Saturday, November 28, 2015

Where's the Eloquence?

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, there have been many conservative complaints about the Western response. We are not angry enough. We are not agressive enough. I would like to observe, with regret, that we are not eloquent enough. Can no one muster some well-shaped speech to rouse the hearts and minds of the free peoples? 

Take French President Francois Hollande's words, formless, shapeless, mush:
What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists. [Source]
President Obama's response is a C-grade effort. There is no attention to any aspect of style whatsoever, but it's uncharacteristically comprehensible:
Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress.  Those who think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong.  The American people draw strength from the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.  And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening. [Source]
Perhaps the creative class will have a more shapely response. 

Comic John Oliver:
"As of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic f—ing assholes," Oliver said. "Unconscionable flaming assholes, possibly, possibly working with other f—ing assholes, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure assholery."He continued. "Second, and this goes almost without saying, f— these assholes. F— them, if I may say, sideways," he said. "And third, it is important to remember that nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work." [Source]
French director Michel Hazanavicius:
Here in France, what we love is life. And the pleasures that go with it," he wrote. "For us, between being born and dying as late as possible, the main idea is to f––, laugh, eat, play, f––, drink, read, take a nap, f––, talk, eat, argue, paint, f––, take a walk, do some gardening, read, f––, give, f––, sleep, watch movies, scratch our balls, fart to make our friends laugh, but above all to f––, and eventually get a nice little handjob. We are the nation of pleasure, more than one of morals. One day, we may even name a plaza after Monica Lewinsky, and that will make us laugh. [Source]
Terrible attacks and this is the most elevated, impassioned speech we can muster? Fratboy level pottymouth and a limp ode to hedonism? I'm speechless.

Oldest Footage of NYC

Art, Vomit, and Being Forgotten

Oh the unpredictable, discursive paths of the internet. I was searching for a particular picture of the Harpies, the mythological creatures not those running for the presidency, and I naturally came upon the image to the right of Lady Gaga as, presumably, a siren. After my momentary amusement–the internet specialty–I of course wondered what had happened to her. After the noise of her meteoric rise I couldn't seem to recall anything of her. So I clicked on and to my surprise found an article discussing her present irrelevancy.

On the one hand this surprises, because who expects in the world of pop culture zombies any of the walking dead to pronounce another defunct? On the other hand, the observation is frustrating because there was never anything to celebrate in the first place. Shocking is only shocking for a brief moment, or maybe the span of a double-take, but as the urinals turn into preserved sharks and the sharks into crystal skulls and the skulls into balloon statues, at some point there are no more envelopes to push or notions to challenge. Then there is only cultivated talent, patient study, and creativity within tradition. Even modern audiences intuitively understand this in their limited way, though lacking any consent to the forces of conservatism on which their judgment rests.

Amusingly, the author of the article chides Gaga for declaring herself atop the pecking order. How lacking in egalitarian kindness. Yet this is precisely how traditionalists feel about much of modern life. How dare we pronounce anything–any piece of art, style, philosophy, or individual–which has not stood the test of time and been measured against its predecessors, with the honor of excellence. In my weaker moments I like to chide people by asking them about, "that thing they were really into ten years ago." They usually laugh, but I mean it as a serious indictment of tastelessness and soullessness. Horace and Mozart are waiting patiently at Parnassus if we are willing in humility to make the trek.

The alternative is all temporary titillation. It's all rah-rah ooh-la-la until someone is vomiting on you on stage.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Roger Scruton on Being a Conservative Today

Don't Be A Grinning Idiot

Via Engadget, the MIT Technology Review has a. . . review of a revealing study in which researchers applied data-mining techniques to yearbook photographs from as far back as the early 1900s. Isolating the frontal portraits, the researchers:
...grouped the portraits by decade and superimposed the images to produce an 'average' face for each period. This process revealed other 'average features for each period such as hairstyle, clothing, style of glasses, and even average facial expressions. The image above shows these averages for each decade for men and women.
The researchers gloss over–and fairly enough, they're only collecting data–what seems to me the most interesting part of the study: people didn't smile in pictures so much back then. Maybe it was more than just "etiquette," though, which curtailed photographed joviality at the turn of that century. Maybe, just maybe, people didn't want to be remembered like grinning idiots.

Looking at those composites, just maybe Mr. Smith of the class of '05 was a predominately serious fellow because his parents taught him that life is tough and that you need to cultivate some serious virtues and talents to withstand the storm and prosper. Perhaps he laughed–even often–but felt that such a look was perhaps not the most representative of his life. The result? He–aka the men which that composite represents–are remembered as serious men. Not a bad way to go.

Now let's isolate the first and last composites:

Mr. Smith looks like he blistered his fingers writing out Latin and got bruised playing football without cushy helmets and pads. He looks like he could have gone on to run a steel mill, teach at Cambridge, and fly bombing missions.

On the other side, the ridiculous rictus of hilarity ironed onto Ms. Madison Kaylee Rainbows inspires no such confidence and admiration. She looks like she just walked out of the Vagina Monologues and instagramed a picture of her latte. After another ten years in school, she'll use her degree in human resources to increase the workplace diversity of a major charitable organization dedicated to providing accessibility ramps for disabled pets.

Let's complete the picture with a look at the 1900s woman composite and that of the modern male graduate:

She'd have him for breakfast.

Naturally, these speculations about lives antique and modern are just that, speculations, but my conjectures stem from the pictures themselves, for those idealized portraits represent an ideal of man. The antique of a sober adult, the modern of an untested adolescent. Maybe neither of these groups were serious adults when their pictures were taken, but if you start acting like an adult, you might just become one. Life will still hit you like a ton of bricks, but at least you'll be able to get up and start swinging back.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, 2015

The art of celebration is one part tradition, one part separation from the utilitarian world of daily life, and one part gratitude. The three parts, I think, are rather equal, although gratitude is perhaps the chief component. Especially in a liberal, intellectual society infused with daily scrutiny of the status quo, where every practice is subject to speculation, revision, and reform, we need time to celebrate things as they are, blemishes and all. There is room for criticism, but not all the time. Too in a world of utility that constantly seeks to produce for use, there needs to be a time set aside to give thanks for blessing. Finally, what is thanks without love for both ancestors and posterity?

Though beloved of many, Thanksgiving seems to me the most conservative of holidays, a break from world-weariness where we expend our resources not on gain but gratitude, not on effort but affirmation. It is the hope of bridging past, present, and future, not with commerce or industry, but love.

And now our annual Thanksgiving List. This year, my top ten Classical Music in Cartoons:

10. A Corny Concerto

9. Bugs Bunny Conducts

8. Pigs in a Polka

7. Magical Maestro

6. The Band Concert

Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2015.

spoiler alert

Wit, dapper charm, and furious bravado do not endear everyone to the world's most famous spy. Where we see sophistication they see urbanity, where we roguish independence they see a cold, callous heart. While we thrill in Bond's brass and effrontery, another mind sees no more than reckless aggression. In short, to some Bond is a mere adolescent. Their reservations are not unwarranted, and this a Bond for them. In every way Spectre is the most mature Bond.

This is not a radical revision, though, but a careful cultivation of significance and omission of frivolous showiness. Mendes has not rebooted or reinvented Bond, but refined him from a freewheeling id whom we look at with excitement but not concern, into a full-blooded, and still hot-blooded, man. Bond is no longer an archetype, but a character, who persuades, deliberates, and even, shockingly, abstains. Not new, Bond has been pruned from the preposterous down to the plausible.

Take one staple of the franchise, the fact that Bond is indomitable. In other movies he blows up ships, mows down legions of enemies, and flies space shuttles. Entertaining, but outrageous. Mendes retains the theme, though, in one brilliant, small moment. In a daring escape–another franchise essential–Bond brutally disarms and incapacitates a guard, but instead of proceeding to a full-blown melee, he turns to the other guard and pointing like a master to a dog, Bond barks, "Stay!" Cowed by Bond's mastery of the situation, the guard backs down. One moment like this, and not a swath of destruction, is all we need to be reminded that Bond is bigger than normal men.

The contrast is amplified by the comparison between Bond and the Spectre assassin dogging him. The tradition of colorful mid-level Bond baddies is long and esteemed: Odd Job, Jaws, Xenia Onatopp are just the most famous and flamboyant. So what's the trademark of Spectre's Mr. Hinx? He is silent and brutal. That's all. A perfectly brilliant contrast. Whereas Bond is witty, Hinx is silent. Bond is agile, Hinx cumbersome. Hinx brutal and cruel, Bond precise and controlled. Two contrasting scenes masterfully reveal the difference. In one, at a Spectre meeting, Mr. Hinx violently gouges the eyes of an assassin whom he intends to replace as the world-dominating organization's go-to killer. He then kills the man as the rest of the Spectre pack passively watches the fitter man move up the hierarchy. On the other hand, after Bond has tracked down ex-Spectre Mr. White and learned of his imminent, poisoned demise, Bond offers to succeed him in protecting White's daughter. He then hands White his pistol, a gesture of trust and mercy. After White ends his suffering and takes up 007's offer, Bond gently closes his eyes. Hinx brutally murders his way to claim authority, but Bond undertakes responsibility with trust, risk, and mercy. There is a lot more significance in Hinx being different from Bond than Jaws trying to bite his face off or Xenia trying to hump him to death.

Speaking of which, 007's relationship with the opposite sex is perhaps the most matured of his traits. Gone is the witty persiflage and coy innuendo of days past which reached its ridiculous, Freudian apex when Halley Berry said to Pierce Brosnan, who was chuffing a cigar, "Now there's a mouthful." Specter brings a tad more decorum to the courting ritual as Bond meets Dr. Madeleine Swann, White's daughter whom Bond must protect and who holds the key to the deceased man's last intelligence on Spectre. At their first encounter, Bond is posing as a patient at Swann's spa-clinic in the mountains, and when Swann lowers the blinds to block the spectacular view of the mountains behind her because they "distract patients," Bond replies, "I hadn't noticed." Now that's smooth.

Swann isn't your typical Bond girl, either. She's not a fighter or a scientist or a programmer, because she's not in the movie to fulfill the stock element of completing the vital task at the crucial moment. Nor is she, despite the negligees and flowing dresses, there as eye candy or fodder for Bond's libido. In fact, she puts Bond out the first night, forcing him to watch over her as she drowses off under the gauzy bed canopy, undressed and tipsy with wine. Yet this is not impotence or emasculation for Bond, for he chose to protect her, which is more of a claim on him than his sexual urge. The contrast is smartly captured when, shutting her eyes, Madeleine says to James, "I see two of you." In vino veritas, we see the two Bonds: the protector and the lover. Still more meaning reveals itself when, before she passes out, Madeleine mutters about "liars and killers, liars and killers." She is reflecting on her father, the liar and killer Spectre assassin, but the comparison is unavoidable: Bond is the killer, but is he the liar? Must he be either?

All of this character contrast stands against a political thriller in which MI6 and the whole 00-program face extinction and incorporation into a global surveillance company. No longer will Bond and the 00 Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Service protect the realm and spearhead justice throughout the world, but the wold will find stability through omnipresent observation and data collection in the hands of experts–unelected, M reminds us. The world order is shifting, a fate and theme foreshadowed by a dusty, unplayed chessboard between 007 and Mr. White, who wistfully remembers when the game of world domination had its rules. Now Spectre stages bombings, even of women and children, to get nations to sign onto its security-surveillance front of a company.

With MI6 in tatters and Bond on his way to his last lead to Spectre, Moneypenny pleads with M to send Bond some help, to which he responds, "No. We'll only make him weaker." That one line, with all the weight of British sovereignty on his lone, broad, shoulders, makes his actions more of an ode to liberty and country than, say, a stunt like skiing off a cliff and landing with a giant Union Jack on his parachute.

The plot reaches its apex when Bond at last confronts the head of Spectre, whose fluffy white cat precedes his introduction as 007's perennial nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As with the rest of Spectre, nothing could be more traditional and yet more unexpected. Unexpected because their exchange is no droll conversation over a pool of sharks, but a slow, tense, contest of wills and recognition. The two meet in a languorous reveal inside an observatory that houses a meteorite. The two tangle over a dilemma: whether the meteorite had a choice to fall, whether it had the choice to stop and think. Both men have invented themselves, but from what?

When we learn the final secret, everything falls into place: when Blofeld was still the happy youth Franz, his father adopted a young boy named James and told him to embrace the orphan as a brother. The father took to his foster son more, though, until young Franz righted that wrong. We see the two brothers fully opposed: Bond is orphaned and takes to his adopted father while becoming a patriotic 00-Agent, and Franz turns to patricide and treason. Bond chooses service to Her Majesty and Franz domination by means of Spectre. They are the brothers contending for the identity of the father as, in Skyfall, Bond and Silva contented for the affection of the mother, M.

The masses will overlook the meaning and balk at the length. They will see the refinements as mere repetitions. They will see pastiche and not unified plot. They will doze. Let them. For the rest of us, tempus fugit. Spectre doesn't glory in over the top explosions, but luxuriates in symmetries and subtlety, in shadows and slow reveals. It has the smarts, in the escape finale, not only to follow its fleeing heroes out a building by a cheekily slow turn of the camera, but the wit after that to reveal not the characters but an arrow pointing off screen to the path they took. Spectre has the respect for its audience to leave a story–Dr. Swann's about her hatred of guns–half-told so we can think it through ourselves. Finally, it has the confidence to twist 007's most famous trademark, his Martini, and in doing so manages one of the great creative feats: surprising us with the expected.

No, Daniel Craig's final performance of James Bond is not of the globe-trotting playboy, but of a driven, deliberate man. He doesn't have jetpacks and laser beams, but he can still take out a caravan of cars with a half-destroyed airplane. He's not invulnerable, but he is indefatigable. James' struggle means something, and having found someone who means something to him, when the two walk off in a shot mirroring the first, he leaves a different man, but still Bond.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Things I Don't Get #12: Taking Up Two Spots

No one gets to take up two parking spaces. No one gets special parking privileges just because he values his mechanical substitute for meaning more than social propriety. The most galling aspect of such Neanderthal behavior is of course not the resulting inefficiency, but the effrontery, the heinous temerity of the individual who, deluded and swimming in self-importance, thinks that his possession is so valuable that the general population should bow down in obeisance before his four-wheeled pride and joy.

This shameless act of self-regard betokens nothing less than pathological disregard for the gentleman's regard for others as social equals. Not intellectual or moral equals, of course, but as equal fellow citizens whom we do not provoke or encroach upon without grave cause. The taker of two spots, this self-knighted primus inter pares, is but an unmannered philistine, the least of citizens and free men, but not because of his odious, obnoxious, temerity, rather because of his presumption that he cares more for his possessions than we law-abiding chumps do. His willingness to violate social norms and respect for others is in fact, to this deranged, disordered, malcontent, a sign of his superiority.

An outcast be he and a thousand dings upon his vehicle! Fiat! Fiat! Fiat!

Things I Don't Get #11: Alex Trebek as Pagliaccio

For their 2015 Halloween episode, Jeopardy featured a category of opera-inspired clues with Alex Trebek donning authentic Metropolitan Opera attire and accoutrement. Hence the unexpected: Alex Trebek in costume as Pagliaccio, the clown persona of the cuckolded Canio from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Salami Tactics and "Challenging the Notion..."

I was just reading a blurb about Spike Lee's upcoming, Chiraq, and a cliche jumped off the page and poked me in the eye, namely the advertisement that Mr. Lee's movie, "challenges the nature of race, sex and violence in America and around the world." That innocent Hollywood spin translates into, "These things aren't what you think they are. Here is what race, sex, and violence really are." It looks like a typical movie teaser, and it is certainly the most common way liberals signify and advertise their art. Their pieces are always "transgressing bounds" and "defying conventions" and "redefining concepts."It's usually just marketing hype, but their intent is serious because the act of definition, having boundaries, and using conventions and concepts are processes of defining the world. To change the former is to change the latter.

Such is why some conservatives have been so wrong to ignore culture and why others so stern deciding on what and in what culture they will raise their children. What we see informs our sense of life, i.e. the way the world seems to work. What isn't glorified, isn't glorious, but more so, what isn't depicted, isn't.

By the salami tactics of the left–one slice at a time–every tenet is challenged until it is meaningless. One by one the values are sliced away. Duchamp challenged beauty in sculpture, Buñuel narrative in film, Marcuse sexual morality, Zinn facts in history, and Derrida reason itself. The result has been the shredding of common culture both by the challenging of form–that is, traditional patterns of invention–and concept, especially burying or by teaching and criticizing into oblivion the old works which affirmed the culture from which they came.

Such doesn't mean that art is propaganda, but that it should with love, vitality, and enthusiasm affirm life. Sometimes the path is tortuous and violent, but it is, art tells us, a path worth the struggle. Perhaps the concern for conservatives then, is not the challenge, but the response.

Great art requires civilization: tradition, training, discipline, reflection, philosophy. Do we have those things in sufficient degree today to expect a renaissance?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra

Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Smith: When Everything Is Anything

Gregory B. Smith. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. p. 9-10
It is asserted that all 'difference' is a phenomenon of the surface, which continually reconstitutes itself in an endless and arbitrary process, beyond the control of any individual or group. There is no natural ground for difference; all difference is relational. This understanding leads to an ironic attitude toward life that inevitably transforms itself into a form of cynicism–a tendency to give in to a mocking superiority, the sense that nothing is worthy of passion or commitment because everything solid dissolves upon one's approach. An attitude of indifference, weariness, and exhaustion is often the result. All of this leads one to suspect a form of evasion, an attitude of avoidance, a blasé, unshakeable refusal to face up to the terrors and general groundless of late-modern life (a groundlessness that is blithely admitted and celebrated.) Only through such avoidance does nihilism cease to be a problem that needs to be confronted.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Normalcy

Ah, the joy of Halloween. Spooky decorations, turning leaves, and everyone walking around a bit, or more, off their usual selves. Halloween is the one day of the year when we don't bat an eyelash at the sight of bizarre behavior, but it certainly isn't the only day when people are bizarre. In fact it seems pretty often that I have a day where no one seems normal, where no one is playing by the usual rules. My default inquiry, the rhetorical question I bellow in vain, is always: is everyone on something? I wonder.
  1. Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and over take antidepressant medication.
  2. 22 million Americans take illegal drugs.
  3. 16.6 million adults ages 18 and older had an Alcohol Use Disorder in 2013.
  4. Using 2004 Census numbers, 57.7 million people 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Now add to those hard statistics some general considerations, such as the quantity of people who are:
  1. not diagnosed with the above, but exhibit the symptoms.
  2. pathologically modern (i.e. raised wholly or mostly on pop culture.)
  3. wee-weed up because of media and political hype.
  4. jerks and idiots.
  5. chronically unable to deal with their lives.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that as a whole, there are a lot of people who don't fall into what once was a meaningful category: normal people. You know, people without major vices, and perhaps without major virtues either, but fulfill their duties to man, country, and God with minimal fuss. Who deal with problems quietly and privately. Who don't draw attention to themselves. Who do their job well, but with the humility of a professional. Who are reasonably polite, even if cranky.

There is inevitably the push back against normal, with some in contrast crying that normalcy is stifling to the individual, who should be able to express himself. There is as in all things a balance between extremes, between being belittled by the majority and unabashed exhibitionism. There exists today both extremes: those who follow every trend and the trend of anti-normalcy, that all choices and varieties of lifestyle are equal. Against the onslaught of democratic, multiculturalist, egalitarian variety, with all pleasures on an equal footing, the normal man:
has watched the frenzy of the multitude and seen that there is no soundness in the conduct of public life, nowhere an ally at whose side a champion of justice could hope to escape destruction; but that, like a man fallen among wild beasts, if he should refuse to take part in their misdeeds and could not hold out alone against the fury of all, he would be destined, before he could be of any service to his country or his friends, to perish, having done no good to himself or to anyone else–one who has weighed all this keeps quiet and goes his own way, like the traveller who takes shelter under a wall from a driving storm of dust and hail; and seeing lawlessness spreading on all sides, is content if he can keep his hands clean from iniquity while this life lasts, and when the end comes take his departure, with good hopes, in serenity and peace. –Plato. Republic 6.496cde. Trans. F. M. Cornford
Normal people are fewer, but out there. If that is to be their end, maybe we should have a day to celebrate them since the rest of the year belongs to everyone else.