Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Column: Sanctuary

My latest column is up at The Interim, and instead of talking about books, movies and TV shows, I let myself wonder about the sort of people who want to live in condos carved out of former churches - and why there are so many churches to be carved up accordingly, especially in my hometown. This demographic - a small one, to be sure - seems to be a small group within the larger tribe of the "spiritual but not religious," which is to say those folks who find Richard Dawkins as annoying as everyone else, but who find the thought of church-going and faith-confessing to be not only a whole lot of work, but a likely way of spending altogether too much time with people who would have loved to see those former churches used as, well, churches.
In other words, these are people who are happy to discard organized religions but not their intuition that a higher power exists, that life isn’t finite and corporeal, and that the sacred can have a physical presence, even after you put marble countertops and a rainfall shower in it. The rise of this group has increased among the demographically trending Millennials or Gen Y, known more specifically as the children of the Baby Boomers, and the Post’s Silcoff notes that “once unchurched, people tend not to rechurch. And so what will the spiritual life of the children of these Millenials look like?”
The Interim is a pro-life paper, so I was obliged to wonder aloud for the readers just what this trend might mean to the pro-life movement. Nothing good, really, as it's just another example of the spiritual being chased not only out of public and political life, but from moral discretion in general, as a potential source of friction if you should insist too loudly that something just isn't right.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


In a chapter on the middle class in his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, Jonah Goldberg made an assertion that I had to stop and re-read a couple of times to make sure I understood what he was saying. Not because I didn't think it was true, but because it rang so true, and has (I think) escaped serious analysis.

He begins with a quote from Nancy Pelosi, defending Obamacare as a boon to the creative classes:
"We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone: 'If you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You don't have to be job locked.'"
As an appeal to voters, it's curious - the number of people whose creative urges would compel them to throw over their job to pursue their muse is surely tiny, but I suppose Pelosi is casting a wider net, at the sort of people who, Walter Mitty-like, daydream about doing such a thing, and the larger number of liberals who, although they have no intention themselves, think it would be an altogether wonderful world if this were possible. And these are the people who call their politics "reality-based."

Goldberg isn't convinced that there's any plausible link between socialized medicine and enterpreneurialism  - it's beside the point, of course, when you're trying to sell a fantasy - but goes on to take the Democratic notion behind this to its logical end:
"The larger point is that the liberal vision of an advanced society is one where it is finally rich enough to liberate the middle class from their comfortable bourgeois lifestyles and to subsidize their conversion to bohemian ones. If you want to be a 'musician or whatever' it's okay, because we'll tax the rich enough so that you don't have to worry about life's essentials (like health care or housing or food or your kids' education) anymore. In other words they are going to win their centuries'-old war on the middle class by subsidizing the bohemian lifestyle to the point where it no longer pays to be bourgeois. It probably won't work in the long run. But in the short run, it will bankrupt us all, not only financially, but morally as well."
What resonates for me is how much of this I've already seen transpire up here in Canada, where the arts-supporting government bureaucracy is probably a few years more advanced than in the U.S. I've known plenty of creative people who, before they even finished their degrees, figured out that there were institutions in place to subsidize their creative ambitions, and did their best to tailor their life - and work - to maximize their potential as clients of this bureaucracy.

There were classes of grants, from the municipal to provincial to federal level, that they could apply for, in addition to grants for travel and housing. There are government-subsidized co-op apartments in many major Canadian cities built for the express purpose of housing the creative. (And not-so-creative: The late leader of our socialist federal opposition party lived in one for many years when he and his wife were municipal politicians.) Every now and then I would hear someone I knew express fatigue with their workaday life and a longing to express their creative ambitions, which would inevitably lead to them musing aloud about working on a grant application.

Arts grants exist in the U.S., of course, but many of them - including the most generous - are maintained by private foundations. In Canada, however, private arts funding is far more minimal, as the government has had a virtual monopoly on arts funding for decades. But what Pelosi is talking about here isn't a subsidy structure based on applications and deadlines and juries, but an expansion of current social welfare to include not just those who can't work (for a variety of reasons, some valid, some not,) but those who won't work because of the demands of their muse, or the shortage of truly suitable work for those of creative temperament.

I assumed that this sort of thing making headway in the U.S. would be at least a few years in the future, but a Salon article from over two years ago (h/t SDA) suggests that it's already happening:
Mak, 31, grew up in Westchester, graduated from the University of Chicago and toiled in publishing in New York during his 20s before moving to Baltimore last year with a meager part-time blogging job and prospects for little else. About half of his friends in Baltimore have been getting food stamps since the economy toppled, so he decided to give it a try; to his delight, he qualified for $200 a month. 
I’m sort of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing,” he said, fondly remembering a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. “I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it’s great that you can get anything.”
I might be reading too much into Goldberg, but I think his point about the current motivation for the "centuries'-old war on the middle class" is an abiding distaste of progressives for the sumptuary comforts that the bourgeoisie have gained with the success of capitalism, and their pride in being able to afford them. (Not to mention the ill-concealed elite horror at their persistent bad taste.) Diminishing that - or "liberating" the creatively stifled bourgeois - and they'll see the straitened circumstances and love of small creature comforts that come with the bohemian lifestyle as a feature, not a bug. At least for a while, anyway.

So - government-subsidized roast rabbit with sweet potatoes but no savings, delayed plans for a family and little choice in education for kids when you have children, reliance on public transit and renting but not owning: A twentysomething student or recent arts graduate might not regard these as real hardships, but if they can be sold to at least a measurable minority of the citizenry, they'll certainly ease the burdens on a government committed to programs that necessarily hobble a healthy economy. I know that sounds like a conspiracy, but when you've already produced a generation notable for its sense of entitlement, it's never too early to transform them into a voting demographic reliant on its entitlements.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Here's a fact: Obama won in eight of the ten wealthiest counties in the U.S.

Anyone who can figure out just why that happened might unlock the key to this whole period in history. All I know is that the world became much easier to understand as soon as I gave up on the idea that rich people are essentially social or cultural conservatives.

Echo Chamber

Holy shit. It wasn't a landslide. It wasn't even close. And we can keep calling it "a victory without a mandate," but that's just something we say to comfort our side. I'm sure Barack Obama won't see it that way, and neither will the people who voted for him. As we'll see.

I'm a Canadian, so the results of the U.S. elections are, as I keep saying, just fantasy football for me. Except that it affects the world and its future, so there's that. You'll forgive me if I take my conservative prerogative and use the royal "we" for the rest of this post since the defeat of the Romney/Ryan ticket is a kneecapping for more than just the people who could exercise their franchise yesterday.

It was a serious ass-kicking, and not just because we were so woefully off in our predictions. Allan West lost, as did Mia Love. Scott Brown lost handily to Elizabeth Warren, which kind of sours all the chuckling we did over the Fauxcahontas jokes, doesn't it? Fifty per cent of the popular votes, and 303 electoral college seats. It wasn't as broad a victory as Obama's win in 2008, but it didn't have to be. We were imagining the exact opposite, and I can't imagine that the other side is going to let us forget it.

Obummer. Obozo. Teleprompter-in-chief. The One. Urkel. Barry Hussein. The Kenyan. The Choom Prince. The Fresh Prince of Bill Ayers. Bam-Bam. Obamadinejad. The Light Bringer. The Empty Chair. O-socialist. Obama bin Laden. We've called Barack Obama a lot of names in the last four years, some of them pretty damned clever. (I'm partial to Fresh Prince of Bill Ayers, myself.) But the fact remains that he is, and remains for the next four years, President Barack Obama, and every name we've called him has diminished our ability to take him seriously enough to imagine him actually winning a second term.

If you thought his performance in the first debate would sink him, you were wrong. If you thought young voters were disappointed by the first four years and were going to sleep in, you were wrong. If you thought that the dismal economy had swung the undecided to Romney, you were wrong. If you thought that every stirring YouTube video and damning blog post detailing the disasters of the last four years were one more nail in his coffin, you were so very, very fucking wrong.

If you thought that Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff was a fatal, Watergate-sized blow, you were so wrong that you should get up and try and find a mirror right now, because there's a 50-50 chance you put you underwear on over your clothes this morning.

Yes, we've all seen the video of the young Obama supporters at a campaign rally at Ohio University, admitting that they'd never heard of Stevens or Benghazi. It made you laugh and shake your head, but the truth is that they probably voted, and Ohio was the tipping point that won Obama the electoral college. Sure, they sounded stupid, but that doesn't stop them from voting, does it? Shit, not even death can do that anymore.

We've been complaining that the media carried water for Obama, but if these kids hadn't even heard of what happened in Libya, the fact is that they probably don't pay any attention to TV or newspapers in the first place. Which might be good news, depending on how you look at it.

And sure, we can shake our heads at "stupid Democrats" or "stupid kids" or "stupid Americans" (if you're not one.) But it's a numerical certainty that there are probably just as many idiots on the Republican side of the political dodgeball game. They just don't have blogs.

I can say "you were wrong," but the truth is that we were wrong - I was wrong - because I let myself believe that Obama didn't stand a chance. A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend from New York. He's also a Canadian, and a conservative, but when we talked about the election, he was sure that Obama would win. I did the usual exasperated stammering - "...comeonman economyBenghazi jobsChina WisconsinIranSolyndra..." - but he was right and I was wrong. We were wrong. We were so fucking wrong.

We accuse the media and liberals and academics and practically everyone else not on our side of living in an echo chamber, but the fact is that we've built our own echo chamber, and it was just sturdy enough to last until around midnight last night. And it would be a big mistake if we went about trying to build it again.

So I don't have a lot of advice for my American friends, except that if you know about any voter fraud committed yesterday, you should pursue it even if it makes you look like sore losers. Because after all, that's not the worst thing you're going to be called. And let's be honest - your electoral system is an absolute fucking mess. It would be more accurate if you all stood in a field and yelled "yea" or "nay."

In any case, you can give up on stopping Obamacare. You'll probably end up going broke in about a year or so, and there's a pretty healthy chance you might have to deal with a few more terrorist attacks, perhaps on your own soil. And forget about jobs; the people who make those will be going to earth for the next four years, since they're going to be asked to pay for a lot of free stuff - about a business week's worth, actually. Everyone else will be on the hook for the rest of the year. Good luck with that.

Me, I'm a Canadian. We'll muddle through somehow, probably by doing more business with China, while that lasts. As for jobs, it's irrelevant to me - I made the mistake of working in the only business that's going to keep declining no matter who's in power. Another year of this and my best hope is finding a gig as one of those middle-aged guys in the orange aprons at Home Depot who tells you where to find the galvanized washers. I love you guys and I'd love to worry more about you, but I have my own shit to deal with just at the moment.

Friday, November 2, 2012


If the scandal brewing in Britain over the late TV host Jimmy Savile teaches us anything - and I'd like to hope that some lessons will be learned from it, but let's wait and see - it's that a common language and shared history are no guarantee that it's possible to understand another country's taste or discernment. Try to picture what a creepy, abusive, shameless pederast would look like, and tell me that your mental image doesn't match this one:

I didn't grow up with Jimmy Savile on TV every week - every day, if you include his very high profile as a celebrity and "philanthropist," not to mention his frequent appearance in public service ad campaigns - so I wasn't prepared for the first glimpses I would later get of him, in British music documentaries and on YouTube videos, introducing some band or another while leering at the young dancers uncomfortably bookending him in the shot. There he'd be with his too-tight t-shirts, lank white fringe and cigar, mugging ferociously and looking like someone's unmarried uncle, the one who always made a blaring entrance that even young kids would notice prompted barely disguised winces and eye-rolling glances among the adults.

The details of Savile's crimes are still emerging, with what might turn out to be hundreds of victims over at least four decades, but the real scandal - since nobody, really, is all that surprised by the truth about Savile - is that he was protected by his employers at the BBC, and a corporate culture that regarded his predilections  and those of other men there, as something that reflected badly not on Savile, but on anyone who might have the audacity to complain.

The general attitude that "that's just Jimmy" wasn't just the rule at the BBC, but seems to have become a public truism. Back at the height of their fame, the Nolan Sisters did Top of the Pops, where Savile plied his usual charm on 14-year-old Coleen Nolan. It was worth mentioning in an ITV documentary about the group made a few years ago, as part of a segment where they recall their occasionally shabby treatment at the BBC, and Coleen revisited it recently while appearing on Alan Titchmarsh's chat show:

Nolan recalls Savile's on-camera groping, saying that "in the '70s and certainly the early '80s you didn't talk about it. Everything is so much more in the open now." This sentiment has evolved to the point where writers like the Telegraph's Iain Martin are wondering whether we might as well put the whole of the '70s on trial, since the exploitation of young people seems, in the light of scandals like the Savile affair, to have been part of the zeitgeist of the era.

Martin's thesis is that in the wholesale pursuit of more freedom - political, artistic, cultural, emotional and sexual - we made it possible for anyone, regardless of their proclivities, to pursue the object of their desire, regardless of the object or the outcome:
The great liberal myth of that period is that ever greater freedom naturally has positive effects and produces progress. Bring down all the barriers – on sex, drugs and, yes, rock 'n' roll – and you increase the scope for human happiness. Yet this assumes that all those who stand to benefit have good motives. To Jimmy Savile, and some other bad people, the BBC's rampant liberalism turned out to be just one giant opportunity to do harm to others who should have been protected.
It's a tidy thesis, containing the mistakes and excesses of the period within a finite time frame that happens to encompass the long zenith of Savile's career and celebrity. Martin even goes so far as to let us consider reconsidering the career of someone who was famous in England for almost exactly the same span of Savile's heyday - public morality crusader Mary Whitehouse:

Didn't she warn that the liberal revolution would blur the lines between childhood and adulthood, and that the obsessive sexualisation of our culture was problematic? Was she too voracious in her campaign, making her easy for smart arses to caricature? Of course, but more than forty years on – surveying the fetid swamp in which Jimmy Savile was permitted to operate – it is surely worth recognising that she had a point.
Whitehouse was, of course, to the permissive society what Enoch Powell was to immigration - a disapproving and scolding figure both reviled and ridiculed by forward-thinking people. Whitehouse even had the dubious honour of being attacked in a Pink Floyd song. Like Powell, she might have been proved right in the long run - even the BBC has been willing to admit that Powell's warnings about immigration have borne fruit - but that doesn't mean that someone like Whitehouse or Powell wouldn't be even more reviled today than forty years ago, so completely have their adversaries captured the high ground.

We might even get some comfort in thinking that, with our children more carefully coddled and overseen now than at any time in generations, the likelihood of another Jimmy Savile getting their clammy hands on them has been considerably diminished. We might also, I think, be fooling ourselves.

Just after the Telegraph printed Martin's piece, the London Review of Books published "Light Entertainment," a long essay by Andrew O'Hagan on the post-war, pre-Savile BBC that explained how Savile, so patently unsavoury and unabashed about his tastes, was able to flourish in a corporate culture that, at least in the '50s and early '60s, was considered essentially and even aggressively stodgy and conservative. He writes about men like Lionel Gamlin, a BBC Radio presenter who was, in O'Hagan's words, "a stalwart of light entertainment broadcasting in the 1950s."

He was also a sexual predator, of the rumpled, eccentric type that finds a place where there are lots of young people looking for a chance to get ahead in the world, some of whom might be persuaded to trade something that they seem to have in excess - youth, looks, an awkward but urgent sexual drive - to an older person with access to, well, access. In one paragraph, O'Hagan paints a picture of the sort of world glimpsed in movies like The Killing of Sister George and books by people like Joe Orton:
A friend of Gamlin’s remembers going to see him in a flat in All Souls Place in the 1950s, just round the corner from Broadcasting House. A man from Light Entertainment used the flat during the working week and Gamlin often stayed there with young boys. It was clear to the friend that both men were renting the boys, and that the boys were young: ‘They were boys with the kind of good looks that would seem very lewd in a woman.’ He also remembers going for a coffee with one of the boys from the flat. ‘The boy was nice,’ he said, ‘very young. He thought he might get a job or something of that sort. And it was clear the men were using him for sex. Broadcasting House was well stocked with men interested in sleeping with young boys. It was a milieu back then. And people who sought to be sexual predators knew that. It wasn’t spoken about.’
This brief, vivid scene just precedes probably the most devastating summary of the BBC's corporate culture I've read during these long weeks of hand-wringing in the British press over the Savile affair:
The BBC isn’t the Catholic Church, but it has its own ideals and traditions, which cause people to pause before naming the unwise acts that have been performed on its premises. Perhaps more than any church, the BBC continues to be a powerhouse of virtue, of intelligence and tolerance, but it is now suffering a kind of ecclesiastical terror at its own fallibility.
Everything about the Savile scandal is appalling to contemplate, but as a Catholic, there is some kind of grainy, grisly pleasure in seeing a liberal bastion like the BBC forced to contemplate the same sort of moral and existential crisis that it was so eager to chronicle as it convulsed the Church.

Beyond this, however, O'Hagan's piece shows how a clammy libertinism and an informal network of pederasts found a place at the BBC years before the long shadow of Lord Reith was banished by modish, progressive-minded managers like Hugh Carlton Greene. If it could find a way to thrive in the days of rationing and the Suez Crisis, then flourish when the governors came off in the frenzied lunge for "personal freedom" apparently ushered in by Beatlemania (or so it's understood,) then there's no reason to imagine that men like Savile, prudently chastened and cautious, aren't still occupying offices and drawing salaries there now.

Every parent does damage control in their own mind when they start to loosen their grip on their kids and send them out into the world, imagining, even if just briefly, how the ambition they hope to have instilled in their child might combine with the youth that's briefly their gift to make them a target for an adult skilled in exploiting the former to grab a piece of the latter. The boiling outrage about Jimmy Savile is fueled by an unsteady ratio of righteous outrage and a prurience that comes off as hyperbolic in its call for punishment, mostly because it's a shameful reaction to the dulled sensibilities that let Savile hide in plain sight for so very long.


James Bowman has a devastating review of the film The Oranges, which I knew was going to be a moral train wreck as soon as I saw the trailer. The whole review is good, but one paragraph in particular says it all:
It all comes down, as I say, to the Hollywood culture, which really is wedded to the therapeutic one, particularly in the absolute value it places on the quest for individual happiness and fulfilment and its Nina-like contempt for the rules by which people used to think themselves and their happiness were bound and limited. This merely hedonistic philosophy is occasionally dignified by reference to such fake Chinese proverbs as this: "Sometimes you have to burn your house down to see the moon." Uh, no. I don’t think so. At no times do you have to burn your house down to see the moon. Doesn’t happen. Ever.
There are probably a lot of reasons why I'm finding movie reviewing such an onerous task lately, but Bowman nails at least one reason - the work required to parse out what's wrong with Hollywood films requires you to translate the disordered moral universe that informs so many of these pictures to the more generally centred one in which real people actually live. It's a lot of work, and sometimes, when it's all done, you feel like you've spent far too much time in a place that's the moral equivalent of science fiction - a universe where the laws of physics have been upended to help shepherd a wholly improbable story to a completely unlikely place.