of shame and furtiveness dropping away from me. Now that I could view things with more objectivity, I realised that I didn't feel any sense of scorn or disparagement towards this little pamphlet-- even if the poems were mediocre, and even if nobody would ever read them. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The world would be a poorer place without little pamphlets like this, I realised. It would be a poorer place without private poetry readings, and poet's circles, and poet's corners in school magazines and college newspapers and family magazines (if such things still exist), or swains writing love poems to their sweethearts, or poems written as a form of therapy, and so forth.

Not only that, but I no longer feel that there is any strict demarcation between Proper Poetry, written for the ages and for the benefit of humankind, and 'writing for your own pleasure'. Why should there be? Many a poem written purely for self-expression or consolation has become a classic.

I guess I would have said all this once, but not really have felt it. It was quite a relief to feel it; to see myself, all through my late teens and early twenties, not the ridiculous figure I feared I was, but striving for something worthy in itself.

Poetry feeds into other activities, anyway. In a biography of C.S. Lewis, the biographer made the point that his ultimately frustrated efforts to become a Poet (which he, also, had set his heart on) may not have achieved the intended result, but had an appreciable benefit on his prose. All those hours labouring over poems very few people would read (and having read them, I can confirm they are forgettable) ultimately bore fruit in Narnia and his other classics.

This often happens. The Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone", which has sometimes been proclaimed the greatest rock song ever, began as a poem. The recently deceased Leonard Cohen became a musician because he couldn't make a living as a poet.

It's very hard to call anything completely wasted effort, or to settle a definitive value (or, more to the point) lack of value on anything.

I think that there is often a false dichotomy posited between elitism and democracy, in this and many other fields. The striving for excellence and the recognition of objective standards are perfectly compatible with populism and folksiness. In fact, I think the striving for excellence benefits from a realisation that there are different sorts of excellence. (Which is not to say that "everything is excellent in its own way".)

There are objective standards, but the fact that they can't be reduced to a science is part of the fun.

I also realise, now I don't have any dog in the fight, that I still feel society should pay more attention to poetry, and that it is undervalued. I think that attention to poetry (pretty much any kind of poetry) has an elevating, deepening effect on social and cultural life.

But, more than anything else, flicking through that poetry pamphlet made me realise how much harder we are on ourselves, in many ways, than the world is. People say it's a big, bad world. I am more often surprised by the tolerance and kindness of the world, than I am surprised at its hostility or cruelty. Since I have given up thinking of myself as a (failed) poet, I realised how selective my perceptions really were, and that people generally didn't think of poets, or even aspiring poets, as ridiculous figures. And the ones who did, I realised, were asses.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More on Political Correctness and Resistance

Readers may feel I am getting obsessed by political correctness. The truth is that it is only now that I feel I'm waking up to just how dangerous it is, and how deeply it has embedded itself-- even within the Catholic Church.

Some years ago I read a book called Thought Prison by the rather eccentric English academic and blogger Bruce Charlton. The whole book is available online (as are his other books).

At the start of the book, he writes:

When I first came across political correctness - which was the summer of 1981, inflicted on me by a social worker - I thought it was a bad joke.

Even in 1992, when I was in a Texas university humanities department for a month, and I saw the thing close-up and in full flight, it still seemed too obviously silly to take seriously.

Now, of course, the joke is on me: PC defines reality, and we all live and work at the whim of the advocates of PC, who could destroy the lives of any one of us at any moment, for any reason or for no reason whatsoever.

Charlton's experience is rather ironically echoed in my own. I don't agree with everything he says in the book, but at the time I read it I thought he was greatly exaggerating (though the fact that I bought and read the book in the first place shows I had some sympathy with him). I no longer think he was exaggerating.

I can remember the first time I heard the term PC, too. It was either in the late eighties or the early nineties, and I was reading a questionnaire in a women's magazine. One of the questions was: "Are you PC (politically correct)?". I didn't know what it meant-- I can't remember if the magazine explained.

What I find most frustrating about the debate on PC is the constant references to silly terms like "developmentally challenged", or the preoccupation with safe spaces and trigger warnings and the loonier manifestations of PC on campus. Those are just the crest of the wave-- indeed, the sea-spray on the crest of the wave.

PC has much more profound ramifications on everyday life-- every minute of every day.

You can see it especially in the Catholic Church. The extraordinary push in the two Synods of the Family, in the last two years, to have (amongst other things) homosexuality normalised really woke me up. There was something nightmarish in witnessing princes of the Church, successors of the apostles, quite blatantly maneuvering to reverse centuries of Church teaching. I had no idea things had gone so far.

What is even more sinister is the constant push-push-push by which this is accomplished, wearing conservatives down by concession after concession after concession. At first the concessions are simply in the realms of language and tone-- but how much that accomplishes on its own!

PC thrives on the fact that most people are good-humoured and good-natured and don't want to cause avoidable offence. They will concede as much as they can, simply in order to be amiable, without letting go of their deep-seated beliefs.

But then one day they realise they have been backed into a corner, and there is no wriggle room left. (I won't resort to the boiling frog cliché.)

My experiences on Facebook also made me realise the ever-encroaching power of PC. Some of my own family (younger members who had taken in PC with their baby food) regularly heckled me if I said anything outside PC orthodoxy, to the extent that I had to block them from any controversial posts. Friends who had grown more left-wing since I knew them in 'real life' would regularly use phrases like 'cis gendered'' as if they meant something. Not only that, but they were constantly simmering in a state of Hollywood-induced indignation-- about things like transgender bathroom rights, something that never would have even occurred to them two years ago.

Worse of all, there was quite a substantial chunk of Catholics who were especially prone to PC-- as though they were compensating for having to affirm Church teaching on controversial matters.

But the point I have been trying to make in recent posts is that there is no possibility of 'dialogue' with PC. It has to be confronted, defied, outraged, ridiculed, dismissed. You cannot reason with it.

Let me give an example; a lengthy quotation from an article that one disciple of PC addressed to his fellow believers, suggesting that Donald Trump won the Presidential election because PC zealots were too blatant in their approach. Here he is asking what the term actually means (thankfully even he doesn't buy the whole "it's just good manners" line):

The segment of the electorate who flocked to Trump because he positioned himself as "an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness" think it means this: smug, entitled, elitist, privileged leftists jumping down the throats of ordinary folks who aren't up-to-date on the latest requirements of progressive society.Example: A lot of people think there are only two genders—boy and girl. Maybe they're wrong. Maybe they should change that view. Maybe it's insensitive to the trans community. Maybe it even flies in the face of modern social psychology. But people think it. Political correctness is the social force that holds them in contempt for that, or punishes them outright.

If you're a leftist reading this, you probably think that's stupid. You probably can't understand why someone would get so bent out of shape about being told their words are hurtful. ["Told their words are hurtful" that what's happening, really?] You probably think it's not a big deal and these people need to get over themselves. Who's the delicate snowflake now, huh? you're probably thinking. I'm telling you: your failure to acknowledge this miscalculation and adjust your approach has delivered the country to Trump.

There's a related problem: the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.

This is akin to the political-correctness-run-amok problem: both are examples of the left's horrible over-reach during the Obama years. The leftist drive to enforce a progressive social vision was relentless, and it happened too fast. I don't say this because I'm opposed to that vision—like most members of the under-30 crowd, I have no problem with gender neutral pronouns—I say this because it inspired a backlash that gave us Trump.

Donald Trump
So there you go. Even when a disciple of PC is straining as hard as he possibly can to sympathise with the troglodytes who believe (for example) that there are two genders, and even making some valid points along the way, his basic outlook is so wrong-headed-- so insane-- that it's impossible to enter into a discussion with such a person
And I don't know about you, but I find this kind of condescension a thousand times worse than the attitude he is condemning. (And the same is true of many, many similar articles and pronouncements that have appeared since Brexit and Donald Trump's election. Not that I'm banging a drum for Trump.)
There is another point to be made here, one that I can best make by an analogy with my 'day-job'.
I work in a university library, as most readers will know. The majority of students and other readers that I deal with are a dream-- polite, friendly, grateful, patient, etc. etc.
However, there is (as is to be expected) a minority of readers who are rude, aggressive (more often passive-aggressive), entitled, unreasonably demanding, etc.
I have a pretty good antennae after so many years dealing with the public, and I can usually see which tribe a reader belongs to in a heartbeat.
But sometimes I can't, and in those cases I'm very careful not to enter into any kind of pleasantry or chumminess with the reader. Very often a 'difficult' reader will deliberately try to bring about such a tone, knowing that it's much harder to disoblige someone once there is a friendly and personal ambiance to the conversation.
My suggestion is that open antagonism towards PC will ultimately reduce the overall amount of unpleasantness in our discourse. Confirmed antagonists are usually more cordial towards each other than two people (or factions) who think that the other might be won over to their side. The edge of disappointment and bitterness, the element of shock and indignation and rancour, is gone. Eventually a modus vivendi evolves-- sometimes even an affectionate kind of antagonism, like that between the Duke boys and Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard.

(It's comparable to the situation where a lady wants to make clear to an ardent male friend that she has no romantic interest in him-- the sooner it's done, and the plainer it's made, the less chance there is of lasting resentment.)
Please bear in mind, finally, that I'm talking about ideas and beliefs here. Not people. I'm certainly not advocating unfriendliness to people as people. 

But I AM calling for ruthlessness towards PC. Now, and forever. PC delenda est!