Thursday, August 31, 2023

“Truth, Justice and the American Way”

From "The death of Superman: How Hollywood killed the American hero":
Something has been absent in recent times in the adaptation of film and art — the idea of a fundamentally American hero. Superman, as a character, is ultimately about why America is good, and Hollywood simply does not believe America is a force for good. ....

Americans do not think of themselves as sharing a common enemy, as they did during the Cold War. Hollywood won’t portray radical Islam in film due to cultural and media sensitivities. China fills a natural role, but thanks to the growing market overseas for films, Hollywood is capitulating to them politically by offering alternative edits to their films and even going as far as having Chinese state officials on set, as Marvel did with Iron Man 3 and others. On issues of race, policing, gender and politics, Hollywood takes a progressive posture. ....

...Hollywood has the very idea of Superman backwards. Superman knows what American exceptionalism is; Hollywood and our media struggle with accepting the same idea. Instead they view him as a symbol of imperialistic and misguided patriotic propaganda, and therefore, he must be reinvented, re-imagined and rewritten. ....

...[T]o ignore the American propaganda aspect of Superman and similar comic heroes is to betray their entire reason for being. The character’s co-creator Jerry Siegel enlisted in the United States military in 1943. He was trained as both a skilled mechanic and as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. The character of Superman himself was published primarily as American military propaganda, with the character routinely foiling Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

The world may have changed around him, but Superman is constant, and should be understood as the quintessential American hero. It is not Superman who struggles with his identity. He knows what his purpose is. Despite its failings, America is a global force for good, like Superman. We struggle, we falter, but our ideals remain a constant. They are everlasting. It’s not Superman and America who need to be re-imagined. It’s Hollywood. (more)
Stephen L. Miller, "The death of Superman," The Spectator, August 30, 2023.

A relaxing and boring life

The Free Press sponsored an essay contest for high school students and received hundreds of submissions. The winner is a home-schooled seventeen year-old. It is titled "A Constitution for Teenage Happiness." From the essay:
When people ask me why I sacrificed the sociable, slightly surreal daily life at my local school for the solitary life of a home-schooled student in 2021, I almost never reveal the reason: an absence of books.

For many students, books are irrelevant. They “take too long to read.” Even teachers have argued for the benefits of shorter, digital resources. Last April, the National Council of Teachers of English declared it was time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.”

But what is an English education without reading and learning to write about books?

Many of our English teachers instead encouraged extemporaneous discussions of our feelings and socioeconomic status, viewings of dance videos, and endless TED Talks. So five days into my sophomore year, I convinced my mother to homeschool me. ....

Students and teachers are more exhausted and fragile than they used to be. But reducing homework or gutting it of substance, taking away structure and accountability, and creating boundless space for “student voices” feels more patronizing than supportive. The taut cable of high expectations has been slackened, and the result is the current mood: listlessness.

Like human happiness, teenage happiness does not flourish when everyone has the freedom to live just as they please. Where there is neither order nor necessity in life—no constraints, no inhibitions, no discomfort—life becomes both relaxing and boring....

So, here is my counterintuitive guide for teenage happiness: (the essay)
Ruby LaRocca, "A Constitution for Teenage Happiness," The Free Press, August 31, 2023.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


I retired from teaching—mostly high school social studies—in 2005. Today I rediscovered a folder of materials I had accumulated over those 35 years: pictures, evaluations by administrators and students, cards and letters from former students, etc. This was delivered by a colleague on the occasion of my retirement.
Mr. Skaggs is the epitome of grace and gentility. Debonair and comfortable whether wearing proletarian denim or a three piece suit, Mr. Skaggs has earned his legendary status as a member of our excellent, eccentric, and enigmatic faculty: only at Memorial can a Reagan Republican be elected president of a union. His American Experience course rigorously teaches students about the rise of modern dictatorships, the causes of World War II, the terror and intrigue of the Cold War, and, also, about the dissolution of The Band, which celebrated its last concert with a four hour video. A connoisseur of Cuban cigars and single-malt scotch, Skaggs' favorite lunch is two hot dogs, fries, and plenty of ketchup. Mr. Skaggs takes religion seriously. God has posited him in our midst as a role model: if you don't curse, don't lose your temper, if you treat others with respect, and if you get enough kids to pray at the flagpole, you too can grow old without getting fat or going bald.
The photo is from an in-service in 2001.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Reading Tolkien

I have accumulated several editions of The Lord of the Rings over the years. I regret that I no longer have the paperbacks that were my introduction to the book, but they were pretty tattered by the time I retired them. My next earliest purchase, while in college, was the 1967 hardbound, three volume, "revised" edition from Houghton Mifflin. I later bought two, rather nice, single volume editions. One is illustrated by Alan Lee. I don't think I have actually read either — they are heavy and awkward to hold for very long. My favorite reading edition is The Lord of the Rings: Millennium Edition, boxed, in seven volumes. I bought it before the first of the Peter Jackson films so that I could comfortably carry and re-read Tolkien on the city bus traveling to and from school.

Each book in the set is one of the six often combined, two to a volume, in the "trilogy." The books here are: The Ring Sets Out, The Ring Goes South, The Treason of Isengard, The Ring Goes East, The War of the Ring, The End of the Third Age, and then a seventh book for the "Appendices." 

The time will come when I will need to reduce the size of my collection. Among those books that I will neither sell nor give away will be the 1967 trilogy and this set.

Friday, August 25, 2023

"Bond, James Bond"

In the early '60s I read that JFK's favorite books were Ian Fleming's James Bond thrillers. I wasn't a fan of JFK but I did like mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. I spent a summer between high school semesters buying and reading them, eventually all thirteen. (I no longer own any.) Later, with friends, I went to the movies (the books are better). This year is the seventieth anniversary of the publication of the first book: Casino Royale. From The Spectator last spring:
The Bond saga started on the morning of 17 February. After breakfast, Fleming closed the living-room door and wooden shutters, sat at his roll-top desk, uncovered his old Imperial typewriter, squared the ream of folio typing paper he’d bought on Madison Avenue, and started to write.

Every day for seven weeks, from 9 a.m. to noon, the tacketa-tacketa of the typewriter resounded through the beach house like gunfire. He made no outline of a plot or cast of characters (he took his hero’s name from the author of a book his eye fell on, A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies) but typed on like a man under orders to create. At noon, he’d sunbathe, eat lunch, sleep and, at 5pm, read what he’d written before placing it in a blue folder. At 6:30, it would be time for cocktails.

When the routine ended on 18 March, he’d written 62,000 words and invented a new kind of thriller: coldly, humourlessly narrated, speedily efficient, machine-tooled in its treatment of action, violence and sex, and with a central role for someone he firmly believed himself to be. ....

Casino Royale introduced the world’s readers to exotic phenomena that would become as familiar as their families. To Bond himself, tall, dark-haired, laconic, habitually treating his body, and his brain, as machines to be kept in top condition; to Bond’s special brand of cigarettes, ‘a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street,’ to his apartment in Chelsea and his car, a four-and-a-half-litre 1933 Bentley coupé ‘with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers.’ And to the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, described by the callow Frenchman Mathis as having ‘black hair, blue eyes and splendid… er… protuberances.’

Readers also had their first sighting of M’s secretary, charmlessly described thus: ‘Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical’ (poor girl!). They could gaze in horror at the first Bond villain, Le Chiffre, a mystery man who wears his hair villainously en brosse, a sadist, flagellant and Russian agent, and embezzler of union funds that he seeks to recoup at the Royale casino. And they met Bond’s gruff, omniscient boss M, head of the British Secret Service, after he’d been told of the plan to “ridicule and destroy” Le Chiffre at the casino by making him lose 50 million francs. ....

Casino Royale was published by Jonathan Cape seventy years ago on 13 April, 1953, to mostly glowing reviews. In the Times Cyril Ray wrote, ‘If Mr. Fleming’s next story has half the swiftness of this, as astringent an accent, and a shade more probability, we can be certain that he is the best new thriller-writer since [Eric] Ambler.’ .... (more)
John Walsh, "How boredom begat James Bond," The Spectator, April 15, 2023.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

I can remember...

This reminded me of the annual summer trips to West Virginia to visit the grandparents in the 1950s:
Signs announcing roadside picnic tables once peppered America’s secondary roads and highways. Or so we call those byways now. Before the limited-access interstate system arrived in the 1960s, these roads were primary. America then was laced with a tangle of serviceable two-lane, hard-surfaced highways. .... Some roads were federal, some state, but all were emphatically open-access: get on anywhere, pull over wherever you like. They led through cities and towns, not around them; they traversed the countryside more than they cut through it. ....

For middle- or working-class families, “vacation” meant loading up the family’s one and only car with suitcases and picnic supplies and heading off — to the beach or the mountains or to the grandparents’ house. Cars were big and roomy and seldom air-conditioned, with plenty of room for two parents and two brothers, with space reserved in the trunk, or in the well behind the second seat if it was a station wagon, for some simple groceries and a cooler.

Millions of American families have their own memories of those journeys and the road fare that accompanied them. .... The morning of departure, ice cubes from the small freezer compartment of the kitchen fridge were tumbled into the bottom, followed by small cans of fruit juice, V-8 and orange-pineapple. Bottled water was unheard of and soft drinks were a special treat, bought for a dime in glass bottles from a gas station vending machine. At the top of the cooler was a fitted metal tray that suspended food to be kept cool and dry: hardboiled eggs, sliced bologna or some other luncheon meat (maybe cold chicken the first day out). There were green grapes, a jar of French’s yellow mustard, a knife for spreading, a church-key for opening. If mother had made sandwiches ahead of time, they were, in that pre-baggie era, wrapped in cellophane. A paper grocery bag held white Sunbeam or Wonder Bread, a box of Triscuits, paper napkins, picnic-size salt and pepper for the eggs while they lasted. ....

The interstates, which have so speeded travel times and without which many would find driving unthinkable, have also stolen our experience of pretty much anything that lies between our points of departure and arrival. The roadside table is one casualty. ....
Peter and Timothy Jacobson, "Road-trip picnics are a casualty of our interstate system," The Spectator, August 2023.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

A spy novel

Enjoyed re-reading this essay about Erskine Childers and his only novel:
The period of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. There’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global conflict to stir any halfway attentive author.

And perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, and politician Erskine Childers. The novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system with a seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it “the first modern thriller.” If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the mass of verifiable detail later found in the James Bond novels, The Riddle is for you.

Ironically, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself. Aged 33 at the time of its publication, he never wrote another novel....

I've also enjoyed the movie with Michael York, Jenny Agutter, and Simon MacCorkindale. It can be found at Amazon, and on Amazon Prime.

Christopher Sandford, "The spy novelist who became an Irish nationalist," The Spectator, Nov. 23, 2022.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Ahead of the game

Patrick Kurp, in 'We Are So Lucky Having English,' quotes an English poet, John Whitworth:
Shakespeare. Browning. Wallace Stevens. Stevens is surprising. He surprises me, actually. Language, don’t you know. What language can do. We are so lucky having English. We might be stuck with French with a tiny Latinate vocabulary. Or Swedish, a language nobody else knows. English is like Ancient Greek, all the words, all those different ways of saying.... I used to teach English to foreigners and it is hard. We are lucky — English, Aussies, Americans, because it’s not hard for us. We’re ahead of the game.
A German exchange student I once had in class disagreed. I had suggested that English was a difficult language to learn. He thought not.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

I wanted reasons

I received James Como's Mystical Perelandra two days ago. In his first chapter, he describes his discovery of C.S. Lewis, a discovery that feels very much like my own and also, I'm sure, the experience of many others:
.... I have always been an argumentative person, even as a child. I wanted reasons, and if they came my way I would question them. And, my goodness, could Lewis argue! He broke down an adversary's ideas to their underlying assumptions, often unexamined and false, confronted counter-arguments, then eventually, after what his friend Owen Barfield would later call "dialectical obstetrics," nailed down his point. So the very first, and enduring attraction, was intellectual.

Then came imaginative propulsion. That began with The Great Divorce, combining fantasy, the psychology of sin, and argument. Soon I made the voyage to Malacandra, that is, Mars, in Out of the Silent Planet: greater fantasy, astonishing literary psychology (Lewis knew his readers' expectations and played upon those keys like a virtuoso), and — argument. But in this case, there was also a design that invited participation, a puzzle to be solved, a correspondence. And so entered Myth, a story that "could have been historical fact" but, even if not, so conveyed a truth, or a collection of truths, that it was not only compelling but convincing: yes, one could say, I see how those truths hang together.

Next came holiness. Perelandra proved irresistible, as narrative, argument, spiritual psychology, and as sanctifying myth. For decades I have been re-reading it and dwelling within it, and I do not know how Lewis could have produced it except as a mystical irruption strained through his mightily equipped intellect and story-telling genius.

For me what followed Perelandra was no footnote, for The Chronicles of Narnia, "The Weight of Glory" (Lewis's central statement of Joy), "Transposition," "The World's Last Night," "Meditation in a Toolshed"(!), and so many other essays, along with Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters (for two months I studied Lewis's manuscript in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library), and eventually the landmark novel Till We Have Faces (his best literary fiction, both he and I agree) — all these and more...
My own first significant encounter with Lewis was Mere Christianity, and it changed the direction of my life. I also started looking for more: books by and about Lewis, books he cited, and so on. With the help of friends, I've visited the Wade Collection at Wheaton College, Lewis's home in Headington, his colleges (Magdalen College in Oxford, and Magdalene College in Cambridge), and supped at the "Bird and Baby" where the Inklings once gathered every week.

Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis & His Favorite Book is for sale at Amazon on paper and as a Kindle download.

Monday, August 14, 2023

About C.S. Lewis's "Perelandra"

Amid the chaos and suffering of the Second World War, Lewis began writing a sequel to his first science-fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Perelandra picks up the story of Elwin Ransom as he travels to Venus (Perelandra), a planet that, in biblical terms, has not experienced a fall from divine grace. Ransom’s mission is to prevent a satanic figure from luring an Eve-like character into a fatal temptation. In a letter to his friend Sister Penelope, dated November 9, 1941, Lewis explained what he was attempting:
I’ve got Ransom to Venus and through his first conversation with the ‘Eve’ of that world, a difficult chapter. .... I may have embarked on the impossible. This woman has got to combine characteristics which the Fall has put poles apart — she’s got to be in some ways like a Pagan goddess and in other ways like the Blessed Virgin. But if one can get even a fraction of it into words it is worth doing it.
Lewis succeeded beyond his imagination. As James Como argues in Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book, of all Lewis’s books — over 40, in addition to hundreds of essays, poems, lectures, and sermons — no other single work so successfully intertwines his intellectual and imaginative powers while revealing the breadth and depth of the man himself. Como, professor emeritus of rhetoric and public communication at York College (CUNY) and a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, delivers a profound meditation on the enduring importance of Lewis’s novel: He helps us to recognize our desire for the holy. “The power of Perelandra,” Como writes, “derives from the fact that it offers a convincing portrayal of that Truth for which, knowingly or not, we have always longed.” .... (more, perhaps behind a paywall)

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Vintage espionage

I discovered Manning Coles as a teenager. An aunt had Without Lawful Authority in her book collection and I started reading it while visiting. When we were about to leave I begged her to give it to me. She did. I then sought out other books by that author and collected many of them. I return to them often. Manning Coles:
Manning Coles is an English author. It is the pen name used by British writers Cyril Coles and Adelaide Manning.

Cyril was born in 1899 and passed away in 1965. Adelaide was born in 1891 and passed away in 1959. The two of them ended up meeting in Hampshire, where they were neighbors. They both lived in the town of East Meon. Coles had worked in both world wars for the British intelligence service. His neighbor served in the First World War working for the War Office.

Manning Coles is the creator of the Tommy Hambledon series. The series kicked off in 1940 when the debut novel came out. It is titled Drink to Yesterday and is the first story to feature the main character of Tommy Hambledon. He is employed in the Foreign Office. The series did well at the time and has a total of twenty-five novels.

The early books that they wrote tended to have realistic details and a grim tone occasionally. The books that they wrote together under the shared pen name after the war were more light in tone and even whimsical. ....
I particularly enjoyed the World War II books in which Hambleton is contending with Nazis, including, for a time, being among them and reaching positions in their hierarchy. In fact, the second book, A Toast to Tomorrow, isn't a bad fictional explanation of the appeal of the Nazi movement to many Germans after World War I.

I once communicated to PBS Mystery producers recommending a TV series with Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War) as Hambleton. I got no response (I wasn't really surprised) but he would be perfect for the part and I still think it could be good.

A list of the books in the series, all available for Kindle.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Missing out on education

I taught high school for thirty-six years, retiring in 2005. Most of the time when I dealt with a discipline problem in the classroom or in the halls I expected, and almost always received, support from administrators and parents. Learning isn't compatible with chaos. From "The School-Discipline Disaster":
.... Our schools always have had to and always will need to manage misbehavior, and some students will push any boundary you set for them. But in the past decade, there have been policy changes — decisions to tear down traditional disciplinary structures in schools across the country — that have caused a sharp rise in misbehavior.

The result has been a double blow to education quality: The retreat from discipline has directly degraded the learning atmosphere, sowing chaos and stunting students; and it has demoralized and depressed teachers, pushing them to leave the profession. As student behavior worsens, more teachers leave, the school struggles to pick up the slack, student behavior worsens yet more, and the cycle spirals downward. ....

Few teachers will face violence, and few students will get into serious fights. But a great many students grow impatient because they can’t hear their teacher over the classroom noise. School buildings are full of students who are missing out on an education. Debates about school choice and school funding often receive a lot of attention, but, as influential professor of education John Hattie has pointed out, the most consequential policies relate to in-school factors “such as the climate of the classroom, peer influences, and the lack of disruptive students” (emphasis mine). ....

The two most popular substitutes [for discipline] are “positive behavior interventions and supports,” an approach that emphasizes incentives over consequences, and “restorative justice,” which relies on conflict resolution and discussions with counselors in place of detentions or suspensions.

Undergirding both approaches is a progressive view of human nature. Misbehavior stems not from sin or human imperfection but from broken systems and “root causes.” Johnny doesn’t push Timmy because he’s selfish or still learning to control his anger, the argument runs. He does so because of cultural conflict, hunger, or insufficient emotional support. Kids might need a bag of chips or a hug, but certainly not detention. In each case, the cause of misbehavior is external to the student himself, and so we ought not hold him accountable for his actions.

This view is wrong, both in its theory and in its practical effect. The simple fact is that misbehavior is inherent to children and to humanity in general. We cannot eradicate wrongdoing; we can only disincentivize it and create systems that address it appropriately. Perhaps a student is struggling at home, but punitive discipline and exclusionary practices such as expulsions are still needed to protect and secure the learning of the other students.

Exclusive reliance on nonpunitive approaches communicates to the misbehaving student not high expectations and a belief in his ability to overcome poor circumstances but condescension and a belief that the adults expect nothing better. ....

What rigorous academic research we have on the alternatives to discipline finds them wanting. The RAND Corporation ran two randomized controlled trials on the implementation of restorative justice. On surveys, students reported a deterioration in classroom culture and an increase in bullying. What’s more, there were substantial negative effects on math achievement for middle schoolers and for black students in particular. Though restorative justice is billed as a means to fix the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, the way it fosters disorder and depresses academic achievement could, I believe, exacerbate that problem by making schools worse and thereby rendering them less able to steer students down a better course. .... (more)

Robbie Robertson (1943-2023)

.... Musically, what he achieved with The Band dominates his legacy (though he composed many movie soundtracks later in life, including the one for 1980’s Raging Bull) and was a key subsequent influence on the alt-country genre. But poetically, what Robertson achieved — with such studied craft, imbued with such intelligence and lived empathy that it transcended imitation and became the authentic article — was to touch the purest soul of American myth and legend and bring it to life in his deceptively folksy lyrics and subtle music with such delicacy and preternatural grace that it is only fitting that this most American of songwriters (along with most of his bandmates) was Canadian. ....

The story of how Levon and the Hawks, gigging with little profile around Ontario, managed to become Bob Dylan’s backing band is itself the stuff of cosmic fortune. Dylan’s manager’s secretary (that’s thrice removed, mind you) happened to be from the Toronto area and familiar with the band, and her tip made its way to Dylan when he decided he wanted to go “electric” on tour and needed a working group. The rest is history: the stuff of rock legend, musical awe, and multiple award-winning documentaries (only one of which was directed by Martin Scorsese). The Hawks slowly transformed into The Band over the years 1965–1967; their association with Dylan during the freewheeling and controversial tours of his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde led to their constantly being referred to in press accounts as “the band” behind him....

The critical years spent under Dylan’s tutelage — the so called “Big Pink” era, named for the amusingly painted rural New York practice space that resulted in Dylan’s own legendary Basement Tapes, but which properly began in terms of songwriting and mutual influence during late 1966 — transformed Robertson. The artistic leap he took during this period is almost shocking: The man last seen writing such fare as “Uh Uh Uh” would reemerge in late 1967 after two years of steeping in Bob Dylan’s sensibility and the deepest reaches of the American folk songbook with songs like the Buñuel-influenced “The Weight.” ....

And “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the most stunning act of them all, so bracingly successful in its attempt to put you inside the shoes of The Other that I can still remember, as a kid, catching my breath conflictedly over the gut twinge of empathy I felt for people whose defeat was absolutely necessary. Robertson turned to his bandmate Helm (the only American in the group) for some tonal advice and then wrote a song about a no-name dirt-farming soldier from southwestern Virginia who fought for the Confederacy because that’s just the thing you did back then — for family, for honor, for your state — and lost, hard. At every step of the way through this song we know that he had to lose, that it was good and just and proper that the Confederacy and slavery were extinguished. And yet the crushing reality of actual loss — loss of family, loss of pride, loss of self-understanding or any sense of where you will fit in the world to come — is at the forefront. Which is precisely why, when Robertson — with Levon Helm singing his words as only a southerner could — gets to the chorus (“where all the people were singing”) it is a transcendent act of empathy. No words are needed, only a wordless wail, both lullabye and lament, and all for American history’s most deserved losers. .... (more)

Jeffrey Blehar, "Robbie Robertson 1943–2023: The Band’s Leader Finally Rests the Weight," National Review, August10, 2023.

Friday, August 11, 2023


I very much like book illustration that well complements the story. I think of artists like Sidney Paget (Sherlock Holmes), Ernest Shepard (Pooh, and The Wind in the Willows), Alan Lee (The Lord of the Rings), Pauline Baynes (The Chronicles of Narnia), Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, etc.), but my favorite illustrator is N.C. Wyeth (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and many more). This N.C. Wyeth is from Stevenson's Kidnapped: will David Balfour survive "The Wreck of the 'Covenant'"? 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Happy in America

A Brit who has lived in the US for several years is baffled that Americans aren't "capable of making a decent cup of tea," but finds seven "things that America does rather well." Three of them:
Customer service
It is striking how enthusiastic ordinary Americans are about the jobs they do, and nowhere more so than when it comes to customer service. Perhaps it has something to do with the prevalence of tipping, which incentivises that can-do service culture. ....

Health care
In Britain, where the National Health Service has become a kind of national religion, it is deemed sacrilegious to imply that any other country might have better health care. To suggest that Americans might have better health outcomes puts you beyond the pale.

But the facts speak for themselves. If you are going to fall seriously ill, you would be better off being ill on the US side of the Atlantic. According to the World Population Review, you would be nearly twice as likely to survive lung cancer in America (18.7 per cent survival rate) as in the UK (9.6 per cent survival). If you get breast cancer, you have an almost nine in ten chance of surviving in America. In Britain, it’s only 81 per cent. Some 97 per cent of prostate cancer patients survive in the US: in the UK, it’s only 83 percent.

There’s more to it than survival rates: a friend of mine was recently admitted to hospital for a minor operation. When I asked about the ward he was on, no one understood what I was talking about since every patient had their own room.

Americans tend to have remarkably good manners. It’s not just the polite way in which they greet strangers: Americans, especially in the South, have an old fashioned etiquette that we Brits once had but seem to have lost along the way.

I am constantly impressed with the good manners of young Americans in particular. ....
Douglas Carswel, "As a Brit who has lived in the USA for years, here are seven things they do better," The Telegraph, August 9, 2023.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Remembrance, humility, and connection

From "Because I Said So":
.... Moses offers three critical ways to address the challenge of trusting in the divine: remembrance, humility, and connection. This nuanced understanding points to critical engagement as the foundation of obedience.

Let’s start with remembrance. Humans tend to have a short memory. We see this powerfully illustrated with the incident of the golden calf. Shortly after God commanded the people not to have other gods and not to make idols, the Israelites did both. So Moses spends a significant chunk of this Torah portion reviewing the miracles and lessons of the past, including the incident of the calf. He begins: “Remember the long way the Lord, your God, led you these 40 years in the desert, in order to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2). He wants the Israelites to remember the miraculous way they were cared for by God in the past, but also the mistakes that were made along the way.

Recalling this history might lead the Israelites to take their success for granted and assume that divine favor is assured. This is why Moses cautions the Israelites to practice humility. “Do not say in your heart, ‘Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you.’” (Deuteronomy 9:4) Moses here is speaking to the human tendency to attribute success to our own righteousness and to believe there is some deficit in those who do not succeed as we do. A stance of humility, the recognition that there is something beyond our own power, some cosmic alignment responsible for what we achieve (or fail to), is a preventative to succumbing to the arrogance of success.

Finally, we come to the heart of Moses’ teaching, his encouragement of the Israelites to stay close to the source of blessing: “You shall love the Lord, your God, keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments, all the days.” (Deuteronomy 11:1) This may be the most challenging aspect for us today — to act based on an ongoing personal connection with the divine. To help hone this skill, Moses issues a curious command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16). ....

The three levels of trust-building Moses describes bring the Israelites — and us — from “because I said so” to a greater understanding of why we should do so. .... (more)
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, "Because I Said So," My Jewish Learning, August 5, 2023

Monday, August 7, 2023

Politicizing Christianity

From a review of two books about Lincoln's religion:
.... When the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, the future author of Democracy in America was deeply impressed by the vitality of American Christianity, and he attributed it, more than any other factor, to the clergy’s determination to “mark their distance from, and avoid contact with, all parties.” They went so far, Tocqueville observed, as to teach “that in God’s eyes no one is damnable for his political views so long as those views are sincere.” That perspective had all but vanished a generation later. It is far too rare today.

In the interim, there has been more than enough evidence to suggest that, when Christians forge too close an alliance with any political leader, movement, or party, they run the risk of politicizing Christianity instead of Christianizing politics. We are tempted to compromise our convictions in order to cement the alliance; those who seek our votes are rewarded for helping us feel righteous as we do so. ....
Robert Tracy McKenzie, "America’s ‘First Evangelical President’ Might Not Have Been a Christian at All," Christianity Today, August 1, 2023.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

"A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit..."

Classic Film Noir on Facebook comments on one of my favorite films, Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum:
Charles Laughton’s American film noir thriller ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955), followed a screenplay by James Agee that was adapted from the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb.

In the film, The Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is, or poses as, a religious fanatic and serial killer who targets women to con, exploit, and kill. Serving time in prison for car theft, he meets condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who confesses to hiding $10,000 in stolen loot with his family. Released from jail, Powell is obsessed with finding the money, and he tracks down Harper's unsuspecting widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), and in a sinister manner conducts unspeakable deeds in an attempt to get his hands on that money.

The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese have all cited Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ as a film that has influenced their own work.
I read the book some time before I saw the film.

Frederick Cox, The Night of the Hunter, Facebook.

Saturday, August 5, 2023


From a review of “'Talking Cure,' an essay on the civilizing power of conversation”:
Political polarization quickly rears its head as a conversation killer, blocking the interchange of different perspectives that give a good talk its vitality. “To speak to the converted or the entirely familiar is not to truly converse,” Ms. Cohen writes. “It is to have one’s beliefs reinforced; it is self-soothing but not self-developing.” Mentioning the liberal pedigree of her family, Ms. Cohen writes gratefully about how her world view was expanded by a deep friendship and decades of thoughtful exchanges with a conservative colleague who has since died. “What sustained us in our disagreement,” she recalls, “was our mutual respect, indeed deep affection, for each other. It was a feeling that carried moral as well as emotional weight.”

Disagreement, Ms. Cohen suggests, is an essential element: “Good conversation digs deep into a subject, turns it over, examines it from angles that might otherwise remain in shadow, and presents hypotheses that may be wrong or even unpleasant, but thought-provoking.” Such openness to opposing viewpoints is now harder to come by in national life. “I used to routinely adopt the devil’s advocate position in class,” she writes, “but I find it harder to do this now, when dissenting viewpoints are less tolerated and when playful or ironic positions are taken literally.” ....

Her models of good conversation include Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English wit whose bon mots were copiously recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell. But Ms. Cohen makes the point that Boswell was more than a mere stenographer of Johnson’s dinner-table pronouncements. He was a cheerful interlocutor, challenging Johnson’s assumptions in a way that brought out the best in his mentor. It’s a lesson in how conversation can reveal our truest, fullest selves.

The obstacles to good conversation can be as simple as the spaces in which we’d like to linger and chat. Ms. Cohen sighs at the popular fashion in industrial décor at restaurants, where steel tables and backless chairs don’t exactly invite warm exchanges. ....
The picture is a composite of two members of a group that famously engaged in good conversation.

Danny Heitman, "‘Talking Cure’ Review: The Joys of Spirited Conversation," Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2023.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

"Out of the darkness and into the light"

Almost a quarter of a century ago came Bob Dylan's album Slow Train Coming. That was about the time I began to take Dylan seriously. I enjoyed this.
.... By the late 1970s, he had begun spending time at the Vineyard Fellowship, a Pentecostal group of Biblical literalists in the San Fernando Valley. At Vineyard, Dylan attended a regular Bible class and a 14-week advanced discipleship training course. For some, Dylan’s attraction to this particularly severe expression of Protestantism has always been more puzzling than any broader interest he might have taken in Christianity....

...[I]n a suite in Tucson, Arizona, in November 1978, that would determine Dylan’s metaphysical and creative direction over the next half-decade or so. “Jesus put his hand on me,” he told the reporter Karen Hughes the following year. “It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble.” In interviews, he started talking about waiting on God in much the same kind of mystical vein that Simone Weil might have adopted. In his pocket (or so he said), he had kept a silver cross a fan had thrown to him on stage. ....

Dylan has one of the least polished voices in contemporary music, and this is sometimes taken to mean it’s his least attractive quality—adequate to the musical task at hand, sure, though hardly his finest asset. But one could just as easily argue, as Tim Grierson has done, that it’s one of his most dexterous strengths, its obvious imperfections notwithstanding. Certainly, the unpredictable phrasing and elasticised timbre, along with his obvious familiarity with the rhythms of the King James Bible, serve him well. ....

Dylan usually makes a point of finishing his albums on a note of hope or despair, more often than not with sparse instrumentation. “When He Returns,” the record’s closer, sells it on both fronts. Just the singer accompanied by Barry Beckett on a yellow-toothed piano, its stately notes hanging in the air like the scent of magnolia. The song ushers the listener out of the recording with its most overtly emotional expression of personal religious belief. ....

...[T]he actual music itself is still fantastic—jauntily arranged, sonically eccentric, jittery and menacing at times, incredibly ambitious, and rhythmically exuberant. Above all, Slow Train Coming really is the story of one guy’s flaming journey out of the darkness and into the light—or, if you insist, in precisely the opposite direction—bringing it all back home with feeling and a pedal-stomping style. Unhinged? Maybe. Inspired? Indisputably. .... (more)

A Larry Norman cover of Dylan's "When He Returns."

David Cohen, "In the Spirit of the Lord," Quillette, August 3, 2023.

Glory and honor and fame

My newest, and free, Kindle acquisition is Poems of American Patriotism (1922), illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, and dedicated "to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt." The first entry is Emerson's "Boston," about the Tea Party that took place there before the Revolution, and the final poem is the post-WWI "The Unknown Soldier." This is going to be an enjoyable browse because along with the familiar, there are many I don't know. For instance "The Burial of Sherman" (1891):
     Glory and honor and fame and everlasting laudation
For our captains who loved not war, but fought for the life of the nation;
Who knew that, in all the land, one slave meant strife, not peace;
Who fought for freedom, not glory; made war that war might cease.

     Glory and honor and fame; the beating of muffled drums;
The wailing funeral dirge, as the flag-wrapt coffin comes.
Fame and honor and glory, and joy for a noble soul;
For a full and splendid life, and laurelled rest at the goal.

     Glory and honor and fame; the pomp that a soldier prizes;
The league-long waving line as the marching falls and rises;
Rumbling of caissons and guns; the clatter of horses' feet,
And a million awe-struck faces far down the waiting street.

     But better than martial woe, and the pageant of civic sorrow;
Better than praise of to-day, or the statue we build to-morrow;
Better than honor and glory, and History's iron pen,
Was the thought of duty done and the love of his fellow-men.
Brander Matthews, ed., Poems of American Patriotism, Scribner's (1922).

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

How can I keep from singing?

A friend recently called my attention to this hymn. It was unfamiliar to me although far from new. It's a 19th century hymn by Robert Lowry who also wrote, among others, "Shall We Gather at the River?" "I Need Thee Every Hour," "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me," and "We're Marching to Zion."

How Can I Keep From Singing?

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
What though my joys and comforts die,
I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth. [Refrain]
Refrain: No storm can shake my inmost calm     
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing? [Refrain]
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing? [Refrain]
Robert Lowry (1826-1899)

Robert Lowry, "My Life Goes on in Endless Song," Hymntime, Robert Lowry in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

When the rain, wind, and floods come...

From a review of Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation:
Christianity is a worldview that requires intellectual nurturing and development beginning at childhood. Christians who emphasize emotion and modern America over historical Christianity and tested truths stand on a foundation of sand. As the parable illustrates, when the rain, wind, and floods come, only the house built on the rock prevails.
Rena Mainetti, "Testimony and the Dangers of Anti-Intellectualism," Juicy Ecumenism, Aug. 1, 2023.