On Obama’s Legacy


In a strange way, I think Obama will be remembered both as one of America’s better presidents—he wasn’t a letch, he wasn’t a moron, and he managed to keep the sub rosa hum of our endless imperial wars ever so slightly abstracted from the persona that occupied the office—and one of its most disappointing. While he could never have been the radical break with the recent past that he appeared to promise, there was some minor hope—I even held it weakly myself—that his judicious temperament and his rarely used but still welcome capacity to occasionally prick the swollen edifice of his office, to laugh at it, might mean that he was something very slightly different than we’d seen before. Well, his defenders say when you start bitching about the money from the bank, everyone else has done it. To which the obvious reply is: yes, exactly.

— Jacob Bacharach

Sometimes it takes someone outside the plane of acceptable politics to show just how unacceptable what happens in that plane is. Which is one reason to read Jacob Bacharach (and Michael Robbins).  

Friday’s Child

by W.H. Auden

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945)
He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort
On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.
Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?
The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.
Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.
Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,
And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free
To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.


A Benedict Aesthetic?

I’m ambivalent about Rod Dreher, his ‘Benedict Option,’ and this New Yorker profile, but I can enthusiastically endorse these two bits from the piece:

“Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life,” a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. “It’s still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that.”

Amen. I think that just about covers what’s missing from many BenOp discussions–and also what a great number of millenials (this one included!) are tempted to. And then there’s this sly repurposing of that MacIntyre quote that won’t go away:

Afterward, Dreher and the other panelists retreated to the club’s library. Bartenders served the Benedict Option (“another—doubtless very different—cocktail,” made with whiskey, amaro, St-Germain, lemon juice, and simple syrup).  


How To See The Resurrection


What makes the Resurrection faith real, is the people on whose faces there is some reflection of the reality of the present risen Jesus, his lordship and his glory expressed in the courage and fidelity of his friends and servants. Folk like me can go on nattering about the Resurrection, but it’s the confessors and martyrs and saints who show it in its reality.

— Rowan Williams

Hillbilly Elegy

 Accolades for books whose authors breathe the same air as their readers should be treated with more circumspection than ones whose authors are deceased. When that air is thick with the fog of politics, well, then outright skepticism is called for. As anyone who lived through last year can attest, there was plenty of fog. The admiration for Hillbilly Elegy, then, is understandable. It is not, in my view, merited. 

J.D. Vance grew up in rural Appalachia. His memoir details his childhood there, the instability of his teenage years, and his exit—as a Marine. Throughout, Vance tells the story of his community. The writing is fine and the stories are interesting enough, but neither are particularly revelatory. It’s when Vance splices in sociology that he gets into trouble. The seams—between Vance’s story and Appalachia’s—obtrude. The narrative begins to feel patchwork. In a year in which American attention was forced to turn, briefly, to the hinterlands of the nation, it is easy to see why Vance’s story was seized upon. He made it out of an environment of social instability, into Yale Law School, and then through the doors of a prestigious consulting firm. His story bridges worlds drifting apart. But it does not possess the secret reason for our recent political catastrophe and I very much doubt whether it will be remembered once that crisis has passed. 

An Is Implies An Ought

When the City of New York seized one of the houses of hospitality from The Catholic Worker and recompensed them for the value of the house plus the interest that had accrued, Dorothy Day wrote the following letter in response: 

Dear Sir,

We are returning the interest on the money we have recently received because we do not believe in “money lending” at interest. . . . We do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. . . . Please be assured we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible. 

Sincerely yours,
Dorothy Day, Editor

“We do not believe in the profit system” is something one hears frequently enough. “We cannot take profit or interest on our money” is not. The second makes the first credible. And the union of the two—with the humility that animates the lines that follow—is what made Day’s work a credible witness to Christ. May we learn from her example. 

Beneath the Trees


I’ve been thinking about Burundi lately. I took this photo up-country, outside of Bujumbura, the capital and only major city in the country. In a blog post I wrote when I was there I said these trees had “no North American correlate.” Now, that probably wasn’t true, but the architecture of these trees–and the total effect when they’re taken together–is alien to the Midwest. And so, after four years spent in Chicago’s familiar landscape, I find myself thinking back to what it felt like to be beneath the trees. One day, perhaps, I will know again.

In Praise of Fine Writing

When most modern writers come in for our praise, it is because of their little tricks or little twists. When Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot or Checkhov are recalled, it is as if tidal waves are washing over us. We cannot catch our breath. If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history

— Roger Rosenblatt

This quote comes at the end of Rosenblatt’s otherwise excellent Unless It Moves the Human Heart. Like the writing he favors, Rosenblatt’s advice is brief, direct, and unpretentious. The characters he conjures are amiable and their conversation–the substance of the book–is insightful without feeling contrived. One almost forgets one is reading A Book About Writing. Until this quote. Yes, yes–writers today will be forgotten tomorrow. But to suppose that the stature of a Homer or a Milton is the one goal to which writers should aspire is silly. The world needs fine writers, writers who can craft a sentence without embarrassing themselves or the English language. To ask for all writers to aspire to greatness is to ask them not to examine their abilities honestly or to ask most to excuse themselves from the endeavor. There is–it is true–a certain motive force to grand aspirations but it is also true that grand disappointments tend to arrest motion. It would be a pity if, judging themselves unequal to writing worthy of “the silent gratitude of history,” fine writers were to fall silent.