Everything is mysteriously entangled

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus writes:

By these three days all the world is called to attention. Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice – everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days.… Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told. In this killing that some call senseless we are brought to our senses. Here we find out who we most truly are because here is the One who is what we are called to be. The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.” Follow him there? We recoil. We close our ears. We hurry on to Easter. But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.

J.D. Flynn pointed out how strange and unlikely it is (even more so if we bracket the Christian belief in resurrection) that we remember the story of a Roman peasant. But it’s not so strange or unlikely if it’s true that everything “that is and ever was and ever will be … is mysteriously entangled…”

La Grande Arche v. Notre-Dame

Fifteen years ago, George Weigel thought about Notre-Dame:

At the far western end of the magnificent urban axis that runs from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is the Grand Arch of La Défense—one of the “great projects” of the late French president François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost forty stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and in 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.

On a hot, sunny afternoon—which is when I first saw it some seven years ago—La Grande Arche is, quite literally, dazzling. An elevator, definitely not recommended for anyone inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of Paris, past the Tuileries to the Louvre and on to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch’s three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For Mitterrand intended the Grand Arch as a human-rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook I consulted, La Grande Arche was nicknamed “Fraternity Arch”; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.

This prompted a question as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the greatest of the world’s cityscapes. Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy: the culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube, or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great gothic cathedrals of France?

Notre-Dame de Paris

President Emmanuel Macron asserts that Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and that an international campaign will be launched to do so. Despite France being a secular state that is, in so many ways, presently at odds with its Catholic heart, Notre Dame is owned by the French state and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Alexandra DeSanctis on the loss of Notre-Dame de Paris, burning during Holy Week:

Although they’re already saying it’ll be rebuilt someday — and it’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful place could be left forever in ruins — it can never be rebuilt to what it was just this morning. It’s nearly unbearable to think about how much has been lost. A cathedral that withstood the bloodshed of revolution and the ravages of two world wars, tumbling in clouds of dark smoke, seemingly impossible to stop.

This is a disaster for Paris and for France, for French history, and for French Catholics. It is a grave loss for the history of Western civilization, and for future generations who, like me, will never see the cathedral’s glorious rose windows or the grandeur of her magnificent spires.

But first and foremost, it is a tragedy for the Catholic Church, whose members are already suffering in so many places. To many Catholics, it feels as if the Church is on fire in a sense already. And now we are watching it blaze. Though Notre Dame de Paris is a testament to world history, to art, to architecture, and to centuries of civilization, above all she is — was — a place of inestimable beauty dedicated to God. The cathedral’s Gothic arches pointed heavenward not for their own sake…

And Haley Stewart approaches Notre-Dame’s burning through literature and promise:

As a Catholic, as a medievalist, as a lover of beauty and history, I am absolutely wrecked. 

I have always wanted to visit Europe to see the cathedrals. The reality that I will never see the architectural masterpiece of Notre Dame is devastating. Watching the church collapse piece by piece as smoke billows into the air feels like a punch in the gut. And at the beginning of Holy Week, no less. I am trembling with sadness over the loss as if it were my own home that I’m watching burning down.

What must it feel like to be watching the flames tear down Notre Dame on the scene? To be scrambling to contain the horrific damage? To try to save holy relics and sacred art from destruction? The fear and the chaos of safely removing the Crown of Thorns and remnants of the True Cross?

I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s set in medieval Norway and one night, a terrible lightning storm sets fire to the local church of St. Olav. The protagonist, Kristin and her family struggle to contain the flames, to save the structure. But it quickly becomes apparent that it cannot be saved. Brave souls, including Kristin’s fiance and her father, rush in to save holy objects and the priest Sira Eirik rescues the Host from the flames and relics of the church’s patron, St. Olav.

Kristin’s father, Lavrans, emerges with the Crucifix in his arms. As he watches the flames consume St. Olav’s “His arm lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ. It looked as if the Savior were bending his beautiful, sad face toward the man to console him.” …

As Pope St. John Paul II told us, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.” Let us hold onto that hope in our grief. While Notre-Dame de Paris may be a charred shell of stone by morning, we know that the gates of Hell will not prevail over the Church through which God pours out his grace on his people.

Rod Dreher recognizes Notre-Dame’s burning as metaphor and personal challenge:

There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.” …

What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon. …

What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.

It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course…

Benedict and the God question

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” calls for a return to God and to moral life. I’m excerpting two parts, out of order. First, from Part III:

When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil. Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it. And that is why it is a society in which the measure of humanity is increasingly lost. At individual points it becomes suddenly apparent that what is evil and destroys man has become a matter of course. …

And second, from Part I:

Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against … changes in society. I will try to outline briefly the trajectory of this development.

Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded.

I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.

In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.

The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality reached dramatic proportions in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. On January 5, 1989, the “Cologne Declaration”, signed by 15 Catholic professors of theology, was published. It focused on various crisis points in the relationship between the episcopal magisterium and the task of theology. (Reactions to) this text, which at first did not extend beyond the usual level of protests, very rapidly grew into an outcry against the Magisterium of the Church and mustered, audibly and visibly, the global protest potential against the expected doctrinal texts of John Paul II (cf. D. Mieth, Kölner Erklärung, LThK, VI3, p. 196) [LTHK is the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, a German-language “Lexicon of Theology and the Church”, whose editors included Karl Rahner and Cardinal Walter Kasper.]

Pope John Paul II, who knew very well the situation of moral theology and followed it closely, commissioned work on an encyclical that would set these things right again. It was published under the title Veritatis splendor on August 6, 1993, and it triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians. Before it, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” already had persuasively presented, in a systematic fashion, morality as proclaimed by the Church.

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.

It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.

The pope was fully aware of the importance of this decision at that moment and for this part of his text, he had once again consulted leading specialists who did not take part in the editing of the encyclical. He knew that he must leave no doubt about the fact that the moral calculus involved in balancing goods must respect a final limit. There are goods that are never subject to trade-offs.

There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life.

Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.

In moral theology, however, another question had meanwhile become pressing: The hypothesis that the Magisterium of the Church should have final competence [infallibility] only in matters concerning the faith itself gained widespread acceptance; (in this view) questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church. There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion. But there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory but rather to be recognized in its claim to concrete life.

All this makes apparent just how fundamentally the authority of the Church in matters of morality is called into question. Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.

C.C. Pecknold puts this in context, specifically why it matters whether the Catholic Church is mater et magistra—both mother and moral teacher:

Moral theologians had been on a long, exploratory mission to unsettle the place of natural and divine law, and to “update” morality in ways which were more accommodating to the revolution. Benedict admits these theologians were sophisticated in their endeavors, but the aim was simple: the innovators taught that every moral act was justified if the agent has the best intentions. It was an early version of the “love is love” argument. In Benedict’s view, the central pushback came with Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which decisively refuted this sophisticated form of situation ethics sometimes called “proportionalism.” St. John Paul II intervened by authoritatively teaching moral realism, “that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil.” …

Benedict asks our question directly: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” His answer is not political but theological: “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

Since we are no longer accustomed to speaking well about God in society, this answer is bound to meet with some indifference. But I suspect that after all the studies are done, after the review boards are formed, cases heard, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict’s answer will be the one which endures. What will be remembered as the seed of renewal, as the root of restoration, is precisely Benedict’s counsel that we turn our faces back to Christ who is the perfect image of the Father’s love.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects further on Benedict XVI’s intervention. And Rod Dreher points out Benedict XVI’s tacit endorsement of Dreher’s Benedict Option:

Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.

Preserving and embracing distinctiveness

Brandon McGinley writes on the Masters Tournament as a tradition:

If you tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of April, you will hear the following introit, delivered by Jim Nantz: “Hello, friends, and welcome to this tradition unlike any other.”

The final round of the Masters Tournament, hosted with meticulous precision by the Augusta National Golf Club, is held every year on that day. The veteran sportscaster’s greeting is one of the few tournament traditions not scripted by the club—though I have no doubt it is appreciated, since it captures the notions of heritage and distinctiveness that have made the Masters the signature golf event of the year.

Augusta National has long been an anachronism… The club polices speech jealously. It is said that at least two established broadcasters have been banned for life for verbal slip-ups: One referred to the patrons as a “mob,” and the other—take a deep breath—said that the perfectly manicured greens had been “bikini-waxed.” This year, club security has been ordered to remove any patron who shouts the popular Bud Light slogan “dilly dilly.”

But these regulations are not arbitrary: They are designed to preserve the mystique of the club as an Eden set apart from the vicissitudes of the world. At the Masters, there is no opioid crisis, no gun-control issue, no Donald Trump, no cultural and political decline. The only ads you will see on the television broadcast are for hand-picked, blue-chip companies more stable than most national governments: IBM, AT&T, and Mercedes-Benz. You won’t even see promos for other CBS programs, and so you won’t be reminded of the existence of Celebrity Big Brother.

Augusta National has used its cultural (and financial) capital to carve out a niche for itself to be itself, on its own terms. Not only does the club achieve something close to perfect consistency in what it controls directly, such as the appearance and condition of the golf course; it also controls the public’s interface with the club by controlling the intermediaries. If a broadcaster violates the rules, he will not be invited back. If CBS does not do its part to enforce the rules, it will not be invited back. The club insists on signing only year-to-year contracts with the network, so as to ensure its compliance.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived. This is a startling achievement in a society that finds security in featureless and easily comprehensible cultural landscapes, and consequently seeks to smooth anything too complex and particular into a barely distinguishable example of a type: just another sporting event; just another television broadcast; just another weekend distraction. …

People don’t make quasi-spiritual pilgrimages to just another championship golf course. They treat Augusta National as special because it has made a massive effort to demonstrate that it is special.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived…” There’s an evergreen lesson about authenticity in this, for people, places, and things interested in being precisely what they are.

Work, ‘to the exclusion of all else’

Do we live to work, or do we work to live? Dominic Bouck writes on North Dakota’s repeal of the state’s “blue laws:”

These laws, which made it illegal for retail stores to be open from midnight to noon on Sundays, used to be common throughout the country. But now, only some liquor stores are still subject to such constraints. Sunday rest for retail is a relic of the past.

Puritan theology certainly lurks behind these blue laws. But the principle that the state should ensure we have rest goes much deeper than narrow-minded prissiness. God’s rest on the seventh day was of great comfort to the Israelite slaves in Egypt, who knew not rest. … Today’s culture of slavery does not involve overlords cracking whips, but rather the irresistible urges of a consumer economy.

The 24-7 retail culture hurts our poor. Those who suffer most from the loss of blue laws are those conscripted into hourly wage jobs: the young, the impoverished, single mothers, and all those who struggle. …

As those who work in retail know, it’s not as simple as asking for different hours. … One of my high school students recently told me that she had to work at a retail store on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Her Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a Taco in a Bag (a Midwest recipe). The legal protection of Sunday rest helps the individual worker and preserves the family from the arms race that is our consumer society. …

As Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure, the Basis of Culture: “Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” We are made for more, yet society keeps ensuring us less. Christ said it best: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

People say “time is money” because they understand money to be the only meaningful type of value. But really, “time is value.” And we should be cautious about those around us who are too eager to help us obtain what is ultimately ephemeral in exchange for what is valuable.

Robert Spaemann’s contributions

Till Kinzel memorializes the departed Robert Spaemann:

In 1978, a major conference called Mut zur Erziehung (“Courage to Educate”) took place in Bonn, which Spaemann had co-organized and for which he had co-authored various papers that rejected the major tenets of ‘emancipatory’ pedagogy. Instead, Spaemann and his colleagues emphasized the continuing relevance of old anthropological wisdom concerning the virtues of discipline, industry, and order. These could not be jettisoned to achieve some easy and equally distributed happiness, as was often suggested by those refusing to accept any kind of ‘repression’.

As a philosopher, Spaemann aimed at presenting “rational objections against the abstract utopia of the radical emancipatory rule of reason”. This could only be regarded by critics as a dangerous vision that would ultimately undermine plurality and provide the ideological legitimation for the use of violence against those resisting this alleged rule of reason. But Spaemann repeatedly raised his voice in defence of the freedom of the press and argued against political correctness. He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena: “I am not modern,” he once declared in an interview. And recently, in October 2017, Spaemann was one of the co-signers of the so-called “Paris Statement”, the conservative manifesto formally titled “A Europe We Can Believe In”, which is a re-statement and affirmation of the civilizational inheritance of Europe which was promulgated by a group of European philosophers and thinkers in opposition to the “fashionable abstractions of our age”.

Spaemann also criticized other developments in areas beyond mere philosophy. In modern science, the concept of nature had undergone a significant change: It became ‘de-teleologized’. Beginning with Francis Bacon, philosophers had suggested that one should never ask the question ‘why?’ in connection with natural phenomena. Only causal explanations were acceptable, so that in the course of the modern era, a teleological understanding of nature became anathema. Spaemann, in contrast, together with his colleague Reinhard Löw, opened up the debate on the meaning and ‘directedness’ of nature and human beings by examining the history — and the re-discovery — of teleological thinking in a work entitled Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens (1981). In this and later works, nature as such again became an issue, with immense consequences also for ecological thinking. Spaemann’s ‘conservatism’, therefore, always put a strong emphasis on the protection of the environment.

The concept of nature also relates to another feature of Spaemann’s ethical and political thought — namely, that which can perhaps be called a ‘modern version’ of natural right. He did not suggest that this could take the form of a ‘catalogue of norms’ but rather should be considered a way of thinking that enables human beings to ask about the justice of laws and their justifications. Understood in this way, ‘natural right’ remains vitally important.

One of the major fields in which Spaemann has certainly left his biggest mark is ethics. In his various writings on ethics, he offered reflections on major issues of modern society, such as the ethically problematic character of nuclear power, assisted suicide, and the biological manipulation of human beings — particularly abortion. Spaemann was one of the most emphatic defenders of the right to life. He also did not refrain from producing popular radio lectures (his Moralische Grundbegriffe of 1982 is notable) as well as a handy anthology of key ethical texts titled Ethik-Lesebuch: Von Platon bis heute (1987).

The character of human beings as persons became a focal point for Spaemann’s later thought, particularly in his 1996 work, Personen: Versuche über den Unterschied zwischen ‘etwas’ und ‘jemand’ (Persons: Essays on the Distinction between ‘Something’ and ‘Someone’). For Spaemann, this implied the recognition of all human beings as persons, even if not all thinkable criteria for personhood should be actualized in a given case. Especially in these cases, he argued, we should recognize the other’s humanity; and a test case for a civilized society, according to Spaemann, is ensuring that this humanity — even of retarded or handicapped people — is not put into question.

Spaemann’s deeply humane reasoning offers important succour against all attempts to negate the value of some people’s lives by claiming that they are not ‘proper’ persons. Many of his ethical reflections, as well as his more overtly political interventions, were later collected in a volume significantly titled Grenzen: Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns (Limits: On the Ethical Dimension of Actions), published in 2001. To think about ‘limits’ implies taking a critical distance towards modernity. This also led Spaemann to criticize attempts to preserve ‘tradition’ without asking the crucial question whether what Plato said is true. Thus, the actual content of our intellectual traditions needs to be taken seriously instead of merely talking about secondary issues, such as the question over what the functions of a given body of thought might be under certain conditions. According to Spaemann, it is not enough to say that prima philosophia (metaphysics) is important; one actually has to practice it.

“He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena…”

Mueller and the reputation of the media

Robert Mueller’s investigation is over. The New York Times reports “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,” reporting that the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Matt Taibbi writes:

Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media. …

Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population, a group that (perhaps thanks to this story) is now larger than his original base. As Baker notes, a full 50.3% of respondents in a poll conducted this month said they agree with Trump the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.”

Stories have been coming out for some time now hinting Mueller’s final report might leave audiences “disappointed,” as if a President not being a foreign spy could somehow be bad news. …

In the early months of this scandal, the New York Times said Trump’s campaign had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence; the Wall Street Journal told us our spy agencies were withholding intelligence from the new President out of fear he was compromised; news leaked out our spy chiefs had even told other countries like Israel not to share their intel with us, because the Russians might have “leverages of pressure” on Trump.

CNN told us Trump officials had been in “constant contact” with “Russians known to U.S. intelligence,” and the former director of the CIA, who’d helped kick-start the investigation that led to Mueller’s probe, said the President was guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” committing acts “nothing short of treasonous.” 

Hillary Clinton insisted Russians “could not have known how to weaponize” political ads unless they’d been “guided” by Americans. Asked if she meant Trump, she said, “It’s pretty hard not to.” Harry Reid similarly said he had “no doubt” that the Trump campaign was “in on the deal” to help Russians with the leak. 

None of this has been walked back. To be clear, if Trump were being blackmailed by Russian agencies like the FSB or the GRU, if he had any kind of relationship with Russian intelligence, that would soar over the “overwhelming and bipartisan” standard, and Nancy Pelosi would be damning torpedoes for impeachment right now. 

There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included. Honest reporters like ABC’s Terry Moran understand: Mueller coming back empty-handed on collusion means a “reckoning for the media.” 

Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is). But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.

Escaping an attention economy

Scott Beauchamp writes on Kwon Yong-suk “jail-like retreat” in South Korea as a means of escape from a culture of overwork:

South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It’s also one of the most overworked. … in that light, a controlled, prison-like environment almost makes sense as an alternative to the empty freneticism of daily life in South Korea. It might help to think of the faux-jail alternative as more of a monastic experience than a penal one. The community that networked lives offer, besides being a simulacrum of the real thing, comes at the cost of anxiety, addiction, the cultivation of shallowness, and total burnout. The reassuring silence of a concrete cell seems like a welcome alternative to an artificial, technology-addled paradise.

One of the interesting aspects of this story is that it’s an example of technological saturation having the opposite effect on culture as what was promised last century. More and better technology, particularly the social networking kinds of tech that so intimately penetrate our daily lives, were supposed to, at a minimum, make us feel less lonely and give us more and better leisure time. The results have been the opposite. We’ve never been lonelier. And never before have the most intimate parts of our lives been so thoroughly measured, recorded, and curated for profit.

As Columbia professor Jonathan Crary writes in his book 24/7, the most cutting-edge global corporations depend in large part on how many “eyeballs” they can “engage and control.” We’re now living in what he calls an “attention economy” in which corporations vie for the most efficient modes of quantification, prediction, and control of our moment-to-moment whims. This process is constant and unrelenting. “Of course, there are breaks,” Crary writes, “but they are not intervals in which any kind of counter-projects or streams of thought can be nurtured and sustained. As the opportunity for electronic transactions of all kinds becomes omnipresent, there is no vestige what used to be everyday life beyond the reach of corporate intrusion. An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and the professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7.”

The result of this cannibalization of our attention, of our very lives, is a word that’s been used a few times already: burnout.

The reassuring silence of a concrete cell seems like a welcome alternative to an artificial, technology-addled paradise.”

‘What makes a work of art truly great?’

Jay Nordlinger thinks aloud on art:

What makes a work of art truly great? Durability, most people would say. A great work lasts — lives on and on — rather than sparkling and then fizzling out. Also, a great work should touch the heart or stir the mind. And maybe point to something higher, or deeper.

When is it safe to call a work of art great? Sometimes never. But if you are confident of your judgment, safety is not a consideration. WFB liked to quote Stravinsky, who said that it takes 50 years, after a work’s creation, to assess that work properly. I don’t know. With some of them, you know quickly (one way or the other). But Stravinsky and Buckley had a point nonetheless.

What role does great art play in society? Some societies prize it more than others. The same is true of individuals. Not everything appeals to everybody. WFB was not much for sports. Some are not much for the Great Outdoors. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” I know people in classical music who are always trying to make classical music popular. “Don’t waste your time,” I say. “There’s a reason they call pop music ‘pop music,’ you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. But that’s all right: There will always be a minority who cherish it, and keep it going.

So, in your view, the arts are something that people can take or leave? There is not a societal need for art? Look, I think society would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul. It breathes beauty into life. It can take us above the muck (or not). But this is a matter of individual choice, or leanings. There will always be art-lovers in society — always — and others who are indifferent. The others will probably be in the majority.

You can’t make everyone conform to your tastes. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. I’m always quoting Homer — not the Greek poet, but Homer Simpson. When Apu was worried about impending fatherhood, Homer said, “Kids are the best. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”

People are always trying to get others to love what they love and hate what they hate. Well, good luck.

But everyone should have an appreciation of art, right? “Should” is an interesting word. In one sense, we should all have pretty prom dates and Corvettes. I think everyone should be exposed to art — and sports and science and everything else.

What would you require in schools? Many things, a variety of things — a smorgasbord. Again, exposure. I think of Marian the Librarian, describing her ideal man: “If occasionally he’d ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great …” That’s enough, I think. They need not be fanatics, like some of us. Lead a horse to water — many waters — and let him drink what he will.

Some people think that arts are necessary, societally, as a protection against tyranny. I think that’s a nice idea — but way off. There are lots of artists who are SOBs. That includes great artists. They are not automatically liberal democrats, far from it. Think of all those Nazis, and all those Communists! For that matter, think of Hitler and Stalin, personally! There have seldom been two greater art-lovers. Everyone knows about Hitler’s devotion to Wagner. But he really loved The Merry Widow, that fizzy, adorable thing. He saw it over and over, and bestowed awards on the composer, Lehár.

In order to be appreciated, does art need to be relevant to a person’s life? I don’t know what that means. I think “relevant” is one of the great nonsense words of our time. Is Bach’s B Minor Mass relevant? Relevant to what? It’s great. Is greatness relevant? As I see it, art can be liked and loved. It can instruct us, console us, thrill us, elevate us. But this mania, this fashion, this craze for relevance (whatever that means) is bizarre.

It is also a perversion of art, possibly. I suspect it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it does not really matter. These are shallow people. By “relevant,” they may well mean “political.”

What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? The last movement features a hymn to brotherhood, true. But the Ninth is also … you know: a symphony in D minor. Music. Such art has a power beyond words, beyond human concepts.

I think that’s right: art seeks transcendence; points beyond itself.