Diversity and multiculturalism

This interview with First Things’s R.R. Reno contains something worth thinking about:

R.R. Reno: We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.

Green: Well, but the United States is a multi-cultural democracy.

Reno: No, it’s not. It’s very homogeneous. When foreigners come to the United States, they’re always shocked by how homogeneous we are. We just do a very good job of assimilating people and making them into Americans.

Green: So if by “multi-cultural” you don’t mean a diversity of religions, a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, a diversity of national origins, and a diversity of individual political ideologies—all of which the U.S. has—what do you mean?

Reno: Shared heritage, common identity. When you’re traveling abroad and you meet another American, it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, African American, or whatever—you hang out with them, because you have shared habits of mind and sensibilities.

Green: So you’re pointing to a cohesive sense of national identity.

A culture is a holistic, comprehensive force that binds a people (a diverse people) together. I think it’s telling that the interviewer considers “multiculturalism” and “diversity” to be interchangeable.


Civilization, continuity, memory

Dominique Venner writes:

“Memory” is a much abused word. But so too is the word “love,” which doesn’t mean it can’t be used in its fullest sense. It’s the force of “memory,” transmitted within the bosom of the family, that enables a community to endure, despite all that seeks its dissolution. It’s the long “memory” of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, and other such peoples that has enabled them to surmount the perils and persecutions to which every people is heir. To their disadvantage, due to the rupture of their history, Europeans have been deprived of their memory.

I am reminded of this rupture every time students ask me to speak about Europe’s future. For whenever the word “Europe” is pronounced, it evokes a host of ambiguities. To some, it evokes the European Union, either positively — or negatively insofar as it’s not a “power.” To avoid confusion, I always specify that the Europe of which I speak is not Europe in its political sense. Guided by Epictetus’s principle of distinguishing between “that which depends on us and that which doesn’t depend on us,” I know that it depends on me to base my life on authentic European values, whereas I have no say on what politics Europe pursues. I also know that without an animating idea, there is no coherent action, [political or otherwise].

This animating idea is rooted in the consciousness of Europe’s civilization, a consciousness that transcends its regions and nations. You can be a Breton or a Provençal, French and European, son of the same civilization which has endured over the ages, since its first crystallization in the Homeric poems.

“A civilization,” Fernand Braudel says, “is a continuity, even when it profoundly changes, such as when adopting a new religion, for it incorporates its old values in the new, retaining its substance.” To this continuity, we are obliged to be who we are.

In this vein, Will Durant observed that “The old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die.”

Another way to think about “civilization” might be “cultural continuity.” This is the basic idea that both Venner and Durant are speaking to. A friend commented to me that the World Wars of the last century make far more sense when thought of as the last major civil wars of the European powers.

If that’s true, then what Europe is working through today is whether it can survive as a civilization after these devastating conflicts.

Christ’s otherness

Joe Sobran wrote many years ago:

The Western world, including many of those who consider themselves Christians, has turned Christmas into a bland holiday of mere niceness. …

Some people think you can take Christ’s “teachings” and ignore his miracles as if they were fables. But this is to confuse the Sermon on the Mount with the Democratic Party platform.

The natural reaction to Christ is to reject him. He said so. In fact, when he was taken to the Temple as an infant, St. Simeon prophesied that he would be a center of contention. Later he predicted his own death and told his followers they must expect persecution too.

He expects rejection.

Chief among his teachings was his claim to be God’s son: “I and the Father are one.” “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”

His teachings are inseparable from his miracles; in fact, his teachings themselves are miraculous. Nobody had ever made such claims before, enraging pious Pharisees and baffling his pious disciples at the same time. After feeding thousands with the miraculous loaves and fishes, he announced that he himself was “the bread of life.” Unless you ate his flesh and drank his blood, he warned, you have no life in you.

This amazing teaching was too much. It cost him many of his disciples on the spot. He didn’t try to coax them back by explaining that he was only speaking figuratively, because he wasn’t.

He speaks literally.

Christians shouldn’t resent the natural resistance of those who refuse to celebrate his birth. In their way, those people are his witnesses too.

He’s strange.

Christianity’s historical coherence

Fr. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series is great. It’s a new media series sharing the story of the faith across ten, hour-long episodes. It’s a genuinely incredible series. Fr. Barron is a sophisticated and powerful conveyer of the Christian story.

In “Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man,” comes the story of Francis Cardinal George’s reflection as he stood in 2005 near newly-named Pope Benedict XVI to greet the world:

Asked what he was thinking about at that moment, Cardinal George explained: “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.'”

What did I think as I heard this recollection? J.R.R. Tolkein and his King Theoden’s battle lament:

King Theoden’s despair is ultimately turned back by Gandalf the White’s arrival at the peak of the battle. Cardinal George of course wasn’t despairing, but rather celebrating, because our own savior has come and will return. Christianity perseveres, and indeed seems strengthened by challenge.

What I love about Cardinal George’s thinking in that to be part of the faith is to be a part of an historical flow, a continuum where the dead truly live and where Christ in fact does live. And historically speaking, Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus are still our peers.

Christmas ghost stories

“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

“Why ‘ghost stories’ at Christmastime?” I’ve heard this question raised among friends and figured I’d share what I’ve found. First, see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Delving into the question this answer raises (but why ghosts in A Christmas Carol?), here are bits of insight listed reverse chronologically from the order in which I discovered them:

aoy24_4In the last few decades … perhaps one of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost completely lost from memory. “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” …

Isn’t there something inherently unseasonal about ghosts? Don’t ghosts belong with all the ghouls and goblins of Halloween? Not so for Victorian England. “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails…” (Source)

As a means of fellowship and entertainment:

Ghost stories were an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were a popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of the theatre or concert going. Many stories were specifically written for such evening entertainment. The ghostly tales of M.R. James (1862-1936), for instance, were originally composed for reading on Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge; they were first published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. (Source)

Echoes of the past in modern media:

An example of this is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has a group of friends sitting around the hearth on Christmas Eve telling a very scary and sinister ghost story. Another is in the Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year where one line states, “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” More recently Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas reflects a lingering interest in ghosts during the holidays. (Source)

As acts of cultural/familial conservation:

An old American tradition was to spend Christmas Eve sitting at the fireside with your loved ones telling stories and accounts that needed to be handed down from generation to generation. It was believed then that Christmas Eve, being a magical night was the given chance a spirit had to visit those who would be missed the most. This is portrayed in A Christmas Carol. (Source)

An alternate title:

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843 the actual title was “A Christmas Carol, in prose, A Ghost Story of Christmas” (Source)

I savor how these insights highlight the way history, mystery, and myth pervade even the most ordinary experiences even if we don’t know how to recognize it. From the question of “ghost stories” you find Dickens gave his book another title. From there you find many wrote similar “Christmas ghost stories.” From there you learn it was a Victorian embodiment of Christmas. From there you can delve further into the pagan/spiritual ideas about the winter season and Christmastime.

And so from a cursory investigation of a YouTube-inspired riddle you find yourself sharing in a bit of the spirit of the truly ancient past.

Anyway, this is why we sing about “scary ghost stories” in one of our Christmas songs.

Prayer at Winter Solstice

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Blessed are the cats, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.

Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.

Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

Blessed is the shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

—Dana Gioia


What bad art is for

When I was in San Francisco last week I was walking down Market Street and heading toward a restaurant after leaving a friend’s work party. That’s when I noticed this endearing sculpture.

Do you see it? I know it’s dark. Even during the day, this art is designed to be sort of tucked away. It’s an ornament for this building’s entrance. As anyone can see it’s an angel, I guess. In its own way, it’s the perfect symbol of our time. It might be an angel, but it could just as easily be a demon or nothing at all, actually. There’s the featureless face, saying nothing. There are the limpish wings, apparently holding this figure upright at least as much as the internal metal piping that’s cleverly left visible in its legs. There are no arms, because even if it had something to say it definitely shouldn’t call out or gesture to passersby. It’s just bad art, commissioned for a limited public purpose to be unobjectionable and sort of pleasant without the chance of any sectarian dispute over it, because no one really cares about it.

Why settle for something like this when sculptors used to produce obvious public goods like Angel of the Resurrection? What is bad art for?

I think bad art helps satisfy our sense of the sacred in public life (of the human need for symbols of transcendence) without saying anything concrete that anyone would really have to talk about, disagree about, or have their lives arrested by and shaped in some positive way. We’re able to have art that suggests there’s something more to all of this, but without trying to cultivate virtue in the lives of its admirers, because what is truth? It’s better not to get into that.

Another thing that bad art is good for is removing the need for conservationists to worry about more stuff to preserve in the future. Artists who could be inheriting and iterating on the received wisdom of thousands of years of human experience are instead choosing to flow with the fashions of their time by making disposable ornamentation with the cheapest materials. It’s as disposable as so much of its surroundings in the rest of our culture, which makes it simpler to replace with something else in the future.

Bad art is encouraging, too. It reminds us that we can be mediocre and still successful. It might be a distinctly American thing in this way, where in the midst of one of our most ambitious and wealthy cities, we prove that we still don’t really know why we’re walking into that building everyday in the first place.